Staged models of human development occur throughout philosophy, psychology, and religion. Kierkegaard said we were aesthetic, then ethical, then religious. Piaget focused on a child’s cognitive development. Freud gave us the terminology of “oral fixation” and “anal retention” as he mapped out his own psychosexual theory. Kohlberg focused on moral development. Timothy Leary put forward an 8-circuit model of consciousness that, while a bit loopy, inspired a lot of future work. I’m not smarter than these guys, and I’m not a trained psychologist, but looking through their work as well as my own experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are about nine stages of consciousness, or nine selves, if you will.
Leary’s model connected specific circuits to drugs and argued that psychoactive chemicals like sugar (oral; 1st circuit), alcohol (2nd circuit), cannabis (5th circuit), and ketamine (8th circuit) were literal neurotransmitters; today, we know that to be false. Moreover, experiences do not impact us on only one of the circuit (e.g., “a 4th circuit” experience) and I suspect that all circuits or selves or stages exist, to some degree, in adults. Like the higher harmonics on a musical instrument, they’re all there, just in varying amounts.
I don’t have the biological knowledge necessary to defend the term “circuit”, either, so I’ll use the looser term of “self”. I don’t intend this to be a rigorous scientific model– I don’t know how one would test it– but it’s a meta-analytical tool I find useful.
I posit that there are (at least) nine selves that unlock during a person’s development. The first three– sensory, positional, and cognitive– emerge during childhood and seem to be universal in terms of how they are interpreted and the ages at which they seem to emerge: birth, age 2, and about 4.
The middle three– socio-sexual, aesthetic, and truth-seeking– emerge in adulthood, and tend to correspond most strongly to adolescence, middle age, and elderhood. Unlike the first three stages, these do not emerge by necessity with age; a cognitive self emerges in almost everyone, but there are many older adults for whom the socio-sexual self still dominates.
The last three– self-revealing, supremely vulnerable, and meta-mortal– tend to occur in mystical experiences, and are the hardest to describe. These tend toward the speculative, since we really don’t know, in any scientific sense, whether there is a why to conscious experience, or what really occurs to us after we die. Experiences involving these final three selves tend to leave people with strong sensations of divinity or an afterlife– or, perhaps, an absence thereof– but. on these topics, present science tells us little either way.
1. The Sensory Self (Infants and Cells)
In the first two years of life, we’re a helpless animal. In fact, we’re lower in functionality than animals, since we can’t survive on our own, which most creatures can. None of us remember this stage, which has historically led to incorrect notions about it. We used to think an infant’s vision is blurry, our own memories of childhood being so blurred– that’s incorrect. Still, there doesn’t seem to be much more going on in a baby than in any other organism: sensors and movement.
The sensory self dominates infancy. It doesn’t go away with age; we just develop, as we age, the tools to understand what it is doing to us. We have some ability to moderate its influence, but not as much as we’d think. Hunger, extreme cold or heat, or physical pain dominate us at a certain point; if they are intense enough, the other selves are muted. Lower selves, except possibly in people who’ve mastered self-disciplines often considered spiritual (e.g., the yogi’s ability to bear intense pain), can override the higher ones, and that’s not a bad thing. It keeps us alive, that these lower selves “break through” in desperate situations.
We can idealize maturation or spiritual progress by assuming circuits to be “complete”; for example, most of us don’t spend much time on the sensory self’s concerns. Our brains do a lot of work– as someone who’s worked on AI programming, I can say: it is a lot of work– to regulate breathing and balance, and the visual processing our eyes and brains do is fascinating, but most of us can rely on the sensory self without thinking about it.
Yet, as someone who experiences anxiety and depression, I’m aware that the lower selves can get out of whack. Just as all selves are activated by complex experience, they are all connected and can all be thrown out of whack by disorder.
The sensory self is best at ease when one feels cozy and safe: drinking a warm cup of coffee on a winter day; or sleeping in late; or relief when pain subsides. However, chronic pain as well as dysfunction of the next self “up”– the positional self– can lead it to disorder: lethargic depression. When the sensory self is unhappy– possibly due to overload from the demands of its siblings, e.g., after the positional self throws a panic tantrum– the body feels heavy and one wants to do… as little as possible. To burrow into the warm folds of the earth and sleep, perhaps forever. This may be the only self that doesn’t get bored.
2. The Positional Self (Toddlers and Lobsters)
Leary, I think, got it right when he said that the toddler self– the positional self, as I call it– is one whose dysfunctions are activated by alcohol. The positional self’s unresolved issues come out roaring when a person’s drunk. He named it the emotional circuit, and with that I disagree; we feel emotions on all the circuits. This is where what we might call our “lower” emotions live: anger, fear, triumph, and disgust.
The sensory self seeks nourishment and comfort; it avoids pain, and though it does not know why, it avoids senses that evince danger: loud noises, pungent odors, extreme temperatures. It reacts; it wants to be safe.
The positional self emerged, most likely, along with complex organisms, sexual reproduction, and competition for resources with other creatures (including conspecific ones). Dominance hierarchies exist, and Jordan Peterson argues that they go back to lobsters, and the positional self develops as we realize that conspecific individuals are a source of danger.
It’s traumatic, when this happens: the first bite of fruit, perhaps, from the Tree of Knowledge. We become envious of adults, who are seven times our size. We size each other up, too. We get envious of older, bigger children but also younger ones who get more attention. We stand halfway between that boring world of infant survival– reacting to things, being taken care of– and this complicated adult one that makes no sense to us. It’s also easy to punish us: to be yelled at is like physical pain, and a five-minute timeout or recess detention seems eternal. We haven’t separated physical pain and psychological emotion, so falling down and skinning a knee (which we do a lot) makes us cry, to an extent that an adult only would if someone died.
We get our first inklings of sickness and death in this age, though we don’t understand them fully. We learn that not all humans are good: some will kick us, just to hear us cry. We may even find ourselves doing such things– I was a bit of a bully, I’m afraid, and I’m far from proud of it– and not know why. We do a lot of terrible things (for which we feel later remorse, sometimes 15 seconds later and sometimes 15 years later) to test limits and see where we stand in the territorial and dominance structures that exist all around us.
This time becomes hazy in memory, the thoughts of that time rarely thought in words, more like a shuffled stack of postcards than a narrative. Higher selves emerge and we become smart enough to deal with it– most of the time. It always lives within us, though. People who are “bad drunks” usually have positional-self issues that come out when the higher selves are blunted with alcohol. The positional self doesn’t like being told to wait in line like everyone else, and it can’t stand to see a personal or professional rival driving a more expensive car than the perfectly fine one we have. Moreover, what is an open-plan office but an attempt to manipulate a worker via his positional self’s weaknesses?
The positional self’s dysfunction takes the form of anxiety, which everyone has; it runs the gamut from the low-grade fear that keeps us alive to a full-scale, debilitating panic attack that takes days to recover from: the sensory self, also beaten, falls into lethargy.
Alcohol can unveil existing issues in a person’s positional self, but almost anyone can develop positional-self dysfunctions. Low social position has that effect, especially if it leads to uncontrollable changes is a person’s environment.
Humans are, for the most part, resilient. We can go through a lot without lasting mental illness. Grief, after a parent dies, is normal, but few of us become total wrecks. Natural disasters, accidents, and life-threatening animal encounters can cause specific phobias, but rarely break the mind outright. What seems limitless in its capacity to destroy the human mind is not danger (in fact, we seek danger out) but stigma: not mere unsafeness but the kind that comes from low social position. For example, one of the few non-biological factors that seems to cause frank psychosis is eviction in childhood; moving and poverty are bad enough, but combine them into a constant chase, and it’s a disaster.
