Idle Theory

Of Human Nature

Idle Theory is a physiological theory of human life, not a psychological theory.

It sometimes seems that, in contemporary ethics, economics, and philosophy, the human body is treated as the lowly porter and servant of the human mind - mounted like some nabob atop a plodding elephant. The wishes of the nabob are paramount: the elephant is simply prodded. Ethical theorists regularly start from an assumption that humans, or rather human minds, are free agents, and offer various suggestions as to how they should conduct their thinking. Equally, economic philosophers begin with human minds as subject to an infinity of psychological wants and desires, which it is the purpose of trade and industry to satisfy, rather than starting with humans as physical working engines. And there is the sense, with all philosophers, that rather than seeing humans as creatures of flesh and blood, they almost regard them as disembodied minds - Plato contemplating the eternal Forms, or Descartes' "Cogito, ergo sum" , and so on -, in a disjunction of body and mind (or body and soul) that results in the 'body-mind' problem: the nabob wondering how he came to be sitting on top of an elephant, and whether he will survive when the elephant dies.

One result is that a pervasive psychologism permeates contemporary thought. It is felt that if we are to understand (and therefore control) human activity, we must first understand the human mind, which directs all human activity. Thus the Sociobiologist E. O. Wilson writes:

Culture is created by the human mind, and each mind in turn is the product of the genetically structured human brain. Genes and culture are therefore inseverably linked. (Consilience. Ch 7. original emphasis)

The Sociobiological research programme is to pursue the path from genes to cells, from cells to brains, from brain to mind, and from mind to culture. It is a bit like saying that once we discover how computers work at the level of electrons, semiconductors, and logic gates, we will be able to deduce calculators, word processors, and Tomb Raider. The only difference between Wilson and Freud and a whole raft of other thinkers is that he proposes to approach the human mind from its component genes and neurones and cortical activities, rather than from id and ego.

But underpinning this programme, as well as that of Freud, is the supposition that human beings are minds controlling bodies, like nabobs on top of elephants, or kings ruling over their subjects, masters over slaves. And that if one is to change human behaviour, one must first change human mind, disregarding its servant body. The corollary of this supposition is that if enough minds can be persuaded - by whatever means - to think in some different way, humans will behave differently. Or that if enough people want something to happen, it will happen. Or if you can fix people's minds, you can fix the culture that is the product of human minds.

But if the relation of mind to body is not one of master to slave, this whole approach must fail. If the human mind is simply another component - however self-important it imagines itself - of the human body, then all purely psychological appeals will fall upon deaf ears and blind eyes - precisely because such appeals do not address the whole person: eyes, ears, and everything else. In Idle Theory, human life is approached from a physical rather than psychological point of view. Human life, just like all other forms of life, is seen as performing physical work to provide itself with the energy to maintain itself. And in this process, the human brain is simply one of a number of vital organs working together to maintain life.

Of Human Body

In Idle Theory, humans are regarded as working physical bodies, not disembodied minds. The primary business of human life is now, and always has been, one of staying alive, whether by working to collect seeds and berries in some primeval forest, or by working at keyboards in some modern concrete jungle. And this work, of whatever variety, involves the expenditure of physical energy (finding berries) in order to acquire the fuel energy (eating berries) to carry on living.

Just like rockets powered by binary fuel hydrazine (hydrogen and oxygen), or cars powered by gasoline and oxygen, life is powered by the heat released by the combustion of glucose and oxygen. About the only reason that living creatures don't catch fire and burn is because the combustion process is broken down into stages to produce numerous energy-rich ATP molecules, like micro-matches, which power metabolic processes.

If the principal components of the fuel that powers life - glucose and oxygen - were abundantly omnipresent in the atmosphere, living creatures would consist of a single lung to breathe in the oxygen-glucose mixture, and a modest control system to prompt it to occasionally inhale the heady mix. But instead, while oxygen is abundant in the air we breathe, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, since such a mix might explode) glucose is not. And so while all we need to get oxygen is the pair of simple bellows we call our lungs, the rest of the human body in all its complexity is almost entirely devoted to getting hold of scarce glucose. We need eyes to spot a distant glucose-bearing plant, a brain to map out a route towards it, legs and feet to carry us there, arms and hands to pluck it, mouth and teeth to chew and swallow it, and stomach and intestines to break it down with enzymes into the glucose that joins the oxygen flowing in our blood stream to power every cell in our body.

A human body is a working society of many millions of living cells. And in that society, different collections of cells perform different specialised functions. The heart pumps nutrients along blood vessels to every cell in the body, and at the same time carries away their waste matter. The digestive tract breaks down food into the required nutrients - glucose, amino acids, etc -, and introduces them into the bloodstream. The lungs breathe in oxygen, and introduce this into the bloodstream, and at the same time exhale waste carbon dioxide. Teeth grind up food, and the throat swallows it down into the digestive tract. Eyes see the food, and legs walk over to it, and hands reach out to grasp it and put it the mouth, under the guidance of the brain. Yet none of these are uniquely human achievements: the smallest dormouse does the same.

The entire assemblage of specialised components can be seen as a collection of power tools, all of which are essential to the functioning of the society of cells. If the legs break, then the food cannot be reached. If the hands seize up, the food cannot be picked up. If the teeth rot, food cannot be chewed. If the eyes go blind, the food cannot be seen. If the brain goes haywire, the coordination of complex sets of activities cannot be accomplished. In this interdependent system, the loss of any component is likely to be fatal.

For the human body, like any animal body, is an engine that requires regular refueling, else it stalls and never restarts again. And the business of finding fuel, in the form of food, is the primary business of human life. And in this business, humans use their legs and feet, their arms and hands, their eyes and ears, in fact every bone and muscle and organ in their body. The human brain is an integral part of the human body, and is itself another useful working tool along with lungs and hearts and hands and feet, working to coordinate their activities.

The primary task of the human brain is one of processing sensory information, and issuing instructions. It is to construct and retain, from the information provided by eyes and ears and nose and touch, an image and map of the world around it, and coordinate various set of muscle activities in navigating through that world. Thus, stepping into some forest clearing, a human's brain constructs the scene about it, of a fallen tree, a bog, a meadow, distant hills, the sky above, and builds a map and plots a route across it to a bush, hikes up the heartbeat, directs each step across uneven ground, and coordinates the movements of countless muscles while reaching to pick a berry from the bush and put it in the mouth. Dormice can do this all this too.

The various components of the human body work in the service of each other, not as a hierarchy with the brain at the top, and with knees, elbows, and toes at the bottom. If I (this particular society of cells) stub my little toe (a subset of the larger society), I immediately shift my weight to the other foot, and reach down with both hands to massage the injured toe, and, forgetting everything, let out a yelp. In one motion, my whole mind and body swiftly attend to the misfortune of my humblest member.

We eat and drink to fill our stomachs with nutritious food. We build shelters to keep our bodies from freezing wind and rain. We wear clothes to keep our bodies warm, and shoes to protect our feet. And to the extent that we forget this, and eat for the sake of culinary delight, or build houses to advertise our social status, or wear clothes and shoes dictated by fashion, to that extent we forget the primary, original, and real purpose of these things, and become lost in delusion. Our primary concerns are physical, bodily concerns, and peace of body is peace of mind.

Of Human Mind

The primary task of the human brain is to keep eyes and ears and nose tuned to locate food, and then to direct arms and legs and hands and mouth to go get it and eat it. Since dormice, with brains the size of petit pois, do this too, one has to wonder why humans have so much larger brains.

Part of the answer may be that humans are bigger than dormice, and require corresponding larger neural equipment. But there are other explanations. One of these is that humans store a lot of memories. They are not only able to remember a place, but also carry an entire map of an area in their memory, which bushes are where, where there's water, when the tigers go hunting, etc. A long memory implies a larger brain volume. But also, using stored memory, humans can plan in their imagination how to perform some task, and think of alternative ways of doing it, simulating in imagination doing them, and scoring them for ease and simplicity. The ability to do that implies some additional mental power, and a few extra spoonfuls of brain matter in the cranium.

Furthermore, unlike dormice, humans are tool makers, and tool users. The ability to make a tool, and use it, requires considerable hand-eye coordination, dexterity, acute vision, and fine muscle control. Try making a needle sometime, and then try threading a needle. Again, this suggests the need for enhanced brain power over and above that of a dormouse - particularly when a human may need to be able to make and use hundreds of different tools - pour in half a cup of brain matter into the human cranium.

And then again, humans live in societies, and communicate using complex languages, using hundreds of words - some of them quite big -, put together in sentences, which can be not only spoken, but also written. Since it takes human children years to master the art of talking and listening, and even longer to learn to read and write (if they ever do), this in turn suggests that additional brain power/volume is needed to not only master language, but also the complex organization of human societies, with their manners, customs, and laws. That's another cupful of brain matter to squeeze into the swelling human cranium. If animals don't have such swollen brains, it's because they don't need them.

All these developments in the human mind - of memory, of imagination, of toolmaking, of speech - were essentially idleness-increasing. Without memory, humans would have to waste ages finding the fruit tree they found yesterday all over again. Without imagination, rather than mentally simulate different ways of doing things, they'd have to try them all out one by one. Without tools, they would have to use their bare hands to shovel earth or break branches. Without society they would be unable to divide up work so that the strongest did heavy work, and the most dextrous made tools, minimizing the work of everybody.

Perhaps the essentially human evolutionary step was to move from doing things in reality to doing them in simulation. The human mind constructs a replica of the real world in memory, and then uses this replica to imagine trying out different ways of acting in that world, before actually choosing to actually perform one of them in the real world. Before anyone goes out shopping, they first decide, in the virtual world of their imagination, which virtual shops they will virtually visit, and in what order, before they go and do it in the real world. The advantage of constructing mental models of the world, and imaginatively acting within those models, is that it saves the effort of actually trying out the various alternatives. It is cheaper to imagine climbing a tree than to actually go and climb one. Most animals, it is supposed, don't make plans: they just go and do it. Dormice don't ponder over whether to look for seeds by the river, or berries on the hill: they just set off and sniff around for whatever's going.

The construction of replica realities is sometimes too taxing on memory for anyone to carry round in their heads. Architects designing complex buildings resort to drawing replica plans and sections and elevations of their proposed buildings within replicas of the real building site and its environs. Then the imaginative process of trying out alternatives is one of cheaply erasing and redrawing floors and walls, rather than expensively building them and knocking them down.

But, while trying things in simulation before actually settling on one course of action is efficient, it only works if the mental model of the world accurately corresponds to the real world. A planned shopping trip only works out if the imagined shops are actually there, and are open, and happen to stock the items wanted. Everyone knows the sinking feeling of showing up at a grocery store only to find that it's turned into a hairdressing salon, and having to find another one. The price of using an inaccurate model of reality is extra work.

And since the real world is always changing, the replicas of it that humans hold in memory are always inaccurate. The world is never quite as it is imagined to be. The replica reality is always in some degree a fiction. Indeed, the replicas are always fictions.

The fictional replicas of the world that humans construct are not simply those they derive from firsthand experience, but also those which they learn from the society around them. For, apart from models of the physical world, they also have culturally-generated models of a wider reality, of the origin and nature and purpose of human society.

The discipline of physics is essentially one of creating an accurate mathematical replica of the physical world. The laws of physics, chemistry, and other scientific disciplines are only true to the extent that they accurately represent reality.

In one sense, humans live in a virtual reality, rather than in reality. The construction of virtual worlds using computers is not something new - it's something that humans have been doing for untold ages.

The human brain is primarily a useful tool for keeping humans alive. Its primary business is locate food resources and direct the human body to them. In this it has to learn a many skills, ranging from simply walking and talking, to constructing and using complex tools within highly structured human societies. It is only when it has performed these tasks that the human mind is free to play with ideas, to dream, to contemplate the universe, to philosophize, to construct entirely imaginary worlds, to make art and music, to see the world as something other than a larder. A philosopher is, fundamentally, someone on whom the demands of everyday life are so slight that he or she can devote their thoughts to something other than the business of earning their daily bread.

