Realism Isn’t What It Used To Be

Realism Isn’t What It Used To Be August 8, 2018

Reality check: The world does not exist!

Realism used to be the conventional corner of analytic philosophy where thinkers argued about the prospects for and problems with reality. What can we say is real? Is there a mind-independent reality, separate from the conceptual schemes we use to study and define it?

The Truth About Realism

As a card-carrying social constructivist, I’ve always looked at such questions wearing a pragmatist’s sneer. What’s the point of making pronouncements about reality, says the constructivist, when the only ways we can apprehend it depend on the methods of inquiry we’ve devised? Why assume we can talk about reality without acknowledging the linguistic structures that mediate our understanding of it? In other words, how do you know you’re looking at reality?

Well, the speculative realists are slapping my sneering face with new ways to conceptualize ontological questions. Hey, isn’t that at least something science fans can admire them for?

The way the new realists define people like me is as correlationists. They’re very right to say I don’t think it’s meaningful to talk about the world without the human, or the human without the world; but this primal correlation is about all I can say about the matter. The new realists mock this wishy-washy pragmatism as “idealism with a realist mask” and declare that we can, in fact, talk about what reality is independent of human modes of inquiry.

Reality Without Humanity

The new realists refute correlationism with the help of a very useful proof-of-concept device, one that should be familiar and comforting to the science fan: fossils of extinct organisms. What better way to illustrate a world divorced from human consciousness than with ancient organisms, who existed, truly existed, in a biosphere where they were untouched by human inquiry and undefined by human conceptual constructs? The speculative realists conceptualize scientific research as a reliable way of accessing reality, but (especially when it comes to natural history) they point out that reality is all about becoming rather than being. Ontology, according to speculative realist nabob Quentin Meillasoux, is not about what is but what may be.

So if this attempt to square the circle has your head spinning, you’re not alone. (I recommend Peter Gratton’s Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects as an introduction to the strange new world of the speculative realists.) It seems the new realists try to solve Kant’s dilemma concerning the difference between the way objects are and the way they appear to us by claiming that we can know reality in-itself, even from our perspective. If even Meillasoux admits that reality at its base is chaos in flux, then what exactly is realism showing us?

One thing that makes me uneasy about the speculative realists is their frequent anti-humanism. I get that it’s incumbent upon them to describe a reality outside our forms of understanding it, but rhetoric like The world can do without humanity not only smacks of scientific nihilism, it’s also beside the point: aren’t we and our creations part of reality too?

Why The World Does Not Exist

Markus Gabriel is the most prominent of the new realists, a terrific and engaging writer who cites Larry David as often as Kant and a very clear-eyed guide through the weeds of speculative realism. His take on realism acknowledges the socially-constructed nature of our knowledge but denies that we’re by definition excluded from knowing reality in-itself. Why The World Does Not Exist is his manifesto, and it’s a refreshingly readable and jargon-free exposition of his line of thinking.

His theory is that what’s real isn’t objects but contexts: when we place something in a field of sense, according to Gabriel, that’s what constitutes its reality. Therefore, as he points out, even things like witches and unicorns are part of reality because they appear in fictional or legendary contexts; the “world,” however, has no more reality than a square circle because it refers to a totality that is self-negating.

And the “world” is a problem for religion and science alike. If there’s no unified, eternal, unchanging and God-ordained reality, then there’s no all-encompassing scientific Truth either: the totality of atoms in the physical universe doesn’t exhaust reality, and the facts of reality—about language, art, and civic phenomena—are just as real as scientific data points, they just inhabit a different field of sense. This new way of thinking, he insists, is not abstruse but liberatory:

An important step for humanity is we really have to give up the idea that all things are connected. Some things are connected, and some things are not. We have to give up the idea that there is an overall structure which already settles things. And if we give up the idea, we also have a chance of reconsidering the option that we’re really the free, autonomous human beings that we think we are. We’re not determined by an overall structure behind our backs. It’s neither God nor the universe, it’s us. And that means in that sense we’re alone. But the way we’re alone is we’re alone with infinite possibilities worth exploring.

What do you think? Is realism just self-evidently true, or are there factors that compromise our ability to know what’s real? Does speculative realism make sense, or is it an attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together again after his postmodern plummet?

