The Dilemma of Self-Revision

Written on June 4, 2009. Written by .

Our genes endowed us with a great power when they gave us an independent consciousness. Unlike probably any other species, we can use thought to change the program that we run during life. Other animals may be capable of some form of experience, but I think it is very unlikely that any non-human animal has ever thought “I would be happier if I took a vow of celibacy.” The fact that humans are capable of not only thinking such thoughts, but actually executing this kind of plan, means that we have the ability of self-revision, or in other words, the ability to intentionally fight our own nature. The dilemma thus arises: when should we self-revise?

First let’s try to get an idea of where this abilty comes from. Before consciousness, animals were confined to executing relatively simple algorithms that facilitated survival and replication in one way or another. Memory and learning can still exist without consciousness, but they are restricted to recognition of simple patterns that are probably preset in the brain. But humans have a whole set of mental functions that stem from the evolved consciousness or awareness. Awareness permits imagination – without awareness it would not be possible to imagine anything. When imagination is combined with intelligence, analysis becomes possible. Planning emerges when analysis is applied to memories from past experiences by extrapolation of patterns. Intention occurs when a decision is made based on the results of planning. When intention is steered by the value system created by the experience of pleasure and pain, desire is formed. If the self-modifying ability of the brain is used to meet this desire, then this is self-revision.

Note that in this diagram, experience is separate from awareness. This is an important distinction. Experience is the feeling of physical existence – seeing sights, hearing sounds, feeling pleasure and pain – it is all in the present. Awareness is the feeling of mental existence – abstract thought, mental chatter, planning – it is the inspiration for the concept of the soul.

Experience and awareness are separable. It is possible to have experience without awareness, like animals or when you are wrapped up in a movie. It is also possible to have awareness without experience, like when you are lost in thought. I once drove several miles with no awareness or memory of having done so.

These states of separation are not just illusory, the distinction between experience and awareness is supported by psychological studies. Psychologists have identified the pre-frontal cortex as the center of planning, which suggests that it may also be the source of awareness. [See the book “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert] Individuals who have had damage to the pre-frontal cortex through accident or lobotomy show an inability to plan for even the remainder of the day. Frontal lobe lobotomy was established as a treatment for severe depression and anxiety because it was found that it calmed patients down and made them stop worrying about the future. Surprisingly, it is not that easy to tell if a person’s frontal lobes have been destroyed. This is evidence that the ability to plan is not as necessary as many of us believe. Perhaps for some it is more of a liability than an asset. This is the idea behind Zen Buddhism – that one can relieve suffering by suppressing awareness. It is basically a program for simulating a frontal lobe lobotomy.

Why would our genes give us the power to override their commands? Basically because it is the only way they could allow general-purpose adaptation to occur within a single lifespan, unlike evolution which can only cause adaptation over many generations. And really it isn’t much of a sacrifice for the genes because they still keep us on a pretty tight leash through the pleasure and pain mechanism, at least for most people.

So should you fight your nature? I think everyone would benefit from fighting their nature in some instances. For example, you probably would be better off to not eat everything you are tempted to eat. Our genes just haven’t had time to adapt to the abundance of junk food in the world today. Another largely obsolete tendency in our nature is “approach anxiety”, which makes men nervous to approach and begin a conversation with a woman. This evolved for small communities where a bad rejection could mean social ostracization. Now there are so many people that rejection isn’t a big concern. But then there are cases like the fear of snakes, which is still a pretty good idea in general, so it probably isn’t worth fighting that one too hard.

So when exactly should you fight your nature? I think this is a difficult question. It depends on your values and how difficult it is to fight. It is complicated further by the fact that both of these factors change over time. Basically you have to weigh the costs of revising yourself against the benefits of the change. There is no doubt that self-revision can save you from a lot of suffering, but I think there has to be a line somewhere beyond which self-revision becomes self-destruction. I think the Buddhists have the right idea – moderating non-present analysis (planning and rehashing) really does make things better – as long as it doesn’t go too far.

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