Gareth Stevens asks: do we experience reality as it really is? If not, why is this and what can we do?
It can be a bit of a mindfuck when you finally understand that your mind is fucking you up – that it can’t be trusted, only gives you a partial (in both senses of the word) view of the world and cares little about your inner contentment or wellbeing. At the same time realizing this offers you the opportunity of not letting your thoughts and emotions have dominion over you and this can be intensely liberating. These opening sentences are phrased in such a way that assumes there is the mind and that there is a discrete knower of the mind; some will argue this is paradoxical I know. If we accept that our thoughts can not be trusted, then what else is there? Well perhaps there is a purer segment of our consciousness that is outside the whirl of anxieties and directionless and fleeting thoughts that we seem engulfed by everyday but are helpless to control. On this topic we shall turn to Buddhism later.
So what do I mean by saying that our minds are untrustworthy and devious? Well let’s start with Richard Dawkins idea of the Middle World. In his simple, elegant and yet profound TED talk, Dawkins drops what for me personally was a huge and significant bombshell, that is that “our brains themselves are evolved organs: on-board computers” developed slowly through natural selection to help us survive in what he calls the “middle world”.
To me Dawkins’ central message is this: there is so much in the universe that we can never see, feel, hear nor understand that we will never ever be completely aware of its ultimate reality. The middle world he talks of is neither microscopic nor cosmological. The only way we can see worlds outside our own is through augmented technologies such as high specification telescopes or electron microscopes. We are evolved and made manifest in such a way that we experience time at a particular rate and in turn with a certain flavour. We know dogs hear frequencies we can not, that mosquitoes sense carbon dioxide when we can not and that hunting kestrels see the UV light emanating from the urine trails of their rodent prey when we are blind to it. The completeness and coherence of our mentally constructed inner image of the world received via our eyes is conveniently seen as “out there” even when, intellectually, we remind ourselves that it is a largely a convenient illusion that serves only primal functions.
Humorously Dawkins tells the story of Wittgenstein speaking with a friend. They discussed how before the advent of heliocentrism it seemed obvious that the Earth is large and motionless, the Sun, small and mobile. On this Wittgenstein remarks “Tell me,” he asked “why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the Sun went around the Earth, rather than that the Earth was rotating?” And his friend replied, “Well, obviously, because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth.” Wittgenstein replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?” Clearly we not only see an incomplete view of reality, but are also prone to projecting on it patterns, hypotheses and causal chains that are not in any way actually there.
Living in the middle world limits what we can imagine and even as we challenge that notion with the development of quantum physics and postulate chronologies over massive time periods we have to do so without being able to corroborate our hypothetical theories, because the variables inherent in them are just not within the empirical radius of our narrow middle world sensory system.
Our minds are just not capable of understanding the totality of the universe or even the profound and true reality of those everyday objects you are surrounded by as you read this. Our mind is suited to provide us with enough capability to survive and procreate, any other functions are superfluous to evolution’s purpose it would seem. Our minds can no more give us an unfettered, complete and true understanding of the world we live in than “a tea-leaf can know the history of the East India Company”.
This all sounds obvious right? But prior to hearing this talk I hadn’t entertained this idea at all. I accepted that my physical form was the result of incremental adaptations over millennia, but assumed that I inhabit my corporeal state like a ghost in the machine and that my sense of self was complete, almost immutable and not vulnerable to the same evolutionary forces as the material world. In short much of the ways in which we think and behave are the result of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in ancestral human environments. Seeing as our current world is so far removed from that which gave rise to these mind based adaptations many of them are not fit for purpose anymore. More than that the streamlined functions for which our thinking was honed, i.e. pure survival and the propagation of our DNA, do not take into account of, or work with, our personal need for meaning and happiness. In other words our mind can lead us forcefully away from such contentment and long term pleasure.
To accept the above is to implicitly question the concept of tabula rasa and to do so is not for the faint hearted at a time when it can be blasphemous to even consider innatism. However it follows that the evolved mind has certain predispositions, particular innate functions and in-built limitations which help us survive yet obscure the full beauty of the world and stop us from imagining better ways to organise ourselves and to flourish. Whilst Dawkins middle world points to the limited sense and cognitive processes at our command, to consider other inherited adaptive cognitive biases will give us a fuller picture.
When we make decisions or express emotions and attitudes we like to think we are being objective and rational, but in truth we usually take short cuts and work on ‘rules of thumb’ that oftentimes were founded in the human mind during prehistory. Let’s look at Xenophobia. Many think that the suspicion and even hatred of strangers is cultural, or rather political, called on and fuelled by leaders and factions in their struggle for increased power or to further nationalism, but the idea that none of us are born racist whilst appealing is a little idealistic. If we think again of territoriality as an adaptive behaviour that secures possession of land and livelihoods and improves chances of survival and succession, rather than merely an illusory form of nationalism, it can free us from the disgust of what may be, actually a deep seated bias forged during our hunter gatherer days or during the first agrarian revolution.
Steven Neuberg writes in The New Scientist that xenophobia may be a predisposition refined by evolution. So called strangers from ‘other’ communities can pose a real threat in terms of infection and competitive ways of organizing themselves. “Separate groups of people often have different histories of exposure and acquired immunity to pathogens. A disease carried innocuously by one might devastate another, as happened to the Native Americans after Europeans arrived.” he writes. Deep seated fear of people who are different from us is an adaptation of the mind to increase chances of survival and of successfully producing progeny. It is not an irrefutable part of reality and needs to be overcome. Yet another example of how our ‘evolved’ way of thinking is ultimately unevolved if we look beyond the “middle world”.
There are countless examples of cognitive biases. Some humorous and superficial, some deeply consequential. It may not surprise you that the US Central Intelligence Agency have written about, and provide training to their operatives on, implicit biases. The CIA defines cognitive biases as “mental errors that are caused by simplified information processing strategies”.
There are a whole range of books in airport departure lounges worldwide that give marketeers the means to understand and manipulate unconscious thinking – these cognitive errors underlie everything we do and we are all susceptible to them. More importantly they continue to make us think in shallow and narrow ways and block us from a more positive and all-encompassing appraisal of reality.
On top of the ever increasing list of cognitive fallacies (there is even one called the IKEA effect which describes the added value we erroneously ascribe to a piece of furniture that we have partially assembled ourselves – don’t believe me? ….. Google it), there is the overwhelming illusion that our feelings are right at the hub of who we are and that they give direction and motivate everything in our lives.
Buddhism tells us that all feelings are innately judgemental and that judgements can lead to desire. A desire to move towards what we want and what we think will make us happy and a desire to move away from that that makes us unhappy. In turn desires lead to suffering and delusion.
So what can we do in the face of the knowledge that our minds are frail, that we are prone to attitudes and thinking that does not make us happy or open? Robert Wright in his book “Why Buddhism is true” advocates mindfulness meditation as the antidote. He argues that the teachings of The Buddha take full account of how the evolved idiosyncrasies of our brain persist in making us suffer. The recent emergence of the discipline of evolutionary psychology does not supercede these ancient teachings. On the contrary it makes them more pertinent and give them a more modern and concrete context Wright argues. “The conscious mind is naturally deluded about its own nature” and the extent to which it is in control. Meditation, Wright asserts, helps us to take back control, to become less bound up in our thoughts and feelings and to develop equanimity and detachment.
Antonio Damasio says in his adroit review of Wright’s’ book “the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.” A huge claim and not the first time it has been made. The need for us to control our biases, prejudices and to shirk the yoke of the hedonic treadmill most of us seem to be inanely running on is real and prescient.
I write this as a lapsed meditator who has just started again and who is receiving great benefit from doing so.