On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality
by Scott Aaronson

I was going to start by declaring that, since no one besides me will ever read this journal, I might as well write the truth.  But such a refrain is, in truth, unnecessary, for truth is my ground state; I'm a habitual truth-teller.

Take what happened this afternoon. This guy Eric who sits next to me in BC calculus was ogling me the whole period.  He's not the first; plenty of guys at Westbrook High drool over me until they discover my psychotic hyperrationality. And ought I to blame them? My orange hair is lustrous, my high cheekbones reliable Darwinian indicators of fertility, my breasts—what adjective won't sound hackneyed?—paraboloid.  Their volumes are given roughly by ½πR2L, so maybe Eric did learn some calculus today. (Me, I learned the subject from a book a few years ago. But let me speak no more of classwork, for even to contemplate it fills me with knife-like jolts of boredom.)

After class, Eric cornered me in the hall.  "Hi, Ilyssa!"

"Hi!"  I untied the gray sweatshirt around my waist and pulled it over my head.

"This is kind of awkward, but, um, I've been noticing you in class—and, like, I'd really love to get to know you better, and I was just wondering"—his voice cracked—"if maybe this weekend you wanted to go see Hamlet at the Repertory Theater with me?"

Leaning against a locker with one hand, I chewed the thumbnail of the other, gazing at the blue-and-white checkered tiles on the floor.  Despite his verbal ineptitude, at six-foot-two Eric is one of the more desirable seniors, and many sophomores would, I suppose, have been flattered by the attention. Removing my thumb, I replied—not, I don't think, with any malice in my voice, but genuinely, inquisitively, because I was seized by the problem and wanted to know the solution—"What you're saying is tantamount to saying that you want to fuck me. So why shouldn't I react with revulsion precisely as though you'd said the latter?"

Eric's cheeks reddened and his hands trembled; it was rather cute.  "I just wanted to have a good time, just as friends!"

"You're asking me to accept that a first domino will be knocked over yet a hundredth will stand. Do chess masters continue playing when they see a mate—get it?—twenty moves ahead?"

Realizing that he doth protest innocence too much, Eric mustered more chutzpah than I'd imagined him to possess. "Maybe I would want to sleep with you," he blurted out. "But only after I'd gotten to know you a lot better."

"So if I offered myself to you now, you'd turn me down?"

Pause.  "Of course."

"They did studies in 1978 and 1982 at Florida State University.  Seventy-five percent of men agreed to immediate intercourse with a stranger of average appearance.  Of the remaining twenty-five percent, many begged for a raincheck because their wives or girlfriends were around.  Given the way you eyed me in class, why should I place you in the exceptional minority?"

Eric bit his lip and held his books in one hand as he ruffled his jacket with the other. "You're a strange girl," he said as he turned away.


It isn't enough to refrain from uttering known falsehoods.  To be a truth-teller as I understand it one must also possess a fanatical, consuming desire to understand the world as it really is, and a concomitant abhorrence of vagueness and mysticism.  When Richard Feynman says the first principle is that you must not fool yourself, for you are the easiest person to fool; when Carl Sagan demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims; when Richard Dawkins asserts that astrologers should be taken seriously, enough so to be jailed for fraud; when Bertrand Russell wishes to propose for the reader's favourable consideration the doctrine that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no reason whatever for supposing it true—they are expressing the ethic of the truth-teller.

I'm miserable about Eric. He didn't deserve my rebuke, and besides, I might have enjoyed seeing Hamlet. But I'm certain that the next time something like this happens I'm going to act similarly.  I can't stop myself.  My question was interesting, so I asked it; my arguments were valid, so I made them.

Last night I talked to my sister on the phone.  She thinks I'm an idiot. "One word," Shoshana advised me.  "Compartmentalize."

"What does that mean?"

"Divide up your brain into separate compartments, one each for physics, poetry, talking to guys you might want to date—it's not that hard, for Chrissakes, nor does it require changing your deepest beliefs.  I mean, I'm a math major at MIT, probably even nerdier than you are, and I've gotten engaged, haven't I? You just need to learn that different social settings call for, let's say, different modes of discourse."

"That's good counsel," I replied, "for those able to follow it.  But I've learned that my brain is like a TV dinner without little plastic dividers between the pasta and carrots and green beans, so that they all coalesce into mush."

"Well then, don't try to change your face," said Shoshana, "just apply makeup and eyeliner to it.  I mean you don't have to argue right away with everyone you meet or chew your nails in public. Let boys get to know you better, and I don't doubt they'll admire you for your carefully-reasoned convictions. And if they don't, then why would you want to date them anyway?"

