Sunday, March 26, 2017

Life as a Dream: The Secular Myth of Objective Truth

Art by Erik Johansson
Is life is but a dream, as the nineteenth century nursery rhyme assures us? Liberals, humanists, and naturalists insist that now more than ever, with the rise of fascism in Europe, Russia, and America; with the strange convergence of alt-right grievances with postmodern cynicism; and while demagogues, charlatans, and agnotologists in politics, advertising, and the corporate media are spreading doubt, spin, and propaganda, we should stand up for truth. However, this conflict between so-called rationalists or critical thinkers, on the one hand, and hillbillies and con artists, on the other, is a tempest in a teapot. Those who take the long view are invited to understand how truth died with God shortly after the Scientific Revolution, several centuries ago.

The concept of truth had already been suspect for millennia, when divine reality was thought to transcend human comprehension. What we took to be mundane, worldly truths, such as that the desert is hot during the day or that a normal human face has two eyes, a nose and a mouth, were mere illusions compared to mystical “truth,” the latter being ineffable and at best experienced as awe in moments of heightened awareness. Gods were only posited by our imagination, based on a lack of data (and on a noble lie developed by psychopathic power elites for the sake of pacifying the human herd of betas). Scientists collected the data, thanks to advances in technology, mathematics, and epistemology, and the gods were accordingly replaced with atoms and physical forces. Natural reality is measurable whereas the gods weren’t, but atoms and forces are likewise beyond our understanding in that they’re wildly counterintuitive.

The only thing we can fully understand is ourselves. Everything else must be simplified in the telling of them with concepts and models which idealize and which rest on falsifying metaphors that would humanize the inhuman. The proper subjects of knowledge are us and our societies; reason evolved to enable us to understand only minds and cultures with which we’re intimately familiar since we identify with them. The stories we tell about ourselves aren’t simplifications, since we’re identical with the subjects of those narratives, not with our brains as such. When we seek to understand the wider world, however, we either project human categories onto nature, as occurs in theistic religions and in folk conceptions, or else we effectively exchange the pursuit of truth with that of power.

In the epistemic context, anthropomorphism is philosophically unforgivable, however socially useful might be the gratuitous shrinking of outer reality so that it seems to fit within the human scale. Socrates sacrificed his life for the principle that truth matters more than our comfort. Instead of flattering ourselves with delusions that hold society together at the cost of confining us to an animal mode of life, we should search for a higher calling according to our position in the ultimate, metaphysical scheme. Unfortunately, Plato’s teleological picture of nature is a rehashing of the folk prejudices, losing the human interest of the transparent personifications in popular religion, in exchange for pseudoscientific respectability afforded by the philosophical discourse. Instead of angelic or monstrous spirits flitting about and deciding how events unfold, there are supposedly levels of being, including Forms and their material copies. In any case, scientific naturalism renders such interim philosophical tales obsolete. What isn’t well-appreciated, though, is that the very notion of truth is also outdated. 

Power and Truth, Measurement and Agreement

On the contrary, says the scientific realist as opposed to the pragmatist, science has proved a million truths, as can be seen from the power of the myriad applications of scientific theories. Functioning and indeed astonishing technologies stand all around us and that success would be impossible were there no systematic difference between scientific models and religious dogmas, for example. Indeed, there must be some such difference, but a scientific vindication of the commonsense concept of truth isn’t it.  

To be sure, we can try to make sense of the success of technoscience by positing happy semantic relations between natural facts and the symbols that scientists use to explain them. But that old-fashioned way of understanding where we are is awkward in light of the content of the scientific picture. Science shows us events occurring within or because of alien dimensions that we can measure and predict despite the stubborn fact that no one in the least understands those events. We can detect changes in the subatomic world, for example, and can take advantage of those forewarnings by devising models that work, in that their parts correlate with the facts, within the parameters that interest us. We can then exploit those correlations with machines that apply the lessons that are implicit in the models. But a scientific statement can be useful without being true. More precisely, the statement’s utility can be as mysterious as the inhuman reality of nature that scientists discovered to the detriment of all exoteric dogmas. We can say the theory is useful because it’s true, whereas a religious myth is false, but in light of the anti-human content of that very naturalistic theory, calling the theory merely true is itself dogmatic. Talk of truth now, after science has shown us the monstrous scale of the universe and the inhuman logic of quantum reality, is akin to chanting a mantra to ward off some fear.

