Let’s say you’re watching a TV show. There’s a scene where a gun-holding person—perhaps an authority of some kind or maybe a vigilante—enters a room and is shot at by another person—again, maybe an authority, a suspect in a crime, or an innocent person who saw an armed person entering their home. The person entering shoots back and hits them. That character is now injured, critically or not, or maybe dead. Let’s say it was a clean headshot; that character is now dead.
As the camera moves to the shooter, we see some reaction, maybe surprise, relief, or whatever, and the story goes on. Depending on the context, this action is tragic, just, or maybe it was an example of that good old canard of evil. The story continues and we maybe have some dialog, a phone call (perhaps to let someone know the “problem has been eliminated” or that they might need some help hiding the body). In any case, the narrative lives on and we learn more about what happened and why.
At least for us, as viewers. Also for the character who did the killing. At least until they get theirs, or whatever.
For the character who was shot, the narrative ends right there. There is no reflection on the motivation of their killer, no sense of tragedy, and not even an awareness of the next scene. For that character the story ends abruptly. Fade to eternal black.
We live in interesting times. The media is flush with tragedy, corruption, idiocy, and all seems to be falling apart. Where you place the tragedy and corruption will depend on the narrative which has installed itself in your head, of course. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Recently another person was killed in a way which has caused narratives to explode with controversy and continuing stories, except for the person who was killed. For that man, the story is over. His end was a horrendous injustice, and had we talked to him a week before his tragic death perhaps he would have understood the nature of such a narrative as it pertained to other people in similar circumstances, but this particular narrative is not his. That narrative belongs to us and to the memory of future people. It’s not his because he is dead.
But the narrative, the story of human being in this time, in these places, insofar as our stories are able to be shared, will continue to be shared by all sentient being who are lucky or unlucky enough to share in it.
As it will be for all of us, eventually. Most of the ends of our selves will not be so public, unjust, and evocative of civil action. But no matter the nature of the moment of our death, the self is gone in a moment and the story continues for others.
This comparison, or perhaps we should call it a juxtaposition, between the narrative of culture and the individual self has been on my mind more than most things in recent years. News cycles about tragedies definitely bring it into more relief, for sure, as I usually think of such relationships of narrative and selves in terms of historical people. Authors I am reading who have died, especially if they died long ago, seem to carry, as I read their words, a kind of continuance of life in their words. The old canard (that seems to be my word today) of us living on through our work, creation, and the memories of others is apt here, but it misses where the juxtaposition of the self slides right off of the historical or cultural narrative and into oblivion, making contact only briefly in the sea of stories that is human culture.
I think that most of us, perhaps all of us, believe deep down that we are somehow attached to this narrative; that we are part of history and culture. We have always had our perceptions, memories, and experiences of the world. It’s all we know. So when we watch a death occur–whether public or private, obscure or history changing–we see death as a part of this narrative and so it seems like death is part of the narrative. But our death will not be part of our narrative, but only the narratives of those who live after. And we are not a part of the narrative, as the narrative transcends individual lives.
Death is not something we experience as the self, but only as a narrative of others’ selves. Our own death is only real for the intersubjective story being told by those who will exist after we do, and is not ours. This is because our self is not attached to the narrative, but merely skims across the top like a water strider until it’s time to get eaten by inevitability.
The thing that keeps getting stuck in the corners of my mind, my own temporary narrative if you will, is what that makes the narrative?
If the narrative is nothing but the collected stories of temporary selves skimming across the surface of…of what?
And then it occurs to me that the narrative is paper thin and fragile. All the anger, sadness, happiness, hopefulness, creativity, and all the other feelings we have about the world are stories we tell each other, and yet they seem to real, solid, and important. But they, in themselves, are nothing. There is no independent reality to the media upon which we waterstriders streak our ideas and selves.
Everything is a fiction upon which which we build concepts of reality and fantasy with the same brush.
But that isn’t the part of this which is compelling to me. That’s something I’ve accepted as a reality of our world for a long time. Nor is it the idea that this fiction is all we have access to—it’s quite literally all of reality for any and all of us. No, that’s been well understood since I read Kant as a teenager (I was, indeed, a party animal). What really rubs my gib is that it really feels like that fiction is attached to the world in some way. What I mean by that is that as I navigate the world I have the perpetual sense of this story being the world, and it takes a large amount of attention to try to imagine that it is only a covering upon it, and that my being aware of it doesn’t change the perception.
And isn’t the attention and focus to peel this facade from the world its own kind of facade? It’s facades all the way down.
I cannot shake the fiction because literally everything I experience is that fiction.
And yet it’s also real.
Similar to how Kant talks about Hume as awakening him from his “dogmatic slumber,” the tension of this reality/fiction in my head is, I think, among the more confabulating and perplexing parts of the human condition. Within this tension is much of philosophy post-Kant, including the various tensions between epistemological worldviews that make up the contrasts between skepticism and faith. Behind everyone who says things like “well, that’s just, like, your opinion man” or “you don’t know the truth any more than I do” lies, I believe, this tension.
And while there are epistemological answers to such a conundrum, they are at best probabilistic. Skepticism, the philosophical underpinning for the various techniques collectively thought of as the “scientific method,” cannot give us certainty in any absolute sense. Even faith, which is often paired with the sacred wine of conviction, can only give us an illusion of certainty. That is, what many people think of as certainty is at best an inability or unwillingness to doubt or even understand the true nature of doubt. Our old friend Descartes may have known a thing or two about the subject.
Certainty is not attainable, and of this you can be certain.
Speaking of Descartes; he no longer thinks, therefore he no longer is. But is he part of the narrative still, anyway? We are still talking about him, after all. How much of him are his ideas? Is it meaningful, aside from some quite slippery metaphor, to say he is still with us?
I think not.
(do I disappear into a puff of my own logic?)
I mean to say that the narrative definitely is not part of him anymore. He cogito no mo’. But the narrative carries his memory. But it did so when he was alive, as well. I mean to say that these words, as you read them, are part of an obscure part of our culture, and they carry meaning (I hope) for you and express a thought I am having as I write them. It lets you see into my mind. But you could read Descartes just as easily, and would his words be any more or less dead than mine? Do words convey life?
If you were to meet me, have a conversation with me, and get to know me then I am a living thing to you? But what if I have died since I wrote this? From your point of view, as the alive reader, would it make any difference? Does my being alive elsewhere as you read this make the words any more (or perhaps less) import to you? Any more or less real?
These words live within the narrative of human culture, and are no longer only mine now that I have typed them. They live in posterity, whether I am a live or dead, so long as they are accessible. Once I write them, they are as a live or as dead as the words of Descartes, Kant, or some other obscure blog author who I have never heard of. From the point of view of some cultural narrative there is no difference between a dead or alive person.
From the point of view of the narrative, aren’t we all Schrodinger’s cat? Are we dead? Are we alive? Does it matter to the narrative? No. To the narrative our individual life is irrelevant. And when I die, the narrative becomes less than irrelevant to me; it becomes oblivious, very much in the true meaning of oblivion.
The information we put into the world creates the narrative. As history unfolds, that narrative gets added to, changed, and perhaps improved (maybe not so much….) but from the point of view of the narrative (a fictional perspective, to be sure, as there is no objective points of view by definition) we could be dead or alive, and it wouldn’t know the difference.
Everything is that record, aside, perhaps, from the very moment of now. As in now now. (Yes, that’s a Spaceballs reference.) But we’ll get to that more below.
It’s similar to how if every other person was a P-Zombie (That is, a philosophical zombie or a person who acted and appeared to have inner experiences but in fact doesn’t have any ‘qualia’ or a sense of what it’s like to be themselves), it would be indistinguishable, to ourselves, from a world of people with inner experiences like ours. If every other person in the world were a complicated automaton with no inner self of what it’s like to be them, would that make your experience different than it is now? Is that how everything is and you didn’t know it? How would you know? Are you the only being in the universe?
Yeah, I just invoked solipsism. Typical philosophy nonsense, I know.
The imaginary narrative-perspective doesn’t care if the source of its change is a living and thinking being, a P-Zombie, a dead person, or a computer generated meme. From the point of narrative, information is information. And this, perhaps, might be an explanation for why fake news (as in actual fake news, not that fake fake news that Trumps talks about, which is nothing more than a narrative he doesn’t like) is so compelling. It might explain why it’s so easy for us to believe in nonsense of all kinds.
Perhaps it is too obvious to point out that all that we have is our temporary now. I don’t mean that all there is in the whole universe is now (especially if String theory is true), but because we are being who exist in this way where our consciousness is the creature of, or perhaps the creator of, the present moment all we have is now. From our individual points of view (at least those of us who aren’t P-Zombies), the now is all there is.
Anything that is not your very moment of consciousness, even if it is a memory (because a memory is but a kind of now which simulates a thing which happened before, even if corrupted by our lens), is that narrative. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
And yet we make decisions, define ourselves in relationship to, and live every temporary moment in context to this fiction. It is simultaneously all we know (And perhaps all we can know) and all a phantasm. And yet it’s real.
So, what is reality then?
Well, as Kant pointed out, the noumena is unattainable to us. And while what we’re left with is phenomenal, we have to be aware that we are all, collectively AND individually, constructing it. Our concept of time, color, etc are all (I think, anyway) based upon a real universe, but the construction is a skin we attach to this reality. Some of this is automatic, in that our brain perceives the world the way we do without choice, which is why is is so hard, if not impossible, to pry our thoughts away from it. Like I said, facades all the way down.
But some of it is, insofar as free will is a thing (it might just be another of the facades), created in a way which can be perceived differently. We can have different perspectives on things and perhaps those realities can also change. Beliefs, worldviews, and behaviors are examples of these. One of the reasons that so many people get “stuck in their ways,” try to conserve traditions, or become dogmatic is that they seem to get attached to a narrative. Perhaps they start to identify with it as if it were a part of them, rather than an external construction which has copied a part of itself into our brains much like a malicious piece of malware.
I think if we realize that we were never attached to the narratives to begin with then we might more easily skate across the world at will rather than get carried away by the tides of culture and history.
If you want to have any kind of freedom, I think it’s best to not identify with the narratives which are only facades indifferent to whether we are dead or alive. This means you need to stop taking your worldview, you sacred beliefs, and even things like your tribal/cultural families seriously.
Would we create the world we live in, as bad as it can be, intentionally? No? Then why do you grip so hard to it? If you want it to change, you need to change your perspective first.
We cannot literally, as some new age woo woo charlatans claim, change the world with your thoughts. But what you can do is realize that how you perceive the world is a construction fabricated from a combination of physiological perception and stories given to us by narratives unconcerned with you in particular (just like the TV show moved on after the character was killed, the narrative in the world is indifferent to you in particular). Whether you detach your identity from constructed narratives is up to you. I think it’s a worthy exercise to learn how to do. You can always go back later, if you find nothing of value elsewhere.
You will be doing you either way, but this way at least you can be more sure that the narrative home you choose was earned, and not merely inherited by historical accident and cultural circumstance.
Be willing to let go of everything, yourself included, if freedom and truth are important to you.
I have been saying, for many years now, that I care about what is true. And, I do. But in reflecting upon some of the events over the last few years, there has been a splinter in my metaphorical appendages which has been annoying enough to make me re-evaluate this tendency, because I’m beginning to believe that this is too difficult a task to ask for without a strong awareness of how truth is so often tribal dogma or goodthink, rather than Actual Truth™.
Actual Truth™ is not so much a goal, ideal, or entity we can hold and share, because that would imply that we already have it, or at least its coordinates, to indicate. And this, I believe, is the focal point of the error that so many people make (myself included). And so I want to take some time, today, to make a distinction between truth as a metaphysical concept versus framing it as a process, because I think this would solve many problems we run into while attempting to convince people of the “truth” of something.
Whether in politics, religion, or inter-tribal warfare, the “truths” we carry with us are designed to be defenses and weapons, more than reality. But if you’re interested in reality, you may have to leave some of yourself aside for a bit, and take yourself much less seriously.
First, some definitions.
Reality as a metaphysical construct
Back in the old days, especially with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato who defined much of what would be considered “philosophy” for centuries within the Western European traditions, truth was (in a sense, anyway) a thing. Depending on how literally you took some thinkers of this tradition, truth was literally a Form or Ideal in the universe, immutable and (possibly) discoverable. Philosophy and science were just a means of uncovering truths in the universe through discourse, investigation, and (eventually) the scientific method.
