The Delusion of an Autonomous Self

Tom Nickel
5 min readDec 23, 2018
Suburbia, by David Shankbone, in Wikipedia

I have noticed that the phrase. ‘the delusion of an autonomous self,’ in the rare instances when I am able to use it conversationally, evokes different meanings in different people.

One close friend who is trained as a clinical psychologist sees it in terms of relationships, as a point on a continuum of independence and intimacy.

But switch from clinical to neuro-psychology and you’re among the free-will deniers, who see internal and cultural forces operating outside our awareness as the real captains of our supposedly separate and independently operated ships.

Another view of course is the depressing determinism that some see as the logical consequence of a totally materialistic universe governed by knowable laws.

I don’t mean any of those ideas when I suggest that our sense of having an autonomous self is a delusion, and neither did some person or amalgam of persons called The Buddha when he supposedly brought it up quite a while ago. I mean that our ships aren’t actually separate, which Buddhism calls, ‘anatta.’

Thinking that we’re a separate self when we’re actually not is the heart of where all suffering comes from in Buddhist thought. Suffering is always a result of not seeing things the way they really are. Thinking we are an autonomous self is the biggest and deepest wrong view there is.

On the other hand … man, am I ever identified with this bag of flesh and it’s obvious boundaries that mark what is me and not-me. I know all about the molecules exchanging and the atoms that make me up aren’t the same as they were last year, but still, the pattern integrity is remarkable enough for me to believe in a Me template or something pretty darn persistent beyond the atoms.

The best way I can make sense of the delusion is is to assume that, yes, I am this bag of flesh, I’m just not only this bag of flesh. That’s got to be it.

But how can I understand it in a way that’s not some spooky old idea that must be taken as a matter of religious faith?

I’ve come up with a few metaphors over the years to help see how I can be this body and also more than this body. I’m sure someone else has thought of these same images and written them down somewhere, but I haven’t found them and the process of writing has been helpful for me.

So I feel it’s OK to call this one, the Metaphor of the Streets.

In this picture of a suburban street, which I found in Wikimedia Commons, there is no question that we are looking at a street. It’s the most normal way to see a street. It’s called Street View.

Groups of streets make up neighborhoods, which make up towns. Every town has its own set of streets. You can count them and see alphabetical lists of them. There is no question that a street is a street.

We look at streets differently when we’re up in airplanes or using Google Maps, where we can see a lot of them all at once.


There are at least fifteen streets with fifteen different street names in this picture of Levittown, NY, as if they are fifteen separate streets. From the Street View, they would each feel that way.

But in a picture taken from an airplane, we see the patterns and the connections as much if not more than we see fifteen separate streets.

In fact, if the whole thing wasn’t really all One Big Street it wouldn’t even be what a street is supposed to be — something that gets you from Point A to Point Anywhere, one street after another. If it wasn’t continuous and not-separate, it couldn’t do that. The idea of fifteen separate streets is an illusion that comes from operating most of the time at a scale and a point of view that emphasizes the individual identity of something that can’t be only that.

Which is how I think it is with the autonomous self.

Because of our conscious operating perspective, we just see and deal with the individual streets, not One Continuous Street. We’re stuck, most of the time, at Street View. But we’re not alone. Everyone else is there too. To me, that togetherness points to an underlying connection, a connection that enables shared Street View, a virtual reality we all construct, using anatomically embedded headsets and controllers.

Baby humans have to develop the ability to perceive and function like the rest of us do. That’s what I watched all my grandchildren work on full-time for at least a year, just learning how to assemble the shared Street View — by focusing on the stuff that matters (to the rest of us) and filtering out the rest. Now my grandchildren have moved on to Navigation and Social within Street View VR.

I don’t see Street View VR as a made-up world. It’s more like an edited world. Out of all the matter and energy there is, our senses and neural processes present a selected version to each of us that, amazingly, is close enough to everyone else’s that we can do Navigation and Social reasonably well. We all have the same inner experience of Street View in ways that are so basic we don’t even think about it.

Why does this mean that, from a certain perspective, we are really all One, as the streets have to be in order to even be a street?

I feel like it’s staring us in the face — I feel like the way we have all constructed the same world and can interact with each other within it almost seamlessly must depend on some deeper cooperation, shared protocols, user agreements we all signed without knowing it.



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos