(Copyright © 2009)

Mankind is beginning to realize that “under-standing” is only an illusion, that life and action are based upon illusions and lead to illusions.   Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of ‘As If,’ 1924, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method.

Cigarette smoking is a habit often acquired during adolescence as a means of coping with anxiety experienced in stressful social situations. It provides a ready ritual to create the illusion of being as calm and collected as Humphrey Bogart or the Marlboro Man. Too bad it’s addictive and can lead to lung cancer. In that sense, cigarettes are a kind of placebo, something to calm the waters of the soul when they are agitated or internally threatening.

Our word “placebo” stems from Latin placere, to please, and like “pleasant,” “placate,” and “placid,” from a more ancient root meaning to be flat—as a windless sea can be flat calm. Placebo literally means I shall please, taken from the first word of the first antiphon of the Roman Catholic Vespers for the Dead. We use the word today in referring to a sugar pill or some other ruse to make us think we are receiving effective medication when in fact we are not. The mind seizes on the pill as justification for feeling better solely on the basis of wishful thinking. Ineffective in itself, a placebo gives the mind an excuse for no longer feeling sick, leading to the illusion of effective treatment and recovery based on a very real reduction of self-induced stress. Placeboes give us a chance to demonstrate the truth of the old adage, “mind over matter,” or as Luigi Pirandello said, “It’s true if you think so.”

Doesn’t apply to you? Think again. We say the sun rises and sets—which is how we see it—but it is actually the Earth rotating on its axis that creates the illusion. Our word “universe” means one turning, but it isn’t the cosmos that turns but, again, our rotating Earth that is responsible. We don’t feel ourselves on the skin of a top spinning through space, but that’s where we live nonetheless. For myself, I was racing 15 mph over the speed limit today to make an appointment, which I excused with the handy placebo, I didn’t want to be late. The obvious retort to that would be, well, don’t wait till the last minute. We excuse ourselves as a matter of habit, always defending our self-image if not our actual behavior. “Not guilty, your honor,” we plead with a straight face, when we well know we’re guilty as hell. All for the innocent pleasure of being more self-righteous than the next person.

As I am so fond of saying in regard to consciousness, strange business, indeed. Just putting on a new hat can make us feel our social image is more attractive, like putting on make-up or getting our hair “done.” There’s a new bounce in our step and we feel younger and less drab. Donning a dark, pin-stripe suit lends politicians an air of authority, much as Superman takes on superhuman powers by changing his clothes in a phone booth. We defer to people in uniforms as if underneath they weren’t people who eat junk food on the run, argue with their spouses, and yell at their kids. Owning a late-model car lifts our spirits, even though it’s no better than the trade-in we got rid of. Much of what we do depends on the trade in illusions, which every marketer knows and uses in manipulating us to his profit and advantage, along with every minister who calms the waters of his flock by making reassuring noises, and every celebrity who performs the outrageous acts his fans demand as the price of their loyalty to someone they can identify with.

When we reach above the social plane to the theological or cosmological, we outdo ourselves in grasping at illusory placeboes to make us feel good about matters far exceeding human understanding. Vaihinger quotes Immanuel Kant:

I can make possible . . . systematic unity of the manifold of the cosmic whole, by looking upon all interconnection as if they were the orderings of a supreme reason. . . . This rational entity is, of course, a mere Idea, and is not simply and in itself to be accepted as anything real but is only problematically assumed . . . in order that all the connections in the world of sense may be regarded as if they had their basis in this entity, simply and solely however with the object of building thereon a systematic unit . . . which may be indispensable to the reason and is in every way helpful to the empirical understanding. (Page 281.)

So usefulness is Kant’s criterion for calling up the idea of God as the unifying principle which human reason takes as its base. The idea of God is useful in much the same sense placeboes are useful—both reduce stress by invoking illusions that have no merit in themselves. Yet if we take them as true, then in our minds they become true for us. Creating gods of convenience because it pleases us, we are the true creators of the world we choose to inhabit. In Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine follows much the same procedure in establishing the idea of God as the ultimate source of the rights of man. I quote at some length from Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, (Classic House Books, 2009) to preserve the gist of Paine’s argument:

Before anything can be reasoned upon to a conclusion, certain facts, principles, or data, to reason from, must be established, admitted, or denied. . . . If . . . man has rights, the question then will be: What are those rights, and how man came by them originally? (Page 89.)

The error of those who reason by precedents drawn from antiquity, respecting the rights of man, is that they do not go far enough into antiquity. They do not go the whole way. . . . If we proceed on, we shall at last come out right; we shall come to the time when man came from the hand of his Maker. What was he then? Man. Man was his high and only title, and a higher cannot be given him. (Pages 89-90, italics added.)

The fact is, that portions of antiquity, by proving everything, establish nothing. It is authority against authority all the way, till we come to the divine origin of the rights of man at the creation. Here our enquiries find a resting-place, and our reason finds a home. If a dispute about the rights of man had arisen at the distance of an hundred years from the creation, it is to this source of authority they must have referred, and is to this same source of authority that we must now refer. (Page 90, italics added.)

Though I mean not to touch upon any sectarian principle of religion, yet it may be worth observing, that the genealogy of Christ is traced to Adam. Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man? (Page 90, italics added.)

I mean that men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right. . . . Consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind. (Page 91.)

The Mosaic account of the creation, whether taken as divine authority or merely historical, is full to this point, the unity or equality of man. The expression admits of no controversy. “And God said, Let us make man in our own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The distinction of sexes is pointed out, but no other distinction is even implied. If this be not divine authority, it is at least historical authority, and shows that the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record. (Page 91, italics added.)

Paine, rational man that he is, bases his argument on assumptions neither theological nor historical but mythological through and through. Make-believe is his ultimate authority for determining the origin of the rights of man. Take away God and his creation, Paine’s words fall in a meaningless heap. Yet he is so sure of himself, so relentlessly logical, so self-congratulatory, so much a victim of his prior assumptions that he is clearly peddling placeboes he earnestly feels good about and wants to pass on to us as fundamental truths. Times have not changed all that much due to human consciousness being in charge from Paine’s day to ours. Mind over matter is still our motto; if we believe something to be true, then surely it is. As long as it eases our minds and reduces stress, anxiety goes away and we feel our trusting, childhood selves once again.

Placeboes work because taking them pleases us, putting us in a different—more positive—frame of mind. We’ll settle for that over being right every time, because that’s how consciousness works. Consciousness doesn’t know anything for sure, it only claims to know. There can be no absolutes when it comes to telling truth from untruth, right from wrong. These are invariably matters of opinion and interpretation. The only way to check our beliefs is to adopt an attitude of skepticism, humility, and doubt toward every one of them, asking the ancient question: How can we know that we know what we think we know? And even that is no guarantee we’ll get it right. We must put in our ten-thousand hours if we want to come anywhere near the truth. Deep thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine didn’t reach far enough in seeking to justify their most fundamental assumptions. They merely discovered exactly what was present at the start of their respective trains of thought, and progressed not one inch beyond.

The fact is, there can be no true and fundamental basis for what we believe because the brain has no power to recognize such a basis if it ever came across it. We go with what the crowd believes, or higher authority, or our shelf of great books, or our mothers told us when bouncing us upon her knee. Much of what we earnestly take to be fundamental truth is a placebo we choose to put our faith in on no basis other than that is what suits us at the time. To a man and woman, we are self-made because each of our minds is unique in entertaining whatever enters our heads. Immanuel Kant is right for himself and wrong for everyone else, which is equally true for Thomas Paine, myself, and even the most respected authority. We choose to believe what we do because it accords with our nature and gives us pleasure.

That’s a hard pill to swallow. Which is why we so often resort to sugar pills because they reduce stress and make us feel better right away.

We make ourselves happen to please ourselves. To do it any other way would displease us, which seems senseless. Our only real choice is to press on as far as we can, always paying attention to inconsistencies that might give us pause—and a chance to reconsider the course we are taking in life.