In the philosophy of mathematics, for example, there is a debate which goes back quite a long time as to whether numbers, and mathematical relationships in general, are real things that we discover or if they are in a sense created as tools for our understanding the relationships between things. The nuances and grey areas within this debate are beyond the scope of this post, but if you’re interested in such things, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article which can serve as an introduction to this area of study.
For our purposes here, the point is that some people think that the truth is actually real, in some sense. What is the densest material on Earth? Well, that’s a question with an answer which we can find (it’s Osmium, according my my Google-fu), and that answer is a real, true, fact about the nature of the world. If we wanted to know the densest material possible, well, that might be a different question which may or may not have a real answer, based upon how good our tools are to investigate such a question. Follow the same link as above to see a short discussion of neutron stars, for example.
So, in short, such a question has an answer which we can point to. What’s the densest material found on Earth? Osmium, duh. And you can point at your heavy osmium jewelry so that everyone can be very impressed. That is until you die from exposure to osmium tetroxide, which is a compound formed when osmium is exposed to the air. You know, that real stuff which is all around you all the time. Maybe settle for Iridium, if you’re seriously rich (it’s extremely rare). I, personally, wear a ring made of tungsten carbide which is like half as dense but still pretty heavy, but nobody is really impressed. Fucking haters….
Anyway, back to reality.
So, you can find a real truth to a question, but you have to make sure that the terms are well defined and have rational and empirical (when available) evidence to support the relevant facts. And many people believe that this is an indication that there is some actual reality which our language uses to describe, and by use of this idea the word “osmium” refers to a real thing which is, in fact, the densest (mass/volume, a real relationship, obviously) found on this planet. And then you can point at your collection of osmium (hopefully contained in some sort of sealed vacuum container, this time) and impress everyone with your strange collecting hobbies.
What I’m trying to get at here is that even if we have a definite answer to a question, the definiteness is the operative word. That is, we need to define the scope of the question to isolate a concept in such a way that we can make some sense of it and define the logical structure of the thought such that the answer makes sense rationally. The definition acts, for us, as some sort of lens through which we can “see” the real object. But do we? Is our definitional lens the thing itself? Do we ever really pierce the phenomenal barrier to reality and see the thing itself, the noumenal? (Kant says no, and he may be right). Aren’t all the things we perceive just simulations in our head of a thing which may or may not actually be out there, in reality? That seems to be the case, to me. But the definitions, the context, and the framing by which we perceive the real objects literally shape the world around us, and thus there is a sense in which it is true that we create the world we perceive, even if that construction is based upon something real “out there.”
And when we’re done with such construction, we have something to indicate, refer to, and interact with. We have reality, even if it’s just a simulation. It’s a construct of language, definitely (see what I did there?), but is it actually real outside of our conceiving of it with words and neurons firing? Is it more than a linguistic and cognitive construct?
Are we in some sort of Matrix?
I don’t know. But let’s take a look at another way to conceive of this question, for context.
Truth as a Process
Now, if you were paying attention to my clever section above, you may have noticed that I sort of hinted at this part already. Because even if there is an actual reality beyond our language and thought, the process to define, isolate, and logically structure the true thing is dependent upon, well, a process. Thinking is a process, logic is a process, language is a process, and science is most definitely a process.
All too often we will find people describing science in terms of “science says” or “we learn from science that” followed by a fact or set of facts. Science tells us we evolved from earlier primates. Science says water is made up of two parts of this and one part of that. Science tells us that stars are giant balls of fire very far away. These facts are just more examples of conceptually defined and structured words and thoughts, and by focusing on these conclusions we are missing the really important part of what science (and intellectual investigations in general) is all about.
What matters is the process. What tools are we using, how do we use them, why are those tools better than other tools, and are we using our tools well enough? And this is true in the history of ideas in general, not just the physical sciences. It’s also true of our worldviews, beliefs, and personal narratives about ourselves, friends, and enemies. Everything we hope to understand will be dependent upon what processes we use and how we use them. The reliability of any conclusion will hinge upon how we use such tools.
It’s much more valuable to have a strong handle on the process than the true fact/conclusion, because with the former you can get the latter, but not necessarily the other way around. Give a man a fish versus teach them to fish, blah blah blah.
And we are processes too. In a physiological and cognitive sense, we are a jumble of inter-related processes which serve a myriad of functions, rather than a static being. We are perpetually changing, growing, and cycling through processes we don’t have full conscious access to, but which are unavoidable. Our assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions themselves are dependent upon these processes and defined by them. The truths we hold, therefore, are secondary to the processes themselves.
The more we pay attention to the processes (both external and internal, assuming that distinction is meaningful) which we use to understand the world, the less we’ll be transfixed by the truths we accept, and we’ll be better prepared to replace those conclusions which have previously been put on pedestals or made into Platonic Ideals or Divine Reality with newer, better ones. Further, if we are able to improve our processes, we are less likely to get stuck in modes of thoughts and also better see past the faults in our truths and our methods. That is, not only can the truths we accept be upgraded, perhaps our processes can be as well.
If you believe Jesus is Lord or that psychic powers are real, these conclusions are based upon existing processes. If, upon further introspection, investigation, and skeptical analysis we discover that our processes can no longer support these conclusions, all the better (if the processes are good and used logically). But the further improvement would be to improve, reform, or replace your processes. A person whose epistemology consists of “God said it, I believe it” has a bad process installed, and so it’s no surprise when they conclude that Jesus is Lord. Skepticism is just a better process than presuppositionalism, for example, and can lead to more rational conclusions. That is, our processes are not merely relative, but some are better at others in terms of making sense of the miasma of phenomena we have to contend with.
What’s important here is to see that the process itself is a lens through which we construct the world. It literally shapes perceptions and defines our thought. It shapes the process doing the simulation of the world. The hard part is being able to identify your lens, in order to compare it with alternatives for the sake of upgrading or replacement; if you can’t understand how you see the world, you certainly will have a rough time correcting irrational truths and conclusions, and your beliefs will stagnate in errors.
And, this is the point in my writing that I am suddenly very aware that I’m trying to make a similar point I made in my MA thesis (a criticism of the illusion of ontological dualism as being an artifact of projecting a faulty tendency of thought onto reality itself), and that I’m about to start talking about Alfred North Whitehead.
(And yes, for once this was actually a spontaneous realization, and not a baked in “surprise” to my post, as I often do)
So let’s take a very brief pause and talk about process philosophy.
Make Whitehead Relevant Again
So, when I was in graduate school at West Chester, I had just discovered Alfred North Whitehead, or ol’ Whitey as I’ll call him (OK, no I won’t).
Whitehead was a contemporary of Bertrand Russell, with whom he collaborated in the 1890s on the subjects of mathematics and logic, but the two later moved in different directions, philosophically. Whitehead is not a well-known philosopher today largely due, I think, to his rather unorthodox metaphysics. But when I first read his work (especially his seminal Process and Reality, published in 1929), I was struck by it in a profound way. I wasn’t convinced by it, exactly. I didn’t become an acolyte like David Ray Griffin or John Cobb, both of whom went on to talk about theological implications of Whitehead’s process philosophy. But I did find something very valuable in shifting the way we think about reality, and process philosophy became a valuable metaphor for doing so. (In fact, part 2 of my MA thesis commits to seeing his metaphysics as a metaphor rather than a literal ontology, which I still think is a valuable take on Whitehead’s work unlike the essentially worthless Process Theology of his said acolytes, with whom I am still quite annoyed)
The essential thing is this; rather than focus on reality as a set of definite stuff interacting with other stuff (whether the simplistic ancient idea of tiny “atoms” and the “void,” as articulated by Democtritus in the 5th century BCE or later ideas of atoms as protons, electrons, etc), Whitehead invited us to imagine the world made up of processes. The perception we have of stuff is, in his theory, a kind of snapshot of the process. What he called prehension was, in some sense, us perceiving a moment of the process and creating the illusion of concrete stuff.* That is, the perception of the solidity and “stuffness” of reality is an illusion we create, but that all things are just a complex process and not actually things in the sense philosophers of old tended to think of it.
The implications on quantum mechanics, metaphysics, and science are interesting, but there are reasons his theory never really grabbed hold of the philosophical world the way that his contemporary, Ludwig Wittgenstein (who was also a subject of my MA thesis and part of my criticism of Whitehead), had on later philosophical thought. The reason is that his ideas were bad, if taken literally. I still believe that, as a metaphor, they are an interesting tool to understand aspects of the world.
Read his work if you’re curious about the details, but that is enough to move on with.
We are the warped lens through which we see all possible worlds
Do you see yourself as a person moving through time and space, taking in information, making judgments, and coming to conclusions about people, things, and ideas?
Me too. But let’s look at a shade of that idea which might either elucidate something or merely annoy you. Perhaps both.
Think about someone you love. Or like a lot. Or can tolerate for small periods of time, at least. Think about how you think about them, as well. What are the emotional associations with that person? How would you feel if you see them, or merely imagine them, being cruel to someone else, undeservedly?
Now imagine the same for someone you hate or dislike.
What’s the difference?
Now, what’s the truth? What kind of person are those people of whom you just thought? Is the first one having a bad day, and is the second person confirming your dislike of them? Or maybe you love or like a bad person, and have misjudged someone else who is just having a bad day? When did the truth of each of those people, and all the other people you could think of, become a real, definite, thing? When did you decide to love the first and hate the second, and why do you still do so?
When did you first deify or demonize them? When I asked you to think of someone you loved, you probably had at least one person in mind. Why that person? Why didn’t you get confused and accidentally think of your worst enemy? Didn’t you already have a lens, a filter, of your perception set up, for each of those people? And didn’t your new observation or imagining of them being cruel pass through that filter, rather than come to you uncolored?
Why was one on the good side of your filter, and the other on the bad side?
In order to save time, we humans tend to use general concepts (stereotypes, really) as place-holders for more nuanced and accurate perceptions. We have quick and dirty schema to make sense out of the people, objects, and concepts which surround us. One of these conceptual shortcuts is the tendency to define dualities or continuum, which leads to binary thinking, in many cases. In some religious traditions, such as Zoroastrianism, there are opposing supernatural beings pulling us in two different directions. The Light/Dark side of the Force, from Star Wars, is a fictional example of this (but aren’t they all fictional? ZING!). In the Christian world, it’s God and the devil, which derive from concepts more akin to something being placed in an idealized pedestal and something thought of as evil, harmful, but still powerful.
Gods and Demons, loved ones and enemies. Simple, effective, and rarely accurate at higher resolutions, but fairly universal of human perception and worldviews.
These examples of how we categorize people, ideas, places, etc are very natural and easy ruts for us to fall into, and doing so doesn’t make us weak, broken, or wrong in any moral sense, but I believe we have some responsibility to be aware of this tendency and to lift ourselves out of this rut when we see it happening. And I have written about tangential issue to this before, I know, but today I want to focus on seeing ourselves, our friends, and our enemies as processes so that we can, perhaps, allow ourselves to see people for what they are in the process of doing, rather than merely what they did that time when we froze our image of them in a timeless box. If we want to know what is true, we need to compensate for our tendency to sum up our surroundings up quickly and simply, in an analogous way to how video is a better tool than pictures to capture the reality of some thing we are investigating. Seeing people as processes is more accurate than seeing them as a defined and idealized objects, or static pictures.
Because if every one of us, you and I included, are stories we are telling ourselves in real time, then that story may change and have moments of mistakes, successes, and many more of boring, everyday, actions of little moral significance. A snapshot of any of these moments is only part of the whole process, and we need to be able to look at patterns over time rather than one tweet or moment of emotion (for example). It’s all too easy to allow such moments to define someone and to therefore decide to cut them out of our lives (“cancel” them), rather than the harder effort to understand them as complex human beings with possibly nuanced behavior and beliefs.
But more importantly, we need to remember that the story we are telling about ourselves is also a lens through which we see the rest of the world. It distorts ourselves as much as our surroundings, and if we want to define the lens, then we have to pay specific attention to the warping and distortions of our worldview. That is, we need to be very attentive to how we deceive ourselves before we can be sure we are beginning to see an accurate picture of the rest of the world. If you are unaware of the shape of your own lens, then you have little hope of being certain about the reality of anything around, or within, you.
