© 1993 Donald E. Watson
(Reprinted from Telicom XI, 7: 43, Apr, 1993.)
It inspires conviction, faithfulness, right-thinking, and devotion to duty--as well as bigotry, self-righteousness, fanaticism, and mulishness. It nourished the atrocities of the Inquisition, and directed the persecution of Galileo. It propels persons to hoard religious hatred toward others who are mutually hateful. It seduces heroes and martyrs onto shadowy alters of glory, serving eternal principles that are quickly forgotten. It motivated the execution of innocent persons as witches, and it continues to condemn innocent defendants, and to liberate guilty miscreants. It incites nations to squander their resources, dissipating their prospects on crusades, blood feuds, and holy wars. And it sustains revered institutions that degrade and threaten humanity, even to foreshadowing the extinction of the species.
Its pervasive influence in the affairs of humankind notwithstanding, it has not been named. I term it autistic certainty. In this terminology, autistic means "self-generated without reference to external reality," and certainty means "the unequivocal conviction that a particular belief constitutes true knowledge."
Though knowledge of reality cannot be certain, persons influenced by autistic certainty are certain that they are privy to the unknowns of the universe. Their certainty is supported solely by the primal premise of self-reference:
o I would not believe something that is not true.
o I believe [this].
o Therefore, [this] must be true
The conclusion of this syllogism is logically true, of course, but the self-reference of the major proposition makes it false with respect to reality.
Autistic certainty supports psychotic thought processes such as paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations. Hallucinating persons are convinced that they hear voices of real persons, even though they cannot perceive the sources with any of their other senses. Moreover, because autism is invulnerable to sensory experience and its implications, it is blind to self-contradiction. Thus, the schizophrenic trait of ambivalence allows holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. For example, "This statement is false," is a proper sentence that is obviously self-contradictory: If it is true, then it is false; if it is false, then it is true. However, a person with schizophrenic ambivalence would not appreciate this paradox.
Various forms of illogic, or dereistic thinking, occur with many instances of psychosis, yet psychotic thinking is not always accompanied by irrationality. For example, paranoid delusions are typically sustained by impeccable logic: From the premise, "I am Jesus," deluded persons can faithfully deduce their divinity, universal knowledge, divine inspiration, and expected martyrdom.
Though it occurs in psychotic states, autistic thinking is not confined to these conditions. Indeed, it is a normal product of consciousness and abstract thought in persons during their first six years of life. Unlike the autism of psychotic states, however, the autistic thinking of childhood is normally superseded through experience, education, and disciplined skepticism. Unless, that is, they are taught otherwise.
To control the minds and to exploit the behavior of their followers, leaders of most governing institutions, religious and secular, encourage unquestioning faith and childlike obedience. In other words, they actively discourage their followers from mastering the skills of abstract thought. Thus, the ubiquitous abuse of abstract thought among non-psychotic adults reflects deliberately arrested development of a uniquely human gift.
One of the most familiar forms of abusing abstract thought results from animistic thinking. As children, persons normally attribute self-modeled qualities--e.g., self-awareness, free will, the spirits of good and evil--to other persons and objects.
Animistic thinking is prominently displayed in the widespread abuse of labels to characterize persons, as illustrated by the so-called "liar paradox" of Epimenides: "All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan." Though this pair of statements is conventionally considered self-contradictory, it is paradoxical only if the word liar denotes a person who cannot speak the truth. In fact, a liar is a fictitious creature of language. Rudimentary reality testing reveals that real persons who are accomplished at lying usually speak the truth. Otherwise, they could not lie effectively.
Animistic labeling motivates tagging persons with a wide range of symbols--e.g., saint, witch, murderer, good Samaritan, evil incarnate. When such symbols are not distinguished from the fictitious things they represent, the words themselves become the perceived reality. Thus, witches are hanged, but witches don't die; real persons do.
Animistic labeling is familiar as the ad hominem argument, a fallacy that is accepted routinely in our most venerated social institutions. Courts of law, for example, use ad hominem labeling as the foundation of "witness credibility." Thus, expert witnesses are judged believable, not by the validity of their testimony, but by their credentials, experience, or reputations. On the other hand, percipient witnesses are credited or discredited according to even shakier standards. Typically, witnesses who are shown to have lied once are impeached thereafter as liars. Like the Cretan, they are considered inhabited with the spirit of falsity, which categorically prevents their speaking the truth. Such primitive thinking was exposed in the notorious case of Gary Dotson.
