by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 27, 2017
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
― Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon
We need to declutter the world of bullshit memes. It’s time to apply Marie Kondo’s techniques for getting rid of unnecessary things to unnecessary beliefs. We all live in a fantasyland of lies, myths, untruths, and endless other forms of bogus thoughts. There is too much truthiness in the world and not enough truth.
Yesterday I started writing an essay about all the bullshit beliefs that pollute our minds. As I began tallying those crazy concepts I realized I’d need to write a whole book to cover the topic. This morning I discovered that book has already been written, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Anderson. Here is a portion of chapter 1, “Now Entering Fantasyland,” but I highly recommend following the link to Amazon and reading the whole chapter.
HOW WIDESPREAD IS this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of people’s beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think, but from reams of research, drilling down and cross-checking and distilling data from the last twenty years, a rough, useful census of American belief, credulity, and delusion does emerge.
By my reckoning, the more or less solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis isn’t a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.
Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.
A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of “natural” cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth.
A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election. A quarter believe that our previous president was (or is?) the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches. Remarkably, no more than one in five Americans believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—around the same number who believe that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
What we need is a movement to zap unreality whenever we encounter it. We need a Church of Reality where the ten commandments work to clear the collective consciousness of delusion. Of course, that’s Zen Buddhism, which has never caught on big. Too bad we can’t all walk around with bamboo sticks and give each other a politic whack if we hear something attacking reality.
If John Kelly had a keisaku, swatting Donald Trump every time he said something foolish, I wonder if the President could be conditioned into seeing reality more clearly? Would it help any or all of us if we got a little sting when we said something unreal? Maybe Apple and Google could develop apps for our phones that listen to us like Alexa and honks rudely when hearing silly remarks. Think of it as an AI friend like Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek who would be cool and logical.
Anderson, in Fantasyland, goes into the history of how we’ve become such a looney nation. It used to be crackpots were loners seldom seen, but the internet has turned them into preachers gathering huge flocks of crazy followers. To compound the problem our country is creating an anti-authority establishment. Politicians and businessmen have learned that two-thirds of the population will believe anything they tell them so they greedily take whatever they want by lying. Currently, they are pulling off the biggest con in history with their tax-cuts using tired old lies that have been disproven for decades, yet they continue to succeed.
There is one external reality in which we all reside, unfortunately, the human mind creates its own subjective reality that each mind prefers to believe. Science is the only cognitive tool that tells us statistically which aspects of the external reality are probably real. Any Church of Reality we create needs to teach people how to tell shit from Shinola. I don’t know if that’s possible, but it’s lessons need to come from an external source. I can picture us each having a robot that follows us around and routinely says in the voice of Jeeves, “I’m sorry sir, what you just said is incorrect” or maybe in the voice of Marvin the Robot, “Damn human, you certainly are full of crapola today!”
15 thoughts on “The Church of Reality”
It occured to me fairly recently,that people prefer to live with delusions.This primarily concerns public or historical figures who are really nothing like what “they” think they are really like.In saying this,I’m referring largely to religious figures,not mentioning any names,who are or have been upheld to a level of sainthood,but unfortunately the reality of what they really are,is quite the opposite of what they are believed to be.They are often cruel,cynical,malacious or psychopathic.
The deluded individuals who revere these plastic idols,are often good people and sane of mind,but prefer to slumber within the comfort of falsehood.Of course,they are often ignorant,unaware of the facts.They are either misinformed or don’t want to know the truth for their own satisfaction.They are the victims it seems of misinformation manufactured through the media.
We follow charismatic leaders because we want what they say to be true.
Poor PKD, he kept trying to find the truth of reality by examining every possible weird idea.
We are often kept from the truth about these people,until somebody exposes them.This either passes by or is ignored by those who continue to idolise them.
Well,Dick had some pretty weird experiences that it seems he couldn’t help but think were real.Some of them were I suppose drug induced,such as the awesome 1960s Palmer Eldritch vision,but they were personal and isolated.He had what he thought were concrete reasons for doubting reality.For himself,he said he was a religious anarchist.