 

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  • Kevin K

    …then there’s no all-encompassing scientific Truth either: the totality of atoms in the physical universe doesn’t exhaust reality, and the facts of reality—about language, art, and civic phenomena—are just as real as scientific data points, they just inhabit a different field of sense.

    I sense a strawman being built. Language is an emergent property of things with vocal cords. Art is an emergent property of things with brains. Civic “phenomena” are emergent properties of things with large small brains who wear MAGA hats (as an example). All of those things … and pretty much any other phenomenon you care to list … can indeed be described as scientific “data points”, as categorical variables if nothing else.

  • All of those things … and pretty much any other phenomenon you care to list … can indeed be described as scientific “data points”

    If you didn’t exist, I swear, I would have had to invent you.

  • Kevin K

    Prove me wrong. Name something you consider “real” that a scientist would declare cannot be described or categorized.

    Merely listing those things creates a data set of categorical variables. You’re doomed before you start.

  • Talk about a straw man.

    No one said that the English word “prone,” or Beethoven’s Fifth, or the civic entity the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, are somehow beyond description or categorization. I’m not saying they’re mystical or supernatural phenomena. Of course facts can be brought to bear on them. It’s just that they’re not scientific matters in the same way that planets and microbes are.

  • Kevin K

    Nice moving the goalposts.

    We went from describing whether things were real (and therefore amenable to being described in empirical terms) to whether they were scientific matters. Which I suppose means people in lab coats and shit.

    If you weren’t real, I’d have to invent you.

  • I consider those things I listed in my previous emails real. So do you. So does Markus Gabriel, and everybody else.

    But they aren’t just scientific data points, which is how you described “any phenomenon you care to list” in your first email.

  • Kevin K

    You have an extremely narrow conception of what a scientific data point is. I’ll leave it at that.

  • Fair enough. I’m still trying to get over “Art is an emergent property of things with brains.”

    Whew.

  • Anthrotheist

    I guess I am a bit too pragmatic to get too worked up about whether we can really know reality, or only really know our perspective-dependent subjective mental construction of reality.

    From what I could glean from the linked video, Gabriel appears to be making two (at least) assertions: first, concepts are real, and therefore concepts are included in the category of “facts.” Second, facts are not absolute descriptors, but are instead comparisons that are to varying degrees judged subjectively (he calls it contextual). He seems to be making the argument that the pursuit of a unifying fact about reality — that is a single descriptor that can encompass all other facts — is impossible; given that he defines “the world” as being that descriptor, he claims that the world cannot exist (for a variety of reasons, only one or two of which he presents). I think I see where he is coming from, but I’m not sure I apprehend why he feels this view is revolutionary. If anything, he appears to be making an argument for being mindful of the scope of your existence: yes, there are countless spacial/temporal objects and phenomena that exist throughout the universe right now, but that is not part of your reality. Your reality is the web of intersections between you and the objects/concepts that are affecting you and are affected by you. It’s funny, but more than anything I am reminded of Taoism, and the state of being fully present in the here-and-now; yes, thoughts and concepts are real, but they are only relevant to your reality insofar as they intersect meaningfully with the rest of the objects/concepts in your vicinity — so stop acting like pointless thoughts in your head are somehow more real than your wife or child sitting across the dinner table from you (as an example).

    But what is the practical takeaway? Seeing the world personally-relative-contextually-intersected-aggregation through this perspective doesn’t seem to me to change anything about how one would participate in daily life (besides perhaps being far more tediously specific in how they communicate). We still talk about things that aren’t spacial/temporal objects; listen to almost any conversation (I remember hearing someone say — though now it seems a bit more condescending than I felt at the time — that “simple people talk about things, ordinary people talk about people, and extraordinary people talk about ideas”; but even talking about things or people involves continually invoking conceptual matters). And as far as “worldviews” being responses to people’s fears about living in a nihilistically disconnected (and presumably indifferent) universe, all Gabriel appears to be offering is “yes that’s true, but now you are free to do all kinds of things that the universe won’t care about, and which won’t even really exist in any meaningful way outside of your very limited scope of influence”. Like that wasn’t true before.

  • Kevin K

    What else would it be?

  • I guess I am a bit too pragmatic to get too worked up about whether we can really know reality, or only really know our perspective-dependent subjective mental construction of reality.

