Martin LeFevre: There is a perniciously false, foundational idea that has a chokehold on the Western mind. It has spread like a viral meme around the world.
It is the idea of there is a separate self that chooses. It’s underwritten by the belief in free will, and gives rise to the notion that freedom lies in my ability to choose.
Paradoxically, we have the ability to choose the false, but not to choose the true. For in directly perceiving what is true, one acts according to it. But not seeing with one’s whole heart and mind what is true, we believe, I can choose between the true and false.
Socrates, who famously said, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” believed that no one does wrong voluntarily. To him, evil is the result of ignorance. If people clearly saw the right thing to do, they would do it. In other words, we can only choose to do the false thing. When we see what is true and good, we don’t choose it, we act accordingly.
This way of thinking has been interpreted in terms of knowledge, but that’s mistaken, since seeing/acting in terms of what is true is not a matter of knowledge, but insight. Socrates attempted to lead people to truth through their own insight, not to knowledge about truth and virtue, right and wrong.
Overturning the falseness and futility of the self choosing right or wrong is not too difficult within oneself, but nearly impossible to change in society. Even in a collapsed culture like America’s, ‘my right to choose’ is inviolate, the unquestioned precept of individualism. Indeed, it’s even stronger in the chaos.
Does that mean that the person who believes they have the ability, indeed the right to choose, cannot be virtuous? Yes, since the foundation of their existence, the thing on which their life turns, is illusory – the autonomous self. In the first place there is no such thing in actuality; in the second place whatever the self chooses is conditioned, and thus distorted to one degree or another.
So what happens when one starts looking at things this way, and realizes that one can only choose the false, never the true? It’s difficult to be sure, but less difficult over the long run than living by choosing, with its inherent conflict and suffering. Choiceless awareness is the course to growing in insight and understanding.
We face many choices in life, but distortion and conflict are always present to one degree or another when we choose.
At bottom, the bedrock illusion of “I choose” is inextricable from two other false ideas: control and free will. We think we have a measure of control over our lives based on our knowledge and experience, which we call ‘agency,’ but in actuality, as Socrates repeatedly pointed out, wisdom is the realization that I don’t know anything.
Likewise, “free will” is the ultimate oxymoron. The will, as the focused force of the self/ego, is always conditioned and to some degree violent, and therefore never free.
If each person over the age of moral consent (about mid-teens in most people) is responsible for his or her own hearts and minds, but the self is a program of thought giving the illusion of autonomy and choice, then who or what is responsible? Is there such a thing as ‘agency?’
Agency is defined in part as “the sense of control that you feel in your life, your capacity to influence your own thoughts and behavior.” That’s a very circular and meaningless definition, since control is illusory. The more we try to control our emotions or others or a situation, the more deleterious the effects and the more out of control things become.
As far as ‘my capacity to influence my own thoughts and behavior,’ that’s absurdly redundant – there is no ‘me’ separate from ‘my thoughts’ that controls and influences them.
So ‘agency,’ like the autonomous self, comes down to the feeling of separateness and control. The feeling of autonomy is very important to us, even though it’s not based on any actuality of a sovereign self.
That still leaves the question of responsibility, and for making right choices without the me choosing. If each person is responsible for himself or herself, but there is no self, what is responsibility based on?
From the whole for the whole. The mind that passionately questions and passively observes and acts in a unitary way is a very different mind that reacts from the program and conditioning of the illusory separate self. Therefore the self-based mind is inherently irresponsible, whereas the whole mind is responsible.
These are difficult questions, but no more difficult than living itself. AGI, which will soon be smarter than humans but will never question, observe and have insight as human beings, is driving home the problem of choosing from the programs and experiences of the past.
Human beings have the capacity to unitarily act from direct perception and insight in the present.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.