"Your advice is as reasonable as useless," I responded, perhaps too harshly. "For my face is merely a reflection of my intellect. I can no more leave fingernails unchewed when I contemplate the nature of rationality than grin convincingly when miserable.  One might whitewash a dilapidated shed or pepper an unsavory soup, but one cannot sculpt a puddle into ice, nor, I think, tug at the yarn of my eccentricities without unraveling my character."


My name means 'rational.' My dad suggested it, and my mom, thinking it euphonious, went along.  I would have wanted to ask him how he chose it, but he died in his office of unknown causes twelve years ago to the day.  I've just climbed down from the attic, where I retrieved a stack of his old letters, memos, articles.  I haven't gone through this stuff since I was ten. Back then I didn't understand much, but just looking at what he'd written gave me my first sense of really knowing him, since I had only the foggiest memories from before he died: his heating my milk-bottle in the microwave, dancing with my mom in the kitchen the day he got something called 'tenure,' giving me a wooden spoon with which to smack tigers when they terrorized me at night.

I remember the funeral better. Shoshana and I sat in the front row wearing white doilies clipped to our heads, as the cantor's voice filled the sanctuary with a melody that still unsettles me:

Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei rabba—


b'allma de v'ra chir'usei.  V'yamlich malchusei, b'chayeichon, uv'yomeichon, uv'chayei d'chol beit yisrael, ba'agala u'vizman kariv.  V'imru—


As I listened I thought I could see my dad standing on the bima, curly eyebrows, glasses, well-trimmed beard.  He was an economics professor at the University of Southern Maine, and almost never, so Shoshana told me, observant. But growing up I heard my mother speak often of him looking down on us from heaven.  She was especially apt to do so after she'd just broken up with a boyfriend, for she dated many times but never remarried; or after something propitious happened, like her promotion at the real estate office that meant we wouldn't have to move out of the house after all.  I formed a private theory that dad was on the divine waitlist: the Bearded One wasn't in the habit of admitting atheists, but He might grant exceptions for particularly worthy applicants.  Mostly the outcome would depend on how hard I prayed. When, later, in Hebrew school, I learned about the victims of the Holocaust and the pogroms and blood-libels, somehow they melded with my dad into a single flame that had to be stoked through faith.

I became a brat about it.  I demanded that my mom buy separate meat and dairy dishes, went on a hunger strike until she did. On Shabbat I threw a tantrum whenever she or Shoshana toggled a light switch, or carried something outside without first tying it around their wrists so that it would count as clothing. A religion, I reasoned, couldn't be half-true. If you believed it, if you took it seriously, then how could you wear leather shoes on Yom Kippur or let a siddur fall to the ground without kissing it?

Six months before I was to become bat mitzvah, I learned something puzzling in Hebrew school. It seemed that the Ten Commandments, contrary to popular belief, weren't handed down on stone tablets with rounded tops; instead, the tablets were rectangular and sapphire, with the writing carved all the way through.  Checking and rechecking the Hebrew alphabet above the blackboard, I hesitantly raised my hand.  "But what about mem and samech?" I asked.  "Those letters are shaped like an 'O'—I mean, topologically."

Mrs. Levi adjusted her shimmering wig. "Ah yes, very good, Ilyssa.  Zis vas debated for centuries by ze rebbes. And ze consensus vas that Hashem commanded ze middle sections to float in ze air."

"But how?" I persisted.  "Were they kept up by electromagnetic repulsion?"

"Possibly. Or possibly only Hashem knows ze answer.  Anyvay—please everyone take out ze Chumashim.  We have to go over ze quiz, and—sheket! Please! Sheket bevakasha!"

I was still trying to picture it. If it was electromagnetism, then even the slightest instability would cause the middle sections to fly out and plummet to the ground.  And these tablets were shlepped through the desert for forty years!  By the end of class, it wasn't only sapphire donut-holes that had broken loose in my mind and fallen into a new equilibrium. I never was bat-mitzvahed.


In the attic, hidden in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, I found something of my dad's that I'd never come across before: a yellow typescript entitled On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality.  It appears to be a monograph that he started shortly before he died: seventy pages, double-spaced, most sections unfinished or unwritten. I understand little of it, for, aside from its incompleteness, it's full of terrifying mathematics and unfamiliar terms. Yet having taken away a mere skeleton, I set about immediately to put flesh on it myself.  In this I was helped by a visit to the library, for my dad's theory has informal precedents in the work of various social scientists and economists: Trivers, Frank, Schelling, Hirshleifer, Akerlof, Gauthier. What follows, though, is my own working-out of things, no doubt colored by emotion and laced with wild surmise.

Two cars race toward each other on an empty freeway; the first to swerve is the chicken. How should you play if you want to preserve both your status and your life?  The answer is clear: in full view of your opponent, rip out your car's steering wheel, blindfold yourself, down a bottle of Jack Daniels, scream. If you can persuade your opponent that you're incapable of making the decision to swerve, then he has to swerve.  In other words: the stupider, more ignorant, more irrational you can prove you are, the better the chance you have of winning. How much of human life follows the same pattern?

