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Oct 2011

The Unhappy Truth

In life, there is truth and there is truthiness. These should be considered entirely different qualities just like dirt and dirtiness. Dirt is where we grow our food. When something is dirty it means we don’t want it anywhere near our food. Unfortunately, many people do not make this distinction. There is an assumption that truth should feel good because truthy ideas feel comfortable when you think them.  The truth should feel right. The truth shouldn’t hurt like a miss-sized shoe. It is a practice of upholsterological thinking.  

A real pursuit of truth means pursuing knowledge that correlates perfectly with everything in your environment. When the truth is known, your thoughts are an accurate description of reality even if in some cases that description does not correspond to the truthiness that your comfort-level depends on. That whole solar system business is a good example. Our minds can deduce the truth that the sun is fixed and day and night come from the turning of the earth. So what? The plain perception of a moving sun that rises and sets grants us a useful truthiness. 

That makes it tempting to describe truthiness as visceral truth or truth that shines in your eyes or makes a feeling in your gut. Truthiness is not a casual version of the truth. It is something completely different doing a completely different job. It is fulfilling a desire to know how to survive in our environment. 

As animals, the truth is not what we need our perception for. If all animals sought the truth, they would all die. Seeking truth is not a survival skill. All we have ever asked of our perception is truthiness. Are we satisfied with what we have concluded about what we are perceiving? Do we feel comfortable with it? If the truthiness pans out, (we eat, we score, we live) we will consider the truthiness as a pre-conclusion about what we perceive next. It will serve as a bias or emotional predilection to jump to that conclusion again when even the slightest association is perceived. This could provide a useful survival skill for a life on the food chain. 

It works like this: 

“On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever”

Think about that. Then stop, count to 1, and… there! Notice that little happy wave that just passed through you that makes kittens shoot out of your ears. I mean actual pleasure sparks in your brain and nervous system. Your body is rewarding you for thinking a truthy thought. Your body will not reward you for thinking the truth.

Truthiness does not depend on its content. It’s all about the happy wave. Try this- “Blessed are the meek.”… one… there. Feel it? Now try this- “Human’s descended from simple life forms after millions of years of evolutionary change”… one… two… three…. Nothing. No happy wave. The statement has no truthiness. Whether the statement is true or false is not something your happiness is going to tell you. You don’t have to like the truth and it doesn’t have to feel good. To consider or perceive the truth is an unnatural thing to do.

This would be a good time to recount the history of truth but the truth is it doesn’t really have one. Not compared to truthiness, which is as old as life itself. Truthiness long preceded the truth in our brains. 

To see the history of truthiness, we must try to see through the light-sensitive membranes of our ancestors.

Please, no letters. I’m a licensed anthropomorphologist.

Let’s imagine ourselves as a very simple animal that lives in a pond. We like to eat our even simpler neighbors but the trick is finding them. Our chemical lures haven’t worked in generations. The little buggers adapted, so we are the pioneers of a new strategy. We’re going to lay low below the surface and wait for things to pass between us and the daylight, and then we will lunge at them. We’re sure the little buggers are not prepared for our fairly recent lunging ability that was, to our great-grandfathers, just a bowel spasm.

So, how do we know when to lunge? When we feel the shadows of the little buggers pass over us with our light-sensitive upper membranes. How do we know it’s them? The speed of passing should be unique, as should the duration of the shadow, which might indicate its size. Careful experimentation and a studious examination of hours of observations should lead us to a reasonable conclusion about when to lunge at the little buggers. Now for the tricky part. We don’t have a brain, so we will have to find another way.

Back in the old days, intelligence was something that happened at the genetic level. It was a crude binary process with life as ones and death as zeroes. Nobody had to be told what to do. Scads of us would randomly pick a shadow-passing-time as a lunging cue. In just a few days, those of us who had eaten enough to stay alive would “know” what the correct shadow size was. Everyone who picked a shadow time that approximated the little buggers’ shadow time just enough to exclude all the other passers-by were all successful bugger eaters. The exploration of sight ceased when our tummies stopped growling.

