What is Truth? Science, Identity, and Imagination

During a stout and whiskey session with one of my regular interlocutors, JV, the kind of session where you push each other through various adversarial positions on philosophy and politics, the inevitable question came up: What is truth?

At that juncture in the floating debate, JV was in the pure science posture and the question was thrown at me. How can I assign any truth value to mythological systems (including religious ones) that have no scientific basis? And if I persist in such foolishness, how can I turn around and defend science against its contemporary critics from the Right (of the anti-evolution, climate denier sort) and from the Left (the “you don’t know my truth” identity politics that rejects the universals of science and reason and shared humaness, and indeed anything science might say that is politically unsavory at the moment, as vestiges of a racist patriarchy)?

To which I pled guilty on all three counts – the defense of mythological systems against science-based attacks, the defense of science against attacks from today’s political Right and Left, and, most boldly, claiming no contradiction to my impromptu epistemological system.

On the first count, I believe reality is more than just a collection of objects in this space we call the universe. Sure, that’s a big part of it, but lived reality is more complicated – at a minimum we can say it includes objective and subjective aspects. Science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and that there is nothing else to our lived experience. I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons.

It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

Imagine we’ve isolated the electronic arc in the brain that corresponds to falling in love. Turns out, every time someone falls in love, electricity fires across this arc. Now we open someone’s brain and you see the arc. Which is more “real”? The subjective feeling you got when you fell in love or the electrical arc in the localized time-space of a certain lobe of the brain? It seems to me that the scientist observing the arc may have her finger on an objective correlative to the feeling of falling in love, but it is still just an objective correlative. She can use it to study “being in love” and get information about it, but “being in love” is now being viewed “from the outside.” We have shifted the interface. We are now working from the vantage point of the “objective” abstraction of reality and see the objective aspects of being in love. This may prove a very useful study, but it will never, no matter how many studies you do and no matter how subtle your analysis of the arc becomes, it will never give you the actual feeling of being in love. This feeling is by nature out of scope for an analytical tool that evolved to express information about the objective aspect of reality.

The scientist gives us truths about the objective world, but the great mythological systems offer “truths” about lived experience that fall outside the scope of science. I put “truths” in quotes to avoid confusion. Myths do NOT give us scientific truths and indeed are often demonstrably false from a scientific perspective. I am not saying that they can compete with science on its own turf. No, when it comes to explaining the physical world, science rules. But “truths” about lived reality can be found in Greek mythology (for example) nonetheless. Indeed, the narrow definition of “truth” in the sense of scientific fact has only become the dominant sense in the past few hundred years. For most of pre-Enlightenment history, the pursuit of such truth about the physical world was a mere sidebar to the study of what were perceived as deeper inquiries into spiritual and intellectual truths.

In saying that science rules in determining truths about the physical world but that a broader sense of “truth” is needed to get at lived reality in its fullness, I have already segued to the second charge against me. How can I defend science against today’s critics from the political Right and Left? The defense against the Right is easy. Evolution and climate change are physical world studies. To claim, e.g., that the Bible has equal stature to science in studying the objective mechanisms of the physical world implies a gross misunderstanding of the difference between physical reality and lived reality, between the two senses of truth (the narrow sense, wherein science rules, and the broad sense, which concerns lived reality more broadly). Whether you agree with me or not, it is easy to synchronize this defense of science against the political Right with my defense of the great mythological systems. My defense of those systems in no way suggests that they be called upon to provide factual data about the physical world.

