Are You An Auto-Brainwasher?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 22, 2017

There is an extreme condition known as the Anton-Babinski syndrome where blind people believe they can see. It’s a visual variation of Anosognosia, where a person with a disability is unaware of their disability. Anosognosia covers a range of delusions dealing with the body, senses, memory, and language. There is a cognitive related syndrome called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where low-ability individuals suffer from superiority illusions. (I can’t help think of Donald Trump when reading that article.) Quoting Wikipedia, here are the essential qualities of the D-K effect:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • fail to accurately gauge skill in others
  • recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill

I believe we all fool ourselves. But how far do we go? Are some people auto-brainwashers? Anyone who has read books by Oliver Sacks knows how powerful a brain is at fooling its own mind. I highly recommend you read the articles linked to above, and then ask yourself: Am I fooling myself?


This has very powerful implications. What if you think another person is in love with you and they are not? What if you think you are great at your job and you are not? What if you believe you’re writing the world’s greatest novel and you’re not? What if you think you are brilliant, sexy, funny, and compassionate and you are not? Many people are crushed by self-doubts, but maybe just as many people are brainwashed by over-confidence and delusions.

Take climate change deniers. They believe they know the truth, even though they oppose armies of scientists with PhDs, using trillions of dollars worth of supercomputers, space satellites, rockets, airplanes, drones, ships, submarines, monitoring stations, balloons, and other scientific resources. Are they any less deluded than blind people claiming they can see?

Any individual who thinks they can solve any of the world’s major problems is absolutely deluded. Our reality is intensely complicated. To assume we understand anything clearly is delusional. A reasonable amount of self-doubt is healthy. Too much can be crippling, yet we need enough for humility.

The trouble with being human is we make up stories to explain a limited set of facts. This is called the narrative fallacy. I can’t find a single article that explains it, but the book, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is where I first heard the concept. If a noise wakes you in the middle of a night you can’t stop yourself from imagining scenarios for what caused that noise. From burglars, falling tree limbs, to raccoons, you have to think of something to explain the noise, even if the explanation is wrong. And generally, it is.

This is how we brainwash ourselves. Narrative fallacies lead to the Dunning-Kruger effect if you don’t do a lot of fact-checking. The reason why fake news is so successful is it often fits into people’s narrative fallacy storylines.

Science is our cognitive tool where we statistically study reality to look for consistency. We can only trust evidence when it’s overwhelming. We can only trust evidence when a majority of other people collaborate that evidence with further scientific research. But we are easily fooled by masses who have fooled themselves with auto-brainwashing. Their claims appear to be consistent evidence – but consistent opinions do not equal consistent evidence.

One of the purposes of Zen Buddhism is to deprogram our auto-brainwashing. If you can get your inner observer to back away from its attachments to thoughts it is possible to see how we auto-brainwash ourselves.

My old friend Connell and I have been talking about auto-brainwashing lately. Terms like Dunning-Kruger aren’t very effective, or memorable, so I’ve started using the phrase auto-brainwashing. Once we accept that a concept exists and have a good label for it, it’s possible to see it in action. With the idea of auto-brainwashing in mind, study yourself and your friends.

What do we see that’s not there. What’s there that we don’t see?


The Challenges of Living in a Meaningless Reality

We live in a meaningless reality.  By that I mean we have no prescribed purpose.  There is no God telling us what to be, nor does the universe expect anything from us.  Our awareness of the universe is an accidental byproduct of evolution, and when we die that awareness will cease to exist.  I know religious people will strongly object to the assertion that our lives are without purpose and there is no God that’s personally involved with each of us.  But religion is a psychological response to not understanding reality by a developing consciousness.  Once a critical level knowledge of reality is attained it becomes obvious that God and religion is all in our heads and not part of the external reality.

Beliefs in gods are universal in the human condition because psychologically we do not like living without a sense of purpose, but with enough education it become abundantly clear that we’re living in a universe in which our species has no special purpose or protector.  Once we accept that it becomes obvious that we face a number of challenges.  People can live perfectly happy lives knowing there is no meaning in the universe but the very first challenge we deal with is wanting to define our own meaning.  We have a deeply seated need for meaning.

Challenge #1 – Existentialism

Existentialism is the philosophy of living in a meaningless universe.  It’s mostly an atheistic philosophy, but there is a theistic branch, which says God created the universe and then walked away, but in ether flavor, existentialism is about existing in a universe with no prescribed purpose.  Existentialism basically says everyone has to invent their own purpose.  This is both good and bad because people can choose very selfish pursuits, or even amoral pursuits.  Counter to what religious believers think, atheists tend to be more moral and ethical when we work at creating our own rules about living rather than accepting them from imaginary beings.

The universe does not demand that we don’t kill – if you look at nature, the rule would seem to be:  thou shalt kill or be eaten.  We have decided that we shouldn’t kill – and that’s deeper than religion. Even atheists believe murder is wrong.  Even without a God defining right and wrong we can instinctively develop morality.  The faithful fear a meaningless universe because they fear absolute chaos, but even without God we can find order.

