Emotional Phenomena: The Pathos of Homo sapiens|
Chapter 23: Psychedelic Information Theory
Any science fiction story about robots will tell you that the key to understanding human behavior is understanding the wide range of human emotions. From the primal sensations of pain, lust, and hunger to the complex nuances of humor and jealousy, our emotional responses to our environment make us fundamentally who and what we are. Underneath all the layers of self and identity (rationality, language, ego, etc.), you literally are how you feel. If you feel good, life is great. If you feel bad, life is horrible. That is the human condition in a nutshell. But can all psychology and philosophy really be boiled down to such a simple truism? Well, yes and no. Yes because the truism is true, but no because the simple act of feeling good and feeling bad are so complex, they involve every facet of your life from conception up to the present moment. But the basic task of all spiritual, medicinal, and psychological therapy is to get people to feel better — ease their suffering, calm their fears, make them good about themselves, make them have a more optimistic outlook, and so on. This can be done through direct physical intervention (like surgery), talk intervention (therapy), lifestyle changes (nutrition and exercise), behavioral changes (routine management and stress reduction), and through chemical intervention (drugs, the most popular mood alteration technique at this point in time). And though we are now the smartest animals on the face of the Earth, and now that we know more about the roots of our emotions, the big question still remains: Are we any happier for all that we have learned?
The truth is, raw human emotion is civilization’s dirty little secret. Emotion fuels our greatest tragedies and triumphs, leads us towards depravity and nobility, compels us towards hate and love, forces us to kill and reproduce. The feeling of going without food for a while, otherwise known as hunger, makes one quickly become impulsive, selfish, aggressive, lustful, and greedy. The starving human is willing to forget and forego all other moral and ethical dilemmas in order to secure food and basic survival needs, and this hunger and survival anxiety is something we humans must think about every day whether we like it or not. We are wired to constantly ask, “Where is our next meal coming from?”, and mammalian hustle to keep the stomach full is our most basic survival pursuit. Failure to meet this very basic need can quickly bring out the most primal and beast-like of human emotions.
But hunger for food is not the only thing controlling human behavior. Humans seek fulfillment in all kinds of activities: sexual contact, physical excitement, pleasure, social acceptance, learning, relaxation, and collecting or hoarding a wide variety of material goods to provide luxury and amusement for ourselves. But when hunger is not sated, hunger leads to craving; craving leads to lust; lust turns turn to jealousy; jealousy to greed; greed to frustration; frustration to anger; anger to rage; and so is the basic path towards all the impulsive, stupid, and hurtful things humans do to one another time and time again, over and over, every day, twenty-four hours a day, since the dawn of time. Thus, the issues of hunger, craving, jealousy, greed, and rage have rightly been pinpointed as the source of all human suffering by no lesser sources than the Ten Commandments of Moses, the Seven Deadly Sins of Transgression, the Eight-Fold path of the Buddha, and many other divine teachings from those along the spiritual path.
Modern human civilization relies on order, and order relies on the suppression of emotional outburst. Thus, the primal emotions which fuel the basest human survival desires have been actively targeted and suppressed by organized religion in every possible way since organized religion and civilization have coexisted. For example, the Hebrew God smiles on good shepherds, fishermen, and those who toil in the fields, for toil and good management of nature will bring a food surplus, and our bellies will not go lean when times are hard. According to Jesus, feeding the poor is a moral cause we must all undertake, but from a political perspective feeding the poor is also a self-protective mechanism, because when the poor go hungry for too long they riot. Learning to fast and calmly meditate while going without food for a few days is not just a spiritual practice for Buddhists, it is also a survival mechanism for not losing your head when times are lean.
In addition to religion, civilization relies on the canonization of basic laws and rules of order, and the broad spectrum of enforcement, judicial, and penal institutions entrenched in our government have sprung up over time specifically to handle humans who let their base emotions get the better of them. The clear message from civilized human culture is this: If you cannot control your emotional outbursts, culture will conspire to control you, and if you cannot be controlled you will be sedated and/or locked away where you cannot cause any more disruption. Religion refers to emotional impropriety as “sin” or “transgression” against God; Government calls emotional impropriety a “disruption of civil order” or “crime” against humanity. Either way, civilization states that stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family is wrong no matter how overcome by emotion and survival anxiety you may be at the time. The fact that you were on the brink of death, running on pure adrenaline, and would have killed for a loaf of bread doesn’t matter to Religion or the Law. God doesn’t care how low your blood sugar is; the Judge doesn’t care how many stress hormones are pushing your organism to find food. To the hallowed institutions of order emotion is a messy inconvenience, an uncontrollable variable that can be suppressed and mopped-up after, but never contained. Despite our best efforts at pretending otherwise, the beast always lurks just beneath the smooth veneer of civilization. And when the veneer of civilization begins to break down, the beast takes over.