You can love people who casually and normally do harm because they endeared themselves to you in the right way and at the right time, and you can despise someone who is kind and considerate because they did (or you heard they did) something that specifically irks you. And for some third person, with their own perceptions and opinions, those two people whom you love/hate could be reasonably swapped, and the person you love they will hate while your enemy is their trusted friend. And they may hate you, despite your good qualities, to boot. A little perspective goes a long way towards love, hate, and indifference.
So, how can we start to discover the shape of the tool through which we perceive reality? You have to start by being willing to question the most valued and sacred things; not your beliefs, per se, but what you are. You need to re-evaluate yourself, your processes, and the beliefs that those processes have wrought.
And it’s so easy to get that wrong, and therefore very easy to turn incorrect perceptions into deified truth because you revere your warped lens. For some people, their values are sacred parts of their identity, but I believe that those are the things we need to be most skeptical about.
If you want to see the world correctly, you need to start by seeing yourself correctly. And we are so good at lying to ourselves.
A correctly shaped lens has a depression
I’m going through a bad bout of depression, currently. It’s that time of year, and it’s been compounded by factors in my personal life, and I know it will pass. But in the meantime, I’m struggling. Depression lies, as the Bloggess says. But is that all it does, and is it the only liar here?
Some research has shown that depression has a tendency to offer some amount of cognitive clarity, rational thought, and nuanced reflection (the so-called “Depressive Realism,” see here and here) such that the rose-tinted view of the world is less prevalent, and we are able to see things are they are, to some degree, better
From the New Yorker, in 2014, in an article making reference to a famous set of experiments about depression and perception of reality:
Not only were depressed individuals more realistic in their judgments, they argued, but the very illusion of being in control held by those who weren’t depressed was likely protecting them from depression in the first place. In other words, the rose-colored glow, no matter how unwarranted, helped people to maintain a healthier mental state. Depression bred objectivity. A lack of objectivity led to a healthier, more adaptive, and more resilient mind-set. (source)
So much for self-help and the power of positive thinking as a means to seeing the truth.
In the quiet moments of self-reflection, I can tell myself that I am my worst mistakes. All the things that my enemies say about me are true. I deserve ostracism, enmity, and distrust. In times of confidence I can, alternatively, tell myself that I have done so many great things, maintained so many good relationships, and have done work to learn from those mistakes, and all the people demonizing me are merely unable or unwilling to see the distance between their crystallized image of me and the real me, which makes them wrong and possibly cruel in continuing to attack, defame, and ostracize me. So fuck them, right? They are assholes, and not worth my time.
These are just two different shapes of the lens I am capable of creating for myself. Neither is true, in any real or absolute sense. They are different framings that I project, and they will make the world look quite different from the other. Depression lies, but so does self-empowerment and pride in some identity. All our lenses lie, to some degree. The key is to figure how how and how much each lens lies to us, and not to become transfixed by any of them whether self-deprecating or self-empowering. The truth lies elsewhere.
I don’t believe the sad thoughts my mind whispers to me when feeling down, but I’m similarly skeptical of things such as “The Secret” or optimism as a means to empower ourselves, because it seems like a self-deception as well. And in some sense it is most definitely a lie. I have a close friend who swears by it, and believes that his optimism and attitude towards success are what makes him successful. Perhaps it does have that effect, but it is still, in some sense, a lie. It’s a lie of control, and arguing with someone who believes that they will succeed would be fruitless, mostly because they are insisting upon their deception and proud of it. They begin to shape not only their own lens, but the lenses of people around them and thus creating the power structure that wasn’t there previously. So it’s not only a lie, but it’s one that creates a new kind of truth which is then accepted socially, and thus has power.
I’m not confident most people will use this power for good, so I am not a fan of this approach.
But, more importantly, this teaches us that we can create a shield-lens around us which creates an intersubjectively real social field that effects our behavior because it defines our perception. The tall man walking confidently down the street in his obviously well-tailored suit, nice shoes, and expensive briefcase carries himself with self-empowerment, and this confidence effects not only his perception of the world (which is a lie), but it effects the shape of the field of others around him (whom are telling themselves a different kind of lie, perhaps). These social shield-lenses are the social structure in which we live, every day, and it helps define the culture, economics, and local identities which seem as real to us as the car he’s getting in or the homeless person he just ignored.
Because, again, we construct reality. The simulation of the car, the man, and the social status happen in the same mind, and have similar real effects on our behavior. And if these constructions are lies, even if only in part, then shouldn’t we be more skeptical about them?
We create our own reality, right? We define and create the truth, correct? Like-minded people, who view themselves as powerful, in control, and successful band together to create a tribal lens, and rival groups push and pull the reality around them leading to a world of competing tribes with their own realities, each of which is the lens through which they see the world. Other tribes will look warped because both sets of tribal lenses warp the reality as perceived intersubjectively, and the next thing you know there is no possibility of getting to any agreement, let alone Actual Truth™, because everyone is invested in their individual or group lenses which are defining their own realities, and warping all the other realities. It’s a vicious cycle.
It’s very possible (super easy, barely an inconvenience) to be a genuinely intelligent, well-intentioned, and honest person living your life as part of a community while trying to make the world a better place while simultaneously participating in the demonization and harm to other people. It is, in fact, the norm. I think everyone thinks they are, even when acknowledging errors and mistakes, generally good and doing the right things. Actual psychopaths are rare. The rest of us have normal good people as our enemies.
I believe, after some years of deep contemplation, that I’m almost certainly wrong about a lot of things, especially the things with the most emotional weight. The people I’m hurt by and dislike the most are not monsters, but flawed humans who just happened to hurt me in the right way and at the wrong time. And I know that people exist for whom that person is a trusted friend or partner, but who absolutely hate me. Do any of us deserve that? Like I said, actual psychopaths are rare, and it’s possible that I’ve known one or two, but in general I must conclude, unhappily but rationally, that I hate people who are decent in many ways. And so do you.
It’s very easy for me to fall into the rut of demonizing people for the ostracism, untrue accusations, and attacks I have received from factions within the polyamorous community (for example). Because despite the fact that I know most of those people are smart, honest, and well-intentioned, they are also corrupt liars just trying to protect something. And I think I know what they are protecting. It’s the same thing we are all protecting, in the end; ourselves and our lenses.
Because as a lens perpetuates in a person, group, or culture, that lens becomes a mythology, a narrative, and part of an identity. And this is how misperceptions, deceptions, and lies become part of who we are and what is sacred to us. And this is why I try to hold nothing sacred, because for me all is subject to scrutiny and criticism. And we all, in every group, have our sacred ideologies. It’s time to pull them down off their pedestals and re-evaluate.
It’s time to drop the shields
Remember how I was lamenting how we lose track of the fact that we are complicated, and that if we stopped deifying and demonizing people and saw them as complicated processes, then we might be better off (or whatever my point was)?
We’ve moved from the analogy of a snapshot image of a person, thing, or concept as being worse than a video of them. See them in real time, as a process, and we see more of the context and more of the truth. Except this is the wrong analogy. It’s the wrong analogy because it seems to imply that what we need to do is more actively pay attention to the lenses we are deceived by. It implies that we may need to take control of the shape of our lenses, talk with other people about their lenses so that we can start to understand one-another better, and finally start to talk with one another.
This, quite frankly, will not work very well. The reason, I think, is that this lens which we create, as individuals and as groups, is a projection from our (sacred?) values and beliefs about who we are. It is like a spell we cast around us, actively made stronger by the illusion, referred to above, of control. It is the very thing we see as a positive thing–confidence, empowerment, and identity–which creates it. If there is anything I have benefited from, in times of depression, it is the moments of quiet, passive clarity which allows me to drop the pretense of control and the identity it may provide.
Having actively meditated for many years helps this, as well. I have trained my mind to focus on its own processes, and between moments of sadness and self-pity and surges of confidence is a quiet space of stillness and authenticity in which even my most hated enemies are human and understandable, and my most loved and trusted human and imperfect. It is during these rare and valuable moments when I realize that the only way we can understand each other is by recognizing that we are not what we think we are.
We are not as self-aware as we think.
We are not in control of the vast majority of things
we are not right about most of what we believe
None of us. And it’s not our fault; this is the human condition. It’s just that all of us are almost always transfixed by a set of distortions of reality and ourselves, created by our attempts to better control and understand ourselves and the world around us.
We are, at best, semi-aware bits of matter filled with stories and concepts shaped by lenses we can’t see. The more we focus on any of it, the more we create the illusions in which we live our every-day lives. Just like how money is an illusion which we create, so is everything else we see. Whether the illusions are good things or not is besides the point, because if we recognize that they are not real, then we can’t become affixed by them and defined by them. And, finally, we can’t create gods, demons, or even truths if we aren’t willing to lend reality to the phenomena we’re projecting.
I’m not suggesting that we just give up and live as nihilists, but I’m suggesting that we all, as individuals, groups, cultures, and as a species (and potentially as a member of all possible semi-sentient beings) kill all of our gods, demons, and even our very identities. If we do so, we will begin to understand that we don’t know anyone, really, especially ourselves. Then we can stop defining people so easily and quickly based on limited information and context.
Only then can we start to glean the truth.
What is the truth? I don’t know. And neither do you. Perhaps if we realized that, we would yell at each other less on social media, and realize that people in power are really projecting a narrative that probably won’t be helpful to you. The one yelling the loudest is creating the biggest lens for themselves, and they won’t be able to see you as well as you can see them.
I see you out there. I don’t know who you are, but I’d be willing to sit quietly with you and maybe try to let my shields down, if you will.
None of this means that there isn’t actually any true things. This is not a nihilistic screed. There are still better and worst ways to govern, behave, and things that are more true than others. The point here is that we need to realize that the beliefs and behaviors which allow us to succeed in accomplishing things in life, whether self-confidence, empowerment, or group identity is also a source for self-deception. In terms of achieving practical success and accomplishment, the useful lies are helpful. But those very same perspectives and skills are detrimental in terms of seeing the truth.
I believe that much of religion and the history of mystical thought has realized this for thousands of years, but the mistake is attributing this to some more real world or more real being. This, ironically, is exactly the problem, rather than the solution. Just like how Trump supporters err in believing Trump-like “strongmen” are the solution to corruption, lying, and incompetence in government, mysticism and religion are wrong in believing that a supernatural or magic reality is better than the mundane/sinful world it tries to overcome. It is the very projection of a solution which is the source of the problem. I think there is a reason that many Trump supporters are evangelical Christians; they are both transfixed by the same fundamental error of not seeing reality because they are believing, so hard, that their savior is real when it’s all a deception. And it’s one they could stop projecting, if they weren’t so self-interested in maintaining it.
We need to stop mistaking our lenses for reality.
I don’t know the solution to this problem. I’m just no longer impressed by our human bullshit.
And I’ll continue to do my best not to get hyped by my own bullshit.
I’m not only out of fucks, but I’m convinced that the fucks aren’t even real to begin with.
*anyone familiar with Whitehead just winced, because I simplified that to painful extents. In reality, Whitehead believes that our consciousness is that process of the stuff we are made of being aware of itself, as all matter is supposed to do. According to the theory of Process Philosophy, all matter does this prehension at different levels of complexity, and the level of complexity adds up to different levels of consciousness. This leads to what some followers of Whitehead call panpsychism, which is, in many ways, the foundational idea to much of the ideas of universal consciousness (a la the annoying Deepak Chopra and so forth). The idea, popular with many spiritual traditions throughout cultures and history, that consciousness is part of the nature of reality itself, often leads to the belief that the entire universe would be aware of itself, and everything below it is in a hierarchy of awareness, including ourselves, animals, plants, rocks, etc, are all concious in some sense. This self-awareness of the universe is what God is for some Process Theologians. I’m not a proponent of panpsychism or process theology at all, but it’s an interesting philosophical attempt to make rational many spiritual and religious ideas, which I still run into when talking with many “spiritual” people. In short, Whitehead created a metaphysics which was influential on a lot of woo mysticism of the 20th century, which would make him my natural philosophical opponent.
There has been a thought that my mind has been returning to in recent months.
The core of the idea derives from an idea that originates from my early education. Whether it was middle school, high school, or perhaps something I read outside of the school curriculum of that time period, I do not remember. Very basically, it is the following;
liberals and progressives tend to be more prone to describe and see the world in terms of nurture being the more important factor in understanding the world; we construct the world, and who we are has more to do with our life experience and construction. Conservatives are more essentialist or absolutist in their view of the world; there are definite facts, realities, and a nature to things, and what we are is dependent upon those realities. Who we are is based upon our nature. In short, the difference between liberals and conservatives is one of nurture versus nature.
