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The Three Body Problem of the Mind
Exploring the Gravitational Pull of Three Fundamental Desires
This essay was originally published in The Soaring Twenties Social Club:
A three body problem is a situation posed by Isaac Newton: if we know the speed and location of three bodies, how can we calculate their future trajectories? This three body problem generally refers to planetary bodies - like the sun, moon, and Earth - and the gravitational forces they exert on each other. Newton’s question is considered a conundrum to this day because we cannot calculate the trajectory of these heavenly bodies with mathematical equations.
Three body problems contrast with their solvable brother: two body problems. Two body problems can be solved because there are few enough variables to mathematically model them while three body problems introduce circular logic. Despite their origin in physics, three body problems have been observed in other applications like sociology. In his essay titled The Three City Problem of Modern Life, Luke Burgis explains how modern cultural progress is directed by the gravitational pull of three different cultural hubs. He posits that the influence of Jerusalem and Athens - representative of ideologies driven by faith and reason, respectively - have historically been a two body problem. The recent introduction of Silicon Valley - representative of an ideology of utility - has introduced a “Three City Problem” since the future direction of our culture becomes incalculable with this third variable. The result is a chaotic cultural landscape since we cannot predict how each city influences one another:
Because the three cities are interacting, we are now living with technology-mediated religion (online church services) and technology-mediated reason (280-character Twitter debates); religiously adopted technology (bitcoin) and religiously observed reason (Covid-19 cathedrals of safety); rational religion (effective altruism) and “rational” technology (3D-printed assisted-suicide pods).
If Tertullian were alive today, I believe he would ask: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem—and what do either have to do with Silicon Valley?” In other words, how do the domains of reason and religion relate to the domain of technological innovation and its financiers in Silicon Valley? If the Enlightenment champion Steven Pinker (a resident of Athens) walked into a bar with a Trappist monk (Jerusalem) and Elon Musk (Silicon Valley) with the goal of solving a problem, would they ever be able to arrive at a consensus?
From Luke Burgis’s The Three City Problem of Modern Life
His recommended approach to The Three City Problem is to pause and reflect on the fundamentals. When we interact with someone, what city are they speaking from? How can we orient each city’s inhabitants towards common goals without overpowering one another’s cultural hubs? Create a new hub where we can balance each gravitational pull rather than take residence in any one city. Just like how the duality of a two body problem must hang in balance, so must the trilogy of a three body problem.
If we extrapolate such concepts to our psyche, we can find numerous examples of two body problems through the balance of two antagonistic internal forces. Such manifestations include: thinking vs feeling, selfishness vs selflessness, masculinity vs femininity, yin vs yang, conscious vs unconscious thought, and left brain vs right brain dominance. I’d venture that these are frequently discussed because the equation to rebalance each dualistic system is simple: either add one or subtract the other. Or follow Nassim Taleb’s barbell approach.
The author would like to propose a new three body problem - The Three Body Problem of the Mind. This trilogy creates a chaotic environment like Burgis’s Three City Problem but rather than a balance of ideologies, it posits one of fundamental desires. This Three Body Problem of the Mind is the gravitational pull of the following desires:
Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure. It looks like leisure and feels like the carefree enjoyment of the present moment. It sounds like self-care and echoes within the advice to “just be yourself.” It is embodied by the free-spirited individual that does whatever he pleases whenever he feels so inclined - or maybe just Cosmo Kramer.
Individuation is synonymous with the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-actualization. It is the pursuit of fulfilling your potential as a human being. It frequently resembles ambition towards the future and it tends to conflict with hedonism because it embodies the ethos of Alexis Carrel’s famous quote:
“Man cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor.”
The gravitational force of individuation echoes in statements like “Have you no shame?” because shame is one of the sharper tools used to sculpt such a marble.
Duty is the force that orients us towards what is best for our loved ones. It looks like a parent sacrificing their hobbies to ensure their child can live a beautiful life. It’s your friend who drops everything when you ask for help. It is the commitment towards one’s community without any expectation of a return nor does its action derive from self-interest. In short, it is synonymous with compassion or love.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NKJV
As the reader may imagine, these gravitational forces can conflict with one another when we consider our next move. In such a conflicting environment, it may feel natural to fall captive to one force while pleading ignorance to the others. Such imbalance leads to dissatisfaction. Imagine life on the hedonistic treadmill, perpetually foregoing pleasure for a better tomorrow, or as a doormat. Neither scenario sounds satisfactory to me.
