Barely Conscious Podcast Episode #8 feat. Mary Wingo.
In this episode Justin rants about getting his blood drawn and has a marathon chat with Mary Wingo, PH.D. author of “The Impact of the Human Stress Response”
Human Beings have evolved over generations to become a species with an affinity for simplistic explanations and answers. Don’t conflate this biological shortcoming with Occam’s Razor (Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected). This might be more a useful guideline in the realm of mathematics, but it seems having a reductionist default setting for life’s more philosophical conundrums will ultimately lead to highly inefficient decision-making, and a gravitation toward general falsehoods. Or, to not put it in layman’s terms – Reducing life’s complexities to a crude and simple placeholder might provide you with a sense temporary gratification, but it will come at the expense of long-term fulfillment and societal progress.
People just love a good story. They love stories so much, they have served as our main form of entertainment since the dawn of language and communication, all the way up through our current fiction craving culture we exist in today. Even our “Reality” shows are scripted for our appeasement.
Unfortunately, these stories are so attractive to us, that we often delude ourselves into thinking they are part of true reality. Compared to hard scientific research and messy philosophical debates, stories are incredibly simple. They are an easy answer. They have helped us survive and reproduce over the generations. We wouldn’t be here without stories to distract us from some of the harsher science-based realities.
Here are some questions mankind has been asking ever since he was conscious enough to ask them : What happens when we die? Do I have free will? Is there some higher power keeping track of my good and bad deeds? What is the point of life?
And historically, the most popular answers to those questions have been (in order) Life continues on after death in a really good way for people who follow given rules(and also continues on, but is painful for those who don’t) / We definitely have free will and our decisions are of great consequence to the Universe / There is most certainly a cosmic scoreboard and record of whether you are being naughty or nice / We aren’t exactly sure about this one, but just to keep being “good” so you can go to “heaven” or be reincarnated as some higher form and basically your life exists to serve “God”.
Notice, it’s always the happy Hollywood ending that gets the green light. It never seems to be the answer of – “Life is intensely complicated and we actually have very little idea what’s happening to us, what the meaning of life is, or if there is even any meaning to anything at all”.
That answer is scary and makes us feel like shit. So we say, “Fuck that, I want to see all my pets and relatives again someday in a big cloud castle and eat whatever I want without getting fat. Ahhh much better….”
The world is filled with stories. As humans, we are evolutionarily programmed to seek out patterns in chaos, and extract meaning from the most random of events. From constellations to car accidents – we are consistent authors of fiction, furiously writing a script that allows us to function optimistically and with false confidence in a world whose true nature could not be more of a mystery to us.
Historically, these false narratives have been quite useful to human migration and survival. Lying to ourselves and ego preservation have made the trait of self-delusion a natural selection must have. No one would explore that vast ocean if they weren’t unrealistically optimistic about their chances of survival/success. So, they don’t meticulously calculate their probability of success with astounding accuracy. Instead, they just say “Godspeed” and take some booze and bibles along for the ride. Few people would be motivated to accomplish anything if it were revealed to them that in fact, life was predetermined and they are merely groups of particles interacting and reacting to groups of other particles set in motions eons ago. No different in the “choices” they make than the fish in the sea, the clouds in the sky, or even the stars and planets in our galaxy. Not having free will is another messy, uncomfortable story we want NO part of.
If you want someone to risk their life in a War, or fly a plane into a building, or not have premarital sex, then you need a really good story to inspire them. And good stories are simple stories. Like this one : “If you blow yourself up and kill a bunch of people with a bomb, then there are 72 virgins waiting in heaven for you right after you’re done.” Now, you might say to me : “That story is so simple and dumb, I think that story sucks.” I would argue that you’re absolutely incorrect. In fact, that story is SO good that countless people actually commit the ultimate sacrifice and kill themselves and others because it’s so effective and simple.
Life, for better or worse, is muddy and complicated. At least, if we are asking science for answers. There is no nice, neat pill to swallow and make it all orgasm, all the time. But, I think that’s what makes life interesting. I like that things are complicated. I enjoy not knowing everything there is to know. If some God offered me the opportunity to have all of life’s mysteries revealed to me, I would decline because that would make life painfully boring. Even if I could all of sudden become immortal, I wouldn’t do it. While I’m not ready to die, and still might not be ready whenever that day comes, the idea of never being able to die is the most terrifying thing I can think of. It would be okay if I could choose when or if I die, but to float alone for billions of years/infinity out in the void of space long after all other life has ceased to exist, is perhaps the worst fate I can imagine.
Maybe this is just my cognitive dissonance talking, but I like life the way it is. I enjoy the testing of hypotheses. I like living an existence where the introduction of valid new evidence can flip even our most fundamental perspectives about life upside down at any moment. I think we should all view our lives through the unflinching lens of science. Yes, it’s might be a bit scary at times. Yes, there is the risk of discovering new truths that might make you lose your will to get out of bed in the morning, or prevent you from finding happiness again. But, there is excitement in all that mystery. So, don’t drown yourself in stories and lies to make yourself feel better. Flush out your delusions and biases and vanquish them. There is a greater peace, empathy, and happiness that can be found just in having the desire to seek out truth. The journey into the unknown is more fulfilling and exciting to me than some pacifier fairy tale that has been handed down over the generations. Oversimplification (as a survival mechanism) has served us well in the past. But moving forward, we need to take off the blinders. Truth is indeed far stranger and more interesting than any story mankind could ever dream up. Going forward, let’s open our eyes and not blink at whatever pops into our field of vision – let’s refocus and stare instead.