    As I said, I’m not sure why it’s so important (or whether it’s even possible) to establish what exists independently of human conceptual schemes. But Gabriel is walking the walk, I have to admit. He’s not just saying —as I’ve heard countless science fans say— that anything scientifically detectable is real and everything else is “made up stuff.” Human creations and other socially constructed phenomena are objectively real too.

    And as far as “worldviews” being responses to people’s fears about living in a nihilistically disconnected (and presumably indifferent) universe, all Gabriel appears to be offering is “yes that’s true, but now you are free to do all kinds of things that the universe won’t care about, and which won’t even really exist in any meaningful way outside of your very limited scope of influence”. Like that wasn’t true before.

    Well, yeah, but plenty of people deny that it’s true. Religious people talk about God being the great totality, the embodiment of reality, authority, and morality. Science fans talk about the universe being our “cold home,” because we’re supposedly so insignificant in the grand scheme of things; our modes of inquiry are supposed to provide us with a true and complete description of everything. But these systems are just attempts to circumscribe possibility, to impose order on the chaos of reality rather than taking it on its own terms.

  • Anthrotheist

    “…plenty of people deny that it’s true.”

    I guess I didn’t really see anything in Gabriel’s presentation that gave any reason why someone who make such a denial to change their tune. “Reality does not exist” isn’t much of an inroad to “God doesn’t exist” or even much toward “science can never fully explain reality.” It ends up seeming to me like if a person is inclined toward philosophical musing, then this is an interesting line of thinking to consider; to anyone else, it appears to be exactly what philosophy is so often pigeonholed as being: woolly-headed navel-gazing.

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the presentation and the ideas that he offered. But I already knew that playing with ideas has always been my favorite hobby, just as I knew that it isn’t for most people.

  • It’s hilarious that you type with your fingers Art is an emergent property of things with brains, and then expect me to think that this fatuous deepity explains something essential about art. It’s as if you think that using science-words magically puts things like words, music, and civic entities in the same object domain as empirical data points.

    Truly hilarious.

  • I guess I didn’t really see anything in Gabriel’s presentation that gave any reason why someone who make such a denial to change their tune.

    I don’t think his aim is to change anyone’s mind, especially not the Scripturebots and doctrinaire science fans. But he isn’t saying “Reality does not exist,” he’s explicitly saying that what we consider reality is a lot more complicated and contextual than we assume. It’s just that the Absolutes and the Theories of Everything are misguided ways of thinking about reality, ways that derive from our fear of randomness.

    From Why The World Does Not Exist:

    [W]e have placed science in the position of guaranteeing the rationality of the social order. However, in this way we excessively overburden it. For no scientific investigation will ever be able to free us from having to renegotiate the rules by which we live together in order, hopefully, to place them on a more rational foundation. We need constantly to change the various social orders in which we take part in order to adjust them in light of discoveries, changing value systems, etc. We can only hope that this process is governed by some actual rationality, but this specifically presupposes a form of new realism—that is, the idea that we humans are capable of finding out what is the case about us. Our thoughts, values, minds, beliefs, hopes, pains, and fears have to be treated as realities as worthwhile as such denizens of reality as elementary particles, galaxies, gravity, and forests. The contemporary fetishizing of science contributes to a situation wherein we project our desire for order and our representations onto a council of alleged experts, who are supposed to relieve us of the burden of having to decide how we ought to live.

  • Philosophy or Theology has nothing at all to say about reality or actual existence. The only discipline that does is quantum field theory. It defines existence in terms of its properties and behavior. Do not confuse existence with consciousness; they are completely independent of each other. There is existence without people, and existence knows nothing or cares nothing about consciousness.

  • I imagine he was assuming that people who like talking about ideas could connect the dots between “thing with a brain” with “pattern-matching thing” to “pattern-seeking thing” to “pattern-creating thing” without his being tedious and explicit about those connections.

    How tedious and explicit one must be is a function of a person’s esteem of their audience.

  • Well said. Hey!

    I realize it sounds like I’m averse to playing endless rounds of Six Degrees of Irritating Literalism, where we connect any concept back to a scientific data point: “The meaning of words in the English language is something understood by humans, and humans are made of cells, and cells are scientific data points!” I’m just a tiddly-winks kind of guy, as you know.