Imagine a sought-after bachelor choosing which of two women to marry.  The first assures him, in so many words, that she won't cheat on, desert, or cuckold him—but the second can produce evidence that she's incapable of these acts. What form could the evidence take? Ditziness, perhaps, or mad, head-over-heels, 'irrational' romantic love.  I'm such a fool, I couldn't bring myself to cheat on you even if a man with more resources or better genes came along. Can we not see how genes for ditziness could spread through a population?   Of course, the ideal strategy for a woman would be to fake ditziness while she's wooing men, yet call on a hidden stash of rationality for other purposes.  But the more adept women became at such fakery, the more selection pressure there'd be on men to detect it—an arms race. The eventual outcome would most likely be a compromise, dependent, for instance, on whether the computations needed to conceal one's rationality are inherently harder than those needed to detect such concealment. The same logic applies to a woman choosing men, or indeed to any interaction involving promises or threats that can't be enforced by a third party.

And to think of the deluded Romantics, who saw emotions as untamed animal impulses, irreconcilable with reason! Emotions are the most ingenious weapons natural selection has ever devised.  They are the mechanisms by which reason, when it pays to do so, cripples itself—like God making a stone so heavy that not even He can lift it. When Douglas Yates wrote that "people who are sensible about love are incapable of it," he might have added a footnote: "the Darwinian explanation for this fact arises from certain paradoxes of rationality in games played by agents known to each other to have bounded computational capacity."


Intelligence, rationality, clear understanding—the points I'm making could apply to any of them, insofar as any of them could make one's promises or threats less credible. But my dad developed a more detailed model. He defined Type-0 thinking to be that concerned directly with the truth about the world. To find out whether astrology works, a Type-0 thinker might test its predictions against those made by rolling a die—and would inevitably conclude that it doesn't work. By contrast, Type-1 thinking is concerned with the truth about which beliefs are most advantageous to hold. A Type-1 thinker investigating astrology might first go to nightclubs acting as though he believes it—"Hey baby, what's your sign?"—and then go acting as though he doesn't believe it, so that he can calculate which belief is the more often smiled upon by Venus. We can also define Type-2 thinking—concerned with the truth about which beliefs about the truth about which beliefs are most advantageous to hold are most advantageous to hold—as well as Type-3, Type-4, and so on. My dad pictured the mind as an uneasy cohabitation of all these types, with one dominant one minute, another the next.  The types quickly diminish in importance, though, the further removed they are from the world: Type-728 thinking is unlikely to have much survival value.

Richard Dawkins, the biologist, was once asked about a study claiming that the devout live longer on average than atheists.  He replied that, even if that were so, he'd rather know the truth about where he came from and die early than live longer under a fantasy. I'll take Dawkins to represent the "ideal" scientist: nearly incapable of self-delusion, a Type-0 genius but a Type-1-and-higher retard.  Now, is that a gift or an impairment?  We know how Dawkins would answer.  He's argued that religion is the result of an evolutionary misfiring: it's a good strategy, overall, for children to believe their parents.  So if the parents say, "You'll go to hell unless you worship Ra the Sun God and tell your own children to do likewise," then this cruel meme piggybacks on the children's otherwise beneficial credulity. But think again about promises and threats. What if irrationality is not a 'bug' that evolution failed to eradicate, but a 'feature' with which it wired us specifically?  Couldn't that yield a tighter explanation?

Dawkins might argue that 'is' doesn't imply 'ought'—that even if we have evolved to delude ourselves, it's still bad or immoral to do so.  But we can easily think of counterexamples.  Mountains of evidence have so far failed to persuade us to limit our CO2 emissions, and thus do we cheerfully dig our own carboniferous grave. What if a hugely successful religion were founded, which taught that burning fossil fuel is a sin against Petrola, the oil-god? Such a religion, if it saved civilization, would also save its libraries and universities and particle accelerators.  Hence, even if your sole concern were the advancement of knowledge, you'd still have to concede that it's better—more moral—for people to believe in Petrola than to know the truth of His nonexistence.

So what's left of the truth-teller ethic?  Dawkins has done well for himself promoting it; he's famous, respected, and by all accounts happy.  But what of those such as I, to whom clear understanding has brought only misery?  Am I to hope that, in the hereafter, a rationalist God will reward me for having the intellectual integrity not to believe in Him?


