step 54: the world beyond your head pt 2
Home » All content » Step 54: The World Beyond Your Head (pt 2)

Step 54: The World Beyond Your Head (pt 2)

Matthew Crawford’s “The World Beyond Your Head” discusses how to situate the self, using ecologies of attention to anchor our mind, and develop skill, which provides actual agency in a world of mental projections.

In part 2 we discuss the self as an illusion, a mental projection we attempt to maintain. We are sold the idea of autonomy. We are “free individuals,” but what if the only way to find genuine autonomy is to submit to heteronomy: to shift your attention to the world beyond your head.

The World Beyond Your Head

Matthew Crawford (2015)

part 1: environmental suppression
part 2: the illusion of the self
part 3: situated self & ecologies of attention
part 4: autonomy vs heteronomy
part 5: the current cultural narrative
part 6: freedom!
part 7: the ideal self as projection


The World Beyond Your Head
Step 54: The World Beyond Your Head (pt

Part 1 Environmental suppression

How does the self combat an environment that dissolves the self? Either suppress or control your environment. The only way we can find the “self” is to remove ourselves from a toxic environment hijacking our attention.

But even when alone it raises another question: How do we make decisions, even when free of external manipulation?

Behavioral economics says the decision-making process is already inscrutable. Daniel Kahneman and others have shown we are heuristic machines, which means we go by rules of thumb, instinct, feeling, and emotion. We are seldom rational, and when we are it takes a lot of effort. Most of the time, we just “Go with our gut.”

You might consider that we have metrics and analytics and data science, which is how we make decisions today. But back in Step 26 Moral Mazes (part 1) we saw that despite clear forecasts and hard numbers corporate leaders make political decisions that are for temporary survival and their best interest. You may think that bureaucratic policy would ameliorate the damage, but it is also very often misused for the reverse: to uphold oppressive hierarchies of “gut decision makers” by coercively dominating the pawns that don’t fall into line.

Let’s return to the question: how do we make decisions?

Behavioral economics introduces us to confirmation bias, where our actual reasons are opaque and inscrutable, but we tend to rationalize that whatever direction we wanted to go, in spite of the data, is the correct direction. We mentally work around the math to justify our feelings.

Kahneman in the book Noise in chp 11, discusses our aggrandizing self-narration of correctness. We manufacture an illusion of predictability and coherence where none exists. We claim consistency of self, but it is not backed up by our actions.

“I know myself, I would never do that. Ooops… I don’t know why I did that.”

An individual (as in “not-divided” or “indivisible”) seems not to exist here. If we are truly not divided, then what part of us is making decisions that don’t align with our self-narrated image?

Step 54: The World Beyond Your Head (pt 2)

Part 2: the illusion of the self

Neurobiology and ethicists say “Free Will is an illusion.” They can show through fMRI scans that when we pause to deliberate, it is merely electrical chatter obscuring the fact that the decision was made before we even began deliberation.

Sam Harris mentions that we cannot even control what thought pops into our heads next, much less understand how our will is motivated. If I ask you to think of a movie, what pops into your head? If asked why you thought of those movies, you will create a rationalization, but often the movies you thought of will be completely out of left-field. We don’t know where our thoughts come from, yet we claim we shape our will and are free… but more accurately, we are just a cloud of possibilities.

We pretend to be thinking creatures: and this is self-deception.

If we accept this premise Crawford asks if we are merely billiard balls bouncing around due to cause and effect reactions?

Well, it is not so simple as deterministic mechanics: we are, according to behavioral economics easily primed and programmed, manipulated through anchors, and though we may be amazingly unpredictable, as in WE don’t know what we are doing next, someone else can have a much better idea of what we will do next.

Once again, this is because of a penchant for our surety of the fixed self, that our impulses are our choices. After all, we are our own best friend, listening to the voices in our heads all day.

Who else could possibly know us better than our selves?

Well, given our tendency to cast ourselves as the protagonist the voices in our head are wonderful at self-deception, rewriting every interaction to create a more palatable self.