Fluke-72

 

 

Advertisements

Reflection 131: Feedback

July 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Three posts ago (Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness), I dealt with four aspects of consciousness in which (through introspection) I claimed to see anxiety as a common feature, and the amygdala as playing an implicit role in that anxiety. I sent a copy of that post to Joseph LeDoux, leading authority on emotional consciousness (whom I had quoted), and in return he sent me a short note, and the draft of a manuscript he’d written on emotional coloration of consciousness. LeDoux’s reply read:

Thanks for the note. Interesting ideas. But my view is that the amygdala [is] not really involved in conscious fear or anxiety, at least not directly. The arousal that it generates contributes but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable. I’m attaching something that came out last year in a book called Frontiers of Consciousness (Ox U Press). The attached is an unedited version of the ms, but is basically what was published. Thanks again. Joe

Talk about anxiety, I was anxious upon reading the note, and even more anxious upon reading the attached chapter, which amounted to a complete review of emotional consciousness, citing 351 sources from the relevant literature. LeDoux was generous in dubbing my subjective ideas “interesting,” but there was no question he had the peer-reviewed facts on his side. Still, I felt the reason I sent the post to an expert in the field held true: there was a place in consciousness studies for introspection as a supplement to animal research, philosophical musings, functional imaging, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, the arts, and any other human activity shedding light on the mind. I’d said in my initial email that introspection and basic brain research were tunneling into the same mountain from opposites sides, hoping to meet in the middle, or by a different metaphor:

In addition to studies of neural substrates of consciousness, I firmly see a need for a sandwich approach which will inform such studies by coming from above—not from the substrate but the real item itself—because I think consciousness, as an emergent property, will never be found in the neurons themselves because that’s not where it lives. So that’s what I blog about, for whatever it’s worth.

Having read LeDoux’s chapter three times now, I am impressed both by the amount of research that has been done—and the amount that still lies ahead. In truth, much of what we know today about emotional consciousness is based on informed yet conjectural interpretations of basic research. The field rests largely on claims and arguments. A close reading reveals phrases such as “are believed to be,” “are often considered,” “may be,” “might be thought of as,” “my proposal is,” “I will argue that,” “is likely to,” “probably occurs,” “much debate exists,” “perhaps,” and so on. Knowledge is harder to come by than we commonly suppose. The essence of science (that is, of knowing) is doubt and skepticism, which is why on-going research is so necessary. Current knowing invariably rests on a flurry of assumptions, beliefs, and conditional assertions. Only when the flurry dissipates does knowledge stiffen into certainty—always an illusion to fill the break until flurries fly again.

Science, like religion and philosophy, is an edifice in need of constant maintenance. My image is of a juggler whirling Indian clubs in the air, dropping one here or there, picking up others, diligently striving, balancing, laboring, watching, paying careful attention, always appearing the same yet never quite the same two cycles in a row. In a moment of laxity, the clubs spill in a heap—until gathered and set in motion with renewed vigilance. Such is every human endeavor. Such is medicine, the stock market, technology, the Internet, blogging, and consciousness itself—the ultimate human endeavor.

I juggle my consciousness as best I can, as you juggle yours. Taken together we form a spectacle of jugglers whirling our clubs en masse while knowing distraction or exhaustion or simply missing a beat will make us drop one or more. We can’t keep going forever. Sooner or later. . . . What, me anxious?

But back to emotional consciousness. Essentially, it is whatever aspect of mind we pay attention to that bears emotional overtones expressing how we feel at the time. In picturing the amygdala responsible for feelings of anxiety, I am the arch-conjuror reaching farther than I have any right to on the basis of evidence—but reaching anyway because that is my nature. If I don’t reach farther today than yesterday, what’s the point of going on? Done reaching, I am finished. Where’s the adventure in that?

I sent my 128th post to Joseph LeDoux because I felt I had made a discovery—that anxiety is behind a large part of consciousness. I have claimed that consciousness is given us to solve novel problems that evolution has no leverage on, and anxiety is what turns a situation into a problem. Anxiety is a sign we are invested in a particular situation and care about the outcome. Interpreting the phenomenal situation is a problem if we want to get it right. Adopting the right idiom of consciousness in addressing the situation is a problem in itself reflected in how we present ourselves to the world. And lastly, applying an appropriate elixir (or fudge factor) in order to fit our way of thinking to the situation is a forth-order problem. All involving anxiety because we’re not sure of ourselves or the outcome we desire. And implicating the amygdala as the neural seat of emotional consciousness, so I claimed—which is where I overreached myself. In correcting me by saying, “The arousal that it generates contributes [to feelings of anxiety] but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable,” LeDoux is asserting the position he took in Synaptic Self where he wrote:

While individual brain regions and networks make distinct contributions to the processes that together constitute anxiety, anxiety itself is best thought of as a property of the overall circuitry rather than of specific brain regions (Viking, 2002, page 290).

