Know thyself? If I knew myself I would run away.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Humans are evolutionary hacks. I’m often not of one mind, or even two, but of four and sometimes more. Our brains seem to be locked in an eternal struggle, a constant clash of warring preferences. Consider the would-be comedian who, instead of working on his act, spends the day watching Family Guy reruns. He is of two minds: one wishes to watch Family Guy while another wants to brainstorm new routines.
You are not the king of your brain. You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going “a most judicious choice, sire”.
It’s interesting to listen to the way that people use language when talking about the self. People say things like, “I had to talk myself into going to the gym.” This is a normal phrase. I hear it all the time. Unremarkable.
But exactly who is talking to who? The self had to convince the self into doing something? Or the popular maxim, “Just be yourself.” Who else are you going to be? All self-talk has this sort of strangeness to it. Why would myself need to counsel myself about anything?
You’re a brain, but there’s not just one you, and these many-you are most evident when they’re in conflict. Consider the overweight man who finds himself in a familiar dilemma: chocolate cake, to eat or not to eat? In one corner, there is a piece of him who wants to eat the cake. In the other corner, there is a piece of him who wants to lose weight. The bell sounds. Fight!
Or take creative alarm clocks. There is one, Clocky, that, like a roomba, moves about the room while it goes off, so that you have to chase it down in the morning. There is another recent one for Android phones that requires you to solve a math problem before it will stop ringing. A friend told me about this. He said he’s been “using” it, but instead of solving it in the morning, he just turns off his phone.
I’ve read, too, about people — adults — who want to stop biting their nails, so they’ll coat them with something bitter. It doesn’t work, though. They just end up finding some clever way to wash it off.
I love these because they characterize the absurdity of the human condition. The present-me installs an alarm clock with every intention of getting up on time, only to be thwarted by morning-me. These two versions of me might as well be different people, each trying to control the other. Our experience is this constant struggle, every part of our brains pulling and pushing us in two or three or a thousand different directions.
Many-Selves and Many-Goals
Imagine that you throw a party for New Year’s Eve and, as part of a game, everyone must write down their resolutions for the incoming year, which you then combine on one sheet of paper. You then go around and guess which resolution belongs to which person.
Now, consider the sheet of everyone’s goals. There’s no reason for them to be consistent with each other. One person might want to save money while another might want to buy a house.
And that’s fine. It’s no problem for these people if their goals conflict. They’re different people, each pursuing rapper Gudda Gudda’s maxim of “You do you. I’ma do me.” It is a problem for you and me, though, because we’re a lot more like a body shared by an entire party of selves (or agents or modules if you prefer) than one consistent identity. A mind is not one individual, but a society. Our goals are as contradictory as a list of the goals of a dozen or so people.
Explicit and Implicit Goal-Keeping
And our list of woes grows longer, because the type of goals that one is willing to write on a list are not the same as the desires of each self inside of us. Our selves have differing time preferences, for example, some preferring instant gratification while others want to plan for the future. I would not write “eat whatever takes the least effort to make” on a list of New Year’s resolutions, but you can be damn sure that there’s a chunk of my mind that prefers convenience over health.
The point is that the human mind is complicated, conflicted, inconsistent, and not so much one unit, but more of a group of competing modules, and this insight forces us to think differently about our goals.
Maybe this is clearer with a thought experiment. Imagine that you’re presented with a genie who is willing to grant you one wish and you wish for a complete list of your goals. This list is going to look a whole lot different than a list that you make by sitting down and thinking about what it is that you want out of life. A list of your explicit and implicit goals is different than a list of just explicit goals.
Let’s make it concrete. Maybe you’re familiar with “Movember,” which is where men grow facial hair during the month of November, in order to raise awareness for men’s health issues, like prostate cancer. This all sounds very nice, yes? But what does growing facial hair have to do with prostate cancer? Nothing. Raising awareness about something doesn’t do much good at all, certainly not as much good as a direct donation. It’s more about appearing caring, convincing other people of your virtue, than about actual helping. Or maybe it’s just about funny facial hair. Either way, not about helping.
Most of us carry around this explicit goal of helping people, while the reality seems to be more sinister. The way we behave seems to be more along the lines of convince-other-people-I’m-virtuous. This is clear whenever some tragedy strikes and my Facebook feed is filled with people posting “My prayers go out to the families of those involved.” First of all, even under the assumption that prayers work, there’s no reason to post on the internet telling everyone about you praying and, second of all, prayers might be nice but a five dollar donation is a lot nicer.
The point I’m developing, then, is:
- Human value is complicated and often contradictory.
- Our wants and desires are not obvious.
This leads us to the question of: How can we determine what it is that we want? As a litmus test, do you think an exercise like, “Imagine you’re looking back on your life trying to decide what was important and what wasn’t,” is going to be enough to figure out your goals? The answer is no, although thinking about such a question might give you a starting point.
What we’re after, then, is accurate means of understanding ourselves, techniques that will give us some measure of clarity if it’s to be had. We would like to — where possible — eliminate reliance on subjective experience and inject a measure of rigor into knowing ourselves. We’d like some certainty.
It’s instructive to step back and survey our surroundings. Why does it matter whether or not we pursue the right goal? There are a whole lot of people at colleges across the country who are right now cramming for finals. They are soon going to forget everything. They’ve replaced the goal of learning with the goal of getting a passing grade.
We care about pursuing certain goals and not others because some will better achieve our values — for the same reason that we prefer eating cheeseburgers to eating dirt: we like cheeseburgers and not dirt.
We can continue down the rabbit hole and ask, “Why ought I prefer one thing to another?” I used to worry about this, but the question is confused. Maybe there is no good reason why you ought to prefer cheeseburgers to dirt, but it’s the case that yous do. Our brains ensure that we have preferences.
The point of a goal, then, is to achieve whatever it is that these preferences are. Over the summer, I did a literature review of the current state of the art of happiness research, because I value happiness. The trouble with the wrong goal is that it moves us towards something we don’t value. It could be the case that people care not so much about doing good than about convincing other people that they’re good. The two values suggest different goals. If I want to help people, I could apply for a consultation at 80,000 hours, while if I want to convince people that I’m a good person, I could work on becoming more charismatic.
Values as Bedrock
People, by and large, act as if goals are nebulous things that appear out of nowhere, as if whispered to them by the gods. Their striving is chaotic, less the product of thoughtful reflection and more the result of the media’s near constant attack on our senses.
Consider the man who decides to become a lawyer because he believes doing so will make him happy. If he had first considered that his ultimate value was happiness, he might first decide to research on what it is that makes people happy and the happiness of lawyers. In the process, he might stumble on Forbes reporting “associate attorney” as the unhappiest job in America, and save hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of striving towards the wrong goal.
The point I’m making, then, is that with an accurate list of your own values, you can come up with plans for achieving those values. If life has a meaning or purpose, this is the closest I’ve come to finding it.
In compelling recipe format, the meaning of life:
- Know what it is that you want.
- Plan out the best way to get it.
- Implement that plan.
Our trouble begins, as I developed earlier, with the first step. It’s not obvious what it is that we want. We need some way to figure it out and, given that this is the foundation on which any goal is built, it’s hard to overstate the importance of some clarity as to our values.
The most direct route to understanding your own values seems to be by figuring out those of others — at least in part — and then assuming that you also value those things. One example: I don’t have much explicit interest in romantic relationships, but whenever I find myself reading about male-female mate preferences and clash-of-the-sexes-type articles, I notice that I’m fascinated. Given that most people are interested in understanding the opposite sex and that millions of generations worth of evolution has dedicated significant portions of my brain to that task, I find myself forced to update in the direction that, no, I’m not special snowflake who don’t want no woman.
In fact, that anecdote has another point. We can often illuminate ourselves by understanding how evolution has shaped our desires and motives. Indeed, there’s no need to limit ourselves to evolution. Any knowledge that illuminates humankind is useful in furthering our understanding of ourselves, whether it be neuroscience, artificial intelligence, psychology, economics, or politics, which is sort of empowering. There are many routes to self-knowledge.
