Mihaly, don't let me down!

Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is one of the more influential books in my life. So I got The Evolving Self, Csikszentmihalyi’s follow-up book. I am a chapter and a half in and already I have strong feelings about it.

The premise so far is: in this third millennium, we’ve mostly realized that the ol' Christian God sitting on a cloud with angels (or Greek Gods on Olympus or whatever) is false, but we’re still searching for meaning and “happiness”, whatever that means. Mihaly, I am with you so far!

But then, page 15: “But evolution has introduced a buffer between determining forces and human action. … consciousness enables those who use it to disengage themselves occasionally from the pressure of relentless drives so as to make their own decisions.”

What? How? Who are “those who use it”? How do they have a choice to “disengage themselves”?

On page 23 I’m back with him. He cuts through the “homunculus” image, in which we’re each governed by a little man in our head who pulls the levers, and then cuts through the “traffic cop” image, where we’re each governed by a bunch of signals but there’s one guy saying which signals win. “Instead, consciousness is more like a magnetic field, an aura, or a harmonic tone resulting from the myriad separate sensations collecting in the brain.”

So my question is: Mihaly, do we have souls? “Divine spark” or determinism? (or determinism + quantum/whatever randomness, which is just as good as determinism) I don’t see a third path. You seem to say determinism, that consciousness is just a word that we use to talk about our minds the same way we say a computer “has vision”, that there is not even any “we” to talk about “our minds”, but you seem uncomfortable actually saying it.

Other minor quibbles:

Page 19: “The only value that all human beings can readily share is the continuation of life on earth.”

… err, I don’t share that. If all the existing humans just stopped having kids and eventually died out, as far as I’m concerned, that would be pretty okay. (modulo a few rough years for the last few living ones.)

By page 33, he’s talking about how our minds are generally chaotic and unhappy when we have “free time”; we always want to accomplish the next goal. Then he says “There is a reasonable evolutionary explanation for this condition, too. If we could be contented just sitting by ourselves and thinking pleasant thoughts, who would be out chasing the saber-toothed tiger?”… doing that pop-cultural evolutionary thinking thing, where you dream up some explanation for how something could have been an evolutionary benefit and then conclude that it was an evolutionary benefit.

But on the plus side:

Page 40: “We think like computers whenever we think like computers. But certainly this particular function represents only a small aspect of how we think.” This is a pretty concise way to talk about an idea that’s been buzzing in my head for a while.

Mihaly, man, you’re pushing all my buttons! In great and frustrating ways! If the determinism-or-not question remains an issue, I may get kinda annoyed. However, I have high hopes that you’ll either pick a side or reveal to me some new side to that debate, or else we’ll just put it aside and talk about more specific things.

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