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Society of Mind

17.4 functional autonomy

We've talked about some ways to learn goals from other people. But how do we come to make goals for ourselves? It seems simple enough always to move from goal to subgoal — but how could one go the other way, moving outward to find new kinds of goals? Our answer may seem strange at first: there is a sense in which we never really need to invent new high-level goals at all. This is because, in principle, at least, it is enough to keep inventing lower-level subgoals for problems that we have to solve! Here is why this need not limit our ambitions:

Functional Autonomy. In the course of pursuing any sufficiently complicated problem, the subgoals that engage our attentions can become both increasingly more ambitious and increasingly detached from the original problem.

Suppose a baby's initial goal was to reach a certain cup. This could lead to the subgoal of learning how to move the arm and hand efficiently, which, in turn, could lead to sub-subgoals of learning to move around obstacles. And this could keep growing into increasingly general and abstract goals of learning how to understand and manage the physical world of space and time. Thus one can begin with a lowly goal, yet end up with some sub-subgoals that lead our minds into the most ambitious enterprises we can conceive.

This can also happen in the social realm. The same baby can form, instead, the subgoal of engaging another person's help in bringing it that drinking cup. This can lead to trying to find more effective ways to influence that other person — and thus the child could become concerned with representing and predicting the motives and dispositions of other people. Again, a relatively modest drinking goal can lead to a larger competence — this time in the realm of comprehending social interactions. An initially simple concern with personal comfort becomes transformed into a more ambitious, less self-centered enterprise.

Virtually any problem will be easier to solve the more one learns about the context world in which that problem occurs. No matter what one's problem is, provided that it's hard enough, one always gains from learning better ways to learn.

Many of us like to believe that our intellectual enterprises lie on higher planes than our everyday activities. But now we can turn that academic value-scheme upon its head. When we get right down to it, our most abstract investigations can be seen as having origins in finding means to ordinary ends. These turn into what we regard as noble qualities when they gain enough functional autonomy to put their roots aside. In the end, our initial goals matter scarcely at all, because no matter what our original objectives, we can gain more by becoming better able to predict and control our world. It may not even matter whether an infant was initially inclined to emulate or to oppose a parent, or was first moved primarily by fear or by affection. The implements of accomplishment are much the same in either case. Knowledge is power. Whatever one's goals, they will be easier to achieve if one can become wise, wealthy, and powerful. And these in turn can best be gained by understanding how things work.