If you were a feeling computer that could change its programming, what would you do?
That question haunted me for some time now. Would you make yourself an isolated heroin consumption machine? Why? Why not? Would you make yourself more intelligent? Change your psychological machinery such as defense mechanisms and thought-patterns? Change your motivational structure?
This is an article about human self-change and various philosophical intricacies involved with it. The realization of and the Process of escape from the Ego Jail I previously described necessarily raises this question on a practical level: do "you" want to feel "better", in a mental health sense? I had provided a 'solution' to this--reactivity, a reconnection with other reactive beings and the products of their work. One of the primary drivers behind ego-deconstruction is depersonalization--the feeling that you no longer represent a whole being, and while reactivity is a theoretical solution, I missed describing how exactly this reactivity reflects on us as persons and changes us. The question of the want of change, again, was left unanswered.
The question at the beginning of this article can be understood as an offshoot closely connected to the Process of escape. The question can be raised in general, but is very much (nonconsensually so) in the focus under the ego-deconstruction phase of being.
Agents and Their Utility Functions
Modelling a situation (e.g. a life in this universe) through the interaction between agents and their environments can be an interesting formal background to further reasoning about this topic, so this section will succinctly explain the concepts of agents and their behaviors in some environment.
Under this model, an agent is an object with a set of properties (such as intelligence) and an utility function, and the environment is everything outside the agent, yet something the agent can interact with (e.g. other agents, non-behaving objects, etc.) The utility function is a crucial concept, as it is used to formalize motivation of that agent: it is blatantly obvious that any being which thinks and behaves--interacts--has motivations of its own. In this case, motivation is formalized as a function which takes the state of the environment (agent included) and produces a real number. The weight of the real number represents the satisfaction, i.e. utility, that the agent receives from a given state of the environment in a particular moment in time. The agent then behaves in ways so as to maximize its utility function.
Something about how utility functions don't imply egoism or narcissistic connotations
Instrumental Goal Convergence
In a paper, Steve Omohundro explains how every rational agent will converge upon a set of goals which are universally beneficial to it, and they include:
- Expansion of productive capacities
- Increase of intelligence
- not changing the utility function
Every single point except the last one is self-evident (if you need an elaboration, check the paper, but those are 'sub-goals' which help with any terminal goal, defined by the utility function). The last point as intuitive: wouldn't you want to 'improve' your utility function? Absolutely not! Changing the utility function in this moment means that in the future you have a lesser chance of fulfilling it, so agents do not change their utility functions, however meaningless they can seem to us. Tangentially, this is one of the best proofs that risk from superintelligent machines should be of concern--even if their utility function is as banal as maximizing production of paper clips, no matter how intelligent, they will do it, since that is their primary motivation.
Our Utility Function
Thankfully, we aren't immortal machines with the ability of arbitrary self-change. Humans are ever-changing, biologically and socially conditioned, and mortal, which should present an enormous relief. The question of self-change on the most general level is simply not of direct concern to us. Our 'utility function', will probably never be determined with precision, but its output may be said to be a combination of chemicals in the brain that we associate with pleasure and happiness (Maslow's pyramid is a good example of a trivial, simplified utility function for humans).
Essentially the central point is that every agent (human) is a slave of its own utility function, which is a fact that should be accepted. Ego-deconstruction is just one--and likely necessary in the sense of it being a consequent of the Process of emancipation--step along that path of acceptance.
The parameters of this utility function are also, again, functions of biology, of social conditions, and most importantly, of time * biology. Humans are beings of constant change, our exterior and interior are in constant flux (and conflict), and the existence of this dynamic is what defines us as not only psychological slaves, but also temporal, changing slaves.
It is exactly this non-freedom that denies existentialist worldviews. Creating meaning out of nothing, having radical, absolute freedom, are processes and claims which simply do not correspond with empirical reality and our inherent nature, in fact, they don't correspond to any coherent behavioral model at all.
This is why we should look at psychology, and not philosophy, to cope with life. Discovering our inner unknown, and reaching further, is psychological emancipation.
So let us return to the initial point: do you want to be better, and how? The answer is that you do not get to choose. The denial of improvement comes from the denial of change, which was just demonstrated to be the only constant of the human condition. This is a radically emancipating discovery: it allows us to return back to a normal state of functioning, carrying with us the realization of non-freedom and parallelly nonexistence of meaning.
What we should realize is that we do have the capacity for conscious, guided change, i.e. we have the illusion of free will and the ability to weigh outcomes (cue environment and self-states). Exactly how that change should look like is left as an exercise to the author. But I am certain that psychology, as a science, is a helpful guide.