The intrinsic and extrinsic in the problem of choice.

by synapticus

This post will be about the conflict between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and the extent to which I feel the former has swallowed the latter in modern society (and most societies throughout history.)

The problem of choice is perhaps the most fundamental question in all of human inquiry. I will not develop this point here, but take it as axiomatic that choice, if it is not the most fundamental question, is at least important enough to devote your attention to for 1000 words or so. One might ask what I mean by choice, and this is a reasonable question: by choice I mean simultaneously the problems of agency (will versus fate), valuation (important versus unimportant), and optimization (maximal versus minimal). If these 2-word definitions of agency, valuation, and optimization are unclear or insufficient, I should be glad to address them in a later post or a comments thread, but for now I would like to move on.

Accepting that choice – agency, valuation and optimization – is worth addressing, let us address each of its component problems in turn from the framework of intrinsic (self-evident) and extrinsic (externally-imposed) meaning and motivation. The easiest of the three to address in this way is the problem of agency, since it is almost by definition the conflict between the intrinsic and extrinsic. What I mean by agency here is what might be called an ontological problem of intrinsic control of the body – can the “self” even be said to exist, given the external world’s imposition of fate (in the sense of physical determinism)?

In a sense the problem of agency is absurd. We are, as human beings, completely entangled in the notion of being an agent and having a “self”; it is an intrinsic concept. As Descartes succinctly put it, cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am.” But when we probe exactly what it means to “think” the question quickly becomes a troubling and worthwhile one. Modern physics has demonstrated that the external world is predictable, and modern neuroscience is fast approaching the same conclusion about the internal world. Can we really have “free will” if we obey predictable laws? Can we really be treated as agents if we are in a very real sense puppets on the strings of the universe?

Yes, of course we can!

I think it is clear, through some inspection, that freedom and responsibility – two of the cornerstones of agency – are not diminished by determinism. I think the problem of freedom is the one that is more viscerally disturbing to us as human beings, since we would much rather lack responsibility than freedom. (Yet these two concepts, freedom and responsibility, are fully and inextricably intertwined: the ability to make a decision freely implies culpability for its consequences.)

Freedom and responsibility are not diminished by fatalism, I argue, since we as human beings are able to distinguish the causative nature of our own minds from the fatal characteristics of the physical world; in other words, we are able (somehow) to recognize those physical facts which occurred as a consequence of our intention. To the extent that we are free to choose our own intentions, then, we have freedom to affect the world. Free will may indeed be an illusion, but it is a persistent one for the subject – we are stuck with the quale of freedom due to the very nature of consciousness. We are intrinsically self-controlled; indeed, the boundary of conscious control is perhaps one of the most natural ways of distinguishing the self from non-self.

This does not mean that we do not also experience the phenomenon of being extrinsically controlled, rather than intrinsically endowed with willpower. The conflict between the developing notion of the will over the lifetime of the individual (and the lifetime of a society) and the opposite notions of the self and non-self is a fundamental human conflict. In this conflict, the proper and healthy solution seems obviously to be the victory of the self (defined by its seemingly freely-made decisions) over the non-self in the battle for control of the body. The other solution – that the non-self controls the body – is indistinguishable from death, the state in which the will no longer has any control over the physical components of the body.

The assertion of self-control – a necessary consequence of the experience of a self – is an important part of the process of maturation of the mind (whether this occurs in childhood, as the notion of freedom develops, or in adulthood as the notion of responsibility develops). And yet self-control, like many things, seems to be defined intrinsically but given meaning only in the face of its opposite – we must be able to draw a boundary between self and non-self, between freedom and constraint, or else the concept of either is meaningless. Self-control, therefore, can only be developed through its temporary absence and later reinstatement. It is critical that this contrast be drawn for the mind to properly develop and exist as a separate entity from the physical world.

[At this point I make a departure from the problem of choice to discuss ethics in society. If you’re not interested in my rants about the social world, you can stop reading here.]

It is a personal feeling of mine that our modern society (and to a great extent every society, at some point in its lifespan) suppresses independent thought and action, without reinstating it, to its great peril. We have traded the priority of independence for the comfort of security. We are so caught up in our own safety nets that we do not know how to properly catch ourselves when we fall. The priority of safety – for the individual, for the society – is contrary to the priority of personal development, since ultimately any adequate level of psychological development involves the occurrence and recognition of failures as well as successes. We have forgotten, in the modern era, how to deal with a world in which control is given to the individual and taken away from the group. This is apparent in one of the most vexing modern (and historical) social conventions: the notion that ethics and morality come from without, and not within; that moral behavior is socially adaptable and can be arrived at simply by adherence to a code of conduct given extrinsically.

Nothing could be more false!

Truly ethical behavior may – and perhaps must – come into conflict with the establishment; the individual, in such situations, must be able to reconcile his or her own knowledge of what is right and wrong with society’s notions of these things, and to recognize which of the two is in error; and furthermore he or she must be able to resolve this conflict peacefully, rationally, and nonviolently, in a manner that is acceptable to both the individual and the society. This recognition and solution are impossible in an individual who is fully socially-adapted, since such an individual will never recognize an error in the society. Thus, unless a society is morally perfect (which ours is certainly not), it requires a certain amount of sociopathy from its constituents to pull it closer to the ideal, and the individuals who have exceeded the morality of the society   will necessarily be labeled as antisocial.

As a final remark, I will make reference to a popular quote (whose original author is evidently disputed): “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It is certainly not necessarily true that every sociopath is a morally superior individual. We must as a society be able to recognize and address dangerous individuals; but I believe we as a society must hold ourselves to the same standards we would hold a moral rebel to, as mentioned above; namely we must resolve our conflict as a society with them peacefully, rationally, and nonviolently. Morality can never be extrinsically imposed on an individual; he or she must arrive at it in their own way, from their own intrinsic values.