If I Had Free Will, I’d …

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2020

After watching the TV show Devs, I’ve been thinking about free will and determinism.

If I had free will, I’d:

  • Do what I decide to do
  • Keep my house clean and orderly
  • Eat only healthy food
  • Exercise just the right amount
  • Weigh sixty pounds less
  • Own only what sparked joy
  • Finish every writing idea
  • Complete my To-Do list daily
  • Open my mail and not let it pile up
  • Master a few hobbies
  • Remember all the important details
  • Be kind, generous, charitable, and helpful
  • Not waste time on useless fantasies
  • Be more active

I have to assume because I can’t achieve any of these goals that I lack free will. But is free will only about self-control? Did I choose to write this essay or did I write out of determinism? I think of having free will as being disciplined, but does that mean that people who are discipline have free will? What if being lazy and undiscipline is what I chose with my free will?

Other people think that free will as being able to choose between right and wrong. It seems much easier to not kill someone than it does to vacuum the house. It takes no effort not to lie, but a lot of effort to be creative. Maybe there are levels of free will, and I’ve got enough free will to not steal, but not enough to lose weight.

I once read that success in life was getting to be sixty-five without becoming a drunkard or living in a mental institution. I think James Mitchner said that. Maybe free will isn’t more than not giving up?

p.s.

My wife Susan says I just don’t have any will power.

JWH

Restless in an Age of Anxiety

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 18, 2020

To paraphrase Rodney King, “Why can’t we all be normal?”

Usually, I’m a very laid back guy, but a slow restlessness is building up in me. It could be the weeks of confinement, but I doubt it. I’m retired and seldom went out before the pandemic. The U.S. is closing in on 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 and millions want to get out again. That makes me nervous, but I’m not sure if it explains my uneasy sense of restlessness. What makes me more nervous is millions of people want to believe the pandemic won’t get them. That might be part of it. Some people want to deny the coronavirus like they deny climate change, but I’ve been living with deniers for decades, so that might not be it either.

They interviewed a scientist on 60 Minutes yesterday and he said people need to recognize the certainty of physics, chemistry, and biology. Reality doesn’t give a damn about what we believe. It’s foolish to believe in mind over matter. And that makes me restless when I realize the inevitability of the objective reality. I’ve always wanted to believe I could outwit determinism.

I might also be feeling restless now because I need prostate surgery for my BPH. I’m scheduled to see a urologist and expect to have some kind of surgical procedure done. Peeing all the time isn’t normal, so maybe I’ll find peace if they can fix me. I’m hoping it’s like my two heart procedures. I had a heart arrhythmia for years and they went in and zapped something inside my heart and I was normal again. Anxiety was deferred. Another time, I was having chest pains and breathing problems, and they went in a stuck in a stent, and I was normal again, bringing another kind of peace. I know the urologist will rotor-rooter my you-know-what, and hopefully, I’ll be normal again. I also know until I’m physically normal again, I’ll worry about the possible complications and side-effects, and that’s a source of the restlessness too.

However, I don’t think my current restlessness is completely anxiety over having surgery. I wish politics could return to some kind of normalcy. I’m tired of having a crazy incompetent megalomaniacal crook being a rampaging bull in the White House. I want some dull-ass politico that just works at bi-partisan politics, statesmanship, foreign affairs, and leadership the heals the nation. It sure would ease my nerves if I didn’t feel our capital was Clowntown.

It also makes me nervous when protestors bring their guns into capitol buildings. Protesting is an honest outlet in a democracy. And I accept that people have the right to own guns, I just don’t want to see them. Seeing them at protest rallies makes me nervous. How do you tell a second amendment rights protester from a mass shooter? They all look like crazy angry white guys with guns. Don’t get me wrong, I like guns. But I don’t like seeing them out in public unless they are being carried by a person in uniform — either the police or military. It makes me nervous seeing guys with guns on their belt at concerts and other social gatherings. I don’t think they will protect us from bad guys, and seeing their guns make me think of beserk killers. At least armed women keep their guns hidden in their purses. Part of the problem with the protesters with assault rifles is they look like people cosplaying their favorite action heroes, but that’s unnerving because it also looks like they’re grown men playing acting with real guns. I’m all for people owning guns, but I only want to see civilians with guns in their homes, at the shooting range, or out hunting. Otherwise, I’ll think they’re a crazed shooter of school children or concert goers.

