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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).



The Physics of Deception

David Lane

Deception is part and parcel of nature and is an intrinsic and necessary feature of human existence.

Every present moment is in truth a past moment, since what we think happens right now actually occurs nano seconds before. Even the experience of seeing this in front of your eyes is bounded by how fast the light can bounce off the screen and scatter back to your eyes which though exceedingly fast is lagged once the photons reach your optic nerve and then become transformed as chemical-electrical signals passing through a gauntlet of neurons and synaptic clefts to reach the visual cortex only to be recognized as an idea that was mistakenly believed to be instantaneous. Nothing arrives on time; rather everything arrives in time, even if we have been neurologically tricked into believing otherwise.

That the world is not as it appears is an ancient realization. Indian philosophy has captured this understanding in one simple, but nevertheless beguiling, word, Maya. There are several definitions of this Sanskrit term which arguably first arose in the Vedic period of India ranging from illusion to magic. But perhaps the word's more literal etymology contains the most revealing explanation: “not that.”

Maya in this sense means that which betrays its real origin and thus tricks us at each and apparently every turn into believing something about an event's causation that it not true. We see a sunset at a favorite beach and our experience is that it is happening right then, but we have discovered from astronomy that it actually takes eight minutes or so for the light from the sun to reach us. The same holds true with light from distant stars which travels thousands of light years to hit earth. We are not seeing the stars as they are but as they were hundreds and thousands of years ago. The world we behold is not so much in front of us in a persistent now as it is behind us in an escaping past. Thus we are continually, even if unconsciously, remembering our lives from transpiring experiences that blind us from their real origination.

It is as if the world is forever at a tilt but of which we remain unaware. I remember when I was a young teenager playing an old pinball game at the Fun Zone in Balboa which only cost a nickel but which continually gave replays. I thought I was both exceptionally skilled and lucky to play for over two hours on just one nickel. It was only later that I realized how mistaken I had been. The pinball machine was tilted in such a way that it provided constant replays to whomever was fortunate enough to play it.

Our brains are tilted in seeing the world at large a certain way, but in so doing it doesn't immediately inform us of this requisite fact. Even when I am supposedly making a conscious decision of whether to go right or left in my car, unconscious processes (for which I remain dutifully unaware) are determining my eventual turning of the wheel. Yes, I may believe that I am (and the pun here is intended) in the driver's seat, but a closer inspection of how we make choices at the neuronal levels illustrates the opposite. The neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes conducted a study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brains Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, which startlingly suggests that some decisions are unknowingly made on our behalf up to 10 seconds in advance. In this context, it is akin to the Autopia ride at Disneyland which gives children the illusion that they are steering the wheel and actually driving their respective cars, neglecting that they are on a track guided by a middle metal bar which automatically moves all vehicles along a preset design.

Deception is part and parcel of nature and is an intrinsic and necessary feature of human existence. Without it we wouldn't be able to survive, since survival of the fittest is predicated on one's ability to be stealth when necessary or to be able to invoke varying camouflages in times of need. As one evolutionary thinker put it, “Our brains were not designed to understand the universe as it is, but rather to eat it.” And anything that can augment our eating habits (read survival skills) will be naturally selected, including our ability to deceive others. What is not so obvious, however, is that nature has also jerry rigged that the greatest deception of all will be within ourselves. We cannot even look ourselves in the mirror without being subject to a fundamental illusion where that which is left is exchanged right.

Our five senses don't reveal the universe at large so much as provide us with a severely edited version of what our bodies necessitate to live long enough in order to pass on our genetic histories. For example, my hearing, smelling, and seeing is only within a certain frequency range and if something lies beyond that prescribed border then it remains unknown and non-existent to me. Thus the world I live in is an exclusive smattering of all that is possible, which is perhaps why John Lilly's famous witticism is more literally true than we might at first suspect, "In the province of the mind, what is believed to be true is true, or becomes true within certain limits to be learned by experience and experiment. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind. There are no limits." The real question that arises, however, is not whether the mind has no limits in some ontological sense (as Lilly questionably posits), but rather and more telling why there are limits in the first place.

Aldous Huxley, of course, famously argued that the mind was a filtering mechanism and that human consciousness simply couldn't function if it were allowed to receive all incoming data streams. If such a situation was to occur, perhaps our only viable response would be one of perpetual catatonia.

The ability to function for a set duration in any relative geometric space means that one must be largely edited by the physical rules governing such an enclosure. Hence, my psychology is the product of the intersection of physics and biology, even if I may be subjectively oblivious of how these laws actually work. The phantom limb sensation is a good illustration of just how mistaken we can be about what occurs within our nervous system. A majority of amputees report that they can still feel pain in their amputated hand, arm or leg, even when they know that such extensions have been long removed. The brain is a modeling system and even if an arm has been amputated the image of that arm (and its attendant connections to pleasure or pain) still resides within the rolodex of remembered sensations. We can even see things that are not there. Perceptual “filling-in” is how our spectra of vision compensates for missing information due to our physiological blind spots. Thus a wobbly image can be arrested and stabilized on our retina which can lead to a filling up of the surrounding background by images that are literally not there.

Ronald Siegel, a distinguished researcher on the effects of psychotropic drugs on altered states of consciousness at UCLA, described in a remarkable study how a series of participants who were given a hallucinogenic dose of marijuana and other drugs all ended up reporting seeing one recurring and disturbing image of multiple eye balls staring back at them. At first Professor Siegel couldn't explain why each of his “psychonauts” had the same experience, but on closer inspection he realized that in their initial training session each of the drug takers had watched a slide show which accidentally contained a psychedelic portrait of eyes.

