Party Game: From Dreams and Delusions to Wars and Wiretapping

The "word cloud" containing the words "dreams" and "delusions" doesn't contain the words "wars" and "wiretapping," but perhaps it should.

Thinking about the genesis and consequences of the Iraq War and the recently passed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that authorizes wholesale wiretapping, I recalled a relevant party game I once wrote about. The game, described by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in his book "Consciousness Explained," is a variant of the familiar childhood game requiring that one try to determine by means of Yes or No questions a secretly chosen number between one and one million.

The Game

In Dennett's more interesting and suggestive game, one person, the subject, is selected from a group of people at a party and asked to leave the room. He is told that in his absence one of the other partygoers will relate a recent dream to the other party attendees. The person selected then returns to the party and, through a sequence of Yes or No questions about the dream, attempts to accomplish two things: reconstruct the dream and identify whose dream it was.

The punch line is that no one has related any dream. The individual partygoers are instructed to respond either Yes or No to the subject's questions according to some completely arbitrary rule. Any rule will do, however, and may be supplemented by a non-contradiction clause so that no answer directly contradicts an earlier one. The Yes or No requirement can be loosened as well to allow for vagueness and evasion.

The result is that the subject, impelled by his own obsessions, often constructs an outlandish and obscene dream in response to the random answers he elicits. He may think he knows whose dream it is, but then the ruse is revealed to him and he is told that the dream really has no author. In a strong sense, however, the subject himself is the dream weaver. His preoccupations dictated his questions which, even if answered negatively at first, frequently received a positive response in a later formulation to a different partygoer. These positive responses were then pursued.

The game is more a vivid thought experiment (illustrating one possible mathematical approach to extreme confirmation bias) than an empirical finding. Still, there is some evidence that seems to support the idea that dreams and hallucinations can be explained in part by a variant of this party game.

In both phenomena, a person's hypothesis-generating ability is intact, but the ability to test or falsify these hypotheses is impaired by drugs, sensory deprivation or unconsciousness. The result is a more or less meaningless sequence of "answers" to the questions posed, albeit implicitly, during the dream or hallucination. Unencumbered by any critical reality checks, this set of answers allows the dreamer or hallucinator to concoct his own story.

A similar argument suggests why inane religious homilies, I Ching sayings and ambiguous horoscopes seem to many to be so apt. Their aptness is self-provided. In effect, their cryptic obscurity suggests "questions" that the devotee poses, answers himself, and then, Rorschach-like, fabricates into something seemingly appropriate and useful.

Iraq and FISA

Returning to Iraq, the new FISA wiretapping law, and the speculative thesis of this column, I suggest that a dynamic something like the above can describe not only individuals but larger groups of people as well.

Groups of people (administrations, investigative organizations, secret cabals) do not possess minds, of course, but in times of real, perceived, or contrived crisis -- war, stock frenzy, pestilence, even a sufficiently rancorous political campaign -- they do, I think, develop a very primitive sort of cohesiveness, a quasi-consciousness approaching perhaps that of a somewhat doltish person in a deep drug-induced stupor. When the group is in crisis, its fears, anxieties, and ideological biases and agendas will likely strengthen, while its contact with reality often becomes more tenuous. (Of course, I don't mean to deny the obvious, that all sorts of other considerations and motivations were operative at the beginning of the Iraq War as well.)

Furthermore, reporting during a war or other crisis is for a variety of reasons deplorably shoddy. The news the society does get is vague and generic, allowing ample room for the group analogue of dreams and hallucinations to develop. Societies without a free press and a literate population are especially vulnerable, but any society told that it's being threatened and that disbelievers are exacerbating the danger will tend to respond irrationally.

Spelling out the connection, I submit that ambiguity randomness, and lack of solid information in response to a group's obsessive questions and concerns can breed delusions in the group in the same way that the party game induces the subject to fashion his own chimerical fantasy. And, I reiterate, informative, skeptical, fastidious reporting is most needed when it's least likely to be forthcoming.

Add large numbers to the picture, and these speculations and metaphors are not without relevance to FISA and the Total Information Awareness program and its many descendants in the National Security Agency and elsewhere. Having so much unfiltered information (phone records, emails, internet searches, travel itineraries, financial statements, Facebook postings, credit card bills, etcetera) with which to work and having no requirement for specific focus or judicial warrant, any wild hunch or obsession can be pursued relentlessly without fear of disconfirmation.

The resulting combinatorial explosion of connections and interconnections will always provide ample raw material for the development of any investigative group's pet theory. If, for example, there are 400,000 Americans (and a million names) on the terrorist watch list, as the ACLU announced last month, then there are about 80 billion pairs of possible co-conspirators on the list and more than 10 quadrillion possible threesomes on the list. Search this large "party" diligently enough for confirmatory Yesses and ignore willfully enough disconfirmatory Noes, and who knows what will result.

It's unlikely to be a free, open, and peaceful society.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as of the just-released "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why The Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up" His "Who's Counting?" column on appears the first weekend of every month.