Embodiment of Reason
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Re: Chapter 8 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
The Emergence of Purpose
Despite the title, this chapter is not mainly about the role of evolution in making us purposive. In fact Lewis seems to run out of steam on that topic fairly quickly, getting on to what is, for me, a much more interesting set of issues: how does variation in brain function influence the ability (and motivation - one of his themes is that the two cannot be separated) to make appropriate choices about what to do.
Lewis opens with a case study of an able, goal-directed young man whose motivation declined with high school. Lewis diagnosed ADD and prescribed medication (probably Ritalin, but he doesn't say) and the listlessness and inability to concentrate disappeared, whereupon the student became a high-functioning individual.
It is one of the apparent paradoxes of psychology that a stimulant will permit a nervous and distractable student to concentrate better. Lewis gives an insightful account of this. Attention and motivation are two parts of the same process, and mutually reinforcing parts at that. Something the brain registers as "interesting" will motivate behavior with dopamine release at the junctions between the relevant neurons. ADD comes down to having a low "natural" level of alertness and attention, so that it takes stronger and more sustained exposure to "interesting" things to keep the person involved. As an economics teacher, I have had a number of students who did okay in easier classes, but found the long chains of logic in economics theory (as well as higher math) to be too difficult to motivate themselves for. Some did much better with treatment for ADD.
Lewis uses this to make several interesting points. One is that attention span and related ability to sit still and avoid distraction is a trait with the normal amount of biological diversity. Probably we have taken to asking kids to do more concentrating than some are really suited for, and using Ritalin and similar drugs to enable them to keep up. I would like to think that over the next twenty years pedagogy would learn to provide them with non-chemical assistance in the form of structuring their experience to be more social and more active (kinetic).
School has a long history of being aimed at the most able students (which often means the most able to be calm and give sustained attention to abstraction), but that is no longer appropriate in the modern economy, where we can't just put the more distractable students in Phys.Ed. programs and Auto Shop and trust that they will be fine. Skills of communicating, thinking abstractly and concentrating are becoming pretty pervasively required. That doesn't mean everyone needs to be able to do Law School, but we need to aim resources and techniques at a broader spectrum of abilities. Fortunately, the last 30 years of exploring this task has shown that the more able students are not held back by being involved in helping the others to learn, but on the contrary they learn the material better and develop social skills such as leadership more effectively.
The other big lesson, developed more toward the end of the chapter, is that ability to do the right thing and motivation or will to do it are on a continuum. We can shape behavior that is not entirely due to physiological malfunctions, by talking and explaining what we expect and why. Children who are stressed or tired may be more likely to throw temper tantrums, but we can still help them get a grip partly by insisting that they do something, like sitting on the naughty step, that helps them calm down. Adults sinking into dementia may gradually lose the ability to process what behavior is appropriate, but for a long time the communication of others matters vitally to helping them achieve self-mastery.
From the ADD discussion Lewis connects to the evolutionary roots of purpose and motivation. He rambles quite a bit, having many connected points to make and not having (IMO) sufficiently decided on a structure that will give a memorable set of principles to remember about it. Nevertheless it was, for me, a good presentation about humans getting cognitively better at figuring things out, innovating and creating and striving for excellence. I was glad for a reasonably light touch on the subject of what is behind such motivations, not, for example, reducing it all to sociobiological principles such as sexual selection and advertising fitness.
Lewis has a welcome grasp of the related processes by which social enterprise also throws up interesting challenges and we respond out of whatever meshes well in our make-up, rather than it all being about the genetics. If you think about it, the importance of school work is recent enough, measured in generations, that it is virtually impossible for reproductive fitness to have been heavily shaped by it to make a changing genome shaped by reading and mathematical reasoning.