Another thing that’s gnawing at my sense of normalcy if the economic meltdown. The United States has a tremendous economic engine, but it’s taking a massive hit right now. It’s unsettling to think of how many tens of millions don’t have jobs, that millions of companies might go under, and that a whole generation is being delayed from starting their chosen careers. This is a time we should all stay calm and find a way to work together, but instead, everyone is arguing. Without wise leaders in times of crisis, incompetent leaders create the feeling we’ve all shipped out on the Titanic. We need a Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Churchill, not the Great Tweeter.

Living through a world-wide crisis in the middle of a polarizing political conflict is the wrong time to make decisions based on party affiliation. Taking sides because of single-issue positions is insane right now. We need to create comprehensive solutions that work holistically for every citizen. Politics based on greed and self-interest is going to undermine everything. It’s time to remember old adages like “United we stand, divided we fall.”

I want the pandemic to go away so life can go back to normal. But physics, chemistry, and biology will not allow that. Reality has thrown us a curve that demands we think differently, far outside any box we’ve ever known. Instead, we’re being drowned in insane conspiracy theories.

My friend Connell said he thought the internet would bring enlightenment by spreading knowledge faster and wider. Instead, the net spreads chaos and ignorance. Maybe the world would feel less crazy if I unplugged? The trouble is technology offers us the ability to form a hive mind, one with seven billion concurrent parallel processors, but instead of being seven billion times wiser, collectively we’re acting like the biggest single asshole with the worse case of Dunning-Kruger ever.

If would make me less restless if the country was run by leaders who were experts in their fields rather than yahoos who just think they are. We need to set job requirements for our politicians, ones that show they have the experience needed to do the exact tasks of their titles.

I have no idea how we find our way back to normal. That old curse, “May you live in interesting times” is one vicious curse. I wish we all had duller lives at the moment.

There is one last thing I’m considering. I’m wondering if I’m getting restless from getting older. I’ve never really worried about aging before. But then I never felt getting old before. I have felt my body failing before. Having my heart flake out is very educational about dying. And chronic pain is also instructive. But what’s more insidious, is diminishing vitality. I logically knew getting old meant slowing down and I accepted that cognitively. But I didn’t know what it felt like. I didn’t know what having a slow leak in my mental drive feels like. I think that’s making me restless. It’s not depressing me — yet, but it is nagging me in an interesting way. I realize I don’t have the psychic energy to do the things I want, which tells me to conserve my psychic energy. In other words, it’s time to seriously Marie Kondo my desires and ambitions, and that also creates a sense of restlessness.

That explains another reason why I want to get back to normal. I don’t want to waste my dwindling supply of motivating energy worrying about the pandemic or politics or crazy guys with guns. Writing this essay reveals that I need to let such things go, but I’m not sure I can. And letting things go also creates a sense of restlessness. It’s hard to come up with the right combination of attitudes to preserve my dwindling psychic drive.

JWH

 

 

Devs – Turn On, Tune In, Psyche Out

Devs is a new eight-part science fiction miniseries on FX on Hulu. Physics and philosophy dominate this story but in a bogus way. Quantum computers are used to do things quantum computer will never do. The plot is driven by cliché thriller violence, while the characters are motivated by emotional reactions taken to absurd lengths. I should have hated this TV show, but I loved it. I’m even thinking about watching it again already.

Why, if the parts are so bad, can the whole be so good? The Matrix also abused physics, philosophy, computers, and succeeded in being wildly entertaining too. I’m trying very hard not to tell anything specific about Devs — I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. Reading the reviews, my guess is about 20-30% of viewers won’t like this show, but the rest might. Especially, if you love science fiction. If you’ve ever said, “Far fucking out, this is blowing my mind, man” (or its Millennial equivalent) while stoned then this show is for you.

Science fiction often tortures science to convey a sense of wonder — and some of the best science fiction goes beyond science to remind us of the limits of reality. Devs has the kind of physics and philosophy that potheads and science fiction nerds love to use to mess with each other’s heads. We should be reading Plato and Penrose but it’s more amusing to psych ourselves out by watching philosophy-fiction. (Phi-Fic?)

Quantum physics has become the LSD of science fiction. Einstein hated its spooky strangeness.  In the absence of a general theory of everything its possible to imply anything, and Devs takes us to some gnarly places. I wish Devs hadn’t felt the need for building its plot on a murder — and instead based it on philosophical concepts duking it out on a peaceful personal level.

The show seems to have paid off free-will to throw the fight in favor of determinism. I’m grateful they didn’t bring in good and evil, although in such a knockdown brawl of ontologies, tag-teaming the theory of God for a few rounds could have been even more consciousness-expanding.

I don’t believe in any of the theories or inventions Devs proposes, but I can’t mention them without spoiling your potential fun. What Alex Garland does is take some fascinating speculations and extrapolate them to their limits, creating some groovy PKDian science fiction.

Worth Reading:

devs-stewart

JWH

Emotional Reactions to Pandemic Times

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 27, 2020

Psychically, our nation, our world, has made an abrupt U-turn. The stock market was soaring, unemployment was at an all-time low, and everyone was running around the planet doing everything they dreamed. We thought we had a handle on the future. Then BAM! Now we’re all huddled in our homes fearing the grim reaper and hoarding ass-wipes. (Of course, this ignores all the other forms of endless suffering so many humans were already combatting.)

We all want to get back to those tomorrows we were planning just a few weeks ago. I imagine the emotional reactions to the pandemic vary greatly, especially by age. I am 68, going to turn 69 this year, and I was already feeling oddly emotional about getting close to my seventies. The growing aches and pains of aging, as well as the deterioration of my various organs and digestive system, was already leading me into gloomy thoughts about the future. Running out of time has become more and more inspirational, but when the plague hit, that emotion went into hyperdrive.

We are experiencing something very new and different. It’s not that humans haven’t been on the brink before, or that we don’t think about it often, but we’re getting to feel it for ourselves in a very intimate way. Last night I watched the first episode of The War of the Worlds on Epix, where billions of humans are wiped out by invading aliens. I’ve read books and seen shows about apocalyptic events countless times in my life, but watching this one last night felt more realistic than ever before. The worse this pandemic gets the harder it will be to vicariously enjoy fictional apocalypses in years to come. The Great Depression and WWII inspired a lot of fluffy fun films in the 1930s and 1940s.

We still don’t know what this plague will bring. It could be over in weeks, months, or years. We don’t know how many lives it will terminate, how it will change the economy, or how it will alter our future daily outlooks. Essentially, it’s fucking with our sense of the future. What I love, and I imagine most of my fellow humans do too, is normalcy. We want orderly lives that we can control and predict. Remember, “May you live in interesting times” is a curse. Sure, there is a percentage of the population that are thrill-seekers, but most of us are not.

I was already stressed out for political reasons. The plague has both trumped Trump and swept away the 2020 election. I realize if I had the psychic energy I would ignore both and get on with my plans. I can pursue all my old ambitions at home while sheltering in place. But the dark clouds of rapidly shifting futures disrupt my thoughts. I assume they do you too.

If I was Yoda I suppose I could separate thinking from my emotions, but I’m not. The fear of being put on a ventilator keeps me from mentally seeing straight. And the fear of Donald Trump being elected a second term still eats away at my sense of wellbeing. If I had Zen Master mind-control I’d phase out these psychic ripples caused Covid-19 and Trump and get on with business. Unlike Trump, I don’t think we should all plan to go out by Easter. On the other hand, until the virus grabs me, I don’t think I should sit around and wait for it either.

The reality is I’ve already got other age-related health problems. Worries about the pandemic just exacerbate them. My health is easily disturbed by disruptions in my diet, exercise, sleep, and thinking. That wasn’t true, or not apparently so when I was younger. All of this leads to the realization that controlling my emotional reactions to the daily news is vital to my health. At 68, staying positive is critical. Fearing the future is just as dangerous as actual viruses. What we want is to act on the now to bring about desired futures, rather than wait in the now for scary futures.

