Hypocrisy As A Force in Human History


First a simplified story, then some analysis….


It often seems that humans behave in a way which is the exact opposite of what they believe.


I first starting thinking seriously about this when I was a freshman at Harvard. My history teacher, Professor Stafford Beer, required us all to read Aristotle’s book on ethics, and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, along with many other interesting books. Beer said: “If you only read those two books, you would think that the Greeks are a nation of overly calm rule-following bureaucrats, and the Germans are living an orgy of wild unrestrained dancing and lawless cavorting. But that is essentially the opposite of what those nations are like. Maybe the Greeks felt a need for Aristotle, to help calm them down, and the Germans felt a need for Nietzsche to liberate them.”


Many years later, I read a comparative quantitative study of war and peace in different cultures. Christians – the greatest believers in love and peace – started the most international wars, at that time. Moslems, the greatest believers in order, had the most extreme chaos of internal warfare. And what about Buddhists?


In the world economy today, one might say – the Buddhist nations, denying the reality of this world, have succeeded in getting in touch with economic and engineering reality a lot more than anyone else lately. Thus the power of positive hypocrisy. It’s a bit like the “negative psychology” some parents sometimes try on their children. (And in truth… my parents gave me a strong prohibition against looking at the mathematics texts they had hidden in the attic and a locked study. Probably this was a factor in my own extreme early learning of mathematics.)



OK, that’s a bit crude and simplified. But there is a very serious reality behind it.


Many of the aberrations in human thought and behavior are caused by the fact that we are a halfway-evolved species. (For a more complete explanation of this, see “What is Mind?”) Our ability to think in words and in mathematics is a new development, and our brains are not fully evolved to make full use of it from birth. It is part of our nature to try to learn how to use words and mathematics correctly and effectively, but it doesn’t come to us from birth. We need to work at it.


And so, we tend to develop “two minds,” roughly. There is our “symbolic intelligence,” all the thoughts we have in words and mathematics. Conventional religious beliefs are beliefs expressed in words, propagated in words, and thought about in words. But then, the biggest part of our brain is for “subsymbolic intelligence.” The biggest parts of our brain are directly equivalent to parts of the mouse brain – and all of the mouse brain is for subsymbolic intelligence. All it has are images, senses, actions and feelings. Actions come from the subsymbolic brain.


Humans seem to evolving towards a new kind of brain, which may be called “the sapient brain.”  In the sapient brain, the symbolic and subsymbolic intelligence are all interlocked. They work together smoothly and seamlessly (to the extent that intelligence can ever be smooth). The feelings from the subsymbolic intelligence provide the emotional driver which rules over the entire system, but the rational cooperation of both parts leads to rational behavior by the whole system. There is essentially no hypocrisy.


But many human schools actually encourage hypocrisy, and discourage sapience. Many churches, especially, encourage people to Believe the stream of words they are supposed to Believe, and to try to Control and repress the subsymbolic self. It is only natural that the subsymbolic self tends to rebel against such control, and gently leads the Believer to piously, self-righteously, hypocritically do the exact opposite of what it has learned to fear and mistrust.


Roughly speaking, this leads to two major forms of hypocrisy. One is everyday hypocrisy, like the Americans who call themselves Catholics but still use birth control. This kind of hypocrisy is basically an adaptive behavior, far weaker than true rationality, but not so bad. It is weak, because it requires a kind of fuzziness in thinking, a failure to really use the full power of symbolic reasoning, honest dialogue and rational commitment to big goals. The other form of hypocrisy is the kind which leads to nervous breakdown… the full-fledged war between the symbolic mind and the subsymbolic mind, which Freud has described in intricate detail. (Strictly speaking, the Freudian story also involves a contradiction between one’s subsymbolic understanding of reality, which aligns with the symbolic self in these cases, and one’s memory of the experience of reality.)


The truth is that some humans are born with more of an impulse towards orderly thinking than others. Some psychologists call this “intolerance of cognitive dissonance;” they note that this is not just the opposite of novelty seeking behavior, and they also note that there are strong genetic dispositions here. Furthermore, “intolerance of cognitive dissonance” really does seem more prevalent in some nations (like Germany and Russia) than in others (like China and Native America). I myself have inherited that trait from the German side of my family – though high “novelty seeking” tends to protect me from the narrow kinds of behavior it causes in some people.


People with a strong impulse towards orderly thinking tend to fall more often into the second kind of hypocrisy, the war between the symbolic and the subconscious self, where the conscious subsymbolic self may become a bloody battleground. And they are more likely to become overcommitted agents of Beliefs which may be anything from Catholicism to superstring theory to capitalism to fascism to Marxism. And for all of them, existentialist writings like those of Nietzsche or Malraux may be an important step forwards in mental evolution. In essence, before one can get to the sapient mode of thought, one must cast off the oppression of a symbolic intelligence which Believes that its Verbal Beliefs must be in charge, that it cannot trust the subsymbolic mind and feelings, that it must oppress and repress the subconscious self ad extremis.


Nietzsche did not advocate evil. He advocated the kind of Good which is the opposite of Bad, which emerges from the feelings and not from beliefs. In a sense, he was like Jesus, who advocated the feeling of love, and not Beliefs or Laws, as the foundation of an evolved personality.


But in a sense, Nietzsche was also like a wild teenager, who succeeded in overthrowing an oppressive ego, but will be somewhat dangerous until he learns to calm down and adapt more completely to a new state of mind.


Maybe Walt Disney (a rather serious mystic himself, they say) said it better than Nietzsche anyway: “Wake up Ferdinand and smell the flowers..”     (Though the Ferdinands who inhabited Spanish castles had no problems with smelling flowers, so far as I could tell in my wanderings. It was more of a problem for the priests.)


And for those who are truly sincere in believing that there is something out there that might be called “spiritual reality,” consider this. It enters (and leaves) the mind only through subsymbolic channels. Thus those who adhere religiously to the oppressive symbolic way of thinking are forever doomed to be total hypocrites and forever cut off from anything truly real in the spiritual realm. Their only hope is to give it up (as did Aquinas in his later life) and ground themselves in the real roots of life, completely, without barnacles. These real roots belong to all of humanity, and all life on earth.



P.S. What about sanity, sapience and the use of birth control? The path of sapience does allow the use of birth control and even abortion under appropriate circumstances. For a person of Catholic culture, this requires a willingness to fully accept, admit and declare that one simply does not believe the whole schtick of what various people tell you to believe, and does not regard this as a sinful state of affairs.

       In fact, Jesus never said “thou shalt not use birth control” or “abortion is a sin.” Those ideas came later, from clerical monks – similar to those who wrote the sharia, using purely academic logic – based on their interpretation of the ideas of Aristotle. Perhaps, to be consistent and sane here, and still accept the use of birth control under appropriate circumstances, one would have to admit that one does not accept the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope or the body of “logic” which led to those bizarre prohibitions.