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Enter the Truth of the Self

jonnymindNov 7, 2018, 3:28:54 PM
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In my previous blog, I described how our longing for truth is born. Here I'll focus on the reason why we fail in recognizing it, and how it is possible to end up wrapped in a bubble of deception and lies.

So, if the striving for truth is so fundamental, maybe one of the very first steps in the development of a self-concious mind, and precedes it by billion of iterations in brain evolution, how comes we lie at all? Where does deception come from?

How old is the first lie?

Sure, the first lie comes from afar. Francine Patterson, an animal psychologist, demonstrated that even higher primates lie. 

Koko with one of her beloved pet cats

She taught Koko, a female gorilla who lived between 1971 and 2018, about 2000 English words and 1000 gestures, in a simplified version of the International Sign Language. Koko could understand a basic conversation in English and ISL, and could answer back using the signs of the language. 

She also lied: one day, while being alone in her room, she accidentally broke a ceramic sink. When Dr. Patterson asked her what happened, she replied that it wasn't her fault: her pet cat had broken it.

Jaak Panksepp, found out that even mice, in a sense, can lie. While playing wrestling, which is a social activity that they enjoy very much (especially the juvenile males), the strongest mice will let the younger or weaker ones to win about 30% of the times. If they don't, the weaker mice will stop playing with them, and since the larger mice wants to play too, they let their opponents to win, faking their own defeat. In short, even mice can engage in pretend-play.

We, and seemingly also any social mammal, lie or engage in make-believe behaviour in order to achieve a rewarding goal or avoid a detrimental situation. But while we can suppose that Koko was somehow consciously trying to avoid blame, in the case of the mice we can assume that their behaviour is simply the result of a low-level programming of their brain. While they "consciously" enjoy the play, receiving primitive sensations of fulfilment through a neurochemstry similar to ours, they might be simply programmed to fake defeat by means of evolution: mice that wrestled grew to be stronger, and those who wouldn't put in some effort in order to lose every now and then would simply be less likely to procreate. 

As we can assume that the mice are not able to "think" about the future outcomes, they must experience an immediate gratification. They must receive a meaning out of their pretend-play. They can't have any conscience about the fact that losing every now and then increases their overall enjoyment of the activity (and ultimately their survival chance). Natural selection must have provided them with what is called a proxy variable in computer science and statistics: they must enjoy the momentary defeat when it happens, in order to allow it -- or in order to beseech it.

On the other hand, the wilful deception displayed by Koko must have happened because she had pictured being scolded in her head, and must then have formulated a plan to avoid it. She must have given a meaning to a thing that didn't happen yet, or in other words, to a projection of a possible event. 

The first lie must have happened somewhere between the simple mammals and the great apes.

Enter Fantasy

Let's resume the game of finding out what the primordial meanings were, from my previous blog. 

1. The meaning of the self and the significance of what's not self (predator/food)

2. The significance of potentiality (maybe preadator/maybe food)

3. The significance of the quality of the potentiality (OK "maybe", but is my "maybe" good or bad?)

The third step is where the matching between the extraction of meaning and the observed environment happens; it's where we located the creation of the Truth

We can assume that this first steps of meaning creation must have been enough for a very long time. Even simple social mammals, as the mice, didn't need anything more -- they extended the breadth of their categories of meaning beyond "predator" and "food", adding i.e. "cub", "mate", "wrestling buddy" -- and increased the complexity of the relations between these categories -- but not the depth of the operations.

But, at a point, some creature in the must have added a layer on top of that. They started to think about the consequences of the third-level meaning: "my maybe could be good or bad -- and what happens if it is good, what if it is bad?"

To extract this meaning, those creatures must have been able to use their memories actively, taking things happened in the past and replaying them in their head, while introducing some variation. They must have had what we identify as fantasy.

How much fantasy is there around?

The ability to use memory actively, and then evaluate the meaning of the recomposed fantasy, is more diffuse in the animal kingdom than used to think; this, also because it's a fundamental component of problem solving, and solving problems is a very useful skill. We can argue that creatures that can solve unstructured, general and non-recurring problems creatively have a great edge on the others.

The octopus is known to be able to solve many complex problems, and remembering the solutions it found previously to apply them again. Many birds can come up with relatively ingenuous plans about opening hard shells, too complex to be completely pre-programmed at brain structure level, and which they improve constantly using their past experience. Any pet owner must have experienced a few times their cats or dogs coming out with a rather creative and unique solution to overcome a simple problem they were facing; for instance, dropping objects on their owners in order to wake them up.

From this, we can infer that the fourth step of meaning creation has been evolved independently several times, on different evolution paths. The advantage given by this ability is so clear-cut that natural selection pushed the brain circuitry necessary to achieve it repeatedly, and in different environments.