When I was young I used to tell people I never worried about getting old because I didn’t fear wrinkles and going bald. I thought being old was all on the outside. I never imagined the psychic components of aging. What getting old is teaching me is the breakdown of consciousness is scarier than the breakdown of the body. Of course, they go hand-in-hand, but ultimately we need to fight for mind over matter.

What the plague is teaching me is how positive emotions are tied to our planning. And experiencing a plague later in life combines two very similar storms of emotions. I used to think I was like Mr. Spock, all intellect and no emotion. That delusion was possible when I was young, healthy, and society was stable. But looking back, I realize society was seldom stable.

I have a hard time imagining how the young are reacting to the pandemic mentally and emotionally. Do their youth overpower their fears, or do their fears undermine their youth? I am too distant from them psychically to empathize. I assume it’s quite a trip being laid on them.

I live in the American South and all the reports tell us we’re next in line for major pandemic growth. Ignoring that is hard. The older I get the more I envy robots. Being a conscious mind on top of a soup of chemical and biological reactions is a razor’s edge of a tightrope to walk. The idea of just having discrete circuits and powerful fast emotion-free thinking is so damn appealing.

The reality is I’m not a robot, nor am I Yoda, and I’m definitely not a Zen Master, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so. I also feel sorry for all the people who have faith in prayer or Donald Trump’s reality avoidance systems. Our emotions have a hard time when hard reality canes us viciously about the head and shoulders.

JWH

 

 

 

Our Cognitive Toolbox for Working with Reality

by James Wallace Harris,

All too often we think we know but we don’t. Why do so many people argue with 100% certainty against others who feel equally convinced? Often wisdom tells us the more we know the more we don’t know. Does that mean the person who claims to know nothing knows the most? Why is this reality so hard to understand? Even eyewitnesses are often fooled. And why is it so important to know thyself?

Reality is complex, but is it unknowable? Humans believe they are the crown of creation because all animals are ignorant of their own existence. Is our sentience really a quantum leap over all other life forms on this planet? If we compared ourselves to an amoeba, ant, or cat, we can see that awareness of reality has slowly gotten more complex and each of those animals perceives a larger portion of reality. Does that mean we see everything in reality, or are we just as blind to a much larger reality?

I believe we’ve evolved a number of cognitive tools to analyze reality, but it’s important to know the effectiveness of each.

First-Hand Experience. Common thought claims we have five senses for perceiving reality, but we actually have many more. People often believe seeing and hearing things for themselves is a primary source of knowledge. However, our senses can deceive us. For example, the lady cop who shot a man in Texas because she thought he was a burglar in her apartment when she was in his apartment. Just pay attention to how often eye witness accounts fail. Or better yet, recall all the times your senses have fooled you.

Instinct and Intuition. Our genes and unconscious mind direct us to act without thinking. Many people prefer to go by gut reaction than thinking it through. But how often does gut reaction tell us to kill or take what we want?

Language. By breaking reality down into pieces and giving each part a name goes a long way into gaining useful insight. But language is imprecise and the parts of reality are many. People who know the different names for trees have a greater understanding than the person who only knows the word tree. Language has evolved tremendously giving us one of our best tools. Pay attention to how words help you to perceive how reality works, and observe how people with lesser or better language skills fare compared to you.

Word of Mouth. We learn from other people’s observations. When we were hunters and gatherers hearing from scouts describe where animals could be hunted was vital. On the other hand, if a seafarer told you about mermaids you ended up believing in an unreal being. Word of mouth is very unreliable. Remember the Kindergarten game of Telephone? Word of Mouth evolved into journalism, and we know how reliable that can be. Word of Mouth has always had a fake news problem. Gossip, innuendo, slander are also descendants of word of mouth.

Counting and Measuring. Simple arithmetic became a tool that lets us invent, build, grow crops, trade, and develop an economy. Counting and measuring evolved into mathematics.

