A Tale of Two Selves

…  man is, relatively speaking, the most unsuccessful animal, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts – with all that, to be sure, the most interesting! (Nietzsche)

Why is the human race, with its superior intellectual capacity when compared to its most recent primate ancestry on the phylogenetic tree, at the same time so unstable, so unpredictable, and so neurotic, and so often acting against its own interest? One would have thought the advanced brainpower would have had the opposite effect, by benefiting its host in all aspects of human endeavor and  maximizing its existential advantage. Instead, we ended up being a deeply troubled, schizoid species.

I think we can safely conclude that all the human induced problems in the world are related to the very latest features of our neuroanatomy, as no other species had its brain hijacked by what has been classified as “the human cortex”. While being an integral of our brains, the expansion of the cerebral cortex, the neocortex, and in particular that of its prefrontal region, is a major evolutionary landmark in the emergence of humans, the crowning achievement of evolution and the biological substrate of human mental prowess.

Yes, and so the trouble started, as much of the misery experienced by human beings is likely the result of the conflict within our minds between the inherited lower and newly acquired higher brain functions, i.e., between the animal, or instinctive self and the moral, or rational self, and the latter presumably courtesy of the evolutionary upgrade

The moral self is that part of our self-awareness (as opposed to mere awareness)  that is able to take responsibility for its actions in light of its consequences, whether they are intended or not. In doing so, it must be able to think and act rationally, and see itself as a causal agent with respect to its actions and its consequences.

It presupposes that all rational actions are preceded by a decision making process – essentially making all actions initially optional, as opposed to an automatic or learned response to a stimulus, which would be the case for any action initiated by instinct only.

After receiving a major upgrade in the gray matter department, quantitatively as well as a qualitatively it seems, the new human species saw the world and themselves in a different light from their genetic predecessors. On the assumption that our sensory organs have not changed all the much qualitatively from our immediate ancestors,  we can suppose that sensory data would show the world in many ways unchanged, yet different from the moment they started interacting with it. Instead, it became an environment capable of being changed based on how they interacted with it. No longer were they merely at the receiving end of the world; they were now in a position to alter, if not recreate certain aspects of it.

More importantly,  major substantive changes were introduced in how the new species is able to communicate among its members. Beyond the hitherto primitive primate cultures depending primarily on grunts and gestures for communication – but already including a degree of social structure – Homo sapiens developed something entire new under the sun. They were able to establish cultures capable of abstraction and conceptualization, in language, in the arts and above all, in the sciences

The result has been that, in spite of all the turmoil, upheaval and chaos our species has endured since the beginning of time, self-induced or not – and a subject not easily dismissed or glossed over if our recorded history of past and current civilizations has anything to say about it – our knowledge and understanding of the physical world has steadily increased, to the point that – after a long and initial period of linear growth – it is now growing exponentially, doubling on average every twelve months according to what has been referred to as the  Knowledge Doubling Curve.

This later fact should not surprise us, as we have this innate need to know; it is an essential if not “necessary” feature of our species to keep looking for more answers, about the world, the greater universe, and by extension about ourselves. Necessary because we will not be able progress along the path that evolution is pushing us unless we keep increasing our knowledge and understanding of the cosmic phenomenon that we find ourselves a part of and must be able to build our future in.  Evolution isn’t some process over and above ourselves – we are the very embodiment of it, and each of us is an instance of that process!

An essential step in that process will be the need to reconcile the instinctive self with the rational self, to establish some sense of harmonious, symbiotic relationship between the two, such that we  will only undertake actions that are to the greater long-term benefit of our species. Will we ever be capable of this?  I don’t know, but time will tell, and as AI continues to edge forward in our lives, it may well decide the matter for us, one way or the other.