Nobody is directly in touch with reality. Every human digs his or her own ego tunnel through the experiential world.
This is one of the central messages of Thomas Metzinger's fascinating book, "The Ego Tunnel." A blend of philosophy and neuroscience, I finished reading it a few days ago. Liked the book a lot. Haven't been able to blog much about anything else since I started it.
Being a big Stephen Colbert fan, understanding how the ego tunnel works puts a new spin on "truthiness."
Religious beliefs, of course, are truthiness writ large. Dogmas are held to be true because they feel so right, so real, so directly experienced.
Such is the illusion of the ego tunnel.
Metzinger lays bare how evolution has made the processes by which the tunnel is constructed transparent to us, in somewhat the same way as the brain is how we sense reality, but we can't subjectively sense the brain itself (surgeons can operate on it without anesthesia since neurons don't sense pain).
What's new now are the breakthroughs in human understanding of how humans understand. The walls of the ego tunnel are beginning to include scientific pictures of the walls of the ego tunnel.
Our inherent bias toward truthiness is being reflected back upon itself, providing a truer image of reality. Not completely undistorted -- such likely is impossible, ontologically -- but much clearer.
Neuroscience is linking up with philosophy. We're getting intriguing glimpses into what the meaning of human life could be like when it's stripped of egregious religious, metaphysical, mystical, and other-worldly fantasies.
Again, almost certainly we can't ever get down to the bare bedrock of reality. But standing on firm ground is much preferable to wallowing around in the muck of unchallenged truthiness.
Belief, religious or otherwise, is fine. We just need to recognize that beliefs are part of the ego tunnel, as is every sort of experience, and aren't unvarnished truth.
No one gets all that excited over a debate about whether vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate. We recognize that this is a personal preference, a question best left to the arbiter of individual taste buds.
If religious preferences were looked at in the same way, the world would be a lot more accommodating, non-fundamentalist, non-judgmental, and relaxed about the Big Questions of Life.
Wars, real or cultural, aren't fought over what sort of ice cream people like.
The problem, Metzinger points out, is that the neuroscientific workings of the ego tunnel aren't understood by most people -- not even those in "advanced" countries like the United States.
Our science is 21st century. Our everyday experience of the world is still 1st century, by and large.
Meaning, most of us believe, as did most of the ancients, that how we see the world is how the world is. We uncritically accept what appears on the walls of our own ego tunnel as being True, god damn it, and if anyone disagrees with that, well, they're mistaken!
Facing facts can be difficult. Even scary. What if this physical life is all there is? What if God is just an idea in people's brains? What if when we die, that's it? Finito.
I like what Metzinger had to say in his closing pages:
Many fear that through the naturalistic turn in our image of mind, we will lose our dignity. "Dignity" is a term that is notoriously hard to define -- and usually it appears when its proponents have run out of arguments.
However, there is one clear sense, which has to do with respecting oneself and others -- namely the unconditional will to self-knowledge, veracity, and facing the facts. Dignity is the refusal to humiliate oneself by simply looking the other way or escaping to some metaphysical Disneyland.
If we do have something like dignity, we can demonstrate this fact by the way we confront the challenges to come, some of which have been sketched out in this book.
We could face the historical transition in our image of ourselves creatively and with a will to clarity. It is also clear how we could lose our dignity: by clinging to the past, by developing a culture of denial, and by sliding back into the various forms of irrationalism and fundamentalism.
...Unless the interests of others are directly threatened, people ought to be free to explore their own minds and design their own conscious reality-models according to their wishes, needs, and beliefs.
Developing a consciousness culture has nothing to do with establishing a religion or a particular political agenda. On the contrary, a true consciousness culture will always be subversive, by encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own lives.
The current lack of a genuine consciousness culture is a social expression of the fact that the philosophical project of enlightenment has become stuck: What we lack is not faith but knowledge.