Agency: Illusion vs Gestalt. In Response to Sam Harris
“There is no account of neural anatomy or neural physiology that would make sense of an unchanging ‘self’, freely exercising its will.”
— Sam Harris, Making Sense #181 — The Illusory Self
“…one could spend all of eternity probing the electrical patterns of that computer with an oscilloscope and never find that novel.”
— Robert Pirsig, Lila p.175
“…the cosmos of the materialist…has shrunk…the whole of life is something more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole.”
— G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy p. 24
Back in January, I listened to Sam Harris interviewing Richard Lang about the “headless perspective” (Podcast #181). Lang was a student of Douglass Harding, who wrote the book On Having No Head. Lang explains that his mentor proposed that, as an individual, he was made of layers depending on where the observer was. So, at six feet he was a human. Much closer up he was simply a bunch of cells. From further away he was a city or even a species. It all depended on the resolution of one’s focus. What Lang and Harris are interested in is the resolution of the first person point of view. What is closer than the perspective of seeing cells on one’s skin? At this point, the trajectory of perspective shifts from inward-facing to outward, and the empirical experience of this point of view is that you are a no-thing at the center of a layered onion. One cannot see one’s own head. A bit of a protruding nose, yes, but not the face we have grown accustomed to projecting as our identity. This naturally overlays Harris’ interest in mindfulness meditation, which “is a very simple procedure that allows one to discover the absence of this fake ‘self’ directly” (10:55). I fully agree that headlessness is a refreshing perspective, where we get our own ego to the side and experience a taste of Singularity, as if we are an unchanging self in which the whole universe finds space to act out its Great Pageant.
But Sam has an axe to grind. From his introduction, nearly a half hour long, one is tempted to think that his primary reason to explore the subjective perspective of the unchanging self was simply to prove that we have no control over our thoughts, and therefore have no free will.
Above all, Harris is a determinist. From the time of Aristotle’s unmoved mover to Newton’s every-action-has-a-reaction, there have been determinists of all flavors. But common to all is their worship at the altar of cause and effect. They firmly believe that no matter how many variables, if we just had the computing capacity, any non-linear equation could eventually be ironed out into the linear and, consequently, be predicted. Of course, Harris’ determinism is as complex as it gets, encompassing as many twists and turns as his giant intellect can anticipate. Yet ultimately, in his own words, it’s tumors all the way down.
It might seem strange to say, but the atheistic version of determinism takes me back to my upbringing in a religious, Calvinist home. I remember the same jarring inconsistency between what was to be believed theologically — that God knew everything and even determined everything to be as it was — and the contradictory and constant admonition to improve and choose what was right. You were broken by The Fall, and so could not be good, but you had better be or else there would be consequences. Sam Harris’ language is full of agency, and he has little patience with people who act ignorantly or even immorally. Intellectually, if asked, I assume he would say his frustration and rebukes are not a judgment of failed agency, but simply pressure that acts to push people to change. His passion, however, belies his theories — just as the wooden spoon and disappointing tone of my parents did not convey that I could do nothing apart from God’s determined plan.
This is precisely why I resonate with G. K. Chesterton’s diagnosis of determinism as a form of madness. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton has a chapter titled “The Maniac” where he argues that madness is not a lack of reason, but rather an indication that reason has hijacked all other functions. Despite Orthodoxy having been written in 1908 and my own disagreements with Chesterton’s religious conclusions, I have yet to read anything that dismantles the deterministic viewpoint so effectively.
The most distinguishing characteristic of madness, says Chesterton, is a pairing of “logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.” I experienced this firsthand when I got to know a man with mental issues, who claimed that the government had planted a chip in his head, and that that was why he heard voices. Any mention of perhaps needing some counseling, let alone discrediting his chip theory, was instant reason for him to suspect you were in on the conspiracy. As Chesterton says, “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, so to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable…His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.”
“Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large…
…In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should desire truth; he must desire health…A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut: he will go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner Circle will go round and round the Inner Circle until he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street…
…[Modern thinkers] all have exactly that combination we have noted: the combination of an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense…[Materialism] has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out…
…you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say ‘thank you’ for the mustard…”
As a champion of reason, Sam Harris needs his explanations to cover all the facts, simply and succinctly. As a neurologist, he can say with absolute certainty that the structure of the eye is what led us to discover the blind spot. With the same absolute certainty, he states that the “nonexistence of an unchanging self, in the middle of experience, an ego, the feeling that we call ‘I’, is also predicted by the structure and function of the brain” (9:59). Then he emphatically states the connection between the illusory self and free will.
“The feeling of being an ego in your head — a thinker in addition to the next arising thought — can’t be one’s true point of view. And in fact, the feeling that such a ‘self’ exists, is the same feeling to which people attach this notion of free will. There is no ‘self’ who could enjoy this spurious power of free will. And this is directly suggested by what we know is going on in the world, and in the world inside our heads. There is no account of neural anatomy or neural physiology that would make sense of an unchanging ‘self’ freely exercising its will. And meditation, ultimately, is a very simple procedure that allows one to discover the absence of this fake ‘self’ directly.”
In other words, if you can’t draw a straight line from the physiology of the brain to free will, agency must be made up. In Harris’ own words, “There is just no fine-grained experiential correlate to the common notion of free will.” This is, indeed, a fine example of that specific tension of exhaustive, logical completeness, and a contracted common sense. All through the podcast, and much of Harris’ other works, there is this jarring affirmation of the non-existence of free will, all while using language of agency in nearly every sentence. No less ironic is the dependency of the ever present ‘selves’ in his language, since communication is only possible when there is a distinction between “I” and “you” and things that are “other.” Granted, common sense and language are not guaranteed to be right. To the determinist of the day, I imagine, all these quotes seem tedious at best, and, like any good conspiracy theory, they have an explanation to counter each observation. But that is to miss Chesterton’s point. Any worldview is a matter of faith, because first principles, by definition, cannot be proven and are simply chosen as the ones we believe in. Like mysticism, Chesterton argues, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” One madman’s explanation may be as good as another’s. Chesterton’s point is that something else, a sixth sense, some organ of judgment pertaining to aesthetics, is at play. In fact, I would argue, that when dealing with foundations of systems, aesthetics is the most fundamental. This is precisely why Chesterton says for the madman to escape his insanity he must desire health over truth.
So, when confronted with the idea that some billions of years ago hydrogen atoms collided with other hydrogen atoms at an angle such that it was impossible for there to be any other world than one where I am writing this piece in defiance of determinism, I ‘smell’ what Chesterton ‘smelled.’ My organ of aesthetics tells me this does not ‘ring true.’ It may be rational and even logical, but to claim that all that I am was once made by some clashing of atoms far in the past is a logical completeness with an aesthetic contraction. Surely, we can describe reality with much broader paint strokes than the restrictive chains of cause and effect.
As one who has studied Kierkegaard, albeit a life-time ago, I couldn’t help but notice what an impressive leap of faith was taken in the discussion between Harris and Lang. While the experience of seeing out into a world from a ‘headless’ perspective is available to everyone, not everyone reaches the same conclusion. Harris and Lang expressed surprise and curiosity about the variety of people’s reactions when their attention is brought to the singularity or “oneness” of the subjective experience from the first person point of view. But the two of them talk as if the place they themselves land after such an experience should be a foregone, logical conclusion. Surely they are not unaware of how they are tapping into thousands of years of thought, wrestling with this concept of a mystical Singularity, or Source, or Universal point of view? And if you don’t have that context to help you leap to a particular interpretation, the headless experience can lead to multiple conclusions. Some of these are in the historical record of philosophy. Descartes is probably the most famous of these. You cannot compare your empirical experience of seeing out from your own eyes with any other point of view; thus its correlation with Singularity. Empathy, or even acknowledging the existence of another human being, is an act of faith, because we can only believe that others have the similar headless experience that we do when we are not projecting any sort of ego. Descartes’ doubt lead him to speculate that, for all he knew, a demon could be controlling all his sensations in one big massive illusion to fool him into believing that there was anything else but his own self. Bishop Berkeley argued that no object existed without being perceived either by a person or God. In other words, the material world does not exist outside the mind. Other thought experiments speculate that we are but a brain in a vat, hooked up to some mechanical replacement of Descartes’ demon that feeds us all our experiences. Modern thinkers today say that it is statistically plausible that we are simply a simulation in the mind of some ultra-powerful Artificial Intelligence. These are all explanations of our subjective headless experience that cannot be dis-proven. However, even though these floating brain theories are logically complete and fully explain all the facts, we reject them because they are stifling, small, and narrow circles of worldviews that feel like an aesthetic contraction.
