On Dissociation and Free Will — Part Two

In Part One of this two-part article, I laid out a hypothesis about dissociation being a major phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries (which I believe will be industrial civilization’s last), and about it being a means of coping with the loss of the three core human beliefs upon which perhaps all human cultures have been built.

In this second part, I turn to the existential issue of free will and how our belief in it underpins these core beliefs and hence human cultures — and what it means to accept that free will doesn’t actually exist.

It’s been a rather stressful winter for me, and despite my recent preoccupation with non-duality, and my zeal for more attentiveness and more play in my life, I’ve been pretty unfocused the last few months.

So I decided to examine what it is that drives my behaviour. Intellectually I know it’s not my (illusory) self making decisions about what I do, and that it’s pointless to beat myself up (sometimes with ‘help’ from others) about what I should be doing. We have, I have come to believe, no free will or control over what the creature that our ‘self’ believes it inhabits and manages, actually does. The self is an illusion, its free will is an illusion, and in fact the creature (as something apart and separate from all-there-is) is an illusion. But to the self, they’re very compelling illusions!

An ‘aha’ moment a few years ago came when I realized that there’s a constant battle going on in our minds between what our bodies would have us do, and what our culture would have us do. That was my first inkling that there was not actually a ‘self’ mediating and taking sides in this battle — that we are conditioned by our biology and our culture to do (and believe) what we do. ‘We’ have no say in the matter.

Yet it appears of course that we are making decisions. How, I wondered, can we have this overwhelming sense of free will and control over ‘our’ creature’s actions and decisions, when in fact we have none?

I decided to look specifically at one recent ‘decision’ — to turn down my thermostat (and make a few other changes in my house, shown in the chart above) to save energy (and money). On the surface, it would appear that the process was:

  1. As a result of a recent energy audit, I realized that some significant savings in electrical energy consumption (my furnace is forced air electric) could be achieved through these simple means.
  2. I implemented the changes (check marks in the chart above), and reinforced the value of continuing to do so by rigorously monitoring the savings (the local electric utility provides daily data online on household consumption dating back a couple of years).

But if I were to be honest, this wasn’t the process that actually occurred at all. For a start, the energy audit happened almost a year ago, and other than putting up a sign on the stairs saying “HEAT DOWN?“, which I promptly ignored, nothing happened until this past fall.

Here’s what I think actually happened. The influence of my biological nature on the decision is highlighted in green, and the influence of my enculturated nature is highlighted in blue. My anxieties are partly visceral and partly enculturated, so their influence is highlighted in blue-green. How my ‘self’ rationalized the decision as ‘its’ decision after the fact (even though it actually had nothing to do with it) is highlighted in yellow. [If your newsreader doesn’t show the highlighting, please click the link to the original article — it will make a lot more sense if you do.]

  1. For six months, because of my aversion to being cold, coupled with my propensity to procrastinate until things get urgent, I did nothing. My ‘self’ said: “I just got distracted with other things and forgot about it.”
  2. In September, because I do get pleasure from acquiring interesting stuff and am sometimes inclined to be competitive, I bid on a personal weather station offered at a charity auction for the local animal welfare society, which, to get bragging rights I then upgraded and connected to  Weather Underground. My self said: “It was for a good cause, so I bid high.”
  3. From October 1st, believing that more knowledge about the weather means more control and hence fewer unwanted surprises, and because it seemed like fun/play and a distraction from current anxieties, I correlated my daily energy consumption against the difference between the inside (thermostat) and average outside (winter weather) temperature, later adjusting for average wind speed, occasional use of my wood stove, and power outages. I was obsessed, checking data several times a day, following up on anomalies, predicting temperatures and consumption two weeks into the future, and estimating the whole year’s consumption. My self said: “It’s fun, and useful!”
  4. Always up for a game I think I can easily win, I signed up for a ‘challenge’ with the electrical utility, which offered $50 if I could reduce consumption over the next year by 10% overall, and set a personal goal of reducing consumption by 40%. Now I was motivated since this seemed like fun as well, and over the next two months slowly turned the thermostat down and implemented the other energy-saving steps above, achieving my 40% reduction target through November 30th with almost no work or discomfort (my body, concerned about a cold house in the morning, set aside its objections to the plan when it discovered a warm robe and slippers worked just fine). I became a very accurate forecaster of daily energy consumption. But tracking the data was no longer fun; it had become tedious. My self said, bravely: “It’s saving me money, and reducing energy waste.”
  5. From December 1st on we’ve had a horrifically cold, windy, snowy and stressful winter (my house is isolated, and blizzards and power outages can be nerve-wracking). My personal goal for the year is now unattainable (I have ‘lost’ the game for reasons I had no control over). Finally today I came to the realization that my anxiety was actually increasing, and that it was no longer fun, so I have stopped tracking the data (and the weather) entirely. This was hard to do — we are taught that quitters are losers. But I worry: What else will take its place to distract me? My self said: “I’ve changed my behaviour and realized the savings so there’s no need to continue monitoring.”

What happened? This is how I behave when I ‘decide’ to introduce more play and attentiveness into my life, and vow to become more equanimous in the face of things I can’t control? Could any of this have happened differently?

Although I’m prepared to acknowledge that I don’t have any free will (in fact I — that is my self — doesn’t even exist), and that I can’t control the actions of this creature in the particular circumstances it faces each moment, I wondered if it were possible to change the circumstances. The “HEAT DOWN?” sign was a discouraging clue — it hadn’t changed my behaviour at all. The accident of the auction was what precipitated the behaviour change, convoluted as that process was. The creature with an instrument that proved how much could be saved by the simple, easy step of turning down the thermostat behaved differently from the one that lacked that instrument.

So I wondered — can ‘we’ change the conditions that ‘our’ creatures encounter in such a way as to affect their actions? And if so, what is changing the conditions, if there is no ‘we’?

If you share my belief that ‘we’ (separate ‘selves’ with agency over ‘our’ creatures’ actions) don’t actually exist — that ‘we’ are merely ideas, mental constructs in the brain trying to make sense of what it perceives — then it’s probably obvious that the answer to the first question is NO, and thus the second question is moot. But if you’re like me, you’re not going to buy the absence of the self (and therefore of free will) that easily. So let’s explore this a little.

Suppose I get my energy-saving story printed in the local newspaper (without all the non-duality stuff of course — just the “I did this, you can too” version). If someone else reads it and turns down their thermostat as a result (and gets that behaviour reinforced through next month’s much lower heating bill), haven’t I, through my deliberate actions and informed decisions, made a difference?

The answer is, of course, NO. Given my (biological and enculturated) nature and the circumstances (eg knowing the editor personally) this is the only thing that could have happened. I had no choice, the editor had no choice, and the reader had no choice, given our natures and the circumstances, but to do what we did. The reader’s dog might have eaten the newspaper before the article was read, and that would have changed the outcome, but that didn’t happen. No free will was involved, no matter what our ‘selves’ might rationalize to the contrary.

Suppose I now ‘decide’ to clear out my snack cupboard and buy a bunch of fresh veggies, and a friend ‘decides’ to whip up a bunch of fresh, healthy meals and stack my fridge with them (I have nice friends). Won’t these ‘decisions’ affect what I then eat? Again the answer is obvious. If ‘we’ change what’s in my cupboard and fridge, those weren’t ‘our’ decisions — it was in our biological and/or enculturated natures, given the circumstances that arose at that time, to do precisely those things.

You may still not buy my argument about no separate self and no free will. It has taken me two years of arguing with myself before I accepted it (and I’m still skeptical). But I need to move on to bring the two parts of this article together.

You may be able to guess where I’m going with this.

If what we do is solely determined by our biological and enculturated natures, given the circumstances of the moment, and not determined by our illusory ‘selves’ or any decisions initiated by our ‘selves’, then what happens when the culture breaks down? What happens when our social belief systems are so shattered that we no longer trust others’ advice, no longer believe that there is any bearable future for ourselves or our possible descendants, no longer see any benefit to or any functioning examples of social cohesion or community?

Or, if you bought what I argued in Part One, what happens when our enculturated nature morphs into a shattered, dissociated nature?

I have no clear answer to this. Our enculturated nature, it seems to me, is a mixed bag. The idea of facing civilization’s collapse with a cohort of humans whose enculturated nature is basically broken, and who end up acting predominantly in accordance with their biological nature, is rather frightening.

On the other hand, if this cohort is (due to distrust) relatively immune to the social propaganda of the day, perhaps they (we) will fare quite well. They might be something close to the feral children who’ve grown up without parental or other adult social influence, and are hence culturally untouched, drawing deeply on sensory and intuitive clues and knowledge to compensate for their (relative) incapacity to process the situation intellectually or emotionally. In the emerging world of precarity, that might be just what’s required to thrive. I don’t know. I think it’s worth thinking about.

