The Four Impossibilities

I‘m going to tell you some stories. All stories are untrue, but sometimes they may be useful. I’m going to use these stories to try to describe the message of radical non-duality, so that perhaps you might understand the message. I would never try to convince you of its veracity. I’d just love more people to appreciate why I’m so intrigued by it.

With that caveat, here are the stories. They revolve around what I am calling “the four impossibilities” — things that, due to its conditioning, the human brain can never conceive of as being even vaguely true. And each of the four is more impossible than the last.

The First Impossibility: There is no time. Everything is already exactly as it is. And there is no space. Everything is just an appearance, requiring no ‘position’.

Here is a story: At some point in our species’ evolution, the brain got large enough, and its neural circuitry integrated enough, to be able to (1) conceive of things that it cannot perceive (ie to imagine), and then (2) perceive these imaginary conceptions to be real. Prior to that, our truths were all embodied — a human saw something in the jungle it perceived to be “fast and yellow”, and instinctively, viscerally, froze, fled, or prepared to fight. That instinct was evolutionarily selected for.

In those early brains, “making sense” was simply a matter of correlation, a simple brain patterning process. There is actually no such thing as “yellow” — it’s the brain’s translation, its categorization, of the perception of certain wavelengths of light reaching the retina. And there is no such thing as “fast” — it’s the brain’s translation, its categorization, of the perception of those wavelengths of light reaching the retina in an apparent pattern from different places in the visual cortex. There is a biological or cultural conditioning in many species that “fast” plus “yellow” correlates with danger, and hence the needed response is fight, flight or freeze. That evolutionarily successful instinct (with variations of the perceptual triggers by species) is present even for creatures with tiny brains — aphids, silverfish and fruit flies, for example.

None of this requires conception, or even what we might call ‘conscious thought’. It is a purely perceptual, instinctive response. The fruit fly doesn’t need to conceptualize anything to fly out of the way of your swatting hand.

But then, at some point in the human brain, the capacity emerged to conceive of what was perceived, and then to conceive of what hadn’t been perceived (ie to imagine), and then to perceive that which had been conceived, as being, somehow, as real or even more real than what had been simply perceived.

So the conception (and labelling) of (certain instances of) “fast and yellow” as “tiger” occurred. And then there emerged the capacity, in the absence of any “fast and yellow”, to conceive (imagine) the possibility of a tiger suddenly appearing. And then, the final devastating step, there emerged the capacity to perceive the (imagined) tiger being right there (perhaps looking at us, or stalking behind us, or just around the corner coming up). The primitive human, unlike its fellow forest-dwellers, can now be anxious about a non-existent tiger.

Studies have shown that the body and brain react identically whether they are perceiving an actual stimulus, imagining that stimulus, remembering that stimulus, or considering the future possibility of that stimulus. To the body and brain, these are all the same. But confusing those four things can be very dysfunctional (just ask people who hallucinate), so the brain had to invent a new ‘quality’ to distinguish between them. That quality was time. By conceiving of a stimulus as being at an ‘early’ point, ‘mid’ point, or ‘end’ point in a ‘time line’ the human could then differentially ‘perceive’ this as a memory, an immediate (‘real’) perception, or a future possibility, respectively, and respond appropriately. The absolute difference between “tiger”, here now, and a memory or imagined future possibility of “tiger” became forever blurred.

But the ‘past’ and ‘future’ perceptions are not real perceptions at all. They are conceptions that the brain imagines it has perceived. In its newly integrated brain, the now-‘conscious’ human mistakes its conceptions for perceptions. Its model of reality has become infected by a psychosomatic misunderstanding, one that can no longer distinguish between what is real (perceived) and what is imagined (conceived). As an extreme example, sufferers from PTSD are constantly reliving a trauma that is not present, and reacting as if it were. And nostalgics are forever recalling an imagined past that never was.

You may question how it would be possible to function without the invented mental abstraction of time. How could we possibly remember anything, plan anything, learn anything? But the concept of time is completely inessential to these functions. Without the story of time, we would still automatically react appropriately to “loud flat buzzing” (alarm clock), because of our conditioning. Though we may think it, there is no need to actually think “Oh, that is the alarm; I must get up now”. Our conditioning would take care of it, much as it does when we arrive after driving somewhere and can’t recall how we actually managed the drive — it’s all automatic, well-honed responses building on millions of years of evolved instinctive capacity plus recent conditioned behaviours.

But how about the future? We may not ‘need’ the conception of a past to function, but surely we need to be able to imagine the future in order to be motivated to do anything and decide sensibly how to move towards it?

