Nothing on Offer Here

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People want to believe, and they want people who seem to have found answers to tell them what they’ve learned, and what to do as a result. It’s flattering to be asked for advice, and very tempting to reply to such requests, but I’m coming to believe it’s best not to offer it, as credible and comforting as one’s advice might come across. I want to explore briefly why I think that’s so.

Thanks to a couple of decades of study of human nature and how the world really works, I now live in a world of constant and bewildering cognitive dissonance. I am driven by my idealism to want to make the world a better place, but know that nothing I or anyone can do will prevent the slow but total collapse of our global industrial civilization over the coming decades. I am inspired by activists but acknowledge that all their courageous and dangerous work will ultimately be futile and fruitless. I am hungry to learn to cope better with stresses and crises and adversity, but realize that ultimately we have no free will or agency or control over what the creature whose body we presume to inhabit will do regardless.

There is nothing I can do to persuade you of the inevitability of collapse, the futility of activism, or our utter lack of personal agency. Unless you have a propensity to read and learn the kinds of things that I have, to think and behave the way I do, to suspend disbelief as I do, to constantly challenge everything and to live (relatively) comfortably with ambiguity and irreconcilable understandings as I do, you will see these things differently from the way I do, and find my beliefs unpersuasive, absurd, cowardly, and/or defeatist. That doesn’t mean one of us is more right, or more informed, or more enlightened.

In a recent essay Paul Chefurka laid out ten “precepts” that govern his approach to life, and his counsel to others. It’s a great read. While I offer no counsel, I thought it might be useful to lay out my precepts (or, since they’re not prescriptive, my appreciations), and explain why I believe them, so that it might be a little more apparent why I no longer believe it makes sense to give others advice or to try to change what we do in the world. So here they are:

Dave’s Seven (Outrageous) Appreciations:

  1. There is no one. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that seemingly arose about thirty millennia ago as a spandrel of the growth of our brains. There is compelling evidence of this in biology, theory of mind, and neuroscience — what we think of as ‘our’ decisions have been found to be merely the brain’s after-the-fact rationalizations for what the brain or body had already and inevitably begun to do, as a result of its innate and cultural conditioning. The self, being an illusion, has no free will or agency whatsoever. Tragically, the brain and body have no need of a self — this abstracted mental model of apart-hood reality — in order for the apparent human creature they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Humans that have no sense of being separate or of having a self are, amazingly, at least as functional as you and I, and you’d never know their secret from talking with them. And, since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. The self cannot see that the self is just a mental construct, cannot ‘see through’ its self.
  2. Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only ‘this’ (or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions in (apparent) time and space. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re neither real nor unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose. This is being confirmed by the latest scientific discoveries in astrophysics and quantum theory, which allows that time and space are merely abstract mental constructs, and the universe or multiverse (or whatever you want to call ‘what apparently is’) is actually just an infinite, timeless ‘field of possibilities’. As a corollary, there is no causality, and no life or death, and hence nothing matters (in either sense of the word).
  3. The ‘conscious’ self prevents seeing everything as it truly is. We define the term ‘consciousness’ as awareness of our separateness, and see it providing us with an advantage over what we perceive to be ‘unconscious’ creatures. But when there is no longer the illusion of a separate self, what is seen (by no one) is everything, ‘what apparently is’, in all its wonder, unfiltered by the self’s veil of egocentrism and conjured-up meaning-making. All of us have, mostly without being aware of it, at least briefly (in moments of awe, of ‘self-less’ love, or of extreme exhilaration or calm) ‘lost’ our ‘selves’ and seen, without the mask of (self-)consciousness, ‘everything’ as it truly is. This is impossible for us to fathom — we can’t conceive of seeing everything without a separate self to see it, when in fact it is the separate self that prevents us from seeing everything exactly as it (always and everywhere) is, infinite and eternal.
  4. Our global human civilization is quickly and inevitably collapsing. And there is nothing wrong (or right) about this. Complex systems always collapse when their level of complexity becomes unsustainable. Feedback loops in these systems tend to perpetuate increasing complexity and the status quo until they cannot continue, and then they collapse. This is the nature of such systems, and no interventions (even if you believe we have the free will to intervene, and the capacity and power to intervene cohesively at the necessary scale) will significantly alter the trajectory. Yet, as tragic as this may appear — evolution leading to devolution, the dislocation and suffering that collapse inevitably inflicts — it is all just an appearance. There has never been any civilization arising or collapsing in time and space. There is no one and no thing separate, no civilization, no evolution, no birth or death. Just a wondrous show, for no one, for no reason, outside of space and time.
  5. No one is to blame. Whatever appears ‘wrong’ in this world, it is not the fault of evil or deranged people, or despots, or stupidity, or ‘the system’. Everyone is doing their best, the only thing they can apparently do given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, and no one has agency or control over what they apparently do. Because there is no one to do anything, no agency, no wrong or right, no ‘system’, no free will, no time in which anything can be done. Just appearances, for no reason. Just wondrous expressions of everything.
  6. We can’t help ourselves. We can tell ourselves things we ‘should’ or ‘need to’ do to make ourselves more successful, or smarter, or healthier, but we have no free will or agency to do anything other than what the creature we presume to inhabit is predisposed to do anyway given its conditioning and the circumstances of the moment. At a collective level, we can argue, for example, that we ‘need’ to learn new self-sufficiency and community-building skills to increase our resiliency in the face of coming collapse, but except for a few new-age learning dilettantes, we won’t actually do that until there is a collective acknowledgement that we have no choice but to do so immediately. Humans, like all creatures, are driven by the needs of the moment.
  7. Our destructiveness stems from self-domestication, not our inherent nature. Human activity has inadvertently brought on the sixth great extinction of life on earth, but it’s not because we are inherently a violent and rapacious species. We are inherently collaborative and peaceful, even lazy. It was only when our brains’ intellectual capacity enabled us to domesticate ourselves that we lost our connection with all life on earth and began to behave dysfunctionally — expanding into uncomfortable ecosystems, exploding our population, and creating scarcities and cultural memes that produced fear-driven, destructive activities.

