Harmonious Consciousness

Yin and Yang in Harmony

This post is part 1 in an essay entitled The Case for Having Kids. Until recently, people didn’t really need reasons for having kids. Evolution provided one very strong motivation: the sex drive. Before the emergence of birth control, this desire was sufficient. Now things are different. Now we have a choice. So we need reasons.

There are a lot of reasons not to have kids. Most importantly, they are expensive and time consuming. In short, there is an opportunity cost. Having kids will interfere with your ambition, whatever that is. Want to be a great mathematician, writer, politician, socialite? Having kids will make it harder.

So, if we have a choice and choosing to have kids comes at a great cost, why do it? This essay represents my answer to this question. But first, a few things I am not arguing. I am not arguing that having children will make you happy. Statistically speaking, that is not true. Also, I am not arguing that having children will make you feel happy all the time. That is absurd. Having children is hard, even if you are doing it right. Finally, I am not arguing that having children is one way among many that can make you happy. I am arguing that children are essential to achieving the full measure of human happiness. So even if you can’t have kids yourself, you should find a child to adopt, legally or emotionally.

The reason that children are essential is that they provide opportunities to expand our consciousness to its natural limits. In this first part of the essay, I define happiness. In Part 2, I discuss unique challenges to happiness that come from living in a modern society. Finally, in Part 3, I discuss how children can help us address these challenges.

Ok, so moving on. What does the title of this post even mean? What is consciousness? And what does it mean for consciousness to be harmonious?

My theory of consciousness is that it emerges from the interaction of a subconscious aspect (i.e., instinct) and the conscious aspect (i.e., rationality). In other words, consciousness itself is a balance of “Yin” and “Yang” (i.e., the Dark-Bright or Receptive-Active dualism).

While the word “consciousness” seems to imply that it primarily depends on the conscious aspect of our being, I believe that awareness emerges from the interaction of two different elements of our brain (i.e., what we associate with conscious and subconscious minds). Discussions about dualist philosophy can get pretty obscure, so I want to tie the discussion to a few things we have learned about the human brain from modern science. Specifically, I want to talk about artificial intelligence and evolutionary psychology.

In traditional computer programming, you specify exactly what happens at each step using something like formal logic. This is the Yang of computer programming. Programming using an artificial neural network is not like this. An artificial neural network is a form of AI or machine learning where you emulate a real neural network (i.e., a brain) by having a bunch of computer components act as neurons. Millions or billions of these artificial neurons are connected in very complex ways and they are “trained” by adjusting weights that determine when they “fire” (i.e., when their inputs lead to an activation of the neuron, which then causes them to activate their outputs, which are connected to other neurons).

The main thing I want to point out about neural networks is that the number of connections is incomprehensibly large. In fact, there are so many connections that when building a neural network you usually don’t even try to understand what all the connections are doing. You just make a bunch of random changes, see if they work, and then make a bunch more random changes until the network does what you want.

So what have we learned from advances in artificial intelligence? Fundamentally, there two ways of achieving an automation task. One way is logical and efficient (traditional programming, or the Yang), the other is vast and incomprehensible (neural networks, or the Yin). Interestingly, it turns out that for really complicated problems, the Yin works better than Yang. That is, the vast and incomprehensible method (i.e., artificial neural networks) are often more suitable than the logical, understandable methods of traditional programming.

Our brain is the ultimate neural network. One of the largest artificial neural networks (GPT-3) has about 175 billion trainable parameters. The brain has about 100 billion neurons and about 100 trillion connections (we think). And it’s those connections that are more comparable to the parameters of an artificial neural network. So the brain is at about 1,000 times more complex than the most complex artificial neural network. Plus, it has been refined over millions of years, so the network architecture is also much more complex.

This is kind of obvious because although a modern neural network such as GPT-3 can do some pretty impressive things (such as answering a lot of factual questions and making up paragraphs of text), it also falls far short of the capabilities of the human brain (for example, it has absolutely no common sense).

Human: How many eyes does a giraffe have?

GPT-3: A giraffe has two eyes.

Human: How many eyes does my foot have?

GPT-3: Your foot has two eyes.

Ok, so the human brain is a very vast thing, and has a huge amount of computing power capable of processing all sorts of very complex inputs. But as we all know, we are not at all conscious of everything that goes on in our own brain. Like any neural network, it is pretty much a black box. So I like to use this analogy that our brain is like a huge supercomputer running the worlds most complex AI model, and a tiny part of that model is used to emulate a graphing calculator, which represents the logical abilities of our conscious brain. Our conscious, logical abilities are so limited that many people have trouble comprehending one of the most basic units of formal logic: the syllogism. The difficulty we have solving relatively simple riddles is more evidence of the limits of our rational aspect.

However, one thing that our conscious brain does that artificial neural networks have a hard time doing is something called abstraction. That is, we can take complex objects or situations, simplify them, and then use our limited rational abilities on these simplified, abstracted elements.

So, for example, GPT-3 knows that a giraffe has two eyes because that is the right answer to a lot of similar questions. But it doesn’t reason that a foot does not have any eyes because it really doesn’t have the ability to perform abstractions (such as determining what is a complete organism before answering questions about the number of eyes something has).

In my view, this is the essence of consciousness. It lies in the connection between a vast, incomprehensible neural network and a limited rational processing capacity. It is the interplay between Yin and Yang, between our supercomputer and our graphing calculator.

The model of consciousness described above suggests there are several ways to expand consciousness. We can develop our subconscious processing power, our conscious processing power or the connections between our subconscious and our conscious processes. All of these three things are conceptually possible. For example, training in mathematics and formal logic can lead to significant advances in conscious processing power.