But there is a very different feel to Lang’s leap to embrace the Indivisible Experience as one of a singular space that encompasses everyone and everything, and that of Harris’ leap to embrace oneness. It is reflected in their language. Notice how Lang exclaims joyfully that it is a mystery. And as for thoughts and experiences popping up ‘out there’ — in the same ‘space’ of our subjective field of vision — he says gleefully numerous times that it is magical. Lang expresses mirth in response to his own astonishment that there is so much inexplicable, expanding beyond his understanding. Not so with Harris. Harris is happy to accept a oneness because he sees it as a contraction, a proof that there is nothing beyond the material world; a singular world connected by one long, unbroken chain of causation.
It is precisely here that Harris believes he has debunked agency. It is implicit that he defines the concept of agency as that which produces thoughts. I suppose, to some, that is a logical entry point for agency, but pay attention that when he identifies thoughts popping up ‘out there’ — surprising the thinker/speaker as much as the listener — he admonishes one to notice. Who is he admonishing to act? And how can she act without agency? His exhortatory language curls up on itself. It is the same with his exploration into meditation. I don’t know how much Harris has explored transcendental meditation, which seeks to lose oneself in the Source, but I know he pursues and encourages others to practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness, as far as I understand, does not completely lose oneself to the Indivisible Experience, but rides a razor thin edge of awareness and abandonment to Singularity. Thus there remains a ‘something’ to observe. Non-judgmental, impassioned, but observing all the same. When one is distracted by thoughts, Harris himself advises the meditator to gently return her focus back to the sensation of breathing. Again, an appeal to agency. Clearly will is something much more complex and subtle than a producer of thoughts or dictator of emotions, intentions, or even actions.
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Let me present what aesthetically strikes me as a more accurate and healthier picture of the world. At the center of this picture is the concept of Gestalt. A German word for pattern, gestalt is typically defined as the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. It is a worldview of emergence and expansion rather than contraction. Couple gestalt with Keirkegaardian leaps, and the cosmos seems to have color once again. This is the universe of synergy, of emerging realities, of intertwining systems and feedback loops, and patterns that hold and are sustained by layer, under layer, under innumerable layers of other patterns.
A great illustration of this worldview is presented by Robert Pirsig in his book Lila. It demonstrates so well the patterns, the leaps, and the discontinuity of a complex system. In fact, it is impossible to follow a chain of cause and effect in Pirsig’s description of a computer. First, there are the raw materials that go into making the case and innards of a computer. Then there is the level of the internal components that make up the circuit design. This is the world of transistors, resistors, capacitators, and flip-flop circuits storing 1’s and 0’s. Next is the low-level programming that organizes the patterns of the aggregated 1’s and 0’s. Pirsig notes that there is no necessity for a programmer to understand how to solder a circuit, as they are dealing only with the patterns that have arisen out of the sequences of flip-flops. Then on top of low-level programming is the higher-level programming, which organizes the patterns of the low-level programs. On top of that is more software, and the apps and programs that allows one to write a blog or a novel. Pirsig is most interested in the discontinuity of these levels. He expresses amazement at “how one could spend all of eternity probing the electrical patterns of that computer with an oscilloscope and never find that novel…Certainly the novel cannot exist in the computer without a parallel pattern of voltages to support it. But that does not mean that the novel is an expression or property of those voltages…You can see how the circuits make the novel possible, but they do not provide a plot for the novel.” As I type on a computer, I have no idea how to write code, let alone solder a circuit. But because I am dealing with patterns organizing patterns, on top of other patterns organizing patterns, I can wrestle with concepts that emerge beyond the words to yet another level. And there is no logical necessity that you will understand what I’m getting at unless you both understand my language (constructed entirely of gestalts upon gestalts) and resonate with the patterns I am putting forth. You will also need a certain aesthetic to even agree that this is a true representation of a computer. None of this, Pirsig argues, is a necessary or predictable outcome of registers of 1’s and 0’s. A chain of causation is such a poor and unsatisfactory description of what is going on.
