May 10th, 2020

On desire

It's becoming apparent to me that if you really want to understand human beings, the thing you most need to understand is their desires, because desire is the only thing that really motivates human beings in any way whatsoever. André Malraux famously declared: "What is Man? A miserable little pile of secrets", but I might modify this quote by changing the last word to "desires". Human beings spend their whole lives pursuing whatever desire they might feel, and this is what guides them at nearly every level of their lives.

This might not be a bad thing were it not for how completely irrational and pointless most of humanity's desires are. The only "rational"-seeming desires are the ones which are necessary to live, like the desires to eat and feel safe, but even these are fundamentally irrational, because human beings do not need life, and to pursue life as an end in itself is itself an irrational desire which people have: They desire to live and they desire to not die, even when they have no reason to live and they may have valid reasons for dying. It is not the case that people have to survive for any reason. So strong is desire that it causes people to act directly against reason, logic, and understanding. And yet, to this one must add that there is also no reason to be rational or logical; the desire to behave according to reason and logic is itself an emotional response to an emotional desire to behave logically. Yes, people can have a sentimental, emotional attachment to logic and reason, and many people do.

In any case, the fact is that most people's desires go far beyond just survival. Oh, when they feel threatened, when they feel like their lives are in danger, people will reliably claim that they "just want to live", that they would be happy just to survive and do not ask for anything else, but as soon as they don't feel threatened anymore, people will just as reliably start desiring something else. And the thing is, if their desires are satisfied, people will just want something else instead.

It's tragic how few people seem to realize this. Some people never get beyond the simplest possible view of desire, the one which people already know at birth. This view of desire states simply: If you want something, you might get it, in which case you become happy and satisfied, and if you don't get it, then you remain unhappy and unsatisfied. This view states that you should pursue what you want, because if you get what you want, then you will be happy. In reality, however, if people get what they want, they will quickly not want it anymore, and instead want something else. Desire is endless; it goes on forever. Where one desire is satisfied, another one quickly pops up to take its place. People who through their whole lives just desiring one thing or another, for an entire lifetime.

Now, I am obviously not the first person to realize this; many people have realized it, and this is one of those issues which can readily divide people into two camps depending on how they feel about it. On the one side are people who say "Since all of life is just about desiring one thing or another, then we are free to pursue whatever we desire, and that's a great thing. We live in a big, beautiful world where we can pursue whatever we want, and because the world is huge, we can allow our desires to run rampant for all of our lives and keep consuming more of what appeals to us. How could that be a bad thing?" On the other side are people who say "Desires are completely irrational, stemming from our id for no valid reason whatsoever. As such, we have no reason to pursue them. All desires are pointless, and indeed, some of them are even dangerous, destructive, or wasteful, so why should we pursue them? The willingness of humanity to pursue its desires at all costs, without regard to rational concerns, is a significant factor in the destruction of humanity through war and oppression, and the destruction of our global habitat". It probably doesn't take too much intuition to imagine that I'm in the latter camp.

Desire is generally inflexible. You cannot steer or control desire, or swap one desire for another. Despite being completely irrational in that there is no "reason why" anyone wants anything, desires seem to be generally unchanging throughout a person's life. This ties in with my recent assertion that a person is born the way they are, and once they understand who and what they are, they are unlikely to change much throughout their life. Desires are programmed into people at birth, or indeed, even before birth. The process of life is partly the process of discovering what has been programmed into you by biology.

As an example, one could consider musical tastes, which is sometimes a highly divisive matter among humans. Most people enjoy music of some kind, but musical tastes vary widely from one person to another, even people who grew up in the same culture where similar music was often to be heard. People's attachment to their particular music is so strong that they will often form friendships or even romantic relationships and marriages based largely on sharing musical tastes with other people. Just as music can unite people, it can also divide people: People's disgust and contempt for music which they don't like often leads them to opposition against people who listen to undesirable music. Physical violence between groups of people can be incited by clashes of musical taste, and relationships have been abandoned because people found their partner's taste in music intolerable.