The defense of science against the political Left takes a similar path. There is a tendency in postmodernism (and I don’t want to reduce it to this tendency but this is the relevant tendency in the present discussion) to see truth as socially constructed. And if truth is socially constructed, science as an arbiter of truth is a social construct that can and must be interrogated. Now apply identity politics to this interrogation and you might conclude that science (and other Enlightenment formations) are not the conduits of general truths about physical reality but are formations that serve the dominant ideology (i.e., white supremacist patriarchy). This, if I may quote Henry Fielding, is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.” It is my position that the scientific method, no less than math, helps us to draw universal conclusions about the objective world. By “universal” I don’t mean “certain.” Theories need to be revised, and science can sometimes be hijacked for political purposes, but the basic conclusions of evidence-based science, like gravity, apply regardless of what this or that tribe or social demographic thinks. A very large point of the Enlightenment was to articulate tools that can get us beyond those tribal definitions of truth and worth, which had locked people for so long in darkness and prejudice and distrust across demographic lines. I believe my friends on the identity politics Left make a mistake when they try (however inadvertently) to lead us back down that road.

The final charge against me – the potential contradiction of my defense against science on the one hand and my defense of science on the other – should have resolved itself in the previous paragraph. For clarity, though, I will add that my defense of science against today’s political Left and Right does not negate my earlier defense of those image-filled systems that explore what Carl Jung calls “the subjective inner world … the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.” Indeed, to the list of ancient Greek mythmakers and modern visionary poets, I will add this thought by LSD guru, Timothy Leary: “Myth is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.”

Gaston Bachelard, sometime science professor who became the Chair of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, talked at times about two axes in his epistemology: “the axes of poetry and of science.” The power driving the first axis, the axis of poetry, is imagination. If today’s seekers of truth are going to right the ship of planet earth, they need to give up the politicized definitions of truth. They need to respect the tremendous capacity of science to give us valuable information about our world that transcends tribe and reminds us of our shared humanness. And they need to recognize imagination as the power than can exceed science as it harnesses the vitality of those “invisible roots of consciousness” to visions of social reality that transcend tribal divisions and bring us all together for the next stage.

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Trump builds his legacy

https://www.politico.com/story/2018/12/06/trump-epa-coal-rules-1047296

“The Trump administration unveiled yet another rollback Thursday for a major Obama-era climate rule — proposing to ease restrictions on future coal power plants even as the industry shows little interest in building any.

“The proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency comes amid dire warnings from scientists about the massive costs and devastating impacts of global warming.”

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Audacious things to say out loud (ten years out)

“Left and Right have become mirror images of each other. There are stories of conspiracy, of America being hijacked by an evil cabal … Their purpose is not to persuade the other side but to keep their bases agitated … to beat the other side into submission … what has been lost in the process … are those shared assumptions – that quality of trust and fellow feeling … [This is politics, but] there is another story … millions of Americans who are going about their business every day … [All] those ordinary citizens … who have found a way – in their own lives, at least – to make peace with their neighbors … are out there, waiting for Democrats and Republicans to catch up with them.”

“Any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in … keeps us locked in either/or thinking.”

“I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe … I reject politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally.”

“I believe in free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect.”

(click images for links)

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Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

4 stars out of 5

Pinker’s big push for the Enlightenment values that got us where we are is the right message at the right time. Not perfect, mind you. Pinker’s cheerleading for capitalism goes a little overboard and understates the problems commensurate with it. His treatment of cultural movements that press against the Enlightenment, such as Romanticism, are at times astonishingly simplistic. Enough so to undermine his credibility in isolated passages. When he criticizes Thomas Piketty’s landmark Capital in the 21st Century, Pinker has a point in that Piketty’s emphasis on wealth inequality elides the improvements in material life that have carried all classes forward. But Piketty’s willingness to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of late capitalism makes his work seem more impartial overall, less slanted than Pinker’s. The charts and counter-charts that make Piketty’s book more tedious and less readable than Pinker’s more informal tome also make Piketty’s analysis seem more balanced and complete.

