The Evolution of the Self

Recently I’ve been writing a lot about non-duality — the idea that the separate, in-control, free-willed self is an illusion and that ‘all-there-is’ is one ‘aliveness’, one ‘beingness’ that is ‘nothing expressed as everything’. It’s a difficult (perhaps impossible) idea to understand, because while our (apparent) thinking, striving selves can come to appreciate it conceptually, they can’t ‘realize’ it, because they are in the way of it. It only becomes apparent (to ‘not-us’) when the self drops away.

This ‘radical non-duality’, which denies that there is any path or process or practice that the self can use to achieve ‘enlightenment’ (because it’s only the seeking self that isn’t already enlightened, liberated, aware of ‘all-there-is’), is probably the most criticized of all so-called non-dual messages. Some people describe it as logically or tautologically self-contradictory or disingenuous. Some claim it is lazy (an excuse to give up trying to ‘become better’). Some insist it is nihilistic and will lead believers to disengagement, insensitivity and depression. Tony Parsons, whose fundamental statement of this message I wrote about in April, has been attacked from all sides, but he just soldiers on, honing and repeating this message patiently for those interested in it. Two slightly different statements of it from Tony, for those who prefer to listen rather than read, are here and here. They are taken from his regular European ‘meetings’ which consist simply of an opening message like the above, followed by a few hours or a few days of Q&A to explore the message and its implications.

He says his reason for holding these meetings is that people have asked him to, and he’s pleased to do so, while warning that they can be frightening or annoying for some, and that they offer no process or other ‘hope’ for the letting go of the illusion of the separate self and hence for any ‘enlightenment’ or ‘liberation’. That will happen or it won’t, he says, regardless of one’s conceptual understanding of it. The meetings appear to offer attendees (and listeners like me) an intellectual appreciation of what underlies our fundamental unhappiness with ourselves and our world, and can, he says, sometimes provoke an ‘energetic shift’ that allows this falling-away (essentially, death) of the separate self to occur. He says that’s what seems to have happened to his former self. Others, like Jim Newman, Andreas Müller and Kenneth Madden, now offer very similar ‘radical’ non-dual messages and meetings.

Of course I’ve been talking with many of the people I know about this message, since I find it so intriguing and intellectually appealing. I get a lot of strange looks, and concerns about my mental health. I realize that my appreciation for it has taken time and required a certain vector of intellectual study, without which I’d probably find it as preposterous as most others do.

What’s missing from the explanation of the messages and the meetings, I think, is an explanation of how (not why) the apparently separate self evolved. So, with some knowledge of complexity but only enough knowledge of evolutionary biology to be dangerous, I thought I’d try one out. Here it is:

Evolution, as Stephen J Gould and Richard Lewontin have explained, is a process that seems to have a set of rules but no particular purpose or goal. There is no ‘progress’, only a continuous, substantially random experimentation, with the ‘successful’ experiments continued and the unsuccessful ones abandoned. The primary ‘rule’ of evolution is that survival of a particular creature or environment depends upon ‘fitting in’ optimally with all other living creatures and environments. If a creature fits in and enhances the quality of life of the complex whole, it will survive and procreate; otherwise it won’t. If an environment leads to a high quality of life for the creatures that co-create it, it will endure; otherwise it will be changed by the creatures to one that does. In this way, for example, the earth’s early atmosphere that was toxic to most forms of life evolved, by trial and error over billions of years, into one that sustains a remarkable diversity of life. Likewise, creatures that were unable to adapt to this evolving environment perished, while those that could thrived, as long as they coexisted in mutual cooperation with other creatures who collectively supported that environment and ecosystem.

There is no ‘reason’ for these rules; they just are. The result on this planet has been delightful, but if it hadn’t been, evolution would have continued regardless, according to these same rules. There may be other places or universes where different rules apply, and the whole thing may just be a game played by no one for no reason; to our great annoyance, that’s all beyond our understanding.

So what has appeared to happen on this planet has been a profusion of complex life and periods of greater complexity intermingled with great extinctions, depending on random variables and how the ‘game’ played out. None of it has required anything that could be called ‘consciousness’.