More to the point, however, people's taste in music seems not to change very much throughout their lives. It is most flexible in youth, because youth is when people are still experiencing different things in the world and discovering different things about themselves, but once a person becomes an adult, their musical taste is fairly fixed for the rest of their lives. To a significant extent, music reflects a person's personality and worldview: People who listen to a lot of loud, aggressive music are more likely to be loud and aggressive in their everyday personality, and people who prefer quiet, soothing music are more likely to be peaceful and relaxed in their everyday lives, but more to the point, there isn't really any "reason" to be either of these things. Some people may say that it's better to be calm and relaxed, that it's better to live a quiet life of cooperation rather than a life of conflict and violence, but then again, is there any rational basis for this idea? Is there an irrefutable basis to the idea that a person who listens to soothing music at home is living a better life than a punk who is getting bloody in a mosh pit somewhere? Yes, the punk is likely to be unhealthier and have a shorter life span, but then again, people don't really need to survive anyway, so if the punk dies at 20, they would no doubt say that they had lived a fuller life with their 20 years than someone who lives to old age while listening to "sissy music".

Another field where differences between people becomes very clear is in the realm of sexual tastes. Sex is something inherently irrational in the first place: Unless it is done for the purpose of biological reproduction, then there is really no "reason" for people to have sex, but nonetheless, it forms a significant amount of what people want and pursue in their lives. Sex is greatly complicated by the fact that, again, people want different things, and many people want very specific things. Sexual tastes go far beyond just gender: Yes, there are people who are attracted to the opposite sex, people who are attracted to the same sex, people who are attracted to both sexes, and people who deny the concept of gender altogether and see it as a non-binary thing, but far beyond this is the list of things which people can desire in terms of sexuality. Some people like being tied up, while some prefer to tie other people up; some like both, and some would prefer neither. Some people are aroused by very specific situations or actions, which can make it difficult to find other people who share these particular tastes. As an example, I remember seeing, about 20 years ago, a website which catered specifically to the fetish of having your car break down while driving in an isolated location; apparently the sense of vulnerability and helplessness created by such a situation is sexually appealing to some people. Sexual fetishes can be so numerous, elaborate, and specific that some people create "kink lists" specifying exactly what they like and dislike, what they are willing and unwilling to do in terms of sex acts. If you ever want to get an idea of how complicated people can be, you can look up some of these on the Internet, as many people publish their kink lists publicly, revealing to all the world that they love being humiliated and spanked but are absolutely not willing to wear gags or blindfolds. This is not a bad thing in the sense that it helps people to tangibly express and understand what they want from each other, but the inflexibility of desire means that people with very specific fetishes or tastes will have trouble finding people with whom they can indulge those tastes.

The inflexibility of desire can be a good thing, because it means that people are predictable: If someone really likes something and has liked it for a while, chances are good that they will continue to like it in the future. This allows people to plan their lives around their desires, under the assumption that what they want now will probably be what they want tomorrow, or 10 years in the future, or even longer than that. But the inflexibility of desire can also be a problem if people want things which create problems for other people. As a sexual example, some people happen to have a sexual predilection toward young children, and for people who have this particular sexual taste, life can be very difficult, because it provides the essentially binary decision of denying yourself what you want for your entire life, or spending most of your life in prison (where you won't be able to get what you want anyway). Pedophiles show patterns of behavior similar to lifelong alcoholics and drug addicts: They try to reform themselves, especially after the first time they have spent some time in prison, but long-term, it seems that these desires cannot be erased from the body, and in moments of weakness or vulnerability, people tend to fall back into the behavior they are trying to get away from. You can take a person out of an environment, but you can't take that environment out of the person.

Another troubling aspect of desire is that many people want things which physically do not exist, or are physically impossible. A common example is the desire for the ability to fly, which is a desire human beings have had since time immemorial. In our modern world, this desire has been partially realized through the development of aircraft like airplanes and helicopters, but this desire obviously relates to the desire to fly using one's own body, without the use of a mechanical apparatus. Small aircraft like "ultralight trikes" or "microlights", which are typically a hang-glider wing with a small engine attached, or "rotorcycles" (bicycles with helicopter blades), or "backpack helicopters" (which are pretty much exactly what they sound like; yes, it's basically like in Inspector Gadget), or jetpacks which have been a staple of science-fiction for decades but are now turning into a relatively practical reality, may get people closer to the sensation of flying without being boxed into a confining aircraft, but those people are still fundamentally flying on the power of a machine, not that of their own body. Returning again to the topic of sexual tastes, many people have a favorite sexual fetish which focuses on something that simply doesn't exist. For example, on the Internet, one can find significant communities of "furries", people who are attracted to anthropomorphic animal creatures which (sorry to break it to you folks) don't actually exist. They find lions, horses, or zebras with humanoid bodies to be sexy. Science has yet to create such animals, although in our age of genetic engineering, it is conceivable that biologists may try to do so. Such is the nature of human desire that there may actually be cause to worry whether someone, somewhere, is trying to do exactly this: Genetically engineer a horse with humanoid-looking breasts to satisfy a particular sexual fetish.

One problem with following your desires is that many people confuse what they desire with what would actually satisfy them. Have you ever had that feeling of being in love with someone but not knowing how to act on it, of being so strongly attracted to someone that you'd do anything to be with them, only to realize that you wouldn't know what to do even if you were with them? You don't really have anything to say to them, and you wouldn't know what to say even if they were standing in front of you right now. You want that person more than anything or anyone in the world, but you do not know what you actually want from them. This is an example of a desire without an outlet; you know that you want something because you feel a serious need, but you can't identify what it is that you want, and it may very well be the case that there is nothing which can satisfy your desire. Or, in the case of love, we confuse love with lust. If you're attracted to someone, you often have the sense that the attraction is non-sexual. You believe beyond any doubt that you don't just see that person as a sex object; you want to be with them, to share things with them, to live your life with that person, because your attraction to them is not just about having sex with them. And yet, if you ever do have sex with them, after the moment of orgasm, suddenly you find that you're not very interested in that person after all. Our bodies often trick us into thinking that we "love" someone, and only later do we discover that our urge to give or receive love with that person was limited to one really good orgasm, after which point the body suddenly starts to desire other things.

What you need to understand is that your body very often lies to you about what would satisfy it. What you think you want and what would actually please you are sometimes two quite different things. An example which I can give from my own life (which I think is relevant to many other people's lives) is the phenomenon of late-night cravings for particular foods. Many people suddenly find, in the hours shortly before their usual bedtime, that they experience incredibly strong hunger cravings for a specific food. And yet, eating right before bed is not good for sleep; the body does not sleep as well if it has to digest food while trying to sleep at the same time. What is the cause of these hunger cravings, and what can one do about them? In my early 20s, I myself used to have quite strong late-night cravings for specific foods. In my late 20s, a series of episodes of serious cardiac arrhythmia sent me to the emergency room on several occasions, where I gradually came to understand that in the evening, my blood levels of potassium and magnesium seem to dip to dangerously low levels. Since then, I've started taking potassium and magnesium supplements at around 8:00 PM, and this seems to have gotten rid of my food cravings. What seems to have been happening is that my body was low on specific nutrients, but since the body doesn't have a way to tell me that I specifically need magnesium or potassium, it instead craves specific foods which it "knows" to be sources of those nutrients. What I wanted and what actually satisfied that craving were two fairly different things. Your desire can only target things which are known to you; very often, people feel dissatisfied because they have not yet identified something which could satisfy them. And again, it is not a given that something which could satisfy you even exists.

So human desire is problematic because it goes on forever, drives people toward socially-unacceptable behavior, leads people to do insane and dangerous things for no other reason than to satisfy their own irrational desires, and desires often lie to people because they are convinced that they want something different from what would actually satisfy them. On top of all this, many people who are fortunate enough to have their desires fulfilled are sad because they have nothing left to want; they desire something to desire, they suffer because they want something to want. Their immediate wants and needs have been fulfilled but they still don't feel satisfied with life. They want something in life that can satisfy their need for something they can't even identify. And it may very well be the case that there is nothing in the world that can satisfy this desire.

People who are ambitious want to "do something with life". People want to leave their mark on the world, to influence the world through politics, art, social activism, or something similar. I feel this same desire. And yet when one examines it, this desire is as irrational as any other. It masquerades as charitable and altruistic, but in fact, this desire is selfish, because it is a person's desire to gratify their own sense of usefulness and importance.

And then there's the fact that you can want something on one level, and not want it on another level. I know from my own life that I never seem to get tired of playing computer games. Theoretically, if I didn't have to go to work, if my free time could be used however I wanted to use it, I could probably happily play computer games for the rest of my life. But at the end of my life, I would look back and feel some regret: I would think "I wish I had done something with my life other than play computer games". Playing computer games is something I could be happy doing for the rest of my life, but not what I want to do with my life. What actually makes me happy is not what I want. What I desire is not what I want.

And yet, what do I want? I don't know. I can't identify any specific thing that I actually want for my life. It is likely that there is nothing in the world that would make me happy. I have desires that can never be fulfilled.

People seem to assume that if they want something, there is something in the world that can satisfy their desire. But this is a thought as irrational as any other. Just because you feel dissatisfied with life, just because you feel that you want something, that doesn't mean that there is anything that exists, or even anything that could theoretically exist, which could fulfill your desires.

So, once again: The reality is that human beings are nothing but an endless string of desires. As soon as one desire is satisfied, another one springs up. And after that, another. It's just an endless chain that goes on forever. And no human being can ever be truly satisfied.

I am certainly not the first person to recognize this tendency in humans. Buddha recognized it, which was the insight that led to him forming the core belief of Buddhism, namely that suffering comes from wanting things, because since desire just goes on forever, it will torment us all our lives, and so the secret to happiness is to give up desire: Want nothing and live without desires in your life. This mentality is perhaps good for a person's peace of mind: If you want nothing, then nothing can ever hurt or upset you, because whatever happens, happens, and it really doesn't matter since you didn't want anything anyway. But I think and feel that the resulting organism is hardly something human. A creature which doesn't care what happens, which simply accepts everything which happens as "the way it is" is somehow missing something which I value as vitally human: The ability to evaluate things critically, form personal values, and take steps toward realizing those values. Of course, this bias is only my own: Many people are perfectly happy not caring about anything, and going through life not caring about anything, sincerely believing that nothing matters and being deeply reconciled with this idea. Perhaps that is a mentality for some people, but it's not for me.

And yet, I certainly sometimes ignore or deny desires. It's fair to say that following your desires is not a binary decision: It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Perhaps it's fair to take some pleasure from everyday life and to pursue some things that make you happy, without going to extreme lengths to fulfill some bizarre fantasy that your mind somehow came up with. In everyday terms, if you can have a cookie, and if eating that cookie will make you materially happier and more satisfied with your life on that day, then go ahead and eat the cookie. But think twice about investing a huge amount of time and money in a project which might ultimately only exist to serve some particular obsession which you personally have. A life policy of "moderate denial" can be reasonable: Deny yourself your most unreasonable excesses, but don't deprive your life of pleasure altogether.

On a larger practical scale, desire presents a problem in terms of politics and governance. When regarding human society at a macro scale, human desire presents the very serious problem that most people want different things, and there is no way to satisfy all those people. Politics is really just the practice of trying to satisfy as many people as possible: to achieve the least dissatisfactory state. Inevitably, some people will end up unhappy with the results. You can't please everyone, and most politicians just try to do what they can to please whomever yells the loudest and makes the most trouble to get what they want. This does, of course, mean that selfish, antisocial behavior is rewarded, but that's the nature of politics. And that's the nature of desire and how it integrates into the human psyche: Human beings want things so much that they will alienate other people and destroy others' lives if it can get them closer to the goal of satisfying whatever desire they feel at the moment. Whether on a national (or international) political level or at an interpersonal social level, it makes no difference: People's desires are insane, and they will go to insane lengths to satisfy those desires.

But what are human beings once you strip away their desires? If you say "My desires are irrational and pointless. They go nowhere, so I'm going to stop listening to them", then what remains of us as human beings? What motivation or direction do we have to do anything at all? People who stop gratifying their desires rapidly fall into serious depression and begin to feel that there is no reason to be alive at all. If you're not being whipped in chains by a well-endowed hermaphrodite centaur with sandy-colored hair, piercing green eyes, and a Scottish accent who enjoys acid rock and gangsta jazz and likes dogs and iguanas but not chinchillas, then really, what point is there to being alive at all?

I can only conclude as I began: Human beings are really just a bundle of pointless, senseless desires. That's all we are, nothing more.