My apologies! This may be the longest single-part article I have written so far. I apologize, but it really must be quite long. Indeed, I'd like to make it twice as long. Still, if you've read my other articles you can probably fill in most of the blanks yourself.
You probably have a fairly clear idea of what you are and what you control.
You are probably one of the 99.999985 percent of living humans who think this way. (I am assuming that 1000 people on Earth already know what I explain below.)
Intrigued? Well, let's review some of the questions we need to examine.
What does it mean to be an individual?
What does it mean to have a Self?
What does it mean to have Free Will?
What does it mean to have a Self?
What does it mean to have Free Will?
Please read on. You may discover ...
Everything you believe about yourself is basically wrong
Are you an individual?
You are not self-sustaining. If the Sun goes out, you die. If air is cut off, you die. If you're deprived of water, you die. True, there is a boundary to your organism, but even that boundary isn't clearly understood by most people. You are, in essence, a tube. There's a mouth at one end and a rectum at the other.
There is a huge ecosystem of bacteria inside your gut which, cell for cell, outnumbers your human cells ten to one. There are more critters elsewhere in and on your body that add to the diversity. You are not so much an individual as a colony.
Perhaps you think you are an individual because of your DNA. But if you had an identical twin would there be two of you? And don't forget your mitochondrial DNA! It isn't really “your” DNA but your mother's (or, more accurately, your mother's mother's mother's ... mother's ... mother's ... going back for millenia).
Do you “have” a Self?
Other articles here have examined the image we have of our Self and showed it was a model of a model. It is a software artifact. The model is not the thing any more so than the blueprint is the house. (Your mind can, of course, convince you that you really are the model — this has been discussed in an earlier article.)
Incidentally, the ideas of “having” and ownership are convenient fictions invented by humans. “Having” is a statement about control. If you “have” something you control it to at least some extent, but it does not physically change the thing (though you could, as a futile, ontologically meaningless step, paste or inscribe a label onto the thing).
But wait! There is one possible form of “ownership” that is arguably valid. A biological organism such as a human body does have built-in self-preservation. Is this where the Self resides?
There are reflexive defensive instincts (fight, flight, freeze or foul). There are homeostatic circuits. There is hunger and thirst. There is the immune system and self-repair capabilities which must distinguish between “native” and “foreign” bio-matter. Yet as amazing as all these are, they are simply biomechanical processes. They are astonishingly sophisticated, but they can remain functional (though not necessarily operational) even if you are in an irreversible coma.
To put it another way: the mere functioning of the “brain stem” is hardly what people think about when they use the word “me”.
Do you have Free Will?
It certainly seems like you do, doesn't it? You decided to read this article, did you not? You chose what to eat for breakfast. You decided to read this sentence so that you could suddenly read these words: “I am now controlling you.”
Am I? Am I really, truly controlling you? Well, consider what your brain is doing right now. It is reacting to what I typed. So the answer is no.
Did you expect me to say “Yes”? Let's be logical about this. I typed these words days, weeks or years ago. Perhaps I'm dead. It's the content of the text that is dictating much of what your mind is doing right now.
Oh, it's true that you could stop reading. You can fiercely deny this rude text the chance to control a portion of your mind. But that solves nothing.
Look at the bigger picture. Why did you start reading this article in the first place? Did you personally decide to learn the language in which it is written? Did you create the vast number of circumstances that made you interested in this kind of subject matter? (Alternatively, are you being compelled to read this because somebody told you to read it?)
Consider every action you ever take. Ask yourself how many of those actions are completely, utterly from you and are in no sense a reaction to something somebody or something else did. In fact, why not try do that right now?
Go for it. Do something completely and utterly spontaneous that this article didn't ask you to do.
This article will now wait while you go off to do something spontaneous. You can take your time, because this is just some text and it doesn't care how long you're away.
Okay, now ... Did you do it? Well, if you did, it was because this article asked you to do it. (Incidentally, how hard did you work at being spontaneous? It's not easy! Trying to be deliberately spontaneous can teach us a lot about the nature of apparent choice.)
Did you rebel against this article and not do it? Well, if that's so, it seems you've been raised or trained to stand up for your Self and resist compulsion. Some people say that's a good quality for a human being to “have.” Indeed, the people who trained you that way almost certainly thought so.
Are you thinking of counter-examples and arguments? Are you looking for (and probably finding!) satisfying reasons to reject what this article has said so far? Probably you are. The culture in which we are raised conditions us to think that way. We are depicted as isolated units. Individuals. Selves. Separate things. Our entire culture has evolved on the basis of people believing those assumptions.
