Lies Made Flesh and Other Problems of Embodied Existence
This is why I love modern developmental psychoanalysis, because it is the one science that understands the importance of the fact that we are embodied. In this regard, it actually has an interesting parallel with Christianity, because it is obviously the one religion that emphasizes the fact that ultimate truth is embodied--that "the word became flesh."
But the opposite is also true. If truth can become flesh, so can lies--not just this or that lie, but The Lie. This is the hazard of living in a modified primate body. You see, people still think about the body in premodern ways, as if there is a sharp division between body and mind, and that we consist of a sort of immaterial soul that is implanted into a body. (There is some truth to that, but I don't want to go there for the moment.)
Science continues to study human intelligence in the wrong way. There seems to be a default position that intelligence is simply a result of a complex enough nervous system--as if, through blind natural selection, our hominid brains just became more and more complex, until voila, human intelligence popped out. That is a very unsophisticated, pre-post-postmodern view.
For human intelligence and self-consciousness only came about through a very species specific situation, not simply through genes and brains. Although genes and brains were obviously necessary, they were not sufficient to produce humanness.
The situation without which humanness could not (and cannot) emerge is our neurological incompleteness and plasticity at birth. As infant brains became larger and larger, they began to overrun the ability of our female furbears to give birth to them without dying in the process. In order to survive, mothers had to give birth to babies "prematurely" so that much of their brain growth would take place outside the womb.
It was in the hothouse ancestral environment of infantile helplessness, neurological incompleteness, and utter psychological dependency on caretakers that our humanness emerged--and emerges today. Every helpless baby that comes into the world repeats this process, for better or worse, because much of the outcome of development depends upon the quality of childrearing.
As it pertains to the human ability to "know," one of the fundamental problems is that, for human beings, unreality, magic and illusion are actually the "default" state, while reality and disillusion are only gradually learned (if they are acquired at all). Because human beings are born in a neurologically immature, completely helpless state, we are steeped in illusion and fantasy during the time our brains and nervous systems are being assembled.
Early experience is relatively "hardwired" in, so that the substrate of the human mind is built on the illusion that we are not really helpless and powerless, but that our painful and frightening needs will be magically alleviated through our desires. We are cold, lonely and hungry. We cry. Suddenly we are swooped up, caressed, comforted, and spoken to in a soothing manner (or not). Nourishment appears out of nowhere, converting painful stomach contractions into pleasant fullness, while at the same time we are bathed in the radiance of a soft, enveloping, benign universe (or not).
I was thinking about this just the other day with our baby. Of course, we think of him as "the baby" of the house. But in reality, he is the sovereign King, even God, of the house. Every need is attended to, sometimes even before he recognizes it as a need. His every utterance, no matter how inarticulate or ambiguous, is taken seriously. "Yes your majesty! Are we hungry? Do we wish to be held? Do we have a poopy diaper? Your wish is our command!" That's a very intoxicating experience. You can tell.
Infantile omnipotence is a double-edged sword, because without it, we would live in a frightening, barren and hostile universe, indifferent to our needs, to our very existence. The experience of omnipotence is necessary to our psychological survival, but it can have its own dark side, as some people and groups never get past it.
Given good-enough parenting, we will gradually become “disillusioned” from the idea that we are the center of the universe, that our feelings are urgently important to other people, that life is fair, that it is possible for all our needs to be taken care of--that it is possible for heaven to exist on earth. Under ideal circumstances, we will first have the edenic experience described above, and only gradually awaken from it in a non-traumatic way, as reality seeps in little by little.
For a variety of reasons, other children will never experience this blissful paradise, experience it only sporadically, chaotically and unreliably, or be traumatically exiled from Eden by the premature impingement of reality. For such individuals, there will always be a nostalgic yearning for what they missed, this infantile utopia in which frustration does not exist and desire is instantly converted to satisfaction. A few of these individuals will be lucky enough to obtain lifetime tenure at a major university, but the rest must deal with an unyielding world that does not mirror their unresolved infantile needs.
Back to the idea of our embodied minds. I believe this underlying template of infantile illusion has a lot to do with false beliefs. Not merely false in the sense of “untrue,” because no one can know everything, and it is not possible to get through life without holding some beliefs for which there is no proof or which will later be proven wrong.
What I am talking about is not so much false beliefs as what might be called “motivated stupidity.” These are beliefs that are not only untrue, but could not possibly be true, and yet, are embraced just as fervently as any truth. In fact, one of the giveaways that we are dealing with motivated stupidity is that these false beliefs are held onto more fervently than true beliefs, as if clinging tightly enough to an object will reinstate one's omnipotence.
I think the problem of motivated stupidity especially afflicts contemporary liberalism. President Bush is not Hitler. He is not, as Cindy Sheehan said, "the biggest terrorist in the world." The war in Iraq is not being waged for the purpose of enriching his already wealthy friends. Bush is not spying on innocent Americans. Global warming during the five years of his administration did not cause hurricane Katrina. This is not the worst economy since Herbert Hoover. President Bush is not a racist. Republicans do not want children to go hungry.
As I mentioned in a previous post, it is much more difficult to do battle with a weak mind than a strong one. Weak thinkers embrace their false ideas in a manner disquietingly similar to religious groups who predict the second coming, or the arrival of space ships, or end of the world, but who do not modify their beliefs when the event fails to come about.
