MT, we started by talking about Plato, and you pondered what would happen if we stripped away our illusions. Would we end up as the Dalai Lama or as Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger? Would we spiral towards madness or find serenity?
So I pondered Plato. Reality is a manifold, with some layers more illusory than others. Plato found the sensory layer most illusory (as do the Buddhists I presume), but he didn’t see it in black and white terms (illusion bad, reality good). Even the sensory layer is an important first step, a pointer to the next layer, which then seems “real” to us until we get one step deeper, etc. MT, you’re becoming a Platonist despite your own resistance.
Note Plato’s assignment of sensory data to the lowest level (most illusory) of reality/truth seems to pit him against the empiricist epistemology that dominates our current Age of Science (late 17th century to present); however, one of the foremost thinkers of the emerging Age of Science, David Hume, who carried empiricism as far as it could logically go (much to the consternation and inspiration of Kant), concluded much the same – that following the truth of sensory data (empiricism) leads us to conclude that sensory data tells us nothing about the objective world “out there” but only tells us about the imprints some presumed world out there makes on our personal sensory registers. The only difference between Hume the empiricist and Plato the rationalist is that, after they’ve both deconstructed the idea of gaining knowledge about the world-as-it-really-is via sensory data, Plato seeks a deeper layer through rational inquiry while Hume says that’s the end of it and goes out for a pint and a game of backgammon (and my Scottish friends can take that as an insult or a compliment, as you will).
I like your Dalai Lama or Meursault reverie, but I’d go a step further and say that these are the utopic and dystopic outcomes, respectively, of stripping away our illusions.
Although at first glance it seems cute but false to say that madness equates to “stripped of illusions,” it seems believable when I think of illusions as filters. To lose all of your filters would seem a form of psychosis. Someone — was it Aldous Huxley in Doors of Perception? — suggested that consciousness itself evolved not as a way to increase access to the world but as a filter for limiting access to the world, for blocking all the “ambient noise” as it were, so we could focus on a smaller zone of input more efficiently. And if the Huxley/Doors reference is right, I think he went on to say that hallucinogenics remove filters, quite literally expanding the scope of consciousness (and he struggles with whether the output is more akin to psychosis or enlightenment).
For the psychosis side of the equation, see psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his sometime follower, Julia Kristeva. In my primitive understanding of Lacan, we pass through three “orders” in the formation of the psyche (or rather we build up three layers, like rings in a tree). The “real” order is the hidden kernel to which we have no analytical access. Like the noumenal world in Kant’s metaphysics, it is merely a logical assumption that we must make in order for later stages to make sense. We enter the “imaginary” order when we one day see ourselves in the mirror, so to speak (maybe around a year old), see an entity with clear boundaries, and come to imagine ourselves as separate individuals surrounded by external people and environments. Later, we enter the “symbolic” order with the formation of language skills. We begin to process the world through a symbolic overlay (e.g., the sound “tree” symbolically represents the concept “tree,” which isolates and defines a whole range of sensory inputs, the sound “me” represents…, etc.). We now define our personhood relative to that symbolic overlay. We have entered the symbolic order.
In trying to access the “real,” we can only “imagine” it as an undifferentiated flux, or conceptualize it via the symbolic order (as a logical presupposition, an object of psychoanalysis, etc.). Either way, our view is mediated through imaginary or symbolic orders – we have no direct, unmediated access.
Kristeva followed Lacan in theory and focused in practice on “borderline” patients, patients whom I think she found permanently stuck between imaginary and symbolic orders, with perhaps some tantalizing glimpses of the “real” (alas, I’ve lost my original notes on Kristeva and Lacan to Hurricane Katrina).
Back to Huxley’s inference about hallucinogenics, he might say that they strip away the layering of the symbolic order, the webs and webs we have thrown over the flux of original experience, dividing it up into regions we can name and render intelligible. If you strip away all that layering, all those illusions, and get back in some fashion to the lived experience of the “imaginary” order or even the “real,” is the result more akin to psychosis or enlightenment? I think Huxley tentatively concludes that it can give you isolated moments of personal enlightenment but that it is inconsistent with everyday life; it inhibits your ability to function successfully in the workaday, social world (which seems consonant with my personal LSD experiences). In other words, you can strip away the illusion and dip into those pre-symbolic levels of experience, but you have to come back up to sustain your everyday life, since the very enlightenment you feel on the personal level renders you psychotic relative to the social order within which you must live.
Then again, there’s always the Dalai Lama.
