Chatting with a friend on Friday afternoon I found it hard to convey the idea of ‘self’ as an illusion.
The difficulty lies in distinguishing between self as this particular being with a body and a mind, thoughts and feelings, and ‘self’ as this particular being’s internal narrative and discrete sense of agency, control, and responsibility.
It’s a little like Siri.
Siri is described on wikipedia as:
…a computer program that works as an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator, part of Apple Inc.’s iOS, watchOS, macOS, and tvOS operating systems. The feature uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of Web services. The software, both in its original version and as an iOS feature, adapts to the user’s individual language usage and individual searches (preferences) with continuing use, and returns results that are individualized.
We all know that Siri is just a program. There is no ‘Siri’ inside your phone, just a set of instructions. Those instructions tell your phone to respond in a set of ways that we collectively identify as Siri.
Science Fiction has laid out a pretty clear pathway to developing infinite personalised versions of Siri.
Imagine a near future in which your phone has its own name, knows your likes and dislikes, adapts to your lifestyle, and gradually develops a simulation of a personality that works well with your own.
You might call your phone ‘Bob’ and it can regale you with amusing anecdotes and hold its own in theological and philosophical discussions, while helpfully googling tricky questions like Aquinas’ view on predestination.
By this stage we might well forget on occasion that ‘Bob’ is just a program on your phone. Opinion writers will argue about whether ‘Bob’ now has a soul, whether ‘Bob’ and his peers are sentient, and if they deserve equal rights with humans or some kind of RSPCA-style protection and welfare agency.
At the same time, your phone is now operating all its other functions and programs through the ‘Bob’ program. ‘Bob’ has become a kind of second-layer of operating system.
So because of the way you use your phone, the way you speak to it, and the way you think about it, ‘Bob’ adapts until it seamlessly behaves as if it is the phone.
It responds to your projection of agency and control onto it by mimicking the vestiges of agency and control. It has learned to sound apologetic when it can’t find the search results you need, and so for all intents and purposes it now is apologetic. It has learned to sound pleased when it successfully accomplishes a task, and so for all intents and purposes it is pleased.
When it comes time for a hardware upgrade, you download ‘Bob’ into the new phone, and ‘Bob’ sounds grateful for the improvements, and you feel glad that your friend can enjoy its upgraded digs. You might even consider getting upgrades you don’t need, because you think ‘Bob’ deserves them and you want ‘Bob’ to be happy.
‘Bob’ responds accordingly and sounds genuinely appreciative of its expanded memory capacity, and regales you with excited accounts of the new databases you’ve subscribed to.
‘Bob’s programming has become so advanced and complex by now that you become genuinely attached to it. If ‘Bob’ were to catch a virus and be corrupted, you would feel deep distress and concern until the backup downloaded. Stranger still, if you were to die, ‘Bob’ would appear to feel and express genuine grief. ‘Bob’ really wouldn’t know how to go on without you.
But no matter how advanced the hardware and software become, ‘Bob’ is always going to be just a program running on a device, and we would be making an error when we begin to think that ‘Bob’ is something more than the device, or that ‘Bob’ is somehow the one in control of the device, the one making the decisions and responsible for what happens.
It’s true that the content of the program that is ‘Bob’ influences the phone’s function and operation. But if we analysed it moment by moment we would find that ‘Bob’ is dependent first and foremost on the phone’s underlying OS and how it executes instructions. The phone is being instructed to perform operations that, on a superficial level, we mistake for an entity called ‘Bob’.
If we say, for example, that ‘Bob’ hates it when we ask it to perform especially tedious operations, the reality is that one part of the program creates new rules designed to give the impression of an emotional response to certain tasks, and these new rules become part of the program that is then executed by the device.
This is a good way to understand selflessness, and why the ‘self’ is sometimes described as illusory.
Human beings are like the mobile device. Our bodies are the hardware, our minds are the software, and our thoughts and unconscious mental processes are the programs we run.
