No Separation: Free Will and the Expanded Self

Today I’m going to be talking about something that’s fairly nebulous, even by my standards. This concept is something that I believe the Memetic Identity article touches a bit, but we’re going to go much, much deeper. The notion we’re going to be exploring is the idea that our traditional conception of self is very limited. Because we operate out of this flawed, imperfect perspective, we end up with a bunch of contradictions and paradoxes that would normally be avoided. Much of this draws from the mind body dichotomy, and our attachment to ideas of duality, when in reality there is no separation. Anyway, let’s get started.

The most foundational flaw that we make in our self-concept is that we believe we’re wholly individuals. (I will emphasize here that I’m a die-hard individualist, so this is not some kind of kumbaya-hippie-collectivist nonsense.) The problem comes from our narrow understanding of the forces by which our individual selves are formed.

Depending on which side of the Nature-Nurture debate you’re on, people tend to think that either we’re made the way we are strictly by genetics, or we’re born tabula rasa (blank slate) and learn everything from the way we’re brought up. If you’ve read my article on The Humbling River, you should see that there’s a paradox here indicating that we’re looking at the problem wrong.

Imagine you have a fresh install of Windows on a new computer. (While computers aren’t a perfect metaphor for the nature of the brain, they’re going to be close enough for us here.) There’s the BIOS that runs and boots the computer when you turn it on- this is a bit like the reptilian brain. It takes care of basic functions like temperature regulation, heartbeat, and that kind of stuff. You have no control over this part of your brain, because if you did you’d forget to breathe and die, or something to that extent.

On top of that, we have the OS. In this case it’s Windows, because your parents weren’t rich enough to shell out for a Mac. Windows is a better example for this, though, because it’s a much more open system, and the hardware (genetics) can vary significantly. The OS and the hardware represents your predisposed genetic/physiological tendencies. You could have a more developed prefrontal cortex and be smarter as a result, or you could inherit (or mutate into) a higher level of openness, and be predisposed to consider radical ideas.

There’s obviously some input from the hardware and OS- there’s a specific time in a child’s life when they can learn language effortlessly, and if they (for some tragic reason) don’t do so during this timeframe, they will never be able to. It’s interesting, because unlike a computer, which generally doesn’t get better over time, the fact that the brain is a growing organ allows it to change structure as it develops. Here, nature and nurture work together, synergistically, in a way that shapes the budding self that’s developed.

I’m going to introduce here my concept of free will, which I call limited free will. To get to the heart of what I mean by that, let’s assume you have 100% free will- that there are absolutely no limits on your internal volition- your capacity to choose. The first thing that you’ll find is that, while you can choose whatever you want, your actual number of choosable choices is going to be limited by the choices you can come up with.

The first limit on free will is imagination.

The next thing you’ll run into is that some choices are objectively useless, foolish, or downright wrong. We’re not going to get into ethics here (because that’d be an entire series), but we can assume that you’re a sane person and you’re not going to be making choices like chopping off your fingers and feeding them to raccoons, or using your eyeballs to play ping-pong with.

The second limit is utility.

Assuming you’re a rational person (which is, of course, one hell of an assumption),  you’re going to make choices that you think are useful, correct, or that align with your feelings at a particular moment- given your limited information and perspective. If you’re in a war and you don’t know how many enemies there are on the battlefield, you will have to act (or choose not to act) on inferences and guesswork.

The third limit is information.

Now, consider you’re raised in an honor culture, and you’re brought up to start fights with people you think have disrespected you. This is where your personality begins to be a limiting factor- the type of person you are and the way you’re raised is going to influence, but not completely control, the kind of decisions your mind presents you with. This is a softer limit than the others- think of it like blinders on a horse. If you’re only seeing what’s directly in front of you, you’d have to do the extra work to think about looking around before you make a choice. Pavlovian cues/associations (probably) affect you on this level, and for the same reason, so do the decisions you’ve made in the past.

Thus, the fourth (soft) limit is predisposition.

Finally we have the biological drives that guide you. Hunger, thirst, the sex drive, the experiences of pain and pleasure, all these things are going to orient your decision making in one way or another. However, because humans are volitional organisms, we have the ability to choose to ignore these. People have fasted or gone on hunger strikes, chosen celibacy, burned themselves alive in protest, and done many other things that directly defy the body’s urges. I’d make the controversial argument that the human capacity for suicide is perhaps the purest example of our capacity for free will. Obviously I’m not condoning it, but the fact that we can make the choice is clear proof that we’re not driven exclusively by biology.

The fifth (and softest) limit is biological drive.

Imagine a mouse in a box with two buttons. The mouse can either push one button and get shocked, push the other one and get food, or push neither, do nothing, and starve to death. Now, no matter what the mouse wants to do here, it’s never going to be able to make its parents proud by becoming a doctor. Not only is it literally not an option inside a cage, the mouse doesn’t have the physical or mental abilities required to practice medicine. A mouse doctor? That’s just silly. Humans, however, are unlike mice, if only in that we’re somehow capable of all sorts of silly things. Go look up Yves Rossy if you want to see something simultaneously beautiful, incredible, and monumentally preposterous.

The point of that little vignette is that we can only choose from the choices we have available to us- although this is often where people make the excuses as to why they did or didn’t do something.

The sixth limit is environment, or available choices.

There are probably more limiting factors on the type of choices you’re capable of making, but this paints a pretty clear picture. You do have free will, but it’s free will within specific confines.

