The human brain is an amazing instrument. Brains didn’t evolve to be the “command centre” of the body. Rather, they evolved as a “feature detection system“, a “lookout” for the benefit of the 30 trillion cells that make up the various organs of the body. But at some point, estimated to be about 3-4,000 years ago, human brains apparently evolved the capacity to integrate their sensemaking activities (responding to signals perceived by the senses) with their imagining activities (creating/ conceptualizing mental images). This integration, or ‘entanglement’, of brain activities was necessary for what we call ‘consciousness’, the experience of having a separate self. It was only then that the brain was able to imagine that what it imagined made sense — and especially that its idea of the self and everything else as real and separate was ‘true’.
This was the beginning of the idea of knowledge. Until then, like what we disparagingly call ‘unconscious’ species, we reacted intuitively, based on conditioned responses. Until then we were unable to abstract anything, including our sense of self as something separate from everything else. We were completely functional, and thrived, without the need for this ‘consciousness’. We didn’t ‘know’ anything. What we now think of as ‘our’ memories were, until then, simply storage devices for information that informed our instincts — fast orange thing => tiger, flee, freeze, or fight.
What’s amazing is how perfectly we functioned for a million years without the need for any of the abstractions that came along with the invention of the self — the idea of time, past, present and future, and space, here, there, subject, object, meaning, purpose, cause, effect, causality, continuity, life and death. We lived full-on in the natural world without the veil of separation and invented models of reality. We knew nothing because there was no need to know.
And now, we think we know almost everything, that we are on the cusp of a ‘grand unifying theory of everything’ that will explain everything that is and predict everything that happens. But we are caught in a loop of our own knowing. What we are coming closer to knowing is not anything to do with reality, but rather the minutiae, the details of a seemingly-flawless representation of reality that ‘we’ can then use to do anything that can be done. Thanks to our big, complex, abstracting brains, we have become so enamoured of our imagined, ever-more complicated and seemingly precise mental map of the world, that we have utterly lost sight of the territory that the map was intended to depict. We can no longer see what is.
So this imagined knowledge we are so proud of is actually an affliction, a psychosomatic misunderstanding of what our patterning brain is depicting. It’s more than just an idea, though — because it ‘makes sense’ of everything the body we presume to inhabit does, our sense of selfhood and separation is a fully embodied illusion. There is something in the modern human brain that, beginning from a very young age, muddles perception and conception and grabs on to the sudden emergence of the self as something real and separate, and, simultaneously, everything ‘else’ as real and separate, too.
Perhaps we grasp on to this illusion because the human brain, too idle and too smart for its own good, has evolved to want to know. And the appeal of the model of the separate self at the centre of its universe, and everything else in relation to that self, is just too compelling to resist. So the young child builds its whole epistemology, its whole ‘separate’ identity, on the false foundations of selfhood, separateness, ‘real’ time and ‘real’ space.
What we think we know is inseparable from what we believe. Why do we want to believe, and how do we ‘decide’ what we believe? We believe what we want to believe is true — what makes us feel better, safer, more secure, more reassured, what ‘fits’ with what we’ve already ‘decided’ is true, worthy of belief. We believe what other people we trust persistently and consistently tell us is true (ie what they believe). We believe what our perceptions tell us, as filtered through the sense-making of everything we’ve come to believe that our perceptions ‘tell us’, what they ‘mean’.
So our knowledge, our beliefs, are just collections of what seems to ‘fit’ with our other beliefs, which are what we have been conditioned by others, and by our seeming experiences, to believe to be true, to be what ‘really’ happened and what is ‘really’ happening now.
Juggling all this, all the time, and having to reconstruct it from nothing every morning when ‘we’ awake, is exhausting, so soon enough we want to be reassured what we believe is true, and become less and less inclined to question what we (want to) believe we know to be true. What we think is true, what we think we know, what we believe, and what we want to believe, are one and the same. And collectively these things we want to believe constitute our ‘story of me’. And, as it’s all constructed on a map, a representation of reality, and not on the territory (the ‘real’ reality), the ‘story of me’ is a complete fiction.
No wonder so much of our life is spent looking for reassurance — in relationships, online, in our reading of the so-called ‘news’. This threadbare story is constantly coming apart at the seams, and there is something deep inside each of us that knows something is terribly wrong, something is missing, this story doesn’t quite hang together right.
So we believe there are things we must do to be a ‘good’ person, to make ‘the story of me’ a better story. We believe we have some control over our destiny, and pretty much full control over what we do or don’t do. We believe we are responsible for our behaviours, and so are others, and we judge ourselves and others accordingly. We believe in good and evil, and are often willing to fight and die for what we believe. We believe in progress — that not only is time real, but it is advancing toward a time that will inevitably be better, if not for us and our friends and loved ones, then for our descendants and theirs.
