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A Huge Psych Question that Many Social Scientists Ignore

A Personal Perspective: Living beings try and non-living things don't.

Key points

  • Scientists have two distinct languages, the language of cause-and-effect mechanism and the language of selves and their means-to-ends effort.
  • Social scientists including psychologists use the two languages interchangeably without a good explanation for how they relate.
  • Effort is a constrained controlled subset of physical work, doing useful work, rather than doing just anything.

Researchers use two languages to talk about what happens. One I’ll call mechaneese. It’s physics talk. It’s about cause-and-effect phenomena.

The other I’ll call selfeese, life talk in which we assume organisms or selves engaged in means-to-ends effort, trying to do things for themselves because they have aims or motivations, wants or needs for useful, functional outcomes.

You can’t use selfeese in the physical sciences and engineering—not really, though some try. You can’t say a quantum particle, atom, molecule, billiard ball, mountain or star is a self trying to do anything. You can in art: “The river tries to reach the sea, the moon draws the tides to its bosom,” but physical scientists can’t really get away with that kind of poetry.

Mechaneese or “physics talk” is how we talk about both unused and useful phenomena, everything from the way useless dust moves to how we make useful computers. It’s spoken in both physical science and engineering quantum “mechanics” and auto “mechanics.” We can explain a lot of useful stuff with mechaneese. But can we explain the selves who use useful stuff? Not really. For that, you need selfeese.

In the life and social sciences, we use both mechaneese and selfeese. Psychologists talk about neuro-mechanisms, which is mechaneese, or about an organism’s motivations and goals, which is selfeese. If you claim that a hormone triggers an appetite, you’re mixing the languages and may not notice that you are.

In everyday life, we alternate loosely between mechaneese and selfeese. When we talk about an ad seducing us, or a computer trying to complete a task, we’re talking like inanimate objects are selves. When we talk about ourselves like we’re robots hardwired to behave the way we do, we’re talking like we aren’t selves. Very loose.

Hardwired by whom? Theologians say by God or a higher power, a self who creates everything to achieve what It wants. Scientists often talk about DNA or natural selection as if they’re selves trying to design us; selfish genes for example, even though genes are just patterns in chemical DNA. They say DNA is a language, but languages are used by selves who find them useful. DNA is useful but it’s not a user. The scientists who talk about “selfish genes” admit it’s just a poetic figure of speech, but then they go on talking like genes are selfish selves.

And talk about natural selection as though it’s a self that wants to select the most adapted organisms? That’s an inaccurate figure of speech, too. Natural selection is just natural degeneration. Everything falls apart. Selves try not to fall apart. We selves struggle for our own existence. To treat natural selection as a self is like blaming your failed effort on some non-existent judge who decided your effort didn’t make the cut. That’s fine to do in poetry and theology, the fates or gods deeming our effort inadequate, but that’s not science.

In science, we try to avoid inconsistencies. We want the sciences to have integrity, to not speak two completely different languages with no explanation for how they relate. How do mechaneese and selfeese relate?

We get a hint from how physical scientists can’t use selfeese. We assume physics and chemistry existed before selves and effort. The big question is how selves and effort emerge from physics and chemistry at the origin of life.

That’s not a question most researchers address, maybe because it has gone unanswered for so long. For 25 years, I’ve been a member of a scientific research team that has cornered itself with just that question: What are selves and effort and how do they emerge from physics and chemistry? We have developed a purely scientific, testable hypotheses for how it happens.

I think the bridge word between mechaneese and selfeese is “work,” a term in both languages. The bridge is this: Useful effort is work by a self that works to keep itself working.

In mechaneese, “work” is how we describe objects interacting and altering each other. Molecules or billiard balls bumping into each other do mechanical work on each other. By itself, such work is neither good nor bad. It just is.

In selfeese, we can say “that work worked” meaning that some work was useful for selves given their aims. And what is a self’s chief aim? To stay alive. To keep on working.

Living beings are organisms that make effort to remain living beings. “Being” is a noun but also a verb. A living being isn’t a static thing that simply exists because it’s durable. At this very moment, you’re making all sorts of unconscious and unfelt useful effort to remain a living being. Today, for example, you generated 240 billion new cells to replace degenerated cells. You’re very busy being a being.

“Work that works” is a subset of all possible work. How do we ever get such subsets of work? Think of how engineers design systems that work for selves. They constrain all possible work down to limited work. They corral or filter work with ducting, plumbing, valves, or insulated wire and transistors, constraints that keep work from spewing out in every direction. Most physical work is destructive. Engineers channel work so it’s constructive. They’re work wranglers.

There’s all the potential physical work that could happen, and then there’s the work that engineers allow to happen. Engineering is about channeling possible work into work that works, work that’s useful for selves. Channeled work like that explains all sorts of stuff that works for you—your sink, tub, stove, microwave, lights, computer, cellphone. Still, your stove isn’t making effort to heat your food and your computer isn’t trying to solve problems for you. These mechanical devices are useful, but they’re not users. You’re the user.

Selfeese is the right language to use about selves trying to remain selves, living beings actively being beings. Day and night, unconsciously and unfelt, you do work that works to keep you working.

What are you? You’re a collection of constraints that channel work into effort to regenerate the constraints you are.

I could say much more about this. The takeaway is to pay better attention to the difference between mechaneese and selfeese. Exploring the difference is a great way to explore oneself, to get a sense of who you are, this self who tries to do the work that works to keep you working.

Confused? Here's a 4-minute video that may help.

My Google Talk on the Subject:

Here's a collection of other short, easy videos that explain our research team's attempts to explain how selves and effort emerge from physics and chemistry.