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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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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How to lose elections to a lunatic*

Election 1: Tell majorities across the country (between New York and California) that they are a bunch of racist misogynists who are overloaded with unearned privileges and who stupidly vote against their own interest. Repeat daily. Then run your candidate against the lunatic and see who wins.

Election 2: Consider loss of Election 1 as proof positive that everyone between New York and California is a racist misogynist overloaded with unearned privileges who stupidly votes against their own interest. With your confirmation bias now reaffirmed, repeat same messaging from Election 1, only louder. Then run your candidate against the lunatic and see who wins.

* I hope that this small instruction manual will be of special value to my friends abroad, who have expressed some consternation about how Trump could win and possibly win again.

Related: Buckling and Curling in the U.S. Political Spectrum

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Buckling and curling in the US political spectrum

Sometimes I think my liberal friends are wrong when they say that the Right has moved further right in recent years. Maybe they are correct, but here’s another way of looking at it. If you think of the spectrum as two poles with a center point, I’ll agree that the center has shifted right since the emergence of Fox news and talk radio, but the right ideological pole, with its emphasis on deregulation and privatization, lower taxes, a distrust of group-based rights, etc., has held firm. This means the right half of the spectrum has been compressed, bunching up and causing internal tensions. To keep to the metaphor, one could say that the right half of the spectrum has constricted and buckled, with new subgroups like the Tea Party and the Alt-Right buckling up from the base like tectonic plates. I propose, for the sake of argument, that we consider these groups not as philosophically more conservative, but rather as a sublimated version of the base. Sure, they push further right on some issues, like immigration, but for the most part they are not more right-wing but just a less grounded (historically, factually and psychologically) version of the conservative base: the idiot version of birthers and Obamacare death panels.

Although this analysis has seemed to take a partisan turn, the Left fares not much better. It might be that those who think the Left has moved further left may be wrong. Yes, they have become more strident, more unwilling to compromise, more given to vitriolic name-calling of their conservative counterparts, but that merely indicates a change in tone, not a philosophical move to the left. So has the Left buckled also? Not exactly. Has it stretched further left? I don’t think so. I think the problem on the left is that it is “curling” back to the right. The “true north” of the left-wing vision dates to the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. The left-wing goal then was to liberate people from all conventional restraints on what to say and think, on living arrangements and paths to self-actualization. The goal was to celebrate our sexuality and our differences without denying our shared humanness, to see each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of race or demographics. We were fellow human beings, first and foremost, and it was precisely the vantage of that shared humanness that brought into focus the absurdity of racism, sexism, and other social injustices.

But now the curling. The Left’s new tendency to police sexuality (a new puritanism ever watchful to prove, e.g., that male desire and heterosexuality are intrinsically exploitative), to police dissent, to set us-vs-them identity-based triggers that shame and alienate white from black, male from female, for short-term political gain. In the New Left’s view, it seems that viewing each other as brothers and sisters regardless of race and gender is a “microaggression,” bridges are replaced by walls and defending one’s turf against “cultural appropriation,” the post-60s battle lines with a rainbow coalition of progressives resisting a status quo Establishment are replaced by demographic battle lines between white and black, male and female, and all of the other reified categories of the intersectional encyclopedia. In these ways – the cultural policing, the revivified segregation of demographic groups into insulated interest groups, the authoritarian resistance to dialogue and free expression – the Left has curled back toward the “Right” as it was defined on a 1960s spectrum.

So my contrarian conclusion to my friends at both ends is that the spectrum has not widened but narrowed, with the Right buckling up and the Left curling back. Sure, there are still policy differences – on immigration, health care, environmental regulation – and, to be clear, I favor the liberals on these issues – but the shorter the horizontal space of the spectrum becomes, the more ad hominem and the more vicious the personal attacks on those who disagree. And this is the state of things today. The only hope, if there is a hope, is for some new force to emerge outside of today’s left-right spectrum, a unifying voice that can connect with the idea that we are all in this together, and with a limited amount of time to address issues of environmental destruction and inequality and tribalism before the tipping point. There were such inspirational voices in the past, so perhaps it can be done again, but not from within the political spectrum as we now know it.

