What are we? Getting in our own way.

Over the last year or so, two thoughts have occupied my conscious experience pretty often, and have returned as ideas I should write about. More recently, these ideas have started to introduce themselves to each other, flirt, and ultimately they started to have their bodily fluids exchange and an intersectional idea formed.

The first idea is about how we, humans, tend to misapprehend the world in a very specific way; we don’t understand what we are. The second idea is that we get in our own way, a lot. And the more I thought about these things, it started to become clear that these observations intersect in an interesting way, and I want to explore that idea today.

Are we the authority of who/what we are?

In a banal sense, we are obviously the most authoritative source of who we are. Only I have access to my thoughts, feelings, and worldviews. And in a legal, and possibly moral, sense, nobody has authority over what decisions I make or what I believe.

But in another sense, our idea of what we are, the narrative that we are telling, to ourselves about ourselves, is a kind of fiction. And we have multiple blind spots and missing angles of who and what we are which, sometimes, other people can see better than we can. There are times when our friends can see what we’re doing when we cannot. We may be responsible for our decisions (again, legally and morally), but we don’t necessarily have all the information relevant to understanding what we are doing. So, in some sense, we are not the authoritative source to who and what we are.

In a very literal sense, the processes that contribute to our behavior, beliefs, and decisions are happening on an unconscious level. I have annoyed friends, and other interlocutors, over the years explaining that not only is free will an illusion but neither our decisions nor beliefs are really “ours” in the sense that we didn’t consciously choose them. Yes it was us making the decision, but not the part of us which is conscious and aware. So are our beliefs, decisions, and actions sentient actions? The essential point here is that there are parts of us we don’t have conscious access to, and so we are only partially, at best, authoritative of who and what we are.

All of this is (perhaps) interesting and relevant in a philosophical sense, but it also has real life consequences when it comes to culture war issues. The concept of identity has become increasingly important in political, ethical, and legal questions in recent years. Many critics of some cultural trends will use terms like “identity politics” when talking about everything from Critical Race Theory (CRT) to gender theory. Whether we are talking about capital-B Black identity or children’s gender, the question is related to ideas of who and what individuals are, whether in an essentialist or political sense, and their rights based upon that identity.

The underlying assumption is that a person would know, better than we would, what they are. It’s not our place to tell them what gender they are, that’s for them to decide/define, not us. Same goes for blackness; perhaps it’s not up to Joe Biden to determine who is Black or not. Some critics of progressive ideas about race and gender have gone as far as to try to declare some objective reality which conflicts with such things, stating that sex is indeed binary (outside of rare intersex conditions) or that racial differences are real (so-called “race realism”).

Now, I’m not a fan of attempts to declare some objective perspective, from which we can impose some TruthTM onto the world. I don’t believe any objective perspective exists (I actually believe it’s an oxymoron). This is not to say that reality is subjective, only that there exists no god-like objective perspective from which to view it. For someone to claim some absolute truth in this way, when our entire language, culture, and worldview is an intersubjective construction based on an interpretation of actual reality is arrogant, at least to some extent. Someone claiming that there are only two sexes as an objective reality seems as if it were trying to point beyond the veil of our phenomenal perception into a noumenal, or to define a thing as absolutely and fundamentally so, as opposed to a taxonomy of a generally dimorphic species. In other words, some of this debate is about ontology, more than it is about laws or politics. Some people think that a creator/nature made us men and women, and this belief in a fundamental truth about the nature of sex/gender is based upon an ontological belief which others do not share.

But, also, I’m not advocating for any post-structuralist or postmodern idea of there being no truth or no reality; thus I reject the simplistic idea that everything is about power, domination, or mere subjective whim. We don’t, neither in some woo-woo spiritual nor Foucault-inspired ways, literally create the world with our various subjective/spiritual perspectives, which then fight for domination through the technê of culture, laws, etc. Insofar as we do literally create the world, the world still is real outside of this construction. I might agree that within the matrix of our culture, power structures, technê, etc have use (in the Wittgensteinian sense of that word), but they are not descriptions of reality behind that veil.

It is true that we, individually, literally construct the world that we understand, including ourselves. But the world itself exists (or so I’m convinced) external to our selves, and that we are left to interpret their reality based on a flawed and incomplete set of senses, language, etc. And in some complicated way, our own bodies are part of that external world, in the sense that we are matter which is somewhat self-reflective in an imperfect, semi-sentient, way.

Semi-sentient? What does that mean? Well, the idea is this; sentience, as the capacity to experience feelings and sensations Including thoughts, which I believe to be a subset of feelings/emotions (not separate from them) is not digital. It’s not on or off, it’s a continuum with many degrees, and whether there is an upper limit to this sentience is an idea I find fascinating and relevant to the idea that we are not authoritative about ourselves.

