Chapter 23

Fantasy Has Become Reality

 

In his book Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen has made a very strong case for his theory that a significant portion of the present population has a perception of reality, a neuroreality, that is simply not true, that we are now in Fantasyland, as he states and quotes on page 416 and 417:

This book had been under way for a couple of years when the 2016 presidential campaign began. The fact that Fantasyland candidates were the consistent front-runners for the Republican nomination (Donald Trump and Ben

Carson at first, then Trump and Ted Cruz) was surprising and appalling but also, I have to admit, a little gratifying to me - empirical proof of my theory as it applies to politics. The day after the Republicans' second primary debate in 2015, at the Reagan Library, before the debates became completely cartoonish, a shocked New York times editorial called it

a collection of assertions so untrue, so bizarre, that they form a vision as surreal as the Ronald Reagan jet looming behind the candidates' lecterns.

It felt at times as if the speakers were no longer living in a fact-based world where actions have consequences, programs take money and money has to come from somewhere. Where basic laws - like physics and the Constitution - constrain wishes. Where Congress and the public, allies and enemies, markets and militaries don't just do what you want them to, just because you say they will.

I read that and said out loud, "Welcome to Fantasyland." After his election, another Times editorial granted that Trump understood at least one thing better than almost everybody," that the "breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts represented not a hazard, but an opportunity."

Recall these quotes from page 414:

"For years, as a conservative radio talk show host," Charlie Sykes wrote in early 2017, "l played a role in that conditioning by hammering the mainstream media for its bias and double standards. But the price turned out to be far higher than I imagined. The cumulative effect of the attacks was to . . . destroy much of the right's immunity to false information." The conservative talk-radio host John Ziegler made a similar confession in 2016: "We’ve effectively brain-washed the core of our audience. And now it's gone too far. Because the gatekeepers have lost all credibility in the minds of consumers, I don't see how you reverse it."

 

I would like to add to Andersen’s Fantasyland theory that fantasy has become reality to a significant portion of the US population as he has applied it to the settlement of the New world over the last 500 years, to human evolution over the last 4 million years. Let’s review earlier statements.


Neuroreality

Remember the 100 billion neurons in your brain create your global consciousness, your neuroreality. Let’s consider human evolution, brain function, cognitive bias, confirmation bias, argumentative theory and the tribal and warrior ethos as they may relate to neuroreality. As earlier mentioned, we evolved over the past 4 million years from Australopithecus, to Homo habilis, to Homo erectus, to Homo sapiens. Note that during these 4 million years there were other closely related human species, the most recent of which were the Neanderthals that went extinct only about 40,000 years ago.


In an extraordinarily complex world with and infinite number of stimuli and social circumstances that can surround an individual, perhaps it was beneficial to have a cognitive bias. Rather than analyze an infinite number of stimuli and social circumstances, the brain takes a short cut and has cognitive biases that allow the individual to make quick decisions and survive in his environment.  A cognitive bias might also explain an inherent fear of the unknown. If a lone Australopithecus heard some rumblings in the brush, he would probably run and seek protection in a large group. If the sound was made by a large predator like a lion, that cognitive bias resulted in the individual not being killed by a predator. If the sound was made by anon-predator like an antelope, the individual didn’t have to leave for protection.  But when in such a situation, if many individuals did not seek protection in a large group, chances are good a number of them would be killed by a predator, which would then lessen the chances of that species surviving. So evolution for the species genetically selected the cognitive bias short cut.  Fear of the unknown may be the result of confirmation bias.  If there was a tribe of 50 Homo habili that peered over a ridge and saw a group of 50 Homo rudolfensi that they had never encountered before, what should they do? Should all 50 Homo habili meander over the ridge unarmed and introduce themselves, should they just ignore the Homo rudolfensi and go on their way, whould they scout the group and then decide to surprise attack, should they send a group of armed individuals to introduce themselves and their tribe. The best answer to this question is not known, but for survival of the Homo habili, walking up unarmed or ignoring the other group altogether could result in their annihilation. So a fear of the unknown could be a tribal instinct that is itself a cognitive bias that has been genetically selected and helped the survival of our species and the extinction of others. And in this scenario, Homo habilis may have started projecting their cognitive biases forward in making a decision as to what to do upon encountering that unknown Homo rudolfensi tribe. Did they scout the village from afar and see evidence of their cognitive bias, their fear of the unknown?  This could then be a confirmation bias, which could very well influence their decision as to what to do and impact the survival of our species and the extinction of others 

 

Once the developing human brain had these cognitive biases as a means of survival, the next step as mentioned above would be to apply this bias in a forward manner in social context.  Once you have your cognitive biases in place, in new situations you look for confirmations of these biases. Recall Francis Bacon’s observation of confirmation bias back in 1620:

"The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate. . . . And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by.”

 

Let’s review Argumentative Theory. Argumentative Theory is a concept proposed by Mercier and Sperber in, Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory: "Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Argumentative theory claims that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. Skilled arguers are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion."

So the Argumentative Theory as stated above explains the genetically selected human confirmation bias. So a more expanded explanation of human brain development may be that the genetically selected and neurologically wired cognitive biases resulted in the development of confirmation biases that explain the thought processes described in the Argumentative Theory.

This confirmation bias as described earlier in Homo habilis could have then lead to the tribal ethos and the Argumentative Theory in Homo erectus as described above, with which Homo erectus migrated out of Africa 2 million years ago and settled all over the world in more complex tribes and villages.  Meanwhile Homo sapiens in Africa may have genetically evolved from Homo erectus still in Africa and developed the warrior ethos as described in Chapter 13 that lead them out of Africa 70,000 years ago to dominate the world.

In the extraordinarily complex society of today, the instinctive cognitive bias, the resulting confirmation bias, that generated the argumentative theory and the tribal ethos, that then lead by extension to the warrior ethos, may all very well be present in the 100 billion neurons in your brain helping to generate one’s perception of reality, one’s neuroreality. And as proposed by Andersen in Fantasyland, that neuroreality may not reflect true reality. It’s in our genes. Our perception of reality, our neuroreality, has been in our genes since the advent of Australopithecus and cognitive bias 4 million years ago or perhaps much earlier, to Homo habilis 3 million years ago and confirmation bias, to Homo erectus 2 million years ago and the argumentative theory, all the while generating the tribal ethos resulting in the warrior ethos that lead Homo sapiens out of Africa 70,000 years ago.


Let’s look further into our current President and his neuroreality, read Chapter 24.