from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

In Our Own Image And Likeness

Implicit in the preceding sections has been the idea that Self-Governing Capitalism will mark one of the greatest evolutionary transformations since humans developed the capacity to reason (which made them human). This transformation will occur not by direct, natural selection through factors in mutation. Rather, it will occur by the effective use of a naturally selected, adaptive function: volition.

History reveals the occasional failure of this adaptive function in its capacity to benefit the human organism. Accordingly, illogical thought (and subsequent improper action) could be termed maladaptive. More often than not, it is detrimental to survival, despite being an effect of a beneficial capacity. With volition comes some degree of maladaptiveness—due to its nature of learning from mistakes and the sometimes complicated process of grasping reality correctly.

For any reasoning being, choice will always be a primary, although a great deal of refinement of this capacity (along with the mind in general) is certainly possible. For instance, a reasoning mind could evolve to make faster integrations of knowledge or assimilations of information. It might even be able to entertain multiple thought processes at multiple levels of abstraction simultaneously. Or, it could have more capability to recognize and interpret subtle emotions and heed internal signals (i.e., more emotional intelligence). Or it could form a greater capability to concentrate and focus on all perceived information. Or it could have greatly enhanced memory capability and utilization. (Indeed, at least some of these attributes may be the destiny of computer-based robots, as well as human brains with computer interfaces, in the not-too-distant future.)

While all these changes add up to more intelligence and more capability, they would never produce a totally infallible mental mechanism. Much of what we know about the nature of intelligence points to the acquired ability to correct errors, learn from them, and expand into previously unknown areas of discovery.

With choice, risks will always be involved. By choosing one course of action we immediately eliminate others. Only with the epistemological (and hence, physical) impossibility of knowing everything could an organism not risk making a mistake or not risk taking a less than optimal course of action. Oftentimes, the "optimal" course of action depends on one’s particular situation and context of knowledge. Hindsight may enable us to notice whether our specific choices were less than optimal. But there is nothing we can do to reverse our choices; we can only learn from them.

Yet, in concert with exposure to non-objective value systems, children may be encouraged to see parents and significant others as omniscient, infallible, and omnipotent. From a child’s point of view, adults seem to know almost everything, appear to hardly ever make mistakes, and seem to control and do just about anything. Clearly, if adults do not inform and show children that none of these three mystical properties are possible, many psychological problems can be created. Specifically, individuals may spend much of their time trying to live up to unrealistic expectations (both of others and themselves).

Omniscience, infallibility, and omnipotence are invalid as well as anti-concepts. They cannot be applied in reality and are impossible attributes that attempt to undermine the meaning of rational cognition and human ability. Irrespective of what entity or nonentity is accredited with having these special powers, they can affect one’s sense of confidence in one’s mental and physical abilities.

Concepts of this sort probably have arisen out of a general discomfort or uncertainty with mental and physical effort, as well as a misunderstanding of reason. Instead of accepting the metaphysically given—that humans are finite and have definite limitations—some proceeded to wish of defying their own identity. They envisioned a life without restrictions or limitations, a life without the laws of reality. Since their wishes could not come true, they simply gave them to supernatural beings they could never equal.

The idea of knowing everything is certainly a fanciful dream. If one could be omniscient, then there would be no need to discuss or reflect on anything; it would already be known. Every problem and task would be solved and remedied, and knowledge would be total and all-encompassing. In a sense one would be like the mythical couple in "paradise," Adam and Eve, who had nothing to do and no real reason to engage in any activity (at least before "The Fall"). In addition, communication and concepts themselves would not be necessary, because everything would already be understood and explained. We could go on and on attempting to imagine an omniscient consciousness. But, plainly, it is contradictory for any finite being to know everything. Moreover, the age-old idea that an "infinite being" can know everything is beyond logical discussion.

Yet we can still be significantly affected by the concept of omniscience. For instance, many people still expect individuals to somehow feel guilty about being uninformed or lacking knowledge. Though our level of knowledge normally has a bearing on our abilities and skills, the ideas of omniscience and infallibility can only detract from the cultivation of confidence and competence. Parents (and other children), for example, may be quick to disgrace a child for not knowing something or not doing something correctly.

Clearly, this type of ridicule can promote self-doubt and separation from reality-oriented thinking. For an adult, it can generate uneasiness, frustration, and even hatred in all sorts of environments. In fact, capitulation to the demands of impossible concepts such as omniscience and infallibility can make the processes of learning and working quite hellish. It can make one’s activities seem difficult, anxious, and dreary.

Whatever the profession, some individuals may desire to play the role of omniscient instructor, boss, leader, manager, worker, and so forth. Those who lack the necessary knowledge to perform a task need to understand the meaning of such role-playing. To act guiltily or anxiously or angrily is to support the mentality of the "authority figure." The situation oftentimes could be much different if those involved were to see the posturing or the demanding of omniscience for what it is. This, of course, requires an understanding and acceptance of the nature of one’s consciousness.

