Nothing makes sense because we fool ourselves in three important ways. The notion that we have a self, that our reality has meaning, and that we have free will, set us up for a complete misunderstanding of the nature of our existence.
The First Deception – the self
Our default state is to believe that we are a person with a value that goes beyond the essential functions of survival and procreation. This notion that we are a person comes from our identification with thoughts, emotional states, desires, and bodily sensations. We can add to this the role of memory in giving us images that pertain to having a history and the brain creating a map of the physical body that gives us a sense of self.
From a survival standpoint, our sense of self adds new urgency to our efforts to survive. In common with most other creatures our body knows how to survive without the help of a sense of self. The body knows when it is hungry when it wants sex when it is too warm or cold when it is in danger. But the addition of a sense of self causes us to seek to preserve the existence of this self, which in turn makes us even more eager to preserve the existence of the body. It is nature’s masterstroke, accounting for the anxious vigilance that characterizes human life.
It is our identification with our psychological states (thoughts, memories, emotions, desires, and bodily sensations) that causes this deception. Insofar as we can see these things as simple phenomena so we can distance ourselves from them a little. If we can erode our sense of self then the prospect of death becomes less onerous and we can live a life with less anxiety.
Second Deception – the waking dream
Deep dreamless sleep gives us a taste of what it is like to not be a person. The body still functions but with no pretense of being anything other than a body. However, in order to gather the resources the body needs the body must skillfully navigate its environment. For this to happen the brain constructs a simulation of the world that serves this function. This waking state is in essence a kind of dream, although it is different from dreaming during sleep when the brain makes almost no use of the senses.
People look for truth, purpose, morality, meaning, significance in this waking dream when it has none of these things. It is nothing more than a simulation or representation of the world that has evolved to enable survival and reproduction. Provided we remember the dream-like nature of our waking consciousness we can save ourselves the distress and striving involved in the search for meaning and significance – it has none. It is a wilderness with no meaning, morality, purpose, or truth, other than those associated with survival and reproduction.
Acceptance of the fact that we can know nothing beyond the sensory and conceptual structures that define the waking dream can bring a sense of great relief. We are blindfold puppets living in a dream that we cannot escape other than through unconsciousness.
Third Deception – free will
To believe in free will is to believe in uncaused effects. While we have no problem accepting that every physical state (effect) has a preceding state, namely its cause, we seem to be reluctant to accept this about our own states. To say that we freely choose to do this or that is to deny that the decision had a cause. This is best expressed in a paraphrase of a statement made by Schopenhauer – we can do what we want, but we cannot want what we want. The “wanting” had a cause and so was not free, but given that we want a certain thing we are then free to choose it.
Obviously, the lack of free will implies that we are automata pushed and pulled around by environmental and psychological influences. This scenario isn’t very attractive to many, but it is undoubtedly true. As with the exposure of the first great deception, it undermines the notion that we have a self. What exactly does this self do if our will is not free?