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The philosophy of political correctness November 9, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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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;

Online Gender Workshop: Detour, Social Construction Ahead edition

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.”

Some snippets:

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”.

and, later:

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.

and, again…

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.

Objecting to Objectivism: Ethics as an Epiphenomenon June 3, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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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.objectivism

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.

Oh Jack chick....

Oh Jack Chick….

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.

The usual suspects

The usual suspects

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.



Hall of Reflections May 19, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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5_2Imagine 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!

mirror06Sometimes, 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?

All-thought-is-naughtIn 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.

A brain cube!

A brain cube!

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).

Now that’s a hall of mirrors.

If I figure it out, I’ll let you all know.

Shock absorption: evolving thoughts on anger and social justice April 24, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society.
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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.

Read the whole piece, it’s great.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.




Kant, perception, and other things you probably don’t care about. August 23, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , ,

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.

[her emphasis]

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.
Wouldn’t that be something!


Truth or Happiness? July 30, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: , , , , ,

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”?

Yes.  Next?


…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!”

False analogy.

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 choose truth and happiness.

Reality is not an illusion July 18, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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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.


Re-reading oneself June 28, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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I just had a realization.

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 ChamfortMontesquieu, 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….

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.

Pwning Bill O’Reilly’s Christian Philosophy November 29, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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This hit the interwebs today

Now, this is not the first time Bill O’Reilly and Dave Silverman have met up to create fireworks.  Remember the tides thing?  I do not know how much of Bill O’Reilly’s on-air personality is an act, or if he really believes what he says in segments such as these, but the things he says are believed by many people, perhaps (in some cases) because Bill O’Reilly says them.

So, O’Reilly claims that Christianity is not a religion, but is a philosophy instead.  This is no different than the dozens of times I have heard Christians claim that their relationship with Jesus/God is not a religion, because religion is man-man and this is the truth.

Let’s start by granting that mere philosophical symbols and ideas are fair to display in government space.  Much of what the Framers of the Constitution were doing, after all, is political and moral philosophy.  Go to the Jefferson memorial and read the walls; that’s  philosophy.  Seeing images and carvings of Plato, Aristotle, or even religious and historically significant characters (such as Moses or Hammurabi) on government buildings is commonplace, because these figures play a part in our culture’s history—but so does religion, right? So what’s the difference?

A Buddhist Christmas?

OK, so let’s consider a non-Christian ideology such as Buddhism, which is fundamentally philosophical in many respects but also has many of the characteristics of a religion, especially where it is mythologized and supernatural components are included.  Would an image of the Buddha, with some quotes from his attributed sayings, be fair game on government property? More relevant here, would Bill O’Reilly have an issue with such displays?

I do not knows what O’Reilly would think here, but my guess is he would be OK with it so long as it does not get in the way of his traditions.  So long as Buddhists were not trying to usurp his holiday traditions, I don’t think he’d care.  But should secular-minded people care? Should I care?

This is tricky, because the distinction between philosophy and religion is thin in many traditions, Buddhism included.  I would say that insofar as any message on government property is not giving privileged or unequal support for any of the mythological, ritualistic, and supernatural aspects of any philosophy or religion, then there is no problem from a secularist’s point of view.  That is, so long as Buddhisms presence in such spaces leans towards its philosophical roots, and not its specifically religious traditions, then I don’t think there is an issue.

But we’ll worry about that when Buddhists start becoming anything near a majority.  So, probably never.

Unlike Buddhism, however, Christianity is clearly a religion.  Yes, it contains elements of philosophy, but I am not sure any religious traditions do not include philosophical ideas.  But the essential component to the overwhelming majority of Christian theologies is the relationship between humankind and “God.”  Christianity is not a mere collection of rational concepts or methods about finding what is true, beautiful, or wise, it is a set of metaphysical claims about the nature of the universe which has many traditional rituals, stories, and moral teachings.

The major distinction here is the presence of theology.  Theology is a type of philosophy–the religious kind–and so if a tradition has a theology it is clearly a religion.

To claim that Christianity is a philosophy is to amputate a significant portion of what it does for believers.  Where a thinker such as Plato used logic and dialogue to make propositions and criticisms about ideas, Christianity does this but it does so much more.  To imply that Jesus was just a philosopher is to say he was just a man with mere ideas about the world.  This view removes the divine messages including the metaphysical significance of the (supposed) sacrifice and makes concepts such as eternal life, eternal punishment, or even ultimate meaning impotent.

Wait…does that mean that this segment of his show reveals that Bill O’Reilly does not believe all of the mythological and metaphysical components of Christianity? Does that make O’Reilly some sort of humanist?  Because if he does not think that Christianity is not religious (thus has nothing to do with supernatural claims) then why all the god-talk?

Again, I think this claim that Christianity is a philosophy is part of a set of cultural/apologetic moves to distinguish Christianity from mere religion.  It usually takes the form of “I have a relationship with Jesus/God, and religion is a man-made lie!” In this case, O’Reilly seems to be doing something similar.  “Christianity,” he might say, “is not a man-made mere religion, it is the true philosophy given to us by god.”  Well, if so, Papa Bear, then that makes it a religion.

