Skip to Content

Human Nature as the Product of Our Mental Models

By David Bohm

When we speak of human nature, we generally imply that we are talking about something that is more or less fixed in its qualities and properties, and that exists essentially independently of our thought about it. In this essay, however, I am going to propose that that aspect of behaviour which has been attributed to such a fixed and independently existent human nature is actually a continuously changing and developing artefact, created in the course of human work and social relationship, and very much dependent on how it has been considered in thought.

What is especially significant in this regard is that throughout all his activity man has developed a way of thinking about himself in terms of generalized models of what the human being is or ought to be. When accepted as true, these models have served to shape the character of the individual, who feels impelled to conform, either through fear of being stigmatized as abnormal or deviant, or through the sheer attractions of the models. Evidently such models not only act as positive stimuli to certain kinds of behaviour, but also function negatively as limits, tending to inhibit exploration of new modes of thinking and new forms of social relationship. That is to say, they are not merely structures of abstract thought taking place inside people’s heads, but rather, they operate in the individual and in society as functioning realities which play a key part in helping to fix the bounds of that very human nature, of which they are supposed to be a model.

A cursory examination of human nature shows many such models, which serve in this way to shape and form human character. Thus there is the “good boy” who obediently and virtuously does what his parents and teachers want him to do, and the “bad boy” who naughtily and mischievously insists on doing whatever he himself may want to do. Then there is the industrious hard-working person who stands on his own two feet, and the lazy, shiftless person who depends on other people or on the state. Examples of this kind can evidently quite easily give rise to a vast totality of diverse models. All of these tend, however, to be assimilated into broader overall sorts of model, which can be seen to arise, develop, and die away in the course of the history of human society. One of the earliest of these is the strength, courage and other virtues of animals, the consideration of which was evidently especially significant to early man in helping to stimulate his hunting and fighting qualities. Then came the power, beauty and goodness of anthropomorphic gods, which served to give men a model more favourable to organized and civilized behaviour. And now, we have the precision, orderliness, efficiency and energy of machinery in the modern technological society, which each man is encouraged to imitate, in order to make it possible for such a society to function coherently and stably.

Such generalized models evidently tend to fit in with the prevailing world view, including the cosmology and the generally accepted metaphysical notions. Thus the ancient Greeks tended, to a considerable extent, to look on the universe as a single organism, in which each part grows and develops in its relationship to the whole, and each part has its proper place and function. In this view, it clearly makes sense for man to try to play his part by acting according to the ideals embodied in his notions about the gods. On the other hand, in modern times, the prevailing world view has been one developed especially in physics: that the universe is like a vast machine, constituted of separately existent atoms moving mechanically, according to their inertia and their forces of mutual interaction. This view not only helped lay the foundation for modern technology, but also provided an intuitive theoretical basis for the assimilation of human nature to the mechanical qualities required of men in our industrialized society, in which neither the virtues of animals nor those of gods can be given first priority. Rather, as has already been indicated, the prime virtue in modern society is a kind of effectiveness, efficiency, or productivity similar to that of the machines which man has to operate. But this requirement goes far beyond the context of machinery and purely technological activities. Indeed, as there is no room in the world view of modern physics for an organic order of reality that cannot be revealed solely by measurements of mechanical kinds of effect, so we are now discovering that in modern society there is no room for regarding education or other such activities as organic aspects of life as a whole, worth pursuing in their own right. Rather, these activities have now to submit ultimately to the test of whether they lead to useful results that can be measured in terms of their contribution to the gross national product.

Evidently, then, the notion of effectiveness or efficiency now plays a key part in maintaining the present industrial society and in shaping human nature into forms that are suitable for such a society. But every effect must issue from a cause, so that, more deeply, what is implied in the current notion of efficiency is an acceptance of that aspect of the prevailing cosmology and general world view having to do with cause.

Such notions of cause have in fact changed in fundamental ways throughout human history. These changes can be brought out in a manner relevant to our discussion by considering certain key differences between modern notions of causality and some of those held in ancient Greece. To do this, we may begin by reviewing briefly Aristotle’s distinction of causes into four different kinds:


A good example in terms of which this distinction can be understood is obtained by considering something living, such as a tree or an animal. The material cause is then just the matter in which all the other causes operate and out of which that thing is constituted. Thus, in the case of a plant, the material cause is the soil, air, water and sunlight constituting the substances of the plant. The efficient cause is some action, external to the thing under discussion, which allows the whole process to get under way. In the case of a tree, for example, the planting of the seed could be taken as the efficient cause.

It is of crucial significance in this context to understand what was meant by the formal cause. Unfortunately, in its modern connotation, the word “formal” tends to refer to an outward form that is not very significant (e.g. as in “formal dress” or “a mere formality”). However, in the ancient Greek philosophy, the word form meant, in the first instance, an inner forming activity, which is the cause of the growth of things, and of the development and differentiation of their various essential forms. For example, in the case of an oak tree, what is indicated by the term “formal cause” is the whole inner movement of sap, cell growth, articulation of branches, leaves, etc., which is characteristic of that kind of tree, and different from that taking place in other kinds of trees. In more modern language, it would be better to describe this as the formative cause, to emphasize that what is involved is not a mere form imposed from without, but rather an ordered and structured inner movement that is essential to what things are.

