2019-02-03

Creature Comforts

I was intrigued to learn that the word desire comes from the Latin de sidere. “Sidere” is the root of “sidereal,” meaning “of or relating to the stars.” The suggestion is that our desires are “written in the stars.” We are fated to desire what we desire. We don’t choose our desires, nor are they rationally determined.

Freedom means that you can do what you like. But you don’t decide what you like. Brian Magee puts it this way:
“If I am ordering a meal in a restaurant, I may be free to choose whatever I like from among the alternatives on the menu. But I am not free to choose what I like shall be. I cannot say to myself: 'Up to this point in my life I have always detested spinach, but just for today I am going to like it.' What I am in the mood for, and what I like or detest, are not at my command.”
Desire can take us to soaring heights of passionate intensity that makes life delicious and glorious. Desire for inner peace and equanimity can take us to contemplative practices that cultivate compassion, gentleness, and wise insight.

On the downside, desiring what we can’t get strips life of satisfaction and generates only discontent. Or desires can become addictions that make our lives miserable. But either way, we don’t choose them.

Sometimes they grab us by throat and take over. Other times, it takes an intentional process of inner exploration to discover the yearnings you didn’t know you had. We don’t always know what we want. But whether they are loud and blatant or quiet and hidden, we don’t choose our desires. They choose us.

Philosopher William Irvine, exploring the topic of desire, was struck by the case of Thomas Merton. In his college years, Merton was a hard drinker who ran with a fast crowd and fathered a child out of wedlock. Merton would later describe his young adult self as
“an extremely unpleasant sort of person – vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. I was a mess.”
Then, out of the blue, Merton felt a desire to convert to Catholicism. He took instruction, got baptized, and became a Catholic. Shortly thereafter, he got another spontaneous desire: to become a priest. He tried the Franciscans for a while. And then a third desire: to be a Trappist monk. He didn’t know where the desire came from, but there it was: powerful, irresistible, clear.

William Irvine recounts Merton’s story, and finds it very disturbing.
“It raises the possibility that we are all just three spontaneous desires away from life in a Trappist Monastery.”
That’s disturbing to Irvine because he hasn’t had those desires. It startles him to realize that he could.

We don’t control what desires come: Merton becoming a monk; Siddhartha Gautama leaving behind the palace of pleasure for practices of severe austerity, and eventually leaving those behind for the Middle Way; less dramatic, or, at any rate, less renowned cases of shifting the direction of one’s life are not uncommon.

Every year, 18-year-olds show up on college campuses intent on a Business degree – and somewhere in the next year or two some of them decide that what they really desire is to study 18th-century French poetry. Or maybe they show up intending to major in art history and discover that what they really love are the complexities and challenges of the finance industry.

Our calling comes to us as a desire to be a certain sort of person, follow a certain path. It’s called “calling” because we don’t choose it. We are called to it, as if by a voice, as if written in the stars in writing that, suddenly or slowly, becomes clear. We humans are as free and as unfree as any other animal.

Desire emerged in animals because the ones that desired certain things that made surviving and reproducing more likely were naturally selected for. Evolution made certain things feel good, which is to say, desired. William James pondered the case of chickens who build nests and tend the eggs in them despite never having done so before, never having seen other chickens do that. Squirrels gather and bury nuts, even in their first year when they have no experience of winter and don’t realize food will become scarce.

James says the hen tends her eggs because she finds them “utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much sat upon.” It feels good to her to sit on her eggs. It feels bad not to – if she is prevented from sitting on her eggs, she feels anxious. She tends her eggs because she wants to – she has a desire to. She wants to because it feels good to do that and feels bad not do it.

In evolutionary history, first there was reflexive action – organisms wired so that stimulus A produces response B -- like sneezing in response to certain stimuli. To progress from reflexive action to desire-driven action requires an ability to learn: emotional memory of what felt good and bad in the past, and reasoning enough to calculate how to produce good-feeling results and avoid bad-feeling results.

Once we have organisms with the emotions, memory, and cognition required to have pursuable desires – then chains of desire form. That is, some things feel good just because they are instrumental for getting something else that intrinsically feels good. I want A for no reason other than that it leads to B, which I want for no reason other than that it leads to C. And then we begin to be organisms who enjoy accomplishments even when they are no longer connected to increasing our odds of surviving and reproducing.

Mountain-climber George Mallory, asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famously replied, “because it’s there.” There’s no evolutionary reason to desire to reach the peak of tall mountains, but that desire is a side-effect of being the sort of organism that builds chains of desire, and is motivated to move through the chain because each link starts to feel good all by itself. And then we enjoy accomplishment for its own sake. The chain can become disconnected from the survival-and-reproduction advantages that originally prompted the building of the desire chain.

When John Kennedy in 1962 declared that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard” he was appealing to this desire for accomplishment even when disconnected from any purpose for accomplishing it. (In fact, the space program wasn’t so disconnected from perceived threats to survival. It was driven by cold war military objectives of impressing upon the Soviet Union that we had the capacity to deliver Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to the other side of the globe. It was a display meant to intimidate, and such displays are common throughout the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s appeal succeeded because the idea of doing something just because it’s hard felt good.)

Indeed, birds evidently feel some satisfaction in a nest well built even independent of their desire to have a place to sit on eggs. We gather this because some species build multiple nests and end up using only one. One theory is they are building decoy nests. Another theory suggests that they learn more about a given crook and its environment by building a nest there, and what they learn tells them somewhere else would be safer. Well, maybe. In any case, it seems evident that they desire to build nests. They build them because nests are to be built. They do it not because it is easy but because it is hard.

