Abstract: Many of our motivations are wrongly considered natural. I take 3 examples: staying healthy, protecting nature, upholding equal rights. Behind them lie artificial ideals: Eternal Life, the Natural History Museum, Democratic Equality. Confused with principles truly constitutive of human nature, these ideals crush with their weight many aspects of our lives. They flatten our hierarchy of motivations and are instead obstacles to personal achievement.
- 1 When the ideal is taken for the nature of things
- 2 The good health
- 3 Protect Gaia
- 4 Respect Each Other as Equals
- 5 The ideal solution?
When the ideal is taken for the nature of things
Knowing the nature of things is not accessing what they really are. The being of a thing, called ontology in philosophy, is only experienced by this thing. Any observer, no matter how learned, only constructs a representation. Knowledge is a chain of these representations, whose coherence holds together the elements of a ‘known world’ always imbued with an intrinsic precariousness: not everything is known; a fundamental paradigm shift can disrupt all knowledge at any time.
Only one being is perfectly known to us, because it is exactly superimposable to the experience of the thing: our personal consciousness. What we experience is a confluence, a perpetual rearrangement of perceptions and concepts, the details of which quickly become invisible if we lower our attention to them. The individual being is a fusion of pulsatile and fanciful motivations, poorly coordinated tastes and preferences, otherwise the right behavior to undertake would always appear obvious to us.
But it is the possibility of choice that makes us successful. Evolution designed our being to be versatile. Faced with two strictly identical situations we will not always choose the same action. We compare the results. A success makes us move forward all the more surely as it makes us experience errors along the way.
Arrogance in humans?
The way ? What does this mental path actually connect? What do our motivations tend towards? Consciousness is a palace where goals sit and means run in all directions. The aristocracy of goals are the Ideals. But there is also a lower middle class to satisfy: the Instincts. The Instincts readily take themselves for Ideals while the Ideals despise these attempts to pass themselves off as more haughty than they are. In doing so, they deny their origins, since they are nothing other than sublimated Instincts.
With this allegory of the Palace of Consciousness I am not trying to make the mind, rather to make a painting of it more realistic than it seems. The mind is a hierarchy of raw concepts at birth, patiently woven into a complexity whose elevation is never barred. First boosted by educational mimicry, the elevation continues thanks to readings, shows and encounters with people more complex than oneself. Instinctive self-esteem is transformed by a sophisticated society. It takes the form of magnificent ideals, self-appreciation source of a certain human arrogance.
Owner or slave of ideals
How does this arrogance of the most evolved species on the planet make us consider the instincts from which it comes? It all depends on how each person is constructed. If I discovered the ideals present in my consciousness largely alone, they are truly identity-related. I understand their justification, that is to say that they are well integrated into my conceptual hierarchy, from my primary instincts. Goals do not look down on Instincts; they recognize their parentage. I am in agreement with my human ontology.
If the ideals have been instilled in me, presented as essential, fallen from the sky or from some other Platonic World of Universal Ideals, they are tyrants in my consciousness. Impossible to question them. They are a source of conflict in my identity, because I also experience my instincts, and I see clearly that they do not agree with the ideals. In my Palace of Consciousness, the Ideals despise the base Instincts and they rebel. I am not at peace with my ontology.
Ideals in line with instinct
It is therefore essential to differentiate, within ourselves, our true natural intentions and our idealized intentions, falling from the sky or rather from sectarian thinking, the sect always having by definition “the best intentions in the world”. I am obliged to classify here under the term ‘sect’ all groups of influence, both sciences and religions, esotericism or philosophical schools. Everyone has their own way of knowing. Let us differentiate them by their effectiveness in knowing the world, and from this point of view I recommend science and philosophy to build the majority of your personal ideals.
