The Agnostic Game

This little guy, unlike ‘us’, is completely immersed in the game of life; while he thinks and feels and senses, he takes nothing personally. He is just a part of all-that-is, in no way separate. His life, unlike ours, is not seen through the veil of the self; it is more aware and more full of wonder than ‘ours’ can ever be. Photo by the author.

All my life I have loved games — playing them, inventing them, even watching them. It’s not the competition, not about winning or losing. It’s more I think about the Power of Constraints — seeing how things work out under a certain set of rules or limitations.

And games are an important coping mechanism: escaping into World of Warcraft, or Second Life, or even crossword puzzles or Sudoku or solving murder mysteries, may provide an opportunity for people struggling with reality to deal with a smaller, less overwhelming world in which the ‘player’ might have a little more control, some less awful choices.

Etymologically, the word ‘game’ originally meant nothing more than ‘people coming together for fun’, and it is only recently that games have had the connotation of competitiveness, that games could be played alone, or that ‘gaming’ a system meant exploiting it to unfair advantage. Today, what we call a game might broadly be defined as an unfolding subject to a particular set of rules or limitations.

Back in 1970 (very early days for computers), John Conway invented the Game of Life, which demonstrated how a simple set of rules can produce a staggeringly complex variety of results. It built on earlier research into the nature of self-organizing systems. This later evolved into theories about complex adaptive systems, including Gaia Theory. Students of such systems began to think of the evolution of the universe and of life on Earth as a type of game, and began to speculate on whether or not this game had a ‘purpose’ or not, with spiritualists and agnostics taking opposing sides.

The message of radical (agnostic) non-duality — that there is no such thing as the ‘self’, or time, or anything separate — is gaining credibility as scientists dig deeper into quantum theory and the mechanisms of the brain and discover that there does not appear to be, in fact, either time or a self to observe anything. That message suggests that there is “only this” and “nothing apart” and that the brain invented time and the self and separateness as an evolutionary means of making sense of sensory inputs, to improve the creature’s chance of survival, not as a means of representing reality. ‘Real’ reality, according to this message, cannot be known or realized or understood by any ‘one’, since there is not really any ‘one’. It is impossible to explain what is seen (by no ‘one’) when the self falls away — such terms as “empty fullness” and “just energy in the form of nothing appearing as everything” and “unconditional love” are at best metaphors, and at worst annoying.

There is no helping that, but, perhaps for some with a passion both for science and philosophy, another metaphor might be useful, or at least interesting. That metaphor is life as a game, à la Conway. Not ‘your’ life, but all life, everything that is.

Suspend your disbelief for a moment and suppose ‘all there is’ is a field of energy, outside of space or time, which, for no reason, can appear as ‘everything’. Yes, I know that’s hard to imagine. What appears can take any form, which means that it can appear to evolve according to an apparent set of rules (like the apparent rules that govern evolution). In metaphorical terms, this appearing-as-everything could be thought of as ‘all there is’ playing a game with itself. Imagine it as the fractal appearances of ice creeping across a frozen window in winter, but on an infinitely greater scale. To be clear here: This appearance is not an appearance ‘to’ any ‘one’; ‘all there is’ by definition precludes any ‘one’ separate from ‘all there is’. And it isn’t appearing to any kind of mystical universal intelligence, spirit or consciousness — consciousness implies that there is something ‘else’ ‘separate’ from ‘all there is’ to be the subject or object of consciousness, and (if ‘all there is’ is truly ‘all there is’) there cannot be. Likewise intelligence implies that there is something that can know something ‘else’ apart from it, and there cannot be. I call this an agnostic game because ‘agnostic’ means (not, as most people think, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m indifferent’, but) that it cannot be known by anyone.

