Doublethink and the Mental Construction of Reality
The following is excerpted from the upcoming book All These Serious Faces Will Only Drive You Mad. This is the third excerpt to appear on Reality Sandwich. Read excerpt 1 here, 2 here, 4 here. To learn more about the book, please click here.
The concept of truth-seeking has long been a cornerstone of individualism. But in order to be effective as individuals, we have to make sure that our perception of reality actually contains a significant amount of what we call "truth." So how can we ever be certain that we possess the actual truth? Is human objectivity even possible in reality?
To determine that, we must look at how the human mind arrives at a sense of understanding the world. According to Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, the system of thought expounded by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. reversed the original order of human mental processing. "In the evolution of the human race and language there was a natural order of evaluation established; namely, the life facts came first and labels (words) next in importance. Today, from childhood up, we inculcate words and language first, and the facts they represent come next in value..." (1)
In Korzybski's terminology, human communication evolved through "extension," while aristotelian orientations (i.e., those with roots in Aristotle's philosophy and logic) are based on "intension." General semantics basically advises the use of non-aristotelian orientations, as Korzybski lays out in Science and Sanity (1933): "By non-aristotelian methods we train in the natural order; namely, that first order empirical facts are more important than definitions or verbiage. It should be noticed that the average child is born extensional, and then his evaluations are distorted as the result of intensional training by parents, teachers, etc., who are unaware of the heavy neurological consequences." (2)
In essence, Aristotle's intensional system utilizes orientations that are static, "objective," two-valued (either-or, dualistic, subject-predicate, etc.), dogmatic, linear, unpredictable, paradoxical, and un-sane (neurotic, psychotic, etc.). (3) The non-aristotelian (extensional) orientations taught by general semantics are dynamic (process-based), infinite-valued, empirical (measurable), non-linear, predictable, and sane (integrated "personality" and "neuro-logical" functioning). To state it briefly, non-aristotelian orientations are better suited to operate within and understand the universe as it actually is (i.e., as we can measure it scientifically).
Aristotle can't be blamed entirely for this state of affairs; it's also due to the nature of language itself. Since language is an abstract symbol system intended to pass information from one mind to another, it allows us to group and divide objects and phenomena that can't necessarily be separated in reality. For instance, "day" and "year" refer to naturally occurring cycles in our physical universe, but a "week" arises only due to our semantic constructions -- that is, it exists only in our minds. Similarly, we assume that the genders "man" and "woman" pertain to something objective about human beings, when in fact they are merely cultural constructions that don't necessarily correspond to biological sex. The fact that these kind of abstract divisions persist and are used in cultural discourse shows the tendency for finite-valued thought orientations in modern civilization. Pay attention and you'll quickly notice how anxious people feel to give everything in the human experience a name or a category.
Another two-valued semantic construct is the opposition between "left-brain" (i.e., analytical, rational, logical) and "right-brain" (i.e., intuitional, artistic, mystical) mental processing. (4) NYU neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has argued "that there is no overall function of a [brain] side. [...] Functions are products of systems. [...] Systems span the brain vertically and horizontally -- they are not isolated in one hemisphere." (5) And both analytical and intuitional expression are limited at the same point -- which is to say, neither one conveys "what really happened" or is capable of telling the "full truth." (We're referring here to intuitional expression, not the intuitional perception-such as a gut feeling-that the expression attempts to communicate.) The key is to realize that both analytical and intuitional communication are semantic forms that can do no more than provide an approximate understanding of the universe in which we live.
