This is the fourth excerpt from a work-in-progress tentatively titled Science & Subjectivity. It’s a quasi-fictional account of a day in the life of a science writer who teaches at an engineering school in Hoboken, New Jersey. I call it “faction,” anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s term for imaginative writing about real people, places and events. The previous three excerpts describe a morning commute, a freshman humanities class and an argument over lunch about the nature of truth. The excerpt below describes the science writer’s late-afternoon journey from Hoboken to Manhattan. –John Horgan
Choice: stay in my office longer or head to the ferry terminal now?
I know I'm catching the ferry sooner or later, so it’s not a real choice, only a matter of timing, like the Benjamin Libet experiment. Determinists claim the experiment undermines free will. Subjects push a button while noting the moment on a clock. Electrodes attached to the skull show a spike in brain waves almost a second before the subject’s conscious decision to press the button. QED: Our brains decide, not our conscious minds. Free will is literally an afterthought, hence an illusion.
Bullshit! Pushing a button in an experiment isn’t a real choice, only a matter of timing. It’s not like deciding whether to study journalism or geology, or write about free will or antidepressants, or ask your girlfriend to marry you. Those are real, consequential choices, based on conscious, rational analysis, weighing of pros and cons. Right?
Yeah, but maybe those choices are foregone conclusions too. Maybe we're all like that poor epileptic woman Daniel Wegner wrote about. Researchers cut a hole in her skull, stick electrodes in her brain, zap it, make her arm fly up. She can't feel the zapping, so she thinks she's choosing to lift her arm, of her own free will.
When the researchers ask why she lifted her arm, she says, "I was waving to that cute doctor!" They stimulate another spot that makes her giggle, and she says, "You look so funny!" Intention invention, Wegner calls it. Telling stories to ourselves: why we do what we do.
We all do it, all the time. Invent intentions. Tell ourselves tales, confabulate. Robert Trivers says deceit is adaptive, good for seducing babes, crushing rivals, propagating genes. Self-deceit is adaptive too, because we lie more persuasively, with fewer tells, if we believe our own bullshit.
It’s like Spy Vs. Spy in our heads. Our minds swarm with agents and double-agents with secret agendas. There is no omniscient, central self that really knows what's going on.
Can you eliminate self-deception by living alone in the wilderness and ruthlessly interrogating yourself? No, even then you'll still be confabulating. Buddha said: "I have solved the problem of suffering!" Yeah, right, Buddha, tell us another one. What about your wife and kids, huh? What about how they suffered when you split to seek enlightenment?
You’d think studying the mind would give you more self-knowledge and self-control, make you happier and nicer, but where’s the evidence? William James was haunted by fear and melancholy throughout his life. Freud was an egomaniac, liar and bully. Jung had a psychotic breakdown and had to be nursed back to health by his wife and mistress.
Maybe introspection, trying to know ourselves, just makes our self-deceptions more elaborate. And what does it mean for free will if we can't really know ourselves? Trust ourselves?
Maybe the key to success is to stop doubting yourself and embrace your delusions. Because, after all, some lies we tell ourselves can come true. If you really believe you are the world's greatest lover, warrior, leader, scientist, prophet, guru, businessman, your belief can become self-fulfilling. You can become Casanova, Napoleon, Hitler, Freud, Mohammed, Buddha, L. Ron Hubbard, Trump.
All you have to do is persuade others to believe in you too.
What time is it? 4:21. Might as well head to the ferry. Stand up… now? Now? Now? I can almost feel my neurons primed for the inevitable decision. Except it’s not really a decision, only a matter of timing. So stand up… now! That was my conscious choice, not just the ebb and flow of chemicals in my brain.
Oh, give it a rest, you obsessive maniac.
I stuff my notebook and laptop in my backpack and pat the pockets of my pants to confirm the presence of cell phone, wallet, keys. How much of life consists of these repetitive chores? If you delete all the stuff we do automatically—sleeping, excreting, showering, teeth-brushing, eating, commuting, repeat, repeat, repeat--what's left? What's the part of life that actually matters?
Sex, Darwinians would say, because it leads--or used to lead--to reproduction, which is what matters most. But even sex can become automatic. My old buddy Frank confessed that sex was beginning to seem pointless. You do it over and over again, he said, and where does it get you? I didn’t know what to tell him. That’s true despair, when sex makes you feel like Sisyphus.
I exit my building and descend from the campus to the Hoboken Promenade, retracing my morning commute. The next ferry is… four minutes. I can make it if I hurry. Wait. What’s the rush? I should stop, sit on a bench, pay attention.
A middle-aged guy in a suit passes me, smoking and talking fast. Too fast.
"And yeah I texted you and you texted me and I think everything is fine and the next thing I know you're telling me you have problems with something I said and I'm thinking, What? I mean, Hey! Ha ha ha. Because everything I told you is totally one hundred and ten percent true! Ha ha ha." Laughter so insincere it sounds spoken.
He’s a lousy liar, an incompetent con man, who can't see how others see him. People probably distrust him instinctively, because he triggers lie-detection programs. I feel bad for him. But I can’t waste compassion on pathetic psychopaths.
Joggers jog, strollers stroll. So many people! Each a cosmos, a parallel universe, packed with infinite details. It’s impossible to pay attention to everything. Huxley called brains “reducing valves.” Psychedelics opens the valve so we see things unfiltered, as they really are, like mystics. But is enlightenment seeing everything? Or just one thing?
We can see too much. Like the Borges character who hit his head and remembered everything, with no data-compression or abstraction. He had to lie in a dark room so he wouldn't be overwhelmed by details. What was his name? “Funes the Memorious.”
