In Freud’s The Future of an Illusion he draws our attention poignantly to the consolatory nature of religion. His dissection, for what it’s worth, follows our development through childhood where, in a world we can’t understand, our parents seem to have all the answers. In the loss of innocence that follows we lose that protection and support. Maybe it was never there, but for most of us there was a power, mother or father, that seemed greater than the the things we feared. There was a soothing figure who could protect us from the world.
In Freud’s mind, we yearned to restore that lost omnipotent protection of our childhood. Of the religions that have survived the longest, this characteristic of an all-powerful, all-knowing father, certainly seems prominent. But it is the consolatory nature itself that I want to discuss, specifically the difficulties that arise from the irrational beliefs we construct to cope with fears that I would argue we should instead face.
I wonder if every curious person in their mid-twenties, at any time, has thought both that they live in one of the most interesting junctures of history and that around the corner waits certain doom. I think many young people have had the experience of their enthusiasm for impending disaster brushed aside by their seniors who’ve ‘seen it all before’. But the failures of the generations of the past to show sufficient caution to the warnings of the wise, like that of George Eliot, who said; among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous, does not necessarily mean this time that the assertions of the current voting majority – that ‘everything will be fine’ – are right either.
But prophecy really is the folly we share. Take for example what might animate an energetic young person to believe in their dose of doom and denouement. On the one hand our political and public debates are as circular and subjective as ever. Today, conjecture and lies that play to the tune of the individual are still more influential than the truth. And the policies that emerge from what is as much a surreptitious economic elite monopoly as ever, are still supporting the destruction of our planet if they aren’t maiming innocent children too close to the mobile phones of ‘terrorists’ sentenced to death without trial.
On the other hand, buzzing quietly in the background, technology is going through a transition that none of us really understand. As Dr. Albert Bartlett showed us in the seminal talk on sustainability that he has been giving since the 1970s, humans cannot understand exponential change. He also noted: If there’s anything in short supply in this world today, it’s people who are willing to think.
Technology has been changing exponentially for over three decades now and even a look back on the last few years should have many commentators admitting the foolishness of their predictions. Five years from now AI may be applying human-like abstract integrative cognition (creative thinking) to problems that rely on data sets larger than humans could have ever reasonably come to terms with, and I would say – perhaps inevitably – producing solutions we could only dream of. And the possibility that they lead us to destruction to protect future children from our cruelty aside, it is likely that the progress of technological capability may accelerate again. One can only imagine the rate of advancement once future generations of AI are designed by.. well it won’t be humans, I can tell you. Maybe it is not so unlikely that if we don’t invent our way out of trouble, our inventions might do the inventing for us.
The way we are abusing our planet, though, is an outrage that should not be taken any less seriously just because we may soon develop the technology to produce clean energy cheaper than the harmful current favourites; which nobody would argue wouldn’t be the key to incentivising humans to change (to really make progress, though, we may need to establish regulatory framework that makes a wild animal, or an untouched habitat, more valuable than the resources it holds). Here on this celestial body we have gone a long way to destroying something beautiful and I hope soon we have rejected the climate change deniers and are beginning to try to undo the violent damage we have done so far. Which brings me to my point..
Probably every holder of a radical belief is relieved when that belief makes it into public discourse. In recent weeks we have started to talk about why it is we cannot change our minds in the face of evidence. Carl Sagan said; it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. And it is false beliefs that hold a consolatory nature that prove such a tyrannical obstacle to progress. I don’t even need to suggest that a person might betray obscenely their suppressed fear when a soothing fantasy is challenged, a look around the world today will more than do that for me. It might not be widely covered in Western news, but unfortunate men and women are still having their heads violently severed and their lives lain to nothing, too often to bear, for such challenges. Watching the nature of even the non-violent reactions of the fearful to their delusions being questioned, reactions that leave no sensitivity to reason, makes for grave viewing to say the least.
I’m sure anyone who saw Bill Nye taking part last week in CNN’s crossfire ‘debate’ could see the despair on his face. To put it simply, beliefs that we cannot damage our planet or that we aren’t in danger, as absurd as I hope those notions seem, still persist. But more and more, I would argue, we can see how gripped in fear the remaining holders of those beliefs are. Watching such individuals jump on any consolatory scraps that come their way could be just tragic if their political trust wasn’t so easy to seduce. If they couldn’t so easily be convinced that they are right and that in return for a vote they can have everything they want and keep their head in the sand too. I feel I could only fail in attempting to find words scathing enough to describe the baseness of one of the figureheads of such dangerous, self-serving thinking; ABC’s own vaccine denier and fear-monger Jenny McCarthy.
Sir David Attenborough said; anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is either a madman or an economist. It seems we have no shortage of those. The idea that climate change is not really happening – that we can continue to increase the rate at which we use the finite resources of planet Earth and all the while continue to change the delicate natural world, without consequence – is wish-thinking that cannot be tolerated. If people want to cover their eyes and tell themselves that everything will be fine, then that’s ok. But they must surrender their say in the policies that are going to affect our children and the generations of the future. Dr. Tali Sharot put it well when she said we need to burst a giant bubble – the notion that we perceive the world as it really is. For society to accept the role of fear-alleviating fantasies, of biases, in the persistence of dangerous beliefs, may be very complex; particularly as any illumination of this relationship would in a sense rob an individual of this problematic comfort; and so may be rejected on face. Personally, I think the point can be made very simply, if no more influentially, by merely wondering; when will the adults of the world show the maturity they are currently lacking? The maturity to see that overbearing, polar beliefs are almost reliably strongest when the relevant topic is least understood. Anyone who has gone through the humbling process of educating themselves on an issue will know that nothing is as simple and clear as we thought it was when we were ignorant.
Many people say democracy is a flawed system and I’ll agree that there are many flaws in how unregulated those who seek power are once they obtain it and in how disconnected certain decision-making is from voters. But in my opinion the only major flaw in democracy, aside from a common want of transparency and accountability, is a lack of education, and there seems to be a correlation between countries who invest heavily in education and those with more advanced, legitimate democracies. If we can educate our collective on the issues our species faces and on how we have been fooled by the corrupt, unethical leaders of the past and present, then I would argue we would be likely to elect far better leaders than today’s.
Someone recently said to me; ‘but where are the candidates who embody the qualities of a real leader?’ (which I would say start with a willingness to do what you think is right even at your own expense). And to that I would say that once the voting pressure exists, they will be coming out of the woodwork. If we as a people valued leaders whose authority was only reason and who were prepared to admit they had been wrong and weren’t afraid to change their minds, and who didn’t attack mind-changing as a weakness; who showed they understood their own fallibility and would work with experts to try to reach informed decisions; who would make the realistic appropriations – that our juvenile current selves reject – to plan for our futures and those of our children; who would place their populus before themselves; who would act to change circumstances that led to the abuse of power rather than engineering them; who would try to advance debates rather than occluding them and smearing their opponents; who wouldn’t resemble solipsistic sociopaths; who would try to be ethical. If we educated ourselves to the point of seeing that these qualities, or some better-assembled list, are what we need, then candidates promising to always embody those values would come ten a penny. If we could then assess critically and dispassionately how they performed on those fronts, consecutively raising the bar for our leaders towards the level required, then we would have made some major steps towards becoming a successful civilisation, something we have shown no decisive signs of yet. The key is to have the discussions that lay the foundations for the voting pressure to emerge. Jose Mujica deserves a mention for being such a contrast to most democratic leaders. We could use a few more like him.
I couldn’t possibly say what I think our biggest obstacle is in shaking off the toxic political climates that are compounding the problems in the world, but coming to realise that we are more likely to believe a soothing lie from within than the terrible truth from outside, seems to me a good start. Aldous Huxley said, Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. It is an old principle in psychology that the only real therapy for fear is exposure. It is time we as a species did not indulge our panic. It is time we stayed in the moment, however horrific.
If Freud is right and the history of consolatory fantasy shares a connection with a desire to restore those lost, protecting parent figures of our childhood, then the great irony now is that it is stopping us from growing wise to our collective errors and abuses of power by our politicians; and by extension is preventing us from benefiting from the more adult consolation of the leaders we really need.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJj0JlcFKzY) – Bill Nye on CNN crossfire debate with Jenny McCarthy.
(http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/stephen-hawking-transcendence-looks-at-the-implications-of-artificial-intelligence–but-are-we-taking-ai-seriously-enough-9313474.html) – Stephan Hawking discussing AI.