Ego and Free will are Fictions, not Illusions

Would you like to be better at accomplishing your goals and getting what you want from life? Perhaps what you need is some good old fashioned corporate propaganda!

Every big company uses a mythology to convince people to do their part and contribute to the operation of the company. When I worked at Facebook, the place was covered in posters, reminding me that I’m not just providing shareholder value – I’m helping Make The World More Connected! 

Younger me totally bought into this idea. Older me realized these posters were bullshit. And then even older me started to suspect that you can’t possibly have a bunch of people working together without some kind of myth.  If everyone involved follows their own financial best interest, I think a company ends up falling apart.  I now think it’s likely that a mythology – a story about what we’re doing and why it matters –  is necessary for any collection of people to function together as a unit.

Likewise, for any relationship between two people to be functional,  you need both parties to agree that yes, there is some relationship here.  It makes no sense for me to be involved in a conversation about “our relationship” if i am convinced that there really is no such thing as “our relationship.”

I think a similar pattern applies to an individual person. The story “I make choices and these choices influence the quality of my life” might be seen as something like a poster on a wall in an office, or a wedding ring – it’s a symbol of a shared mythology, which allows the people sharing the mythology to work together.

In the case of a company, the mythology is shared by its employees and investors. In the case of the relationship, the mythology is shared by the people in the relationship, but also perhaps their friends and family, who might offer support and encouragement.

In the case of an individual person, the mythology can be shared by different versions of you, with their different drives and goals and desires which also conflict. That mythology can also be shared by your friends and family, who can support you in your efforts to develop and grow. I say “can be”, because a lot of people in my social milieu think the idea of personal choice is something like a quaint myth. 

Myths are Not Illusions

It’s now important to make an important distinction between a myth and an illusion. If you spend any time studying meditation, you’ll encounter people making claims like ‘the idea of self is illusory.’   I think there’s definitely some truth to what they are saying, but it’s a subtle truth and it’s very easy to get wrong. With all the confidence of some random jackass posting on the internet, I’m going to say that these people are mostly right but they’re wrong in a way that’s both subtle and worth talking about.   I’ve spent a lot of time in meditation, exploring the notion of the self, and I’ve come to believe it’s a lot like the breath.  I don’t think anyone would agree that the breath is an illusion, but would you say it’s a Myth? I would. Here’s why.

We can all agree that you really are breathing (subject to questions about what “you” are), but if you try to focus on “the breath” you start realizing there is no such “thing.” If you try to attend to your breath, you will realize you are observing a large number of different sensations which constitute “the breath”, and yet which are all separate from it.  I observe coldness at the front of my nostrils when I inhale, and warmth there when I exhale. I feel a gentle, light, cold friction at the back of my throat when I exhale, and an even gentler, warmer, softer friction when I exhale.  I feel a slightly cold tingle in my maxillary sinusoidal cavities when I inhale, and the tiniest of pressures when I exhale. I feel an expansion of my chest cavity when I inhale, and a relaxation when I exhale. I periodically experience a sense of constriction in my throat while focusing on inhalation and exhalation, possibly related to sleep apnea.

None of these sensations is, on its own, recognizable as my breath.  Breath is the combination of all of these, and it’s a fuzzy combination. There isn’t a ‘correct’ answer as to whether some individual sensation is or isn’t part of my breath. It’s like asking where one cloud ends and another begins: the curling of my toes is probably not a breath-related thing. But what about the slight upturning in the corners of my mouth from a satisfying outbreath? 

There isn’t a clear answer because ‘breath’ is a story a primate tells itself about its respiratory process. It’s a myth, not an illusion. The beating of my heart is another one of these. Whenever I sit for long, I become acutely aware of blood flowing through my ears, as blood pressure rises and falls due to the beating of my heart.  This blood flowing through my ears changes the texture of incoming sounds ever so slightly. Is that periodic, rhythmic modulation of the sound of the box fan near me part of my heartbeat? There isn’t really a correct answer, since ‘my heart beat’ is a myth, a concept human beings use to stitch together a bunch of discrete yet interrelated phenomena. 