Mysticism. Mystics are people who claim to acquire knowledge from a higher source. They became shamans and seers who influenced other people. They also speculated about how reality worked, inventing higher beings. Even today many people still give credence to mystical insight. However, mystical insight has produced an infinite variety of conflicting information. We have to assume its all suspect. Mysticism tries to be the first-person experience of the divine.

Religion. Religion is codified mystical insight that is retaught as the truth. Religion allowed us to create very complex social structures. However, its truth is suspect. If there are a thousand gods, most followers are atheists to 999 of them. Religion succeeds in creating artificial realities that may or may not interface well with actual reality. Religion spreads best through word of mouth.

Laws. Laws are an external tool to encourage consistent thinking. Religious laws attempt to force mystical insights onto a population. Secular laws attempt to get people to work together.

History. If you study the Old Testament you’ll see it’s more about a history of a people than spiritual instruction. We have always tried to remember the past to explain how we got here. Early histories were no better than word of mouth stories that could be highly inaccurate. And each succeeding generation of historians alters the histories. A good example is the New Testament. Whoever Jesus was, and whatever he taught, has been constantly changed by each new writer of the New Testament. It appears the historical Jesus advocated communal living and sharing that today would be called communistic. The historical Jesus was concerned about creating heaven on Earth. It was later writers that gave him superpowers and turned him into God. Studying the history of Christianity is an excellent way to understand how history constantly mutates. History is a worthy way of understanding reality but it has to be tempered by comparing multiple histories.

Philosophy. Where religion taught that knowledge came from God or other spiritual authorities, philosophy teaches us we can figure things out for ourselves. Using rhetoric, logic, and mathematics men and women observe reality and deduce what’s going on. This was a great paradigm shift away from religion. However, like the game Mastermind, it leads to a lot of false assumptions. Elaborate castles of logic can build imposing concepts but that often turns out to be illusions of great knowledge. Philosophy is a major tool for understanding reality but it also has major faults.

Ethics. Ethics, like laws, attempt to come to a consensus on what’s right and wrong. Ethics is based on philosophy. Although in recent years, some ethicists have tried to look for a scientific foundation.

Science. Science combines mathematics, statistics, observation, testing, and philosophy into a systematic way to evaluate reality. Science assumes if tested observations and measurements prove consistent by scientists from any nation or culture then they might be true. Science never assumes it finds the absolute truth, but just the current best guess based on all the existing data. Science is statistical. Some science is so refined that it works incredibly well with reality. Space probes visiting distant worlds validate hundreds of years of scientific endeavors.

Scholarship. We have made education into a major portion of our life. We spend our entire lives trying to figure things out. We study, we think, we make assumptions. Like philosophy, scholarship often builds vast models of speculation. Scholarship tends to endorse results from competing trends. However, scholarly theories can be deceptive and even dangerous.

The problem is we use all these tools to explain our version of reality. Unfortunately, most are unreliable or clash with other people’s version of reality. Science has proven to be the most consistent at explaining reality, but science doesn’t cover everything. For example, right and wrong. These two concepts are ancient, probably coming out of mysticism or an instinctive desire for justice. Both religion and philosophy have tried to perfect them, but our reality is completely indifferent to morality or ethics. We have invented many concepts that just don’t exist in reality.

This causes problems. Several million people might believe with absolute certainty in a particular concept and then try to impose that view on millions of others who are just as certain such a concept is invalid.

We live in a polarize society because we all embrace different ancient beliefs, most of which we can’t explain how they came about. We just accept them as true. Most people believe in God because it was something they learned as a little kid. They won’t let the idea of God go no matter how much other cognitive tools disprove God’s existence.

Donald Trump seems to base most of his knowledge from first-hand experience and word of mouth information. Twitter is the perfect tool for word of mouth. Trump is neither religious, philosophical, or scientific. But this isn’t an uncommon way of dealing with reality. Few people are philosophical or scientific. Too many people only want to trust first-hand experience and instinct, but we know how unreliable those cognitive tools are. People who rely heavily on first-person experience and word of mouth tend to disbelieve science.

There have been various disciplines that try to teach self-programming that jettisons cognitive bullshit. Zen Buddhism is one. Meditation can be used to seek mystical insight or to observe the working of our own being.