Given this, what can we say about human values? Well, core human values are straightforward. Most everyone wants:
- Happiness, positive emotions
- Freedom from pain, good health, and an absence of negative emotion
- Fulfilling interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise
- A sense of meaning and purpose in life
- A conviction that our actions make a difference and that we matter
- The respect and admiration of other people
- Personal growth and self-improvement, increases in our own skill and competence
Beyond these, its less obvious. I looked over the New York Times Best Sellers list, but didn’t find it all that illuminating, except I will note that people seem more interested in reading about “proof” of heaven and history in general that I would have thought.
Some values are more idiosyncratic, though. In psychology, there is a personality trait of “openness to experience,” which sort of captures how interested someone is in learning new things, trying new foods, that sort of thing. Creative types score high on openness and this trait varies among individuals. You probably know people who are not interested in reading books or any intellectual pursuits. These people are low on openness.
We could think of this value as “the exploration of one’s interest” or the value of learning about the world. This one is a bit odd because we can ask, “well, do we really care about the exploration of interests or are we interested in the exploration of interests as a means to an end?” It’s a little bit of both. Sometimes we’re interested in things because of what they can do for us, but it’s also enjoyable in and of itself to explore something interesting. This could be grouped under “positive emotions” above, but I think it’s a useful distinction. To be fair, I ought to point out that “positive emotion” and “negative emotion” cover a broad swath of human experience: awe, excitement, interest, anxiety, sadness, dread, contentment, and more.
But what else do we value and want out of life? In economics, there’s this notion of signalling. You might volunteer at a homeless shelter not because you care about the homeless, but because you care about signalling to other people that you’re caring. A fair amount of human activity seems to revolve around looking good rather than anything of substance. Robin Hanson writes quite a bit about this topic.
More troubling are those things that we value — as big, smart monkeys — that we aren’t “supposed” to value. If you’re familiar with Nietzsche, he writes a bit about the enjoyment of cruelty and vengeance. I’m reminded of a scene from Conan the Barbarian, when Conan is asked, “What is best in life?” He responds, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
In this vein, you’ll note that people seem, on the whole, more interested in winning arguments than getting to the truth of whatever it is that they’re discussing. It’s more about domination, more battle than discovery. Winning battles against opposing tribes is satisfying (politics!) and, while I have never crushed an enemy — at least not physically — I suspect it feels pretty good.
To know oneself, one should assert oneself.
The general undercurrent here, then, seems to be that — in order to identify values — one ought to amass knowledge about oneself and humans in general, develop a certain sensitivity to what it that people value and desire and an accurate understanding of our own idiosyncrasies.
I have a couple ideas about how to go about this, but no silver bullet. There is no royal road to self-knowledge. It’s hard work.
- Read and learn about different fields that shed light on what it is that humans want. There are a lot of possibilities here, as I mentioned earlier, from psychology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, ethics, and more. Really, any field that deals with some aspect of humanity has something to offer. (This looks like a good place to start.)
- Careful observation of ourselves and others. How do we act and feel in different situations? What do our actions and words suggest about our goals and values? When do we clash with other people? What are others striving for? What do people spend money on? Notice what’s popular and why. (Cultivating mindfulness might be useful for this.)
- It’s instructive to consider what chimpanzees want and how humans are similar and different.
- Take a different point of view when considering someone. If a stranger did the same things that you do, what would you think about them? If someone does something that you don’t understand, ask why you would do that in their situation. Everyone feels normal from the inside.
- Try getting honest feedback from others. What do they think about you? How does this differ from your self-concept. One study found that other people were better at predicting the length of a relationship than those in the relationship.
- You might try keeping a journal, or any other of the thought experiments that people suggest when considering values. What do you want for your children? What makes you jealous? All of these suggest possible values.
- Some research suggests if we know about our biases, we may be better able to control for them.
- Reflect. How much would you pay to prevent a chicken from being tortured? Would you rather have more technology or less? Would a happiness pill be a good thing? Construct counterfactuals and intuition pumps. Ask yourself, “Is this my true motive? Is there something deeper here?”
- In an uncertain world, there’s a great deal of value in preserving your options and hedging your bets. Maybe you don’t think you care about social status or money, but — given that there’s a not insignifcant chance you could be mistaken — invest in something that’s either transferable or that will move you towards many different things simultaneously. Paul Graham writes about majoring in math instead of economics, since a math major can get a PhD in economics, but an economics major can’t get a PhD in mathematics.