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The Stupid Human Race

Why the Human Race Will Always be Stupid

(06 October 2007)

Studies have shown that depressed people tend to have a more accurate grasp of reality; a phenomenon known as ‘depressive realism’. While ‘healthy’ people massively overestimate the likelihood that they will win the National Lottery, for example, depressed individuals make a far more sober assessment of the odds. Their opinions concerning their looks, abilities, the control they have over their lives, their self-importance, are all more in accord with what others think about them, whereas healthy people continually review themselves far more favourably than any objective criteria should permit. Paradoxically, systematic self-delusion is almost a prerequisite for good mental health.

Who do you think will fare better in the rat-race – the realistic depressives or the deluded healthy? Who will get more sexual partners and have a higher chance of passing on their genes? It won’t be the realists, that’s for sure. Hasn’t natural selection favoured human beings with a fantastically over-inflated sense of self?

We live in an unimaginably large universe that existed for billions of years before humanity was born, and will endure for billions of years after we’re gone. Our lives, considered in relation to this ‘big picture’, are as insignificant as those of blades of grass. Yet we go on believing that we’re supremely important, despite being surrounded by the graves of all those who came before us who thought exactly the same. Our egotism and vanity are so extreme that they compel us even to deny that our existence is certain to end. Sure, we may die, we say, but our soul (whatever that is) goes on. Not only is there an after-life waiting for us, but it will actually be far better than this life – a paradise, no less. And rather than being specks of dust in a vast, indifferent universe, we have God, the Creator, our supreme benefactor, to underwrite our significance. He made us in his own image, and endowed us with eternal souls. If this isn’t a spectacular fantasy, it’s hard to imagine what is. Billions of humans kneel and pray to the constructs of their own imaginations. Not once do they blush with shame. They might even kill you for trying to puncture their escapist dreams.

But what’s even more horrific is that if they didn’t hold those beliefs, they would become depressed, would see reality as it is, and die of despair. Self-delusion is our ultimate human survival mechanism. Even atheists are able to invest their existence with some sort of dubious purpose and meaning. But for those for whom the veils of illusion are completely torn away, suicide beckons. Life, even one more second of it, becomes an unbearable prospect.

In the late 19th century, Nietzsche was perhaps the first person to pose what may be the greatest question of all: do human beings possess a will to truth? ‘Why not rather untruth?’ he asks. With that explosive question, he placed dynamite under the whole edifice of metaphysics, all religious claims, and even science.

Philosophy, for Nietzsche, in effect became evolutionary psychology. How did the mind evolve in the way it has? Hundreds of thousands of years ago, evolution may have thrown up all sorts of different human brains, each associated with a distinct type of mind and behaviour. Anything too extreme probably proved a severe disadvantage: too brave, too timid, too clever, too stupid, too realistic, too deluded, too curious, too incurious, too altruistic, too selfish, too attached, too detached, too caring, too uncaring. It’s easy to imagine that these extremes all failed in the gene pool, leaving behind a narrow range of human brains, minds and behaviour. And, as Nietzsche realised, perhaps natural selection favoured lies and delusion over truth and realism. Given how often people tell lies, and how many of us believe in things that by any objective and evidential standards are simply bizarre, he’s probably right.

Nietzsche was keen to point out that we have no organ for detecting truth. We can use our eyes to see, but what do we have to ‘see’ the truth. Reason? More often that not, reason leads us to the biggest errors of all: metaphysics is littered with the wreckage of grand ‘rational truths’. If we had any inbuilt lie detector, anything that allowed us to identify fantasy and bullshit, human existence would be transformed. A person with a badly damaged liver will die, but a person with only the most passing acquaintance with the truth could easily become President of the United States, or Prime Minister of the UK.

