We all lead lives of delusion. The limited scope through which we view our world has a lense so distorted, it can be a bit overwhelming to think about. David McRaney’s books – “You Are Not So Smart” and the follow-up, “You Are Now Less Dumb” manage to package the reveal of how out of touch with reality we really are in the form of a fun, engaging experience. My favorite chapter is the first one; dealing with narrative bias and the results of an experiment which placed three men who all believed themselves to be Jesus Christ in the same room for two years(spoiler alert : they started a book club). The bizarre thing is, even after you find out about a bias that has been lurking inside you all these years, actually correcting for it is a whole other challenge entirely.
If you really want to blow up your current map of the universe, first read YANLD, and then wash it down with Sam Harris’ meditation on the illusion of “Free Will”.
They serve as a nice one-two punch to the comfortable complacency languishing inside your frontal lobe. Here are some highlights :
– Humans have evolved to constantly construct narratives to explain our experiences. Both consciously and subconsciously, we have a deep tendency(even need) to gravitate toward a story (no matter how preposterous) that explains our situation. Whether this story has any validity or merit is not really important when compared to the dreaded alternative answer of “we just don’t know what is happening”. When your brain gets cut off from oxygen or traumatized, it won’t just accept that it doesn’t have any explanation for what’s going on. So, it just makes shit up. Don’t believe me? Try getting in a sensory deprivation tank and see if your mind provides you any narratives for what’s happening to you. Even in near death experiences, David tells us that : “Narrative is so important to survival that it is literally the last thing you give up before becoming a sack of meat”.
– Time is an illusion. Much like a hologram, it appears to have real depth and extra dimensionality. But, in reality, our experience of a past, present, and a future is purely illusory. Space and time are intertwined – everything that ever has happened, will happen, or even COULD happen, already has happened. There are infinite universes and infinite possibilities all happening at once(maybe). Time is just a construct of our mind to make sense of the incomprehensible. Science has observed the same exact photon existing in two different places at the same time. That is the truth of the world we live in. Although the quantum world has very different rules, and the particles involved are hard to measure and observe, that world is still part of our reality. To use an analogy, the movie of our lives has already been filmed. And there could be infinite versions of the story and its possible endings. However, since we don’t know what the ending is going to be, this illusion of motion over a timeline is how our brains make sense of it all. And despite being a false reality, it’s a pretty practical solution given the mind-bending variables we are being forced to work with.
– Heuristics and cognitive biases are rampant in our day-to-day decision-making and problem solving. These mental short-cuts were developed as evolutionarily advantageous survival mechanisms in our ancestors brains.
For instance, if you were hanging out with a bunch of cavemen, and all of a sudden a large part of your group ran in terror, and you remained behind to collect more data before making your decision, you might have ended up as lion lunch – thusly, not passing on your genes. Hence, we are predisposed to be conformists. Are these traits still advantageous in 2014? Mostly, no. But, understanding that we have them is the first step to compensating for them.
– Free will is also an illusion. As difficult as it might be to accept this as reality, it doesn’t make it any less true. Our minds literally make decisions before we are actually conscious of the decision that was made. When you think about it, how is our behavior, or the sub-atomic particles we are made of really separated from the behavior of a thundercloud, or an insect, or a dog, or a galaxy? Consciousness gives us this narrative to explain the illusion we experience. But, the variables are the same. Just because we don’t have all the proper variables in the equation to answer exactly what the weather will do one year from now, doesn’t mean the variables don’t exist. It doesn’t mean the weather is therefore impossible to predict, and can’t be on a preset course. It just means we aren’t smart enough to figure them all out to calculate the correct answer. The answer DOES in fact exist. The answer IS pre-determined. But we are so egotistical, that we say instead : “Since I can’t figure out this math problem, the answer is that things must be random. Or, some God did it. Or, it’s free will. Or, look over there, it’s a rabbit!” This is the nature of human beings.
It’s painfully obvious to me that every behavior and “choice” I make is a perfect combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors. Since no one can possibly gather them all up to calculate my next move, the assumption is that I must have free will. Especially since that’s a great narrative to make me feel powerful and in control. But, is the real truth all that bad? That I am, in fact, predictable. And everything that happens in our universe is predictable, because it already happened and is happening at the same time. The fact that we can’t truly predict the future is a blessing. It makes life interesting, because the illusion inseparable from our experience of reality and choice. Without this illusion, why would I be motivated to do anything? But, in knowing the reality that I have no choice what my genetics are, or what environmental factors are leading me to do what I do – it allows me to have more compassion for those less fortunate, and less congratulatory of those who got dealt a good hand.
But, just because time and free will might be some kind of virtual reality, that doesn’t mean we can’t take real satisfaction and happiness away from the experience of life. If all of a sudden it was 100% revealed to you that your life was really just a computer simulation, would that really change things that much for you? I mean, it would be a bit bizarre to know, and hard to comprehend. But, this simulation feels so real, that it might as well be reality. Would you enjoy the sensation of an orgasm any less? Would food not still taste fantastic? What would be the point of killing yourself or being depressed? If it feels real to you, then it IS reality.
Before I go any further and start really confusing myself, I’ll bring it back to the book. “You Are Now Less Dumb” should be required reading for Freshmen in high school. Our current curriculum includes Biology, English, History, Economics, etc. Those are great and all, but we have a limited amount of information we can present to our youth. Perhaps we should re-prioritize a basic operation manual for the brain ahead of memorizing when the cotton gin was invented. In fact, why are we having kids dissect frogs to understand how another organism ticks, while not even addressing the proven mechanisms that drive our own brains? In past generations, we didn’t really understand all that we do now about how the mind works. But, it’s about time we update our stagnant information base. Understanding our biases and tendencies helps to promote personal emotional stability, as well as generate empathy and compassion for others. This book isn’t just amusing, it’s highly consequential. If it were mandatory reading for every person on Earth, we’d live in a much happier, more peaceful world.
Overall Ratings : You Are Now Less Dumb – 10/10 Free Will – 9.1/10