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Journal heironymouscoward's Journal: The WTF Theory Of Mind 4

After much consideration (see BTFTD 1), I have decided that the entire modern debate about genes vs. nurture can be brought down to a single, simple, brutal point.

The extremist point of view in the nurture camp says that all behaviour can be modified by social control. We are in control of our behaviour both collectively and individually. "Bad" behaviour is due to poor moral decisions. "Good" behaviour, due to good moral decisions. We can improve ourselves, create a homo superior, eliminate poverty, theft, racism, and possibly even middle management.

The extremist genetic point of view says that all behaviour has genetic origins that we do not control. We are the products of a long and complex evolutionary past that has shaped us into delicate instruments of reproductive success. Everything we do and are is a function of the quest to breed and replicate. Period.

The debate is intense and huge. The very existence of a moral society hangs (or appears to hang) in the balance. If the evolutionary psychologists win with their logic and science, we risk the end of individual responsibility, the collapse of law and order, the end of the world.

After much thought on this, I've decided that in fact the discussion hinges on the role of the conscious mind in conducting our lives. A curious but little discussed fact is that we tend to act before we think. Pick up a coffee and your conscious mind "decides" around half a second after your hand starts moving. Step off the curb, and you are moving almost fully on autopilot. Drink too much and have unprotected sex with a stranger, and your conscious mind has been bound and gagged and only escapes the next day to say "what the fuck happened there?"

It's what I call the "What The Fuck?" theory of mind.

The entire "environment" argument is based on the easy assumption that the conscious mind drives the rest. It is the Freudian model of the mind: the subconscious occasionally rebelling, but generally dominated by an intellectual and clear-headed conscious identity. Moral right and wrong are not only possible but essential poles within which we can orient our decisions.

The WTF theory of mind places the conscious mind in the role of a spin doctor working for a PR department. The spin doctor gets news of what's going on, then puts on a great charade and play trying to justify and explain it. "I picked up the coffee because I decided to!" "I slept with that... shudder... person because I felt weak." Occasionally the spin doctor gets totally confused and can just utter a "WTF?" before changing the topic as fast as possible.

If the WTF theory is true, it demolishes the moral compass as we know it. Decisions we make are based on intellectual reasoning only when they are intellectual decisions. Everything that is visceral - whether to buy or delay, whether to drive or ride, whether to say yes or no, whether to cheat or lie or pass... these are decided subconsciously, well out of reach of any conscious "moral" influence, and only after it is too late to turn back does the PR department get the news and a chance to explain to the world, and to itself, what is going on.

The WTF theory explains drug use: these are tools used by the Management to disable and cripple the PR department when it gets too arrogant. The WTF theory explains why people still have unprotected sex with strangers: reproduction is worth the risk. It explains why so many people are so confused about their lives: because they have been told that they are in control when they are in fact not.

As a friend observed, the WTF theory is intensely liberating. If we are not, after all, consciously responsible for our acts, we can spend less time asking unanswerable questions, and more time enjoying ourselves. Perhaps a moral compass still exists, since antisocial acts are rapidly punished by other people in ways that have nothing to do with our own views of right and wrong. And at the least, we can stop thinking that salvation is a matter of appropriate effort.

Achieving happiness is perhaps a simple matter of relaxing and accepting that our bodies and minds are generally damn good at what they do, they occasionally mess up, and we can't do a damn thing to change any of that. We are not management, just public relations. And the worst thing a PR department can do is believe its own publicity.

(c) 2004 HeironymousCoward Publicity Department

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The WTF Theory Of Mind

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  • or you have stumbled onto a brand of nihlism that's a little more ... ah ... bitter? ... than most.

    I thought along these lines once. I mentioned it in an undergrad paper at the end of a philosophy class. I sort of thought that "philosophy is born of leisure" (that's a Hobbes quote) and leisure is a thing for the rich. So all the philosophy of the world is born of the rich who have time to burn. The real people of the world are spending too much of their time working to waste precious mental clock cycles
    • Rich people and philosophers aren't all that different from the working man, they act and rationalise later also. The only difference is that the rich and those who philosophise can sit around and rationalise longer, and therefore are able to specialise in rationalisation.
  • HC,

    I think this is a rather beautiful writeup. Oh yeah, and at the very least, on the right track as well. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I've read other theories which say the conscious mind's reasoning is rather backward-rationalizing than forward-causing, but yours is the clearest and most humorous I've found.

    You mentioned that some decisions are intellectual and hence driven by the intellect, whereas others (most, I'd imagine) aren't.

    What happens in an 'intellectual decision' that doesn't

  • I agree with you, up to a point. But I think you're missing the true role of the conscious mind (as somebody already asked, if you're correct, what is it for?--why do we need a PR department at all?).

    People do act on autopilot in day to day situations, much like a large corporation; this has been shown by several interesting tests where, for example, people are caused to do something by an outside agent and nonetheless explain it as volitional with post-hoc rationalizations. But "acting on autopilot" re

Make it myself? But I'm a physical organic chemist!