Let’s apply this to the development of the individual.

You’re a teenager who’s looking to create an identity. You’re not super imaginative, so you’re limited to only the identities you see represented in the culture. On the bright side, you’re kind of well rounded, so you have the capacity to choose whatever role you settle on. You want to go to college because your parents expect it, so you have to choose an identity that will get you there. There are four main cliques in your high school- the preppy kids, the jocks, the nerds, and the Hot-Topic-Emo-Scene-Cybergoths.

The first limit of imagination means you can’t pick anything besides those four identities. The second limit of utility means that (since you don’t hate your parents) we can rule out the latter of the choices, because it probably won’t serve your college prospects. Now, you’re somewhat athletic, but because you’re not a top level athlete at a D1 school, you probably don’t know about the super-niche badminton scholarship that the YMCA down the street offers. As a result, the third limit of information rules out jock as a way to get to college. Because you’re a pretty normal kid, the other two options are still open, so the fourth limit of predisposition isn’t getting in the way here. Now, if you’re socially savvy, you’ll be pushed more towards the preps than the nerds, due to the fifth limit of biological drive. However, if the popular kids don’t like you, you’ll be left by the sixth limit with one available choice, the nerds.

Tough luck, buddy.

Now, we’re rarely completely conscious of these factors that affect our ability to make these choices. Beyond that, we tend to rationalize every choice we make as the correct choice- our sanity is generally dependent on it. So, while you may have started out thinking that you were going to be any of these types of high-school stereotypes, at the end, you’ll look back in retrospect with the (acquired) perspective that it only ever could have gone the way it did. It’s weird how life works like that, in this regard. If you’re capable of any significant level of self-reflection, you’ll see that you do this, too.

What this hypothetical situation is meant to illustrate, however, is simply how many of the decisions that we think are ours and ours alone are actually limited and shaped by factors outside of our control and awareness. More than that, the real idea that I’m attempting to display here is that we are fundamentally not separate from our environments, though the nature of our perception often makes it seem that way.

Let’s go deeper.

If we think about these factors in our immediate proximity- our physical and social environments, our cultural influences, our family and traditions, our language and nation’s history, we start to see that not only are our individual selves not limited to our decisions, they’re not limited to the decisions of people alive today. It takes a certain level of almost meditative detachment, but as we begin to see the chains of cause and effect stretch out, we can see all of history as this vast dynamic of interrelated forces. Individuals arise in the forms they do as a consequence, our identities become epiphenomena of the demands placed on us by life and the times.

This expanded perspective allows us to resolve so many paradoxes- the Great Man theory of history is no longer in conflict with the more nuanced view of cultural conditions. The Hero arises, not as a lone figure, but as the necessary product of a society’s needs, the vehicle by which the demands of the age are given form and enacted. The Hindu concept of Avatars, forms assumed from time to time by the deities, can serve as a parallel in concept here.

If we look at the cultures of the world from the perspective of a singular metamind, an Over-Self that acts through the individuals, we can view the entirety of the human drama as the acting out of the impulses of some greater forces. I’m not necessarily proposing that literally, but it does start to make a sort of sense when viewed that way. The greater conflicts of the world begin to appear to come from the same place as our own internal conflicts. As above, so below– the macrocosm of the world echoes the microcosm of the individual’s mind.

This is arguably one of the more complex realizations possible, because the degree to which we are still attached to our petty egos is the degree to which our comprehension of this larger system will be obscured. The world will reflect back to us what we project on it, and if our projections conflict with reality, we will suffer from dissonance until the tension is rectified.

As I have said before, perhaps in other words, the ideal relationship with the Self is something like a mirror. When we do not know ourselves, our mirrors are dirty, and our relationships with others will be marred by the reflections of our flaws. We project our own problems onto others in the same way we project them onto the world. As we gain knowledge of Self, the mirror is polished, and we begin to see clearly. In the same sense, we also begin to show others themselves clearly, too. When you meet another as a mirror, you are meeting them on their level, as they would like to be met- as equals.

This same clarity must be obtained in our approach to the world. If you are powerless, you’ll see the world as a harsh, dominating place. If you feel like a victim, everyone is your oppressor. Whatever your internal tendencies are, you will externalize them until you find them within yourself. Carl Jung said something to the same extent-

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

As always, this ties us in to the core mantra of this site-

Save the World– Master your Self.”

The simple statement above is a representation of this much more complex phenomenon. There’s a Gandhi quote I’ve referenced before (that’s often misquoted as “Be the change you want to see in the world,”) to much the same sentiment-

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

What all of this is meant to impart is the simple fact that there is no separation between you in the world. Just as the flow of actions and reactions of human history have come together to shape you, so do your actions and reactions shape the flow of human history. The thing that you are, the Self that you think is yours, is just as much a part of the world. You are the fruit that thinks itself independent of the tree from which it sprang. You are the world, in part, experiencing itself and inseparable. As you learn about your Self, so do you learn about the world, and so do you come to realize that your Self is no different than the Self of the World.

When you know this as Truth, you will realize that the Self of the World calls out to you. The small, soft voice cries out for a Hero, for one to rise to the challenge of the Age. The knowledge of Self can no longer remain hidden, the Truth can no longer be concealed. Will you take up the mantle and become what all the powers that shape the world have moved to guide you towards? Will you accept this burden, and realize that it is nothing you cannot bear? This is the journey that was made for you, and the path you were made for.

All that is required is that you make the choice.

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