The Sentient Mind

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”
– Bertrand Russell    

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The apoptosome is a large protein complex formed during apoptosis, or programmed cell death. In your body, about 60 billion cells die every day by this process. Image source.

Whether it be a cell or a civilization, the existence of every living system¹ depends on the coordination of its components. As the survival of the body depends on trillions of cells, the survival of the human system will require the cooperation of several billion minds.² In the words of Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Even with the smartest technology and the most innovative thinkers, our civilization will fall if it fails to realize this truth. But how on Earth do we get seven billion people to work together?

From visions of heaven to concepts of utopia, we have long dreamed of lasting harmony. And in almost all these fantasies, human nature³ has been “fixed” in some way. For millennia, scholars and theologians alike have generally presumed that our nature is somehow flawed, thus rendering a world of peace and happiness an unattainable ideal. And today, this couldn’t seem more true. Whether it be neo-Nazis or anti-vaxxers or climate change deniers, humanity seems fated to self-destruction. We are a species persuaded by meaning rather than by evidence. We are short-sighted, too worried about our comfort to care about our survival. It seems that we are inherently selfish, and cooperation is impossible. But though we may despair, there is a solution that many have overlooked: human nature, as hopeless as it seems, is our only hope.

¹For the purposes of this argument, I define “system” as an assembly of components (in physical terms, an arrangement of matter and energy in space and time) that forms one or more associated functional relationships between its input(s) and output(s). “Inputs” describe the matter and energy that is transferred into the system, and “outputs” are the matter and energy transferred out. The “functional relationships” of a system describe the internal processes by which inputs become outputs. In mathematical terms, these functional relationships—f(x)—are represented as equations—y=f(x)—in which the outputs (the dependent variable, y) are determined by its inputs (the independent variable, x). To give a simple example, consider the system of a coffee maker. Its inputs consist of the matter (water and fresh grounds) and energy (electricity) that go in, and the outputs are the matter (coffee and used grounds) and energy (heat) that come out.

As an undergraduate engineering student, I was taught that everything in the Universe, from galaxies to atoms to computers, could be seen as a system, a relationship between inputs and outputs that can be described by associated functions—”associated” meaning that these functions share one or more variables. Indeed, any event in the Universe can be viewed as an exchange of matter and energy within or between systems. And how we define the boundaries of a system in space and time is rather arbitrary, because every system is either directly or indirectly “associated” with every other system within the larger configuration of matter and energy that we call our “Universe,” whose inputs (i.e. initial states) precede the space-time boundary of the past, and whose outputs (i.e. future states) succeed the space-time boundary of the present. Throughout this philosophy, I will justify my view of reality as revealed by modern science.

I define “living system” as a self-perpetuating chemical-based system that can only exist in the context of larger chemical systems, whether it be a virus in a cell, a heart in a body, a species in its ecosystem, or a biosphere in its planetary cycling of geochemical matter. Please note that I do not use the word “living” as a synonym for “biological”—some scientists don’t consider viruses to be biologically alive, and most don’t consider a whole species to be an organism. But just because civilizations or ecological cycles are not necessarily “alive” or “self-perpetuating” in a biological sense does not preclude such an analogy from being useful for the preservation of our species. And throughout my philosophy, I will justify my use of this analogy and my belief that it may be more than just a useful analogy—it may define a potential reality. “One cell, four billion years ago, has grown into a system that blankets the planet from the highest peak to the deepest trench, a system so aware that it knows the age of its existence, and so powerful that it can extract the energy from an atom’s nucleus.” (Home)

“A new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet.” – Carl Sagan

²I define “[human] mind” as a system of conscious and unconscious mental processes that we associate with the human nervous system. When discussing the mental features of any system, the physical categories of “matter” and “energy” are no longer sufficient to describe the qualitative properties of subjective experience, such as taste, color or joy. While we can describe the components of the brain, a physical system, in terms of physical matter (neurons, myelin, etc.) and energy (electrochemical potentials, metabolic heat, etc.), we must describe the components of the mind, a mental system, with concepts like perception, cognition, emotion, motivation, etc. Rather than trying to detail the physical mechanisms by which photons from this screen result in words and ideas and feelings in your head, I will use concepts like perception and cognition to represent the various “conscious and unconscious mental processes” of the mind—i.e. the components that give rise to the functional relationships between its inputs—(un)conscious stimuli—and outputs—(un)conscious behavior. 

