Our Tastes and Propensities Are Conditioned Too

K-Pop group XG, one of my conditioned tastes

Much of my recent writing has been focused on the realization, once you give up the idea of ‘free will’, that all of our beliefs and behaviours are completely the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment.

But are there parts of ‘us’ outside and beyond our beliefs and behaviours? What is the makeup of our apparent ‘characters’ anyway? It seems to me that there is a third aspect or element of whom we ‘are’ beyond what we believe and what we do. Call it our instinctive and emotional responses, our preferences, our inherent and intuitive likes and dislikes — we might collectively term this aspect of ‘us’ as our tastes and propensities.

There are, for example, people I find I immediately or instinctively like or dislike. Same goes for all types of art, music, and literature, for foods, for my taste in humour, and for my conception of what is, and is not, beautiful. There are also some qualities that have long defined me (such as impatience, laziness, conflict- and stress-aversion, and hedonism) that one might call ‘propensities’.

When I’ve talked with radical non-duality speakers, they have said that their beliefs seemed to lose all intensity once the ‘self’ was no longer there to justify and make sense of them, but the tastes, propensities and behaviours of their apparent ‘characters’ didn’t noticeably change.

So my instincts (and common sense) tell me that our tastes and propensities are, just like our beliefs and behaviours, entirely conditioned. Some aspects of them (eg our food and sexual preferences and many of our propensities) are probably mostly biologically conditioned, while others (eg our musical tastes and our conception of beauty) are probably mostly culturally conditioned.

I suppose this should not be surprising, but somehow it seems to be. Several of the people on my blogroll are (IMO of course) brilliant, rational analysts in one area of the human condition (eg on collapse) but lunatic, irrational conspiracy theorists in another (eg on CoVid-19). Given their different conditioning, that is completely understandable, but it’s still unsettling. Should I leave them on my blogroll (not that anyone cares other than me) when that might give credence to some of their more foolish assertions?

Similarly, I think we are often surprised to discover that people with whom we share strongly-held beliefs and worldviews, or with whom we collaborate on various projects, or whom we love dearly, have tastes that are, to us, unfathomable and bizarre. We think we ‘know’ someone when we fall in love with them or work with them closely on some mutually-beloved project — How could they possibly like that, or want to, or not want to, do that? It’s not ‘in character’, we insist. But it’s just different biological and cultural conditioning. This is even more likely to happen, I suspect, as our ‘cultures’ get more and more fractured, fragmented. and intertwined.

Like billiard balls bumping into each other and changing the trajectory of each, we can and do condition each other, but we cannot change our own conditioning. If I am inclined to learn to appreciate a new kind of music, or cuisine, it will be because those whom I bump into (physically or in my reading), and whom I like, have conditioned me to do so. It is never our own initiative. And their effort to get me to appreciate this new music or food likewise stems from their lifetime of conditioning.

We can try all we like to make sense of our tastes and propensities, but they simply don’t have to make sense. I have no idea why, lacking any previous exposure to it, I was immediately drawn to Haitian kompa/zouk music and K-pop music. I seem to like (both popular and ‘classical’) music that is relatively sophisticated, complex, multi-layered, and non-repetitive, yet which has enough familiar elements to be memorable and emotionally evocative. Like TS Eliot, to me great art is that which appeals to us on both an intellectual level (ie teaches us something new or shifts our thinking) and an emotional level (ie evokes ‘moving’ feelings in us). But I’m sure lots of music that has no appeal to me meets these criteria. Our tastes and propensities are completely conditioned, yet utterly unfathomable.

Still, I often write about music, art, literature, beauty and other subjects whose appreciation requires shared conditioned tastes. They are generally the least read and commented on of my posts, largely, I suspect, because while most of my readers share my beliefs and worldview somewhat, their conditioned tastes are very different from mine. Recommending a non-fiction book consistent with our shared worldview is hence much more likely to be appreciated than recommending some of my favourite music, for example.

Also, I have a propensity, these days, to run 7k, five days a week, mostly on the condo’s treadmill. I don’t enjoy it, and have to gird myself up to do it. Being lazy, I will gladly make use of some new pain in some muscle as an excuse to skip it, but mostly I do it. Why? Not my choice. It’s all my conditioning — fear of future pain or incapacity if I get out of shape, guilt at being lazy, and of course vanity about my appearance. Conditioning instilled in me over a lifetime, from a thousand sources.

So it seems to me that every aspect of our characters — not only our beliefs, worldviews and behaviours, but also our tastes and propensities, everything that constitutes our ‘personalities’ — is completely conditioned. We have no more control over any of it, and no more say about it, than we have control over our heart’s beating or our lungs’ breathing.

I look at this body in the mirror, and wonder at what this ‘me’ that presumes to occupy and control it might really be. This body is clearly not a ‘single’ thing, but rather a complicity of trillions of — what? particles? waves? expressions of a probability function? Each of those ‘components’ is apparently doing exactly what it has been conditioned to do, and the summation of those conditionings is what is called ‘me’.

It is not ‘me’ — an apparent fiction — that is conditioned, but rather all of these trillions of components with that collective label. All being constantly conditioned and reconditioned by signals from components of other apparent labeled things — people, viruses, light waves, letters in ink on a page.

No one in charge of any of it. Add it all up, and this is our strange, wondrous, beautiful terrible world. In free-fall. We have no idea what it really is.

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