High social status, on the other hand, can induce or reveal the positional self’s dysfunction just as easily. Often, the positional self uses the tools of other, higher, selves to get what it wants. For example, the corporate executive shows some strength (in general, IQ between 120 and 130) in the cognitive self, and his motivations are usually socio-sexual, but his day-to-day behaviors are toddler-like. This is sometimes called “acquired situational narcissism” and it’s also common in promising artists, academics, and writers who get famous too young, too quickly, and turn into blithering idiots.
High-status positional upset also emerges in the sort of acquisitive sex addict that has unfortunately found a niche selling the skills that come from its glib social hypertrophy (“pickup artistry”) . These men, who have put themselves at the top of a certain hierarchy, go beyond normal socio-sexuality into positional obsession.
The positional self always wants more; to level up, to get to the top, to have the shiniest toys. If it wins, it wants a bigger win. If it loses, its impulse is to try again. You see this in socially inept men who continue to chase the same sort of woman– popular, self-involved– that rejected them in high school, while failing to develop adult tastes or expectations; they keep losing on “that damn level”; to them, it’s like a video game where they have to “beat that damn level”. Because they must win, they lose. Their insecurity is such a turn-off that even when these women “hit the wall”– a fantasy of such men in which aging reduces their socio-sexual value– it does them no good (and I’m not terribly sympathetic).
Our higher selves enable us to drop out of the positional nonsense– on reflection, most of it is absurd; there is nothing dangerous about being seventh in line at the grocery store– most of the time.
Now, it is often said that bullies (in the schoolyard or the workplace) are insecure and have low self-esteem, and that’s not accurate. I wish it were true; I wish bullies suffered as that narrative suggests; but, in truth, they tend to have high self-esteem, and while they are insecure in fact (since a monster is driving them that will not be satisfied until they have destroyed everything) they do not feel insecure in the moment.
This said, the bully’s ultimate destination is misery, since he’s feeding something that gets hungrier the more it is fed. We note here that the very poor and very rich are miserable for the same reason: their lives are all about money. The very-poor person deals with debt collectors; the very-rich person deals has hundreds of sudden “best friends” who’ll revolutionize parking garage technology and just need half a million to do it. It’s a not good life, one that’s all about money, and of course money isn’t evil (and neither is sex, which will cover later); the problem is with people.
It’s probable that all selves emerge, though in muted form, around age two; the toddler has enough of a cognitive self to acquire language, and a socio-sexual instinct to want to spend time with attractive people, even though those selves have yet to mature.
3. The Cognitive Self (Children and Primates)
It wouldn’t surprise me if humans reach peak rationality just before puberty. We’ve aged out of the toddler’s tantrums, but we haven’t yet developed a fixation– regressive, for many people– on sexuality. We can make jokes as equals to adults, recognizing the absurdity of the “selves” below and above this one: the positional squabbling of toddlers, the socio-sexual drama of teenagers and immature adults, and the Seinfeldian universality of these impulses even in mature, intelligent adults. The 10-year-old boy “gets it” that his 15-year-old sister’s obsession with makeup is a bit silly… until two or three years later, when he has his own similar nonsense.
Language develops earlier, but cognition becomes an end in itself in early childhood; the third self emerges. What was once a loosely connected set of concepts useful to the lower selves– “hot”, “cold”, “feed”, “me”– now has rules; the words have relationships. “I want milk” is less confusing than “milk me”.
In this self, humans differentiate vastly, not only from animals, but from each other. The lowest tier of cognitive behavior– unexamined motivations, rooted in the positional self’s wants– we liken to rodents, e.g. “the rat race”. The sociality we develop as children to please or disgust others– but not to manipulate them, since socio-sexual games haven’t begun yet– we liken either to dogs (pleasing) or pigs (disgusting). Next up, humor starts and we get a grasp of language and its limitations, tools and their unintended uses, and the ever-present terror of boredom. Primates have enough of this that we call a hyper-curious, humorous person “a monkey” Buddhists call the chattering, grasping, often internally verbal (as if it were explaining itself to someone) element of our minds “the monkey mind” and I find that apropos.
What differentiates us from animals is that our cognitive selves are much better. They are nearly limitless. Unlike every other animal, we hit a critical point, something akin to Turing completeness. We can reason about reasoning. We can dissect our own programs.
Plenty of animals can do quick cognitive feats we can’t; for example, a falcon can fly through dense forest at 100 miles per hour– we’d hit a tree and die, if in control. It is said that dogs solve partial differential equations (obviously, not consciously) when they catch a frisbee. Neither animal knows that 34 plus 55 equals 89; neither animal knows the basic concepts (or cares). We, however, can do anything, computationally speaking– the only limitation is that we can be slow. We can formulate problems that no amount of fault can solve. We have made ourselves an apex predator, but we’ve also learned that we will die, no matter what we do. That thing that the positional self tortures us in order to avoid will, one day, happen.
The cognitive self works in symbols like words, characters, and numbers. It lacks nuance, and while this is a social hindrance (that our next selves must overcome) it is from this that notions of mathematical and scientific precision have emerged.
There seem to be few limits to what can be done with the symbolic and cognitive self. It may not have taste– we’ll need to use the socio-sexual, aesthetic, and truth-seeking selves if we want to write novels or essays worth reading– but it gets the mechanics of communication down. Furthermore, this is where we start to see limitations. I suspect that my sensory and positional selves– the first a reactive agent, the second a bit of a mindless bully if left on his own– can do no more or less than anyone else’s. Some people are better at positional games than others, but because of differences in higher selves, it seems.
The symbolic self, though, can always do more than whatever it does. There are theorems in mathematics that have never been proven and that I’m not smart enough to prove. If we agree that a thing is either true or not true (excluded middle) then we cannot prove all things that are true (Gödel); we cannot tell whether two computational processes are equivalent (Church); there is no way to know if a program terminates (Turing); we cannot really know anything about an arbitrary computation (Rice); there are probably truths that are verifiable within minutes but that one could not derive with all the time and matter in the universe (the unsolved P ?= NP problem).
Above are formal results. Those apply to machines much faster than we are, and to anything we might call replicable intelligence. The part of us that thinks in symbols– of course, the brain does millions of other things– can handle no more than 100 symbols per second, even under the best-case assumptions. For raw computation, we’re way slower (and more error prone) than computers. In many ways, we’re limited, some of us much more than others.
Then, there are differences between us. In practice, the difference between an IQ 100 mind and IQ 80 is significant; that between IQ 120 and IQ 100 is notable; that between IQ 140 and IQ 120 is relevant in the most abstract academic disciplines, but in most of life immaterial. Measurable intelligence doesn’t tell us everything, but it tells us a lot. I don’t mean to be cruel– in fact, we should acknowledge that since intelligence isn’t chosen, the leftist impulse to moralize intellect is misguided– but only about 5% of the population can become professional mathematicians; the other 95%, no matter what they do, won’t make it. Furthermore, most of that 5% will require a lot of work to do it, just to be professionally adequate; and all of them will need to put forth substantial effort if they want to be significant mathematicians. Creativity is harder to measure, but true creativity seems at least as rare as high intelligence (with which it is not always correlated) and general creative superiority (at a substantial level) may not even exist. What differentiates creative people is a Drake equation of sorts, each specific to a given field; native measurable intelligence is rarely the most important factor.
