I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about objectivity. Or, as some call it, “truth.”
(oh crap, he’s about to get philosophical….)
Oh, shaddap, you!
Anyway, back to what I was saying. I like believing things. It’s often nice if they happen to be true. It happens once in a while. Or, you know, at least once. It might have happened.
There is a part of my mind which just insists that there must be true things, out there, which are true regardless of whether anyone effectively simulates those ideas in their heads or not. I recognize this as my ego desiring that my view of the world is true, and this feeling is much stronger the more emotional I am. And then, well, I analyze that statement and I realize the whole thing collapses on its own weight.
I hate that. Disillusionment is a serious harsh to my mellow. Yes, I just used that phrase, which means it’s now 1995. You’re welcome.
Minds are, by definition, subjective. There is no objective point of view (this was one of the central axioms of my MA thesis, which I will not try to summarize here because I like you, dear reader, and I want you to keep reading). All we can do is come together and try to construct reality out of the bloody remains of our experience which survives all that bias and interpretation. Our personal experience, in other words, is like a hot dog is to reality’s cow. Don’t think about that analogy too much, because you will die from an aneurysm.
So if that is the case, then how can we talk about anything being “true”?
There is an idea within the skeptic community, which has been articulated in a few ways. The basic idea is that the “truth” is what remains after we remove all (or, at least, as much as possible) personal bias. It is the thing that continues to exist whether we believe in it or not. It is “reality.” It does not care what we think, it just is. And the best way to apprehend such a thing would be by use of the tools of philosophy and science; logic and empiricism.
And I agree with this idea. But how could I? Why not just give over to the anti-realists? (cf this analysis and this article at the SEP). Why not go even further and become a mystic or neo-vedantic philosophies which reject the concept of reality all-together? Why not just admit that all of this “reality” is merely an illusion–maya–-and forgo this western concept of progress, understanding, and materialism? Why not just admit that everything is mere opinion, and that what “really happens” is a nonsensical idea?
Why not just give people flowers at the airport and change my name to Sunbeam…again?
Stubbornness, I suppose. Also, pragmatism, to some degree. Mostly, it’s Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the Goa’uld for whom I am but a host, apparently.
Science fiction and dead Germans aside, this is a tension that sits on the edge of my mind frequently, and one which is sometimes glossed over in conversations about scientific realism and hippies. But that specific argument is not the focus of my attention today. Today, I’m concerned with how we form opinions about ourselves, other people, and circumstances which I believe has some epistemological commonalities with this philosophical question of whether the world is real.
Is my worldview actually based in reality?
If I believe that I am a good person, or that I’m telling the truth, or even if my memories are based in anything outside of my own desires and biases writing themselves to my brain (or to my cosmic consciousness, if I were to accept the neo-vedantic interpretation), how would I be sure that this idea has any coherence with what is real or true?
I mean, how do I know I’m not a brain in a vat? Or (possibly worse) a brain in a jar of piss in some other universe’s postmodern art installment? I could merely be some lame artist’s attempt to piss off (see what I did there) some establishment which worships brains. Although, probably not mine specifically. Yet.
I could just be a piece of hardware being ignored by 6th graders on a field-trip!
When we start thinking about things such as how we view ourselves, the narratives groups maintain through interpersonal relationships, and even vast and complicated cultures we have to take into account not only what is preferable or comfortable to us, but what is uncomfortable and foreign. Who we are at any moment is dependent upon our environment, and our environment is an organism which feeds upon itself and those who foster its creation and maintenance (much like the role that Shiva has in some parts of Indian mythology). So, the question is who are the people feeding that beast, and what attributes, motives, and capabilities do they have?
Also, are they total dicks? Because that’s honestly the worst.
Further, what are the walls between your worldview and the worldview of others? Is that wall merely a thin transparent material holding in piss and/or brain-vat liquid (mostly Gatorade, is my guess)? So many questions. So many disturbing, but artful, questions.
Anyway, why do I care? Is it because I am being paid by the Gatorade lobby? Possibly. Alternatively, it might it be because who speaks for a group, what they believe, and what kind of character they have will have implications for that group. And maybe I care about groups of which I am a part. And, eventually, that family, organization, or culture will start to reflect the people that make it up, which is bad if those people are dicks.
That is, there is a very complicated relationship between the things we do, say, and believe and the social/cultural environment in which we live. Our ability to create a worldview is (in part) a combination of insight, self-knowledge, and willingness to be honest with others and ourselves. Any small inherent deviation from honesty, respectability, or consideration for feelings and boundaries of others has large effects on our lives, relationships, and culture because that inherent tendency defines the vast majority of the decisions, actions, and beliefs which define a group of any size or complexity.
What scientists actually do, for example, has an effect on the scientific community. How people in polyamorous relationships behave has effects on the poly community. Not that everyone needs to be flawless; there is no such thing as perfection, after all. But what we believe about ourselves, our families, our communities and ultimately the ideals we strive for or at least proclaim are questions not merely for ourselves and our closest allies, but also those distant from us or even opposed to us.
