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On intuitions about a culture that obscures reality while affecting to define it
Gingerly attempting some discursive philosophical musing on a confusing subject
Mots pressez, mots sensez
Mots qui disent la vit?
Mots maudits, mots mentis
Mots qui manquent le fruit d'ésprit
What are words worth?
What are words worth?
Tom Tom Club - Wordy Rappinghood
Post status: heavy on discursive assertions, light on argument.
Thoughts and conversations I'm having about the difference between reality and perception have been rattling at the cage of some intuitions.
The main intuition is that there is a material world that can be genuinely encountered, unmediated by interpretation. A world that just is ... regardless of my presence in it ... and which one is able to experience directly. And I notice that it drives me nuts when anyone asserts that an idea has equal valence to this sensory contact.
The difference between what is and what we think feels pressing. It plays to a sense I have of a connection between our growing distance from 'nature' (what really is) and the way in which we might prefer things to be is constantly asserted as the way things are.
Confused? You probably will be...
Some of this flows from three years of practicing mindfulness as a way of escaping the background traffic hum of thoughts, more or less successfully - for at least a vanishingly small part of the time.
The glimpse one gets of the actual world (specifically, your body in it) when the mind briefly stops dwelling in the past and future can come as a genuine surprise. While it remains a rare occurrence to be fully situated and embodied in three dimensional space right now, there seems to be something more real about it each time it happens.
All five senses running at full tilt is quite a thing. You don't know this until it happens. And I've realised that you never know that this isn't the normal way of things until it does. But, you cannot know what you don’t know. Such is the confusion that arises from thinking rather than being situated.
The fact that mindfulness practice can then unlock occasional sensory completeness in contexts outside of formally sitting for 10 minutes at a time is also one of the surprises that flows from it.
It gives you a sense of the divine in the most unexpected moments. In which something deeply ordinary in the material world is suddenly revealed in a way that seems intensely real. Maybe this is what William Blake was reaching for in the famous lines from Auguries of Innocence.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Occasionally achieving this state (or, actually, shedding the detritus that normally drowns it out) leads me to think about the world I usually occupy.
This 'normal' world is one of abstractions and interpretations. It's a kind of non-place. A construction of the mind.
In turn, this seems to lead us into an idea that we are the world, rather than objects in it. And that the world is shaped by our will. Not in the sense of being able to engineer things and manipulate the physical realm. That's a given. I mean in the sense of the common belief that if it can be thought, then so it really is.
This seems to be a reification of the mind, which began with the best of intentions when Descartes said 'Cogito ergo sum'.
The other trigger for this intuition that we dismiss the actual world at our cost is a constant awareness of narrative construction that seems designed to redefine immutable material reality, rather than inform how we might best move through it.
Although I'm now bored of the trans controversy, it's a suitable illustration of narrative used to replace material reality.
If the argument from activists were simply that we should endeavour to accommodate individual desires in the classically tolerant western liberal sense, while being prepared to discuss in good faith how this may best be managed in - say - women-only spaces, it would be just a normal 'moral' debate.
But it isn't. 'Trans women are women' is a redefinition of biological truth which also happens to erase the class of person with XX chromosomes as a distinct category of Homo sapiens.
The phrase "her penis" is a reimagining of the world that is unmoored from fact. It is two words joined up to support a narrative, rather than to really describe anything in it.
The way that this has moved from theoretical and critical 'scholarship' in the humanities and into scientific journals is a real time illustration of concepts replacing material reality.
Narrative as a comforting replacement for implacably inconvenient nature.
This seems to have been a natural legacy of Enlightenment philosophy, which comes as a surprise. We think of The Enlightenment as new (more realistic and less superstitious) ways of thinking that not only gave us manipulative mastery over the world (flying, curing diseases, me writing on this MacBook Air) but also the notion that we cannot actually grasp the noumenal realm (things as they are in themselves).
It's a short leap from Immanuel Kant's assertion that the phenomenal realm (things as they appear to us) is all we can grasp, so that ultimate reality is unknowable and beyond our perceptual reach, to the replacement of sex with gender as the way we might differentiate women and men. A story that is now pitched as material reality.
Just as one recent interlocutor insists, that if I believed myself to be Napoleon there is some sense in which I actually would be Napoleon.
The way a kind of inner essence (that I might suddenly discover makes me a woman, or Napoleon in a real sense) seems to have been conjured up to replace a soul that we stopped believing in is one of the most interesting features of modernity.
NS Lyons dived deep into that here…
All of this folds into a strong antipathy I've developed for the various postmodern notions about the primacy of language and perception in our experience and descriptions of the world.