Why couldn’t a person with a 100 IQ become a professional mathematician? Prima facie, it doesn’t seem impossible; people with 100 IQs can do most things that people with 140 IQs can do: they can run businesses, lead others, and learn most academic subjects if they really need to– and if they put in a lot of work. It just takes longer to learn them. In practice, though, limitations of time and resources make it very unlikely that it’ll ever happen. Society is unlikely to invest the resources (nor, the person himself) necessary to get a 100 IQ person to the fore in mathematics, even if it were theoretically possible. There are scientifically accomplished people with “low” (below 130, so not actually low) measured IQs, but even this is rare enough that one might question the tests rather than the notion of intelligence itself.
We sort ourselves into cognitive classes; we need to do so. Jordan Peterson talks about competence versus dominance hierarchies, and the distinction is relevant. If we don’t figure out who’s smart, then whoever is most forceful will end up in charge. There is a tendency for people who excel with their positional and socio-sexual selves to be deficient in their cognitive, aesthetic, and truth-seeking selves; this puts society at peril when the “strong man” wins.
Let’s talk about politics. As I don’t enjoy the leftist tendency to moralize intelligence– the attitude that people of average capability could be “like us” if they worked harder, which implies there is something wrong with them when they are not– and although basic income will be one of many needed tools in the future, I don’t think it’s enough to give people a sense of dignity. In any case, though it is necessary for us to have cognitive classes, this tendency of ours creates messes.
First, no one should live an inferior life because of low intelligence. It’s a bit inconsistent that we (rightly) view it as tasteless to spit on people with retardation (IQ 0–69) but have no problem trashing the merely “stupid” from 70 to 99. (I recognize that there is such a thing as elective moral stupidity– also known as ignorance– but that, my friends, occurs often in high-IQ people, too.) This said, our society is at a level of complexity that requires smart people to make the decisions. Preference aggregation (e.g., voting and market economies) serves two separate purposes. One is to make decisions; the other is to hold those in power accountable. The latter is why voting matters: an individual vote almost never sways an election; but, when a group can vote, politicians are more accountable to that group.
What do we want? Well, we want complex decisions to be made by a cognitive elite (based on skill and taste, as innate intelligence isn’t worth much on its own) but we need for people in that elite to be accountable to everyone else.
That, on its own, is a hard problem. How do we establish a cognitive elite that can make complex decisions quickly, without them becoming self-serving or unaccountable to those with less genetic fortune?
Worse, we’re not even at the point where that is our problem. Representative democracy is the purported solution, but it doesn’t always work that way. Business bureaucracies (which have become, in the past 50 years, more powerful and important than governments) don’t even try to come close.
The cognitive self may approach a child’s perfect rationality– smart, not yet corrupted by socio-sexual impulses– but it also has the child’s timidity. The selves just below and above it dominate the culture. Those who master positional dynamics run the business world. The socio-sexual winners become the in-crowd and run the culture. We have a rapacious toddler elite running us from the economic right; we have a self-involved adolescent elite running us from the cultural left.
Beyond this, one questions whether it is beneficial to be supremely cognitive provides real merit. There are millions of math problems one could solve, or books one could write, or pieces of music one could compose; which ones matter? We have to peer into the higher selves to find a why for all this glucose- or electricity-consuming cognition.
One could, in principle, ask whether the middle digit of the 10237th prime is even or odd. (Pedant note: if the number’s length is even, break the tie at left.) In every universe, the answer is the same. It would take eons to answer this (from what we know now) and there seems to be no purpose in doing so.
I mentioned that dysfunction and irresolution of the sensory self seems to be a lethargic depression. In the positional self, it’s anxiety. In the cognitive self, it’s obsession. One can see the downward cascade of dysfunction, I’d imagine: obsession often leads to anxiety, which can spill over into lethargic depression.
4. The Socio-Sexual Self (Adolescence)
Sexuality exists in most creatures, but socio-sexuality seems limited to the most advanced animals: humans, cetaceans, and primates. Sex becomes a tool to avoid conflict– two same-sex conspecifics might prefer each other, rather than fighting over a mate– and to build intense relationships of trust (notably, pair bonding).
In less advanced animals, sexuality seems to occur as-needed, in response to a drive that only wells up on occasion– because sex is dangerous, and nature built animals to take as few unnecessary risks as possible. This is why it’s not cruel to neuter pets; sex is not something they always want or see as a necessary part of life. It’s something they get an irritating, dangerous drive to do on occasion.
Socio-sexuality re-introduces the irrationality that the cognitive self tried to stifle. When we’re 11, we find it ridiculous that a 16-year-old would react so strongly to a transient facial blemish. Our intelligence is not refined at 11, but we may be at our most rational. At that age, we are on the younger “mountains are mountains” side of the socio-sexual drama on most television; we see the humor in people acting absurd but lack the experience to understand their motivations.
Socio-sexuality hits us like a wrecking ball. I don’t think animals, except when in heat, care much about sex. In general, most mammals aren’t choosy. Two males might fight over a female, but the female would be happy to go off with either one (or a third male who is smart enough to come after the fight starts, and not fight at all). Humans are, and it’s this choosiness (in both of the main genders, despite stereotypes) that leads us to take a renewed interest in social hierarchies.
The socio-sexual self can be nasty: it understands the lower selves and can use them, in a person and in others. It can combine the primal meanness of the positional self with the infinite calculation of the human cognitive self to devise all kinds of creative punishments: even non-physical ones (induced depression, ostracism) that leave no marks. Almost every animal fights; the socio-sexual self, however, can come up with torture. It can lead the cognitive self on a chain; it can make a smart person wrong in hyper-intelligent ways that even she is not smart enough to think her way out of; that “four-wheel drive” problem of getting stuck in inaccessible places.
Though I suspect that the higher animals have flickers of socio-sexuality, it dominates humans. Quite a few people reach this level of maturity and stop. The positional and cognitive selves give them methods to go about the world; the socio-sexual self gives them motivation; it’s the why. The cognitive self learns that paper pictures of dead people are a fantastic way to acquire needed things without positional conflict; the socio-sexual self falls so far in love with dead-people-paper (and the sexual access it provides) that it’ll destroy the whole world, just to acquire more.
Socio-sexuality is also where genders diverge most. This is probably socially constructed. The sensory, positional, and cognitive selves seem very similar, despite society’s differing reactions to each. Socio-sexuality is gendered.
The toddler realizes, to great fear, that not all humans are friendly and that an authority/status ranking, as well as an obvious size/strength/can-kill-you ranking, exist– and that they’re at the bottom of both. The cognitive self provides distraction and a quest for self-improvement, and it is perhaps for this reason that cognitively under-satisfied (i.e., bored) children fall into positional agony. Cognition is an end of its own for a while, until we experience intense impulses (often negative ones, often ones we know we can’t act on) and start to wonder what we are cogitating toward. We are bigger and stronger and (unlike toddlers) starting to be sexually appealing; we can climb those hierarchies now… maybe?