We are made of desires. We don’t choose them. Advertisers and grifters can easily manipulate them. Yet desires constitute the meaning of our lives. Even something as fundamental as the desire to live is astonishingly easy to change if you have access to a brain and know where to place the electrodes, as in the case of the woman receiving treatment for Parkinson’s when the electrodes were slightly misplaced. Or, like Tolstoy, we might find the desire for life itself goes away for no evident cause.

It’s true that certain complex desires are unique to humans. Only humans have desires to play “Stairway to heaven” on a guitar, or to read a novel, or to invest in the futures market, or to organize a SuperBowl party, or to become a Trappist monk. (I like to imagine that being a Franciscan monk might appeal to a variety of species, but Trappist? Definitely only humans.) Four things to note about these uniquely human desires:
  1. Every species has some desires that are unique to it.
  2. Not all humans have any given such desire. Only humans desire to own an original Van Gogh, but not all humans do. No one has yet discovered any desire that all humans have – or even one that nearly all humans have -- that isn’t also shared by other species.
  3. When we focus for a while on how we don’t choose our desires – when we open ourselves to notice the mystery of where they come from and how they aren’t in our control – it becomes more difficult to regard the desires that rule humans as superior to those that rule other animals.
  4. Our desires, however specific and complex, are built up from components shared, at least, by all mammals.
Consider, for instance, cows. What do cows desire? Well, what do we know about cow interests and capacities?

Animal Behavior and Cognition is a peer-reviewed journal for empirical research on animal behavior, behavioral ecology, ethology, cognitive science, and comparative psychology. In 2017 the journal published, “The Psychology of Cows” – an extensive review of the literature by Lori Marino and Kristin Allen. The references pages cite some 240 articles and books the authors combed through. What does the research show?
  • Cows learn different tasks, have long-term memory, complex spatial memory, extrapolate the location of a hidden moving object, discriminate complex stimuli, and discriminate humans from one another and discriminate among individual cows.
  • "Calves as well as adult cows show learned fear responses to humans who have previously handled them in a rough manner."
  • Cows have fear and anxiety, and we now know that the less eye white is shown, the better they feel – and that their ears also signal their emotional states.
  • Cows also like to play, and decreased play compromises well-being.
  • When subjected to stress, cows, like mammals generally, including you and me, are less able to judge ambiguous stimuli.
  • Cows pick up the emotions of those around them in a phenomenon called emotional contagion. “When cows are exposed to stressed conspecifics [other cows] they too show pronounced stress responses, such as decreased feeding and increased cortisol release."
  • Cows have diverse personalities. Some are bold, others shy. They have variable sociability, gregariousness, and temperamentalness.
  • “Cows display broad parameters of social complexity,” where social complexity is measured as “the number of differentiated relationships that members of a species have with conspecifics.”
Cows have the emotional, memory, and cognitive capacities to form desires through essentially the same processes that desires form in us. Probably no cow has formed the desire to know more about ancient Greek philosophy, but, rather to my disappointment, relatively few humans have that desire either. Nor, we may reasonably surmise, has any cow desired to drive a car at 500 miles an hour, and, thankfully, relatively few humans have that desire.

But the desires that almost all humans share would seem to be largely shared by cows. We experience fear and anxiety and desire to avoid it. We desire to avoid beings who harm us. We experience well-being, and desire the things conducive to it. We are devoted to our offspring, and desire their well-being. We desire play. We desire self-expression – to manifest our different personalities. As our emotions resonate with those around us, we desire social harmony. We desire relationships – the variable companionships of others of our kind.

* * *

For the last two Sundays I have been, in various ways, looking at our attitudes toward difference. When we’re at the polarization stage, we think we – our culture, our religion, our species – is good or superior, and what is different is worse and inferior. When we’re at the minimization stage, we minimize differences and emphasize how we’re all the same.

Two weeks ago ("What is 'White Culture'?"), I talked about white culture, and how those of us who are of that culture might see that our own way of seeing things isn’t just universal common sense but the product of particular cultural training. The path forward from minimization of cultural differences is more deeply grasping the ways we ourselves are cultural products, which allows us to appreciate the profundity of cultural difference.

Last week ("God is Not One"), I talked again about moving beyond minimization – this time when it comes to other religions. Religions aren’t all the same. What’s called for is appreciating the real differences.

When it comes to culture and religion, many of us are at the minimization stage, so I have been offering a case for going beyond that to appreciation. When it comes to other species, many of us are at the polarization stage -- the stage of feeling that "we have worth and dignity – they don’t." Here our need isn’t to move beyond minimization, but just to move into minimization – to recognize the extent of our commonality.

This might raise your level of concern about animal cruelty. Whether it does or not, it’s an important insight into ourselves. If who we are – our nature as beings on this planet – is an iceberg, then being human is only the tip. "What does it mean to be human?" That’s a question that points our attention only to the tip of our being. "What does it mean to be primate?" Now we’re attending to a little more of ourselves. "What does it mean to be mammal?" "What does it mean to be vertebrate?" As we explore these questions – learning what we have in common with all vertebrates rather than what separates us from other primates – a much fuller picture of what sort of being we are begins to emerge.

We are driven by desires we do not choose, that are written in our stars, and that often conflict with each other. We seek the comforts of our common creatureliness -- food and health, rest and play, companionship and self-expression. May all such of our desires be fulfilled.

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