If you doubt that we’re born to deny reality, you’re actually proving the point. The evidence is indisputable that we human beings have built-in reality buffers. We smoke, drink, overeat, waste resources, and engage in every possible kind of risk-taking activity, oblivious to or disregarding the likely results of our actions.
At the core of our tendency to deny reality is the barefaced inevitability of our own death. Unless we are threatened with imminent annihilation or given a short time to live, we are predisposed to perceive of the future as something open-ended and unlimited, regardless of our age. We are loath to admit our existence is finite.
Some of us are so sensitive about the subject of death that people or practices that appear to be different from the familiar give us pause. We reject otherness, change, and uncertainty because they represent the possibility of our demise. Thousands of religious belief systems exist throughout the world, and yet the adherents within each of them resolutely believe that theirs is the only correct worldview. Similarly, conspiracy theorists prefer to believe in string-pulling manipulation by powerful forces rather than accept the frightening prospect that no one is in control.
A recent entry in examining our pronounced ability for deceiving ourselves is Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. These authors contend that the ability to deny reality is the very psychological mechanism that has made our survival possible and that optimism is indeed a strategy for denial. Physician and writer Abraham Verghese has called this “the most exciting idea in evolution since Darwin.” Yes, it’s exciting, but it’s certainly not new.
Back in 1974, Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death, an examination of our propensity for self-deception about our own mortality. And before the ideas of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett gained prominence, we had the work of John F. Schumaker. His Wings of Illusions and The Corruption of Reality took the subject of belief and self-deception to points that other theorists are just now beginning to discover.
Looking deeply into our existential predicament is a sobering experience. Our sun is a second-rate star in a modest galaxy, where no one thing or location can be deemed more important than any other—with the exception of those upon whose light and gravity we depend. The earth is hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour and appears to be headed nowhere in particular.
The same analogy applies to our lives as individuals. We represent an amalgamation of biology, culture, time, and place, with no particular significance attributable to any of these components. The only thing that is special about any of us is our uniqueness with regard to others, which is only a matter of degree.
We come into the world with biological predispositions, and we absorb cultural biases and beliefs as readily as plants photosynthesize sunlight. These factors make it impossible for any single individual or group to claim title to precisely the right place to be, the right things to believe, or the right things to do—although you would never know it by the proliferation of pretense all around us.
Dig deep enough into our ontological dilemma and the evidence of cosmic chaos is overwhelming. In the face of it, people find comfort in an illusion of permanency, which seems highly preferable to any objective recognition of how much our lives are influenced by chance. In a universe where disorder rules, our lives amount to nothing more than a posture we assume, and yet, as individuals we feel that our lives represent the ground zero of meaningful experience. In one sense, what we do means nothing, but in another sense, it can mean everything.
In his book An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Richard Dawkins writes about how, because of timing, something as simple as a sneeze can have a domino effect on the future. A personal example brought this home to me recently. I intended to call a friend one day, but I didn’t. Some hours later, that friend was killed in a traffic accident. Now, I’m reasonably sure that if I had phoned him as I’d intended, he would still be alive because he would not have been at the intersection at the moment the accident happened. A matter of a few seconds would have changed the outcome.
Imagine how different life might be for us now if, in November of 1963, President Kennedy’s motorcade had not driven by Dealey Plaza in Dallas. We can speculate ad nauseam, but trying to mentally reverse past events is both futile and counterproductive. If I had called my friend as planned, it may indeed have changed the course of his behavior and avoided the accident. When we begin to reason like this, however, questions persist. For instance, was it the last time I did talk to him that somehow set him up for his misfortune? Such lines of thinking are seductive, but they always reach a dead-end and encourage magical thinking.
I’m not in any way suggesting that we are responsible for unknowable future events. Only in hindsight can events appear inevitable. The present is rife with chaotic possibilities. To the contrary, thinking through hypothetical situations can help us inoculate ourselves against comforting illusions that shelter us from seeing just how precariously our lives depend upon luck.
My sense is that everything does happen for any number of reasons, but nothing can happen in the lives of human beings that cannot be altered by chance. We are bound together in a chain of chaotic events so seamlessly connected that they appear tranquil right up to the moment when reality crashes the party. By design, our brains impose a sense of order on a world driven by mayhem.
Subjectivity is the substance we are made of. Our worldviews represent our social bonds steeped in emotional experience. Our mortal fears surface when our beliefs are seriously questioned, because the process threatens to raise a window on reality that most of us would prefer stayed closed. Yet, in a cosmic wink, we will all be gone, centuries will pass, and what is commonly believed today will someday be thought quaint if not absurd.
Ecologists tell us that a sustainable population of humans on our planet is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 billion people, but by the end of this century, the world’s population is estimated to be almost fifteen times that amount. This statement alone should remove any doubt about our being deniers of reality.
John F. Schumaker says we need to determine an optimal level of reality distortion that won’t exact the price of civilization. In his words, “The impossible challenge is to face the truth without panic, to derive all meaning from where we are and what we are.” Illusions aside, this is all we’ve got.
It’s easy to appreciate how illusions have helped us survive. Evolution equipped us for self-deception in part so that we would readily take risks without calculating our chances of success. Obviously this approach has worked.
In centuries past, illusions have aided our survival, but now we’re speeding forward without questioning our assumptions. Because of our burgeoning numbers, the future, if we are to have one, demands that we trade our illusions for objectivity. What helped us thrive as a species in the distant past now threatens our very existence.