Beast in the machine

“Will power is to the mind like a strong blind man who carries on his shoulders a lame man who can see.” – Schopenhauer

The discussions of personality, the debates about free will or determinism, and basic psychology, are all skewered. They’re little more than esoteric attempts to control the animal – the human animal – that seems, continually, to evade their grasp.

In the Analytic – or so-called ‘Anglo-American’ – traditions of philosophy, this is only to be expected. The British bias has long been against physical contact and non-reproductive intimacy. Could we ever expect a cooly objective observance of human nature from such a tradition? Their whole point is to limit the animal and make it malleable to social pressure. ‘Lie back and think of England’ – that was the definition of female sexuality in England for more than a century. Yet we expect the English to tell us something about sexual desire? why not get advice on oral sex from a priest!

To this date, we still see this bias in the analytic tradition in England and America – a failure to confront, head on, the problem of desire. Desire, not as a wish for this or that, but as what it is, the engine of human motivation.

Consider this statement from the well respected Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “I may want to eat a candy bar (first-order desire), but I also may want not to want this (second-order desire) because of the connection between habitual candy eating and poor health.”*

Well, that’s making sure that we never have to deal with the primal animal that we really are. First order, second order – ordered stratification of something raw, gooey, messy, and fundamentally vicious – who we really are without our clothes on.

The problem with desire is that it is blind – it is too primitive, too difficult to recognize and reflect upon. It has no direct access to the world, is inchoate and inarticulate, has no sense of time or place, and motivates almost whimsically – that is, its directionality alters with seemingly no cause or trigger.

Even in the discussion of first order desires, we find it shaped in terms of desired particular ends – the person wants to eat a candy bar, or wants a drink, or wants to get away from an annoying person. But this all arises from some more primitive, basic source – let’s call it ‘sub-order desire,’ of an organism that is not yet a person. The organism’s sub-order desire is not to eat a candy bar, but to shovel sweet substances down its gullet. It doesn’t want to drink, it wants to drown in a vat of ‘substance making it feel good.’ It doesn’t want to avoid the annoying other organism, it wants to smash it, kill it, end its annoyance completely. Or perceiving it as an unconquerable threat, all it wants is to run away.

When the sub-order desire triggers for sex, it doesn’t want sex with any particular person, or even a particular gender – all that comes later, as the desire filters through consciousness. The initial desire is simply ‘sex – now!’ Lenny Bruce cut to the quick of this in his remark that “men will schtup mud,” if there aren’t any available chickens on the desert isle they find themselves on.

The traditions of philosophy in Germany and France have carried on a long conversation about the problem of primitive desire, but without much resolution. The one thing I like about the Continentalists’ discussion on this topic is that it recognizes the fundamental blindness of primitive desire. But then they carry it away into abstraction. Freud recognizes this blindness when he labels primitive desire ‘the It,’ but then elaborates a theory of containment that turns it into a mysterious force rather than an animal’s impulses. Two generations later, we find Lacan talking about it as though it had its own theology.

The psychology developed among Buddhists has a far richer account of ‘sub-order’ desire and how it determines human behavior than we have in the West. because, per the Second Noble Truth, desire unfolds into the human experience of life as disappointment, which we feel as suffering. Of course when controlled and redirected in an appropriate (and preferably detached) manner, desire can lead to pleasant experiences; but every suffering finds its origin in some desire.

Our brains have developed a huge number of marvelous methods for obscuring disappointment, often to the point of denial. That warm, mellow glow after a meal, for instance, does it not cloud the body’s (at least possible) disappointment that the meal is over? Do not those who eat gluttonously, well past the point of satiation, provide us with evidence for this disappointment, is not their urge to eat pushing them to satisfy it, no matter what? (Of course there are complex psychological factors involved, this is but a trace outline of the issue.) But the resolution here seems obvious – to eat mindfully; that is, consciously enjoy what you have, be grateful that you have it, let go of it when its gone. Less, eating, less mellow afterglow, less disappointment, less suffering.

Does this require greater agency? No. It requires training, habituation. There is a moment’s insight when one realizes that such a path leads to less suffering, but eventually its a matter of habituating the same response to the same stimuli, while maintaining a mindful openness to the vagaries of contingency and chance.

(By the way, that’s not so esoteric as it sounds – William James said as much only a hundred or so ago. I prefer the Buddhist approach because it is more deeply rooted and more complexly developed.)

So far, so good, and as a basis of practice, none better. Unfortunately, this psychology as it developed in the Buddhist tradition, especially in Tibet, also constructs abstractions that obscure rather than clarify the issue.

Perhaps the truth of desire can only really be revealed for reflection in the creative arts. After all, on one basic level, that’s exactly what the arts are supposed to do – even when projecting our ideals, the arts project our desires, they express what we want on some deep, pre-conscious level, before we ever get to discussion of their ‘meaning.’

Primary desire finds no easy place in the broad positions of philosophy or the sciences. Yet it would seem to fall into the domain of any psychology or consciousness; but we have difficulty articulating it in such discussions as well. As the impulse of an animal, it is biologically determined; yet it is unanswerable to deterministic explanations of its influence on behavior, because, being blind, its goals seem to vary whimsically – one moment it urges eating, the next schtupping – probably it would do both at once if it could. Thus it is not amenable to clinical research. (Mr. Bruce, high on smack, in the clinic, attached to electrodes; ‘press the button, doc? sure!’ – begins schtupping the control panel.)

Primitive desire is what much of the brain exists to control and redirect. How can we expect human thinkers and researchers to address adequately such a pre-human motivator? They consider the functioning of the brain – primitive desire is a function of the body.

So primitive desire complicates any discussion of consciousness, personality, or of will – will, understood as either desire realized or desire enacted (I think there is equivocation on this throughout the literature on will, going back centuries). Unless, with Schopenhauer, we read it as Will per se – which only gets us another abstraction. (**)

What is it – this, ourselves – do we know it?  Can we know it?  Or are we well-developed (overly developed) bats, capable of poetry, explaining shadows on a cave wall we cannot really see?

It wants.  We explain it, excuse it, organize it, pretend it is otherwise.  But – it wants.



(**) Also: “Schopenhauer disagreed with Kant’s critics and stated that it is absurd to assume that phenomena have no basis. Schopenhauer proposed that we cannot know the thing in itself as though it is a cause of phenomena. Instead, he said that we can know it by knowing our own body, which is the only thing that we can know at the same time as both a phenomenon and a thing in itself.
“When we become conscious of ourself, we realize that our essential qualities are endless urging, craving, striving, wanting, and desiring. These are characteristics of that which we call our will. Schopenhauer affirmed that we can legitimately think that all other phenomena are also essentially and basically will. According to him, will ‘is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man….’ [The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, § 21] Schopenhauer said that his predecessors mistakenly thought that the will depends on knowledge. According to him, though, the will is primary and uses knowledge in order to find an object that will satisfy its craving. That which, in us, we call will is Kant’s ‘thing in itself’, according to Schopenhauer.”



8 thoughts on “Beast in the machine

  1. I agree this piece appeals to my aesthetic senses 🙂

    “Perhaps the truth of desire can only really be revealed for reflection in the creative arts. After all, on one basic level, that’s exactly what the arts are supposed to do – even when projecting our ideals, the arts project our desires, they express what we want on some deep, pre-conscious level, before we ever get to discussion of their ‘meaning.’ ”

    Speaking of aesthetics, beauty, the arts and their connection to the physical juices and networks that produce our motivations you might enjoy this interview:

    On the experience of beauty–
    “What I speculate in my book is that it’s the opposite weightings where you have liking—where the wanting is not as prominent in the experience—is what we would characterize as an aesthetic experience.”

    The author compares this to addiction where the wanting become dominant as the liking of what is wanted recedes.

    Liked by 1 person

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