There once was a beaver who wanted to rule Japan, well first
Japan and then the world. His plan was simple; first he would chew on trees and
then! Then! He would continue to chew on trees, he wasn’t exactly sure how this
would accomplish his goal, but he did not falter from his mission. Each day
chomp chomp, then he would drag them to the river which was gradually becoming
a lake. With every log he knew total supremacy of Japan was becoming more and
more imminent, he built a cozy den, the perfect place to stage his eventual
takeover of Japan which lay a mere six thousand miles to the west. He met a
female beaver who had the nicest flat tail he had ever seen. Upon meeting her,
he knew instinctively that she, she was the key, the key to ruling all of Japan,
an empress she would be. He continued day in and day out doing what beavers do,
preparing for his subjugation of Japan by improving his dam, fixing his den and
loving his little buck-toothed empress.
Soon she was with child and so were born princelings of Japan, he would tell them of their destiny when reading them stories or while they were eating dinner. They would grow to be like him, tree by tree, river by lake, slowly conquering Japan.
This simple little story I wrote for my niece who claimed
that her little stuffed beaver would take over Utah, then China, then enslave
the people of Japan, then “do the slavery thing to the Germans too” and then
rule the world. So I wanted to make it just a breezy cute little story (so I
omitted the slavery bit) .
But like anything else I write actually there is an even more fun pedantic lesson!
(you can leave now if you want)
TLDR: What matters not is if reasons or motivations are true, what matters instead is that the reasons and motivations produce the correct sets of actions.
So this is about Karl Friston’s free energy principle, Robert Sapolsky’s work on the heuristic shortcuts of the brain, and of course my favorite Isaac Asimov story! (Reason from I, Robot)
I was told by readers that this was not at all obvious (even the people who I have given hours of lectures about those topics to), so I guess I can explain what I was kinda getting at.
So let’s say that you want to make an animal do something, how might you accomplish it? Pretty simple with feelings: like pain, panic, hunger, and thirst for more complex animals.
For less complex animals, more direct programming with regard to behavior. Woodlice (pillbugs, roli polies) for instance appear to seek the shade, they go from the heat of sunlight quickly then once in shade calm down. But for a woodlice it wouldn’t actually make sense to give them all the mental machinery needed for them to think “oh I am hot that area has shade and will thus likely be cooler” the thinking apparatus to perform those thoughts would require so many calories as to kick the woodlouse out of its ecological niche, instead there is a heuristic which generally gets the right result with minimal complexity, go faster when hotter. This observation by a young Karl Friston started him on the road towards the free energy principle which I want to eventually do a post about, and I say eventually because it takes me about forty five minutes of lecturing to really begin to explain…
But here is another one applied to humans, let’s say you cheated on your romantic partner/a test/a game/admissions and you feel guilty, how to feel better? To try to confess, be a more honest person in the future and learn from your mistakes? Sure I guess, but you could also just take a shower or wash your hands. Research shows over and over that will help you lessen your feeling of guilt. There is something about cleanness related to our feelings of guilt.
In fact almost every culture has some kind of saying about bathing or washing ones hands to deal with guilt, Pontius Pilot famously couldn’t get the feeling of Christ’s blood off of his hands, in China there is a saying “to wash one’s hand in a golden basin” which means giving up a life of crime. So if you don’t believe some fancy smansy researchers, the fact the idea is so prominent in practically every culture should help persuade you.
This is true of all kinds of things, if you have ever had an encounter with someone you didn’t want to you might have desired to feel clean. I know after a party I usually have a strong urge to take a long hot shower(to minimize free energy).
It doesn’t make sense in one way, but it actually makes perfect sense when you think about it, we don’t have a second set of brain parts for different kinds of feelings and moral judgment, why would it make sense to use all that energy when such feelings can simply be hotwired to our old feelings that caused us to behave in the way we should given these new circumstances. Moral disgust gets tied to the same sort of disgust that makes us avoid food that fell in the trash. It is a feeling that ultimately directs you to a proper behavior most of the time even if sometimes it gets it wrong. Being right all the time would actually not be the best as it would require far more resources to do than the inefficiencies that it fixes. So we are stuck feeling like we need to take a shower after we just got hit on by someone we don’t want, just like a woodlouse moving faster in the sunlight.