At Westbrook the flu is spreading like the flu.  A third of my calculus class, the debate team president, my AP European teacher have all contracted it in the past week, and so too must have I, for today my joints were feeble and my nostrils prolific. I mentioned this to Tracy at lunchtime, taking pains not to lean too close to her.  Tracy and I bonded in fourth grade because of a shared proficiency at spelling, and have remained friends despite fundamental differences in outlook. She's the nimblest compartmentalizer I know, a girl who won $10,000 in the Ayn Rand Institute's essay contest despite not believing a word of Rand's philosophy (she entered, she explained, just for the money).  Though not especially pulchritudinous, with her pierced eyebrow, overbite, and short black hair dyed blue at the tips, she's dated Elliot Lewis, the dashing (haha) captain of the track team, and is regularly invited to the best parties. Indeed the few such invitations I've received have all been her doing—though once I arrive someplace she quite understandably ignores me, leaving me to loaf in a corner consuming corn chips and flat Coke and disillusioning the occasional propositioner.

Tracy urged me to try a homeopathic flu remedy manufactured by a company called Mind-Body Ayeurvedic ("that's A-y-e-u-r-v-e-d-i-c") Spirit Healing Incorporated.  "I stocked my purse with some, in case I came down with it," she explained, producing a Kleenex full of giant green capsules. "They're like twenty bucks a bottle, but worth it. If I take one as soon as I know I'm sick, it really alleviates the symptoms—and I think even makes them go away faster."

I raised my eyebrows.  "Must be a placebo effect. You know, don't you, that 'homeopathic' usually means so diluted that not a single molecule of the active ingredient remains?  And that only because of intense lobbying in 1994 are companies allowed to market such quack remedies as 'dietary supplements,' with no FDA approval?"

Tracy shrugged her shoulders.  "What do I care if it's a placebo effect?  What matters is that it works."

"Right, but if the only reason it works is that you believe it works, then how can it work if you know it only works because you believe it works?"

"I don't think about it that hard."

"Well then, why not convince yourself that celery sticks cure the flu, and save twenty bucks?"

"Because celery sticks are just celery!"

A devastating counterargument reached my lips but didn't exit. I remembered my dad's typescript. "Gimme one of those horse-pills," I demanded.

"Sure! But why the turnabout?"

After swallowing the pill I explained to Tracy, as well as I could before the bell rang, the theory of rational self-delusion, the adaptive function of romantic love, the hierarchy of thinking-types.  "I've concluded," I said, "that I have a Type-1-and-higher reasoning disability, which, if I don't cure it while my mind is supple, will remain in place for life and destroy any possibility of happiness. Since my dad was so evidently engrossed by this problem, maybe I inherited it from him.  I don't know.  But whether or not I can stop thinking clearly through sheer force of effort, I can no longer stop myself from trying."


Two plus two equals three.  Anxiety is a cucumber.  Bananas were created by God for human enjoyment, for why else would they come in such convenient cases? All mortals are men, Xanthippe is immortal only on Thursdays in which time doesn't exist, therefore Socrates is a trombone.  George W. Bush has a simple goal: for ordinary Americans like you to keep more of their own money.  Scientists say the Milky Way is an ox; tribal shamans have long taught it to be an agglomeration of several hundred billion stars orbiting a massive black hole; who's to say which account contains the more peanut butter?

It's no use. I, an apprentice dupe, am trying to entertain blackbelt propositions.  Eight out of ten philosophers agree: you can't simply will yourself to believe something you know is false.  Self-delusion is more complicated than that. If ever I'm to evolve into an irrationalist, it will be by gradual degrees, not punctuated equilibrium.  Which reminds me: yesterday, my new quest in mind, I bought a book entitled Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by the illustrious Stephen Jay Gould. Science and religion, Gould argues, deal with 'non-overlapping magisteria' and therefore needn't conflict with each other. When we confront questions beyond science's ken—why the universe exists, how to behave morally—we should turn instead to faith for the answers.  For, just as science has demonstrated its authority regarding the material realm, so too has faith, over the centuries, proved its ability to resolve questions in the spiritual and ethical realms.

Non-sequiturs taste like chocolatey nougat.


Today I passed Tracy's ex-boyfriend in the hall.  Elliot is broad-shouldered, brown-goateed, attractively simian in appearance. He glanced briefly in my direction and nodded as I chomped on the nail of my index finger. Then, after he was several paces behind, he ran back up and tapped me on the shoulder: "Ilyssa!"


"Do you want to go to a swing-dancing party at Shannon's place this Saturday?"

"Ah, yet is not dancing merely a vertical expression of a horizontal desire?"

But my voice softened to an apologetic whisper as I asked this, and Elliot either didn't hear me or pretended not to.  "Excuse me?"

"I said I'd love to go," I repeated.


What is it like to be a man? I think that would have been a better title for Thomas Nagel's paper than "What is it like to be a bat?" Certainly Nagel was more qualified to address the former. I suppose that were I sufficiently curious I could procure a sex-change, and thus the question is a crassly empirical rather than philosophical one.  But it's baffling nonetheless, and somehow comes to mind when I think of Elliot.