Imagine that, somewhere in the universe, there were a kind of intelligence/sentient being which was far more able to experience aspects of themselves and the universe than we can. What if they could perceive things like atomic motion, gravity on a large scale, or more forms of radiation? Would they not be more sentient than you or I? Would they not have more understanding of the universe or even their own self? Perhaps, with such sentience, the concept of self itself become grander? Perhaps there are selves that are more intensely self-like, and compared to them we are barely, or maybe just semi-sentient. And if we were to attain such greater sentience, we might better understand ourselves and the world which would make our current ideas about identity, gender, race, etc obsolete, wrong, or merely silly approximations of something even more complicated than we can currently understand. It’s a humbling thought.

Where does that leave us? What does that have to say about our identities, our sense of our own ‘race’ or ‘gender’? These are ideas that we, as a species and many cultures, are struggling with. And I have no idea how we will think about these things in 100 or 1000 years (assuming we are still around). But I have a fair amount of skepticism that what ideas we do have, my fellow progressive, are authoritative. This doesn’t mean that conservatives are right in their criticism, because it’s simply possible that nobody has a grip on these issues, and maybe nobody ever will. I don’t believe these are settled matters, even if I think that some people might be more right in the same sense that some beings might be more sentient. These things exist in gradations, not in digital, black/white, categories.

And yet we often find ourselves, we humans, involved in ideologies, living in subcultures with worldviews and opinions which we defend. We, a bunch of beings who barely understand what we, individually, are, somehow have the correct answers about some specific bits of this or that. And if you disagree, then you need to do the work. Our tendency to form foundations of identity leads us to form tribes, subcultures, and to collect around ideologies which begin to define us individually and communally. As we further attach to these identities, we become blinded by our selves and become stumbling blocks for ourselves. We get in our own way.

Getting in our own way

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is that we become enamored with convictions.

When I was in high school, we had a very good, especially comparatively, education about civil rights, religion, and ideas about progressive values. Among the books I remember reading was one called The Courage of Conviction. The idea is that there are certain people, worthy of reverence because they stuck by their principles, that we should try to emulate in our own lives.

And, at least to some extent, this is true; to not be tied to any principle at all is to be unreliable, untrustworthy, or even to be down-right immoral and bad. Being subject to mere whim, to be cynically opportunistic, or to be morally nihilistic is a recipe for being left aside in business, friendships, or romantic partners. That, or fantastically successful in politics.

But to be inflexibly ethical, to bind oneself to a principle or ideology is, in the Aristotelian sense, excessive as well. to make a rule and to make it absolute is, in my mind, not worthy of reverence any more than being nihilistic. In the alignment sense of lawful v chaotic, they are opposite sides of the same coin, if taken to extremes. Let’s use my value of caring about what is true as an example.

I believe that trying to find the truth is a good thing. I think that, at least in many cases, you can find what is likely to be true. It matters to me if an idea I have is a true idea, and I believe in skepticism (the need for evidence to accept something as likely true) and that we should actively try, at least sometimes, to find faults in our worldview. That is, I’m not epistemologically nihilistic, even if I believe that we can’t even be absolutely certain that anything is true (except, maybe, that at least I exist, even if not as I perceive myself to exist).

In some parts of our contemporary culture, there’s a phrase used by people disparagingly; “fuck your feelings”. The idea is that some people get caught up in sentimentality, cultural ideas, or are just brainwashed, and so one response is to say that one’s feelings are getting in the way of facts; of truth. And, to some extent, this definitely happens to humans. And perhaps one sentimental person, apparently oblivious to some hard fact or “truth” might argue that their interlocutor/pedantic truth-teller is missing the point about what really matters. Or maybe they simply disagree with what their interlocutor thinks of as ‘facts’ or ‘truth.’ But sometimes people do in fact have incorrect ideas due to poor thinking, emotional contagion, etc (I think religious/spiritual people tend to fall into this category).

But sometimes the “fuck your feelings” types are also, well, wrong. Ironically, their own feelings might be getting in the way, and what we might have are multiple perspectives which are all (or maybe most) wrong, and generally clouded by ‘feelings’. The attachment to a truth might be a good, useful, value, but this is a kind of conviction. The “will to truth” (as Nietzsche called it) is related to a cognitive error which humans are all-too-humanly prone to. The conviction to believe true things is not enough, here. As a former ideological mentor often has said, you have to want to believe true things and disbelieve untrue things. The combination is important; merely trying to believe true things won’t weed out the things you might be able to disprove, and the willingness to try to prove your ideas wrong is much more valuable, in terms of actually believing true things. How often do the “fuck your feelings” crowd try to prove their ideas wrong?

