In which my Eyes Open
To begin, please note that everything in this post should be taken as theory. Though I will speak declaratively for convenience, it should be understood that I’m hurling ideas into the darkness in an attempt to identify that which may have a chance of aligning with the actual state of reality.
I have been stumbling in the darkness for roughly 22 years, and I believe I have just seen the faintest glimmer of light.
Within the context of my experience, it would seem that one of the most cunning tricks reality plays on us humans is imbuing us with the sense that we know why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Along those lines, perhaps the central catalyst that triggered the opening of my metaphorical eyes was the deep intuitive realization that we don’t, in fact, know why we do what we do.
There are a whole range of things we’ll need to unpack, but I suppose the first thing I should do is attempt to convince you of the above statement.
Consider waking up in the morning, and being faced with the decisions of what to wear that day. You might look in your closet and find the blue shirt compelling. Or perhaps the red top. And thus you’ve decided what you’ll be wearing for the day.
But why is it that you made that particular decision? Why on earth did you find the blue shirt compelling? Why did the red to catch your eye?
“Aesthetics,” you might say, “I just liked how the shirt looked.” But the tragedy of that answer is that in a single word (“Aesthetics”) you’ve masked a profoundly bizarre mystery. In doing this, we assign the simplistic label “Aesthetics” to the unimaginably complicated process that gives rise to the sensation of delight in the appearance of apparel. This is akin to a hypothetical (yet totally relatable) situation in Ancient Greece in which a child asks “where does lightning come from?” to which some adult might answer “Zeus’ Thunderbolt”.
Both the Thunderbolt and the term “Aesthetics” are intellectual placeholders that allow us to carry on a conversation in any meaningful way. And why is that useful at all? Well, we could certainly say that there might be many reasons why you chose to wear what you’re currently wearing. You might be wearing a coat because it’s raining outside. Or you might be dressed up for a wedding.
If someone were to ask you “why are you wearing that blue shirt?” and you answered “I liked how it looked” (a slight rephrasing of the term “Aesthetics”) that would constitute a perfectly reasonable explanation. Why? Because there’s an implicit assumption that the original question asker shares sufficient context with you to understand the decision to choose a shirt on the basis of aesthetics.
However, despite the fact that the term “aesthetics” might constitute a reasonable response within the context of the previous conversation, if you really think about it, that answer actually tells you almost nothing tangible. Why, in the name of everything holy, do you like how the blue shirt looks?
Perhaps you could say “oh, I liked the idea of how I might look in it that day.” But you have to understand that’s literally just a deferral to an equally ambiguous idea. Why, in the name of everything holy, did you like the idea of how you might look in that shirt?
I imagine you’re beginning to see the present conundrum. Furthermore, I can already see some of you whipping together explanations to what I’ve presented. I imagine you could invoke anything from psychology to evolutionary biology in an effort to get to the bottom of the unthinkably serious question: “why do you like the blue shirt?”
While of course I’m not going to discount those sorts of explanations, it should be understood that those explanations are in fact theories, possible explanations of the present phenomenon. And within the context of the present discussion, I don’t think those things actually matter, because my point was to illustrate that even the most trivial of our choices mask profound mysteries.
However, on that point, you might bring up something I alluded to earlier. What if you chose to wear a coat because it was raining outside? That choice seems to follow a very clear strain of logic. And I would concede to you in that regard. However, this question is complicated for a different reason: why did you even choose to go outside at all? In so far as the coat is used to avoid contact with the rain, why not just stay inside all together and don the dashing blue shirt?
Now yes, readers, I believe I can hear what some of you are saying. You could easily be thinking: “I would choose to wear the coat because there was something sufficiently important I had to do that I was willing to brave the rain.” Well, sure, but do can you smell the trap we’re falling into? What was so important that you were willing to go outside into the cold?
Do you see how quickly a question as trivial as “why did you wear a coat” morphs into a question of an importance or value hierarchy? You might value seeing your best friend’s wedding enough that you’d be willing to brave some bad weather. But then the question of “why did you wear a coat” becomes a rephrasing of the question “why do you value seeing your best friend’s wedding.” And that’s a wildly difficult question to answer.
Of course you could say, “well, she’s my best friend, of course I’d want to see her wedding. Her friendship has meant so much to me!” But once again, we’ve once again fallen upon an answer that would be entirely reasonable with common discourse, but actually tells us almost nothing by itself. It’s just like aesthetics: nearly everyone can relate to wanting to take part in a joyous occasion for a dear friend, just like nearly everyone can relate to the sensation of being compelled by a particular piece of attire. Of course, by itself that actually tells us almost nothing.