The reason I wrote this essay was to help me think clearer. I’ve been reading books on Greek philosophy, and early Christian history. They are teaching me what people 2,000-2,500 years ago thought. I can see those ancient people struggled to make sense of reality without science. I can also see the same struggles today in people. We just don’t think clearly. We’re too influenced by low-level cognitive tools that deceive us. We base our existence on illusions created by those most primal cognitive tools.

I keep hoping the human race will get its act together and create a sane society that coexists with reality, and not on insane illusions and delusions. I realize until everyone becomes a master of their various cognitive tools, and learn the limits and limitations of each, we can’t start working on that sane society. We can’t start learning what’s real until we learn how to perceive what’s not real.

JWH

 

 

A Tale of Two Angels

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 25, 2019

This month I’ve watched two films about angels: The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Wings of Desire (1987). I happen to be an atheist who enjoys movies about angels. Angels are a weird conceptual race of beings that constantly mutates for our fictional needs. In the old days, angels were not human or ever human and existed on another celestial sphere with God. They were God’s messengers in the Old Testament. Humans keep making up stories about angels changing them each time. In the forty years between The Bishop’s Wife and Wings of Desire, what the angels represent are starkly different.

Cary Grant plays Dudley in 1947. Bruno Ganz plays Damiel in 1987. By the way, Bruno Ganz died this year, so it was sad seeing Wings of Desire again. I believe this is the fourth or fifth time seeing The Bishop’s Wife.

With last night’s viewing, I started questioning Dudley’s role in the story. In modern times we think of angels as guardians. Dudley appears to Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) in answer to his prayer for help. Henry is troubled because he wants to build a cathedral and his primary doner wants to pull the plug unless Henry makes the cathedral a monument to her dead husband. Henry believes he’s doing divine work by building an edifice to God’s magnificent and doesn’t want it tarnished by such egotism.

But Dudley doesn’t seem interested in the cathedral. He’s interested in Julia (Loretta Young), the Bishop’s Wife. Last night, I began to wonder just how honest Dudley is in this film. He claims angels are the reason why people do good, implying they work behind us like puppeteers. But he also deceives humans. He arranges for Henry to get stuck to a chair so he can take Julia out. He tells Debby, Henry and Julia little girl, she can throw snowballs when she can’t, he makes boys magically show up for choir practice when they’ve obviously chosen to be elsewhere, and in the end, destroys Henry’s plans for the cathedral. Everywhere Dudley goes in this film, he pulls angelic wool over people’s eyes. Yes, they become happier, but they are still being deceived.

In the end, Dudley goes away and erases all memory of his visit. What has he changed? Will the happiness he arranged for Julia, Debby, and the old Professor continue in their life. Will Henry devote more time to Julia even though he’s been given another big job? Will Sylvestor the cab driver have as much fun with Julia and Henry as he did with Julia and Dudley?

Most of The Bishop’s Wife is depended on the charm of Cary Grant. Every last woman in this picture glows when Cary Grant is in the scene. We assume they feel the presence of an angel, but it appears they are all fawning over a hot guy.

For my last two viewings of The Bishop’s Wife, I’ve wished that David Niven played Dudley and Cary Grant played Henry. The casting was too obvious. They should have reversed the roles and made Grant and Niven act against type. The charm of the angel shouldn’t have been confused with physical beauty.

The Bishop’s Wife is a charming film if you don’t think about it too much. Basically, Hollywood puts two outstandingly beautiful humans together for us to watch. They added some Christmas decorations and an angel but in a philosophically iffy way. It’s not like It’s A Wonderful Life, where an angel merely shows George Baily how much good he accomplished in his life. I’m not sure we’re shown any human doing good in The Bishop’s Wife. Julie wants a husband that pays attention to her, the Old Professor wants to write his book. Henry wants to build a cathedral. None of the humans want to sacrifice for others, and the story implies we need an angel to give us what we want.