Maybe this is a good time to take a deep, relaxing breath.
By the way, at what point did the air you just breathed start being “you”?
Please try the following experiment. You'll need a television or access to an Internet video feed. Find a show you'll like — one that is really amusing or interesting. At a time completely of your choosing (in case you need to assure yourself that this article isn't controlling your every action) start watching the show.
This really has been a long article so far. You deserve a break. Seriously, you do! This is tough stuff to read about. So go ahead and clear your mind of all the philosophical mumbo-jumbo here. Enjoy the show! Give yourself at least a good 30 minutes of enjoyment.
Once the show is over and the credits are rolling, ask yourself what was driving your mind for that half hour. What put thoughts into your head?
Yes, yes, you're a skeptical viewer and you were probably questioning certain parts of the show — especially if there were advertisements! Experience has taught you that you have to be careful! Maybe you've been tricked by advertising enough that you're always on your guard about people with an obvious agenda.
If so, that's good! But did you arrange for each lesson? Why, no, these things just happened when they happened. Nobody can plan out their lives in total detail. That's impossible. You got the lessons you got. You are exactly as skeptical as circumstances and training made you.
The more you search for the source of control over all that you are, the more you will realize that “you” do not so much act as react based on previous experience and training. Much of the reaction occurs in the rational part of the mind, and most of the rest occurs from internalized, unattended conditioning. (Some reactions, like the startle reflex, are instinctual — conditioned by genetic evolution.)
We are learning animals. We can become extraordinarily adept at dealing with highly complex situations, but our mix of skills merely reflect our unique life histories. Your history can define and refine you, but it cannot be said that it is you. If you had complete amnesia you would not cease to be a living human being. You would continue to function (albeit with a lot of your usual software missing).
If you've read this far, this article is still largely driving your mind. There's nothing special about this article, though. Lots of things drive your mind. In this case, though, it's this article.
Some parts of your mind are holding back from being driven. Of course! Our culture has taught us that we are individuals. That's an idea (or Self image) we can and do identify with. It really is no mystery that humans tend to identify with an idea or image, and then defend that notion with tiger-like tenacity. That is, after all, how wars get sufficient personnel to keep going.
Speaking of wars, it's clear that we get Self-defining software foisted upon us by one or more of our sub-cultures (such as our native country). A sub-culture's software (which might include “patriotism” or “resistance against oppression”) is intended to drive us in preference to something else that might drive us.
That's how the age-old war of memes plays out. Our minds are a constant battlefield of competing memes, each seeking to become a driver.
Some people will shrug when presented with tales of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Abu Ghraib, or similar demonstrations of conformity and say, “I wouldn't be so vulnerable; I'd be that one person in a million who said No.”
Maybe you would be — if your life history had conditioned you as that kind of resister. Personally, I was raised in a religion that forced me to publicly reject even mundane political involvement. That conditioning taught me to “Be my own man” in such cases. So now I have some ability to not do something that other people are doing. That's part of my conditioning. It's not much to get excited about, though. It certainly doesn't make me a True and Genuinely Independent Individual, nor does it grant me some kind of Free Will. It's just training, which sometimes kicks in when I'm subjected to a particular set of circumstances that I'm not controlling.
Some people will be terrified by the proposal that they do not actually control their minds or their choices. They might wonder if they will suddenly go on a killing spree or jump off a building. But that's extremely unlikely. In addition to (say) a million years worth of memetic programming, there are billions of years of genetic programming.
You are programmed to survive. You are programmed to thrive. You are programmed to excel, to overcome, to be the best darn living thing that the various forms of evolution could make you. The very fact you are reading this proves that you and your ancestors out-evolved a mind-numbingly large number of competitors.
They are all dead. You are not. You win!
Well, not “you”, really. The sub-system that created you wins. But you can pretend it was all about you, just as you can get excited when your sports team wins.
Above all, the system that we call life wins. Anti-entropy wins. If somehow we manage to avoid destroying all life on this planet, we can be sure that anti-entropy will remain a winning proposition for a long, long time.
What are you? From an everyday, nuts 'n' bolts point of view, with all romanticism removed:
You are a confluence of influences.
Things happen, and you react as your unique life history programmed you to. It feels like you're making a choice, and you might even feel pride at the apparent choice you make, but the choices were already being set in motion long before the precipitating incident.
To fully understand any action you take, you'd need to go back to the very birth of the universe and possibly even “further” than that. The quick and romantic way to say it, though, is this:
You are the universe expressing itself.