Any such formative cause must evidently have an end or product, which is at least implicit. Thus it is not possible to refer to the inner movement from an acorn giving rise to an oak tree, without simultaneously referring to the oak tree that is going to result from this movement. So formative cause always implies final cause.

We also know final cause as design, consciously held in mind through thought (this notion being extended to God, who was regarded as having created the universe according to some grand design). It must be emphasized, however, that design is only a special case of final cause. For example, men often aim toward certain ends in their thoughts, but what actually emerges from their actions is generally something different from what was in their design, something that was, however, implicit in what they were doing, though not consciously perceived by those who took part.

In the ancient view, the notion of formative cause was considered to be of essentially the same nature for the mind as it was for life and for the cosmos as a whole. One can understand this notion in more modern terms by considering the flowing movement of awareness. Thought can then be perceived within this flow as a series of momentary product forms, continuously being created and dissolved in the whole movement, as ripples, waves and vortices are created and dissolved in a flowing stream of water. In this process, one can in the first instance discern associative thoughts, in which one step follows another relatively mechanically, through association determined by habit and conditioning. Each such associative change is external to the inner structure of the thought in question, so that associative changes act rather like a series of efficient causes. But to see the reason for something is not a mechanical activity of this nature. Rather, one is aware of each aspect as assimilated within a single whole, all of whose parts are inwardly related. Here one has to emphasize that reason is essentially a kind of perception through the intellect, similar in certain ways to artistic perception, and not merely the associative repetition of reasons that are already known. Thus one may be extremely puzzled by a wide range of factors, things that do not fit together, until suddenly there is a flash of understanding, and thereafter one sees how these factors are all related as aspects of one totality. Fundamental scientific discoveries generally involve perception of a similar nature. For example, there is Newton’s well-known insight into the law of gravitation, in which he saw that as the apple falls, so the moon falls, and so everything falls, under the influence of the universal force of gravity. Such acts of perception cannot properly be given a detailed analysis or description. Rather, they are to be considered as aspects of the forming activity of the mind. A particular structure of concepts is then the product of this activity, and these products are what are linked by the series of efficient causes that operate in ordinary associative thinking. Likewise, in this view, one regards the forming activity as primary, in nature as it is in the mind, so that the product-forms in nature are also what are linked by efficient causes.

In modern physics, formative and final causes are not regarded as having a primary significance. Rather, law is generally conceived as a self-determined system of efficient causes, operating in an ultimate set of material constituents of the universe (e.g. elementary particles subject to forces of interaction between them). These constituents are not to be regarded as formed in an overall process, and thus they cannot be considered to be like organs adapted to their place and function in the whole (i.e. to the ends which they would serve, in this whole). Rather, they tend to be conceived as separately existent elements of a fixed nature. Similarly, in society, each human being tends to be regarded as separately existent and likewise of more or less fixed nature. He acts on other people and on society as a whole, in much the same way that he acts on nature, to produce effects that he wants, and these in turn act on him in a corresponding way.

In earlier phases of the development of this point of view, the human mind was regarded as something completely separate from the outwardly visible substance of matter, so that, in principle, room was left for a non-mechanical sort of formative and final cause in man’s “innermost soul and spirit.” But what is implicit (and often even explicit) in the dominant trend of development in modern science is that ultimately even life and mind will be seen as reducible to nothing more than an aspect of the movements of elementary particles, according to the mechanical laws that govern these movements. This whole trend is evidently in complete contrast with the ancient view, in which people regarded the entire universe, including external nature and man, as continuously growing and sustaining itself in each part through its inner formative activity (e.g. the very word “nature” comes from a Latin root, meaning “that which is being born,” while the corresponding Greek word “physis” is based on a verb meaning “to grow”).

In recent times there has been an increasing realization that the modern technological society has certain inherent defects of a very serious nature, which may even prove to be insuperable in the long run, if there is no fundamental change. Some signs of these defects are the widespread occurrence of pollution and destruction of the balance of nature, in a context of growing overpopulation and the creation of a general environment that is neither physically nor psychologically healthy for the people who have to live in it. More and more people have thus been led to question the modern technological model of human nature, some implicitly and others explicitly. Such questioning naturally leads to the consideration of alternative models. Thus, could we revive some form of the organic model favoured in ancient times? Such a model might, for example, help us to see the proper limits of the notion of effectiveness or efficiency, by making it clear that this notion is a sensible one only in the context of a rational and coherent common end, which really acts as a kind of general formative cause that pervades all of our activity. The difficulty with the modern technological view of human nature is indeed that efficiency itself has tacitly been taken as the ultimate end of all human activity, so that it has not been noticed that what is called efficient in one context may actually be fragmentary and destructive in a broader context. Evidently some sort of organic view of reality could at least in principle help not only in this regard, but also more generally, to orient men toward a sense of unity and common purpose, in which material and mental aspects were not divorced.