We can’t see everything, we have to be selective. But when we focus on one thing, we miss other things. Like when Christof showed me the video of six men and women in a circle passing around a basketball and told me to count the number of times the ball changes hands. Eighteen! I say, proud of myself. Christof smiles and says, Fine, but did you see the gorilla?
Gorilla? I reply. What are you talking about? He plays the video again and there it is, a gorilla strolling, slowly, through the circle.
How could I be so blind? What else am I missing?
I’m probably missing all kinds of stuff, because of biases like optimism, faith that things are okay and getting better and better. If I looked at things rationally, I’d get depressed, because I’d have to acknowledge that everything comes down to dumb luck. We're here by accident, and we could vanish the same way. All our victories are Pyrrhic, tiny triumphs on road to final catastrophic defeat, heat death.
Dyson refuses to accept that. He says our descendants in the far, far future can delay heat death by transforming themselves into a super-intelligent, energy-efficient gas cloud. When I asked Dyson what the gas cloud would think about, beyond just ensuring its own survival, he was stumped. Then he said the cloud could work on mathematical problems. Dyson's paradise: drifting through cold, dark, endless space solving math puzzles.
When I mentioned Dyson's vision to my pal Dave, he warned that a super-intelligent being might see all mathematics as tautological, trivial as 1=1, or 0=0. So the question remains: What will we think about when we become an immortal, super-intelligent gas cloud? What’s worth thinking about for eternity?
We’ll probably think about what we should think about. I spend more time on that than I care to think about.
Time? 5:11. I can catch the 5:20 ferry. I stand, walk south, cross the parking lot to Hoboken Terminal. The ancient, turquoise copper façade of the terminal is covered with squirmy, bas relief sculptures of…. What are they? Leaves? Fish?
These decorations serve no practical purpose, except lining the pockets of crooked Jersey contractors and politicians.
No, that’s too cynical. These civic decorations are evidence of the same primordial urge that made our ancestors draw horses and bison on the walls of their caves. The ladies rewarded talented stone-age artists in the usual Darwinian fashion, and so we got the art instinct. And that same instinct to represent the world gave us music, poetry, religion, philosophy, science. The whole schmagoogle, as Jim would say.
Sure, why not. That’s as good a story as any. If Jim is right, and none of the stories we tell ourselves about the world is true, we might as well pick stories that make us feel good.
I enter the terminal just in time to see the ferry approaching Pier #3. Belching soot, snorting, groaning, the ferry docks, like a fat old man easing into a La-Z-Boy. A horde of passengers disembarks and rushes past me. I’m the only passenger heading to Manhattan. I feel special, superior to the herd.
I sit in the front row, beside a window, as the ferry churns, pivots, backs up, like Buster Keaton in an old silent film, and races across the Hudson. The river is choppier than I expected. The ferry rolls, pitches, bucks but charges onward, and soon we’re nearing the Financial Center Terminal, a mini-mountain range of white tent peaks jutting into the river.
The ferry decelerates, still rolling, pitching, bucking. I stand too soon and grab a seat to steady myself.
A crowd waits on the pier, watching us approach. I cross the gangplank and push through the herd, feeling special again. Our brains seize on every opportunity to bolster our natural narcissism. Like that time I was flying to L.A. and got bumped to first class. The people back in economy seemed bovine, inferior.
I recognize the irrationality of this sense of superiority, but I still feel it. We must counteract this terrible tendency by teaching children that all people on Earth are equal and deserving of respect and kindness--except those who don't treat others with respect and kindness. They must be crushed.
When I walk off the pier onto land, the pavement rolls and pitches, like I'm still on the ferry. Only seven minutes on the river, and I have sea legs! My body-balance sensors adjusted to rolling and pitching, and now they need to un-adjust.
It’s like the waterfall illusion. Watch a waterfall for a minute or so, and your neurons adjust to the downward motion. When you look away at something stationary, like a tree, the bark seems to flow upward, a side effect of the brain’s remarkable plasticity and capacity for habituation.
Longer-term habituation can be dramatic. Like the time I went to Nicaragua in 1985 and lived for a month in a two-room shack with a Nicaraguan family, Mom and Dad and four kids. We had electricity and water only a couple hours a day. A hose delivered water, an electric cord powered a single light bulb. No refrigerator, no bathroom, just an outhouse. The stove was a brick box that burned wood.
I slept on a cot, and I was grateful, because the six family members shared two beds. It was hard at first, but after a few weeks, I got used to it. Living in a shack in a Nicaragua town with dirt streets and people who wore ragged clothes became my new normal.
I didn’t realize how habituated I was until I flew back to Manhattan, which blew me away. I gawked like a country bumpkin at the skyscrapers of glittering glass and steel, at the shops crammed with fantastically opulent jewelry and pastries, at the impeccably coiffed men and women striding up and down the avenues in shiny suits.
My tiny studio apartment on East 54th Street felt like Marie Antoinette's bedroom. On my first night home, I felt intense, sensual pleasure as I sat on a flush toilet, drank water chilled by ice cubes, slipped into clean, smooth sheets on my foldout couch. Manhattan, my home, seemed unreal, dream-like, after just one month away.
Within a week, I was re-habituated to skyscrapers, flush toilets, water with ice cubes, microwaved tuna melts, clean sheets, women in high heels and lipstick. Nicaragua seemed dream-like now.
Habituation is the ultimate reducing valve. It blinds us to the good and the bad. We get used to our marriage and job, happiness and hardship, poverty and prosperity, war and peace. We no longer see things as they really are.
I walk past the Irish Hunger Memorial, not seeing the gorilla.