In The Matrix, the actor Keanu Reeves plays a computer programmer and hacker named Neo. After receiving secret messages from his monitor, he decides to find Morpheus. After he does, he learns that in reality, human beings are farmed as a source of energy by a race of sentient, malevolent machines. People live their entire lives in pods, being fed sensory stimuli which gives them the impression that they live ordinary lives. This movie is based on a fascinating philosophical question asked by Rene Descartes. Descartes observed that his sensory perceptions are not willed. Rather, they come to him. Therefore, Descartes utilized epistemological doubt about his external world. Similarly, Daniel Dennett imagined that the brain might exist in a vat. Mad scientists would then feed information into the brain, constructing a false reality. Why such an obsession with a distinction between appearance and reality? What about the human experience makes individuals trust the existence of their own being, but have doubt about the reality of the external world? The answer is as obvious as it is paradoxical; the self has the ability to doubt the external world, but the external world cannot doubt the self. I will argue that, as individuals, our brain is structured to doubt the truth, ignore it, and hide in our common prejudice.
While we need not be as skeptical as Descartes, we should at least recognize that his questions have important philosophical merit for discussions of the self. I do not believe we should worry about malevolent forces deceiving the mind. Rather, the deception is caused by our sensory perception and inherent brain structure. The constructed world of the mind is the matrix. The truth, as I see it, is that we all live in a matrix. But, this matrix exists inside our own mind. This matrix was not created by sentient beings for manipulative purposes, but rather by the hundreds of billions of neurons and the quadrillion or so synapses formed by them.
Pinker argues that cognitive neuroscience is exposing the self as a network of brain systems. Rather than possessing a disembodied, Cartesian self, soul, ghost, or person, the brain is scattered. Despite the allure of the ghost in the machine metaphor, Pinker maintains that “the brain does not even have a part that does exactly what the ghost is supposed to do: review all the facts and make a decision for the rest of the brain to carry out” (Pinker, 2002, 42). Certainly individuals have the feeling that there is one single “I” in control. But, as Pinker elaborates, this is an illusion that the brain does its best to create. There are supervisory systems that can change behavior and override habits, but there is no rational free agent traditionally identified with the soul or self.
Other philosophers take reject the ghost in the machine metaphor, and full-heartedly embrace mechanistic language to describe the functioning of the brain. Ayn Rand, for example, in her 1982 book Philosophy: Who Needs It, argues that the subconscious is like a computer. Yet, a much more complex computer than mankind can build. The function of this computer is to integrate ideas. The programmer is the conscious mind. Yet, by default, we are set to allow the external world to make programming decisions. So, if by default, no firm convictions are reached, the subconscious is programmed by chance.
This whole discussion is deeply complicated by the meddlesome notion of cognitive dissonance. Pinker describes a patient with a cut corpus callosum. This patient’s two brains can both exercise free will without consulting the other half. For example, if an experimenter flashes “WALK” to the right hemeisphere, the person will comply. If, later, the person is asked why he got up, he will say with all honesty, “To get a Coke,” rather than “I don’t know” (Pinker, 2002, 43). The spooky part, according to Pinker, is that we have no good reason to believe that we are different than this patient. The conscious mind is less like a central command board, and more like a spin doctor. This spin doctor has been described in scientific terms as cognitive dissonance. The classic example of this is the story The Fox and the Grapes. In this story, a fox desires to eat grapes hanging from a tree. When he fails to reach them, he decides that he changes his mind and no longer desires them. The fox reports that the grapes would probably be too sour, or not ripe enough. He induced compliance without sufficient justification. Much like the patient with a split brain, those who succumb to the temptation of cognitive dissonance are practically pathological rationalizers.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
– William Butler Yeats
“In the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
– Bertrand Russell
More interesting than cognitive dissonance is the phenomena known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Justin Kruger and David Dunning, across four studies, found that participants in the bottom 25% on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their performance and ability. Though test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd (Kruger-Dunning, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, December 1999). More importantly, people reach erroneous conclusions, and make bad choices based on these false conclusions. Yet, their general incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.
Self-delusion also impacts politics. When exposed to facts that forced a revision of previous beliefs, rather than changing beliefs, individuals tend to cling to their old positions more strongly. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. When the individuals heard speculation alone, thirty-four percent of conservates thought Iraq had weapons. When presented with documentation that asserted supposed truth, indicating that there were in fact no weapons, sixty-four percent of conservatives believed that Iraq really did have weapons.
