Sunday, August 12, 2018

Eldritch Revelations: Why Truth is Never Personal

[In his published monograph, Eldritch Revelations, the psychiatrist of the infamous thinker Jurgen Schulz wrote that only short fragments of Schulz’s philosophical journal survived his escape from Borsa Castle. But following the psychiatrist’s mysterious death shortly after publication, longer fragments were discovered in his office, locked in a drawer. Here is another of those longer fragments, which the publisher has recently had translated.]
When I’m me, I can only think I know the truth. When I’m me, my thoughts are swaddled in background assumptions and feelings. The rising tide of those meta-thoughts lends associative meaning to the thoughts that occupy my full attention. When I wonder whether some notion is really true, my reflections are motivated by the notion’s weightiness that’s sustained by its connotations, by the relevance of the lessons I draw from my memories. That background knowledge, in turn, amounts to my personal identity. Thus, when I identify with the contents of my mind, when I take for granted the importance of “my” thoughts and feelings which I don’t exactly possess, but which I can nevertheless distance “myself” from in a way that’s yet to be determined, the truth of any of my ideas is largely a matter of the idea’s coherence within my worldview. The idea will seem true if it fits into the world picture I’ve been building, which picture is the mental home I bring with me wherever I go. Imagine a crab stripped of its shell, rendered naked in the ocean’s oppressive vastness. My mind is my true home, furnished as I like it, with my comforting interpretations of everything I’ve ever thought or done that I can recall, and it’s furnished to protect me from feeling cognitive dissonance, embarrassment, or any other discomfort. I feel good about myself, because the self I live with is the mind that shelters me from the storm of alien reality.

The truth of my thoughts, therefore, is largely subjective: the thoughts are true for me in that they’re dependent on my background conceptions which are included in the full content of whatever I’m thinking or intending, which content no one else can share because everyone’s mental home is unique to their experience. That subjective kind of truth isn’t really truth at all; it’s fitness, coherence, or comfort level; it’s the degree of probability that’s just the thought’s familiarity to my way of conceiving of things. When I’m me, when I’m at home in the mental repository that my life built, when I’m ensconced in my mind, I can only think my thoughts are true or false, because to that extent they can be true only for me or, more generally, for the society of which I’m a part.

In addition to coherence, subjective pseudo-truth is effectiveness. My thoughts enable me to act efficiently in the world, because my thoughts and plans have some degree of inductive strength, based as they are on my past successes and failures. Thus, you might say if you believe it’s nighttime and the hour for you to go to sleep, your belief is true because your belief increases your chance of succeeding: if you act on that belief about the time of day, you’ll go to bed at the right time rather than staying up all night and being tired during the workday. But effectiveness isn’t the same as truth. Truth depends on the meaning of our symbols, so you might still question your belief about nighttime, by asking what you mean by “nighttime” and “sleep.” Are your conceptions of those things narrow-minded? Do the concepts of which your belief consists express only your individual experience or the collective experience of your cultural or biological kind, and if so, why think that those concepts are adequate to the ultimate reality of nighttime or sleep? Our mental powers may enable us to succeed in our interactions with the world, according to the conventional understanding—but to succeed at doing what exactly? At “going to sleep”? And what is it really to go to sleep, in the long view of the geological or galactic timescale in which our personal experience and the entire history of our species are insignificant? That long view escapes us in so far as we’re persons beholden to our mental safety nets. 

What, then, is it to know that a thought is really true? Or is there any such thing as objective truth? Is “truth” itself a parochial notion—and is that very self-effacing statement likewise an inconsequential human expression? One pathway lies open to us, to burn down our mental homes, as it were, so that we might view the world as newborn consciousness. Alas, the price of alienated awareness, the awareness that’s divorced from the background concepts and feelings and memories that make up the mind and personality couldn’t understand anything it perceived. This is because understanding requires the use of conceptions and interpretations that in turn rest on enculturation and the trials and errors of personal experience. Even should the mystic succeed in killing her ego, as the Buddhist might put it, her thoughts would be neither true nor false. When the mind is shut down and a ghostly pseudo-thought nevertheless somehow flickers into being, as the zombified mystic encounters the world with no attachment to her background experience, that pseudo-thought would be like the tide accidentally arranging seashells on a beach to spell out a statement. The seashell statement would be unintended and meaningless. 

Perhaps, though, we needn’t slay our ego, but can temporarily step outside our mental homes to gain a wider perspective. We can entertain the meta-thought that personal and collective knowledge and practices are almost arbitrary as far as nature is broadly concerned. That antihuman notion would be the sole, slender bridge between mind and reality, like the string Theseus held to avoid losing himself in the Labyrinth. We could think of the world ironically, only semi-intending the thoughts that come to us. It would be as if we added to our mental home a tree house that we access by walking a tightrope between an upper-floor window and the tree. From the tree house we can see our entire mind, as it were, while still keeping our distance from it, and from that state of humility we can take up the inhuman, cosmic perspective.

What would it mean to think, then, from that perspective that it’s nighttime and thus time to go to sleep? No new information would be added to the thought, no supernatural revelation that nighttime is really something other than how the scientist or commonsense conceives of it. All that would be added is the suspicion that would likewise taint all our beliefs: we don’t really know anything. After all, the cosmos has no perspective, so our attempt to think of ourselves as nature as a whole does is yet another human game, the pretense that by transcending ourselves we acquire a higher self. Knowledge is something that limited creatures have, so if we become something other than such creatures or we manage to distance our awareness from our mind or narrative self, we no longer have any knowledge. We would continue to act and to communicate, while realizing that everything we do is at some level absurd.

This isn’t to say the alienated awareness would be left with nothing at all to remind her of that trip across the tightrope. Instead of higher-level representational knowledge, she’d have the anxiety, horror, awe and sadness that define the trauma of being an instance of impersonal consciousness in the wasteland of mindless nature. On the contrary, mystics speak of their bliss or tranquility, because they claim to identify with the whole of reality and thus have nothing to fear. They thus presume to know what the whole of interconnected reality is, which is preposterous. Assuming that the only conceptions with which we can understand something are the limited ones we bracket in our moments of existential alienation, and that there’s no divine revelation from on high, what we encounter when we detach our consciousness from our mind is the unknown, that being naturally the greatest source of fear. We’re free then to scrutinize nature from an aesthetic stance, but we shouldn’t mislead ourselves or others into thinking that alienated awareness knows more about the world than do scientists or common folk. What distinguishes the perception of nature that isn’t accompanied by confidence in the perception’s background knowledge is a mixture of fear and sadness: fear of the unknown and sadness because the human race is to nowhere and for nothing.

This debilitating doubt, this token of alienation is the essence of objective truth. Truth that isn’t a naive projection of self-confidence is just a sense of horror or some such feeling of revulsion rather than any coherent thought or statement. This feeling can darken our minds, in which case we can imagine our mental homes are haunted. We can even seem then to be possessed like a prophet or a puppet of a supernatural power, as though we were channeling an off-world design. But in the end the horror and the sadness are modes of self-destruction. The enlightened introvert who withdraws from the world and from parts of herself sees through the illusion of human knowledge and “truth,” but that’s all she thereby learns alone in the tree house of meta-reflection: that as persons who are attached to ourselves we’re puffed up by pretensions that death perfectly undermines. At most, the horrified, enlightened soul can play in the aesthetic dimension, appreciating life as a comedy of errors and marveling at nature’s monstrous creativity. But there will be no truth in those rarefied pastimes except for the fear and sadness that the natural universe deserves from those philosophers who know they know nothing. People in the conventional sense are fooled by their self-centeredness into thinking they know what’s true. Enlightened creatures who make a habit of thinking impersonally or objectively, who thus lose touch with their mind and society are afflicted with “the Truth” that no one wants. The horror, disgust, and sadness that make up that Truth come from no one, from nature’s impersonality, and they’re received by no one, by alienated consciousness.

1 comment:

  1. Another brilliant piece of prose, Ben. Thanks for your articles.