Enter deception

Now we can finally identify the origin of the deception we're interested in. Mice can pretend-play, but while they have memory, they are not able to use it actively. Their deception is fully behavioural. 

Primates can deceive their social peers, for instance trying to hide food from them, or sneak into an alpha male harem, or hide their friendship with an enemy of their other friends. 

Dogs can act deceitfully after having caused some damage in the house, and to some minor degree, cats can display similar behaviour. 

These latter kind of deception require the fourth level of meaning extraction (evaluation of fantasy) to be present -- so that they can evaluate that meaning they extract as "this will not be good".

Again, evolution plugs in fear at the end of this circuitry, so that the creatures with this ability try and avoid the feared fantasy. 

To prevent their fantasy from becoming actualized, they then change their behaviour.

Truth, the meaning they expect, is not desirable any more -- they have now discovered a dimension where they could experience an undesirable outcome.

Social peer pressure to truth

The conclusion of the previous blog is that animals are driven by evolutionary forces to try and find the most fitting meaning that can match their experience. Here we established that, in some circumstances, higher animals might actually deceive, in order to avoid a fearful consequence they were able to conjure as a fantasy. They are not trying to match their meaning extraction with the environment, they are one step ahead: they recognized an environment that is potentially going somewhere they don't like, and trying to act to prevent it from happening.

What happened to the instinctive striving for truth we talked about?

Actually, it's still there. The animal is now not just trying to match its meaning extraction with the environment that is; it's trying to match it with the environment that could be. The better the match with the potential environment, the less the negative feedback it receives. Even a blatant lie like Koko's sink story will still be regarded by her cognitive system as striving for truth -- or for a meaning matching the upcoming reality -- but it will be her truth.

When Koko tells the sink lie, she clearly acts distressed. Her body language, for how different a gorilla body language is from ours, is quite clear about the fact that she's troubled. This could be because she instinctively or explicitly thinks that her lie might not work, and is anxious for the potential negative outcome of the situation -- but there's more to it.

Social structures have been around for a long time. Australopithecus, the ancestor of all the great apes, including us, was walking this land in troops over six million years ago, and six million years are a good timespan for some serious natural selection to work miracles.

Lies and deception often fail. When they fail, the consequences might be dire. For example a chimp hiding food from the troop, or sneaking into the harem, might easily be ostracised, expelled or killed by its peers. Moreover, while it's possible to get away with one lie or deception, the more they are enacted, the higher is the likelihood of getting caught and suffer the consequences. Natural selection must have favoured those primates that didn't lie, and it must have done so using the usual incentive mechanism: plugging fear into the circuitry for deception.

Now, the highest primates have the best combination of operators in order to try and modify a possibly undesired future, and in order to avoid abusing this ability, which could lead to even worse consequences.

But there's more, as a quarter million years ago, a creature able to perform a further computation appeared: the Homo Sapiens.

A lifetime long game

It is now evident that a creature which was better at evaluating the significance of its own deception past mere fear would have had an advantage over the others. So, another computational layer formed over the fourth level meaning: the ability to extract the meaning out of the enacted fantasy.

This is the process that allows for the level of human intelligence and ingenuity, as it can be iterated a potentially endless number of times. As such, it's the first level that allows to contemplate infinity.

The creatures stuck at the fourth level have no sense for the actual danger of deceit. They just know that, maybe, it will be fine -- and they get a sense of fear out of that maybe; the ones getting the balance right are at an advantage, but that's where it ends.

As modern humans, we can iterate the game multiple times, and think about what our life would be if we deceived our peers constantly; we also know that each time we deceive, the problems get bigger, and when we finally fail, the more deception we're in, the worse the consequences will be.

Is this all? This seems to be quite a powerful reason for our aversion to lie and deception: we have established that, on one side, we ultimately strive for truth, which is the extraction of the perfect meaning from the environment, and on the other, we instinctively fear the potential consequences of deception in our social environment, and finally, that we are latently aware of the increasing stakes and danger of repeated deceptions through time.

Seems a lot. But it's still not enough: why then are we disturbed by self-deception as well -- why is it such a powerful generator of psychosis? It doesn't need to match any external environment, and it doesn't have consequences in the social landscape. Is that just a side effect of the other "fears" of deceptions? Is it just a consequence of imperfect evolution?

Enter the sixth level: the truth of the self

Probably not. My hypothesis is that the evolution of the brain into that of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens, our current form, which replaced the Neanderthal between fifty and thirty thousand years ago, has wrapped another level of meaning generation around the others: the level in which we're able to extract the meaning of endless iterations as a single value. 

At this level, we perceive the structure of our mind as a reality by itself. The full set of our fantasies is readily available and integrated, standing, in our mind, as solid as any other part of the environment. Our mind is real to our mind, now.