Conviction, then, can be an impediment to having good ideas. by attaching ourselves to facts, ideologies, or even whole worldviews is a means to attaching a bunch of claims, opinions, and moral perspectives onto ourselves. In other words, we start to identify with them. And when you mix this with how tribalism, or factions within cultures, causes self-censorship, pragmatic acceptance of ideas because they help maintain group-cohesion (and avoid canceling or ostracism), and other means of social contagions, we end up holding onto deeply-felt, deeply-held ideas which we will fight tooth and nail (whether on twitter, facebook, or truth social) to defend against ideas espoused by the heretic deplorable libtard other person with whom we disagree.

Whether we’re simply trying to understand the world or merely a specific idea, achieve a political/legislative goal, or merely get along with people at work, our inability to understand ourselves translates into an inability to see outside of our convictions which leads to nothing but problematic tribal loyalties. The next thing you know, you are chanting “black lives matter” or “Let’s go Brandon” or “trans women are women” or “sex is binary” while giving a side eye to someone within your tribe who isn’t chanting along, or who maybe seems to have some questions about your slogan. They might be your enemy, if they aren’t chanting along.

This leads to a situation where tribes start doing purity tests (AKA “cancel culture”), much like what John McWhorter claims in Woke Racism, where he claims that when people with questions, uncertainties, or quibbles about the catechisms of the group (McWhorter is convinced that the woke worldview is a new religion; I think that it shares many structures of religion, but that what’s actually happening is that tribal units supervene upon a set of behaviors that religion utilizes, but didn’t invent), then a kind of inquisition occurs and people become blasphemers or heretics. One might as well be in another tribe, because you obviously aren’t one of us, right TERF?

There’s a difference between being critical of a simplistic slogan and opposing it unequivocally. There’s a difference between being unsure about what we are or questioning our most sacred values and joining the “other” side. Whether it’s Kmele Foster insisting that race is not real and that he’s not black (or Black, for that matter) or people believing that some level of social contagion is responsible for the increase of children becoming trans, there exist positions which aren’t rejections of an idea, but an attempt to clarify the boundaries of a set of ideas. What stops us from being able to hear them as something other than a -phobia, a heresy, or as hateful or harmful (if not down-right violence) is, I believe, our inability to get out of our own way.

One must learn to dance, otherwise we become stiff, unagile, and unable to step around obstacles which we ourselves create.

What are we? (reprise)

But there is another sense in which we don’t know what we are which I keep thinking about, and this one is bigger, more philosophically grand, and which also has implications for the culture wars and pretty much everything human. I don’t think most people really have any idea what we are literally.

Some people think we are primarily immortal spiritual beings, or at least that we contain some magical part of ourselves which is more than mere matter. I don’t think that people understand that all of our thoughts, language, ideas, and even our culture are literally constructed in a physical, material, way and that we are mere flesh stuck in a milieu of material reality, projecting spirit upon ourselves. Yes, constructed based on something real (probably), but quite literally our perceptions of reality is a thing we create.

I am currently sitting at a desk, at a job, where I’m participating in a complex fiction in order to maintain a “life” which is based on concepts which didn’t exist before people thought of them. Remember, The Matrix (the original, I mean, only movie with that name) was a metaphor for the fact that the world in which we live is a construct. Everything from ideas about freedom, taxes, society, and even our very language is a thing that exists as a thin film on top of a world made up of primates just moving about eating, fucking, sleeping, killing, being confused, and ultimately returning to the oblivion of death. All of our concerns about ethics, egalitarianism, fairness, a strong economy, and eternal damnation are fantasies by which we are guided for the vast majority of our lives, with little to no attention paid to the fact that at bottom we’re just semi-sentient bits of mostly carbon and water here for a little while, distracted by a world of our own fabrication.

Why do we put so much concern into following rules imposed upon us by a historical structure created by people in power mostly for their benefit? (says the Marxist, perhaps). Why do our managers insist that we show up on work on time for a set of tasks which are not strictly necessary, especially between specific artificial slices of “time”? Why not allow me to sleep in a bit more and do the same amount of work in less time but better rested? All of these rules, while based on some rational motivation, are literally imposed by a set of people who created the whole structure of society over millennia in order to build civilization, and yet we seem to be so oblivious to the veil before our eyes, upon which is projected “the world” and “culture” and “identity.”

All of it could change, in an instant, with a different perspective. And when I understand the absurdity of it all, I most definitely feel some ennui, and I wonder why we are all so enthralled by the narrative we write together. If we were better able to see past these constructions, as a group of people, the less power they would have. And the more we could detach from ourselves, our tribes, and the more absurd the culture wars, in fact wars of all kinds, would seem. And even if one were not willing to eschew all of it in favor of a deep nihilism and simply “lie flat”, I think it would benefit us to detach from our selves, our tribes, and our faction in our cultures from time to time. For one, it will help us better understand our opponents (even if they don’t return the favor), but more importantly, it prevents us from getting in our own way, and maybe will help us figure out who we are and how to better resolve various issues.

In a funny twist of fate, maybe the best way to achieve a group’s goals might be to be less attached to the ideals of said group. Maybe the best way to be religious is to be a heretic.