Nevertheless, a closer inspection shows that such an organic view may also have certain very serious inherent defects. For example, in ancient times, slavery was often justified by comparing different kinds of men to different organs of the body (e.g. the master to the head and the slave to the limbs). The more modern mechanical view evidently tends to favour the notion of the essential equality of all men. What is perhaps even more important is that the mechanical view made possible a technological development that enabled the vast body of mankind to look forward to a life free of back-breaking and soul-destroying toil. Moreover, the ultimate decline of ancient societies, basically through various forms of fragmentation, conflict, and inner decay, would tend further to show that their overall world-view was in some deep sense highly inadequate.

Perhaps, then, one could seek yet another model that would combine the virtues of the organic model and the mechanical model, allowing man to “have the best of both worlds”? At this point it is necessary, however, to give pause and to ask whether it is wise to go on with this process of exchanging one model for another. Is the human mind actually capable of conforming to any model at all? In view of what has been said about the formative movement of the mind revealed in reason and in the act of understanding, does it make sense to try to construct a model of this movement?

Even if one does decide to adopt such a model, one first needs an intelligent and rational perception, which indicates whether any specified model is suitable or not. In any case, after adopting a particular model, one needs further perception of this kind to see its limits. For example, people who carry the model of a courageous man too far are described as foolhardy; those who try always to put other people’s welfare first, without considering their own, are criticized as improvident; and those who carry efficiency too far are said to be cold and inhuman. Only intelligent and rational perception from moment to moment can deal adequately with seeing how far any model should be carried in a given case. So it is clear that such intelligent and rational perception is the prime necessity, even when it comes to dealing with models. For models are fixed, and reality is eternally changing, going beyond the limits comprehended in particular models. Moreover, the ability of the mind to see contradictions between model and reality evidently also has to go beyond any particular model.

As indicated in the discussion of formative cause, reality may be likened to the flowing movement of a stream, producing eternally-changing forms, such as vortices, ripples, waves. Our thoughts can model these forms, but cannot model the flowing movement in its totality. This is so not only with regard to the physical universe, but, even more, with regard to the flowing movement of awareness, in which our thoughts are themselves merely evanescent forms. When these forms recur systematically, then we have organized ideas; otherwise, only ephemeral images. What can it possibly mean for such superficial forms to model the whole movement that creates, sustains, and eventually dissolves them?

Scientific, technical, and practical experience over the ages has indeed shown that the attempt to impose a firmly-fixed model upon the flowing movement of nature eventually leads to contradiction. Clearly this is even more apt to occur when the mind attempts to impose such a fixed model on its own flowing movement. The resulting contradiction brings about conflict, which is the attempt of one aspect of the mind to impose its pattern on another, with a resulting split of the mind into opposing fragments. This process, in which the mind divides against itself by attempting to conform to a model, is in essence the root of what has in other contexts been called neurosis. Such neurosis, which is present in all of us to a greater or lesser degree, evidently impedes a generally relevant and appropriate response to life as a whole, by breaking up thinking, feeling, and outward action into parts that work against one another.

We are thus led to give serious attention to the fact that the mind is not a “thing” of which one can sensibly form a model. Rather, we may explore the notion that the mind is to be considered primarily in its formative activity as a flowing movement, and only secondarily through the relatively fixed forms of ideas and concepts, which are the product of this activity, and which are the essential basis of all models. Note here that we are not proposing the notion of formative cause as a model of the activity of the mind. Rather, this notion is to serve as a sort of metaphor, that “points to,” or indicates, a movement of which we can all be immediately aware. This movement cannot be specified in detail; but nevertheless, from it emerge all the specifiable forms, ideas, models, etc. that can be entertained in thought.

It is clear, then, that what is under consideration here is a thoroughgoing change in the nature of thought itself; i.e. a change in which the mind ceases to try to shape and control its own activity by thinking about a model of human nature and trying to impose this model on its own thoughts, feelings, and outward actions. This change has to be explored and experimented with; for the deeper nature of the mind is essentially unknown. To try to specify this change in detail at the outset would be like trying to anticipate the content of a flash of understanding before the latter has actually occurred. Indeed, it would in effect be an attempt to make a model of what it means to think without being dominated by a model, a procedure that would evidently be meaningless in terms of what is being suggested here.

To consider such a change properly, one has rather to understand thought more deeply. As has been seen, one may distinguish two poles, between which all thought moves: thought following mechanically through associations which constitute a series of efficient causes, and thought forming creatively in new totalities, through that aspect of intelligent perception that is called reason.

We shall begin with a discussion of the more mechanical aspect of thought; i.e. with thought that proceeds through a series of efficient causes. Clearly any sort of efficient cause involves the order of time in a fundamental way. Now, quite generally, the order of time is abstracted from movement and change. But this abstraction is itself present only in the content of thought, and does not correspond to some directly and immediately perceived reality. Thus, if one reflects a bit, one sees that the past is gone. It is in fact known only in memory. Memory itself is active in the present moment, but the content of its imagery refers to a past that no longer exists. Similarly, the expected future is always known only in thought, operating in the present, but referring to what is to come and does not yet exist (and, indeed, to what may never exist). If we take the ordinary view of time as a sort of linear order, however, the present is to be regarded as a dividing point between past and future. Since neither of these exist, it would follow also that the present does not exist either. In other words, there is no past, no present, and no future.

