The Egocentric Illusion

Link to David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement Address

Note: you can see both the text and the video of the talk at this link.

This is one of my annual sermons to the Community Unitarian Universalists in Brighton, Michigan. I gave it on June 1, 2009. In it, I build on David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Commencement Address at Kenyon College. I also talk here about some of the practical consequences of what I have learned from my research on happiness with Bob Willis. Here is a link to an old version of our paper “Utility and Happiness” that is more accessible than the current, more technical (and unreleased) version.

I will begin this sermon with a confession.  I am self-centered.  But I have an excuse.   The normal human brain is designed by evolution to generate the egocentric illusion: the illusion that the owner of a particular brain is the center of the universe.

This egocentric illusion is useful in many ways.  In particular, learning the difference between self and non-self is a basic task of mental development, accomplished by most of us some time in infancy.  Without knowing which patch of the universe we directly control and will feel pain when hurt, we would have trouble navigating in the world.  This awareness of self versus non-self is accomplished by what might be described poetically as a special glow emanating from the part of one’s consciousness that keeps track of the part of universe that is “me.”  Moreover, even those things one recognizes as “non-self” are seen in relation to one’s own position, both literally and metaphorically. 

While useful, the egocentric illusion also causes a great deal of the grief and suffering and misbehavior that we are prone to.  It can also contribute to an inordinate fear of death: one’s own personal death is a bad thing, but not quite as bad as the egocentric illusion makes it seem.

As is true for other illusions, it is good to see the egocentric illusion for what it is.  David Foster Wallace spoke eloquently about the egocentric illusion at Commencement at Kenyon College a few years before his own death–in a way that just might loosen the hold of this illusion on those who hear what he had to say.  Let me give an abbreviated version of his remarks and then give some of my own, sparked by his.  As you will see, hearing what David Foster Wallace has to say inspires a certain bluntness about the realities we face.  He began by telling this story: 

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?”  And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

He was making the point that we often swim in the egocentric illusion without noticing it, as fish swim in water.  As he explained:

Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.  We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.  It is our default setting—hard-wired into our boards at birth….

Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real—you get the idea.  But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.”  This is not a matter of virtue—it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.  

If not for the sake of virtue, why does David Foster Wallace think we would we want to break free of the egocentric illusion?   Fundamentally because if one has no other way to approach life, things will get either painful or boring or both.  Here is some of what he said on that topic:

Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” …I submit that this is what the real, no-bull value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about:  How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out. 

After describing at some length the kind of thing “day in and day out” means, with all of the “boredom, routine and petty frustration” that goes into our daily lives, David Foster Wallace says this: 

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default setting—then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.  But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options.  It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of things.  Not that this mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.  You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.  You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true…. There is no such thing as not worshipping.  Everybody worships.  The only choice we get is what we worship.  And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.  If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough… . Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… . Worship power—you will feel week and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.  Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  And so on.

Look the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious.  They are default settings. ….  And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.   Our own culture has harnessed these forces in way that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom.  The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.  This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.  But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.  The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.  That is real freedom.  The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” –the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. 

…. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death.  The capital-T Truth is about life before death.  It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50 without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.  It is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”  

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out. 

The note at the top of the online Wall Street Journal article back in September laying out this address said “Mr. Wallace, 46, died last Friday, after apparently committing suicide.”  David Foster Wallace’s suicide hints at just how difficult the battle was for him.  Not all battles are won.  But we can still win where he ultimately lost.     

When I think about what David Foster Wallace said, I see three helpful responses an awareness of our own egocentric illusion can lead us to.  The first is that we can take advantage of our egocentric illusion, that focuses our consciousness on many things that are nearby and controllable, to enjoy our domestic lives even when some external things are not as we would wish.  Many things bring quiet pleasure, regardless of what is going on at work or in the world at large.  For example, I personally think that watching TV is underrated.  The disdain of TV by many elites is out of step with the improvement in experience and the quality of what one watches that automatic time-shifting with a TiVo or other digital video recorder can bring.  Moreover, in my view the quality of the best shows has increased markedly ever since the ability to sell DVD’s of good shows has enabled TV production companies to afford to produce more intelligent shows.  When I say “intelligent shows” I don’t mean anything high-brow, but shows like Heroes, Lost, Alias, Kings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, How I Met Your Mother, Dollhouse, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, etc. Critics sometimes speak of long novels such as War and Peace as allowing more time for character development and buildup.  But the best TV shows are like 24-hour movies, with much more time for character development and buildup than the typical 2 or 3 hour movie in the theater, and can be watched consecutively when you wait to get the DVD’s or download them.   