These are very vast modes of knowledge and difficult to appropriate. So much so that there exist within them many sects which simplify or truncate scientific and philosophical ideals. Ultimately it is essential to verify that these ideals are always in agreement with our instincts, our natural ontology. There are multiple biases disrupting the link between a thing and its representation. However, a bias is an explanation and not a replacement of the thing by its representation. Our ideals are not meant to erase what we feel. By trying to do so, the risk is to build terribly inquisitive neuroses, and compartmentalize oneself in an acceptable world within the unacceptable.
Two poles of judgment: instinct and ideal
In the remainder of the article I will speak of ontological or ascending motivations to designate natural ones, authentically based on our biological organization, and of teleological or descending motivations to designate our ideals, a directory which must verify that it always sincerely takes our natural aspirations taken into account in the necessary compromises that must be made with the world, and in particular the society of our fellow human beings.
Let’s now look at 3 practical examples, very present in daily life: staying healthy, protecting Nature, upholding equal rights. That is 3 concerns: medical, ecological, democratic.
The good health
First example: be attentive to each of the risks to your health. This attention is “natural” for immediate and unavoidable dangers. The judge is instinct. However, when it comes to potential, statistical risks, the judgment becomes that of an ideal. Which ? Often that of eternal life in perfect health. False by nature, it can make everyday life inquisitive and restrictive, reducing the quality of life more than it improves it.
The difference between the proven, ascending danger and the supposed, descending risk accounts for apparently incoherent behavior. A smoker can smoke 3 packs/day and be very careful on the edge of a precipice. Inattentive to one mortal risk and extremely attentive to another, where is his sanity? In fact he doesn’t care about eternal life, knows he will die, but preferably not today by falling down a precipice. Its coherence appears under the double look: the dangers do not come from the same direction, one is in the nature of things, the other in the idealistic view of others.
I smoke therefore I am!
The danger of smoking in fact belongs to the register of ideals. It was constructed by science, by statistical means. Smoking increases the chances of catching no less than 11 cancers and multiple vascular and pulmonary narrowings. However, none of these complications is inevitable. If they were, we could really speak of slow suicide. Suicide is not very ‘natural’. But bad habits do not systematically kill. They even excite the part of ourselves that demands the world bend to our will, without giving up the slightest pleasure. Risk awakens in us the T of the TD principle, the individuation which wants to exacerbate its presence, to gain importance in the whole. Smoking is a permanent challenge to the world: I exist, even when my existence is threatened.
Under the ascending look, every habit is natural, has a good reason for being formed. It is the downward look, after evaluation, which sorts out the good and bad habits. It evaluates according to an idealizing criterion, which is to prolong life as much as possible. The ideal is in fact that of Eternal Life, what we do with it is another subject. Why should we accept dying at 100, or 120, or more, if we are in perfect health at that age? The limit can be artificially pushed back or even disappear. But this is not why the ideal of good health is unnatural. Nature has no concept of “health” for its creations. It simply creates, mutates, selects with contexts. Successful species are not healthy, just more resilient in the current environment.
When the ideal of Eternal Life rots daily life
Natural health is about following your instincts and protecting yourself from immediate dangers. It is not always effective and health models have improved our lot. Scientific backing is important, however medical science provides more statistics than explanations. Very few of its models are truly ontological. The majority of drugs are used for their observed effects and not because their physiological action is understood from the genetic root. No treatment is truly personalized. Keeping yourself healthy is statistical management.
So many criteria come into play that management can concern even the smallest aspect of daily life. Some people end up having no other personal life other than prolonging this life, without really trying to fulfill it. They haunt medical offices, complementary examination rooms, magazines and networks dedicated to health. This becomes an obstacle to personal development and the quality of life. The ideal of Eternal Life rots daily life.
Just as human instincts spontaneously preserve us and do not have the objective of preserving us, Nature is hardly concerned with its own preservation. In the past it has gone through apocalyptic periods and others where its diversity was exuberant. Be careful, diversity is not complexity. Diversity is the potential for higher complexity, that is, the organization of a host of different contexts. Thus cells assembled into organisms are more efficient than bacteria in colonies. Their diversity of skills is better coordinated.
