Why Humans Are Probably Uniquely Afflicted With ‘Selves’

more ruminations trying to make sense of what cannot make sense

four worldviews of the nature of reality: (I) conventional wisdom, (II) emerging scientific consensus, (III) the entanglement hypothesis — limbo, (IV) radical non-duality

In a recent comment, Vera asked me why I asserted that animals have no “selves”.

As an animal lover and a believer that animals feel pain and feel emotions, this is a subject that bothered me a lot when I first came upon the message of radical non-duality. How could those speaking about this subject be so sure that only humans have the (illusory) sense of self and separation? And how can any creature function without a sense of self and separation from everything else?

When I spoke to Jim Newman and Tim Cliss about this, their answer was that no creatures (humans included) actually ‘have’ selves, and that nothing is really separate. They suggested that it takes a very large brain and a lot of constantly reinforced conditioning from birth to create and sustain the illusion of the separate self, and only humans seem to have the proclivity to do so.

How can we even function without a sense of self and separation from everything else? Solely by our conditioning, it would seem. Jim and Tim assert that there is no sense of a self or separation ‘there’, and there doesn’t need to be. This model we have of a separate body under our control, with a self at its core as its ‘managing director’, is just an invention. The self doesn’t actually do anything. In the story of the person, the body acts (as a result of its conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment), and the ‘self’ then rationalizes that action as being its decision, after the fact. The self is completely non-essential to the effective functioning of the body, and it (the self, the ‘me’) is just a “useless piece of software” as Tony Parsons has described it.

Everything is already whole and complete. There is only ‘everything’, which is actually an appearance of nothing. ‘Everything’ has no parts, nothing separate, no direction or purpose or meaning or intention, and it is not going anywhere in time or space.

How did our brain manage this astounding trick of the imagination, inventing the idea of self and separation and convincing other human brains that these ideas were really true? One could argue that it was an evolutionary misstep, a spandrel — “let’s try out this model to see if it helps our species survive” — that went terribly wrong. But that would suggest that evolution in time is real, and it isn’t, since there is no time, no causality and nothing really happening. Evolution is just another attempt to make sense of patterns our brains perceive and conceive. It’s just another story.

The jump to the uncompromising message of radical non-duality — that there is no reason, purpose or meaning for anything — is just a ‘bridge too far’ for our apparently thoroughly conditioned separate brains in separate selves to countenance. And even that assertion is another story, another step across non-existent stepping stones in the sea of everything-just-as-it-is. Conditioning, after all, implies causality and change over time, and these are just appearances and illusions born of faulty sensemaking.

About seven years ago, I ‘had’ what is often described as a ‘glimpse’ — the sudden disappearance of ‘me’ and the obvious realization that there is nothing real, nothing really happening, nothing separate, only appearances. It was astonishing, unarguable, and the thought over and over was “How could I not have noticed this before?” At the time, I wrote about this:

  • It felt more like a ‘remembering’ than an ‘awakening’. Some memories of very early childhood (some of which had been just a blur until then) and a few memories from more recent, very peaceful times, flooded through my body, which felt ‘flushed’ in the way it feels during a sudden ‘aha’ moment, or during feelings of intense love.
  • It felt amazingly free of anxiety or fear, very peaceful and joyful in a ‘boundless’ kind of way. Everything was awesome, more-than-real, unveiled, unfiltered and just, in a way, ‘perfect’, exactly as it was. Not blissful, just… this.
  • There was no temptation to grasp onto it lest it be quickly lost again. It was clearly always here, everywhere, not ‘going’ anywhere, accessible always. My self would have been anxious not to lose it, but my self was, in that moment, not present. The glimpse was completely impersonal, not happening to anyone. A silly grin came over me, and stayed for hours.
  • If this is a glimpse, it is not my first, though this one seemed to connect, through those suddenly recalled memories, to past glimpses. It felt wonderful, but also completely ordinary and obvious. Oh, that! Of course; how could I not have noticed?