Another kind of quiet pleasure is being in good health and free from pain.  Although good health and freedom from pain are in large measure out of our control, people often don’t realize the extent to which these things are in their control.  My sociologist colleague Jim House has found that there is a huge and widening difference in health at older ages between those who have a college education and those who don’t.  Since I doubt it is what people learn in college itself that does this, imitating the health habits of the typical college-educated person should work for those without a college education as well.  One dimension of pain that is more avoidable than many people realize is pain from tight muscles and the skeletal misalignments that tight muscles can cause.   After computer work gave us both serious shoulder pain, my wife Gail and I got so much relief from seeing skilled massage therapists that she did an intensive year of training this past year to become a massage therapist herself.  And I believe it is not just my own bias that I think she is a very good one. 

I have been involved in academic research on happiness.  The grand meaning of happiness is a life well-lived, which is a deep subject for many sermons, much religious and philosophical discussion, and difficult wrestling with unavoidable choices.  But when psychologists and economists study happiness, they are working with data that tells us much more narrowly whether people have positive feelings or negative feelings.  Happiness in this narrow sense of feeling happy is something well within the orbit of our individual egocentric illusion and something over which we have considerable control.  Genes matter, and there is not much yet that we can do about them.   Antidepressants are appropriate for some people and not for others.  But there are many other controllable things known to be associated with happiness: sleep, exercise, music, time spent with friends, time spent in other enjoyable activities, meditation, and habits of clear, balanced thinking that some people learn from psychotherapists and other people learn from religious teachings—such as an attitude of gratitude.   Because most of these things are time-consuming, it takes sacrifice to be happy.  Ever since my psychologist colleague Norbert Schwarz pointed out that sleep contributes to happiness, I have been trying to get more sleep.  But there are many other things I can’t do if I am determined to get 8 hours of sleep a night.  My morning transcendental meditation also takes a chunk out of my day.  

One of the interesting things about happiness that can confuse people about what it takes to be happy is that good news about anything makes people happy for a while: a short time for small items of good news, and a long time for large items of good news.  Similarly, bad news about anything makes us unhappy for a while.  For the most part, this fact about happiness doesn’t directly give you much leverage for feeling happier.  For one thing, these doses of happiness that come with good and bad news are temporary. Also—and this is basic—most of us are already doing everything we can to bring about good news and forestall bad news for ourselves.  But if you understand that good and bad news about anything affects happiness, but only temporarily, it highlights the things I listed that do have long-run effects on happiness: sleep, exercise, music, time spent with friends, time spent in other enjoyable activities, meditation and good habits of thought such as an attitude of gratitude.  Also, if you pay attention to what news gives you a burst of happiness and what news gives you a burst of unhappiness, you may learn something about what you care about that will be useful to you.  

While the egocentric illusion is a mostly neutral or even helpful force when we are enjoying ourselves alone or with friends who are favorably disposed toward us in an uncomplicated way, it causes us grief in the arena of social and professional competition.  Think of David Foster Wallace’s examples of automatic daily misery:  wanting money and things to keep up with the Jones’s, wanting beauty to look better than the competition, wanting power to be able to put others down instead of being put down oneself, wanting to be the smartest kid on the block.  The trouble here is that while my egocentric illusion seems to put me at the center of the universe, the other guy’s egocentric illusion seems to put that guy at the center.  So the other person will fight like tooth and nail to make sure the universe as he or she sees it is in good order by having the seeming center of his or her universe be a high point.  Even if he or she is just being honest, rather than mean, he or she will have a tough time being properly impressed with me.   People vary in this, but most of us have at least one person in our lives who regularly puts us down.  

Like our close relatives, the chimpanzees, we are wired to respond to competition and to pecking orders.  Thinking about status and rank in social groups we care about can dominate our consciousness almost as much as severe hunger, thirst or physical pain.  Earlier, I gave a benign view of desire for things such as music CD’s and DVD’s of entertaining TV shows.  Why is it then that the desire for things gets such a bad rap?  I believe it is because many of the things we want we don’t want for the things themselves, but rather for how they contribute to, or make us feel about, our own social status and rank.   My wife and I had some acquaintances whose house we only visited once, many years ago, but I still remember the expensive-looking uncomfortable chairs they had. 