The fundamental question may arise when we recognize such forces need balance: what determines the strength of each force? The desires of our inspiration and competition - or mimetic models. Most of our mimetic models tend to live on social media and since it is dominated by tribalism and extremism, we rarely find our mimetic models promoting a balanced trilogy. Rather, they paint a rosy picture of life intoxicated by the influence of one or two bodies.
Since mimetic desire is a hidden mechanism that underlies our Three Body Problem of the Mind, balance becomes a challenge to achieve because it is nearly impossible to understand where one force ends and another begins. This hidden nature of mimetic desire is largely due to our cognitive bias and The Prover’s tendency to prove what The Thinker thinks. Our beliefs surrounding certain desires influence how they look to us. For example, the workaholic inundated with hustle culture or the exceptionally dutiful parent may view the desire to relax as hedonism when it is truly the gravitational pull of individuation.
In a similar yet opposite vein; the adjacent beliefs, associations, or internal context surrounding a desire influences which gravitational force is at play. Another prominent example, self-care, is generally a hedonistic driven desire since it is typically associated with indulgence in guilty pleasures that are good for the soul but bad for the body. Self-care can be driven by individuation if The Thinker associates self-care with physical activities that delay gratification like exercise or preparation of healthy home-cooked meals. Lastly, self-care could be driven by duty if The Thinker finds physical activities like volunteering or time spent nurturing relationships as such. Note how this is different from our beliefs of the desire: beliefs of the desire influence our perception of the underlying fundamental desire while beliefs adjacent to the desire influence the actual fundamental desire at play. Ultimately, the fundamental desire behind each desire depends on each individual’s personal context and belief system.
Awareness of our personal context and belief system plays a role in addressing the three body problem of the mind. Before we dive too deeply into how we can approach this three body problem, one caveat: unlike our colleagues in the physics department, we have the power to manipulate the gravitational force of each body. And so, our doors open.
Door number one to balance our internal three body system: identify the fundamental desires at work before discerning which gravitational force is weakest through ruthless self-examination. This requires an intimate and unbiased look at your belief system, which is difficult when we consider the need to navigate the mapping of our internal context while recognizing that our beliefs of our desires influence our perception of them. Solomon’s Paradox is the downstream effect of this conundrum. One way to overcome Solomon’s Paradox is through Jordan Peterson’s Second Rule for Life: treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. Or as many others and myself have previously suggested: externalize your beliefs so you can separate them from yourself and scrutinize them with objectivity. By identifying the veil created by our belief system, we can begin to see beyond it and recognize each fundamental desire when they exert their gravitational pull on us.
As alluded to previously, this path also requires a crisp understanding of your personal context, both internal and external. Internal context refers to your mental associations while external context refers to where you place yourself in the world. Where the internal context influences which underlying forces are at play, the external context changes your ideal balance of duty, hedonism, and individuation. A 70 year old with grandchildren will find a larger proportion of duty to be the best balance of these gravitational forces than a single 20 year old beginning a highly specialized career.
Once we have self-reflected enough to see beyond The Prover/Thinker’s veil and we decide on the appropriate balance given our personal context, we can identify which gravitational pull needs the greatest support to restore balance in our three body system. This is challenging for many because it requires us to find a delicate balance within another two body problem: self-awareness without leaning too far into self-consciousness. Only if we reach such an enlightened state amidst a chaotic and constantly distracting world, then can we take the necessary steps to increase the gravitational pull of a deficient third body.
As we mentioned previously, most of these desires stem from mimetic models. This is because mimesis is the origin of each gravitational pull. Rather than internally wrestling with your beliefs and internal context, you might be better off influencing the hidden forces upstream of your desires. In other words, choose new mimetic models - spend more time engaging with those that embody the lacking gravitational force as revealed by your external context. The hustle guru might help the lazy, while grandma might be a better mimetic model for the selfish. The workaholic might want to engage with someone devoted to leisure.
Under the influence of mimetic models tailored to our self-identified deficiencies, we see a return to balance, a state where despite moving in a chaotic-looking pattern, our three bodies maintain the same center of mass due to equal gravitational pulls. In other words, they remain balanced within a complicated dance.
