I have long discussed the fact that the goal of humanity, both collectively and individually, is to overcome human nature. That basically everything we consider to be harmful and undesirable is derived from the baser instincts of human beings and that, at the point of sentience, the goal of people should be to stop evolving and to start making mental, philosophical, and moral transformations based on rational thought.
It shouldn’t be a controversial perspective, but it seems remarkably un-universal, especially given the recent surge of belief in science, physicalism, and a reductionist materialist view of the world. So many people now seem to argue that there are great benefits of our human nature and natural instincts, that trying too hard to control or convert the hedonistic nature of our animal selves will create more problems than its solves. Of course, these people tend to put happiness at the keystone position of their ethos and seem particularly ill equipped to explain how humanity is going to make any progress in the fields of moral or rational thought.
I am writing all this now because I recently found one of the most brilliant articles ever on this issue, which makes the case for my perspective more succinctly than I tend to, and in a way more befitting of mainstream appeal. You can read the article here now. Be forewarned, it’s longish, but the details matter and it’s length is sort of part of the point anyway.
The article is more concretely about patience and the ability of people, largely young children, to delay gratification. The case constructed by the psychologists in the various studies profiled in the article is that people’s willpower and ability to distract themselves into changing their own motivations – the essence of self-control – is perhaps a larger factor for success in humans than intelligence itself. And that where intelligence feeds self-control and vice versa, the most essential building blocks to fulfillment and self-actualization are to be found.
I have been telling a lot of people lately that the difference between my ability to write multiple novels in a year (not done yet, but looking awfully promising at this point) or hold down jobs while impressing my employers on the one hand, and being homeless and destitute and an utter failure on the other hand, is entirely because of my ability to fabricate meaning for deadlines in my own head. I mean this statement completely sincerely – the most important skill I have devised in my life has been the ability to believe in an arbitrary date and accord all the significance in the universe to it. Throughout high school and college, I never missed a single deadline for a single class (except for the one I deliberately failed, of course, but that was its own little experiment with self-control), because I convinced myself that doing so would lead to immediate failure, expulsion, and possibly death. I played an extensive eight-year game of chicken with my consciousness, starting papers later and later, studying less and less, but I still turned everything in the minute it was due, without fail.
This has of course translated into me being able to motivate myself for artificial deadlines (imposed by self or others) at work and especially in my new free-form writing life. I thrive on deadlines, at least when they’re realistic. I feel a great deal of adrenaline around the approach of a deadline, the elation of getting things done, and every successfully met deadline has worked as an extra bulwark for both the need for me to continue making them and as a positive motivation from the pure euphoria I feel when they are met.
I don’t think I ever deliberately tried to create this spirit about deadlines, but the article above corroborates my thesis that this trait alone has kept me off the streets and in a relatively stable place in society. But the most important aspect of the article is the evidence that this can be taught. What’s frustrating about the article is that it then starts to raise doubts about the idea of teaching this kind of self-control and willpower, even though most of the article makes it abundantly obvious that this can be learned, and pretty easily, especially at a young age.
The article also relates the issues of self-control and willpower to drug use and overeating, which are pretty obvious correlations. The fact that I’ve been able to live my entire life without alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, to control any impulse to try them even once, to be able to rationally evaluate the decision and overcome impulse, is highly linked to the deadline thing. And all of these things are truly essential skills for living a fulfilling life, especially if one is also prone to addictions or falling into long sustained periods of inextricable obsession.
The most disturbing aspect of the article, though, is that it still pays homage to the materialist demons that haunt every aspect of the modern psychological community. The researcher who pioneered the study of willpower through the use of marshmallows, whose thinking has led to such important conclusions about humanity’s struggle to overcome its base nature, is most excited at the moment about… brain scans. He wants MRI’s to spit out little illustrations of the self-control fold in the brain so he can give people drugs or surgery to shortcut them to it.
And here is where I have to part ways with the nature of the experiment. It may be that there seems to be a physical reflection of the phenomenon of being able to believe in arbitrary artificial self-imposed deadlines. And it may not. If it is, it’s still putting the cart before the horse, for the fact is that these things can be taught and that would change the folds of the brain. The entire problem with the materialist approach is that it tries to do things backwards, tries to manipulate people as bodies without giving them the understanding of what they need to change that will build a lasting commitment to the new approach. Even if you could surgically create the folds, there’s a larger chance that they’d just change back and re-alter their brain afterwords. This is why so many people who get major life-changing weight-removal surgeries tend to end up putting the pounds back on, while people who actually train themselves to approach food differently can lose weight and keep it off.
So now the goal of humanity is to not only overcome our human nature, but to ditch our desire for a physical solution to every problem. We’ve long recognized that the human mind is the most complex and fascinating aspect of our world. We should offer it the respect and due diligence it deserves, not try to play Frankenstein to its monster.