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I cannot help imagining René Descartes as a comedian. The surviving portraits show a polymath with a prominent nose and a sly smirk, as if to say “Heard this one?” Picture him as a late-night host on 1600s TV. His guest: Pope Urban VIII. Imagine him needling Urban about why such a hip, intellectual pope had failed to protect Galileo and his theories from the Inquisition.
In fact, these men lived at a time of controversy over what is true and what isn’t. Therefore Descartes set out to lay a philosophical foundation for determining truth. As others had done, he asked: Could you trust what your senses told you? And, as we still do, he concluded: Usually but not always.
You can know with reasonable certainty whether it’s raining. Rain produces a combination of sensory inputs unlike any other. If you see, hear, and feel small pieces of wetness coming from above, across a large area, it’s raining. But wait. Are you sure you are awake? Might you be dreaming the rain, or be somehow deluded?
Picky picky, you may say. To which a rigorous philosopher would say, you haven’t answered the question. Descartes wanted to lay an ironclad foundation, starting from something he could be absolutely sure of. After thinking and thinking, the one something that he could think of was that he, himself, existed: “I think, therefore I am.”
Which became one of history’s great one-liners. But also one much parodied, and much questioned by later thinkers. Including me. The statement always has bugged me, because a key term is left undefined.
What is the “I” in “I think”?
There is no good answer. If you try invoking your “mind” as the part of you that you use for thinking, it takes us down a rabbit hole. This I know to be true: My mind has a mind of its own.
And that’s often a problem, not a joke. My mind displays what I call ineffective autonomy. Take for example the ability to roam through time, via memory and foresight. My mind abuses this feature, trying to redo the past and preparing brilliant arguments against straw men I will never meet. It plays around when I am at work and worries about work at leisure. This mind seems reliable in critical uses — it pays attention to the road when I’m driving — but more than once it has left me sitting at an intersection, waiting for a stop sign to change.
Is there a separate “I,” a sort of control room for the mind, which can be accessed to gain command of thinking? I figure there must be, for two reasons. Sometimes I can exercise the control function, literally willing my mind to think about what “I” want it to. And when I sleep the function shuts down completely. My mind dreams whatever the heck.
Consider the case of a Croatian poet who became controversial during the upheavals in the former Yugoslavia. Living secretly in exile in England, under the protection of MI5, he was nonetheless found and murdered. How did this happen? Had he foolishly blown his cover? Was there a lapse of security; was it an inside job? Bolting from bed I rushed to my computer and started searching the web. I found two Croatian writers who were assassinated, one gruesomely, but neither matched the name and circumstances I was looking for.
Only after almost an hour’s search did I give up and go back to sleep. And here was the confounding aspect: All through that session at the computer, I was perfectly aware of having dreamed the murder. Yet the eyewitness views of the crime scene inside an imagined English cottage, along with news reports about the life and work of the nonexistent dead poet, were so compelling that I believed I’d been given dream-insights into something that actually happened.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols,” a young man suffers from a mental disorder called referential mania. Per Nabokov:
In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. … Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. … Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. All around him, there are spies …
Although Nabokov’s fictional character had an extreme case, self-referential delusions are not rare. They have been linked to some common diagnoses, including paranoid schizophrenia. I knew one person, a man in his 30s, who turned his apartment into a fortress. The windows were covered with aluminum foil to defeat surveillance. When I visited, conversation was difficult, with the stereo playing at high volume to scramble any listening devices. Various government agencies, a crime syndicate, and unnamed others all were out to get him because he knew too much.
Luckily the man has now recovered. He no longer has such severe episodes, and neither do I.
My college degree was in engineering. My first job, years ago, was at a defense contracting firm. We designed navigation systems for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines, and I worked in a big office where security was tight. Navy reps in uniform roamed between the rows of desks. Every wastebasket had a locked lid with a slot to slip the papers through. There were video cameras in the restrooms, and although I was doing menial entry-level work I needed a “Secret” clearance, the grade between Confidential and Top Secret. The janitor who emptied the trash probably needed a Top Secret.
