Rational Religion

Contact the author:
tuppennyprofet - at - aol - dot - com
(translate into a real email address)

The Uses of Self-Delusion (and when to stop abusing yourself)


Most of the time we kid ourselves without dire consequences.


First off, let's establish that it's necessary we kid ourselves; a lot.  Living in a world of absolute reality would be no fun at all.  It would be depressing and paralyzing.  The suicide rate would skyrocket. 


One of the perils of arts education is that the student may become sophisticated and discriminating before she or he achieves enough technique to measure up to his or her own overdeveloped standards.


"That is what good is; and I can't do that!"


This is what we call a "perfectionist personality," and those afflicted aren't able to cut themselves any slack, so too often they stop trying - too soon.


Most of us, blessedly, think we are better than we are; or we "make allowances:" for being young; for not having practiced enough last month; whatever.  This keeps us in the game, until the absolute limits of our talent and dedication finally dictate whether we "make it" or not. 


The reality is that most of us live out our lives as failures.  That is, we have not done what, as kids, we aspired to do. 


There's a whole suite of literary conventions and psychological syndromes associated with finally confronting that; the "midlife crisis" and all.


But the human animal can't live with the psychological burden of failure.  So in order to survive, we kid ourselves. 


"I could have done it if I hadn't gotten married; if I hadn't had kids; if my health had held; if I had worked just a little harder."


 And of course there are the "conspiracy theorists" who can convince themselves that they had enemies who frustrated them and held them back.


Or maybe it was just "the establishment," which didn't want the competition.


At any rate, most of this mythology isn't pernicious.


It's adaptive, for us personally and for the species as a whole.


We convince ourselves we are "in love" - whatever the hell that means - and we make commitments; get married; "settle down" and become responsible citizens.  Life goes on.


If our definition of love doesn't evolve pretty drastically over the years, we will probably get divorced, at least once. 


The people who keep getting divorced and remarried - or in this latter day, going from affair to affair until the hair turns white and the fires burn low --pretty likely have an immutable idea of what love is, or should be.  They keep expecting it to be an idealized constant, and of course no finite human nervous system can sustain that.  Successfully kidding ourselves doesn't work all the time.


I won't go into the whole subject of orthodox metaphysics, here; I have done that sufficiently elsewhere:  just a reminder about the ultimate self-delusions we fashion around the inescapable reality of dying.


We console ourselves that our departed loved ones have gone to a "better place;"  (And so, of course, in the end, shall we.) 


I believe that - unless full stop; total oblivion, can be defined as a "place" - I ain't going nowhere. 


Therefore, I have to fashion some alternative mythology to deal with that.  I like to think I am simply confronting reality, and take comfort in my ability to do that without panicking. 


That's the real goal.  Don't come apart.  Get out of here with as little fuss as possible, and don't let them see you sweat.


So, by extension, we have this whole human society; a worldwide collection of diverse nations; all full of people who have managed to survive by ignoring most of the everyday realities of their lives. 


An entire species of escapists!


Other animals probably accomplish the same thing simply by not being all that cognitively aware.  Because we have this brain, we have to kid ourselves.


And unless it takes some pathological turn - like human sacrifice to propitiate the rain gods - or burning witches - or mass genocide because we believe our neighbors are the cause of our troubles - most of it is a good thing; at worst, harmless.


Now do you understand, in those cases where it is important to define reality, and confront it, why we need a different way of thinking in order to do that?  Ergo, Scientific Method!


It's so easy to kid ourselves.  It's second nature.  In situations wherein it's emotionally important to us to achieve a given outcome, come up with a certain solution, it's practically assured that we will kid ourselves into believing we've done it.


Take the process of buying a car.  It's a big expenditure and for most of us it involves doubt, stress and emotional turmoil.  There are so many variables, largely revolving around whether we are making the right choice and are we getting a good deal. 


But after we buy the thing, and are committed to it, we are pretty universally convinced that it's a very good car and we are "happy with it."    This is sustainable because most cars (granted the occasional lemon which just seems cursed from the start) are pretty reliable and get us to and fro with a no-greater-than-we-allow-for maintenance and repair bill.


It's important to the process of getting on with our lives that we be happy with our new car, and people who constitutionally aren't capable of achieving this blissful state about expensive new acquisitions are doomed to spend a large part of their lives in self-recrimination.   


Scientists, at this level, are no different from the rest of us.  If they dedicate huge sections of their time; spend their whole lives, trying to achieve some goal; psychologically they need some measure of success.


(Part of their mythology is that there are no failed researches; if you did everything right you have simply proven that that was a blind alley and someone else doesn't have to waste her time probing it.  The only true failures are those of technique - poor control or sloppiness - which don't even give a valid negative result.)


So we have the Scientific Method, which takes into account all the psychological pitfalls and built-in mental errors that researchers can (will!) make in the course of their investigation and conclusion-drawing. 


There is no mystery that The Method is misunderstood.  In a species which has inherited an infinite capacity for believing, we have devised a complex discipline for reducing belief to an absolute minimum. 


It is an unnatural way of thinking for most of us.  It has to be carefully learned and assiduously adhered to; no exceptions. 


It is rigid, unforgiving, and mostly just plain, slogging drudgery; relieved by rare incidents of discovery or insight. 


And it is severely limited.  It can't write a poem or compose a sonata or even - except by accident - make a buck to keep its practitioner clothed and metabolizing.  All it can do is identify objective truth, about whatever, so we can use that precious kernel of knowledge as a tool to improve our collective lives.  Or ultimately save them. 


Some of the practitioners of Scientific Method are arrogant in their disdain for those of us who have not been trained to think that way. 


Most of them are at least slightly megalomaniacal; convinced that what they are doing is important; more important than what you and I do, at any rate.  


That is their surrender to their humanity; their own personal mythology that keeps them going; their system of belief.


They just can't allow it to creep into their work; except in that vital corner of their lives that simply keeps them at it. 


It's a schizoid existence and it's akin to walking a tightrope made of razor steel.


They are some of the best of us. The absolute best of them are as valuable as Shakespeare and Beethoven and Leonardo (who was also one of them, actually).


It isn't necessary to worship them, or to make of them more than the flawed human creatures they are.  But it is incumbent upon us to understand what they do, and to appreciate it. 


It is the hardest, trickiest mental work the species is capable of because it contradicts the very nature of our nervous system.  It's physically analogous to that boxer, who has trained himself not to blink, in order not to get hit.


The scientist has to train himself not to believe, in order not to be misled.  And he has to subject himself to an exhaustive set of checks and balances to make sure he hasn't just kidded himself in some elaborate, obscure manner.


Then, after he's done, he has to submit his results to the scrutiny and challenge of his "peers;" a lot of other trained, critical, often jealous, human beings whose job it is to try to prove he's all wet. 


That is why, although I am not a scientist (don't have the discipline; too easily bored to do the scut work), I become quite testy when I read about all this fuzzy-minded "New Age" criticism of The Method; the notion that science has no special claim to authority because, after all, science is just another system of belief.  


Those boodleheads have, constitutionally, no idea what they're talking about.


They are at least as nuts as Kaczynski.