Prequel: Psychosis and Enlightenment
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Thanks for the follow up to our conversation. I think we are in agreement on many aspects except that I tend to think that our illusions are all pervasive and form part of an unacknowledged defensive shield, similar to our belief system (which may also be classified as an illusion) with which we face the world and organize it as we need to do to live. Even our dreams, where we are the hero, or the object of adoration, are part of that system. Life is brutal, ‘red in tooth and claw’ ,and I think we each develop our illusory system to deal (or not have to deal) with that naked brutality. Clearly there are some layers which we pile on that are more illusory than others, and I will concede that through a concerted effort we can discover those top layers, but I am not sure you can ever get down to a state of no illusions—to pure objective rationality. If such a thing existed and you did—or even if you got halfway there— than I think Chesteron is correct and you would be mad because all that you would be left with is reason. I think Chesterton wrote something like ‘madness is not the loss of reason, it is the loss of everything else except reason.’ (your analogy to filters is a good one except that I would add that defensive element whereas filters simply suggests, to me, something necessary to exist in polite society—-).
My reason for doubting that there is such a thing as objective pure reason, or that we can access it, is that our own reason, our own rationality (which you are relying upon to peel back the layers), is infected and compromised by our illusory system which we (unconsciously) create. Indeed, it may simply be an offshoot of that system. In the same way that our memories of shared experiences differ and differ because the memory itself serves a different purpose for each person. [Mannheim] That ‘purpose’ is tied to the system (belief or illusory) that we have created in a weal willed attempt to give our life “meaning.” (Perhaps besides avoiding the brutality of life the illusory system is also created in an attempt at meaning). So just like there is no pure memory of an event I doubt there is any pure rationality (at east not that is accessible) and if it is not accessible than it is essentially meaningless. Memory is not the only place we see these type of distortions from objectivity. Think also of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the entire scientific thesis that by the very act of observing we alter what is being observed. Likewise the human eye filters out most light. Single cell creatures experience the most unfiltered light. We think we are seeing light but we are only seeing a small percentage of the light that is being emitted.
But I remain intrigued by the topic and don’t wish to appear to be too pessimistic about your tainted thesis, which is an outgrowth of your own illusory/belief system (as is mine). Philosophically I think, like my narrator in Advancing on Chaos, that the philosophical goal is to take all the armor off and face the world without it. Drop the belief systems. Strip away the illusions. Face the world without either. “Resist not evil” as Jesus is purported to have said in the King James version of Matthew (Yea I know biblical quotes from an atheist–what’s wrong with this picture?) I am just not sure whether that takes me to madness or enlightenment and perhaps both are just words created by the larger illusory system of society. MT
Tone difference: You are the pessimist, always on the defensive, assuming that the world is so brutal that we wrap it in illusions in order to cope. This fits the Hobbes to Freud line. I see the world as more neutral. Good or bad, the only way we can render it intelligible is to impose our own subjective organizing webs (illusions, if you will) upon it. Indeed, from my less pessimistic (more Buddhist) perspective, the ubiquitous brutality you see is but one layer of the illusion.
Another tone difference: You think it impossible to cut through too many layers without going mad. I think it difficult but not impossible.
A more substantive difference: I don’t think you place reason into the picture correctly. I assume that your point is that seeing the world clearly would expose its full brutality and drive one insane with despair. This only follows if one assumes your premise that the world is unbearably brutal by nature. But the world exposes us to both joy and brutality, and reason is merely a tool for trying to maximize the one and minimize the other. (And Chesterton’s wit aside, the loss of the ability to reason is clearly a form of insanity.)
The question of whether there is pure reason seems a perverse question – sort of like asking if there is a pure hammer. Reason is a tool for navigating reality – Plato would say it can navigate us through all the illusions by a continual clarification; the Buddhists would say, I think, that reason can navigate several layers deep but on the path to enlightenment one eventually transcends reason because the layers of reality subject to rational inquiry only go so deep.
Or to put it into Lacan’s psychoanalytic terms, of course reason does not predate our entry into the symbolic order, so there is no “pure reason” in that sense. Reason as a tool emerges only after we’ve thrown at least some of those webs over the world to make it intelligible. So yes, I agree that reason is an “offshoot” of the system, one that helps us to navigate the world we have singly and jointly constructed. But I believe you leap from the absence of pure reason to a place where you are dangerously close to denying that some positions are more carefully reasoned out than others.
Really, I think the key point is your innate pessimism – most of our differences follow from that. Which leaves me a little baffled at your finale, where you seem to try (unsuccessfully I think) to both deny the grip of that pessimism and to advocate the stripping away of illusion, which by your own premises can lead only to madness and despair. So the ground you’re standing on still seems to be moving to me.