But haven’t I just presupposed a truth, namely that the universe is very large rather than small? No, because the intuitive concept of size is meaningless for astronomical purposes. What does it mean to say that our universe is enormous if the whole of it may fit into what would seem to outsiders like a miniscule seed or near-singularity subsisting within a black hole embedded in a parent universe, as the physicists John Wheeler, Lee Smolin, and Nikodem Poplawski have theorized? Again, the concept of physical size makes sense in the context of measuring things that pop up in the field of ordinary human interaction. Thus, thousands of years ago, hunters would have called a bear large rather than small, to signal the urgency of the threat, and a baby is called small rather than large, in which case "large" connotes danger and “small” connotes helplessness and preciousness. Statements that employed such concepts were never merely true or false. Instead, the concepts comprise the mental HUD (heads up display) we developed (during what Yuval Harari calls the cognitive revolution, about 70,000 years ago) to interface with the environment after the perception of the latter has already been put together and pre-interpreted by the brain. And that evolutionary, biological story of how experience arises shouldn’t be thought of as true. Instead, that story is powerful, meaning that it achieves certain purposes. Likewise, religious narratives achieved alternative purposes. It’s just that we Western Faustians, as Oswald Spengler called us, care more about individual power than social harmony.

Take another example of scientific “truth”: global warming. Scientists agree that our planet is warming as a matter of fact, due largely to relatively recent human activities. We can model the mechanisms involved and can use the models to predict what will happen next if we respond this way or that to the threat. But is it true that the earth is warming? To say that this is true is to say that our concepts are adequate to the facts such that there’s a correspondence or agreement between the former and the latter. And that is a hangover piece of anthropocentrism. Far from there being an agreement between the neuronal firings in our head or a sequence of linguistic symbols, on the one hand, and the facts we’re supposed to be speaking about, on the other, our attempts to understand reality are laughably outmatched by nature’s alienness.

Again, what does it mean to say that the earth is warming, when the interval that interests us is trivial compared to the sun’s lifespan? Yes, the planet’s climate has changed from year to year over the last several decades (mere decades!), and the trend is toward greater warmth, but talking about warmth in relation to the sun is as absurd as saying that it would be a little chilly on Pluto. The concept of warmth is suited to the mundane discourse in which we compare fractional differences in comfort depending on whether we’re wearing a jacket made of polyester or one of leather. Talk of global warming isn’t adequate to the task, as is suggested by the film Sunshine, which depicts the sun as a majestic god that enraptures an unlucky astronaut before roasting his every atom. No, what we would need is a concept that grasps at an intuitive level the unimaginable timespans and temperature fluctuations involved in the sun’s relation to this planet. In the distant past, the Earth was much hotter, which allowed animals to grow to monstrous size. (And that evolutionary statement about the dinosaurs is also a gross simplification and thus isn’t well thought of as merely true, because our concept of life is laughably inadequate due to our ignorance of life’s relation to the universe as a whole.) Likewise, one day in the distant future the sun will engulf our planet in flames. But there’s no word that encompasses the wild variations in the sun’s overall relationship to Earth. So our focus on the years that concern us is as arbitrary as a mayfly’s noticing just the changes in its puny environment that affect its 24-hour life cycle.

It bears repeating that measuring isn’t the same as understanding. A measurement can be more or less accurate, but accuracy likewise isn’t the same as truth. If you’re aiming for the middle of a dart board and you hit that target, your throw measures up to the standard and achieves your goal, but that doesn’t mean the throw agrees with the middle of the board. The numerical values on a thermometer are as anthropocentric as the linear divisions on a dart board. The decimal system suits us because we have ten fingers and toes and we attribute superstitious importance to ten as a complete figure; for the same reason, we mourn a baby’s loss if it’s born with only nine digits. Moreover, arithmetic presupposes that members of a type are interchangeable or that the differences between them are negligible—which they may be, for our purposes. When the Nazis assigned numbers to Jewish prisoners in their concentration camps, Allied soldiers were horrified by the inhumanity, but when we hold out a thermometer to measure the temperature and the reading says 30 degrees Celsius for the second day in a row, no one’s offended by this neglect of the untold variations in the factors that determine those temperatures. If you pick three apples from a tree, and then three more from another tree, you ignore the differences between the trees, the apples, and the other parts of the orchard, because your concept apple already simplifies so that many different things can count as the same for your purposes, and all that matters at the moment is that you have two groups of three things. The groups are reduced to being the same in that abstract respect. But that abstraction isn’t natural, just as there’s no such thing as a perfectly round circle or straight line in nature. No two apples are exactly alike and no two environments or temporal slices of an environment are remotely the same despite their having the same temperature according to a device we set up out of self-interest.

