I’m currently reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt where he uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. The elephant is instinct, the rider is consciousness. He talks a lot in the early section about how the rider often spends it’s time justifying and excusing the snap decisions made by the elephant. I completely agree that this is what happens and even that it might be part of why consciousness evolved but he seems to argue that this is right and proper and I completely disagree with that.
The elephant is instinct. It’s a super fast pattern matching machine that’s purpose built for for making snap decisions on limited information. On the African savannah that was probably a really good thing. In the modern world it’s a recipe for global destruction. The elephant is always going to make that snap decision, that’s it’s job, and the rider is always going to feel an impulse to back up the elephant, but that’s what a clever animal would do. A human would feel that impulse, then set it aside and examine the elephant’s decision, perhaps do a little research, and take a serious look at whether the elephant’s choice, made in a second without benefit of logic or reasoning, was really the best decision for the modern world.
Haidt says that research shows that education doesn’t improve the ability of the rider to control the elephant but I don’t think the kind of education we do is likely to. I think that to control the elephant, or rather, to disregard the elephant, the education would need to be aimed at that specific skill. I think meditation might be part of that training. My limited experience with meditation is that’s all about disregarding your impulses. Observing them but not getting caught up in them. That seems exactly like the training you’d need to disregard the elephant.