Nuclear submarines are formidable. Each boat (and there are plenty) carries a battery of long-range missiles carrying nuclear warheads, and each warhead is a time machine from Hell: capable of moving vast numbers of people from present to past tense in a flash. It makes sense to be concerned about this. It makes no sense to do what my mind did, back then.
Picture a map of the New York City area. Long Island is very long, stretching over 100 miles east from the entry to New York harbor. Our office was in a suburb lying partway out, and I had rented an apartment in Queens, closer to Manhattan. Everyone knew that if mutual deterrence should ever fail, Manhattan would be the bulls-eye of a target for Russian nukes. My mind—which, perhaps, put this fact together with my role in the deterrence industry—decided that atomic retribution was coming my way soon, and that it would come at night, to catch me in my sleep.
And so my mind refused to sleep. Night after night it dragged me out of the little garden apartment into my little car. And night after night I drove and drove. Out to the far reaches of the Island, crisscrossing lonely flat stretches under eerie dark sky. Relaxing only once the odometer showed I was beyond the estimated zone of instant death, and stopping only for an all-night diner or a walk in the dark. Pre-dawn light was the signal that it was OK to head home.
Sleep deprivation became the drug that got me through days at the office, in a trance. Outside the office in glaring daylight, everything felt intolerably inane—the strip malls, the fast food hamburgers, the stupid music on the car radio—and inanity in the face of the apocalypse is terrifying in itself. I quit the job. Moved far from New York. My mind said the bomb wouldn’t follow me. And that was the end of that, for a while.
A few years later I had a happy new life. I was starting a new career that suited me better than engineering; had new friends and exciting new things to do. Then one night the night fear came back. An odd thumping and scraping at the apartment door, followed by silence. My mind weighed two possibilities: a confused person trying to enter the wrong unit, or an intruder trying to get me. It chose the second.
For months after that, I was on night watch. Spending hours at a third-floor window, smoking cigarettes and surveilling the empty streets below. Sometimes I’d putter with chores around the place, but I had to stay silent, keeping ears strained for the slightest sound of a malefactor sneaking in or already inside.
The drill was exhausting. Eventually, the need for it faded away. It might have stopped sooner if my mind hadn’t refused to seek therapy. But that’s the insidious part of paranoia. When you believe danger lurks, the solution is not to stop thinking about it. It’s to be vigilant.
In 1980, The New Yorker published a long essay by the writer George W.S. Trow. The essay, titled “Within the Context of No Context,” argued that our entire society was becoming inanely “childish”—that we were losing our sense of history, our sense of proportion, our capacity for judgment. One passage:
Television is a mystery. Certain of its properties are known, though. It has a scale. The scale does not vary. The trivial is raised up to the place where this scale has its home; the powerful is lowered there. … [Again later]: The trivial is raised up to power in it. The powerful is lowered toward the trivial … It is bewitching.
That was 1980. By now, the bewitchingness has metastasized. In our household we have a television screen plus several more screens, for accessing the internet, and what an access it is. Many people complain about the addictive effects of the screens we carry in our pockets—the screens that follow us—but I can keep that one under control. The screen that reels me in is the big wide screen on my desktop.
In a way, this big screen is delightfully magical because I can “input” my thoughts to it. Right now these words are flowing out of my mind into the screen, which is able to connect to the wee private screen on your phone. You can read my mind surreptitiously at the symphony instead of falling asleep there as many people do.
The trouble is that this magic turns into a tyrant, like the warlords who are always trying to gobble up more real estate. The screen gobbles up my mind’s reality. It creates the delusion that life is in the screen, not where I am, and the delusion is seductive. At any moment, the screen can offer an infinitely more varied assortment of stuff than what is really around me.
Also present is the collapsing of proportion that George Trow saw in TV, which reinforces a bad habit my mind has to begin with. It spends more time thinking about which Macbook to buy next than what my next steps in life should be. It worries equally about climate change and the right pants to wear to the theater.
