What is The Real?
I have been working on this piece for a little more than a month, since just after Christmas. What with one thing, and another, I kept refining it while, every week, it seemed more and more pertinent and timely. You see, we need to talk about ontology.
Ontology is an aspect of metaphysics, the word translating literally to “the study of what exists.” Connotatively, we might rather say, “trying to figure out what’s real.” Ontology necessarily intersects with studies of knowledge and studies of value, because in order to know what’s real you have to understand what tools you think are valid for gaining knowledge, and you have to know whether knowledge is even something you can attain, as such.
Take, for instance, the recent evolution of the catchphrase of “fake news,” the thinking behind it that allows people to call lies “alternative facts,” and the fact that all of these elements are already being rotated through several dimensions of meaning that those engaging in them don’t seem to notice. What I mean is that the inversion of the catchphrase “fake news” into a cipher for active confirmation bias was always going to happen. It and any consternation at it comprise a situation that is borne forth on a tide of intentional misunderstandings.
If you were using fake to mean, “actively mendacious; false; lies,” then there was a complex transformation happening here, that you didn’t get:
There are people who value the actively mendacious things you deemed “wrong”—by which you meant both “factually incorrect” and “morally reprehensible”—and they valued them on a nonrational, often actively a-rational level. By this, I mean both that they value the claims themselves, and that they have underlying values which cause them to make the claims. In this way, the claims both are valued and reinforce underlying values.
So when you called their values “fake news” and told them that “fake news” (again: their values) ruined the country, they—not to mention those actively preying on their a-rational valuation of those things—responded with “Nuh-uh! your values ruined the country! And that’s why we’re taking it back! MAGA! MAGA! Drumpfthulhu Fhtagn!”
Logo for the National Geographic Channel’s “IS IT REAL?” Many were concerned that NG Magazine were going to change their climate change coverage after they were bought by 21st Century Fox.
You see? They mean “fake news” along the same spectrum as they mean “Real America.” They mean that it “FEELS” “RIGHT,” not that it “IS” “FACT.”
Now, we shouldn’t forget that there’s always some measure of preference to how we determine what to believe. As John Flowers puts it, ‘Truth has always had an affective component to it: those things that we hold to be most “true” are those things that “fit” with our worldview or “feel” right, regardless of their factual veracity.
‘We’re just used to seeing this in cases of trauma, e.g.: “I don’t believe he’s dead,” despite being informed by a police officer.’
Which is precisely correct, and as such the idea that the affective might be the sole determinant is nearly incomprehensible to those of us who are used to thinking of facts as things that are verifiable by reference to externalities as well as values. At least, this is the case for those of us who even relativistically value anything at all. Because there’s also always the possibility that the engagement of meaning plays out in a nihilistic framework, in which we have neither factual knowledge nor moral foundation.
Epistemic Nihilism works like this: If we can’t ever truly know anything—that is, if factual knowledge is beyond us, even at the most basic “you are reading these words” kind of level—then there is no description of reality to be valued above any other, save what you desire at a given moment. This is also where nihilism and skepticism intersect. In both positions nothing is known, and it might be the case that nothing is knowable.
So, now, a lot has been written about not only the aforementioned “fake news,” but also its over-arching category of “post-truth,” said to be our present moment where people believe (or pretend to believe) in statements or feelings, independent of their truth value as facts. But these ideas are neither new nor unique. In fact, Simpsons Did It. More than that, though, people have always allowed their values to guide them to beliefs that contradict the broader social consensus, and others have always eschewed values entirely, for the sake of self-gratification. What might be new, right now, is the willfulness of these engagements, or perhaps their intersection. It might be the case that we haven’t before seen gleeful nihilism so forcefully become the rudder of gormless, value-driven decision-making.
Again, values are not bad, but when they sit unexamined and are the sole driver of decisions, they’re just another input variable to be gamed, by those of a mind to do so. People who believe that nothing is knowable and nothing matters will, at the absolute outside, seek their own amusement or power, though it may be said that nihilism in which one cares even about one’s own amusement is not genuine nihilism, but is rather “nihilism,” which is just relativism in a funny hat. Those who claim to value nothing may just be putting forward a front, or wearing a suit of armour in order to survive an environment where having your values known makes you a target.
If they act as though they believe there is no meaning, and no truth, then they can make you believe that they believe that nothing they do matters, and therefore there’s, no moral content to any action they take, and so no moral judgment can be made on them for it. In this case, convincing people to believe news stories they make up is in no way materially different from researching so-called facts and telling the rest of us that we should trust and believe them. And the first way’s also way easier. In fact, preying on gullible people and using their biases to make yourself some lulz, deflect people’s attention, and maybe even get some of those sweet online ad dollars? That’s just common sense.
