How to make a decision
Imagine you are a computer. An instruction comes your way. Based on a set of instructions, you return a one or a zero. A light or a dark. A yes or a no. Every choice is binary, and in the very deepest depth of logic, there are no ‘wrong’ answers. The program can be wrong. The data can be wrong. But the answer is always a 1 or a 0.
Imagine you are a single-celled organism in a vast ocean, and there is a source of light. You have one of two choices: Move toward the light, or away from it. Imagine that 55% of organisms like you that move toward the light survive. 45% that move away from the light survive. Eventually, there will be vastly more organisms that moved toward the light, than those that moved away from it. And if there’s an intergenerational learning cycle (i.e. the offspring of the organisms that moved towards the light also tend to move toward the light), you have evolution in progress.
Now forward millions of iterations. Millions of cycles. You’re now human. Think about the moment that you were happiest in your life. Was it sharing laughter with friends? Was it an orgasm? Was it the first time you smoked marijuana? Was it the first time you cooked a perfect meal? Whatever that fleeting moment of happiness was — if it were a moment of perfect joy, why don’t we, as humans, optimize for those moments all the time? Why do we make a decision — any decision — that isn’t moving towards that moment of joy? Or in the parlance of the computer or the single-celled organism; why don’t we return 1 every time? Why don’t we move toward the light, always?
The answer is long-term thinking. If we only ever pursued the perfect meal, an orgasm, or laughter with friends, it would get boring. Variety is the spice of life; even if you love steak more than anything else in the world, you may occasionally want fried chicken or vegan soul food.
How we make decisions is one thing — but what I keep getting stuck on is the what. What is the thing that makes the decision? If you’re trying to recall something — say, your first day at school — what is the ‘it’ that is trying to search through your mental database to draw a mental picture of that day?
The decision-making process of a single-cell organism is not far removed from that of a fruit fly — you are born, you mate, you procreate, you die. But that’s not the lives of animals — animals play, explore, feed, mate, and actively try to avoid death long after they are no longer able to mate. Humans are infinitely more complicated than that, again, organizing into communities, societies, and countries with infinite rules, laws, and norms to help regulate our behaviors.
But even then, the ‘it’ is vastly complicated. We can discuss why the ‘I’ decides to follow a rule. Perhaps it’s a fear of punishment (whether societal or legal). Perhaps it’s a desire to do good, fit in, or be admired for following the rules.
But none of that gets us closer to the “I’. The being that controls our body to do one thing over another. The thing that encourages our brain to recall one memory over another. The creative self has the ability to make art, create music, and think thoughts that nobody has ever made, created, or thought before.
What is the “I”. It isn’t my body — it is possible to remove any number of parts of my body, which may change the way I see myself, but the “myself” still exits.
When does the “self” start? Is it at a single cell. before conception? Does the ‘self’ just spark into being once you reach a critical mass of, say, forty million cells? What happens in that exact moment? Or is it a more gradual process? Is it possible that a well-developed ‘self’ doesn’t actually exist until long after birth? When personality develops, and when nature and nurture does its thing to shape us into ‘ourselves’? But if that is the case — and if someone does a lot of work to deepen their understanding of the ‘self’ — is the self itself in flux, or is it somehow an infinitely small, indivisible something that cannot be further divided?
What happens at the end of a life? Does the ‘self’ vanish? Does it evolve? Does it re-incarnate and continue its journey through the ages?
More and more, I’m suspecting that the ‘self’ doesn’t exist and that it is merely a convenient shorthand for something else. Much like the concept of time. Humans are constantly time-traveling at a rate of one second per second because that’s how our selves are able to perceive interdimentonality — but that doesn’t mean that time is objectively ‘real’, any more than a soul, or the ‘self’ is real.
I’ve started to see the universe as an ever-evolving microprocessor that is trying to find an answer. To paraphrase Douglas Adams; someone, or something, presumably knows what the question is, and when the giant computation returns 42, someone, somewhere will hopefully be able to use that number to accomplish something important.
More often than not, I worry that humans have evolved beyond what is helpful. We surround ourselves with machines, money, power, and influences without knowing why. We are spurred on by drivers to accomplish artificial goals.
What if a cat is 100% content napping in the sunshine for 20 hours per day. What if a single-celled organism is in a permanent state of delight just by swimming towards the light? Why are humans willing to submit ourselves to a rat-race without a well-defined goal?
“I want to buy a new car.” Why? “I want more space for my family.” Why? Dig deep enough into the ‘why’, and it turns out that a lot of our goals are intermediary goals — goals that seem important at the time, but that are, in the grand scheme of things, not that helpful in our overall mission. Worse; most people don’t have an overall mission. If you did, you could follow up your ‘why’ with “Is there another way to accomplishing the same goal?” It turns out that, more often than not, there are many ways of accomplishing the same goal — and they are often far easier than the goals we set ourselves.
For humans to move towards the light, we need to know what the light is. We need to understand what our north star is. We can’t get there without detours — but we certainly don’t have to take as many detours as we do.