This is pure Kierkegaardian epistemology. Like Chesterton’s third-class carriage trying to break out of the traffic circle, Kierkegaard argues that reason cannot get us from a narrow rational sphere to a broader one; rather, we have to take a leap of faith. Again, the discontinuity. This dovetails perfectly with gestalt, which can also be used to describe the moment when everything comes together in a flash to make something new. Think of the supersaturated solutions you might have done in high school chemistry. You keep adding an agent to a solution far past the point where it was supposed to have crystallized. Then you add a catalyst, and ‘poof’ — it crystallizes. Conceptually, this happens all the time. Einstein is a classic example of someone who came to ground-breaking insights through leaps of intuition and thought experiments. It was only after such gestalts, based on his sense of aesthetics, that he then worked for years to come up with the math to prove his ideas.
For Pirsig, he sees the computer levels as analogous to evolution as it builds from inorganic, to biological, to social, and then to the intellectual level. And just as he stresses the discontinuity of the computer levels, so he does for evolution. Pirsig would argue that evolution, which has developed to a point where we have patterns of ‘isms,’ does not claim to contain these immaterial systems of ideas within the substance of the ‘lower’ patterns.
Harris wants to argue that believing in free will is as illogical as believing that our eyes have no blind spot. Just like drawing dots on a piece of paper and moving them towards your nose until they disappear demonstrates the presence of a void one never noticed before, logic and meditation should conclusively show you that free will is also absent, and that we have existed exclusively in the milieu of cause and effect. Pirsig has his own version of fish not noticing how wet water is. In a way, Pirsig sees the entire world of science as a type of madness, mainly because it fails to provide any satisfactory explanation of life’s trajectory. Just like water for the fish, there is a medium we exist in, but rarely notice. “One could almost define life as the organized disobedience of the law of gravity.” This medium, Pirsig argues, is pushing against the laws recognized by science.
“The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all energy systems ‘run down’ like a clock and never rewind themselves. But life not only ‘runs up,’ converting low-energy sea-water, sunlight and air into high-energy chemicals, it keeps multiplying itself into more and better clocks that keep ‘running up’ faster and faster…
Why for example, should a group of simple, stable compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen struggle for billions of years to organize themselves into a professor of chemistry? What’s the motive? If we leave a chemistry professor out on a rock in the sun long enough the forces of nature will convert him into simple compounds of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and small amounts of other minerals. It’s a one-way reaction. No matter what kind of chemistry professor we use and no matter what process we use we can’t turn these compounds back into a chemistry professor. Chemistry professors are unstable mixtures of predominantly unstable compounds which, in the exclusive presence of the sun’s heat, decay irreversibly into simpler organic and inorganic compounds. That’s a scientific fact…
The question is: Then why does nature reverse this process? What on earth causes the inorganic compounds to go the other way?…
…if one gathered together enough of these deliberate violations of the laws of the universe and formed a generalization from them, a quite different theory of evolution could be inferred. If life is to be explained on the basis of physical laws, then the overwhelming evidence that life deliberately works around these laws cannot be ignored. The reason atoms become chemistry professors has got to be that something in nature does not like laws of chemical equilibrium or the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics or any other law that restricts the molecules’ freedom. They only go along with laws of any kind because they have to, preferring an existence that does not follow any laws whatsoever.
This would explain why patterns of life do not change solely in accord with causative ‘mechanisms’ or ‘programs’ or blind operations of physical laws. They do not just change valuelessly. They change in ways that evade, override and circumvent these laws. The patterns of life are constantly evolving in response to something ‘better’ than that which these laws have to offer.”
