What made you record a long voice message addressed to a blogger you never met?
I was experiencing emotional anxiety and needed someone to stabilize me, and at that particular moment I had no one around to talk to. So I talked to the version of you in my imagination. I imagined you being very emotionally stable and positive, which is what I needed right then.
And then after I recorded this long message, I had to send it to you otherwise imagining you wouldn’t work next time. But I’m grateful you listened to it, I wasn’t sure you would.
The same thing happened to me after I read Aella’s entire blog, listened to several podcasts with her, and then interviewed her for two hours. I acquired a detailed enough model of her in my head to have conversations with, which I did. Now it might be weird if I see her again and she’s nothing like the model I built up two years ago.
I don’t need you to be the exact way I imagined you all the time, I just need one instance of you that’s emotionally grounded and could listen to me and resolve my anxiety by having a proper emotional reaction to it.
I did feel emotionally grounded when I listened to your message, if it helps. You said that everything humans do, from eating a sandwich to invading Iraq, is to manage anxiety and negative emotion. What do you mean by that?
In one sense it’s a tautology. You wouldn’t do things unless you felt an urge, and that urge is an unpleasant emotional state that you want to get away from. When you feel pleasant, you just keep doing what you’re doing unconsciously.
There’s a broader sense in which people can be understood as just following the steepest gradient away from anxiety, especially if that anxiety is amplified by others. Whatever alleviates it will get done. When anxiety gets really bad it can find its expression in violence, like scapegoating or mob violence or war. So 9/11 made everyone suddenly anxious about American global supremacy and their personal safety and so we invaded Iraq not because it was a good solution to the underlying issues but because it was the fastest way to palliate the anxiety.
For most people the coping strategies they employ in their personal life is whatever suppresses the negative emotion fastest, like cursing someone out who disagrees with you, and not what works best for them long term, like having a good friend to talk to.
I recently read the excellent book How Emotions Are Made. Its model of emotions is that they are not merely reactions to things, but complex behavioral strategies involving your entire body. So for example, feeling angry is just the subjective experience of getting ready to stand up to someone who offended you, to execute “acting angry” strategies.
I was thinking that what feels negative or anxious are emotions that are inappropriate, in the sense that you predict that your behavior is likely to fail to achieve its intended result or it’s out of place. It’s obviously a model that’s based on the predictive processing paradigm, in which really the only thing that feels bad is making bad predictions.
So physical soreness can feel good when you’re in the gym, fear can feel good while you’re watching a horror movie, feeling sad at a funeral or while listening to a sad song, etc. They don’t feel bad because they’re appropriate in context. This sense of appropriateness comes both from physical reality, like when you stop lifting and the muscle soreness subsides, and from other people supporting what you feel, like at the funeral.
To me anxiety feels like my emotions are just chaotic, like I feel everything at once and my urges are fighting each other with no clear winner that I should attend to. I can see how that fits your model, if your emotions are bad predictions you’ll keep cycling through them hoping something at random would be the correct guess.
Specifically, emotions that are bad predictions mismanage your body budget, drawing on its resources in a way that doesn’t accomplish anything. So if you get angry but acting angry is inappropriate, you just got a jolt of adrenaline and cortisol and increased your blood pressure and released some energy stores but didn’t do anything useful with all that preparation, so it was all wasted and your body budget was debited for no good reason. You pay the price for “bad emotions” in your body, and your body is where the emotions come from.
How does this explain the social aspect of emotions? To go with the idea of emotions being a behavior strategy, it’s not just your own behavior but a group’s behavior that’s coordinated by emotion. One person being loudly outraged, like Menelaus, or quietly vulnerable, like Helen, in the right social context can launch 1,000 ships and sack Troy a decade later. I don’t think that the Greeks maintained the same bodily state for ten years, but they were driven by the same emotion.
If there are urges that arise in you, they don’t care if they’re met by another subpart of you or by a whole nation. How does that fit in with the idea of emotions being your body budgeting itself?
People always rely on other people to manage their body budget. For one thing, you rely on others for you bodily needs. Think of a child whose emotions are mostly ways to get its parents to balance its budget by feeding or rocking it. But also you set up your body for meaningful and effective action, and which action is meaningful and effective depends a whole lot on people around you and what they’re doing.
If you see a bear when you’re alone you feel fear, maybe even paralyzing dread, because the appropriate action is to run or freeze. But in a group of hunters you feel aggressive arousal, because the appropriate action is to fight the bear with your buddies.
I had this issue with my partner, we relied a lot on each other for emotional regulation. But then we also had fights about who gets to make decisions. I was thinking that whoever is doing the emotional regulation should be the one whose ego is making the calls. Like with a child, the parent is the more emotionally stable one and also the one in charge.
I think this applies broadly in society as well. Those who set the tone emotionally and can keep it stable are in charge. Corporations or countries set an emotional tone and enforce it over long periods, which makes it possible for others to follow them.