Glad you are enjoying FANTASYLAND as much as I did! FANTASYLAND is the best book I’ve read this year. America has a whole history of hucksterism and “magical thinking.” We’re just experiencing a particularly potent moment when social media and conspiracy theories collide. Lord Keynes wrote about “animal spirits” moving the Stock Market. We’re seeing that phenomenon almost every day!
Maybe life is so utterly boring and meaningless for some people, they MUST believe a lot of this crap to continue to cope with life.
The masses have always been gullible and always will be, but when it seeps into traditional science, the medical profession and economics, we are in big trouble.
Heh, Mrs Widds and I were having this very conversation this morning. 🙂
Of course one take on ‘truism’ is that our conscious awareness (TOM) is a virtual reality in of itself. The most recent hypothesis would suggest that denial is our brain’s way of coping with information in the environment that cannot be resolved, or is not of immediate concern as measured by enhancing survival or opportunities for reproduction. Prior to to the acquisition of full Theory Of Mind (TOM) the brains of our ancestors were pretty efficient at dealing with basic and straight forward information that existed in their immediate environment at that time.
It is only after the development of self awareness that existence became more confusing. In other words where the brain had evolved lock step with the environment up to that point,…now questions of what am I, where did I come from, what is my purpose arose. Not to mention; is there a beginning and an end? After all the brain had evolved up to that point to process information along with the appropriate response in terms of survival and potential opportunities for reproduction, nothing more…
Now there is no denying our success as a species. We are the leaders of survival and reproduction among all life in the earth’s biosphere (viruses and bacteria not with standing) We have eliminated scarcity with our social capacity of cooperation and collaboration and the technology that arose from this acquisition of self awareness. Like most things along the evolutionary trail there are the neutral attributes but sometimes the downside as well. Our virtual reality of self awareness acquired the capacity of ‘Denial’ to offset the downside (confusion). which enabled the brain to function in spite of the growing volume of information. Culture has worked to craft elaborate belief systems such as religion to champion the conduct of actions and behaviours on the part of individuals within tribal communities and the like. If a system of belief serves the community by dealing with stuff that is extraneous to survival and reproduction, and thereby frees up individuals to focus on securing a sustainable source of food and building families, then all is well and good. As information has become more abundant and interconnected not to mention dense and unrelenting,…then the modern brain is left to craft any number of belief systems to serve their individual needs and the ties that bind a community that serves the selfish needs of its individuals as a whole.
Belief systems have their place, If not they would not have evolved to enhance survival and opportunities for reproduction in the first place.
Can you imagine if 7.56 billion people were totally engaged in learning and discovering the truth? In this case where the only arbiter of truth was the scientific method, and the keepers of the method were the practicing scientists. Can you imagine a world where the only pursuit was the truth. Who would be left to have dinner with, raise a family, enjoy time at the beach, extend a hand to a fellow human being in need.
All of this is possible in our confusing world because of denial and the belief systems it engenders. Truth is often the pursuit of the privileged few who have the time and the inclination to pursue it. Not all humans in all societies have that luxury. For almost a hundred years Athens was the center of that pursuit by the philosophers who could afford to engage in that pursuit. Facilitated by the slaves who did the work and the soldiers who defended the enterprise. This particular society disappeared when another society’s version of the truth destroyed it.
I would suggest the truth serves those who have the means. Others must rely on guile and the best art of survival to get by
I guess my point is that there is a reason why anyone individual holds the beliefs they do which may not fully align with the accepted truth.
Well now, I begin to understand what you posit…
But then again, just because we’ve become the latest threat to the insects and other “unnoticed” and animated biota on this globe doesn’t mean that we’ve conquered or otherwise superseded them. Just a couple of nuclear blasts could wipe us all out – and left the rest of the world for those otherwise minor species to become supreme. Mammals are a recent development in this planet’s biota, and just because we are the most recent doesn’t mean we will be transcendent.
