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The Yellow Pill: fan-fictioning reality June 12, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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pills2A little over a week ago, I ran into this wonderful piece of writing on the interwebs that starts with this image (on the right), and then transforms into an interesting piece of science fiction writing.

I suggest you read through it. I think it’s good, despite it’s somewhat theistic leanings (it’s fantasy, after all; fantasy can have all sorts of impossible beings to make interesting stories). But something within this piece has stuck with me, because it resonates so well with my experience.

This is from the beginning of the story, describing what happens if you choose the “yellow pill” (emphasis mine):

People’s minds are heartbreaking. Not because people are so bad, but because they’re so good.

Nobody is the villain of their own life story. You must have read hundreds of minds by now, and it’s true. Everybody thinks of themselves as an honest guy or gal just trying to get by, constantly under assault by circumstances and The System and hundreds and hundreds of assholes. They don’t just sort of believe this. They really believe it. You almost believe it yourself, when you’re deep into a reading. You can very clearly see the structure of evidence they’ve built up to support their narrative, and even though it looks silly to you, you can see why they will never escape it from the inside. You can see how every insult, every failure, no matter how deserved, is a totally unexpected kick in the gut.

This has been ringing in my head for over a week now. No, it’s been ringing in my head for at least a year, but this put succinctly an idea I’ve been wrestling with for quite a while, especially recently.

It has been ringing in my head because I can see this, clearly, in every direction. And it’s bothering me because it rings an unpleasant chord within me. This image of the yellow pill messes with the nature of reality in subtle and terrifying ways. If you consider that your worldview is nothing but a set of mini-corrections of memory, interpretations, and bias-shifts of thousands upon thousands of moments, experiences, and interactions, it might turn out that your entire reality is a fiction where you are composing yourself to be the hero.

And if everyone sees themselves as the hero, at least the vast majority of them are wrong. More importantly, it might mean that your most cherished and emotionally powerful beliefs might be incorrect. And since you act based upon your beliefs….

You get the gist.

If you are not careful, you might shift from making yourself matter to making yourself matter at the expense of others. Because you don’t actually need to be a narcissistictic asshole, sociopath, or douchemuffin to do this; everyone does it. It is the nature of our minds to do this. and if you don’t think you are doing it, then you are probably doing it more than others.

We all are carrying slightly (or, perhaps, not-so-slightly) modified versions of reality with us, all the while interacting with people to swap those versions of reality to make social groups, cultures, etc. It’s like reality is some show we all watch, and we all write fan fiction of it in our heads. Our friends are the ones whose fan fiction is more like ours, or which at least fits into the same universe coherently. Those who are either simply distant or recognized enemies are writing fan fiction that conflicts with ours too much to coexist. But in their fan fiction, they are the heroes as much as we are in ours.

Who is right? Are you going to use your narrative to determine this? It’s like a question I sometimes ask Christians; if you read the Bible, how do you know whether God or Satan is the good character? No, seriously, how do you know? If you don’t have the cultural context of Christian history and culture, would it be obvious? I don’t think it would be.

truthIn our heads, we think of ourselves as good,. Therefore, how we remember, interpret, and react to events to which we find ourselves subject will prop us up as the good character in the story. Nobody, except insofar as we are self-deprecating, writes ourselves as the anti-hero. And even if we are self-deprecating at times, in the larger narrative we see ourselves as the brave hero who circumvents, transcends, and rises above these moments of self-deprecation and challenge.

It rises like the three-edged sword of perspective; with the sun gleaming off of it, directly into one’s eye, blinding all who wield it.

I have certainly observed my own mind doing just this.  In some of my private journal writing and therapy, I have experimented with articulating my own experiences in ways that is full of hurt, anger, and both blame and personal responsibility. In venting, I was allowing the emotions which were causing me strife to compose a story based in that pain. Such compositions of emotion, while compelling, are at bottom biased and subjective. What’s more, I noticed that at other, later, times when I tried to create a more nuanced and rational articulation, the narrative derived from emotion somehow seeped in, tainting the truth. We scoot towards the comfortable end of the interpretation couch, and thus couch our descriptions accordingly.

When we make decisions from a place of emotion and subjective narration, we are opening ourselves up to lying to ourselves for the sake of comfort and self-image, and thus (ultimately) to everyone else. What’s worse, is that because emotion is the basis for all motivation and reasoning, we can rationalize, quite easily, that we made a rational decision when we have done nothing of the sort. I do this. I recognize it. What bothers me is when I see other people doing it all the while being overtly defensive about where they are sitting on their couch. Pointing out, to them, that they are sitting on the dog will usually be met with anything except recognition of that fact.

