Act I Synopsis

Draft version 9/14/17

(link back to the GLOBAL SYNOPSIS)

ACT I SYNOPSIS: Act I presents the Manual’s core evidence and arguments. It is preceded by a (so far unwritten) Prologue, which gives “can,” should,” “must,” and “how” reasons to embrace the Manual’s reason for being: the idea that human universals, not our real or imagined differences, control the rise and fall of human civilizations.

Act I develops that “how.”

It methodically asks and answers, “What are the universal parts of the Engine of Human Nature, and how do they fit together, and what do they do?” Basing its arguments on the interaction of a handful of universal, self-evident truths, Act I provides a plain-language map of how four mental structures work: human thought, knowledge, identity, and emotion.

Its purpose is to set the stage for larger things.

I.0: Parts list, and orientation. Act I, per the prologue’s instructions, begins by serially invoking the Law of Radical Consensus (“Any disagreement can be reframed as an agreement, simply by jointly acknowledging that the disagreement exists”) until universality and consensus have converged in a handful of self-evident human truths:

  • all humans have attentional limits
  • all humans compensate with learned habits of thought and action
  • all humans have instincts

Definitionally broad by design, each of the three listed parts satisfies four essential criteria: each one is (1) widely accepted; (2) equally true of all humans, without exception; (3) self-evident to the point of obviousness; and (4) impossible to remove or to turn off. Their simultaneous and unmistakable presence is what gives the Manual its solid epistemological floor.

With the parts list properly defined, the assembly of the Engine of Human Nature can begin. We begin in reverse order.

I.1: Instinct inspires self-preservation. Staying alive requires a blend of hardwired reactions and behavioral flexibility. INSTINCT, the third of our listed human universals, manages that broad blend. Your sense of conscious awareness may be seated in your brain, but that brain is also housed in a human body with its own visceral form of self-awareness, where instinctive effects happen without conscious intervention. The instinctive machinery is pervasive, pushing against each of these levels — mind, behavior, body, and brain — at once. It is vast, intricate, unknowably complex, and highly persuasive.

The part labeled “Instinct” can be set aside until section I.6, when we will need it again.

I.2: The abstract human sense of self isn’t fixed. Over time, the subset of instinct known as “human intelligence” automatically uses habits of thought and action to build a sprawling, abstract “sense of self,” or identity. Your abstract awareness of you grows both organically and analogically as you learn, expanding beyond your body to encompass your family, your prized possessions, your career goals, your political or religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and anything else you have ever cared about, or fought against. The unique shape of your own identity construct is at once strange and quite characteristically human, because…

I.3: The universal logic of human intelligence is unbound by truth, coherence, or rationality. By necessity or by design (you pick), the machinery of intelligence freely mixes correlations, reasoned arguments, and analogies, folding them over time into recursively layered confections of human knowledge. The most useful of these are retained as learned habits of thought and action. HABITS, the second of our listed human universals, help by sinking quickly below the waterline of consciousness as they crystallize into useful knowledge, freeing your attention for other things.

But there is a catch: even a cursory glance shows that the universal process of human habit formation must follow a process that is demonstrably unbound by truth or even by rational coherence! The implications for identity coherence are sobering, but bigger game is afoot. To that end, further parsing of the machinery of habit— namely, its internal invisibility, local effectiveness, speed of response, and unknown associational pull — reveals evidence that fatally undermines assumptions of intrinsic human rationality itself!

The coup-de-grace is delivered by the arrival of our third and final universal part:

I.4: Conscious awareness is sharply limited. No human being can pay attention to everything at once. This is both obvious and self-evident. What is less obvious, but upon further reflection becomes just as self-evident, is how little can be “seen” or analyzed in real time. The habit-based logic of human intelligence is so efficient that it masks from us the true extent of its own power. Briefly put, the iceberg of personally accumulated habit is so effective, and is so unfathomably vast, and dives so deeply below the waterline of consciousness, that a fully rational internal accounting of its ever-shifting contents is impossible. Human beings are not rational. Yet somehow, we survive!

I.5: Rationality is dead, long live rational argument? Paradoxically, by abandoning the false hope that human beings are (or ever can become) intrinsically rational, we have succeeded in restoring the single most potent tool in the human cognitive pantheon: the learned skill of rational argument. Venerating the spirit of rational inquiry in its proper role as an impartial, teachable method, rather than as an intrinsic human quality, allows us to regain the perspective we need to map Human Nature as it actually is.

Indeed, once the false premise of intrinsic rationality has been abandoned, the largest pieces of the human puzzle suddenly find a compelling rational fit:

I.6: Emotions are instinctive defenses of our many metaphorical selves. Finally, the engine roars to life. Recall the instinctive machinery of I.1, that exists to protect and maintain our physical bodies? Since the human abstract and visceral self-senses are doubly entangled (the body houses the brain, even as the mind steers the body), it doesn’t end there: if I abstractly threaten your job, the instinctive machinery of your body reacts!

Examples of such identity-entanglements abound: unexpected bad news hits like a punch in the gut, for the body defends as if against a surprise physical attack. “Bad” election results can (and do) cause existential dread, with real physical symptoms, but not to the opposition. “Good” news liberates a burst of energy. Ask any sports fan. For that matter, ask any concertgoer what it is like to physically experience a moment of musical catharsis.

I.7: An illustration, by analogy. A simple automotive analogy might look something like this:

  • Instinct is the engine
  • Intelligence is the steering wheel
  • Consciousness is the driver
  • Emotion is the pedals, but they are double-connected, for the engine also uses them to accelerate its driver. (No analogy is perfect.)

I.8: The pieces fall into place. Suddenly, everything starts making sense. Why are we blindsided by some, but not all, of our emotions? Because the logic of human intelligence ensures that fast emotions will strike with the quickness of habit, while slower emotions can only unfold at the speed of implications considered in real time. Why do humans have complex emotions, such as love-hate relationships, or cognitive dissonances? Because the instinctive machinery blindly defends all identity-constructs in the habit-iceberg at once, regardless of their truth or rational coherence. Why does dwelling on emotions amplify them? Because an emotion’s intensity is determined not just by an afflicted self-node’s relative importance, but also by how much attention it happens to be receiving at the time. What are moods and intuitions? Surface vectors of the combined instinctive pressures upon all self-nodes, known or not, that are hidden below the waterline of conscious awareness. The list goes on and on.

I.9: The paradox of altruism resolved. Even so-called “selfless” behavior finally makes sense: altruism is simply the instinctive defense of an expanded self-sense (you + yours) in which the balance of attentional focus is temporarily shifted to yours. The apparent paradox of selflessness is just that: it is an artifact of perspective, not a biological contradiction.

I.10: Summary of Act I. Human emotion explodes into being at the hinge of identity, where the visceral logic of instinct meets the abstract logic of human intelligence. The universal engine driving that explosion is in turn constructed of self-evident human truths. Mapping both the engine and its universal outputs can be accomplished in plain language, providing the basis for a coherent, accessible, meaningful explanation for all possible human behavior. That explanation elegantly integrates all possible “us/them” framings into a unified understanding of Human Nature. Doing so awakens an awareness of encroaching danger, a host of strategic possibilities, and a sense of cautious optimism.

I.11: Foreshadowing Acts II and III. Finding solutions to our ongoing civilizational problems in time to be useful is the Manual’s entire reason for being. Thanks to Act I, the success or failure of that reason now hangs upon a deceptively simple question: “If the universal Engine of Human Nature runs continuously in every individual, and it operates as mapped, then its constant operation must raise predictable standing waves in our societal fabric, over which all possible human cultures must rise and fall. Can those waves also be mapped?” Excitingly, the answer appears more and more to be “yes.” Stay tuned.

MJP 09–14–17