Yesterday afternoon, after I got home, I went into the bathroom and studied myself in the mirror. I brushed my cheek with the back of my hand, stroking the imaginary stubble.  I held a handful of orange hair above my lip, pouting so that my makeshift mustache would stay put. I pushed my breasts down, crossed my legs—well, I'd rather not even imagine that. I might know on an objective level what men are like, or what motivates them (which is, after all, stupefyingly obvious)—but to know on a subjective level is, as Nagel pointed out, an entirely different matter.

And this, I think, is a trapdoor through which I might escape the scientific worldview. Given that I exist, why am I a woman and not a man, a twenty-first-centurean and not a Neanderthal, a human and not a Gwezorkenoid, miserable and not content?  Why, in short, am I I rather than someone else? Those who presume to answer such questions use what's called anthropic reasoning.  But perplexities abound: can I reason that the number of humans who will live after me is probably not much greater than the number who have lived before, and that therefore, taking population growth into account, humanity faces imminent extinction?  Or am I twice as likely to exist in a world with twice as many humans? Making this assumption rescues me from the previous argument, but at the cost of a strange sort of dualism: I have to reason about the probability of my own existence, as if 'I' would even be a meaningful concept if I didn't exist.

In conclusion, I hope to have persuaded myself that reality is deeply mysterious, and that when we ponder why we were born female in the late twentieth century, or such matters, we find gaping holes in our confident materialistic conception of the universe—or, that if that assessment isn't quite right, then maybe it's both right and wrong at the same time, in keeping with Niels Bohr's maxim that the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth, from which profound truth the profound truth follows that the opposite of a profound truth is not a profound truth at all.



Jesus fucking Christ.  When will I evolve to the stage in which Ill be able to omit an apostrophe without being conscious of it?


I've been taking a yoga class Tuesday afternoons in the high school gym. It has not brought me to a new level of awareness.  "Concentrate on the breathing," crooned the instructor today, illustrating this command with a deep inhalation. "Breathing is the bridge between the conscious and the unconscious"—did he mean subconscious?—"mind."

Around me twenty pairs of lungs filled and unfilled noisily. My thoughts, though, were less occupied with breathing than with how not to fall asleep on my foam mat, as I did last week. After this airy exercise we continued to our next warm-up, foot massages.  Since there's an odd number of students, I naturally had no partner, and ended up pairing with the instructor, thumbing his feet through loose and sweaty socks, on a voyage of the sole.

I have, though, taken one superb idea from the class. I now regularly set my alarm for seven and a half hours after I go to sleep, so that I wake up in the middle of a long REM period. I keep a spiral notebook, pen, and flashlight under my pillow, so as to record whatever I was dreaming before I even shift my torso, before the morning dream-janitors set to work. That I don't understand the Darwinian purpose of dreams—that's a question Carl Sagan puzzles over in his marijuana-inspired The Dragons of Eden—makes them all the more appealing as doors to Type-1-and-higher thinking.

Certain themes recur.  My fingernails are three feet long and green and chewed-up, and wherever I am—on a roller-coaster with Tracy, perhaps, or in a flower garden chatting with the famed bioethicist Peter Singer and his wife—I have to hide the nails behind my back, because if they protrude even an inch then people will see them and know I'm abnormal and get angry with me.  Or I meet with my dad, not for any wisdom from beyond the grave, but for something prosaic: my class is riding on the Space Shuttle for a field trip, and I'm the only one who forgot my permission slip, so I'm holding everyone up. Shoshana, who happens to be nearby, tells me that dad is right behind the launchpad: if I find him, he could petition the teacher on my behalf. I look at my watch: five o'clock. I look again: no, three o'clock! Not enough time! I leap over one of the Shuttle's fins in one bound, and there he is, and then I wake up.

These are dreamsigns. If I learn to recognize them, then the next time I encounter them I might realize that I'm in a dream-world and thereby take control of it.  In psychology studies, people experiencing such 'lucid dreams' have actually been able to communicate with experimenters, by moving their eyes beneath the lids in a prearranged pattern.  Once I attain lucidity, who knows upon what voyages of murkiness and irrationality I might embark?


At Shannon's party I downed four glasses of wine, about five more than the number to which my brain is habituated.  The results were predictable: enthused if not adroit swinging, astonished stares from classmates used only to dourness on my part, a hangover from which I'm now recuperating.

Shortly before midnight, drained and sweaty, Elliot and I retired to the balcony to chat. Over the chirps of crickets, Elliot confessed that he was lonesome, that he still hadn't gotten over his breakup with Tracy five months earlier.

"So what happened?" I asked.  "I only heard her side of the story"—her side being that one, he was perpetually away at track meets and two, she wasn't pretty enough for him.

"It's about the bond," Elliot replied, in a solemn, Clark Gable voice. "In a relationship, you need a kind of—spiritual connection, I suppose, something in the other person's smile or the way they walk that you can't always justify or give a rational reason for. You know what I'm talking about?"