Those hierarchies traumatized us at 2; we threw tantrums when we learned that we couldn’t just take candy from the store. From 3 to 11 or so, we decided that adult stuff was not only not for us, but seemed a lot more boring than reading, writing, running around outside, trying to hit a road sign with a slingshot. Then, we’re 12, and we want to climb those adult hierarchies… but we’re absolutely pathetic as adults. We still need guidance. Gendered socialization seems to come in. Boys are usually told to resolve this re-emergent positional trauma by keeping with the cognitive stuff: gain skills and competencies, learn how to survive, learn how to defend others. Girls are told they are beautiful (or, in some sad cases, not) based on their innate traits. Even into adulthood, society seems to rate men based on what they do and women based on what (it thinks) they are. This is why there can be a celebrity “It girl” but never an “It guy”.
The masculine regime seems harsher: who wouldn’t rather be than have to do, to earn one’s keep? In some ways it is. For one: it’s punishing in adolescence. 20-year-old women are beautiful (not to say older women aren’t) but the vast majority of 20-year-old men haven’t accomplished a damn thing; they can’t do much at all. It forces men to learn and demonstrate a set of domain-specific (and somewhat icky) social skills (“game”) that women don’t need if they’re even average looking. Yet, in most societies, the feminine regime is a lot more repressive. Why? Forget the idealized societal notion of valuing women for what they are as opposed to men for what they do. Society will get a woman’s (or a man’s) what-you-are (reputation) wrong and not care; sometimes it’s deliberate, extortive, or even malevolent. Men suffer from this but, in most societies, women suffer more.
Socio-sexuality brings the old positional dreads back, in men and women. We men realize that some are more competent (in athletics, or in academics, or in the slimy reptilian positional game of real-world “work”) than we’ll ever be. Women realize that some women are more beautiful. We do resolve this, later on: self-definition. We drop out of “the Great Game” and find a game we can win. .
Middle school, in the U.S., seems to be the worst. There is one hierarchy and everyone wants to know where they stand. I remember estimating my popularity, at age 12, by drawing names from the yearbook and taking a weighted average (based on other peoples’ popularity, as I guessed) of how much (I thought) they liked me. Basically, I invented PageRank before Google, though I only did one iteration, because I didn’t know what eigenvectors were and my programming skills were limited to QBasic. And, of course, the numbers were made up and probably wrong. Still, middle school is a time where there’s one popularity hierarchy and everyone has a position on it.
In high school, people diverge. One can have value without playing the terrifying Great Game (to use Tyrion Lannister’s phrase) and do something else. Bad at football? Play chess. Or learn a musical instrument. That won’t get you laid in high school, but it’ll get you respected, and (they tell you… haha) it’ll get you laid in college.
Socio-sexual ranking systems affect our self-image much more than a purely positional ranking. We know that positional rankings are volatile and dangerous. If an idiot with a sharp piece of metal (e.g., a knife) comes at me, demanding my wallet, he outranks me in the moment (being able to end my earthly existence) and I will give it. I’ll be shaken, I’m sure, but I’m not going to think less of myself for giving the wallet up. Socio-sexual rankings, on the other hand, impress memories. Worse yet, they generate feedback loops that can be impossible to get out of. A person with poor grades for three years is unlikely to get into an elite college with a senior-year turnaround; a 25-year-old male virgin is unattractive, for that reason alone, to most women his age; disliked or low-ranking people are excluded from future opportunities.
So, when the One Hierarchy of middle school fades, as the high schoolers develop cliques, that’s actually a good thing. People whose physical features are unattractive to most can often find partners who seek those traits out. We decide what we value and what we don’t; this is why adolescence is a time with the strongest focus on self-definition and expression. Even if we are not globally remarkable, we can be unique and un-rankable.
Unfortunately, this dissembling only goes so far. We see some of it in high school, and more in college, but then when we leave college… a new One Hierarchy emerges: money. We’re on the bottom, mostly. Whether we want to be or not, we’re back in the Great Game with everyone. To make it even worse, it’s a rigged Great Game; undeserving rich kids, whom we defeated in academic competitions where their parents couldn’t buy scores, rocket to the top of the corporate world. People of merit, meanwhile, get stuck trying to figure out what the fuck happened.
College, in terms of the message it sends to young people, is a lie. It implodes in late adolescence and it’s painful. It gives 25 percent of the population a leadership education, for which it charges them an immense price, while failing to divulge that only 1 percent of them will get leadership positions (and that those were mostly pre-selected at birth).
Here’s how I’ve come to view it. Society creates “cells” within which intellectual merit– talent and hard work– matter. Middle class kids who go to Harvard are one cell; the blue-blooded kids who got in with 1250 SATs because “we’ve gone here for generations” are in a different cell, even though they attend the same university. Minority students at elite colleges often end up in their own cells and this is called “self-segregation”, though I’m afraid it’s not entirely elective. At any rate, at age 21, we are maximally invested in the value system of our cell and ranked according to what we value: one might be the #3 physics major but the best in the lab; or a mediocre student but an excellent poet.
When college ends, most of us go into the working world– graduate school is another topic, for another time, but not all that different– and all those cell walls dissolve, and the shuffling continues, and most of us are back around what could have been predicted when we were born, and we don’t know what happened. We learn then that the animalistic positional nonsense never went away. Uh, oops.
There’s one place on a college campus where the terrible old world– ancient, vicious impulses and desires– breaks through: “hookup culture”, which is a polite term for an acquisitive, alcohol-fueled, and combative sexuality that leaves everyone but sociopaths dissatisfied. Men struggle to get sex; women get sex easily but struggle just as hard as men to get respect. It leads to “rape culture”. Right-wing psychopathy (though it is apolitical and for historical reasons associated with the left) tears a hole in the college utopia’s walls, and the miasma breaks through.
At least, for that, one can opt out. The depiction of college life suggests that dystopian casual socio-sexuality is the norm on campuses, but here’s the good news: it’s a few loud (and usually quite damaged) people making most of the noise. Pair bonding and healthy monogamous relationships are still very much “in”; they never went away.
The common currencies of American society seem to be socio-sexual. We work to rank ourselves; when young, so we can fuck more; when colder, so our little fuck-trophies can get into better schools than others’ little fuck-trophies, and grow up to be executives who boss around others’ now-adult fuck-trophies, and then go on to send their own little fuck-trophies (fuck-trophies of fuck-trophies) to better schools so… you get the point.
It’s an ugly thing to realize, that this is the heartbeat of commercial life. It’s not that sex is bad. Of course, it’s not. The zero-sum socio-sexuality that seems to live in human society is disgusting; sex itself isn’t disgusting at all.
We could do so much better. Sex isn’t a zero-sum commodity, after all. Economic inequality causes rich and poor people both to have less sex (and to have less stable sexual relationships)– some overwork themselves, while those in low positions lose desire. A few people’s unresolved (and perhaps infinite) socio-sexual desires have created a dismal society that’s obsessed with sex but, in fact, has little of it.
I believe that many European societies have progressed into the next phase of maturation, while the U.S. fumbles about in an adolescence that lasts too long.
I mentioned the failure modes of the lower selves; lethargy, for the sensory self; anxiety, for the positional self; obsession, for the cognitive self. What does failure in the socio-sexual self look like? There are two kinds that seem different, but might be similar; ill-gotten or perverse socio-sexual success leads to narcissism. Socio-sexual failure leads to a form of depression that’s higher-functioning but more profound than lethargy: despair. Lethargic depression (e.g., after a panic attack or illness) comes from defeat; despair and dread linger when defeat continues without respite.
Most of us, thank God, do not live in socio-sexual defeat forever. We learn how to relate to other people, we better ourselves, we start dating, we get married. We move on from socio-sexual squabbles and start asking deeper questions: what is the good life?
