My last critique of a Less Wrong blog post was incited by a deep concern that some of its writers were using that time-honored strategy of the media (and the recent Bush administration) to spread fear in order to manufacture their own relevance and thus the dependency of the cowed masses. It would be unconscionable, for example, for a psychotherapist to try to convince everyone that they are crazy so that they would all take the positive step of entering therapy with him, justifiable as the end supposes to be. However, today I read this post and was extremely pleased with the cogent analysis and rhetorical honesty. The subject matter is, of course, close to my heart and that of my blog: “Ramachandran suggested that the left brain is an ‘apologist’, trying to justify existing theories, and the right brain is a ‘revolutionary’ which changes existing theories when conditions warrant.” If this single sentence were applied to the post I last critiqued, the conclusions therein would appear as they truly are: preposterous. Sever the “apologist” from the “revolutionary” and you get confabulation, but this means little for those of us with intact commissures who should hardly fear that we don’t know ourselves on account of not having perused the behavioral economics literature.
The single correction that I would like to propose to the fine post under discussion today is that Ramachandran’s initial theory, instead of the proposed “two-factor theory,” might still be perfectly sufficient for delusions other than those of anosognosia. The following is the only sentence that I wish to dispute: “But these other delusions cannot be explained by simple failure to update: delusions like ‘the person who appears to be my wife is an identical imposter’ never made sense.” This seems initially plausible, but ultimately it is based on far too simple an idea of the human psyche. For example, many people find that after being in an intimate relationship for years or even decades, their partner turns out to be an imposter; turns out not to match the person that they purported to be and that was desired. That is, people can lie to themselves and to others about who they are, and when the truth emerges, the deceived party might exclaim: “who the hell are you?” Few of us want to admit to ourselves that we can be so deceived and thus the “apologist’ in us strains for an explanation where we are not at fault. We might settle hastily on one that is either persecutory, “they really wanted to jack me up,” or promoting of grandiosity, “I really saw them clearly the whole time, and that wonderful soul-mate is still in there, but is being thwarted by this imposter persona.” Now, the important part is that one or both of these may actually be true, but if one’s “revolutionary” is damaged or isolated, there can never emerge a dialogue or dialectic that might refine, confirm, or deny these hypotheses. So the person is left with an old theory that needs updating so as to achieve closure or catharsis, but is incapable of making such progress, while their inability to refine or create new paradigms and metaphors forces them to cling to the only certain knowledge they have left; that voiced by their “apologist.” Be honest with yourself, there is someone in your life right now that has been duplicitous with you but whom you refuse to banish from your life because you still hold on to hope that that real self, that self that you saw in them, will emerge from behind this deplorable persona. All I am suggesting is that the proper right hemisphere damage might make this relationship dilemma permanent.
In this sense, even the delusions of being Jesus and the like are not so wrong as they may seem. We all try on many identities as we grow into ourselves and some fit better than others. A collection or amalgam of the “best fits” forms one’s personal pantheon of influences, and likely composes the voice of your “revolutionary.” If we were as honest as Nietzsche, we might admit that our ego or “apologist” is nothing but the play-actor of his ideal. If one identity fits extremely well it almost feels as if they knew you thoroughly before you were born; as if you are channeling that person; as if you are a reincarnation of that person; as if that person were “another myself,” to use Aristotle’s description of a true friend. As it happens, many of us actually identify with our inner revolutionary more than our inner apologist, and this sets the groundwork for some rather serious delusions if certain areas of the brain become damaged or isolated from each other. After all, there are a couple billion perfectly sane people who just now believe that they were made in the image of Christ, bear a “divine spark,” and who believe it is possible not just to emulate this Christ, but to entirely embrace this as their true identity. Though the cynic in us might want to cavalierly write off the majority of the human beings on this planet as being pathologically delusional, let’s keep in mind that these people can still hold a dialogue between their “apologist” and “revolutionary.” That is, let’s take the opposite lesson from these people: that the sane among us are so composed as to be teetering on the edge of delusional thinking and that those who are pathologically deluded are not so far off the mark as we would like to think. Accordingly, not even the hypothesis “I am Jesus” or “I am Lennon” can be so easily written off as having “never made sense” to begin with. Besides, if our identity is just a matter of “software,” as so many “reality-heads” seem to believe, and the exact same software can be instantiated in different physical mediums, then why couldn’t such a “delusional” person really be Jesus? Perhaps his hardware is just the perfect fit for such messianic software!