This is an oversimplification, of course, but I think that there is something here worth thinking about, and some kernals of truth as well.
As an example of how this plays out, let’s take an issue which has been increasingly discussed in our culture, especially recently; gender issues. What is gender? What is sex? Are we essentially male, female, or some other gender or is this concept a social construction? And how do more progressive and liberal minds approach this issue compared to how conservative people think about it?
Take this article, for example, written by Crip Dyke at Pharyngula;
It’s an interesting article which clarified some concepts for me, in terms of what is meant by the phrase “gender is a social construction,” but also “sex is a social construction.”
We choose the meanings to take from words and we choose the words we wish to embody our meanings. This is not unique to sex or to gender: this is the nature of language. To say, then, that “gender is a social construct” is nothing more or less than stating “gender is a word in a human language”. Therefore to say that “gender is binary” (or, conversely, to say it isn’t) is a choice we make about how to communicate meaning. The truth of the statement, or not, depends on the definitions we give to “gender”, “is” and “binary”.
This is an inherently social process. We are interactively constructing the meanings of words (and thus concepts).
So: stars are real objects that really orbit each other, but binary is a social construct. Vulvae are real body-parts that really do communicate sensations to brains via neurons, but sex is a social construct. Thai food is made up of very real, nutritive substances, and a delicious subset of these are, objectively, the best foods a vegan can eat in southwest Canada, but cuisine is a social construct.
Just as “social construct” doesn’t mandate the lack of a physical referent, neither does it mandate that one’s definition is bad or ambiguous. AT&T has a definition that is specific, non-ambiguous, and quite good in the sense that very few people will interpret you to be talking about something other than AT&T when you say AT&T. And yet, it’s impossible that AT&T as a term with meaning was arrived at without social interaction constructing the meaning.
read the rest for full context. It’s worth the time, and it it a worth-while conversation.
And yet, I’ll admit that when I started to read this article I I felt a bunch of philosophical red flags starting to fly. My anti-postmodernist leanings started to make me feel like I was beeing bambozzled by language tricks, and a part of me agreed with something the first commenter said:
Where you attempt to use linguistic deconstruction, Hegelian postmodernist games with language to deny and “spin” underlying reality.
But to use Pierce’s language, signs are noises or glyphs, and denote abstract types which to enable communication we assert as referencing generalizations of particulars. I don’t care whether you use “sex” or “gender” or “abracadabra” to designate the real physical dimorphism that exists, but it is a real physical fact of the world – the very reality that killed postmodernism – and you cannot change that reality by doublespeak.
And, I’ll add, that I felt like what was happening was that the idea that gender/sex is a social construct was a deepity. In other words, it was trivially true on the surface (all concepts are social constructions), but that there was a conflation going on related to how the real physical world really exists, and that saying that a description, or a referent, to the real world was a social construction seemed to be claiming that how we think about something changes its reality.
And this was too much like The Secret to be comfortable for me.
We are all in tension
But then something occurred to me. And then I felt like writing. To be clear, I don’t want to deal with the above issue; I’ll leave that for people more qualified than myself to deal with (but by all means, check out the whole post, because it is well-written and explores some important concepts). But I wanted to use this discussion as an example of the thing that occurred to me.
As I understand it, this discussion exemplifies what happens when the part of us that wants to hold onto certainty, familiarity, and simplicity interacts with the part of us which is curious and is capable of nuance and complexity. And while it’s way too simple to say that liberals are curious and want to understand complexities while conservatives just want their traditional comfort zones (many liberals, after all, accept concepts like karma, are susceptible to bullshit “science” trends like the link between autism and vaccines, and any number of other simple but harmful ideas which fit within their own comfort zones), it is true that the way conservatives deal with issues related to gender (the recent rejection of equal rights in Houston, for example) is based upon socially constructed, essentialist notions of what it means to be a “man,” “woman,” etc.
They think they are pointing to an obvious, objective reality about the differences between men and women, when they are stuck within the mire of traditional, binary, and (indeed) socially constructed concepts of gender.
And it’s similarly true that many progressive discussions do lean towards a postmodernist, anti-realist, and semantic-heavy framing, one which looks like (especially to conservatives) a denial of “simple reality.” Thus, it appears to conservatives as if those liberal hipsters are trying to tell them that our physical bodies, the general physiological dimorphisms (physical differences between men and women, IOW), are not real. And it sounds like bullshit to them.
And in some extreme cases, the language that such progressives, social justice activists, etc use seems indistinguishable from the meaningless word salad of Lacan, Deepak Chopra, etc. (See the Sokal hoax, for some context on my, and other skeptics, view of how postmodernism often bleeds into nonsense).
Bottom line; we are all capable of this exact tension within ourselves between gripping the flawed familiar and being tantalized by the nuances of complexity. So long as that grip is loose and we don’t allow the poetry of words, like the Sirens they can be, to lure us away from reality, we will be fine.
And the boundaries of these tensions present, to us, the space for conversation. And both the desire for nuance and certainty can grip us, and we can become too attached to whatever we associate with. Let go, and escape the endless cycle of attachment and pain, and float into the nirvana of maybe, perhaps, and let’s see. Let’s test what might be true, possible, and not hold onto what is comfortable. Slave owners were comfortable. But at the same time, let us not be lured into slavish illusion presented by false hopes.
Dream, but do so with our feet on the ground.
Clarification of an old idea
There is a thing I used to say a lot, some years ago. I’m not sure how true it is, but I think it’s at least partially true; today’s liberals are tomorrow’s conservatives. In recent years I have come to think that this formulation is not the best way to articulate what I think I mean. Let’s try this:
Today’s cutting edge social movements will be the socially constructed, traditional, and normal concepts of tomorrow. And in a few of generations, those cutting edge, controversial, and new ideas will be defended by conservatives as traditional and obvious;they will become the new, solid ground. And the cutting edge, controversial, and new ideas that their descendants will espouse will seem to shatter their comfortable worldview, will be looked at with skepticism, will not be understood, and they will chafe against them the same way today’s conservatives do.
So, my thought is this; is it meaningful, at all, to say an issue itself is a progressive one? Right now, gender equality is a hot topic within social justice crowds (and I’m glad that it is!), but will there come a time when gender equality is as conservative a value as individual freedom is now? Was individual freedom once a social justice issue? And, if so, is the fact that individual freedom is held up as a strong conservative value a lesson for us all?
I don’t know.
What I’m increasingly aware of, however, is that the arguments, such as the one inherent in the Crip Dyke post from above, is that the conversation is less one between liberals and conservatives per se as it is a conversation between two aspects of the human mind, expressed socially as a divide between different types of people (whether feminist/anti-feminist, liberal/conservative, etc).
The question becomes whether that tension, that dichotomy, within the human mind is a real distinction or one we socially construct. And that, right there, is the meta-question. Because all of our concepts are based, ultimately, on a real physical reality. The question is whether our construction, our concepts expressed through language, are reliable representations or not. Also, whether that concept itself is meaningful. And on and on, through many meta-layers of potential analysis.
At bottom, many conversations about social justice boil down to metaphysics, epistemology, and linguistics. It’s all philosophy, long before it’s politics. I believe I can only comprehend a small piece of the surface of the problem, but I am fascinated that this philosophical conversations will probably continue so long as there are people to have them. And I’m glad that there are people out there who can express the conversation, and understand the problems, in ways that I do not, because that serves to feed my own cravings for nuance, complexity, and thwarts the conservative parts of me that will settle into comfort. It also stops me from gripping “reality” too tightly.
OK, I give up on the analysis of Ayn Rand. It’s repetitive, annoying, and it’s not getting us anywhere. Ayn Rand was a terrible philosopher, she should not be taken seriously, and selfishness simply cannot be the basis for anything ethical. So, instead, let’s look at some idea which might actually get us towards an objective ethics.
Or, more precisely, an intersubjective ethics.
Why not objectivism?
Clearly, Rand’s rationalized whims dubbed objective was a philosophical failure. Her system was egoism in disguise, a projected set of values onto the tapestry of the universe. In the end, it was no different from Plato’s ironic projection of his thoughts onto the outside of the cave (ironic because it was the very phenomenon of projection that he thought he was correcting). Ayn Rand thought her selfish values were universalizable.
But beyond Rand’s particular brand of “Objectivism”, there is a further problem with moral objectivism as it is conceived in ethical philosophy. Here, for example, is how the distinction between objective and relativistic ethics is described on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The metaphysical component of metaethics involves discovering specifically whether moral values are eternal truths that exist in a spirit-like realm, or simply human conventions. There are two general directions that discussions of this topic take, one other-worldly and one this-worldly.
If you read the rest of that section, you will see this distinction played out between immutable objectively true moral codes or values pitted against either individualistically derived or culturally maintained sets of ideas which are dependent upon human thought. Here are a couple snippets from that page:
Proponents of the other-worldly view typically hold that moral values are objective in the sense that they exist in a spirit-like realm beyond subjective human conventions. They also hold that they are absolute, or eternal, in that they never change, and also that they are universal insofar as they apply to all rational creatures around the world and throughout time.
Technically, skeptics did not reject moral values themselves, but only denied that values exist as spirit-like objects, or as divine commands in the mind of God. Moral values, they argued, are strictly human inventions, a position that has since been called moral relativism…. In addition to espousing skepticism and relativism, this-worldly approaches to the metaphysical status of morality deny the absolute and universal nature of morality and hold instead that moral values in fact change from society to society throughout time and throughout the world. They frequently attempt to defend their position by citing examples of values that differ dramatically from one culture to another, such as attitudes about polygamy, homosexuality and human sacrifice.
Ever since I started reading philosophy, around the age of 14 or so, something about this distinction bothered me. It bothered me so much that my MA thesis was geared around the ontological aspects of this same distinction, as it pertained to the relationship between science and religion (ontology, to be more specific) especially.
I have come to conclude (tentatively, of course) that this philosophical dichotomy–whether between ontological realism or anti-realism, objectivism or relativism, etc–is a kind of cognitive splitting. And sure, I’m aware that many thinkers have existed in the many grey areas between such extremes, but I feel that defining the problem in such dichotomies isn’t helping and perpetuates us thinking of these questions in terms of ethics being either objective or relative, when it might be neither.
I believe that there is a nuanced and subtle way to appeal to the cognitive, emotional, and social advantages of both objective morality and relativism. If this approach is sufficiently powerful, it could establish a metaethical, normative, and potentially applied ethical way of thinking which achieves the best of both worlds, as it were, without sacrificing either reality or the sense of shared values. That is, such an approach may satisfy our desire for consistency and meaning which objectivist approaches provide, while at the same time allowing our individual subjective experiences to not be truncated by proposed “objective” truths which those experiences might contradict.
Truth, after all, must rise out of subjective experience and be weeded out by empirical methodologies. Truth is not derived from meditating on universal imaginary worlds, revelation from gods, or ideologies. Truth is the thing that individual people conceive of and offer to the rest of us to test, criticize, and perhaps accept as worthy of adoption. We should think of whims, values, and ethical preferences the same way.
The parts of us that are attracted to the certainty of an objective moral foundation, whether from religion, reason, etc, look for a way to project our individual experiences, values, and conclusions onto the world. It creates the illusion that our values are not merely opinion. But the parts of us which recognize the diversity and (often) contradictory nature of those subjective experiences will balk at the possibility of there being an objective reality to ethics. Whether people see this subjective diversity as the source of evil, chaos, or mere inefficiency, it creates a problem in establishing any shared ethics.
Whether we feel compelled to myopically obsess over our own values and desires or to altruistically sacrifice for the sake of the whole (as well as all the grey areas in between, of course) are one type of approach to addressing this problem, but it is not the only way.
Ethics as an emergent property of society
There is no Platonic world of Ideas, divine creator, or some other objective source of moral conclusions or values. Moral values only make sense within the scope of a plurality of sentient beings who interact, and it is only with such beings that questions of harm, welfare, rights, etc can become relevant. This, to most, might seem to imply that any conversation about morality must be relativistic, subjectivist, and possibly ultimately selfish or nihilistic in nature.