At the time, the story I made up to try to make sense of this is that somehow the normal ‘default’ neural sensemaking pathways of my brain had been circumvented, and instead what was being revealed was what actually was, story-less.

Over the intervening period, there have been two significant shifts in my worldview. The first, prompted largely by Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book The Secret History of Kindness, was giving up my strongly-held belief in free will. Robert Sapolski’s new book Determined reassured me that that shift made sense.

In parallel, I was delving deeper into, and thinking more about, the message of radical non-duality (I call it a message, rather than a theory or worldview, because it’s just in-your-face obvious to those who have ‘lost’ their sense of self, and hence cannot and need not be defended with ‘evidence’ or ‘logic’). The cold-sober ‘glimpses’ were all the evidence I needed. And I realized that if there is no ‘one’, no separate self, then there can’t possibly be any free will either. My instincts, and my various explorations, seemed to be converging on agreement with the radical non-duality worldview, even if it had only been ‘obvious’ during the ‘glimpses’.

Except. Except my sensemaking mind is conditioned, driven, compelled to try to make sense of this worldview. And it cannot. No one will ever convince anyone else that the illusion of the ‘me’ and of things being separate are just what are apparently happening, without any reason or purpose or meaning. It’s just too bald, too pat, too empty, too useless. And totally unsupported by what we consider ‘evidence’.

So I’m left in a kind of limbo state, intuitively and intellectually drawn by the message of radical non-duality as a worldview, but still compelled to try to reconcile this message with emerging science and logic. Like most limbos, it’s unsustainable and precarious. All the science in the world can only produce additional stories that, while they may seem to align with the radical non-duality message, are actually completely incompatible with it.

So, neuroscientists may provide evidence that there is no ‘self’, but that evidence is just a story about events that happened in time to bodies and brains; radical non-duality asserts that there are no ‘real’ bodies or brains or time or things really happening. And physicists may provide evidence that there is no real time, but that evidence is just a story about particles and waves and quantum states; radical non-duality asserts that there are no ‘real’ particles or waves or states or things really happening.

Stories are at the crux of what I describe as the ‘limbo’ state, shown as worldview III in the chart above. Stories are how we make sense of the world, how we explain causality, and the past, and imagine the future. But these stories are all fictions — there is no real causality, no time, no separate ‘actors’ really doing anything, no evolution. There are not even real brains, because there is nothing separate at all. ‘Brain’ is just an artificial label we use to tell our stories. I have shifted my worldview from I to II to III, but the limbo worldview is impossible to sustain. And there is no bridge, no ‘path’ to the radical non-duality worldview IV. Not even ‘faith’. I can’t just decide to see what I can’t see. And without seeing it, it’s impossible to believe. No matter how intuitive or elegant it is. No matter how much I want to believe it. I’m caught in limbo, perhaps until I die. (There may be no cure for the self, but there are much worse fates imaginable.)

Although it’s just another story, one can make sense of the ‘fact’ that our illusory sense of self and separation emerged, and that this “useless piece of software” has endured for millennia (not long in terms of the history of life on earth, or even the history of our species), and (in the story) this ’caused’ a huge amount of suffering to all the creatures of the planet ever since. But my Entanglement Hypothesis provides no solace, no way out of the limbo. Just another story.

So back to Vera’s question: A ‘self’ is just an invention, a story, a fictional character, dreamed up in large brains to try to make sense of the brain’s sensory perceptions and conceptions, something to put at the centre of its entirely imaginary model of what reality actually is. No more real than a character in a play or movie that we presume to depict some real happening.

Wild creatures have no ‘selves’ because they have neither the capacity nor the need to concoct such a fanciful fiction. Like humans they have well-honed instincts and are conditioned and feel, intensely, sensations like pain and pleasure, and emotions like fear and anger and sadness, and probably others like enthusiasm and equanimity. But they probably don’t feel emotions like hatred or chronic anxiety about the future, or shame or guilt or envy, since these emotions require a sense of linear time, a sense of permanent disconnection from ‘everything’, and a propensity to judge things as good or evil. I think they are fortunate to have been spared the curse of believing in a separate self that underlies these suffering-filled emotions. And they are no less sensate than humans for that (probably more sensate than us, without the veil of self and separation to keep them from really being in the world). Melissa’s book, which describes animal behaviour in detail from the perspective of an animal lover, has convinced me of that.