Here’s how these seven learned ‘appreciations’ map to our enculturated perceptions and conceptions, to create the staggering cognitive dissonance that anyone who shares these appreciations must feel:

There is no one. No self, no free will, no control. I am real and have free will, self-control and responsibility for my actions as does everyone else. We live and suffer and then we die. It’s in our power to make the most of it.
Nothing is real, or separate. Everything is just a wondrous appearance. Everything I perceive is undeniably real and separate. Time and space exist and everything that is real happens in time and space.
The ‘conscious’ self prevents seeing everything as it truly is. Without a self there cannot be any real consciousness of anything.
Civilization is inevitably collapsing, within this century. Nothing can be done about this predicament. We need to take responsibility and action urgently, locally and globally, to address the problems that are threatening civilization’s collapse.
No one is to blame. We’re all doing our best, the only thing we can do in the situation given our conditioning. ‘Bad’ people and groups are to blame. Inaction, stupidity and ignorance are to blame. We are all to blame.
We can’t help ourselves. We have no free will, no capacity to ‘make’ ourselves do or be anything, even when we believe we ‘should’. With self-awareness and self-management work we can make ourselves better, more resilient, more useful, happier, more present, smarter, and perhaps even enlightened.
Our destructiveness as a species stems from self-domestication, when we tragically lost our connection to the rest of life on earth and ‘forgot our place’. We are inherently a wild but collaborative and loving species. We are an inherently violent, rapacious and destructive species. We need self-control and regulation to prevent ourselves from hurting each other and destroying our planet.

Perhaps you can sense from the above table how the dissonance between what I have come to appreciate (left column) and what I have been conditioned to believe (and what almost everyone I know believes unquestioningly — right column) often leaves me speechless and paralyzed. What do I say to the activist who has risked everything to challenge our passive acceptance of climate collapse? That “nothing matters”? What do I say to the victims of life-destroying, immiserating atrocities? That it’s not real, only an appearance? What do I say to the person who has overcome staggering obstacles to finally flourish and help others do likewise? That it was what was inevitably going to happen anyway because of their conditioning?

What do I say to the person who has spent a lifetime getting bad laws changed and progressive laws passed? Or to the person mourning the loss of a loved one? Or to the person struggling with an impossible hardship they had no role in creating?

I, of course, say nothing. I nod with genuine admiration and compassion, if not empathy. My new ‘appreciations’ are useless in relating to my fellow humans’ ‘selves’. These appreciations are of no use to ‘me’, to the self, that dreadful bit of software that comes embedded in human babies just waiting to be installed and launched by our well-intentioned culture. For many, gaining these useless appreciations is probably worse than simply being trapped unawares in the prison of the self, even with its ghastly life sentence with no parole.

And yet… I would not for all the world undo these new appreciations. They have somehow made my life more bearable by giving me, if only intellectually, and somehow resonantly, intuitively, a perspective from outside my sad, lost, scared self. For me, that’s enough. I write about it, here, because it’s how I try to make sense of things that don’t seem, at least yet, to make sense. I wouldn’t presume to try to ‘sell’ these appreciations to others. They’ve cast doubt upon everything I once believed was true and thought was possibly useful to others, and given me nothing new to offer at all. 

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8 Responses to Nothing on Offer Here

  1. Euan Semple says:

    It is possibly little surprise given the way our paths have crossed in the past Dave but I’ve ended up seeing the world the same way, apart from perhaps your seventh point which hadn’t occurred to me. The irony that it has taken me a house full of books to realise, if not fully act as if, there is nothing I can do!

  2. Kenn Orphan says:

    This is just nihilism.

  3. Chris Harries says:

    Nihilism will never be popular, even if it’s correct, because it is contrary to our powerful sense of self at the vortex of our culture. Given his world view, I do wonder what David’s motivation may be in writing this essay, but in the first paragraph we pick up his obvious quandary about this. Nevertheless, I like the clear way in which it is presented. I already relate to it, but not teased apart like this.

  4. Koni Kogan says:

    So, why are you still here?

  5. Chris Harries says:

    My comment above warrants a little elaboration. Firstly, it seems by definition to be oxymoronic to advocate for a nihilistic world view. Lack of advocacy thus means there can be no driven movement to negate the self. Indeed nearly everything around us today tends to grandly exaggerate the sense of self – from Apple’s ubiquitous iDevices to the narcissism that’s been deliberately designed into Facebook.

    There was probably no sense of self amongst homo sapiens until a few thousand years ago, for as hunter gatherers we were intimately a part of clan and country. The perception of individuation was a massive alteration in world view, much much bigger than the invention of any technology. That juncture in history most likely set off a series of social evolutionary sequences that were from that moment on unstoppable.

    Can society go back to that former space? Not without a crushing disaster, I imagine. Though it may well be possible to pull back from the very worst as a sense of emergency envelopes the world.

    Meanwhile, while I was reading the above thoughtful article on the futility of activism I received a phone call from a colleague asking me to staff a polling booth. I accepted, but mused at the odd juxtaposition. Somehow we still need to fill in the spaces of our lives with something, even if it’s a useless re-arranging of the deck chairs. Also, it’s good to be in company of fellow travellers who think a lot. I think activism has some secondary benefits, even though it offers no hope of ‘saving the world’.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Euan. It is interesting to note how many people who have had experiences with the (absurd) profession of ‘knowledge management’ seem somehow drawn to radical non-duality. Maybe it’s our incessant intellectual curiosity, combined with an appreciation for oxymoron. Or maybe it’s exhaustion.

    Kenn: This is a common perception by humanists of radical non-duality, that I’ve discussed elsewhere. All I can say is that nihilism seems a dark and brooding assessment of the world, while radical non-duality strikes me as confusing but joyous, celebratory, even playful. Perfect for us “joyful pessimists”.

    Chris: Thank you! I think you’re probably right about the (apparent) timeline of emergence of ‘selves’ in human evolution. There’s a theory that it was the humans who migrated to the seacoasts who began eating (then plentiful) amino-acid rich seafood instead of a tropical plant-based (lots of dates apparently) diet, that ushered in the rapid growth of brain size and also permitted ‘permanent’ settlement, that enabled brains with the capacity to abstract a ‘separate’ model of the world and hence of them ‘selves’, and simultaneously fed our innate propensity for self-domestication. But of course we’ll never know. I am likewise doing lots of volunteerism and quasi-activist work, despite my new worldview, and having a lot of fun (though I have no choice in any of this). Cheers fellow traveller.

    Koni: ‘I’ am not still here, nor was ‘I’ ever.

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  8. Don Child says:

    Always nice to find familiar energy in this “life.” It’s not radical, not nihilistic, just a sense of unity. I entertain myself by dreaming, envisioning, shamanic journeying, but always knowing that I am not a separate entity, and any change I make to the world is probably only for my own gratification, and will eventually evaporate into the black matter of the universe. Again, nice to happen upon a kindred soul thanks to my friend Wael.

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