I’m positing that at some point, an evolutionary experiment occurred in some creatures that might be called ‘instinct’. The evolution of an instinct to fight, flee or freeze at times of great existential threat to the survival of the collectivity of a creature, enabled by the growing complexity of neurons in some of these creatures (whether the evolution of neurons was an accident or conferred some evolutionary advantage and hence was perpetuated we cannot know), turned out to be of at least short-term evolutionary advantage in itself. Hence creatures with such ‘instincts’ survived and thrived.

What is this ‘instinct’? We could argue that it is ‘subconscious’, but it would seem to require a sense that the collectivity of the creature that ‘has’ it is somehow ‘separate’ and ‘threatened’ — that it has, at least subconsciously, a sense of ‘self’.

Or does it? If the instinct evolved and is a ‘successful’ evolution, why should it require any sense of self or separateness or sub-consciousness? Watch the incredibly sophisticated fleeing, freezing and hiding behaviours of a silverfish (an ubiquitous insect that has thrived on the planet for half a billion years) and ask what is driving this creature’s behaviours. Are silverfish conscious of being separate ‘selves’ under threat, or some kind of automatons with enough intelligence or instinct to ‘know’ when and where to go and how to hide so you can’t find them or get at them? Where does this intelligence and instinct reside? How did they ‘learn’ this, especially in the context of your unique house and this specific time and set of circumstances? Whatever your answer, you have to agree that this behaviour is evolutionarily successful and quite complex.

Now consider the fight/flight/freeze behaviours of small mammals and birds. More sophisticated, of course, but does this reflect a sense of separate ‘self’ the insects lack? Biologists agree that crows have a separate sense of self and a ‘theory of mind’ — an awareness of the separateness of others and an ability to speculate on those others’ behaviours. These creatures also exhibit fight/flight/freeze behaviours, but are they substantially different from those of insects? What’s been observed is that after dealing with existential threats mammals and birds “shake off” the threat, and some scientists’ speculation is that they then return to “now time” — a connected, timeless state in which that sense of separateness and self vanishes.

And next, of course, consider our own species. We also have instincts (too often ignored), and there is growing scientific evidence that the separate ‘self’ we conceive of is just that — a concept of the mind that doesn’t ‘reside’ anywhere and the existence of which cannot be scientifically validated. Scientists have also showed that when we believe we are making a decision to do something, the neural activity associated with decision-making actually occurs after the action has begun, suggesting the ‘mind’ or ‘self’ doesn’t make decisions, it simply rationalizes them after the fact. The model of self the mind constructs needs to justify its actions and ‘itself’, so it adjusts the facts to suit the model it has constructed — the model of a separate self ‘inhabiting’ the body with self-control, free will and conscious choice.

Why would the separate ‘self’ have evolved in such a powerful way in humans (and perhaps some other creatures), to the point it convinces ‘itself’ it exists, is in control and has responsibility and free will to make decisions and take actions? And why would it evolve to the point it continues to ‘exist’ at all times except during deep sleep, rather than just during times of existential threat?

I would speculate that this evolved as an exaptation (an unintended consequence of the continuing enlargement of the brain and brain capacity), rather than as an adaptation essential to or highly useful to our evolutionary survival. Evolution is a process of constant random variation (experimentation) to ‘test’ the possibilities of different evolutionary adaptations. That’s how the ‘rules’ of evolution work. Birds evolved feathers, scientists now believe, for light-weight temperature regulation, and only later did the exaptation of flight with those feathers evolve as a very successful experiment that has continued to evolve since.

Flight was an accident. Was the evolution of the ‘enduring self’ and its belief in control, free will, choice, responsibility, and the permanent existence of ‘time’, similarly an accident, an exaptation? I think this is highly plausible. In the short run, the emergence of continuous self-awareness (self-consciousness) might well have been evolutionarily successful — it would allow keener diligence over the safety of the creature, and enable the development of tools (technologies) that benefit that creature over the longer term. Those tools would include settlement (civilization), agriculture, language, self-domestication and weaponry.