If a mayfly could judge its environment, assigning categories and drawing distinctions, and its judgments enhanced its fitness or achieved its mayfly goals, we would say that its judgments are, at best, true for the mayfly. The mayfly’s model of the facts would be so primitive and shockingly ignorant, from our comparatively godlike perspective, that we could only condescend to that aquatic insect and regard its worldview as having mere subjective truth. But ideal subjectivity isn’t the same as semantic, objective truth. The latter kind of truth is the agreement between a set of symbols and a real state of affairs. For Kierkegaard, subjective truth is inner authenticity, meaning the choice of how to live that remains “true” to your inner being. This integrity or faithfulness to your private thoughts and feelings is obviously not the same as the relation of semantic correspondence. You can express your authentic self even in a hostile or indifferent world, in which case the feeling that some statement is true for you, in that it coheres with your inner identity, needn’t agree with anything outside yourself. On the contrary, subjective truth can be tragic in that there may be a palpable disharmony between the self and the facts, as the real world extinguishes the self and consigns it to oblivion.  

Natural and Artificial Languages: Tools for Different Purposes

You might be thinking that even if ordinary concepts from natural language don’t agree with reality, since they’re too self-serving, scientists use more precise, artificial languages, including arcane mathematical concepts that may indeed encompass nature’s strangeness. But an artificial language like physics or chemistry has as little to do with a natural one like English or Cantonese, as subjective truth has to do with the objective kind, with the alleged agreement between certain statements and facts. Natural language is a tool for facilitating social relationships and thus its concepts ooze with anthropocentric metaphors and projections. The point is to enable us to read each other’s minds or to manipulate each other so we might dominate a social hierarchy. By contrast, artificial language is a device for providing us with power over nature.

When we speak of size or of warmth, we’re expressing ourselves so that the standard ought to be Kierkegaard’s ideal of subjective authenticity. Instead, most of us are self-deluded and so we concoct various mesmerizing fictions, including Plato’s tale of universal teleology or the semantic conceit of truth as agreement between us and the world. We take the expression of our comfort, when we say we feel warm in this jacket, for a statement that has as its objective meaning that it somehow latches onto reality, that it captures or mirrors a fact. This notion of semantic truth made sense in our ancient animistic period when we personified the whole world, believing that living spirits were at the root of everything so that we could imagine our self-expressions did indeed reflect wider reality. But after science revealed nature’s monstrous complexity and its strange lifelessness, or its undeadness, our self-expressions are merely grotesque if we presuppose that they satisfy anything outside themselves, that at their best our statements harmonize with anything in nature we didn’t create.    

An artificial language, such as the math used in a physicist’s equations is a set of tools for measuring and predicting, not for understanding. There is no hope a person will understand anything in nature unless she becomes as alienated from all she holds dear as is the universe alien to her intuitions. To understand something is to grasp its meaning. Nature has no meaning. Meaning is a product typically of human foolishness, so we understand only ourselves and our cultures. The rest is fit only for power differentials and for edifying existential reactions such as angst, horror, and awe. A scientist’s technical, abstract concepts, then, are at best only foreshadows of the machines that will harness the part of natural reality which informed the scientist’s model. The technical concepts are part of the blueprint for the technology with which we try to gain a foothold in the inhuman outer world. We have indeed overpowered much of our planet, at least when our Faustian efforts are compared to those of other species, most of which we’ve decimated or enslaved. But the conceptual instruments we use to develop the weapons in our struggle against natural processes don’t agree with anything. Instead, these concepts are techniques for preparing for our conquest of the modeled part of nature. The equations and definitions and laws divide and conquer their subject matter, just as a scientist will lay an animal on the dissection table and measure its innards to perfect the model of that species. That model doesn’t allow us to understand the creatures we torture, enslave, or consume; the point instead is for us to dominate them as though we were gods. A diagram of the layout of an animal’s internal organs doesn’t agree with the biological reality. On the contrary, the diagram is convenient because it inevitably simplifies, leaving out details that don’t interest us. The diagram is suitable only for certain purposes and those purposes usually presuppose the ideal of human dominance of the planet.

