Broken Consciousness

Years ago I went to the National Gallery in Washington, DC. There I saw a classical painting of a scene from the story of Aeneas and Dido. In the painting, a woman is crying out to her lover, who had donned his armor and was on his way to fight a war. The woman (representing the security of home and family) seemingly asks “why am I not enough?” The warrior, however, knows that his destiny lies elsewhere.

This post is the second part of a three part piece on why people should have children. In the first part of this essay I argued that true happiness involves a combination of two things: emotional security and ambition (i.e., our sense of status and achievement). Somewhat obviously, these two things can be in tension. Emotional security is measured (or experienced) in absolute terms and its nature is to seek equilibrium. The nature of ambition is to move forward, and to not be satisfied with the status quo.

In this section, I argue that not only are emotional security and ambition in conflict, the problem is getting worse. In our evolutionary environment there were natural limits that kept our ambition in check. People only interacted with the small number of others in their band. Options for accumulating wealth were very limited. In a primitive society there was no Tom Cruise, no Michael Jordan, no Albert Einstein, no Napoleon, no Warren Buffett. There were only local chiefs, and that was enough.

Two Revolutions

Perhaps the two biggest changes in human history have been the agricultural revolution, and the information revolution. The agricultural revolution led to the formation of great cities and empires, where people could aspire to accumulate wealth and achieve status in the context of a much larger community (at least a few of them could).

With the information revolution (i.e., the printing press, radio, television, and finally, the internet), people began to communicate with each other across the globe. With expanded contact comes expanded consciousness. That is, our consciousness expands to fill the limits of our ability to communicate. Then, our ambitions expand to fill the limits of our consciousness.

An interesting book discussing the development of consciousness in the wake of the agricultural revolution is called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It argues that the level of exposure people had to others in the late bronze age led to cognitive developments fundamental to our current form of consciousness. Similarly, the book Mind, Modernity, and Madness discusses the development of consciousness in the information age.

So two things fundamentally change the way people think: wealth and communication. The ability to accumulate wealth enables us to look further forward in time, and the mass communication technology expands the scope of people we communicate with. Neither thing fundamentally changes the brain’s formula for emotional security. Both things expand the scope of our ambitions.

Thus, the history of humanity can be viewed as one where the scope of human consciousness increases at the expense of emotional security. Rational consciousness increases because our minds are exposed to vast worlds of information and huge numbers of other people. However, our sense of emotional security depends on deep, immediate relationships that can be sensed in a million indescribable ways.

Emergence of Ideology

As the tension between ambition and emotional security grows, new social institutions and ideologies began to emerge to fill the void. First, religion began to emerge in the wake of the agricultural revolution. In the information age, we see the rise of nationalism and science. The emergence of these ideologies is not a bad thing. In fact it was both necessary and inevitable. And just to be clear, I will define an ideology as a set of ideas that provides structure for ambition. Thus, it involves both what we believe about the world, and what we believe about our proper place in the world.

Religion can be viewed as a means of providing emotional security in the absence of more primitive social institutions. By providing people a way to feel a sense of rightness and belonging in a more abstract way, religion enabled the breakdown of strong kinship networks, and made room for modern social institutions. For example, the paper Why Europe? shows that democracy was more likely to emerge in countries where the influence of Christianity was sufficient to break down complex extended family ties (e.g., by outlawing cousin marriage).

Nationalism plays a similar role. Here, the word nationalism is slightly different from common the common usage of the word. I don’t mean the idea that we should promote the interests of our nation over those of other people (i.e., nationalism as opposed to modern globalism). By nationalism, I mean identifying with a nation as our central social institution (i.e., nationalism as opposed to primitive tribalism).

For example, in the US, our media institutions are largely national in scale. Being exposed to common information links us with other people in the same communication loop and creates a form of shared consciousness. So, for example, when children think of what they want to be when they grow up, they often think in terms of roles that make sense on the scale of a national community (i.e., basketball player, scientist, politician) rather than on the scale of a band (i.e., father, mother, hunter, warrior).

In other words, religion and nationalism expand the scope of our identity, and help bridge the growing void between our ambition (i.e., what we want to become) and our sense of emotional security (biologically, who we are). However, these ideologies exacerbate the growing psychological tension in every one of us. For example, the book Mind, Modernity and Madness argues that the emergence of nationalism is associated with a marked increase in stress and mental illness.

Ideology doesn’t cause mental illness directly. Ideology leads to anxiety because it is not sufficiently good at doing its job. That is, in a modern society we have been stripped of the primitive social environment our brains feel comfortable in. Ideology can partially comfort us by giving us an alternative sense of belonging (i.e., to God and country), but it cannot fully fill the void because ideology is fundamentally a lower bandwidth phenomenon than rich social interaction. Ideology is communicated largely in words, which must be translated by our inner graphing calculator. Meanwhile, love (i.e., stable, complex interdependency) is communicated in millions of ways that include much greater sensory depth that is processed subconsciously.