In his chapter in Frontiers of Consciousness, LeDoux makes it clear: “Amygdala processing in humans occurs unconsciously.” Summarizing, “Indeed, amygdala processing meets most of the principles of automaticity—that is it is independent of attention and awareness.” So, like Hamlet sensing a presence behind the curtain in the queen’s bedroom but not knowing it is Polonius, I had no way of identifying the amygdala as the source of the anxiety associated with problem-solving in self-examined consciousness. As part of a network, the amygdala itself is not subject to introspection.

I stand corrected. Which I take to be a demonstration of cooperation between neuroscientists on one hand and us introspectors on the other.

Putting Heads Together

 

Reflection 93: Angels

April 22, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

We are prone to leaping to conclusions on very shaky evidence. That is how our minds work. We tell ourselves stories to account for phenomena we only dimly understand. The first time I heard oldsquaws (long-tailed ducks) at night, I thought someone had opened the window on revelers at a New Year’s Eve party. The nearest house was over a mile away. I listened to the horn-tootlers for a while, rolled over, and went back to sleep. If I hadn’t seen and heard the ducks the next week, I’d have born a grudge against my dear neighbor.

 

Often, we believe what we can get away with, particularly in circles of like-minded friends. Testing the stories we tell ourselves requires careful observation and diligence. It is far easier to get by on what we think we know and let it go at that. We are impressionable to a fault, believing what we want to believe, not doing background checks on those who inform us, or questioning their motives, much less our own. We raise innocence to the level of gullibility, and are as overly trusting of others as of ourselves. Geniuses at making leaps of faith, we put a familiar face on the unknown and mysterious. We know what we believe and believe what we know.

 

Take angels, for instance. We have a word for them, therefore they exist. Angels are mentioned in the Bible, the Qur’an, Persian mythology, and The Celestial Hierarchy attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century C.E.). They are portrayed as supernatural beings mediating between God and man in the monotheistic religions of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

 

Angels clearly have a history. They have been evolving in the human mind for over five millennia. In the beginning, there were messengers, which is what both Hebrew mal’ak and Greek angelos mean. Divine messengers from the heavens above. It was the vision of the sun, moon, and planets as messengers of stellar divinities in the night sky that sparked the origin of Sumerian beliefs in Mesopotamia, the same origin to which we can trace the roots of many of our modern beliefs.

 

The appeal of angels—heavenly bodies interpreted as divine messengers—was in serving as designated agents responsible for bringing affairs on Earth into accord with those in the starry realm overhead. That is, “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” or, “As above, so below.” That is powerful magic, bringing human conduct into line with the will of the gods. Such is the origin of astrology, knowledge gained through study of the stars. And beyond astrology, of theologies postulating the existence of divinities floating in the sky.

 

Angels are supernatural beings, figures that would shock us if we met them on the street. The company they keep is confined to the fabulous tales we spin in our heads to account for events we don’t understand. They have staying power in serving to explain that which cannot be explained, or which might be explained in less colorful ways.

 

The band of supernatural beings we believe in but never expect to meet face-to-face is surprisingly large. Start with the little ones, the clever, mischievous, magical scamps the likes of brownies, elves, fairies, gnomes, gremlins, imps, leprechauns, pixies, sprites, and trolls.

 

Then there are the big scary ones like giants and ogres. The ones with mixed body parts: Chimeras (lion-goat-serpent hybrids), harpies (women with the tail, wings, and talons of hawks), lamia (women-serpents who suck blood), mermaids, monsters, sphinxes (lions with the head of a man, ram, or hawk; or winged lions with the head of a woman), satyrs (bawdy goat-men), and werewolves. And the disembodied ones: banshees, bogeys, haunts, ghosts, phantoms, shades, specters, spirits, and spooks.

 

Not to forget cupids, demons, devils, dragons, genies, ghouls, hobgoblins, houri (dark-eyed virgins of Islamic paradise), poltergeists (noisy ghosts), vampires, witches, and warlocks. And for good measure, incubi (male demons that have sex with sleeping women), and succubi (female demons that have sex with sleeping men).

 

Through the years, a great many tales have been told of such beings to explain or justify specific aspects of human experience. Not all such agents are as outmoded as many of these. Who does not believe in Santa Clause to some degree, the Easter Bunny, Mother Nature or Mother Earth, Father Sky, various saints, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, Ronald McDonald, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, the phoenix, Hamlet, Huck Finn, Scarlet O’Hara, Don Quixote, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Sherlock Holmes, Bugs Bunny, Lassie, Archie and Veronica, Popeye, Tarzan, R2D2, Zorro, and a host of similar figures from art, literature, comics, film, theater, and TV?

 

Mickey Mouse and Garfield are as real to us today as Barack H. Obama, Charles Lindbergh, Oprah Winfrey, Humphrey Bogart, and Kim Jong-il. Aside from immediate family, a child’s world is often peopled largely with characters from books and television. How could a child not believe in Big Bird, Barney, teddy bears, Barbie, Ken, or the Cat in the Hat?

 

Our minds are filled with images of creatures we can name yet stand for beings we have never met in the flesh. We take the world we live in largely on faith. Virtual reality existed in human consciousness long before the Internet claimed it for its own. We can name these creatures, describe them, tell of their deeds, and swear to their impact on our lives. Fictitious beings are every bit as real to us as firemen, astronauts, or the president of the United States. In many cases, more real because they play a larger role in our lives and require a greater share of our attention.

 

How is it possible that fictional figures can be as real to us as natural beings of flesh-and-blood? The answer is shockingly simple. Both the natural and supernatural exist on equal footing in the same place—personal consciousness, the domain of all human experience. Unless we probe our beliefs, and test them, we have a hard time telling the difference between live and make-believe creatures. Figures in consciousness do not come flagged as real or unreal. Dreams seem every bit as convincing to us as the checkout girl in the supermarket. We are all subject to illusions and mirages—a trash bag flapping in the wind taken for a stricken crow, a stranger mistaken for an intimate friend, a friend in novel circumstances reduced to a stranger.

 

How can we tell if an object in conscious experience is real or unreal? That is, if it exists in the world or only in our heads? We must put our experiential loops to work on the matter and test our impressions. Do others see what we have seen when they stand in our place? What do the rest of our senses say? If we come back later, does the phenomenon reappear? Can we interact with the phenomenon by engaging it in some way? If we act upon it, does it respond?

 

Doubt is our greatest ally in probing items of belief. Anything can be believed for a time because it is the nature of belief to defend itself. Doubt cuts through such defenses. How consistent is this phenomenon with the rest of our experience? Is it an exception for which we must make special allowance—such as creating an entire realm governed by exceptional rules? Is it excessively complicated, or deceptively simple? Even the most respected authorities are wrong on occasion. No one’s consciousness is right all the time.

 

Take angels, for example. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? We all know what pins are because we have been stuck by them often enough. They are small, slender physical objects made of metal, pointed on one end, flattened on the other. How big are angels? What are their proportions? What are they made of? How would you describe one? We say fluttering candle flames indicate the passing of angels; is that a reliable test? Mentioning angels in the same sentence as pins or candle flames doesn’t make them real. We are mixing categories of experience here, as if both were equally verifiable, pretending the attributes of one extend to the other. Which they don’t and they can’t.

 

Mythology begins within us in our left-brain interpreters. When we act out our fictitious beliefs as explanations for things being as they are—which we do in waiting for Santa, playing the Tooth Fairy, telling tales of storks delivering babies, or expecting the natural world to serve the human economy—that’s when the stories we tell ourselves can get us into trouble. That is when hesitation, skepticism, double-checking, doubt, and further research are called for before we act out our stories. Let’s pretend is fun on occasion, but a steady diet can wreak as much havoc as a suicide bomber.

 

¦