How Would We Behave Without ‘Selves’?

image: from Martijn Meijerink on, cc0
A growing number of researchers and theorists studying human nature, and the nature of the universe, from a wide range of disciplines, now seem to agree that most non-human creatures do not have, and have no need for, a sense of being separate ‘selves’ in control of and responsible for the bodies they seemingly inhabit.

Their argument is that, other than in moments of extreme stress, most creatures don’t see themselves, or anything else, as separate from the whole — they just are everything, and exist with no sense of time. That doesn’t mean they are in any way insensate — they live life full on and feel wonder and pain probably more than we do (with our tricks for buffering ourselves from reality). Their behaviour is the result of their embodied and enculturated ‘knowledge’, and requires no separate decision-making ‘self’.

In moments of extreme stress, the argument goes, these creatures’ evolved fight/flight/freeze instincts kick in, and briefly they act as if they were separate, until the danger has passed and they furiously ‘shake off’ the nightmare of the experience and return to just being everything. In this natural reality, they have no sense of time, no fears about the future, no fear of death, no anxieties. They don’t need them. Their bodies take care of themselves, so what possible use is there for the sense of a separate self?

Human babies apparently are born this way. Their sense of separateness emerges after birth (and is of course thereafter reinforced by every encounter with other humans who conceive of themselves as separate). So if it’s possible for us adults to access at all what it’s like to just be everything, it may be through a kind of intuitive remembering, or a glimpse in those rare moments when for a variety of reasons our separate self suddenly falls away, rather than through any spiritual journey or path.

Scientists are now discovering that human actions actually precede our brains’ ‘conscious decisions’ to perform that action — the separate self only rationalizes after the fact, and takes responsibility for having decided, what our evolved-to-thrive bodies have already started to do. Our human brains’ sophisticated models of reality, which allow us to think about the (actually non-existent) past and future, and to anticipate dangers to our (non-existent) separate selves and ‘learn’ from ‘their’ experiences as separate selves, were a logical evolutionary development, an extension of our instincts. But if so they are so slow and so utterly imprecise and simplistic that they are actually useless to us, and our listening to and believing their version of reality is likely at the root of much human mental and physical illness and suffering. We’d be better off without them.

Biologists and physicists, in addition to questioning the existence of time as other than a construct of the human mind, are starting to question the mind’s propensity for ‘knowing’-through-analyzing — breaking everything down into separate, discrete ‘parts’ as a means and precondition for making sense of it. Richard Lewontin for example argues in The Triple Helix that genes, organs, and environments are not separate from each other — there are no scientifically sensible ‘borders’ where one ends and the next begins. Everything makes more sense when seen holistically. Carry that to its natural conclusion, and what would make most sense is to accept that everything is one — particles and waves whose ‘separateness’ from everything else is just an invention of the mind.

To carry that argument further, it’s now accepted by many physicists that almost all of even the smallest-known element of ‘matter’ is — nothingness. Everything is mostly nothing. If so, and if as some scientific theorists now say there is no fundamental particle of matter or energy — ie it’s ‘turtles all the way down’ — then logically (1/∞) there is nothing. Everything is just an appearance. That is precisely what radical nonduality posits.

It could of course be argued that even if that is correct, it’s useless knowledge, a model without value — science as currently constituted can’t do anything with the realization that there is no time, no space, and no one. It’s equally useless as the foundation of a philosophy or religion. But if our bodies (absent the affliction of ‘selves’) know what to do, how to live, better than any empirical or scientific or philosophical or religious theory or model can improve upon, there is (again, absent selves) no need for anything to be useful.

Consider how we behave when emergencies arise — in an accident scene, or being on the verge of losing our grip at the top of a mountain. Those who have had those experiences say that while their thinking brains basically give up functioning in these situations, they are somehow able to achieve miraculous, “super-human” feats — when their selves are out of the way.

Of course, this is just a theory. It is hard to imagine that, if we could retain our sense of child-like (wild-like) wonder for our whole lives, we would thrive much better than we do with our calculating, imagining, patterning, probability-computing minds telling us what our separate selves ‘should’ do (or should have done) in any particular situation.

But let’s imagine for a moment this theory is true. How would ‘we’ behave if ‘we’ just lived our lives in wonder, free of the constraints and anxieties of separate selves? This is almost impossible to imagine (“this is what ‘we’ would be like if there was no ‘us’”), but here’s my guess:

We’re flying down to earth some millennia in the future. For a while we wonder whether there are any humans at all, since there are no cities, no monuments, no visible evidence of human presence of any kind. Until we notice, in some of the tropical rainforests (which due to climate change are not in the same places they are today), and along some of the warmer coasts, some rustling in the trees and darting movements along the forest floor.