Links:

Obama’s Legacy Has Already Been Destroyed, Andrew Sullivan, New Yorker (5/18/18)

We need a PC that includes White People, John McWhorter, CNN Opinion (11/25/16)

1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals

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A white boy speaks of race

Yes, I know, political correctness maintains that white people have no title to an opinion on the subject today, but I’ve never been much for following rules – not back when conservatives were the cultural police and not now with liberals as the cultural police. So what the hell, here’s my view. It is not intended as the final word on the subject, not even my final word, as there’s a lot to hear before fixing my position too firmly. It is one voice among many, but it is a heartfelt one, and any tricky issue is navigated best when the widest range of voices, including those we disagree with, are welcome at the table.

As a white man, I feel sorry for my black brothers and sisters. Not only because they have suffered so deeply from historical conditions whose effects continue today, but also because the liberal agenda, which was “liberating” at the time of the Civil Rights/hippie 60s, has now become a constraining force. Conservatives, of course, are no help whatsoever. But liberals used to offer, at least in the vision, a way out. Now the liberal agenda, although split between residual Enlightenment liberals and emergent identity politics liberals, seems to have given the microphone to the latter. And the latter seem to hold that if you are black, every aspect of your identity must be defined by racism. You cannot speak, especially if you are a public figure, of any interactions with mainstream culture or white people without decrying racism as a driving part of the interaction. Forget about the collaboration, the good times, the connections that transcended race or racism.

Indeed, many of my younger liberal friends are probably already offended by the fact that I opened with a reference to “my black brothers and sisters.” That old liberal vision that says we are all in this together, brothers and sisters, regardless of race or demographics, that says we should measure each other by the content of our character and not the color of our skin, is now anathema to liberals. Where liberals once fought to break down the walls between races, liberals now insist upon those very walls. For white people to try to identify with blacks as brothers and sisters is considered presumptuous, overreaching, an affront to the black experience. There is a certain logic to this position but it gives us no way forward toward a harmonious multicultural society. When activists demand that the Whitney Museum “remove and destroy” Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till solely because it was done by a white artist; when universities demand that students treat each other not as fellow human beings but as instances of this or that race (“I don’t see race when I meet people” is widely listed as a microaggression); at this point, liberalism becomes a force that hardens the walls between races and blocks any collective path forward.

Few people at any point in the political spectrum deny that racism exists. But whereas racism was once considered a cancer to be removed from the body politic, liberals now conflate it with the body politic itself, and the treatment seems to involve killing the patient to get at the cancer. I believe this is a mistake. The truth is that many people, black and white, have been fighting against racism for a long time; that many people, black and white, still harbor race-based judgments against others; that blacks have suffered disproportionately because of their race; and that the solution is not and will never be to sharpen the line between white and black with the “us versus them” approach favored by conservatives in the 1960s and now favored by liberals. Better to search out and magnify the good in one another, not to search out and magnify the bad. What you focus on determines the fruit you bring forth.

(To my younger liberal friends [black or white]: Before you write me off, please note that beneath all the needless belligerence manufactured by today’s political players, there’s actually a lot we agree on and can work on together.)

There’s been some confusion

Some private confusion, that is, about the politics of this blog. One minute I’m critiquing conservatives and the next I’m critiquing liberals. Guilty as charged. But not inconsistent. Not if both of those ideologies (as expressed today) are getting it wrong.

To clarify, I reviewed an old post that playfully defines my position as “Aquarian Anarchy,” which is in some ways equidistant from all points on today’s left-right axis. Although the post is from the year 2 BTE (before the Trump era), it still seems accurate. So here it is. Enjoy.

Aquarian Anarchy