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The Scientific Discipline

Posted on the 21 August 2012 by Philipmarais

Wherever there exists ambition to exceed, there is an accompanying potential for failure, directly proportional to the level of difficulty associated with completion of such a challenge. As Sam Harris in his stimulating read, “The Moral Landscape” proposed, there exists two definite extremes of the human condition, which he termed ‘the good life’ and ‘the bad life’, which are connected by a continuum (the subjective association of) ‘good’ and ‘bad’ components. Theoretically speaking, and forgive me for paraphrasing, all individuals aspire to the good life, whatever his/her subjective interpretation of that good life is.

I do find it ironic however, that rationally minded individuals (whom, as a scientist, I pride myself in thinking I am surrounded by) can be so abducted from the rationality of scientific inquiry when posed with aspirations of a personal nature. One individual can produce the most phenomenal research covering years, and even decades, yet struggle to maintain something as simple as a diet for the duration of one week.

Having recently re-read “The Extended Phenotype” by Richard Dawkins, I have come to the conclusion that there is as a matter of fact, another side to the Necker cube. All of us are posed with challenges that at times, seems too large for the aspirations of even the most disciplined amongst ourselves. It is along the lines of the philosophical, and scientifically feasible, model discussed in “The Extended Phenotype”, that I had decided to restructure the way in which I am to approach specific personal challenges.

In life, you are provided with variables and constants. Constants, I like to think of as all things which I have no ability or capacity to control, even though they do not produce repeatable output, yet can still be regarded as constantly beyond your control. For instance; as a lecturer, you accept as a constant, that all undergraduate students, are trying to succeed in passing, by doing the minimum required effort. Therefore, low cost to benefit ratio. Along the lines of evolutionary biology, positive selection of any trait, is a product of the cost of evolving that trait, relative to the benefit such a trait would produce, associated with the direct milieu that trait finds itself in. In short, students are lazy because the system incentivizes laziness.

Now, I am not here to solve the riddle of student education, for that extends far beyond both my expertise and capabilities. I am however proposing a variation on the outlook of student laziness, or more importantly, lack of achievement in our personal lives.

What if discipline is not (always) a product of motivation, strong will and endurance, but simply an unavoidable byproduct of a system that incentivizes success, relative to a perception that is conducive to success in that particular environment? What if, instead of working up the energy and motivation to maintain your diet/exercise routine, you could take a step back, and design for yourself a system, in which you are most likely to succeed? (Though I have had some success with this approach in my personal life, I am hardly specialist on these subject matter.)

For everything that is propagated into the next generation, there exists a fundamental selection, if represented by competing versions of the same component. Richard Dawkins proposed the meme theory of selection as far back as 1974, in his book, “The Selfish Gene”. In accordance with this proposal, I would like to set forth the following parameters for an example of an exercise routine.

When propositioned with a choice of either performing a component of your exercise routine, or let’s say, watching television, you are presented with alternatives for use of a unit of time, each measured by arbitrary values of fitness, related to cost and benefit. What these units of fitness is, although measured arbitrarily, is not irrelevant, as the extent thereof will serve as the basis for selection. Which of these activities one is likely to pursue, and is likely to pursue for the remainder of, perhaps a calendar week, is linked to the selection coefficient for each activity. So we satisfy the criteria of evolution by selection, in producing alternative components from which to select.

The second criteria for evolution by selection, is propagation into the next generation. If we imagine any specific activity chosen at the beginning of a week, as an arbitrary commitment to a line of evolution, then initial selection of either activity should in principle serve as the higher probability decision for all subsequent choices for those activities. This of course, if the popular “I’ll start next week” attitude is anything to go by. It also assumes for the third factor governing selection in favor of either as an activity, discussed hereafter.

The probability of propagation of any component (perception/meme) into the next generation, is subject to selection coefficients of each alternative, within the conditions in which it finds itself. Therefore, if becoming overweight and unfit is the milieu in which either choice, exercise vs television, finds itself, then going outdoors for a jog is very incompatible with achieving that aim. In addition to the global milieu, there exists interactions with other components (activities) that influences the selection coefficients for each one of our proposed alternatives. Watching television likely has a selectional advantage over exercise, if the food of choice is McDonald’s and the choice of drink is a sugary soft drink. As Richard Dawkins brilliantly proposed, some memes (genes) have a higher probability for selection in favor of, when present in a mix of memes that will positively influence its propagation.

This third component is where I would like to make a distinction between constants and variables in this model of selection between activities, if there can be such a thing. If we consider the first two components as constants, therefore in any conventional system (which is likely to be the majority), selection in favor of watching television has a higher inclusive fitness than does exercise, for the reasons mentioned above, then the third component can be considered a variable. If we can succeed in designing a system where healthy eating and exercise has a higher selectional advantage than the alternative, then it should proceed naturally to make decisions that include the latter. If running a marathon is the global objective, then all selection pressures should on average favor the activity which is most conducive to achieving the objective. i.e. Exercise. And being a scientist, the following should be generally true. If we require 8, then 4 + 3 will not suffice.

There is no reason not to see the obvious analogies with the psychology of motivation and discipline, yet seeing that my training is limited to biology and my experience limited to introspection, this rational approach has served me well. I’ll leave with this thought: For every individual that fails, there exists a system that allows him to fail.

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