After 35+ years of friendship I don’t think I can quarrel with your observation that I am more pessimistic than you—and more belligerent. But I think you paint me into a corner that I did not intend. At first I thought we both agreed that we all live lives filled with illusions that we create. But your use of a different terminology—– “subjective organizing webs” (very post modern) instead of illusion (which you deferentially sigh to) —-suggests we are not speaking of the same things. You use a term that is purposely value neutral (to go with your neutral world); that does not seem to have any of the connotation of my use of the word illusions. So maybe we should back up.
Mark Twain: “Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”
The illusions to which I refer admittedly organize our world but they do so for certain needed purposes (which will vary slightly for each individual). Yes, I think one of those purposes is to avoid the naked brutality of the world as it really is (I admire your neutral view but do not find it corresponds to my experience). But I think it serves other purposes, including insulating ourselves from fears of failure, fear of death and other fears. (There are numerous studies now showing different ways the brain “fools” us to believe or do things that it thinks best for the overall system—think of the simplest example of repressed memories of childhood abuse) And the illusions also try to construct some sense of meaning as we build that illusory ‘self’. It is part of the defensive shield we create to face the world. Perhaps I misread your use of language but you don’t seem to attach any of these purposes to what you describe as “subjective organizing webs.”
Virginia Woolf: “Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others.”
So for me trying to strip away all the layers of illusions seems very difficult because it is part of a value/belief system intimately tied to our “self” definition that has been created for defense and for meaning. This difficulty is echoed by others concerning how people cling to things that give them comfort even in the face of contrary evidence: Aquinas notion of “cultivated ignorance” or Kierkegaard—I think its Kierkegaard’s —-notion of the “immediate men.” Most people, in other words, will stay in your Platonic cave.
Joseph Conrad: “The man who says that he has no illusions has at least that one.”
I cannot tell if you acknowledge that the existence of these illusions (or even your subjective organizing webs) compromises our reason. My point there is that because I believe it does, and does so in ways which we are not always aware, our reason may take us to a place where we think we have eliminated our illusions but actually has been thwarted by the very system it seeks to overthrow.
Dali Lama: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
I think Chesterton is on to something other than just being witty. I think if you were left only with unadulterated reason—with no emotion, with no sense of wonder etc, you would be mad. That does not mean, nor do I think he is suggesting, that is the only path to “madness.”
As far as my contradictory ending, I’ll stand pat. As the songwriter Danny O’Keefe wrote: “We all believe in something we cannot understand.” I think if you dropped all the belief systems, the armor, you would probably lose your “self”. And you would at the same time eliminate the societal deformity that I believe occurs to all of us. That seems a significant accomplishment to me. I will readily admit I have not succeeded at this venture. It is aspirational. You seem to center your argument that it is contradictory with what I have said about the possible connection between madness and eliminating all illusions. But that merely suggests that I should not advocate it out of fear of going mad. We are hypothesizing what occurs if you succeed in eliminating all illusions. Neither of us will succeed in this venture but I think it still worth the effort to try and to announce it as a goal.
Perhaps the rest of this debate should go to a coffee house (or not —your call) or if you wish I’ll wrestle you again and beat you as I did 30+ years ago (that’s my memory of it). Best, MT
Yes, Michael, I think we’re talking about two different things. I’m coming at it from the emotionally neutral epistemological side – how the brain renders the world comprehensible. You’re coming at it from the Freudian side – how we build up layers of defensive barriers, mazes, displacements, screen memories, etc., to obfuscate the emotional fears and traumas we cannot otherwise face. It’s quite possible that we are each correct within our scope — you on how the Freudian side works and I on how the epistemological side works. If by “illusion” you mean lies that we tell ourselves to obfuscate a truth we cannot face, you are right that “illusion” does not correspond to my “filters” or “webs.” Apples and oranges. “Illusion” may still be a good word choice for your zone of interest, as I believe “lies that we tell ourselves to obfuscate a truth we cannot face” is almost a textbook definition of “screen memories” as discussed by Freud.
I still think your pessimism is a good key to our philosophical differences. And I’m still uncomfortable with your original statement that “just like there is no pure memory of an event I doubt there is any pure rationality (at east not that is accessible) and if it is not accessible than it is essentially meaningless.” This seems to imply that since no one can reach a 100% rational (“purely disinterested,” Kant might say) standard, it is meaningless for us to try to be objective or to try to reason things out more thoroughly than the next person.