So what about science? Is science an objective set of falsifiable theories about the world, or is it an ideology? I would argue that it can be both. Two things are clear to me. First, science is a human activity carried out by a community of people that mostly share some common beliefs. Second, science played a big role in structuring my own ambitions. You might want to separate science in the abstract from the human beliefs and desires that motivate people to do science. But for me they are sufficiently interconnected to consider them part of the same phenomenon.

Ideological Conflict

Ideologies expand our consciousness by providing us ways to process all of the new information that is available to us in the wake of expanded communication with other people.But one problem with the emergence of these different ideologies is that they can be in conflict.

A lot of debate has centered around the question of whether science and religion inherently contradict one another. I am interested in that question, too. But it is not the thing I want to discuss here. Instead, I want to discuss the question of how science, religion, and nationalism compete for influence on our ambitions.

There is a critical phase in the life of a young person when they graduate from childhood and they have to decide for themselves what they want to become. For me this came when I graduated from university. Prior to that point, pretty much everything apart from the details was decided for me in advance. My mom even chose my college major (although the thing she chose, math, was very suitable and I could have easily changed it if I wanted).

Ok, so consider the parable of my career choice. I was graduating from college and I had to decide what I was going to be:

My religion taught that the most important thing was to settle down and start a family. To me this meant that I should get a job and start making money so I could support them. Most Mormons are probably familiar with the saying that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home.” But I didn’t choose to settle down and start a family.

Science taught that I should seek truth. To me this meant that I should go into a PhD program and study physics. My childhood hero was Einstein, the greatest physicist of all time. The GOAT. That’s what I wanted to be. But I didn’t choose to become a physicist.

My national identity taught me that I should contribute to my nation. For me, this meant preparing to go into politics. So I decided to join the Air Force and become a pilot. And yes, the decision was largely based on my political ambitions. I thought becoming an officer in the military would be a nice resume builder for any future politician. So at the end of the day, my first career choice was an outgrowth of a “nationalist” identity.

In some ways, joining the Air Force was a compromise among my various ideologies. My religious upbringing wasn’t enough to make me focus solely on spiritual pursuits (because they didn’t seem sufficiently ambitious). However, coming from the Top Gun generation, I did believe that becoming a pilot wouldn’t hurt my chances of finding a wife. Plus, I did obtain a Masters degree in physics while on active duty, so I didn’t completely abandon that goal either.

But the important thing that I want to convey is that my choice reflected my worldview and my sense of identity. Specifically, my choice reflected the fact that my ambition was substantially framed in terms of a particular community, my nation. However, what I didn’t realize is that this community was largely an ideological abstraction. That is, a nation doesn’t really know you, and can’t really love you (in the sense our brain looks for to determine our level of emotional security). So to pursue my ambitions, I had to leave a “real” community (i.e., my family) to seek status in an abstract community (i.e., the nation)

Broken Consciousness

The Marxist philosopher Friedrich Engels used the term “false consciousness” to describe when a subordinate class embodies the ideology of the ruling class. Not too long afterwards, the black writer W. E. B. Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” to refer to the internal conflict that an oppressed group feels by looking at themselves through the lens of an oppressive ideology (which forms a part of their own consciousness). The critical revelation here is that our ideology, the very way we perceive the world, can somehow become untethered from our own well being. It is determined by larger forces that we cant control, and that can be become harmful to us.

I want to build on this and introduce the concept of a “broken consciousness”, which is a state where your dominant ideology (i.e., your worldview, which forms the logical structure of your ambition) prevents you from achieving emotional security. In other words, it is a state where the two aspects of your consciousness (i.e., the logical and the intuitive) are not integrated. In extreme cases, broken consciousness leads to mental illness. But more commonly, it just leads to constant, low-level anxiety and dissatisfaction.

Consider the following (oversimplified) equation for happiness based on the first part of this essay:


Here, the volume of our consciousness (i.e., the potential for happiness) is determined by a base (emotional security, or the strength of our complex social network) multiplied by a height (achievement, as represented by our future orientation and the scope of our community). Modern ideology tends to increase the height of consciousness by reducing the base. The result is ambiguous.

I am reminded of Dostoevsky’s famous quote from The Brothers Karamazov: “the more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.” Any ideology that emphasizes abstractions (i.e., things our subconscious is not good at processing like “humanity”) over concrete reality (i.e., the things that our subconscious is good at processing like love for particular people) will not expand consciousness overall.

Broken consciousness is an inevitable result of living in the modern world. Ideology both exacerbates the problem (by encouraging us to expand the scope of our ambition) and alleviates the symptoms (by providing us alternative forms of comfort). As in the story of Aenaes I mentioned earlier, ambition has always been at odds with emotional security. But in a modern world, the scope of our ambition is much greater than it has ever been in the past. Our world is bigger and the people in it more numerous.

Ideology is necessary to help us structure this new world, but it cannot really satisfy our fundamental need for emotional security. However, as illustrated by my experience feeling like “success in the home” was not sufficiently ambitious, an ideology must account for the scope of information we are exposed to or it will not be capable of harnessing our ambition.



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Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters