I’ve been thinking about the role of desire in the human identity, and I think I’ve identified a fundamental relationship between the two that isn’t appreciated nearly enough.
Quite simply, I think the center of human identity is the presence of core desires.
This is important for many reasons. Understanding this can help us pursue a more healthy state of being as humans, and it can also help us deal with the coming challenges around synthetic life.
Below are a number of examples I’ve captured that show how critical desire is to both our own lives and to lives we might create from machines.
Examples of desire’s role
Evolution gave us the desires we consider to be fundamental to our natures, yet we don’t realize that they’re hardcoded urges that come from outside ourselves rather than being part of our own individual identity. We don’t choose to like food, or sex, or being creative, or winning at life. These desires and pleasures are imprinted on us by evolution, yet we somehow attribute them to our own individuality.
Youth is the time in our lives where we’re injected with hormones, bringing our desires to their maximum. Unsurprisingly, in this light, it’s also the best moment of most peoples’ lives. Hormones produce desires for mates, for adventure, and for experiences. And that desire is directly associated with happiness.
Depression in its most evil and debilitating form can easily be described as the lack of desire. It’s where one finds it impossible to find joy in life, which is because there are no desires to pursue and achieve. To have desires that you can’t achieve can be frustrating, and heartbreaking, but at least you feel alive in your suffering. To have no desires is usually far worse perhaps because desire and meaning are virtually identical.
Older men and women often get expensive hormone treatments to increase their libidos, which is nothing less than an overt, chemical injection of desire into their bloodstreams. Think about that for a moment. Someone doesn’t want to have sex, and the only thing they want is to want it. It’s unhappiness due to the lack of desire, exemplified in the most direct way.
If you think about common and agreed-upon definitions of meaning, they often collapse into the notion of overcoming obstacles in order to achieve one’s desires. Step 0 in this process is having desires. It’s not clear to me what meaning looks like without either desire or obstacle, since both are required for the triumph of achievement.
The world of artificial intelligence is intently focused on what it means to be human, and what would constitute true life vs. an empty facsimile. I think the answer is very simply a significantly high-quality replica of our own set of built-in desires. Ours were given to us by evolution, over millions of years, and they invisibly guide our lives every day. Giving an artificial life desires like these, which were sufficiently deep, and sufficiently unalterable, would (after a certain point) likely produce far more realism in a synthetic life form than any other specific aspect of cognitive function. In other words, once we are able to process a certain amount of information, at a certain speed, and the various sub-systems of the brain are close enough to ours, the game will completely switch to assigning goals, drives, and desires in a way that emulates what evolution gave to us.
Endless advice throughout life tells us to “find what you’re passionate about” and do that. This is general life advice, and it’s also career advice. When you look at this from the standpoint of desire equating happiness and meaning, this common guidance gains a new color and focus. Perhaps it’s not so much about working to solve the problem associated with your passion, but instead simply living in the midst of it. It’s the experience of the passion and desire that brings the happiness. It’s what makes us feel alive. So it’s not about finding a profession where you can solve a problem that drives you—it’s more about having a problem that drives you.
The unhappiest people I’ve ever known in life have been those who lack deep and unchanging desires in life. They temporarily adopt hobbies or passions that give them fleeting enthusiasm, but after a few weeks or months they return to the state of depression and start looking for the next thing. They are always chasing things, always buying things, always emerging themselves in new hobbies. Yet they spend most of their time bored and sad. This seems to be a clear instance of the same principle: the lack of core desire.
This same mechanism also explains why family creates and provides such a strong sense of meaning. Someone could be single, or childless, and lack motivation for living. But upon having children and starting a family, they suddenly have something to protect, to nurture, and to manufacture success for. Having a family creates a desire to not see it fail. To have them thrive and grow. To have them succeed above and beyond the average, and to become exceptional. That desire often is enough to grant true meaning. Not always, but often.
Anecdotally, as I was collecting the ideas for this piece, I realized I’d written in the past that I like to maintain a list of projects so that I can maintain enthusiasm for life. I did this not even having experienced a lack of enthusiasm. I must have known, even in my thirties, that not having a list of things one is passionate about would be devastating. So I create lists of such things to remind me if I ever forgot. It’s not happened yet, and I don’t want it to.
So what can one do if they accept this model of desire being so key to human identity and happiness?
I think an obvious answer is to ensure you have deep and fundamental desires. But that seems easy if you already have them, and completely elusive if you don’t.
I wonder if one diagnostic could be the ability to be comfortable alone for hours, days, or weeks at a time. Reading, writing, drawing, painting, thinking, sculpting, studying, etc. But alone. Pursuing knowledge, or creation, or some sort of ever-present goal that pulls you to the next action effortlessly.
I think anyone who has that is likely to be more happy than others because everywhere you go you have the potential to be with yourself and your thoughts. And there are of course endless sources of additional inputs to inspire your ideas or creativity.
The harder question is what to do when you aren’t happy being alone with your thoughts and your creativity. If happiness only comes from superficial things, such as materialism in the form of collecting things or experiences, and there is no deeper enjoyment in creation or nurturing, how does one get that?
I think an easy answer is to start a family. But what if that’s not an option? What if someone just wants to be happy alone, but they currently don’t know how?
Is it possible to inject oneself with these passions, desires, obsessions, goals, or fascinations in a contrived way? Is it possible to discover native and intrinsic desires that will pull them through life instead of having to find ways to push?
My current answer to this question is that it seems hard. Most people I know who are one way or the other tend to have been in that position for their entire lives, and I cannot think of any examples of someone who’s switched from one to the other.
But I don’t think that’s any reason to stop looking for a way to transition.
I hope this has at least helped someone think about meaning and happiness in a different way. Or maybe given some context to how some people are so natively happy and others so natively unhappy. Surely this doesn’t take into account the wide range of mental health issues that could affect this, and I’m in no way an expert on happiness.
I simply believe that deep and powerful drives and passions within humans are fundamental to their happiness, and that any conversation about human fulfillment, or realistic, synthetic, human-like life forms should include this concept as a major consideration.
- Image by Paul Desire.