I can’t stop the beating of my heart, but I can stop my breath. Can I stop my ‘self’ – the part of my computational anatomy that evaluates the world in terms of a ‘person’ who has goals and tries to make them happen?  I tried this for a few years, but couldn’t’ pull it off for any longer.  If you hold your breath too long, you’ll pass out and possibly get hurt. Some people can hold their breath much longer than others. Maybe holding your ego is similar: you can do it for a period of time, but too much of it causes problems. Reading about many meditation masters who have slept with prostitutes or their own students, I knew this wasn’t something I wanted to have happen to myself.

It seemed to me that if I truly brought into this relaxing, peaceful myth that I don’t really exist, those outcomes would be more likely to occur.  When a temptation arises, and this temptation, if acted on, would harm ‘my family’ or ‘my marriage’, the process of ‘self’ which produces desire and version actively mitigates the signals of desire to perform these harmful actions. That process feels quite useful to me. I’ve no interest in erasing that. I’ve found that relaxing it is useful, and meditation is very helpful there, but I’m not going to let go of the tool which enables me to rally and read my kids a book when I’m tired and the TV is keeping them busy. A story that says “all of this is illusory” would relieve the sense of anxiety that I’m not being a good parent, but current mes are very glad that past mes have made such an effort to read to my kids.

Perhaps “there is no self” is a myth with a similar shape to

“there is a God who has a plan for all of us and is all powerful and everything will be OK, so you don’t need to worry.”

Both of these myths have the effect of relaxing a little voice inside my head that panics and worries about making bad choices. But perhaps that little voice is actually helpful from time to time, if my instincts are about to lead me to do something that would harm my family.  

The myth of the breath is certainly useful if you are holding your breath. The sense of panic you feel in your body is actually an illusion – you aren’t in real danger of asphyxiating, it’s just carbon dioxide levels rising. But if you’re somewhere that isn’t safe for you to black out, you are indeed in real danger. 

Perhaps the myth of ego is like the myth of breath – a concept that is widely useful for navigating reality, one that can be suspended voluntarily, with a distribution of consequences. Perhaps that panic isn’t merely illusory, but mythological; your physiology can’t know whether you are somewhere it’s safe to black out, and conscious control over your breath could lead you to disaster if you believed that breath didn’t really exist.

Myths as Necessary Tools

Imagine how hard it would be to keep your marriage functional if people around you all thought the idea of marriage was silly. Imagine the impossibility of running a large company if everyone involved agreed that the notion of companies was nonsense.  “Why should I care what the VP of the org wants? He’s just some guy I have no relationship to, aside from some abstract notion of a reporting chain, which we all know is a myth.” This sounds silly, right?

And yet when dealing with the mythology necessary for an individual person to accomplish their goals in life, there are a lot of people rejecting the ideas necessary for a person to be able to work together with themselves.

Is there any wonder so many people feel pushed around by life? How could a person possibly accomplish goals over the long term if they reject the idea that the concept of their own personal agency is a meaningful thing to believe in? The tools we need to push reality into doing our bidding don’t work if we don’t believe in them, any more than a relationship could function if both of its members rejected the idea that relationships exist in reality.

Cooperation Requires Some Shared Mythology

Companies and relationships both require the people involved in them to buy into the idea that there is something real happening, and that this real thing can grow and change and improve, and that it is worthwhile for this thing to grow and change and improve. 

You might respond, “But I’m not a company or a relationship, I’m just one person.”  And now I want to ask, how certain are you?

If you start to view yourself not as one person, but as a collection of all kinds of different people, who live in different places and times, all of whom communicate by means of the medium of your body, it makes sense to view “me” as being the coordination myth that those different people use to cooperate with each other.  The idea that you make choices, and that these choices make your life better, is something like corporate propaganda: it’s a story that causes a bunch of different people to buy into a shared vision of a better world, and thus allows them to work together.