This paradoxical conclusion has its root basically in the fact that time is not a reality that exists independently of thought about it, but that, as indicated earlier, it is an abstraction, knowable only in thought, and thus not capable of being perceived directly and immediately. Indeed, as is quite evident, one never observes time as such. One observes the position of a clock indicator, or a star, or some other such thing, or one observes changes in the structure or state of being of some object or system. All of these are forms produced in the universal flux or flowing movement of reality as a whole, and abstracted in thought. As pointed out earlier, in so far as the features abstracted are recurrent and stable, an overall order of cause and effect may reveal itself in the way in which the various forms succeed each other, with effect following cause in a regular way, always at a later time. But to understand the whole process deeply, one cannot begin with the sequence of abstracted product-forms; rather, one has to begin with the whole flowing movement, which carries the formative activity that creates these product-forms, and explains the order in which they succeed one another.

Such an understanding has to comprehend not only the formative activity underlying natural process, but also the formative activity underlying thought itself. For if we treat thought as some sort of ultimate truth beyond the limits of the mutability of natural things, we will fall into contradiction, because we ignore the evident fact that thought is inseparably involved in that process of change from which time has been abstracted.

The illusion that the content of thought may have a validity beyond time is given some apparent support by the fact that one’s thought at a given moment contains an image in principle capable of covering all time. As one thinks, one can, as it were, sweep over the whole of time without limits, in a single glance. But in doing this, one is liable to ignore the fact that thought is not only about the order of time in the way just described, it is of the order of time as well. One thought succeeds another through association or through response to new perceptions, and in this way what seemed to be an eternal truth is seen later to be limited, or even false, so that it falls under the dominion of time. In other words, our thought is itself a functioning reality, a process that is taking place in the order of time.

The process of thought may be regarded in the first instance as containing a model of a time-order. But what is more important is that the time-order that is modelled in the content of thought is in essence the same as the time-order that is actually created in the functioning of thought. We have learned through much re-enforced habit and conditioning to project this order into those fairly regular and recurrent aspects of natural process (e.g. day and night, the seasons, etc.) which can be seen to be, in a certain sense, similar to the order of thought.

It is important, however, to consider the fact that in primitive stages of development the organization of human society tended on the whole to be much less based on the order of time than is our own, so that men did not then give the time-order nearly so great a significance as we do now. But later, as man developed his civilization and arranged his technology according to the order of time, he created an apparently universal and pervasive environment that is built into a time-structure. Thus, his overall experience seemed to confirm him in the belief that the time-order is not merely a useful and perhaps necessary way of co-ordinating practical, technical and other social activities, but, much more, the universal ground of all existence. So man was led to project this time-order into the totality of his being, physical and mental, and to suppose that this projection covered all that could possibly be significant about the whole of life. That is to say, man made a mental model of himself, in which he saw himself entirely within the framework of a time-order.

To do this leads however to very important consequences. For as has now been seen, any thought in the framework of time is not just a potentially informative abstraction. Rather, it is a functioning and operating reality, that continues and maintains itself in a process, in which one association leads automatically to another. So, to develop a model of the self, conceived in the order of time, is to create a mechanical order of real activity which is a product of the model. This means however that such a model of the self does not remain a mere model, but that it actually becomes the self.

This sort of effect is indeed already well known in common experience. Thus, if a child is systematically frightened, he develops a model of a timid, fearful, inadequate self. This model contains fear-sensations similar to those that may arise in the presence of real danger, which include even physiological effects, such as the release of adrenalin, and increase of the rate of beat of the heart. In other words, a mental model of fear is fear. Similarly, a mental model of a time-order is a time-order. And a mental model of a self is a self.

This sort of complication need not arise in connection with models of things that are essentially independent of the process of thought (which are to be understood as recurrent and stable forms in the totality of the flowing movement). Thus, one can have in one’s thoughts all kinds of models of objects (e.g. tables, chairs, houses), and their possible relationships, extending onward to engineering models of machinery and to scientific models of the atomic structure of matter, planetary orbits, galaxies, quasars, etc. One may have mechanical models, organic models, or models of any other kind that one may be able to think of. In this domain (the limits of which have to be seen in each case through intelligent perception) models are evidently both useful and necessary, so that it would be absurd to try to do without them.

However, to make a model of the self is, as has been seen, to allow one’s thought to create the very reality of which it is supposed to be only a model, in such a way that in this reality one part of the mind is trying to split off from the rest, and to impose its pattern on the whole flowing movement. To do this is evidently a form of fragmentation and confusion, resulting from an attempt to carry out a contradiction. Put explicitly, the contradiction is this: thought, which is fixed and limited in the form of particular models, is attempting the impossible task of controlling the unknown and unlimited flowing movement of the mind, which continually produces and changes all the content of the mind in unforeseeable ways, including even the very thought that is trying to maintain control.

Is it not then possible for models of the self to cease to operate, and thus to bring to an end this contradiction, with its attendant general fragmentation and confusion?