Step 54: The World Beyond Your Head (pt 2)

Part 3: situated self & ecologies of attention

If the self is an illusion, and there really is no “free will” because we don’t actually think rationally and decide what we will… and if we are deterministically programmable by outside forces… what hope is there?

Crawford brings up that “Activities give structure to attention,” and to situate this fickle illusory self we need some sort of structure and rituals to perform.

Sure, those rituals can involve pentagrams and wearing dark robes, but I think it is more about establishing actions that are repeated, that serve as rites that focus your attention.

He calls these “Ecologies of attention”: where skilled practitioners tune in to features of the environment. These specific features, these nuanced details, and your relationship to them are pertinent to effective action.

This draws from Crawford’s previous book discussed in Steps 16 and 17:

Shop Class as Soulcraft: The core theme is individual agency. Seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing they are genuinely yours. The genuine agency does not arise through mere choice, but paradoxically, in active submission to things that have their own intractable ways.

In part 1 episode 53, we talked about things grabbing your attention, the things outside you as a kind of authority that structures our attention.

Corporations are essentially attention Pirates, poking and prodding you to plunder and harvest your attention by controlling your environment, by inserting themselves into your environment.

This is by Design, and it is a “good design” in that it works. We can learn from this.

To structure your attention, to situate the self within an ecology of attention, or relationship with your surroundings, we can also use the authority and power of objects outside of us. Through using environment design we can enable conditions that demand less of us while focussing us more.

Step 54: The World Beyond Your Head (pt 2)

Part 4: autonomy v heteronomy

We brought this up in Step 53 but maybe I wasn’t quite clear enough about it: to establish yourself as an individual requires attention.

It is how we prioritize values and position ourselves in the community.

The paradox is between being an autonomous being and the heteronomy of the exterior world.

Autonomy means giving law to oneself. Heteronomy is being ruled by something alien to oneself. So, culturally, Heteronomy is the alien rule. It is the cultural and spiritual condition when external demands (that is cultural values) threaten to destroy individual freedom.

Do you want another word distinction? another definition? Crawford says

The environment constitutes the self, rather than comprising it.

Both of these are about being PART of something, but there is value distinction. To constitute is to establish, to be an integral part that causes something to stand. While comprising is to be composed of, made of many parts. The environment ESTABLISHES the self, in a fundamental way, and is not merely a part of the self.

Now, let’s pair these up:

The autonomous self considers the environment (culture) something that it takes part in: it is merely a factor that comprises or affects the self, but we believe we are the ones making up the laws that govern us. However, it is more accurate to say that the environment constitutes the self. That is, the environment establishes and controls the self. This heteronomy, alien rule by our environment, is cultural values, what we pay attention to, but it is also a physical reality we pay attention to.

Conclusion: if you are good at something, it means you grasp how reality works. This is a skill. To employ your skill means you have grasped the shape of the world, seen how it works, submitted yourself to its shape and function, and aligned yourself with it. You have become more aware of the world, more nuanced in your reactions to it than the average person. To be skillful is not to fight the environment, but to align with it.

You may claim to be autonomous, but what makes you unique is your ability to align with your environment: to be autonomous is to give in to heteronomy.

Step 54: The World Beyond Your Head (pt 2)

Part 5: The current cultural narrative

Self-help teaches us to be who we really are. But given the previous insights into the self, the self as illusory, how do we become more of what we are? More illusory?

The prevailing idea is to find your internal values (or choose them, make the choice) and transform yourself through discipline, willpower, and some repetition. Crawford says this is “groundless self making”. Because you have now gained creative mastery over a world you have projected.

Your projected self, the one you chose… the one you made up. You can become that person: declare your intention, lean in, become the role and the universe will deliver. But that’s not the point: the point is, there is no “authentic you” in that process. That is a projection that you master and become.