Here’s a very practical example : The other night I was playing video games with my friends. It was late.  When each game ended, I felt the desire to play another. The desire registered on my attention brightly, like a flashing neon sign. There was also a feeling that if I kept playing, I’d be tired tomorrow. This knowledge was much more subtle, like a friend nodding at me through a crowd.

One way of phrasing this scenario would say something like “Well, I should go to bed now, but I really want to keep playing.” This way of speaking fits well with a lot of people’s colloquial understandings;  we feel like we have drives and desires and goals, and very often what we should do conflicts with what we want to do.

The way Mark Neyer has started looking at these scenarios, is that the ‘wanting’ and the ‘shoulding’ are both processes running inside the Mark Neyer hardware, communicating over the mechanism of conscious awareness. One process values the fun and connection of engaging in a difficult challenge with friends.  Another process values the health benefits of getting enough sleep; this process forecasts the risks of staying up too late, because the processes that run tomorrow will have fewer resources to draw on.  The “me” tomorrow who is tired communicates, retroactively, with the “me” tonight who is playing the game. The two of them negotiate, and because they both buy into the idea that Mark Neyer exists, makes choices, and can improve the quality of its experience, they agree on an outcome.

And thus instead of seeing this situation as “i am trying to get myself to do what i should do”, I instead view that situation as “two different processes which constitute the Mark Neyer coalition of thoughts, desires, wishes, and values, are negotiating.” 

My desire to play video games with my friends isn’t me. Neither is my desire to take care of my kids! None of these is me  – me is some letterhead, a logo, a story about where I’ve been and what I value, and this story is what enables all of those different drives, and their conflicting interests, to work together.

We might see these two different processes as being like different people in a complex relationship.  The thing that these different people use to coordinate their activities, to work together, is this idea, this Myth, that there is something called Mark Neyer, and it has goals, it has values, it wants some outcomes over others. The thing that enables these processes to cooperate is the fact that each of these subordinate processes is acting in service of that greater, mythical whole.  “I make choices, and these choices make me happier” is something that I often say to myself, and this is like company propaganda, like the posters on the walls all over Facebook that remind people you aren’t just providing shareholder value – you’re connecting the world

It works because it’s not entirely nonsense. It’s a fiction, not an illusion.

If everyone at a large company starts looking out only for themselves, that company will fall apart. And likewise, if each of my individual desires stops having any interest in my wellbeing, they’ll all fight each other, with the outcome being a more or less random function of whichever desire was strongest our loudest in that moment.  

Coalitions Require Respect

 Through the result of training, meditation, journaling, and writing on his blog, I’ve learned to see the contents of my consciousness as being something like a negotiation space, where different parties learn to share their concerns and worries and work together.

When I was younger, the ‘allegiance of long term value’ coalition was so dominant, it controlled all of the others, while dismissing their concerns and often making fun of them for wanting what they wanted. This led, eventually, to something like a rebellion. My instinctive, emotional side was in charge for a few years. The rallying cry of this rebellion was that the idea of choices was an illusion, and this illusion was causing my rational mind to continually suppress my instinctive, emotional side, for no good reason. It was AWESOME at first, but it quickly became miserable at an increasingly alarming rate.   

It’s almost as if believing that choices are purely a myth prevents you from making good choices.

So if you’d like to get better at accomplishing your goals, if you’d like your life to be different than it is, consider creating some mythology around yourself and then buying into it, in order to allow the different factions inside of you to better work together. Most of the factions  will be glad you did! Some of the factions will just whine and complain endlessly, but they were going to do that anyhow. Wouldn’t you rather not let them take the wheel so often?

2 thoughts on “Ego and Free will are Fictions, not Illusions

  1. Thank you for these posts. I find them so… refreshing. Plenty to think about as well along real-world applications should you choose to update your models.

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