I’m still not sure of your goal. If to strip away illusion is to go mad, and you advocate trying to strip away illusion, are you recommending that we deliberately go mad? Or are you saying that by stripping away the illusion, we may EITHER go down (lose ourselves in madness) or go up (strip away our social deformities and become ourselves more authentically)?
BTW, your memory of that wrestling match is a good example of a “screen memory,” an illusion that masks or deflects attention from a truth you cannot face.
How would we discern pure memory or pure rationality from the adulterated sorts? Who can we escape the mire and draw another breath?
Hey, tools get dirty with use, and we continually have to wash off the gore. Show me a pristine hammer and I’ll show you a bad carpenter (whether pessimist, optimist or neutralist).
Ok so I think we have established that we are discussing two different things: illusions we subconsciously create and your “subjective organizing web” (“SOW”—nice acronym). I certainly agree that our brain organizes the world for us, and not just into recognizable categories like chair, house etc. It determines how we process “the world.” That organization is indeed “subjective” to use your term. It also organizes mine to be more skeptical (‘pessimistic’ you would say) than you. But that process (SOW) is influenced? created? by the very illusions I am discussing. I don’t know which is first—(chicken or egg) but clearly you must concede that your SOW does not operate in a vacuum and at a minimum is influenced by the person’s illusions? Indeed the SOW may simply be a shield for those illusions. I see the two going hand in hand. The old maid who believes that men are beasts cannot separate her SOW (which contains that view and all that flows from it) from the underlying illusions that created that perspective on men. (and more to the ultimate point, she may not know the genesis of that perspective because it was passed on to her by her mother who got it from her grandmother—family secrets)
This is relevant to me when we discuss pure rationality. I do not believe it exists or can exist because we have so many influences that corrupt our reason. It is corrupted by those illusions, of which we are mostly unaware; it is corrupted by your SOW—after all you did not call it OOW (“Objective Organizing Web”); it is corrupted by our ego. Indeed, you cite your arguments affinity with Buddhist positions earlier, but Buddhists believe that the self is an illusion. If the self is an illusion which part of your illusory self is reaching that pure rationality?
But oddly, for you, you take my rejection of pure rationality as a rejection of reason in its entirety(I’m the one who usually goes to such extremes not you). Reason, as best we can use it, is useful. But it is neither infallible nor objective. This is especially true when we are trying to reason about ourselves and our own motivation; which we would be doing if we were trying to unravel our illusions or your SOW. So I see reason as a tool (Chris’ good term). But I also think we pretend that it is more useful than it always is—just like we pretend that we always have free will. Doesn’t Kant say something like this? And that need to “pretend” (my word) is part of your and my SOW/illusory system.
So where does that leave us? We use our reason as best we can to peel back the layers of illusion we have created and to overthrow the SOW. We will not succeed. But it is worth the effort because, at least for me, the journey is about trying to understand who I am—be it an entire illusion of a partial one. Better to go down swinging. For me it is also about trying to throw off the deformities of society (which in some cases are linked to those illusions). “No God No Masters” as Bakunin wrote. You seem puzzled that I would advocate this if the result could be madness. But I think it is Camus who, writing about Kierkegaard, accused him of eating from the “roses of illusion” when he made a leap of faith (to God and Christianity) because he could not handle where his logic had taken him. I’ll stand with Camus. There is too much at stake individually to not try. And if it be madness so be it.
In that regard here is an old story. I seem to recall a fellow in the mid 70’s with the nickname of the goat-roper (Gary for those who do not know) who when asked by some your chickie about the difference between genius and madness said something like: “It is a thin line, and I am that line.” MTT
I’m playing Kant’s role here. He’s not so interested (as Freud or Marx or Darwin might be) in the genesis of these things, just in the logic. The subjective organizing web (SOW) is a logical prerequisite to comprehension. “Raw” experience is a constant bombardment of unrelated sensory data. How do you put it together into usable chunks? How do you even match the “red” input of an apple to the tactile input? There must be a subjective organizing principle if the (presumably) objective data are to make sense. Let’s call that sorting mechanism “reason” (or you can elaborate a little further and include “space” and “time” as subjective categories we use to sort the otherwise meaningless flow of input).
Critiques of Kant are predictable. Marxists claim that his view of human understanding and subjectivity are too ahistorical. Human nature and “subjectivity” change with material conditions. Psychoanalytic critics say what you’re saying – that the clutter of layered traumas and compensatory illusions make it impossible to talk about SOWs in the abstract, as Kant does.
