• Robert Lynch

Flavour and Meaning

I read Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari this week. I’m not going to do a review, because my style of story-based review doesn’t fit this book, but if you like history and philosophy, it’s an excellent read. I was first introduced to Harari by his book Sapiens, which is also a great read.

Homo Deus looks at humanity and tries to find what will shape our future. From a scifi nerd point of view, I like the idea of looking at the past to predict the future, but I also remember that every time in history that someone has done that their own viewpoint has confined them in history. In the Twenties, people thought that bigger and better steam power was the vision of the future. In the Fifties, people were certain that flying cars would happen. Hoverboards are as yet unrealised. Harari has the self-awareness not to predict the future, but to try to ask the questions that we will answer in the future.

To ask those questions, he looks deep at humanity and the current scientific thinking. One of the ideas that he puts forward is the idea of the experiential self and the remembering self. This is not a new idea at all, but a discovery by FMRI analysis that our memories and our “present” self are not connected. When we make plans for the future, we access our memories. What we feel in the here and now never activates the memory centre of our brain. This is why we choose to eat that piece of cake instead of keeping to our diet. Our remembering self tells us why all of our experience proves that cake doesn’t make us happy, but our experiencing self never asks that part of the brain, so we seek the sugar rush.

While Homo Deus didn’t introduce me to the concept of the experiencing and remembering selves, the exploration in the book has got me thinking about them. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the idea jives with the concept of Resistance.

I view Resistance far less spiritually than Steven Pressfield, the term’s coiner, and see the idea as an evolutionary development. The hunter-gatherer that decides to spend his time telling stories is far less likely to pass on his genes than his competitor that spends his time hunting and gathering. The proven path is far more likely to succeed than heading out into the wilds. Except sometimes heading out into the wilds discovers new resources. Even if the adventuring hunter-gather almost always fails, if he doesn’t exist, humans never evolve into the civilisation of today. The success of our species relies on a balance of risk-takers and conservatives. To balance our risk-taking nature, Resistance constantly tells us that risk-taking is a terrible idea.

Resistance has many arrows in its quiver. It can tell us that we are stupid or useless. It can also convince us to take the easy way out. What’s the easy way out? That sugar rush. You know you should diet? This slice of cake won’t hurt. Know that if you write, you will be happier in the long run? Sure, but if you play Assassin’s Creed, you could get that sweet armour you want. Know that if you save up enough money, you can make a better future? Screw it, let’s buy dinner instead of cooking.

The experiential self is already a hedonist; Resistance just tells it that feeling good right now is all that matters.

In my experience, working all the time is a quick way to burn out and get less done overall. The hedonistic tendency in all of us should not be denied completely, but likewise, it cannot be trusted. The sugar rush has its place. The experience of a nice meal, a fine drink, the luxury of good conversation are all worthy pursuits in moderation. But a life defined by ephemeral pleasures is devoid of meaning. On the other side of the coin, a life of nothing but work is devoid of flavour.

I want both flavour and meaning in my life. I guess I just have to work on the balance.