  • Philosophy or Theology has nothing at all to say about reality or actual existence.

    No one here’s pushing theology, that’s for sure. But I dispute your claim that philosophy doesn’t tell us about reality. When philosophers discuss existence or knowledge, or perception or consciousness, or free will or ethics, they’re talking about real things, aren’t they? If they don’t say anything that interests you, that’s your prerogative. But dismissing philosophy out of hand is a little premature.

    Modern physics is a for-us-by-us construct that relies on plenty of the same philosophical assumptions as any other mode of inquiry. I’m not disputing anything physicists say, I’m just pointing out that the way they define existence is extremely theory-dependent. If you want to insist that’s “how reality is,” that’s your prerogative too.

  • ” I’m just pointing out that the way they define existence is extremely theory-dependent.”
    So here we have another person that does not understand the word theory. SMH
    Please go away.

  • You know me, Shem, always trying to skirt the morass and find cleaner, more evident paths around the sucking pit. From an atheist perspective, I worry about these views of reality that seem even more contingent than the more mundane, pedestrian reality that makes practical sense to me (I walk into a stone wall, I know it’s real and it’s there, regardless if my private perceptions make it darker or rougher or a slightly different hue than the next guy’s). I notice that gods have never been produced in reality and rationally conclude their probability is almost if not nonexistent. So if everything becomes subjective there are no guide wires, which allows folks to deem their random biases as good as objective facts, as alternate realities without the stabilizing rules of truth. That’s exactly what Christian apologists do — evoke nonexistent entities that give them a pass on having to deal honestly with problems in the material environment where we all reside. To say that the world doesn’t exist but unicorns do is just inconsequential wordplay.

  • Illithid

    “…even things like witches and unicorns are part of reality because they appear in fictional or legendary contexts…”

    Well, there are real witches; I’ve met some. That aside, perhaps it’d be more accurate to say that the concept of a unicorn is part of reality. The idea exists as a shared mental construct even if the creature does not.

    I take it as a working assumption that there is an objective reality, though I cannot directly access it. I sometimes say that I know only two things with certainty: an entity that calls itself “Illithid” exists, and this entity experiences sensory stimuli that have not yet been demonstrated to conflict with the possibility of an external reality.

  • Please go away.

    Right back atcha, V.

  • I see your point, Rick, but I don’t think Markus Gabriel is being abstruse or irrational. He’s not saying everything is “subjective.” He’s trying to make it clear that culturally-constructed things like language and art and society are part of objective reality too. He’s trying to put humanity back into what we conceive as reality. I always hear science fans making what they think is a valid distinction between things that can be detected by science on the one hand and “made up stuff” on the other. But the meaning of the word “prone,” the character Hamlet in the play Hamlet, and the borders of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—even though they’re human creations—aren’t just matters of opinion. They’re not “subjective.” If I say “prone” means “sweet-smelling,” or if I say the character Hamlet is a lizard, or if I say my Massachusetts apartment is in Connecticut, I’m objectively wrong.

    Gabriel isn’t saying nothing exists, either. He’s saying that “the world” is just our secular shorthand for the absolute, an object domain that contains everything. It’s a fiction that we’ve created for the same reason that religious people created God: it’s all about authority, conformity of opinion, and imposing order on phenomena out of the fear of randomness. He’s not opposed to science, he’s just warning against fetishizing science by making it a surrogate religion, the Answer for Everything.

    Not for nothing, but that seems to be your constant complaint about people: not necessarily their discriminatory behavior, but their unverifiable beliefs. If we’re sincere about having to deal honestly with the problems our society faces, maybe we have to acknowledge that we don’t have a monopoly on reality.

  • As I mentioned to Rick, I don’t think Gabriel is trying to say objective reality doesn’t exist; what he’s saying is that there are plenty of things that aren’t empirical or spatio-temporal that are part of objective reality too.

  • Phil

    I’m pink therefore I’m Spam

  • Shem, I find the new realist perspective to be seductive.

    but i will not be seduced, and you can stop trying. hahaha

    > His theory is that what’s real isn’t objects but contexts: when we place something in a field of sense, according to Gabriel, that’s what constitutes its reality. Therefore, as he points out, even things like witches and unicorns are part of reality because they appear in fictional or legendary contexts; the “world,” however, has no more reality than a square circle because it refers to a totality that is self-negating.