As Siegel explains it,

“The near-toxic dose of mescaline I had ingested by drinking peyote all night kept the Demon alive for many seconds, long enough "to see." The eyes looked like pictures that had been cut out of magazines and pasted together in a collage conceived by a deranged artist. In the lower right-hand corner saw the letters ES followed by a series of numbers. The Demon faded away before I could read them. But I had seen enough. The letters and numbers were part of a code I put on the borders of the slides used in the psychonaut training course. The subjects never saw the code numbers, but I used them for identifying the contents of each slide. These slides were projected on a piece of black cardboard (the black curtain) tacked to the laboratory wall. The training slides were all black and-white drawings of simple geometric forms such as tunnels or lattices.The ES series was very different. It consisted of dramatically colored "psychedelic" scenes created by artists for light shows, Hollywood films, and other commercial productions. I had obtained a collection of these slides from Edmund Scientific, amail-order supply house in New Jersey. But I had not used the ES series in training. I was saving them to show the psychonauts after the experiments were completed so that they might be able to select images that were similar to their own hallucinations. Somehow, one of the ES slides must have slipped into the batch of training slides and imbedded itself in the psychonauts' memories. I was certain that when I returned to the lab I would find it.”

And find it, he did. What Professor Siegel realized was that,

“The Demon was nothing more than the surprise of a disturbing image spontaneously retrieved from memory. Rather than feeling disappointed that a 'real' Demon did not exist, I was surprised and humbled to discover that internal images can be powerful enough to be mistaken for external ones. Disturbing images have a way of burrowing their way into our memories, even after a single exposure.”

Freud had long believed that one of his great, if not greatest, discoveries in psychology was how transference amongst some of his patients operated. Within about six months or less, they would project (albeit unconsciously) all sorts of fantastical ideas about their doctor but without a hint of recognition that it was their own doing. In other words, they took to be objective which was in truth wholly subjective.

This conflation of one's internal brain state for an objective reality is an elemental part of what it means to be human. While most of the time such a correlation can be of great advantage (particularly when such overlays are mostly accurate and predictive), at other times it leads to massively delusional states of awareness. A recurring pattern of such delusions are our own dreams which we habitually take to be deeply real and rich with episodic narratives, except when we wake up and soon realize their wholly imaginative nature. But because consciousness is a virtual simulator there are times that our dreaming brain can overlap with our waking state and radically confuse us about what is internal and what is external. In certain brain states it is nearly impossible to even recognize our own projections as projections.

NDE's are projections of a person's ultimate concern and those concerns (for better or worse) invariably motivate one to live another day.

Near-Death Experiences are a good case in point here. The luminous out of body experiences with their accompanying visions can be so intense that it is nearly impossible to question the veridicality of any religious vision that may arise within one's purview. Yet apparitions of Jesus only appear to Christians, and Buddha only to Buddhists, and Guru Nanak only to Sikhs, and Krishna only to Hindus which should give anyone pause about the objectivity of all such manifestations. Moreover, the one undeniable factoid about NDE's is that the person didn't die but rather lived long enough to retell his or her tale. From an evolutionary perspective, this seems to indicate that NDE's are not about a purported afterlife but rather about the brain's amazing ability to create a reason or purpose to continue living, drawing as it does from the person's own unique biographical circumstances. Simply put, NDE's are projections of a person's ultimate concern and those concerns (for better or worse) invariably motivate one to live another day. But such a mechanism isn't very effective if one doubts its numinous origins while undergoing the transformative encounter. In other words, the brain tricks us into believing its own machinations as something that is not sui generis. All this trickery does serve one underlying purpose: keeping our organism intact long enough to recapitulate itself.

The very colors we perceive are not a product of some Kantian insight into the electromagnetic spectrum itself, but rather the very opposite of what our common sense intuits. A blue sky isn't blue because the air is permeated with blueness, but because of the different wave lengths of light. Shorter wave lengths of light tend to get absorbed by varying gas molecules and as such then radiate in different directions around the sky and thus that very light reaches our eyes and we then see a blueness everywhere. But there is no such thing as “blueness” as a thing in itself, try as we might to capture it within the palm of our hands.

Science, contrary to some popular definitions of it, is not common sense realized. Rather, it is oftentimes a counter-intuitive procedure which necessitates a new way of looking at the world. This may explain why even in the 21st century so many people resist the implications of evolutionary biology and favor more story-laden narratives (replete with a meaningful plot) such as intelligent design.

Nothing is as it seems. Ancient rishis argued that the world was an illusion and that what we take to be real isn't. Plato's allegory of the cave and the Gnostics idea of demiurges also touches upon this perennial insight. The ultimate goal for both was to wake up from this continual dream into a greater reality which will reveal a higher truth. Of course, the very idea of a higher truth may itself also be a progressive form of deception in higher mammals to help evolve better strategies to keep certain genetic histories alive and kicking.

In this way the Hindu idea of Maya is one of an all persuasive goddess, most popularly known as Laksmi, who has the power either to ensnare a soul in samsara or to liberate her from the cycle of reincarnation and karma. It is a deep irony that the very incarnation of deception is worshipped by millions. Of course, it can be argued that everyone is in some ways a devotee of Maya, since we all live within her bewitching web, where confusing cause and effect and image and object are our natural habit. And, yet maybe understanding the very root of maya is precisely how and why science has progressed where other paths have failed. Why? Because science, unlike traditional religions of the past, is a consistent method of doubting what we think we know and not relying on what we may wish to be the case.

Science, in other words, is a path of systemic disbelief, which like the very literal meaning of maya, looks askance at disparate phenomena (and its attendant explanations which invoke affirmations of “I believe, I believe”) and proclaims something inherently more radical, neti, neti: “not this, not that.” And by such a procedure patiently unravels the hidden knot that for millennia has remained unraveled.

“I became free of Maya when I realized
that I could never escape from her.”

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