This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.
In my recent post "Yes, You Imagined It", I mentioned how unreliable the human memory is in recalling events from our life. A reader commented, "With that in mind, don't you doubt yourself? If you can't rely on your own memory, what can you rely on?"
Your memory is unreliable. That's a fact that has been experimentally documented. You can accept that fact, or you can choose to go through life with the notion that everything that has happened to you occurred just the way you remembered it. But in doing so, you are remembering a fake life, as every one of your memories, upon recall, is subject to associations, suggestions, and other errors that get reinforced every time you recall it.
I know that this is a little troubling. But I prefer to live a life that is troubling but real, as opposed to comforting but fake.
This desire to live a comforting life, even if it forces us to deny certain aspects of reality, is rampant in the human race. Religion (and related worldviews that suggest life after death) is the most obvious example. To the believer, it is a huge bummer to imagine that when your life is over, it's over — that one's consciousness and self-awareness is totally finite in duration, and that being dead feels exactly the same as not yet having been conceived. Yet, religious faith notwithstanding, it certainly appears to be the case that death is the end. And I choose to live my life acknowledging this, even though theists are constantly telling me, "It must be so depressing to believe that when you die, it's over."
My fellow atheists know it isn't depressing for a person who has accepted this as fact. It is thoroughly eye-opening and exhilarating to accept that life is finite, let's make the most of what we've got here on Earth, because this is it!
I don't exactly know why it rubs me so wrong when I see people choosing comforting self-delusion over difficult reality. I feel as if they're cheating themselves somehow. I value my own life so much, and I find reality so interesting and challenging as it is, that I am downright offended when someone puts themselves in a delusional bubble. It's the same feeling that I might have if I were attending an incredible Stravinsky concert, and then learned that the guy sitting next to me is wearing headphones and listening to elevator music, because that's more comforting to hear than Stravinsky. I would want to yank off those headphones and force the guy to listen to some real music for a change.
Here are some other realities I choose to acknowledge. I sometimes find myself fighting people online because of these (largely unpopular) viewpoints.
• No, kids cannot be "anything they want to be" when they grow up, or achieve any dream they may have if they "believe" or "try" hard enough. There are such things as talent and circumstance. Sorry, moms and dads.
• No, if you ran for public office and won, you would do exactly the same things that all elected politicians do to stay in office.
• No, you would not be immune to abuse of power or moral decay if you found yourself in a position of absolute power. See the Stanford Prison Experiment.
• No, those corporate "ribbon campaigns for the cure" aren't all sweetness and goodness. There is a huge, self-sustaining industry behind every major cause, with thousands of people gainfully employed (no, many of them are not doing any research), and all kinds of tax-writeoff and PR motives going on for the sponsors. "Cause marketing" is not without controversy. I know it feels wonderful to buy a pink box of cereal and everything — but how about giving directly to a charity, rather than tossing in a few cents by way of the cereal company? What's that, you just wanted a box of cereal, but couldn't resist the opportunity to pretend that you're actually a charitable person? Oh. (Update: Here's a blog post on pink-ribbon saturation.)
• No, your thoughts, beliefs, or trivial actions will not impact events in ways that you desire. The outcome of the game does not revolve around whether or not you put on your lucky hat — there are other people in the world besides yourself, and they have lucky hats, too. This especially applies if you're at home and watching the game on TiVo. See also: Prayer.
• No, your pet conspiracy theory is almost certainly false. Conspiracy theories are like movie scripts: They dress up reality to make it more interesting and exciting. They also deny the uncomfortable reality that sometimes, a few random piss-ants with a mission, like the 9/11 hijackers, can cause a huge world-changing event. (Typically these theories put the control in the hands of a far more deliberate and powerful entity, like the CIA — which in an odd way is more comforting.)
• Speaking of 9/11, no, the Al Qaeda hijackers were not cowards. I don't exactly approve of mass murder or terrorism, but the hard reality is those hijackers gave their lives for what they believed in, as warped as those beliefs may have been. Objectively speaking, that means they were acts of courage. (Of course, part of their motivation was a reward in the afterlife, but I'm talking strictly about the acts themselves.) The moment President Bush called the hijackers cowards, I knew he was wrong. People wanted to think of 9/11 as a cowardly act because the hijackers were so vilified. But from a neutral viewpoint, a suicide mission is anything but cowardly! Is it so wrong for an American who denounces mass-murder terrorism simply to acknowledge this one hard fact? Bill Maher tried, by saying about a week later, "We're the cowardly ones, launching missiles from 2,000 miles away" — but people didn't want to hear that, and his ABC show was canceled as result. So much for acknowledging reality.
• And finally, no, an intrusive, expensive safety measure is not worth it "if it saves just one single innocent life." This is another feel-good platitude that has no basis in reality. Banning cars in America would save tens of thousands of innocent lives per year. Do we do that? Why not? People are used to chalking up car-crash deaths as "accidents," a consequence of living in a free society. Terrorist attacks really are accidents; contrary to popular belief, they almost never happen, and that's not because of the TSA, which has yet to intercept a single explosive device some 90+ million flights (and counting!) after 9/11/01. If only we had treated that event as an accidental failure of the imagination — remember, airport security allowed passengers to carry boxcutters back then — the terrorists would not have defeated America, which they most certainly have, as any stroll through an airport today will indicate.
What are some hard realities that you accept, even though your viewpoint is less comforting than the more popular view? What difficult facts do you choose to acknowledge, simply because that's how the world actually is?