When a leaf dies, one can still see its form, which serves to reveal its whole structure and the order of development from which it has arisen as a product. But its inner formative activity has ceased, so that it will gradually wither away and dissolve. Our question is thus equivalent to asking whether the general formative activity underlying all models of the self can die in a similar way so that this activity too will wither away and dissolve.

The ending of the formative activity that creates a model of the self (or of human nature more generally) implies a very deep change in the order of operation of the mind, which could perhaps be called a mutation; i.e. a beginning of a new evolution, in which intelligent and rational perception, rather than the automatic and repetitive function of models of the self, would be the main formative cause of man’s activity. As indicated earlier, it makes no sense to try to give a detailed description of this evolution before it takes place. But one can perhaps give some sort of overall feeling for what is to be meant here by saying that, in general, it implies that what one does is less important than why one does it. That is to say, the question “Why?” points to the inner formative activity, while the question “What?” points in a much more restricted way to a particular product of this activity. Even if this product is right on a given occasion, the long-run implications will be wrong if the universal formative activity is wrong. To be aware of this requires an intelligent perception which can reveal directly and immediately (i.e. not in terms of a time sequence of associative changes) how the formative activity arising in models of the self is actually an attempt to carry out the general contradiction that is implicit in all such models. When this contradiction is perceived not merely with regard to content, but also in the actual formative movement of one’s own thinking and feeling, then (as happens with any contradiction perceived in this way) the activity in question withers and dies.

Of course, to suggest such a notion of man’s nature as contingent and capable of fundamental change when the deep contradictions in thought are perceived and understood raises enormous issues, which could be discussed adequately only in a sustained and serious work of common inquiry. Here we can touch on only a few salient points.

Among these, we may consider the question of how we may regard morals and ethics. It is well known that, for the most part, men have in this domain attempted to conform to various models of right behaviour, right thinking, and right feeling. But it is also well known that these models have not worked very well. For example, man has for thousands of years accepted the elementary injunction not to kill, and along with this has gone the model of the good man, to whom killing is abhorrent. Nevertheless, killing in every conceivable form has continued over these thousands of years, often reaching a vast scale. What is especially significant here is that man has never lacked for models that make killing seem necessary and right (e.g. honour, glory, duty to family, country, God, etc.).

Given any model, man can always conceive of a different model, which may be anything between a small modification of the original one and something that is opposite to the original in essential respects. Thus, for example, the injunction against killing may be modified to the form “Do not kill, except in certain cases.” Within these exceptions, men may first place defence of what is sacred, defence of the security and interests of the nation, of the family, of the self, etc., until finally they may in effect be able to go as far as to think: “I must not kill, except when someone is preventing me from getting something I want very much.”

One can see by looking at what is known of history over the past five thousand years or so that this sort of process of steady sliding away from the meaning of moral and ethical injunctions has been extremely common. Indeed, a major part of this history would be a chronicle of how men who were fairly moral and ethical in ordinary times somehow found themselves engaged in countless wars, large and small, with their attendant massacre, pillage, robbery, enslavement, mass starvation and death through plague, senseless destruction of material resources, and so on.

The key difficulty is that clear and intelligent perception is needed, particularly in times of stress or when strong passions are at work, for under these conditions men can easily be swayed to adopt any model that assuages their sense of fear, rage, hurt pride, etc., or that otherwise justifies them in doing whatever it is that they may happen very strongly to want to do. It is evidently very hard to keep the mind clear under such critical conditions. This is made even more difficult by the fact that, at bottom, models are arbitrary, so that in times of stress and conflict no unshakeable reason can actually be found for adhering to any particular set of moral or ethical models. Why, for example, should a man hold to the model of civilized kindly co-operative human behaviour, when inwardly he may be burning with indignation and hatred for those who have treated his nation badly, trampled on all that he feels to be sacred and dear, etc.?

As indicated earlier, the real question to raise in this context is not “Which model is right?” but rather “Why is one behaving as one is?” Here we are not merely asking for some superficial reason that is ready to hand, but rather for the deep forming movement that has to be seen in an act of perception as revolutionary as that which Newton or Einstein needed to set physics on a new course of development.

I would like to emphasize that at this depth the source of irrational, violent, and ultimately self-destroying reactions is a wrong mode of functioning of the general model-making activity, which has been caught up in models of the self. As has been seen, to adhere to a model of the self is to create and give sustenance to an actual time-process of a rather mechanical kind in which there is a confused attempt to split the mind into one part that tries to maintain control and another part that is apparently being controlled.

What is, in the first instance, such an inward division in each man then goes on, in further development, to give rise to a division between one man and another, one group and another, one religion and another, one nation and another, etc. For different people with different backgrounds of experience and conditioning will in general come to different models of the self. But since these models imply an overall definition of what is good, what is right, what is true, and, in general, what is the necessary form of all human life, then ultimately men cannot do other than fight to the death over them. That is to say, man’s attempt to model his own nature has, built into it, an inner logic leading to a split of the mind for the individual and to general destruction for society as a whole.