To fully comprehend this, it helps to go outside Western thought altogether. Alan Watts describes the predicament in his popular 1957 book The Way of Zen. "The reason why Taoism and Zen [Buddhism] present, at first sight, such a puzzle to the Western mind is that we have taken a restricted view of human knowledge. For us, almost all knowledge is what a Taoist would call conventional knowledge, because we do not feel that we really know anything unless we can represent it to ourselves in words, or in some other system of conventional signs such as the notations of mathematics or music. Such knowledge is called conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication." (6)
Watts is reiterating an idea from general semantics: we often mistake our semantic maps of reality for reality itself. Or as Korzybski (and, picking up the same thread, Robert Anton Wilson) used to say, the map is not equivalent to the territory it represents. Watts uses the example of central and peripheral vision to explain our linear, "aristotelian" thought patterns. Conventional knowledge -- as understood through a symbol system such as language -- is like the central vision that we use to read or focus our sight on physical objects (e.g., looking someone in the eyes when speaking). But the Western mind tends to ignore unconventional knowledge that can't be expressed and formed into mental semantic maps using language or other symbols. As Watts writes, "For some reason we do not fully use the 'peripheral vision' of our minds." (7)
Unfortunately, far more of our world exists in the periphery than in central focus; in fact, it's all in the "periphery" until a human being creates the focus. And we tend to ignore details that don't exist on the scale of everyday human life. We see a "table" or "couch," but not the infinitesimal detail of the wood or fabric that constitute those objects, or the equally infinitesimal speck that those objects represent in the broader universe. "Thus," says Watts, "communication by conventional signs of this type gives us an abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once -- a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms." (8) But remember, this semantic functioning is what separates human beings from other animals, and until we devise some method of telepathy, we will have to use conventional abstractions (i.e., symbols such as words or icons) to communicate.
Semantic formulation also plays a large role in the establishment of social norms. Watts informs us that "the task of education is to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes -- the rules and conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself together." (9) In Prometheus Rising (1983), Robert Anton Wilson argues that most child rearing resembles the art of brainwashing. Wilson writes, "The easiest way to get brainwashed is to be born. [...It's] a process which sociologists euphemistically call socialization." (10) Thus, by the end of puberty -- usually somewhere between the ages of 13 and 18 -- an average individual's perception of reality is more or less cemented for life. "Each of us is trapped in the reality-tunnel (assumption-consumption) his or her brain has manufactured. We do not 'see' it or 'sense' it as a model our brain has created. We automatically, unconsciously, mechanically 'see' and 'sense' it out there, apart from us, and we consider it 'objective.'" (11) (However, in the interest of using non-aristotelian [empirical] orientations, we should refer primarily to the mind's semantic processing, since it's not totally clear what role the brain or nervous system plays there.)
As an alternative to Wilson's tunnel vision metaphor we can discuss the concept of blind spots, as Daniel Goleman explains in his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception (1985). "The blind spot is an apt physiological metaphor for our failure to see things as they are in actuality. In physiology, the blind spot is the gap in our field of vision that results from the architecture of the eye." (12) Basically the mind can experience psychological "blind spots," either actively (because one's attention is focused narrowly, as in Watts's "central vision") or passively (because sensory information contradicts one's "morals," beliefs, etc.). This is the essence of Freud's term "super-ego," which equates generally to the idea of conscience. "Perception is selection," as Goleman writes. "Filtering out information is, in the main, for the good. But the very capacity of the brain to do so makes it vulnerable to skewing what is admitted to awareness, what is rejected." (13) Similarly, Wilson used to quote the philosopher Husserl, who said: "Every perception is a gamble."
Goleman says the human faculty of self-deception evolved as a trade-off between attention and anxiety. "Attention is the gathering of information crucial to existence. Anxiety is the response when that information registers as a threat. The intriguing part of this relationship is straightforward: we can use our attention to deny threat, and so cushion ourselves from anxiety." (14) Korzybski even compares the mind's self-deception to the illusions performed by a magician.
To fully understand how our mind plays tricks on us, we can look at models for how sensory information is edited, censored, and repressed on its way to the level of conscious thought. Goleman says the model set forth by Freud in his book The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) is still "our best understanding of the processes through which the mind takes in, uses, and stores information, and how those processes are prone to bias by the trade-off between anxiety and attention." (15) The basic flow of the model is that a sensory stimulus occurs, then passes through memory sub-levels to the "unconscious" (followed by a censor), the "preconscious" (followed by more censoring), and finally conscious thought, which elicits a response. We say information has been "repressed" if it doesn't make it to the conscious level.