Further, when our friends act to make us feel better about ourselves, they become pulled into the narrative through the compelling nature of that emotion. Our mirror neurons fire, we empathize, and we feel their pain and the nuance and skeptical parts of us get ignored. And slowly, ever so slowly, what actually happened gets lost among those closest to us, and we develop a nice, comfortable echo-chamber for our stories. The longer this happens, the harder it is to leave the bubble that you create for yourself to see anything except your own fan fiction. Eventually, you might start to believe that your fan fiction is the original story. And this is disappointing to me in a deep way which makes me profoundly sad.

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I want to say that we can talk, allow ourselves to hear the things which are painful to hear, but I just don’t believe that’s possible in the vast majority of cases. Unless we are willing to consider that our whole worldview, everything we think about a subject, a person, or even ourselves might be completely wrong, there is no solution here. Because unless you have the courage to consider that those really deep, profound, big feelings that you have are lying to you and leading you astray, there’s no escaping that bubble.

And this is because we have, in our culture right now, this myth that our own story, our own voice, and our own feelings are of some primary importance above that of other things. Our own personal journey is held up not as a tool for gaining perspective, but for gaining Truth. And while such personal struggles towards finding what we believe and feel may give us a sense of empowerment, it does not necessarily bring us truth. Because whether it is someone else or ourselves which dictates the narrative, we live in a dictatorship.

You do not have your own truth. Believing such a thing traps us in a narrow window of belief in which we might insist upon sticking to our guns rather than hear what another might have to say from their own foxhole. There is a risk in “finding our own voice,” because it often leads to an unwarranted confidence in our conclusions. The personal achievement of discovering something you believe and feel strongly about may feel empowering, but that empowerment is often a mirage.  Freeing ourselves from the power of others, for example, feels relatively powerful. But that’s exactly how that controlling person felt the entire time they controlled you. Again, a dictatorship is a dictatorship, whether its you in control or someone else. No sense in organizing a coup just to make yourself the dictator. I guarantee that as soon as you do, someone else will start planning the next coup.

It does not matter if you are only a dictator of yourself, because so long as you define the truth through your own subjectivity, you will inevitably impose your truth onto others, whether you wish to or not.

Strength of character does not come from finding our own voice. In fact, it’s impossible not to find our own voice. Every thought, feeling, or action is our own voice, whether it speaks in our interest or not. What our culture calls finding our own voice really is the willingness to accept your own narrative as a signpost towards TheTruth. This seems, to me, to be nothing more than self-absorption, obliviousness, and possibly narcissism. It is, in short, a idolatry of the self and our limitations of perspective. I want no part of it.

Strength of character comes from the willingness to silence your voice for a moment and allow your ears to function for a while. Because while your voice is talking, you’re not listening. And if that voice is singing in your head while you are listening, then you are not having a conversation at all, but merely posturing.

I’m going to fight the voice in my head that tells me I’m right, which refuses to hear what does not fit in my narrative, and that composes rather than listens.

Being hurt by others is no excuse to be self-absorbed and deaf. It will not offer protection nor wisdom.

—-

For similar thoughts, see these posts:

Truth or Happiness

Objective Judgment

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Objective Judgment? February 2, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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Wait, which way is north on this thing?

Wait, which way is north on this thing?

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about objectivity. Or, as some call it, “truth.”

(oh crap, he’s about to get philosophical….)

Oh, shaddap, you!

Anyway, back to what I was saying. I like believing things. It’s often nice if they happen to be true. It happens once in a while. Or, you know, at least once. It might have happened.

There is a part of my mind which just insists that there must be true things, out there, which are true regardless of whether anyone effectively simulates those ideas in their heads or not.  I recognize this as my ego desiring that my view of the world is true, and this feeling is much stronger the more emotional I am. And then, well, I analyze that statement and I realize the whole thing collapses on its own weight.

Ker-plunk!

I hate that. Disillusionment is a serious harsh to my mellow. Yes, I just used that phrase, which means it’s now 1995. You’re welcome.

Truth has never been more adorable. Or sleepy.

Truth has never been more adorable. Or sleepy.

Minds are, by definition, subjective. There is no objective point of view (this was one of the central axioms of my MA thesis, which I will not try to summarize here because I like you, dear reader, and I want you to keep reading). All we can do is come together and try to construct reality out of the bloody remains of our experience which survives all that bias and interpretation. Our personal experience, in other words, is like a hot dog is to reality’s cow. Don’t think about that analogy too much, because you will die from an aneurysm.

So if that is the case, then how can we talk about anything being “true”?