Most of us are capable of formulating that question. It’s only an artifact of how our society’s constructed, in the U.S., that has us answering to the avaricious, perennially socio-sexually irresolute, tasteless and unethical (i.e., lacking the aesthetic and truth-seeking selves) half-men that become corporate executives. We should become more like Europe, cast those executives aside, and dedicate our lives to things that really matter.
4B. Aside on Corporate Misery and Conflict Between the Socio-Sexual and Aesthetic Worlds.
Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional. I obviously am not the first to say this, but it applies here. Quite a large number of people never develop the fifth (aesthetic) or sixth (truth-seeking) self, much less the higher ones.
Most of us grow out of the socio-sexual contest. Why? Because, after 30, it’s not hard to “get sex”. One can pay for it. An average-looking (or even below-average-looking) person has typically developed the social skills necessary to find casual hookups. Or, one can go a more traditional route: get married.
Furthermore, most people learn either through direct experience or others’ tales that the socio-sexual hierarchy is bunk, at least as a predictor of the quality of an experience. Or, to put it bluntly: most people at its apex (in both genders) are too selfish to be decent lovers. Emotional intimacy matters so much more than socio-sexual ranking; people realize that and say: to hell with the latter. Thus, they enter full adulthood.
So why would a person, now married and 30 years old, care about the Great Game at all?
Well, we still need this stupid little thing, a socio-sexual token called “a job”, to have an income. That’s non-negotiable for most of us. If we have children, we need to line up schools and connections and (in today’s world) first jobs to keep them from falling into society’s blender blades.
So, we end up contending with socio-sexual machinery that other people created and that has no value. We have to go to work, and most of us do that in the corporate world.
The dismal socio-sexuality of the workplace could merit its own 10,000-word essay: how it is aggressively patriarchal and heterosexual, even when run by women or gay people; how it sublimates male bisexuality into homosadism, with executives inclined to abuse men because they are ashamed of their sexual feelings for them; and, finally, how it has emasculated high-performing men by forcing them to contend with harem dynamics.
The main issue I’ll cover is this. Most of us, by 30 if not before, have settled down into a life where sexuality is (as is much preferred, thank you) a private matter. It’s distasteful to talk about one’s sex life, if one is supposed to be having sex with only one person. Public socio-sexuality becomes a bit shameful. It probably should be. What good did it ever do? Sex is a good thing; socio-sexuality? Not so much.
I disagree with those who attribute all creativity to sublimated sexuality. The best creativity comes from all of the selves: aesthetic and truth-seeking as well. This said, the crass minuscule creativity of the corporate world– the approval-seeking, inoffensive humor; the slight variations on sickening conformity that somehow stand out– is probably socio-sexual in its origins.
One thing about the corporate workplace that makes it so hostile to life is that, while it professes to be a cognitive hierarchy, it is a weird hybrid of a positional and socio-sexual hierarchy. Let’s focus on the socio-sexual component first: the people at the top are effete half-men, exhausted by decades of subordination, humiliation, creative atrophy, and idiocy. One cannot exceed them in creativity and survive, although they have so little creativity– note the irony, in that the self-appointed socio-sexual winners are obese, self-indulgent men with broken families– that self-deletion is often the only viable approach. On its own socio-sexual terms, the corporate world is a miasma of failure.
The corporate world has no aesthetic merits: it’s aggressively tasteless. It has no truth-seeking value: it actively works to destroy truth, lest it disturb the lies that prop it up. It does not have much cognitive merit– smart people do not succeed in it. Yet, when the supposed socio-sexual winners are effete, obese half-men whose families despise them, it’s hard to swallow that component either. What’s left, to dominate daily activity, is positional nonsense: open-plan offices and status checks and pointless deadlines– psychiatric warfare to remind the arbitrarily unfortunate that the arbitrarily fortunate people in charge, are in charge.
5. The Aesthetic Self (Maturity; the Artist)
We’re supposed to realize that there’s more to life than incessant competition. Most of us do, especially when we lose at rigged competitions over and over. We grow to value experiences more than possessions, and processes rather than results.
We might paint or write something, sell it to no one, or even destroy it.
The aesthetic self can be selfish, or it can be altruistic, but it seems to the be the first self that considers other people for its own reasons. We learn, much earlier with our positional self, to be “nice” to avoid punishment, and we develop finer social skills to ascend socio-sexual hierarchies, but we learn in adulthood that beautiful experiences can have more value– or, at least, a different kind of value– when shared.
True beauty– the first crack of snowy air in November, the first kiss with a new lover– is often fleeting. If you stare at it, it’s gone, just as any word becomes absurd if you repeat it a million times in your head. The only long-term strategy for achieving consistent beauty (as opposed to boring, repetitive indulgence) is to work to give beautiful experiences to others. The aesthetic self seeks the profound and eternal; it also seeks intimacy in the now.
The aesthetic self isn’t always a wondrous or virtuous thing. It can be repugnant, depending on what it finds beautiful. De Sade, I would surmise, found others’ misery and humiliation to be beautiful. The aesthetic self’s tolerance for discomfort can lead it to cause pain for others, too. It would probably steal another airline passenger’s first-class ticket to avoid the unpleasantness of coach, if it could get away with it.
The traditional result of sex is children, and few experiences are so profound as those involving kids. This is good and bad. The aesthetic self drives adults (some of them, anyway) to care about their kids and want positive experiences– and, one imagines, a good life– for them. But there’s much evil that comes from private child-raising, too. The intense bonds people feel with their own progeny– and, often, something on the spectrum between apathy and competitive rivalry toward other’s children– are, no doubt, a driving force behind the proto-fascist nightmare we call “Corporate America”.
One of the deepest dysfunctions of the aesthetic self occurs in the world of recreational drug use. I’m not talking about addiction here, because addiction crushes all selves. LSD, cannabis, and psilocybin are not addictive, and they’re not the evil terror drugs they’re made out to be. (They are dangerous, but the probability of long-term psychiatric casualty from one-time use is probably closer to 1-in-100 than what mainstream society seems to think.) Yet, I’ve seen users of these drugs get wrapped up in “experience chasing”. There’s no physical addiction, but they have to have the next bigger and more powerful experience, to trip harder and longer than they ever have before. It becomes a form of escapism.
Toward the end of that, the psychonaut-cum-burnout has usually been hospitalized at least once, and is likely to suffer panic attacks and HPPD, at which point the drug of abuse is often alcohol– possibly self-medication for acquired anxiety. Alcoholism is never good, but when it’s combined with the medicines one needs to manage panic attacks, it can be fatal.
The aesthetic self’s limitations should be known. Immediate pleasure isn’t always wanted. I don’t know from experience whether heroin is pleasurable (having never done it) but the reasons not to do it are obvious.
This said, the aesthetic self isn’t bad on its own. Religious anti-hedonism is, and we should be thankful for this, dying out. Beauty, joy, and love are what the aesthetic self seeks. The child experiences them but does not know why; the adult has more of a sense of where to find them.
To all of our chagrin, beautiful experiences are rare. There is so much ugliness in the world, and most of it’s unnecessary. Most people spend fifty weeks on pointless, subordinate activity in order to enjoy two weeks of vacation (that they don’t much enjoy because they’re just “recovering”). We live in a world where dysfunction of the aesthetic self– tastelessness– is the norm.
