Monday, June 16, 2014

The Bullshit at the Heart of Humanity

I explained, in a recent blog post, Why Humans Are So Screwy.   But I didn't quite finish the story there.   Here I'll explain an additional aspect of Screwy Human Nature -- the nature of the self-delusion that lies at the heart of our selves.

My previous post identified two major culprits where human screwiness is concerned:

  • The conflict between the results of individual and group (evolutionary) selection, encoded in our genome (as described excellently by E.O. Wilson)
  • The emergence of civilization, to which we are not adapted, which disrupted the delicate balance via which tribal human mind/society quasi-resolved the above-mentioned conflict (as described excellently by Sigmund Freud)

What I want to point out here is the next chapter in the story -- the way these conflicts  impact our “selves” – our “autobiographical self-models”, which play such a large role in our inner lives.   They play a major role in causing our selves to comprise self-damagingly inaccurate models of the thought, feeling and behavior patterns of which we are actually constituted. 

Put relatively simply: in order to avoid the pain that we are conditioned to feel from violating individual or group needs, or violating civilized or tribal standards of individual/group balance, we habitually create false self-models embodying the delusion that such violations are occurring in our minds and actions much less often than they really are.  Emotional attachment to these sorts of inaccurate self-models is perhaps the most directly important cause of human mental and social suffering.

Our Problematic Selves

The primary culprit of human suffering has often been identified as the “self” – meaning the autobiographical, psychosocial self; the self-model that each of us uses to symbolize, define and model our own behavior.   One of the most commonly cited differences between normal human psychology and the psychology of “enlightened” spiritual gurus is that the latter are said to be unattached to their autobiographical selves – indeed they are sometimes said to have “no self at all.”

I think there is some deep truth to this perspective; but one needs to frame the issues with care.   Any mind concerned with controlling a body that persists through time, has got to maintain some sort of model of that body and the behavior patterns that are associated with it.   Without such a model (which may be represented explicitly or implicitly), the mind could not control the body very intelligently.  Any such model can fairly be called a “self-model.”   In this sense any persistently embodied intelligence is going to have a self.

The problem with the human self, however, is that it tends to be a bad model – not a morally bad model, but an inaccurate one.  The self-models we carry around in our minds, are generally not very accurate models of the actual behavior-patterns that our bodies display, nor of the thought-patterns that our minds contain.   And the inaccuracies involved are not just random errors; they are biased in very particular ways.

Our self-models are symbols for clusters of behavior-patterns that are observed to occur among our bodily behaviors and our internal cognitive behaviors.   This is not in itself bad – symbolic reasoning is critical for general intelligence.   However, we are very easily drawn to make incorrect conclusions regarding our symbolic self-models – and to become emotionally attached to these incorrect conclusions.

And this brings us straight back to the two conflicts that I highlighted in my earlier blog post: Self versus Group (Wilson), and Evolved Self/Group Balance versus Civilized Self/Group Balance (Freud).   These layered contradictions yank our self-models around willy-nilly.   Each modern human feels great pressure to be both self-focused and group-focused; and to balance self and group in a tribal way, and in a civilized way.

What’s the simplest way for a person to fulfill all these contradictory requirements?  -- or rather, to feel like they have at least done a halfway-decent job of fulfilling them?

That’s easy: To bullshit themselves! 

Human self-models are typically packed with lies -- lies to the effect that the person is fulfilling all these contradictory requirements much better than is actually the case.  Because when a person clearly sees just how badly they have been fulfilling these contradictory requirements, they will generaly experience a lot of bad emotion – unless that person has somehow managed to let go of the expectations that evolution and society have packed into their brains and minds.

The above analysis of the conflicts in human nature lets us specifically identify four kinds of lies that are typically packed into human selves.  There are two kinds of Wilsonian lies:
  • Lies about how a person has acted against their own goals and desires
  • Lies about how a person has disappointed the others around them

And there are two kinds of Freudian lies:

  • Lies about how a person has repressed their true desires, in order to adhere to general social expectations
  • Lies about how a person has violated general social expectations, in effort to act out their true desires

What if a person could avoid these four kinds of lies, and openly, transparently acknowledge all these kinds of violations to themselves, on an ongoing basis during life?  This would allow the person in question to form an accurate self-model -- not the usual self-delusional self-model biased by the Wilsonian and Freudian contradictions.   But this sort of internal self-honesty is far from the contemporary human norm. 

The problem is that evolution has wired us to become unhappy when we know we have acted against our own goals and desires; OR when we know we have disappointed someone else.   And civilized society has taught us to become unhappy when we violate social expectations; but evolution has taught us to become unhappy when we don’t balance self and group in the way that is “natural” in a tribal context.    So, inside the privacy of our minds, we are constantly tripping over various evolved or learned triggers for unhappiness.  The easiest way to avoid setting off these triggers is to fool ourselves that we haven’t really committed the “sins” required to activate them – i.e. to create a systematically partially-false self-model. 