Crawford says the “projected self” you master is narcissistic, all about you (even though good self-help makes it seem like you are changing yourself for others) but more importantly, Crawford says this new-you-projection is easily manipulated. You have projected a version of yourself into the world, but the projection is groundless. Or more accurately, the ground you built this self-help-self on is also a projection.

But what does this mean? Because you probably have changed and improved via self-help. Most likely in ways that make you feel better, operate better. And the projection of a new, better you is a goal achieved. Often that goal is based on some shifty and socially biased variables: the ways others react to you, getting more wealth, indulging the self and declaring happiness, a new version of spirituality you can bring to the office, or the current social flagellation to prove you care and are on team enlightenment and progress. This is all real, but it is also groundless in a profound sense. It is illusory and ever-shifting, it is mass-marketed and mass-sold: so where is the “authentic you?”

We are sold “unfreedom” through the language of freedom.

The language of autonomy and free choice is thick in our environment, it is the freedom of preference satisfaction. We are marketed to as if freedom is something we are entitled to: liberation from all constraint. Freedom!

Step 54: The World Beyond Your Head (pt 2)

Part 6: Freedom!

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most people dread it.”

George Bernard Shaw

Crawford asserts that actual freedom, let’s call it “independence,” is won through “disciplined attention.”

Crawford says, through actions that join us to the world: where we submit to the heteronomy and shape of the world as a means to join us to it. Our independence (or liberation) is found in a deeper dependence on reality.

And, don’t worry about your own discipline, because once again the environmental ecology shapes the discipline:

“It is the constraints in the circumstances that provide the discipline.”

Crawford suggests that we drop the word “Freedom”. It is too strained and has been coopted in ways that trigger and confuse us. “Freedom” as a word obscures our ability to think critically because it manifests its central dogma: our right, our preference, our individuality.

We cannot get free of freedom.

Matthew Crawford
Step 54: The World Beyond Your Head (pt 2)

Part 7: The ideal of self as a projection

Crawford States his goal with this book is to “reclaim the real.”

This is a tall order. Especially when considering the philosophy of the West has generated an “ideal of the self” as separate from the real. Not only do we privilege thought and mind over body, but we privilege thought processes over reality. In short, you are your thoughts. The ego is part of this, your feelings of self are you, and your thought processes are you. And yet, these are manufactured representations, abstractions we debunked when talking about the “illusion of self.”

The implication is that we champion representations (abstract models in our head) as fundamentally right and righteous.

Crawford says that we also treat objects as projections of the Mind. We only make contact with objects through representations of them. As in, we theoretically understand the thing and expect it to comply with our mental model. We project a model of the world onto the world, but for some reason, we hold the model more valuable than reality.

This is the old “the map is not the territory” conundrum so enmeshed into our way of being we are utterly unaware of it.

One reason, Crawford says, we like our mental models better is that they are pliable: we just keep changing them to suit our goals. Nature is not nearly so pliable.

The problem is if our mental models are pliable, we become pliable as well. And once again, we have no ground they stand on. We easily become “subject to the most bewitching representations.” And without a firm grounding, a footing, in reality, we are beholden to the guarded portals of public space for our values and new representations.

How do we get back to this firm grounding? Not falling prey to the easy manipulations of mental models? Engage in the world.

“For it is when we were engaged in a skilled practice the world shows up for us as having reality of its own, independent of the self. Reciprocally, the self comes interview as being in a situation that is not of its own making.”

Matthew Crawford

Skill grounds us because it focuses our attention outside of us. Crawford brings up that root of the word “attention” is “tenere,” which means to stretch or make tense, to pull.

“External objects provide an attachment point for the mind; they pull us out of ourselves. It is in the encounter between the self and the brute alien otherness of the real that beautiful things become possible.“

Matthew Crawford

(This is part two of several episodes on “The World Beyond Your Head”)

My daily habit:

Belly Button Lint

Donations have been disabled

If you enjoyed the content, please help offset the costs of production.


Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015) _ link


Sam Harris, Free Will


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *