Nhoj Morley

 

III

 

Evolutionary Angst

 

 

The long process of evolution that led to modern animal life began with simple organisms whose lives would determine the design of their descendents. The lives that we’ve inherited include many established procedures that were first designed by life experiences completely unlike our own. Since we evolved from these earlier lifeforms, our evolutionary heritage has left us a long legacy that still shapes the way we perceive and experience the world. Our abilities and ambitions vary in evolutionary age. Even though we are far more complex creatures from way up the food chain, a lot about how our bodies work was developed and sorted out long ago when we were marmosets or just wiggly things.

That was a long time ago. The human brain descended from more primitive nervous systems. The brain that we’ve inherited wasn’t created afresh as the best possible brain for a human being. It adapted its way into what we ended up with. Evolution in the long haul becomes full of compromises. What was once an evolutionary leap forward can, generations later, become dead weight. Most of us would consider our evolution to be a success story. I intend to show how that may not be entirely true. What’s in our heads has become the deadliest threat to survival humans have ever faced. I say has become because we didn’t start out that way. This chapter will cover our history up to the point where our problem began.

 

Way back in our evolutionary past, in the era of the wiggly things, our nervous systems began to specialize. Animals were exploring and experimenting with different ways of reaching out and knowing the world. The best way to get to know the world is to find ways to be stimulated by it or, rather, ways to increase the harvest from all the news that is coming at us already. That led to eyes, ears and noses and such and that needed somewhere to sort out all the stimulation, so we grew ourselves a locus of perception and clearing house of information and put it right in the middle of all the new hi-tech sensory gear. Animals had gotten to a stage of development that needed a whole new organ to be a central terminal where signals from all the various senses could be interpreted and the appropriate responses could then be routed to the appropriate body parts. The brain became a supervisor for the overall nervous system and a regulator of bodily functions. In being the only part of the body with all the information, it was the only part that could make a coordinated reaction that was in the best interest of all the interdependent parts of the body.

That would seem to put the brain in charge of the whole operation, but it was more a case of everyone just doing their job. In doing its job for physical survival, the brain is just another working part of the body, like the tonsils. Unlike ours, this early brain was not the center of attention. In fact there is no constant center. The highest level of organization is the total animal, shifting and refocusing as life demands. Every part of the body works for the survival of the body as a whole. Substance may come and go, but the inventory of parts is constant. The essential organization continues. Rather than allow its inventory to meld back into the organizations they came from (rot), the animal tries to sustain its existence as a separate system from the rest of nature. Obviously, a fish in water is not separated from nature, it lives within it. It pursues a life that is independent of its surrounding environment and faces choices and consequences that are all its own. Any self-sustaining living system in nature is a first floor organization. It is one level up from but dependent on the existence of nature, the universe, creation in general, or, in the parlance of this book, The Great Ground Level Organization.

We and all the stuff around us are part of a greater organization of nature and of creation as a whole. Everything is exchanging energy and mass in one dynamic and apparently self-sustaining system. Reality as one total organization is the foundation from which further organizations can occur within its organizational structure like galaxies or glacial drift. Organizations build on each other until enough foundational structure is laid for new organizations we call lifeforms.  A life form as we traditionally recognize it is the standard for describing something as one level or floor up from the ground level of everything. That includes a lot of stuff we can see and some we can’t. When we see things in nature looking out for themselves, we separate them from the background and call them alive. Anything that we look at as a cohesive whole like daffodils or a penguin is actually a sub-organization of nature whose existence is dependent on the greater organizations that surround it like the weather or the gravitational pull of the earth or its neighbors. We see what is, for us, the highest level of organization of a part of our surrounding environment. From our perspective, that pinnacle of organization is a personality. Perhaps running at us with big teeth or enticing us with potatoes in order that we may assist them in continuing to be a dynamic self-maintaining sub-organization of nature. It’s the organization that we recognize in the sum of its parts. Strictly speaking, the charging gorilla is only an angry mob of over-excited carbon molecules. Plants like rose bushes can do without lots of parts as long as its core structure is maintained. I know. I’ve tried. Animals need nearly every part attached and in working order. In either case, if you start chopping away at the parts, sooner or later you’ll no longer have a viable organization and the personality will be lost. It won’t add up to anything. Everyone will forget what they were looking at.

To sustain a first stage organization is to lead a life of one’s own, but with no guarantee of success. Only the organization itself, the genetics in the case of animals, survives in the long term and only if the design is successful. The more ephemeral each individual life is, the faster the design can adapt. However brief, each individual life represents a pinnacle of organization within nature. Each living organization, or organism, is a chance to lead a life. There is a self/other border to contain that which must survive, which makes it a desirable opportunity for first floor experience. That term translates into physical experience for us in order to distinguish it from the mental kind. We are still able to experience our first stage organization or animal self when we’re not too busy experiencing our minds. At those moments, we are in touch with the most primitive, immediate and rapid form of life experience available to us. It is our closest look at the nature of the lives of our distant ancestors.

 

The first creatures with brains were first stage organizations that provided physical experience just like the first of their ancestors. Physical experience is available in the nervous system as a whole of which the earliest brain was a component. For the experiencer, it is the most immediate and direct form of contact with the physical world. In experiencing this realm, events tend to be pre-determined. Mostly because things happen so fast there isn’t a lot of time to decide otherwise. Imagine a life as a simple organism lost in an endless chain of stimulus/reaction situations (no, not your job). Every response to the world would be pre-written, hardwired, instinctual stuff. Only the dullest moments would offer any opportunity for action to be initiated solely as a result of processing information in the brain. As in, making a choice that didn’t matter. Do I swim left or dive right? These would be the only moments where there was any sort of mind to be experienced, as you or I would think of it. Otherwise, the only sense of time to the animal mind is now and next.

Evolution has prepared all of us with an arsenal of pre-wired responses to every possible stimulus our environment has ever thrown at our parents. There are things our bodies will do without facing any kind of decision. As long as the signals get through our nervous system and gets there in time, we will react in a manner consistent with our genetic design. Very simple signals, even one pulse from a nerve can lead to some learned response. Our network of nerves can deliver large amounts of information simultaneously, like parallel data, to local nerve clusters or individual brain centers without bothering to coalesce it into a mental experience. These reactions can take less than a millisecond. That’s why we were already terrified by the gorilla before we were mentally aware of it. He was communicating to our instinctual perception and calling upon ancient responses that were learned long before the arrival of the higher brain functions.

Physical life is very reactive and making the appropriate but immediate responses to changes in the environment brings few opportunities for individual choice or anything we would think of as choosing. The most ancient parts of our brains make choices for our bodies so quickly we call them instinctual reactions. Choices are made locally within our bodies almost instantaneously. Things like eye-hand coordination require supervision by the brain and take a little longer, like a few milliseconds. At these speeds, it’s hard to tell the difference between a response made because it was the only possible choice and one where there were options to choose from. That is part of the attraction of first floor experience; to bask in the sensations and just let things happen the way they’re suppose to. Anything you do or want is because you are what you are and what you are decides what you do.

As animals grew in complexity, natural selection promoted better perception and problem solving, which greatly increased the workload and processing time for the brain. The cortex appeared to handle all the sense input streaming in and even well-established operations like limb control were shared out to the new higher brain functions. All that extra processing was generating more complex mental organizations that became increasing departures in time from the actual physical events that generated them. But fancy mentalities come at a price.

The brain can do its job faster if it sends sense information only to where it needs to go and do only what it has to do in order to react and then be ready for what happens next. The more processing the incoming sensory information receives, the longer it takes for the brain to coalesce it into a single experience of the mind. Doing so simply isn’t necessary or a good idea while fleeing from a predator. Or is it? On the one hand, the first floor animal mind already knows what to do just as soon as it perceives its instinctual trigger. This is imbedded knowledge that you don’t need to know you knew. Body knowledge is demonstrated at the appropriate opportunity. Only after some occasion where your reaction to something revealed such knowledge would you know that you knew it. The resulting physical action does not need to be experienced in order to be carried out. Creation will look out for itself.

On the other hand, our bodies solve problems slowly, through adaptation. Solutions may be found in future generations, but no sooner, which might be cutting it close. Far more radical adaptations could occur by choosing to act on decisions made in the mind. All the various senses are combined into one coherent unfolding moment of total perception. Even if it took much longer, twenty to a hundred milliseconds, the detailed sensory panorama that resulted could be used to deduce danger before our bodies perceived it. This began the centralization of the mind, and led to a creature whose best vantage point from which to look out for its own survival was with its organized accumulation of sensory input in its brain. The resulting mentality is a second floor organization. A mentality is the result of the organizational structure of the aggregate of higher brain activity of animals, which becomes a spectacular opportunity for experience.

Second floor organizations are one level up from but completely dependent on the existence of first floor organizations, which must already exist before they can. In our case, that means our physical body, including its brain, must be alive and functioning before any coherent organization of brain activity can occur. The activity that creates a pattern of energy discharges that is physically there and measurable. The end result is much harder to localize. The only example of a second floor organization I know of is the human mind, but I suspect that many other animals have interesting and experience-able brain activity or other organizational activity like bacteria colonies, and long before we were around.

 

As our enhanced perceptual abilities emerged, the experiencer was drawn to the experience of the mind. Animal life went mental long before us or many other current life forms appeared. If there is an unbroken line of ancestry from the earliest animals to us, then the kind of mental experience we are familiar with didn’t occur until animals had arrived with brains that could generate it. If our physical form emerged gradually, then our mentally emerged gradually as well. Somewhere on that path from the wiggly things to us, some creature was the first to experience a mentality. The activity generated in our distant ancestors brains while it performed its duty, especially the lookout for danger part, becomes our highest level of organization, identity rises to it, and we move into our minds. A mind is a fundamentally different experience than the strictly physical kind. Eyes that developed to enhance survival were now used to experience sight for its own sake. This was an opportunity for the experience of awe and wonder. Second stage experience was worth the wait and, whenever possible, the preferred experience. That made for a new trend in evolution. Lifespan was emphasized over generational turnover. As more complex beings came along, they wanted more time to lead their complex lives and to lead them from their mentality. Most of the animal life that we see everyday like birds and squirrels are like us in that they primarily experience a mentality that they too inherited from their distant ancestors. Any sophisticated perceptual system with a focal point is likely to make for an attractive experience. The variety of mental experience in animal life may be as broad as their physical experience obviously is.

 

This is a great departure from our evolutionary ancestors whom nature had taught to never think longer than necessary in order to avoid being on the wrong side of lunch. When hungry, our minds organize every aspect of our selves involved; digestion, mobility, perception, hunting skills, and endurance, and provides a perch from which they can all be experienced at once. The hunt is an intense mental experience of brain activity just like the x-box. It was one of our first sustained experiences of our minds being our highest level of organization. The mind became the part that all the other parts dedicate their function and existence to. Choices were made by the receiver of sensations, the point of perspective with the most information about what is going on, and what should be done. The experience of the mind being in command is compelling and affords one of the best seats in the house from which to enjoy creation, because it’s where a vast amount of accumulated information can be experienced.

We would indulge it until it distracted us from our own survival. Once we were given the chance, we began to have mental experiences far beyond the needs of survival. The mind that developed in order to serve the needs of the body became our primary experience. From the vantage point of the mind, physical form is a vessel for engaging the physical world to collect sensual input for second stage experience. Emotions and sensations that were originally developed for survival and procreation were now experienced for their own sake. Instead of the brain doing a job (processing) to enhance the survival of the body, this was the body doing a job (water polo) to enhance the experience of the mind. Even risking the survival of the body. Now we would learn to do things that had nothing to do with our physical survival.

Mental experience was charting new ground and didn’t need to repeat what the body was already taking care of. Most of that new ground was in later and more elaborate trance states that were too late to tell the body much of anything. It was a workable deal. The life choices of our bodies would be left to their instincts or default state while “we” focused our attention on mentalities many of which were too new to have a default state. So much of the nature of our thoughts concern matters that only such grandiose perception can perceive and contemplate. Mental survival was an altogether different kind of ambition. It was like saying, “not only do I want my boat to get me safely across the water, I would like a sun deck.” Our minds were dealing with things that no part of our first stage mind was designed to handle or even notice. Reviewing our recollection or seeking out raw materials for new tools made the mind rely on the brain’s perceptual center when our bodies didn’t immediately need it. A new pathway for thought was made through our senses of perception. The brain’s ability to see became the mind’s ability to visualize.

 

To know what something looked like mentally meant we could visualize it. It meant our thinking mind could “show” something to our animal mind because they shared the same playback equipment. Visualization can help the body learn new tricks by mimicry because we can picture ourselves doing them. The mind could learn by re-visualizing and studying its life experience. But it also meant there were now thoughts we had to think in order to have thought them. Then we could remember having thought them and thus know them. This kind of mental learning could become imbedded by repetition, and completely bypassed the conventions of genetics. Our minds could improvise with our parts as seen from a new vantage point. Soon, we were visualizing and looking out for ourselves at the same time until we walked into a branch. With both minds competing for the same processing space, the brain had no choice but to try to keep up.

All this perceptual coalescing had its practical limits. Our desire for more vivid imagery meant organizing greater accumulations of perceptual information that took more time to put together. More perception meant bigger pictures that take longer to develop. All this stylized sensory experience became high-fidelity memories that could be recalled vividly using the same processing power that our perception used. There was a limit to that power and only so much of what was coming in needed to be constantly updated. The brain responded with an economizing of sense perception. Recall became a greater part of our immediate visual perception. Once our surroundings become familiar, even in the short term, pieces of it are replaced by recollection, rather than perceiving them all over again, until something triggers the need to perceive anew. Very familiar surroundings can be perceived largely as memories. Once we’re just lying around, this mental tardiness and frugality becomes an advantage. We can be more selective. There’s plenty of sense input that we don’t need to bother with. We can dwell on certain senses and perceive more than our basic survival requires. Spared of needing to know the tedious details of immediate survival, the mind can make dazzling inner presentations with only selected information creating a very desirable experience.

Once established, second stage mental experience becomes difficult to switch off. Sleeping won’t do it. Deprived of fresh sensory input, the mind will use the machinery of the brain to regenerate perceptual experience from memories that it can manipulate or endlessly repeat. From the perspective of a mental self, the experience of that brain machinery is the same with new or old input. Dreams seem like a real experience when your dreaming because we are accustomed to experiencing so much of our waking lives from our minds’ perspective. Either way, awake or dreaming, the experience is primarily visual and accompanied and enhanced by sound. That’s usually enough to engage us.

A movie theater needs only picture and sound to be an absorbing experience, because our minds concentrate on an internal cinematic surround-sound presentation using only sight and hearing. Our bodies are supposed to sit still through the movie and keep our eyes aimed at the screen. Our preference for a sight and sound based mental experience is well established and probably goes way back into our evolutionary past. The really old evolutionary stuff doesn’t become mental experience at all. Smell is very old and remains a physical experience with no correlating mental analog like picture for light or sound for pressure waves. A smell in the theater would remind us of our actual physicality and distract us from the movie. A movie only has a smell if we see someone smelling or hear someone sniffing.

The mind became the ground floor of our life experience with the body sort of like a cellar. The physical self with its brain is the foundation that holds up the main floor. The foundation touches the earth but the living space is held aloft and away from it. There are windows with a spectacular view and a comfy place to sit well away from any physicality. Going in the cellar is an earthy place where one goes when they have to. We prefer physical experience on our terms, but we enjoy our minds at our bodies’ convenience. We didn’t always need to think. We didn’t always think.

 

Here we are in the modern age where we use our minds to sort out all sorts of problems including the nature of our minds. This is where we can find some strange connections to our past. We face the same challenge to integrating the life of the mind with our physical life that our ancestors faced since the dawn of brain activity; second stage mental experience of the brain activity resulting from primitive first stage emotions. Emotions developed in brain parts that have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Our strongest drives developed long before the higher brain functions came along. They originate in other parts of the brain than the parts that create a mental experience. And since they developed before our social life, they are mostly selfish. The challenge is to integrate our most basic animal motivations with any sense of self that we may develop in our minds.

Why? Whose emotions are they? Are they survival skills from the distant past that were once useful for living in an entirely different circumstance? Our experience is shaped by instincts once useful for primates living in trees, or maybe even part of an original life strategy for wiggly things. What about those instances where your gut reaction is at odds with your rational ideals? Do you hold egalitarian social views but demonstrate misogyny and bigotry in your behavior? Have you gained an understanding of different cultures but still react to their descendents with suspicion and unease? Our minds can be as well informed as God’s, but it won’t change our feelings or possibly our actions. Our emotions are making decisions for us that we may not be aware of.

Choices are made so quickly, it’s hard for the mind to call them choices. After the fact, they look like choices that we were not aware of making, only of having made them. But we aren’t the ones that made them. Instinct and impulse were once choices made long ago by distant ancestors and now written into our genetic heritage. There was a whole range of life experiences that occurred to first stage animals before minds came along. The things they decided become the unseen components of conclusions that are completely convincing as decisions that were logically arrived at. Early in our evolution, our most basic motivations were well established. Fear, desire, aggression and lust are ancient emotions (or trance states) of the first stage mind. They were the primary colors that would become the broader spectrum of emotions and feelings of mental experience. The gut feelings we started with still underwrite and influence our minds. Things that pop up in the mind already reflect choices made by parts of the brain that contribute to second stage experience. Some ancient animal reactions have lost their value in the modern world. Intense competition between peers for food, territory and mates created emotions that don’t translate well into social skills; like, envy and enjoying the misfortunes of others. They can be at odds with what the self expects from itself.

For a given moment or event, the experience of the mind is shaped by how the animal reacted and responded. We are already done being an animal by the time we are mentally aware of the same moment our body was. The brain that “did something” and generated your current mental experience has already been here and done it. Any primal emotional response will become part of our mental experience of that instant and, like our perception, also as something that already happened. This initial emotion can occur independently of any emotion our minds decide is the appropriate response, even if it contradicts our physical reaction. Our two minds are often of two minds on many things. Often enough to earn the term mind/body duality though it seems to bother the mind more than the body. They can seem to lead two entirely different lives because of the way they work in different time frames. Our minds can trigger a physical response like an emotion by visualizing since the body is a captive audience to its shared perceptual system. Outside stimuli can trigger emotions in our body without a corresponding mental idea leaving the mind without a clear explanation of why we suddenly feel different. We may feel a compulsion to do something that our minds didn’t decide to do. Becoming hungry or sleepy without deciding doesn’t bother us, but being impulsive in other ways can be a problem.

One of the emotions that goes way back into our evolutionary past is fear. Panic and terror come from the core of every animal including us. It can make you lose your mind. The original first stage feeling must have been a simpler experience since there was no mind to lose. Panic, alarm or flight puts all the senses on alert. Perceptions are tuned in full blast and processed as fast as things can happen. Mental experience is the first to go when fear is provoked because it’s unnecessary. In circumstances that require the fastest possible reaction time, no overall organization of the mind is even attempted- hence there is no mind to experience. Threatened by an approaching sound, or just stumbling, can dissolve any second stage mentality as our experience gearshifts seamlessly to the animal level. Identity becomes the animal and becomes first stage experience. There is only the immediate physical experience of the electro-chemical reactions of daily life from all external stimuli. Awareness speeds up and responses are instantaneous and without contemplation. Memories are recorded, but not in a form that is of much use for later mental recollection. At moments when there is only the animal mind, there is no mental perspective to remember having. First stage memories are different. The sequence of things is not recorded. Some animal memories may include too powerful an emotion to recall without re-experiencing. Some physical memories are only an emotion. The mind must live with the aftermath of moments of primitive emotions and seek reconciliation between any mental self-image and actual physical actions.

Even if a mentality is maintained, it may only confuse or craze the animal by organizing the experience into unnecessary degrees of complexity. The mind might be rendered useless when generated by a brain that is raging with emotion. Anger is powerful physical feeling with a correspondingly intense mental state. The animal mind may even take over if sufficiently provoked. If the brain throttles back on generating second stage mental organizations, no deliberative choices can be made. It’s hard to get the mind to do much else while the body holds this angry posture that generates so much first stage brain activity and consumes so much mental real estate. An impaired mind is the most immediate problem, but the aftermath can lead to intellectual issues as our evolutionary development explores uncharted ground.

If the body’s heightened aggression isn’t useful or appropriate as a reaction to whatever honked it off, sooner or later it must be spent and dissipated into something like beating up a tree before the energy poisons the body. That would be a simple first stage response to a first stage emotion. Second stage experience of bodily emotions gets complicated as the mental self develops and creates a sort of feedback loop. Sooner or later, somebody in your head is going to want to know why they’re angry. Reason will enter into it, and the feedback loop is complete. Long after the first stage emotional charge has dissipated in a rage of racquetball, it can reoccur at any time because now the mind has a reason to be angry. As long as that reason stands, so will the idea that you’re supposed to be angry. The original emotion can be re-engaged on demand by recalling imagery of the offense, to which the animal self is a captive audience.

Or suppose the mind changed its mind and decided that it was all a mistake and there isn’t a good reason to be angry. The animal mind, which has no capacity to comprehend this reason, might find this an unsatisfying solution. When internal conflict arises, the mind would say, “It’s the beast inside of me”. The body would say, “It’s the static inside of me”. 

Some drives and motivations were already very complex and time consuming while we were still very basic animals. Before we had minds, we had gender. Sexual differentiation had made procreation a serious bother for everybody. No more lonely, private cell divisions. Nature had selected genetic diversity as a survival strategy and sexuality and all that came with it was the consequence for us. Since we had to exchange genetic material, we could at least be selective about it because it did present an opportunity for choice and, as usual, we took it. That was provided for us by a physicality where this exchange is facilitated when a mate is selected and prevented when not. Selecting became competitive and the edge was held by those with a physicality that not only attracted genetic material, but made the actual moment of exchange an attractive and worthy experience for its guest. Sex is ancient. The party started with our very first aunts and uncles, who lived in a world we would only partly recognize. As first stage animals leading lives entirely as a physicality, mate selection had to be sensual and meet strict physical requirements. Our physical forms evolved to enhance the process and the experience of it. The party has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. Billions of individual romances have already led the way in shaping what sex is for us. The choices they made are reflected in the diversity of later animal life. Animals produced a wild array of mating habits ranging from intense to life threatening. Lethal competition, demonstrations of strength and all sorts of attributes would communicate whom was carrying the most worthy DNA. I suspect it hasn’t stopped there in millions of years. Even then, plenty of mate selection was based on criteria that probably had nothing to do with survival. Appearing to be a fun date makes one an attractive opportunity for experience.

This worked fine until the mind arrived. Many have said the mind is the most important part of sex, but it didn’t start that way. Sex is something that was already happening as far as the mind is concerned. How it structures the aftermath of each moment of physical action could only enhance or diminish what the first stage animal self is already going to do without any supervision. Since the mind had no responsibilities for mating, it was free to make anything it wanted of the experience. Again, we made the best of it. Mental experience of sexuality wasn’t necessary for procreation but it proliferated anyway because it too was fun. Sex in the mind became integral to the experience if not the process. It could be valued as the most important part of sex even if it remains actually unnecessary for the original genetic objective. But that makes for endless possibilities of unnecessary mentalities to enhance, inhibit, or make completely silly, their ancestor’s sexual heritage.

 

One could argue that sexuality has changed and gotten drastically more complicated since we first became primates, but so many of the basics were already ancient and obviously widespread. Nature’s original strategy of selfish lust and desire are still at the core of every animal’s drive to procreate and maybe it’s in the best interest of getting the job done that some things aren’t mentally experienced. The mind had to find a way to make itself worth bringing along on a date. For some, the experience of sex emphasized erotic visual and aural stimuli organized for the mind as erotic picture and sound. This was a satisfying enough stimulus for the animal’s nervous system to see the whole process through while maintaining the formally unnecessary and cumbersome second stage mentality. The mind’s capacity for recall would also prove useful, but again, only to benefit the experience of sex and not necessarily its success, which was not the point anymore.

Dwelling in the mind is fun, but the self that lives there must deal with all the animal motivations contained in our original design even if some of them make us uncomfortable. Lofty, idealized mentalselfs can’t make them go away. We largely design ourselves through life experience but we must include a lot of material that was written countless generations ago by the life experience of beings whose form no longer exists. This is the hard reality for all of us. A mind whose idealism ostracizes the hard reality of the body does not have a good long term survival strategy.

Our instincts look out for our survival in ways our minds never had to. We ignore the daily examples of our body’s know-how. Like blinking, it is something that you become mentally aware of only as something that already happened. We trust our body’s intelligence. We want it to make the tough choices about scheduling glandular secretions. Our minds may choose to run up the stairs but don’t want to be bothered with decisions like how far the knees must bend or how fast we’ll need to breathe. We prefer to stick to the executive decisions like coffee or tea, or how much to pay the babysitter. We want to deal with things only after all the first stage issues have been settled. How many choices about your body functions would you like to be mentally responsible for or even aware of ?

Imagine you’re on a roller coaster trying to think about and decide, using your sight of the track ahead, which way to lean and shift your weight to keep from falling out your seat. You can’t. The body gave the answer before the mind heard the question. It’s all physical reactions. At the instant of a sharp turn, or tripping over something, ancient instinctual movements shift and grab as necessary, even if awkwardly. These actions are determined by our first stage mind whose primary focus is physical survival and has no means of grasping the saving of face. Grace wasn’t sacrificed for safety; there just wasn’t time for the fraction of a second it might take to assemble any mental organization that you could be aware of that could take charge. Thinking can’t have much if any involvement if a first stage organization is too busy. Outside provocations can trigger an ancient hardwired reaction that overwhelms the cortex with its processing needs. That may be one of the attractions of thrill rides. They minimize mental experience by keeping the brain too busy to run much of a second stage organization.

Our mind’s perception was originally designed to work quickly and stay close to the moment at hand. In pursuing mental experience for its own sake, we allowed our minds to stray well beyond the point where any physical action can be directly initiated. That’s not a problem for us. Our lives are probably more threatened by what shows up in our mailbox then anything lurking behind the sofa. For a change of pace, we like to do activities like sports that make the mind operate quickly and close to now. One way for us to keep in touch with our whole selves is to regularly do things that require being a whole self. That usually means reeling the mind in from beyond the shores of physical reality and putting it in charge of a fast, agile, aggressive and highly sexualized ape, like it used to be. This sort of recreates the relationship between mind and body of our ancestors engaged in a hunt or warfare, but without the motivation of actual physical survival, the sporting mind must provide constant guidance and drive to do things the body cannot understand. If the body does what it’s told, then the mind wins.

Our bodies use imbedded knowledge to decide our precise physical movements usually with minimal guidance and vague instructions from the mind like “turn left” or “chase the ball”. New knowledge about new physical movements, like learning to play tennis, becomes imbedded by repetition of action. Muscles learn movements and timing, perception becomes honed to certain details, and eventually responses become reactions. After a lot of practice, the action of tennis becomes imbedded knowledge. With no physical motivation imbedded with it, our tennis skills are dormant until the mind decides it’s tennis time.

The mind will have to run as fast as it can to tell the body to do something. Mental experience comes at the cost of a small distance of time from the moment being experienced. That tardiness means the mind is too late to be the chooser of reactions, but not too late for actions. Picture yourself on a tennis court. After a brief distraction from the sidelines, the ball has been served at you unexpectedly. You see it bounce past your right side. Your eyes and head followed it but your arm never moved the racket. You saw it or rather your first stage mind saw it and had no compelling reason to whack it. Tennis requires a second stage mind operating very quickly to make the right choices that will lead to victory. That means close enough to “now” to keep up with the ball, but with enough time to continuously choose to chase and whack the ball, which is not something your body is going to decide to do. The issue of will becomes a matter of choices made now or choices made before. Then who decides our behavior?

Our opportunities for choice change as we change our organizational structure. We can make choices about things that haven’t happened yet. Anything that has already happened involves choices that have already been made. Decisions have already been made by our brain about just what becomes available for mental experience. Put another way, anything that occurs earlier than our focal point of experience, or HLO, is already determined. Our HLO varies in time from the fastest physical rush to the tardiest mental la-la-land. We can experience choosing any action if our HLO is before the choice was made. Otherwise, it will be predetermined.

Determinism refers to things that are determined by the time we observe them. Our DNA is determined by things that have already happened in the distant past. Because the here and now is already created well before any organization of brain activity can be a result of it, our minds step beyond the determinism of the physical world because they take place after everything in it has been determined. Even though memory and emotion may have already determined what you are and what you are likely to do, our minds end up with lots of options. Freely chosen actions may be preceded or overruled by compulsions, but many get through. Our minds can overrule our first stage impulses by convincing the body its desire will be met in the future. Only a mentality has the ability to delay gratification. Our lives give us the opportunity to be at least a co-creator of second stage organizations of our brain activity. The part of us that likes having the freedom to make choices is our mind. Making choices was its only means of interacting with the world. From our minds we can escape the determinism of nature and exercise our will. Free will becomes a matter of having enough time to exercise it.

What if one was faced with a life and death decision that had to be made in an instant? In terms of what we physically do, our first stage mind has the first and last word and can trump any mental state about anything concerning the outside world in the here and now. It operates faster than the mind and doesn’t care what we think. What if some action had to be chosen so fast that it could only have been initiated by a first stage organization. Would it reveal one’s most true self actually making the choice, or a surrender to a default reaction as if it were a choice that only God could make that quickly? Is there any point in making the distinction?

Fortunately for us and other successful creatures, our physical lives are not so non-stop dramatic. We primates, and many other animals, have successfully evolved into creatures with downtime; time for play and time to more fully experience our minds. Here at the upscale end of the food chain, we usually have plenty of time to sustain a mental experience. That’s where the real drama starts.

Free will could explain why animal life is full of successful adaptations and less full of failures. Animal life is not perfect, in the way we might think of the cosmos as a perfect creation. Life’s diversity came from a multitude of opportunities to choose between survival options. Obviously, life was free to fail. If you’ve ever witnessed the living cling to life, you know how much we value the opportunity to be here in any form. Those of us who are accustomed to a life that includes elaborate mental experience may find it difficult to accept life as a first stage animal only, should something happen to our ability to generate second stage organizations.

The vantage point of an animal’s first stage mentality provides the most intense experience of what happens to its whole physical self, but second stage mental experience added complexity and nuances to the basic emotions and creates a much broader palette of feelings. The mind could discriminate and categorize first stage emotional experience into a host of specific moods that were unique to mental experience. We were spellbound by new mental moods like boredom and curiosity. Awe and wonder created a whole other cauldron of emotional feelings that was one of the biggest draws for mental experience in the first place. Reason would enter into it, too. What the mind concluded was going on could influence its experience. Reason could work like personal preference filter and screen out or de-select any undesirable input that doesn’t stand up to our rational analysis. Any creature with capabilities like this would see identity drawn to the mind like a magnet.

We animals experience externally induced trance states that trigger powerful emotions and pre-wired drives, which is like, really cool. For us and most of our furry and feathered friends a lot of engaging and emotional experience can be internally generated in the mind by memory and contemplation. Think of how often we are experiencing our thoughts more than the incoming news of the world around us. These self-induced trance states are a bonus earned on a half a billion year investment in our evolutionary development. Our ability to experience reality as a panoramic landscape with color and sound made from photons and air pressure make our brain activity some of the hottest property in creation. Is the brain an achievement in adapting for the survival of life, or in creating a greater opportunity for the experience of life?

 

The opportunity to choose our life experience may have been the whole point. Like us, all of our ancestors were in pursuit of lives of greater sensory awareness organized into the broadest possible mental perspective. Animals developed complexity and specialization, and life became a greater opportunity for experience. All the different sorts of lives we animals experience may be the result of an aspiration to live and not just a will to survive. I suggest the latter is evidence of the former.

Either evolution favored mental experience, or some other force, maybe even we experiencers ourselves, has propelled life to levels of complexity that biology alone doesn’t appear to necessitate. Who else would have bothered? The motive force that drove evolution toward greater diversity and complexity was consumer demand, demanding ever-greater opportunities for experience. Evolution has accommodated biological life in this motivation. For humans, the development of the cortex with its sophisticated and varied abilities made for a sophisticated and varied mental experience. The experiencer grew along with the experience, and now, part of the experience of being a human is the experience of the operation of our brains, including thoughts and emotions that have little to do with our animal or physical existence. What would any other part of your body do with existential angst?