In a well-respected dictionary, Self is defined as “having a single character or quality throughout” (Merriam-Webster).
There is a universal belief that is arguably unconscious in the vast majority of human beings. And that belief is this: That many of us go about our day to day lives believing that we control ourselves in totality and that we are an “I”, or a “self”. We choose to stay up when we know sleep would benefit us. Or we choose to go to bed at an appropriate time and pat ourselves on the back for our Spartan discipline. Simply put, I make choices. Being deeply interested in the meanings of these words, this writer hopes to convince you that this concept is not only flawed but that the self doesn’t exist.
Rider on the Storm
When you think of the word “I”, what do you think of? You presumably have the same thoughts I have had for much of my life: who am I? What makes me, me? “Self” is defined as “the union of elements (such as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person” (Merriam-Webster). I often feel like I am in my head, my locus of consciousness residing there. I feel like the rider on the storm, the storm being all of the constituent parts that seamlessly make up my personality. I am the pilot and my body is the vessel in which I carry myself through the world.
This simply isn’t true. And we can explore this truth for ourselves with the practice of Vipassana, or mindfulness, meditation. This practice is far simpler than you might imagine. Find a comfortable place to sit with no distractions, preferably in a room alone with a chair, and close your eyes. Become aware of your breathing and begin to focus on it. Cover your breath with your consciousness. If you get lost in thought, as soon as you realize you are, simply return to the breath. This is essentially the practice of mindfulness. If one does this long enough the feeling of being a self, or of being in one’s head, can vanish, leaving the person feeling as if they are part of an expansive consciousness.
You need not entertain any woo-woo or mystical ideas for this practice to work or make sense. The language this writer uses to describe the experience of skilled meditation, of one’s bodily self vanishing into a sea of expansive consciousness, is absolutely viable with a basic understanding of neuroscience and of the meditative practice. Vipassana was originally conceived in Buddhism and Hinduism, but mythical concepts that also originate in these schools, such as karma, rebirth, Shiva and Vishnu, can all be disbelieved without effecting the conclusions brought on my meditation. Simply put, no magic is needed.(1)
Thinking Our Thoughts
We feel that “we are the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experience”, but we are wrong. “… from the perspective of science we know that this is a distorted view. There is no discrete self or ego lurking like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain.” (Sam Harris, par. 4). We can experiment with this notion, once again, with meditation: Sit in a quiet place with no distractions. Clear your mind as best you can and wait for a thought to happen. It won’t take long, promise. Is that a thought? Now think about what made that thought arise. Did you choose to think that thought? No, you didn’t. And yet you walk around every day thinking that you are somehow choosing what you think.
This exercise may or may not initially have a significant effect on you. But this idea is one of the most widely believed in human thought: that we are somehow a self, a seamless personality that has a feeling of oneness, and that we are in control. The truth is that thoughts, emotions, and physical events arise in consciousness and that we do not ultimately control the response to those stimuli.(2)
If this reasoning doesn’t convince you, then let’s look at an experiment conducted in 1991 by Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley. Participants were given a series of prompts with two choices. They were given a time limit and told to choose one option for each prompt while having their brain activity monitored. Most of us believe that we make decisions in real-time, but the experiment showed that each participant’s brain had decided on one of the two options seconds before the individual was even aware of their “choice”. (Wegler, et al.)(3)
Me, Myself, and I
These words are the source of much suffering. According to the Oxford English Corpus, I is the 10th most commonly used English word (Oxford). When we think that we are sad, or we are angry, or we are the victim of some unfortunate circumstance, we essentially turn ourselves into the essence of what we’re feeling.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, Buddhism devised a way to dismantle this idea and remove its power. If we sit quietly and become skilled at recognizing that elements simply arise in consciousness and that we don’t need to react to or judge them, we can diminish their effects. Instead of stating, “I am sad”, we can say, “The feeling of sadness is arising. What is sadness? What is it made of and why is it arising?” This reframing of the feeling removes our identification with it and spookily, it often causes it to vanish. You are no longer sad. Simply, sadness arose just as happiness will sometimes arise, and we can choose not to identify with it. This takes a lot of practice, and unless one is fully enlightened (a Buddha), this will continue to happen throughout one’s life. The idea is not to necessarily extinguish suffering, but in some way to embrace it and reframe it.
