Self-Deception, Delusion, and the Denial of Reality

Ajit Vark in a book on Denial entertains from a evolutionary geneticists perspective the old notion of Norman O. Brown and Ernst Becker of the Denial of Death thesis, but also adds another:

[the] contrarian view [that we overcame the barrier to human uniqueness by the mastery of self-deception] could help modify and reinvigorate ongoing debates about the origins of human uniqueness and inter-subjectivity. It could also steer discussions of other uniquely human “universals,” such as the ability to hold false beliefs, existential angst, theories of after-life, religiosity, severity of grieving, importance of death rituals, risk-taking behaviour, panic attacks, suicide and martyrdom. If this logic is correct, many warm-blooded species may have previously achieved complete self-awareness and inter-subjectivity, but then failed to survive because of the extremely negative immediate consequences. Perhaps we should be looking for the mechanisms (or loss of mechanisms) that allow us to delude ourselves and others about reality, even while realizing that both we and others are capable of such delusions and false beliefs.

In many ways this supports Robert Trivers another evolutionary biologist’s notions in The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Trivers unflinchingly argues that self-deception evolved in the service of deceit—the better to fool others. We do it for biological reasons—in order to help us survive and procreate. And, yet, Trivers also takes this notion and then applies it to our overreach, the very sociopathic society full of manipulators and deceivers which is the baseline of our Capitalist societies promotes such self-deception to the point that what once helped us as a species to survive and propagate has now become its greatest enemy and is leading us into a species dead end as we deny too much reality for profit and gain at our own peril. Climate denial etc. are at the center of both this success and it’s overreach… a denialism that could cost us our survival and our future along with all those other non-human species of plants and animals and insects.


  1. Ajit Varki. Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. Twelve (June 4, 2013)
  2.  Robert Trivers. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; 1 edition (October 25, 2011)

Emerson, Neuroscience, & The Book of Nature – On Fate & Freedom

 

The book of Nature is the book of Fate. She turns the gigantic pages, — leaf after leaf, — never returning one.  … The element running through entire nature, which we popularly call Fate, is known to us as limitation. Whatever limits us, we call Fate. … Why should we fear to be crushed by savage elements, we who are made up of the same elements? – Ralph Waldo Emerson: Fate

As one reads and rereads Emerson’s essays, and especially the ones in The Conduct of Life, one gains a deeper appreciation of this man’s dark temperament, and of his tenacity in the face of those who would tyrannize us with superfluous notions of just what necessity and fate truly are.  For Emerson the notion of fate was but one of the forces, not the ruling force of life in this universe. The opposing force for him was freedom. If there are limits, if there are environmental factors that shape and bind us to certain limits and limitations of physical and mental constitution, there is also the opposing notion of mind and intelligence to counter the harsh necessities of life’s circumstances. Yet, the mind is not some separate entity, above it all; this would be illusion, too. No, the mind is very much enmeshed within the web of elements we call the universe, and it is within this very context and rootedness of mind in the processes of the universe that we must approach fate and freedom.

In his poem Fate  (see below) Emerson tells us that “There is a melody born of melody, which melts the world into a sea.” The notion that there are processes born of processes, which fold the world internally into the processes of the brain is at the heart of this. One could say that the production of production, system of system, or feedback loop within feedback loop all work their magic in this sea within:

That you are fair or wise is vain,
Or strong, or rich, or generous;
You must have also the untaught strain
That sheds beauty on the rose.
There is a melody born of melody,
Which melts the world into a sea.
Toil could never compass it,
Art its height could never hit,
It came never out of wit,
But a music music-born
Well may Jove and Juno scorn.
Thy beauty, if it lack the fire
Which drives me mad with sweet desire,
What boots it? what the soldier’s mail,
Unless he conquer and prevail?
What all the goods thy pride which lift,
If thou pine for another’s gift?
Alas! that one is born in blight,
Victim of perpetual slight;—
When thou lookest in his face,
Thy heart saith, Brother! go thy ways!
None shall ask thee what thou doest,
Or care a rush for what thou knowest,
Or listen when thou repliest,
Or remember where thou liest,
Or how thy supper is sodden,—
And another is born
To make the sun forgotten.
Surely he carries a talisman
Under his tongue;
Broad are his shoulders, and strong,
And his eye is scornful,
Threatening, and young.
I hold it of little matter,
Whether your jewel be of pure water,
A rose diamond or a white,—
But whether it dazzle me with light.
I care not how you are drest,
In the coarsest, or in the best,
Nor whether your name is base or brave,
Nor tor the fashion of your behavior,—
But whether you charm me,
Bid my bread feed, and my fire warm me,
And dress up nature in your favor.
One thing is forever good,
That one thing is success,—
Dear to the Eumenides,
And to all the heavenly brood.
Who bides at home, nor looks abroad,
Carries the eagles, and masters the sword.

Continue reading

John Scalzi: Hayden’s Syndrome and Pandemics

“This document is the result of interviews with many of the doctors, scientists, politicians, and ordinary people who were instrumental in both our understanding of Haden’s syndrome and our national and global response to it.”

