1990-00-00: Explanation

This page explains how I approach issues of explanation.

Human Motivation

My understanding of human motivation is based on four notions:

  • Drives/Urges: Humans, like every living organism, are subject to certain drives. Drives are abstract, but manifest themselves in urges to perform some action. These act on a variety of time scales, and with varying urgency. On a scale of seconds, we absolutely must keep breathing. Over a few hours, we get thirsty. Over several hours or a few days, we get hungry. Depending on our surroundings and activities, we get hot, cold, wet, stiff, sore, sleepy, or uncomfortable in other ways. Depending on how well our urges and desires are met, we feel pleasure in various realms (see more about realms below).
  • Desires: Urges motivate us without our thinking about them; we might literally scratch an itch without realizing we’ve done so. On a less purely-biological level, we are usually motivated by a set of desires, consciously recognized and relatable to actions that satisfy them.
  • Beliefs: As we operate in the world, we form mental representations of our experience. I use the term ‘belief’ for these mental states. A belief might be an accurate representation of (some aspect of) the world, or not. It might be useful, or not. We have so many beliefs that we usually can’t understand them and the ways they interact to influence our motivation, and hardly ever try.
  • Values: In my formulation, a value is a belief about two desires, which makes one desire more or less important than another, in the circumstances where the beliefs are active.

I mentioned realms above. The world is too complex to comprehend in its entirety. I find it useful to divide the world into categories, and any particular phenomenon typically applies to one category (or sometimes to the interface/transition between two categories). I use a couple of different ways to organize categories, which I call ‘realms’ and ‘scales.


One way to organize categories is in a hierarchy that I call realms, as listed below. The list is upside down, in the sense that the later items are higher-level categories than the earlier items; but this is the way I like to present it.

Physical: The physical realm represents everything in the inanimate world, from fundamental particles to atoms to molecules to human-sensible agglomerations of gases, liquids, and solids, up to planets, stars, galaxies and the large-scale of the universe (or even the multiverse, if it exists). There are many interesting features of the physical realm, not least is the fact that it is consistent enough that it can be explained by so-called ‘laws of nature’. The physical realm doesn’t contain anything like motivation.

Biological: Among the physical objects in the world are living organisms. These have the property that they can re-arrange parts of the physical realm for their own benefit, extending their lives, and reproducing others of their own kind. There are many interesting features of the biological realm, and it is well worth studying. A key feature is that biological organisms have drives and urges, and hence a low-level form of motivation. Among creatures with sufficiently complex brains (including most humans), desires and beliefs also provide motivation.

Social: Among the biological organisms are some types which thrive by acting toward a common purpose. In my view, the social realm applies to creatures with sufficiently complex brains that they are able to form desires and beliefs (i.e., I exclude ants, bees, etc.), and to share them with the other members of their social group. The product of behavior in the social realm is culture, broadly conceived, and some of the effort of the social realm has the effect of promulgating certain beliefs and desires (i.e., memes).

Reflective: Among the cultural activities of social creatures, one aspect involves awareness and consideration of the culture itself, with the aim of improving it. Of course, ‘improvement’ is relative to the person or group doing it.


Many phenomena in the world are easy to understand or control on a small scale, or in terms of a controlled hypothetical situation, but very difficult to grasp on a large scale. I sometimes find it useful to identify the scale of a discussion. Here are some scales, appropriate to various realms:

Atomic: In the physical and biological realms, atomic refers to a single instance of the object being considered, whether an actual atom, a living cell, or a large mammal. If the phenomenon involves a single object’s character or interaction with its surroundings, the scale is atomic.

Collective ?

Mass ?

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