Except we don’t. The imagined future is a story we tell ourselves. It’s a fiction. It may shape our ideals, our hopes and dreams and plans and intentions, but it will have absolutely no impact on what we actually do. What we do at any moment of time (this is a separate argument that there is not space to revisit here) is strictly a function of our biological and cultural conditioning given the circumstances of the moment.

We may imagine, believe, want to believe that our imaginings and ideals and hopes and dreams and plans and intentions have an effect on what we do, but they only have an effect on what we believe. The only effect of our future imaginings is forever buried inside our own heads, a dreamer’s model of a non-existent future reality. A story. A “tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing”.

Carlo Rovelli is a highly-respected theoretical physicist whose work is focused on the concept of quantum gravity. Each book, in which he writes about his latest thinking, is stranger than the last. His latest, The Order of Time, gently but firmly acknowledges that time is just a mental construct, a way for the human brain to make sense of things, and it doesn’t actually exist; it’s “just a story we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence”.

Neither, he says, does space or anything in space really exist: “The world is made of events, not things”, he explains. How this happens, he acknowledges, is a mystery. “Time is the form in which we beings whose brains are made up essentially of memory and foresight interact with our world: it is the source of our identity”, he writes. And he’s a physicist; his life’s work is scientifically ascertaining what is real, and what is really happening.

In his review of the book, Ephrat Livni sums it up this way: “Time is a story we’re always telling ourselves in the present tense, individually and together. It’s a collective act of introspection and narrative, record-keeping and expectation, that’s based on our relationship to prior events and the sense that happenings are impending. It is this tale that gives us our sense of self as well, a feeling that many neuroscientists, mystics, and physicists argue is a mass delusion”.

One of these neuroscientists is Anil Seth. He argues that the perception of our self and our “conscious” reality is a “hallucination”. What we perceive, he says, is the brain’s “best guess”, based on its accumulated modelling of the world, about what the electromagnetic signals coming to it from the senses actually “mean” in reality. What we “experience” as the world is merely our mental model of it. “When we agree on our hallucinations, we call that reality. And the experience of being a self is also a controlled hallucination generated by the brain… We ‘predict’ our selves into existence.”

And then there is physicist Sean Carroll saying that all explanations about the nature of space and time fail to pass scientific muster and that the most credible explanation is that “the universe just is” — that there is no time or space, just an “infinite field of possibilities”.

The final argument for the necessity of ‘real’ time is that without it, all events would be synchronous, happening at once, eternally, and the universe would be utterly discordant and completely incoherent. But that’s a circular argument. If there is no time, there is no ‘at once’ for everything to be happening in. Everything that is happening is just — already — an appearance.

As it is for time, so it is for space. What we conceive of as space is just a categorization scheme, like time but with more ‘dimensions’, for what we perceive to be happening. Just as we can’t fathom everything happening at one time (‘already’) we can’t fathom anything happening (‘here’) without a ‘space’ for it to happen in. But that’s just an abstract concept, a made-up model that happens to fit with the other invented abstractions like time to ‘make sense’ of the mysterious electromagnetic sensations that are perceived by the human body. A human body merely appears to be real, without any need, except in our own imagined reality, for there to be any time or space for it to be real in.

Yes, I know, this is impossible to see. But if scientists, braving the ridicule and outrage of their peers, are concluding this is true anyway, exactly as the message of radical non-duality asserts, then perhaps it’s worth at least trying to understand the message.

If you’re still game, let’s move on.

The Second Impossibility: There is no death. Everything is already complete.

Death requires the ‘real’ existence of time and continuity. When ‘we’ wake up each morning, we recreate a story about ourselves and our lives, and imbue it with a sense of continuity in time. Once we believe time is real, we believe things really happen in that imagined time. And that fictitious continuity we create begins with our supposed birth and ends with our supposed death.

When I speak with those who no longer have a sense of self or separation, and ask them why they don’t get tired answering the same questions over and over again, they say that “everything is constantly new”. Every question is a completely new one. There is no “over and over again”. There is no fear of death because there is no longer the false conception that time and continuity are real, since “everything is exactly as it is, already”.

The death that we fear so utterly is our brain’s invention, and nothing more. Wild creatures’ conditioned instincts will drive them to act in ways that may avert what we call the ‘death’ of their bodies, but they are not acting out of fear of death, merely in accordance with their evolutionary conditioning. They are sensitive, and smart, in ways humans have long forgotten how to be, but they don’t conceive of time, or death, as we do, and have no fear of it. They live in what some scientists have called “now time”, which is somewhat misleadingly called by some “the eternal present”. In fact, “now time” is not time at all, and there is no eternity and no present (sorry Eckhart). Everything is already still.