Dotson had been convicted of rape based on the testimony of a young woman. After he had served several years in prison, the woman recanted her original testimony, and Dotson requested a new trial. However, though the woman testified under oath that Dotson had not raped her, the judge did not grant Dotson a new trial. Instead, he labeled the woman a liar, using the reasoning that, if she spoke the truth in recanting, she had lied originally; otherwise, she lied in recanting. Either way, she was categorically unbelievable.
In discrediting the woman as a liar, the judge accepted the chimerical animistic concept of a liar. That is, in the mind of the judge, she was a liar, and therefore incapable of ever speaking the truth. So Dotson remained officially guilty.
Criminal convictions are generally supposed to hinge on the issue of reasonable doubt. The woman's recanting raised significant doubts, of course, but they did not operate in favor of Dotson. Instead, the Dotson case turned on the egregious legal doctrine that courts are infallible in finding facts.
Given this grandiose, self-referenced axiom, a person found guilty is certainly guilty (albeit with autistic certainty). In other words, Dotson's conviction in the first trial made him presumably guilty thereafter, a burden that cannot be overcome with mere doubt, no matter how reasonable.
If the courts were forums for determining the truth concerning reality, the judge in the Dotson case could have humbly stated the obvious: "We don't know what really happened in this case, and we can't know it. Therefore, the certain outcome of this proceeding results from primitive thinking that creates blind faith in the system of justice." He did not make such a statement, however, for courts are not noted for their humility concerning reality.
Technically, courts are charged only with finding "facts," not truths concerning reality. This notion begs the question, "What is a fact?" The legal answer to this query is straightforward, though tautological: "Courts find facts. Therefore, a fact is whatever a court finds." In other words, like psychotic persons, courts generate their own peculiar renditions of reality.
To support the ideal of "truth and justice," courts must execute their fact-finding duties without exposing their fictions, arbitrary assumptions, and autistic caprice. They achieve this by using the misdirection inherent in certain rituals of the game of law. Thus, many court procedures resemble "bringing in the chain" in football, a ludicrous ceremony designed to create the illusion of accuracy and objectivity.
To avoid appearing to measure distance from the sideline by eye, officials carry a ten-yard chain from the sidelines to the location of the ball. Then, with conspicuous ceremony, they meticulously determine whether any portion of the ball extends ten yards or more from the other end of the chain. The joke is, the other end of the chain, the reference point for this exacting measurement, was itself set from the sideline by eye. Yet, the interests of coaches, players, and spectators alike, inattentive to the misdirection, are satisfied. Similarly, the rituals of the game of law hide the actual reference point of legal fact-finding: the autistic certainty of the law, as executed by equally certain judges and jurors.
The persistent abuse of abstract thought in human institutions suggests that most persons prefer the certainty of fiction to the uncertainty of reality. Perhaps humans abuse their abstract thought and self-awareness to allay their fear of uncertainty, which, if equated to chaos, implies imminent death. If this hypothesis is true, it defines a fatal flaw in humanity--the first, and probably last, species on this planet to be endowed with the gift of abstract thought.
Abstract thought is a potential resource that allows humans to govern themselves, to invent and use tools, to create works of art, to learn from persons dead many years, and to induce powerful scientific theories that realistically predict future events. Unfortunately, however, such constructive use of abstract thought is far outweighed by its destructive abuse.
Today's religious and political institutions preoccupy themselves with exorcising demons and other haunting harvests of childish imaginings. Ignorant of technology, and oblivious to their own mental processes, leaders of these institutions can destroy the species through accidental pollution, calculated nuclear warfare, or indifferent nonchalance to the mutative potential of HIV. In other words, by abusing the intellectual products of the few, the primitive thinking of the many threatens to extinguish the species.
Humans can increase the probability of their survival only if individuals, leaders and followers alike, accept the responsibility for mastering their abstract thinking. Einstein's experience can show how to realize this. Initially, he recoiled at the implications of quantum mechanics, bothered by the idea that God might throw dice. Yet, subsequently, he subordinated this autistic world-view to objective evidence of uncertainty in the observable world.
Though few humans possess the mental capacities of Einstein, each person can begin by assuming that autistic certainty sustains their beliefs. This simple precaution is the first step toward mastering the gift of abstract thought.