On that point, if reproduction is the measure of success then we humans have succeeded beyond all others to the present. That said of course there is no guarantee that our technology will save us from ourselves, in may end up being our downfall as you say. By the same token humans are the only species we know of that ‘voluntarily’ does not reproduce, and will take its own life. Not a good prospect for long term surviveability. At least denial gives us hope
Yes, yes, and yes. But, then No. What if the “herd” mentality is an essential hard-programmed part of our life? Just because we seem to have the ability to escape our genetic programming as hunter-gatherers, that doesn’t mean we really do have that option. Just because the Chinese (and their subjugated Asian cultures and peoples) seem to have found a way to ensconce a societal directive that matches their Government’s intentions doesn’t mean that they have changed the People, much less the World. Regardless of the various directives of which kinds of productive children will best serve The State. Nor does it prove that any such strictures will last.
We cannot say that we know that “human” reproduction rates rise or fall based on something as tenuous as “voluntary” non-reproduction. That implies that it is an individual choice, based on nothing other than an individual (or two individuals – dodging rape) to not have children. If contraceptive devices/medicines were free to all humans on the planet, well then we would have a good laboratory for taking measurements and then making conclusions, if not judgements.
This particular argument does not even take into account the “Free Will” aspect of conscious intelligence that we all believe (OK, most of us believe) gives us the opportunity to make such choices.
You’re smarter than I am; please finish this. If you wish.
Fertility rates are falling, and left to current trends could well prove to be the greatest challenge facing human kind. After all with out growth the very foundation of our economic life will be altered drastically over the medium term. Our technology has modified the brain to the point where pro creation has to compete with all other pursuits including education, career, life style and the desire for consumption. First world societies are so pervasive that other societies feel compelled to aspire to the western model, with further downward pressure on fertility. At some point disruption will force nation states to formulate a plan for sustained human pro-creation. Again with out human growth the current economic model will not be able to balance the delicate tension between all social actors leading to a fracturing of society. This model is the feared eugenics. Some say the rise of bots and AI will replace the depleted ranks of humans. The future will tell how this piece plays out.
I use the word `voluntary` only to illustrate a seeming lack of intent on the part of people toward pro creation. In essence there is no choice, as that would suggest the obvious assumption that we are agents of free will, which for my understanding is not the case. That`s a topic for another day
I`m no smarter than the next brain just fascinated with what the future holds for our species. We have always pushed through. The biggest difference, as I see it,…is the pace of change might start to outpace our brains capacity to make timely adjustments. Will our sense of denial remain effective in keeping brains focused on the immediate and most important things, or will we succumb to the downside of conscious awareness which is confusion and not being able to process the contradictions arising from the myriad reflections of the past and the relentless possibilities for the future.
Hope is all we have in the face of uncertainty
Hope. For many people that is the same thing as Faith, although I would argue that it is not so. However that is another discussion, and one that I’m not sure I’m qualified to enter into.
JW and RF above seem to note that our leaders sway (or follow, aka chicken and egg) the beliefs of the people who spend time, effort and sometimes 15 minutes to vote for them. Given a basically intelligent and educated (according to local cultural norms) populace that should mean that what the people want, is what they get. That also supposes that the electorate and the elected class agree on what is important for all of us. That of course means for many of us that what we believe and hope for is out of sync with what the majority of Americans want.
I’m leaving out the part about nefarious and selfish actions that may cause elected representatives to do more (or less) than what their constituents want. I haven’t read past the Forward on “Fantasyland” yet, so I’m only speaking from direct experience. And that tells me that if you don’t have a piece of your local elected officials, one that makes them concerned about your welfare, then you ain’t got nuthin. Yes, I’ve known government officials who sweated bullets trying to do the right thing regardless; most of them weren’t long-time Pols. And I’ve known and worked with those who were inclined to do The Right Thing, but only if it didn’t cost them too much – or if it guaranteed re-election.