This, I believe, is the colloquial use of the term negentropy, where things evidently organize themselves in more and more complex ways; gestalt ratcheting up to the next gestalt and onwards. Now we have an alternative framework with which to understand agency and will. When Harris says there is no fine-grained experiential correlate to free will, or that neural anatomy or neural physiology show no indication of a ‘self’ exercising its will, this is no different than insisting that because one cannot find the plot of a novel in the registers of flip-flops, there must not be such a thing as ‘story.’ Pirsig, I believe, would argue that will is something that has emerged out of a ‘lower’ level and cannot be found or contained within biology. One could ask, “Is an idea an actual ‘thing’? Can it be measured? Can you point to it with your finger? Can you show me where it is contained within the brain?” Immaterial things arise and emerge out of physical things all the time, but nothing says the physical biology completely determines or controls, let alone predicts, these immaterial things. Biology, chemistry, and physical laws may provide limits, but just like societies, concepts, philosophies and other immaterial ‘things’ that have arisen out of physical substances, if something such as agency or will were to arise, there is no reason to expect it to be contained or predicted within our physiology.
Harris often speaks of thoughts arising out of us and describes how we don’t even know the next thing coming out of our mouths as we speak. Sentences and ideas are formed and articulated without any sense of will as a driving force behind it. But if we remember language is simply millions of gestalts layered upon each other, and we are speaking in a language we know intimately, these things like speech and thoughts happen lightning fast. This is true of typing as well. I have been typing long enough that I simply think the words and my fingers do the rest automatically. I am as ignorant of how my fingers interpret the signals from my brain as I am of software, programming, and the flip-flops of 1’s and 0’s. However cool all that knowledge would be, it is not necessary for words to appear on the screen. Agency simply needs to flit here and there as needed. In fact, I would suggest things like typing, reading, thinking and speaking often work so smoothly most of the time that agency has a tendency to go right to sleep.
Notice what happens when you learn a new language. Suddenly you are struggling, and crafting a simple sentence can be exhausting. Suddenly, will is needed just to come up with the right words to express the simplest emotion. But to say that thoughts popping up out of the void are predetermined, and thus proof of the nonexistence of will, is simply to ignore the power of gestalt. If anything, it would seem that mindfulness meditation is a way to reassert some agency where gestalts have taken over and, in their lightning speed, have swept one into unhealthy, if not downright ‘insane’ patterns. The admonition is to observe when meditating. But is that the end goal? Should meditation ever be the end goal? To speak utterly literally, when meditation becomes the end goal (and Pirsig describes this from personal experience), you find yourself in a room shitting and pissing yourself and are taken to the hospital because you haven’t eaten in three days. Clearly observation needs to serve as a tool for some greater goal. The discipline of riding that razor edge of observation at the very threshold of singularity is actually a cleansing of the will; stripping it down to its pure self where it isn’t constantly tied to millions of gestalts that it rides moment by moment. Thus one can return to the world refreshed and focused. Such a reboot can also help us recognize and work towards getting rid of unhealthy patterns.
And one last thing. The podcast was called The Illusory Self, which I feel is derogatory and simply inaccurate. Unlike Harris, who insists the ‘self’ is fake, Lang affirms the perspective of thinking of oneself as that ‘something’ behind your face. Not only does he say I accept both, I love both, Lang insists that the resolution of perspective where we have a face was terribly important, “as that enables you to function as a separate individual,” and he is “not at t’all in favor of denying that.” I believe the concept of analog is a great deal more useful and, dare I say, healthier. A map is an analog. Not the actual real thing, but a representation of a real thing, judged by its accuracy of representation. As a very useful tool, we do not insist maps are fake or illusions, out of a fear that they will make us believe the world is a piece of paper. Our sense of self is a powerful tool to navigate the paradox of perspective. This analog is an acknowledgement that we exist as a distinct entity, while providing us with a road map in how we are inextricably interrelated and interconnected with the world around us. Yes, it can be refreshing to lose oneself in the indivisible subjective perspective, because this gives us an experience of who we are at a different resolution. Meditation may even help us be mindful of what part of the analog we need to redraw in order to be a better representation of reality. But in a world of gestalt, the analog of the self is right at home; a pattern and a tool to be used by the will to navigate our world.