This article will help you understand yourself better — Part II [Frameworks]
Note: This is the 2nd part to this article. A continuation of the investigation of why we do what we do.
Topic that framework addresses: Drivers of human actions & behaviors
Confidence in framework’s explanatory power: 9.5/10
- People want to have net positive feeling (increase good ones & reduce bad ones). Feelings are grounded in biological mechanisms. Biological mechanisms respond to real-world phenomenon (perceived realities).
- Perceived realities impact happiness/sadness through three different mechanisms — Darwinian, Hacked, Obsessive.
- Hacked activities aim to short-circuit the causation loop between real-world phenomenon & biological mechanism. These type of activities are concrete & specific things we can do to bring about a change in feelings (drugs, work-out, religion). Some cool topics of digression exist.
- Obsessive activities are ones you are compelled to perform. You may not even derive pleasure from these activities & as such they lie at the edge of consciously choosing your actions. For most people this is the smallest sub-section of behaviours.
II. Hacked mechanism
As the name suggests, these are activities we engage in where the perceived reality hacks into existing neuro-biological processes designed for other purposes.
I believe there to be three major forms of hacking:
- Substance related
The easiest hacked activities to get involved with. I’m referring to partaking in drugs, alcohol, downers, uppers and all kinds of substances we have managed to create perceived realities that exploit natural neuro-biological pathways to get happiness.
2. Physical Action related
Certain physical activities (running, listening to music, dancing etc.) could put you in similar states of neuro-biological bliss. Achieving a certain “flow” state while practicing your craft falls under this as well.
The point is that through these activities, humans attempt to tap into neuro-biological bliss that was designed as a feedback mechanism for Darwinian Activities.
3. “Spiritual” Activities
Least rational, but I’ve personally experienced it. These are the rare moments where an undeniable connection to the whole universe is experienced.
These are activities (meditating, charity, etc.) where the boundary of your “I” starts to expand. You start seeing yourself in others & other in yourself.
While it may not seem like it at the outset, this is another form of hacking physical systems — which is why many drugs lead to a heightened spiritual experience as well.
SPOILER: MAJOR DIGRESSIONS UP AHEAD:
A few interesting points to note on hacked activities in general:
Point 1 — spiritual activities vs religious activities
I’m purposely making a distinction between spiritual & religious activities. I know many people are confused by this distinction. Allow me to explain.
To me, religious & power structures are intricately linked. It doesn’t matter what the origin of the religion was, it is quite clear that most religions devolve into organisations controlled by people.
People that follow the Darwinian mechanism playbook. This could be the church, the mullahs, the brahmins & priests — you name it.
Therefore, to me, many religious activities (though carried out with much zeal) are very much in the camp of and “us vs them” mentality. The most immediate impact of this mentality is a fight for those scarce resources that Darwinian activities are fundamentally based on.
In contrast spiritual activities blur the distinction between us & them by expanding the boundary of the “I”.
Point 2 — is there anything that isn’t science?
Some people tend to romanticize ideas of “zen” or “self-realization” or “spiritual awakening”. Almost making it seem as if these experiences are supernatural & have no basis in biological/physical mechanisms.
I’ve never understood this viewpoint. Why do we tend to insist that miracles should be unexplained? Why is it that wisdom/experiences that can be explained (and given a biological underpinning) start losing their “specialness”?
Why shouldn’t miracles have a physical basis? I believe there is is no reason and propose that everything has a physical basis.
Unexplained phenomenon are simply things that haven’t been explained yet.
Point 3 — war on drugs?
It isn’t news that hacking into these pathways is addictive. Drugs are fun because they allow you all the upside without having to put in too much effort.
What I do find interesting however is the general disdain shown towards drug addicts.
If every one seems to be chasing the same happiness, isn’t it smarter to short circuit evolutionary systems. Why have we collectively decided that doing yoga or exercising is good but drug use is bad?
That you must (at the very least) “earn” your happiness — simply paying money for an experience isn’t enough.
The only argument against drugs that remotely makes sense to me is that drug-use is unsustainable. That is, if you do drugs, your net happiness levels over the course of a whole life drop significantly.
This could be due to one (or a combination) of the following factors:
- Your life expectancy gets shortened — less life means less net happiness
- You become too dependent on one particular thing for your happiness — as with everything in life, diversification is probably winning strategy for net happiness a well. Tying happiness to one specific outcome is quite risky.
- Over time the side-effects of drug addiction bring you more sadness than joy. But you’re in way too deep to see that clearly.
- You enter a vicious cycle which is not sustainable — being doped out all the time will prevent you from earning money to fund your drug addiction
Of the four reasons, I find the first two to be rubbish, the third to be mildly convincing and fourth one to be most convincing. Why?
The first two are equally applicable to things falling squarely within the Darwinian activities camp. For example — if you become obsessed with getting that promotion at work, you could work yourself up to a heart attack (actually happens in places like Japan) or be so dependent on work that nothing else makes you happy (I’ve met robots like this in my life as well).
Third reason is applicable to chasing anything with single minded focus -be it drugs or $100 million. These could include ruined relationships, stress, poor health, poor sleep — you name it. I acknowledge there is a slight difference, but only if you acknowledge that it is a subjective difference.
For the fourth reason — I have this to say: not all drugs are created equal and the fourth reason can certainly not be applied to everything across the board.
My intention here is not to promote drug use, or rationalize activities that happen related to drug use. But rather to question the unquestioned prejudices we all have. And ask “but why” more often.*
* Some may point out that anti-drug propaganda is a conspiracy by people in power to ensure that a system promoting run-of-the-mill scarcity-based resource monopolization is always in power. Because this system allows the people in charge to continue being in charge.
While this may be true, it is certainly is not straightforward to say all drugs should be legalized. For example, a whole population on drugs (population A) may be easily subjugated (economically or physically) by another population B, that is focused on resource maximization. Even if elites in A are impacted the most, very few As are going to escape unharmed.
An interesting aside is how the ‘exploitative assholes’ in the above example are neither the elites of A, nor the drug users in A, but rather the aggressors B.
B’s population could be one that is never content and always wants more. Guess what? That’s most humans.
Evolution doesn’t necessarily favor the “best”, just rather those who want to self-preserve the most.
III. Obsessive mechanism
These are perceived realities that people keep coming back to again and again and again.
There is no obvious benefit in terms of resource maximization goal, and people may not even feel happiness or sadness reliving these experiences. But they still feel compelled to do it.
While many people refer to “their calling”, I’m not necessarily talking about the same thing.
The problem with someone’s “calling” is that it is very difficult to discern whether this is (i) a genetic proclivity (or illness), (ii) a Darwinian activity that is covered in the guise of “passion”, or (iii) simply a idiosyncratic hacked activity.
Take the example of an artist. Most artists would consider their art-form their “calling” — & I could see why. It is a hard lifestyle, with no assured payout at the end and the chances of being self-sustainable are slim. Why would anyone do it if they didn’t feel compelled?
On the surface this seems like an obsession, but a few questions to the artist can show that there is an element of Darwinian and Hacked sub-currents even here.
- Would you like to be the best artist around? Would you like recognition for your efforts?
An affirmative answer to either could theoretically be construed as a very strangely constructed filter of importance.
- Are you solely motivated by the joy you receive upon doing the activity?
Humans are biologically different, so there’s no reason a very particular activity couldn’t hack someone’s neuro-biological circuitry.
The case of a painter who paints for no other reason than to paint (even if painting is often frustrating) comes closest to true obsession. Admittedly, it also comes pretty close to sounding mentally unstable.
So what does it all mean? The article above sets the foundation stones for an explanation of why humans do what they do.
If it sounds like a depressing way to look at life, it does not feel like that to me.
This is because I’ve only discussed what humans do till now. To truly draw any conclusions, we should also contextualize what humans do within the wider universe.
This is what I’ve done here. Something that has allowed me to grab meaning from the jaws of nihilistic meaninglessness.