And it is certainly possible to construct a normative ethic which stays within this realm of relativism. Ayn Rand did it (poorly), Nietzsche did it (brilliantly, but often misunderstood), and there are many others to choose from. But if we remain convinced of and mired in the realm of relativism, problems arise related to whose subjective whims to follow (if we should follow any, of course) and how to proceed with establishing guidelines, social rules, or even laws. If there is no objective source, how can we escape pure, selfish, ethical egoism?
This has been the lament of many moralists, and not only from religious conservatives. Their arguments are sophomoric and trite, but they are obviously hitting on an issue with cognitive, emotional, and social weight because it keeps working. The lament of meaninglessness, poignantly illustrated by Dostoevsky with his claim that without god “all is permitted,” is trotted out frequently by those terrified of subjectivism and relativism.
And relativists of all stripes will attempt to respond with other meaningful values. Some might say that we can and should create our values. We can get together, agree on some basic principles and rules, and decide to abide by it or face whatever consequences we also agreed to. Social contract theory, in essence, is where potentially conflicting and disagreeing people agree on how to run our lives as a group.
Some might point to an ideal as a sort of agreed upon arbitrary replacement for the idea of an objective source. It would be sort of like creating an idol, giving it qualities, and asking everyone to try and emulate this idol. In the absence of a clear objective source, we idolize either a person (which we might deify), an idea (such as democracy, freedom, etc), or even a set of traditions which define who we are, how we behave, and who we demonize. We often do all of these things to various degrees.
All of these approaches necessitate that we utilize our subjective perspectives in some manner. But because they emerge as private experience, walled away from the rest of the world behind a veil of subjectivity, does not mean that we have to conclude that morality is a selfish enterprise. In fact, if we remain behind those walls, then we cannot do ethics at all. The ideas have to come from us, ultimately, but we have to use our ability to communicate, understand, and agree to implement any of these ideas as ethical constructs.
While such a set of values would grow out of subjective soils, it would either live or die in the real, intersubjective, world based upon how well it survives the trials of communication, interaction, and contradictions between other individuals and ourselves. A selfish whim or value will either work as a shared value, or it will not. No one individual can decide this alone (although individuals may articulate it better), because whether it works is not subject to any one person (or even a set of persons who happen to accidentally agree), but to how the value supervenes on the group.
When a value is presented by a person to a group, society, or even all of sentient life, it can be evaluated in a different environment from which it grew. As this idea moves away from individuals and towards the diversity of subjective opinions, it will either survive as a value which can be shared, or it won’t. No matter how well this value suits a person, or even a small group of like-minded individuals, if it cannot be applied to the group then its value as a moral foundation or value may be weak.
If you cannot show how the idea which you value in your life among yourself, friends, or family, is useful or helpful to everyone then it might not be a value which most people can share. My (hypothetical) selfish interest to do whatever I want, and not care about the desires of others, cannot be a shared value because there is a logical contradiction to applying it to the group. The idea is self-refuting when applied to the ethically relevant group;society.
Kant and the Scientists
Much like Kant’s categorical imperative, if the value a person presents to the world cannot provide value to the group, then the idea may be useless and possibly amoral (if not down right immoral). The philosophical and scientific study of ethics is, therefore, an epiphenomenon of subjectivist, relativistic, preferences. But rather than remaining at that limited and myopic level of description, looking at the effects of introducing those subjectivist preferences to the group dynamic creates an emergent property, ethical philosophy, which acts as a sieve for what moral principles are valid for consideration.
Thus, it does not create an objectivist ethic, because such a thing is impossible. It creates, however, a level of description which acts very much like objectivity in relation to our minds. It is a reality outside of us, but it was created by our collective effort, communication, and understanding. Being intersubjective, it is always being revised and updated just like a scientific theory. The strength of its propositions is directly related to how well it survives criticism and attempts to sink it.
It is not selfish, because selfishness is incapable of the relevant understanding and concern necessary to create the conversation which could sustain it. It is not absolute, because it is subject to actual circumstances which might change. It adjusts to our preferences, values, and thus is perfectly suited for progression and improvement as our understanding of ourselves, the world, and communication is improved.
It is also not relativistic. It is not culturally relative because all cultures have to deal with the realities of the facts about human psychology, harm, and the inter-related aspects of human existence. All cultures are subject to the same reality, and merely having the mass opinion that, for example, slavery is acceptable does not survive the larger skeptical, empirical, and rational analysis of the effects of slavery on people. It’s also not relativistic in the sense of being a matter of whims, because being subjected to scrutiny from any and all people erases that.
It is, however, skeptical and scientific. While this approach begins as individual subjective preferences, just like with other questions about the nature of reality it gets exposed to other people who will try to demonstrate problems with those ideas. Morality, values, and meaning are not ontologically different from other facts. The facts about how I feel, why I feel that way, etc are empirical questions. Once we realize that we are talking (when talking about ethics) about how to best implement ideas about how to behave in relation to other people, the question is one of doing the empirical work to find out how my feelings interact with the feelings of other people.
Because if I accept the reality that other people exist, have similar types of internal experiences as I, and that I’m capable of figuring out some things about those feelings, preferences, and whims, then ethics becomes a philosophical puzzle about how best to arrange guidelines, rules, or laws about how to interact which maximizes the experience of people. And then we can pull in questions of consequences, best habits and personality traits, and fairness (among other considerations) in order to figure out the details.
Ethics is an enterprise for science. Just like with facts about the nature of reality, it starts with subjective experiences and through epiphenomenal processes the emergent property of true things comes about(ideally). But for it to work we all have to be willing to be wrong, especially about our own values. Our preferences, even if they are working for us, might be better supplanted by other values (in some cases). We cannot allow ourselves to rationalize our selfish preferences as a fundamental value. We cannot allow self-justification, groupthink, or tribalism to convince us that our group has superior values. If our values are hurting other people, it is very possible they are not the best values.
And, most importantly, we can not allow ourselves to idolize, deify, or even consider settled, our values. They must always be open for criticism and debate. There is no room for sacred ideals, ideologies, or tribalistic jingoism in values. The more isolated our values are, the more exposure makes them defensive or aggressive, and the less communication with alternatives exists, the less powerful those values will be.
Ethics is not merely relative and it is not objective. But it can be shared as an intersubjective reality and it can draw from our most personal experiences and values. In the end, ethics cannot rely on either any ultimate reality or personal preference; it must rely on reality potentially telling us that our preferences might be harmful and in need of alteration.The truth points to itself, but the truth is also not written in stones, ideals, or hearts. It is only written, collectively, in the great conversation which I hope we all keep having.
Imagine yourself sitting in a room, of unknown shape, with mirrors at various angles making up the walls. It could very well be a mirror maze, like the ones you might find at a carnival, down the shore at one of the many boardwalk locales with rides and games, or perhaps in the mansion of some eccentric billionaire with interesting ideas about interior decorating.
If you had sufficient light, could you determine the shape of the room (within your line of sight) without moving around (you could rotate, but not move around)? With simple enough shapes perhaps you could, but as the complexity of the shape and the number of mirrors increases, the task of determining the exact shape would be difficult at best, impossible at worst.
If you placed a computer of sufficient complexity, with cameras and other accessories attached, perhaps it could do so more quickly and efficiently than you or I could. Perhaps some minds, better suited for such tasks, could do it as well. Of course, why you might spend your time calculating the shape of mirrored rooms is your issue.
Wait, I’m the one thinking up ridiculous scenarios. I hope I’m going somewhere with this….
I’m Going somewhere with this, honestly!
Sometimes, the internal cognitive structure of my mind feels like a hall of mirrors, where the light is insufficient and I can’t even turn my head in all directions. Trying to figure out the angles, turns, and shape of the environment seems like trying to figure out the shape of a hall of mirrors, similar to the description above. I think that if only I were super intelligent, I might be able to calculate the shape of my internal self and I could know exactly how to fix what seems broken, or at least what is not ideal.
If I were smart enough, my mental health could simply be rationalized away! Like magic, except rational. So, like rationalized denial, or something. Shut up! I’m really going somewhere with this, honest.
But then, another idea comes to mind; what if it weren’t a puzzle? What if the information at hand were not sufficient to calculate a solution? What if the mirrors in the hall were so complex that determining the shape of the room could never leave the mathematical realm of probability and enter into deductive logic?
What if you were perpetually forced to guess, anticipate, and be forced to be wrong much of the time? What would that be like?
Oh, right, that would be like reality.
What if it were not possible for me, or anyone, to know the shape of my mind? What if we were all problems, and not puzzles?
A dichotomy or a mere illusory problem?
In much of philosophical history, probably because Plato left so many footnotes, there is a hard, and often dichotomous, distinction between the intellect and the a-rational emotions, instincts, etc. As I have argued previously (mostly in relation to my ongoing series of critiques of Ayn Rand), this distinction is not really so hard, and the fact is that our rationality grows out of irrational soil. Our intellectual and emotional selves are intertwined in all sorts of complicated ways.
In philosophy, the distinction between a puzzle and a problem is essentially that a puzzle just takes time processing power, etc to solve. A problem is something that does not have a rational solution, and may have no solution at all. While some might say it is here where we dive into the realm of theology, I might lean a little more towards a positivist’s answer that such things might, in fact, be meaningless.
Or, they just might not have solutions that we can find, given our cognitive deficiencies, limited understanding, etc.
My intellect insists that the cognitive landscape within is a puzzle. When I’m feeling confident in this set of attributes which we refer to as intellect, I believe that given enough time and processing power, I can figure out the problems within my mind, personality, and social self and determine a rational solution to any mental health concerns I might have.
What of the other attributes? I am cautious to call them non-rational, because they are real physical processes which must adhere to some physical, and thus analog, rules. But they are at least convoluted puzzles, perhaps the parts of which are too hidden to determine how they work. (This, of course, is still my intellect insisting that this is a solvable puzzle, if not an excessively hard one).
Even if it were a puzzle, because the parts are not all accessible to me (I am not conscious of all the cognitive processes in my brain, which is one of the reasons why intelligence is insufficient), the practical result is that there is no difference between it being a potentially solvable puzzle and a problem, from my conscious point of view.
So, am I a problem to myself, or am I a puzzle?
My intellect insists I’m a puzzle, and the rest of me insists, perhaps stubbornly, the opposite. In other words, my emotions insist I’m a problem (that’s a little Borderline Personality Disorder joke there…). The problem there is that my intellect is dependent upon emotion, instinct, and unconscious processes to exist, and all of those things rely of the intellect to correct them (assuming we value skepticism to any degree, of course).
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been circling back repeatedly to the questions around the intersections of anger, marginalization, oppression, and social justice. I came to it with a knee-jerk, “Of course it’s better to restrain your anger and express yourself calmly and civilly no matter the provocation” stance, born out of my own Stoic Peacekeeper personality and the cultural values I picked up from my white educated middle-class environment. I did a lot of listening to the arguments that challenge that stance, and because this is the way I develop my understanding of knotty ethical problems, I threw myself as completely as possible into the “an oppressed person should get to express themselves however they feel like, even if it sounds unreasonably hostile and aggressive to others” viewpoint. I argued that side to others and put myself into communities where it was the rule, to see what the outcomes of having that rule are.
Based primarily on those experiences, I’ve pulled back a little and am working on settling myself somewhere in the territory between those two stances. I’m still working on where, exactly, that will be. But it’s distressing to me that the majority of the conversation I hear about the issue is pretty much either “How dare you say hostile things you mean meanyface!” or “How dare you silence someone’s expression of anger, whatever [verbal] form it took!” So I loved this post by Aoife over at Consider the Tea Cosy, which had a practical and nuanced view, affirming the right of marginalized people to express anger, allowing that the anger is not always going to be contained to the immediate oppressors, and exhorting people on all sides to be aware of how much they don’t know about the people who are in the immediate vicinity.
Bits I particularly appreciated:
When the status quo is oppressive (it is), then staying neutral just keeps things as they are.
The status quo needs shaking up. Anger- even messy outbursts of I CAN’T FUCKING DEAL WITH THIS SHIT ANYMORE WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING- shakes things up. Anger is a sign that someone’s been stressed to a breaking point. Anger reminds us that something is rotten. It knocks away a little of our complacency.
It has taken me a long time to really grasp that staying calm and absorbing emotional strain doesn’t always help situations. Sometimes it just allows really bad situations to linger far longer than they needed to. I will likely continue to struggle with this — stoic peacekeeper, over here. But I’ve been in enough situations where just quietly coping turned out to be a maladaptive strategy, and some anger, even messy and poorly-targeted anger, would have driven us much more quickly toward solutions.