Like an accurate measurement, a natural law will correlate with the facts, but correlations are cheap and they don’t add up to truth. A thermometer is a device that registers changes in the environment and displays them in a useful fashion. Instead of meaningful agreement, there's causality, a mechanism connecting the tool to some natural process. Likewise, Newton’s law that force equals mass times acceleration is an arrangement of technical concepts that puts us in contact with a certain natural order. If there’s a semantic relation involved, it’s adequate only for our parochial purpose of dominating natural territory like crazed apes running amok, wearing lab coats. We will likely all be dominated by nature in the end, when our species is extinguished and all traces of our accomplishments will be undone as the galaxy evolves as a whole. Thus, to speak of the truth even of a natural law is unbecoming. The law enables us to measure the course of stars and planets, and to reach the moon by spaceship, but we don’t thereby understand anything, nor is our attempt to overpower nature wise.

Our best statements aren’t true in the sense that they agree with what they’re supposed to be about. The statements afford us some ultimately meager power which nevertheless naturally corrupts us, since we’re animals and that vanity may be the mechanism by which the wilderness counts us as being unfit to endure the variations it’s bound to pursue according to its alien agenda, as it were. Our technological success tempts us to overstep the bounds of ethics, to presume we can be realists whose discourse is objectively valid, that science agrees with reality, that there are realities named by our symbols so that we’ve put our finger on the world once and for all, or that we’re progressing towards that end. Again, this is an embarrassing lapse for alleged naturalists and humanists. The problem is that the Scientific Revolution began with the Renaissance during which early modern Europeans became engrossed in their potential for progress. The early humanists were highly optimistic about the powers of reason. But humanism needn’t amount to childlike glee in our secular abilities. Indeed, humanists can be misanthropic: we can be students of human nature, dismissing dogmas which held us down, but lamenting our fate in the existential context. Late modern humanists should know better than to parrot the exoteric dogma of semantic truth or to fall for the myth-laden explanation of technoscience’s great successes. We succeed not because we agree with nature, but because we’re predatory and psychopathic enough to aim to dominate it, but are also hapless and deluded so that instead we'll all be crushed and Mother Nature won't even have broken a sweat.

If Life is a Dream, which makes for the Best Story?

Bury, then, the anthropocentric notion of objective truth, with the theistic fictions. But is there a more fitting way of speaking philosophically about how we best relate to the world, besides the humdrum business of pragmatism? Perhaps our thoughts and utterances aren’t just instruments, but artworks, and perhaps all of nature consists of things created and destroyed, as the field of becoming. This metaphysical picture shouldn’t be thought of as true or false, for the above reasons. Instead, think of it as a poetic bet that honours the power of technoscience while not indulging in any anthropocentric delusion. At a minimum, as Heraclitus said, things in nature come and go. We too came and will go. Things everywhere are created and destroyed. Our technologies are creations of clever mammals created by a planet created by a star created by gravity acting on a nebula that was created by atomic and subatomic shenanigans. This means that aesthetics should take priority over semantics when we evaluate our judgments. Our worldviews are creations made of ideas. They are all therefore fictional, and the fictions can be more or less useful for various purposes, which is where aesthetics meets with pragmatism. But it’s not just our worldviews, our models, theories, philosophies, and myths that are works of art. Our reactions to the world that add up to the themes of our life are also our handiworks. Moreover, our perception of the world is a figment of the brain that interprets the inputs of the five senses. Put all this together and life becomes very like a dream, like a play or set of scenes that seems normal when stitched together but that unfolds strangely when viewed from a critical distance.