Diversity is not a sacrament
However, while diversity is necessary for complexity, it is reduced as one climbs the ladder. Not all solutions are equally effective. Complex entities are both adaptable and fragile. They depend on the stability of multiple underlying systems. Buildings in delicate balance. In an unpredictable and competitive environment, few species achieve a high level of complexity.
Within a particularly evolved species like ours, random mutations have a small chance of further improving our biological performance. Evolution is slipping. At least for the human animal. Let’s not kid ourselves. The admirable dynamics of natural evolution concern the simplest species. They are diversifying while the genus Homo has shrunk at its peak. Diversity is not sacred. Let’s not make it a divine characteristic of Gaia. This would be to transfer our ancient reverence to the gods onto soulless processes.
A living entity is integrated, not just assembled
Gaia really exists but is even more fragile than her children imagine. She does not reside in the hordes of insects, the tenacity of plants or animal diversity but in the neural networks of those who share this ideal. It will disappear with these configurations, but will survive in digital and biological memories. Gaia is an entity made of information, but not integrated information like that which defines a living and independent entity.
Integration means that each piece of information acquires its value in instantaneous relationship with all the others. The whole forms a meaning independent of the sum of the parts, because innumerable configurations of the parts lead to the same meaning of the whole. We are the same person from one second to the next even though an enormous number of biological interactions have disrupted our molecular structure in the meantime. A living being is a surimposition (superposition+entanglement) of integrated information systems. However, integration stops at the bodily envelope. Human society is held together by the close relationship between similar memes but is not an integrated entity. Neither does Gaia.
In integration appears preservation
If our evolution slips in biology, it continues in virtual form. A new universe of information uses electronic gates instead of biomolecules to build additional levels of complexity to our reality. Gaia is a floating concept in this universe. It certainly has a power of illumination, as a unifying concept, but has no existence of its own, freed from its supporters. No self-preservation instinct. Instinct is attached to independent creatures, whose desires are integrated into action. There is much more potential power in future AIs, which meet the criterion of physical independence, than in the Gaia ideal. Both are assemblages of information but completely integrated in the case of AIs, only suspended among other concepts in the case of Gaia.
The other weakness of the Gaia ideal is that it does not evolve on its own. Thinkers are likely to reshape her but she is not the owner of these transformations. As soon as a concept loses its interest it is abandoned or marginalized. Why has Gaia not imposed herself more widely in people’s minds? Because she suffers from competition from a more powerful ontological concept: the preservation of our favorable living conditions. It’s not saving the skin of the goddess Gaia that concerns us, it’s saving our own! This concept is present in almost 100% of human heads.
The ideal at odds with ontology darkens the perspective
As with the concern for good health, the ecological concern is hampered by any ideal that is not based on ontological forces. The ideal of Gaia, any more than the ideal of eternal life, is not found in spontaneous forces, in the being of things. Nature seeks to save neither its diversity nor its most delightful species nor a living pseudo-entity of planetary size. It is not building a Natural History Museum, where all its past productions would be installed to be preserved. Any ecological concern based on this false ideal risks further darkening the prospects for human life on this planet. For example, the Germans’ concern not to poison Gaia with nuclear waste has made them the Europeans with the most catastrophic carbon footprint, and Germany the most active driver of climate change which will disrupt the ecosystem.
Respect Each Other as Equals
The difficulty in adapting to an unpredictable environment, which selects the most adapted species, also concerns the social environment. Genetically unequal, we are selected by different birth environments. An essential ontological principle, which individualizes us.
But this principle is not the only one. Our success as a species is due to the solidarity between its members. A species is a large social organism; cooperation between “cells” makes it successful. Mutations and specializations have made neurons very efficient at improving survival. Note, however, that we do not have the biggest brains. The major factor in the progress of a species in social complexity is undoubtedly its TD setting, i.e. the positioning between the two principles already cited, individual adaptive effort (the T of soliTary) and empathic cooperation with others (the D of soliDarity).
