I woke up Saturday morning thinking about sin. I know, I know: it sounds sick. But it wasn’t morbid, or anything. I wasn’t regretting my manifold wickednesses. No, I was enjoying the odd, synchronistic confluence in my intellectual life of inputs from several disparate sources, that each illumined the same issue of sin from slightly different perspectives, in such a way as to provide me as I woke with an increase in cerebral economy, otherwise known as an insight: the discovery of a connection between several ideas, that harmonized and integrated them.
In a post the other day at one of his several useful blogs, Bruce Charlton suggested that habitual lying, such as that in which the slaves of political correctness indulge themselves, deforms the circuitry of the brain in such a way as to cripple the ability to think. I have thought something of the sort for decades, ever since I read William Powers’ pellucid, masterful, amiable and penetrating Behavior: the Control of Perception. The basic idea I derived from Powers, as implicit in his explication of the logical structure of the nervous system under the terms of control system theory, is that in lying, superordinate circuits override the truthful output signals arising from subordinate circuits, either damping them, or masking them altogether. In effect, one control system of the brain disagrees with another, and insists that it get its own way. But, therein lies the rub; for, there is never any free lunch.
Say that a control system C in Joe’s brain reports to its superordinate control system S in the hierarchy of control systems H that the value of the system state variable V it is dedicated to control is x. Suppose, that is to say, that the output signal of C has the intensity x. Suppose further that, for reasons of its own (or of some other subordinate control systems), S lies to H about x. To lie about x is easy for S. All it needs to do is add some product of its own to the output of C. Perhaps it could obtain that output by rounding to the nearest axonal threshold from the product of a function on inputs from its other subordinate control systems, some of them urgently signaling in their own right. Or, perhaps S is just set up to apply a smoothing function to its outputs, along with its other logical operations. Either way, the signal from C might be swamped, or masked. Whatever the calculus of its production, the effect of that noisy intervention would be to push the net output signal from S to H toward 0.
Now, that would be the normal, restful state of affairs for S, and for its reports to H, its preferred ground or target state, with V – and all other variables under the control of systems subordinate to S – within their target range of values, so that C and its counterparts – and, ergo, S – were all quiet. Only when there was a problem – this being signified by a system state value such as V wandering away from its target range of values – would S be reporting anything at all to H. In the nervous system, as in all other information processing systems that seek some telos, no news is good news. When S is quiet, that tells H that all the control circuits subordinate to S are quiet, too; i.e., that all the systems subordinate to S are A-OK. Higher-order control systems may therefore safely turn their attention to other systems that are reporting problems they cannot themselves resolve, given their current architecture.
So if S is telling H that everything in its domain is peachy, S will get no attention, no repair or reconfiguration, from higher order levels.
This artificial, false addition of S to the natural, truthful signal of C – which, again, might be due to nothing more than a rounding error or a smoothing function that, most of the time, operated to the overall advantage of the organism (this being the only reason it existed in the first place) – requires increasing the thermodynamic work that C and S together must perform in order to propagate their false net signal to H, over what they would have had to put out, had S refrained from lying. That extra thermodynamic work is a precise measure of the noise S introduces to H by the lie.
What is more, this extra work must continue throughout the period during which the lie is maintained. This is because C is engineered to keep telling the truth about V until H responds in such a way as to move the system as a whole to a state of affairs in which V is back in its target range, at which point C can go back to sleep. So long as S keeps lying about the fact of x, C will keep screaming “x!” And C will scream louder and louder, the longer its signals are apparently ignored. So the work of maintaining that one lie about x will increase over time.
Furthermore, the lie of S about x will prevent H from responding properly to the fact of x so as to keep Joe safe and healthy. The problem of x, whatever it is, will continue to hamper or injure Joe. The problem in Joe’s orientation to the world (or for that matter in Joe – in his pancreas, say) that pushed V out of its target range may then compound, increasing x.
It gets worse. Because the world is coherent, information about the world is also coherent; or rather, vice versa. Either way, information is coherent (noise – the negative of information – is not). If one part of Joe is lying to the rest of him, the lie is propagated throughout Joe’s system. Once a lie about x is introduced to the system, then all the other control systems of H proceed merrily along their way, blithely ignorant of the problem over at C. And this introduces more errors of proper fit of the organism to its environment, in control systems that may be quite remote from C, either spatially or functionally. You can’t deform part of your map of the world – which is recorded, encoded, embodied in and as H – without affecting other parts, and each such deformation will introduce its own noise into your map, disagreements with other parts of the map itself, and disagreements with the world. More and more control systems will start screaming about errors in the factors under their control.
The maintenance of a small lie sooner or later entails the introduction of another, supporting lie, and this procedure replicates. It’s like a Ponzi scheme. Sooner or later the whole edifice falls over, for lack of support from the real world. Until it does, until the collapse arrives, the cost of doing business goes up and up with the cost of compensating and masking for more and more noise introduced by more and more lies.