While as oppressed people it’s often a good idea to focus our anger at appropriate targets when we can, when we are privileged it’s our responsibility to.. deal with it. Take some breaths. If we need to stew and simmer (we’re only human!), be careful about where we direct that hurt. Understand that whatever anger we’re receiving is magnified many times by the other crap the person has had to deal with. Accept that it’s not fair. It’s not fair for anyone involved.
I really like that she handles both sides of the coin here. The hurt I, as a privileged person (in a hypothetical scenario) feel from being lashed out at unfairly, is real. It counts. It’s not nothing. But it’s also (in this same hypothetical scenario) way less than the person doing the lashing-out has had to deal with, so it’s my responsibility to suck it up and cope in a way that doesn’t create more hurt for that person.
And then there’s the cases where maybe the hurt I feel isn’t way less, because of whatever shit I’ve got going on:
If the world were divided neatly into privileged and oppressed, we could all portion out how much anger we can take (and from who) and how much venting we get to do. It’s not, though. It’s messy- messier than our anger, messier than the hurt that leads to that anger or that results from it.
As people who are hurt and angry, intersectionality, I think, reminds us that other people could be dealing with things as opaque to us as our experiences are to them. There’s no such thing as the Last Acceptable Prejudice. All prejudices are the Last Acceptable Prejudices. While they all hurt us in different ways, the fact of that harm is always there. Vent if we need to, but understand that not-in-my-group doesn’t equal never-hurt, that not all things are visible to bystanders, and that this person might have a load of microaggressions of their own tipping them over an edge you never knew existed.
This is the piece of things that had me tearing my hair out when I was active in a heavily social-justice-oriented community. Situations would arise where one person’s hurt and anger and oppression redounded on another person in a way that aggravated that person’s hurt and anger and oppression, and trying to adjudicate those situations was frankly more than I was able to cope with, especially when I was one of the people being hurt.
Shock absorption: a model for looking at hurt and response
There are two different ways I’ve seen people look at anger, hurt, and response. The first is what I’ll call the “conflagration” model. People who love and trust each other, and have the right temperament for it, can get into screaming fights, yelling all over each other and maybe even breaking a dinner plate or two, and then once they’ve expressed themselves as loudly and fully as possible the anger dies down and they can hug and laugh and be close again. As far as I can tell (and I really don’t know, because this is an alien dynamic to me) the things each person said get filed away under “things I say when I’m angry” and both people know that they weren’t really meant, and don’t have a lasting hurtful impact. Maybe both people just grok that those are feelings expressed but not endorsed? The point is, in that model both people’s anger and hurt flares up like a bonfire, feeding on itself and growing for a while, and then naturally burning itself out and leaving very little residue to deal with.
Then there is what I’ll call the “shock absorption” model. In this one, hurtful things that were said and done while angry (or irritated or sleep-deprived or distracted) don’t go away… they react and rebound like shock waves. Jo, coming home from a shitty day at work, says something carelessly hurtful to Sal, who then has to do something with that hurt. Ze can bounce it right back to Jo, snapping back at hir, or ze can take it out on someone else, or ze can hold onto it and let it stew and fester, where it will likely gain momentum and fly out later at Jo or someone else with even more force. Any of these actions are going to cause an echoing effect, where the person who got hit by the rebound will then bounce it back to someone else, and on it goes. (If it’s just Jo and Sal volleying back and forth, hey presto! you have a fight.)
Sal can also do some conscious shock absorption, where ze thinks, “I know Jo is having a terrible time at work. I know Jo loves me and didn’t want to hurt me. I’m going to let that slide, and maybe bring it up later when Jo is in a better place to have a conversation about it.” This kind of shock absorption — reacting to hurt with understanding and patience — is what stops the endless cycle of hurt and anger rebounding all over the place. In the shock absorption model (which I think applies to any relationship where love, trust, and/or conflict-friendly temperaments are not firmly established, including nearly all the interactions social justice is concerned with) somebody, somewhere, has to do this before things will calm down. Often multiple people need to, as everybody takes deep breaths and works to get to a place of understanding and kindness.
A person’s ability to act as a shock absorber in this way is limited: by their temperament, by their maturity, and by the level of stress they’re currently under, including how much shock-absorption they’ve already been doing in the recent past. Once your shock pads are worn down, you’re back to Sal’s original choices in response to hurt: lash out (at the person who hurt you or someone else) or let it fester inside you, where it will only get worse and eventually emerge to do more damage. I didn’t mention it above, but sometimes if you go the “let it fester” route, the damage it does is to yourself and your own self-esteem. Taking on a lot of hurt and never dealing with or expressing it can eventually have you believing that you deserve to be treated badly, that you can’t expect any different in relationships, that this is just how things are.
When we’re talking about anger and social justice, asking a more privileged person to suck it up and deal with the occasional misdirected outburst is essentially saying, “The person who lashed out at you is likely near the end of their shock-absorption capacity. You have plenty left, so use it.” It’s saying, “One of the hazards of dealing with constant micro-aggressions is internalizing that sense of inferiority, starting to believe that you don’t deserve better. The person who lashed out at you is protecting themselves against that outcome; let them.” As long as you have some shock-absorption capacity left, it’s best to use it in those situations.
This is complicated by the fact that the apparently privileged person might also be at the end of their shock-absorption capacity, for any of a number of reasons (including having some invisible sources of marginalization.) This is what the third quote I pulled from Aoife’s post touches on. Saying, “you have to be the shock absorber here because you haven’t been hurt the way the other person has” is really, really upsetting — not to mention sometimes impossible to grant — when you’re staggering under the weight of your own stress and hurt.
And on the flip side, a lot of people who have the capacity to absorb hurt choose to rebound it instead. Absorption takes work, lashing back is easy. This is one reason I’m wary of the extreme “marginalized people get to express themselves however they want!” position. In some cases, I think it can turn into an abdication of any responsibility for acting as a shock absorber when you do have the capacity. This especially happens with people who are somewhere in the middle of the privilege ladder (assuming such a thing is a sensical concept, which it’s not, but it’ll do for the moment.) It is impossible to know what’s going on from outside: whether the person lashing out is doing so because their shocks are worn too thin, or just because they feel entitled to lash out. But I will say, that of the many and varied outbursts I’ve seen, statistically some of them are almost certainly being perpetrated by people who could have healthily chosen to absorb the hurt instead, and that just increases the strain on the system for everyone.
It’s even further complicated by the fact that, if you’re an internalizer, it can be hard to tell the difference between internalizing the hurt so that it festers, and absorbing it so that it dissipates. Impossible to tell the difference from the outside, and not always easy from the inside. If you’ve gone through most of your life acting as a shock absorber for other people, you can slide from “productively exercising patience and understanding” to “self-destructively internalizing hurt” without even noticing it. Another dynamic I’ve seen play out in social justice circles is that a bunch of people who tend to externalize are loudly rebounding hurt all over the place, while the people who tend to internalize are just getting quieter and quieter and eventually slip away from the circle, when they realize they’ve crossed that line and participation is becoming self-destructive. The people who externalize hurt are not always the ones most deeply hurt, but this tends not to get recognized in the conversations about anger and social justice.
Sometimes a situation is so tense that there’s just not enough shock absorption capacity to handle the level of hurt that’s bouncing around. When things get to this point, there’s nothing to be done except back away; any interaction is going to cause more damage, whether it’s internalized or externalized. If the connection is valuable enough, and the parties involved are able to replenish themselves elsewhere, they may be able to regroup and try again. But maybe not. I’m convinced that the main reason many relationships and communities fall apart is that the total shock absorption capacity of the group is worn too thin to handle the next wave of stressors.
Implications of the shock absorption model
What does this mean, both for social justice circles and for relationships? The guidelines I’m tentatively staking out are these:
In most situations, if you can be a shock absorber, do. If you can react to being hurt with patience, understanding, and kindness, and do so without damaging your own sense of self-worth, do that, because there are likely plenty of people in the situation whose capacity is lower than yours.
Recognize that for some people in some circumstances, letting hurt rebound so that it strikes someone else is the healthiest option. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, per se, but it’s the best way to deal with a bad situation. It also doesn’t mean that you personally deserve the attack that was sent your way. Draw a line between, “this person needed to vent their hurt toward me” and “I deserved what they said/did.” You don’t have to draw it publicly, in fact you shouldn’t. Just note that it’s true, and go seek reassurance and comfort somewhere else if you need to.
Work on being self-aware about when you absorb and when you don’t. If you’re an internalizer, get smart about the signs that you’re unhealthily internalizing rather than productively absorbing, and find ways to express your anger when you’ve hit the limit of your absorption capacity. If you’re an externalizer, don’t take “I get to express anger however I want” as carte blanche to throw your hurt around. Again, if you can be a shock absorber, do, because the fewer shock absorbers there are in a situation the more likely the whole group is to reach critical dissolution point.
Be wary of making judgements about how much absorption capacity the people around you have. The less you know them, the less clue you have about what’s going on with them and how thick their shock pads are at the moment. What matters (to you) is your hurt and how much you can take. You get to draw boundaries to protect yourself whether someone is willfully and carelessly throwing hurt around, or reacting in the only way possible to them.
When everybody’s shocks are wearing thin, the best thing to do is back away. Let everybody go off and replenish their emotional reserves. Sometimes, getting a situation resolved right now is not going to happen, and continued attempts are just going to wear everybody down even further. One of the sucky things about certain kinds of oppression is that it becomes very hard to find a retreat space where you’re not constantly being worn down by new stressors and microaggressions. This is part of why “safe spaces” are so important, and why people shouldn’t complain about being excluded from them. Having a space to vent and express and restore makes it easier for someone to come back and have a conversation that will be productive and healthy on both sides.
And my overall, foundational principle for these kinds of discussions: Be excellent to each other. We’re all hurting, in various ways and at various times. Wherever it’s possible, let’s do what we can to make less hurt, not more.
I have been having an on-going conversation with someone recently who, upon reading Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God (upon my suggestion), quoted this section of his book and responded (below):
The fact that we observe a universe moving through time, ever changing, from the furthest point to the left onward to the right on the diagram above, is the product of the physical nature of both our minds and the universe: it is in one sense and illusion, like the illusion of solidity, when in fact solid objects are mostly empty space; but in another sense it is an interpretation of a pattern that really does exist — a pattern that does not really move or change, but is genuinely experience, just a solidity is genuinely experienced and, in its physical effects, is a real fact of the universe.
Everything we experience is a construct, a convenient way for the brain to represent the otherwise complex and jumbled data of the senses and brain systems. But we have ample evidence, ample reason t believe this “reconstruction” of a world outside of us is based on real data from that world, and thus strongly corresponds to it.
First of all, read this book. It stands, for me, as one of the best defenses of metaphysical materialism I’ve seen, and is written for laypeople.
Now, onto her response (in part) and my continued discussion. Warning, this post contains philosophical terminology and may only be interesting to people who care about this issue.
She said (again, in part):
This is what I meant when I was talking about reality being an illusion. Yes, there is a real universe (particles, energy, etc.) but our experience of it is subjective because we are in fact human and not some other mode of creature. We experience time even though time exists all at once. If we weren’t human, but instead a different kind of living creature, for example, a black hole, then (possibly) we wouldn’t experience time, or gravity, or even matter in the same way. In this way, our reality as human beings is an illusion and our experience is entirely subjective. Does that mean there are “laws” of our collective subjective experience that apply to all humans? Of course, gravity is one such law. But gravity is subjective to our experience as humans, and it applies to us only because we are such a creature as such a law applies to. Therefore, our human reality is an illusion because of our collective subjective experience. And a collective subjective experience (I suspect) is the closest we will ever get to an objective reality.
So I understand your point (I think). I’ve bold-faced the important statements, which I will be focusing on.
I want to make a distinction between subjective experience and illusion. The fact that my experience of, say, eating some ice cream is subjective does not mean it’s an illusion. It means that I have a privileged perspective on that experience, one that others only have a limited perspective on, but it still is a real thing. My experience of the ice cream is different from yours (if you are watching me eat it. If we are sharing it that is a more difficult question), but so long as there is actual ice cream, there is no illusion.