Goleman says Freud defied behaviorists like Pavlov for suggesting that the processes between "stimulus" and "response" could actually be studied and comprehended. "Modern research shows that, if anything, Freud was too cautious in proposing points where biases could sidetrack the flow of information. What he did not realize is that the flow of information is not linear, but is intertwined among mutually interactive subsystems. The mind does not pass information along a single track... Rather, information flows in and about circuits... The possibilities for bias in such a system are even richer than Freud's model suggests." (16) It's important to note the non-linear flow of information, since that suggests a non-aristotelian nature of sensory processing (whereas Freud's model was more aristotelian -- i.e., linear). This lends support to the eight-circuit model of consciousness developed first by Timothy Leary and later modified by Robert Anton Wilson and others. We've mostly been discussing their semantic circuit, the third in the model, based primarily Korzybski's general semantics.
Goleman's updated model has some major implications. One is that the very act of perceiving the physical, "objective" world involves automatic alterations by the mind. (17) Another is that people can't necessarily choose what information to throw out. That's because the sensory stimuli have to proceed through the unconscious to get to the conscious mind, so repression is not normally something that results from an active decision. We commonly discuss the phenomenon of selective memory with regard to the super-ego, since that refers to whatever a person considers to be "good," "bad," "holy," "evil," etc. -- and such "moral" conditioning is often the basis for what information gets repressed. It seems that indoctrination trains our unconscious mind to filter sensory information in certain ways, without the conscious mind's approval.
Another approach to understanding selective memory has less connection to an individual's conscience or "moral" inclinations. In his book, Goleman discusses a 1980 paper by social psychologist Anthony Greenwald called "The Totalitarian Ego: Fabrication and Revision of Personal History," which was partly inspired by George Orwell's classic novel 1984. The "ego" (another of Freud's terms) -- or "self" -- is the part of the mind that generates the sensation of "me, myself, and I." As Greenwald writes, "The past is remembered as if it were a drama in which self was the leading player. In part, this observation refers to the autobiographical or episodic character of much of memory..." (18) Goleman elaborates: "Facts are better remembered the more they have to do with oneself. Or, most people in a group feel that they are the center of activity." (19)
Greenwald takes 1984 (first published in 1949) as a demonstration of the way the individual mind can emulate an entire totalitarian government by twisting reality for its specific needs. Orwell devised the term "doublethink" to illustrate how this would work: "...if it is necessary to rearrange one's memories or to tamper with written records, then it is necessary to forget that one has done so. [...]
"Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.... He therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. [...] To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies -- all this is indispensably necessary." (20)
In Orwell's story, doublethink involves tricking oneself into thinking a conscious choice was actually an unconscious one. So it's a bit more complex than Freud's model of repression, in which the censoring occurs prior to reaching the conscious level. But it's very possible that Orwell was simply describing a real phenomenon without full knowledge of how it operates in living human beings. By his choice of words (this time describing "crimestop," another "Newspeak" word), Orwell seems to have been aiming at much the same thing: "The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself. The process should be automatic, instinctive." (21)
The human capacity for self-deception probably developed while the conscious mind itself was forming -- a process that would have started about 100,000 years ago and culminated about 30,000 years ago. (22) Goleman thinks self-deception could have helped when individuals or groups had to contradict their own conscience or "morals" in order to stay alive. As he says, "My assumption is that, to some extent, the muting of awareness to avoid anxiety has been largely helpful, even necessary, in the development of our species and of civilization." (23) Stated differently, self-deception probably enabled higher social organization, at the cost of individual and group delusion.
However, Goleman is reluctant to propose an end to all self-deception, instead offering his support for "truth-tellers" who fight delusion at any level of society. (24) Thus, we've once again stumbled upon the problem of how to be sure that we've really obtained the "truth." Goleman writes, "My aim is to ponder our collective predicament: if we so easily lull ourselves into subtle sleep, how can we awaken? The first step in that, it seems to me, is to notice how we're all asleep." (25) One of the main reasons we're "asleep" is that the ego rejects new information it perceives as a threat -- like an editor keeping "damaging" information out of a history book. As Greenwald puts it, "Ego, as an organization of knowledge...serves the functions of observing (perceiving) and recording (remembering) personal experience; it can be characterized, therefore, as a personal historian." (26)
In cognitive science the self is considered a "schema." "Schemas embody the rules and categories that order raw experience into coherent meaning," writes Goleman. "All knowledge and experience is packaged into schemas." (27) Any information that could disrupt the order of this "self" schema is blocked or distorted by the ego. It might sound strange to say that the ego acts egocentrically, but that's exactly what is happening. Wilson calls the ego "a single brain circuit which mistakes itself for the whole Self, the entire brain-mind apparatus." (28) Therefore, the self is acting in favor of the self -- while simultaneously hiding this fact from itself. Remember, self-deception implies that we ignore the fact that we are ignoring. That's what makes it so difficult to identify and change.