There’s still some something to be investigated, here, in terms of what all of this does for reality as we understand and experience it. How what is meaningful, what is true, what is describable, and what is possible all intersect and create what is real. Because there is something real, here—not “objectively,” as that just lets you abdicate your responsibility for and to it, but perhaps intersubjectively. What that means is that we generate our reality together. We craft meaning and intention and ideas and the words to express them, together, and the value of those things and how they play out all sit at the place where multiple spheres of influence and existence come together, and interact.
To understand this, we’re going to need to talk about minds and phenomenological experience.
What is a Mind?
We have discussed before the idea that what an individual is and what they feel is not only shaped by their own experience of the world, but by the exterior forces of society and the expectations and beliefs of the other people with whom they interact. These social pressures shape and are shaped by all of the people engaged in them, and the experience of existence had by each member of the group will be different. That difference will range on a scale from “ever so slight” to “epochal and paradigmatic,” with the latter being able to spur massive misunderstandings and miscommunications.
In order to really dig into this, we’re going to need to spend some time thinking about language, minds, and capabilities.
Here’s an article that discusses the idea that you mind isn’t confined to your brain. This isn’t meant in a dualistic or spiritualistic sense, but as the fundamental idea that our minds are more akin to, say, an interdependent process that takes place via the interplay of bodies, environments, other people, and time, than they are to specifically-located events or things. The problem with this piece, as my friends Robin Zebrowski and John Flowers both note, is that it leaves out way too many thinkers. People like Andy Clark, David Chalmers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, John Dewey, and William James have all discussed something like this idea of a non-local or “extended” mind, and they are all greatly preceded by the fundamental construction of the Buddhist view of the self.
Within most schools of Buddhism, Anatta, or “no self” is how one refers to one’s indvidual nature. Anatta is rooted in the idea that there is no singular, “true” self. To vastly oversimplify, there is an concept known as “The Five Skandhas” or “aggregates.” These are the parts of yourself that are knowable and which you think of as permanent, and they are your:
Material Form (Body)
Feelings (Pleasure, Pain, Indifference)
Mental Formations (Thoughts)
Image of People In a Boat, from a Buddhist Wheel of Life.
Along with the skandhas, there are two main arguments that go into proving that you don’t have a self, known as “The Argument From Control” (1) and “The Argument from Impermanence” (2)
1) If you had a “true self,” it would be the thing in control of the whole of you, and since none of the skandhas is in complete control of the rest—and, in fact, all seem to have some measure of control over all—none of them is your “true self.”
2) If you had a “true self,” it would be the thing about you that was permanent and unchanging, and since none of the skandhas is permanent and unchanging—and, in fact, all seem to change in relation to each other—none of them is your “true self.”
The interplay between these two arguments also combines with an even more fundamental formulation: If only the observable parts of you are valid candidates for “true selfhood,” and if the skandhas are the only things about yourself that you can observe, and if none of the skandhas is your true self, then you have no true self.
Take a look at this section of “The Questions of King Milinda,” for a kind of play-by-play of these arguments in practice. (But also remember that Milinda was Menander, a man who was raised in the aftermath of Alexandrian Greece, and so he knew the works of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and more. So that use of the chariot metaphor isn’t an accident.)
We are an interplay of forces and names, habits and desires, and we draw a line around all of it, over and over again, and we call that thing around which we draw that line “us,” “me,” “this-not-that.” But the truth of us is far more complex than all of that. We minds in bodies and in the world in which we live and the world and relationships we create. All of which kind of puts paid to the idea that an octopus is like an alien to us because it thinks with its tentacles. We think with ours, too.
As always, my tendency is to play this forward a few years to make us a mirror via which to look back at ourselves: Combine this idea about the epistemic status of an intentionally restricted machine mind; with the StackGAN process, which does “Text to Photo-realistic Image Synthesis with Stacked Generative Adversarial Networks,” or, basically, you describe in basic English what you want to see and the system creates a novel output image of it; with this long read from NYT on “The Great AI Awakening.”
This last considers how Google arrived at the machine learning model it’s currently working with. The author, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, discusses the pitfalls of potentially programming biases into systems, but the whole piece displays a kind of… meta-bias? Wherein there is an underlying assumption that “philosophical questions” are, again, simply shorthand for “not practically important,” or “having no real-world applications,” even the author discusses ethics and phenomenology, and the nature of what makes a mind. In addition to that, there is a just startling lack of gender variation, within the piece.
Because asking the question, “How do the women in Silicon Valley remember that timeframe,” is likely to get you get you very different perspectives than what we’re presented with, here. What kind of ideas were had by members of marginalized groups, but were ignored or eternally back-burnered because of that marginalization? The people who lived and worked and tried to fit in and have their voices heard while not being a “natural” for the framework of that predominantly cis, straight, white, able-bodied (though the possibility of unassessed neuroatypicality is high), male culture will likely have different experience, different contextualizations, than those who do comprise the predominant culture. The experiences those marginalized persons share will not be exactly the same, but there will be a shared tone and tenor of their construction that will most certainly set itself apart from those of the perceived “norm.”