In fact, it is a well-known observation that a few of the disappointed may depart from such a group, while the majority only become more thoroughly entrenched in their belief system, defending it all the more vigorously. These are the sad Ghost Dancers, those who believe that if we only wish more fervently, we really can alter reality. Just like an infant can do. Think of "War is Not the Answer," "Give Peace a Chance," and all the other liberal bumper stickers.
What this obviously means--obvious to a psychologist, anyway--is that the primary purpose of beliefs is not necessarily to comprehend reality. Rather, belief systems are superimposed on a deeper ground of emotional need for comfort, predictability, and meaning. There is a deep emotional need for the world to make sense, even if the explanation actually makes no sense.
What sets humans apart from the animals is not just our ability to know reality, but our even more striking ability to not know it--to create patently erroneous systems of thought that we then inhabit, and which actually compromise our survival prospects. No lion ever entertained the idea that it might be healthier to live on grasses rather than flesh. Penguins don’t decide to live near the equator, where it isn’t so cold. But the UN thinks that lots of talks and meetings will make the threat of a nuclear Iran go away. Liberals really think that Saddam and his satanic spawn would never, ever, have obtained nukes.
Only human beings can hold ideas that are completely illogical and self-defeating. In fact, there is no doubt whatsoever that the majority of beliefs human beings have held about the world down through history have been false, often ridiculously so. For example, just consider medicine. Until the early 20th century, the average visit to a doctor was likely to leave one in worse shape, not better. But useless or harmful treatments helped people cope with otherwise intolerable anxiety, and were obviously psychologically preferable to the truth: that no one knew why you were sick or how to cure you.
So there is something about human beings that makes them uniquely susceptible to bad ideas. Therefore, it would appear to be axiomatic that there must be something about bad ideas that is paradoxically adaptive. But adaptive to what? Clearly, they are adaptive to internal reality, to the emotional needs and anxieties of the person who holds them. Leftists don't really want Bush to be Hitler. They need him to be. Desperately. As uncomfortable as it is, it is far preferable to being left alone with their own internal infantile anxieties, with nowhere to project them.
The psychoanalyst Winnicott made the apt observation that "there is no such thing as an infant," at least from the infant's point of view, since the infant is unable to clearly distinguish itself from the mother.
What this means is that human beings are fundamentally a group animal, not just in a social sense, but at the core of our very being. We all harbor the unconscious residue of an infantile matrix out of which our individuality only later emerges. In developmental psychology, this process is known as "individuation," and there are many things that can go wrong on the journey from infantile symbiosis to individuation and mature independence.
One of the things that frequently goes awry is that the drive toward individuation is overcome by the opposite, regressive pull toward fusion and dependence (in its healthy form, this drive to merger allows us, for example, to fall in love). Becoming independent is fraught with anxiety, and can trigger a host of emotional problems in someone with a history of insecure, traumatic, or ambivalent attachment.
A casual survey of history reveals that human beings are a deeply troubled species. Arthur Koestler observed that we err in placing all of the blame on human greed, selfishness, and assertiveness--that is, excess individualism. Rather, he pointed out that the amount of crime committed for personal motives is inconsequential compared to that committed by large populations--that is, groups--in a completely self-transcendent manner on behalf of religion or ideology, king or country. The Islamists are a case in point. Suicide bombers obviously do not selfishly kill for personal gain, but selflessly to advance the cause of their group.
Therefore, as Koestler writes, "the historical record confronts us with the paradox that the tragedy of man originates not in an excess of individual self-assertiveness," but in a malfunction of the affiliative, group tendencies of our species.
Koestler also had the intuition that this had something to do with an excessive "need to belong" triggered by infantile experience, leading to an unquestioned identification with the group, a suspension of critical thinking about the group's beliefs, and a trancelike submission to a powerful parental substitute.
As Adam Smith knew, individuals may be selfish, but they are also self-interested. This makes them rational, predictable, and comprehensible. On the other hand, no one knows how to deal with the individual who has given over his identity to the group. Such a person does not possess an individual mind, but a group mind which is not critical, rational, or predictable. As such, they may react violently to any kind of threat, not just a physical threat, but any questioning of their worldview. A harmless wimp may be transformed into a beast of depravity by identifying with the powerful group, tribe, clan, party or religion.
Leftists such as Cindy Sheehan routinely accuse the United States of being the most selfish and individualistic nation on the planet. Interestingly, this may explain why the United States is, by a wide margin, the greatest force for good the world has ever known. In contrast, countries that have attempted to dissolve individual identity by promoting a regressive merger with the nation/group have been a source of unqualified evil: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, communist China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, and now Islamofascism.
For that matter, look at the infantile selfishness we see in the recent French rioting. They are essentially rioting to maintain the prerogatives of His Majesty the Baby, who must be loved and cared for unconditionally. You do not fire a baby when he is bad. You don't even punish him. In fact, you have no expectations of him at all. European style socalism does the same thing for adults, creating a giant nursery in which the conditions of infancy are perpetuated. In their imagination, angry babies can "fire" the parents that frustrate their omnipotence. But then you have a problem: for the infant still requires grown-ups to fund and implement the nursery. I don't think the Europediocracy will like it when Muslims gain control of the nursery.
This actually constitutes a large part of the "war on terror": trying, for example, in Iraq, to bring individuation and psychological maturity to a people who have known only infantile merger with the tribe, faith, or "strong man." The task is made all the more difficult as a result of the approximately fifty percent of Americans who are merged together in their own infantile group fantasy of eternal suckling on the inexhaustible teat of mommy government: "Don't bother me, I'm eating."
You can't be French forever. Enjoy it while it lasts:
(photo editing courtesy Dilys & Fishy Art)