Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Umwelt

Yesterday I was out in the yard with my cat, and watched her lift her nose to the wind. She was reading the scents of our neighborhood in a way I am completely incapable of. Often times I have seen her sniff at a bush and wished she could tell me the story of who passed by in the night. I sniff the bush and I don’t smell anything.

I see my neighbor’s dog prick up his ears: he hears something that is totally beyond my hearing. What does he know that I don’t know?

There is a world of sense experience all around me that these animals smell and hear but I am completely unaware of. What else might be right here under my nose that I can’t sense? I think I perceive all of reality as it is, but my cat and the dog show me I don’t.

A century ago a German biologist noticed this disparity in sense perception and came up with a term for an organism’s personal reality: the umwelt.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Belief in Race is an example of Delusional Thinking

The book version of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity begins with an example of a common delusion in our culture: the belief that humans can be divided into different races. I assert that there is only one race, the human race, and that racial divisions exist only in our minds.

This statement has caused some comment among readers of the book. They are convinced that racial categories are based in reality, which just reinforces the point of the book: “insanity” is defined as confusing our mind-generated reality with actual reality.

Every culture creates a “consensus reality,” a collective version of reality that its members take for granted. This collective reality is made up of subjective beliefs and assumptions, many of which have no basis in fact, but it’s very hard to see that when you’re a member of the society because to you it’s just “reality.”

When we travel we perceive that other cultures have their own realities, and we call the experience “culture shock.” We look back in history and call an earlier society’s collective reality a myth.

But it’s very hard to question the assumptions of our own culture. As historian Nell Painter, wrote in her 2011 book The History of White People: “What we can see depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for.”

What basis do I have for questioning our cultural assumption that races exist?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Delusional Thinking in Action

This week presented an excellent example of delusional thinking in action: the U.S. Presidential election. Many Republican strategists and conservative pundits predicted not only a Romney victory, but a landslide. This delusional reality was so strong that it led to such embarrassments as Karl Rove’s live meltdown on election night (watch John Stewart’s treatment).

This is an excellent example of how a culture can create its own reality, and the members of that culture will believe in a truth even when the evidence is against it.

In the days leading up to the election the right-wing true believers accused the polling companies of bias because the numbers didn’t fit their beliefs. (Even though this didn’t make any sense: if the pollsters were biased towards Obama, predicting a Democratic victory would mean liberals would be less motivated to go to the polls. I believe one of the reasons turnout was so high is because liberals believed Obama might lose. But this is typical of delusional thinking: it’s not rational.) The conservative media spent those days discussing the liberal machinations of the mainstream media and how the liberals were conspiring to create misleading polls, instead of facing the true situation of their presidential candidate.

But it turned out that the people who statistically analyzed those polls using facts and not wishful thinking, eminently including Nate Silver at the New York Times, were extremely accurate.

Virtual Reality

This is the first chapter of the manuscript version of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity, by Kathleen Brugger.

Thomas Jefferson is revered in the United States, in part for his inspiring language in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Noble words, but ones which reveal an astonishing cognitive dissonance in the mind of the man who wrote them. Thomas Jefferson is infamous for being a slave owner. Clearly he could believe in the ideal of liberty and equality for “all men,” yet simultaneously believe that some men could be enslaved and treated unequally because of their skin color.

Today we congratulate ourselves that we’re beyond this kind of confused thinking on race, but most of us still believe in the concept of race itself. We think there really are “Caucasian” and “Asian” and “Black” humans. But, according to the majority of anthropologists, the concept of race exists entirely in our minds; there is only one race, the human race.

Yet this mind-generated reality of separate races has caused enormous suffering for millions of humans through our history, and continues today. People are still killed, imprisoned, and discriminated against because of a completely illusory “reality” that racial categories exist.

Most of us think we perceive reality directly and accurately. That is not true at all. Each of us creates, and lives in, our own individual reality.

A friend of mine shaved off half his moustache one morning, and then walked around all day enjoying people’s reactions. He couldn’t believe how long it took most people to become aware of his half-moustache.

People “saw” him with his moustache intact—entirely missing the reality that half of it was gone—because they were seeing a mind-generated reality, not the objective reality in front of them. When they finally noticed that half his moustache was missing their faces always registered shock (realizing how out of touch with reality they were) before dissolving into laughter.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Consequences of no Free Will - Personal

Earlier posts have addressed the question of whether we have free will, which we resoundingly answer in the negative. We have also looked at the societal consequences of life without free will. In this post we’ll look at the personal implications.

What does life look like without free will? The short answer: instead of guilt, blame, and pride we have compassion and gratitude.

When people talk about free will they mean that every sane human being has the ability to make logical and rational choices between good and evil, and that each of us consciously and freely chooses our every thought and deed.

The first consequence of the belief in free will is guilt: we blame anyone who has done something wrong, including ourselves (shame is self-directed blame). To feel justified in assigning guilt or blame, we must believe that a person is intentionally or premeditatedlybehaving in a wrongful manner.
Free Will = Guilt
Cartoon by Arthur Hancock
They are doing wrong on purpose; they could have behaved differently if they had wanted to. They should have known better. Similarly, the only way we can feel shame is if we feel we could have behaved differently than we did. Free will is the cornerstone of this reasoning. When we believe in free will we think that we are the conscious directors of our behavior.

As the cartoon above illustrates, the conscious control component of guilt is easily demonstrated by imagining how we treat animals as opposed to humans for committing the very same acts.

Imagine that someone rounds a corner and walks right into you. Naturally you feel fully justified in blaming them for their inconsiderate carelessness: You shout, “Watch where the hell you’re going!” You then notice that this thoughtless twerp is wearing dark glasses and carrying the white-tipped cane of the blind. Ouch!