He even brings up the humanistic concept of "self-actualization" as a motivating factor, without trying to link it much to the biological evolution factors (wisely, I think). Maslow's definition of self-actualization as the highest category of human motivation is suspect, in part because he discusses it (as Lewis does) in terms of striving for excellence at something. It is past time for the concept to be integrated with cognitive science in which we recognize that the higher level activities of synthesis and creation are both the most difficult (complex) and the most rewarding (inside the person) cognitive skills. Self-actualization is not about being "the best" but about engaging in particularly rewarding processes.
Those who are interested in "human flourishing" take note. As society matures, we will more and more learn to recognize and honor those who can bring others to the ability to synthesize ideas and engage the world creatively, rather than just ranking achievements and giving awards to the most successful. The specific skills of the teacher who can get the clarinetists to "play the sunset" or the director who can bring a presentation of "The Glass Menagerie" to a successful orchestration will begin to matter more to us than the jokes or storylines we get to watch on the tele. Because more and more of us will be able to take those roles ourselves, and we want it to be about achieving the complex social processes, not about seeing if we have raw talent. Needless to say, better balance between achievement and the rest of life will go along with this.
(Most of that discussion was my gloss on a relatively short discussion of self-actualization).
Lewis next moves on to a lengthy discussion of disorders of motivation, including depression, and the overreliance on thinking in terms of chemical imbalance and medication. I wish he had felt more confident about speculation in this direction, since he has a better grasp than most mental health professionals (in my experience, anyway, from casual contact) of the relationship between social processes and mental illness. Since "mental state is always a property of the brain" is one of his main messages, it isn't too surprising that he doesn't dwell on the interaction with social processes much. At least he brings it in.
Besides depression, which gets a good discussion, he also discusses addictions and how this represents "hijacking" of the motivational circuits of the brain, and psychosis. Psychosis (paranoia, general schizophrenia, catatonia) seems to be a disorder involving heightened dopamine activity, often in the systems directing attention. (Most of this has been learned since I took Abnormal Psych in college, and I found it fascinating.)
A paranoid person often has trouble distinguishing which events actually represent some kind of threat, or other social activity to which they need to give attention. Schizophrenia in general may involve difficulty recognizing which stimuli are internal, and which external, which helps think about the common schizophrenic pattern of a "delusion of reference" in which a person imagines coincidental occurrences as "signals" or other indications of implications for the self even though this really doesn't make sense. Too many associations pass the threshold of significance and get counted as "important," according to Lewis' cogent explanation. Street drugs which increase dopamine production in the brain can induce psychosis, which helps me understand the case of a relative of mine.
Next he discusses the role of external factors in motivational processes. He has a good page or two on the ability of a social process (such as hiring a coach, or committing to a deadline) to improve our commitment and motivation. In his practice he says a lot of the success comes from managing the balance between too little stress and too much, and tailoring it to the individual's natural functioning.
Finally he has a good discussion of free will. Without trying to impose a theoretical understanding of "deterministic" nerve processes, etc., he recognizes that our ability to will particular behavior is limited by our brains, and the way our particular constraints relate to the challenges of our lives. We may exert influence on people (as I discussed above) to make sure they stay within the bounds of society's requirements. This can involve combinations of explanations, which help them understand the reason for their choices making sense, and incentives (and I would add based on his later discussion, emotional support), which help people actually follow through on their understanding. As a proponent of autonomy, in which people understand (and endorse!) the reasons for their choices, I was chastened to realize that it will always be limited, though some can achieve more autonomy than others are capable of.
This is where his excellent discussion of the continuum between volitional processes and avolitional (can't help it) processes in the brain is launched. It is usually seen as a dichotomy, and if we wanted to identify one concept that the book is contributing to the general discussion of motivation and meaning, the replacement of dichotomy with continuum on the role of will would be the one I would nominate. I think my discussion near the beginning of this post captured the high points.
His last section illustrates the issue poignantly with a case study of dementia.
Overall, I find his pragmatic approach to the limitations on the project of autonomy to be both sobering and inspiring. Because it shows where the challenges are, in a humanistic program of increasing autonomy, my urge to address the issues is actually increased. And that may be the best comment of all on "self-actualization" and its role in motivation theory.