Thursday February 14, 2008
Vain, Deluded, Pigheaded, Secretive, Bigoted… but that’s enough about me. How about you?
I’ve just finished reading Cordelia Fine’s highly entertaining book A Mind of its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives, which is just the kind of medicine that you need if you think that your brain is a reliable guide to reality. Fine draws on the findings of experimental psychology to lay bare, with a good degree of humour and grace, some of the less than salubrious habits of the human mind. From our tendency to erect little pedestals upon which to stand ourselves, to our rather touching belief in the faculty of reason when it comes to making decisions; from the cavalier disdain that the brain has for truth to our bizarre propensity to defend ideas to the death once they have taken hold; and from the limitations of conscious thought to the inner workings of prejudice: this is not, all things considered, a pretty sight. And the reason that it deserves to be taken seriously is that it is based upon an enormous amount of careful research. I think it was Emerson who once said that the last bastion of the sacred was the integrity of the human mind, to which one can only answer, some integrity!
Over the past few years of studying philosophy, I have discovered that when many philosophers talk about mind, they tend to go all misty-eyed, even mystical. And then they say all kinds of astonishing things that, whilst they may be true of their minds (who knows? they are philosophers, after all – perhaps they have extra-special minds), seem to bear little relation to the cage of unruly and disruptive monkeys that is my own mind. Nevertheless, I am increasingly convinced that all the evidence suggests that the philosopher’s Mind – noble, true, immaterial, the seat of pure reason – is more or less a fictional creation. Whilst for some this might sound like the worst possible news, I tend to think the opposite, if only because in the end what is actually going on is a much more interesting business than the philosophers have imagined. After all, it can be both fun and instructive to catch the brain at it, to spot those vanities and delusions, that propensity for pigheadedness, the skimpiness of our conscious processing, those flickers of bigotry.
But what are the implications of all of this research when it comes to the question of how we live? Here Fine is a bit more ambivalent. She comes down hard on bigotry – and certainly the experimental findings are not particularly edifying – but at the same time seems to have a rather more kindly view towards, for example, our tendencies to be vain and deluded. When writing about vanity, for example, she quotes the findings of the psychologist Pyszczynski, who claims that this built-in tendency may be ‘a protective shield designed to control the potential for terror that results from awareness of the horrifying possibility that we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe, destined only to die and decay’ (29). There are those, Fine writes, who lack this vanity, who have balanced self-perceptions and are realistic in their predictions of the future. ‘They are the clinically depressed’ (28). In other words, a bit of vanity can keep your sanity.
And it is here that I have to depart from Fine’s argument. I am not sure that the clinically depressed are particularly realistic in their predictions of the future or balanced in their self-perceptions. There are certainly some research findings that suggest this, but I wonder about the hidden assumptions in such research. For example, the story that Pyszczynski tells, although masquerading as the most sober account of our place in things, seems to me to be yet another delusive creation. It has all of the force of Classical tragedy – terror, transience, decay, meaningless, horror; but this overwrought recourse to amateur dramatics should itself alert us to the suspicion that, once again, we are spinning another drama in which the self is setting itself upon a pedestal: a hero, once again, although a tragic one. And if this assumption is built in to research into depression, then anybody who is depressed will find themselves scoring highly on the realism of their predictions of the future or the balance of their self-perceptions. Furthermore, even if the depressed are rather good at predicting bad outcomes, it may be that they are less good at predicting, or at securing, good outcomes. A gentler, kinder sense of things is not necessarily more delusive than the operatic tragedy. Reality and horror are not synonyms. There are, in the world, genuine pleasures, true kindnesses, real delights and wonders.
Nevertheless, these kind of findings do call our habitual sense of ourselves into question. And whilst some may continue to believe that, through heroic efforts, we can overcome the many flaws of the human mind, I myself can see no reason good to believe that this is so. Yet whilst I do not think that we can eliminate these things, I can’t bring myself to agree with Fine that some of the distortions and deceptions of the mind are worth guarding. I think that what is demanded is something more subtle: to continually remind ourselves that what the brain spews out is not the best guide to reality, the ability to recognise that our convictions are not as firmly based as we tend to believe, the cultivation of an engagement with the world that does justice to those things that we hold to be important, but that also recognises how tenuous this hold actually is.
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