    Everything is possible until it isn’t. Including unicorns. =)

  • I see the world and human experience of it as separate and independent realms. No matter the many nuanced ways people may experience and think about their worldly environment, our planet retains its qualities of solidness and goes about its revolving, orbiting business, which can all be confirmed in tactile existence. In other words, material world has its own existence independent of our perceptions of it. And I think we need to mightily try to remember that as we get tangled up in a web of imaginings, sensory perceptions and biases that can greatly overcomplicate reality for us. I am viscerally opposed to trying to make the physical world somehow a dependent feature of human consciousness that makes its reality contingent in a way on human experience. If I suddenly desire a beautiful woman and irrationally think it’s fate, think that we’re soulmates and we’ll be happy together forever, I need to able to talk myself down, to realize its just endless eons of evolution that has made the atoms in my body coalesce in such a way as to make this sensation happen to help ensure the propagation of my species. Through it all, the unfeeling, unavoidable material world remains what it is, no matter what our perceptions of it seem to imply. Unlike soulmateness, the existence of the world is always manifest. The “world” as humans might experience, is a whole other “place.”

  • I find the new realist perspective to be seductive.

    but i will not be seduced, and you can stop trying. hahaha

    I’m only human.

  • > I’m only human.

    LIES!

    *adjusts foil hat*

  • I see the world and human experience of it as separate and independent realms.

    For the sake of argument I’ll agree with you, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Human creations and socially constructed phenomena aren’t just perceptions, they’re part of objective reality. Things like language and cultural identities and artistic traditions don’t have the solidness that our planet does. Nonetheless, these things are part of reality.

    That’s why Markus Gabriel is going to such lengths to differentiate between fields of sense. We can’t just throw everything into some catch-all object domain where existence depends on physical solidity, we need to acknowledge that plenty of things we consider real aren’t physical.

    I’m sorry if this represents a loophole for your fundie foes. The only alternative is that you deny that our language and culture even exist. Let’s be reasonable.

  • where did you get this unauthorized surveillance footage of me?

  • I do not have to go away. What I wrote is actually true and evidence based. What you wrote is simply the same old tired opinions of men that have been reworked for centuries and has never led anywhere or done anything to actually answer the question about the actual nature of existence or reality.
    Existence, reality, are quantum energy fields. ALL things that exist are composed of these fields and that includes empty space which exists. I have a few good questions for you. Have you ever heard of the large hadron collide located at CERN Switzerland? What is it? Why was it built? and what does it do? If you answer these questions with the correct answer you might determine what I am talking about and make the realization of what you are talking about.

  • I thought you were going away.

    See ya.

  • It is the arrogance of expertise to assume because a term is used in one’s own discipline one way, it is used the same way in all other disciplines.

  • I agree that solidity isn’t the be-all end-all of reality, but, to my mind it’s the most important and the one aspect through which everything else must comply in some way. For example, two material human beings are one reality that exists (in a “sense”) regardless of what’s going on in their heads, although that’s a peripheral function of their solid existence. So the’re lust, love, compassion, imagination are peripheral to and fundamentally informed by the fact that their bodies exist and are constantly affected by the material laws of nature. So, to my mind, there is primary material existence from which everything flows and secondary peripheral features of solid reality. The peripheral stuff, like fear and longing, appears to play out in far less predictable ways than material laws, but I think that’s just because we don’t yet comprehensively understand it. You’re right that societies to be healthy need to be in a continuous state of reinvention as they evolve, as do people. But nature is what it is.When it transforms, it’s inevitable, unlike when morality transforms. Of course, it’s all opinion. 😉

  • Yes, I agree with this.

  • As you already know, Shem, I see science as being able in some way to describe everything, but as more and more of the smaller elements of our being (atoms, electrons, DNA) affect our immediate lives if far less accessible and knowable at present than the meta aspects of reality such as the predictable movements of planets. But, if had a full understanding, I believe — as with everything else we’re learning — a physical explanation of everything from sexual attraction to belief in divinities would clarify. Although I believe in free will, I also realize there’s a huge amount of subconscious and unconscious stuff going on in our brains that have important effects. But I also believe we can transcend much of that with conscious focus and reason. It ain’t easy, though, especially in our abject ignorance about so many things.

