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) 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.