The harder way to avoid setting off these triggers is to effectively rewire our mind-brains to NOT be reflexively caused unhappiness when we act against our goals/desires, disappoint others, violate social expectations, or balance self and group in tribally inappropriate ways.  Having done this, the need for an inaccurate, self-deluding self-model disappears.  But performing this kind of rewiring is very difficult for human beings, given the current state of technology.   The only reasonably reliable methods for achieving this kind of rewiring today involve years or decades of concentrated effort via meditation or other similar techniques.

And what would a human mind be like without a dishonesty-infused, systematically inaccurate self-model?  Some hints in this direction may be found in the mind-states of spiritually advanced individuals who have in some sense gone beyond the negative reinforcement triggers mentioned above, and also beyond the traditional feeling of self.   My friend Jeffery Martin's recent study of the psychology of the spiritually advanced  (soon to be published) suggests that, without a self in the traditional sense, a person’s mind feels more like an (ever-shifting) set of clusters of personality/behavior patterns.   One of the lies the self tells itself, it seems, is about its own coherence.  Actually human beings are not nearly as coherent and systematic and unified as their typical self-models claim.

Goals Beyond the Legacy Self

So much for the complexly conflicted present.  Let's think a bit about the possibly better future.

In the current state of human nature, self and goals are intimately wrapped up together.   

Substantially, we pursue our goals because we want our self-model to be a certain way – and we do this in a manner that is inextricably tangled up with the various lies the self-model embodies.

But consider, on the other hand, the case of a post-Singularity human or human-like mind that understands itself far better than contemporary humans, thus arriving at far more accurate – and likely less unified and coherent – self-model than a typical pre-Singularity human mind.   What will the goals of such a mind be?  What will a mind without a coherent self --without a self built around lies and confusions regarding self vs. group and repression and status -- actually want to do with itself?

Considering our primary current examples of minds that have discarded their traditional autobiographical selves -- spiritual gurus and the like – provides confusing guidance.   One notes that (with nontrivial exceptions) the majority of such people are mainly absorbed with enjoying the wonder of being, and sometimes with spreading this wonder to others, rather than with attempting to achieve ambitious real-world goals.   The prototypical spiritually advanced human is not generally concerned with pursuing pragmatic goals, because they are in a sense beyond the typical human motives that cause people to become attached to pursuit of such goals.   This makes one wonder if the legacy self – with all its associated self-deception -- is somehow required in order for humans to work hard toward the achievement of wildly ambitious goals, in the manner for instance of the scientists and entrepreneurs who are currently bringing the Singularity within reach.

But it’s not clear that the contemporary or historical spiritual guru is a good model for a post-Singularity, post-legacy-self human mind.   I suspect that in a community of post-delusory-self minds, avid pragmatic goal-pursuit may well emerge for different reasons, mostly unrelated to legacy human motives. 

Why would a community of post-delusory-self minds pursue goals, if not for the usual human reasons of status and ego?   Here we come to grips with deep philosophical issues.   I would argue that, once the conflicts that wrack human nature are mostly removed, other deep human motives will rise to the fore – for instance, the drive to discover new things, and create new things.   That is: the drives for pattern, creation and information.   

One can view the whole long story of the emergence of life and intelligence on Earth as the manifestation of these “drives”, as embedded in the laws of physics and the nature of complex systems dynamics.   From the point of view of the Cosmos rather than humanity in particular, the drives for pattern, creation and information are even deeper than the conflicts that wrack human nature. 

If spiritually advanced humans, having cast aside self and ego and status, tend not to pursue complex goals of discovery and creation, this may be because, given the constraints of the human brain architecture, merely maintaining a peaceful mindstate without self/ego/status-obsession requires a huge amount of the brain’s energy.   The simple, blissful conscious state of these individuals may be bought at the cost of a great deal of ongoing unconscious neural effort. 

On the other hand, once the legacy human brain architecture becomes flexibly mutable, most of the old constraints no longer apply.   It may become possible to maintain a peaceful, blissful conscious state – relatively free of Freudian repression and individual/group conflicts – while still avidly pursuing the deeper goals of gaining more and more information, and creating more and more structures and patterns in the universe.   Here we are far beyond the domain of the currently scientifically testable – but this is indeed my strong suspicion.

Current human nature got where it is largely via the advent of certain technologies – the technologies of agriculture and construction that enabled civilization, for example.   The folks who invented the plow and the brick weren’t thinking about the consequences their creations would have for the emergence and dynamics of the superego  -- but these consequences were real enough anyway.
Similarly, the next steps in human nature may well emerge as a consequence of technological advancements like brain-computer interfacing and mind uploading – even though the scientists and engineers building these technologies will mostly have other goals in mind, rather than explicitly focusing their work toward reducing conflict in the human psyche and bringing about an era where self is less critical and discovery and creation are the main motivations.

Growth, joy and creation beyond the constrictions of the self-delusory self -- I'm more than ready!


Boris Kazachenko said...

I basically agree, Ben, but you could make it a lot briefer:

- Growth & joy are ill-defined & superfluous,
> the drives for pattern, creation and information.

That's one drive: for sensory & motor pattern discovery: value-free curiosity.