In Wings of Desire, the angels are all around us humans. We can’t see or hear them, except sometimes young children can. The angels are immortal and have been on Earth forever. They merely watch. In a way, the angels witness reality, and maybe even give it meaning by their observations. The angels feel great empathy for us and listen to our thoughts. And when they detect a particularly troubled human put a hand on the human’s shoulder. This seems to bring a slight sense of comfort, but that’s all. The angels don’t work magic. They just care.

Damiel eventually falls in love with Marion, a lonely trapeze artist and decides to become mortal. Marion has friends but can’t connect with them. However, this love story comes at the end of a long film, so most of the movie is about listening to people’s inner thoughts. Watching the movie makes us like the angels, we watch and listen, in other words, we get to be angels too. Wings of Desire is a very slow philosophical film. The film doesn’t work unless you have the empathy to feel for the suffering of the human characters.

Wings of Desire is a much more spiritual film than The Bishop’s Wife. However, it’s much harder to watch. I love The Bishop’s Wife because of nostalgia, but as a spiritual message, it is lacking. It leaves me unconsciously wishing I was Cary Grant scoring with Loretta Young. It makes me wish there was magic to solve any bothersome problem that might come up in life. The Bishop’s Wife feel-good nature comes from making us want to live out a Hollywood fantasy. It’s now making me question the value of a guardian angel. We should be better people from an inner drive and not an outer influence. Magic is corrupting. But then, we don’t see the evil of magic.

JWH

 

Deception, Self-Deception, Confabulation, Bullshit, Narrative Fallacy, Dunning-Kruger Effect, and Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 23, 2019

I’ve been studying Plato. Plato is good for the soul but hard on the ego. Humans often lack the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Our superpower is self-deception. As children, we are told stories that we desperately cling to for the rest of our lives. We adapt to reality by making up explanations that usually end up being fictional. And when our stories clash with reality, the odds are we embrace the story. We aren’t rational. We are rationalizing creatures. We seek what we want by lying to ourselves and the people around us.

Anyone who follows the news knows this.

If a noise wakes us up in the middle of the night we don’t rush outside to investigate it. We start making up explanations trying to imagine what the noise could be. We tell ourselves its a burglar. Or if we’ve seen a raccoon lately, we’ll say to ourselves that Rocky is in the garbage can. Or its the wind, or a fallen tree limb. We can’t help ourselves. Instead of saying we don’t know we imagine that we do. Generally, we imagine wrong.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb called this tendency the narrative fallacy in his book The Black Swan. Neuroscientists call it confabulation. As children, we ask how the world was created and our parents tell us answers to the best of their abilities. How we are raised determines a lot of what we believe. If you were brought up a Southern Baptist more than likely their ideas about God are what you’ll believe for the rest of your life. However, if you were kidnapped at birth and given to a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia you’d grow up believing their local variation of the origin story.

Psychologists and philosophers talk about deception and self-deception. We like to think this problem belongs to other people. Our intuition tells us we’re right. We feel right. But are we?

We want to believe what we learn growing up is the truth. Few people are intellectual rebels that reject their upbringing. Not only will you maintain your beliefs, but you will also rationalize and lie to defend those beliefs.

A good percentage of humans learn to lie to get what they want. Conscious lying sometimes involves knowing the truth but working to suppress it. Liars are different from bullshitters. To a degree, liars are conscious of their lying. Bullshitters, as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt in his philosophical essay “On Bullshit” often don’t know they are lying, or even know what is true. Their grasp of reality is usually tenuous. They have told so many lies they don’t know what’s true anymore, but they have learned they can say anything to get what they want. Their concept of reality is so fluid that it changes from moment to moment.

The trouble is we bullshit ourselves all the time. We are especially dangerous to ourselves and others when we think we know more than we do. This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. People who suffer from this cognitive ailment are clueless about their own lack of knowledge. They firmly believe they are smart and wise.

We have so many built-in brain functions for fooling ourselves that I have to wonder if it’s even possible to know the truth if it came up and tapped us on the shoulder.