I don’t think Bill O’Reilly has thought this through, so let’s consider him appropriately pwned.

Experiencing John Dewey July 12, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I have not read much John Dewey.  Over the years, I have run into quotes, references, and the occasional summary of some idea of his by another writer.  But in my academic and personal reading, I have never dove in.  So a while back I was at a used book store and found an old clothbound copy of a collection of his work, edited by Joseph Ratner.  And while I bought it some time ago, it has since sat on my shelf unmolested, until today.

Over the last few days, after finishing one of my books about the Revolutionary War (I have been reading about that time period a lot in the last year or so), I looked through my library for a new book to read.  I started on another history book about the Revolutionary war, but within a few pages I knew something was not right.  I just was not in the mood for history.  I wanted some philosophy!  So after a short hiatus on philosophy-reading, I scanned my philosophy section and the John Dewey tome stuck out to me, so I reached for it and thumbed my way past the prologue and right to the meat.

It is an odd thing, trying to familiarize yourself with a thinker who is relatively unknown, both to me and society at large.  I remember how I felt first reading Nietzsche; it felt like walking into a room full of people I don’t know, speaking in an accent that I sometimes could not make out.  But the more I read, Nietzsche started to feel sort of like a nice summer home, not quite home but it became mine.  Now that I’m getting acquainted with John Dewey, I wonder if I will experience the same thing or if I might feel like I did upon becoming acquainted with Kant.  Kant, for me, feels like being in the home of someone who has plastic on their furniture.  Everything is in the right place, they are being good hosts, offering me a drink, but I just can’t relax.  The furniture is not comfortable (it might be, if it were not covered so), and so you can’t just let go and enjoy the time there.  It’s an effort to enjoy, not because the company does not have anything of value to offer, but just because they are trying so hard. It’s a little like that bit from Mr. Bean (it’s the one where he has a couple of guys over for New Year’s eve, if you are familiar with the show).

So far, Dewey not like Nietzsche or Kant.  It’s more like reading Spinoza, if I had to compare it to anyone, thus far.  The language is a little dated, the terms sometimes out of context, but you sort of get what he’s trying to say.  Also, like Spinoza, you can see that he’s trying to get you out of your head.  He’s trying to use the words we see every day to express an idea that is not thought every day (at least by people who are not John Dewey).  It’s like walking into a room full of people who speak your language, and well, but who have all lived in another part of the world for some time and are talking of things that you have to experience the context of over time in order to get the full picture.  I think, in fact, Dewey might have liked that analogy.

I don’t want to say much more myself.  I want to leave you with a “summary” of the introductory chapter, because it says some things that are pertinent to some of the issues I discuss on this blog, if only tangentially.  In any case, I’ll shut up and quote:

All philosophies employ empirical subject-matter, even the most transcendental; there is nothing else for them to go by.  But in ignoring the kind of empirical situation to which their themes pertain and in failing to supply directions for experimental pointing and searching they become non-empirical.  Hence it may be asserted that the final issue of empirical method is whether the guide and standard of beliefs and conduct lies within or without the shareable situations of life.  The ultimate accusation levelled against professedly non-empirical philosophies is that in casting aspersion upon the events and objects of experience, they deny the power of common life to develop its own regulative methods and to furnish from within itself adequate goals, ideals, and criteria.  Thus in effect they claim a private access to truth and deprive the things of common experience of the enlightenment and guidance that philosophy might otherwise derive from them.  The transcendentalist has conspired with his arch-enemy, the sensualist, to narrow the acknowledged subject-matter of experience and to lessen its potencies for a wider and directed reflective choice.  Respect for experience is respect for its possibilities in thought and knowledge as well as an enforced attention to its joys and sorrows.  Intellectual piety toward experience is a precondition of the direction of life and the tolerant and generous cooperation among men.  Respect for the things of experience alone brings with it such a respect for others, the centres of experience, as is free from patronage, domination and the will to impose.


I feel like he’s saying something here that is relevant to the recent discussions in the atheist community.  He is, of course, not necessarily talking about atheism at all, but about the relationship of empiricism, rationalism, and our ideas about the world.  I feel like I want to read more of his views to say much more more, however. I will point out that his comment that the “ultimate accusation levelled against professedly non-empirical philosophies is that in casting aspersion upon the events and objects of experience, they deny the power of common life to develop its own regulative methods and to furnish from within itself adequate goals, ideals, and criteria” is reminiscent of the issue about “sophisticated theology.”  It is a world that does indeed furnish itself with goals, ideals, and criteria, but I am not sure about the adjective “adequate” in that case.  Perhaps there are things to be learned within such realms, for such heathens as I.  Perhaps Dewey will give me reason to consider that more deeply.

What I can say now is that I find a mind, in Dewey, that has an insight that is interesting, borne of a curiosity and apparent honesty.  From what I have read, including the above, I cannot say if I agree with him more often than not, only that I want to read more.  To me, that is the higher criteria; do I want to hear more of what a person says, not whether I necessarily agree with it.  The sad truth is that I don’t, more often than not, want to read more.  “Sophisticated theology” comes to mind again.