The Subtlety of Lies
We are lied to almost constantly. From the moment we are born, we are surrounded by false information, most of it presented to us by well-meaning people who earnestly reassure us that it is true. That statement, upon first hearing, sounds insane -- even paranoid. Nevertheless, it is a statement of fact. It sounds insane because it describes a truly insane situation; yet that is the situation in which we find ourselves. Consider this light treatment of the subject by Kurt Vonnegut:
“No matter in what era in history... everybody just got there. And... there were already all these crazy games going on, which could make you act crazy, even if you weren’t crazy to begin with. Some of the games that were already going on when you got here were love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf and girls’ basketball.”
We don’t get to choose the world into which we’re born; it’s already there when we arrive. We never get asked if we want to participate in the games that are going on or if we want to help operate the machinery of society. We’re just thrust into the thick of it. We immediately begin absorbing the information presented to us through our senses. Our still-developing minds set to work figuring out the rules of the game -- this game called “life” -- a game to which there is no available rulebook.
This process, which psychologists have termed “reality mapping”, involves making a lot of assumptions. As mature adults we come to realize that assumption is a risky business and generally to be avoided. But it isn’t possible to avoid making assumptions altogether. Some assumptions are useful, because they are necessary.
I suppose the most important example would be our shared assumptions that the world outside of us is real, and that physical matter exists. These are notions that absolutely cannot be proven, as both philosophers and physicists will tell you. Quantum mechanics aside, I can attest to this truth myself. I realized it in my late teens after having put several people under hypnosis and causing them to hallucinate afterward. A person can hallucinate with all five senses: he can see things that don’t exist, hear things that don’t exist, feel things that don’t exist, smell things that don’t exist, and taste things that don’t exist. These figments of the imagination are experienced by the person hallucinating as absolutely real, indistinguishable from actual input from his sensory organs. Knowing that our minds are capable of producing these false experiences, one has to wonder: how, then, can I ever know for sure, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that anything is real? Your entire life could be one long hallucination, existing nowhere but in your own mind, and you have no way of proving or disproving it to yourself. It is a true conundrum, and a sobering realization.
But this realization doesn’t do anything for us. It just isn’t useful to proceed from the assumption that nothing exists outside your mind and that there’s no such thing as objective reality. That assumption would rob our decisions, our actions, and our very lives of all meaning and purpose. We have no choice but to proceed from the opposite assumption that the world around us is real.
Now, I dipped into some pretty deep metaphysical waters in the last two paragraphs, and I hope you held your breath long enough to stay with me. I know that the concept of objective reality is still (and always will be) a hot topic of debate in certain circles, but that debate is outside the scope of this book, which is meant to tackle practical issues. My only intention was to illustrate how fundamental certain assumptions are to our understanding of the world. If you truly understand that, you will never be afraid to examine and question the validity of any idea or belief that you hold, now matter how deeply it is ingrained in you; you will recognize the value of open-mindedness; you will be less likely to discard new information for any lesser reason than its failure to survive testing for truth.
Just as we assume, out of necessity, that the objective world exists, we also assume -- but, in this case, out of habit -- that most of the information we receive about that world is true. We begin as very trusting creatures and slowly discover the value of doubt as we grow older and assimilate the results of more and more of our experiences into our thinking. By the time we develop a healthy skepticism, we have already accepted many ideas without testing them critically for truth -- so much so that we have even forgotten the experience of having received and absorbed that information. Thus we have all constructed our “reality maps” upon a foundation of untested assertions. There is good reason for us to approach the subject of “what we know” with humility.
That we accept lies as truth when we are children is not a new or radical idea. Nor is the fact that those lies become firmly entrenched in our minds and are difficult to dislodge. That is why we have psychologists. A psychologist’s job, most often, is to help someone dislodge one of these early-acquired false beliefs because of the great suffering and disability that belief is causing its victim. If you tell a child often enough that he is worthless, he will believe it. Worse, he will carry that belief into adulthood and have extreme difficulties functioning successfully in the world. Likewise, if you tell a child often enough that Christopher Columbus discovered America in the course of proving that the Earth was not flat, or that the main objective of the American Civil War was to free the slaves, he will believe those things, too -- and neither is true.
Understanding this process leads us to a very valuable question, one that we should ask ourselves often: what other false information lies at the core of my thinking, and how much of my suffering is caused by it?
While I can’t answer that question specifically for any individual but myself, I can answer it in a general way regarding the lies under which we all suffer as a society.