Biologists and cognitive “scientists” have developed something called a Theory of Mind which posits that humans are possibly unique in having evolved the capacity to conceive of the existence of separate ‘selves’, our own and others’, with unique and divergent beliefs, ideas and perspectives, and behave in accordance with that belief. Given the evidence that this capacity apparently exists in ravens and other creatures with relatively large brains (thanks to Natalie Shell for this link), and the compelling arguments of non-dualists that there is in fact no separate self, one might conclude that such a capacity, rather than being a sign of intelligence, is a sign of delusion and disease, and that all creatures trapped in this delusion might deserve our pity rather than our respect.
This has led me to start to develop a Theory of No-Mind, which holds, ultimately, that everything our culture believes (and legislates) based on the idea of human responsibility, will, control and morality is essentially self-defeating and abusive — the equivalent of chastising a pet for the pet “owner’s” inability to convey clearly the behaviour the “owner” is trying to coerce from the poor beleaguered creature.
If the idea of mass delusion seems far-fetched — if it seems improbable that the vast majority of humans would come to believe something that is patently false — one need only glance back to the many, many atrocities of the past century, carried out with the complicity of millions or billions of humans. We humans seem to like our delusions — that climate change is a myth, that unregulated ‘free’ markets act in the best interests of the majority, that economic growth can continue forever, that humanity is the crown of creation, that most animals we eat live comfortable unstressful lives, that the current global civilization culture is the healthiest and most democratic and humanitarian ever, etc.
What might a Theory of No-Mind look like? Here are my early thoughts:
- The evolution of the concept of the self-reflexive ‘conscious’ mind, and the derived concept of a separate self with free will, are unintended (exaptive) and tragic consequences of the evolution of large brains (and large brain-to-body-mass) in some organisms. Although these concepts are extremely useful, and enormously evolutionarily successful, they are delusions, a mistaking of representation for reality, and they have disastrous consequences for these organisms and their environment.
- This exaptation occurs as the brain evolves as a pattern-recognition and feature-detection organ, a ‘control centre’ for assessing danger, finding food and mates and other evolutionarily successful tasks of the organism. Because reality is far too staggeringly complex for something as simple as a bodily organ to understand, the brain evolves to invent a drastically simplified but still-useful representation (model) of reality — a dream world.
- The evolved brain’s role was initially to collect and present data to the organism which enabled it (the organism) to react in the organism’s collective best interest (fight, flee, freeze, eat, mate etc.) But as the brain grows, it evolves the mind, and in so doing gains the capacity to rationalize the organism’s decisions (e.g. fast yellow creature ~> tiger, flee). Mind is in fact ‘second-guessing’ the organism’s real world decisions within its dream world representation of reality, but because so little time passes between the organism’s decision and the mind’s second-guessing, the correlating, pattern-seeking mind imagines and comes to believe it is actually making the decision, that it (mind/self) exists separately from the rest of the organism, and is capable of deciding for it, and is in control of it. That the representational dream world it has creates is the real world. This is the birth of ego.
- In (the many) cases where the (extremely complex) organism makes (usually ‘unconscious’) decisions that the mind cannot rationalize or ‘make sense’ of, the reflexive egoic mind is torn. It believes it has ‘sinned’, made an error, a misjudgement, an inexplicably bad decision. It suffers.
- Poor mind! It believes it is in control, it is responsible, it is your self, it is you! But everything is going wrong. All these (in the mind’s judgement) sad things, outrageous things, terrifying things, and you, mind-self, didn’t anticipate them, didn’t prevent them, didn’t fix them! So mind-self is filled with grief, anger, fear, shame. Then mind learns to assign each sensation and thought and emotional reaction to an invention it calls ‘past’, or memory, hopefully in order to learn from these figments of reality and screw up less. And it learns to imagine possible, unrealized sensations and thoughts and emotional reactions and assign them to another invention it calls ‘future’, hopefully in order to anticipate and prevent or achieve or influence these figments of reality. So now these memories and imaginings are playing out in mind, over and over, stirring up these thoughts and emotional reactions again and again, until the present moment (the only moment there ever really is, now caught between the mind’s fictitious ‘past’ and fictitious ‘future’) narrows to a tiny dot and disappears entirely from thought. The egoic mind is now totally caught up in itself, its dream-world of reality, and all consciousness of real reality is lost to it, to the mind-self that believes it is you.
- A gap now emerges between what mind in its dream-world perceives as happening and what mind believes ‘should’ be happening, according to its simple model of reality, on the assumption it is in control and responsible for this gap. This creates, in the mind, needs and wants, which are intellectual concepts (thoughts) feeding emotional reactions to this (to the mind) intolerable gap, and mind strives, impossibly, to satisfy them.
- The organism, meanwhile, has no needs or wants; these are just intellectual constructs. The organism seeks only to enjoy: warmth, beauty, wonder, connection, sex, food and other sensory pleasures, as it always has, and as organisms free of egoic minds always do. The organism enjoys these pleasures but is indifferent to their attainment. It accepts what is, seeks the pleasures it has evolved successfully to seek, and decides and acts, instinctively, accordingly. It exists only in the real eternal now that the mind-self has forgotten.
- But now the entire organism is, almost from birth, getting relentlessly damaged by the mind infecting it. The self-mind’s deluded cravings, anxieties, fears, grief, sorrows, and (in the desperate search for relief from these incessant and horrific emotions) addictions, continuously flood the entire organism with potent chemicals, originally designed for initiating response to brief and acute existential threats, destabilizing it and inflicting a host of debilitating chronic diseases upon it. Mind isn’t causing this because it is ‘evil’; it’s just a bull in a china shop, inadvertently destroying things, just doing its best to try to escape its self-invented prison.
