COMPLIMENTING A COUPLE OF GREAT EDITORIALS
I wrote the following letter to compliment the Spokesman Review's editorial board yesterday after they wrote a couple of nice editorials about how out of hand the election nonsense has been getting. Later I realized this is a sort of pocket summary of my view of consciousness and its relation to reality in the Universe. Also I realized that Buddhism has been dealing with the unreality of the supposedly real world for thousands of years. If only they'd remove all references to "spiritual" principles, we'd have a religion for the modern age.
Dear Editorial Board,
I thank you for your fine editorials in today’s paper (September 2, 2004), specially the lead one which deals with our nasty evolutionary and animal penchant for self interest above all else. Unfortunately, as far into the future as my mind can imagine, I see no hope for the human animal on that head, and this is why:
Even though Dostoevsky’s protagonist in Notes From the Underground cries out “. . . that to be too conscious is an illness. . . ,” I think the matter is entirely the opposite. If anything, most of humankind is still too unconscious. Let me tell you about an experiment that points up two pretty unsettling conclusions about the human condition.
Some unfortunate humans suffer from seizures so frequent and severe that no medication or treatment can relieve their pain and mental anguish. The only relief these people found was in having their corpus callosums severed, thus separating their left hemispheres from their right. Two things came to light when scientists studied these people after their operations. (I don’t know the source for the original experimental data, but I came across the experiment in books by Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker, two highly regarded researches and philosophers in the area of consciousness. Pinker was in Time’s 100 most influential people list last year.)
The first surprise is that there is no evidence of a single unifying soul inside the human body. Two distinct personalities, unaware of the other, became present in the person. Each hemisphere was capable of functioning and taking care of itself without need for the other. Two people now inhabited one body. Either no soul exists or some supernatural act sent in a second soul to one of the halves of the severed brain. The second finding has more to do with your generous and hopeful essay.
Researches found that they could give orders to the right brain which that body would carry out while the left brain (or other person) had to go along with the activity. For example, they’d tell the right brain to get up and walk, keeping the left brain out of the loop, and, later, they’d ask the left brain why it had just gotten up and walked. Researchers quickly discovered that the person “in” the left hemisphere had a strange habit of making up a reason for the action it had been involved in. When asked, the left brain would say, “I went to get a Coke.” Note, it won’t say, “I don’t know why I got up and walked” or “I’ve been part of these experiments for years now, and I often find myself doing things I can’t explain.” No, the left brain is, as Stephen Pinker says, a “spinmeister”; it invariably makes excuses or makes up reasons for the activity it observes in itself. In short, the left brain can justify any behavior or thought the brain can think. The left brain’s chief function is to make sense of the universe it experiences.
I first noticed this ambiguity in myself when I was a young man, arguing Catholic philosophy at the University of Dayton with the brothers. I soon observed that my mind would justify (rationalize) any act or belief I liked. Generalizing from that insight, I eventually came to know that our emotions or our animal instincts are still in control and that almost all human thoughts are mental gymnastics by our left hemispheres to justify anything our animal emotions and instincts want to feel and act on unless fear intervenes. In those awarenesses were the roots of my current existentialism which displays, according to Walter Kaufmann in Existentialism: from Dostoevsky to Sartre, a “. . . repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever.”
At first, this loss of old, comfortable rationalizations about existence is scary and depressing, but later, after years of growing old with it, I now recognize such complete consciousness of one’s epistemological dilemma as the only source of true human freedom. So when we observe people believing all these outrageous political charges about politicians they fear or love, we can recognize the old “spinmeister’ at work, justifying to ourselves our fears, our loves, protecting with irrationality our most precious beliefs, our deepest instincts, our animal selves.
None of us can truly divorce ourselves from this mental quirk. All we can do is become aware of how absolutely relative most of anything we believe is. We must all become more agnostic than most of us are. As an atheist, let me tell you, when I look around me at this irrational world where people believe in nonexistent beings like ghosts and angels, in astrology, in holistic medicines, in luck, in omens, in gods and demons and all sorts of made up explanations for what is going on around and inside them, I can scare myself pretty good, specially when I realize that these same irrational beings also control mighty weapons of mass destruction.
Of course, we should not expect everyone to give up their favorite beliefs right away, but we should ask only that they accept the fact that their beliefs are things made up by the left hemisphere in order to explain and make sense of the data arriving from the scary reality outside the body itself. Take everything with this grain of salt and no cause could rise to sufficient enough pitch to create war ever again.
Thank you again for your editorials today, and sorry this is longer than I wanted it to be,
PS: Doug Floyd, by the way, this experiment, and the considerations about the human condition which come out of it, is another example of the information and implications that a responsible newspaper should be introducing to its readership. Think how many people are still operating out of false, completely unscientific beliefs which are more than 2000 years out of date. They’re living in a entirely different, outmoded and unrealistic world than modern humans live in, yet they influence the future for all of us.