The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Being Human Alone: Maslow Was Wrong

This is the fourth chapter of my book “The Construction of Reality.” It is about what makes  us human. Construction of Reality is about really fundamental principles and is somewhat dry (it’ll get a rewrite), but the fundamentals are worth learning.

It’s first draft, so not completely edited, and is a reward for reaching a milestone in our fundraiser. The next milestone is $8,350 (a little over $800 from our current total), and will include chapters:

5. Identity and Identification (how we expand our bodies beyond our physical selves)

6. The Ritual (how we create identification)

7. Interaction ritual (how daily life creates identification and personality)

We learn to be human from other humans. Identity, ideology, language, empathy and role taking all require other humans initiate us.

Once we have learned to be human we can be humans alone. There is a long tradition of hermits, men and women who go into the wilderness for years at a time to seek themselves, God, or another way of understanding reality. But before they could escape from humanity to find out what being human means, they first became human by the example and work of others.

Still, each of us exists for ourselves, with an internal experience which is known completely only to ourselves. It is not entirely unknown to others, we are able to feel the pain and pleasure of other people, but it is never quite the same as our own pain or pleasure.

We may guess at other people’s thoughts, but we do not hear them. We become human thru other people, yet never completely know them. This is appropriate, because as many hermits would tell us, we don’t know ourselves very well either, for all that we have access to our own experience.

Humans have bodies and those bodies give rise to drives and needs and near universal emotions. If we wish to continue living we need food and water and to be neither too hot nor too cold. We must avoid injury, but live by harming or killing other living creatures: plants and, usually, animals.

Most people want sex, they want recognition, they want to feel safe and they want to feel accepted.

A psychologist named Maslow created a famous pyramid of needs, positing that we worked our way up the pyramid. Maslow said we had physiological needs like food and water, then safety needs, then love and belonging needs, then esteem needs (feeling good about ourselves), then a need for self-actualization.

Maslow was on to something, but the needs aren’t entirely a pyramid, except that one needs to meet physiological needs to keep living. Different people, different subcultures and different cultures value different needs.

Like those hermits, who put self-actualization above all other needs and drives except staying alive. They live on almost nothing and see no other people. To them, self-actualization is more important than anything else, and one can even find accounts of Indian renunciates (Saddhu) killing themselves.

Kamikazi pilots gave up their lives for their community. Samurai would commit suicide rather than face dishonor. Monks, the communal version of hermits, often gave up sex and followed ideologies like Christianity which told them they were innately sinful, bad people. In fact, Christianity, one of the main world religions, has as a primary tenet that we are all sinful.

There are those who make food their lives, like chefs and gourmands and indeed many families where food and eating are the most important activities each day. There are those who despise food, eating only as much as they must.

American Plains Indians would fast from food and water for 3 days during the Sun Dance while inflicting pain on themselves by, say, threading rawhide through their nipples.

Maslow’s hierarchy isn’t a bad generalization, but it is a generalization. Humans are different, and very plastic: even the need to stay alive can be trumped by other concerns.

One a Saint, another a Gourmand, a third a soldier, a fourth a brigand, a fifth a faceless bureaucrat.

All human.

Why can humans be so different? When are humans very different from each other?


The Three Piece Experience Model

Human experience has three pieces. Sense events. Attention. Interpretation.

Events are happening all the time. Some demand our attention, like putting your hand on a red hot element. Others are less determined—a hundred cars on the street, pedestrians, the music playing at the outdoor cafe, billboards above.

Sense events are what is happening around us and to us. Attention determines which of those sense events we pay attention to. Interpretation is our judgment of them: good, bad, pleasurable, shameful, and so on.

Thoughts are sense events. We experience thoughts, we do not control them most of the time, and we interpret our thoughts. Those who doubt this are invited to start noting down what they will be thinking in 5 minutes and then see if they are. (X)

One person can think “gun” and feel warm, another scared. One person will think “sex” and be happy, another will feel shame. Thoughts carry connotations and the connotations are not the same for everyone.

The same is true of other events. There are people who enjoy pain, who seek it out. There are those who hardly feel it or don’t care, who in religious festivals, have themselves nailed to crosses or hung on hooks and tell everyone they are having a grand old time.

You and I may both eat a delicious chocolate cake and one of us may feel satiated and happy, while the other one feels shame and guilt.

Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so

– Shakespeare, Hamlet

Even thoughts are made good or bad by thinking, or rather, by interpretation.

Human experience is what happens, plus how we interpret it. That means the primary force in creating our world and ourselves: our personality and our identity, is conditioning.

Everyone is conditioned. Personality is a pattern of conditioning. We do not, as a rule, logically work out the pluses and minuses of our actions, we simply act, based on how we feel about possible actions. The more we have interpreted something as good, the more we want of it. The more we have interpreted it as bad, the less we want of it.