The same applies to the idea of free will. To identify as the totality of our accomplishments, mistakes, bad actions, dreams, and dreads, is in some way to miss the point. We did not choose your parents, or our genetics, or the circumstances of our childhood. Knowing this, we can take refuge in the fact that the negative parts of our lives are not necessarily our fault. This doesn’t mean that we stop taking responsibility for ourselves. Rather, this should reduce the blow of our failings and give us the insight to explore why we do the things we do and how to foster a better version of ourselves out of the ashes of our past.
We may have been born into wealth and after learning of the myth of free will, realize that this may be the root of our inability to identify with the suffering of a friend who came from a low-income family. As a child, we may have had a first-row seat to the slow dissolution of our parents’ marriage, and now realize that our preponderance of abusive relationships is not because we are a person of low worth, but because this is a statistically probable result given what we’ve been through.
I am not asking that we throw out our use of the words I, self, or free will. It is still much easier to use macro linguistic shortcuts to refer to people instead of calling them a flesh bag of muscle and bone or a collection of prior events. We can still be seen as customers, clients, lovers, partners, etc. We need the term free will so that we can argue its invalidity and refer to it if it’s ever thrown into the dustbin of history. In our own minds, however, we should strive to extinguish this feeling of oneness, self, or I. Doing so will change how we treat criminals(4), how we feel about our inner lives, and how we feel about each other.
My understanding of these concepts came primarily from my reading of Sam Harris’ Waking Up and Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs. Contrary to popular belief, Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha, did not devise or teach a religion. His teachings were aimed at leading people down the path of enlightenment. This path consists of too much to describe here, but his teachings were, for the most part, secular, and focused on how to reduce suffering through a number of methods, including meditation. Fanciful concepts such as karma, rebirth, and the many gods in Indian culture, belong to the teachings of Hinduism, which functions more like a religion.
I first came across the research on free will in my reading of Sam Harris’ book, Free Will. I later read a series of articles written by Daniel Dennett in the same vein. We can understand the myth of free will a posteriori. Meditation is one such method of doing this. We can identify that thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, and physical phenomena around us simply arise in our consciousness and that we ourselves are not actually causing them to do as such. We believe we choose how we respond to these stimuli, but upon further reflection, we realize that our responses simply arose in ways that most of the time makes sense. If they don’t, we say they are out of character, but an odd reaction to a stimuli does not imbue us with free will. We have an advanced literature on mental disorders for individuals who routinely respond inappropriately to stimuli.
Interestingly, you can apply a thought experiment called Laplace’s Demon to the idea of free will. If an omniscient (the ability to know everything there is to know) demon (or god, or supercomputer) had knowledge of every particle movement in the universe, it could presumably predict the future because the movements of these particles cause behaviors to be acted out when viewed from a macro perspective.
Sam Harris’ Free Will and Tamler Sommers’ Why Honor Matters tackles the idea of our current system of law and imprisonment. Given that free will is an illusion, does reviling criminals make any sense? If we don’t hate psychopaths because we don’t attribute their actions to a healthy mind, shouldn’t the same be said to any unlucky soul who happens to be born with the wrong genetics, to the wrong family, or with the wrong mind? If we applied this to how we currently punish criminals, I think the landscape of the prison system would change dramatically. Rather than place criminals in institutions that do not reduce recidivism and, indeed, actually trains them to be better criminals, we could focus on better mental health treatment options. Upholding the law becomes less about punishing bad people and more about keeping everyone safe by treating unfortunate victims of bad biochemistry.
- Harris, Sam. “We are Lost in Thought”, 19 January 2011, samharris.org/we-are-lost-in-thought/. Accessed 16 October 2018.
- Wegner, Daniel M. et al. “Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will.” PsycNET, July 1991, ezproxy.pierce.ctc.edu:2189/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=72a84289-b964–44a4–94bc4fc54aa89b5c%40sdc-v-sessmgr04&bdata=JnNjb3BlPXNpdGU%3d#AN=1999–05760003&db=pdh. Accessed 22 October 2018.
- Corpus, Oxford English, 26 December 2011, web.archive.org/web/20111226085859/http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/the-oecfacts-about-the-language. Accessed 18 October 2018.