I have to say that social rank in itself is probably good for happiness.  But all of our fretting, slaving and sacrificing of other good things for the sake of social rank can be very bad for happiness, particularly when we fail to get what we want.   And those who do get the social rank they want, unless they are extraordinarily gracious, often make others feel bad.   

In view of the automatic daily misery of competition whenever it is not going splendidly, the second helpful response to an awareness of the egocentric illusion is to step back and remember how little everyone else is really thinking about you anyway.  There are practical consequences of where each of us fits in the social pecking order, but the burden only gets worse if we add to these practical consequences the emotional beating that we are tempted to give to ourselves over not being higher up.  Remembering clearly how each person is at the center of his or her own perceived universe may not always make us feel better in a direct way, but at least the vertigo of that wild picture of overlapping universes can distract us from our pain.

The third helpful response to an awareness of the egocentric illusion is to step back from everyone’s egocentric illusion and think about the good of everyone.  This may be the only response to the egocentric illusion that works in extremum.   I often think about getting old and creaky and dying.  I am not a fan of death.  It is hard on those who die and hard on those left behind.  Whatever the pain he suffered in living, David Foster Wallace did all the rest of us a grim disservice by killing himself—among other things the obvious disservice that there are books we will never be able to read because he will never write them now.   More routinely, our experience is impoverished by each person we know who dies.  For each of us, it makes sense to dread our own death at least as much as the collective loss of all those who would be left behind.  And indeed, we should add to that the loss of our own experience of life because of our own death.  But my death is not the end of the experiencing universe, as the egocentric illusion would have it.  There will be people left behind to experience, to feel, to think, to build and create. 

In the face of death, or serious illness that makes it hard for our daily personal experience to be positive, taking the perspective of all the other people now and in the future who do and will experience life is one of the few solaces we may be able to find.  Almost all of us have the power to significantly improve the perceived life experiences of others by an amount that stacks up quite well against our ability to improved our own perceived life experiences.  Sometimes what we can do for ourselves is bigger, sometimes what we can do for others is bigger, but the amount we can do for others is usually at least a big fraction of what we can do for ourselves, especially when illness or impending death limits our ability to help ourselves. 

Let me end by getting personal.  Up until I was 39 or 40 years old, I genuinely believed in an afterlife, and like most people assumed my afterlife would be a pleasant one.  Then I decided I did not believe in God.  I had always thought that an afterlife would require someone powerful to make it happen.  So not believing in God meant I did not believe in an afterlife either.  Realizing that most likely there was no afterlife was a big item of bad news for me.  It made me less happy than I normally would have been for several years.  That unhappiness caused me to think.    Then and sometimes now, I tried to imagine the intelligent aliens who might be recording my consciousness digitally for later cybernetic resurrection, but I have lacked enough social support for that belief for it to be all that reassuring.  What has helped me is reminding myself of the Buddhist belief that the self is an illusion.  If the self is an illusion, then death is not quite as terrible, in exactly the way I have been describing.  My death will be a tragedy as will yours.  But neither my death nor yours will be the end of the universe, nor the end of consciousness, nor even the end of humanity.  The world will go on, and what we do while we are alive can make it go on in a better or worse way.  Sometimes I imagine consciousness as one light that shines through many windows.  It is true that the information flows between the separate windows of consciousness are limited compared to the information flows within each window of consciousness, but that does not stop us from identifying our deeper self with consciousness itself, which does not die with my death or yours.         

In summary, let us enjoy a high-quality egocentric illusion in our private lives in cooperation with our friends and loved ones, avoid getting too wrapped up in struggles between competing egocentric illusions, and cultivate a perspective that embraces all consciousness as precious, even if for no other reason than to salve our distress at knowing that my limited window of consciousness and your limited window of consciousness are both doomed to be shattered at different times within a few short years.  

Note: The other two of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons that I have posted so far on this blog are “UU Visions” (which includes a brief account of my religious journey) and “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life” (which is the best statement of my current religious beliefs).