The distinction between “conscious” and “unconscious” is somewhat arbitrary, analogous to the arbitrarily defined boundaries that determine the inputs and outputs of any system. Scientific evidence seems to suggest that “conscious” systems evolve from the “unconscious” systems that preceded them, and the boundary between the two is rather ambiguous; they are not two sides of a sharp line, but two extremes of a spectrum that might include everything from the human brain to single-celled organisms, and perhaps to subatomic particles, as in the case of Guilio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness. Just as the electrochemical transactions of your nervous system cannot exist apart from the biochemical transactions of your body, “mental” processes depend on the “non-mental” processes that support them, and “conscious” systems seem to arise from “unconscious” ones. But if this delineation is so ambiguous, then what’s to keep us from saying that nothing is conscious, or that the whole universe is conscious?

Most theories of consciousness are susceptible to the problem of solipsism, an obstacle well-described by science journalist John Horgan: “As far as I know, I am the only conscious entity in the cosmos. I confidently infer that things like me—such as other humans—are also conscious, but my confidence wanes when I consider things less like me, such as compact discs and dark energy.” Because of the subjective nature of awareness, theories of consciousness remain unverifiable. Hence, Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist at MIT, argues that the only test for such a theory is “whether it can produce results agreeing with common sense—for example, whether it can affirm that humans are conscious, that dogs are also conscious but less so, and that rocks are not conscious. The reason it’s so important that the theory uphold common sense on these test cases is that, given the experimental inaccessibility of consciousness, this is the only test available to us.” In other words, any working theory of consciousness should make predictions that agree with what we hold to be “intuitively conscious.” Thus, how I use the words “conscious” or “unconscious” depends largely on their context. In the case of the human mind, its unconscious mental processes may not be unconscious, but rather less conscious. 

³I define “human nature” as the general patterns of perception (p), cognition (c), emotion (e), intuition (i), motivation (m), and behavior (b) that characterize the majority of human minds. That is, human nature encompasses both the components (p, c, e, i, m) and outputs (b) that characterize the system of the human mind. As human nature is a vast subject, I will describe only some of these “general patterns” throughout my philosophy. For more on this topic, I recommend the best-selling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011), by Nobel Prize in Economics laureate Daniel Kahneman.

“Recent advances in experimental psychology and neuroimaging have allowed us to study the boundary between conscious and unconscious mental processes with increasing precision. We now know that at least two systems in the brain—often referred to as “dual processes”—govern human cognition, emotion, and behavior. One is evolutionarily older, unconscious, and automatic; the other evolved more recently and is both conscious and deliberative. When you find another person annoying, sexually attractive, or inadvertently funny, you are experiencing the percolations of System 1. The heroic efforts you make to conceal these feelings out of politeness are the work of System 2.” – Sam Harris (Waking Up, 2014)

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Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Dallas. Photo by Laura Buckman.

Premise: Human nature is a given. If it’s not something we can change, then it’s something we must use—and this is how we should use it.¹ The axioms in this argument are assumed based on both their logical plausibility and their practical utility for the survival and flourishing of our species.

