Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Imagining Reality

I saw a talk on TED a couple of years ago by cognitive scientist, Donald Hoffman. He presented his view that our perceptual faculties have evolved for our survival and not so much to preserve a likeness to whatever it is that is causing our perception. To some extent, this is an unremarkable hypothesis since we already know that the range of colours and sounds extends beyond that we can see and hear. What are sounds to us and other living things are basically air vibrations, and there is no sound in the void of outer space. We also know our perceptual systems are tricked by optical illusions.

But Hoffman's idea is more radical - he thinks that the world we perceive might bear no more resemblance to whatever causes our perceptions than a computer screen interface bears to the actual inner workings of the computer, i.e., none. Further, he believes that even scientific activity remains at the perceptual "user interface" and, for all intents and purposes, we remain within the matrix of our perceptual systems, with no perceptual access to reality. Even brains and neurons, as we study them, reside in the interface. This is not to say we are lost in a sea of perceptual illusion, however. He retains hope that mathematics and reason will guide us to scientific truths.

Variations on the idea that we cannot get beyond our modes of perception to experience reality directly have been advanced throughout the history of ideas.  For the most part, these positions have been thought to entail that we simply do not know what is beyond the perceptual horizon and must leave aside any hopes of metaphysical insight; or that are grounds to believe that we are somehow trapped inside our heads, or that the world we see is a hallucination or a delusion; or that the world there is is really nothing other than the world we perceive - esse est percipi.

We end up with this set of positions only because our idea of reality is one that assumes a gulf between Mind and Nature.

The world is real (or it is nothing). I'm not saying that we perceive things as they would be without us. Why have we have assumed that's what reality is - the world as it is without us? The world we inhabit is a dynamic environment that includes us and within which we have considerable influence, for better or worse. A world without us is clearly an imaginary one. Without perceiving beings, the world wouldn't really look like anything.  It has existed and could exist without us, and it will again one day, but as of now, here we are.

It's a simple truism. The world we perceive is the world in which we live. Our perceptions occur in nature, and they are more or less relevant to our purposes, whether those purposes be the pursuit of scientific knowledge, manipulating others, or obscuring something painful from our past.  Perceptual veridicality is not true representation of a non-perceived world but has to do with with the horizon of our intentions.

Our idea of objectivity (our current one - the concept of objectivity has a history) is the idea of the world  without us, a world imagined without involvement (taint) from any human intention or purpose. This has led us to frame reality as a principally spatial world of catalogued things whose interactions can be described in terms of the operation of forces acting according to laws of nature.

Our habit of conceptually freeze-framing phenomena in space and time in a way that favours spatial and mathematical representation is likely cognitively energy-saving but ontologically misleading. Perception is an active response to our present environment and we cannot remove ourselves from the world to understand it - why would we think we could? Does anyone know what the world would look like sub specie aeternitatis (from the POV of eternity)?

The conceptual freeze-frame is only a shorthand that we have somehow managed to reify because we see ourselves as so different from nature. Our own nature has been considered an impediment to objectivity. Nevertheless, we live in a dynamic symbiotic universe, not a world of disconnected things attracted by forces and governed by laws. We reify our conceptual models and assume tangible experience falls short.

The question of how the world is without our witnessing it is not possible to answer. That doesn't mean there is "some mysterious unknowable world" about which we have no direct or indirect information or that the existence of the world depends upon us perceiving it. The question is an error. The world we know more or less well is the world in which we came to be.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Just thinking out loud about teleology

Maybe it's a simple progression of drive to survive, associating this with self-animation, projection of this "animation" on everything that moves, belief that everything that moves has a purpose such as an interest in staying alive...? 
The flip side would be the all too culturally conditioned notion that subjectivity means self-interest and self-interest means bias and bias leads to falsehood or at least misleading claims. So to ensure truth (or at least public legitimacy) there would be a concerted effort to remove any vestige of agency from nature, in spite of the palpable and clear drive to survive of all self-moving entities (or even any for whom homeostasis is required for survival), to render nature all about random spandrels (chaotic nature) plus (rational) laws of nature... 
Or perhaps the official removal of agency from nature began with the realization of the power of reasoning in cultures over 2K years ago around what is known as the "axial age" and hylomorphist ontology came along with it?

Friday, October 6, 2017

Numinous experience and instinct - the meaning of the meaning of life

Shinto sacralizes places where people have a sense of the awe of nature. Various pieces of music, e.g., Agnus Dei from Faure's Requiem or Vaughan Williams' Theme from Thomas Tallis, are evocative of an unearthly majesty. Abraham Maslow spoke of peak experiences - experiences that are not the result of biological need fulfillment (which include safety and belonging in his account) such as aesthetic experiences or spiritual experiences. Biological drivers he called extrinsic motivation, motivation by a lack or need. The kind that give rise to numinous experience such as scientific curiosity/discovery for its own sake rather than the prestige or big pharma payout, the joy of creating or experiencing music or art or writing that is not politically motivated but just beautiful, this is intrinsic motivation. The joy of understanding, learning or appreciating something new for no other reason. Apes experience this at waterfalls (Goodall).
Is it conceivable to explain these numinous experiences 
  • in naturalistic terms
  • while conserving the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation ?
If not, is all naturalism essentially reductionist by design?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The world needs a new story

The world needs a new story to make sense of itself. It will include the fact of evolution, the immensity of time that preceded us; the fact that we live on a planet in an incomprehensibly vast universe; the urgent need for us to be environmentally responsible and a stress on the dire consequences of wasteful consumerism and an economic model built on it; a sense of the importance of acceptance of differences among people and peoples; the social, environmental, political and emotional benefits of gender equality; the need to keep network power nodes in check; and all of this needs to impart a sense of coziness. It sounds odd to say "coziness" but that's the nub of it. We all know or sense, more or less, the other stuff. In the past, it has been established power (accompanied with a supposed divine sanction such as the mandate of heaven or the divine right of kings!) that bounded the universe in tidy ways for us, but that no longer exists or at least, where it does, it exists in a decadent form from which little good could emerge (and vehemently defended by people in thrall to a reaction formation). So there's the challenge. To find a story so we feel at home 'on a planet', as opposed to 'in a world'.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Ideological Lag

Now is the time to let tribal emotions dissipate whether you belong to a tribe that calls itself progressive or a lone cowboy tribe. 

The thing to realize is that our economy sets the rules of how we cooperate (and has throughout history), because how we cooperate is how we work together to make and do stuff - any stuff - all stuff - ever. Those arrangements (personal or institutional) are eventually established in terms of our evolving levels of productive technology and patterns of trade.These things are thoroughly interconnected.

But there's usually a very uncomfortable lag between the implementation of an economically significant technology, our new working relationships that emerge out of the change, and the collective story that makes sense of it.

Meanwhile we don't need to succumb to the lamentation that "all we like sheep have gone astray" (perfectly apt irony today since sheep represent herd mentality while going astray is an individualistic motion - the individualistic herd). 

Being forward looking is very important. It's time to resist nostalgia for an imaginary "homeland" as we cannot afford to be tribal in a transnational economy and the last century in Europe should have taught us that. This is what we should remember today.

We just need to allow ourselves to risk thinking informed by wisdom and good purpose. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Power and human instincts

 I'm reading "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Harari. He says

"how did humans organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks [a.k.a. Socioeconomic systems] when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts. These two inventions filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance."

Turns out these scripts tend to invoke a divine decree as a warrant for legitimacy, as we know. But it's very doubtful that these hierarchical orders were planned and hammered out by Hammurabi and co. with many times the cunning of a modern PR consultancy or even fully consciously, as Harari insinuates.  Who is going to accept and carry out his social role no matter how lowly just because some clever storytellers concocted and disseminated the very story to organize hundreds of thousands into stable economic networks? Narratives probably emerged and evolved along with mass cooperation networks. The numinousness bestowed via divine blessing on the experience of the revelation of "justice" (which differs based on the socioeconomic organization in play) is a strong hint that there is indeed an instinctive aspect to human narratives supporting the social order. We don't get it yet because we're too focussed on discrete entities as ontically  "fundamental" (perhaps part and parcel of the individualist script in play today that has supported the socioeconomic order known as capitalism.)

Narratives can be concocted and are influential but the notion that the powerful can manage to manipulate the organization of whole civilizations by consciously concocting tales of divinely legitimated justice is utterly simplistic. Nevertheless this and similar explanations are advanced indirectly in works like Ian Morris's Why the West Rules for Now. One thing the historical supposition of a transcendental source of justice has left even non religious investigators today is the sense that we are above nature and that our various versions of narratives of justice are not instinctually rooted. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Minus 11

Transcending Nature
The two active ideological or intellectual paradigms today continue to be driven by the desire to transcend nature.  One is a technological/instrumentalist paradigm and the other a rationalist/intellectual paradigm.  The technological concerns itself with means, mechanisms and medicine and a more comfortable life of things and products, while the intellectual ostensibly concerns itself with the "eternal" and that which provides a standard for the determination of worthwhile ends.  These two strands are at war, with the technological thrust in the more comfortable position since its cornerstones—empiricism, pragmatism and the like—are convenient ideological supports of the capitalist global economy.  The anti-feudal (i.e., anti essentialist or anti-elitist) attacks on "Platoland," a red herring, only serve to support Walmart and the practical "philosophy" of today’s “populist” homme d'affaires.

Both of these strands are based on a theological model that construes humans as theological beings, “individual, rational, moral agents”, while nature is reduced to a set of urges or influences from which to purge oneself as far as is possible (whether or not it is still believed that nature, even the whole cosmos, was created exclusively for us.)  

What I think is really needed is a disposition of willingness to be at peace with nature—that we operate within, not above, the ecosphere.  We are part of nature, subject to its mysterious influences, with instincts and interrelations no one has bothered to investigate in the mainstream because science and social theory are still working within the set of assumptions of the theological model.

On Tribe and Discourse

Earlier blog entries in this space (Culture is Geologic [gone - eaten by former blog host], Tribalization and the Global Economy and Relativism [below], Populism and Power [also eaten]) expressed the view that industrialism, by disrupting awareness of a direct relation to nature, dislodged the web of discourse that integrated tribe and ecosystem and replaced the integrating mythos with a place holder that Lacan refered to as the Name-of-the-Father.  This place holder can now be filled, the sentiments of "tribe" artificially but all the more zealously aroused, by any number of banners.  One's sense of personal identity is wrapped up in some kind of tribal membership.
I say all the more zealously because in a globalized economy, tribal connections, especially among urban or modern people, are likely to be reaction formations to some degree.  Believers of myths today believe them literally and historically, rather than heuristically or metaphorically; fans idolize teams and do battle over loyalties; patriots die for nations that never supported them; gangs fight over territories; people are relieved to be identified as belonging to a market segment.  Reaction formation is characterized by overly intense beliefs; overly intense to sustain the lie to oneself.  
A little reflection and anyone can see that intense tribal loyalties are artificial yet deadly in a global economy.  The organic integrity of pre-literate tribes has long decayed, as we can see directly in the aboriginal peoples of the world whose ways have been sideswiped by globalization.  Today, the tribe as a social-psychological form is decadent.  A true way of renewal needs to be found. 

Tribalization and the Global Economy
Historically, tribe is a set of economic relationships between people that direct their relation to local nature; i.e., a socio-economic system.  An attendant mythology embedded in linguistic structures models the world for members of the tribe. The mythology institutionalizes kinship relations, the rites and rules of reproduction and life events in patriarchal terms.  Tribe is circumscribed by a set of proprieties and shameful transgressions (especially reproductive) that literally define its membership and its members’ sense of identity.

What happens to tribe in the global economy? 

In a global economy, the tribe resides in an alienated nostalgia.  There is an empty place-holder for what should be a meaningful socially-integrating force (that makes us feel at home in the world and explains our connection to nature in mythological terms), but the place-holder embodies the same amount of energy and urgency as any locally based socio-economic system.  In an unrooted global economic system, any banner can galvanize a group in the time it takes to score a goal , shout “death to infidels” or prefer one popular music genre over another.  Why?

Psychologist Jacques Lacan had the brilliance to realize three things:  One, that the sense of personal identity one has is necessary for basic sanity; Two, that this sense of identity does not self-subsist in individuals but is a product of one’s linguistic place in the patriarchal-tribal system of meanings; and Three, it is necessary for there to be an integrating but intrinsically undefinable locus of navigation to this system of meanings, which he facetiously but accurately called “the name of the father.”  So the answer to the question as to why tribe can galvanize with such astounding force is that a linguistic community is deeply necessary for sanity.  There are obvious exceptions, but unfortunately until Lacan is wrong, and Carol Gilligan is right … 

2016-06-08 Note: Name of the father "as the delegate and spokesperson of a body of social Law and convention", not the phallus as per Freud. There are probably better sources out there. I was reading Malcolm Bowie 11 years ago in 2005 if anyone's interested.