The word “illusion” means, for me, an experience with no referent. It means that if I experience the flavor of ice cream (which is subjective) and there is no ice cream, then I experienced an illusion. If I hear the voice of god (and there is no god) I’ve experienced an illusion. But my experience with ice cream, when actually eating ice cream, is not an illusion, It may not be reliably 100% accurate with some hypothetical objective reality, but the fact that there is some difference between the truth and what I’m able to perceive does not imply an illusion, but rather mere inexact perception.
Before I address this further, let’s see what else you said:
Objective reality could possibly exist but it would be impossible for anyone to experience. By argument once you are a “one” you are subjective. Objective reality, therefore, even if it exists cannot be experienced except through limited subjective experiences. And each being/creature/thing will have their own subjective experience of what is. All of us–humans, superior alien intelligence, black holes, or vampire, blood-sucking rabbits– are just blind men feeling up different parts of the elephant (a sexy elephant wearing lingerie).
And I venture to guess you would agree that a “strong correspondence” is still not actual reality.
If I’m looking at a desk, my perception of it creates a simulation of what I’m able to perceive with my eyes. That is, a small set of radiation (visible light). Immanuel Kant was famous for (in part) noting the difference between the phenomena and the noumena. The phenomena is the perception–the simulation our mind creates–and the noumena is the proposed actual desk. He agrees with you, and says that the phenomena is not the noumena. He thought it would be impossible to ever experience the actual desk.
I reject this very framework. My argument is not that we actually see the noumena, I reject this type of model of perception altogether. I don’t think the distinction between the phenomena and the noumena is a meaningful distinction. I think trying to project an actual thing in itself (this is Nietzsche’s term) out there, as an objective being, is nonsensical. This does not mean that the desk does not exist, it just means that the desk is not a separate ontological category as my perception (the phenomena).
The Vedantic tradition, of which both Hinduism and Buddhism are part, offer the solution that says that all is the phenomena, that all of reality, is actually an illusion (maya). That the world exists in mind. This interpretation is dependent upon the subject-object distinction that Kant talked about. It allows the phrase “the world is an illusion” to mean something (or at least to attempt to mean something).
But I view the problem differently. And here, describing it is difficult because our very language (and possibly all language) is modeled on this metaphysical framework. We say, for example, “I see the desk” (subject-object). But there might be another way to describe it. The physicality of the desk, myself, and the radiation interacting with both are part of a larger system (the universe, yes, but the room I’m in is sufficient). There is a continuous physical connection between all of them. The reality of any of them are indicated by the interaction, one specific example of which is perception. That is, my perception is one kind of physical interaction among physical objects, even if it seems different from our point of view.
The problem comes in with subjectivity. The subjective experience is a created phenomenon when a part of this system is self-reflective. It simulates itself, and creates a small “strange loop” (this is Douglass Hofstadter’s term) and this creates the illusion. But the illusion is not the desk (or the world in general). The illusion is the separation (this may be like Zen non-duality, in fact). The illusion is the concept of the distinction between the phenomena and the noumena. In a strange (and imprecise) way, the illusion is the very phenomena itself (but that would still allow the subject-object ontology to be valid).
Remember when you said, above:
By argument once you are a “one” you are subjective.
Well, that to me is telling (assuming I’m interpreting you correctly). Because becoming this “one” is where the illusion comes in. I think this is what some philosophers mean when they argue that consciousness is an illusion (I’m looking at you, Dennett!). It’s not that consciousness does not exist (it is a physical thing), but rather it’s that it creates an illusory separation from the rest of reality and an illusory unified self. I am not sure, but it may have to do this by the very nature of how consciousness works (which is a mystery, still). The illusion of your singular identity, a pattern out of chaos narrative if ever there is one (cf. Dimasio), creates the sense of a subject-object relationship with the rest of the universe (or at least the rest of the room). In reality, you are just a continuous part of that reality.
It’s tempting to flip Kant on his head and say that it is the phenomena which is the illusion (since it actually has no referent, since our simulation is imperfect and is not a faithful representation of the thing) and that the noumena is all we can see (because we are the noumena ourselves), but this does not work because it is equally dependent upon Kant’s same ontologically dualistic description. Whether you look at Kant as he wanted or upside down, the same ontology is necessary, and it is this ontology which is at issue. It fails for the same reason as Kant’s formulation does, just upside down. Perhaps flipping it makes it more clear why his original concept fails, actually.
Kant, Vedanta, and other epistemological/ontological solutions to this problem seek to define the world as the illusion. But it is, in fact, the separation (and thus the subject-object relationship) which is the illusion. So it isn’t that the objective reality might exist but we may never experience it, rather it’s that reality (not subjective or objective) exists, and we cannot help but experience (some of) it. We can’t not experience it because we are part of that reality.
At least, we can’t not experience it until the created loop of our subjectivity can no longer be physically maintained, because the organism which supports it falls apart. So long as the physical (often biological) foundation (our bodies, or whatever computer which simulates something similar) upholds the subjective separation (subjective consciousness), we cannot help but experience the world.
In my framework, we replace Kant’s noumena, or the world “separated” from us, with the problem of resolution. Rather than being dualistic, this is a monistic ontological solution which is left with problems of information transfer rather than ontology-bridging problems (that is what my MA thesis was about). It’s not that we don’t see the real world, it’s that our (current) perceptual gear cannot perceive all existing information (the whole radiation spectrum, every level of detail at all sizes, etc). For this, the solution is not that the other information does not exist or is an illusion, but rather that we need more perceptual tools to see them. Technology, in other words. Science and skepticism.
In the history of religion and philosophy, most metaphysical constructs have separated our (often “limited”) world from the ideal or heavenly world. It may have started with Plato (at least philosophically), but it is pretty universal across cultures. Many materialistic responses have sought to simply reject the transcendent (logical positivism), rather than realize that it’s just not transcendent at all. Many criticisms of this largely universal concept still hold onto, at least implicitly, the dualism that underpins the problem.
Once we realize that we create the illusion, merely by thinking (hence why Zen meditation is still worth pursuing, even if some of the religious associations and rituals still stick to it), we can start to realize that Kant’s phenomena/noumena distinction is not actually a real thing. Then we can go on with our lives, actually living in a real world where words like “objective” and “subjective” are concepts which no longer have any meaning. Then we can stop arguing about objective and subjective (relative) morality and truth, because those distinctions are no longer real either.
In a conversation last night with a dear friend, the issue of what is more important—truth or happiness–arose. As a skeptic, my answer is truth. But I want to say a few words about that because I think that maybe the terms are not as clear as they may seem.
Is there a “truth”?
…OK, so I should not be so flippant about that answer. For some people, this question is not so clear, and for others the answer is no. For the philosophically inclined, I will say that I reject the concept of reality being inaccessible or an illusion. So While our perceptual tools are not always reliable on their own, there is a reality out there and it actually is what it is regardless of our often faulty perceptions. Reality is there whether we think about it rightly or wrongly.
The issue following that (and in another way, preceding it) is which epistemological methodology we use; how do we figure out what reality is like while avoiding those mistakes of perception? Skepticism, obviously. We demand demonstrable, repeatable, and rational evidence for things and the better that evidence the stronger our acceptance of that thing should be. So our path to truth is an empirical, logical, and and ultimately a skeptical one. We believe things when we cannot disprove them, for so long as the theories we generate maintain their justification.
A word about theories.
Remember, theories are things which have survived the assault of people who want to try and tear it down (for the sake of, perhaps, another potential theory). Theory is the graduation point in science, not some mere guess. But also, they are nothing but language; they are descriptions based upon the logical rules which make up thought, perception, etc within our heads. The theories themselves are not real, objective things (they are, at best, intersubjective). But they try and describe real events and phenomena, sometimes successfully. Pointing out that the theories we use–the language we use–are subjective narratives which are not objectively real says nothing about the world itself. The fact that our subjectivity is stuck in our own head, and that theories are subjective experiences, does not mean that the referents are not actually there. It only means that the language we have to describe it is an imperfect map to the terrain.
Theories are not corresponding maps, in other words, but they try and describe reality in terms our minds can comprehend. And many scientific theories do this so well that we can predict and construct to such a high degree of complexity and resolution that the computer you are reading this on can work. Amazing, isn’t it? Such huge accomplishments, based on an empirical theory of truth, that provides some happiness for many people. Technology is the evidence that our ideas can represent the world well.
Unless, of course, you believe some sort of solipsism is true. In which case, you are writing a wonderful blog post right now! And no, that is not me being full of myself, that is you being full of yourself. Also, you are responsible for everything, including the things you hate and don’t believe are true. If the world is an illusion, you are responsible for Republicans.
What is happiness?
Are you insane? Don’t ask a philosopher that! Unless you want to read 50 pages that will ramble in incoherently, don’t ask that.
Let’s say that happiness is some kind of emotional or intellectual (and no not “spiritual” because that word does not mean anything!) experience. Whether it is a conglomeration of emotions, it’s own emotion, or even some kind of an intentional stance we take to ourselves, it is an experience or a background set of experiences. It is a mind or body state, of some kind. You want more detail, too bad. All I am willing to say here is that it’s a real, physical thing like any other experience. It happens in our brain (and possibly in other parts of our nervous system), and is a real phenomenon of some kind.
Happiness is nice. it’s better than non-happiness, by definition. It may (or may not) feel different for different people, but it’s a good thing. People like happiness.
See, less than 50 pages! And only a little incoherent!
And yet you still have no idea what I think happiness is, do you? Well, I don’t give a flying purple fuck, because it’s not important to the point here. So go eat a pile of expertly-thrown monkey shit if you are left unsatisfied by that.
I’m apparently feisty today.
Are happiness and truth at odds?
There certainly is a tension between truth and happiness in our culture, but is that tension necessary?
Will learning more about the actual nature of reality cause happiness to decline?
Maybe. There might be some (scientifically and empirically valid) studies which talk about that. I’m not looking them up, mostly because I want to believe that the answer is no but I know deep down inside that the answer of yes would make me unhappy. Try that mind-fuck on for size!
So, in other words, I want the truth to lead to happiness. I have an emotional interest in the proposition that valuing truth will at least not make us more unhappy. That being said, here’s my rationalization; I have a value for truth, which trumps happiness, because I know that when people don’t know the truth it often causes harm. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you need to browse this website:
False beliefs may seem harmless, but they are not. Not always, but they are often harmful. By demanding a level of evidence to accept something, you make it less likely (ideally) to get swindled or support a dangerous lie. And because I care about my happiness, which is in part related to the state of the culture around me, I am motivated to care about truth prior to happiness. Mostly this is because the harm of non-truth upsets me, and so if I try and consider happiness first, it backfires. But, of course, this is only true because I care about what is true, fundamentally. If I didn’t care what was true (or if I thought that truth was subjective or didn’t exist) then I could just be concerned with happiness since truth is, in that hypothetical world, not a real thing.
Of course, some might say that my belief that there is actually an objective reality is not true (or only true for me; from my subjective perspective), and so the harm is illusory. Of course, I want to know what method they used to tell me that my belief in truth is not true! If there is no truth, then we couldn’t tell the difference, rationally, between truth or untruth. The concept of truth would be meaningless, and chaos and nihilism would ensue. Pure hedonistic, lawless, chaos! Well, not really, but if there is any means to make a distinction between two ideas in terms of which one is more in line with how the world operates, then we have a methodology to determine truth. It may not always work, but when it does work we have access to the real world! Amazing!
Bu the more important point is that if we deny the distinction between a helpful and a not-helpful method and set of ideas, we ignore real-world harms. There is no truth, eh? No objective reality? Tell that to the children who die because their parents choose prayer over medicine. Tell that to people getting the Measles right now because other people believe that the MMR vaccine causes Autism (thanks Jenny McCarthy). Tell that to creationists and other delusional people who deny evolution for the sake of an ancient mythological just-so story about a man, his wife/property, and a garden they were kicked out of because the property/wife was too skeptical. Without a reality, we cannot be angry about these things because there is no objective truth to tell the difference. But we can tell the difference. and that very ability to rationally discern indicates a methodology of decision. It indicates a way to choose between theories.
And yes, there are complicated problems with theory choice in the philosophy of science, but this does not point to the lack of objective truth, but only to problems in refining the methodology to attain it. it’s sort of like how this is not a duck. The empirical evidence can give us clues, even if we are missing pieces or are not sure which, among similar theories, to choose.