These two principles, having reached the state of ideals, became Liberty and Fraternity. Ouch! As we saw in a previous post, another slipped in the middle and has nothing to do with an ontological principle: Equality is in fact the opposite of our natural genetic inequality. What is it doing here, badmouthing it? Democratic Equality is a very simple solution that appeared in the world of Ideals to resolve the conflict between Liberty and Fraternity. Because the battle is often heated and destructive. The TD principle is inherently a conflict. The world is constantly in turmoil. Tired of so much chaos and aging, our thinkers have decreed compulsory Equality between humans, a sort of social concrete screed supposed to stifle all conflicts.
Equality would work properly if its recognition were truly universal. Indeed, a principle, when it is not ontological, is only maintained if it is a conviction among everyone. The ideal only holds by itself, only as a repetition in minds. It is not distributed in a soul like in a mailbox. Even among those convinced of its divine origin this remains: a conviction, something that is learned instead of being inscribed from the beginning. What genetics originally inscribes is its opposite: inequality. An obvious choice for young children and adults alike.
Again with this third example, the ideal is not based on an ontological force. It hinders the development of our lives more than it promotes it, being impossible to achieve. Striving towards this illusory result, we destroy other social organizations, other important aspects of our existence. How, ultimately, can we use ideals so that they truly benefit the greatest number of people?
The ideal solution?
The solution is summarized as follows: Let’s use ideals as signposts, not a finish line. A society is constantly evolving and everyone knows that the ideal is illusory. Its practical variation is a dotted line. Its crossing is easier and the ideal is judged to have been achieved. The step is important but tends to reduce motivation. The idealist, warmly congratulated, will admire her statues and her name hanging on street corners. While the problems remain or resurface…
If the ideal is a signpost, there is no finish line, only a baton to be passed on to younger and more motivated people when the politician is tired. Society can move forward, nevertheless, and its structure adapt to the transformations of its members. The effective idealist is a shepherd who knows the habits of her sheep, not a builder of fences that herd them into the utopia she has imagined.
Let’s make our ideals functional
The ideal functions when it channels ontological forces. Taking care of your health means making new habits so pleasant that old ones give up. It is not analyzing every particle of one’s being but experiencing oneself overall in a state of well-being, regardless of some unsavory tendencies within the whole. Saving Gaia is not about keeping her crown of flowers and her astonishing diversity of breathtaking animals fresh, it is about ensuring that she heals from its Anthropocene crisis without making the dominant bipeds return behind their plows. Finally, keeping society fraternal does not mean artificially declaring individuals equal but making inequalities less visible by not exposing them in closed social niches.
The path of life is a path of complexity. When a person makes a simple life choice, they have actually explored many paths since birth and it is actually a complex choice, based on multiple criteria. The most curious continue, study, travel, take on new challenges. So what is this peregrination in the complex dimension? It means expanding our mental resources but also assigning priorities to them. Impossible to add additional tasks, new ambitions, without prioritizing them. Likewise, it is by prioritizing our desires that we best integrate them into society.
Success with the slicer!
How to do ? Well, let’s cut our ideals like sausages, to make them easier to handle! Let’s stack the slices vertically, next to the societal structure, itself a pyramid of social circles. It is now a matter of inserting each slice of our personal ideal on the appropriate level of the pyramid.
Delicate ? But how would one do otherwise ? If I rush my ideal like a ram against the pyramid, I generally find that it is much stronger than my will. My energy is running out. I turn around and go sulk. I blame everyone, the entire pyramid. Whereas if I patiently insert each of my slices at the right level, the world begins to look like me. Do I feel like there’s a lot of room at the bottom of the pyramid and not a lot at the top? Perhaps I wanted to place my slices on top too quickly, before having secured those at the bottom…
So who knows? With the tenacity of the high mountain hiker, perhaps you and I will place our little stone at the top of the mound…