Judas Iscariot posed this central question to Jesus as a recurring musical theme in the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar; the answer was left for the audience to ponder.
Ask yourself the same question: Do you believe you are what others say you are? Do you know what others say you are, for better or worse, and do you care?
In the pre-digital era, what others believed about you was your REPUTATION generated mostly by your authentic words and deeds. In the digital era, what others believe about you is your CELEBRITY generated mostly by your surface appearance and media visibility.
We have won the Human Race but this last digital leap has thrown civilization off its balance, a noisy instability that promises to accelerate as AI matures our new #FrictionLessSociety before it settles for another period of relative calm. This essay explores how we might understand this paradigm shift, and what we can do about it?
From an individual perspective, once you let your authentic voice be in charge of you (with your authentic ears listening), none of this new noise matters because you can be sure that any and all feedback you experience directly (spoken or written language) and indirectly (body language) will focus 100% on developing the real you and not an impostor. Only you can do this work but it is the surest and quickest path to find and enjoy using your own unique voice to fully experience life moving at near the speed of light.
[Note: This is a kind of Lite Do it Yourself (DIY) advice piece so I will present my advice as part of a "Theory of the Crime (TOC)" framework to put the advice in context. Think car - Theory of Driving (TOD) - then, tell how the car works in detail in order to drive it.]
Life is hard because our experienced reality has two main moving parts: our internal private reality RInt and our perception of external public reality, RExt. These parts are forever connected, and in a constant state of change and exchange; and they don’t communicate well with each other because there will always be differences between you and the public. (That’s why we interact with the other, Duh!) RInt and RExt can never know exactly what the other is like, whether RExt is people or nature that you are trying to get to know better.
If connecting was easy life would become boring. Because it’s hard, experience tells us where to push to find our direction and how to tune our actions to discover our authentic voice; this process is what makes life forever interesting and exciting.
The great 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein named this dilemma the “beetle in the box problem“–the fundamental limitation of one mind to know exactly what’s in another mind. This is similar to the related discovery that our ability to precisely understand physical reality through physics, mathematics, and computers is fundamentally limited by primal quantum uncertainty embedded deep in the fabric of Reality. (Some would argue that quantum uncertainty is the source of free will.)
It seems we will always have missing cards as we play the reality game. It’s a wonder that we are not all clinically insane …unless we are and don’t know it!
One way out of this dilemma is to assert that ALL OF US are delusional; most of us just happen to share similar delusions, which defines “normal” for enough of us to declare a consensus view that we are not insane. It’s like we are a very smart flock of Starlings unknowingly flocking in a swarm around some “normal” going somewhere special.
Does this mean that we all live dishonest lives of self-delusion? (How can we be dishonest if we don’t know we are deluded?)
Recently deceased director Mike Nichols thought so, according this Washington Post remembrance article in November 2014:
"Mike Nichols once told the Times that all the plays and films he directed were about the comedy and tragedy that grow out of self-delusion, which he believed to be a universal trait (my emphasis). Life is hopeless -- but it isn't, he said. Love is fleeting -- but eternal. Our personal lives are everything -- but we are unimportant."
All of this suggests that self-delusion may be a universal constraint needed for us to act sane in a dynamic and constantly changing universe that is ultimately unknowable. What could be the survival value of “acting” sane when we are delusional?
Perhaps self-delusions are trial persons we experiment being as we grow and learn in order to discover that unique person we are meant to be doing that unique thing we are meant to do in this life that makes us uniquely happy.
As a PhD physics student I was taught that the work of Newton, Einstein, Hawking and other great physicists thought that underlying physical reality was objective, knowable and predictable with the laws of physics; and it was until it wasn’t.
Science turned out to be a powerful set of provisional truths based on logic valid for a limited range of physical variables of space and time. These limits are so far outside of our everyday experience that our provisional laws of science appear to be perfect. This illusion has allowed us humans to create our modern technological civilization.
As we push to small-enough or large-enough measures of matter and motion our concepts for describing physical reality (rational delusions?) have regularly changed (though remained as self-similar patterns nested inside of each other as fractal structures) as they (the concepts) have evolved to eventually become unknowable, unpredictable, and unexplainable at their limits and mostly disconnected from our everyday experiences.
(e.g., None of us can taste the smallest [billionths of an inch] piece of water, a construction of nature which scientists have named a "molecule," a structure made of three smaller components, which scientists have named "Hydrogen Atom" (two) and "Oxygen Atom" (one).
We all seem to live in vastly different levels of self-delusion throughout the world both physically and socially that we more or less seem to choose from our local environs. Now, in the #FrictionLessSociety that we have suddenly created, “local” means anywhere in the world our iPhones can take us. The similarities and differences of our delusions can now be instantly concentrated and multiply dramatically without a moderating “common sense” constraint.
We don’t know what “digital common” sense is or how to create it…yet. [Is this what underlies the growing and violent instabilities bubbling up throughout society that seem to be unexplainable?]
My belief — my delusion of Reality itself, if you will, — is that shared self-delusion is a necessary universal constraint for sentient beings like us to be sane; maybe this sharedness is shredding and reaching a tipping point to shift to a new level of awareness.
One of a poet’s job is to simplify life’s mysteries to its bottom lines; Jimmy Buffett captured the apparent truth of self-delusion in one memorable line of his Margaritaville song:
“If we weren’t all crazy, we‘d just go insane.”
Our job in life seems to be the task of refining and improving our shared delusions of reality at each level of understanding through individual work in the known here and now as shaped by scouting experiments into the unknown there and then from which we learn and grow.
Throughout earth’s 4.5 billion year history life has survived by pulling itself forward for four billion of those years by collectively adopting the most successful new innovations as it adapted to cataclysmic periods of existential natural threats to all life.
Humans are newcomers to the scene having led life’s parade for just the past two million years; only 0.05 % of earth’s history! Of this short time, human civilization has only been a technological wonder for just the last 500 years, or just 0.025% of human existence!
The Human Race is over. We won! We are not going to blow it now, are we? We are the only life forms with opposable thumbs, super computer brains, and the technology to feed and support the world.
Isn’t time we faced our delusion dilemma and invent digital common sense?