Mechanism -- The Ugly Truth That Nobody Wants To Know (Introduction)
©2005 Darel Rex Finley

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Consider this
Consider this
The hint of the century

“Losing My Religion” — REM

WHEN I WAS A BOY, growing up in the plush, upper-middle-class, waterside city of Nassau Bay, Texas, I would ride my bicycle around the neighborhood, and one of my frequent stops was the local shopping strip which included a grocery store, a drug store, a music store, and other venues. Shopping centers delighted me, and my love of them would later bring me to identify the modern shopping mall as perhaps the supreme creation of humanity.

Unlike shopping trips in the car with my mother and sisters, going to the grocery store on my bike gave me the opportunity to explore areas that I otherwise might not have seen. I discovered that that the strip center had a backside. It was ugly, industrial, and generally uninviting. Boxes and crates sat around in random piles. The doors were gray, opaque, and anonymous. It seemed a completely different world from the customer-facing side. I realized that behind the pretty facade of a storefront and its shopping interior there was an ugly, functional area that was necessary to make the whole store work, but not nice to look at or interface with directly. The strip center, it seemed, was designed to hide all its ugly facets and present to the customer only the magical, finished products and services.

As I have wandered through life, I could not help but notice that the shopping center of my youth is closely analogous to all the good things in life. I remember my surprise when as a small child I first found out that all books had authors and illustrators, who wrote every word and drew every picture. The realization was shocking; prior to that, I had a vague impression that the content of a book was somehow generated by the printing press that mass-replicated it. I was even more shocked to later learn that the Saturday morning cartoons I enjoyed each week — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc. — were hand-drawn one frame at a time. 1977’s Star Wars was the first motion picture to spark my curiosity into how movies are made, and the more I researched it, the more amazed I became both at how phony it really is, and how much work goes into such a short presentation.

My uncle Larry is a magician, so in my preteen years I wanted to be one too, and I learned a few illusions. Again, I was impressed at how much effort and specialized equipment went into making the impossible seem possible — and how important it was to keep the preparations and rehearsals secret from the audience, to whom the whole effect must seem effortless, as if you just waved your hand and wished it to happen — and it did.

The best tricks were always the ones that seemed bafflingly impossible. For example, a fellow student in grade school once pulled out a pack of playing cards in its box and asked me to name any card, out loud. I named the four of spades, whereupon this student proceeded to thumb through the deck face down until he came upon a single face-up card: the four of spades! My astonishment was amplified when he pulled that card out of the deck and showed me that it had a very different pattern on its back than did the rest of the cards. My mind told me that I had just witnessed the impossible, and for several hours I debated whether I wanted to be able to perform that trick for my friends, or preserve the magic by spending the rest of my life not knowing how it was done. Curiosity won out, and a trip to the local magic shop revealed how absurdly non-spectacular that trick really was. Soon, I was performing it for numerous friends and relatives, and though I knew that nothing even remotely impossible was going on, I could delight in the knowledge that they were experiencing the same wonder and amazement that I had known when I first witnessed the feat.

Many years later I had a similar experience while strolling through Opry Mills Mall in Nashville, Tennessee. The proprietor of the magic store spread out a deck of cards face up and asked a boy in his small audience to name a card. The magician took the chosen card out of the deck and placed it under a rubber mat on the counter. Then he gathered the rest of the deck together, and turned it over to reveal, on the back of the top card, a crude, marker-drawn picture of a stick man with a top hat. The magician riffed through the cards and a jerky, animated cartoon unfolded: The stick man lifted the hat off of his head, reached into it, and pulled out a card — the exact same card that the boy had chosen! Again I had that rare thrill of witnessing the impossible, and again my curiosity was piqued. I wondered if the boy was a stooge — but then, at the urging of the boys, the magician made the mistake of performing the same trick again, and instantly I realized how it was done. Like most magic illusions, the effect is best when the audience is fresh and unspoiled, and has the experience impressed upon their minds for the first time. Having figured it out, the magic was ruined for me — but I could still appreciate the ingenuity of how the audience is fooled, and I can perform the feat for others if I am inclined to spend the time setting it up. Magicians are quintessential artists. A skilled painter or sculptor creates work that is startling in its ability, but magicians go further, performing feats that amaze by their apparent impossibility.

Professional photographers, I learned, shoot many hundreds of photos, but display only a carefully chosen few. Sometimes their shutters click rapidly, shooting multiple shots of the same subject in the span of just a few seconds, in the hope that maybe one of the captured images will look especially delightful — and of course most of the people who view that photo will never know about all the other photos that weren’t published.