Worse, the screen is a place where delusion meets deception, and together they propagate. According to a study published in the journal Science in 2018, “Lies spread faster than the truth” in social media. Analyzing digital traffic over a multi-year period, the research team also reported that “False news reached more people than the truth,” by a huge margin—perhaps because “false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information.”
Novel information is seductive, too. Even if it’s false, the lure is there. You think you are discovering something that most people fail to see. This makes you right about matters they’ve gotten all wrong; it makes you special. Connect with others who have special insights, and now you’re a righteous army. The phenomenon has spread to such an extent that it feels as if our society is sliding back to 1633. Galileo says the Earth revolves around the Sun, but what do those experts know? Look at this!
There are people who intentionally spread so-called big lies: climate change is a hoax, the election was stolen, etc. These professional liars are part of the problem but they’re just the supply side. Lies only work if they are believed, and the big ones have lots of believers despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. The fundamental problem is a mind problem. And I wish I could wrap up my little memoir of madness by pointing to a solution. All I can leave you with are a few observations, for what they’re worth.
Dealing with other people’s delusions is very difficult. Things that usually don’t help include logic, argumentation, and writing off the other guy as an asshole. In my view the situation needs a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, people who believe big lies can pose a danger, and when they do, effective countermeasures are needed. (Outvoting them is effective, which is why they don’t like it.) On the other hand we have the Christian ideal, calling us to love our fellow human creatures without exception. The present time strikes me as a fine time to give it a try regardless of one’s religion or lack thereof.
None of us goes nutty randomly. Each person’s mind adopts the delusions and distortions that fit with its ways of thinking. My mind has a guilty conscience, and I suspect that my long-ago night fears were driven by guilt. Guilt over my role in the war industry, and then later, the guilt of thinking I didn’t deserve to have it so good. I also suspect the nutty behaviors went away simply because my mind grew tired of them. Driving around or standing watch all night gets monotonous. My mind moved on to other methods of handling guilt, which were neurotic and harmful but at least not so boring.
Today’s mass delusions will not go away easily. They are tied both to how people think and to how people live. If you are invested in your way of life and climate science says you’ll need to change it, climate science is baloney.
Is there hope for finding common ground? I think a slight chance exists, if some of us across the spectrum can recognize that we have a common enemy, and can then seed a movement to get out from its clutches. The common enemy lives in the screens and elsewhere, too, hounding our minds. Call it delusion or maybe distraction: the distraction that has a thousand faces. Many of the faces are images and reports of events happening all over the world, far from our reach. Many others are fictional creations or staged events meant to entertain us, and still others shout for urgent attention. Some of this stuff really does affect us and does need attending to. Some of it is just fun, if only fun by proxy, and okay, that’s cool. But the “enemy” aspect is the sheer scope of all of it—raining on every inch of the mind’s territory, as far as anybody’s mind can think. If we let it. And typically we do, because it’s like a hidden tax. It’s the tax we pay on the tremendous amount of cumulative human knowledge and can-do that has accumulated since the time when Descartes sat thinking in his study, by candlelight—much of which benefits us today, of course. But then there’s this mental tax. The delusion is that we have to keep on paying it. And as we do, it distracts us from an important question.
Why are we here?
Or to put it in the form that knocks directly on each mind’s door: Why am I here? This is a question that can’t be delegated to experts, whether they are at MIT or in a pulpit. It is a question that demands a choice. And that keeps demanding choices to be made, by each of us and also collectively, for the long term and also at each moment.
I would hope we can do so as humanely and lovingly as possible. But that’s a tall order—one I struggle to follow in my own affairs, given my unruly mind and imperfect control of it. So my choice is to stop now and send along these words. Your move.
Copyright 2022 Mike Vargo
Mike Vargo is a freelance writer, editor, and performer based in Pittsburgh.
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I think Descartes thought in French (je pense donc je suis), where the pronouns are expressed and the verbs are parallel, rather than in Latin (cogito ergo sum). I suppose “thinking, therefore a thinker” would work, but it wouldn’t be so obvious.
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Thanks, Arlene! I need to think about Descartes assertion more, I think.
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