If humans were seriously concerned with the issue of truth, wouldn’t we all be philosophers and scientists? Yet these subjects are astoundingly unpopular. Humans are infinitely more concerned with pleasure and status than something as abstract and elusive as truth. And, as the success of movies and novels demonstrates, humans have a wondrous ability to ‘suspend their disbelief’ and enter into fake worlds as though they were real. Isn’t there something profoundly worrying about our ability to confuse the unreal with the real? Doesn’t it hint at the disturbing prospect that our most cherished beliefs are false? Nietzsche chillingly remarked, ‘What ultimately are man’s truths? They are merely his irrefutable errors.’

‘What is truth?’ Pontius Pilate famously asked. The man he was addressing was a Jew called Yehoshua ben Joseph, better known to history as Jesus Christ, an individual supposedly both man and god. No wonder Pilate found himself scratching his head. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get an answer from Jesus.

Even those who accept that humanity does have a relationship with the truth have difficulties with various thorny questions. Does the truth evolve? If the majority believe one ‘truth’ and a minority believe a different ‘truth’, who is right? How are new truths created, who does the creating, and what fate befalls these new truths?

In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen attacks the notion that the majority is ever on the side of the truth, announcing that it’s the minority that’s always in the right. His anti-hero Dr Stockmann declares, ‘The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the majority—yes, the damned Liberal majority—that is it!’

Later, he fulminates, ‘I propose to raise a revolution against the lie that the majority has the monopoly of the truth. What sort of truths are they that the majority usually supports? They are truths that are of such advanced age that they are beginning to break up. And if a truth is as old as that, it is also in a fair way to become a lie, gentlemen. Yes, believe me or not, as you like; but truths are by no means as long-lived as Methuselah—as some folk imagine. A normally constituted truth lives, let us say, as a rule seventeen or eighteen, or at most twenty years—seldom longer. But truths as aged as that are always worn frightfully thin, and nevertheless it is only then that the majority recognises them and recommends them to the community as wholesome moral nourishment. There is no great nutritive value in that sort of fare, I can assure you; and, as a doctor, I ought to know. These "majority truths” are like last year’s cured meat—like rancid, tainted ham; and they are the origin of the moral scurvy that is rampant in our communities.’

Dr Stockmann talks of a special few ‘fighting for truths that are too newly-born into the world of consciousness to have any considerable number of people on their side as yet.’ In fact, this is always the case with the truth. Each new truth is at first pronounced by a single person. That person is then faced with a struggle to persuade others. There was a time when everyone believed the earth was flat. That was ‘the truth’. One man realised the earth was a globe, and eventually managed to convince others. Then everyone believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe, until one man realised it was just a planet orbiting the sun. But for every truth of this type, there are scores of ‘truths’ proclaimed by prophets, and these don’t come accompanied by a shred of evidence, yet are often far more solidly believed than the most rigorously tested scientific theory.

Nietzsche said, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’ His position was that truth was always a matter of perspective, that there are simply no absolute truths. We construct truths that we find useful, or lazily accept truths others have told us and which we find convenient to follow. Even ‘common sense’ isn’t very sensible. Einstein said, ‘Common sense is the set of prejudices we have acquired by the age of eighteen.’

It seems that truth and humans don’t mix well. Without a sensitive instrument for detecting truth, we are left at the prey of crazy fantasies. Many of our most sacrosanct beliefs are almost certainly false, and not far short of insane. People will always be seduced by nonsense if it seems life-enhancing or comforting in some way. The upshot is that without reliable truths we are condemned to be stupid. We are a race of dunces who refuse to wear our pointed caps.

Perhaps the very last human being will dig his own grave and carve an inscription on the headstone he has prepared for himself. It might read, ‘Here lies the last of humanity, a species that never once came into contact with the truth. It existed for a million years and spent the whole time in a dream. Its only skill was in inventing fantasies about itself. In all the vastness of time and space, it managed to convince itself that it was the most special creation of an all-powerful, all-knowing being that it called God. But there was nothing there.’

Humanity was born stupid, has stayed stupid, and relies on stupidity to make ‘sense’ of the world. The only certainty is that not being stupid would kill us.