- If people lose their problematic selves, they won't be distinct individuals anymore. Not a bad thing: basically an equivalent of emergence of life, in which specific quanta of matter & energy became dispensable / metabolized.

But human "bulshit goes deeper than that: it's rooted in our ridiculously glacial NN "learning" (actually training) mechanism.

Unknown said...

'detached from your autobiographical self', might not mean 'no self at all', only no autobiographical self, just a biological self or some pan-self.

LME said...

I enjoyed reading your ruminations. I absolutely agree with you that the natural urge to find pattern, create novel order, and similar inherent characteristics of sentience are what minds will do, free of struggling with the evolutionary and developmental conflicts you analyze so clearly. We have a good example of this in plain sight: childhood.
Thanks for your work and your writing, Ben. I enjoyed Hidden Pattern, and I follow your activities in the intellisphere.

Stephen Paul King said...

The challenge that I see is how to achieve "effectively rewire our mind-brains to NOT be reflexively caused unhappiness when we act against our goals/desires, disappoint others, violate social expectations, or balance self and group in tribally inappropriate ways" without being a full blown sociopath!

Sanjeev said...

The delusion that this dynamic pattern of behaviors and thoughts is the "self" or "me" is a major problem indeed.

As most of it is survival related, once the basic needs of the human organism are met, it results in odd things like suffering (for both self and others) and a feeling of purposeless existence.

It may be possible to get rid of this problem by brute force techniques, such as some kind of intense mental training or perhaps, in future, surgical procedures. But its not the best way, as it can have some consequences, such as zombiefication of entire society.

The best way is to develop a witnessing mechanism which simply witnesses the activities of the "self", not interfering in it or trying to control it. The "self" simply runs as a subroutine somewhere in the corner of a vast witnessing space inside the mind.

It can wake up and come to foreground for the tasks related to survival. Rest of the time it returns to the subroutine level. A tiny number of humans have already achieved this, especially in the East.

This does not make one without a personality, as some may assume. It frees the mind for more important stuff like creativity and innovation. The thing is most of the people who achieve this state are not interested in doing the hard work, as the content free state of mind is so blissful. And it seems there is nothing more to be done, everything looks so perfect. So there lies the scope for further evolution of humanity - to take advantage of this new evolved state of being.

Stephenovinci said...

"The map is not the territory." As Gregory Bateson once said.

The inspiration from Buddhism is clear and nicely done in this article. It seems this model of the self is a kind of convenient fiction. Selflessness might be better thought of as a lack of attachment to a singular narrative or model of oneself.

Why do mystics get 'stuck' in emptiness? Because it's comfortable and fits their model? In 25 years of working in computer support I've seen how people hold onto their models and narratives of self and technology. The people by and large who adapt to changes are indeed the more creative ones. In my own experience with art, writing and dance I've found those practices are helpful in experimenting with different self models-narratives.

With that said, it took psychedelics and meditation to help me and others I know to have that initial and power experience of witnessing our self models 'objectively' for the first few times.

From the standpoint if my meditation practice, this self model is a kind of fiction, a convenient fiction built around the convergence of facial muscles, somatic memories, ideas and feelings. This is not to say this self is not real, just that it is constructed and changeable, depending on stress and a spectrum of somatic-emotional states. This fictional or simulated self seems to be reinforced by selective memories, objects, people and environments that we inhabit. They remind us who and what we are.

Is this model of self and this capacity for self consciousness a kind of meta organ? A highly concentrated cluster of stimulus networked together into a kind of mask or persona?

I'll think about this more.


dustproduction said...

Re:The challenge that I see is how to achieve "effectively rewire our mind-brains to NOT be reflexively caused unhappiness when we act against our goals/desires, disappoint others, violate social expectations, or balance self and group in tribally inappropriate ways" without being a full blown sociopath!

Yeah, I have a problem fitting in also so I changed my goals, eliminated others in my life so that I can violate social expectation when I'm alone. Now you're my only tribe so don't be too disappointed in me.

dustproduction said...

Re: "the map is not the territory"

Not Bateson, (but the punctuation here threw me off a little).
"The expression "the map is not the territory" first appeared in print in a paper that Alfred Korzybski gave at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1931:[1] In Science and Sanity, Korzybski acknowledges his debt to mathematician Eric Temple Bell, whose epigram "the map is not the thing mapped" was published in Numerology."

dustproduction said...

Re: "The delusion that this dynamic pattern of behaviors and thoughts is the "self" or "me" is a major problem indeed."

In most psychological research that addresses self model this would be the "I" that you are addressing and not the "me." The difference being that the "I" is our subjective experience of a self and the "me is the objective experience others hold of us.


Hendy said...

My first reaction was "that's why people need to repent..." :-)

Anonymous said...

Ha, Ha, Ha . . . Perhaps what is needed is a little unifurcation . . .

( (

Why do I always seem to get lost in a timeless world whenever I venture over to Kauffman's website?

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I absolutely agree with you that the natural urge to find pattern, create novel order, and similar inherent characteristics of sentience are what minds will do, free of struggling with the evolutionary and developmental conflicts you analyze so clearly.

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