I think men do this more, striving to be dominant so they can impose their emotions on everyone else which reduces anxiety. That’s why rich men keep a lot of servants and yes-men around. Women are better at matching their own emotional state to others.
You’re saying that rich men keep servants so that the servants reflect the boss’ emotional state and that reduces anxiety? Basically, if you see others in the same emotional state that you’re in (even if it’s just because you paid them too) it makes you feel that your emotions are appropriate and that feels good?
The main source of anxiety for men is believing that other people think they’re better than you and will step over you to take your place in the hierarchy the first chance they get. If you’re a man who’s high up on the ladder, there are a lot of people below you and you are afraid of them. So you make people say yes, sir! and right away, sir! and that’s palliative.
Billionaires and politicians are emotionally immature. Look at Donald Trump, for example. He’s totally driven by the anxiety that people hate him and make fun of him, so he adopts this grandiose hostile emotionality and surrounds himself with lackeys or goes to rallies to have this reflected back at him. He can’t do any emotional regulation by himself, he can only think of forcing the entire world to conform to his tantrums.
As for rich people, they just need to accumulate more money because for them that’s the simplest way to alleviate anxiety. And even if they have more than they could ever spend in absolute terms, they’re obsessed about where they are in the ranking of other billionaires.
You could almost tell this story from the other direction, that if billionaires got universal love and acclaim they wouldn’t care about the money. Imagine if everywhere Bezos went he was greeted like a rock star, with crowds chanting his name and thanking him for delivering them all their material needs in two days like a wizard. But instead he opens the papers and reads about how he’s an asshole, and people are erecting guillotines outside his mansion. So he says, “fuck it, I’ll keep all my money then and use it to build a giant rocket and show you all the middle finger from orbit”.
If everything we do is just coping with anxiety, I guess there are better and worse ways of doing it. It sounds like you think that running for office or making a billion dollars are bad ways of dealing with negative emotions, so what are some healthy emotional coping mechanisms?
Contemplation and spiritual practice are a huge one. If you’re more aware of your emotions and you can control them without forcing them on others or lashing out in the world you’re in a much better place because you can always do this internal practice and you don’t depend on circumstance. That’s the core of Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius opens his book by saying: people are nasty and unreliable, and so are you to a large extent, so deal with your own shit so the world doesn’t toss you around emotionally like a pinball.
But an even better way to avoid negative emotion is to build deep relationships with a group you trust to take care of each other. This is another thing billionaires can’t do. They’re getting divorced left and right because they have so much money they can’t trust that anyone really cares about them and not their money, not even their wives.
So how do we build good relationships if everyone is nasty and unreliable?
Unreliability means that sometimes you can be relied on, and sometimes you’re a mess and have to rely on others. In a good relationship you have to balance those. And since the person being relied on is also in charge, this means finding a balance between dominance and submission. Sometimes other people need you to be in charge and show them what to feel, sometimes you need to surrender to someone else and give your ego some rest and let their emotions guide yours. When you try to help other people selflessly and you see their negative emotions dissipate, it makes you feel great because you’ve allowed yourself to just be guided by their emotional state and it worked out for everyone.
If your ego is in charge all the time, which like I mentioned mostly happens to men, that’s when you need God to be submissive to. That’s why Kanye is singing gospels in church after he went through a crazy megalomaniacal stage, he was almost destroyed by his ego because it couldn’t get a break.
I enjoyed his megalomaniacal music a lot more than his submissive music, to be honest.
You talk about the ego as something that’s different from your whole identity, what other parts make up “you”?
There’s no “you”, it doesn’t make sense. There are only a bunch of urges and desires which pipe up in the form of negative emotions and make you do things. It can be your hunger urge that consciously or unconsciously makes you seek out food, etc. The ego is just one of this cacophony of urges, the desire to be in charge and impose your will. This requires conscious control, so people often talk from their ego. The mirror urge to submit and be taken care of pushes towards loss of consciousness.
The ego is not the only urge that can find expression in language, there’s also the urge to understand things and seek wisdom.
Think of Plato’s idea of the philosopher king. That person is supposed to be primarily a philosopher, a lover of wisdom who leads a simple life. So to him, the pursuit of wisdom and pursuit of power over others are contradictory pursuits, and we should put in charge whoever does the former. But of course, that never happens — those who seek wisdom find it, and those who seek power end up in charge and they are often the least wise.
And I think the same is true inside each person. You have all the more unconscious urges like being fed and warm and swaddled, and then you have the ego and the nous, king and philosopher.
Again, this ties neatly into predictive processing. You have two main ways of making your predictions come true in the world: you can learn and make more accurate predictions, or you can act on the world to make it conform to your expectation. You’re always doing both on the micro scale, but you can also think of them as two alternative strategies in many ways.
It sounds like you identify more with the philosopher part, the one who is more passive and is doing the learning and updating.
