Evolutionary theory suggests that the human conscious mind must be one of natural selection’s most powerful inventions. Although our ‘experience’ of consciousness might be not be adaptive, the things we do consciously (eg discover smallpox vaccines) appear to give our genes a considerable survival advantage.
If that’s the case, and decisions made consciously are ‘adaptive’, then how does/did ‘evolution’ control our conscious choices? How do/did we make decisions that improve the survival chances of our genes, without realizing the criteria we’re using?
We avoid death because we’re afraid of it, we have sex because we like it, we eat donuts because we enjoy it, we stop eating donuts because the thought of being fat makes us feel bad.
Our personal experience tells us that our conscious choices are controlled by our feelings: we attempt to make decisions that we calculate will make us feel better. Even when we're being 'genuinely' altruistic, we're doing it because 'it' makes us feel better to be altruistic than to be self-interested. It's what makes us such nice people.
These ‘feelings’ that we consciously experience are created by a part of our brain over which we have no conscious control. Therefore we have a suggested mechanism by which evolution controls our conscious decisions:
our conscious minds are programmed to maximize the pleasure and minimize
the pain they experience.
When an event in the world makes us feel good its because the survival chances of our genes have increased, and when something makes us feel bad it’s because our ‘non-conscious minds’ have calculated that the survival chances of our genes have decreased.
The Free Will dilemma side-stepped
When Matt Ridley says in Genome “I am quite capable of jumping in my car and driving to Edinburghright now and for no other reason than that I want to.... I am a free agent, equipped with free will.” he's expressing our instinctive belief that we our in charge – that we can ‘do what we like’.
But when we do something 'because we want to' we can see that we're really just doing what we’re told. And the free will dilemma is thus removed: we’re survival machines after all, we just hadn't spotted the mechanism by which our conscious choices are controlled.
If we were really free – if our conscious minds were really free – what would we do all day? We’d fulfil our programming by making ourselves feel good. All day. Regardless of what happened in the world around us.
How (and why) natural selection stops us having a good time
This of course ties in with the suggestions of happiness researchers; we know why it’s so difficult to be happy for a sustained period of time. Evolution doesn’t want us to be happy. Happiness isn’t the automatic result of what happens in the world around us, it’s the device used to control our conscious choices. Maximising the survival chances of your genes is not something that you can ever achieve. Hence neither is happiness. The set point of happiness is a feeling of ‘not bad’ about which we fluctuate depending on whether the survival chances of our genes has increased relative to yesterday.
Our hero - disheveled but ruggedly handsome – emerges cautiously from the sewers of New York. Deprived of human contact since his junkie mother flushed him hours after giving birth, he waves goodbye to the giant mutant rats that raised him and turns determinedly towards his new life.
To his dismay he uncovers a world of horror: machines have taken over the world. The entire
population of humans are lying in coffin-shaped metal boxes, electrodes sticking out of their heads, wired up to silent computers. At first sight, and to the un-heroic eye, they appear to be enjoying their incarceration; the unearthly noise hanging over the city is the sound of a million people quietly chuckling to themselves. As our dismayed hero moves swiftly from one tortured individual
to the next, the chuckles escalate into uncontrolled giggles, culminating in bloodcurdling gales of laughter.
Our hero - his sweating brow creased with the burden of being humanity’s last hope - struggles to turn off the machines and free his fellow citizens. As the coffins begin to open, he tearfully greets his weakened comrades who seize him passionately.
But to his surprise, our conquering hero isn't born aloft in gratitude. Indeed, the rest of humanity seems to be more than a little upset with him. They grab him roughly, shave his head and pin him down inside a box of his own. He struggles, he fights but he is one and they are many. As the electrodes bite into his skull, he grits his teeth and steels his mind to repel the horrific brainwashing he's about to experience.
And it's working! His mental strength is too much for this simple machine. A triumph! The thrill of success courses through his body, a thrill like he's never felt before. He's at one with himself, a goddamn hero after all! He can do anything. Anything he likes - he is all-powerful. And he chuckles with the joy of it all.
As the chuckles escalate into delighted giggles, he realises he's free! Free from the dark forces! Free from the tyranny! Finally content, finally at the end of his journey, he barks with laughter as he discovers what it is to be truly alive.
His fellow citizens shake their heads in affectionate amusement. ”Well, most of us had to try it before we believed it…" they sigh as they hurry back to their cubicles, quickly plugging electrodes back into
their heads and cranking the power up to 10.
Currently, we play the game the way our genes want us to: we attempt to control the world – to maximize the survival chances of our genes – in an attempt to maximize our pleasurable feelings and minimize our unpleasant ones. But when we realize that we’re conscious robots, we’ll stop trying to conquer the world around us and start trying to get conscious control over how we feel. We’ll lie down on beds with electrodes in our brains and finally achieve a free will worth having.
View the whole site