The Reality Distortion Field and the Empathy Cliff

My theme over the past several posts has been how we decieve ourselves:  Reality Enhancement, the Filter, and Inner Collapse.  To complete the series, I turn to the most extreme form of self-deception, the Reality Distortion Field.

The phrase was coined by one of Steve Jobs’ employees to describe how Jobs would simply will the facts to be other than they were, and will it so powerfully that others around him would see as he did, to such a degree that often the facts fell into line with Jobs’ willful perception of them.  Although a more apt term has never been found to describe it, the phenomenon is not unique to Jobs:  a person so strongly wills something to be true that (a) he actually sees the facts to be other than they are, and (b) those around him fall into line with his vision, and (c) this group delusion often overcomes the very facts themselves.

None of the other forms of self-deception actually do violence to the facts, warping into the opposite of the truth.  And while the other forms are common, almost universal, the RDF is rare:  few are so inwardly wilful, so self-centered, as to lie to themselves convincingly.

If step (a) were the whole picture, then RDF would be interesting only to psychologists, but step (b) is fascinating for anyone:  how does anyone acquire Jedi-like powers of mind control to cause others actually to see the clothes on the emperor?  Could such power be used for good?  What’s more, since an RDF acts on everyone around it, any one of us could accidentally wander into one.

The key to (b) seems to be the fact that all communication requires at least a bit of empathy.  Simply to understand a sentence, one has to reconstruct the sentence in one’s head and try for a moment to think what the speaker was thinking, to get inside of his head.  Normally we are able to run a kind of virtual mind inside of our own, rather as a computer can run a virtual operating system within the main operating system, and we keep the speaker’s thoughts separate enough from our own to avoid confusion.  But two things can short-circuit the separation.

The first is what I’ll call the Empathy Cliff.  Besides the simple fact of what someone says, he communicates his confidence and conviction by his phrasing, tone, expression, body language, time, and all the rest of the cues that go into personal communication.  As we recreate his thought inside our own head, we incorporate his conviction as part of the reconstruction.  If his conviction comes across as unlimited, as utter and without qualification, it becomes nearly impossible to reconstruct the thought in our heads as a tidily contained simulation separate from our own thoughts.  The reconstruction bursts its bounds, runs into our own thoughts, and we find ourselves thinking in line with him.  It’s as though the depth of his conviction creates a sheer cliff for our empathy to fall over.

This comes out in weird ways when someone is convinced of an absurdity:  a madman utterly convinced that an invisible monster is in the room right now can freak out the sane folks around him as it becomes difficult to stay in the real world while he’s talking.

But it’s not always a bad thing:  a man can gain so clear an insight into a truth that he takes on this magnetic effect by legitimate conviction.  Whereas we soon shake off the madman’s ravings as a bad dream, the sustained and consistent communications of one who has the truth can realign our vision such that we actually see the truth for ourselves in a stable way.  If his conviction has to do not some minor detail in life but an encompassing vision that is bigger than himself and bigger than his listeners, then he takes on the charisma of a John Paul II and changes the world for the better.  (Thanks for Jonathan Rensch’s senior oration for some the details in this last paragraph.)

I mentioned that the mental separation between our own thoughts and the thoughts of the speaker can be short-circuited in a second way as well—but it has nothing to do with the RDF, so I’ll leave it for another post.

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Interior Collapse

By now, my readers—if readers there be—must be wondering:  what do Reality Enhancement and the Filter have to do with the subtitle of this blog, “the story of a Catholic marriage”?

Everything, really.

Nowhere does RE come more into play then in our dealings with other people.  A facial expression, a gesture, a tone of voice—like the scattered gleams of light in a dark but familiar room, these minute cues are “enhanced” to offer a complete view of a spouse or friend’s moods and motives.  This interpretation, which we do not even realize is an interpretation, then acts as a theory to drive the Filter, further and further confirming our “understanding” of the situation.

The only way out is to realize that this person is a mystery, much less known to us than we assume.  Over time, with a spouse or very close friend, one gains enough experience to know that this frown does not really mean displeasure, or that grin is not meant to mock.  But rarely do we generalize this experience to say of those we don’t know as well:  This expression may not mean what I take it to mean; this person is more mysterious to me than my first reaction admits.

But before we can take the one way out, we have to want to get out.  And that brings us to our next means of self deception:  the Interior Collapse.

The inner man, taken broadly in contrast to the outer, visible-to-others man, includes many layers of higher and lower:  sensation is somewhat inner, but above that is memory and imagination, and above that is reason and understanding using the imagination as a tool, and even above that is the understanding not engaged with the imagination—one could probably divide the inner man even further, but the point here is simply that there are layers.  When we are young, however, we are only aware of the basic distinction between inner and outer:  the “I” that others see and the “I” known to me alone.  Scripture speaks this way of the “heart,” the whole inner man taken without differentiation.

Part of growing up is learning to distinguish the layers within ourselves.  Kids think that whatever they feel like is what they want; at some point, they desire something powerfully but do not will to do it, or find our will overcome by desire, and they realize that desire is not the same thing as will.  As young adults, they fall into a more subtle trap, confusing the emotion of sadness with not willing something any more; with luck, they commit to something so strongly that they fight through their emotions to persevere, and so realize that emotion is neither desire nor will.

Most people take the first step; many take the second; but the further step of distinguishing the imagination from reason is rare indeed.  The experiences that distinguish desire and emotion from will happen to most people because they are sufferings imposed on us from the outside, but the interior experiences that would separate picturing from thinking are not imposed—they have to be pursued.  Classical philosophy can do it, as can advanced theology; the dark night of the soul will turn the trick as well.

