Transcending the (modular) mind.
“What would it feel like if there were no one in control? And I think the answer to that question is that it would sort of feel like what it is to be human”
– Kurzban on ‘All in The Mind’, ABC Radio National, 6/11/2010.
Not being in control has been a constant theme in my life.
More recently, it is what compelled me to take an impromptu blogging sabbatical back in March (er, sorry about that). Not that I was out of control. But life has a way of forcing me – in dramatically messed up ways – to pass through certain doors of awareness in order to progress, step-by-step, to what I intuit is some metaphorical plateau of illumination.
I am not complaining. I have been told by people with deep insights in this area that I am “evolving quickly” – and for this, I am grateful. Part of this progress has been realising that my life process does, and will likely always, involve sudden stops, followed by periods of emptiness, during which my only desire is to isolate, rest – followed by some spectacular realisation or enlightenment.
Much of this has to do with the fact that I am an INFJ – the bulk of my “thinking” happens outside of my ‘conscious’ awareness, and I often use intuition, before logic, to ascertain what is what, in a given situation. The reason for this is simple and frustrating – I can function in no other way. This is just how it is, for me. I have no control over that. It is what it is.
So I navigate life with this inner sense, refined by logic and reason. And this means that I sometimes make decisions, or create things, or pursue a course of action that I know will yield a particular result that needs to occur. But here is the kicker – I do not know the specifics of what that result will be. Nor do I know when what I create will reveal it’s purpose to me – I only know I need to play my part. All will be revealed later.
Crazy, right? Yet I have consistently found this to be true for me – especially this year. Pictures in my head converted to pictures on my wall, revealing their meaning to me weeks and months later with startling literal clarity. Things have been falling apart and falling away all around me, and yet the inner vision is somehow becoming clearer. Twelve things written as a list on a piece of paper, many years ago, now revealed to me.
I know now the broad outline of the story, my little story – I just need to play my part. But the specifics of each scene are always improvised. I’m only in control of my reactions and responses, moment to moment. I perceive I am here merely to perform a function – something else is in control. This notion, of being a mere conduit for “something else”, some higher force – whole, holistic, clear-sighted, loving – to emerge through, is central to many spiritual teachings.
And it is probably the part of pursuing such teachings that juvenile seekers (egos seduced by the popular new-agey selling point of being able to be tiny masters of the universe, magically in control of and conjuring their lives like magicians) find the hardest to understand or even accept as a thing. Not being in control, being a servant or tool, is not as sexy as being a man-god, is it?
But the notion that we are just performing a collection of functions, necessary from an evolutionary perspective, and driven by an evolutionary impulse, is likely just as true in terms of the physical mind. In the physical mind, however, the multitude of different functions our “selves” perform – particularly when that “self” is disconnected from any higher consciousness – leads to contradictions, self-delusion, hypocrisy, dualities.
The evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban contends that our minds are, in fact, “modular”, rather than something unitary. This means that human minds have different components – each of these components are functionally specialized. An analogy Kurzban has used is that our minds are like smart phones – they have different applications, or modules, that perform different functions.
Evolutionary analysis focuses on the notion of function – if something exists, it is (or has) served some kind of evolutionary purpose. Thus, a mind module exists because it is fulfilling a particular function. This function, in physical terms, is to contribute to the reproductive success of the individual. The thing about these modular functions, though, is that sometimes the outcome of those functions – and the functions themselves – seem to contradict each other.
One problematic outcome of this conflict, is rank hypocrisy. Think of the politician, who knows that in order to win votes, he must take a firm moral stand on a particular issue – for example, the sanctity of marriage, including his own. His political success app knows this is necessary, and he may even believe his own moralising. But this politician has another app – one that compels him to chase skirt of reproductive age like a son-of-a-bitch.
A bit of a conflict there, I think it is safe to say. The hypothetical politician is pursuing self-interest in both cases – both things individually provide worldly benefits to him, but they also contradict each other (and any exposure of this contradiction to the community, is arguably a reproductive liability). Kurzban has been careful to emphasise, though, that he does not see the modular view as obviating responsibility for ones actions.
It merely explains a lot of dodgy, harmful, and hurtful human behaviour. But we are still responsible for that behaviour. Keeping this in mind, note that the modular view inherently points to something that many, many people find quite disturbing – the idea that we are not in control of our minds, in a bigger sense. Natasha Mitchell asked Kurzban about this back in 2010, when he was a guest on ABC Radio National’s “All In The Mind” (one of my faves).
The philosopher Jerry Fodor had said that “If there is a community of computers in my head there had also better be somebody in charge, and by God that had better be me”. When reminded of this quote, Kurzban said:
“there’s this really powerful intuition that there’s someone in your head that’s sort of in charge: the I, the me, what Freud would have called the ego or something like that. And my view would be that that’s just an illusion, that we just feel as though there’s this unitary eye in there, but in fact we’re just this network of lots of different systems. And that idea is somehow frightening, and yet it explains a lot of these sorts of inconsistencies.”
The ego – just an illusion. He continued:
“So when Jerry wants there to be someone in control, my view of that is that well what if there’s not? What would it feel like if there were no one in control? And I think the answer to that question is that it would sort of feel like what it is to be human, to feel conflicted and to feel like there’s a different sort of system in charge depending on if I’m hungry or not, and what situation I’m in, what my recent past has been and so on. So I think that whereas there’s this really strong intuition of selfhood, the modular view suggests that maybe that’s not necessarily going to turn out to be right.”
In contrast to Fodor, I feel pretty comfortable with not being in control – all the more so because “reproductive success” is no longer of any interest to me. It is a different kind of evolution I am after.
Thank you for understanding my need to take a break from blogging. I will post the follow up to my last post – ‘Brandis’ fight for the right to SPREAD FALSEHOODS to further bigoted agendas – S18C repeal’ – tomorrow 🙂 Such a pretty day today, isn’t it?