Our striving for truth is not just looking outward, at the phenomena that we experience; it is also looking inward, at the phenomenon we are

As such, deception has a value in itself: the wilful alteration of what we know to be true is computed by our mind, without the need for a conscious process. When we deceive, even when we just deceive ourselves, we experience a feeling of "not being right", that uneasiness and fear that evolution has burnt in us since the age of the flatworms, and that, since then, pushes all sentient beings towards the search for truer meanings.

Cognitive Dissonance

The technical term is cognitive dissonance: when two conflicting mental constructs, at odds with each other, are held as true at the same time. Actually, self-deceit (or simply deceit) is not the only source of cognitive dissonance, but it is the most powerful. When a dissonance is caused by external factors (for example, by conflicting news) we can cope in many ways: we could discard the second information as false, or discard the first and adopt the second, or alter them to create some construct retaining the most important factors of both, or eventually even create a third construct which holds and wraps the previous two and goes like: "this two pieces of information are in conflict -- I need to know which is true".

We can't do that with deceit. In that case, we are forced to hold what we know to be true and the deceit in our mind at the same time, ignoring the dissonance at the conscious level -- but the circuitry of our brain and the low level software of our mind are tuned by evolution to detect this anomaly, and generate anxiety and uneasiness in order to drive us to extract a more precise meaning, to find a better truth. 

The problem is, this mechanism has an intensity, but not a direction.

Defending the truth of the self 

So, our mind is seen as real by our mind, just like food or predator for a primitive creature. Evolution has provided a mechanism for the extraction of meaning from the environment, already there in those simple creatures, that is still working in us, and when the environment at stake its our same mind. 

Here we face another paradox: we're wired for striving towards the truth, but one of these truths, our mind, is built by our mind. In this realm, we're matching ourselves with ourselves, and all we can do is making ourselves true with ourselves.

Now self-deceit might be a way to cope with cognitive dissonance. 

For example, suppose we realise a loved one is cheating on us. Part of our inner truth was our trust in them, but now this truth is shattered. However we're wired for extracting a meaning out of this situation, and one way to do it would be that in deceiving ourself about the nature of our relationship. We could pick something like "it was never a serious story in the first place", or, "they're already over and won't happen any more", or, "it's my fault, I deserved it" or any other rationalization. In some cases, they might even be actually true, but if they are not, then we're deluding ourselves -- and we're doing that (at least in part) to defend the previously generated structure of the self -- to preserve the truth we extracted before, and is now being re-evaluated.

What we should do

Deception might arise from any level of meaning extraction past the third, in order to seize a temporary advantage, or avert an undesirable outcome of the situation at hand. As we arrive at the sixth level, where the reality we strive to be true about includes our own mind, deception might be used improperly, even in trying to fulfil this imperative. That's what makes cults and ideologies so gripping, compelling and hard to let go, even after having discovered their inadequacies.

Even the mechanisms at the sixth level are largely unconscious. The striving for the truth, the pain of cognitive dissonance, the fear of undertaking a deception are all wired in our brain, or deep in the innate mind it produces.

What we should do is identifying the truth as it manifests, and embrace it as soon and completely as we can. For instance, avoiding deluding ourselves in order to feel better about a certain situation, trying hard not to lie even when it's convenient, or when it's simpler, and especially avoid lying when we think that the greater good at the end is worth committing the lesser evil now

"Lying for the cause" is rarely a good idea, and destroys our soul exactly as any other self-deception, if not worse: as we know we're lying when we do that, we must keep rationalising and reinforcing our faith in the final goal, as any faltering in that would crush us under the weight of the lies we have spewed.

Are white lies ever ok, then?

Before someone comments that there are indeed times in which lying is the right thing to do, for example, when hiding the Jew away from the Nazi and lying about them being hidden in the house, or that a life-saving surgery will be painless when knowing it will be not, I specify that this is not what I would define a deception.

I didn't define TRUTH as the matching of a statement with objective facts, but with the extraction of meaning from reality. The devastation caused by stating the actual facts in the examples would be of such proportion to make the extracted meaning devastating for the structure of our soul. Saving a life NOW is TRUER than declaring a fact not matching with reality for a short time. 

However, even this "white lies" should be undertaken very cautiously. As we're telling our kid that the flu shot will be painless, we experience a flinch, something that stirs in our soul, and when we see them crying of pain and telling us "you lied to me!", our mind's operating system sends us signals of discomfort. That must be consciously taken into account when evaluating whether that is preferable to the alternative or not, because the circuitry in our brain will not make that distinction, and will keep tormenting us with our failure to be TRUE.

TRUTH will make you stronger

It's incorrect to say that "truth will make you stronger". In the meaning I presented here, TRUTH is the thing that will make you stronger, literally, and that because the way it has been so defined by nature.