We can be conflicted: the chocolate cake tastes great, which we want, but we think it will make us fat, in which case we may believe no one will love us, we’ll be unhealthy, and good looking people won’t want to have sex with us.

That’s a lot of weight for a piece of cake.

We gain most of our interpretations from other people. We are thinking their thoughts: the parents who told us sex was bad; the priest who said God loves us and that we’ll burn eternally if we have gay sex; or the teacher who told us America is good and Russia is bad. Most of our thoughts didn’t start as our thoughts nor did most of our emotions, they were transmitted to us by other people, and we came to be believe they were ours.

Chocolate cake may be an intrinsic good, but all freight comes from other people. Children are told not to hit other children, to share their toys and so on. In some societies people are taught to compete as children, in others they are taught to cooperate. In some to be generous, in others to be greedy.

We are tall in comparison to others; we are smart or stupid in comparison to others. We are good at sports in comparison to others. We are handsome or ugly in comparison to others and in relation to our culture. Today women are judged beautiful if they are skinny, in the Victorian era fleshier women were considered beautiful. Traditional Japanese society associated breasts with children and didn’t find them sexy. Displaying teeth when smiling was seen as disgusting, it was considered “showing one’s bones”.

Who we are, our identity and our personality, is shaped by our environment, and most of our judgments about what is good or bad and who we are determined by other people, not ourselves.

This is not to deny biology. A tall man has a different experience of the world than a short woman. Personality is partially based on our individual bodies: parents often comment that babies acted differently from each other right out of the womb, far before environment could have changed us.

Still, humans are made by other humans and much of the outlines of identity and personality are created from the outside-in; from other people telling us or showing us how we should interpret the events of our lives.

Conditioning is not intrinsically bad, most decisions do not require analytical thinking, and most important decisions (run from that lion, sympathize with my friend) don’t allow time to think.

The most effective conditioning is conditioning we like. People who don’t like their conditioning try to change it, so conditioning we don’t like is less effective.

Still, conditioning is reflexive, largely unthinking and hard to change, as anyone who has tried to change their personality or habits knows. And mostly, we don’t choose our conditioning.

It comes from outside, and the most influential conditioning we receive is done when we are children and almost unable to resist. As adults, we may reject or seek out particular conditioning, but we judge it good or bad based on other conditioning.

There is no escape from the fact that our selves and our interpretation of our lives are mostly created by other people.

But we can learn something by looking at how people live and what they were like when they live in the way humans evolved for, rather than in our old, very artificial societies



The Entire West’s Military Is Weak


Open Thread


  1. Soredemos

    For myself I’ve found that Maslow was more correct than wrong, and I’ve also noticed that for a while there’s been an extremely tiresome attempt at undermining his concept by accusing him of projecting his own individual needs onto others, or even of being ‘privileged’ (at this point a largely meaningless attack). Apparently it never occurs to anyone that maybe Maslow was a thoughtful person who made lots of observations and based his pyramid on those observations.

    As someone who does a lot of work with the homeless, I can confidently say that at least the lower end of the pyramid is completely accurate (to claim it isn’t could be said to be actual privilege. If you have a shower you get to go home to every night, you can kindly shut up about how material needs aren’t fundamental. Everything else is rendered absurd if you’re starving and covered in lice). It’s only as you get above half way up that what people prioritize becomes more individualized.

  2. Ian Welsh

    Except, of course, that if you know about Sadhu and Sanyasin and various religious hermits, they often do without said shower, etc… I’ve even met a couple of people like this in North America where the social infrastructure isn’t set up to support them as much (holy food alms, etc…) Homeless people who chose to be homeless. (Before you get on your high horse, this is a miniscule minority and you know that I support measures to end homelessness. I currently have a homeless friend who visits almost every day to eat/shower and sleep.)

    Careful about over-generalizing and telling other people to shut up. What you say is almost entirely true (the lower down the hierarchy, the more people are bound by it) but it isn’t entirely true, and of course, as I noted, staying alive does require enough food/warmth etc…

    Being homeless voluntarily, for religious/mystical reasons is quite a bit different from involuntary homelessness, but it exists.

  3. Altandmain

    Ian, in recent years, it’s been argued that the Democrats in the US are now appealing to the higher end of the spectrum.

    The article comes from here.

    This is the end result of the neoliberal era, where the bottomis unable to meet the bottom 2 levels. Who knows how bad it will be? I think that as neoliberalisn and inequality get worse, the bottom 80 to 90 percent of the population are unable to meet the bottom 2 levels of the pyramid.

  4. Soredemos

    I actually wasn’t attacking you or the post; I should have specified. You seem to basically share my position (Maslow was on the right track but didn’t get the whole story). I was speaking more generally about an annoying trend I’ve noticed over the last few years to shit on the man and his pyramid.

    As for religious hermits, at this point I’m very much inclined to ignore them entirely. Mentally ill weirdos with delusions of ‘spirituality’. I’ve read enough about them, including trying to slog through some of their original writings, that after a while I started to develop the very distinct impression that fundamentally there is no there there.

