Monday, November 14, 2011

Reverse Causality Illusion

I debated whether to mention the Reverse Causality Illusion in my response to the book Willpower, but it was too tangential to merit space in the text and too obscure to describe in five or fewer sentences in a footnote. It's a plain idea with a short definition and lengthy implications. The Reverse Causality Illusion is a proposition about the future that "retroactively" causes changes in the present. It's much more common than it sounds. It underpins the driving narratives that motivate many human actions that are otherwise inexplicable. In a word, it's destiny1. It's willpower's "precommitment" taken to the nth degree.

The strength of the Reverse Causality Illusion depends directly on the realistic treatment of the proposition about the future: adherence to every facet of the proposition. From a proponent's standpoint, the proposition is firmly true. Its part of the future is as irrevocable as the past2. Contemplation of alternatives is fruitless. It's so certain that it repels emotional or intellectual fixation on its likelihood. Anxiety is unnecessary. Dread serves no purpose. Evidence that supports other outcomes has to be inconclusive. Decisions can't contradict it. Impulses that disagree are temporary delusions.

Is this a fatalistic outlook? Definitively. Is it restrictive? Sure, as restrictive as tying Odysseus to the boat mast so he's unable to follow the Sirens. Is it double-think? Yep, since the brain is fighting its thoughts with its thoughts (who gave me the right to order me around?). Is it nonsensical? Perhaps, unless and until someone's actions confirm its accuracy.

Some specimens achieve a still-higher notch of curious self-reinforcement. Whereas lower illusions enforce boundaries on actions and feelings, superior illusions enforce boundaries on doubts. Someone reasons, "The future is fixed but my belief in it is wavering; I should try harder to reassure myself about these facts that are yet-to-come." Essentially the "reality" of a proposition about the future takes precedence over each doubt of it. Thoughts that contradict the proposition are proof that the thinker is mistaken, not proof that the proposition is less likely! Thereby the supposed future can constrict just as completely as the past.

Nevertheless, a judicious Reverse Causality Illusion has its uses, especially for inducing calmness3 or pursuing an appropriate goal. To reiterate, in order for the illusory proposal to push through time in reverse and cause differences immediately, it cannot be weak. A working illusion is vivid and plausible. If it's not feasible or believable, it's too easily interpreted as an ignorable wish or passing whim. Necessary mental revisions or physical adjustments will increase its perceived probability4.

A sturdy illusion isn't enough. Perverse commitment is the second requisite. An internal mind game needs willing players. At all costs, the existence of the illusion must seem independent and indestructible. Regardless of its authorship, it transforms into an objective occurrence that happens to not be tangible. First the brain cultivates the illusion, then the brain obeys the illusion thereafter despite remembering the creative origin. Illogical or not, this strategy is actually consistent with well-known observations. Isolated parts of the brain aren't able to unilaterally sort reality from fantasy or true from false5. Uncritical acceptance is the default effortless response. Sections of the brain can deceive other sections by issuing prophecies.

Of course, the prophecy might be correct. Days ago, I had foretold that yesterday afternoon was the time period of tidying the exterior of my house. I dislike miscellaneous humdrum tasks, but what else could I do? I'd been expecting that event. My sense of annoyance about it had preemptively risen and subsided. I'd released my misgivings about it and shifted my angst to uncertain outcomes. Why should I continue to expend my limited animus on an impersonal and unavoidable circumstance?6

1Reverse Causality Illusion is distinct from normal predictions. Predictions are far less pretentious, bossy, and insistent. Predictions are reasonable guesses which are tied to bounded confidence levels.
2Someone who's learned about Minkowski spacetime may ponder the notion that their whole worldline exists. Past, present, and future are merely coordinates. The future is "there" like the room at the end of the hallway is there.
3With the caveat that strong phobias, persistent depression, or pervasive anxiety require more drastic techniques and/or chemicals. Your mileage may vary.
4For example, in my communication courses I found that the cheery proposition "My next speech will go well" only felt tenable after rehearsing the speech and laying out my phrasing and gestures beforehand. Rehearsal may bother procrastinators precisely because it reminds them of the impending unpleasantness, but why not use a "safe" environment to confront and eliminate the worrisome unknowns of how the speech will go? It doesn't prohibit spontaneity at delivery time. To the contrary, close familiarity with the speech's overall delivery allows for better-informed choices of how to tweak its details freely as the situation warrants or as inspiration strikes.
5The same gullibility affects conscious memory. Oft-repeated or pleasing lies tend to be later recalled as truths, including when the hearer is aware of falsity at the original time of hearing. As the popular saying goes, never let the facts ruin a good story (or conventional wisdom, or common sense).
6I'm dramatizing. My hatred of that category of work is real but not deep.

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