Some time ago I was annoyed.
Not at anything specific, just generally irritated. Maybe by my life circumstances, maybe by my inability to reach any satisfying conclusions when thinking about philosophy, ethics, responsibility and identity, maybe by a general feeling of existential angst, a sense of ennui.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t right.
So I decided to do a little thought experiment.
It went like this:
What if there is no “me”?
I mean, what if there was no mind, no consciousness (outside the strict medical definition) and no free will?
How would this change who I was?
I’d read about the idea of us having no free will in various neuroscience blogs, and I found it interesting, but I hadn’t previously considered it as an alteration of my world view.
So I considered the way I would interact with others, the way I would arrive at decisions, the way I would view myself.
I thought about each of these in turn.
And I could not find, despite serious consideration, any difference.
Within this thought experiment, life went on just as it did before. Everything remained exactly in place in my brain. I detected no change.
So I thought,
“Hold on a minute! I may be on to something here!” and decided to run with it. The question then arises:
How do I actually go about detached from the idea of free will? Without a “me” to think about? Well, that could be the subject of its own post, but basically, I just did it.
I can’t even call it a decision as such, more a form of realization, because once you accept this world view, decisions are no longer quite what they seem.
But I digress.
It was the new me. Or rather, the new not-me, and everything was just as before.
It appeared that all that vague baggage that I’d assigned to my mind, all those recursive philosophical concepts that I’d attached to my identity, all of that stuff had absolutely no impact on what was happening in my brain! It felt like I’d shut down a whole department of my organization, sent everyone home, locked the doors, and nobody had even noticed.
I was half expecting something, a panic attack, a sudden onset of stuttering, bursting into tears at the sight of a broken flower stem, I don’t know, just something!
Everything went on exactly as before.
So that’s it. All was well. End of story.
As time went on, I started to feel an alteration in the way I felt after all. Something had changed.
At first it was barely noticeable, indefinite, really quite vague. Try as I may, I just couldn’t pin it down. I was trying to find the new thing that had come into my thought processes, whatever it was, but I couldn’t get hold of it.
And then it hit me.
There was no new thing.
It was old things.
And they were missing.
I realized I no longer felt such a weight of expectation, that sense that I’m letting myself down somehow.
I no longer felt such a suspicion that some others had a depth to them that I could never understand.
I no longer felt as much irritation at people’s faults, including my own, because I’d discarded my mental model of perfection.
Without a sense of some abstract, deeper meaning, my brain appears to have taken a slow, deep sigh of relief. I’d managed to deflate a bubble of cognitive dissonance. Like clearing a blockage.
The irony: the thought experiment that I embarked upon with some trepidation, due to a fear of somehow losing my sense of self, led me to a state of increased confidence, greater enthusiasm for life, and, quite often, simple, childish, carefree joy.
Another difference worth noting: those close to me now find me even more maddening than before, but hey, there’s always a downside.