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In a recent Mixed Mental Arts post, Hunter Maats commented on my blog about nuclear weapons. I had argued that cataclysmic inventions like the atomic bomb are products of flaws in human nature. These include endless desires to innovate and conquer, and the refusal to give up territory or influence. (Below are the links for my original blog, and Hunter’s blog in reply. This is part three in the trilogy of our dialogue about nuclear weapons and psychology.)
I think that Hunter was correct about these psychological tendencies not necessarily being flaws. In fact, as he pointed out, the fault in our stars is likely due to the way we view ourselves. Whether emotions are flaws or benefits depends on the way we see them. Even the negative instincts I mentioned seem more like features than faults. I’m not a psychologist, or an evolutionary biologist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all emotions served evolutionary purposes. “Good” feelings can have setbacks, and “bad” feelings can have benefits. Empathy and love can be harmful. Anger and selfishness can be useful and positive.
It’s good to be empathetic because we presumably don’t want to all behave like self-serving psychopaths. (Although, being a psychopath doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person.) But if you’re too empathetic, you can turn into a doormat, and endure undeserved suffering. This would happen because you value others over yourself to the point of never being selfish. If we always turned the other cheek, like Jesus, someone could rape and murder our entire families and burn our houses down, without us doing anything about it. This is how a lack of selfishness can allow evil to flourish. (Even though rapists and murderers are not necessarily evil.) Maybe this is why we didn’t all evolve to become hippies.
Love seems obviously good because most of us have families and relationships, right? Like the bible says, you should love your neighbour. But this emotion can be taken too far as well. Similarly to what I said about empathy, I don’t think I would love my neighbour if he or she hurt my family. But it isn’t just our neighbours that can take advantage of this emotion. People like to say that old cliche, “Love is unconditional,” but is this actually true? I don’t think that love should always be earned, but I do think it should have conditions. If we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s easy to take that principle to extremes with which we would disagree. I love my mom more than anyone else in the world, but if she suddenly snapped and tried to kill me with a knife, I don’t think I would love her. I wouldn’t let her murder me just because she’s my mother and I love her. I would try to stop her, though I don’t think I and most other people are capable of killing our mothers in life or death situations. When people kill their families, do you think that their families love them? Does a mother love her child when he stabs her in the throat? Would you love a family member even if they were a serial killer? This is how, similarly to empathy, love can allow evil to flourish too.
Anger and selfishness are considered bad, but they can be good. Most of us probably want to avoid being so angry that we lash out and hurt people. Selfishness can give us inflated views of ourselves, which ironically prevents self-improvement. It can also allow us to hurt others if we don’t care about them.
However, we can use anger and selfishness to our advantage. If you’re angry, you can turn it into a burning desire to aggressively pursue goals. You can use anger to fuel hardcore workouts and help you improve your health. It depends on how you you use it. You can ruin everyone’s day by being an asshole, or you can channel aggression into exercise and productivity. The same applies to selfishness. You can let it turn you into an arrogant person who alienates people with your delusional self image. Or you can be humble, but selfishly pursue goals and work out instead of sitting around and watching T. V. Success requires selfishness to an extent because no one cares about your own success more than you. If you chase it aggressively, it can help you get there faster.
Selfishness and anger are probably the foundations behind our desires to conquer and innovate. I’m sure that there are other reasons, but historically, wars happened in part because we wanted to grow our tribes. We are not immune to this today just because civilizations are more advanced. We’re merely less honest and perhaps less aware of it. Even war isn’t completely bad. Conquering other tribes is one of the ways that humans built societies. When dominant groups got large enough, they eventually organized systems to help them work together more efficiently. So conquering is how societies formed, in a way. Weaponry innovations likely helped these goals come to fruition, and this continued after civilizations began. So war, and innovations in weapons and other areas, almost certainly were beneficial to humanity. It’s not as if we’re done innovating and conquering now either, so these are useful aspects of human nature. We sometimes innovate and conquer to a fault, but if we direct these instincts at other goals, they can improve our societies. The desires to advance technology and conquer space can allow us to colonize Mars and explore more of the universe.
Anger, selfishness, and the desires to innovate and conquer can be regarded as aspects of the ego. There’s a lot of useful talk and writing about the importance of detachment, subjectivity, and empathy. I think that it’s crucial to get some perspective and try to reach “enlightenment.” You can do this with things like meditation, learning harsh truths about suffering, yoga, marijuana, and psychedelic drugs like mushrooms or DMT. (Dimethyltryptamine, the most potent known psychedelic, is apparently produced by our brains when we’re born, when we dream, and when we die.) These are ways of detaching from the ego.
However, even some of the staunchest proponents of controlling the ego discuss the importance of listening to it sometimes. Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL, talks about detachment a lot on his podcast and in his books. Ryan Holiday wrote a book called Ego is the Enemy, which is mostly about how harmful the ego can be. But both of them gladly admit that our egos can be good because they help us accomplish goals. It’s bad to let your ego take control of you, but it’s good to control it and use it to your advantage.
Something else that Hunter said is important to remember. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” that famous line said by Ygritte, a wildling in the Game of Thrones books and show. I think that we should always remember that we know a lot less than we think we do. There is almost inevitably information we think we know, but it’s actually wrong.
This reminds me of Socrates. There’s a famous story about the Oracle of Delphi, who apparently was the most respected authority on knowledge in ancient Greece. The Oracle said that Socrates was the wisest man, and he was so humble that he visited other wise men to see if this was true. He discovered that the commonality between all of them was that they claimed to know information that they couldn’t know. They lost control of their egos and thought that they had more knowledge than they actually possessed. Even though Socrates had a lot of knowledge and wisdom, he knew that he didn’t actually know anything because he could be wrong about everything. This led to him making his famous statement about wisdom and knowledge. “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Yeah, the ancient Greeks weren’t perfect, but they figured out a lot.
So like Hunter said, our psychological flaws are more like features. They’re not inherently bad or good. Love and empathy can be harmful, and ego aspects like anger and selfishness that lead us to conquer and innovate have benefited humanity enormously. They are not flaws to be dismissed or extinguished. Whether any emotion is good or bad depends on how we see it, and how we express it. “Bad” emotions can be used for good purposes, and vice versa. Society isn’t doomed by human nature. We can manipulate it to help humanity.
It’s always possible that we’re wrong about even the most basic knowledge. Even though we think we know a lot, we actually know nothing. Everyone used to think the Earth was flat, that it was the centre of the universe, and countless other ubiquitous inaccuracies. We think that we’re all smarter now, but humans haven’t biologically changed that much for at least the past 100 000 years. There are almost inevitably widely accepted facts that will turn out to be wrong. New discoveries about the universe will likely restructure our perceptions and be obvious hundreds or thousands of years from now. We know nothing, and our “flaws” can be benefits.