There is an idea within the skeptic community, which has been articulated in a few ways. The basic idea is that the “truth” is what remains after we remove all (or, at least, as much as possible) personal bias. It is the thing that continues to exist whether we believe in it or not. It is “reality.” It does not care what we think, it just is. And the best way to apprehend such a thing would be by use of the tools of philosophy and science; logic and empiricism.

And I agree with this idea. But how could I? Why not just give over to the anti-realists? (cf this analysis and this article at the SEP). Why not go even further and become a mystic or neo-vedantic philosophies which reject the concept of reality all-together? Why not just admit that all of this “reality” is merely an illusion–maya-and forgo this western concept of progress, understanding, and materialism? Why not just admit that everything is mere opinion, and that what “really happens” is a nonsensical idea?

Why not just give people flowers at the airport and change my name to Sunbeam…again?

Stubbornness, I suppose. Also, pragmatism, to some degree. Mostly, it’s Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the Goa’uld for whom I am but a host, apparently.

Science fiction and dead Germans aside, this is a tension that sits on the edge of my mind frequently, and one which is sometimes glossed over in conversations about scientific realism and hippies. But that specific argument is not the focus of my attention today. Today, I’m concerned with how we form opinions about ourselves, other people, and circumstances which I believe has some epistemological commonalities with this philosophical question of whether the world is real.

Is my worldview actually based in reality?

If I believe that I am a good person, or that I’m telling the truth, or even if my memories are based in anything outside of my own desires and biases writing themselves to my brain (or to my cosmic consciousness, if I were to accept the neo-vedantic interpretation), how would I be sure that this idea has any coherence with what is real or true?

possibly what my brain, in a vat of piss, looks like in another universe. Yes, I'm Jesus in all universes except this one.

possibly what my brain, in a vat of piss, looks like in another universe. Yes, I’m Jesus in all universes except this one.

I mean, how do I know I’m not a brain in a vat? Or (possibly worse) a brain in a jar of piss in some other universe’s postmodern art installment? I could merely be some lame artist’s attempt to piss off (see what I did there) some establishment which worships brains. Although, probably not mine specifically. Yet.

I could just be a piece of hardware being ignored by 6th graders on a field-trip!

Ghastly.

When we start thinking about things such as how we view ourselves, the narratives groups maintain through interpersonal relationships, and even vast and complicated cultures we have to take into account not only what is preferable or comfortable to us, but what is uncomfortable and foreign.  Who we are at any moment is dependent upon our environment, and our environment is an organism which feeds upon itself and those who foster its creation and maintenance (much like the role that Shiva has in some parts of Indian mythology). So, the question is who are the people feeding that beast, and what attributes, motives, and capabilities do they have?

Also, are they total dicks? Because that’s honestly the worst.

Further, what are the walls between your worldview and the worldview of others? Is that wall merely a thin transparent material holding in piss and/or brain-vat liquid (mostly Gatorade, is my guess)? So many questions. So many disturbing, but artful, questions.

Anyway, why do I care? Is it because I am being paid by the Gatorade lobby? Possibly. Alternatively, it might it be because who speaks for a group, what they believe, and what kind of character they have will have implications for that group. And maybe I care about groups of which I am a part. And, eventually, that family, organization, or culture will start to reflect the people that make it up, which is bad if those people are dicks.

That is, there is a very complicated relationship between the things we do, say, and believe and the social/cultural environment in which we live. Our ability to create a worldview is (in part) a combination of insight, self-knowledge, and willingness to be honest with others and ourselves. Any small inherent deviation from honesty, respectability, or consideration for feelings and boundaries of others has large effects on our lives, relationships, and culture because that inherent tendency defines the vast majority of the decisions, actions, and beliefs which define a group of any size or complexity.

What scientists actually do, for example, has an effect on the scientific community. How people in polyamorous relationships behave has effects on the poly community. Not that everyone needs to be flawless; there is no such thing as perfection, after all. But what we believe about ourselves, our families, our communities and ultimately the ideals we strive for or at least proclaim are questions not merely for ourselves and our closest allies, but also those distant from us or even opposed to us.

We should learn from our enemies, as much (if not more) as we learn from our friends, lovers, and even ourselves. Because even where our enemies might be wrong, they are not always completely wrong. And insofar as they may be right, that correctness is a source from which wisdom (or at least its potential) can be gleaned.

It is the fundamental processes of our character which shapes us more than any occasional mistake, misjudgment, or mess we make. That character is like the fluid in our brain-vats; it’s either pissy, delicious, or merely nourishing. It is the ether in which our consciousness (cosmic, vatted, or merely in skulls) propagates. And that character, no matter what direction it flies, will inform how we respond to mistakes, handle conflict, and maintain relationships. Having made a few doosies of mistakes myself, I know of what I speak.