When I’m saying what I believe is true, I’m talking from the nous. When I’m saying things designed to manipulate you, that’s the ego. But there’s no individual me that’s anything aside from a collection of those things. I don’t have a separate “identity”.
I wrote about individual identity being a story you use to predict your own self. In that sense it’s still a useful story.
It’s a boundary that arises quite naturally from observing the world, like the fact that my finger automatically moves the moment I wish it to but a mug on the other side of the room doesn’t. So that gives me the basic division between what’s “me” and what’s outside, and then I can model “me” as an agent with characteristics and goals to predict what I’ll be doing in the future.
I agree that it doesn’t make sense to draw these boundaries very rigidly. I see myself as diffuse over both time and space. So for example, future me is only partly like me — he may pursue some of my goals but probably not all of them. And my wife is also partly me for the same reason, she’s more likely to be moved by my will — she may notice me looking at the mug and bring it over without me asking.
But to be able to pursue any goals over time, it’s useful to have a persistent identity that’s not just a collection of short-term urges. Unless you want to call this desire for consistency just another urge.
Individual identity is a confusion. Urges don’t come from the individual level but from a small part of you, and they’re not satisfied by the individual but usually by a group. Telling everyone that they’re unique individual agents with free will was a mistake, and it’s responsible for a lot of things going to shit now.
In the ancient world people identified much more with their nation, whether it was a nomad tribe or a Greek city state. At least men did, women maybe identified primarily with their family but we don’t really hear from them in the historical record. But the men would appear to us today like cult members, they were willing to kill and die for the group in a way that’s unimaginable to anyone today.
Now of course, cult member mentality makes you exploitable to a cult leader. You’d think ancient people were just slaves to their king. But the king also saw himself as primarily part of the nation and subservient to the nation’s god, just like anybody else. And that god exerted a moderating influence on the leaders, and allowed them to be effective in coordinating the group with a unified purpose.
Today our leaders don’t believe in any higher power, so they can’t unify people. Obama was an atheist, Trump can’t even hold a bible the right way, and Biden would never say “fuck what my party thinks, if I don’t outlaw abortion I’ll surely burn in the fires of hell”. You know that Jeff Bezos doesn’t worship anything.
That’s why we resent them having power over us. Marx saw religion as a tool of those in power, but people are happy to work in service of the gods much more than in service of a billionaire getting another yacht. It’s also why we had to invent liberal individualism — if the king sees himself as an individual with selfish needs and not as subservient to the group, then everyone else has to be an individual too to constantly fight against total domination by the rulers.
But that’s not how we’re wired, to be in constant struggle against domination by powerful men but we’re not even allowed to use violence to dispatch them which is what hunter gatherers or even chimps do to an upstart tyrant. So that’s a big reason why in the liberated modern world we’re all miserable and anxious.
So what’s the solution? I don’t think it’s that easy to invent convincing things to worship, or maybe there are just too many people living together for any new religion to become universal. And saying that something like wokeness or Bitcoin or whatever is “a religion” today isn’t meant to compliment it as being a potential good narrative to unite a tribe. It’s usually meant disparagingly.
If all we’re doing is managing negative emotions, I think we can find a way to do it individually and in small groups. To me that’s related to having a picture of the world that makes sense, and to finding meaning in what you do. The way there is individual rationality and spirituality and finding people like you to cooperate with. And this means fighting against totalizing narratives that outsiders are trying to impose on everyone, since they mostly result in interminable culture wars.
I don’t think we can go back to managing our anxiety by singing kumbaya as we sacrifice captives to the sun god on top of a pyramid. We should come up with something new for the 21st century.
Your approach may work for a few unusually smart people here and there, but it doesn’t scale — especially if you keep thinking of yourself as an individual.
This isn’t the first time that a society faced a breakdown of its organizing religion and selfish, faithless leaders. Plato also lived during political upheaval and the loss of Athenian faith in their own founding mythos after they lost the Peloponnesian War.
You’re right that everything is accused of trying to be a religion, and that’s because everything is. And everything is trying to be a religion because everyone is desperate for one to take off the burden of individuality. Once a new religion becomes dominant and subsumes a large enough mass of people to its will, it won’t matter how clever or independent you think you are. You’ll be either swept aside or swept along, and if you do the latter it will feel like a huge relief.
People keep telling me that it must be such a burden to keep thinking things through myself instead of following the crowd, but I really find it more fun than exhausting as long as I’m at least correct often enough.
Anyway, if you believe that universal religion is inevitable, which one are you betting on to win?
I don’t see any candidates today that are really promising, in part because even the wannabe prophets are still enamored with the idea of individualism. That’s why I’m talking to bloggers instead of praying to a god.
When I see a group start succeeding by actually dissolving the individual egos of its members, whether it’s through sheer force of ideology or with the aid of drugs and rituals, that one will have the power to take over the world. I know you’re not looking forward to this but I am.