In the longer run, however, such an exaptation would likely be severely problematic. While other creatures could shake off the stress of brief ‘self-consciousness’ and return to a peaceful state, the illusion of continuous self-awareness would bring with it continuous stress, a never-ending sense of anxiety and alert for danger (and the imagination to conceive of all kinds of new, non-existent dangers). The body evolves very slowly — could it adapt to this sudden continuous stress?

The illusion of continuous separateness and self-awareness would also bring disconnection from the sense of unity, cooperation and oneness that has been such an evolutionary success since the dawn of life, and hence lead to actions that would harm other creatures, possibly to the extent it would threaten entire species, environments and ecosystems. And with the false sense of control and free will, it would bring a sense of authority, competence, manageability and superiority that would make its actions reckless and even more destructive, and lead to massive conflicts with others with the same sense of superiority.

The problem is that, as it evolved more and more elaborate tools to ‘make sense’ of its apparent sense of separateness, self-control, free will, power, superiority and responsibility, the sense of separateness has become so pervasive that we can no longer imagine it not being real. It’s like a coat we put on to play a role and now cannot take off. It has become ‘us’. It’s a prison that keeps us locked up during our entire illusory time-bookended lives, and causes us endless suffering. Despite all we do (believing our actions to be a result of our free will and choice), things don’t ever seem to get better for any extended period of time, and we struggle ceaselessly with anxiety, fear, anger and grief over things we think we can or ‘should be’ able to control, or things we think are being controlled by others (other people, gods etc). The only escape is to let the illusory separate self ‘die’ — and the self isn’t about to allow that to happen until there is no other choice.

Of course, it’s possible that Tony’s critics are right and this is all just a fanciful, plausible, unprovable, dangerous, hopeless idea. And it’s possible that it’s my laziness, my exhaustion with a lifetime of struggle, making me want to believe it.

But the other possibility is that he’s right. That the emergence of the illusory separate self was an accident of evolution, with short-term advantage but in the longer term disastrous for our suffering selves and our desolated world. That ‘natural reality’ is perfect, wondrous, and free of suffering (though not free of pain). And that, having lost our sense of that natural reality very early in our lives, ‘we’ cannot hope to find it again.

Though I remain the eternal Doubting Thomas, this makes more sense to me, intuitively, than any other explanation for why things seem to be the way they are, that I have heard. Brief glimpses of ‘natural reality’ that have occurred throughout my life (when ‘I’ briefly dropped away), and the sincerity of those offering this message, this explanation, suggest to me that this is, just possibly, what’s really happening. The implications are mind-boggling.

So here I stand, believing, as much as I believe anything, that ‘I’ am an illusion, but that I am powerless to be or do otherwise. It seems a discouraging, tragic message, but still, I’d rather know than continue to believe a lie, even if the truth is, ultimately, a message of hopelessness and grief. Somehow, it fills me with joy, with the exhilaration of knowing that the insanity that is this life and this world is not real. This is not ‘real’ liberation, but it’s liberating knowledge. It will have to do.

It’s not that different, in that sense, from the other two great realizations I have come to in the past decade: that our civilization will end, mostly unpleasantly, in this century, and that there is nothing I can do about that; and that we’re all doing our best, even the apparent despots and tyrants and murderers and inflictors of suffering and misery and trauma, and that ‘our best’ more often than not actually makes things worse.

These three realizations are the terrible knowledge of our species, here and now. And despite them all, life is amazing, wonderful, beautiful, and worth everything.

image: photoshopped image of ‘anonymous’ from (CC0 license — public domain dedication)

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6 Responses to The Evolution of the Self

  1. Philip says:

    There are no instructional classes in enlightenment. A teacher can help start a meditation practice to experientially learn how your own ego works, and freedom from its compulsions. But if you continue, your life will never be the same.

  2. philip says:

    We are separate, only in our realizations, for a brief time between birth and death. Only when we use our evolved ability to talk could separate become a word. We are saturated in myth- the idea of being separate is another. James Lovelock compares our species to the first photosythesisers- which when they first appeared on the planet caused enormous damage by releasing oyxgen- a nasty, poisonous gas. 9 billion humans is not better or worse than 1 billion humans- the population we are heading towards. We could evolve (possibly when we see no self exists) to be a positive contributor to planetary welfare. Keep exploring. Keep sharing.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Philip and philip (and email/facebook commenters) — thanks.