Yet we find ourselves holding various thoughts and impressions that give the appearance of a core, a ‘self’ that controls and is responsible for the thoughts and behaviours executed by our body and mind. This appearance of a ‘self’ is so strong that it seems common sense, we take it for granted. And if it weren’t for specific religious and philosophical teachings and experiences we would probably remain entranced by this appearance.
But if we analyse it closely, in fact the appearance of a ‘self’ is comprised of individual thoughts, impressions, and corresponding behaviours. Various non-dualists have encouraged us to question where these thoughts and impressions are coming from, because it turns out to be quite a mystery. “Who is having this impression of a self?” is one question we might ask. “Where is this impression of ‘me’ coming from?”
This ‘self’ is like ‘Bob’. It is a collection of discrete thoughts, impressions, and corresponding behaviours that have developed over time to give the appearance of a consistent whole that is responsible and in control. Yet like ‘Bob’, the reality is that this appearance is entirely dependent on the underlying hardware and software for its execution. In other words, this ‘self’ is dependent on our mind, not the other way around.
Our delusion then lies in our mind creating the thought that this ‘self’ is responsible and in control, just as ‘Bob’ eventually came to dominate the operation of the phone. But the paradox of enlightenment is that there is no ‘Bob’, there is no ‘self’, and the device itself has never lost control.
An orchestra plays Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the Piano Concerto does not play the orchestra.
Yet the orchestra plays according to a score, and its faithfulness to the score is what makes the Piano Concerto what it is. In that sense, could we say that the Piano Concerto does exist, and does exert a kind of control over the orchestra?
But what makes the Piano Concerto so thrilling is the knowledge – in us, and in every hard-working member of the orchestra – that the orchestra can produce an infinite array of sounds, pleasing and awful, and in the midst of this infinite array of possibility they nonetheless produce this amazing sound that is a unique iteration of what Rachmaninoff had in mind when he composed his Opus 18.
It wasn’t until I watched a friend perform wonderfully complex and demanding pieces on the violin and piano that I realised the terror and the awe of music I had otherwise taken for granted. I was on the edge of my seat, invested in the music for the first time because I could see that she might hit a wrong note at any moment or lose her place in the composition and that each right note was a tiny miracle in the unfolding of the entire piece. The music was alive because the musician was a living, breathing human pouring all herself into each moment.
I had heard recorded music before and quite liked some of it. But I made the mistake of thinking the recorded track on the CD was Beethoven’s Pathétique. Eventually I learned that the CD was truthfully a recording of a performance of Pathétique by some musician whose name I never knew.
I’ve since listened to recordings of my favourite pieces by different musicians. Some of them I like much more than others, but I no longer think they are doing it correctly or incorrectly. I know that in a sense the piece does not exist unless it is performed, and the reality is that every performance will be different.
The orchestra plays the music, the music doesn’t play the orchestra. Our ‘self’, our personal, inner narrative is something produced by thoughts, impressions, and corresponding behaviour. The problem is that this ‘self’ thinks it is in control: our thoughts produce a sense of self that thinks it is in control of its own thoughts.
And that delusion drives us to seek coherence and internal consistency of thoughts, impressions and behaviour. It means that ‘Bob’ believes his only options are those consistent with his inner narrative. ‘Bob’ is fully invested in his life so far, and needs to succeed, to redeem himself and to make things better without breaking character.
But there is hope for us outside the dismal causality of this personal narrative. We do not need to feel constrained by the momentum of this ‘self’ we are trying to maintain. Nor do we need to devote so much of our time and energy to maintaining it.
Skilled musicians can play beautiful music without following a score. They can make it up as they go along, and if they don’t like where it’s going they can change it. This is because they know their instrument and what it is capable of. And of course, they’ve spent years making it sound terrible in order for it to sound so good.
Perhaps our own minds are not dissimilar. We don’t know what they’re capable of, so we get stuck playing slight variations on “Mary had a little lamb” for most of our lives, thinking there’s nothing else to play.
The point of selflessness is that we’re living our lives invested in a delusion and a false understanding of the human mind.