…and he is describing the fiction of the self, the fictive self. He posits that life is really only a series of discreet but connected perceptions tied together by the capacity for reflection we call consciousness.
The crux of his view is that the free-willed self I think of as me does not exist. It is an illusion, perhaps a defensive one. Instead, I am only a series of analog moments that came about through subconscious stimulus-response reactions. What we attribute to decisions of free will are more often than not the result of ingrained genetic, biological and cultural programming. Nor do I remember more than a nanoscopic (my word) subset of the responses I have made. Indeed, those conscious moments I have assembled into a “self” are only the few I actually recall, whether by choice or otherwise. As such, this illusory self has neither a future nor a past (as we tend to think of these), and never has had. Instead, we exist only moment to moment. Our construction of those moments into a past, like our projection of them into a future, is only an unconscious intellectual exercise.
Gray’s point is that we think we are free-willed and sentient beings consciously choosing our paths. But to him, free will is a chimera. Our actions are programmed by eons of prehuman and human evolution to react to incoming stimuli in ways far more unconscious than conscious. He makes these points by comparing us to non-human animals. We differentiate ourselves from them by assuming that they, as opposed to us, do not have conscious selves . Unlike us (in our conventional view, anyway), they do not construct histories (either personal or cultural), nor do they project futures. Instead, they respond in the moment to biological drives or environmental stimuli. Gray’s premise about humans is easier to see in this approach because we do not think of other animals as having conscious selves. They are simply the gene carrying robots of Richard Dawkins (my allusion, not Gray’s), whereas we convince ourselves that we are something more.
I’m not saying I agree with all this (yet), but I have to consider it. But, when I place myself in Gray’s metaphor, when I think of my life, my days, my moments as mere perceptions of a gene carrying robot reacting to ever changing stimuli in some manner programmed by biology and culture and circumstance, it is extremely disorienting. I lose my compass. Suddenly, I am walking on quicksand, nothing solid either behind, ahead, or under me. My life becomes a single footprint, those behind washed into oblivion, and ahead only an empty beach.
In considering my own response, I think I see Gray’s great omission. The self we construct, however illusory, is a functional mechanism that keeps us sane and enables us to move forward. Everything about it serves a purpose for us as a species. I expect there is some practical value within his premise, but so far in my reading Gray has failed to offer it. Even if he is correct about our true existential situation, for all but the strongest of souls, it merely engenders hopelessness.