My personal belief is that we all get out of our social and political processes what we personally put into them. And when I say “social” I don’t mean Twitter or Facebook. When cash money or “clout” of the political kind is owned by the rich and the large corporations, it’s pretty hard for an individual or small group of citizens to get actual participation in the processes that actually count. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
As for other “civilizations” among humans on this planet, I only know what I read. And I sometimes think that we lost our way as we traversed the timeline from hunter-gatherers to organized agricultural societies. Of course, if I was alive today in a hunter-gatherer society I wouldn’t last much longer since I could neither successfully gather nor hunt enough to be worth keeping alive.
I would say faith is some people’s rationalizing for irrational hopes.
I don’t think most of us put much into society compared to what we get. My contribution was working 36 years at an institution of higher learning. But other than taxes and voting I don’t add much anymore. But I get a whole lot out of this society, even if it’s corrupt and illogical. My main complaint is society should be fairer to all, logical, and do no harm. We should all value paying taxes to create a wonderful civilization, but instead, we’re trying to have a civilization on the cheap. The rich should pay more taxes to justify their lifetime of living high on the hog while most barely endure. And is it too much to ask the rich not to destroy the planet in their pursuit of greed?
I would agree that a vast majority of us are just going about our lives, content with our relative peace and modicum of prosperity. We stop occasionally to poke fun at the risk takers (elites) because they they strive to get as much as they can from the opportunities available to them. Evolution of society has followed the selfish needs of all of us. The only real difference is that some of us are by nature the more aggressive in their pursuit.
Survival is not about equality its about scarcity. The facade of our ‘civilization’ does not change the equation. Some will rule because it is in their nature to compete. Others are content to follow or enjoy an existence where they are not called upon to fight the bloody battles. Remember, wherever we look in any public space, the statues and the memorials are to the elites who paid the price. More over they were erected by elites often with the consent of the citizens (peasants) or their indifference. Whether this is right or wrong is second to it is what it is.
I get irritated mostly by the corruption. The detritus, if you will, of the competition for wealth power and above all recognition. At the same time, like you, I have carved out a respectable existence in spite of it all, and I’m eternally grateful to have been born in a part of the world where that is possible. So many of our fellow humans can’t even dream of same.
In the end there is always hope. It’s the label we place on our innate instinct for survival. Faith in my mind is more about the trust factor in someone or something. In the end its the brain’s capacity for denial or the irrational interpretation of the real world. Belief systems are essential tools for survival none the less.
For those of us who live in a liberal democracy voting serves to legitimize the process of government. Many of us, and I include myself are not particularly interested in who we are voting for, rather we see the act of voting as our ‘civic duty’. Lack of voter participation is a bellwether for social unrest where the tension between social actors is starting to tug on the stability and predictability of political outcomes. Donald Trump was not elected by the popular vote, and many will point to the electoral college as a scape goat. The truth be told, those who stayed home enabled the populist to victory. When well meaning people do nothing, the troubles start.
All actions and behaviors by nature are selfish no matter how well meaning the intent which is merely the deception we allow ourselves and others to believe.
Liberal democracy provides for the ambitions of the elites within society. Whether they be captains of industry or aspire to political power. There is no question that the remainder of citizens need to hold them in check. This is accomplished by democracy, and the political process, however, above all, is the rule of law. Without it we would not have a chance at peace and prosperity. Even though the distribution of wealth is inequitable, social order is of greater importance. The election of Trump was a failure of the elites not the peasants. The establishment of both major political parties were infighting to the point where the potential vote was fractured beyond repair. Trump is the product of this failure, an affront to the sensibilities of many, but at the same time a wake up call for all of us.
I don’t think we have lost our way in the sense we are only doing what our nature compels us to do. The good with the bad. I think our ancestors would be more lost if they were transported to our time than if we were to go back to theirs. We have the benefit of experience having contemplated their existence and what it took to survive. The human of 40,000 years ago transported to our time would have no benefit. Either way both would struggle mightily, which I guess is what has got us this far in the first place.