As an aside, perhaps we should consider why “aesthetics” is a reasonable answer in some circumstances, but not others. In an informal conversation, if someone were to ask “why did you wear that shirt,” there’s almost an implicit assertion of there being a set of acceptable answers to the question. “The weather,” “aesthetics,” and “I went to a wedding” all likely fall within that set. Thus, within the context of the informal question, “I just like this shirt” is an entirely appropriate answer. However, as I’m sure you’re aware, the question I’m asking is much different. I’m doing away with the presumption that one might pick a shirt simply as a matter of aesthetics. I’m looking for something more technical. Insofar as the answer to the presented question is, in fact, “aesthetics”, then my question essentially morphs into something like “Ok, so you like that shirt. But please tell me: why do you like that shirt?” In this context, I’m looking for an answer that potentially references a deeper structure or pattern that gives rise to your particular emotion.
Ok, let’s hop back to the main thread of discussion. I hope it’s become clear that seemingly simple questions regarding human behavior are in fact, typically wildly difficult to answer. And also, for those of you for whom what I’m discussing seems like child’s play, perhaps because you have some background in philosophy or psychology, I’d like to strongly remind you that no one is forcing you to read through my blog, and I understand that my knowledge and understanding in these areas is underdeveloped. I’m not (and really haven’t ever) purported to be putting forward something new, I’m simply attempting to describe what has been of great significance to me recently.
Hmm, I got off track. Let’s get back to the present discussion. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the “blue shirt” example is that it shows us something particularly interesting about humans: there are a wide range of questions regarding choices we make and behavioral patterns into which we fall for which we’re typically unable to articulate any real answers.
To rephrase this, there are a wide range of things that people do… but they have no idea why. Yet (and this is something profoundly bizarre) they think they do. Why? Because frequently they have a sense of deep intuition that guides their thoughts and actions, despite the source of the intuition being inarticulable upon closer inspection. Furthermore, what’s in some ways even stranger is the fact that we’re content to act upon these primordial impulses even though we are unable to properly describe them at a conscious level.
Isn’t that utterly bizarre? Like, utterly and totally bizarre? And I would propose that most important human actions fall into this category.
The realization that humans don’t know why they do what they do (aside from some intuitive urge) immediately begs the necessary (and obvious) question: why do humans do what they do? And perhaps even more importantly, what does that tell us about reality?
We can take a simplistic, high level approach in attempting to answer the first question. Perhaps we could say that human actions are either arbitrary (ie there isn’t actually a reason why you want to go to your best friend’s wedding — it’s actually all just a random fluke of evolution) or perhaps there actually is a deeper reason there.
I certainly have the intuitive sense that your wanting to be at your friend’s wedding isn’t actually that arbitrary, and there’s a body of scientific literature that would corroborate that particular hypothesis. We could easily invoke evolutionary theory, or perhaps revisit some past XFA posts for what I’d consider plausible explanations for why you feel the desire to attend your friend’s wedding (think love and tribal support as a evolutionary mechanism for survival). But I think the crucial thing to understand here is that those explanations by themselves don’t tell the whole story. What do I mean? In an effort to explain your desire to be at the wedding, we could perhaps assert that supporting different members of a tribe has been crucial to the evolutionary success of humans of the eons, and as such we developed a strong emotional desire to support each other and take part in different important aspects of each other’s lives. Ergo, you want to go the wedding.
But hold on for just one second, why does evolution even make sense in the first place? Why would reality favor the “fittest” over the weaker individuals? “Danny,” you might say, “that’s stupid. Of course the strong win against the weak.” But hold up, my friend! Do you see what you just did there? You invoked shared intuition to answer one of these questions! Yes, I also have the intuition that of course the strong should survive where the weak wouldn’t, but that’s actually not an answer to the question! We’re just right back in the camp of blue shirt “aesthetics.” Now then, if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that I’ve actually explored that topic in depth. But at each level of explanation, you can basically always continue to ask the question “why” and see a similar pattern emerge. For sake of example, a related question to why evolution would favor the strong over the weak is the question of why time is linear (flows in a single direction). This is a great example because it speaks to one of our most basic intuitions. “Well of course time is linear, how could it not be?” I believe you see the issue at play. We’ve been exploring the question of why people do what they do. But perhaps a slight rephrasing leads to an even juicer question: what are humans trying to do?
Oh ho ho! Now there’s an unthinkably interesting question.
“Ok,” you might say, “why do you think humans are actually trying to do anything?” Interesting question, reader! Well, frankly, we’re starting to dance along the boundaries of what is even philosophically answerable, but who cares! Let’s dive in! Well, perhaps we could approach this question in a somewhat naive way. Let’s just look at the history of humanity. Over the course of the last several thousand years, we can broadly see a clear progression of the human race. We’ve wildly improved our propensity for survival, we’ve created wondrous technologies, and we’ve wrought artistic masterpieces. Though it’s been bumpy, there seems to be a clear upward trend within the context of humanity. So at some purely intuitive level, why yes, it does seem that humanity is actually trying to do something. (Always amusing when you anthropomorphize the abstract notion of humanity). To rephrase, it would seem that humans are trying to do something.
The difficult aspect of this discussion is that it likely will feel so intuitively true that I fear you might miss how absolutely bizarre this is. Let me just quickly reiterate this in an attempt to rekindle the mystery. Humans mostly don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and yet it would seem that they are actually trying to do something. Try to deeply grok that. Also, don’t take my word for it, just read some philosophy and you’ll quickly see there’s nothing original about this assertion. But that doesn’t make it any less mysterious! Not in the least! It’s totally bizarre! I can only hope that you see how weird it is! And of course, to return to previous strains of discussion, all of this just keeps begging the question: what are humans trying to do? Why is it that humans are trying to do that?
Now the second question is basically unfair because it requires us to answer the first question, which frankly seems like something of an impossible task. Oh sure, you could say simplistic things like “maximize their chance of survival.” Really? Is that really the best you can do? Well of course that’s partly true within the context of evolution, but that barely tells a slimmer of the story. I believe I’m going to discuss this further in another post, but by asserting that answer you’re basically planting your flag on an axiomatic framework in which reality favors the strong over the weak. Though perhaps it might seem silly, that’s basically the same thing as asserting that the most fundamental rule of reality is that I like blue shirts as a matter of “aesthetics”.
But whatever, go ahead. Let evolution be your religion. And see how much that does for you.
The aspect of all of this that I haven’t yet discussed is the degree to which different aspects of reality are connected and related. That, in particular, is what set my imagination ablaze recently. Let’s dig into this, perhaps with a personal example.
Who are you? Think carefully about this. Who are you? What are you? What has produced your particular experience? Why do you think the thoughts you think? Where do they come from?
Those are wildly difficult questions to answer, and is naturally the subject of a huge branch of philosophy. I’ll share my conception of this, and perhaps you might resonate in part with the description.
For most of my life, I’ve viewed humans in a highly individual manner. To me, people have been distinct, separate and separable entities. And to a certain degree, this is reasonable. We do in some ways appear to be highly autonomous entities. However, in recent days, I’ve begin to realize the extent to which that isn’t the case. I’ll ask it again: where do your thoughts come from? Where do your impulses come from? What is the source of that which appears in your consciousness.
Perhaps we could attempt to tackle this from several different angles. First let’s consider you in terms of your particular thought patterns. From where do your thoughts arise? Well, perhaps let’s start off simple. We could say that one of the most tangible classes of appearances in consciousness are your immediate sensations. You know, your sight, smell, etc. In one sense, you’re the only person receiving that particular set of stimuli in this particular moment. However, we’ll be revisiting this as a basis of individuality.
A major class of your thoughts are your recollections, or memories. Now in a certain sense, your memories are a testament to your nature as an individual. Rephrased, you’re the only one with your particular set of memories. We’ll also come back to these in a second.
Now let’s talk about something more interesting: the thoughts in which you attempt to make sense of some aspect of your perceived reality. Is he cheating on me? No, he wouldn’t because he loves me. Will I be late for class? Yes; I just woke up, and class starts in two minutes. Why are mountains so beautiful? Hmm, I really don’t know.
To what extent are these thoughts your own? I understand how this might seem like a trivial question: why wouldn’t they be my own? Aren’t they only in my head? However, I believe the situation is more complicated than that.
Let’s take the example of not knowing whether your boyfriend cheated on you. Now, once again, let’s be fair: your thought patterns pertaining to whether he actually committed this treacherous deed are only occurring within your head. And yet, the experience of having a boyfriend cheat is (unfortunately) a fairly common occurrence. So the question is, to what extent is your pattern of thought regarding this situation truly original?