Everyone’s lived experience of identity will manifest differently, depending upon the socially constructed categories to which they belong, which means that even those of us who belong to one or more of the same socially constricted categories will not have exactly the same experience of them.
Living as a disabled woman, as a queer black man, as a trans lesbian, or any number of other identities will necessarily colour the nature of what you experience as true, because you will have access to ways of intersecting with the world that are not available to people who do not live as you live. If your experience of what is true differs, then this will have a direct impact on what you deem to be “real.”
At this point, you’re quite possibly thinking that I’ve undercut everything we discussed in the first section; that now I’m saying there isn’t anything real, and that’s it’s all subjective. But that’s not where we are. If you haven’t, yet, I suggest reading Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?“ for a bit on individually subjective phenomenological experience, and seeing what he thinks it does and proves. Long story short, there’s something it “is like” to exist as a bat, and even if you or I could put our minds in a bat body, we would not know what it’s like to “be” a bat. We’d know what it was like to be something that had been a human who had put its brain into a bat. The only way we’d ever know what it was like to be a bat would be to forget that we were human, and then “we” wouldn’t be the ones doing the knowing. (If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Witch books, in his Discworld series, think of the concept of Granny Weatherwax’s “Borrowing.”)
But what we’re talking about isn’t the purely relative and subjective. Look carefully at what we’ve discussed here: We’ve crafted a scenario in which identity and mind are co-created. The experience of who and what we are isn’t solely determined by our subjective valuation of it, but also by what others expect, what we learn to believe, and what we all, together, agree upon as meaningful and true and real. This is intersubjectivity. The elements of our constructions depend on each other to help determine each other, and the determinations we make for ourselves feed into the overarching pool of conceptual materials from which everyone else draws to make judgments about themselves, and the rest of our shared reality.
The Yellow Wallpaper
Looking at what we’ve woven, here, what we have is a process that must be undertaken before certain facts of existence can be known and understood (the experiential nature of learning and comprehension being something else that we can borrow from Buddhist thought). But it’s still the nature of such presentations to be taken up and imitated by those who want what they perceive as the benefits or credit of having done the work. Certain people will use the trappings and language by which we discuss and explore the constructed nature of identity, knowledge, and reality, without ever doing the actual exploration. They are not arguing in good faith. Their goal is not truly to further understanding, or to gain a comprehension of your perspective, but rather to make you concede the validity of theirs. They want to force you to give them a seat at the table, one which, once taken, they will use to loudly declaim to all attending that, for instance, certain types of people don’t deserve to live, by virtue of their genetics, or their socioeconomic status.
Many have learned to use the conceptual framework of social liberal post-structuralism in the same way that some viruses use the shells of their host’s cells: As armour and cover. By adopting the right words and phrases, they may attempt to say that they are “civilized” and “calm” and “rational,” but make no mistake, Nazis haven’t stopped trying to murder anyone they think of as less-than. They have only dressed their ideals up in the rhetoric of economics or social justice, so that they can claim that anyone who stands against them is the real monster. Incidentally, this tactic is also known to be used by abusers to justify their psychological or physical violence. They manipulate the presentation of experience so as to make it seem like resistance to their violence is somehow “just as bad” as their violence. When, otherwise, we’d just call it self-defense.
If someone deliberately games a system of social rules to create a win condition in which they get to do whatever the hell they want, that is not of the same epistemic, ontological, or teleological—meaning, nature, or purpose—let alone moral status as someone who is seeking to have other people in the world understand the differences of their particular lived experience so that they don’t die. The former is just a way of manipulating perceptions to create a sense that one is “playing fair” when what they’re actually doing is making other people waste so much of their time countenancing their bullshit enough to counter and disprove it that they can’t get any real work done.
In much the same way, there are also those who will pretend to believe that facts have no bearing, that there is neither intersubjective nor objective verification for everything from global temperature levels to how many people are standing around in a crowd. They’ll pretend this so that they can say what makes them feel powerful, safe, strong, in that moment, or to convince others that they are, or simply, again, because lying and bullshitting amuses them. And the longer you have to fight through their faux justification for their lies, the more likely you’re too exhausted or confused about what the original point was to do anything else.
Side-by-side comparison of President Obama’s first Inauguration (Left) and Donald Trump’s Inauguration (Right).
If we are going to maintain a sense of truth and claim that there are facts, then we must be very careful and precise about the ways in which we both define and deploy them. We have to be willing to use the interwoven tools and perspectives of facts and values, to tap into the intersubjectively created and sustained world around us. Because, while there is a case to be made that true knowledge is unattainable, and some may even try to extend that to say that any assertion is as good as any other, it’s not necessary that one understands what those words actually mean in order to use them as cover for their actions. One would just have to pretend well enough that people think it’s what they should be struggling against. And if someone can make people believe that, then they can do and say absolutely anything.
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And thank you.