Raymond's Weblog^

Free Will And Concentric Identity

I have been occasionally asked what the biggest difference is between how I see the world and how I think everyone else sees it, and the answer I tend to give is “I have a much less static sense of the boundaries of selfhood.” Let me try to make that somewhat precise.

The first thing is, I’ve slowly come to believe people absorb a lot from their environment. Music changes the tone of a conversation - this is most obvious when a playlist abruptly shifts genre. People’s interactions are affected by their relative position - distance and height, for instance. Lighting, the size of the space, the clothes that people wear.

The easiest part is observing how these cues affect interpersonal dynamics. The next step is playing with them. First you do it statically: you craft your room for the event you want to have. Dim lights and gentle instrumental music while people gather in a circle on the ground. But it’s also possible to be dynamic: When I was in college, sometimes I would go on long, winding walks with people, and I would steer the literal walk to match the conversation: to a narrow windy passage, or an expansive park, or a ruined abbey.

And I think that people absorb things from each other, such that these effects are easiest to spot in group contexts, but I believe they’re still true for people on their own. I can set the lights and the music to nudge myself into certain feelings. I can go on a certain walk to chew over certain ideas.

Sometimes, in university, I would buy strange clothes and wear them around and just focus on experiencing how it felt to be perceived in whatever I happened to be wearing. I got a taste for it.

There’s a sort of flow state you can reach with a group where you stop asking ‘what do I want’ and you start asking ‘what does the group want’. There’s an art to skilfully navigating it. Conversely, I’m increasingly sympathetic to modalities of therapy that approach the self as a combination of parts that can be individually addressed, and to certain outwardly confusing behaviours as the consequences of internal strife.


Do I have the willpower to drink water whenever I’m thirsty? Well, kind of. I don’t have enough to get up and go to the kitchen and pour myself a glass a five times a day. But I do have enough to get one big waterbottle at the start of the day and carry it with me.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how the easy morality of childhood is incomplete, and I think this is a key part: there are many different scales at which to apply willpower, and many situations that are functinoally unwinnable.

I had my self-conception sort of dinged up as a teenager because, prior to that point, I’d had some sense that good people did good things and if you did a bad thing it was your fault, and yet I found myself drawn to situations where I would end up doing something I’d regret consistently. Weird, right?

What I eventually did was internalised the fact that, actually, as long as I let myself get into those situations, I’d keep doing things I regretted, and so I needed to just not get into the situations. And now I hold that pretty strongly, and it feels pretty core to my sense of values.

I think an important part of me maturing was recognising that there are actually many quite common situations where everyone has legitimate grievances, and if everyone behaves reasonably by their own lights, everyone will feel cheated and unhappy. The mature thing is to not get into those situations. I feel happy cutting people a lot of slack for the first few times they get into situations like that, and then I think they basically become responsible for noticing the situation is coming.

More optimistically, I kind of think ‘having willpower’ is fake. The real way to win the game is not by powering through moment to moment and squeezing out an extra hour of work, it’s the higher-leverage choices about what game you even play. More precisely, I think minute-to-minute willpower is a fine thing, but the real value comes from year-to-year willpower.

It’s perfectly noble to be a good person in a bad situation, but the real nobility is in finding and nourishing good situations.