So the general failure to distinguish layers within the inner man, which I call Interior Collapse, is a kind of immaturity.  Unlike RE or the Filter, it does not seem to have a good side.  Failure to distinguish emotion from will means that when we are upset at someone, we can’t pull back and realize that we actually want to solve the problem constructively.  Failure to distinguish imagination from reason—well, that’s a whole ‘nuther post!

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The Filter

Last time, I wrote about Reality Enhancement, that impulse by which we endow whatever we see with more being and intelligibility than it has on its own.  And I argued that this is on the whole a good impulse:  imagine standing in a dark room with only three glints of light as guide, with no ability to “reconstitute” the scene.

Now I want to describe RE’s first offspring, the Filter.  The same impulse that leads us to seek clarity and intelligibility in the world leads us, when we have formed a theory of any kind, to look for whatever might fit with that theory.  One form of this is the infamous “Confirmation Bias,” namely the tendency to notice things that fit with our theories and overlook things that don’t, to ask “What fits with my theory?” instead of asking “What doesn’t fit with my theory?”  But the Filter has an even more subtle form:  for each datum that goes by, we ask, “Does this fit my theory or not?”—and therein lies the trap.  We notice when evidence fits or doesn’t fit the theory, but we don’t notice when the evidence would fit another theory just as well.

As a result, when a person holds a theory for a long time then he may see thousands and thousands of pieces of evidence that fit with his theory, and his confidence in his theory grows beyond all bounds, but he does not realize that all but a few of those evidences would fit another theory just as well.  He says things like, “It’s hard to put into words, but after years of studying this subject I am just completely confident that this is true.”

Both the Filter and its more dangerous cousin, Confirmation Bias, can be in part overcome if we consciously promote the habit of asking whether the evidence in front of us could support a different idea.  One can reach a point where the moment one thinks, “Here’s a theory,” the next moment one asks, “What other theory would the evidence support?”  This is crucial for the intellectual life.

But in the end the Filter cannot be entirely overcome, because much of the time we are not aware that we have formed a theory or that we are testing it.  The “theory” itself is often an intuitive reconstruction springing from Reality Enhancement, and the same impulse that caused us to clarify reality by connecting a few dots now causes us to be on the lookout for whatever fits with the resulting picture.  The whole thing happens without our being aware of us, and we can no more get rid of it than we can train ourselves out of Reality Enhancement itself.

Which means that the Filter itself is not all bad.  It is a natural extension of Reality Enhancement, which is on the whole a good thing.  While RE actually changes our incoming perceptions, the Filter selects which perceptions or which aspects of those perceptions we will attend to, but both are born of the basic human impulse towards being and light.  And who wants to destroy that?

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The Reality Enhancement Factor

Once in a while, some random messenger from heaven gives to us the gift to see as we really see.  A strong expectation is overthrown, or a prediction turns out false, or a long-held view finally breaks down under objections, and for a moment the mind’s eye focuses enough to see—a blur.

Because that’s what we actually see most of the time.  Human persons—friends, family, enemies, whatever–are the most vivid realities around us, and yet every sage who ever was said that to know oneself is the work of a lifetime, so of course our actual understanding of other people—whose thoughts we don’t think, whose feelings we don’t feel—is an even slower project.  Despite a high school grasp of science, most of us interpret the world through physical theories half a century outdated, and even the scientists at the front of their fields grasp their own theories by way of metaphors—space bends, or is made up of strings, or other phrases that have no literal meaning—and fully expect their own ideas to be outdated eventually.  We go forward in life like backpackers in a fog-shrouded valley, working by the feel of the ground, dim impressions of trees overhead, and the general direction of the light.

To see the blur as blur all the time would not only drive us crazy but nearly immobilize us.  Focused on the blurriness of the blur, we would be afraid to act and would probably underestimate how much we really know:  it is too difficult to stay exactly balanced all the time, so if we did not overestimate what we know then we would underestimate it.  Mercifully, therefore, God has made us such that we fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

For example, if I enter a dark room in which in reality I see only a few stray gleams of light, my familiarity with the room combines with my imagination to generate a view of the walls and the furniture and so on as though I really saw it all.  If someone moves the furniture or puts the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the room, my familiarity with what should be in the room combines with my imagination to generate a clear view of a witch or a goblin—again, as though I really saw it!

The same thing happens in personal relations.  What we actually know of a person are a few outward actions and a few words, all of which admit of many interpretations.  But our imagination of what it would be like of we did and said those things combines with our general view of that person to generate a view of their motives and beliefs seemingly even clearer than our vision of the goblin in the dark room.

The same thing again happens in the most intellectual pursuits.  Any time I think about something that has very little being in itself, such as prime matter or electrons, I endow it with more being than it has:  prime matter surreptitiously becomes a bland, grey stuff; atoms and electrons become balls with smaller balls moving in circular orbits about them.  Being is light to the mind, and just as the imagination fills out the gaps in a dark room, so the mind fills out the gaps in being.

Taken all together, this Reality Enhancement Factor transforms the blur of our lives into a clear, sunlit meadow at noon.  It’s a blessing:  our creative guesses are in fact true enough often enough that they can be taken as at least one artist’s rendering of the truth, and in the meantime we don’t slip into the fallacy of skepticism.  But it’s also a curse:  if we truly believe our sight to be as clear as it feels most of the time, then we stubbornly cling to our unjust perceptions of a person, or we refuse honestly to consider plain evidence against our theories and dismiss as stupid or dishonest everyone who disagrees.  Recognizing the REF is crucial.  Humility without skepticism is a mark of the educated man.

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