Day 038 - Why can't we just do what we want?

Submitted by Sam on 27 June, 2011 - 23:08

During moments of internal conflict, where we simultaneously hold competing desires, we often wonder why we can't just tell ourselves what to do. If we are in control of our 'selves', why can't we make decisions to prioritize goals to the exclusion of others? When faced with the conflict between the desire to write and the desire to sleep, for instance, I cannot simply and completely override one with the other. Through will-power alone I am unable to completely disable those agents in my conscious mind which alert me of the need to sleep, but instead I must resist them with one or more conscious strategies, employing counter-agents as indirect methods to depress (but never disable) the need-for-sleep agents' nagging effects.

The reason for the mind's lack of control over its own agents is that most of its workings are utterly hidden from itself. Our 'selves' are not conscious of any of the processes which generate their own machinations, but merely of the high-level effects of these processes, much as a computer user is not constantly aware of all of the minute processes through which pressing a key on a keyboard creates a symbol on a screen.

If one agent could seize and maintain control from all of the other competing agents, then the mind could change itself at will. In order to do so, the mind would have to know how all of its agents worked, and give itself the option of managing each agent on an individual basis. Disregarding the computational expense of such a recursive architecture, a single example is enough to convincingly demonstrate how evolutionarily disadvantageous such self-knowledge could be. If we were able to exert full control over our pleasure and reward systems, we would be able to reproduce the sense of success and achievement without the need for any actual accomplishment, and would be able to pursue personal desires to the absolute exclusion of all else, regardless of cost.

Such a mind with sufficient knowledge of its own workings to switch parts of itself on and off and counteract all of its own plans would contain not only the ability but the propensity to self-destruct at will. The reality of this statement can be seen from the experimental evidence shown by the rats and monkeys who self-administered intravenous injections from an unlimited supply of stimulants to the point of severe weight loss and death 1. It is for these reasons that we do not know ourselves perfectly, and that the illusion of 'self' is protected from facilitated self-destruction by not knowing how to control its own agents.

  • 1. Roy A. Wise, Brain Reward Circuitry: Insights from Unsensed Incentives, Neuron, Volume 36, Issue 2, 10 October 2002
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