I might as well confess that I'm pulling a move here that's similar to the one that leads people to dispute the significance of something like climate change. They don't like the implications of facing it, such as inevitable restrictions on their resource consumption, so they prefer to argue the source problem away.
Thing x suggests that action y is necessary. You don't like action y, so you deny thing x.
In my case, I really dislike postmodernism's reification of the mind and its constructs. What that seems to do is to make us all God.
The idea of 8 billion iterations of God all determining what's real on the basis of what they feel at any given moment really bothers me. Maybe it's the lack of humility. A refusal to acknowledge our true insignificance. Maybe that's what troubles me about it.
But isn't that what 'perception is reality' means?
I get that ideas can become 'reality' in some ways. Yuval Noah Harari is convincing in his observation that money is mostly just a shared idea, rather than a thing out there that exists independently of society and its structures. This seems trivially obvious (even if realising it for the first time is quite impactful) and so, clearly, there are many things that have arisen from our imaginations and which incontrovertibly now exist. Things that emanated from our minds.
What I want to resist is the claim that something imagined has the same 'truth value' as something that exists independently of us.
My dog hears sounds that I can't detect. If reality is defined as perception, me and my dog live in different worlds. The proposition that in her world there are sounds that don't exist in my world seems to go an unnecessary step beyond the proposition that my wiring is just different from hers. Yes, of course the tree in the woods that falls where no one hears it makes the sound of a tree falling in the woods. Thanks to science, we know how sound arises.
But to argue that me and Youna literally construct reality in our minds, rather than accurate representations of it, enabled by chemistry and electricity, seems no more than a sophisticated form of epistemic nihilism. The same nihilism that allows you to call completely invented propositions 'alternative facts'.
Noticing that extreme liberalism and right-wing bullshit claims share a tradition of relativistic truth is a genie I can't force back into the bottle.
Yes. Of course we all have experiences that are our own. Yes, of course I do not know exactly what it is like to be Youna, or you. No, of course I don't know exactly what these words here look like to you, in this moment. Yes, we could all be living in a simulation, but there's no compelling reason to think so. Even that is just a quasi-religious idea that has become weirdly fashionable, probably because it sounds cool to certain types of people and cannot be 'disproved'. Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument was the most inevitable intellectual step ever, for our culture.
That's words, for you. Just symbols and noises, quite separate from everything else.
What seems to be going on with arguments over reality versus perception is a simple category error. Which is the mistake that talking about our experience of the world is equivalent to experiencing the world. Except that many people are tempted to go even further and say that our descriptions of things are what give rise to them. Or that our inability to be able to adequately describe things alters the fundamental nature of the things in some way.
It's as if in the beginning there was the Word now reflects some kind of universal power we all have to create the world. Nothing less than a divine creative power that we mistakenly thought we'd got rid of, once people like Francis Bacon brought us the scientific revolution and God became redundant.
All that happened was an imagined transfer of the power to create reality. From God to our minds.
And, because language is the way we give vent to our minds, it has become the fulcrum on which understanding rests. So, if you can't explain something in a persuasive way, it must be dismissed as invalid. And if you can explain something - even something that everyone knows is nonsense - in a persuasive way, then it becomes 'true'.
Famously, some scholars of linguistic relativity go so far as to insist that the structure of language determines the speaker's experience of the world. So that if you don't have a word for 'blue' you do not perceive blueness.
Apart from the fact that this appears to be circular reasoning (they aren't using a word that's equivalent to 'blue' in English, which suggests that they can't see blueness, so their language has made it so that they can't see blueness) the the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis simply skips over the existence of universal cognitive processes that are independent of language.
I'm aware that I'm interchanging the ideas of perception, language, concepts and beliefs here. In a way, it's deliberate and in another way it's an inevitable consequence of the confusion that arises when we deny that material reality exists pretty much as we often experience it.
That wall over there will ruin your face if you run into it, not because of a linguistic construction of hardness, or any belief you have about it. You are not going to run into it to test this hypothesis because you know it's real and, however you feel about your face now, you prefer it to the face you'd have if you were stupid enough to test an intuition that the wall can be theorised into something else.
The fact that we now know that the wall is mostly made up of the space between subatomic parts has zero valence in the calculation you make.
Fortunately, we mostly aren't silly enough to take abstract concepts about material reality too seriously in our day-to-day lives (see the fates of those people on psychedelics, who believed they could fly and jumped from high places, as another reminder of the difference between ideas and reality).
As a proposition, 'if he believes he can fly unaided, there is some way in which it is true' is equivalent to believing you're Napoleon making you Napoleon, in some way. But that way is never explained. It's just an assertion.
Academic and social liberalism is fond of these assertions. Such as the existence of a process that mediates my contact with a flower meaning that I'm not experiencing the flower. How do they know that I'm not?
You might as well assert that I'm not experiencing a song when the air vibrates in a very specific way, within range of my ear.
Great. Techically true. But also idle nitpicking that only serves to de-eroticise experience, in the way that this tradition seems hellbent on doing.
One of the problems with my personal kind of naive realism is that it is deeply uncool and unsophisticated. No one is ever going to be impressed with an argument that says 'this thing that you think about the world is pretty much right' because the fashion is to argue that we are all massively unsophisticated and hopelessly flawed in the way that we see the world. See the ever-expanding list of cognitive biases as the best case ever against allowing people to vote - because that's surely where this dismissal of our ability to perceive reality must lead. I'll bet there are people advancing that argument. Clever, sophisticated people. Good with words.
Mots qui manquent le fruit d'ésprit.
In a way I'm scrambling my way out of a lifetime of enjoying a feeling of sophisticated superiority that flows from basically overcomplicating things. I am embracing acceptance of 'the bleedin' obvious' because the actual world that I experience is reliably beautiful, inconvenient, resistant to my whims, sometimes rewarding and occasionally wondrous precisely because it is not my personal construction.
Call this radical decomplication. Everyone likes a good name for simple ideas. Radical Decomplication©
How strange that a belief that you can experience the world outside your head just the way it is could feel radical. That's how far adrift we are from nature at this point.
Of course I cannot ever prove to anyone else that I am occasionally in contact with a genuine reality that really isn't of my own making. But those who assert that there is no way to detect the difference between the stories we tell (the narrative, reporting our phenomenological experiences) and the real, independently existing world of material things including other organisms, can't either.
A reader comment on this piece about narrative neatly expresses this philosophy in a way that makes me think that the post-truth era was inevitable.
'Not only is "reality" the narrative an observer builds around what can be loosely termed as "facts", i.e. matters arising in their consciousness - that "reality" only exists *because* of the observer's ability to perceive. As limited creatures, we cannot really escape the conflation - reality is experience is reality is experience. But we do get a glimpse into the separation when we realise that others have different experiences as valid as ours, with which there is some kind of overlap, a hard core that is shared. It is however impossible for us to define the borders of what is shared, because we cannot wholly be someone else and know/feel what they know/feel.
The one creature who would be able to clearly distinguish reality from experience would be one who has access to all consciousness, present, past and future, and can distil the common elements of all "sides" of a story with clarity. In essence, from my point of view the existence of reality requires a god in the picture (by which I don't mean the Christian god).'
This kind of word play makes me think of Zeno's paradoxes. Achilles can't outrun the tortoise and the arrow never reaches its target. Now what? Feel free to fire that arrow in my direction, now that words have shown that it can’t touch me.
Words and ideas turn out to be the weak link in testing reality, not our senses.
What is true in a reasoning kind of way can be well adrift from what you know. Ask all the philosophers who wrestled to disprove the validity of Philosophical Scepticism.
Here I will shamelessly reproduce ChatGPT's summary of G.E. Moore's delightfully naive refutation, because it has come to be my favourite;
Moore holds up one of his hands and asserts, "Here is one hand."
He then extends his other hand and says, "And here is another."
Moore concludes that he has just provided a conclusive proof of the existence of an external world.
The problem of 'reality' or 'truth' is always the slippery quality of language. Zeno put together some words that confounded our brains until people who were good with mathematics and calculus 'proved' what we all knew already. They confirmed the reality that we were always in contact with, even if we couldn't articulate it.
That's how I feel about my occasional contact with the reality outside of this mind. I can't articulate it and perhaps I needn't bother. I know it when I 'see' and 'touch' it.
Yes, this was a piece about ancient problems, in which I tried not to rehearse the standard arguments - mostly because it isn't an argument.
Proving things is so yesterday, for me now. Making connections between ways of seeing the world is where it's at.
Who knows whether causation plays into the correlation between the relentless deterioration in average mental health and the increasing elevation of narrative over reality and our disconnection from a real world consisting of objects that don't arise from our minds.
Noticing how narrative subverts what we all know has become a fascination. Pondering how that flows from the particular intellectual tradition of Enlightenment liberalism is tantalising.
There is something here about connection with a wondrous world and subjective wellbeing that over-intellectualising everything seems to taint.
You're welcome to your version of reality, founded on a kind of deracinated conceptual frame that centres human minds as all that can really be known in this amazing universe. I'm happiest when I'm feeling it, tasting it, smelling it, hearing it and seeing the reflected light that it produces.
And, at this point, if we really do need a guarantor for reality, I think I'd prefer God to Homo sapiens.
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