The Illusion of Self and its Interests

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.

― Sartre

The world of stories is a world of coherence. A narrative Occam's razor cuts away passing passions, leaving enduring motivations for us to perceive. From the multitudinous emotions and actions we see played out before us, we imagine a mosaic, fractionated existences coallescing into persistent personalities and consistent characters.

It is a necessary simplification; we cannot contain in our heads each fleeting feeling, even of ourselves. And it is a useful one; across the stories we see in ourselves and in others, patterns arise which give us expectations for possible futures and handles to control those fates.

But peeling back the veil of these stories, the messy texture of existence is soon evident. The unified story we tell about the myriad of our internal selves is as arbitrary, and as not, as any history of nations. Behind the facade of harmony there are many players, often in conflict, many schemes, often shifting, and any retelling must leave out most characters and ellide most conflicts or else it could not be understood.

Disparate Drives

Whence is this monstrous thing? and why is it? The mind commands the body, and it obeys forthwith; the mind commands itself, and is resisted. The mind commands the hand to be moved, and such readiness is there that the command is scarce to be distinguished from the obedience. Yet the mind is mind, and the hand is body. The mind commands the mind to will, and yet, though it be itself, it obeyeth not. ...it commands itself to will, and would not give the command unless it willed; yet is not that done which it commandeth.

...For were it entire, it would not even command it to be, because it would already be. ...if there be as many contrary natures as there are conflicting wills, there will not now be two natures only, but many.

― Augustine

It is in moments of internal conflict that our veil of narrative coherence is thinnest. If we were indeed coherent rational beings forging a path towards our reasoned goals and finding futures which we most prefer, these conflicts would be conflicts of the mind, of belief and problem-solving, and not the conflicts of the heart that we experience.

Emotions are not expressions of rational interest, they are a force far more primal. We can see this when we look across species, as we share almost all of our emotional circuitry with all other mammals.12 This shared emotional hardware is why we so easily empathize with our pets; the fear or sadness we might see on the face of a puppy is not superficially similar to our own, it is the same parts of our brains, using the same chemicals, affecting the same moods as we have ourselves. Some emotional hardware runs even deeper; the recently popularized finding that anti-depressants made for humans work too on lobsters evidences that shared ancient past. The cognitive structures of the mind which we know to be involved in reason, however, differ greatly between humans and other mammals. If our feelings were rationally rooted, the chasm between our emotions and the emotions of other mammals would be far greater.

The purpose of emotions did not require them to be coherent across time. Emotions are ephemeral by nature, driving us into immediate action to respond to a threat or to sieze an opportunity. Once they pass, we are left with their mental rubble, as archaeologists in our own minds seeking to piece together our own psychic puzzle. If we think these emotions come from some coherent submerged whole, which communicates to us in cryptic flares of passion, we might try to dance with some hallucinated shadow, striving ever to satsify its inexplicably capricious fancies. Or if we think these emotions come from something altogether more base than our "true" rational selves, we might try to suppress them and enforce some "rational" drive on all the rest. If we instead recognize feelings for what they are, a sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant symphony of impulses, then we might learn to live with them and control them, as neither tyrants of our feelings, nor as slaves to them, but as parents corralling naive yet beloved children.

Evanescent Ego

Character is simply habit long continued.

― Plutarch

The anthropomorphization of ourselves and of others into coherent wholes is far easier than we might expect given the underlying reality of unfettered passions. If emotions were in fact so disconnected, why is there such apparent coherence? Why is the facade so strong?

After our emotions conflict and drive us in different directions, once we choose and settle on a direction, our brain dampens whichever emotions which did not win out, so that repeated conflicts between drives will, over time, become easier to choose in the same direction ― eventually, the drive which is not chosen will be nothing more than a whisper.3 Much of our childhoods are spent as chaotic creatures, tossed between powerful opposing drives, but from this mechanism we can understand that with each conflict and internal tumult, some emotion is being strengthened in a context, and the others which arose in that context are being weakened, until the contexts which we regularly encounter rarely trigger two strong opposing drives. In the same vein, habit formation, too, can be largely explained in terms of using repetition to elevate some drive above other drives in certain contexts.

There is also the fact that our emotions have been evolved to all point towards some coherent goal ― our continued survival. When threats arise, our anger and fear systems flare. When opportunity presents itself, our appetitive impulses urge us on. Even though each emotion by itself is naive and effectively short-sighted, they have been shaped as elements in a larger stragegy to help us navigate the potential pitfalls of existence. After careful, reasoned consideration, we might arrive at the same actions which our impulses naturally drive us towards, which can make the impulses themselves seem reasoned.

Not only is it the case that our emotions can seem to be the result of reason, but it is of course also true that our reason can and does lead toward motivation. Our brains do contain a system for cognitive valuation which we can use to evaluate the "utility" of outcomes. We can reason through changes to this cognitive system, which can then impact behavior. But this valuative system is a special case of motivation, it is the exception, not the rule.4 In economics departments and in business schools across the worlds, students are taught to lean on this system, to become more closely aligned with the model economics assumes of them. But it is critical to note that this is not our natural state, it is merely one possible mode of existence which we can train ourselves into.

For all of these reasons, the facade of self-coherence can remain durable in spite of the realities of emotional life.

Skeptics of Our Selves

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

― Jung

It is a subtle distinction, that our conscious selves are constructed from deeper drives, and not vice versa. For many purposes, the direction of causality is not particularly important; simply knowing which emotions are occurring or what someone's character is provides information enough to make useful predictions. But when we move from simply predicting behavior into finding ways to modify behavior, suddenly the exact structure of what causes what becomes more important. This is a general feature of system modeling ― predictive models can ignore causality and simple extrapolate available data, but to reliably intervene in a system one must understand its causes.5

In pretending that we are coherent beings, we are confounding our own self-development, misleading ourselves down paths where we try to impose some cognitive will on emotions which do not yield. In pretending that we are utility-maximizers, we elevate a few consumerist drives over the rest and silence the throbbing warning from emotions which tell us our lives are veering off-track. If we instead accept, and do not reject, these deeper drives in our nature, then they can become allies and not enemies on our path to improve.


  1. Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience, 2004.

  2. Panksepp, "The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains", Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 2011. link.

  3. Gray, McNaughton. The Neuropsychology of Anxiety, 2004.

  4. Corr, McNaughton. "Neuroscience and Approach/Avoidance Personality Traits: A Two Stage (Valuation-Motivation) Approach", Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2012. link.

  5. Pearl, Causality, 2009.
    Nb: Predictive models still rely on notions of dependence between observables, but are ambivalent as to directions of causal influence.