Of course, they can be conditioned, just as we can, to react in ways that we might anthropomorphically construe as revealing the existence of a ‘self’ in them. But instinctive and entrained reactions of fear and joy and responding to one’s given name do not require the affliction of a self. Just ask Tim, or Jim, or Tony, or the other messengers of radical non-duality who are, like wild creatures, not so afflicted.

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15 Responses to Why Humans Are Probably Uniquely Afflicted With ‘Selves’

  1. Theoretical computer science offers an interesting approach to the separate self and free will problem. Just how do you design a survivable living creature with limited data storage and processing capacity? An analogous problem is the self-driving car being pioneered by Musk wherein decisions are based on number crunching massive libraries of images versus the competition, all of whom use LIDAR, a remote sensing approach more analogous with the sonic systems of animals like bats or dolphins. Is a paper bag blowing across the road a rock or is it a child?
    So how does a bat with a couple cc.s of grey matter evade a falcon? He has a fraction of a second to do the calculations and his actions are the result of a judgement of the speed and intent of the approaching bird relative to ALL of his own metrics and capabilities with which he is intimately familiar. He has to know exactly who he is; the necessary computations would otherwise be impossible and he has the free will to choose between zig or zag with reference to the former.
    Who knows where it stops down the line. Maybe even bacteria labour under the delusion that they are independent selves doing their best to get on in the world. Maybe their lives would be more restful if the didn’t.

  2. Ray says:

    What do we know at this stage with a reasonable level of probability?
    Brains are there to keep the body alive, so that the body can do it’s bit at energy dissipation and produce copies that carry on doing the same.
    I suppose that any trick that helps in this universal endeavour is a good trick, worthy of selection. If the trick is inventing a story-telling self that even believes in nonsensical stuff such as free will, so be it. Even inventing concepts such as radical non-duality might help with the production of useful tricks. Who knows?
    What else do we know? I don’t know.

  3. Steven kurtz says:

    There are biological selves in my view as they must seek energy throughput to survive and replicate. The extent of awareness of this varies by species. Experiments have demonstrated that humans aren’t alone in recognizing themselves in mirrors. As to responsibility for behavior, social species hold deviants responsible as the group is the viable subject. In my view (and that of many scientists and philosophers) conscious ‘free will’ is not free as heredity and cumulative experiences since conception encounter the present with the outcome determined by that combination.

  4. realist says:

    @Georges, Ray & Steven

    Yes, for evolution success anything goes and primitive “selves” may occur very early in the tree of life.

    There is even a trend in research to extend biological mechanisms toward artificial ones, AI and such.

    I find this extremely ominous, we are going to play “sorcerer apprentices” of the worst kind (transhumanism).

    Competency in Navigating Arbitrary Spaces as an Invariant for Analyzing Cognition in Diverse Embodiments.
    (check for Harari in the bibliography…)

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments. Lots to debate about here, but I keep reminding myself that, if there really is no self and no separation (and hence no free will) then nothing really matters, so why write or talk about it?

    I’ve written about some of the books by bird-lovers who have contemplated what it is “like” to be a bird, or a bat, and agree with their consensus that we can never know. But I do sense (and my research seems to imply) that they have no sense of self or separation. They simply don’t need one, so it’s never evolved. Their movements are instinctive, way faster than brains could possibly ever ‘decide’ to do anything. The very fact they’re still around (and will be, probably, after we’re gone) suggests to me that instinct, not intelligence, is the key to survival. When I watch the crows, and the pigeons, I sense the joy, the sense of play and wonder that must be felt ‘there’ to provoke their instinctive behaviours. A sense that I think humans, hampered with the veil of self and separation, have lost.