Unfortunately, we all have distorted perceptions of reality. The human mind is patterned to think in ways that produce inaccurate evaluations and irrational behavior. In the last six decades, nearly 200 cognitive biases have been identified from research on human judgment and decision-making. And among these cognitive errors is a major theme: for the mass majority, emotion defines reason—not the other way around.²

¹Changing the outputs of any system requires the manipulation of either its inputs and/or its components and their functional relationships. For the system of the human mind, I will assume that its parts and their functions (i.e. the general patterns of perception, cognition, emotion, intuition, and motivation) and outputs (i.e. behavior), which I collectively describe as “human nature,” are rather fixed. While patterns of perception, cognition, and emotion can be altered to a degree (by meditation, self-control, or psychotherapy, for example), there are certain patterns of intuition and motivation that are fundamental to the nature of the mind, and these are unalterable givens. I will describe what these intuitions and motivations are, and how certain inputs (in this case, a set of ideas) that appeal to these aspects of human nature might achieve the desired output—”the survival and flourishing of our species.”

²This is my attempt to explain the nature of human belief in a way that is generally agreed upon, and this basic principle will guide the remainder of my discussions on human nature. The human mind is drawn to two forms of reality—concepts that we consider to be “true.” The first is logical truth, conclusions about reality that we draw from evidence and cognition (reasoning); and the second is teleological truth, assumptions about reality that we draw from intuition and emotion (meaning). What we believe to be true is determined both by what we deduce to be correct and by what we feel to be correct. This dichotomy reflects the apparent divide between the cognitive and affective networks of the human mind: thinking vs. feeling, sociopathy vs. empathy, science vs. religion. The former drives our search for certainty, and the latter our search for significance, and the reconciliation of this divide guides the conception and evolution of every worldview, be it a political ideology, a minister’s theology, or this philosophy. But more often than not, how we feel governs the way we think. For the most part, meaning (System 1) guide human reasoning (System 2).

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 Image source: Courtesy of Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen.

Despite differences in culture and language, research indicates that both the neural encoding and physical experience of our emotions are remarkably consistent across different populations. Shown above, feelings increase (yellow) or decrease (blue) sensation in different areas of the body.

Nonetheless, human personality exhibits a wide range in the extent to which these emotions are generated, processed and expressed.¹ On the low end of the emotional spectrum are individuals with antisocial traits (about 1-4% of the human population). Those with this predisposition have a higher threshold for autonomic arousal, and diminished feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt, and compassion. They are often described as “cold” and “calculated,” but many are nonviolent and high-functioning in society as efficient, rational decision-makers. However, they are more likely to engage in criminal behavior if exposed to violence, isolation, or other disturbances during their childhood. And in general, those who lack emotional empathy are more prone to actions that are considered selfish or corrupt.

“Sometimes the truth is not just that it hurts, but that it’s just so disappointing. You want to believe in romance and have romance in your life—even the most hardcore, cold intellectual wants the romantic notion. It kind of makes life worth living. But with these kinds of things, you really start thinking about what a machine it means we are—what it means that some of us don’t need those feelings, while some of us need them so much. It destroys the romantic fabric of society in a way.” – James Fallon, a neuroscientist and self-identified psychopath.

At the high end of the emotional spectrum are individuals with sensory-processing sensitivity (about 15-20% of the human population). Highly sensitive persons (HSPs) have a lower threshold for both physical and emotional arousal. They tend to experience their feelings more strongly and are more easily overwhelmed by social stimuli. Thus, HSPs are often described as “shy” or “awkward,” but many learn to adapt to their environments. And when comfortable, they tend to be intuitive thinkers who engage in creative pursuits and empathetic interactions. However, HSPs have a higher propensity for developing mood and anxiety disorders if exposed to significant stress. And when overaroused, they are more prone to behaviors that are considered neurotic or irrational.

¹Please note that the descriptions regarding antisocial personalities (psychopathy, sociopathy, etc.) and highly sensitive personalities are generalizations that characterize the extremes of a spectrum. Recognizing the full spectrum of emotional arousal and processing, and knowing where you and others fall on this spectrum, is important not only for understanding yourself and your social interactions, but also for knowing how certain cultural factors might affect various individuals, and perhaps for improving the psychosocial design of their communities. Also, how receptive you are to certain parts of my philosophy will depend on where you fall on the spectrum (i.e. the extent to which emotion and meaning guide your reasoning). 

