Flying By Instrument: The difference between doing and feeling like your doing

Last week I wrote about the way my ambitions shrank to a more human scale at midlife. Before my midlife crisis I had grand plans. I thought making a big difference would bring me satisfaction and peace of mind. By midlife, having not achieved greatness, I felt the monkey slowly slide off my back. I learned that I don’t need 15 minutes of fame, I need 15 people who care about me. I’ve got them and I’m content. I’ve proven that I don’t need to make a difference on something as huge as global warming in order to be happy. I wish such contentment for all of us.

And still, all of us had better do something about global warming, or our contentment may not last.

The good news is that we can be satisfied locally. The bad news is that though we mostly seek local satisfaction, it’s an imperfect guide to what counts.

I want to make a difference. I want to feel as though I’m making a difference. These two drives operate in tension with each other. Making a difference is what really counts--but what feels like it counts, and therefore what drives most of my behavior--is the feeling that I’m making a difference.

Stanford’s Steven Kull concluded a psychological study of nuclear planners with a powerful observation: the instinct to survive is strong, but the instinct to alleviate fear is stronger.

I think of it as flying by instrument. If it’s dark or foggy, pilots can’t navigate by the view through their cockpit windows, and that keeps many of them on the ground. But some train to rely on the cockpit indicators to tell them what’s going on outside. They earn “instrument licenses” authorizing them to fly even when they can’t see. Flying by instrument is reliable because the plane’s instruments are well calibrated to represent what’s going on outside.

We all fly by instrument when we track our feelings as a way of knowing how we’re doing in the outside world. Feelings--our internal instruments--aren’t as well calibrated as a plane’s dials and lights, so we sometimes drift off course.

I want to make a difference, but the way I know if I’ve made a difference is by the feeling that I’ve made a difference . . . which I can get more readily through delusions of grandeur than through the arduous work of making a difference.

I want to make great decisions, but the way I know if I’ve made great decisions is by a feeling that I’ve made great decisions. I can have that feeling more readily through hubris than through careful thinking.

I want to survive--that’s my instinct. But the way I know whether I’m surviving is by the feeling that I’m surviving, which is to say I can alleviate fear, even if it doesn’t increase my chance of survival. I’m like a toddler thinking he can’t be seen because he has put a paper bag over his head. Psychological studies of Ford Explorer drivers suggested that though the vehicle was top-heavy and dangerous, it felt safe, in part because--I kid you not--it had a lot of cup holders. Cozy. Freudian.

How did it come to this? Where did we get our instruments and how do they get miscalibrated?

In semiotics, the science of signs, the readouts on an instrument panel are called “indexical” signs. The significance of an indexical sign arises from the way it’s causally linked to the thing it represents. A thermometer, for example, indicates temperature because temperature changes cause mercury to expand and contract.

When we discovered the causal link between temperature and a column of mercury, we came to rely on thermometers as a representation of real temperature. The same goes for air-velocity meters, altimeters, fuel indicators, and compasses. Their markings are significant to us because they are causally linked to the things they represent.

Is your internal happiness as reliable an indicator as a thermometer? What are feelings, anyway? The answer is too long, complex, and controversial to take up here, but the reason why feelings exist is fairly straightforward to explain.

Feelings’ immediate adaptive advantage is as an indicator guiding us to what leads to biological reproductive success and therefore genetic survival. One thing you can say about everything alive today is that its ancestors all the way back for 3.6 billion years had enough biological reproductive success that their lineage survived this long.

The basic yum-and-yuck, approach-and-avoid indicated by feelings affords us an internal representation of what counts for biological reproductive success. Are you hungry? Eat, it’s good for your biological reproductive success. Thirsty? Drink, it’s good for your biological reproductive success. In pain? Take your hand out of the fire, it’s good for your biological reproductive success. Cold? Get next to the fire, it’s good for your biological reproductive success. Horny? Have sex, it’s good for your biological reproductive success. Feelings are strong indicators. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be sufficiently motivating.

Human feelings are originally indexical. Feeling cold is caused by the same phenomenon that makes the mercury go down. But by now feelings are also intermediated by “symbolic” signs, which are different from indexical signs. Symbols (unlike indexes) are arbitrarily linked to what they represent, so “dog,” “pooch,” and (in Spanish) “Perro” can all indicate our four-legged friend. Symbols come to represent what they do by habit and convention, not by a direct causal link. The only reason the word “dog” indicates what it does is because we all have acquired the habit and rely upon the convention of using that sound and set of squiggles on a page that way.

Symbols are more promiscuous than indexes. Promiscuous? Perhaps you never heard the word used that way, and that actually makes my point. You can guess what it means. A symbol for one thing can go out on the town and become a symbol for another the way the word “promiscuous” goes out on the town and makes sense in this new application. Thus though “dog” means that certain animal, the word also makes ready sense in “dog days, dog tired, dogged, dog-eared, dog’s breath, dogfight, bird-dogging” . . . the list goes on.

A thermometer is causally linked to what it represents. A symbol is arbitrarily linked to what it represents.

Your mind is filled to brimming with these promiscuous symbols. They mix and match, and their meanings shift around from context to context. Your mind (unlike that of a dog) has a superconnected web of such symbols interacting with each other. It’s what gives you your mind’s-eye view--the ability to picture a world that’s not in front of you, an imaginary world, the world of your past or of your future.

Lying in bed peacefully one night, your mind drifts to the contemplation of your own inevitable death. In your mind’s eye you witness it and you get a jolt of anxiety. Feelings originally linked indexically are now also linked symbolically. Even though you’re cozy and in perfect health lying there in bed, your instrument panel goes berserk at the symbolic representation of what in fact isn’t happening.

And the opposite is equally likely, if not more so. When things are really going bad, we can imagine that they’re really going well. For example, we can claim that the solution to global warming is ethanol. We can breathe a sigh of relief, even though ethanol causes about as many new problems related to global warming as it solves.

So last week’s article was only half the story. I’m glad I got more realistic about what counts to me, but I also have to remember that what counts to me isn’t everything. If I forget, I’ll find simple-pleasure contentment, oblivious to the global catastrophes that result from everyone thinking small like me.

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