In this regard perhaps one of the most important models is that of different human beings, and groups of human beings, as separately existent, and divided, as it were, by a deep chasm that has somehow to be bridged, or that is perhaps even unbridgeable. Evidently, as long as such models are generally accepted, there is little or no real scope for a common co-operative endeavour of people all over the earth which is now needed if the natural resources of this planet are not soon to be destroyed in a mindless scramble of each group to get what it can for itself while something still remains to be got in this way.

With regard to the question of how this separative mode of looking at oneself and the world originates, one may perhaps speculate that at a certain stage a young child realizes that as he calls himself “I” and other people “you,” so each person calls himself “I” and other people “you.” This implies that “I” and “you” are the names of every man. Such an insight could in principle point to a general formative activity, which might be called the universal essence of humanity as a whole of which each person is a particular case. Actually most children probably do sense something like this, which could be expressed by saying, for example: “If I had been exposed to all the conditions and experiences of another person, I could have thought, felt, and acted as he did.” In other words, at the deepest level we all participate in one inner formative movement, which we may be said to observe and experience from different points of view. But just as one person can understand why things look physically different to another person who is differently placed, so mentally we are all potentially capable of understanding the deep formative cause underlying human behaviour in general which is seen and experienced differently by each person.

But when a child grows up in a world in which the notion of separateness is accepted as truth, he is gradually conditioned to operate according to the corresponding models of divisions among men. In this way his potential insight into the oneness of humanity is blocked. Thereafter his experience will be such as apparently to prove and confirm the reality of the divisions among men, as portrayed in the model. What is missed in this is a perception of the fact that the behaviour which seems to prove and confirm the model is mainly a result of the operation of the model itself. Thus before young children have learned about the model of races as fundamentally different sorts of human being, they generally have no difficulty in relationships with people of different skin colour. But afterwards they may, in such relationships, experience a sense of fear and revulsion, which serves to create the very barriers that the model claims merely to represent and describe.

Evidently this sort of reaction is only a special case of the general activity of models of the self. Such models lead to an impasse, in which the problems of humanity cannot be solved because attempts to solve them are confused by mistaking the activity produced mainly by the model of the self for an independent and substantial reality that appears to have to be given first priority in any acceptable solution.

The only way out of this impasse is for men to see the meaninglessness of all these models, so that the confusion can die away. Men may then be able to understand one another deeply, and so, to act from a sense of the oneness of humanity. What is needed here is not an action from a “model of oneness,” but rather an action from the direct and immediate perception that the deep cause of all human action is a universal formative movement. Such perception allows each man to have a sense of what it is that moves other men and makes them act as they do, which arises from an immediate feeling for their conditioning as potentially or even actually his own. When people who have such a perception get together, they will be able to come to a common understanding that is not blocked by the meaningless models to which each person has been conditioned.

More generally, in all human relationships, we have to be free of the constraining and distorting notion that human nature is some well-defined sort of “thing” that can in principle be known and specified in terms of models of the self. Human nature in its totality and all the essential abstractions from it, such as beauty, truth, rationality—are not “things,” but aspects of a whole movement. “Things” can properly be conceived in terms of models. But the whole movement of human nature cannot be contained in any models. Rather it is capable of continually revealing itself anew in fresh and unexpected ways that are in essence inexhaustible.

When we are aware of both the contradictory content of our models of human nature and their limiting and distorting influence in the deep formative activity of the mind, these models will drop away, and there will be no specifiable limits to human nature.

The real question—which has to be explored deeply rather than given a ready answer—is then: can we live without depending on models of human nature?

Addendum: Résumé of Discussion

An extensive discussion followed the lecture on which this essay is based. This discussion will be summarized here not in detail but rather with regard to presenting what seemed to the speaker to be the essential questions that it brought out.

A great deal of the earlier parts of the discussion centred on the question of how far models could properly be used. In the beginning it was necessary to emphasize that in the practical, functional, technical and scientific domains there is a vast scope for models of all kinds. But then more subtle questions were raised. Thus: can we not make models of the thought process itself?

If we have in mind the process of associative thought with its relatively mechanical sequence of efficient causes, a model of it may well give us important insights into how it works. But we have to be careful here, or else we may slip into trying in a similar way to develop a model of reason as a whole, i.e. of the creative movement of perception through the intellect which gives rise to new totalities of concepts and ideas. To try to make a model of reason would be meaningless, because reason is the formative movement that creates all models and ultimately shows their limits.

What is perhaps even more important in this context, however, is that if we attempt to make a model of mental processes or states of feeling with which we identify our whole being (as is implicit in models of the self) this will lead to all the contradiction and confusion already discussed earlier. Consider, for example, a person who is given to dishonesty and self-deception. Suppose that on suddenly realizing that he has such tendencies this person were to try to construct or find a model of honesty and truth to which he would attempt to conform. This would evidently make no sense. For since this person is in the habit of self-deception he will inevitably deceive himself further about his attempts to “become an honest man.” Rather, the right question in this context is: “Why am I caught in self-deception?” This question, if asked seriously, may point to what is going on at the deep formative levels of the mind. Generally speaking, one can, through such a question, see that self-deception originates in the automatic, habitual and largely unconscious operation of models that was picked up in early childhood. A typical model of this kind is that the self is highly inadequate, but that to be aware of this is almost unbearably painful, because the self ought to be essentially perfect. So the mind covers up the sense of inadequacy, and seeks any form of self-deception (e.g. accepting flattery from others) that momentarily eases the sense of pain produced by the operation of the model of an inadequate self.

