Friday, February 23, 2007

The Evolutionary Principles of Reality Assessment

How did we get here?

By that I mean: having a discussion about the nature of reality. Isn't reality just, you know, stone obvious?

And yet, it is stone obvious reality is not stone obvious.

Misconceptions are not unique to humans, of course. There are many dogs who believe themselves boss of the house, (and many dogs who are.) I once inadvertently scared my cat with a pair of those claw-footed animal slippers. And for all we know, amoebas regard themselves as powerful beings with free will and a conscience.

I do believe we are the only creatures who have taken belief in unreality as far as we have. It is difficult not to encounter someone whose grasp of reality is woefully inadequate. And I don't believe there's a person anywhere whose record in this area is perfect. We are all prone to believe what we want to believe.

But how far, and for how long? These are the crucial elements that separate rational beings from the wearers of tinfoil hats. So why did we develop this ability to be so wrong?

Because the downside of reality warping is so great, the upside is equally great. We have the ability to imagine, a greater ability than any other creature on earth. The advantages of combining our opposable thumb with our imagination is the way we have been able to shape our environment, for good or ill, far more than any other species. Which makes us so successful that we have become not only a danger to all other species, but also a danger to ourselves.

To create, one must first imagine. And so we do. And because our imagination is so powerful, so delightful, so seductive, we can so easily fall into the trap of rearranging the truth for ourselves. And sometimes, such is our powers of persuasion, for others as well.

Why hasn't the genetic tendency to be able to fool oneself into awful situations been taken out of the population by now? Because it's not one gene, or one cluster of genes... it's about the very way our brains work. Remember, I said we are the best at imagination. We are not the only ones.

Studies of the great apes indicate tool using and language skills that are counterparts to our own, including the ability to visualize something that is not there and to predict the consequence that would follow from an action. It's not just close relatives; studies have shown that dogs, pigs, cats and others also have these abilities.

So, just like our opposable thumb, we can use this great ability for good or ill. We need to remember it's a valuable ability that we all should treasure, and use properly.

Thumbs up, or thumbs down.

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