Actions and Words: Akrasia and the Fruit of Self-Knowledge

by Annoyance 2 min read15th Apr 200921 comments


Knowing other people requires intelligence,

but knowing yourself requires wisdom.

Those who overcome others have force,

but those who overcome themselves have power.

- Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33:  Without Force, Without Perishing

Much has been written here about the issue of akrasia.  People often report that they really, sincerely want to do something, that they recognize that certain courses of action are desirable/undesirable and that they should choose them -- but when the time comes to decide, they do otherwise.  Their choices don't match what they said their choices would be.

While I'm sure many people are less than honest in reporting their intentions to others, and possibly even more who aren't even being honest with themselves, there are still plenty of people that are presumably sincere and honest.  So how can they make their actions match their understanding of what they want?  How can their choices reflect their own best judgment?

Isn't that really the wrong question?

The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common:  they don't alter their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views.  Which can be very uncomfortable, if you're one of the facts that needs correcting.

Doctor Who, The Face of Evil

If a model of a phenomenon fails to accurately predict it, we conclude that the model is flawed and try to change it.  If what we're trying to understand is ourselves, our own choices, and the motivations, desires, and preferences that direct those choices, why should we do any differently?  Our actions reveal what we actually want, not what we believe we want or believe we should want.  No one chooses against their own judgment.  What we do is choose against our understanding of our own judgment, and that is a far subtler matter.  By our fruits shall we know ourselves.

Q:  How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A:  The lightbulb has to want to change.

Expecting our behavior to be constrained and controlled by our understanding is like expecting our limbs to move if we yell at them to do so.  It doesn't matter how much we believe we want them to move, or how much we say we want them to move.  It is irrelevant whether we have a conscious understanding of the nerves and muscles involved.  Our conscious awareness is a bystander that reports what happens and attributes its observations to itself, when in actuality it controls very little at all.

There are people whose ability to move has been damaged by nerve trauma or damage to the brain.  The established relationships between their intents, their desires, and the signals to their muscles, have been damaged or destroyed.  Such people do not improve by talking to others about how much they want to move, or by talking to themselves about it (which is what conscious thought really is).  They get better by searching out connections that work and building on them.

Those whom heaven helps we call the children of heaven.  They do not learn this by learning.  They do not work it by working.  They do not reason it by using reason.  To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high achievement.

- Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi, Chapter 2:  On the Proper Order of Things

Babies have little if any consciousness, and they don't possess theory.  Their nervous systems learn to move their bodies by bombarding their muscles with random noise triggered by their interests, and strengthening the signals that happen to get them closer to what they want.  Not what they think they want.  It is quite unlikely that babies have models of their minds, much less conscious ones, although they are either born with models of their bodies or the foundations for building such a model.

Those who wish to bring themselves into alignment with what is truly correct, instead of what their impulses and desires seek in themselves, must first understand the nature of their impulses and the nature of their understanding.

Let him that would move the world first move himself.

- Socrates of Athens