- Mind makes up stories, imaginary future stories of ideal love, of consuming lust, of perfect peace, of total power, to escape the suffering it has unintentionally inflicted on itself and on the organism by dwelling on the imagined ‘failings’ of the past. It craves and yearns to realize an idealized perfect future to ‘fix’ its suffering; nothing less will satisfy it. Tragically, this idealism interferes with the organism’s simple taking of pleasures from what is, making pleasures that are merely ‘real’ unsatisfactory to the mind, ruining what little happiness mind derived from the organism. The disconnection of the mind from reality is complete.
- Buried in the past, aching for and insisting upon an ideal and impossible future, mind is in an awful quandary. The dream-world it has created is mostly and relentlessly terrible, but there seems no lasting escape. And equally unbearable is the thought of giving up, completely letting go, abandoning the organism to being, real and raw, in the forgotten, thought-less, terrifying, unfathomable, uncontrollable present moment. That would mean the mind-self’s certain death.
- To make matters worse, the evolved egoic mind discovers it can influence the egoic minds of other humans, in what it believes is the collective best interest of its perceived ‘tribe’ of autonomous, ‘self-ish’, humans. This leads to the evolution of language to increase this capacity, and ultimately leads to power hierarchies, where, the egoic minds believe, collective decision-making and decision-making by those at the top of the hierarchy will be better than individual minds’ obviously flawed decision-making. None of the ‘self-conscious’ egoic minds realize that they are all acting out a scene, a fiction, while what is real goes on beyond their tiny self-obsessed consciousness.
- The malaise of mind continues to worsen, and to be inflicted on other minds as well, in collective delusional thoughts and collective emotional reactions, spreading like an epidemic. The self-blame of the egoic mind grows to include a collective blaming of other egoic minds, individually and collectively, and to insane fear-driven competition over and hoarding of resources, intended to provide, the mind imagines, ‘self’ security and ‘personal’ betterment for the organism and its tribe. This leads to the disconnection of each mind-deranged organism from the collective, evolved, intuitive knowing of all organisms in the ecosystem, and ultimately of the planet, and hence to wars, genocides, ecocide, and other atrocities that produce further insane delusional thoughts and emotional reactions in a vicious cycle of accelerating violence and destruction.
- This is, of course, an unsustainable cycle. In some egoic minds, the suffering reaches a stage, for various reasons, where the mind asserts it can no longer stand its self. But this perception is untenable, since the mind believes it is the self, that it is you. Who or what is it that can no longer stand the poor exhausted, deranged, deluded, ruinous mind-self? If you are a non-dualist, the answer is you, your true being. If you realize that the egoic mind-self is not you, but just a well-intentioned evolved construct, then you ask: Who or what evolved this construct? The non-dualist answer is the one timeless undivided consciousness, which is also you.
- This realization is the awakening from the nightmare of the egoic mind’s dream-world and its separate self. ‘Your’ journey then begins to let go of and disentangle all the mind-self’s misconceptions and see what really is, to begin to behave in accordance with this new understanding, and to neurally ‘rewire’ the brain to slowly remove all the dysfunctional figments of the mind-self, so that all the useless thoughts and emotional reactions diminish and finally cease.
- The hold, and collective insanity, of egoic minds in the human organism, is likely such, however, that only a very few will awaken before the accelerating sixth great extinction of life on this planet is complete. The larger question then is: Will the survivors of that extinction include creatures plagued with egoic minds with the delusion of separate selves, and if so will they be fated to repeat the destruction?
This is, of course, only a theory. The value of any theory is its capacity to usefully represent reality. Non-dualists are not the only ones arguing that such a theory conforms to an informed appreciation of what we now know and can discover empirically. Many scientists now believe that time, past and future are merely mental constructs not in accordance with any observable reality. Gaia Theory argues compellingly that our sense of disconnection from all life on Earth is illusory and dangerous. Triple Helix author and scientist Richard Lewontin explains why any attempt to understand cells, organisms and environments as ‘separate’ phenomena is deluded and self-defeating. Cohen and Stewart in Figments of Reality argue persuasively that the brain evolved as a feature-detection system and not as a control ‘centre’ and that the mind is a (possibly exaptive) process that produces ‘figments’ (simplified representations i.e. models) of reality.
The most obvious objection to this theory is that it is not ‘actionable’ — that it excuses inaction by denying ‘individual’ free will and responsibility. Surely, critics might say, awareness of the true nature of reality and knowledge of the tragic nature and ‘volition’ of our mind-self enables and requires us to be even more active in curtailing the excesses and misbehaviour of our collective ‘selves’ (i.e. our ‘culture’). We should, they could argue, work to help others achieve the same awakening we have realized until we are all awakened (as Eckhart Tolle seems to advocate in his optimistic book A New Earth). And, they might argue, at least we can, from an informed perspective, work to stem, reform or even reverse some of the worst manifestations of humans’ self-deluded minds — the Tar Sands and other accelerators of climate change, factory farms, our destructive penal, health and education systems and institutions etc.
What this criticism misses is that massively complex systems like our industrial economy and industrial agriculture self-perpetuate — in their own way they have successfully ‘evolved’ to survive attempts to undermine and defeat them. And belief that we can somehow achieve a change of consciousness on some kind of large scale on a rapid timetable overlooks the reality of how systems (including cultures like our global civilization culture) actually change — slowly, and mostly after a die-off (disaster, generational, or extinction event).
A more pragmatic strategy, then, would probably be at the micro-level, modelling this awareness, wherever we are along the path to its realization and internalization, for others, using it to inform what we do and don’t do, beyond the knee-jerk reactions of the mind-self. My sense, at least for now, is that the belief we can mobilize or innovate large-scale change is the mind’s hubris, though I know this is contentious and debatable and at this stage only an intuition.
That’s my theory, anyway.