    Philip: Radical non-dualists would say that a teacher can’t free you from your ego, because your self/ego is all a teacher can teach, and it is the self/ego that is in the way of liberation. So meditation can ‘make the prison cell more comfortable’, as Tony puts it, but nothing more.

    philip: The scientists I’ve read suggest that without cheap energy and related technologies (and good healthy self-sustaining soils), neither of which we will soon have, carrying capacity will be much less than that. And you’re absolutely correct about separation, except that ‘we’ (human selves) can’t evolve or ‘see’ that no self exists, and the human species will (once again) contribute to planetary welfare only once the selves fall away. Whether that will happen, once civilization collapses, is a fascinating question. If selves emerged as an exaptation, might they cease emerging in some future generation, if the humans without selves are happier and healthier than those with them? Now that would be an evolutionary occurrence to celebrate!

  4. Anonymous says:

    You are stubborn, ¿right?
    > Dzogchen

    Hug, Bye.

  5. Brutus says:

    Interesting thesis, completely plausible but also entirely unprovable. Observable effects and rules of evolution do not allow us to draw confident conclusions about how the ego self (or more simply, consciousness) coalesced out of nothingness in our prehistory. There is a fairly clear before and after (we’ve been living in the after for some 3,000 to 5,000 years — a short duration in terms of evolution), which is repeated even today as each human infant undergoes the process of developing his or her own sense of self and individuality (along with language acquisition) in early childhood.

    Still, a few things bother me about your explanation. However the self came into existence (I insist it does in fact exist), it seems reductive to identify the cause too narrowly as the flight-flight-freeze response to immediate threat. That is probably the most acute instance of self-possession in creatures who move between different mental states, but I daresay it cannot be the only one. Indeed, under the right conditions, humans move out of strict ego consciousness into alternative awareness and loss of self, which may require safety and security (lack of threat) but need additional stimulation (music and dance are formidable provocations). Further, anyone who has been swept into a mob loses some portion of individuality despite clear and present danger. There are simply too many variables and varieties of behavior to put so much causation on the shoulders of one instinctual response.

    Your continued disparagement of the immaterial as illusory, fictitious, or not real strikes me as overthink and tricks of language. Sure, one can argue with some effectiveness (especially with highly abstract thinkers, who are a small subset of the population) that time, free will, and a wider purposefulness to existence don’t really exist, but most people experience them so powerfully that they cannot be convinced their experience is somehow false. On the other hand, we are subject to weak forces we cannot sense immediately (e.g., evolution) that many cannot be convinced exist. Or forces are strong and immediate enough to be sensed (e.g., gravity, magnetism), but for the longest time, they were understood as magical rather than as physics. We range wildly in any given period of history in terms of the sophistication of our understandings. Another trick of language is to distinguish between adaptation and exaptation. Since no evolutionary outcome is intended or for a reason, to say exaptation is unintended or collateral is a semantic misconception.

    Lastly, the psychological suffering of being an individual separated and alienated from others and the natural world is another weak force most can’t sense coherently. It’s also belied by the more immediate advantages of modern material conditions over those of even our recent past (e.g., the Great Depression). In the affluent West, few of us need to use ourselves up by middle age doing strenuous labor but can instead indulge in all manner of cheap, idle entertainment and leisure after having secured only a modest standard of living. One interpretation of ancient myth is that expulsion from the Garden of Eden and The Fall from grace (accompanied by personal shame and suffering) is in fact a telling of how ego consciousness arose in the ancient world. Also, as I understand them (poorly, incompletely), several Eastern religions offer paths to regaining mindlessness and cessation of psychological suffering from our evolutionary past. My sense is that Western culture in particular is pointed in that same direction: toward unknowing and escaping the limitations of selfhood. Transhumanism is one such impulse. Having been born into the modern world and its culture, I can’t really say whether loss of individuality (either entering into a supposed group or hive mind or the total extinguishing of self — no mind or mindlessness) is such an attractive option.