It’s not surprising that we believe all this — it’s the only way we’ve found of making sense of everything, since the moment the idea of our selfhood and separation occurred to us. These beliefs constitute us and help us cope with challenges. But they’re all a story, and ‘we’ are hopelessly caught up in it.
And the story isn’t just our separateness. It’s everything we believe. The story of evolution and of humans emerging with a sense of self and separation is just another story, an appearance. There is no time, no continuity, and no causality that would enable the story of evolution to be true.
And the story of creatures, human and more-than-human, being conditioned to do what they do is also just a story, an appearance, a trying to make sense of what does not make sense (or have to make sense). There is no time or causality in which conditioning can occur. Everything we know and believe to be true is a story, make-believe, unreal, impossible, fiction, made up from nothing. A series of dots and shadows close enough together and in an appropriate order for a pattern-making brain to say: Aha! I see what’s happening! When we do not. Cannot.
And then it gets even more preposterous. We think we know, believe, want to believe, that we know our selves, and other people. When we, our selves, are just inventions of the brain, nothing more than the made-up-as-we-go-along ‘story of me’. The characters whose bodies we presume to inhabit will do what they will do, and the illusory ‘we’ will have no say in it, other than to rationalize what was done as ‘our’ decision and then pass judgement on its wisdom. This is insane behaviour, an earnest meaning-making of fantasies, dreams and hallucinations, but it’s all ‘we’ can do.
And it’s not even ‘us’ doing this rationalization. It’s an autonomous flinching of the brain and body, random thoughts and feelings, that ‘we’, the invention of that brain and body, ludicrously take ownership of.
Why do we think we know ourselves? Probably because of an apparent lifetime of experience apparently rationalizing and trying to make sense of the pattern of the character’s apparent actions. To admit we don’t know ourselves is the ultimate confession of failure, of lack of will, of lack of self-control, of dangerous ignorance. We want to believe we know ourselves because we are afraid to admit (mostly to ourselves) that we know nothing. What are we there for, if not to know, and to act sensibly on that knowledge? What is the ‘story of me’ if we know nothing of ourselves?
And of course we then extend that self-knowledge to the pretension that we know others as well — their motivations, their feelings, their beliefs, their ‘story’. As bad as this is in our judgements of public figures, it’s even more fanciful, and more dangerous, when we presume to know those we love.
Talk to people whose marriages have broken up after decades and it’s pretty clear we don’t and can’t know the first thing about anyone else. We fall in love with, and love, who we want to believe another person is. Our ‘story of them’ is even more fictional than our ‘story of us’. We want to believe we know them for the same reason we want to believe our selves — it would be an admission of inattentiveness, of insensitivity, of laziness and narcissism to admit that we really know nothing about someone we feel we love. And if we don’t know them, that suggests they don’t know us, which makes us feel precarious, vulnerable, foolish.
That’s not to take anything away from falling in love. It’s probably as close as most of us get to briefly overcoming our obsession with our selves, and it’s as awesome as it is terrifying. But it’s chemical, not divine — another (apparent) evolutionary trick to get us together to procreate and keep us together to nurture. We know the ones we love even less than we know our selves. And we don’t know our selves at all.
And then there are all the other treacherous stories we tell ourselves — about what might be in the (non-existent) future, and about what was, or might have been, in the (non-existent) past. These are the worst fictions of all, filling us with absurd dread, hope, grief, shame, regret, nostalgia and rage that never ceases, for no reason. The worst symptoms of the disease of self and separation.
Why do we make up stories of what never was, or what might have been? The love that might have bloomed. Or what might have happened “if only”. All those other stories that so fill us with paralyzing and intoxicating emotions. We make them up, perhaps, because they’re no more real, no less fiction, than the ‘story of me’ we are constantly attempting to cobble together and steer. We are story-tellers, all, especially the stories we tell our selves.
There is, as I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me say, no cure or treatment for this affliction. Ironically, my main reason (I think, or I want to believe) for harping on this useless and frustrating possibility is that I think it’s better to know than to continue to believe a lie. ‘I’ can’t know that there’s no ‘me’, no ‘you’, no time or space or causality or death or purpose or meaning. But there’s something inside that went off when I first heard this message, this possibility. It was like being let in on a huge cosmic joke that is so profound it can’t really be understood. But still, it resonates.
And I have no choice but to think about it aloud on these pages and wonder if this is the ultimate ‘knowing’ — that there is nothing to know, and no one to know it.