There’s another issue. The first three selves are gender-neutral. Male or female, we all have senses, we’re all animals, we all use the same words. The socio-sexual self incorporates gender into its identity, almost by definition. The aesthetic self need not be gendered, but in our society, it’s treated as feminine– while our society overvalues what it perceives as masculine. The aesthetic self, it says, is useless, chthonic, subjective, and self-indulgent. This is wrong. Beauty and joy are reasons to live; increasing a factory’s efficiency by 2 percent is not one.
One who becomes fully adult will be tasteful and altruistic, I’d argue. It is meaningless to “be happy” if not virtuous; it is pointless to have beautiful experiences but not share them. One ought to wish to make the world better not only for oneself, but for everyone, and for generations to come. This requires insight, knowledge, and care. One must become a truth seeker.
6. The Truth-Seeking Self (Elderhood; The Judge)
Archetypically, truth-seeking is the job of an elder, but by this point, these selves have diverged from chronological age. There are 25-year-olds who are deep truth seekers, and lecherous, socio-sexual old men.
Perhaps it’s the experience of facing death that activates the truth-seeking self, but we all face death. Not one of us shall escape it.
Erik Erickson described the midlife conundrum as one between generativity and stagnation, and I think he’s mostly right.
This is one form of the midlife crisis, which seems to occur when a person’s lowest unsatisfied self charges to the fore.
The pathetic, self-indulgent midlife crises we love to mock (cf. American Beauty) are at the socio-sexual level. But, it’s possible to have a midlife crisis on an aesthetic or truth-seeking level. I’m pretty sure my midlife crisis started around my mother’s death (when I was 29) and it has led me to nobler goals: I want to write beautiful prose, and (though I write fantasy, whose reputation is of being purely aesthetic, not literary) I want to delve into deep issues of the human condition, as well as I can.
Lest it seem that I can ranking truth over beauty, contra Keats, that’s not my objective. They are interconnected. Truth can be a source of beauty, or a mechanism that allows us to find it.
All of our selves have value. Our sensory self tells us where we are in the world. Our positional self exists to keep us out of danger. Our cognitive self gives us language; our socio-sexual self gives us motivation until the aesthetic self is mature enough to take over. Truth that does not, in some way, provide beautiful experiences or prevent ugly ones, at least to someone, is mere cognitive formalism. The objective of a truth-seeker isn’t to discover things that are true, because there are myriad meaningless truths, but to to reach the best– deepest, most resonant, most useful– truths.
We realize that we’re going to die. (That is the Truth before which other truths bow.) We realize that none of us know what comes afterward, not even the people (on both sides) who think they do. But we can give our life maximal value and purpose, and that seems to be the best preparation for death.
This truth-seeking self can take us to ethical heights. It can lead us to build better societies. However, in corrupt people, its tools can become calamitous. True truth is charismatic, but equally so are many false truths. That’s what fascism and religious cults (charismatic, well-structured false truths) teach us. Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis were drug-abusing mystics, and it’s likely that they activated these higher selves– the truth-seeking self, and possibly the higher, mystical ones– though they did great evil.
Each self has a different notion of conflict and what is “bad”: painful for the sensory self; threatening for the positional self; stupid for the cognitive self; disgusting for the socio-sexual self; ugly for the aesthetic self. The truth-seeking self confronts all manners of bad: the unethical, which is distinct from the immoral, which is distinct from evil. It even recognizes the favored conflicts of literary fiction: good versus good (Little Fires Everywhere) and bad versus bad (Gone Girl).
This said, while the truth-seeking self might learn of good and evil, nothing always compels it to choose good. We bet, in kind with Martin Luther King’s theory of history, that a certain Law of Large Numbers applies, as most of us choose good. Even though a small percentage of people ever activate the truth-seeking self– we still call it “visionary”, though it would be mundane if we were more evolved– it seems that enough do so, and enough of those break the right way, that human civilization advances, if slowly.
The truth-seeking self is rational, wise, and kind. It knows many things. It knows why ugly things are sometimes beautiful and why beauty becomes stale. It understands socio-sexual manipulations, and it gives a purpose to cognition. It seems as far as we can go– the highest adult self– and communicate with others. Beyond its threshold, we seem to go alone.
Yet, there’s much it can’t hack. The truth-seeking self must admit not to know what it does not know. What happens after we die, we ask it. It cannot answer.
The next three selves are the hardest to explore, or even define. They’re dangerous, but important; and that they are dangerous does not mean we should shun them. After all, our lives end with a transition that we regard as supremely hazardous. If we can safely integrate these selves, it might be worth a try.
7. The Self-Revealing Self (The Shaman; the Hero)
The strangest and most powerful experiences confound our aesthetic principles, and our notions of truth. Lucid dreaming suggests that we could, in principle, have any experience we want. Could we create a dream world in which 1 + 1 = 3? How long could we live there? In fact, “drug dreams” by former so-called “psychonauts” suggest that the humble, safe dream state is more powerful (and almost certainly less dangerous) than many psychoactive chemicals.
The subconscious and the underworld live here. The masculine parts of the woman, the feminine parts of the man, and alternative answers to questions one thought were resolved long ago, live in this deep ocean. We and it communicate, but sparsely. When we throw a problem into its basement, go to bed, and solve it the next morning, the work was done in a place that exists in all of us, but that few activate as a self.
The self-revealing self is a reality smasher, just like the socio-sexual one. Our mid-childhood rationality fell to pieces when we discovered orgasm; but, we find ways to integrate that. Late-adulthood rationality struggles at the world’s edges, but those come. We think strange thoughts as we go to sleep. We know we’ll die.
What, in the end, is good? What’s bad? Can’t a well-intended action cause misery? (Obvious answer: yes.) Why can a drug like LSD give some people an immensely positive experience and lead others into hell? How can we make ourselves into artists (aesthetic) or judges (truth-seeking) if we don’t know the first damn thing about the world we live in, or who we are?
The self-revealing self’s name suggests recursion. That’s probably intentional. It’s a weird space to explore. Let’s talk about one (and not the most common) usage of the term psychedelic.
The term psychedelic means “mind-revealing”, but psychedelic drugs are one of the less important (and more dangerous) ways to bring this aspect to the fore. The drugs have shown utility in controlled usage; however, uncontrolled hedonistic use, especially by experience-chasing young people, seems to do far more harm than good. It’s probably better, for most of us, to take the slow route: to meditate, and get there when we get there, rather than strapping chemical rockets to our asses.
In fact, most people associate psychedelia with visual hallucinations, overwhelming emotions, or intense introspection. Only the last of these seems like it might belong to the self-revealing circuit. The “trippy” psychedelia is merely hedonic/aesthetic, and there are safer ways to activate that self. If visuals are your thing, go to an art museum. If you want to explore consciousness safely, consider brainwave entrainment (e.g., binaural beats, isochronic tones). We still don’t understand these drugs well enough for anyone to say they aren’t dangerous. The drugs seem to be reasonably safe under controlled settings, and can produce higher-self experiences if used meditatively, but casual use seems to bring risk without profundity, and anyone who uses LSD as a party drug is begging the gods for disaster.
Having discussed what it’s not, what is the self-revealing self? Oh, this is hard to say. Let me first haul out a metaphor: language and writing.
The sensory self knows only sounds: a tiger’s roar. It does not stop for words, and words do not kindly stop for it.
The positional self understands commands and very simple sentences (usually with a first- or second-person subject.) Stop! Milk me! (This is a toddler requesting milk, not to be milked.) Go! I’m cold!