    Apologies for the overlong comment.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Hi Brutus. Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. Yes, none of this is provable, it’s just a plausible theory of what really is. It just happens to be one that resonates with some of my past experiences and many of my recently-acquired beliefs, so while I remain an inveterate doubter, it provides me with a great deal of comfort. Tony’s argument is that since there is no path to liberation from the illusory prison of the self, all any theory or idea or practice can offer is to make the prison more comfortable. That works for me. I’ve had brief glimpses of self-less-ness and they were amazing. If ‘I’ fall away, all that will be left, I guess, is ‘amazing-ness’.

    The self absolutely exists in the mind of itself and other selves — there can be no doubt about it. It exists in the reality of the mind. But the message is that there is another reality, a ‘greater’ one, a ‘natural reality’ which is free of selves, time, separateness and all other concepts, and within which all these mind-constructed selves reside. Science is now starting to acknowledge that time is just a construct, but one that is essential to the coherence of the self. That is why our selves cannot imagine time being just an illusion (though, as Einstein put it, “a very persistent one”) any more than they can imagine their selves being just an illusion. To ‘us’, time and self are existential realities. In deep sleep they cease to ‘exist’. Also, perhaps, in deep love.

    And yes, the fight-flight-freeze response is just one manifestation of instinct, and I should have said more broadly that it makes sense to me (in this theory) that instinct in the broader sense was the evolutionary precursor of the self. The self would appear to be the evolved ‘personification’ of instincts (all instincts, not only the survival instinct).

    It is deeply unsatisfying to ‘me’ to have to accept that the true nature of reality cannot be known or even intuited by the self. This is my self’s strongest line of defence. As a phenomenologist, I want desperately to believe in an absolute reality, and while I don’t insist on being able to know it completely, ‘I’ do insist on understanding its nature. It’s like complexity — complex systems are not completely knowable or predictable, but their general nature (including their unpredictability) can be known. Not so, it seems, the nature of reality. I am slowly giving up my resistance to this idea, but the doubter in me dislikes anything that smacks of mysticism.

    And I will give you that the distinction between adaptation and exaptation is an arrogant and judgemental one, though it is occasionally useful in science.

    My overview of history is over a much longer time horizon than a century or even a few millennia of ‘civilized’ humans. As Ronald Wright argues in A Short History of Progress, there is really no such thing as progress — it’s a political idea, or ideology, devoid of supporting evidence except in carefully-selected short periods of time and space. There are compelling theories that prehistoric humans lived amazingly leisurely lives until they chose to move out of their natural habitat (as bonobos did until quite recently when their habitat became desolated by human encroachment).

    I do find the Garden/Fall from Grace story as a parable about acquiring the ‘knowledge’ to alter our own environment (and hence becoming separate from THE environment) fascinating, and the emergence of the idea of the separate self as the seminal knowledge that allowed this is equally interesting.

    I think we are witnessing an increasingly frantic search for a ‘path’ to overcome life’s unhappiness, suffering and struggle, as the orthodoxies that held sway for the last few millennia (and kept us working too hard to have much time to think about any of it) lose their hold. I don’t see the loss of individuality as a path or as an option. I see it as a fact, one that the ‘self’ cannot possibly understand. If the self was not an exaptation, it was a very (for ‘us’ and the planet we have ruined) unfortunate evolutionary adaptation. Its emergence has made ‘us’ miserable, in ways that life free of the ‘self’ can, I suspect, not possibly be.

    The most intriguing argument in this theory I am grappling with now is the whole issue of ‘free will’. Intellectually, if the self is an illusion there cannot really be said to be free will, but to accept that (I think?) means to accept that the current state of the world could not have evolved other than exactly as it did, and that the desolation and violence that has been inflicted on the planet and other humans would have occurred even without ‘selves’. Or would it? I’m not sure about this at all and am struggling to get my head around it.

    (BTW Thanks for hanging in there over the years as my blog has gone on increasingly radical tangents that have cost me many of my readers. Your insights are always appreciated.)

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