There are actual truths. Evolution is true, the creation stories of the world religions are not. This is not mere opinion, this is an idea backed up by evidence derived from experience of the world around us, meticulously tested and probed to the breaking point–but does has not broken. Mythology is not true for the culture is exists within; it’s either verifiable or it is bullshit. Saying that mythology is “true” seeks to conflate meaning with truth. An idea might have meaning, but meaning does not imply truth. If something is true and is understood by someone then that idea has meaning, but the fact that it is also true is a different question. The Harry Potter Universe is largely internally coherent and meaningful, but magic isn’t real so the story is not true. The concept of “spirituality” might have meaning for you, as if does for many people, but it does not correspond to anything intersubjectively real. When it’s tested, it fails (there is $1,000,000 waiting for you if you can prove otherwise). Things that have meaning to you might simply not be true. Yeah, it sucks, but only because you prefer comfort to reality.
This is not about comfort v. truth, because if so comfort would win in a landslide election, But mere comfort, for me anyway, is not enough. Comfort is not happiness. They might coexist, but not necessarily.
So what about happiness, then?
Some people might not like how reality is. Compared to an emotionally powerful narrative of some religion, the apparent coldness of truth seems dry and is not conducive to happiness. I don’t give a flying fuck. Happiness within an illusion can only remain happiness in ignorance. And this is where some people may come back with “well, I’d rather be happy and delusional than see the world through your eyes and be miserable!”
Christianity and it’s ideological ancestors and cousins may have tainted this question for us too much to see this clearly (Nietzsche sad that “the Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”), but there are no mythologies more awesome than the intricacies of cosmology, biology, quantum mechanics, or even mathematics. As I have argued previously (please read that post if you have not already, as it applies to more than just humanism), the attempts of many liberal-minded people to seek solace in some sort of religious or spiritual environment in the face of the wasteland left behind the wars between the powers of monotheism and science (which has created an illusory dichotomy between the beauty and meaningfulness of religion and spirituality versus the dead, meaninglessness of a world without divinity) are still stuck in that Platonic worldview. The question is framed in such a way that to ask whether we want religion or science/atheism seems to be asking if we want happiness or boring, dry, grey “truth” (which is actually just a lie, a deception of Satan or at least Loki). The idea that truth is a fiction is, surprisingly to some, a very Christian (Platonic) theme.
The narrative of Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic (hell, it’s down-right Platonic, neo-Platonic even, of them) dichotomies between meaning and nothing, Heaven and Hell, etc is ubiquitous. It’s so old, so natural-seeming to us, that most people simply don’t even know it’s there. When I discovered it myself, I was blown away, and frankly I still reel from it. I, who never believed in any gods, always distrusted Christianity, and who found the idea of Heaven silly from a young age, was susceptible. It is one of the most invisible assumptions and ideological axioms in our culture, and it’s power to sway not only our actions but our very beliefs, cannot be underestimated. And if we think that we avoid it by leaving those large-tent religions, we are fooling ourselves.
But replacing one version this narrative with another one, rather than discarding it, is much easier. Christianity and New Age Paganism, for example, have a lot in common despite the fact that they hate one another in many cases. They have very different theologies, for sure, but the similarities of their basic metaphysical assumptions are striking. There is an implicit distinction between the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane, and meaningful and the meaningless. These are false distinctions. They simply are not real except in the mind of believers, and then only as abstractions with no correspondence.
There is no meaninglessness. If it were meaningless, we couldn’t conceive of it, think about it, etc. We have a place-holder word, but it points to nothing. (Also, there is no nothing. Same reasons). There is no ‘spiritual’ world or being. Because of that, ‘physical’ is redundant. Everything that exists is physical (or material, or whatever term you prefer. It is made out of stuff). Tell me the difference between the lack of marbles, the non-physical marbles, and the imaginary marbles again, please? In other words, the dichotomy between the area (or realm, or whatever) of the source of happiness and the (other) area from where happiness cannot derive, is not a real thing. Wherever happiness comes from, it is coming from somewhere real. And knowing more about that reality will give you more information about your happiness (if you look in the right places), and what causes it (or prevents it). Must I invoke Sam Harris?
So, the best way to be happy, both individually and as a culture, is to value skepticism as a methodology towards truth. That way, your worldview is accustomed to change, possibly being wrong, and since you have been using it you are more likely to already have ideas which are rationally justified, so more likely true. No matter how open-minded your faith tradition is–no matter how new, radical, or enlightened it is–the nature of faith is to conserve itself. Conservation of culture is stifling of curiosity, freethinking, and ultimately of the truth. So while paganism and other forms of Western New Age might be tied to liberalism generally and may provide more happiness than the traditional religions, they can only become less so and never more so.
Not without truth, anyway.
The longer a tradition which is not skeptical stays around, the more tradition, and thus conservatism, becomes important. So the new age is preferable to Christianity, but only because Christianity has been in a position of power, and power only seeks its own happiness, not yours.
Progress is in the direction of atheism and naturalism. That’s where the truth leads. So, again, what about happiness?
Spirituality and religion only look like better sources of happiness because, in our culture, we have been conditioned to see a relationship between meaning and belief in something more than this mere physicality. Since Plato’s long influence, people have thought that the physical is cold and dead, and needed something more to give it life and meaning. This is a disease which has been eating at our species for two and a half millennia. And as Nietzsche said, in my favorite quote of his,
“To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, “you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task”
We need to ignore the siren calls of spirituality and religion, thinking they are the only possible source of happiness. We cannot be content to lie happy in illusion. There are more things in reality here on Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your mythologies.
So, tell me that your religion provides happiness where the truth cannot, and I will say you are not looking closely enough at the truth, or are still viewing it though lenses with Platonic or Zoroastrian labels on them. I think you need new glasses, ones with scientific lenses. Because if you want to know more about happiness, you need truth. Truth is the tool by which we better understand the potential for, as well as limits and causes of, happiness. Because while we could experience happiness with little truth, the truth is the only sure way to lead to any more. The better our access to truth is, the better we can be sure we are heading in the right direction. Without truth, our forays into happiness will be a crap-shoot at best. Being a good craps player means knowing the odds, and the odds are a kind of truth.
It’s not so much that truth causes happiness as untruth causes harm (or at least chaos and unpredictability). But remember, even if the lack of truth in your world is not harming you (and it might be doing so without your knowledge), it is hurting someone else somewhere–possibly many others everywhere. And I, personally, can’t remain happy knowing that is possible. Or, at least I can’t without avoiding truth, which doesn’t seem like a good solution. Ignorance is one thing, but willful ignorance is quite another.
I wrote this as part of an email correspondence with a new friend. I thought some others might be interested in seeing it:
The physical world is not an illusion. It may not be exactly as we perceive it, but what we perceive is not a lie, but merely one (of many) perspective. If you are familiar with Kant, then you might say that while we have phenomena, we can’t access the noumenal (the real world behind our mere perception). I reject Kant’s, and this Vedantic-style, metaphysics, because I reject the idea that there is a hidden reality behind the shadows on the wall (I think Plato’s cave analogy was completely backwards). We actually see the real world, it’s just that our perceptual gear does not see all of it (our evolutionary survival does not require an infinite resolution of perception) and so our brains often makes up for what we don’t see by filling in based upon experience and pattern-recognition. That is, what we perceive is not the world fully as it is (it can only be made up of one perspective at a time; that’s why it’s called subjectivity), but it is at least one real perspective on what is really there. If it were possible to see a room from all, or at least many, perspectives simultaneously (that’s a contradiction), then we would be objective beings (an oxymoron, like I said before). Subjectivity creates a problem of perspective, but the illusion exists in the description it creates, not the thing it is describing.
I’ve always liked this saying:
Before Zen, mountains were mountains and trees were trees. During Zen, mountains were thrones of the spirits and trees were the voices of wisdom. After Zen, mountains were mountains and trees were trees.
I don’t know what this word “spiritual” means. I have been asking people for years, and every time it seems to be a metaphorical rendering of subjective projection onto reality, rather than a peek at some actually real reality past the illusion of Satan, maya, etc. If we look at the world as a quantum fuzzy cloud of indeterminate particles, that is one perspective on reality. But at another level of description–that of tables, chairs, people, air, fire, etc–are all equally valid and real perspectives. Just because the solidity of matter is not real at all levels does not mean it is not a real description at others. The same way that I am technically (physically) a different set of molecules that I was a decade ago and I perpetually change in many ways, I am also the same fundamental person in many other ways. There is no contradiction there. Language is the source of the illusion, not reality itself.
In my experience, the various mystical and spiritual traditions from world history, including Buddhism, are largely about the nature of our description of the world, and not the world per se. They are linguistics, not metaphysics or ontology. In the postmodern era, linguistics and metaphysics get entangled in ways that are problematic. There is what the world actually is (which we use skepticism and empiricism to discover) and there is the problem of perception, description, and cognitive processes, which only have the power to deal with subjective description. We must dis-entangle linguistics from metaphysics.
Science is the method by which we eliminate cognitive and subjective biases and errors (as much as we can) to describe reality. There are interesting things to think about in terms of exploring “spirituality” and other mystical pursuits (through art, for example), but these things don’t teach us about reality outside of ourselves. what they teach is how we perceive the world, not what the world is. Language, art, and mysticism are only about understanding the nature of perception, language, and description of reality, and are always imprecise. They teach us no facts, and may only accidentally tell us anything about reality.
The more I (re-)read Nietzsche (although, how does one re-read anything, considering how much we change between readings?), the more I feel like I want to read those of whom he writes. I want to read Chamfort, Montesquieu, and more of Goethe. But (and this was my realization) what I really want to do is keep reading Nietzsche!
Reading Nietzsche opens my mind to a world of concepts to which my every day life is alien, and what I realize is that this sense comes from the reading itself and not from the references or referents. I’m inspired by the moment, and not necessarily by the potential or the ambition of that moment. That ambition is not extensive, it is its own reward. A
And yet there is more ambition out there.
This is not unlike the realization, which I have from time to time, that it is the moment of beauty, and not the object of beauty, which is inspiring and awesome. In a sense, art and our ability to appreciate it is a phenomenon of appreciating ourselves (both specifically and generally, as human beings). Yes, it was the creativity and genius of the artist which is the efficient cause, but it is the commonality of interior architecture of our minds—the shared culture, language, and worldview of both observer and creator—which is the (metaphorical) location of the art.
Much like the blueness of an object is not contained within the object itself (and certainly not within some ultimate being, whether “god” or some Vedantic/Noumenal/Platonic reality), but within the relationship between our perceptual gear (our brain) and the actual material object which causes the light to exist in such a wavelength as it does.* And the label, “blue”, a cultural construction used to identify the coherence and consistency of our shared experience (Assuming we are not color-blind), is mere convention of course. We could learn new labels, but the material reality is not conventional. It is real.
No, there is no inherent beauty, no inherent color, and no inherent meaning. The world actually is—there is a reality and it is not an illusion—but there is no inherent perspective before we create it by perceiving. There is no objective perspective, whether it be a “god” or some set of Platonic ideals.
Similarly, there is no inherent me, only the passing self that will change upon each re-reading. In a very loose metaphorical sense, we are a book we are constantly re-reading. And while the subject is unchanging and (perhaps) the words are the same, each time we look at it we come from a different point of view, we notice different parts of the narrative, and perhaps we remembered this or that part differently than we see on this reading.
Each time I re-read a book such as The Gay Science or The Catcher in the Rye I see it from a different point of view. But the same basic phenomenon is the case each time I look into myself. Depending on mood, memory, experience, etc I am a different person each moment, even if I know I’m holding the same ‘book’.
I still want to read some Chamfort, if only to make sure that the next time I re-read myself, there is some new perspective from which to read. It is when we stop desiring new peaks to view the world from that we become bored–and boring!
*We never actually see the noumenal object not because the noumena is inaccessible to us, but because that concept is a category error. The object does exist on its own, but the perception, including the color, shape, etc, are a simulation based on a physical relationships with the object. The concept of noumena is an attempt to project that simulation onto reality, where that noumena is, in fact, merely an abstraction of the phenomena. The noumena, in short, is a fabrication; an attempt to project our linguistic and cognitive constructs onto the world. The noumena, therefore, is not inaccessible to us, since we create it. This is precisely what many atheists, myself included, mean when we say that we create gods. I’m an atheist, in part, because I recognize that we create the noumenal through projection of our own perception onto reality. I don’t reject the supernatural because I am an atheist, I am an atheist because I reject the supernatural.
Also, I wanted to add this video here, not because it is (directly) related, but just because it’s amazing and beautiful.