What happens when the functional underbelly of a work is inadequately concealed? The work is spoiled. To me, second-rate, traveling carnivals exemplify this phenomenon. The seedy down-and-outers (fugitives?) running the rides, the water hoses and electrical cables snaking about, the metal-cage whirligigs with exposed mechanisms, the row of portable toilets — all show far too much of how the carnival really functions. The best and most beautiful things do depend on such ugly necessity, but find artful ways to conceal it.

Often a photographer will get two shots of the same scene that each offer something of value, and must choose which one to display and which to sacrifice. Sometimes the photographer succumbs to the temptation to show the alternate version of the photo too (perhaps in a collection book) or an uncropped or unadjusted version of the photo. Every time I see this, I feel sharp disappointment, and realize that the photographer should never have done it. Once the decision is made which version of the photo to display, the photographer must stick with it, to avoid shattering the illusion of perfection that the solitary, magical photograph has created.

This is even more true of motion pictures. Once audiences across the land have been exposed to the original, theatrical version of a film, it only hurts to later release “improved” versions of the movie. The illusion of a great motion picture is that the events it portrays seem so real that the audience members walk away feeling as if they were really there and witnessed something that really happened. Making any changes to the film later only serves to detract from the reality of the events, much like trying to rewrite the history of actual events to suit one’s tastes of how those events should have happened. The director of the film is usually oblivious to this problem, because he has become accustomed to modifying and revising the film (during its postproduction), and so can easily forget that the audience does not experience it that way.

Computer programs are another form of magic art. When I was a teenager and mastering assembly language, I would amaze my computer-nerd friends with the things I could make the computer do, but I rarely gave them a glimpse of how much code or how many hours of debugging were involved in accomplishing those feats. They never saw the mistakes or the crashes of the unfinished program. When every bug was eliminated, and the program performed flawlessly, its reams of confusing code hidden away in a compiled application file, then it would be released to its audience, and in their eyes the program seemed to have appeared overnight, as if I just thought it would be neat to have, waved a wand, and poof there it was.

Robert Greene’s marvelous bestseller The 48 Laws of Power contains a chapter entitled “Make Your Accomplishments Seem Effortless.” In that chapter, Greene describes how much more people will like you, and want to cooperate with you, if you seem to perform amazing acts with no apparent effort. Even though the people around you know, logically, that some effort must have gone into your accomplishments, the human tendency is to mentally minimize the effort that goes unseen, and the effect is one of perceived supernatural ability. Most of Greene’s book is focused on how to foster an image in the eyes of others that conceals the mental and physical mechanisms behind it, and makes you appear to be what others want to see; what they want to believe it is possible for a person to be — but in reality is impossible.

— • —

As far back as Plato, there has been a strong belief among many cultures, religions, and philosophies that truth equals beauty — that beauty is somehow intrinsically linked to truth, and vise-versa. But in fact, it is not. The truth is ugly and pragmatic, and beauty is an illusion; an elaborately crafted illusion whose purpose is to please its viewers by creating the appearance that beauty is real. No one really likes to admit this — it’s no fun, and it seems to spoil life. The idea that beauty is a lie is galling, but can be made more palatable by shedding the idea that all lies are necessarily evil. Some lies are intended to enrich or protect our lives and, should they be exposed, instead of recoiling in disgust at the ugly truth behind the beautiful lie, we can instead choose to turn the tables and become the new magicians, creating beauty for others. Instead of cursing the magician’s fakery, we can take our turn with the magic wand.

The running theme of this book is that all things beautiful and magical are in reality concealing an ugly, complex, tediously created machinery, which is intentionally hidden from the beholder, so that the illusion of beauty will not be ruined. Many of the most cherished sentiments of humanity are centered around beauty having a life of its own, separate from ugliness and difficulty — so many statements found herein will be detestable, or at least cynical, to most readers. When an idea presented here strikes you as repulsive, remember that it must have once seemed repugnant and pessimistic to believe that humans live on a relatively tiny ball that drifts through a mostly empty universe. Ideas that seem cynical to the point of grotesquery today, have a way of becoming mundane knowledge tomorrow.

Science is the endeavor to find out how our world really works, and to some degree it requires us to put emotion aside — save the emotion of curiosity. The idea of setting emotion aside conjures up visions of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock — a perpetually calm person who knows no anger, fear, sadness, or joy. But Mr. Spock is actually a misconstrued embodiment of the difference between logic and emotion, which are accurately defines thusly:

emotion: the desire that a particular goal be achieved

logic: the tools of analysis and planning by which a goal may be achieved

We can see by these definitions that logic is useful only in the presence of emotion. A hypothetical person who had logic, but no emotion, would have no goals to which to apply logic. Mr. Spock was not devoid of emotions — he had emotional desires to survive, to serve Starfleet, to perform scientific exploration, and to live by the Vulcan codes of behavior and honor.

