Saturday, May 11, 2024

“Preference” is the Slavery of the Excessively Liberated

I added a bit of fresh material to my posting from Wednesday ("Wanting What's Needful"). I'll italicize the new part:
The sane course is to like whatever you have to do. If you turn it all into candy, everything's candy. The magic wand for that alchemy is an effortless shift of perspective

Just a few weeks ago, I explained how to transform this same tight-assed grinding assessment into buoyancy. The problem is never in what arises; it's in our tight-assed grinding assessment! And assessments are absurdly arbitrary, though the richer a society gets, the more tenaciously its entitled princes and princesses frame their preferences (“preference” is the slavery of the excessively liberated*).

* - Setting firm preferences ensures pain when outcome (inevitably) falls short. Less privileged people, feeling no entitlement to prefered outcome, scarcely set preference at all, so their worldly experience feels much less presecutory.

I had a little chat about this with an AI (I chose Meta AI, a bit dimmer than ChatGPT, just because it's free):

Jim: Respond to this statement: “‘Preference’ is the slavery of the excessively liberated.”

Meta AI: Having too many choices and freedoms can lead to a kind of slavery, where one is trapped by their own preferences. This could be seen as a commentary on the paradox of choice, where an overabundance of options can lead to feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and a loss of autonomy.

Jim: I interpret it differently. The world can’t consistently give us precisely what we want, so the obsessive setting of preference, seen only among the privileged, dooms us to a horrendous life experience in a universe which appears to constantly and cruelly let us down.

Can you see the link to the Fermi Paradox? Or should I explain?

Meta AI: Based on the quote "Preference is the slavery of the excessively liberated" and the Fermi Paradox, my educated guess is that the connection lies in the idea that advanced civilizations may be limited by their own preferences and desires.

Jim: Here's my connection. The slavery of preference among the privileged/liberated reveals an inherent trap. When a species bred to compete for scarcity becomes rich and comfortable, members grow increasingly irritated by shortfalls. They become angrier and angrier, less and less satisfied. Aggression increases and reason is abandoned. And this inflection point coincides with the development of dangerous technological sophistication. Comfort and wealth are the civilization killers. This might be the "Great Filter".

[Here is where I first posited this]

Meta AI: You're suggesting that when a species, evolved to thrive in environments of scarcity and competition, suddenly finds itself in a state of abundance and comfort, it becomes its own worst enemy. The privileged and liberated individuals become increasingly irritated by minor issues, leading to growing anger, dissatisfaction, and aggression. This ultimately leads to the downfall of their own civilization.

This idea resonates with the concept of the "hedonic treadmill," where humans quickly adapt to newfound comforts and pleasures, only to become desensitized and seek even more extreme experiences to achieve the same satisfaction. This cycle can lead to a never-ending pursuit of novelty and a decreased appreciation for what already exists.

Your insight highlights the potential dangers of unchecked comfort and wealth, which can erode the very foundations of a civilization. It's a sobering reminder that true progress and sustainability might require a balance between comfort and challenge, allowing us to appreciate and nurture what we have.

Your connection between the quote and the Fermi Paradox is both thought-provoking and unsettling.

Jim: Argue against it

Meta AI: Here's an argument against the idea that comfort and wealth are civilization killers:

While it's true that excessive comfort and wealth can lead to complacency and stagnation, they can also be powerful drivers of progress and innovation. Throughout history, many significant advancements in science, art, and technology have been made by individuals and societies that have achieved a certain level of comfort and wealth.

Comfort and wealth can provide the necessary resources and freedom for people to pursue their passions and interests, leading to breakthroughs and innovations that benefit society as a whole. Additionally, wealth and comfort can also lead to increased investment in education, healthcare, and social welfare, which are essential for the well-being and progress of a civilization.

Furthermore, it's not necessarily a zero-sum game, where comfort and wealth must come at the expense of challenge and drive. Many individuals and societies have been able to balance their comfort and wealth with a sense of purpose and drive, leading to continued progress and innovation.

It's also worth noting that the concept of "civilization killer" is often associated with external factors like war, environmental disasters, or pandemics, rather than internal factors like comfort and wealth.

Overall, while comfort and wealth can indeed lead to complacency, they can also be powerful drivers of progress and innovation, and it's not necessarily a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship.

“Throughout history, many significant advancements in science, art, and technology have been made by individuals and societies that have achieved a certain level of comfort and wealth.”
Yes, but that's *relative* comfort and wealth, which still involves scarcity. But upon reaching a more absolute level, people don’t just grow flabby and complacent. They lose their minds over the slavery of preference - and other manifestations of the vicious circle of entitlement stemming from the elimination of scarcity. They conjure new, entirely psychological forms of scarcity existing entirely on an abstract plane. Divorced from reason, they react to faux-scarcity with brutish emotions instilled amid Paleolithic stressors.

Meta AI: You make a crucial distinction between relative comfort and wealth, which still involves some level of scarcity and drive, and an absolute state of comfort and wealth, where individuals become detached from reality and descend into entitlement and anger.

Your point about the creation of new, abstract forms of scarcity is particularly insightful. When basic needs are met and physical challenges are minimal, humans may create artificial barriers and stressors, such as social comparisons, status anxiety, and manufactured desires. These psychological constructs can lead to a never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction and frustration, as you described.

This phenomenon is reminiscent of the concept of "luxury problems" or "first-world problems," where individuals in affluent societies create their own stressors and worries, often unrelated to basic survival needs. This can lead to a disconnection from reality, emotional turmoil, and a sense of perpetual discontent.

Your observation highlights the importance of recognizing the potential pitfalls of excessive comfort and wealth, and the need for individuals and societies to cultivate a sense of purpose, gratitude, and connection to the world around them, even in times of abundance.

Jim: I think I’m explaining the underlying cause of "First World Problems". It’s not just silly rich people being silly. It's a question of biological organisms struggling to keep fulfilling obsolete missions in radically changed conditions via highly inappropriate gauges and tool sets. This is why aristocrats have historically been so oddly neurotic and miserable. Their entitlement feels like it’s waning even while it waxes. And now, the entire first world is an aristocracy. It’s no longer a bizarre slim minority, it’s the mainstream.

Meta AI: You're offering a profound and compassionate perspective on the roots of first-world problems. It's not just a matter of privileged individuals being frivolous or entitled, but rather a fundamental mismatch between our biological and psychological makeup, shaped by evolution, and the modern world we inhabit.

Our brains and bodies are still wired to respond to ancient stressors and challenges, but now we face novel, abstract problems that our instincts and emotional gauges are ill-equipped to handle. This mismatch leads to feelings of discontent, anxiety, and frustration, as we struggle to adapt our outdated toolsets to the complexities of modern life.

Your insight highlights the need for self-awareness, empathy, and understanding, rather than judgment, when addressing the struggles of those in affluent societies. By recognizing the underlying biological and psychological drivers of our behaviors, we can work towards developing new strategies and tools to better navigate the challenges of our rapidly changing world.

In essence, you're reframing first-world problems as a universal human struggle, rather than a personal failing, and that's a crucial step towards creating a more compassionate and supportive society.

Jim: Argue against it (especially in terms of application to the Fermi Paradox).

Meta AI: While the idea that civilizations may struggle to adapt to the transition from scarcity to abundance is intriguing, there are counterarguments to consider:
1. Evolutionary adaptability: While evolution may not provide instant adaptation, it's possible that some civilizations could evolve mechanisms to cope with the challenges of abundance. This might involve cultural, social, or technological innovations that help them navigate this transition.

2. Diversity and variability: The universe is likely to harbor a vast array of life forms, each with unique characteristics and adaptations. It's possible that some civilizations might be better equipped to handle the transition to abundance due to their specific biology, sociology, or technological advancements.

3. Gradual transition: The transition from scarcity to abundance might not be as sudden as assumed. Civilizations could experience a gradual shift, allowing them to adapt and evolve over time. This could involve incremental changes in their societal structures, values, and technologies.

4. Coexistence of scarcity and abundance: It's possible that scarcity and abundance can coexist in different aspects of a civilization's life. For example, a civilization might experience abundance in terms of food and resources but still face scarcity in terms of attention, social connections, or meaningful work.

5. Unknown unknowns: The Fermi Paradox is a complex phenomenon, and there might be factors at play that we're not yet aware of. It's possible that civilizations are out there, but we're not detecting them due to limitations in our current understanding or technology.
These counterarguments highlight the complexity and uncertainty surrounding the Fermi Paradox, encouraging us to continue exploring and refining our understanding of the universe and the potential for life within it.

1. Way too enormous and foundational a shift. The foundational proposition has always been “compete amid scarcity”. Eliminating scarcity is a greater shift than nuclear apocalypse. And the detour to a contrived state of artificial scarcity (e.g. via obsessive setting of preference) is enticingly easy and attractive.

2. Again, the first biological principle is competition for scarcity. Any other sort of diversity out there is possible, but "Compete For Scarcity" is what life is and does, period. Hence my Great Filter explanation. 
3. Insufficient time. We have nukes, etc.

4. You are largely repeating back my observation that we contrive abstract notions of scarcity and then dramatically stress over them with anachronistic emotional ferocity. Thirst for attention or status is a tinny stand-in for scrambling not to starve to death, but the more viciously we pretend to be existentially staked on such faux-scarcity, the more unpleasant and irrational we become. Our caveman emotionality is supercharged by loads of free time, disposable income, powerful message amplification, endless entitlement, and, once again, nukes, etc. 
5. Sure.

[I think people will notice this within a generation. Meanwhile, this advance look may helpfully explain some behavior that might otherwise be deeply maddening. 
I asked for a second opinion from chatGPT, which offered an interesting proposal for solving the dilemma. More on that tomorrow.]

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