– John Scalzi, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome 

Just read Scalzi’s little intro Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome to his next novel Locked In which in sixty-six pages outlines the short history of a flu epidemic that in global terms matches the Black Death in impact. We’ve all watched with careful appraisal the many flu viruses across the past few years. The so called Bird Flu or Avian Influenza (H7N1). But what if it happened? What if an epidemic of apocalyptic proportions actually went global? And what if the virus brought with it symptoms and complications unforeseen in any known viruses? Of course Scalzi is well known for his Old Man War Series which introduced the 65 year old advertising agent into a galactic conflict that proves to be his unlearning and relearning of what it is to be human in a posthuman universe.

This is the basic theme of Scalzi’z new work or prequel to Locked In, a miniature tour guided glimpse of the fate of humanity as it is rocked by a virus that could be genetically engendered or freeborn artifact of human/animal interaction. We’re shown that science and scientists have limits and that they, too, can screw up royally. In a short sixty-six pages he provides us fictional interviews with Heads of State, the CDC, pharmaceutical companies, executives, front line health advocates, etc. But what is Hayden’s Syndrome?  A disease that “would claim millions of lives and sentence millions more to “Lock In,” a paralysis of the body that leaves the mind fully functional.” Named after the First Lady of the United States who contracted it and was its first victim.

If you’ve wondered what it might be like to be a reporter and uncover such a dark outbreak this is a great little hard sci-fi introduction. I want give away the major thrust of his tale which relates the issues surrounding his invented “Locked In” virus and its aftermath. A very inventive tale based on current and know aspects of the social, political, medical, and historical impact that such a disease might have upon us. As a lead in to the novel it does the job needed to keep your interest, and approaches its didactic theme with verve and intelligence.

I remember back in 2009 reading Barry Spellberg’s Rising Plague: The Global Threat from Deadly Bacteria and Our Dwindling Arsenal to Fight Them. In that book he shared true and very moving patient stories to emphasize the terrible frustration he and his colleagues  experienced while attempting to treat untreatable infections, not to mention the heart-break and tragedy that many of these patients’ families had to endure. Dr. Spellberg corrects the nearly universal misperception that physician misuse of antibiotics and “dirty hospitals” are responsible for causing antibiotic-resistant infections. He explains the true causes of antibiotic resistance and of the virtual collapse of antibiotic research and development. Most important, he advocates ways to reverse this dire trend and instead bolster the production of desperately needed new and effective antibiotics. He also warns against complacency induced by the decades-old assumption that some miracle drug will always be available to ensure the continuation of our “antibiotic era.” If we do nothing, we run the risk of inviting a bleak future when infectious diseases will once again reign supreme. Then many of the medical breakthroughs that we now take for granted—from routine surgery and organ transplants to intensive care and battlefield medicine—might all be threatened.

I think most of us wander through life with the survivor’s syndrome or notion that that couldn’t possibly happen to me. It’ll happen to the next guy. I’m the exception. But, truth be, none of us are the exception. Like much else we build up some nice illusions to protect and defend ourselves from the cold harsh truth of the world around us. But that only goes so far. If as the old cliché used to go that ‘knowledge is power’ then what we need more than anything is the intelligence to use that knowledge rather than the power of dominion to misuse it. Better to be informed than left in the midst of an epidemic that might send you down the oblivion lane.

An influenza pandemic can occur when a non-human (novel) influenza virus gains the ability for efficient and sustained human-to-human transmission and then spreads globally. Influenza viruses that have the potential to cause a pandemic are referred to as ‘influenza viruses with pandemic potential.’

Examples of influenza viruses with pandemic potential include avian influenza A (H5N1) and avian influenza H7N9, which are two different “bird flu” viruses. These are non-human viruses (i.e., they are novel among humans and circulate in birds in parts of the world) so there is little to no immunity against these viruses among people. Human infections with these viruses have occurred rarely, but if either of these viruses was to change in such a way that it was able to infect humans easily and spread easily from person to person, an influenza pandemic could result.

CDC Resources for Pandemic Flu

CDC’s pandemic preparedness efforts include ongoing surveillance of human and animal influenza viruses, risk assessments of influenza viruses with pandemic potential, and the development and improvement of preparedness tools that can aid public health practitioners in the event of an influenza pandemic.

The links below offer more information about influenza pandemics and highlight some of CDC Influenza Division’s continued work on influenza pandemic preparedness.

International Surveillance for Pandemic Preparedness Adobe PDF file [787 KB, 3 pages]

CDC Influenza Division International Program works with a wide range of international partners, including the World Health Organization, national ministries of health and others to build capacity to respond to pandemics and to prevent and control seasonal influenza.

Risk Assessment

Risk assessments help assess the threat of influenza viruses with pandemic potential

Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Tools

Resources to help hospital administrators and state and local health officials prepare for the next influenza pandemic

Flu.govExternal Web Site Icon

Resources to help businesses, communities, schools and other organizations plan for the next pandemic