A great deal of confusion originates in men’s efforts to identify themselves with models of truth, honesty, courage, power and effectiveness, kindliness, love, etc. Thus, it is well known that in battle most men are afraid but feel impelled to conform to a model of courageous behaviour. The fear then comes out in confused behaviour in other contexts, of which the person is largely unaware. Similarly, parents commonly imply to their children that love consists of modelling themselves on what the parents think is right, good, true, etc. Such conformity is not real love, but rather a form of fear. Moreover, it must evidently destroy originality and intelligence: once a child learns to accept a notion of the self because not to do so would displease his parents, then he has started an overall movement of undiscriminating conformity in the deep activity of the mind as a whole. A child should never be asked to accept a model of love, truth, honesty, etc., because these are not specifiable “things,” which can sensibly be modelled, but rather, have to be discovered in the unlimited flowing movement of life as a whole. Indeed, he should not really be asked even to accept a technical or practical model before he understands the reason for doing so. Otherwise (as has been brought out in some modern inquiries into the education of children) he is being taught the habit of unquestioning conformity in the deeper levels of the mind, and this is incompatible with true intelligence.

The question was then raised about the validity of psychological analyses, such as those of Freud, Jung and others. Evidently these contain models of the mind, such as, for example, Freud’s division between conscious and unconscious layers in terms of the concepts of Id, Ego and Superego. Such models have to be considered with the utmost care and attention. Thus to assert that in some general sense a large part of the operation of the mind is not consciously known is one thing; but to give the content of a particular model to the unconscious is another. Here there is the distinct danger (proved very often in practice) that the operation of the model will (as generally happens with models of the self) tend to create the very thing of which it is supposed to be only a model. To do this, however, is to add to the confusion rather than to help to clear it up.

Further questions were raised about the possibility of making models of a person’s knowledge. For example, one can say of a certain person that he is a physicist, a plumber, or something else. To do this is to make a mental model of him as possessing a certain knowledge (or skill).

Such a model may be appropriate, provided its use is limited to a suitable context (which has to be seen in each case anew, in an act of intelligent perception). For knowledge is part of the associative side of thought, and is thus only some limited aspect of the mind as a whole. However, if a person identifies himself with such knowledge and skill, then this becomes part of a model of the self with all its attendant fragmentation and confusion. For example, a man who identified himself with his knowledge of physics would feel very uncomfortable on learning that key aspects of his knowledge were wrong or mistaken. As a result he would tend to deceive himself by overlooking or distorting evidence of error in his knowledge, so that his ability to work properly in physics would be greatly impeded.

Similar difficulties with models arise when a person tries to be completely certain, or sure that he is on the right track. For example, it was asked in the discussion what are the criteria for knowing whether or not one has transcended models of the self. This is equivalent to asking for a model of a self that has transcended models of the self. One has to consider first why such a question is asked. The reason is easily seen to be that the prevailing model of the self is one with great uncertainty and insecurity, one that evidently calls for a new model in which this uncertainty and insecurity are removed.

Actually the attempt to be sure that one is free of models of the self is irrelevant and a source of distortion. Thus, for example, if Einstein had begun by asking himself how he could be sure that he had transcended Newtonian mechanics, this would have so blocked his mind that he could never have inquired freely without fear of failure, as is needed for any original discovery. In fact, creative work can generally take place only when attention is totally devoted to whatever is being done, and this is not possible when one is thinking about the self, which always brings in an irrelevant fear of the unknown, that tends to keep the mind a prisoner of its old way of thinking. A similar creative freedom, but at a yet higher level, is needed to discover how our models of the self produce this fear of the unknown.

In this connection, it may be added that we have a wide range of models of death, which are aimed largely at easing the sense of fear of the unknown that is implicit in models of the self. Our understanding of the functioning of such models can play a key role in determining whether we live in creative freedom or in fear. Thus it is quite easy to see, when someone dies, that the inner formative activity of the body has ceased, so that the latter must start to dissolve and disintegrate. But generally speaking this is not the aspect of death that must interest us. Rather the main question is usually “What will happen to me?,” meaning by “me” some “inner spiritual essence” or “soul” concerning the fate of which there is usually a great deal of fear.

In earlier times men came to propose that in one sense or other the “me” survives death and goes on living in some other realm or domain. This model evidently helped to assuage the deep fear that is often raised by the notion that the “me” does not survive (though it led to further uncertainties as to how the “me” would be treated in the life to come after death). On the other hand, in more modern times, death has become a topic that people would prefer to avoid, though evidently the fear connected with it is as deep as ever. For death is both universal and necessary, so that if fear prevents us from considering it in a clear and rational way there will be a pervasive effect on how the whole mind works and thus on how we live.