Somehow, although I will confess it’s possible I believe this only because I really want to believe it, this mind-boggling explanation of ‘all there is’ seems to me the most coherent explanation I have ever heard. It makes sense to me intellectually (it is internally consistent, elegant, unambiguous, and the simplest unified theory of everything that I have heard). It resonates intuitively (the inevitability of struggle and suffering in life does not). There have been glimpses during which my self disappeared and this was definitely seen (though not by ‘me’) to be true (And no, I can’t explain how anything can be seen without an ‘observer’, but somehow it can, no mystical universal consciousness required). And it resolves (though rather uselessly and hence unsatisfactorily for most scientists) the biggest puzzles and mysteries that scientists are grappling with today.

Einstein described time as a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, and said “I might be called an agnostic”, and he often expressed the view that science had not and possibly would never be able to fully explain the nature of reality or of human nature. From my readings of his work I am convinced he would be very open to the message of radical non-duality. He would, I think, still assert that despite its validity, we cannot help acting as if our selves were real, and cannot help striving to make things ‘better’, and to explain things ‘better’ in useful ways, however imperfect and illusory they might be. And he would be right: we have no free will over what we do, or believe.

Just as it is not possible for me not to react emotionally (and make judgements) when I do a crossword puzzle (make mistakes, finish in record time etc), or when I play online, or even when I watch a visualization on iTunes, it is not possibly for me not to react emotionally (and make judgements) when I play the game of life. I can say “nothing matters” a million times, and still everything matters. I can acknowledge that there is no time, no right or wrong, no life or death, and no ‘me’ to which things are happening, not really, but still I worry and dream about the future, get upset about the day’s news, worry about my health, and am fearful of many things I can imagine happening to ‘me’. I can’t not see the pervasive hallucination of a separate self that haunts me. I cannot choose to do anything other than what this body I presume to inhabit was going to do in any case. As Neil Young wrote “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.”

So, perhaps you’re saying, “So what? If there’s nothing I can do, if it changes nothing, and if I can’t ‘get it’, not really, other than in a kind of simple abstract intellectual sense, why is this clown going on an on about this?”

The reason I care about this is its implications. It means that all our ‘personal’ feelings of fear and sadness and anger are subjecting us to self-inflicted suffering and misery for no reason. When we feel responsible for something we did or did not do, when we dread something to come, when we react to bad news, we are uselessly causing ourselves unhappiness. You may say that doesn’t matter if we can’t help ourselves. But perhaps just knowing we’re doing this might alter our conditioning a tiny bit, so that our self goes a little easier on us. If you point out to a friend hallucinating because of a drug, or a drug withdrawal, or a mental illness, that from your perspective the terrible hallucination isn’t real, it just might help them cope a little bit better. (Then again, it just might make them feel even worse.)

It also means, if you care about the terrible world we’re leaving for future generations and for the more-than-human creatures we share this tiny globe with, that you need not feel bad about it. Notice I said ‘need not’, not ‘should not’. We have no choice over what and how we feel. But somehow, at least for me, when I hear more terrible news, the knowledge that I need not feel bad about it, that it’s just my illusory self stressing about something that’s just an appearance, just something happening in a game, while the stubborn self in me keeps saying “that’s just an absurd rationalization”, something deeper in me says “yeah, you know, that’s right, and I still feel bad, but maybe not quite so bad about it”.

The message of radical non-duality asserts that there is no path to the realization of the illusion of the self and of the illusion of the separateness of everything, but that there are things that can be done to make the prison of the self seemingly more comfortable.

I am sorry that I am, and almost everyone I know is, trapped in this prison without parole. For (it seems) a blessed few, a kind of liberation can apparently happen, in which the self, for no reason, falls away, and instead of playing the game of life from behind the prison bars, looking through a veil and buffeted by fear and sorrow and anger, suddenly the game of life is seen exactly as it is, full on, awesome and eternal and unconditional and wondrous and boundless and weightless — ‘selflessly’.

I wish you that freedom. I wish to see everything, flying free.

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7 Responses to The Agnostic Game

  1. Don Stewart says:

    For what it is worth Inspired by reading The Secret Life of Your Microbiome, by Prescott and Logan…Don Stewart

    *Humans need the society of other humans and also immersion in biodiversity.
    *Therefore, there is a flow of causation FROM our environment to us [leaving ‘us’ only vaguely defined for the time being]
    *If we are influenced by others, it makes no sense to claim that we have no influence on others. And if we can influence other humans, we can also influence our broader environment.
    *Following Dan Siegel, we can think of ‘me’ as having a body, a brain, and a mind. However, since the influences forming the body, brain, and mind are a complex circular relationship with the environment, it makes no sense to talk about ‘me’ as separate from the environment. It makes sense to talk about ‘me’ as we talk about a whirlpool in a swiftly flowing river…it exists, but only as a force amidst other forces.
    *We know from the study of physiology and especially immunology, that the influence flows from both body to brain and also brain to body. It is complex.
    *We can likewise claim that an individual human (or aggregate of humans) have some influence on both the society and the ecosystem where they live.
    *Thus, we can observe that there is no simple causative scheme that we can draw. Yes, environment influences an individual’s behavior, but the individual also influences the environment.
    *The influence of the individual is important not only for human built environments (e.g., making a garden) but also in terms of perception (e.g., the immune system, deeply understood, REQUIRES certain behavior and experiences on my part to achieve a thriving state, vs. get a pill to solve my problems).
    *Thus, while statisticians can determine correlations, there is also room for the ‘radical responsibility’ of Alfred Adler.
    *The brain is a prediction machine. It makes an incredibly complex assessment in an incredibly short time. The ‘scanning’ technique developed by Dan Siegel is a method to help the brain (or, better, the mind) take into account many more factors impinging on health and thus increase predictive power.
    *Whether the mind has a ‘choice’to make, or whether all the factors, going back to the Big Bang, have predetermined the outcome already, is a question probably not worth spending much energy on. Best to spend limited energy in optimizing, for example, the immune system.
    *’Discussions of health, happiness and resiliency and the continuum between disease and realizing one’s full potential—between emotional wellness and physical health—all involve the immune system. The maestro.
    Page 62 in Prescott and Logan

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Don. Resonates with what Gould & Lewontin have espoused for a long time. The amazing capacity of the immune system (and the entire ‘autonomous’ neural network of the body not ‘controlled’ by the brain) provides some pretty good hints that ‘we’ have a lot less ‘centralized’ control than we think we do. And while I would agree that it’s not worth spending a lot of time debating whether or not we have free will (including whether or not we have free will over how we nurture our immune systems), or even whether apparent causality is anything more than the brain’s obsessive pattern-making, thinking about the possibility that everything would continue just as it is without ‘us’ can be quite mind-blowing.

  3. John Graham says:

    Hi Dave, I just crammed John Gray’s “On the Silence of Animals”, and of course thought of you.

    I like his translation of “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains”, to “Fish are born to fly, but everywhere they swim.” Or I might put what I hear from you as, “People are born to fly, therefore the world is a prison”. In other words,my issue is not that I disagree that our ‘everyday reality’ is fictional – it’s that I think the “real reality” and the “liberation” you speak of are *just* as fictional, mythical. The prison metaphor seems to depend on the myth of liberation to sustain it.

    >”all our ‘personal’ feelings of fear and sadness and anger are subjecting us to self-inflicted suffering and misery *for no reason*. ”

    Is it that there are no reasons, or is it that your ideology doesn’t count the reasons as real or legitimate? If a dog is beaten then yelps, is it yelping for no reason? If someone is distressed about that, are they distressed for no reason?

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    John: You ask three difficult questions, which I’ll try to answer from a radical non-dualist perspective (ie my own).

    1. Is the dog yelping for no reason? Not at all — the dog is feeling pain, and yelping is a perfectly understandable reaction to that.