We should learn from our enemies, as much (if not more) as we learn from our friends, lovers, and even ourselves. Because even where our enemies might be wrong, they are not always completely wrong. And insofar as they may be right, that correctness is a source from which wisdom (or at least its potential) can be gleaned.
It is the fundamental processes of our character which shapes us more than any occasional mistake, misjudgment, or mess we make. That character is like the fluid in our brain-vats; it’s either pissy, delicious, or merely nourishing. It is the ether in which our consciousness (cosmic, vatted, or merely in skulls) propagates. And that character, no matter what direction it flies, will inform how we respond to mistakes, handle conflict, and maintain relationships. Having made a few doosies of mistakes myself, I know of what I speak.
But I do not speak from a point of superiority or of condescension, but simply from experience and growing understanding. And I have learned from my mistakes, my friends, and my enemies.
I don’t believe in any cosmic karma or universal balancing of the scales to have good people rewarded or bad people punished. I believe we have to make our own fates, as it were, and so we need to be paying attention to not only ourselves, but also to others. Not that we need to be watching, with bated schadenfreude, other people’s lives for mistakes. But there is some wisdom in understanding the motivations, actions, and characters of those with whom we share our community, space, and life. And we need to look honestly at those things, because (as I have found) sometimes the people closest to you are not who you thought they were.
More importantly, sometimes you may find that you are not who you thought you were. Which is a disquieting thought, even compared to merely being an art-piece in universe X-5473’s art museum. It’s one thing to not be sure of your very nature, it’s quite another to find that maybe you can change that nature, ever so slightly. Somehow, to me at least, the freedom to make myself be who I am is more terrifying than the uncertainty of what I am. That probably says a lot about me, I know.
I’m working on it.
And so we must rely on a communal system of punishment in order to guide our mistakes through the raging storm of culture, family, and individual characters. The unfortunate fact is that some of us will punish ourselves more than we should while others will not even recognize the need for self-correction at all. We are complicated, and means of figuring out what the right way–the true way–of handling a situation is a very complicated and delicate task which requires wisdom, patience, and a willingness to listen to ourselves and to others. It is, in short, an overwhelmingly difficult task, and one which nobody will likely master.
We have to come forward with our vulnerable hearts opened to the world, and declare not only our errors but our strengths. It is an intersubjective path we walk, one which attempts to take all of our collected experiences and shape them into a “reality” which we can judge better together than alone or segmented into cliques. Truth, therefore, is a kind of transmutation of subjectivities into an attempt to create an objective alloy.
What I’m trying to say is that ethics is like the Borg, except with better fashion sense. At least, I hope so. Aesthetics can’t completely go out the window when coming together into
Communist communal eradication of individuality coming together for the sake of world domination growth and support.
And in the end, no agreement will suit everyone. The leaders of our worlds, whether macro or micro, will be idolized or hated by some, rather than seen as humans struggling with difficulties, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. It is when we idolize or demonize that we fail to see nuances. I, as guilty of this as anyone else, understand that only through nuance can we get to any useful judgment. And sometimes we will find that someone is worth watching and learning from, while others not so much.
Some people, I think, really do just exist in jars of piss.
OK, OK….get to the super cosmically wise point already, bro.
Judgment, like science, is probabilistic rather than absolute. It’s why science does not “prove” anything, but merely makes the best case it can based upon evidence. It’s rather tempting to finally judge someone personally, but that judgment must be ongoing, replicated, and alive if it is to have any meaning. We must watch to see what people do going forward, and stop merely focusing on the past. That is what I hope for myself, and it is what I insist upon my judgment of others.
It’s why we need nuance, and why we must remember that our emotions shade the truth from us. When others err, we need to remember that we also err. And when it’s time to correct those transgressions around us, it need not be an absolute judgment, but it is a judgment.
And when you find yourself judged, it’s time for insight, reflection, and perhaps some empathy. And it’s may also be time to recognize that perhaps some things will never be forgiven, especially by those who were harmed, but perhaps you can make something better of yourself. That’s the goal; not to be superior or dominant. We don’t achieve moral greatness, we process moral growth.
The truth is that we all fuck up. Some of us more than others. But the kicker is not what we did, but how we responded. It’s less about he initial infraction than it is how we go forward. And sometimes, if you keep refusing to accept what you did and you make it worse and worse, eventually nobody is going to accept any amount of apology or change.
Behavior unchanged is the closest thing, from a judgmental standpoint, we have to absolute truth. Patterns of behavior, habit, and stubbornness are the roots of a personality caught in its own web. For anyone to be judged “objectively” or absolutely, they must be static and unchanging people. They have to be (to go back to the old Latin meaning) perfect, or even Platonic.
And just like with Plato, who was so convinced that his Good, his Ideal, and his Forms existed in perfect (objective) reality, so those who get caught in their own webs will find that perfection, superiority, and their own undeserved confidence (i.e. arrogance) will also be wrong.
There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. But there is something wrong about stubbornly or blindly holding onto that error for the sake of reputation.
I’ve been stubborn enough in my life, and I’ll strive to be less so in the future.