Parade of the SS Guard, the Nazi elite, at a Party rally in Nurmberg in the late 1930s.

“Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred.” – Carl Sagan

Emotion is how the mind assigns meaning and value to every conscious experience. Emotion drives our most pronounced behaviors and sustains our most powerful beliefs. Emotion alters our perception of reality and the scope of our morality. Human nature suggests that human harmony must involve a shared emotional state. In this case, a global unity would require a love that eliminates hate, a pride and happiness that includes everyone on Earth. But these states of affect are, in nearly every circumstance, bound to a sense of purpose. And the greater the purpose, the more compelling the emotion, and the more powerful the unity. This principle of human nature is perhaps best demonstrated by the religious mind and its craving for relevance.

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“The deepest principle in human nature
is the craving to be appreciated.”
– William James    

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“[Regarding religion], one is generally agreed that it deals with goals and evaluations and with the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting.” – Albert Einstein

While reflecting on my religious upbringing, I realized that the mind is a system that can be reset by ideas, especially by ideas that align our emotions towards a shared purpose (axiom 1).¹ Whether it be the love of Jesus Christ or the pride of Nazi Germany, we want to be part of something relevant. We want to belong, and we are defined by the groups we belong to. As one former neo-Nazi realized, people become extremist “because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.” (Christian Picciolini, NPR)

¹As I mentioned above, achieving human cooperation is best accomplished with certain inputs, ideas that appeal to the unalterable aspects of our nature: the fundamental intuitions and motivations of the human mind, which I will collectively describe as our “intuitive motivations.” When I say that “the mind is a system that can be reset,” I will refer to the analogy of the mind as a computer program. This philosophy is not about rewriting its code, but about understanding its code—its intrinsic motivations—and seeing how certain inputs might reorient its perception, cognition, emotion, and behavior.

And in appealing to this shared purpose, such an idea might “align our emotions” and thus unify the world. With the ideas presented in this philosophy, I will attempt to show that certain prosocial mental states (i.e. compassion, humility, forgiveness) can be inspired through certain concepts that appeal to the deepest intuitions and motivations of the human mind.

“Presently, our world is largely run by politicians and financiers, many of whom exhibit traits of sociopathy and narcissism” (Scientists & Sociopaths). But even the masked sociopath has a desire to belong. Like everyone else, he wants to exist, and he certainly doesn’t want to exist alone. Though his love may be limited, he is still prone to care for his closest companions. The vast majority of individuals have, in some degree, a mutual respect for our shared existence. For the less empathetic, this circle of loyalty is small, and it narrows even more with power or wealth. But if this circle can’t be widened through compassion, then perhaps it can be widened through reason.

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“Only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

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“[Our] history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and family; next, to bands of hunter-gatherers; then to tribes, settlements, and nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. But if we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.” – Carl Sagan

In this day an age, a truth that unifies our world must reconcile the intellectual and emotional aspects of our nature in a way that resonates with every perspective. This idea must be both objectively reasonable and universally meaningful—both logically sound and intuitively profound. It must be bigger than any political platform, economic incentive, or religious belief. It must define a purpose towards which all emotions can be aligned, inspiring a moral cooperation that is unparalleled in human history. Indeed, the truth should satisfy, once and for all, our longing for “identity, community, and a sense of purpose.”

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Our morality is limited by the extent of our emotion, and our unity by the scope of our purpose. If there is any optimism for mankind, any chance of unifying our species, then it remains in the possibility that our existence is, in fact, bound with a greater purpose. If we are to survive, then we must find an aim that is above ourselves and beyond our lifespans. Because human nature, as hopeless as it seems, is our only hope.

“If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” – Carl Sagan


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