Being Wrong, a new book by Kathryn Schulz, is an enjoyable look at epistemology, or “what do we know?” The most important thing she does is to help the reader see that error and being wrong is not the unmitigated disaster that we usually envision it to be.
Error is unavoidable because we do not perceive the world directly. Our sense perceptions are processed in our brains to form a mental model of the world, built up from beliefs about how the world works. No one’s model matches reality, and this mismatch results in errors. Ms. Schulz refers to this as a gap between our mind’s image of reality and reality itself, and shows how this gap is actually a source of great pleasure to us, through its expression in comedy, art, and magic. Ms. Schulz writes,
The Incongruity Theory of Humor posits that comedy arises from a mismatch—specifically, a mismatch between expectation and actuality. According to this theory, funny situations begin with attachment to a belief, whether that attachment is conscious or unconscious, fleeting or deep, sincerely held or deliberately planted by a comedian or prankster. That belief is then violated, producing surprise, confusion, and a replacement belief—and also producing, along the way, enjoyment and laughter. In other words, the structure of humor is—give or take a little pleasure—the structure of error.
Error also arises as an inevitable byproduct of our brains’ efficient use of assumptions. Our minds work through inductive reasoning, which means we extrapolate to general conditions from a small, particular sample. This is a very powerful analytic tool, for example, when we learned English we learned that adding –ed to the end of a word made it past tense. We didn’t have to learn every single word and every tense-variation individually. Of course that meant we made errors, like saying “sended” instead of “sent.” But the few errors were worth the time saved overall. Ms. Schulz writes,
We tend to think of mistakes as the consequence of cognitive sloppiness—of taking shortcuts, cutting corners, jumping to conclusions. And in fact, we do take shortcuts, cut corners, and jump to conclusions. But thinking of these tendencies as problems suggests that there are solutions: a better way to evaluate the evidence, some viable method for reaching airtight verdicts about the world…there are other ways to reason about the world, but those other ways aren’t better. The system we have is better. The system we have is astonishing…our mistakes are part and parcel of our brilliance, not the regrettable consequences of a separate and deplorable process.But I think Ms. Schulz veered off the track when she came to the end of the book and made conclusions about what these propensities to error mean. She asserts that being wrong about reality is actually the best thing for us; it’s what makes up optimists, it’s what keeps us from being depressed.
First she throws out the statement that “Countless studies have shown that people who suffer from depression have more accurate worldviews than nondepressed people” (without any substantiation), and then quotes Ernest Becker, author of, among other things, The Denial of Death, “To see the world as it really is is devastating and terrifying. It makes thoughtless living in the world of men and impossibility. It places a trembling animal at the mercy of the entire cosmos and the problem of the meaning of it.”
Schulz’s commentary on this quote is,
In an odd reversal of the usual state of affairs, when it comes to these existential issues, the bigger and more important the belief, the less it pays to be right. That’s why, as I’ve said, the goal of therapy isn’t necessarily to make our beliefs more accurate; it is to make them more functional. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, the psychologist, has even argued that ‘a key to the good life might well be illusions at our most deepest, most generalized level of assumptions and accuracy at the most specific, least abstract levels.’Then she uses Don Quixote as an example—he was happy when he thought he was a knight fighting noble causes, but when he found out who he really was he became depressed.
Here is encapsulated my problem with Schulz’s book: she seems to have no clue about deeper levels of consciousness. She completely misses the key word in Becker's quote: "thoughtless." There are two choices facing each of us: live a life of illusion and thoughtlessness about reality and deny your fears in a bubble-world of your own creation (with great cost to your psyche); or live a life in which you thoughtfully and consciously face the cosmos and your place in it. She also exposes the problem at the heart of much of today’s psychology and psychiatry, which seem to only be concerned with enabling the patient to cope: keep a job, handle the stresses of life, but don’t worry so much about what is really going on, who you are, etc. Those existential questions will just hinder your ability to deal with the world.
Ms. Schulz actually seems to believe that delusional thinking about ourselves is beneficial:
Michel Foucault once proposed that Quixote represents an extreme version of us all…Like Quixote, most of us think we are a bit younger, better-looking, and more important than strict realism might suggest. Most of us see a little extra loveliness in our loved ones, a little extra grandeur in our homes, a little extra heroism in our contests and quests. And thank God for that. These beliefs might skew the truth, but they stave off depression, give meaning to our lives, and make us and those we love happy. These kinds of beneficial self-deceptions can be sweeping and existential in nature—as when we ignore or deny the fact that we have only limited control over the course of our lives, and none at all over the inevitability of death.This is completely insane thinking! How can “happiness” built on delusion be something to celebrate? This sounds to me like a doctor not telling her patient that he has terminal cancer and will die in a few weeks, because this news would make the patient unhappy. So the patient doesn’t have the chance to make his good-byes, enjoy some of his favorite pastimes one more time, and take actions to complete his life, because he is unaware of the “existential realities that would make him unhappy.” What is the cost of this delusion? How much unhappiness is caused by this withholding of the truth? In the end, when you balance out everything, do you really think there would be more happiness in being ignorant that these were the last weeks of your life?
Let’s do thought-experiments with some other of Schulz’s delusional beliefs. How about when we are delusional about the importance of our jobs until we hit middle-age and we realize that our work means nothing and we have a debilitating middle-age crisis? Or when we get old and realize that we were deluded about what was most important, we had turned our back on our passion, or our loved ones to pursue money or fame, and we descend into senility as a way to deal with the psychic pain? Or when we deny that we will die and put things off until it’s too late?
I knew a young woman, about 14, who was sent to a psychiatrist because she was “troubled.” The doctor listened to her describe her questions about life, such as “why do I exist?” and “what’s the purpose of life?” He diagnosed her with “existential angst.” She needed medication, he said, to cure her anxieties.
Erich Neumann, in his The Origins and History of Consciousness, contends that the evolution of consciousness began in the mists of prehistory with the question, “Whence.” Where did the world come from, who are we, what happens after death—these are the basic questions that have stimulated the development of human consciousness. As we become increasingly aware of the nature of reality we concurrently become increasingly aware of death and the awesome size of the universe. In Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ultimate torture device was a machine that let you experience your size relative to that of the universe. A few seconds of that experience reduced a subject to jelly.
Consciousness and anxiety go together. They cannot be separated. So to advocate, as Ms. Schulz does, that we stop the evolution of consciousness and pull a blanket over our heads to block out unpleasant reality and prevent anxiety is childish thinking. Schulz’s prescription would mean the human race stays stuck at this level of consciousness.
The only cure for anxiety is more consciousness. I want to keep moving forward, becoming more aware of the existential truth of my ignorance. This is the place of peace. Maintaining delusions about fundamental realities, like not knowing who or what I am, is not a prescription for peace—it’s a prescription for anxiety at the deepest level.
This is the problem with much of modern psychotherapy; it’s trying to eliminate anxiety. They’ll use drugs to knock consciousness out in order to minimize anxiety enough to allow the person to be “functional,” instead of helping them move forward in the development of consciousness to learn to handle the “existential angst.”
Psychotherapists are not doing their patients a favor by helping them to maintain a delusional reality; they are adding to their anxiety. Knowledge of reality is always empowering. I would contend that the reason the “countless studies” show that people who are more in touch with reality are depressed is because they are lacking a context for their perceptions: they see death and suffering and it seems meaningless. The solution to their depression isn’t to stop seeing death and suffering, it’s to continue on in the search for meaning, to find the context in which death and suffering are explained and understood.