I have been going through an intense period of self-discovery and reconstruction. I realized that the path in life I have been following for the past several years is not working for me; it is not resonating with me, and it is taking me somewhere I don’t want to be. This realization was revealing itself to me at the same time as a complicated and heartbreaking end to a (short) relationship unfolded, and everything I believed crashed down and came into question. I was a programmer with no desire for a computer, I was a calm communicator behaving violently, I was an atheist experiencing God.
I believe that I am now picking up my pieces and realigning with my dreams — dreams I had forgotten or dumbed down. I’ve believed this several times during the past weeks, only to find another layer collapsing beneath me, so I may be full of shit. But all I can do is to use the best information I have now. It’s a very interesting, emotional time for me.
One of the axioms that crashed during this experience was the idea that I have any control over what happens in the world. This began as a grounded life principle: my attempts to control life only led to more suffering, so I should surrender to the flow of the world. It percolated up to my intellect, combining with the studies of physics I was using to distract myself from my emotions, eventually leading me to the confusing world of philosophy that I love to entertain.
The idea that there is something physically more to a human being than a physical system is something I consider absurd. The conventional non-spiritual idea is that you put more and more molecules together and suddenly a light turns on called consciousness. Humans have consciousness, dogs probably do, lizards perhaps not as they are simple stimulus-response machines, bacteria have no brains so certainly not. Associated with consciousness is the ability to make decisions as an independent entity: free will. Cognitive scientists are madly in search of the magical light that turns on consciousness, a holy grail in our search to understand ourselves.
My developing position — I won’t call it a belief, but I’ll say I am considering it and its implications seriously — is to reject the above narcissism. I see what we define to be consciousness as a gradual increase in sophistication of these biological machines. There is not self-awareness and self-unawareness, merely a band of sophistication in which we communicate that there is a definite “I” and that it is aware of itself. We can communicate that to ourselves, by having a little simulated conversation in our brains in which we say such things to some abstract person.
My experience, particularly at the end of the aforementioned relationship, showed me that a great deal of my self-awareness — my free will — is a hoax. I listened, I reasoned, I concluded the best action. I watched as a ridiculous prediction took hold of my reasoning process. I watched as I carried out, in a state of mental contradiction, the opposite of what I had concluded. I watched myself crying, simultaneously astonished and unsurprised by the way things actually unfolded. I saw myself not as a single unified “I”, but as an ensemble of communicating (or not) decision-making machines, combined with a mechanism retroactively justifying my ridiculous actions.
That free will I was so convinced I had struck me as a process, always living a moment in the past, existing to analyze and retrain my unconscious decision making processes for the future. I was a sophisticated machine, but a machine. I am governed by the same laws as a rock tumbling down a landslide. When asking whether it is possible that I will not push publish in a few minutes and share my thoughts with the world, I’m expressing not a set of a decisions available to me, but a state of uncertainty about what my action will eventually be.
I was walking down the mall and had the strongest urge to pick up a brick and throw it through a window. Jail schmail, money schmoney, I just wanted to do something nuts to release the pressure. And I did not; I watched the urge pass, frustratingly, as I didn’t carry out the action I had pictured so strongly. I couldn’t; my consciousness is not a decider but a justifier, and the action was not there to justify. There was no immediate reason it could come up with for why I didn’t — I was even disappointed that I didn’t. One might view this post as the belated conclusion of my justifier of that situation — that it does not in fact have control of my actions.
I see the universe as a great continuous four-dimensional tapestry, that I have the capability to view only a little slice at a time. I cannot ground the idea that there is some “I” which can cause the tapestry to be altered meanwhile existing within it. What could “altered” even mean in this situation: altered from what? I have been seeing this as a physicist studying something external for quite some time, but to incorporate it, to understand it as something I am part of, is taking me to a whole new place.