That takes us full circle back to the issue of free will. Some scientists and philosophers have argued that, while they acknowledge that the evidence they have seen strongly suggests there is no such thing as free will, we dare not reveal that truth to the masses. The argument, which I find ludicrous, is that most people, if they really believed they had no free will, control or responsibility over ‘their’ behaviour, would behave nihilistically (dangerously and destructively) or fall into serious and chronic depression. Of course, if people really don’t have free will, they would not have the free will to choose to behave nihilistically (or not); their new belief wouldn’t affect their behaviour at all.

Most humans remain afflicted with a self that believes itself separate, in control, with free will and choice and responsibility for ‘their’ behaviour. I’m still afflicted, but I’ve at least begun to shake the illusory belief that the self is real (the cognitive dissonance that creates in my everyday life is staggering). Some scientists now think the self emerged accidentally and opportunistically with the evolution of large brains, and has hung on in our species despite its uselessness because large brains by themselves turned out to be evolutionarily advantageous. There are (apparently) only a few human creatures in the world not afflicted with a self.

Do we dare imagine that, as humanity struggles through collapse and depends less on what we know as culture and more on its intuition and senses — becomes more primal, more feral than it has been in traceable human history — future generations of human creatures might be born and grow up without the burden of selves? That would seem to be advantageous, in many ways.

Post-civilization human numbers (if we survive at all) will likely be a small fraction of our current numbers, and they’ll be pretty much technology free. What might they be like if they were also free of selves, living life full-on? They would have no ‘new story’ to replace our broken culture’s shattered one, since every story is a story of separation and of events over time, and a creature liberated from the self has no sense of separation, and lives outside of time.

But still, it’s a ‘new story’ I’d like to hear, or to imagine and tell. It might beat the story of progress, which we’ve been telling for far too long, hands down.

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6 Responses to On Dissociation and Free Will — Part Two

  1. philip says:

    free of selves….maybe they might be like the crakers in the Magret Attwood Trilogy (another take on collapse). Was that her point? I’ve not thought about it much. Always think of that bit in the first book (oynx and crake) where she argues humans are different to other animals- when stressed we increase our reproduction.
    Went back to Straw Dogs (again), trying to find the statement about good politics being makeshift and shabby. Noticed how many references there are to non duality. Notice them more since reading your posts over the last year. I’m so afflicted, it’s taken me a long time to get (feel) that selfhood is an illusion. p42/43 made me think of your comment about sexual fantasy a few posts back and it’s association with the self. P.59 The poverty of consciousness…. it seems very hard for us to be really aware of much.P.69 Our virtual selves- the line- It means we spend our lives coping with what comes along – like staying warm. So much in these entries and others that it would be good to hear you pass comment on. Regards. Phil.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Phil, for getting me to reread Straw Dogs yet again. I’ve quoted its key passages so much on this blog that I assume I took in the whole book, and was very surprised, as you say, at how much non-dual language and concepts there are in the book (though that term isn’t in the index, nor does it appear very much in the text).

    John seems to me to have an almost romantic view of the more-than-human world, more than a non-dualistic one: he seems more concerned to point out that humanity and human consciousness are irrelevant to the world, than that they are illusory. He does say (p.61) that “self-awareness is as much a disability as a power”. But he still seems to suggest it (self-awareness/consciousness) is real — that whereas non-duality holds that the self is illusory and can fall away, he sees self-consciousness as a real and life-long (though “fragmented”) affliction of all humans. He seems (p.77) to deny self-hood to ravens despite their “language” and capacity for guile, and I don’t see how one can engage in ‘conscious’ trickery without a sense of self. But he doesn’t elaborate on that.

    I likewise am not sure what he means when he talks (p.73) about the self as a “succession of fragments”. It’s as if he’s unwilling to fully give up the idea that it’s illusory, and implying instead that it’s ‘sometimes’ real. It is interesting that he doesn’t seem to attribute our destructive behaviour to the (neuroses of the) self, that he sees that behaviour as essential to the human creature, with or without the afflicting self. I’m not sure why he’s unwilling to go the next step, but maybe I’m missing something.

    There may be a clue when he says (p.78) “The dissolution of self that mystics seek comes only with death… We cannot rid ourselves of this inexistent thing.” In this statement he seems to be denying the possibility of the self falling away, and at the same time equating non-duality with mysticism. That seems a bit cavalier to me, but probably just suggests the lack of an ‘experience’ of a glimpse of non-self, and hence lack of appreciation for the more radical non-dual message. I don’t think that in the absence of such a glimpse one can have more than an abstract intellectual appreciation of this message, so I suppose that’s not something he’s encountered.

    He concludes fatalistically (he admires the Stoics, and that says a lot) that “there is no awakening from the dream of self…illusion is our natural condition. Why not accept it?”

