I hate to break it you, but you’re not real…

You know how you take things really seriously, how you strive and struggle in your life, how you get really hung up on all your important thoughts and feelings? Well, I hate to break it to you, but none of that is real. Even worse, nothing you see, feel, touch, taste or smell is real. In fact, you’re not real either…

Reality check

Yup, you’re not real. Neither am I for that matter. You and I are the byproduct of an evolutionary accident that resulted in one small, well-connected brain module having delusions of grandeur. The part of you that ‘houses’ your ‘self’ is really a reasonably connected, delusional subsystem that thinks it’s in control of your brain. It’s not; you don’t really exist.

It gets worse (or a lot better depending on your perspective – bear with me), because even if your self module could be relied on, everything on which it bases its decisions is just a really bad approximation of what might be going on in the universe around it. Yes, the thing that calls itself you is just a piece of evolutionary software running on a few grams of fat, sitting inside a few kilograms of fat, sitting in a spherical piece of bone, and connected to a few very basic sensory organs. Those sensory organs, in turn are extremely limited in the range of stimuli they can detect. In reality, despite the lovely illusion that we are in control of our actions, and capable of accurately observing the world around us, we’re really only able to make some basic guesses based on extremely limited information. We’re not even capable of assessing all the information that comes in via our senses. At any given time, we’re actively ignoring (blind to) the majority of information available to us (unless we’re actively focused on it – meaning we’re unable to process the stuff we’re not focusing on).

And that’s not the worst of it! All of our concerns, decisions and actions are little more than an attempt to model the world around us based on the limited information available to us. Because we evolved to model simple environments (basic survival behaviour in a primitive and relatively static world), we’re completely incapable of even coming remotely close to an accurate model of our current, technological, complex world. Instead, we make blind guesses at the way things are, despite a ridiculous lack of information and a whole suite of cognitive limitations and biases, and then we convince ourselves that we actually know what’s going on. We actually believe that our world view is accurate, that our beliefs are relevant, and that our perceived reality is real. Yep, the human condition is just a pathetic illusion of competence.

If you want proof, all you have to do is take a look at the way the majority of us live. Huge numbers of us actually believe in a magical being in the sky who listens to our sad little human desires. Instead of recognising that we’re incapable of modelling the concept of not existing, and that the consequent error message has provoked a fear response, we tell ourselves comforting little stories to limit our fear, and then we buy into those stories to the point of extreme self-delusion; so much so that some humans are actually prepared to hurt other humans to support their delusions.

I’ve mentioned the idea of an evolved cognitive platform in my earlier blogs (start here), but the main upshot is that, because we evolved to perform certain functions in a simple environment, a lot of the stuff that takes up cognitive processing power (which requires valuable blood sugar that wasn’t easily available to us for most of our evolution) is just skipped. There are a lot of cognitive biases (effectively ‘blind spots’ in our cognition – see here for a pretty complete list)  that humans ‘suffer’ from, and we’re all victim to at least some of them all of the time. Nevertheless, from my perspective as a psychologist, the most dangerous one is our insistence that ‘we’ exist as individual entities, and that each of us is more important than those around us. Correspondingly, we go to great lengths to believe our own stories, to attend to and ‘fuse’ with our emotions, and to actually believe that anything we feel, think, or believe is either real or important.

Let me just reiterate: everything you perceive, believe, or hold dear, is just the attempts by a few kilos of fat, connected to some basic sensory organs, to model reality. Everything you take seriously is just made up neuroses. You are really a collection of highly connected, subsentient systems that evolved largely to keep you alive until you could reproduce, with one ‘conscious’ model that thinks it’s driving, but is actually a lot more like a toddler sitting in the passenger seat with a pretend steering wheel, thinking she’s driving the car (which is actually a pretty good metaphor for consciousness). The stuff that you believe that you see certainly isn’t real, it’s just a basic approximation of limited information from simple organs that can only detect a tiny minority of what’s actually around us. And because we can’t even process all of that information our brains fill in the ‘gaps’ with what it thinks should be there (and often gets it wrong even though we’d swear otherwise – we really can’t trust our eyes). And it all feels so real because that’s the way we evolved – the belief in our perceived reality is probably the biggest cognitive flaw of the lot.

There’s really only one solution to the entire joke that is hubristic human belief in our own existence: scientific method. Learning to look at ourselves and at the world with skepticism, allows us to question our assumptions, the majority of which are flawed because they’re the product of our cognitive biases. Learning to treat our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and urges as imperfect attempts to model the world around us, gives us the freedom to investigate despite our limitations. Scientific investigation involves the null hypothesis that we’re wrong, and it’s up to us to prove a reasonable alternative, using impartially gathered ‘facts’ and then testing our model against those facts. The beauty of this system is that there’s no problem with being wrong, we expect it. This means that we can change our world view based on the best and most impartial evidence available at the time, and that we can continue to modify that viewpoint as we receive better information. This is the exact opposite of the way the majority of us function, mostly because we actually place stock in our beliefs. As a psychologist, I find this hilarious. I also find it terrifying because I’m also a human being, and just as vulnerable to my biases as anyone else (it’s just that I often notice that I’ve fallen victim to them when it’s already too late).

It interests me that humans have had an idea of the ridiculousness of our beliefs for a long time. Despite the terrifying irony, most religions have a core tenet that describes our impermanence, our meaninglessness, and our arrogance in attempting to observe and understand the universe. Often this issue is put in the ‘too hard basket’ and outsourced to an omnipotent god (a nice cognitive bias), but mostly that’s the result of a lack of a reasonable alternative available to the thinkers of a given time. The ideas are often quite reasonable though: for instance, Buddhist notions of reality as illusion are pretty impressive; Buddhists believe that our ability to manipulate reality is thoroughly limited and temporary, that the universe is illusion, and that pain is inevitable (but suffering a choice). I seriously couldn’t have put it better myself.

You do have to live in a brain that is full of screwed up evolutionary systems, so learning how to keep that brain sane is a good idea. The knowledge of your limitations helps, but this won’t stop you from feeling things, believing things, or taking dumb actions that you think are important. Cultivating skepticism over belief is a great start. Learning to step back from the things that seem so real and important, and attempting to examine them from a neutral perspective, even more so. You won’t get it right of course, but it’ll be better than leaping in with the ‘knowledge’ of your righteous belief (worth reading this). It also doesn’t do any harm to maintain your systems by eating well and getting lots of exercise (read here), and meditating regularly (see here).

So the upshot of the knowledge that you don’t really exist, and that everything you see, hear, believe and do is a severely limited approximation of what might be real? Stop taking things so seriously, including your own existence. Most importantly, stop taking your emotions so seriously. And remember that every stupid thing being done, both to humanity and the planet, comes from our belief that our cognitive limitations don’t actually exist and that we actually know what’s going on.

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