The cognitive self has the full faculty of any modern language, but little nuance. That’s enough for a proof or technical writing.
The socio-sexual self will indulge, and can write perfectly salable
porn erotica, and one who desperately needs to sell writing could stop there.
Commercial novelists engage with the aesthetic self: they provide an emotional response, whether it’s a form of intimacy (romance novels, which, contrary to their reputation, are more about the emotional bond of the characters than the lurid aspects) or excitement (thrillers, which keep the reader in life-or-death suspense) or fear (horror, leveraging aesthetic paradoxes) or intellectual achievement (mystery, leveraging the “Aha!” sensation) or wonder (fantasy, bringing us back to a child’s sense of a bigger world). Provoking an emotional, aesthetic response in the reader is the writer’s goal: a few do it well.
There’s nothing wrong with commercial writing, though I prefer to write literary fantasy. To be honest about it, the best storytellers are often commercial writers; because they spend less time per book, they get more experience writing stories.
Literary novelists– the next tier up in difficulty and prestige, though I don’t intend to knock what commercial writers do– seek more than an emotional response. Aesthetics are important to them, but psychological and social truths are even more important. The goal might be to capture, in full accuracy, what it was like to live in Seattle in 1995, or to have been a 40-year-old Buddhist priest who joined a hedge fund in 2006. Or, perhaps the goal is to explore human nature under adversity, with a fable set among animals in the California woods. The story must be engaging, and the prose must be very good, but an additional objective to the aesthetic one is theme: to give what could be a dry, 20,000-word essay, instead, the human power of a 100,000-word story. These novels reach a truth-seeking height.
(For an aside, I am not saying that thrillers, science fiction, or fantasy novels can’t be literary. Metrorealism, or literary-the-genre, is a good genre but not there’s plenty of great stuff outside of it.)
Something very few writers excel at, and it requires a light touch, but an incredible amount of work, is to go to the next level: to master self-revealing detail (and remember that the self being revealed is a character, not author). Aesthetic, commercial writers focus on the story and characters– the art of life. Truth-seeking, literary writers focus on these elements, but also the sentences and diction– the art of life and the art of writing. Beyond that, though, there is something that is hard to put a name on, that comes out of the most precise writing. You see it in a million micro-decisions. Just now, I wrote “hard to put a name on”, not “on which it’s hard to put a name”. I wanted German bluntness, not Latinate refinement. One must know the rules, but know exactly when it is in character to break them.
For example, literary agents (most of whom are failed editors that real editors use as gatekeepers) despise exclamation points. Hate, hate, hate! You will not get one if you use two or more. Of course, that mark is overused by mediocre writers, but there are times when it is in order. It differentiates hot anger from cold anger. (Villains who don’t use exclamation points are scarier.) If you’re writing in character as a six-year-old, you should use it (and you should lay off the complex sentences). If you’re writing a 30-year-old, of course, the weather is probably not “sunny!”
Now, anything that would be called “psychedelic writing”… I would do everything I could not to read, much less write. But, what the best writing does, that no other medium matches, is the ability not just to “get inside a character”, like some kind of alien invader, but to walk pace-by-pace with her. Commercial writing (aesthetic) lets us vet stories that Hollywood may one day pick up. Middle literary writing (truth-seeking) lets an essay be told in an engaging way, but a documentary can do that. There’s a self-revealing level that’s a tad bit higher. No film can capture that wretch, Humbert Humbert, the way Nabokov’s words do. The magic telepathy of fiction (which is absent in mediocre fiction that can still be entertaining) requires a writer to have the talent, experience, and sheer masochism to fuss over commas and pronouns and even information-theoretic concerns. I allow Farisa to use more complex sentences than less intelligent characters, just as Othello’s and Hamlet’s vocabularies exceeded those of bit characters. I cannot promise that what I’m writing will be “high literary” fiction, but I will try. Farisa would put a comma where another character might not.
There’s a metaphor. I hope it helps. It may not. The self-revealing mind tends to poke out in minute details. Why does green have different connotations from red? Why does the female hero have a mark on her shoulder? Why does order beget chaos, and chaos order? What is this world and what are we trying to do here? What awaits us in the underworld or the hereafter?
One of the problems the self-revealing self presents is that people seem to gain strange beliefs when they activate it. I don’t know why that is. I don’t bristle when people claim to remember past lives or understand the afterlife, because I don’t see those topics as necessarily supernatural. If we exist after we die, and have the same terminology, we’ll regard the afterlife as “natural”. I am skeptical when people claim their near-death experiences have given them the ability to predict the future, and that Japan will sink into the ocean in 1997 (which, thank God, it never did). I don’t believe in psychic powers and so, no, I don’t think the self-revealing (or higher) selves can unlock them.
What the self-revealing self can give us is a certain ability to program ourselves; to examine our motivations and thought processes, and retrain them. One might call this “metaprogramming”, but the term has been used by so many unsavory characters that I’m hesitant to use that term.
So much misguided nonsense has been said about “the psychedelic”– and the irresponsible 1960s drug culture did far more harm than good, as recreational drug use seems to be the easiest but worst way to access this– that I’m hesitant to risk adding to the nonsense pile. I hope I’ve done what I can to make the self-revealing self clearer. Most people experience it, but only in dreams, and the few moments before and after sleep. It’s there, and it’s mostly subconscious; it’s worth listening to, but most of us, probably, don’t need to yell at it.
8. The Supremely Vulnerable Self (Atonement; 0)
Let’s say that one mastered the true psychedelic world, turning life into a 24/7 lucid dream. One could have whole-body orgasms with a single thought, decide to perceive orange and blue, and drop out of all human misery. One could burn to death, and still achieve the deep bliss of meditation.
Would that be the final goal? Or would it get boring? We do not seem to be satisfied with any final goal. Is that a result of our human clinging, or our infinite spirit?
Let’s just talk about our experiences as earthbound creatures who know they are going to die. We are stuck between two terrible notions: annihilation and eternity. We can conceive of the possibility of, but could never construct with the tools we have now, an eternal existence that we would want. Our physical brains would run out of space and we’d lose treasured memories (and, besides, the universe will die out some day). A non-physical afterlife is plausible, but we can’t imagine what its principles are. Does it also obey thermodynamic principles? Eternity is distressing; eternal anything is unsettling. At that scale, we don’t even understand time. Has the universe existed for 13.7 billion years, or did a 10-ish-billion-years-old come into existence when there was first conscious life to observe it? How can we talk about life after death when our notions of before and after are bound to such a pedestrian notion of time?
Yet, we also hate the idea that consciousness might end; not the feared (non-)experience but the lack of completion, and the sheer injustice– some people are born, live in pain for a few hours, then die– that it would imply.
If we experience something again and again, it eventually loses meaning. Its hedonic value seems to go to zero. Of course, if there is no experience after death, the hedonic payoff of that is zero. Can we even conceive of nothing? What does nothing even mean? If we let go of everything and float in the void, do we know that we are still there? If we are not there, then what perceives the void? Is there a void? If there is not a void, then did we ever disappear?
Sensory deprivation and deep meditation can lead this way. Some people have achieved it with drugs, but I don’t recommend that route; dissociative drugs especially are dangerous. A severe panic attack induces this, and I don’t recommend that either. Some call this ego death, although I think there are varieties that are terrifyingly with-ego, e.g. “What is happening to me?” A panic attack feels fatal and final; in fact, the terrifying experience is arguably when one is most alive, obsessed to a hot point with survival. There is a state of chaos in which anything seems possible, in which it is as plausible that one is the chair sits on as one is oneself. I can’t put that feeling into words; it’s deeply weird. This experience can multiply by zero, producing nothing; it can divide by zero, producing anything.