Existentialism succeeds for the individual but not for the human race.  There is no universal system of belief that all people accept.  If we want law and order it must be created by consensus that’s not tainted by any belief system.  As a species we all want order, justice, security and civil rights in society, and they require a consensus to achieve.  We could collectively pursue a delusion.  If everyone was a pure Muslim or Mormon we could create a clean orderly society where most people were happy, but we’d be living a delusion.  Thus the first challenge is to create a society that allows all its citizens freedom to pursue their own created purpose, but still protects the rights of all other citizens.

Challenge #2 – Delusional Imperialism

We all have a psychological defense mechanism to impose meaning onto reality.  If we are poorly educated about reality, we will make up an explanation that makes sense to us and then share our delusion with others as a way to rationalize we’re right.  This is an extremely common neurotic behavior.  This is not a problem when populations of shared delusions stays small, but when they grow very big like the over billion Christians clashing with the over billion Muslim it becomes quite a danger.  Historically it has always been a danger when one delusional group tries to rule the entire population.  No mass delusion has ever achieved 100% penetration because the desire for personal freedom is always stronger, and the fact that no delusional system has ever explained reality correctly.  True details of external reality always brings inner and outer criticisms to a delusion.

Challenge #3 – A Delusion Free Government

Whether it’s Christian, Muslim, Confucius, Capitalism or Communism, most governments are tainted by a philosophical system that doesn’t actually explain reality.  They always fail.  The challenge is to create a government that is not tainted by ideology.  Some of the founding fathers of the United States may have attempted this but time and again their plans have been thwarted by delusional groups.  Any religious group that can’t understand the concept of the separation of church and state is a threat to a purely free government.  There are no exceptions to this.

Throughout the world all governments fail because they are under attack by special interest groups.  Our challenge as humans living in a meaningless universe is to create governments that are equally meaningless but offer the maximum freedom and protection to its citizens.

Challenge #4 – Achieving a Consensus about Reality

Because our lives have no prescribed purpose means we can prescribe any meaning we want to ourselves.  We become self-programming entities.  Ethically there is nothing wrong with believing that Jesus will bring about personal immortality, even if it’s 100% inconsistent with reality.  Ethics are the way we define right and wrong, or morality, if you will, in a meaningless universe.   The universe has no ethical intent, nor does it care what ethics we create, it’s 100% indifferent.  But because we are a social species we’ve invented ethics as a way to create fair play between individuals and groups.  However, there are no 100% consensus on any ethical idea.  Probably the one ethical ideal that is the most universally held is the golden rule.

In the entire history of the world there has only been one system that seeks to understand reality in a consistent way and that’s science.  Science is a system of exploring reality and not a philosophy or belief system.  Science is the study of reality by consensus.  People study an aspect of reality, create a hypothesis, create more experiments, collect data, and finally propose a theory that is shared around the world, where other scientists will test that theory.  If everyone creates experiments that validates the theory, the theory is considered true for everyone.  Religious people have trouble with the word theory – they think it means a hypothetical idea.  No, it means a proposed explanation about how reality works to be tested.  Theories become true after years of consistent testing.  The theory of gravity or the theory of evolution or the theory of relativity are now considered facts about reality because they’ve maintain decades or centuries of consistent experimental validation.  We keep the name “theory of whatever” as just a label and to give credit to the person who first proposed it.

Through science we know a gigantic amount of information about reality.  Yes, we don’t know everything, but we know a whole lot.  Most humans have never taken the time to study science so they are suspicious of it, or even consider science arrogant for thinking it has achieved so much knowledge.  But science is consistent, and it’s the only system that has explained reality in a consistent manner.

The reason why there is such a tremendous conflict between science and religion is because they explain reality differently.  Actually, science explains reality in one way, and religion explains reality in an infinite number of way, all inconsistent.  Of course religion is thwarted by other thought systems such as logic, philosophy and mathematics.  Any person with a good education in science and psychology will understand that gods and religion are a mental coping mechanism inside people’s heads.  The unpleasant reality is the scientific minded must live with the mass of delusional people.  The delusional people have inconsistent views about reality and try to impose them onto other delusional believers and non-believers.  This means it’s very hard to have a consistent view of reality by all humans living in it.

Challenge #5 – Living with Delusional People

To the faithful, they see reality composed of believers and nonbelievers.  To the scientific, we see reality inhabited by clear thinkers and people possessed by delusions.  I know that sounds arrogant.  However, a really good education just clears away the delusions so it doesn’t feel arrogant, it just feels like the freedom to see clearly.  Don’t get me wrong, no matter how smart you are, there are always delusional traps of various kinds.  Our minds are not computers.  Our thoughts are overwhelmed by biological impulses, and it’s very easy to forget what we’ve learned.  It’s like that movie Charly based on the book Flowers for Algernon, about a mentally retarded man who is given an experimental cure and he becomes a genius for a short while, but in the end, it wears off.  I can imagine losing my clarity of thinking as I get old and de-evolving into delusional thinking.  It’s not arrogance, just fleeting clarity.   It would be fantastic if society as a whole was delusional free so I wouldn’t be tempted by delusional thoughts as my mind ages.