Most people dismiss philosophy as abstract useless wordplay. I just finished reading Plato in the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein and I’ve developed a new respect for Plato and philosophy. Goldstein came up with a very clever gimmick for presenting Plato’s philosophy. She imagines him alive today going on a book tour in America. She has his ancient words respond to our modern conundrums by fictionalizing Plato in different settings arguing with people of varying beliefs. I really recommend listening to this book on audio because these discussions are quite dramatic and effective. When Plato goes on a conservative talk radio show it’s hilarious. But I think my favorite encounter was between Plato and a neuroscientist who was going to scan his brain. The section where he’s on a panel with two opposing authors dealing with education was also quite brilliant.

However, the gist of Plato at the Googleplex is to question what we know and think we know. I’ve been lucky to be the kind of person that’s usually gone against the current, but I realized in later years my skepticism has not always protected me from bullshit. I’m acquiring new levels of doubt as I age realizing my own persistent gullibility.

For example, as a life-long science fiction fan, I’ve had high hopes for the future. I realize now that many of my cherished science-fictional beliefs are no better than what the faithful believe about God, Heaven, angels, and life-after-death.

And there is one cherished concept I have to reevaluate. I’ve always believed that humans would one day overcome their problems with confabulation. 2,400 years ago Plato concluded that only a small percentage of humans would ever be able to tell shit from Shinola.  He felt only a few could ever understand what philosophy teaches. I’ve always wanted to assume that we’re evolving, our knowledge is growing, and our abilities to educate are improving, so eventually, that percentage would be much greater.

That belief might be self-deception. But it might not.

We have to honestly ask ourselves can philosophy be integrated into the PreK-12 educational system so the majority of the population understands their problem with confabulation? This is to assume we can be totally different from who we are now as a species. Are we hardwired so we can’t change, or are we adaptable to change if we can find the right educational path?

This experiment would require raising a generation without fiction. That includes both God and Harry Potter. No Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. We’d have to stop lying to our children, or letting them play with lies and fiction. They’d have to grow up on nonfiction and documentaries instead of fiction, television, and movies.

Children’s entertainment would be limited to sports, games without a fictional narrative component, arts, crafts, and other hobbies. When kids ask why we can only give them answers that we know. For example, if they ask why everything is here we can only answer we don’t know. If they ask who made the world, we can only answer what we know from observable cosmology and geology.

It’s too late for me. I can’t give up fiction. I love it too much. I too addicted. I should be building my own robots and programming them instead of reading science fiction about robots. I wish I was, but it’s so much easier just to dwell in fictional worlds where intelligent robots exist, or we’re colonizing the solar system, or we’re creating utopias.

Fiction offers an infinity of virtual realities we prefer over actual reality. I believe our chronic confabulation is caused by wanting reality to be different from what it is. Buddhists call that desire. Eastern religions teach we should accept reality, whereas western philosophes promote shaping reality to our needs and wants. Western thought is active, it’s all about conquering reality. When we fail we lie to ourselves. Probably we suffer from such great confabulation because we seldom get what we want. It’s easier to have romantic fantasies or watch porn than date than to actually seek out our perfect match.

I think the path lies between the East and West. We shouldn’t be completely passive in our acceptance, but we shouldn’t want absolute control either. It would be interesting to know how people think a thousand years from now. Will they have a more honest relationship with reality? There could be a good science fiction story in that, but then it would be fiction. Maybe there’s another kind of acceptance too. Maybe we have to accept that we are amazing confabulating creatures. It will be a shame when such an imaginative species goes extinct.

And I’m not excusing myself from self-delusion either. My liberal friends and I believe Republicans are only out to reduce taxes and regulations at any cost. That they are either deluded about Trump, consciously lying to get what they want, or they are confabulated by his bullshit. Anyway, they ware willing to back Trump at any cost because Trump gets them what they want.

Like I said, I’m willing to consider this a liberal narrative fallacy. I believe its possible Republicans could be seeing a truth we liberals don’t. However, their stance on climate change suggests they are blind to science. I believe scientific consensus is as close as we ever get to the truth, and I could be wrong about that too. I also know that even though I accept what science says about climate change I don’t act on their conclusions. Oh, I do a token amount, what’s convenient for my consciousness. But if climate change is real, then none of us are doing what it takes to avoid it.

Looking in the mirror and seeing who we really are is hard. That’s what Plato was all about.

JWH