From the point of view of the human mind, the rest of the human body, with its pains and appetites and demands, may often seem to be a burden to be cast off - leaving mind, released from worldly cares, free to soar on the wings of unfettered imagination. But this fiction of a separable body and mind neglects the fact that, although the body makes many demands on mind, it is ultimately that same body that supplies - with blood sugar - the human mind with the energy that powers its illusions. For no doubt the many muscles in the human frame, forever vexed by instructions from the brain to do this and that and the other, would be equally pleased to be rid of that taskmaster, and think itself a happy body whose tiresome head had just been chopped off. Human mind and body are inseparably entwined: they may demand a lot of each other, but they assist and support each other even more. In the trade of mind and body, both sides may not like the prices demanded, but both sides gain nonetheless from their transactions, and without each other they are lost.

The study of human psychology must begin with human mind in human body. The study of human mind must begin with the study of human physiology. Human culture is not commanded by human mind, but is rather the product of the interplay of mind and body, forever seeking to minimize the efforts of both.

Fragmentary Thoughts

Conscious activity is always directed to one task at a time - usually wherever the eyes are directed. To the extent that people can do several things at the same time, like drive a car, hold a conversation, and smoke a cigarette, it is because they flip between the various tasks, like jugglers keeping a set of balls in the air.

It is not that the activities of the human mind generate problems in the world, but that the world generates problems for the human mind. The human brain is simply the organ that coordinates responses to events in the world. That's its job, like a heart's job is to pump blood, and the lung's to breathe air. As human life and human society get more complex, the brain has had more and more work to do. That's probably the reason that it has enlarged, rather like muscles grow larger when they have to work harder, or bones get thicker when they get stressed. And, even enlarged, the brain sometimes has too much to do, and so it breaks down, just like muscles rip, or bones fracture. The cure for such breakdown is not through counselling or therapy or drugs, but through reducing the burden of work on the brain - just like the cure for torn muscles is to stop doing heavy physical work.

Many animals seem to be born with all the abilities they'll ever need. Just-hatched crocodiles can walk, swim, and bite. Young foals are on their feet within hours. After their flight feathers have grown, young birds take to the air without making unsuccessful trials. It seems that they are mostly hardwired with skills that humans have to painstakingly learn. For humans not only have to learn to speak and write, but they also have to learn to stand upright, walk, pick things up without dropping them, and quite possibly, in a blizzard of colours and sounds, even have to learn to see and hear. And then they have to learn to ride bicycles, drive cars, fly planes, and a thousand and one other things. In many senses, humans never stop learning. Move house, and you not only have to move all your possessions, but you have to meet new neighbours, find new roads and shops, work new cookers, pay new taxes, find new TV repairmen, maybe even speak a new language or dialect.

All that is called human "work" involves some combination of mental and physical effort. Yet a mathematician solving a differential equation with pen and paper is not doing something essentially different from a labourer shovelling earth - for both have to think about what they are doing as they use their different tools. It is not as if a mathematician performs purely intellectual work, or that a labourer performs purely physical work. And anyway there is no real difference between so-called mental and physical work, because the human brain, just as much as any muscle, is simply another power tool that uses energy to perform its function.

It is in idle time, the pen and the shovel put down, that tired muscles can relax, and the mind let wonder. It is in idle time that every story and poem and song and theory have been composed. For that brain which can construct an image of the world can also construct images of imaginary worlds, drawing not from the immediate evidence of the senses, but from the depositories of memory. The contemplation of the Good, of the Will, of Time and Eternity, are concerns to which the mind can turn its attention once the berries have been picked and eaten. Indeed, mind in the sense of abstract thought or mystic contemplation only comes into existence once essential everyday chores are completed, and immediately vanishes when the demands of everyday life intrude again.

Minds prefer not to think, just as muscles prefer not to flex.

Humans are all-purpose tool handles. They are the handles into which any number different tools can be slotted, like multi-purpose screwdriver sets. Most other animals come with their tools incorporated into their physiology, as teeth and claws and horns.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 19 Sep 2002