The delusional in recent years have sensed that science is a powerful tool for understanding reality but without understanding how science works.  They have even created fake science in attempt to justify their delusions not understanding that their theories have to be tested scientifically and they always fail.  I have even heard of faithful people getting Ph.D.s so they can claim to be scientific in their attacks on science.  The sad fact is delusions are extremely hard to escape.  It is very hard to accept that reality has no meaning, that we are mortal, and our lives are subjected to the whims of chance.

Challenge #6 – The Meaningless of Life

If you’ve seen many Woody Allen films then you’ve seen many stories about characters trying to deal with the meaningless of life.  Living with the truth can be hard, but it can also be empowering.  It’s like giving up childhood and living on your own.  The universe becomes more magnificent when you get beyond religion.  Reality is incredibly far out, and there seems to be no end to discovering more about reality.  Once you get past the idea that there is a God telling you how to act and believe it’s very freeing to feel the responsibility of thinking for oneself.  Sure, it’s bummer that we’re going to die, but it’s a real miracle that we’re here at all and it’s awe inspiring to contemplate that.  Trust me on this, religion has very small ideas about reality, it’s very limiting and tiny compare to the real reality.  When a religious person is inspired by the miracle of life they are just  seeing the tiniest of the surface of things.  It’s a shame they hate evolution because evolution is only an explanation about how the miracle of life works.

If you read a hundred books on evolution and then compare it to the phrase in the Bible “and God created life” you will see there is no comparison.  If you want to believe in God, read one hundred books on evolution and think this is how God created life.  The theory of evolution is the Bible written with a billion more details, that’s all.  Rejecting evolution is the refusal to look at reality directly and in detail.  The ironic thing is probably the people who wrote Genesis were more aware of the workings of reality than the true believers in the Bible today who live so far away from nature.  Early religions are always nature worshipers.  Science is the ultimate form of nature worship.

Challenge #7 – The Evolution of Man

Humans can’t evolve as long as a majority of humans are mired in their religious delusions.  Those who are free of delusions are being held back by the people who are possessed by ancient superstitions.  Even though reality is without meaning doesn’t mean that humanity can’t decide its own purpose or purposes, but that can’t happen as long as most people cling to their religious delusions.  I’d like to think that given enough time we’ll spread stable governments throughout the world and develop ever improving educational systems that will one day lead to a delusional free population, but I have grave doubts.  Religions destabilizes governments.  However, that might be part of our evolutionary progress.  Without chaos in our lives we never would have evolved into such powerful thinkers.  Neanderthals lived for hundreds of thousands of years without changing.  It’s weird, but religious strife might be the generator of free thinking.

But still I worry that there’s a barrier to total freedom that humanity is incapable of passing.


For us people who want to live in a society where everyone sees reality with a scientific rationality our only choice is to support stable governments that strongly support the separation of church and state, and spends lots of money on education.  The Christian and Muslim fundamentalists instinctively know that liberal education is bad for their view of reality.  This is why I believe many Americans hate paying for public schools – they see them as attacking their beliefs.  It’s also why fundamentalists want to influence the content of school textbooks.  And I can’t help but wonder if the conservatives who want a smaller government isn’t because they see a big government spreading scientific knowledge.

Liberals tend to be less religious and assign a purpose to government to uplift all people, whereas conservatives tend to be religious and dislike government being in the purpose business or making what they consider moral decisions that belong to their churches.  Essentially, non-religious people see government as the highest form of social organization and purpose, where religious people see their particular religious group being the supreme authority.  This is quite a conflict, but it does define the battle lines between the two groups.  Atheists want big government and big education.  Theists want small government, controlled education and a big universal religion.

Right now most people have to evolve through many delusions stages in childhood before they get enough education to see clearly.  I wonder what society would be like if we taught our children right from the start to see reality clearly and never allow them to be confused by the many delusional systems that exist.

I sometimes wonder if fiction is a danger to our development.  I love fiction, and we pursue a lot of fiction through novels, movies, TV shows, video games, comics, etc.  If we read more non-fiction and watched more documentaries, would that help to free us sooner?  I also worry that fiction is the escapism that people pursue when they have given up on faith but do not want to work to understand science.  You can reject religion and still find many other sources of delusion.  If you want to know how reality works you have to study science, and that’s not very popular.

There are many ways of living in our meaningless universe.  Most people cope by believing in various delusions.  Others ignore reality by chasing after hedonistic pursuits.  Art has always been a major alternative for some.  A few can’t take the lack of meaning and kill themselves, which is very tragic.  The real challenge is to accept the realities of the reality and find your own purpose that reflects the best knowledge we gained through science.

JWH – 7/29/11