Free Will, he was wrongfully convicted
Last winter I started being more conscious about how much natural light I was getting. I wasn’t particularly depressed or any more sun-starved than any other year, but for some reason the dots connected in a way they hadn’t before: there is a real, actual relationship between my feelings and the amount of sunlight I get. I knew this logically, abstractly, but it suddenly made direct personal sense. The day-to-day moods that blanket and color my whole experience of reality are largely determined by my environment! And I can influence them by choosing to manipulate it!
This is somehow wildly obvious and non-obvious at the same time. We like to imagine our mental interior and physical exterior as separate, distinct, independent. But they aren’t, even if the rules of how they [a/e]ffect each other aren’t understood very well. Sometimes that’s hard to believe. We tend to resist the idea that our minds are influenced by anything outside ourselves, even though it often comes as a relief once accepted (“so that’s why!”, etc).
One opinionated way of framing the mental health awareness movement is that it’s “collectively embracing the physical reality of mental states”. This isn’t free - we sacrifice a little bit of ourselves (or at least our perception of ourselves, if there’s even a difference) by admitting that we’re not in total control of our interior experience. But in return for this humbler view, we gain actionable treatments by exploiting the environment that mediates it.1 And we adopt more empathetic and supportive social practices, like not telling people to “just stop being sad”. It’s mental realism.
I think there’s an analogous cognitive realism waiting to be articulated about content-level opinions. We fancy ourselves autonomous, self-determining agents, and treat our thoughts as untouchable abstractions executing a private source code self, producing beliefs unquestionably our own.
It’s an illusion we all fight to preserve and it’s uncomfortable to have it challenged. We run around telling people we perceive as being irrational to just be more rational, as if it were that easy for us.
But telling people to “stop being irrational” isn’t just ineffective: it’s insensitive. It’s as offensive as telling someone suffering from depression to “stop feeling sad”. Gambling addicts can’t “stop being irrational”; their neurochemistry is being gamed. Conspiracy theories are on the rise because YouTube is manipulating our attention system. Facebook is hijacking our dopamine pathways. You can’t just write it off as “people being stupid’”. That would be lazy and irresponsible (and stupid, you idiot - stop doing it). Instead, we need to acknowledge that there’s a physical reality to the ways that our thoughts and beliefs get structured and propagate, even if we don’t understand it very well. And above all, we need to treat everyone as human beings, who hold beliefs and take actions that have enormously complex contextual stories behind them.2
Hey look! We made it to free will. If people are functional products of their environments, then they have no agency! And they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, right?
This is really tough and I’m still struggling with it. But I think a promising tack is to sidestep by loosening our hold on the idea of individuals in the first place, again through the lens of “realism”. I think this is something that some other cultures may have figured out way ahead of us.
If I try to pose “who am I?” to myself, the things that I think of are the experiences that I’ve lived through, and the values/ideals/goals/patterns of thought that I identify with. Oddly enough, both of these are shared with people. Most experiences are had with others, and most values are synthesized out of groups, so if that’s what I consider my self, then there’s a very real sense in which me and my friends overlap not just in our personalities, but in our actual identities.
And this lines up with my actual experience of knowing people! I feel like I carry around little copies of my closest friends with me, and I hear their little simulated voices chime in to represent the perspectives that I associate them with. There a few cultural memes like “you’re the average of your five best friends” or “a man only dies when he is forgotten” that hint at this, but I’m here to propose something even stronger:
The abstraction that each human body contains one “individual” was only ever an approximation, and it’s becoming a worse approximation over time.
Connectedness! We have always been connected to some degree by talking and writing and telegraphs, but the web has made us all way “more” connected. Nothing particularly discrete changed, we just have lower-latency and higher-bandwidth inputs and outputs to each other.3
We’ve gotten better at effecting impression on people. This happened because surveillance capitalism incentivized advertisers to build profiles of us all, and to figure out how to get us to do and believe arbitrary things.
Together, this means that we’ve developed really good technology for sharing our selves (the space is critical). Literally! Not literally-as-in-figuratively, but as in “to every meaningful extent that the self exists, it’s being shared.” Now more than ever, there is no self. The self is an illusion. The self is a superposition of many overlapping selves, themselves recursive illusions.
Saying this sounds mystical, but it doesn’t have to be! “People bleed into each other” isn’t crazy, and it’s definitely compatible with materialism. “Consciousness” is mostly a description of a process, so there's no reason to think “the conscious process” can’t be literally shared, distributed, copied, etc.
In the same way moods have physical manifestations as chemical balances, consciousness has a physical manifestation as these patterns of cognitive processes (this, again, is halfway between obvious and unimaginable). And in the same way that gut microbiome research suggests that there’s a physical reality to shared moods, the technology we’ve invented is making more apparent a physical reality of shared consciousness.4
I think this is important because, just like the reframing of mental health, it earns us more empathy and support for each other, since we aren’t bound to vilify everyone’s “choice” of opinions, but without giving up on making value judgements on the opinions themselves. It’s a realist perspective that doesn’t have the nihilism of straight-up materialist determinism. Nothing has to change other than the scope of our focus! We’re just as alive and important and our thoughts are just as real and vivid as before - it’s just that the boundaries of their containers are wider than we thought, and that the substrate they inhabit is one that we all compose.
It also saves us from perpetuating dangerous abstractions, like the kind of hyper-individualism that justifies a lot of capitalism’s more harmful externalities. Instead it helps focus our priorities on the care and maintenance of the social fabric, and the health of all the selves that drift between us.