Studies have shown that depressed people tend to have a more accurate grasp of reality; a phenomenon known as ‘depressive realism’. While ‘healthy’ people massively overestimate the likelihood that they will win the National Lottery, for example, depressed individuals make a far more sober assessment of the odds. Their opinions concerning their looks, abilities, the control they have over their lives, their self-importance, are all more in accord with what others think about them, whereas healthy people continually review themselves far more favourably than any objective criteria should permit. Paradoxically, systematic self-delusion is almost a prerequisite for good mental health.
Who do you think will fare better in the rat-race – the realistic depressives or the deluded healthy? Who will get more sexual partners and have a higher chance of passing on their genes? It won’t be the realists, that’s for sure. Hasn’t natural selection favoured human beings with a fantastically over-inflated sense of self?
But what’s even more horrific is that if they didn’t hold those beliefs, they would become depressed, would see reality as it is, and die of despair. Self-delusion is our ultimate human survival mechanism. Even atheists are able to invest their existence with some sort of dubious purpose and meaning. But for those for whom the veils of illusion are completely torn away, suicide beckons. Life, even one more second of it, becomes an unbearable prospect.
If humans were seriously concerned with the issue of truth, wouldn’t we all be philosophers and scientists? Yet these subjects are astoundingly unpopular. Only minds that are free and open enough to see the lie that has become mankind can slightly comprehend any truth, but that is extremely rare and those usually die soon after.Â Â Humans are infinitely more concerned with pleasure and status than something as abstract and elusive as truth. And, as the success of movies and novels demonstrates, humans have a wondrous ability to ‘suspend their disbelief’ and enter into fake worlds as though they were real. Isn’t there something profoundly worrying about our ability to confuse the unreal with the real? Doesn’t it hint at the disturbing prospect that our most cherished beliefs are false? Nietzsche chillingly remarked, ‘What ultimately are man’s truths? They are merely his irrefutable errors.’
It seems that truth and humans don’t mix well. Without a sensitive instrument for detecting truth, we are left at the prey of crazy fantasies. Many of our most sacrosanct beliefs are almost certainly false, and not far short of insane. People will always be seduced by nonsense if it seems life-enhancing or comforting in some way. The upshot is that without reliable truths we are condemned to be stupid. We are a race of dunces who refuse to wear our pointed caps.
Perhaps the very last human being will dig his own grave and carve an inscription on the headstone he has prepared for himself. It might read, ‘Here lies the last of humanity, a species that never once came into contact with the truth. It existed for a million years and spent the whole time in a dream. Its only skill was in inventing fantasies about itself. In all the vastness of time and space, it managed to convince itself that it was the most special creation of an all-powerful, all-knowing being that it called God. But there was nothing there.’
Humanity was born stupid, has stayed stupid, and relies on stupidity to make ‘sense’ of the world. The only certainty is that not being stupid would kill us.