The human mind needs conditions to function and expand its abilities. Sometimes a lack of knowledge may lead to the false belief that someone knows something one cannot know. Sadly, some may even conclude that a more knowledgeable person has more worth or value on account of this. (The morality of sacrifice has relied on this sort of notion for centuries.)

Grasping and dealing with reality, whatever one’s level of knowledge, should never entail a question of our worthiness. Once again, our self-worth need not be an issue for debate (consciously or subconsciously). A person represents values and virtues, and these are rightly determined by focusing on reality and the requirements of life. Thus, our culture’s near obsession with comparison and competitiveness between individuals is unwarranted.

Yet this is not the way some may see the acquisition of knowledge and skills, and deal with others who have more. They may feel as though their lives depended on striving for some sort of omniscience. This may be partially due to their anxiety about those who seem bent on inhibiting people instead of inspiring them. Those who belittle the value of others and exploit fears are certainly in a troubled psychological state. Frequently, in fact, their world also revolves around how others assess them and how they size up against them. In other words, their subconscious is overridden by social concerns. Perceived threats and insults tend to take center stage in their mind. By having distanced themselves from objective reality to such a degree (perhaps due to initial fears of not being good enough or fit for existence in the eyes of significant others), they seek a tenuous amelioration by trying to control others through emotional exploitation.

Control of others can serve as a substitute for self-esteem. One can be a master, not of reality, but of others. Oftentimes the person seen as an intimidator directly relies on others’ insecurities about omniscience, infallibility, and omnipotence. Again, because the participants usually do not focus on the underlying nature of their predicament (and the nature of their self-sacrifice), they often do not deal with the situation appropriately. Intimidators are stopped in their tracks, psychologically, when they no longer have others’ perceived inadequacies and negative emotions to feed on.

In order to create healthy conditions for personal growth and psychological progress we have to see the nature of our consciousness and our value clearly. What makes us most equipped for life is not how much we know, but the way in which we obtain new knowledge and use the knowledge we do have. Do we use our knowledge to (however subconsciously) intimidate, manipulate, and control others? Or do we use it to deal proficiently with reality and appropriately with others—and encourage and respect them along the way? It is obvious which of the two methods reflects the morality of reason and rational self-interest. To reiterate, by virtue of existing in the universe we are fit for life and worthy of it. Others may help or hinder recognition of this irrefutable observation. But how we react to their practices (that evidence their own strengths or shortcomings) is our decision.

The idea of infallibility has the potential for generating as much guilt and worry as the idea of omniscience. In fact the two ideas are linked. As we discussed earlier, for a rational organism to never make an error, it would have to know every possible alternative; it would have to be omniscient. Nevertheless, we can continue to feel guilty or worried about making mistakes—even though we know we are going to make them. One can clearly see how these two anti-concepts utilize each other to ruin genuinely spontaneous and effective functioning.

As an anti-concept, infallibility is something we are told exists only for supernatural "entities," but not for human beings. We are told that perfection is simply impossible for lesser beings, such as people. Based on this view we sometimes hear the phrase, "But we are only human." Of course this can be taken to mean that we should recognize our capabilities. However, such a phrase often implies that a human being is somehow inadequate or less than optimal; it will never live up to the imagined ideal. The ideal represents some vague mystical thing that will forever be superior to us.

While "perfect" can describe something that is flawless according to a specific standard, the idea of being perfect according to an impossible standard is nonsensical. Perfection (reflecting infallibility) in this context is therefore another anti-concept.

Perfection for us should have a rational standard that incorporates fallibility. It should mean the ability to function in accordance with our nature. The rational standard is the nature of human consciousness——its normal attributes, properties, processes, and so on. This necessarily includes making mistakes and regulating our thoughts and behavior appropriately. In other words, a perfect person is an authentically thinking and feeling person.

The nature of human consciousness is fallible in respect to acquiring knowledge, and it is fallible and limited at times in utilizing memory to embellish and refine this knowledge. The mental connections we can make are made possible fundamentally by factors in our biological structure and, as a result, volition (i.e., by the physical and metaphysical aspects of human consciousness).

We all experience times when we cannot recall something, but we know it is stored in memory (the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon). We all experience times when we have trouble with a problem or have difficulty comprehending what we are reading; we may have to work on the problem longer, or reread the information. We all experience times when we could have done something better, had we concentrated more or been more aware; we may have to ask ourselves what we can do to improve. Still, none of these situations suggests that we should feel guilty or like failures—for that would be to deny or reject who we are as rational beings—to not fully accept our methods of dealing with reality.

Important moments for us psychologically are times when we are keenly aware of the nature of our consciousness to make mistakes and falter. At such times, we need to dismiss anti-concepts and invalid concepts for their destructiveness and their irrelevance. We should take pride in our ability to see our mistakes, understand our limitations, and proceed to accomplish that which only a human being can accomplish. Doubtless, these activities are as much a subconscious issue as they are a conscious one (perhaps even more of a subconscious issue). Nonetheless, the right conscious assessment can certainly facilitate subconscious exploration and improvement.