There we see them, small tribes of naked apes — tall, strong, healthy-looking creatures. So we activate our cloaking devices and move in for a closer look.

To our surprise, they don’t look or act at all like the vestigial 20th century indigenous communities untouched by civilization culture that we have studied. True, they do have extensive ornamentation over their bodies and in their hair, which is likely a way of expressing their culture. But there is neither a tribal commonality to the designs on their bodies, nor a cohesion of style that would suggest the body canvas is a medium of self-expression. The art is more diverse and apparently improvisational, seemingly more about having fun and being creative than meaning something.

We’re listening for language, but all we’re hearing is a lot of birdsong, plus the calls of creatures we don’t recognize at all — newly evolved species perhaps? And then we realize that some of these sounds are coming from the humans — very complex but surprisingly short “check-ins” with tribe mates, we are guessing. We wonder if these post-civ humans are like birds in each having two distinct types of “voices” — ‘calls’ of warning and notification, and ‘songs’ of joy. Suddenly, that thesis gets some confirmation, as one human female sends out a long, rich line of song in some unknown language, and immediately others in the tribe join in in response, in a complex and improvisational harmony.

Soon, we realize that only a small part of these humans’ conversations are verbal — head movements, hand and arm and whole-body gestures, even subtle eye-movements are clearly conveying most of what these humans are ‘saying’ to each other. Their bird-like ‘calls’ seem to be used only when they are out of sight range of each other.

We had expected these post-civ cultures to be scavengers, using the surfeit of production of everything during civilization times as a means of continuing to use these useful and sometimes life-saving tools. But there is no evidence of anything that could really be called “technology” in this tribe.

So now we’re watching the faces of these humans, trying to decipher what they’re thinking and feeling. And the sense we get, the more we study them, is that while thoughts and feelings are arising in them, they are not much preoccupied with them; they flit across their faces but then are let go. What they perceive directly however — sights and sounds and other sensuous experiences — seems to impress them more deeply, and for much longer. Their faces easily and often take on expressions of wonder, almost child-like delight in the simplest noticing.

As we watch them, we realize that they have a powerful intuitive sense — they react instinctively and effectively faster than intellectual processing would allow. The look on their faces is attentive and peaceful, free from signs of stress and anxiety, but not what might be called ‘blissful’. Much of the time they are quite animated, strolling, dancing, doing flips and gymnastic or martial-art-like movements, exploring the areas around them, constantly in motion. But even then they are carefully sensing what is happening around them, and seem to sense things before they become immediately apparent.

We see them harvest foods — though browsing might be a better term, as if there are ‘gardens’ here we cannot discern them. The tribe members seem to know exactly what to eat and what not to eat, even the small children. Finding food seems to be no problem in the abundant forests where they live, so we try to figure out what they do with the rest of their time, aside from singing and body art. They seem exceptionally social and generous, touching and patting each other frequently, but to our surprise sex seems to be, while readily available, not especially frequent.

They spend a lot of time apparently doing what we would call ‘nothing’ — just sitting and watching and listening and sensing the world around them. This often leads to singing, solo or joined by others, but this singing is so gentle and quiet it seems more like purring than song. They sing often, it seems, but ‘talk’ only as much as they must. Their language, if it can even be called that, seems to be totally reactive to the immediate situation, and perceptual, not conceptual.

There seems to be no hierarchy among the tribe-members, perhaps because their lives are so easy and stress-free that they have no need for specialization or organization of activities. They seem highly spontaneous — they break into song or dance, and others join them, or don’t, with no perceivable pattern. If there is ritual here, we can’t see it. Their anarchism seems almost un-human, un-mammal-like, even — almost all indigenous human, primate and cetacean cultures we’ve studied seem more organized than this one.

This tribe seems to have no property, no possessions, personal or collective, not even shelters. This may be because they have no need of them, but it seems more consistent with their behaviour that they don’t even conceive of the idea of owning or possessing anything. It’s as if anything that happens is of no consequence to them — it is just what happens, the only thing that could happen.

More interesting still is that they don’t seem to have identities. Their members have different voice qualities, clearly enough that they could identify other individuals by these qualities, but they don’t seem inclined to do so. In fact their vocalizations seem more often directed to creatures of other species, and even to inanimate objects, than they are to other tribe-members. And one of their strangest behaviours is vocalization that is apparently directed to their bodies, or something within their bodies — using tones that seem instructional or reassuring or even self-hypnotic rather than self-reflective.

They seem astonishingly connected with the (other) wild species in their forest and coastlands, as if they could understand their ‘languages’ and ‘read’ their bodies and hence, their very way of being.

Many of the brainier 20th century mammal and bird species have been found to have what is called “theory of mind” — they are capable of seeing themselves and other creatures as separate entities and attributing characteristics to these creatures, and behaving accordingly. Strangely, this thriving, seemingly intelligent and healthy human tribe doesn’t show evidence of this capacity to differentiate at all. They just don’t seem to perceive of others as separate from themselves, and hence seem incapable of conflict with or deception of their tribe-mates, or other animals.

We also witnessed one wandering tribe member who was suddenly confronted by a jaguar. There was seemingly no thought of running or fighting, though from our perspective in the circumstances both actions would have been futile. Instead, the human seemingly just sat quietly and then fainted, and was quickly and peacefully devoured.

To avoid jarring the tribe-members too much by suddenly appearing to them, we instead transported and de-cloaked one couple from our group. But as we watch, we see that the tribe-members treat our people as if they were lost children — after showing us how to find food, and seeing that we were unwilling or unable to learn the lesson, they ignore us, as if we aren’t even there.

They seemingly have nothing to learn from us, nor us from them — we apparently live in utterly different, ‘unrealizable’ and unreconcilable realities. So we depart.

We cannot, of course, know whether this is how a tribe of people without the sense of being separate selves would behave, or whether they would thrive, or what it would be like to be them.

And I want to be clear that I don’t think the way of being I’m describing is anything like the way in which any known modern indigenous peoples live — I think we have much to learn from indigenous cultures but I don’t think they are any closer to a collective nonduality than we are. Nor do I think they are free from what I have called the ‘affliction’ of separate selves.

Would the planet be better off if humans were more like this imaginary future ‘self-less’ tribe, instead of like us? Would ‘we’ be happier, or rather, would we be at peace without always striving to be happier and being disappointed and anxious about everything that was not as our separate selves, and those we strive to please, hoped or expected?

And if we had a chance to give up our lives and live as they do, would we take the chance?

(PS: I’m thinking of writing a sci-fi/cli-fi novel about such a tribe of people. Thoughts on how to do this are welcome — I suspect it could be as hard to write as Riddley Walker.)

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3 Responses to How Would We Behave Without ‘Selves’?

  1. Amy Marshall says:

    Question: Does it have to be either/or? I get a little suspicious when anyone philosophizes about such a state of consciousness – idolizing a child’s ‘innocent’ wonder – I just don’t want to believe that the amazing work of our minds is all for naught. I mean, I love literature – stories – so if for no other reason, I want to find a way to get to the place you speak of – understanding nonduality as a structuring aspect of life – that still allows for intelligence. I practice meditation, and I’ve had experiences of this lack of separateness. But I also think that we can understand ourselves BOTH as separate individuals AND as connected, nonseparate entities, part of the whole. I don’t tend to reify the ignorance is bliss model… or the noble savage deal either… I also don’t think the ‘prisonhouse of the mind’ and dualistic mind-matter battle very sophisticated either… I’d definitely be interested in your sci-fi model, but as with every good example of such, I think your alien creatures would have to find some kind of problem with the holistic peeps… :) or the example of their society would fragment the witnessing aliens’ self-perception…

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Amy. I had been thinking about having my ‘witnessing culture’ slowly crumble from contact with the ‘naive’ one. Might be a bit too ‘cute’, however. Ursula le Guin wrote a novelette with the same plot twist, and I’ve read about and personally witnessed people rebelling at returning to their sophisticated lives after a short sojourn immersed in a simpler culture. Likewise I think having the cultures eventually go to war is too ‘pat’.

    I also thought about revealing in the novel that one culture is actually dreaming the other, or that each is dreaming the other, kind of like binary stars or covalent atoms.

    Psychedelic drugs could be the tunnel between the two dreams.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Carlo Rovelli and The Order of Time
    For those interested in where ‘selves’ come from, Carlo’s book may be provocative.

    Before reading Carlo’s book, I recommend reading John Michael Greer’s current essay on the value of solitary reading:

    One of Rovelli’s suggestions is that we learned to probe our own selves by, first, behaving as a social animal and probing the selves of others. Writing, as discussed by JMG, adds sophistication to the probing and promotes a more sophisticated turn of the attention to our own inner life. We might call it philosophy or psychology or science…certainly learning to predict the behavior of our fellow humans is a survival skill.

    Rovelli is a physicist, studying primarily quantum gravity, which is intimately connected to the question of time. To the best of our knowledge, time does not exist at the most basic level. But:
    ‘Perhaps the emotion of time is precisely what time IS for us.’

    ‘Each of us is a unified being because we reflect the world, because ewe have formed an image of a unified entity by interacting with our kind, and because it is a perspective on the world unified by memory. From this comes what we call the ‘flowing’ of time. This is what we are listening to when we listen to the passing of time.’

    Learning from science that the world is not what we think it is may tell us more about ourselves. Rovelli seems to have made considerable personal peace with his discoveries.

    Don Stewart

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