You are not what you think you are
In Christopher Nolan’s psychological thriller Memento, Leonard Shelby attempts to avenge his wife’s murder. During the murder, however, Leonard suffered a blow to the head that left him unable to create new memories leaving him haunted by his final permanent memory, his wife’s death. The plot line of the movie moves in two directions so that the audience is nearly as unable to make sense of the story as Leonard. Leonard through a system of Polaroid pictures, tattoos and notes, attempts to paste together a coherent story in an attempt to kill his wife’s murderer. In his 2012 book “The Self Illusion” Bruce Hood suggests that we are all Leonard, not necessarily trying to avenge a loved one’s murder, but rather constructing our selves from a series of random experiences. Our selves themselves, are meaningless fabrications of a highly evolved brain that derived an appreciable survival advantage by this ability.
If he is right, what does this mean for you? There is no YOU beyond the neuro-pathways in your brain created by the series of sensory impressions that you call your life.
In a similar book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain David Eagleman suggest that what we call choice may similarly be illusory. Our conscious selves sit atop a vast matrix of systems upon which it depends, but of which it has little control nor knowledge. The hard wired portions of our brain are far too wise than to leave the conscious self in control. There is important work to do to keep the bodily systems going, to protect us from threats we consciously are ignorant of. The consciousness is a story teller that fills in gaps and tells a tale that makes sense of the data entering in relationship with memories and the constructed self fabricated over years. Medical cases show that people who have lost their sight continue to assert that they can see. People who have lost their limbs continue to feel pain in those limbs.
Eagleman goes on to argue that that choice itself is likely illusory. Our conscious selves, in the project of the preservation of the conscious self has invented the notion of choice to give itself meaning, purpose and a sense of control over the future of the self. What is really going on, suggests Eagleman, is that the deeper places of our brains are calling the shots leaving the conscious story teller to make up their own stories about all of this.
This is all science you know, so you must believe it. This is not the hokum of religion, projecting a sky god who has emotions, and feelings, and a will. We are in the golden age of brain science, just beginning to understand the physical and chemical reasons why we do what we do, that is if course, if there really is a “we” that is a self that we can say “does” anything at all.
“To Your Self Be True”
If the brain scientists are telling you that there is no real you, just a need to tell yourself a story about you, the Lord of Cool Technology and the Providers of Happiness are telling you exactly the opposite thing.
Steve Jobs in his 2005 Commencement address so perfectly expressed and so poignantly embodied the ethos of the culture of expressive individualism that he set down the doctrine to be propagated by commencement speakers for a generation. Teens and twenty somethings are admonished to let nothing stand in the way of that self within you getting what it wants. Your self is your guide. Be true to your passions. Don’t let anyone stop you from becoming the you you are most excited to become. Take chances, make mistakes, but above all may the self within you guide you and if you are true to that self THEN what you do will mean something, will change the world or even save the world.
Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Pixar, the company whose salvation saved its partner company Disney through Woody and Buzz, was taking a page from the previous generation’s icon, Walt Disney. Nearly every apparently non-religious Disney movie preaches the secular gospel of “believe in your self”. Everything will work out just as you want it to if you would only believe in your self.
This message has of course become the stock admonition of our public school systems. It is the catechism of expressive individualism repeated by adults to the children until they can recite it themselves.
Next to one of the most distressed high schools in my city, on the light rail bridge over the busy road through abandoned retail stores, large letters cry out to the drivers who pass underneath “If you can dream it you can do it”
I would have thought the dreams of the now abandoned Florin Road Automile would have included bucking the trend of disposable communities in the boom and bust California economy. Steve Jobs dreams came true, at least until the cancer returned. Walt Disney’s dreams came true, once they secured and more permanent partnership with Pixar. Are we not paying attention?
The Brain Scientists Vs. the Wizards of Entertainment
So who is right? Jobs and Disney instruct our youth to lean into and rely upon the self in order to navigate their story lines. The brain scientists assert that the story line is illusory, as is the self we imagine is the subject of the story. If the story teller is an illusion fabricated by the survival necessities of its meaty host, and the story is an illusion, then why should we care about any of it at all?
The cheery physicist on public television tells us that one day the sun, upon which all life depends in this world will run out of fuel. In fact, the universe itself is like a wind up clock and that it too will at some point grow dark and cold. The good news, however, is that you will die long before that happens. Your illusory story fabricated by your illusory self necessitated by its meat host will have long since rotted away.
So what should we do? I guess we should put all of our marbles in our illusory selves and to these made up stories be true.
Can’t we all just get along?
As if things couldn’t be worse. What we find in this world is not really so different from Christopher Nolan’s Memento. It seems that all of our individual story creating selves have real difficulties keeping our stories in sync. We are all creating selves along the way that are in conflict with other meat hosts and their creative and created selves.
David Brooks, America’s official translator between the red state, blue state language barrier, explains in a recent New York Times opinion piece that Democrats don’t understand Republicans and visa versa because they have very different visions of this shared reality. Republicans believe the modern, Western, welfare state is ready to collapse under its own unsustainable weight while Democrats believe it just needs a bit of fine tuning and it will continue to provide stability, security and wealth for us for generations to come. In other words, not only do we have individual selves that are concocting individual story lines to make sense of the data, we also have collective story lines created by communities of meat hosts and the collective stories of others seem just as illusory and out of touch as the individual narratives of those around us that we disagree with.
The good news is that in terms of evolution our capacity to create collective stories has been a key accomplishment that has afforded our species an advantage over competing species. The bad news is that there is no guarantee that this advantage will continue to pay out on the survival dividend it has offered in the past.
In fact, what happens if in fact we really start to believe that both the individual selves and stories and the collective selves and stories are simply illusory and arbitrary, in the service of survival? Doesn’t this mean that in fact the most enlightened among us (those who best appreciate and most fully live out the reality of consciousness of the arbitrary illusion that we are alone and together) will be at liberty to engineer a collective story that will put themselves at the greatest possibility of having a pleasant story for themselves and their loved ones? If knowledge is power, then the knowledge of the arbitrary nature of all human story is the ultimate power.
Might there actually be a story teller outside the system?
It seems that increasingly people today are left with a choice of perspectives, either there is an author God who is constructing, underlying and maintaining this narrative story that gives existence to each of us, or story itself is a meaningless experience that will vanish once the physical systems that sustain it is extinguished. I see no third option.