I nodded.

"Tracy and I, we didn't have that bond just yet.  I mean we're still great friends—she's an incredible person, always makes me laugh.  But we both felt like we needed some breathing space to pursue our own interests for a while, find our psychic centers."

Looking into his eyes, I could imagine he believed it.

Later Elliot told me about his aspirations: winning the 400-meter at the state meet in June, gaining an athletic scholarship to Michigan or Penn State, working at a day camp over the summer since he loved kids.  He thought he might become a plant geneticist, since he grew up on a farm and was fascinated by plants.  But he worried because his uncle told him that one of the key problems—sequencing the genomes of crops such as corn and rice—was already mostly done.

So despite my inebriation, I mustered a disquisition on the problems I thought were still relatively open: for example, using similarities in DNA to infer which plants evolved from which others.

"Oh," Elliot interjected, "but I don't believe in evolution."

"Well then," I mused drunkenly, "gonna be pretty tough bein' a biologist."

"I know," he said. "But doesn't it seem so improbable that a living organism, with all its mind-boggling complexity, could be thrown together just by random chance?"

"Yeah, I guess."

And then—I changed the subject! I didn't ask Elliot if he was an old- or young-earther; or press the point that, quite apart from the evidence in its favor, Darwinism is the only theory capable in principle of explaining complex adaptation in terms of a simple beginning; or demand to know why the Bearded One gave humans useless appendices or put air-breathing mammals in the ocean. Instead I let fly with, "Gosh, it must suck to be pigeonholed as a jock all the time when you have so many other interests!"

Elliot smiled, and accepted the invitation to discuss himself for another twenty minutes.

Eventually we headed to Shannon's room, where a half dozen people were sitting on the carpet passing around joints. Someone handed me a narrow stub and I brought it to my lips, learning after a few attempts (and Elliot's bemused explanation) that I had actually to breathe the fetid smoke, not just waft it around my mouth.  I didn't feel anything on the first try, of course, but perhaps in time I shall soar from reason on a magical carpet of hemp.

Then again, probably not.  In an essay for the book Marihuana Reconsidered, "Mr. X" (actually Carl Sagan) explained his fondness for tetrahydrocannabinol as follows: it helped him to develop scientific hypotheses which, though speculative, were still empirically falsifiable.  Hardly what I'm looking for.  Would coke be more suitable?  Mushrooms?  Acid? Prozac?  I need a substance that will cause permanent brain damage, not just a temporary impairment—and that won't merely make me less stringent about existing beliefs, as does alcohol, but will induce new, delusional beliefs.


Elliot drove me home.  When he dropped me off he told me how much he'd enjoyed my company and wanted to see more of me, then kissed my cheek.  The wine was wearing off and I very nearly replied, "Thank you for giving me this opportunity to muddy my feet in credulity!  But I'm now myself again, and every four-manifold with the same homotopy group as a four-sphere is homeomorphic to a four-sphere, and of course this can't continue."

But I said nothing.  I just kissed him on the lips and went inside.


The supernatural is real. Here's how I found out.

Three weeks ago I was wandering through a cavernous mansion shaped like the letter 'K,' when a fifty-foot monster—not unlike the Cookie Monster but much fiercer—began to chase me. Running for my life, I realized that if only I could grow my nails to eight feet or longer, my dad would appear to help fend the monster off.  Why? Because if my nails grew to eight feet or longer, then I must have been in a dream; and if I were in a dream, then I could summon anyone I wanted; and if I could summon anyone I wanted, then I'd summon my dad.

"No," interjected an internal voice. "You need to prove that your dad will appear by a direct argument from the length of your nails, one that does not invoke your subsisting in a dream state as an intermediate step."

"Nonsense," retorted another voice. "That we find ourselves in a dream state was never assumed; rather, it follows so straightforwardly from the long-nail counterfactual that the derivation could be done, I think, even in an extremely weak system of inference."

But presently the monster was gone and the two internal voices vanished, as Douglas Adams would say, in a puff of logic, and there my dad and I were, together on a hot-air balloon. "What's going on?" I pleaded.

"Page 34," said my dad. "O my daughter, look beneath the surface of things"—and then he vanished, and I awoke.

Reaching for the flashlight under my pillow, I found On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality and opened it to page 34.  And there it was, in the first paragraph: "so straightforwardly that the derivation could be done, I think, even in an extremely weak system of inference."

I couldn't have remembered that phrase subconsciously.  I don't think I even read page 34 of On Self-Delusion.  There are indeed things undreamt of in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer, and this was my first intimation.