But I do not speak from a point of superiority or of condescension, but simply from experience and growing understanding. And I have learned from my mistakes, my friends, and my enemies.

Comeuppance?

I don’t believe in any cosmic karma or universal balancing of the scales to have good people rewarded or bad people punished. I believe we have to make our own fates, as it were, and so we need to be paying attention to not only ourselves, but also to others. Not that we need to be watching, with bated schadenfreude, other people’s lives for mistakes. But there is some wisdom in understanding the motivations, actions, and characters of those with whom we share our community, space, and life. And we need to look honestly at those things, because (as I have found) sometimes the people closest to you are not who you thought they were.

More importantly, sometimes you may find that you are not who you thought you were. Which is a disquieting thought, even compared to merely being an art-piece in universe X-5473’s art museum. It’s one thing to not be sure of your very nature, it’s quite another to find that maybe you can change that nature, ever so slightly. Somehow, to me at least, the freedom to make myself be who I am is more terrifying than the uncertainty of what I am. That probably says a lot about me, I know.

I’m working on it.

And so we must rely on a communal system of punishment in order to guide our mistakes through the raging storm of culture, family, and individual characters. The unfortunate fact is that some of us will punish ourselves more than we should while others will not even recognize the need for self-correction at all. We are complicated, and means of figuring out what the right way–the true way–of handling a situation is a very complicated and delicate task which requires wisdom, patience, and a willingness to listen to ourselves and to others. It is, in short, an overwhelmingly difficult task, and one which nobody will likely master.

Ethics is Futile

Ethics is Futile

We have to come forward with our vulnerable hearts opened to the world, and declare not only our errors but our strengths.  It is an intersubjective path we walk, one which attempts to take all of our collected experiences and shape them into a “reality” which we can judge better together than alone or segmented into cliques. Truth, therefore, is a kind of transmutation of subjectivities into an attempt to create an objective alloy.

What I’m trying to say is that ethics is like the Borg, except with better fashion sense. At least, I hope so. Aesthetics can’t completely go out the window when coming together into  Communist communal eradication of individuality coming together for the sake of world domination growth and support.

And in the end, no agreement will suit everyone. The leaders of our worlds, whether macro or micro, will be idolized or hated by some, rather than seen as humans struggling with difficulties, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. It is when we idolize or demonize that we fail to see nuances. I, as guilty of this as anyone else, understand that only through nuance can we get to any useful judgment. And sometimes we will find that someone is worth watching and learning from, while others not so much.

Some people, I think, really do just exist in jars of piss.

OK, OK….get to the super cosmically wise point already, bro.

Judgment, like science, is probabilistic rather than absolute. It’s why science does not “prove” anything, but merely makes the best case it can based upon evidence. It’s rather tempting to finally judge someone personally, but that judgment must be ongoing, replicated, and alive if it is to have any meaning. We must watch to see what people do going forward, and stop merely focusing on the past. That is what I hope for myself, and it is what I insist upon my judgment of others.

It’s why we need nuance, and why we must remember that our emotions shade the truth from us.  When others err, we need to remember that we also err. And when it’s time to correct those transgressions around us, it need not be an absolute judgment, but it is a judgment.

And when you find yourself judged, it’s time for insight, reflection, and perhaps some empathy. And it’s may also be time to recognize that perhaps some things will never be forgiven, especially by those who were harmed, but perhaps you can make something better of yourself. That’s the goal; not to be superior or dominant. We don’t achieve moral greatness, we process moral growth.

The truth is that we all fuck up. Some of us more than others. But the kicker is not what we did, but how we responded. It’s less about he initial infraction than it is how we go forward. And sometimes, if you keep refusing to accept what you did and you make it worse and worse, eventually nobody is going to accept any amount of apology or change.

Behavior unchanged is the closest thing, from a judgmental standpoint, we have to absolute truth. Patterns of behavior, habit, and stubbornness are the roots of a personality caught in its own web. For anyone to be judged “objectively” or absolutely, they must be static and unchanging people. They have to be (to go back to the old Latin meaning) perfect, or even Platonic.

And just like with Plato, who was so convinced that his Good, his Ideal, and his Forms existed in perfect (objective) reality, so those who get caught in their own webs will find that perfection, superiority, and their own undeserved confidence (i.e. arrogance) will also be wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. But there is something wrong about stubbornly or blindly holding onto that error for the sake of reputation.

I’ve been stubborn enough in my life, and I’ll strive to be less so in the future.

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.

Thoughts?