Our second approach to this Three Body Problem of the Mind is to create a fourth force stronger than the three forces. The advantage is that this force pulls all three bodies in a unified direction. You may argue that this is cheating the strict definition of a three body problem, but many before me have found greater success in life by orienting their energy towards bending the rules of the game in front of them rather than obeying its rules and mastering the game.
You may also argue that this is an unfruitful approach since its logical conclusion is a continuous treadmill, yet this is exactly the process of setting a goal and achieving it. The gravitational pull of the fourth body disappears once the goal is achieved. For example, if your goal is to lose 15 lbs of weight and you succeed, the goal doesn’t linger. Rather, you would ask yourself, “Now what?” This returns us to our original three body problem of chaotic desires and so the treadmill is reset.
To ensure the fourth force is useful in our goal of orienting our three bodies, it must be:
Large enough to redirect each body’s trajectory
Far enough away to keep each body in orderly motion for a reasonable period of time
How can we build a force congruent with this criteria? Identify a ten year goal of who you wish to become; inclusive of what you want your relationships to look like, what you’ve accomplished, and the amount of time spent on activities you simply enjoy. That vision of yourself in ten years must capture these three areas; otherwise, your fourth body will not pull each of your bodies in a unified direction. The vision must also be coherent and congruent with reality. You cannot sit at the top of your career ladder, have an enviable relationship with your family, a flourishing social life, master a few of the fine arts for leisure, and remain in peak physical and mental shape. All of these demand such a degree of sacrifice that they cannot coexist at one point in time.
Our second criterion presents a double-edged sword: distance keeps each body in motion for a reasonable amount of time, but it presents greater opportunity for the three bodies to become diverted along the way. Especially since these bodies do not obey the exact same laws of physics as celestial bodies - the four bodies can shift in size. We’ve explored how this can be leveraged in our favor, but it can work against us if our fourth body atrophies over time.
The gravitational pull of a goal certainly atrophies over time if we do not consistently remind ourselves of it. New distractions and ideas enter the mental purview and if our natural tendency towards instant gratification is not overcome, the gravitational pull of our distant ten year vision can easily shrink.
There are three ways to mitigate the risk of an atrophied fourth body:
Direct reminders are exactly what you’d expect: persistent visibility into symbols, images, and language that inspires you to continue towards your goal. These are commonly expressed through affirmations and vision boards. The idea is simple: keep showing yourself where you want to be so you don’t forget.
Indirect reminders involve our favorite upstream mechanism of desire: mimetic models. This approach involves the selection of mimetic models aligned with your goals. In other words, you can regularly engage with those that have either achieved the same results you desire (i.e. your mimetic inspiration) or those that share the same desires (i.e. your mimetic competition). I personally prefer to indoctrinate myself with the mindset of those I wish to emulate by spending time with those mimetic models or reading their (auto)biographies.
The sprint methodology may be the most effective approach since it applies best practices from the project management world to your personal goals. If the sprint methodology can be used to keep teams oriented towards collaborative goals, why can’t it apply to the orientation of your fundamental desires? The sprint methodology is the breakdown of a large goal into smaller achievable tasks along the way. Rather than focus on a large daunting goal, you map out sub-goals that drive you towards your grander goal and focus your efforts on the next sub-goal. If we visualize this process with our analogy, the value of this approach should be fairly obvious.
While the Three Body Problem baffles physicists on the trajectory of cosmic heavenly bodies, the Three City Problem ridicules sociologists with a chaotic trajectory of our cultural path via the influence of three dominant ideologies. The Three Body Problem of the Mind torments each individual and their decisions due to the pulls of three fundamental desires: hedonism, individuation, and duty. Like any three body problem, our ability to balance these forces is thwarted by our inability to use reductionist tools like mathematical equations (e.g. if X is too big, subtract X or add Y); however, since the three bodies of the mind are abstract forces within us, we have the power to manipulate their gravitational pull through:
Self-reflection to see beyond our bias, identification of our personal ideal balance, and manipulation of the mimetic models upstream of our fundamental desires or
The introduction of a fourth force with the strength to direct and restabilize the three body system: like a large sun or black hole
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