Image is from iTunes visualizer.
Consciousness is a social construct. It never would have taken conceptual shape if people hadn’t talked about it with one another. It did not cause us to reflect on it. Rather, our reflection on it caused it to appear to exist. The absorbing search for the “self” is really a search for a Creator. Which makes cognitive psychology the Creationism of science. Words bound to anger many, even if true…
— Melissa Holbrook Pierson
In my endless, futile, and irresistible attempts to rationalize the message of radical non-duality and reconcile it with what ‘I’ perceive, perhaps the greatest stumbling block is making sense of our conditioning.
I’m a late convert to the belief that we have no free will — that we’re completely conditioned by our biology and our culture in everything we do, such that, given the circumstances of each moment, there is no role for ‘me’ in deciding anything. And that there is no need for a ‘me’, in order for that conditioning to play out the only way it could have.
There is, of course, enormous tension between our biological and cultural conditioning — our bodies and genes often ‘tell’ us to do one thing while our culture ‘tells’ us to do something very different. Perhaps that’s how the illusion of the self evolved — as an attempt to provide a referee between the two.
And to be clear there is nothing deterministic in this belief — there are an infinite number of (apparent) variables in the complexity that is life, so the circumstances of the moment can never be predicted, and hence neither can the effects of our conditioning. Belief in our conditioning (and our lack of free will) does not support or necessitate fatalism or nihilism. It’s actually rather liberating. No one to blame, nothing to feel shame or guilt (or pride, or smugness, or even responsibility) about or for.
The problem with reconciling conditioned behaviour with radical non-duality is that conditioning implies causality. It implies, for example, that my cultural conditioning caused me to do work I hated for many years, to the point it nearly killed me.
But the message of radical non-duality is that there is no causality, only appearances. Things apparently happen, the message goes, for no reason. They don’t even happen in time or space. Nothing causes anything else, except in the totally fictitious story of ‘me’.
Our brains instinctively look for, and often ‘see’ things that aren’t real, such as animals and faces in cloud patterns. It could be argued that, similarly, our brains look for patterns that might explain everything that has apparently happened. And, when they find patterns, then they create a model or representation of reality that seems to explain the connection between things, and that process causes us to believe that that model, that patterning, describes what ‘really’ happened. Similarly, it could be claimed that our arguments for why ‘we’ made a decision are merely rationalizations after the fact. Why would we do that? Because we simply cannot believe that ‘we’ have no free will or choice over what the body and brain ‘we’ presume to inhabit does or decides. Such a belief would be terrifying.
These false connections, these fictitious stories we tell ourselves about what happened, is a major preoccupation of the modern human brain. The human brain is a patterning, and then sense-making, machine. It goes so far as to invent the concepts of time and space to explain, sort, and ‘memorize’ the ‘meaning’ of the signals that reach its senses. And then it goes even further and conceptualizes the existence of a separate ‘self’ in the centre of everything, along with a universe of ‘other’ separate things. In its imagined world, it’s the only thing that makes sense.
So presented with the radical non-duality argument that there is no time, no space, nothing separate, no ‘one’, and hence no causality, it cannot help seeing that argument as either dangerous or absurd.
What, then, are we to make of the very compelling evidence of our conditioning ‘causing’ what we do, in light of the equally (to me at last, after glimpses where ‘I’ seemingly disappeared, without consequence) compelling evidence that there is no causality?
We could say that causality is just an “appearance”, just as the sun apparently orbiting earth is an appearance, not an actual reality. If our only experience (and the experiences of others we talk with or read about) is that x precedes y, and if it seems to make sense that x would lead to y, then it is not surprising that we would be convinced that x causes y.
This is different from the causality vs correlation argument, which warns that sometimes things may occur in close proximity, but the seemingly ‘obvious’ causality between x and y is likely just a coincidence.
This distinction is subtler than it might appear. We will generally acknowledge that x and y are correlated rather than causally related only when there is evidence of situations where x was not followed by y, or where we believe the sample was biased. But we will not easily dismiss our belief in the causality between x and y in the absence of such contrary evidence. That is, unless our conditioning has led us to believe that x cannot possibly cause y. And everyone’s conditioning — and hence threshold for believing or disbelieving that x causes y — is different.
In my case, my exposure to certain people and readings (some of which may have been serendipitous) seems to have conditioned me to completely change my belief in the existence of free will. It ‘makes sense’ to ‘me’ that this exposure caused my dramatic change in beliefs. It’s comforting to make sense of everything in this way, rather than believing it was an utterly random, meaningless change in beliefs. I want to believe that’s what was ‘behind’ my change of beliefs on this subject.
It is much harder for me to accept that this belief change just happened for no reason, let alone to accept that my self and all its beliefs are just an illusion, the conjured-up fiction of an over-active and desperate-to-make-sense-of-everything brain. And only an ‘apparent’ brain at that.
When I try to dig deeper into the implications of the radical non-duality message, I have to use metaphor. Perhaps my beliefs changing make sense in the same way that things happening in our dreams seem to make sense. The people and actions in my dreams are clearly illusory, inventions, yet there seems to be some internal logic and flow to what seems to happen in them.
What is actually happening in our dreams? Nothing. How do we explain the apparent causalities of events in our dreams? We cannot. They may be logical, but they are not real.
It is understandably annoying to be told that we, and our stories, are just conjured up inventions of our brains, no more real than dreams. It is a useless, disturbing, and unprovable assertion. Yet when there have been glimpses, it’s astonishingly and intuitively true, even obvious. And this message is repeated, consistently and as articulately as language can permit, across time and around the world, its messengers seemingly now unable to see or talk much about any other truth. And it does tend to resonate with some new, astonishing, findings in science about the nature of self, time and space, and free will (specifically, that none of these things can be scientifically shown to actually exist, and that there is evidence that they don’t).
It does not, and cannot, make sense. Yet as a ‘theory of everything’ it is utterly simple, elegant, and internally consistent. It cannot be proved, or disproved. So why believe it, any more than any other unprovable theory of everything, such as that everything was created by an old white guy with a grey beard two millennia ago, or that everything is made of z-dimensional strings?
Because, perhaps, science has successfully disproved, or cast huge doubts upon, just about every other such theory, statement and assertion about the true nature of reality, and of the self. Radical non-duality may, if we live long enough, turn out to be the last one left standing.
So where does that leave me, on the fence between the explanation of conditioning, and the unconditional causation-free message of radical non-duality? They both assert we have no free will. And the argument that we are merely the product of our conditioning can be very useful, while the argument that ‘we’ are not (anything) is the opposite. So why am I so intuitively and intellectually drawn to the message of radical non-duality?
‘I’ have no idea.
thanks to Kelly for helping me think through the ideas in this post