Want to feel better? Want to take steps toward genuine enlightenment? Want to embark on a journey toward truth and away from illusion?
All those wants can be achieved by giving up a sensation of being an independent agent, or soul, or ego, that stands apart from the laws of nature that govern everything else in existence.
So argues Paul Breer in a persuasive fashion in his book, The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will. I'm enjoying the book a lot. Here's excerpts from the first chapter, "An Overview of the Agency Problem," that provide a good overview of what the book is all about.
What I mean by agent is what writers of a more spiritual age called the soul and what modern psychologists refer to as ego. Despite the difference in coloring, all three terms refer to a common animating principle or entity that stands at the center of our being, directing our thoughts, decisions and moral judgments.
More that any feature of personality or physical appearance, it is this soul-ego-agent that we conventionally think of as our real self. It is that which ultimately distinguishes us from each other. When we get right down to it, you are you and I am I because of a difference in agency. We may resemble each other in behavior or looks. We could even be identical twins, but because the animating force within us is unique, we as individuals are unique.
That, at any rate, is what most of us have been brought up to believe.
Starting early in childhood, we are taught that our true self resides not in our bodies or even in our minds, but in our souls. As soul-agents, we are not only unique but, unlike all other creatures on earth, endowed with the power and freedom to cause our own behavior. We are more than bodies, more than minds. In our essence, we are spiritual beings.
That conception of homo sapiens is rarely challenged even by those who profess a materialist philosophy. The broad acceptance of free will among the religious and non-religious alike obscures the fact that the concept of agency rests on the same dualistic assumptions as our belief in God, the Devil, heaven, hell, the Holy Ghost, salvation, and divine judgment.
What makes free agency a specifically spiritual concept is the assumption that the agent's choices are not caused by antecedent conditions. They are mysterious, inexplicable -- unconnected to the chain of cause and effect which links all events in the material world. The agent is free, in other words, because of its power to cause behavior without itself being the effect of other causes.
To the extent that we humans possess that power, we quality as Unmoved Movers. We are godlike, divine, and not fully of this material world. There is reason to suspect, however, that the little man or woman inside of us (the homunculus) is no more real that any of the other spiritual entities with which we have traditionally populated the unseen world.
...If it should turn out that we are not souls or agents after all, what else is there for us to be? The answer is almost too obvious.
If we are not the prime movers of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, must we not be the thoughts, feelings, and actions themselves -- as well as the physical bodies in which those experiences arise? This much is certain: if we are not free agents, we cannot be the authors of our own experience and behavior. Nor can we be the internal managers who organize and process that experience: the experience organizes and processes itself.
It is not even appropriate to say that we are subjects having the experience. We are the experience. We are that which is happening here in these bodies. We are constellations of experience and behavior arising spontaneously out of genetic and environmental circumstance. We are also the physical structures in which those events are taking place.
...My own interest in non-agency has evolved out of a five-year immersion in the chilly waters of Rinzai Zen. While I have long since given up what Alan Watts called "aching-legs Zen" for the comforts of reading and thinking I have retained the Easterner's concern with integrating philosophy into everyday life.
It strikes me as little more than a game, fascinating perhaps, but still a game, to embrace the idea of non-agency without taking steps to incorporate that idea into the way one deals with work, love, pain, death and all the other dimensions of human existence. Because the idea is so central, taking it in deeply has the potential for transforming the way we feel about almost everything we do.
...The book is both an argument and a strategy for replacing the illusion of agency with a view of ourselves as constellations of experience and behavior arising spontaneously out of circumstance. If there is any originality here, it does not lie with the argument against free will. That argument has evolved in a variety of places and constitutes a major chapter in the history of both Eastern and Western philosophy.
What may be new is the spelling out of how the illusion of agency adds to the pain of life and, paradoxically, how much freer we would feel if we were to begin defining ourselves as that which is arising here.
...Straining, blaming, craving, defending and protesting are all implicated in the agency syndrome. Their emotional counterparts -- anxiety, guilt, despair, pride, and anger -- can be expected to change as behavior itself changes. For anyone patient enough to see the process through, the end result is a transformation of personality.
The more thorough the uprooting of agency, the more radical will be that transformation.