    2. Are people distressed about that for no reason? Yes and no. Biophilia is in human nature, and it is in our nature to care for, protect and collaborate with other creatures. So to come to the defence of the dog is absolutely “reasonable”. But if the distress extends to judgements about the dog’s feelings, or the motivations of the abuser, or feelings about our own actions or inaction in response to the abuse, then (while they are almost universal among human “individuals”) such reactions occur because we “individuals” are under the illusion that we have free will and control and that actions are hence morally right or wrong. If I were to witness such abuse I would probably become enraged and possibly end up arrested for attacking the abuser. But intellectually and intuitively I ‘get’ that that would be completely “unreasonable”. Were I to be rid of my ‘self’, I think my conditioning would be to defend the dog and attempt to get it away from the abuser to prevent recurrence. But NOT to be distressed about it.

    3. Does my “ideology” discount feelings of fear, anger and sadness as illegitimate? I don’t think the message of radical non-duality qualifies as an “ideology”, because it does not offer any moral compass nor suggest any course of action (or inaction). Dave the Person continues to feel scared and angry and sad, and to him (to ‘me’) those feelings are absolutely real and legitimate. But he also catches himself, more and more, realizing that, while feelings will always arise, taking ownership of those feelings is useless (it helps no one) and hence unwarranted and unnecessary. The message of radical non-duality is somewhat useful in that, while it cannot change my reactive feelings, it can help me see them as useless, and somehow that seems to calm them somewhat. In short, I don’t have to be personally distressed to take the appropriate, empathetic action that the character I presume to inhabit would take anyway.

    Hope that helps answer your questions.

  5. John Graham says:

    Hi again, Dave, there’s something I don’t understand in our use of two different senses of “reason” here. I meant it as, roughly, “cause”. The dog’s yelping has identifiable causes.

    But how does that sense relate to the ‘reasonable-unreasonable’ pole you’ve introduced? ‘Unreasonable’ usually implies a negative – do you mean it to here?

    Reading back through, it seems you’re more or less mapping ‘reasonable-unreasonable’ onto ‘helpful-unhelpful’ – you still imply a moral judgement that helpful is better than unhelpful. I’m glad of that.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Hi John: Yes I can understand the problem when the word “reasonable” can mean either rational (intellectually justifiable/logical) or fair (morally justifiable). Likewise “unhelpful” can mean either not practically useful or not emotionally sensitive. I am trying to sidestep the moral issues which are wrought with subjective challenges and ambiguities, so I man these terms in their intellectual/practical sense. A dog yelping in pain is reasonable in that sense, and our biophilia-driven response (to seek to maximize well-being ie pleasure and the absence of pain for all creatures in our communities) to try to remove the source of pain is likewise reasonable in the same intellectual sense. Our empathetic nature, while appearing consistent with ethical views and morals, is essentially just a reflection of the laws of evolution — cooperation and caring about ‘others’ is almost always a better collective survival strategy than competition and aggression except when the tribe is under imminent attack.

    The message of non-duality is “helpful” to me in the sense of enabling me to appreciate the hopeless predicament of the self and hence not waste energy trying to change anything, and instead work to “make the prison of the self more comfortable” for me and those I love and care about (including wild creatures and the environment in which we live. If there’s any moral judgement in that, I’m not conscious of it, as I really try to avoid (with I admit only qualified success) moral judgements, because I almost invariably find them (in the intellectual practical sense) unhelpful — they don’t tend to lead to better outcomes for anyone or anything.

    But this is a lifelong learning process. As my post going up tomorrow (Wed 17th) will explain, I’m discovering that compassion and empathetic action is not in any way inconsistent with rationality and equanimity. And that all too often, actions driven by fear, anger or grief resulting from moral judgements and expectations are often, practically, “unhelpful”. Or as it has been put more simply, the road to hell…

  7. John Graham says:

    Thanks for the response, Dave. It makes me think, regardless of what I think of the ‘prison’ metaphor: in this most apocalyptic of centuries, a palliative ethic is perhaps not such a bad thing.

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