    I wonder if there is something in John’s background that has given him such a relentlessly pessimistic, rather than equanimous, view of human nature. He has studied many human atrocities in great detail, and seems poisoned and oppressed by his learnings about them. Whereas I’d like to say good riddance to the illusory self, he seems to want to say good riddance to our beleaguered and suffering species — Throwing the (aged) baby out with the bathwater. But he is brilliant, and astonishingly well-read.

    So there’s a start on your questions. Pleased to discuss/explore more if you’re up for it, here or in another medium of your choice.

  3. philip says:

    The last paragraph of The Deception P.83- our aim will be to identify our invincible illusions. Our sense of self may be the strongest illusion of all. I would suggest that the self returns on a regular basis to the most practiced non-dualists. To add to the mix…check out Gray’s Silence of Animals (written over a decade later) on similar themes. Those questions he asks on p.82 almost allude to the same sometimes conflicting concepts you have pointed out in Straw dogs. Here is an astonishing well read human who has so immersed themselves in the width of language to the point of questioning attaching too much sense to language. P.108 he confirms his almost romantic view…knowing there is nothing of substance in our world -may- seem to rob that world of value. P.146 Godless mystics do not look to merge themselves with something larger than they have imagined into being; they look to wipe away their inexistent selves (plus interesting John Asbery poem). If we give language less sense he may be describing non-dualists as godless mystics and does suggest it can be obtained, this time, without death. P.207 He describes nullifying the self through a kind of contemplation (this reminds me of how you described watching birds rather than photographing them and how it provided you with a “different” experience). He finishes suggesting this contemplation offers mere being.
    I like the idea of god as being rather than a being (E.Tolle). I think denying god maintains seperation and a stronger ego. Again without giving too much sense to words (personally for me) godless mysticism means the same thing as god as being. Maybe John needs some non-dualist reading to at least obtain a more equanimous view but I think Silence of Animals is softer than Straw Dogs. I agree with you, our destructive behaviour has a strong link with the self. In general Silence of Animals does suggest the old chaos comes from our myths and a lack of contemplation. I think there is more we could both add.
    Many regards again. Phil.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    I agree that Silence of Animals is softer than Straw Dogs. But his other recent books and writings I find quite disconcerting in their harsh portrait of human nature, and they do not ponder whether humans (like everything else that appears separate) are real, or whether they are the way they are because they’re afflicted with selves.

    I wonder whether John, as a student of human history, is to some extent trying to inure himself to what is to come with civilization’s collapse. He is a romantic, and the idea of war, atrocities, deliberate cruelties, starvation and some of the other utterly unnecessary (from an evolutionary survival perspective) events that littered the last century and might dominate this one, might be too much for him to bear unless he puts on a protective air of being disdainful of humans by our very nature.

    He is quite preoccupied with the idea of god and what it means and has led to in human history. I confess I don’t share his infatuation, any more than I share the infatuation of the techno-utopians with travel to other planets, singularities, cold fusion, anything vaguely connected with Tesla Inc, etc. We all want to believe in something (at least while we have selves) and John seems to want to believe in ‘godless mysticism’ (a term that kind of eludes me). I want to believe that the glimpses that have happened of timeless, wondrous, fearless just-being-one, are real and not just the idealist in me creating yet another unattainable (and hence safe) ideal, another kind of faith.

    What about you, Phil? What do you want to believe?

  5. philip says:

    First thanks for your time. Second, thanks for asking me what I want to believe. Now it’s hard to answer that question without using I to start the sentence. Is it possible there are different ways (portals) to abandon your illusionary sense of self? I can’t mentally move past the fifth klesha in yoga. I cling to life. I cling to saving my genes in the form of my children. The idealist is waiting in me. I can reduce the sense of myself through all manners of pursuits but it returns to me, to again at least watch.
    The self/egoic mind has layers. We are maybe all bargining within ourselves. I enjoy your views on John Gray- that’s why I asked. I went through a lot of stress a year a go plus and I found your utube lists valuable. My next step is to try to will some new habits between some old- hopefully I’ll get more glimpses as well. Phil.

  6. David Beckemeier says:

    Hey Dave,

    “I” have enjoyed “you’re” posts for awhile, this is “my” first time to comment.

    On a comical note:
    “I” like this idea of not having a self, where do “I” sign up?

    On a more serious note, an intellectual contemplation “I” have had that “I” think anyone can comprehend about the ultimate nonexistence of “I”. “You” may well have had the same thought before:

    “I” have thought that “I” do not remember being an infant. It occurs to me this is because there was no “I” that anything was happening to. This “I” required language to exist. Sounds simple enough.

    Best, David

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