The worst state of affairs, however, is not systemic collapse. Systemic collapse is bad, but at least it necessarily prompts a radical reorganization of the system in terms of a more accurate recognition of reality – also known as honesty, truth, righteousness. That can be a most salutary process. But there is always a danger that a sufficiently intelligent, complex and ramified system will evolve around the persistent problem at C so as to hobble along in spite of it. In that case, H will perform less efficiently than it might if there had never been a lie, but because C’s signal is obscured, H will have the impression that everything is just fine.
Control systems whose output signals are permanently masked are effectually dead. So in lying, the brain begins to kill itself, to take huge portions of its circuitry offline. In the limit, C will be abandoned and then metabolized as useless, or else repurposed – this, for the sake of greater efficiency – and the system will no longer be able to control for V at all. It will be blind to V.
This effect, of gradually increasing blindness, can likewise spread in the system. As the errors introduced by a lie propagate through H, it is not unlikely that more and more control system output signals will be more or less permanently masked, so that H becomes blind to more and more state variables, more and more incapacitated, more and more diseased, and less and less aware of its diseases.
In social organisms, the noise in one brain propagates out to other brains. The effect on the social system is analogous to the effect on the brain. In fact, you could interpret this whole post up to this point as a description of the effects of deceit on a society of men, rather than of neurons.
As anyone who has used computers knows, a powerful computational engine can limp along for a long time, even when its logical processors and memory are largely cannibalized by stub routines, viruses, derelict memory registers, and the like. Liberate those system resources, and the machine flies along.
Likewise, when a man stops lying to himself, he wakes up. He spends less and less time accounting for all the lies, keeping track of them and editing his thoughts. He sees things in new ways; he sees things that he has never noticed, or has forgotten since boyhood. He is more alive.
Anyone who has found a way out of PC has experienced this awakening. In the androsphere, they call it “taking the red pill,” after the scene in The Matrix, where the protagonist takes a red pill that awakens him from the matrix’s dream, to reality. Orthospherean Daniel recounted his story of a similar awakening in an essay at VFR.
But the same sort of cleansing of the doors of perception is a recurrent trope of mystics in all cultures. Metanoia, as they have long called it – newness of mind – is the beginning of our awakening, our enlightenment, our Resurrection from the Body of Death. To leave behind the lies is to leave behind our sins, by which those lies were implemented in history, and in our brains.
For, the brain is formed by its doing. What we posit, is our position. And sin is always the enaction of a falsehood. To do a bad thing is to act as if it were true that a bad thing is good to do.
In order to sin, we have to convince ourselves that the sin is OK, is not a problem. But because the world and its information are coherent, this can be done only by a disagreement with reality. It can be done only by an inward assertion that the world is so made, that therefore we are so made, that sinning is the proper and appropriate thing to do. To sin, we must think, “It is right for people to sin in circumstances such as these.” And this is to argue that the sin is not a sin at all. The sin itself is the implementation of this argument.
We may of course come by such false propositions honestly. We may honestly err, like a boy misled and deformed by someone he trusts. But most of the time, when we undertake to sin, we know perfectly well what we are doing – the sinner is, after all, a procedure of that same moral, causal and economic reality in and by which sin is pervasively abhorred – yet we find it easier to sin, than not. When we make our tendentious assertion about the sin, we are in bad faith with that portion of moral reality that is our own being, indeed with our very bodies.
Say that I decide to gamble (I use this example because gambling is one of the few vicious acts that has for me no allure whatsoever; so that my analysis is more likely to be objective). To do this at all – as I have indeed done, when I was younger and found myself for other reasons in Las Vegas, with time to kill, and curious about the whole phenomenon – one must suppress one’s knowledge that the game is rigged, and therefore doubly foolish. Gambling even when the odds are even is silly to begin with, as a waste of time that, absent any other more profitable or edifying activities, could at least be spent in prayer, or contemplating the sky. Gambling when one knows perfectly well that the game is rigged in favor of the house is actively stupid. To do it with full consciousness of the meaning of the act, one must intend poverty, intend self-destruction. And most people don’t much want those things. They must then gamble without full consciousness of the meaning of the act. They must do it, that is to say, in ignorance of the strident protests of the control systems in charge of such state variables as evaluation of their personal wealth. And this ignorance, this bad faith with their own brains, they must somehow actively perform. All acts of omission are acts of commission.
Still, sin is usually less difficult and more immediately pleasant than virtue – there is no other reason to give in to it, after all. It is simply easier to let go of the cliff and relax into the Fall than to keep climbing. As the wonderful song from Crazy Heart has it, “… funny how falling feels like flying … for a little while.” But few people hate themselves so much that they consciously desire to die. The only way they can get moving with something like gambling, then, the only way they can begin to let go of the cliff, is to lie to themselves about what they are doing. This is, precisely, to dull their consciousness of what they are doing. And as we have seen, this is tantamount to a marginal bit of suicide, even though it feels good.
Sin just is self-murder. Sin a little, and you kill yourself a little; sin a lot, and you destroy yourself altogether. And the death you thus suffer is not somewhere out in the distant future, at the Day of Judgement, but immediate. When we sin, we kill part of ourselves, right away. And while sin may be forgiven and redeemed, the diminishment of our ontological capacity it inflicts is permanent, and irrecoverable. What we do is done forever.
Arakawa, a blogger and a frequent commenter over at Bruce’s sites, discussed this notion in a recent comment here at Orthosphere, in connection with an analysis of the effect of sin on the Resurrection Body that first inherits everlasting life:
I have an unfortunately presumptuous essay that pictures the child who undergoes spiritual death as remaining trapped in the back of the unconscious mind, as though someone behind the wheel of an out-of-control bulldozer he does not know how to drive safely, or as someone who has drunk strong wine and proven that he cannot be trusted with alcohol.
This is exceedingly threadbare as theology, but it is a picture of sin as spiritual death all the same, which at the very least shows a link between Resurrection and the spiritual renewal that comes from repenting our sins during this life. In this picture our soul dies as a consequence of sin; not just in the form of the general fact of physical death coming into the world as a consequence of original sin, but of a particular instance of sin leading to immediate (if partial) death of the soul in that very instant, through diminution of its future capacity for good.
One possible objection is that, in this view, sin has no consequence and thus the war against evil is entirely illusory; but I would point out that, on the contrary, we are put into this world to become this, that, or the other thing, and we are given a finite amount of time to do so. Any time we spend in sin (whether that involves conquering the world and causing pain to others, or merely wasting our days in hedonism and dissipation) is time spent thwarting God’s attempts to make us into someone far better than that. Thus whatever ‘inner child’ is salvaged (or not — really, the universalism is the smallest issue here) from the wreck of the sinner after death, that is indeed merely salvage that must be compared against the loss of a much better person who was effectively never created.
Arakawa has more on lying at his site, and it is very good; this was what I had been reading there on Friday evening, shortly after I had read Bruce’s post suggesting that lying makes us stupid, and whose confluence with the notions I learned from Powers joined to produce Saturday’s gratified integration:
One minute of absolute honesty is better than ten conversations with divine sages.
The first great lie is that I have no beliefs on a matter. Observing how I have acted shows me very well what I believe.
The second great lie is that I may believe one thing, and yet appear otherwise. Then the I that believes, and the I that appears, are at irrevocable war.
The sacrament of confession and reconciliation – reconciliation to the Church, to the Body of the Lord, to Reality – involves the penitent in a renunciation of vicious acts, and a repudiation of the falsehoods they enact. To confess is to agree that the bad things one has done, and in so doing has effectually promoted as good, and properly to be done, to be implemented and propagated in the world, are indeed bad, and to be abhorred. To confess is to profess agreement with things as they are. Properly effected, it is a radical reorientation, a liberation, a ritual cleansing of the doors, a simplification and relaxation of the organs of the mind, and a renewal of the child’s flexibility, wonder and openness – not just his glad engagement with novelty, but the spaciousness of his future.
Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 18:3-4
 Highly recommended: even after Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Anselm, and Augustine, it is one of the ten most important books I have read.
 The target ranges of system state variables being the values that form the homeostatic strange attractors – i.e., the final causes – that the brain’s control systems are engineered to seek
 You know how that works. You perform such reconfigurations all the time. Whatever else it is, consciousness is the engine of neural reorganization, also known as learning. Whatever we attend to consciously is reorganized thereby, if only in the same way that it had already been organized. Try it. Walking is unconscious, right? You never think about how you are doing it. But when you were first learning how to walk, you thought about it very hard indeed. Try walking while paying conscious attention to the procedure. You’ll stumble, or at least you’ll be clumsier than usual. That’s because your conscious attention is deforming the control systems that manage your walking.
Thinking and deliberation are procedures that reorder the brain’s circuitry; when we arrive at a conclusion, we have implemented a new neural organization. Meditation is salutary because it directs the attention at no particular part of the nervous system, and thus at every part of it. The whole system thereby comes under the acid of reorganization, at the margin. Petitive prayer, likewise, reorders the CNS toward the object of the petition.
 Information *about* noise, by contrast, is coherent. That’s how the coherence of the world is conserved from one moment to the next, despite the noise that pervades it.
 I heard their baying when I proposed to myself that I should try the slots, and mollified them with the assurance that I would stop the experiment the moment I lost $5. Thankfully, I kept that commitment (about ten minutes later). Fortuitously, and fortunately for me, that keeping was easy: I found gambling intensely boring.