What would an emotionless person be like? Would such a person perhaps be catatonic, doing nothing but sitting and staring, and waiting to die? No — to do nothing is an option, so even that would have to be emotionally preferred. We can see then, that a purely logical person, devoid of emotion, is not even theoretically possible. Any person or device with logical capabilities is also equipped with emotional directives. Even a logic engine much simpler than the human brain — a pocket calculator, for instance — includes emotional desires: the desire to await instructions received through key presses, and to then respond to those instructions by performing accurate calculations and displaying their results.

Phillip Johnson, founder of the modern Intelligent Design (ID) movement, says, “From science we may learn a great deal about how the world works, and how to get whatever it is we want, but unless we have another source of knowledge we will have no way to reason about the purpose of life and or exactly what it is that a rational person ought to want.”1 This unfortunate choice of words betrays the fallacy in the whole attempt to tie the ID movement to exhortations to behave morally. Johnson admits that science can tell us only how to do things, not what to want to do — but then he sticks in the word “rational” and violates his own premise.

The concept of “what a rational person ought to want” is a contradiction in terms. Reason (logic) is a tool that we use to figure out how to get what we want — emotion is the category of our wants. Wants do not spring from logic; to want to do anything (or nothing) is extra-logical. As Johnson himself has pointed out, logic is a way from getting from assumptions to conclusions. A purely logical being would have no assumptions (e.g. I want a red sports car) in the service of which to apply its reasoning powers.

The emotional desire relevant to scientific discovery is curiosity, but it is far from the only human emotion. Humans also have a strong desire to experience unspoiled beauty, and as we shall see, this comes into conflict with science, even in the minds of many scientists. To discover the truth around us, we must be willing to spoil the beauty, and content ourselves to experience beauty only vicariously, through the eyes of our young children, or the eyes of the audience members who view the carefully controlled end-products of our (extrascientific) artistic efforts.

— • —

The past century, the last of its millennium, has seen the split of civilization into two vehemently opposed camps. In the USA, these camps are called the Conservatives and the Liberals, or alternatively the Rightists and the Leftists.

The Conservatives (or Rightists) believe in the time-honored traditions of human society, such as religion, family, limited sexuality, and a strong military, plus some newer developments such as the free-enterprise system. The Liberals (or Leftists) view these traditions as arbitrary straightjackets which need to be overthrown to maximize human freedom. Liberals oppose also the free-enterprise system because they correctly perceive it as an obstacle to their planned eradication of restrictive traditions. Liberals recognize that, left to their own devices, most people will opt for the traditional routes in life — or that if change comes, it will come much more slowly than could be achieved with direct government control.

Virtually all American politics (and much world politics) are centered around this fundamental dichotomy. It is the major contention of this book that almost no one, on either side of the split, wants to know what is actually true, even though the truth is usually right in front of their noses. Rather, people embrace any argument that supports their own, preferred vision, even if it does so only by eroding the strength of the other side. For example, Leftists embrace Darwinian evolution and materialist reductionism because those are powerful tools against religious scripture and its moral codes, from which the Left seeks freedom. Conversely, Rightists reject evolution (in its purest formulation) and reductionism for similar reasons. Neither side harbors much genuine curiosity to know whether or not Darwinism is actually true — and if not, what is.

People are at their most logical when criticizing others’ positions, not when defending their own. When criticizing someone else’s position, it is easy to find the flaws and draw attention to them. But when advancing their own position, those same people find it easy to gloss over or minimize flaws. We usually think of criticism as “negative,” and advancing your own proposal as “positive.” For example, politicians are frowned upon for running “negative” ads that smear their opponents. But how much useful information does a voter receive from a purely “positive” campaign, in which both candidates present rosy pictures of how they will lead the electorate to prosperity and security? It takes a “negative” campaign to reveal what is wrong with each candidate, and it is the negative campaigning that generally provides the voters with their best insight into what each candidate will do if elected.

The pursuit of truth is similar to an election in that the Right and the Left do wonderful jobs of revealing each other’s flaws, but are far weaker when it comes to promoting their own, comprehensive vision. The time has come to skim the best of both sides and form a new vision that is free of obvious flaws. Many topics will be covered in this book, and some of the chips are going to fall one way, while others will fall the other way. Some will fall in a third direction, and others will disappear altogether into the void of meaninglessness. I cannot claim to have all the answers, but at the risk of being called arrogant, I believe that this book will be the beginning of a true and frank discourse on what is really going on in the world, and most previous arguments will be seen to be heavily tainted with philosophical/social preferences — colored by what people wish was true.

When Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura said that “organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers,” he unsurprisingly drew heavy criticism, but refused to back down. One of his aides explained that the governor believes in something called “brutal honesty.” Be prepared — there is going to be a lot of brutal honesty in this book, including many things which you may not want to know.