All of this– the proliferation and therefore devaluation of experience, or the absence of true feeling– can lead to despondency. I believe it is related to the “dark night of the soul” that St. John of the Cross wrote about. It can be a state of peace, or one of profound insecurity.
One might ask what I think happens after death. Obviously, I don’t know the answer, any more than anyone else does. My guess: the terrifying answer is freedom. The good news: I don’t think it’s liable to last that long, hence reincarnation. I do not think most of us (and I include myself) here are advanced to a state where we can tolerate such freedom indefinitely; rather, we bind to something new, and are reborn.
Just as sensory deprivation frees us, to the point where we experience psychedelia and possible ego loss (even without drugs) death liberates us from a body and a brain. We may not be able to think without a brain– we know that in this world, we do all our thinking with it– so even there, we’re at a loss to imagine what goes on. We might just drift.
I would guess that there is some beneficial-entropic process– a “heat” death we’d actually want– of consciousness toward a final state that mixes enlightenment with annihilation. The good parts of us continue; the bad parts are burned away by a force one might call “God”. That course, I imagine, is long: millions or billions of lives. As for the space between them, I wonder if a not-yet enlightened person like me can do much there. The tendency to take form and be born again may be irresistible.
I could describe my attempts to meditate into the eighth self, but I could not express them to anyone without comparable experience (who, for that matter, has no use for such an explanation). I think zen koans, as objects of meditation, help us get a sense of what we’re dealing with. What is the sound of one hand clapping? The answer doesn’t matter; if an answer existed, it would be nonsense. Think on the question, for an hour. Maybe two. The process of answering the koan is what matters; that there is no answer lets the process (helpfully) avoid completion.
This is a trip I’ll take for real in about 40–50 years. Whatever I say about it from this side, using the occasional experience that feels like it might be somehow like that, is still a guess.
The space of this self is very dark. Not bad, not evil, any more than light is one or the other. It’s a whale’s song in midnight depths of the ocean. Farisa, in the spring-day forest, closes her eyes and nothing bites her. Dark.
And then, there seems to be light.
9. The Meta-Mortal Self (Return With the Elixir; 1)
There is a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. It is offensive, and it is not true. There are brave, heroic people who are atheists and a close encounter with death need not convince someone to believe in gods or an afterlife.
This said, I doubt there are any nihilists in foxholes. The struggle to survive would, in that moment, provide meaning. The sense of relief, if nothing else, would be pleasant enough that the soldier would feel, or learn, something. Nature abhors a vacuum, and nihilism would implode if it were a thing at all.
That’s why nihilism’s so dangerous. If nihilism stayed nihilistic, it wouldn’t be militant, and therefore it wouldn’t be bad. All of us experience transient personal nihilism; the self described above does, in the extreme. Nihilism’s danger comes from the high likelihood of this void being filled with something we don’t want: avarice, lust, vengeance, or mayhem.
I’ve spoken out against cultural and economic nihilism. As I said, personal nihilism isn’t evil; it seems to be an inevitable stage. There is, therefore, no value in defining “nihilist” as a tribe– we should not; that must be clear by now– as if we were not all prone to nihilism, because we are. Some religious people attempt to “other” their own doubts by lashing out at nonbelievers. It should be obvious that I’m against that. It’s cruel. It does not make sense to call a person “a nihilist” as if it were a permanent commitment; it is something all of us struggle with: how do we find purpose in what seems to be an oppressively short life, in a world that seems godless and, in the larger scale, mindless?
This is hard to answer. The existentialist view is that meaning emerges from subjectivity and will. It need not be eternal to have value. I tend to agree with this. Even if existence is eternal, it’s not guaranteed to be meaningful. There could be one miserable person in heaven who sits around and says, “This is bullshit”. Perhaps heaven and hell are the same place– the allegory of the long spoons– and heaven is therefore conditioned upon humanist ethics (as opposed to the might-makes-right, anti-humanist, predestination-heavy theology of, say, the founders of our country’s so-called “Protestant work ethic”).
This is something I fight with in Farisa’s Crossing. There is a fantasy race that, in addition to having long lifespans, has developed the ability to recall past lives in their entirety. They know that there’s an afterlife. But God? Meaning? They’re as confused as we are.
I use the term meta-mortal because it’s antithetical to immortal. I see a reincarnation model as most likely to be true. The one-life Christian model, if we view 0 and 100 as total depravity and 100 as perfect salvation, seems to send 49.99 to hell and 50.01 to heaven; it seems more likely that 50.01 comes back as 50.01– Brownian motion, not Levy jumps– but, of course, I don’t know. Let’s say that reincarnation is true. This does not make us immortal. It makes us more mortal. It means we die all the time! The tragedy of death is not swept away; it is multiplied.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather go to heaven than be reincarnated, especially if there are no reunions in the time– is there such a notion of time?– between because we all pop in and out at different times. My cats will probably die before me, and they along with a large number of people, I’ll want to see again.
If reincarnation is true, then I’ve died before. To be honest, I don’t fear death– in this life. But I am sure, in such a case, that I have died, in pain and fear, before. It is also possible, then, that I will experience future deaths that I (with different religious or philosophical beliefs) will fear greatly.
And, even if we only live once– either the Christian model, or we face annihilation– there are still little deaths we face constantly… of thoughts, of ways of life, of relationships, of identities. What emerges from all this tragedy? What keeps us going?
As opposed to meta-mortal, I considered the term trans-mortal. In a different world, that would be better. The problem is that I want to avoid association with “trans-humanism”, a tech-industry religion that capitalist atheist nerds invented to come to terms with the fact that they’ve done their 20s wrong. The Singularity (nerd rapture) is something they believe in because, otherwise, they would recognize it as tragic that they wasted their youth for the profit of the super-rich (whom they are exceedingly unlikely to join). It is tragic. Place no hope in robot gods who’ll buy us out of the fact of mortality; to me it seems ludicrous. One should not use religion, of any kind, to blunt the moral stakes of reality. If there is a God, it is not fair to put it on Her to “let God sort ’em out”; clearly, She intended that we not do that.
In that, it seems obvious to me, if there is a God, why She would create a world that seems to be so godless. Death means there are stakes. Life matters. Living in a world that presents the possibility of death being the end means that we do not take life (ours, but more importantly, those of others) for granted. Why, one might ask, would a God “create” us imperfect and force us to go through all this suffering? The answer, I believe, is that God is not omnipotent– or that, if one means God to be an omnipotent being, there is no God. The concept itself breaks down easily. Could an omnipotent being take away its own omnipotence, forever? If no, then such a being is not omnipotent; if yes, then such a being’s omnipotence can be taken away and therefore the being is not omnipotent. It gets weird– weird enough that I’ve rejected the notion of omnipotence wholly. Not only do we not need it to find meaning in life, but it seems to steamroll any attempts we’ve made on the endeavor.
These questions are hard to answer. Heroes return from death, in their archetypical journeys, with an elixir; but our final journey– not necessarily heroic, insofar as it’s completely involuntary– is the one we don’t come back from.
What emerges from the abyss?
I don’t know.
I’m going to go play with my cats, now.