Those who become preoccupied with their weaknesses and limitations may never stop to think about their uniquely human strengths and abilities. We should be thoroughly excited about all the joy we can experience, all the infinite discoveries possible to us, and all the inventions that increase our capabilities. This is tantamount to forming a realistic conception of ourselves.

We need not despair over what we are not. We need not fret over what we cannot do. Those who engage in self-degradation tend to become their own enemies. Some may even reduce their lives to nihilism.

We cannot expect to have total control over reality either—to be omnipotent—because we have, like everything else in the universe, a specific identity and a definite way of functioning. Nothing can act in opposition to its identity or different from its composition or beyond its limitations. Sure, we can try to vainly imagine making all the right decisions and being all powerful, but wishing will certainly not make it so. A task for a volitional consciousness, then, is to identify and integrate these conclusions.

Yet children may be reared in environments where it seems people have forgotten or never realized that making mistakes is a necessary process. Many face humiliation when they "screw up" or make a "stupid" mistake. Parents who experienced similar humiliation in their younger years may treat error-making as the object of teasing, sarcasm, and degradation. This reflects their own discomfort and anxiety, of course; they are actually concerned about the use of their own faculty of judgment.

Some religions even teach that to make an error marks one’s soul with a flaw. These flaws, or "sins," and can be devised for the sole purpose of stockpiling unearned guilt. To admit that some so-called sins are actually good for a person, that is, actually within one’s rational self-interest, is normally in violation of religious dogma.

Psychologically, the notion of sin can have its own pay-off: "perfection" is unattainable because the battle was lost either when we were born (Original Sin), or as we matured and succumbed to variety of sinful temptations. As a result, to strive for a better world or to fully believe in human dignity or to take responsibility for one’s happiness all might be viewed as misguided efforts. Human beings will always be inherently flawed, some religions say. Tied directly to this viewpoint is the idea of being forgiven for one’s sins.

In regard to erring, forgiveness can be a completely justifiable and useful idea. It can reassure a person that one does not expect omniscience or infallibility, and that one understands a person’s psychological context. Additionally, since at times we can be harsh judges of ourselves, the idea of self-forgiveness can be extremely valuable. It can help free us from prior unfavorable habits, past errors, and poor judgment. It thereby rejuvenates us and increases our capacity for enjoyment and living in the present.

However, conspicuous problems arise when forgiveness is misinterpreted. Many contend that any wrong or harmful act against others must be taken as an automatic effect of human nature. In other words, since people either have no choice in their behavior or they cannot always make the correct choices in dealing with others, they should be forgiven. Obviously, forgiveness then becomes a way to avoid the root psychological causes of particular actions. This misinterpretation of human fallibility can spawn a desire not to be held accountable for one’s actions.

That every individual makes mistakes is incontrovertible. Mistakes are natural human occurrences. However, this fact of human nature does not excuse wrongful acts. When forgiveness is used to absolve acts of misconduct or iniquity, it becomes another anti-concept. Adding to this ethical confusion are the institutions that relate to others in less than respectful and benevolent ways (e.g., government). The widespread acceptance of this behavior further contributes to misunderstandings about the idea of forgiveness.

The subtle (and not so subtle) ways that declared "mistakes" are used to nullify personal accountability have become commonplace in our culture. In a morality not grounded in reality, such practices become merely the consequences of the doctrine of sacrifice. The doctrine of sacrifice seeks to pardon those who do wrong.

Non-objective morality simply muddles the distinction between right and wrong and good and bad. This not only diminishes self-responsibility, but also mocks one’s power to understand and correct mistakes. Personal accountability presupposes being able to understand a deliberate action or an error—especially what caused it (i.e., what motivated it)—and just as importantly, experience the consequences.

When a mistake or error in judgment concerns others (or implies thoughts of them), analysis of the motivations and emotions involved is important. One’s moral code (one’s values and virtues) may be an issue on which to reflect—in order to discover the reasons for the behavior. This enables one to learn from the incident and to take responsibility for it.

Most actions we take contain a constant correction of errors and removal of possibilities for further errors. Mistakes contribute to our comprehension of what it takes to live well and ensure a healthy mental state. Our incorrect or undesirable actions, either physical or mental, ultimately help guide us onto the proper life course.

Learning from mistakes happens during and after the process of making them. Our honesty and courage enable us to alter our thoughts and behaviors when they are not in our best interests. As we appreciate our faculty of reason, we come to understand why it is all right to make mistakes, take responsibility for them guiltlessly, and learn from them. When we embrace mistake-making as a natural process, we decrease the likelihood of making mistakes. However paradoxical this may seem, acceptance of our fallibility strengthens our reasoning capability——we no longer doubt our ability or regret our nature. We allow ourselves the freedom to change in many ways. This leads us to our final chapter.

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