Delight Springs

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


You say illusion, I say delusion... but what's the difference? One source, for what it's worth, says
an illusion is a fanciful vision or a false impression or idea, a mental state in which one attributes reality to something unreal. Delusion is a mistaken impression or wrong idea, but the word also implies action - the action of fooling with a wrong impression or idea or the condition of being fooled or deceived.
So then, no fooling: a delusion is more active and overt and (thus) potentially more harmful. A good passive illusion does no measurable peripheral harm, and might even do a person some good. A delusion is never a good thing. Is that right?

Helpfully or not, Richard Dawkins sought to justify his use of the d-word, understood as a "false belief or impression... held in the face of strong contradictory evidence." And of course he couldn't help citing Robert ("Zen Motorcycle") Pirsig's observation that one person's delusion may be a form of insanity, while a group's is a religion.

In our HAP 101 chapter today, Sissela Bok is not especially concerned to mark a sharp and precise dictionary distinction between illu- and delu-... We're just wondering how much unreality happiness can take, in either a passive or active state.

Or, as I just put it in a postcard: which of our stories can be believed? How true must the stories we tell ourselves be? If a story makes you happy, why shouldn't you tell it or even believe it (= act on it) in the absence of evidence? Searching questions. What would Harry Potter's maker say?

Well, somewhere I read her say she doesn't believe in magic herself. But she's made a kind of magical thinker of Older Daughter and millions of other millennial wizards. Where's the harm?

Some would say the harm lies in predisposing ourselves to credulity, when chastity of the intellect (coupled with a healthy sense of natural wonder for the "magic of reality")  is precisely what's required to live with open eyes. Santayana was right, it's a mistake to surrender your chastity too soon.

Let me tell you a story, Carl Sagan seductively invites, and what a pretty story it is. (But see his statement on "pretty stories"* below.) Is it exclusively true? Is it everybody's? Loyal Rue says no, and yes: not exclusively but inclusively true, true enough to cover and account for every other story anybody ever told or will tell.

Others say there's more harm in courting scientistic reductionism and coming to devalue art, literature, poetry, history, and the humanities generally. Science is not your enemy, says Steve Pinker to humanists. You have a humanities gap and your science is a little preachy, replies Gary ("Stone") Gutting (of Notre Dame).

I say there are countless ways of being human, but they all converge in a shared biology and a common species story of natural origin. A kind of compatibilism is possible, so long as our many cultural and literary stories, parables, and myths do not willfully contradict reality as we've come to know it. Sagan's wonderfully clear-eyed statement, not long before his own premature demise:
The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with *pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better is to look Death in the eye and be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. Billions & Billions
Some think consciousness is entirely a tissue of illusion, or at least to whatever extent that we suppose our ways of organizing mental life coincide with reality's own map of itself. But who draws that map? Who speaks for reality, hereabouts anyway, if not us?

I have no clue what it would be like to be a bat, or a dog, or a god. I think I have slightly more insight into what it might be like to be a human in general, and a great deal more into what it's like to be me. But as Kant tried to tell us, these ways of knowing are contributed from our end. There must be as many conceptual realities as there are possible cognizers. Ours is the product of aeons of contingent species evolution, theirs (whoever they are) will have developed differently.

On top of all that, we're all storytellers. "Story liars," my mother-in-law tells us my wife used to call her brother in childhood exasperation. We can stick to our stories all we want, but that doesn't make all their objects "real."

Most of my friends here in the American southland suffer the illusion that football matters. They think I'm deluded about the national pastime. Most of us, even those who most loudly protest the risible "reality" on television and in the movies, still have "our shows." Some of us still even read fiction. (Again, hint hint nudge nudge, have you all started Generosity?)

But ok, what we're really wondering today is whether even the harmless probably- or possibly-false stories ought to be tolerated, let alone encouraged. When Augustine rejoices in a "you" who may not be there, what concern is that of mine? When Marx indicts the illusory opiate of religiously-derived "happiness," what concern is that of his? When anyone presumes to pronounce on "the only correct" view of happiness, who do they think they are?

I'm pluralistic and Millian about all this, so I'm conflicted. People should be free to believe what they please, so long as they don't foist their illusions and delusions on others (including their own kids). But humans need to get collectively clearer on what's true and false in the world, and quickly. These goals seem at cross purposes. Please pass the negative capability.
And then there's poor Captain Pike.

His horrific reality gives way to pleasant illusion, thanks to the generous pity of some cranially expansive aliens. In his place, I'm sure I'd welcome the same opportunity. The Experience Machine might then make sense. But what about Pike's real family, and real personal story? If an accident left you paraplegic, would you be ready to chuck it all for a pretty story?

What about Horace's deluded "Lycas," whose illusory bliss in an empty theater of the absurd, seems to have harmed no one? "Why treat such a merry and harmless folly as some sort of disease, to be expelled by medication?" Our cures are not always restorative of health and happiness, and when they are we're not always sold on health and happiness as the greatest good.

But Montaigne, usually so self-effacing (Que sais-je?), spoke up sharply for the critically examined life. "The bliss of delusions such as that of Lycas is not, after all, worth having."

Madame du Chatelet thought "we owe most of our pleasures to illusions," and she had a point. The brain is our most important sexual organ, cliche as it is to say so, precisely because it's so good at flattering us as to our prowess. Or even just our inflated potential.

Martin Seligman, positive psychology's cheerful ambassador, points to the benefits of "optimism" (a form of illusion in many instances, surely) as a marital aid.

But addictions, to gambling or substances or sex or adrenaline or violence or control or physical fitness or whatever, really ought to be looked squarely in the eye. The happiness they bring, even if we concede that that's what it is, rarely endures. And rarely fails to damage lives beyond one's own. The harm principle, again.

Our attention must of necessity be selective and limited. It must "withdraw from some things in order to deal effectively with others,"  and that means we must anticipate and accept a measure of illusion as unavoidable.

And so, what (if you ask me) is the best, last word (for now) on this subject?
Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.
You can have your harmless illusions, let me have mine, but let's all still raise the periscope and try to see what we can of what's really out there. After all, we all live in a yellow submarine... but still, it moves.

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