Control over the base emotions — either through behavior management or personal discipline — is at the root of all spiritual practice. The theory goes something like this: If we master our emotions and kill the primal yearnings of the beast, we can fully embrace our divine selves and be free of desire, suffering, and transgression. Is this the correct answer? Sadly, I think not. This is what I call “The Myth of Religion,” And the Myth goes something like this: If we just follow the dogma, everything will be super-duper for ever and ever. But the problem with the theory that “following dogma leads to divinity” is that humans are biological organisms, and as biological organisms we are hard-wired to constantly crave food and sex, and many of us are wired to crave far more food and sex than we would ever need to simply survive and stay healthy. Our massive intelligence, our big brains, our physical dominance over other species, these are all basic survival strategies brought to bear solely to help us avoid danger, find food, and find sex. These imperatives are not handed down by Church or State, they are in our genetic blueprint, inherited from our earliest ancestors, and they cannot be erased by devotion or dogma. Organism intelligence is the best solution to genetic survival that there is, and the great majority of organism intelligence is based on primal instinct, not rationality, not morality, not dogma. Instinct is just another word for an emotional response that trumps logic, and logic is just another word for the rational deconstruction of instinctual response. In other words, humans feel what they experience before they think about what they experience, not the other way around. Our feelings dictate how we think about the things we experience, our emotions set the paradigm and give context to everything we infer about our environment. Our emotional state influences how we react to stimulus, and it has direct influence over what we remember and how strongly we remember it. In other words, we give a lot of lip service to our big brains, our morality, and our rational thinking, but what we hardly ever say is that we owe all of our genetic success to the emotional beast at the core of our being, the source of the primal hunger that drives us all.
Despite how cool and logical we attempt to be, no matter how full our bellies or bank accounts become, humans still need their emotions to get them through the day. Humans need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, they have a pathological need to exist, consume resources, be accepted by other humans, and possibly become spiritually or materially fulfilled in some specific or arbitrary way. Humans that do not have these pathological needs to exist, consume, and/or be accepted are sometimes called “depressed,” and very depressed humans sometimes kill themselves. If the pathological need to exist fades, and the basic chores of human existence no longer seem worth all the trouble, then why bother existing at all? That is Hamlet’s conundrum, “To be, or not to be,” and if the answer is, “To be,” then that begs the questions, “To be what, and why?” The current answer to that question is that you can be a productive civilized human who follows the rules, or you can be an outcast who may or may not end up locked away somewhere. The choice is up to you, so civilization politely requests that you start making your long-term survival plans now, or beat it.
The low-level anxiety which fuels the global rat-race is an undeniable part of the modern human emotional profile, and this anxiety will only grow with time. This is basic tribal survival anxiety turned up a notch, because now you are not just competing with other members of your tribe or within groups of local tribes, your personal DNA is now in competition against the gene pool of the entire planet. Populations are rising and migrating, people are more connected, the struggle for resources is growing more heated, the planet is showing signs of serious wear… And it is our base emotions that are driving us forward at such breakneck speeds; our exceptional rationality and logic are just tools used to fulfill our emotional desires. We have gotten so smart that we can now consume more, breed more, and live longer than at any time in human history. If we were totally rational people we would begin to think about putting a cap on all this breeding and consuming and individual longevity and work on controlling global population growth somehow, but we don’t usually think like that. We think instead about colonizing the Moon, or Mars, or going father, faster, and consuming more, more, more! The genetic imperatives to survive, strive, and thrive are literally too strong to resist. As a species we are already set in motion, and forward is the only alternative to death. We just can’t help ourselves.
And so, our emotions will always make us superior to any artificial intelligence we create. Even the best AI have no reason to thrive or learn or reproduce; AI’s are not inherently curious or experimental, they do what they are instructed to do. AI’s can be instructed to be curious and experimental, but they can never feel pleasure or satisfaction in the facts they learn or tasks they perform, or fall victim to the compulsive pull of such pleasures. Computer intelligences cannot feel the pain of failure driving them forward to succeed; they do not care if they are switched on or off because both 0 and 1 are equally acceptable options. But not so for the human; we will simply not accept 0. We will always be driven by genetic imperative consume more, learn more, produce more, and become more than we are right now.
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Posted on: 2006-07-27 13:44:13