Let’s jump ahead millions of generations to some snail-like creatures inhabiting the same pond. The good news is we have a brain. On the down side, it is only a primitive  processor. We have, protruding out of our soft foreheads, two extended EYEBALLS that can pivot and bend. Each one reports to an identical “lobe” that then reports to a single smaller basic brain to link up to muscular movement so we can throw our sticky tongues at the little buggers. Our central brain is that tiny noodle at the end of what we laughingly call our spine.

Inside our soft gooey heads, our two lobes are independently learning our first lessons in perspective geometry. Contrast changes over a field of light receptors now record changing shadow times and sizes that might indicate objects receding or approaching. Success was rewarded with the only reward life had to offer- more life. But that is not quite the truth.

What if one’s appetite were sated? We might think of hunger as a sort of pain now, but to Great-Uncle Gooey, it was a motivation… a motive force… a basic emotion of unhappiness reporting a need that is unsatisfied. But if we are lucky enough to be fully fed, how does our tummy spread its happiness? First, by telling micro-brain to stop eating. The motivation to eat has been satisfied. The suffering is over. Secretions block the processing process, stress is relieved, heat-generation is reduced and we enjoy our primitive state of happiness.

Upstairs in EYEBALL control, our twin lobes don’t just go dormant when the hunt is over. There are other EYEBALLS out there, and someone’s hunt is never over. If one of our twin guardians happens to spot a threat from a bigger bugger, a defensive strategy can be triggered that interrupts happiness. If a little bugger is spotted, the tongue-lunging response will be unnecessary and suppressed by happiness.

Jump ahead a few more millions of generations. The unsightly wobbling EYEBALLS have been updated to a forehead-loaded stereoscopic dual-tracking format that re-combined our two lobes into a single wide-view cinema processor. Synchronized EYEBALL movements allow the tiny differences in their two perspectives to reveal depth information. That seems simple enough. We can imagine how the angles could be worked out, speed could be related to position and size could relate to distance. But we are far too stupid to do any of that yet.

Genetics is still working out the big choices by trying everything and letting death reveal the threshold of wrong. Everyone lucky enough to be within the threshold of right is rewarded with happiness. That now includes our visual perception lobes as well. Sighting the little buggers releases an excitement juice that puts our vision in high gear as we give chase. The little buggers are clever and switch course and dart about. This means that we will have to often dart our EYEBALLS into a new position and start the tracking again and again. So at any given instant, we don’t want to spend too much time tracking in too much detail or precision because we might need to dart again before we get a conclusion. A balance must be determined between detail and refresh rate that hits the sweet spot and feeds the tummy and starts the happiness chain-reaction. Death claimed the unhappy.

By now, our EYEBALLS and the lobes behind them were complex systems. A balancing of various visual parameters and brain limitations required an economy of sight. We did not need to see with precision. We would not have known it was precise even if we did. We processed sight to the point of satisfaction- of happiness –and moved on to the next next moment of sight.

That point of satisfaction is still quite satisfying. Try standing somewhere with a view that a statistically significant percentage of people report as “magnificent”. Stand there as long as you like and soak it in. Do you feel precise or happy?

We are easily fooled by many optical illusions. This demonstrates that we are not precise in our conclusions and will instead quickly come to a satisfying conclusion only. That’s because our genetic overlord (evolution) controlled us with happiness like a bunch of lab-rats. Things would soon change. Our optical lookout post had developed into a whole upstairs aware-space with a capacity to add visual memory playback to its perception. This was a limited RAM space that allowed us to perceive options and make rudimentary choices. Incoming visual images could be compared to previous visual images and those old images could be compared to each other. Choices were made based on the greatest anticipated happiness. Both the sighting and the choosing were done the same way- to the point of satisfaction.

To make that work, some kind of protocol had to be established between the upstairs vision processes and the old muscle-driving noodle brain. It was established that a certain level of visual quality would be reached, then the brakes would be put on the processing, the vision would be delivered and the process would restart for the next frame. The brakes would be applied by telling the vision centers that we are satisfied or happy with what we see and please move on. We can’t see forever even on a clear day. The brakes came in the form of happy juice.

Eventually, the vision center established its own continuous frame rate and the Cinema View was born. That left our noodle brain out in the subconscious.

The new Cinema View was based on satisfaction and happiness and that would have profound consequences for our next new trick. Our ability to see several previous visions at once would come to be known as thinking. Even with new visual input removed, the perceptual processes can carry on internally and slowly cycle perceptions into ideas. Soon, our EYEBALLS were being told to shut up because our perceptual machinery was too busy thinking about our ideas to take in fresh input. That left our magnificent, beauty-sucking EYEBALLS with nothing to do but stare at something feature-less and boring while our brains were busy feeling satisfied about ideas.

For millions of years, happiness has been the meaning of accuracy. We’ve never known another way to see, learn or think. You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth. Then, humans developed narrative perception to take on the handling. At first, we stuck with truthiness. 

Not terribly long ago, we began to create a narrative for ourselves. It would contain a satisfying “way of things”. When we saw things around us corresponding to this “way of things”, we would feel happy and satisfied. Seeing other people who did not correspond to this “way of things” made us unhappy and dis-satisfied. Even if we didn’t want their stuff, it would still bother us so much and make us so unhappy that we would still go beat the shit out of them just to make them see things our way. That makes us happy. We want everyone to be happy… but only with our happiness and not theirs. Isn’t our happiness happy enough for anyone? How could anyone else’s happiness possibly be as happy as ours?

The challenge was, how do we find an idea that explains all this that we can feel happy about, I mean, be satisfied with? Are there two kinds of happiness? Our kind, and some other kind? Yes. Other narratives are Evil, and Evil can make you happy. Very, very happy. Sometimes, plainly happier than us. Rather than envy their Evil Ways, we would be warned about how unhappy their afterlife would be and assured of how exquisitely happy ours would be. We were satisfied, I mean happy, with that answer.

Thousands of years of fighting over who got to make who happy eventually led to an amazing discovery. There were ideas one could have that could not change no matter whose narrative included them. Often, these ideas would be unsatisfying and rejected. The few that could see past their initial unhappiness found that little narrative sequences of events called “experiments” could reveal perceptually consistent if emotionally bland results that implied that the cosmos pursued a happiness all its own. The cosmos was much bigger than us so we figured its happiness much be greater than our own. So, some of us began the search to find what made the cosmos happy figuring it might make us happier than anything we could think up. We called it Science- The Narrative that makes the Universe happy.

Science made those who held to the existing Big Narratives nervous and unhappy. So unhappy in some cases, that the sad victims would set fire to anything with Cosmic Happiness in it- books, buildings, people… as if it were just another Evil Happy Narrative that belonged to another tribe of foreigners.

Slowly over time, it became clear that we could be even happier if we made the universe happy first. When we made the universe happy, we could pump water out of mines, span chasms with bridges, and make weapons that will make short work of all the little buggers.

Eventually, some smart guys realized that steam did not expand because it made the cosmos happy. We weren’t looking at things to be satisfying in their happiness but in their accuracy. This much wood would heat this much steam which would do this much work. It worked because it was an accurate description of the universe. And happiness did not reveal it. It became known as the unhappy truth.

Great Leader and the Big Narrative stuck to the happy truth even while relying more and more on the unhappy truth to feed and defend his happy people and kill other happy people.

Today, we see truthiness battling the truth everywhere. Truthiness defends itself as “common sense” and knowledge that feels right in your gut. As if complex political solutions are something our tummies should know. One tummy grumble for yes and two for no. Granted, truthiness is not without some degree of accuracy honed by millions of generations who stayed alive. But after all that we modern generations have seen, do we want to hold to what truth makes Great Leader happy, or the truth that makes our description of the universe more accurate and then makes us happy? Hot tacos in winter happy.

It is a fact that being accurate and then being happy does leave a hole or gap in our happiness. It means stepping across an empty and unfeeling abyss of uncertainty that can make one’s tummy queasy. For some, any gap in happiness at all is frightening and unthinkable. The trouble is, scientific truth has armed us with technology that allows determinedly happy people to kill other happy people in frightening and unthinkable ways.

Those of us who have stepped across the abyss must urge others to make the same journey. It won’t be enough to lure everyone with just the truth. They must be assured, emotionally, that they will find a truth from which they can draw upon a truthiness that is happier than any they have ever known. It would make our slimy little ancestors proud. It all depends on whether our genetic overlord has yet put enough stiffness in what we laughingly call our spine. 


next up- I can see you…