Overall, though, Pinker’s own core thesis is persuasive and exceedingly timely. After all, the Right has always had a deeper investment in religious and authoritarian structures that cut against the Enlightenment’s commitment to open inquiry and to a principle of individual freedom that transcends religion, region, or demographic. It is only recently that the postmodern Left has joined in the attack, often renouncing the Enlightenment standards of universal truth (accessible to reason and science) and condemning the Enlightenment-based liberal Western democracies as hopelessly enmired in racism, sexism, and other oppressive formations. In this regard, Pinker’s pushback against the Left as well as the Right is spot on. Despite the obvious bumps along the way, and bumps that are still with us, the Enlightenment, with its philosophical message of universal rights over tribalism and of the universal standards of reason and science, has resulted in the most humane, anti-sexist, and racially tolerant sensibility in social history. This is measurable in Pinker’s statistical graphs (and most visibly of late in the Washington Post’s worldwide survey-based map). That there were bumps and contradictions along the way, that challenges of social justice are still with us, is no reason to attack the foundation of the Enlightenment and of the Western liberal democracies that go along with it. Indeed, it would be preposterous to expect no bumps, no contradictions and challenges. We need to improve, perhaps even to do so at a revolutionary pace, but we need to start by working with what we have, not throwing it all overboard and creating a vacuum for some less Enlightenment-based power formation to move in.

     piketty

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The End of All Politics II

I had been pretty gloomy lately about politics. In previous decades, we could pull for one side, even when it was down and out, knowing that it favored full equality and judgments based on content of character, not skin color or other identity tags. Now, with Left and Right both obsessed (the Left overtly and the Right more covertly) with those very tags of skin color, gender, etc., as markers of innocence or guilt, of good or bad character, of who we should or should not listen to or vote for, there is no side to pull for. What’s an old hippie to do?

Enter the recent Vox article on identity politics. The Vox article predictably gets it wrong by suggesting that both sides are running identity politics campaigns but that only one side is based on fear and aversion. In a rather obvious way (to those who are not politically predisposed to assume their own conclusion), both sides are motivating their voters with identity-based fear and aversion.

As my friend Chris says, this doesn’t bode well for the Age of Aquarius. However, like the 40-year-old hippie, I ain’t giving up yet.

I am not giving up because the forces that work against identity politics grow ever stronger underneath the political superstructure (cp. Areo, Pinker) — the ever-increasing historical move from tribalism to globalism/cosmopolitanism, with the law of reason (and post-moderns may disparage that law but it does them no more good than disparaging the laws of mathematics) perpetually supporting the idea that the accident of our tribal birth does not mean our tribe is better than all the other groups of our fellow humankind.

When I talk to people — especially young people of various races, nationalities, etc. — I find that they talk the talk of identity politics (at least in Western liberal democracies) but they do not walk the walk. Once they quit spouting the politics they learned in college, they are actually quite averse to judging people based on identity tags and averse to deepening demographic do-not-cross lines in the cultural arena. Identity politics (largely thrust upon us in its present form by liberal academic departments in search of a rationale for perpetual funding) has infected their brains but not their hearts. This gives me hope. If we can find a leader or two to turn on the lights of the heart and imagination, we just might snuff out both the Left and the Right as obsolete. This may sound far-fetched, and maybe it is, but Democratic and Republican parties are both doing an excellent job of self-destruction. And therein lies hope.

Cp. The End of All Politics I

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The Nation’s Apology for Carlson-Wee

The long-established progressive magazine, The Nation, recently created a stir by publishing an Anders Carlson-Wee poem about homelessness, and then apologizing for doing so on the grounds that the poem contained inappropriate language (i.e., language that might be offensive to those demographic groups among the homeless that Carlson-Wee tries to identify with in the poem).

As a long-time liberal, it is demoralizing to see what liberalism has become. God forbid that a poet should use language deemed inappropriate by the cultural police. God forbid that artists should ever creatively identify with people of backgrounds other than themselves. God forbid that any one of us should ever try to put ourselves in the shoes of other races or demographics. Guard those boundaries between races and other demographic groups! Where Bull Connor conservatives failed, today’s liberals may yet succeed!

The whole event is a nice, tight summary of where liberals went wrong and gave up the moral high ground on matters of race. Or, as my grandmother used to say (my brackets added), “When you drive the devil from the front door [Bull Connor], he comes in the back [identity politics].”

Links in

The Atlantic

The New York Times

The Nation 

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