A Reason to Act
We are able to think behind and beyond what we experience.
Nov. 8, 2020
What makes the human brand of consciousness different than that of other life? Is there any difference at all? If so, where can we see it, and how can we leverage our unique consciousness to our advantage?
Yes! Our consciousness is unique from all other known life.
Some evidence to support this hypothesis is that nothing else even asks these sorts of questions or ponders consciousness. In Westworld, one of the questions to test for human consciousness is the following: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” The implication here is that only humans question their reality and that all humans do so. Our unique brand of consciousness manifests in our ability to reason — to think behind and beyond what we experience.
This is not to say that we aren’t one with nature or that we aren’t dependent on other life, only that we have cognitive abilities that are distinct from all other life. Humanity is not merely on one extreme of a spectrum of consciousness. We’re on a completely different scale altogether — the universe’s outliers.
Alright, so squirrels don’t theorize about the beginning of the universe or formulate metaphysical beliefs about the afterlife, and we do. So what? Well, those sorts of thoughts and ideas make us special. Our ability to reason makes us free and enables us to be forces of order in a world that naturally trends toward disorder — clothespins for a universe draped over the wind-frayed clothesline of entropy.
The most important way we can use our ability to reason is in the process of deciding what it is we ought to do. We can leverage our unique consciousness to make ethical decisions.
The Trinity of Action
Every event or experience has three distinct parts:
- A stimulus
- An optional period of consideration
- An action/reaction
The part I am most interested in is this period of consideration between the involuntary feelings brought on by stimuli and the action you ultimately take. We only have the option for step 2 because we are human. We are free to intervene in the natural laws of cause and effect. For all other life, actions follow from stimuli with no intervention of reason.
Even though this period of consideration is available to us, it will remain dormant if we don’t activate it. We are free because our reason grants us access to this privileged period of consideration, which is nestled between action and reaction — between cause and effect. As Immanuel Kant would say, we are the spontaneity of cause and are not merely governed by the natural laws of causality.
The greatest asset we have to direct our lives and positively impact the world is to develop this period of consideration, like a muscle, by ensuring that it is thorough and genuine, efficient, and (ideally) autonomous.
Depth and Authenticity
Accurately and plainly identify stimuli, and allow yourself to see them for what they are. Don’t lie to yourself.
The most common example of this would be recognizing and responding to your emotions. We have the choice of whether to acknowledge and understand how we’re feeling. And that’s one form of intervention between cause and effect.
An event, like rear-ending someone, elicits some involuntary, emotional reaction. You might feel helpless, incompetent, or unlucky. Those emotions would be the stimulus input that you have the option to consider. Or you could let the input directly determine your output.
After a car wreck, you may want to avoid that road forever because you’re sure that, with your luck, the same thing would happen again. But after a moment of consideration, you’d recognize how you’re feeling. You would decide that you must drive on that road again because it’s the quickest route to work and that you’ll just have to be more careful next time.
There is a common misconception about the philosophy of Stoicism where people take it to mean that you should develop a mindset that frees you from emotion. The real pursuit of a Stoic would be to develop a deep and authentic understanding of their own emotions so that those emotions have less power over the Stoic’s actions. After rear-ending someone, the Stoic would feel incompetent, too, but be able to reason to the conclusion that, in fact, they are competent and should proceed in that way instead.
One way to develop Step 2 — your period of consideration — is to take time to thoroughly examine stimuli and to be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. Only after you acknowledge the stimuli can you decide what they mean and how you should proceed — curbing your initial, involuntary response.
“What about analysis paralysis?!” you might be thinking. How can I take the time to consider everything I feel before acting? While that is a challenge, this period of consideration can be efficient — so efficient that it won’t cause you to miss an opportunity.
As you work to expedite Step 2, don’t short-change yourself on its quality. Maintain depth and authenticity.
Minimize the time you spend on consideration while still allowing enough time to know why you’re making a certain choice. As an upper bound, never extend your period of consideration past the point of diminishing marginal returns. As soon as longer deliberation hurts you more than helps you, go ahead and act. Don’t fall to analysis paralysis.
The more sure you are of your values and morals, the less taxing it is to consider what you ought to do. As you accumulate experiences and choose certain actions in a wide array of scenarios, your tendencies, preferences, and values solidify — ready to be manifest in your next action.
Consistent and intentional introspection leads to a clearer understanding of your orientation in life. If you are sure of your direction in life, then your period of consideration becomes merely a decision between continuing down your path or making an adjustment to it, instead of every new experience unearthing an ethical dilemma that you have to parse through from the ground up. The way to an efficient period of consideration is through introspection and an adherence to the morality you establish for yourself.
As I said earlier, engaging in this period of consideration — Step 2 of the “Trinity of Action” — is optional. The final step in developing your period of consideration, then, is to make it autonomous — to edit your default state so that your reason always intervenes between cause and effect.
If there were a binary “consideration switch,” it would ideally always be set to 1 — true. Every decision should be a three-step process because that’s what is available to us. Our ability to reason grants the ability to transcend simple causality, so we should decide to always exercise freedom and not let external stimuli be the authoritarian rulers of our actions.
Which would you prefer, to roll, pitch, and yaw with any gust of wind that hits your wings or to turn into the wind, resisting it, when you think it’s forcing you to veer off course?
Autonomy is the last step in developing your period of consideration, which comes from a clear mindset and repetitions of free-will decision-making, where you are the spontaneity of cause. You have achieved autonomy if your reason dictates each of your actions and no action is the effect of some external cause.
The path of least resistance is to concede to causality. By employing our unique reason, we can, instead, act uncaused and of our own free will.
You need only to develop this period of consideration. Flip that binary switch, hard. You might as well just break it, locking it in the position of “true,” and affirm to yourself that your reason will act as a gateway between cause and effect — that any act you take will be preceded by a period of consideration.
Decide to always employ our unique brand of consciousness by exercising your ability to reason, to be the spontaneity of cause, and to bring order into the world.