If one looks at this question carefully, one sees that there is as little reason to make a model of death as there is to make a model of life as a whole. The ultimate meaning of death is unknown. The model that we will go on after the death of the body evidently has no basis in fact. What is perhaps less evident, though no less true, is that the model of death of the body as the absolute end has also no basis in fact. Actually we have no way of knowing what, if anything, happens to the individual after death. To suppose that he comes to an end may give rise to an easing of tension that results from seeming to know, which removes the unpleasant sense of uncertainty about the future. But to accept this notion as true is a form of self-deception, not deeply different from accepting the notion that one is certain of survival after death. The two notions are basically equivalent, in that they create a confused movement in the deeper formative activity of the mind, which tends to destroy both real intelligence and true feeling.

Why is it generally difficult to remain with the simple fact that one does not know what, if anything, follows death? Is it, as was suggested in the discussion, simply that one is curious to know? Or is it not that the mind is seeking a sense of security, and is ready to take what is false as true if to do so will make things seem certain and secure so that one feels more at ease in oneself?

Without this meaningless search for the illusion of security about death, the mind may then perhaps be able, naturally and spontaneously, to cease to make models, in the whole of that domain in which models have no proper function.

At this point, the question was raised: if freedom from models is equivalent, in a certain sense, to spontaneity, does this mean that our social institutions, being based on models, have to be dropped, if we are to be what we really are, rather than what our social institutions require us to be?

Here, it is first of all necessary to point out that a great deal of what is called spontaneity is illusory. Thus a person conditioned to identify with a model of power and dominance will feel urges that appear spontaneous to him, to assert himself and to insist on his own way. What is at issue here is true spontaneity. This cannot be defined, specified, or sought, as to do so is, in effect, to make a model of spontaneity—which is absurd. It may, however, be said that true spontaneity is what arises naturally and of its own accord when models of the self have ceased to impede it. In other words, the problem is the negative one of discovering the (largely though not entirely) unconscious models that prevent spontaneity.

With regard to the establishment of social institutions, the key question is (as always): “Why do these prevent spontaneity?” rather than “What is wrong with them?” If one is at all observant, one will see that one has a strong tendency to identify with such institutions and thus to incorporate them into one’s model of the self. All of us can, if perhaps only fleetingly, sense the hollowness of the model of the self, which from time to time “frays at the edges” and thus lets through a glimpse of the fact that there is no solid and substantial reality beneath it. Therefore men have sought to identify the self with something broader, deeper, and more stable, such as social institutions. Thus when one feels that one belongs to such institutions, and that in them one has a place in which one’s existence and value are outwardly and publicly recognized, the unpleasant sense of “being a nonentity” is assuaged.

The difficulty with this sort of reaction is that one can no longer rationally consider serious changes in social institutions. When such changes are proposed, it seems that one’s whole being is threatened. And when the institutions start to develop insoluble contradictions and inner conflicts, the mind engages in self-deception, to cover up this fact and to make it appear that the problems are not serious. This not only prevents institutions from adapting to a changing situation, but more important, it tends to create in the formative activity of the members of the whole society a destructive movement of self-deception and general confusion that ultimately invades every aspect of life.

The real trouble is then not mainly with social institutions as such but rather with our models of the self, which tend to incorporate these institutions and thus to make them unworkable. We need some kinds of social institutions and organizations, to enable us to co-operate in a generally orderly way. Thus it is clear that unless everyone drives on the same side of the road, chaos will ensue, and that nobody really wants this to happen. For everyone to agree to keep to the same side of the road is then not really a significant barrier to spontaneity. On the contrary, to have cars driven at random on both sides of the road would be a truly serious interference with one’s spontaneous wishes to travel from one place to another. Similarly, all can see the need for establishing a certain common social order in which each person has to cooperate in maintaining essential services such as food, water, sanitation, electric power, communications. Without these services, our possibilities for true spontaneity would evidently be greatly decreased. In principle, the forms of the institutions and organizations which are needed to make such activities possible have to be subject to unceasing free discussion; for otherwise they will soon fail to adapt to the ever-changing situation in which they operate. What prevents this free discussion now is the identification of the self with these institutions.

Evidently no change of society which leaves people identified with their social institutions will really end the basic contradiction in such institutions. So to understand the role of models of the self is crucial if we are ever to understand the chaotic structure that society has rather generally shown throughout recorded history, and thus to begin to bring this chaos to an end.

Finally, a question was raised concerning possible means of favouring and furthering the awareness of the workings of models of the self. It was suggested that the consideration of history and studies of other cultures would show up the relativity of particular models, their dependence on special conditions and contexts of development, so that our thinking could, in some degree, cease to be based on such models. Studies of this sort could evidently be helpful, as could also attempts to communicate with the higher animals, such as dolphins and chimpanzees, whose way of thinking may be different from our own and yet ultimately comprehensible to us in essence. But more than this, what is primarily required is a growing realization that models of the self are actually operating, so generally and so pervasively, to confuse almost everything that we try to do. Such a realization would give the inquiry into the overall operation of these models that sense of urgency and energy which is needed to meet the true magnitude of the difficulties with which such models are confronting us.

View the bibliographic record

Last modified on