  • “Art is an emergent property of things with brains.”

    Still makes sense to me.

  • “the “world,” however, has no more reality than a square circle because it refers to a totality that is self-negating. … Everything is possible until it isn’t. Including unicorns.”

    It makes far more sense to me to say, “We should assume everything that seems impossible isn’t until it’s demonstrated that it is.” That way we save a whole lot of time not chasing after vanishingly improbable chimera.” That’s what divinities are to me. It seems far far more imperative to chase after things with a much much higher chance of existence, like a cure for cancer or better understanding human behavior.

  • some of us won’t be satisfied with chasing the mundane.

    besides a lot of really great stuff came from the folks that refused to accept that.

  • One could say that EVERYTHING that exists is in some sense empirically accessible and spatio-temporal, even what drives homicidal maniacs. And my fascination with giraffes.

  • One could say that EVERYTHING that exists is in some sense empirically accessible and spatio-temporal

    But my point is that one couldn’t say that at all. Words, and the meanings we ascribe to them, have no physical or empirical properties. We don’t access them through scientific inquiry.

  • Yes, by all means, people interested in that kind of thing should chase after unicorns. I wish them well finding any. But, for me, there are far more plausible and potentially beneficial things to pursue. Life is short.

  • too short to limit myself to the mundane. too short to avoid pushing the envelope, certainly.

    too short to only follow well worn paths.

  • “In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. One contains constrained bodies that fall slowly, the other pendulums that repeat their motions again and again. In one, solutions are compounds, in the other mixtures. One is embedded in a flat, the other in a curved, matrix of space. Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction. Again, that is not to say they can see anything they please. Both are looking at the world, and what they look at has not changed. But in some areas they see different things, and they see them in different relations one to the other. That is why a law that cannot even be demonstrated to one group of scientists may occasionally seem intuitively obvious to another. Equally, it is why, before they can hope to communicate fully, one group or the other must experience the conversion that we have been calling a paradigm shift. Just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience. Like the gestalt switch, it must occur all at once (though not necessarily in an instant) or not at all.”

    —Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 150

  • yes yes yes to this.

    that’s why i’ve said the highest form of argumentation is reconciling two positions – when possible, and it’s a lot more possible than we usually like to admit.

  • I agree that solidity isn’t the be-all end-all of reality, but, to my mind it’s the most important and the one aspect through which everything else must comply in some way.

    But since plenty of real things have no physical solidity, what does that do to your way of thinking? It seems as if everyone else has to examine their mindset for consistency and coherence, but if there are problems with ours, we just handwave them away.

  • I’m not saying those more speculative and novel paths aren’t ever useful. I’m saying there are many more urgent issues to address. Like the perpetual crime of allowing American kids to be legally indoctrinated in religious superstitions.

  • > Like the perpetual crime of allowing American kids to be legally indoctrinated in religious superstitions.

    So now you want raise other people’s kids?

    And furthermore, this is your urgent issue?

    I can think of 100 things more worrisome than this without even trying.

  • I think the endless perpetuation of religion is a catastrophe for civilization in the continuing damage it broadly inflicts on humanity. And without a steady supply of indoctrinated children, it would likely wither. So, yes, it’s urgent. And yes, as we have laws against other forms of child abuse, I believe we should have laws against this form. Parents are not infallible.

  • i can think of myriad of ways kids are destructively indoctrinated, more pervasive, and at least as dangerous as any zealot.

    Teaching kids to be good little ignorant consumer drones in public schools.

    Flag and nation worship.

    The constant barrage of marketers crapping the heads of everyone.

    The underlying zeitgeist of a degenerate and brutally expansionist culture being promoted every time one turns on a television.

    This nation isn’t a christian nation. and the folks in it largely aren’t swayed by religion, but pride and arrogance and the belief that they are always right and if you don’t believe it you’re not a real citizen. Some couch it in religion. Many don’t even bother.

    There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

    – Isaac Asimov, Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)

  • Societies are held together by indoctrination. i’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s nigh inevitable because we’re social animals, and we form tribes, and beliefs around those tribes.

    your complaint seems to be more about preferring certain forms of indoctrination to others.