The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse. (Vedantam, Washington Post, September 15, 2008) This doesn’t only apply to Republicans. John Bullock at Yale University found a similar effect when it came to misinformation about Guantanamo Bay. Some Volunteers were shown a Newsweek report that suggested a Koran had been flushed down a toilet. Others saw the original article as well as a retraction by the magazine. In the first group, 56 percent of Democrats had disapproved of detainee treatment. After hearing the retraction, Democratic disapproval rose to 68 percent. Just like with republicans, the refutation made the misinformation worse.
The spin-doctor works marvelous things for politicians, but creates tragedies for public policy. What is the solution? Like most difficult things, there is no clear-cut answer. There are well documented tricks that individuals can learn. Meditation is a very well documented way to avoid pitfalls of mindlessness. Richard Davidson has spent over twenty years studying the brains of monks. He has found that meditation changes the brain. Monks have a much stronger “gamma” wave: a form of electrical activity in the brain that is associated with consciousness and pulling together information and perceptions from different regions of the brain. In one study volunteers practiced Vipassana meditation for three months, for 10 to 12 hours a day. Another group got only a quickie one-hour course, then practiced Vipassana for 20 minutes a day for a week. Before the training, Davidson and his team tested the volunteers on one form of attention, called attentional blink. Davidson had the volunteers watch a screen where capital letters flashed, one at a time, for one-twentieth of a second each. Once or twice in the rapid-fire stream of 15 or so letters, a number snuck in. At the end, the volunteers typed which number or numbers had snuck in.
In general, if a second number creeps in less than half a second after the first, you don’t notice it. Attention has been so consumed by detecting the first number, there’s not enough left to detect the second. “The attention momentarily goes off-line,” Davidson says. “Your attention gets stuck on the first target, then you miss the second one.” But as he and colleagues report online in the journal PLoS Biology, mental training in the form of Vipassana meditation can change that. The meditators significantly improved their ability to detect the second number amid the barrage of letters, even when it came less than half a second later (the period when paying attention to the first number ordinarily keeps you from noticing the second). “Mental training allowed them to use fewer neural resources to detect the first number, thus leaving enough to notice the second.” We do not have to accept dismal resignation. Rather, “Attention capabilities can be enhanced through learning.”
Without meditating every day, there are other easy changes with large impacts. For example, Research has found that the ideal state for learning is when the brain is in a relaxed, but focused and aware state. At this point the brainwaves run at about 8 to 12 cycles per second, which is called the alpha state. Baroque music-such as Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Pachbel’s “Canon” has been shown to synchronize brain waves at the alpha frequency. A calm setting is necessary for change because stress locks challenging information out of the mind.
For one who is awake, non-perplexed,
Whose mind is uncontaminated,
And who has abandoned both good deeds and bad,
Fear does not exist.
In order to increase our awareness, and thereby reduce our cognitive dissonance, we must strengthen our meta-cognitive abilities. One way is through meditation. Another is through philosophy. Most importantly, we need to stop making excuses. Speed Levitch said that “On really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion.” Guy Forsyth commented that “The trick is to combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams. Because, if you can do that, you can do anything.” I agree because I think that philosophy can open the mind and increase awareness. Ayn Rand establishes a clear, straight-forward epistemology on which to question one’s beliefs and desires.
“You must examine your own convictions and any idea or theory you study, by asking: Is this an irreducible primary–and, if not, what does it depend on? You must ask the same question about any answer you obtain, until you do come to an irreducible primary: if a given idea contradicts a primary, the idea is false. This process will lead you to the field of metaphysics and epistemology–and you will discover in what way every aspect of man’s knowledge depends on that field and stand or falls with it” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, 1982, 15).
As a philosophical detective, I must remember that nothing is self-evident except the material of my sensory perception. Because we do live in a matrix – the matrix of the mind – our experience must be primary. The principles I accept (consciously or subconsciously) may clash with or contradict one another; they, too, have to be integrated.1 I agree with Ayn Rand that philosophy integrates my experience. A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, I have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. My only choice is whether I define my philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought or, if I let my subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions false generalizations thrown together by chance.
Thomas Mann once said that “We are all infant prodigies.”
Perhaps mindfulness is the key to salvation. But for those of us who learn the truth, reject it, and cower in our prejudices, I wonder: