Discover more from The Strake
How True Is Your Truth? How Do You Know What You Know? Why Do You Do What You Do? And Why the Answers Matter
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” ― Daniel J. Boorstin
Everything dies too soon. What will you do with “your one wild and precious life?” That was Mary Oliver's poetic torment, and she was right to ask. A trip to Hawaii, run a marathon, climb the pyramids? Call your mom more?
Also ask, as Sallie Jiko Tisdale did: Is our worth based on our ability to choose between right and wrong, between truth and delusion? In Buddhist terms, "human beings can deliberately choose to follow the dharma, we can consciously awaken. This potential for enlightenment is the source of self-worth and self-respect." But do we actually make these choices or is free will an illusion, as Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher, has said? "A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings."
Even if Tisdale is the one with the true knowledge here, how free is your will even if your will is free? Who can manipulate us, and how? The most malleable people are those who think they cannot be manipulated. Facing a cold, open fridge, a hand could grab a bag of sliced pepperoni or a different hand could snatch a slice of Swiss cheese. Or both hands could grab something else. Are you loving your strings? There also is juice, and are juices. Take it all, if you will, could will.
What controls our decisions is the focus of Dan Ariely’s work as a behavioral economist. Cognitive illusion is hard to demonstrate but Ariely has found a few ways to illustrate that your choices are not always yours, even if the will was free. The way choices are shaped affect outcomes, and the shapers of those choices know this. Did you really pick the most handsome guy at the bar or choose the best of the three options for your magazine subscription? Are you an organ donor? You might think you decided all this for yourself but an invisible hand likely plucked your strings. "If we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way we understand our physical limitations, even though they don't stare us in the face the same way, we could design a better world, and that, I think, is the hope."
The world does not seem to be getting better, though. Oh, the poor post-epistemic world, and your plans for your wild and precious life inside it. Now, the truth is rubble. Now, politics is religion. Now, the oceans are fucked. People seem to be getting dumber but that might also be an illusion: everyone has always been pretty stupid, it has just taken a while for the problems created by that to manifest as they have. People don’t know shit, which is why they believe things that are obviously lies, and we can count ourselves among them. Knowledge is not in your skull or in anyone else's — it is shared. No single brain can compete with all brains. Intelligence, which is about understanding more than memorization, breathes in the collective mind. Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, both cognitive scientists, have a hard truth to share: Individual ignorance is our natural state. It's "a bitter pill to swallow. But if we take this medicine, it can be empowering." You cannot learn anything if you think you already know everything.
Aligned with the scientists against all this stupidity, a boiling planet, crumbling democracy and full-throttle propaganda machines, is a philosopher who offers a lesson in epistemology, the theory of knowledge (even though knowledge is an illusion, too). Daniel C. Dennett loves talking about his thoughts on thinking. He said that in the early 1990s, Andrew Wiles showed off how much math he knew when he proved a theorem that had baffled mathematicians since Pierre de Fermat proposed it in 1637. "It was one of the great triumphs of mathematics in my lifetime," Dennett said. "Why do we know that (Wiles) did it? Don’t ask me to explain complex mathematics. It’s beyond me." Yet, Dennett — who does not believe in God — believes in Wiles. Why? "The community of mathematicians of which he’s a part put it under scrutiny and said, 'Yep, he’s got it.' That model of constructive and competitive interaction is the key to knowledge. I think we know that the most reliable path to truth is through communication of like-minded and disparate thinkers who devote serious time to trying to get the truth — and there’s no algorithm for that."
Our atheist philosopher here, Dennett, also believes that every cell in a person's body is a tiny robot. He said we have a soul but that soul also is made of tiny robots. Some people, he said, need the illusion of something greater happening to not feel adrift in their lives — and there is no polite way of breaking the spell. "When I see a magic trick, I want to see how it’s done. People want free will or consciousness, life itself, to be real magic. What I want to show people is, look, the magic of life as evolved, the magic of brains as evolving in between our own ears, that’s thrilling! It’s affirming. You don’t need miracles."
Yes, and so one of the world’s best magicians does not want to be called a magician because identity is also an illusion. "As soon as you say the word 'magic' or 'magician,' vivid imagery pops into people's minds and their expectations are instantly of what that means to them,” Derek DelGaudio said.
DelGaudio wants to be the non-magician who breaks the magic. He wants something else from his wild and precious life. But he, unlike the atheist philosopher, searches for truth inside of lies. His best trick is one that even the smartest single brain among us cannot unravel. DelGaudio asks someone from his audience to pick a sealed envelope from hundreds in a cubby on his stage, and if the hand that pulls it from the slot is being manipulated, nobody can see how. DelGaudio asks the person to imagine it is a letter from a loved one, often dead too soon. The person opens the envelope and, yes, of course, it is a letter from the loved one. Handwritten. Then shock — "I don't understand" — and so many tears.
“This will happen every night, and it’s impossible,” said the magician who does not want to be called a magician. “I wanted to make a magic effect that doesn’t end on a falsity. I don’t want to show people something amazing that doesn’t exist. I want to show people something amazing that’s true.”