But going back to the comparison with a totalitarian government helps illuminate the tricks performed by the personal ego without breaching our conscious awareness. As Goleman writes, "A society handles information in ways that often parallel the workings of the mind. The mark of democracy is that information flows freely...
"A totalitarian state, like the totalitarian self, finds its official version of reality too fragile to withstand an unbridled flow of ideas. For a totalitarian authority to assert control, it must choke off alternative views and facts. Censorship -- an essential tool of political control -- is the social equivalent of a defense mechanism." (29)
We've been slowly approaching a workable understanding of Orwell's famous "Party slogan" from 1984: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." (30) In the novel this refers to the Ingsoc government, whose paradoxically named "Ministry of Truth" constantly re-writes history according to the current needs of the totalitarian leadership. In the book, as in real life, the details of the past have a determining effect on what can happen in the future. But at no point in recorded history have most human beings perceived or remembered information outside of what the self considered safe or acceptable. That means the self, or ego, controls the past from within the ever-changing present, and, therefore, the self controls what can be predicted or planned for in future.
And 1984 demonstrates how, in an authoritarian society (such as the U.S., despite the fact that it is referred to as a "democracy" much more often), the leadership acts as a focusing point -- or the "central vision," to use Watts's metaphor -- for the "conscious mind" of the collective self. So the textbook version of history is actually the version that doesn't contradict the group's established schemas (i.e., the "status quo"), for that would cause anxiety for the "ego" of the metaphorical social body. In other words, "peripheral" (subversive) information would disrupt the way a society sees itself. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is an excellent example of what the collective ego (i.e., government, mainstream media, etc.) would consider a subversive version of the past, because it's an unheroic (but more empirical) version.
Goleman claims he was the first to connect this phenomenon in the personal ego with the same kind of self-deception that can happen in any size human group: family, club, company, religion, nation, species, etc. (31) As Goleman states in his book, an individual cannot express much dissent without endangering one's own membership in a group; and most defer to the group leader when a decision must be made. In addition to drawing from the psychology of Sigmund Freud, he also employs the group studies of Trotter and LeBon. As Goleman writes, "The hallmark of a person as a group member, Freud saw, was the replacement of his self by a group self. The psychology of the group, said Freud, involves ‘the dwindling of the conscious individual personality, the focusing of thoughts and feelings into a common direction.' That translates to the prepotency of shared schemas over personal ones." (32)
The group leader, an archetypal father figure, usually directs these shared schemas -- by which we mean, the acceptable ways of perceiving the group's interests and behavior. "For Freud a primitive family prototype is the model for all groups," explains Goleman. "In the vast variations of what constitutes a group...Freud saw the same dynamic at work: to the extent that there is a common understanding, the members of the group share an outlook -- the group's schemas." (33)
What I'm proposing is that true individualism could involve breaking away from all group schemas -- first and foremost, from those of the nuclear family -- in order to emerge as a twice-born individual with independent schemas based on outer and inner exploration. Without crossing those social boundaries, we risk the possibility of thinking that we've evolved, when actually very little about our mental life and behavior might have changed. Every conscious ego or self -- from the singular to the collective -- is like a fortress constructed in opposition to nature. So unless our semantic processing puts us more in tune with the empirical universe, we remain forever locked in a world of delusion.
