The manufactured self and the illusion of meaning

The more I practise as a psychologist, the less I’m convinced that humans are everything we think we are. In fact, I’m more and more sure that we’re a walking bundle of illusion. This notion has been worrying me lately, because the fact that we take ourselves so seriously has some profoundly negative consequences. This week, I’m going to try and encapsulate my thinking in this area – as an extension from the concepts I’ve been developing over the last few weeks.

Last week, I talked about how feedback loops can regulate human behaviour – I suggested that humans repeat certain behaviours because they get neurological feedback that reinforces a particular action. That neurological feedback, in the form of a reward, makes us ‘feel’ that the action is somehow ‘right’, so we engage in a complex series of rationalisations to delude ourselves into thinking that we were responsible for our actions, that we are the engineers of our own thoughts and opinions.

What if we were to extend this thinking to our sense of self, that feeling of uniqueness that allows us to identify with the world and, by elimination, other people? Well, it seems to me that we’re actually self-referential loops that create a particular reality. We receive information through our senses and compare that information to a database of experience. This database, in turn, allows us to make comparisons between a present state and a past (or imagined future) state; a function that provides us with a sense of continuity, and the experience of individuality (I can compare my thoughts, feelings and sensations to a bank of memories, allowing me to feel that I am a continuous, conscious being). Because this feeling of individuality allows us to function around others (by distinguishing ourselves from the other humans around us), we can derive a sense of purpose (I exist to function as an individual). Even more, when we develop this sense of self to include notions about the future, we construct ideas around meaning and purpose. This reinforces the self, and results in neurological reward, reinforcing the loop.

So, during the course of our lives, we develop this complex model of ourselves. Because of our use of language in order to represent the world around us, we develop complex rules about this world and, by extension, ourselves and the ways in which we, and the people around us, should act. Within this complex structure many of us construct an intense desire that the world should be meaningful, that there must be a purpose to our lives. Consequently, we have constructed religion and a belief in a god and an afterlife, we’ve developed remarkably intricate mechanisms for guiding our lives, and we experience a profound sense of emptiness when these perceived notions of purpose aren’t met visibly. In fact, we’re terrified of a sense of meaninglessness – the lack of a conceptualised self – and go to great lengths to make sure that we never have to question its veracity. Religion, faith, superstition, political parties, and any other attempt to construct a meaningful explanation for our worlds, are all a side-effect of this fear.

But in reality, we’re highly sophisticated biological machines who have evolved consciousness (an aspect of self) as a way of better interacting with our environments. Our deep “need” for meaning is just an artefact of this construct, fortified constantly by our self-referential loops and backed up by the neurological rewards we get for sustaining this illusion. In other words, we’re rewarded neurologically for feeling that we are meaningful, and, consequently (and continuously) look for ways to enhance that meaning.

The human arrogance in assuming we’re actually important is our biggest downfall. We construct a self that places us at centre of our universe, from which we can’t really comprehend other people. Despite the fact that we know (intellectually) that we’re only one of seven billion currently living humans (and that we’re the end point of an incredibly long line of people before us, all of whom lived lives that they imbued with a sense of meaning) we all think that we’re the most important, that our lives must be meaningful, that there must be a goddamn purpose! We can’t comprehend a world without us either, despite the fact that humans will continue to exist long after we’re gone, so we, like those who came before us, construct fantasies about afterlives, to ensure that we can project our sense of self beyond death.

Now here’s the crux of the problem: because of this drive for meaning, we have a tendency to convince ourselves that we require a greater sense of purpose. Sometimes, the positive outcome of this illusion is highly altruistic behaviour, we actually can learn to extend the notion of self to include others. But a negative side-effect can be the self-serving self-deception that we’re special because we’re doing something meaningful (right?). In fact, the more we’re conditioned to believe that meaning is important, the emptier we feel, because we simply can’t equate our empty lives with this deep entitlement – where the hell is my meaning and why hasn’t it been delivered to me on a gold-plated chariot pulled by rare albino ponies?

In my practice, I see many people who have lost their way. I’m honestly beginning to believe that the root cause of nearly all of our issues is the fact that we pay far too much attention to this manufactured illusion of self. We’ve made it way too complex. And the worst thing is that this complexity is purely artificial. OK, I’ll grant that our biological and neurological platform is fiendishly complicated, but when it all boils down, our psychology is remarkably basic. It’s really an operating system to help us survive a dangerous world long enough to pass on our genes. Everything else, our complicated notions of self and our never-ending search for meaning, has manifested as a consequence of the system. There’s a good chance that there was an evolutionary advantage for humans who sought challenge; our big brains allowed us the processing power to come up with novel solutions to reduce the dangers in our environment and increase our survivability. Combine a hard-wired tendency to problem-solve with a manufactured sense of self, and the resultant quest for meaning is inevitable…

So what we’ve ended up with is this massively complex biological system with a relatively basic OS sitting on top of it. Over time, this OS has become massively buggy, with an insanely large number of redundant processes. At some point we caught a self-referential virus, one that forces us to seek out situations that we perceive as meaningful, and which results in a constant feeling of emptiness and inadequacy. Even worse, this system is massively easy to hack, meaning that most of the behaviours and thoughts that we thought were our own are actually the result of some external influence, including memetic and technological hacks. Even our sense of meaning isn’t our own!

OK – time to try and wrap this particularly ranty entry up. I think that humans have managed to develop a sense of self in order to help us function amongst other humans. Unfortunately, this adaptation has resulted in the development of neurologically-reinforced, self-referential loops – I am me because I think about me in the context of my own stored experiences. Because we can project this concept of self forward in time, we require some sort of backdrop in which to place that future self – one that requires a purpose for our existence  Hey presto – the search for meaning.

Unfortunately, it’s all meaningless. We spend our lives searching for something that is undefinable and elusive, and get terribly upset when we don’t capture our unicorn. Even worse, in recent times we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we can and should have it all – and that if we don’t get it we’ve failed somehow.

So here’s the rub. If we can get over the illusion of self, and the artificial construct of meaning, we can actually get on with living our lives. Without having to constantly compare our selves to our expectations, we can experience our lives as meaningful without having to construct an artificial notion of meaningfulness. In other words, figure out what rocks your boat (as long as it doesn’t harm others) and go for it. Even better if you can align that ‘value’ with those around you to enhance their lives, or work to make our species less horrible (to ourselves, each other, and the planet – the fact that we’re pretty much a bunch of self-absorbed five year-olds running around doing whatever we want and not being able to understand the consequences is pretty scary in my opinion).

Note to self: get over yourself and get on with it…