As difficult, or impossible, as it is for our sense-making models to fathom, every instant is utterly new and immediate, and already. There is no continuity to these instants, or our lives, except in our brains’ imaginations, which we, tragically, now imagine to be true. Just as we imagine the fiction of our birth, our lives, and our death.

Yeah, I know. That’s impossible.

The Third Impossibility: There is no thing. Everything is just an appearance, nothing appearing as everything.

Just as there is no time for anything (like death) to happen in, there is no space for any thing to really exist in. The sense-making model in our brains that catalogues everything into fictitious slots in time, also catalogues everything into fictitious dimensions in space. But just as there is no ‘now’ in time, there is no ‘there’ here, or anywhere, and nowhere for any thing to exist.

What appears, appears. For no reason. Only the human brain has to invent a reason for everything, in order to make sense of it. We have created a map, a model of the universe in our heads, at exactly the same moment we created ‘stuff’ to put in it, and a history and dimensions of space in which to log its illusory trajectory. It’s a clever trick, but only our selves, and other human selves, ever fall for it.

The Fourth Impossibility: There is no ‘you’. 

This wonderful map/model which we each create inside our heads, early in childhood, which seemingly makes sense of much of what we perceive — a universe full of stuff, moving in space and time — is missing one critical ingredient: an anchor to give it all meaning.

That anchor is the self. The self provides the conceptual ‘here’ and ‘now’ that sits at the focal point of our entire invented model of reality. And as a result, all meaning, all purpose to everything, all of the sense that we ascribe to what we have now convinced ourselves is really happening, revolves around us, our selves. Almost all human conversation is reassurances and debates about what is real and what is happening as it is conceived by our selves and other selves. The self has to make sense of everything. Everything has to have an order, a reason, a purpose. And a place and trajectory in space and time.

And it is all just an invention that we have mistaken for ‘real’ reality. Including the self. We quickly come to believe (thanks to conditioning by other humans) that the self is essential to all decision-making, and to our very existence. But it is not. Our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment, determines entirely what the body we presume to inhabit does. We (our imagined selves) have no free will, no choice, and no control over these bodies’ behaviours. Our self is left to rationalize that decision, to make sense of its ‘reason’. Sometimes that is a perplexing, desperate, exhausting, and even traumatizing rationalization. But it changes nothing.

Neuroscientists have looked in vain for the self, and concluded that there isn’t one. It’s just an invention of the brain in its inexhaustible attempt to make sense of everything. Wild creatures’ every behaviour, including many behaviours that seem much wiser than humans’, can be explained as conditioned responses without recourse to any need for a sense of self. (That includes their behaviours in response to so-called ‘theory of mind’ experiments, by the way, though I’ll save that discussion for another day.)

Billions of years of astonishingly, unfathomably complex and successful evolution, none of it requiring a self to happen. As Tony Parsons describes it, the self, the ‘me’, is a “useless piece of software”. It seems to have evolved as a spandrel or exaptation of the emergence of large brains with excess capacity, but it is no more useful or necessary than our appendices, or the 98% of “junk DNA” that emerged in our bodies that was never, or is no longer, essential to our functioning. And, like our appendices, and our spinal columns (that are still not well-adapted to standing erect all the time), our ‘self’ can create enormous discomfort and dysfunction when it “acts up”.

.  .  .  .  .

This is all impossible to accept, or believe, or even understand beyond a theoretical, conceptual level. And yet, the more I learn about the four impossibilities, the more elegant and even obvious they appear to me. I’ve had the advantage of seemingly having disappeared on several occasions — what radical non-duality calls “glimpses” where there is ‘suddenly’ no self, and all of the above impossibilities are suddenly seen to be unarguably the case — but I think I would have come to admire the message of radical non-duality anyway.

And the reason for that is simply that this message fits with my stories. Just as I could never have accepted the arguments and ideas in David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous (about phenomenology and the nature of prehistoric cultures), or in John Gray’s Straw Dogs (on the inevitability of civilization’s imminent collapse), before my worldview and frames had, for reasons beyond my control, evolved to a point where I was “ready” for them, it is extremely unlikely that the message of radical non-duality would have resonated with me at all if my explorations of the past two decades hadn’t made this “impossible” message accessible, and plausible.

But that too is a story, just as the four impossibilities are just stories. I’ve resigned myself to the likelihood that, unlike Tony and the other radical non-duality ‘messengers’ listed on my right sidebar, this ‘me’ is likely to die before the message is ‘already’ seen to be true (rather than just intellectually grasped). I will have to settle for appreciating its resonance with the ‘glimpses’, its astonishingly logical internal consistency, and how it, impossibly, just makes sense.

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