    Of course, we don’t know. Anything.

    There’s some evidence that, much as a dog can be conditioned to recognize and respond to ‘its’ name, it can be conditioned to recognize and respond to its image in a mirror or on a screen. That does not mean it ‘has’ a self.

    But then perhaps even the apparent evolution of the idea of a self and separation in humans might be just the result of millennia of conditioning of each other, hatched in the rich humus of the large human brain. Maybe ‘self’ only arose in our brains because it was needed to grasp the idea of ‘other’, a sensible idea for a species that is necessarily social.

    As for the transhumanists, they remind me of some of the fanciful idealism of my childhood, steeped as I was in Star Trek and sci fi novels. Some people, like Musk, have just never outgrown it. Scary, like all idealism and ideology when paired with power.

  6. Vera says:

    Yes. So you say “self” is fictional. But what is fictional? What do you mean by self?

    I went fishing through various definitions.
    1) The essential qualities distinguishing one person from another; individuality.
    2) One’s consciousness of one’s own being, self-awareness.
    3) The union of elements (such as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person.
    4) The set of someone’s characteristics, such as personality and ability, that are not physical and make that person different from other people.

    Can you illuminate a bit more, Dave? Or do you mean conscience and intentionally making choices?
    When I was thinking about animals I have been befriended by, they all have had their individuality, personality, abilities and so on, unique and therefore different from others of their species.
    So perhaps you mean that they have no self-awareness? Or do you mean they have less self-awareness than we humans, and are better for it?

    Sorry I am going on about it. Trying to get a handle on what it is you think is so problematic.

    Oh. Here is another one. Being trapped in our heads so much. This is the only one I can think of animals don’t do. (?)

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    This is the best I can do, Vera — the limitations of our language make it pretty much impossible to explain:

    My definition of self would be the embodied experience of being inside, and in control of, a physical entity (body) which is somehow apart from and distinguishable from everything else. The exchanges I have had with radical non-duality messengers suggest that at some point it just suddenly became obvious that this sense of self and separation are entirely illusory (a fiction — something entirely made up). And that this invention is completely unnecessary to the functioning of the apparent body (or the apparent bundle of conditioned behaviours we call a “character”) that the self presumed to inhabit and control.

    Apparently separate things and characters and happenings are just exactly that — appearances. They have no real substance. There is nothing actually separate, and no real time in which anything can really happen.

    The definitions that others provided don’t work, because they all tautologically presume that the self and separation are and must be real. So “consciousness”, aka “self-awareness”, far from being a hallmark of advanced intelligence, is just a hallucination. So is the idea of a separate “person”. Nothing is really separate.

    No separation, and no invention of a separate “self” is needed. Everything — apparent humans and animals and things happening — apparently functions just fine without recourse to the illusion of a self and of separation. Apparent animals (including apparent humans) apparently feel pain and fear and pleasure and joy, and no self or separation is required for that to apparently happen.

    The only difference is that humans are apparently afflicted with an illusory sense of self and separation, which serves no real purpose and which apparently evolved to protect them but seems to only produce anxiety, shame, hatred and other artifacts of the illusion.

    This all makes absolute sense when there’s been a ‘glimpse’, and is apparently “obvious” when the illusory self has just stopped appearing. It’s actually extremely simple. But try to explain it to a self!

  8. FamousDrScanlon says:

    Climate complacency: study finds even the most informed people would rather take the easy option


    Would rather & do take the easy option which is hard wired & thus a false choice.

    Evolution under the dictates of the MPP – decides how much energy humans will use (as much as our abilities will allow).

    Explained: Why our brains are programmed to keep wanting more even if it leads to unhappiness

    “The researchers said in their paper: “From ancient religious texts to modern literature, human history abounds with tales describing the struggle to achieve ever-lasting happiness.” ”


    The climate-environmental movement is history’s biggest windbag. All their high energy activity over the last 50 years is probably worth 1-2 ppm CO2.