Once I knew how to look, I started encountering evidence all about me for the reality of the Nonphysical Plane. I'd have a premonition that Elliot was about to call, just minutes before he did.  Looking under Sagittarius in the horoscope column, I found connections, parallels with my life that couldn't possibly be explained by chance—and these connections disappeared when I looked under, say, Taurus or Libra. Sitting in my backyard one cloudless night, I spotted a UFO—and, having witnessed it personally, I can attest that it was not swamp gas or a spy plane. I bought an electromagnetic bracelet, and, while I wore it, no longer had a compulsion to chew my nails.

A skeptic would say I'm finding all this evidence only because I desperately want to. But I prefer a different and equally plausible interpretation: that the evidence was always there, and now that my mind is open I'm no longer blind to it.   I set out to delude myself and, as the paradoxical result, I'm now seeing clearly for the first time.

I've shared my discoveries with Elliot; he's as elated about them as I am.  With my encouragement, he too has become an oneironaut—an explorer of the dream world, from the Greek oneiros.  Sometimes, when we go to sleep with unusually strong feelings for one another, we're even able to inhabit the same dream: once we rode unicorns together outside a sixteenth-century château; another time we landed on Neptune, to found a new mystical civilization such as has never been seen since the ruination of Atlantis.

Sagan, Dawkins, Russell, even Gould are off my bookshelf now, replaced by the real deal: Communion by Whitley Strieber, Defeating Darwinism by Philip Johnson, How to Know God by Deepak Chopra, Mind Medicine by Uri Geller, Beyond the Brain by Stanislav Grof, Mystical Power by Marianne Williamson. One might begin one's quest for knowledge with the Dawkinsian worldview, but one mustn't end there.  For the more I ponder the holistic nonlocality of quantum theory or the healing power of crystals, the more I contemplate why I am who I am or why the UFO's are visiting us, the deeper the lucidity Elliot and I attain in our dream-states, the farther we journey through heretofore uncharted regions of the Unphysical Plane, the more I realize that reductive science and math, for all their indisputable merits, are barely even glitter on the surface.


i know my writings gotten sloppy lately but as long as the meanings straight from my heart its still ok.

school's out and my sisters back in town for her wedding. Mom and Shoshana have been busy the whole week with flowers, how many guests will want spinach pie instead of chicken, etc. So theyve mostly left me alone, to explore the Nonphysical Plane that i was so oblivious to until recently and of course to hang out with Elliot.

Yesterday there was a knock on my bedroom door, and i opened it and it was Shoshana. She was wearing part of her wedding gown (i guess to see whether it needed more alterations) and she'd just had her hair permed so she looked really beautiful.  She was holding a yellow manuscript in her hand. It was On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality.

"I found this lying on the floor in your room yesterday. We need to talk about"—and then she noticed my eyes and shouted, "Fuck, Ilyssa! What've you been taking"?

i said that it was no matter, drugs only affect the physical body and the spirit is whats really important.

Shoshana grimaced at me, and man can she grimace. "I hid this manuscript because i didn't want anyone to see it", she said. "If it occurred to me that you might find it, i would've burned it instead. Theres something you need to know about dad, that me and mom never told you because we didn't want to frighten you. he was a paranoid schizophrenic. He was committed to a mental hospital many times, and he once attempted suicide.  When he died, the coroners report said unknown causes, but we suspect he poisoned himself".

i took a minute to catch my breath. "Why on earth would he do that"?

"its hard to separate the psychosis from whatever reasons he believed he had. But my theory is he fell into the same trap your falling into now.  He was obsessed by the logic of promises and threats, he thought he'd found the true explanation for why rational and scientifically-minded people are so often losers in life. so he constantly teetered between rationality and mysticism.  He was that way before he met mom, and getting married didn't change him. Even little stuff—like do you remember the time he gave you a wooden spoon to smack tigers with"?

i nodded.

"He was racked with guilt over pandering to your delusional childhood fantasies. at any rate, i guess he finally decided that a world where people have to delude themselves to succeed is not worth inhabiting".

i stared at my sneakers.

"But he was wrong", Shoshana continued.  "Flatly empirically wrong.  That's what i came to tell you.  i know plenty of people at MIT—including myself—who've found fulfilling relationships and some veneer of happiness without changing their belief systems, or abandoning scientific skepticism, or ingesting mind-altering substances—at least, not too many.  i mean i might accept little delusions—like that my fiancée is the greatest guy on earth, assuming for the sake of argument that he isnt—but that does not imply that I need to accept enormous delusions about the nature of the cosmos!"

"But my whole outlook is different now", I protested.  "i've made contact with the Nonphysical Plane.  i've met dad in dreams.  i've seen a ufo.  i've conversed with angels about the eternal mysteries.  Finally after all these years, i've opened myself to truths that reach beyond the dominant materialistic paradigm!."

Shoshana sighed. "You can delude yourself, Ilyssa, but not me. please, just for a minute, snap out of it".

