Theory of an Illusion Buffer
As a programmer, I am really intrigued by a theory I have bouncing around in my head. Because our species has evolved a conscious analytical “new brain” around our older reptilian brain, does our complex programming require an illusion buffer between the old and new in order to keep us alive? Let me see if I can explain what is in my head. As we know, our “old brain” evolved first with the basic programming directive of ensuring our survival. This brain was fully capable of instinctually and independently carrying out this survival directive. Our “new brain” on the other hand evolved much later giving rise to consciousness and relative self-awareness. One primary programming directive of our “new brain” appears to be to analyze and find meaning in everything we do, constantly spinning up a story to explain our every thought, emotion, and behavior. We really are incredible meaning making machines.
My theory is this dynamic between instinctual old and contemplative new requires the existence of an illusion buffer to protect us from seeing the meaninglessness of it all. Our instinct for survival must be somehow explained by our analytical mind and so we search for the meaning of life. To find meaning that doesn’t actually exist would require a mechanism for self-deception, which is exactly what we see in all of our cognitive biases. In theory if our species ever became fully self-aware, seeing our existence for what it really is, short, meaningless, random, chaotic, “red in tooth and claw”, we could decide together to defy our evolutionary programming, refuse to procreate, enjoy our last moment in the sun, and “walk hand in hand into extinction.” 1
The fact that we are self-aware requires our minds to create an illusion of meaning; a reason to live. Whether a religious belief or an atheist's magical mantra of “we are made of stardust”, we all find some illusion of meaning to cling to for survival. Logically we know food is not inherently tasteful or good, this is just an illusion created by chemicals in our brain. Logically we know life is not inherently good, fair, or “worth it”, just another illusion created by chemicals in our brain. If we look at our “good life” through the eyes of someone who is severely depressed who lacks the support of critical brain chemicals, would we be looking at life as it truly is? Without the seduction of brain chemicals would we finally see through the illusion and in that brief instant would we be fully self-aware? In seeing their life as meaningless are the depressed actually seeing reality while the rest of us are still laboring under a brilliant self-deception that life is “worth it”?
The Problem and a Possible Solution
Personally, I am struggling with this directive to find meaning in my life. Some part of my mind is resisting the innate programming to believe in something, constantly fighting to wake up and be fully self aware, fighting to explore the wonders of the meaninglessness of it all; ironically imbuing my life with meaning. The fact that I can even equate wonders with meaninglessness reveals my mind’s capacity for self-deception. My mind effortlessly creates illusions because they are so critical to my survival. My mind amazingly continues to layer illusion on top of illusion, as I see through one, another one is immediately spun up to take its place.
The problem is these short lived illusions do not need to bring happiness or joy in order to keep me alive. Just a sliver of meaning is enough to keep me from checking out. Continuously striving to see through each new illusion my mind creates just robs me of any happiness or joy an illusion might bring. If I were to choose to stop fighting my mind’s programming, would my mind finally have the freedom and time it needs to create a fully developed illusion that makes room for happiness and joy? If I fully embrace my humanity, giving myself permission to see something magical in the phrase “we are made of stardust”, can my mind create an illusion capable of bringing some peace into my meaningless existence? Can my mind create an illusion that is free of religious belief and free of belief in any of the proposed gods, yet still capable of bringing spirituality back into my life? Can my mind still create a meaningful illusion with these stipulations? I wouldn’t bet against it.
The Quest for Meaning
On a side note, to all my fellow atheists laboring under the illusion that your purpose in life is to destroy all illusions that don’t match yours, please know the fact that you are still above ground most likely means you are believing an illusion right now just like the rest of us, in my humble theoretical opinion. You are behaving strangely like those who found their meaning and purpose in an exclusionary religious faith. If your mission in life is to convert believers into unbelievers, I can’t see any difference in your illusion and the believers’ illusion that their purpose in life is to save the world. Welcome to humanity, we are all doing exactly what we are programmed to do, finding reasons to stay above ground.
For those of us who are still on a quest to find some meaning we can live with, my hope is that our quest makes room for joy and happiness. I hope we find some meaning that is worthy of being the brainchild of the human mind. May our quest grant us an opportunity to live life to the fullest. As for me, for now I choose to fully embrace my humanity, I am happy to be made of stardust and thankful to have this brief moment in the sun.
1 From "True Detective" character Rust Cohle (2014)