    Fossil fuel industry sponsored COP 28 coming up. It’s the annual civilizational denial feast. The closer we get to our ruin the louder & more widespread the denial & magical thinking become.

    COP Conference Of Pretenders

    2 years ago, Robert Hunziker masterfully ripped the uniform off these corrupt COPs

    “The upcoming 26th COP (Conference of the Parties) to be held November 2021 in Glasgow is on the docket for scientists and bureaucrats, as well as big moneyed interests, to knock heads in a formal setting to discuss the state of the planet. If all goes according to plan, like past COPs, powerful economic interests will sabotage what would otherwise be a rather dim forecast of a planet in various stages of collapse, some terminal.

    We’ve seen this act (COP) repeat over and over, ever since COP1 in Berlin in 1995, as each successive COP-ending-ceremony finds the Parties congratulating each other, slaps on the back, for one more successful climate conference of 20,000-30,000 able-bodied professionals wiped-out from overconsumption of Beluga caviar and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, but subsequently carbon emissions increase the following year, and every following year thereafter. What’s to congratulate?

    More to the point, the annualized CO2 emissions rate is +60% since COP1, not decreasing, not going down, not once. After 25 years of the same identical pattern, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the take-home-work from all 25 COPs mysteriously turns into the antithesis of the mission statement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”


    I’d be furious & insulted if I thought humans had free will. No, this type of farce, which is a psychological necessity for many, is what I expect & I’m wagering it’s only going to become more absurd. If it was not for the pain & suffering, I’d laugh myself silly all day.

  9. Vera says:

    I appreciate you tackling the definition, Dave. It gives me more to go on as I explore. Thank you.

  10. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Consciousness is the engine of self. The higher the level of consciousness, the greater the sense of separation exists. Thus, elephants recognise their own reflection in a mirror but ‘lower’ animals don’t.

    What puzzles me in some of these ‘lower’ species is the cooperation needed during their hunting sessions. Is there a requirement for a sense of self to assign different roles in the hunting strategy or are the roles innate and an ambush just happens?

    It’s tantalising to imagine that whales using the bubble technique for hunting might have a sense of time as they have to predict the future to a certain extent.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    There’s some controversy about the “theory of mind”/self-recognition tests. It may be eg that elephants recognize reflections of things because they’re accustomed to seeing them in lake and river water when they drink. But you don’t need a self or sense of separation to thrive, or to feel things deeply.

    I’ve watched a small group of dogs corner a chipmunk. There is no strategy; it’s all improvisational — triangulation and communication via body language. And as much as I have always treated the cats and dogs in my life as if they had a sense of self and separation, I know they don’t, and their lives are richer for not being afflicted with those illusions.

  12. David Beckemeier says:

    It seems experientally obvious to me that it has to do with language. I, and most people it seems, remember nothing before learning to talk. How can someone have the experience of “I am” if they don’t know the words “I am”. I’ve heard Jim say it has nothing to do with language, though Nancy seems to agree with this. As I off-hand think she has put it “a dream created by shared learned words. And as Jim so often seems to say, “that’s just a story”, how do you have stories without words??


  13. Dave Pollard says:

    That makes sense to me, David. Grammar is the supporting structure for stories — tenses etc are essential to conveying the idea of past and future. I wonder if you can even have a belief without language? We will never actually know what’s going on in the brain of a raven that caches seeds (including ‘fake caches’ to throw off thieves) and then goes back and retrieves them later. This would seem to be conditioned behaviour (it just “works” so it is evolutionarily selected for) but then that’s just a story, too. Does it “expect” to find the seeds again later, and get annoyed if it doesn’t? Anthropomorphically, my answer to that would be ‘probably’, but I suspect the correct answer is no. But then that’s just a story as well.

  14. realist says:

    Stumbled on this which is right on your concern.
    Not browsed it, no idea what it’s worth.
    Center for the Study of Apparent Selves.

  15. Dave Pollard says:

    Heh, CSAS seems to be a group seeking “alignment between AI and Buddhism”. Just what we need ;-)

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