"Out of what? Elliot and I both firmly beleive that—"

"Elliot is pond scum, Ilyssa.  He is a dickweed.  He is not worth stepping on. Anyone who'd only be attracted to you after you've done this to yourself—"

"But I'm happy", I protested.  "Elliot and I are committed to each other and to our psychic and spiritual rebirth..."

Shoshana hesitated, turned away from me to face the window, and then said, slowly measuring each syllable: "I have a good mind to tell mom exactly what you're up to. And if i do, i assure you, youll have a date with a substance abuse clinic and not another one with Elliot for years. in fact im telling her right now, unless you can justify yourself to me in terms that i, as a sane, rational person, can understand".

i finally realized my predicament. i had endevoured all these months to fool myself into believing in astrology, ESP, and so forth, even though i "knew" they were nonsense.  Now that i'd finally opened up my soul to the realm of Nonphysical Being, and i knew these ideas weren't nonsense, i had to feign the belief that they were nonsense, in order to make an argument that would convince Shoshana!  But in doing so i had to maintain my connection with the Nonphysical Plane, and not get lured back to my old rationalistic ways.  i could almost watch the Type-0 and Type-1 and Type-2 swordsmen dueling in my brain.

Finally i formulated a response. "You and your MIT buddies and Richard Dawkings and Carl Sagan might be able to thrive while still knowing a sound argument from a faulty one.  But i cant.  My brain doesnt work that way.  what other people—including brilliant scientists, more 'rational' by any measure than i am—can swallow as harmless inconsistencies, i just vomit up.  its all or nothing with me.  ive known that since Hebrew school.  maybe that's the curse i inherited from dad, and if so, your very lucky to have escaped it".

Shoshana shook her head and strode to the door, still carrying the yellow typescript. "its your life to lose", she murmured as she walked out.


ok this will be my last entry things are too exciteing now to sit around riteing about them.

i think the most heartrending scene in Flowers for Algernon is at the end.  Charlie gordon has the inteligence of a small child again. And he re reads the diary entries he wrote while he was a genius and he cant understand them.  well ive just been re reading the entries wrote by my old rational logical self im pleased to say i understand them perfect. i even remember what itwas like to believe the big bang and evolution and theres nothing in the universe besides atoms and random chance and selfish dna and all that stuff.  so i dont think ive gotten any dummer.

Whats happened is ive opened my heart and soul to new posibilities and experiences. And to the expanding radius of Light thats is called eternal Love.  And when i stop judging and come into the Light then the Light comes into me. Speaking of which Elliot is the best b/f i could have imagined!!!  He is caring and sensitive and we understand each other unbeleivably well. Tracy was mad at first, she said i "stole her ex" (lol) but now were friends again.  i think Tracy understands me and Elliot are spirit companions and weve forged a bond of pure energy that transends five sensory perception.  we still dream the same dreams sometime. or one of us know what the others thinking even if were far away.  And i dont have to ask for proof that its real cuz the truest proof is an open mind and a loving heart. Elliot & Ilyssa 4EVA!!!!!!! ©©©©©

and now I know my dad never left me. he just left his physical shell cuz he didnt need it anymore.  But hes been my Spirit Guide all along.  i dont think my sister told the truth about his manuscript. i think my dad wrote it cuz he knew id need it and then he led me to the filing cabinet when i needed it. He knew id would have a scientific rational mind. Thats why he called me Ilyssa. But the danger was my mind might swallow up my heart. I.e. that id grow cold and aloof and say simplistic reductionist things even tho my heart knew they werent true. My dad couldnt tell me Believe in ufos and esp and all that other stuff Ilyssa cuz its real! Cuz my rational mind wouldnt accept it. So he had to say well maybe its not real but it pays u to beleive it anyways.  then once i opened my mind i cud discover what my heart knew all along, that its real. it was a brillant plan & it worked. :-)

Yesterday i got a handwriten letter from Elliot filled that was with luv and sweet things from his heart. And there was a quote from Gary Zukav from his incredibl book The Seat of the Soul that ive memorized it cuz it brought tears to my eyes.

    The distance between you and your understanding of the creation of matter from energy is equal to the distance that exists between the awareness of your personality and the energy of your soul. The dynamic of soul and personality is the same dynamic as energy converted into matter.  The system is identical.  Your body is your conscious matter.  Your personality is the energy of your soul converted to matter. If it is unaware, it is the splinteredness that is transmitted.  If it is aware, it begins to become whole.

if even for one second i could have the wholeness and soul-knowledge of Gary Zukav than id die a happy woman.  But i think ill die a happy woman anyways :-) For as Thomas Gray wrote

    Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
    Since sorrow never comes too late,
    And happiness too swiftly flies.
    Thought would destroy their paradise.
    No more; where ignorance is bliss,
    'Tis folly to be wise.

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