    Again from working with the homeless, after a while you get a fair bit of experience dealing with the mentally ill (I should hasten to add that contrary to what some people think crazy people are a distinct minority among the homeless. Yes, living on the street can cause a lot of neurotic behavior and weird ticks, but that’s very different from being actually insane. The crazies are the exception, and they often cause work helping all the others to grind to a halt). Not only do you get good at quickly spotting it, for me at least, after a while I start to lose patience with it. Not in a becoming mean to them way, but more ‘I have too many other people to help and I don’t have the time or patience to indulge your bullshit today’ way.

  5. StewartM

    Still, humans are made by other humans and much of the outlines of identity and personality are created from the outside-in; from other people telling us or showing us how we should interpret the events of our lives.

    I completely agree with this; with the caveat that some things are inherently painful or pleasurable by their natures, and we are thus attracted by or repelled by them (although I would also concur we’re plastic, and can be conditioned to consider even the most pleasurable things as ‘bad’ and the most painful things as ‘good’ or at least ‘good for us’.).

    This is why I expressed my reservations about “fact-free morality” earlier than just goes on our gut feelings, as even these genuinely honest feelings of sentimentality/attraction or disgust/repulsion are not good evidence of the inherent morality of something but of our social conditioning. Once burning witches alive was considered an act of mercy. And in fact, when something which is intrinsically pleasurable and appealing becomes something as potentially undesirable or harmful due to that society’s cultural evolution, cultures counter that by conditioning its members into having the strongest feelings of disgust/repulsion at the mere mention of it.

    (Hint: a lot of sex taboos fall under this category. That’s why ‘naughty’ things get fetishized. Cultures don’t have to strive to induce their members into not doing things that are likely truly unnatural, like eating feces).

  6. UphillBend

    I’m not wading into the discourse here but just want to offer these relevant, and wonderful, links just in case you are not familiar with them already.

    An American homeless renunciate and mystic. The very best of the American sensibility, it seems, expressed in a simple and straightforward spirituality. If the US is to have redemption in the future, it will be from the flowerings of the seeds sown by people like her.

    Probably the web’s premier place for all things hermit, and across various cultures.

  7. Soredemos


    There is extreme danger in projecting the individual into the social sphere. No, peace and progess will not be achieved when enough people achieve some sort of spiritual self-realization, or whatever. That isn’t politics. It’s idealistic navel gazing.

  8. Raad

    Just finished, I’ve been ill so it’s been difficult to do stuff but I finally managed to finish this chapter; threw some dosh down your way too hope it’s all good.

    Thanks again and stay safe man ✅✅✅


  9. UphillBend


    I had said I was not wading into the discourse, but just offering interesting relevant material – to a discussion about Maslow on individual realization. But since you object so strongly, I’ll add some explanations to your concerns despite veering off from the Maslow theme.

    Admittedly it may be viewed that it was I who invited your strictures about my supposed confusions about “peace and progress” because the mystic I linked to was for those things.

    But on the other hand, I did not imply what she was doing was a necessary and sufficient condition for social results. I wrote “seeds”, and I also wrote “people like her” w/o specifying that they were mystics.

    There’s a big distance between the inspiration from charismatic figures and their social results involving all sorts of methods and detours. Not to mention a diversity of the human types who carry the better parts of the original message to their objectively beneficial results.

    What I wrote did not preclude this. Should I just have mentioned some mystic who had visions of his particular theology coming into some kind of experiential form and left it at that?

    As for the relevance of her practice for social goals I don’t see why they cannot be viewed as contributory. There are various degrees of religious interiority, as regards practices for the benefit of humanity, and then a spectrum running to outright social action. Hermits praying in a cave for mercy upon a fallen world is at one end. Mainline churches sending observers to Palestine to learn about the situation there and coming back to report to the flock is at another point in the spectrum – motivated by a more enlightened version of the Christian faith. And onward.

    In a militaristic society with a strait-laced mentality of us vs them the occasional strange person who can loosen the mental bindings, even impress people with her spiritual charisma, and set off people to be more compassionate and pacific is a good for the world. And this outward interaction was a key part of the Peace Pilgrim’s practice.

    I understand that with the madness and evil going on in Gaza right now that this might seem smug, especially the bit about American redemption. Now that I just typed it, even I can’t help but wince. But – and filtering out my poor taste in choice of phrases – we’re not seeing a drastic change of society for the better in the near future and we can appreciate the good coming in various forms and look kindly upon those who act on their inspiration. Even if they are not apparently commensurate with the motivations for the good that you do. May those seeds have good results – whether through the vicissitudes of gradual change or revolution, as slogans or the inspiration for the stirrings of the heart of someone who will go on to contribute to great things. And I say this not as an American, which is only a part of my identity, but as someone from a country which had been, decades ago, at the receiving end of the duplicity and onslaught of US policies.

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