As the philosopher Kant pointed out, we think we understand the world because we’re aware only of how the world seems to us as we help to shape it with our basic categories and sensory modes. Other species might bring different mindsets to the task of making sense of a reality that ultimately eludes all our grasps. Our perceptions are collective hallucinations; the transductions may be mechanically guaranteed, but the concepts and logic we use to understand the sights and sounds are evidently detached from reality and tainted by our complaisance. We judge the neo-fascists as dupes and trolls, and we presume we liberals and critical thinkers are superior since our worldview is reality-based while theirs is a set of memes spun by a propaganda machine such as Breitbart or Fox News. This division may work for partisan purposes, but not for philosophical or spiritual ones. Ultimately, we are all dupes and monsters. We are predators that pretend to be passive observers who know what’s happening in the real world. We’re playthings of unfathomable natural powers that squeeze us even when we applaud ourselves for seeming to dominate the wilderness with our toy machines. And the sign that a worldview is reality-based is that it drives the contemplator to awe and to terror, not that it motivates him or her to espouse any sentimental notion such as that we all have equal rights. We’re all perfectly equal only in sharing the fate of being worm food. That fate could inspire us just as easily to attempt to be freeloaders, as to having empathy with others. Considering that life is a joke and our so-called reality is a dream world conjured by the brain and by the egotism and shortsightedness that drive mass culture, we might just as easily decide to outcompete and dominate weaker, more deluded players than to pursue gentler, socialist causes.    

All this would be so were there no aesthetic standards in addition to the delusional ones of morality, mass religion, and partisan games. If life is a dream, the question is which lives provide for the best stories. Which fictions are best as works of art? The problem with Donald Trump, for example, isn’t that he’s a psycho clown. We’re all psycho clowns in having to read the tea leaves supplied by our brain, to make any sense of what turns out to be a wholly alien and monstrous wilderness from which we hide under the circus tents of our self-serving, typically-ludicrous cultures. No, the problem specifically with Trump is aesthetic: his lies are dull, because his vocabulary is literally childish. That’s it. That’s enough reason to dismiss his whole life and his claim on your attention. Trump is boring to connoisseurs with good taste in life-fictions.

You’ll say this can’t be so, since the spectacles of Trump’s power plays are evidently riveting in that they hold much of the world’s attention through the mass media. Trump does hold our attention—like a train wreck. We consume news of the neo-fascists by rubbernecking, as we use these particular clowns as canaries in the coal mine. We search for signs of our civilization’s downfall as we learn that we can be pitiful enough to fall for fascism even after the catastrophic ends of the totalitarian regimes of the last century. We have little historical memory, precisely because social media entrances us with spectacles of the moment. The internet was supposed to bring everyone together in common knowledge; instead, the net ghettoizes us as we settle into our sub-niches. And technoscience should have been powerful enough to inform us of certain elementary facts of our nature and our past, but we’re as easily fooled by demagogues as were the ancients who worshipped their rulers as divine.

The phenomenon of Trumpism is important and it deserves our attention, but Trump himself makes for a dismal story. However greater the stakes were in his life, as he reckoned with billions of dollars whereas most people deal only with thousands, his deeds were unheroic and so as a protagonist he doesn’t attract the well-read viewer’s attention. His life story isn’t a book we should want to read, because we shouldn’t want the catharsis we’d achieve by identifying with Trump as a character. True, Trump became president of the United States, which is ordinarily heroic, but if Trump burns down the government he’s supposed to lead, the way he burned down his companies and conned his previous partners and investors, he’ll have reduced the presidency to his tawdry level and so spoiled the genre of American politics. More precisely, he’ll have given the game away, revealing the conflict between the psychopathy of all American presidents and the equally cold-blooded group-think of the American deep state.

In any case, this is how we should begin to evaluate life. Instead of congratulating some lifestyles for being based on truth and reality, while condemning others as fraudulent, we should be searching for inspiration as artists and as consumers of life-as-quasi-art. Not all social constructions and fictions are equal, just because nature laughs in all their faces. Some tales are original while others are clich├ęd and hackneyed; some resonate with your emotions and so help you be subjectively true to your inner self, while others seem mean-spirited or otherwise small-minded and function more like traps than like opportunities for mind-expansion or for testing the merits of your thought palaces. Life is but a dream—and we should be thankful that we lack the vantage point for taking in the cosmic whole, that we must content ourselves with fantasies and games to distract us so that we needn’t continually ponder the absurdity of our existential situation. Thank the strange heavens for killing off the gods of our babyish religions and for awakening us to the embarrassment of that secular fairytale of objective truth

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