Aristotelian orientations ensnare us in a cage of mental abstractions, unable to figure out that our biggest existential problems will remain with us regardless of the superficial changes we make in our lives. That's not only because reality will differ from idealistic expectations, but because reality -- as perceived by the individual -- is always filtered through the deceptive categories of the self schema. When perceiving the physical universe, each mind selects a small fraction of the available data (based on our "central vision") and uses that to construct a present "reality," which can then become a memory of the past. This is how Greenwald's "personal historian" functions in real-time.
As Wilson said earlier, each reality-tunnel seems "objective" to the person experiencing it. But it would be impossible for every person to experience the exact same reality. This is why Bucky Fuller argues in his book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth that the universe itself is "non-simultaneous" and "nonidentical" -- meaning that no one's perception (or memory) of the universe (and events happening therein) is ever identical to any other's. (34) The vital point here is that our knowledge of the universe -- including planet Earth, where we currently live -- is all based on individual human experience.
In reality, everyone's perception of life is unique -- that is to say, nonidentical. So there are as many "true" versions of any single event as there are people there to perceive and remember it! Most of what we take to be "history" and "current events" are actually cultural constructions -- that is, semantic models, which themselves derive from individual mental constructions. But those constructions are usually riddled with gaps wherever information has been left out for the sake of avoiding anxiety. Furthermore, since we tend to think in aristotelian orientations, we mistake those faulty maps for the reality they're supposed to represent.
What we really require is not "truth" but the ability to control the self-deception of our own "totalitarian ego" -- our own unconscious acts of "doublethink" -- so that our perceptions and memories will more closely approximate the empirical (measurable) universe. At first it's only really possible to correct faulty perceptions in retrospect, using self-reflection to question our own view of reality. But in time we should be able to permanently adjust the ways we've been conditioned to alter or ignore information. After accomplishing that, the next step is to muster the courage to stand up for one's own perceptions in the face of self-deceptive groups -- ranging from families, to nation-states, to all humanity -- which will fight to protect their comfortable collective ego-delusions. If enough of us make such personal progress, we'll likely be surprised at how quickly absurdity and "un-sanity" start to vanish from our world.
In Orwellian terms, we must ensure the maximum efficiency of our present perceptions in order to build a more complete record of the past, which will allow us to effectively predict and plan for the future -- thereby increasing human liberation and perpetuating the survival of the human race. But it all depends on the individual!
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1. Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. 1933. Fifth edition. New York: Institute of General Semantics, 1994. p. xlvii.
2. Korzybski, A. Ibid. p. xlvii.
3. Korzybski, A. Ibid. pp. lii-liv.
4. Wilson, Robert Anton. Prometheus Rising. 1983. Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Publications, 2007. pp. 98-99.
5. LeDoux, Joseph. "Why the ‘Right Brain' Idea is Wrong-Headed." The Huffington Post. 5/29/2009. Accessed on 10/18/2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-ledoux/why-the-right-brain-idea_b_2...
6. Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. 1957. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. p. 4.
7. Watts, A. Ibid. p. 9.
8. Watts, A. Ibid. pp 8-9.
9. Watts, A. Ibid. p. 5.
10. Wilson, Robert Anton. Ibid. p. 169.
11. Wilson, R.A. Ibid. p. 210.
12. Goleman, Daniel. Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. 1985. London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998. p. 15.
13. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 21.
14. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 19.
15. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 57.
16. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 59. Ellipses are mine.
17. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 60.
18. Greenwald, Anthony G. "The Totalitarian Ego: Fabrication and Revision of Personal History." American Psychologist. July 1980. Vol. 35, No. 7. p. 604.
19. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 97.
20. Orwell, George. 1984. 1949. New York: Signet Classic, 1977. pp. 176-177. Italics are Orwell's, to denote a "Newspeak" word.
21. Orwell, G. Ibid. p. 229.
22. Wilson, R.A. Ibid. p. 126.
23. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 245.
24. Goleman, D. Ibid. pp. 13, 24.
25. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 25.
26. Greenwald, A.G. Ibid. p. 603.
27. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 75.
28. Wilson, R.A. Ibid. p. 67.
29. Goleman, D. Ibid. pp. 231-232.
30. Orwell, G. Ibid. p. 204.
31. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 23.
32. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 162.
33. Goleman, D. Ibid. p. 162.
34. Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. 1969. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974. p. 56.
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