  • My sense is that religion is at the root of our biases, the cause of them over long centuries of social habit. Yes, all the things you mention are concerning but, in my view, peripheral in importance to the thrall to gods. The anti-intellectualism to which Asimov refers is a direct response to the religious absolutism and hatred of reason that started probably even long before Augustine.

  • nah.

    a. bias is universal. all “unbiased” simply means is “more biased toward something i agree with”

    b. religion didn’t start the fire. religion is an excuse. people are ultimately savage and arrogant, with occasional moments of clarity and charity. religion isn’t responsible for that. human desire and animal law is.

  • Such a nihilist view. In many ways, I think we can “rise above” human nature (as Audrey Hepburn’s character said in “The African Queen”) if we’re mindful and disciplined enough. We can often deny our worst impulses. I don’t buy that we’re just a piece of inert driftwood in the ocean, pushed around by the will of the sea. I think you may be wrong about religion. I think it’s “responsible” for a lot more than we imagine. Certainly, our DNA makes us fluent in imagining chimera, but religion turbo-charges it and implies it’s real, and cements disfunctional societies around its myths.

  • I think of “bias” as just a tendency peculiar to ourselves that may or may not be rational or constructive. It is not necessarily judgmental toward other people’s biases, just different. But because our peculiar biases can be prejudicial against others, we need to be mindful of them and try to overcome or ignore them as necessary to make more thoughtful, reasonable, empathetic decisions.

  • I can only speak for myself, Rick, but I hear you making a lot of claims about human nature that aren’t terribly consistent. Do you feel human nature is inherently selfish and violent, but that we can rise above our natures through reason? Do you feel that we’re naturally tolerant and rational, but religion messed us all up?

    Personally, I’m not very optimistic about the perfectability of humanity or society. I don’t think there are peaceful, tolerant people inside ISIS terrorists or right-wing paranoiacs waiting to be released. I don’t think our civilization represents a steady progression toward freedom, equality and peace. And I think reason is just another tool we use to validate and reinforce what we already believe, rather than to critically examine it.

  • Hey, Shem. For what it’s worth, I think it’s important to be consistent and try hard to be. If I find I’m not, I try to recalibrate my thinking. That said, here’s my answer to your question, and please let me know if it still seems inconsistent. I think human nature is inherently mixed and complex, with awful, sublime and indifferent impulses all vying for our attention. My philosophy (casual, small “p”) is to try to do what Hippocrates recommended for physicians: first, do no harm. That’s it. I believe human beings have the capacity (more in some than others) to “rise above” their baser instincts to do less harm to others than they might if they just instinctively responded like automatons to the the fight-or-flight firings in their brain stems. Of course, I’m a realist in that I realize many if not most people have a whole lot of trouble quieting their instincts and thinking rationally in their DNA fogs. But many people frequently (if not always) can. So that’s the goal. I also believe that through natural evolution Homo sapiens has developed social coping mechanisms, like kindness, compassion and altruism, that give most of us a least some natural capacity to transcend our reptilian impulses at least sometimes. I don’t know if I believe humankind is not progressing in capacities for goodness; I see some evidence that it is advancing in that way. History in the past seems to have generally been far more red in tooth and claw than it is now, more generally susceptible to depravity. But, with history, you’re often guessing. I actually believe we have the inherent capacity (in varying degrees), to paraphrase Aristotle, to “entertain an idea without accepting it.” Reason, to my mind, is what that process is about — synthesizing the real, the semi-real and the surreal to come closest to determining what actually exists. And, as you already know about me, I see only the brain itself (not thoughts) and everything external to it and material as existing. Thoughts are just emanations of the brain, but if tied materially to the substantive world, they can sometimes be imperfectly manifested in material reality. Like that spaceship that recently left our solar system and is now zooming far into deep space. That is a flight of fancy made real. So, I’m optimistic about mankind’s potential but saddened by how slowly we seem to be moving toward it. But then I see daily acts of kindness everywhere and am encouraged anew. I realize one of my “biases” is somewhat of a Pollyanna or Anne Frank tendency to think that the vast majority of people are essentially good at heart. And I actually see “evidence” of that. So sue me. 😉 Always nice to exchange views with you, Shem.

  • blogcom

    Too many stuck in the matrix that’s your answer.