Originally posted on 08-21-07:
An excellent article in the New York Times today, “Sleights of Mind,” by George Johnson. It covered several topics of great interest in understanding human experience: “…the cognitive principles underlying the magic… the narrowness of perception: how very little of the sensory clamor makes its way into awareness… inattentional blindness… the role words play inside the brain” etc. The take-away line for me was, “With a grab bag of devices accumulated over the eons, the brain pulls off the ultimate conjuring act: the subjective sense of I.”
Free will wasn’t mentioned in the article, but the implications to me seemed obvious. I always entertain hope when I read such a piece in so prominent a venue, that people who read it, at least some of them, will see those same implications and start questioning previously held assumptions about themselves. Having just read a book by Tavris and Aronson, Mistakes Were Made, that hope seems incredibly slim, especially for people who have enjoyed some acclaim for their “self-initiated” accomplishments.
A great example of this kind of reality avoidance is Michael Gazzaniga, president of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, about whom there were several paragraphs in the article. I was always struck by examples of this avoidance in his book, The Mind’s Past. Early in the book he talked about “…the interpreter. This one device creates the illusion that we are in charge of our actions.” (1998, p. xiii) Then at the end of his book he glorifies the very illusion he has exposed, giving it credit for “…the wonderful sensation that our self is in charge of our destiny.” (p. 175) Cherish those illusions, Michael, even though they’re mistaken. (This may sound familiar if you’re read the Free Will essay.)
There is hope, however, as the last chapter of Mistakes Were Made points out: “Dweck’s research is heartening because it suggests that at all ages, people can learn to see mistakes not as terrible personal failings to be denied or justified, but as inevitable aspects of life that help us grow, and grow up.”(p. 235) (This book is a great read, invaluable in understanding self-deception. A real revelation for me was how—and how often—mistakes are made in the justice system. Read it before you talk to the police.)
The book confirms my belief that the truth does set you free, and as it points out, that there are many benefits in accepting reality as awareness of it becomes available. Illusions can be fun, but there can be even greater satisfaction, and awe, in seeing how the trick was done.
Which is not to say that accepting reality is always easy. I cried inconsolably when I found out there was no Santa Claus. I went through a much longer, more difficult process of adjustment when I realized the ridiculousness of my Christian beliefs, trying to find comfort and security in a secular world.
I always seem better for it after these difficult transitions, but that sense of improvement may be the result of altered memory in an attempt to remove the disappointment of remembering a happier but no longer accessible state. Who knows…
The latest transition, which has been going on for some time now, began with the realization that I am not a free agent—I am an ongoing process, like the weather, whose course is determined by the interplay of an incredibly complex array of natural forces. My difficulty is in trying to figure out how to relate to my experience of myself in light of this ongoing discovery of its underpinnings in the natural world.
There are more and more indications that my struggle to adapt to this particular reality is not a solitary one. At least, the reality of the human situation is coming more and more into the spotlight, and I anticipate that broader exposure will result in a few more people saying, “Wait a minute! If this is true, then it means… most of the ideas I have had about myself, who and what I am, are wrong!”
What I am trying to do, in writing and in the podcasts, is to show that what might seem at first to be a dark cloud has a silver lining; that the more illusions we uncover, the more mistakes we accept, the better life becomes.
Will a Golden Glow Do?