Friday, April 22, 2011

Materialists aren't materialists.

We don't live in a "materialist" society.  The prevailing views about what's real in the world are not based on a materialist philosophy, but on an inverted kind of transcendence, the decaying legacy of an ancient metaphorical, conceptual separation of heaven and earth. (This separation has evolved over history, but I'm starting with its most recent incarnation.)

So, what is inverted transcendence? Think of it this way. Since ancient times, we have believed that the most knowable is the most real. The most profound way we have of knowing our world comes through the use of concepts and mathematics. Concepts and mathematical relationships describing nature are idealizations of patterns of regularity that we find in nature. 

To get objective about nature, we have to arrange it so it fits our conceptual and mathematical tools, our idealizations of it. This has proven very successful in areas where researchers can control and eliminate local contingencies to get to the universally constant laws (such as laws of motion.) This is what allows people to build reliable machines. However, not all of nature is amenable to this approach to research (unless you think that nature is "nothing but" particles in motion; i.e., unless you privilege that one scale of things and stamp it with the label, Reality, and talk of building blocks, putting the methodological cart firmly before the ontological horse as is the wont of reductionists...) 

Nature is not just particles in motion, it exists on many scales - it is ecosystems, tectonic plates smashing together, the act of breathing, rustling leaves, strange creatures swimming by vents in the ocean floor, reproducing, etc.  These things have power to make changes in the world. Not all causality occurs at the level of sub atomic particles. 

One cannot locate and eliminate local contingencies and make rigorously controlled experiments when studying human behaviour and other phenomena. All natural phenomena are complex.  Human beings reduce natural phenomena to idealized mathematical objects, quantities and relations - particles in motion governed by natural laws. 

So, from a scientific perspective, the matter we call objective reality is a conceptually reduced scale of existence - a useful idealization. Note the absence of any value ideal in those mathematical idealizations, though. Nature, as seen through the reductionist lens, has no purpose. So what are we transcending with our idealizations of matter? Our vitality? Our lived experiences? Our woes and joys? Certainly there is joy in the act of genuine discovery, but that's peripheral to the reductionistic project. More and more people talk of the next stage of evolution as a cyborg society, to my mind a symptom of the nihilism in the project. Even basic drive is purpose. Even this nihilism is purpose.

So what is inverted transcendence, as distinguished from materialism? Painted in an extreme kind of way, I'd say an inverted transcendence is one which focuses on reduced idealized matter, not on nature, and has as its point the reduction and idealization of nature, and the subjection of our human interests and cares to that model.  Or perhaps I could put it this way: Heaven and earth became separated and nature was reduced to an idealized inert matter. It was virginalized. Next, heaven was eliminated from the picture of how the world is,  leaving us with laws of nature or what Sheldrake calls "the ghost of the god of the world machine." (Have a listen to Minute 13:30 to 15:30 of his CBC podcast. I'm deeply skeptical of many of Sheldrake's explanations, but like his questions.)

Having shied from understanding material nature in its richness, we're not really asking or learning about ourselves in a way that situates us in nature, where we might gather the learning we need to adjust and make the right decisions. There is a loss of meaning. Meanwhile, we're inundated with products. We're all dressed up with nowhere to go, except to an ecological tipping point.

I don't think the solution to this strange nihilism is to reinstate some kind of theological or platonic heaven but to heal the split and come back to earth. To do that, we need to find a new way of looking at matter, while questioning what it is we wish to transcend.

Matter is not inert.




Monday, April 18, 2011

Why this blog?

This blog is called "Art of Objectivity" because I don't think objectivity has a formula or methodological foundation. When I first read the article (included in the sidebar) by Eugene Wigner, a physicist,  I was struck by his saying that it is not the application of some principle, template, formula or algorithm, but rather, "the skill and ingenuity" of an experimenter, which allows him or her to identify objects of study whose causes can be identified and reproduced.  I think this could be expanded (with some major caveats, to be introduced later) to say that human beings can learn to identify themes and recurring patterns, and with caution, use them to navigate their way in nature and in the world of politics, and they do so best, not by relying on some kind of "best practice" or pure unbiased methodology (whatever that would be) but by applying their care and concern, interest and curiosity, wisdom and intelligence to problem solving.  This is a dignified approach to learning.

With that in mind, I can explain why I'm writing this blog. I'm thinking aloud about the way we come to understand our relationship to nature. There have been countless stories about this over milennia and its countless civilizations.

The stories that we tell come to us from different dimensions of existence: myths and religions, the political sphere, the world of academics (both the sciences and humanities) and its tribal schisms, even today the world of image and advertising.

Anthropologists, psychoanalysts, analytical psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and historians all have commented on our ideas about ourselves in the world.  It seems to me, though, that we haven't really come to the right questions to ask, because we insulate ourselves in our anthropomorphic bubbles - those stories either scientific, religious or political, that continue to make some aspect of humanity the key to our eternal rightness and well-being in a world that we are supposed to transcend, one way or another. We believe we transcend nature because we're mostly rational beings (we're not, of course) or beings for whom nature itself was created (it wasn't) or beings who are enlightened, modern, no longer superstitious and "primitive" or primordial.

My take is that we're products of nature, we live in nature, we are hominids, mammals, vertebrates, etc., and we, like other animals, have instincts. To come to an understanding of our relationship to the world, we need to question and understand our deepest instincts about it.

I work from the hypothesis that human instincts unconsciously anchor the relationships between the available technology , the work we do gathering what we need from nature, our economic and social roles in the distribution of what we gather, and the power structures that emerge from that dynamic.  We have deeply embedded scripts around these relationships and these contribute to a profound sense of belonging. I would say these stories have a scent that connects and grounds us (well or ill.) Our instincts occur to us in ritual and symbology, ranging from the most solemn (e.g., rituals of birth, marriage, death) to the most power entrenching (i.e., attaining the throne) to the most rousing (e.g., sports), to the superficial (Tim Horton's vis a vis the Canadian national identity and other well-merchandised rituals of a consumer economy. )

So, in future entries, what I'm going to try to do is spell out our stories of our relation to nature and how they sustain our social and political roles. (This has implications for change management, as well.)