This is a very interesting problem that frequently crosses my thoughts. The growing discrepancy between the modern civilized environment and the human animal little changed in fifty thousand years.
Short of using genetic engineering to realign our bodies with our newly created environment, there isn’t much we can do physically – biological evolution is too slow a process. Our bodies need to be physically active, yet our society no longer requires us to be. Often we have to go out of our way to be active. Bad food tastes better than good food, since in developed countries at least, food is plentiful. Eating your fill of high energy density food is now a very bad thing to do, since you can now do that multiple times every day.
If physical evolution isn’t an option, then mental adaptation is the only real alternative. Our minds have to be trained to be aware of our bodies limitations. I think that willpower is the dominant trait possessed by those who best adapt to modern society. You have to be willing to force your body to act against it’s instincts.
That comment is so perfectly dense with information... one of the most spot-on accurate comments I've seen on this site. Matches my exact beliefs - willpower and thinking ability as chief traits for success in the modern world, biological evolution too slow to provide a relief, and genetic engineering as a potential to remove or regulate unwanted destructive urges.
Really good stuff. Matches my thoughts almost exactly. Thanks Michael.
interesting it will be to see the effects of this unnatural society we have accepted and what it may bring forth as we move forward.
'In an artificial world, only extremists live naturally.'
In this essay Paul Graham brings food analogies to also illustrate his views on the artificial way people are organised in our 'unnatural' society.
Coffee, alcohol and cigarettes are pretty good examples that you can acquire taste for just about anything, though there is the argument that all of those give you a buzz that other foods don't (either through caffeine, nicotine, or good old fashion drunkenness). No matter how much you're into lettuce, I don't think your brain is going to fire the same way it does after a shot of Jager.
But, just about everyone I talk to who has become a vegetarian says some variant of "Ugh, I couldn't eat meat anymore, it grosses me out." I've met more than few people who just tried eating vegetarian for a month or so and then found they couldn't go back to their old eating habits because their tastes had fundamentally changed and they no longer liked meat. Our brains are wired to crave fats, starches and sugars, so if you could develop a distaste for meat, I would imagine you could do it with pretty much anything.
Can we control what food tastes good?
I think this question is important. I know for me the answer is yes and I am sure it is the same for almost everyone else out there. I personally hated Nato and wanted to like it because Japanese people think it`s funny that foreigners can`t eat this food. It was described to me as ``rotten soybeans``. What I did was keep eating it, little by little and after 2 months I started to like it. By 6 moths I was asking for it and now I eat if every morning for breakfast and love it because `now` it tastes great to me and it is really good for you. If you need more evidence of this just look at the number of smokers in the world. None of them took a first puff and said `wow delicious!` Same is true with acquired tastes of coffee and beer and countless others. I haven`t tried to make something good taste bad though but I think associating it with bad feelings and mental images could easily do the trick. For instance if every time you saw junk food you got the image of a fad slob with his arteries cloged it might not tasted so good. This way `will power` isn`t really needed because you start to want food that is good for you (Natao) and hate junk food. So you go about life eating what you have conditioned yourself to want and love it every minute.
Just a thought.
This is absolutely true. Even ignoring the tsunami of mindless drivel that fills much of the media these days, there is such an abundance of information available these days that it would be utterly self destructive to try and pursue every opportunity for learning.
I have a natural tendency to want to study everything I come across and have to force restraint on myself here. The modern world makes it very easy to spend your entire life learning only to reach old age never having done anything productive with the knowledge.
I've thought recently that there ought to exist a fraternal organization of men who are committed to developing each other develop taste, strength, intelligence, wisdom, etc. I think someone with reach and perspective like Sebastian's could start this.
Coming from the traditional western philosophical perspective, I consider virtue a condition for happiness in any age. Willpower is required because virtue is a species of habit: a propensity to morally good action developed by a pattern of morally good choices.
I believe this principle applies to the life of the mind as well as the life of the body. Human nature has a natural desire to know. In an environment of informational scarcity, unfettered curiosity is not too perverting. However, in our environment of informational excess, unfettered curiosity is a destructive vice. Intellectual fruitfulness requires intentional restriction of information flow. Furnish your mind with the insights of the greatest authors of the ages, not popular blogs and best-selling books tailored to the tastes of the contemporary market. Extract the good you read and make it your own; commit it to memory and take care not to fill your memory with drivel. Above all, spend more time thinking and working than you spend immersed in the thoughts of others.
Adam Limehouse writes in about "The Cognitive Costs of Doing Things" -
First off, very cool article.
Second off, I have a question/conflict about the language you used when talking about ego/willpower depletion. I would suggest that instead of talking about it in terms of a battery (something that can be depleted, must be recharged from the outside and eventually wears out) it would be better to approach this in terms of a muscle group many people have allowed to become lax (a virtue ethics perspective if ever there was one). I think the advantage here has to do both with the need for external charging intrinsic in the metaphor of batteries and with the status in most Americans minds of the possibility of becoming physically stronger as something they can do. We might pursue this as a sort of meta-willpower.
Would love to hear your thoughts about this, Adam
There's an important division in our society that is rarely spoken about. This division is between two styles of thinking; between those who think concretely and those who think abstractly.
In truth, abstract versus concrete thinking is more of a spectrum than a binary. Extremely abstract thinkers and extremely concrete thinkers are rare; most people fall somewhere in the middle. Then again, few fall exactly in the middle. Most definitely lean in one direction. Though this essay will describe two opposing tribes - the concretes and the abstracts - keep in mind that this is a simplification of a complex reality. You might feel that neither description fits you perfectly, but you will almost certainly identify with one tribe more than the other.
To distinguish these two tribes, we'll need to define abstraction. Here's a working definition:
Abstraction is the ability to recognise deep patterns and structures within a domain without being distracted by surface details. Crucially, it is the ability to recognise analogous patterns and structures between different domains.
The second part explains how abstract thought can be highly useful in the real world. Analogy allows human beings to navigate unfamiliar domains by drawing on their knowledge of the familiar. For example, one might use one's knowledge of Spanish to master Italian, or use one's knowledge of biological evolution to understand the evolution of language, or use one's knowledge of the dating marketplace to understand the dynamics of the co-founder marketplace.