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Checks and Balances Explain Everything You Love and Hate

Whether you want it to stop or keep on, what sustains things is balanced limits.

Key points

  • Being of "two minds" is uncomfortable, but it's also into a window into checks and balances that sustain us.
  • Checks and balances, or balanced limitations. sustain all fragile systems, including the ones you wish ended.
  • Mutual constraint is an overlooked explanation for the origins and nature of life.
  • To understand mutual constraint, set aside whether you want it to end or keep going.

What are you? I bet most of the time you feel like an I not a we, a single unified being, or at least you’re most comfortable when you feel like that, not being of two minds. Doubt is a splintering into at least two parts. Self-awareness (which sounds good), self-doubt, and self-consciousness (which sounds bad) result from a kind of split personality, not that we split along clear lines. It’s more like checks and counter-checks, arguments within myself that have me going around in circles until one voice gets the upper hand.

Doubt is like an argument with yourself. Like all arguments, it can feel ungrounding. It can make you crave harmony and consensus. But until you get that resolution, you’ll ruminate. It’s annoying going back and forth like that, being of two or more minds each trying to get the upper hand.

OK but really what are you? Are you an I or a we? What are we living beings?

There are solid, stable, singular, solitary things in this world. A stone is a stone, a metal shed is a metal shed. They last by durability. Sure, they shed, corrode, rust, and eventually disintegrate, but so slowly that it’s safe to say they’re solid, singular things that just be.

We aren’t like that. We’re fragile, not durable at all. We don’t just be; we’re beings, both a verb and a noun. To be alive is to be actively busy being a being. For example, today you generated 330 billion replacement cells. Death is the end of that busy being we do and the beginning of our disintegration, which, since we’re fragile, happens much faster with us than with stones or metal sheds.

OK but how? How do we keep ourselves going like that?

Checks and balances, which a single thing cannot have. A single solitary thing cannot impose checks and balances on itself. It takes at least two to sustain checks and balances.

You probably associate checks and balances with government, right? Three branches—presidential, congressional, and judicial—impose checks and balances on each other.

Checks and balances, meaning that there are checks plus balances? Not really. It’s really balanced checks, if that didn’t sound like bookkeeping. Balanced checks are balanced constraints, roughly equal limitations. A limits B as much as B limits A.

Balanced checks keep fragile systems going. They sustain governments, partnerships, marriages, friendships, organizations, wars, debates, arguments, fights, games, doubts, ecologies, and yes, us living beings. You want to sustain your life, ecologies, friendships, partnerships, and marriages. You want to stop wars, fights, self-doubts. Love it or hate it, the fundamental rule applies: It takes two to tango, tangle, or sus-tango, two or more processes that keep each other in balanced checks.

A marriage that lasts is also the product of balanced checks. Maybe you think of it as becoming as one forever more, two people being of one mind. Or maybe you think of it as being stuck with a ball and chain who doesn’t let you do what you want. Or maybe you think of a marriage as give and take, another funny term for checks and balances. Is it giving in or giving a hard time? Is it taking what you want or taking things lying down? No matter. It’s balanced checks, processes that free and limit each other.

Plenty of marriages continue to work even though both partners feel hemmed in by each other. Some even like being hemmed in, encouraged to be who they want to be and not who they don’t want to be.

There are plenty of marriages that end with both parties feeling liberated, like they’ve just taken off a tight shoe, someone who encouraged them to be who they don’t want to be. And there are plenty of exes who fall apart without the constraints imposed by their partner. Some exes OD on drugs and crime spun out and strung on behavior they couldn’t have gotten away with when partnered.

Sometimes we like spinning out; for example, we want to win games and wars. We want them to end with us winning. They drag on, because neither side can get the edge, sustained by alternating dominance, one side’s ahead, then the other side’s ahead, back and forth, on and on.

Machines are that way, too. When a part breaks, it can no longer constrain the other parts. Things can spin out and fall apart. Governments are that way, too. There’s a lot of concern about us losing the checks and balances in government these days. That way lies tyranny. A branch of government that goes unchecked (typically the presidency) usually ends up with a crazy tyrant whose behavior goes unchecked.

This is all pretty intuitive, right? So it’s a wonder that religion and science pay so little attention to the give and take necessary to sustain something. A monotheistic God is a single solitary being. God is eternally right, righteous, and mighty because he’s of one mind always. Could God create a mountain so big he can’t move it? If he can or can’t, it would prove that he’s not omnipotent. The theological answer is he wouldn’t. God never contradicts himself. God is one. Everyone craves oneness, which makes sense. Being of two minds is a pain.

In origins-of-life research, the search for an explanation for organisms and their struggle for existence that Darwin admitted he didn’t deliver, almost no researcher envisions two processes that are checks and balances on each other. I say almost because one biologist, Terrence Deacon, envisions exactly that. To him, the origins of life would be two processes keeping each other in balanced checks, keeping one another from spinning out.

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Sherman, Jeremy (2017). Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The emergence and nature of selves. NYC: Columbia University Press.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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