Illusions of Reality

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
― Albert Einstein

Ah hell guys, I have come to the realization that you are going to have to deal with me debating all semester as I think about whether psychology is a science and what science is, and if objectivity actually exists. And by the end of it you will be just as confused as I have become.

This week the point was raised that we feel bad about the state of confusion our mind is in. Which is interesting because last week I raised the point that we assume psychologists are perfectly rational – that to have figured out others and how to fix them, psychologists must have first figured themselves out. Which I argued wasn’t at all the case, as demonstrated by the film. This was then connected to control. And what happens when we realize we can’t control what we thought we could.

Is that what life is? Creating and destroying? Building up illusions only to later tear them down when we come to the crushing realization that what we once thought was, isn’t. Does everything necessarily get proven wrong? What is proof? Is it that our previous understanding was false or that a better explanation has come to our awareness. That our understanding has evolved?

I threw out a lot of crazy musings there, so allow me to break it down, maybe eventually I will have figured at least one thing out with absolute certainty.

Control. Is that a thing? From birth we learn how the world works and how to “control” our environment. How our actions influence the environment and those around us. We are taught that we have control and we can make things happen. In elementary school we are taught that we can be anything we want to be. Which is a hopeful and rosy sentiment, but do we really have that much control? Does it exist? It seems to me that we are simply controlling ourselves and hoping that the environment will respond in a time-honoured fashion. So can we really control our environment? Can we control people? We can influence them, but in my mind manipulation and control are two totally different levels of a concept.

Then what is control? The dictionary I looked to in search of clarification, I kid you not listed 20 different definitions. Even the dictionary can’t offer a clear answer. The definition that best fit my ideas – “exercising restraint or direction over; dominating, commanding” (taken from dictionary.com) still didn’t quite fit with my beliefs – namely that control means having total power. A perhaps more extreme attitude that would influence whether or not I conclude that control exists. Or maybe not. You can dominate and command, as I said, but we under normal circumstances cannot force anyone to do anything. At the end of the day we still only influence, we do not truly control. Hell, I just came to the realization that I don’t even really have control over my coffee machine. If it were to suddenly start spewing water everywhere, there is nothing I could do to stop it if turning it off and unplugging it didn’t work. And I dare you to try to control a cat.

This is the "I dare you to try and make me" face every cat is born with

This is the “I dare you to try and make me” face every cat is born with

So does control necessarily exist? Maybe not, but the accumulation of experiences of being able to successfully manipulate the environment including those around us allows us to maintain the illusion. Or not.

This year is filled with massive amounts of uncertainty for me. Riddled with evidence that I have little control over my future. The thread of control I hold onto is that I can at least control my behaviour. Can I though? Or am I being controlled by my environment – always simply reacting? I make plans as if I have considerable control over what will happen, like I can act in such a manner that will ensure the environment responds the way I want. Does the illusion of something mean it exists? Science would argue no, you need concrete proof that everything exists in exactly the way we think it does. I suspect science will one day come to the screeching halt when it comes to the realization that perhaps some of its own beliefs are based on subjective realities.

calvin-on-ignoranceProof. It hit me like a ton of bricks, when I realized, that we label science as objective since it uses measurement tools that are inherently free from subjective bias. Five grams of something is five grams. There is no opinion involved. Except where exactly did the notion of something as simple as a ruler come from?

Back in 1790, the French proposed that one meter should be one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the equator. But how on earth (haha pun) did they decide what that distance was if they did not already have a precise and formalized measurement system, in which case, why would they have needed to invent the meter? How do we know they didn’t include the up and down the mountains in the measurements since they had no way of knowing the exact distance across –  making the basis of the system flawed? How do we know that they even measured properly, maybe the guy in charge of the last bit of the distance was really tired after a late night as the ye old watering hole and miscalculated? Even measurement of mass, originated from a subjective reference point – take for example the number of carats a gem is, it’s based on the carob seed’s mass. Which the odds of every seed having the exact same mass is ridiculous, so which seed did they use as a reference? When you look at it from that angle, science and all its precious objectivity is built upon a foundation of mutually agreed upon subjectivity. So does general consensus become what objectivity is defined by – if everyone agrees to use the same system that system becomes objective?

That is a terrifying thought. It borders on the philosophical line of reasoning that I have always despised – what if this is all our subjective experience, a mere construction of our minds? No. I refuse to engage in that nonsense, but still, you have to acknowledge the fact that you have no certain knowledge. That every day everything you know, could be proven wrong by a new system. I’m starting to get why there was so much resistance to Galileo and Copernicus’ notion that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around.

So science says to be objective we have to separate ourselves from the context, remove all bias, and very clearly define our terms. Is that even possible with psychology? We cannot remove ourselves from the studies of humanity and the human condition because we are ourselves, human. Yet, psychology has to accomplish something. Things that essentially do nothing are eventually banished to the place where bad science goes to die. What is psychology trying to accomplish? We are trying to help people. To do that, we have to advance our understanding and come to an agreement on what we do to help people. Before we agree on something though, we insist on irrefutable proof that someone is right. For evidence to be believable we say it has to be concrete and it has to have been obtained through “appropriately” conducted research, using already accepted measures. If you want to create a new measure, you have to first prove that it works by referencing its results to the pre-existing measure, and then you have to prove that it in some way works better than the pre-existing measures. But if humans are inherently unique, or at least we are, then how irrefutable is the proof we establish?

Furthermore, our methods can be objective but are our conclusions necessarily? Our theories guide our methods, but those theories are based on potentially subjective conclusions. If this is true then, our methods too, which we originally thought were objective are inherently subjective. As discussed above, the idea of standard measurement was kind of created because some guy said, “Louis, un mètre est dix-millionième de la distance entre le pôle nord et l’équateur. Vous allez mesurer le chemin qui est et nous allons le mettre en place.” And then when they were done, they did all their calculations, they cut a stick, and said “Voila! Un mètre!”*

So bam! Let’s bring this crazy train into the station for the day.

  1. We maintain a carefully controlled illusion of reality. From birth we are building a bank of awareness of cause and effect, which supports our illusion that we control things. Which really it seems debatable if even that is true, or if we are always reacting to the environment. We believe we have control and knowledge of how the world works. We believe our knowledge to be the true state of things because we believe we have “objective” measurements. Which may not actually be the case. Meaning that in life we have proof of nothing.
  2. We believe that if we can understand things, we can control them. Which is funny because they are two entirely different concepts. I think that’s why natural disasters and unforeseen tragedies upset us so much. They create a crack in our illusion of control. We can know the conditions that will predict a crash, but when a horrific crash occurs, like the OC Transpo bus two weeks ago, we call it senseless. Mass tragedies like tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes, are proof that we can’t control everything, even if we understand the factors that will create them.

So conclusion: we don’t really have control, and proof is kind of impossible. Have fun coming to grips with that terrifying reality. Or is it reality? Is this a 12th dimension where we tear down illusions of control to avoid coming to grips with the fact that we are all powerful genies, and thus are responsible for things we don’t want to be responsible for?

Is this us?

Is this us?

Have fun sorting that one out. Really I’m just messing with you on that last one. Let’s just try to figure out this dimension first.

What do you think? Is control a thing? Is reality a reality? Is anything objective? Does your head hurt from all this doubt?

“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
― Philip K. Dick

*This conversation is of course entirely in my head, but I’m sure that’s how it went down.

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