Infidelity has been an incredibly common theme throughout the human experience. And in the archetypical example, there’s frequently a significant other who’s attempting to make sense of the situation. So perhaps instead of viewing this particular questioning thought pattern as unique to the individual, we can potentially imagine that there’s an archetypical response to a potentially unfaithful partner that’s being manifested in your mind, and is stretching itself to fit within the context of your situation.
Fascinating, isn’t it? However, I understand that it might seem like too much of a stretch to understand this particular thought pattern as an archetype that’s simply applying itself to your circumstances. Indeed, in some sense that might seem somewhat, well, foofy.
Perhaps I can give a bit of a more lively example to illustrate this point a bit better. Imagine there’s a gigantic pit within which live hundreds of mice, and a single gigantic snake. Imagine that the snake guards a hoard of corn kernels, which are the mice’s favorite food. Additionally imagine that the mice are starving, and would love nothing more than to feast of the cache guarded by the snake. Imagine that the snake is totally invincible, but has one flaw: whenever it is bitten on the tip of its tail, it falls asleep for two minutes. However, at the beginning of this thought experiment, the mice are utterly unaware of this.
Let’s imagine that we let this experiment play out for years. The mice are desperate, so they try everything to get past snake. Through a huge process of trial, error, and death, several of the mice develop a trait that compels them to bite the snake’s tail. And as you might imagine, these mice become the most successful when it comes to securing food for themselves and their offspring.
Ok, so what’s the point of the thought experiment? Well, let’s ask the question: to what extent is the bite-the-tail impulse an individualistic characteristic of each successful mouse? We could use the same arguments as before: this impulse is originating entirely within the confines of each mouse’s brain, so should we say it’s really their own thought or impulse?
Well, within the context of this experiment, I would assert that the goal of acquiring corn together with the snake’s particular weakness implies the existence of what we could could an “ideal” trait. Namely, the impulse to bite the snake’s tail. This framework provides a more generalizable understanding of the situation and impulse, and therefore I would argue is the better framework for understanding the experiment.
However, you’ll notice that in this framework, the bite-the-tail impulse isn’t understood as the individual property of any given mouse. As you might expect, I would assert that an analogous line of thinking applies to the human circumstance as well. Though we are individuals in a certain sense, I might assert that many of your analyses and impulses are actually just imperfect manifestations of the “ideal” implicitly asserted by the existence of an archetypical context and goal.
And that’s just at the level of us pseudo-rationally responding to a shared external consciousness. What then do we make of the primordial, subconscious impulses that architect our goals and desires in ways that surpass our conscious understanding? Perhaps we might think of this class of drivers as a deeper evolutionary response to shared context.
In so far as infidelity is something with which a huge number of humans have had to deal over the past eons, is it that wild to believe that through the mechanisms of evolutionary selection, we’ve been imbued with a hard-coded response to this class of malfeasance? These deep urges within us are shared evolved responses to some of the most important challenges humanity has faced over its lifespan. Their very existence is testament to shared nature of the human experience, and in a certain sense, this class of psychological drivers can’t really be understood if you only understand a human to be a pillar of individuality.
I imagine that none of this is really comes as much of a surprise, though perhaps let me reiterate an idea that I put forward earlier (and is the subject of a whole branch of philosophy). Perhaps instead of understanding humans as individuals with individual thoughts and experiences, perhaps it’s better to see humans as entities that manifest a particular set of “ideal” traits that are implied by the context of the shared human situation, yet are flavored by the particular context within which each human finds herself.
Now then, as a matter of extreme interest, I might attempt to turn the discussion back to a question of what humans are trying to do, despite their lack of awareness.
With the framework that we’ve developed to understand the nature of your thoughts, we could recognize that there’s a rephrasing of the preset question that is somewhat illustrative. We might say that the context in which humans find themselves implies the notion of an “ideal” human, which is in part evidenced by the deep intuitions and impulses that defy articulation, yet have unimaginable importance. So then, perhaps we could ask: what would this “ideal” human try to do? Or, perhaps insofar as all humans are imperfect manifestations of this ideal, what is this ideal human trying to do by means of us imperfect manifestations?
Now that is an interesting question.
I could keep on going, and in a very real sense I want to keep on going, but I am tired, and I also recognize that we’ve hit the 12 page mark. I don’t think it’s that unreasonable to assume I will be continuing these thoughts in the future.
Until then, know that the offer I made on my “about” page still stands: if you made it this far, I will gladly follow you into battle. Until next time, my friends. I wish you the best of luck in seeing the mysteries that exist right in front of your face.