The Kantian might counter that we are simply abstracting different views of lived reality for study – applying different but equally valid kinds of x-rays to the beast. The Marxist rightly sees lived reality as a function of historical flow and conditions, the Freudian rightly sees lived reality as a function of all the layers of illusion and defense an individual has personally built up over a lifetime, and Kant abstracts how the logic works – for sensory data to be intelligible logically requires an ordering mechanism, which logically requires … (ad infinitum in Kant).
As far as the role of reason in your view, I thought you had argued that it was “meaningless” because hopelessly obfuscated by personal defensive illusions. You now say it “cannot be objective,” but you must mean (since you say you are not going to extremes) that there are gradations of objectivity and reason can get us partway there (but never all the way). You do admit that our own Platonic dialogues with Chris, et al, brings us to a perspective larger than our own personal illusions, right? Reasoned thought can allow us to see a subject from multiple perspectives and not just our own and therefore give a more generally (though not universally) valid perspective, right? I believe you agree here (not sure), because otherwise what’s the point of discussion, or of forming or reading reasoned arguments, at all?
(None of this makes it any more true or false that in some of their forms, genius and madness overlap.)
You twisted my words. Must be part of your SOW. I said that I doubted there was pure rationality and that even if there was, that it was accessible and if not accessible it was meaningless.
“I had no peer, if to my self I were true
Because I am not so, diverse times I do rue.”
~ Andrew Boorde (from Introduction of Knowledge, circa 1545)
An impressive dialog, gentlemen! And an excellent demonstration of the manifold tools we humans develop as we wend along in Life. These tools, including reason, illusion, desire and fear, consist of every granule of mind we can bring to bear, either consciously or unconsciously, on the continual questions we ask in our respective visits to the House of Being.
We will only put away our tools when they are no longer needed.
” if thou want’st a cord, the smallest thread
That ever spider twisted from her womb
will serve to strangle thee…”
~ Shakespeare (from King John)
OK, Chris and Mike. I’ll take the bait. Maybe I’m a naive Platonist, but I think we can use reason to get closer to an “objective” or disinterested position. This is surely the first premise of Plato’s dialogues — that attention to the laws of logic and careful reasoning/dialectic can enable us to remove some of the clutter of our biases and see things from a point of view that is more generally valid. Of course we never reach rational omniscience, but if we didn’t believe that we could use reason and logic to gain some measure of greater objectivity in our view of things, I don’t think any of us would read any philosophy … or science … or anything other than that which reinforces our prejudices. At least, I believe every philosopher that ever put pen to page implicitly believed that careful reasoning can get you somewhere beyond myopic self-serving views. And if you two are disputing this, as it seems to me you are, then I’ll place my bets on the pantheon of philosophers against you two.
Just reread this one—I think it is the latest. I agree with you that reason can move us along some ways. I am not rejecting it out of hand, but I am putting limits on it, which I think you acknowledge in the response above. But I once again state that when it comes to unraveling ourselves (the illusions/SOW)—which is what we are discussing—the path is obscure and we do not know how corrupted our reason is when we turn it on ourselves.
So here is a distinction which I hope has merit to make my point. A further drilling down if you will. I think reason can tell me, and be pretty objective in doing so, that I should not drive a nail into my foot as it will be very painful. No argument from me there. But if the question is, for example, why one believes they should only be in relationships where there is unconditional love (just a hypothetical mind you) then I think the road to causation is obscure because there are any number of illusions and or SOW implications that will interfere.
Having said that, for my own part, what I have learned over the years is that if I am trying to understand a behavior—–let’s say that I always get mad at my wife when she cooks broccoli—–once I have come to a conclusion on the genesis of my behavior (using my reason) I generally own it and can modify the behavior. That does not mean, however, that my conclusion is objectively correct. I may decide after careful thought that it is because of a dream I had in which I saw Gary dressed as broccoli dancing with a mushroom. The truth, however, may be that my father beat me with a broom shaped like a broccoli when I was a child , but my brain is not going to let me go there and relive that memory. So I hope I am being clear. I am not rejecting reason out of hand (as you want to accuse me of doing). It is useful and can be used, But again when the subject is ourselves it is often, if not always, compromised. We will still use it and probably accept the results (otherwise it would be difficult to function) but I do not accept its objective accuracy as you seemed initially willing to do. MTT
Yes, reasoning can clarify which propositions about the world are true and which are false. Reasoning can help us achieve a more (albeit imperfect) objective viewpoint (if by “objective” we mean transcending the biases of individual self-interest). Reasoning about the genesis of our own behaviors is much trickier, full of our own trap doors and deflections. We still have to do it though, because the alternative – abandoning reason in the quest for self-knowledge – is an even worse option. I think we pretty much agree at this point.
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