Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Danger and Doom of Denial

A Flaw In the Human Psyche

The flaw in the human psyche I want to talk about today is denial: the ability to hide from pain by refusing to believe painful things, even though they are absolutely obvious and rational. An example is someone refusing to believe their child is dead, even though the body has been recovered and verified. No matter what evidence you present to such a person, they will explain it away, because it conflicts with what they want (or need) to believe.

Denial, as you might imagine, has been selected by evolution as a handy survival tool. In the above example, the person who lost their child is able to go on, to persevere through life; they are not ready to face a major agony that could cripple or kill them. Maybe someday they will be ready, and their denial will crack. in this sense, denial can be part of a healthy process.

Life, sadly, is full of extreme stressors that we cannot prevent, such as death and also the haphazard cruelties of nature, such as earthquakes and disease. The seemingly inevitable cruelty of our fellow humans also dogs and disgusts us.

How to deal? One way is to believe there is a perfect place, a heaven, where all is regained. This belief must be very very strong to actually be convincing; in other words, you must go into a state of denial about the obvious truth: from a position of reason, logic or just common sense, there is no all-powerful good God who invents such a place.

Indeed, it is impossible to reconcile the existence of such a God with the extreme and wanton wickedness of the world: lions eating baby gazelles, plagues wiping out even the most innocent children.

Theologians have been trying for millennia to logically defeat what is often called “the argument from evil"; but it is inconceivable that omniscient omnipotent gods would create an imperfect, savage and torturous world in which their beloved creatures drudge, suffer, agonize, and die.

There is even a name for the sort of argument that has futilely been used to challenge the presence of so much misery and travail: “theodicy.” No theodicy has ever succeeded in overcoming the clear logic: A benevolent god and so much built-in evil cannot coexist.

The only way to overcome the argument from evil is to use faith. Believe, on faith, that there is a good and caring god and that heaven awaits the faithful. A latin name for this ancient strategy is credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd).

And that’s where denial comes in. Intense faith requires that you enter a state of denial which renders you immune to the evidence, immune to rationality, immunity to anything at all, even emotional pleas by those closest to you--anything that challenges your intransigent belief system.

Denial gives you a palladium that protects you from the great and terrible pains of death, accident, disease and so on. But, and here’s the kicker, at what price?

Indeed, that is key: At what price?

I think anyone who has read this far has a pretty good idea of the awful answer. And so I am going to leap impetuously to a related topic, another kind of denial, which shows why we can’t afford denial anymore.

Powerful scientific evidence, many years of it, shows that human activity is changing the Earth in ways dangerous to our lives and the lives of many of our fellow creatures as well. For instance, a study came out recently showing that the ocean’s plankton are seriously diminished, down by as much as a factor of five. The plankton are what give us oxygen. Without them, our lungs starve. This and other scientific experiments reference global warming and show a panoply of devastating hazards that await us.

On top of this, more scientific study shows that we are rapidly heading toward a “bottleneck” in terms of our resources and food supply, as the human population marches toward nine billion or more, political turmoil increases, water supplies dry up, and so on.

What does the Republican leadership of the United States, that big empire, the most powerful and wealthy country in the world, think of all this? They think that scientists across the world are involved in a liberal conspiracy.

That’s it. All the evidence, all the study, all the meticulous scientific methodology of years, even decades, has been eliminated as a threat to their political platform.

What is their basis for the accusation of a global conspiracy? Nada. Well, there is Rush Limbaugh, a demagogic radio show host. And there is also a media conglomerate owned by a billionaire, Rupert Murdoch. And there is half a billion dollars put into propaganda by the oil, electric and coal companies. And so on. You get the picture.

Lesson: helping others maintain their denial is a good way to make a lot of money.

Denial has worked in the evolutionary scheme because it inoculates against the worse kinds of mental anguish. However, it is clearly an inefficient strategy. Witness all the carnage and mayhem from holy wars, genocides, inquisitions and so on.

Today, in our globally linked world, if we destroy ourselves as a species through war or environmental collapse, the ultimate reason will be none other than: the psychological mechanism of denial.

Evolutionary strategies that worked in the past did not take into account the presence of nuclear weapons, or occur on a planet crowded and colonized by a single species of primate.

So the question becomes, how do we deal with denial? As Robert McNamara says, reflecting on the 'fog of war,' but in a way pertinent what I will call the ‘fog of massive swarms of humanity’: “Rationality cannot save us.”

Place a clear, impeccable, undeniable argument, backed by perfect evidence, before a highly intelligent person in denial--

And they deny it.

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