However, like any artificial neural network, the function of our brain depends on its architecture and training. In our case, the architecture was established by evolution. This is such an important point that I am going to set it apart and bold it:

Our brain is a physical organ that is subject to the constraints of our evolutionary development.

So let’s take a stroll through the current state of evolutionary psychology to see what we can learn about that evolutionary development. The first thing evolutionary psychology teaches us is that we can’t just learn to be conscious about anything we want. Rather, we have evolved to be conscious about certain very specific things. If you have any doubt about this at all, I suggest you read the book The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.

Basically, our brains have evolved to do some very specific things that set the boundaries for the extent to which we can train our brains. We evolved to see and interpret our environment in a very specific frequency band. We evolved to walk and perform all of the complicated balancing equations that go along with that.

But most importantly of all, we have evolved to cooperate with other humans. Because this cooperation can take many forms, our social abilities are very complex. Furthermore, they are based on some very basic concepts that are hard wired into our system. Some of these are described in the book The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. His set of basic moral abilities includes care, loyalty, fairness, authority, and sanctity. Of course, there are also some more basic abilities such as language itself, or self-beautification.

Like a neural network, our social processing capabilities are also designed to be trained on how to apply these basic skills in a particular social environment. The set of things that we learn during this training process is known as culture. In the book The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich argues that our ability to learn culture, more than our abstract reasoning ability, has led to the success of the human race.

Now there is one more thing I would like to point out that helps set the stage for the limits of our consciousness. As described in the book How Many Friends Does One Person Need? By Robin Dunbar, humans evolved in the context of small social bands that existed in the context of larger tribes of about 150 people (which is sometimes known as Dunbar’s Number). In other words, humans evolved to be conscious of other people, but only a limited number of other people.

Our evolutionary environment was something like this

So while we can expand our consciousness, it must be done within the limits of what our brain has evolved to do. We simply cannot control the kinds of things our subconscious is capable of processing, and subconscious development is a pillar of expanded consciousness. Specifically, our brain has evolved to apply culture norms in certain key areas (i.e., the moral foundations) in order to achieve cooperation within small groups (say, less than a dozen) and a greater community of about 150 people. And there is a special word for the state of having strong intimate relationships: love. So one could say that at the end of the day, the big lesson of modern evolutionary psychology is:

Love is the key to expanded consciousness.

My discussion of evolutionary psychology is mostly relevant to the subconscious aspect of consciousness. Perhaps counter-intuitively, limits on the kinds of things that can expand our consciousness are primarily imposed by what our subconscious brain is designed to do.

The reason for this is that our conscious/rational mind is quite limited in size, but not in scope. In fact, it is the nature of our rational mind that literally anything can be abstracted and processed by it. This will become important in part 2 of the essay, where I talk more about the opportunities and challenges posed by modern society (where the scope of rational exploration has exploded).

So let’s talk about happiness. Specifically, what does it mean for our consciousness to be “harmonious”? In my view, it means to satisfy both our instinctual and rational needs. Specifically, I believe there are two primary components of happiness that we need to consider: emotional security and status achievement.

Let’s start with emotional security. Emotional security is primarily achieved by having a social environment that your evolutionary brain finds satisfactory. Therefore, key to emotional security is to have the right quantity and the right quality of relationships. As discussed above, your brain has largely evolved to facilitate social cooperation, and emotional security is our way of keeping score.

When you have these things, you will feel secure. When you don’t, your brain provides negative feedback in the form of anxiety. You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have a secure band (i.e., your intimate group of allies), or you don’t have a secure tribe (i.e., your Dunbar-sized community), your brain will never let you rest.

There are a lot of ways to surround yourself with friends, but it is important to realize that not all friendships are up to the task. Some relationships fall short of what your brain is looking for. Specifically, in our evolutionary environment, we had a small number of “thick” relationships, i.e., relationships that extend into every aspect of life. We ate with the same people, hunted with the same people, got drunk with the same people, and relaxed with the same people.

In the modern world, many relationships are “thin” in the sense that they are limited to a particular purpose. We have business relationships, sports clubs, facebook groups, church groups, neighbors, etc. But few of these relationships reach the depth that we are designed to look for.

The second component of happiness is our sense of status achievement. Unlike emotional security, which is an absolute measurement (i.e., do we have the right type of relationships or not?), status is inherently relative. Specifically, our status involves a comparison to other people, and to our own past.

Often, our happiness depends to an inordinate amount on a comparison to our very recent past. For example, many of us like to check our investment portfolio every day. We get a burst of excitement when it does well, and a shot of disappointment when it falls.

Furthermore, status is much more a creature of our rational mind than emotional security. Therefore, our sense of status gravitates toward abstract things that can easily be compared such as money, titles, and concrete achievements.

Some people argue that we shouldn’t get too caught up in seeking status because it is a treadmill. That is, the satisfaction we get from accomplishment is never permanent, so the only thing that can keep us happy with our status is to be constantly striving. However, to ignore status is to ignore our nature. To be completely happy, we must achieve both emotional security and status achievement, not one or the other.

Another key thing to point out about status achievement is that by nature it is concerned with more than just our present state. Our need for achievement is related to our need for a narrative (i.e., the story that helps us orient and compare our status in the past, present, and the future — that is, where have we been and where are we going).

In fact, because our sense of status achievement is based in our rational capacity, this narrative can extend far back into the past, and far into the future. In other words, it isn’t limited by our direct experience.

Thus, in order to be happy we must be part of something bigger than ourselves in two ways. First, we must become intimately aware of more people (but not too many, because we aren’t built to do that) and second, we must have a grand narrative that gives us a framework for measuring our status and gives us a sense of where we fit in relationship to the past and the future.

Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters