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 humanness, 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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Psychomachia and Autobiography (with frolicking hippies)

The first question people always ask me about Hippies is whether this romp through the psychedelics and sexual liberation and ideals, the music scene and the war scene, all the darkness and all the light of the late 1960s, is autobiographical. And am I like Ragman or Ziggy or Tex, etc.?

It’s not exactly autobiographical in that sense. But I draw from autobiography on every page. I am a bit part in every character. But perhaps this is tautological. Perhaps every artwork with more than one character is a kind of psychomachia, all characters projecting different aspects of the writer’s soul or psyche. Perhaps this is not just a psychological necessity (creative arts are after all self-expression) but a metaphysical one as well. How metaphysical? If all the people of the world – past, present, and future – are so many surface expressions of the single personality of godhead, then the whole great drama, the extended “vanity fair” of human history, is one great psychomachia. And divine history, too, as the figures that populate the collective imagination are just as much expressions of godhead as the figures that populate physical reality. Indeed, the figures of imagination may be more intimate expressions of godhead, as Jung’s collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche and gets one step closer the universal Psyche.

At least this literary theory, this metaphysics, seems consistent with the cosmic laws governing the created world of Hippies. And perhaps that is enough.

 

Particles and Swarms

Does anyone know about particle swarm theory? It seems close to a unified theory of everything. Or at least like a pebble whose waves ripple through everything – biology and computer science, quantum physics and relativity, metaphysics and religion.

Basically, it says that independent particles form swarms, wherein each particle spontaneously takes advantage of the experience of the entire swarm. Examples in the natural world include fish schooling, bird flocking, and ant colonies. Swarm intelligence (SI) has apparently (I’m no expert) become increasingly important in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Can this bridge the persistent gap between the predictions of relativity and those of quantum physics? The problem as I see it is that relativity assumes a universe with physical matter of determinate location and mass. Quantum theory says that when you get down to the building block elements in the atom, units of matter no longer have such determinate values, but can only be described in terms of clouds of probability.

The relativity/quantum theory discrepancy has been scrutinized lately by “oil drop experiments” and “pilot waves.” It seems that you can drop oil on a liquid surface and as it bounces along, it interacts with its own ripple waves, creating a pilot wave that resembles the blur that quantum physicists see when they look at an electron or elemental particle – this would mean (I think) that underneath quantum physics is a stable physical reality after all.

So what if you looked at all the fundamental particles (or waves or whatever units you prefer) of the universe together as a swarm, all those pilot waves interacting, the every move of each affected by the every move of all the others, all one singular pattern of vibration? Do you get a 21st-century physics that recapitulates Leibniz’s 17th-century metaphysics of the indivisible unit, the monad? To wit, Leibniz:

“Each monad … adapts itself to all the others outside itself … This connection of all created things … the connection and adaptation of every single thing to all others, has the result that every single substance [every monad] stands in relations which express all the others. Whence every single substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe … They are but perspectives of a single universe, varied according to the points of view which differ in each monad.”

From Leibniz, it is an easy step to the world view of the Eastern religions. This connectedness of all things, objective or subjective, expressed as material or expressed as Soul – is particle swarm theory the underpinning here also? And in that swarm lies an immanent intelligence, transcendent and mysterious to the individual, but not requiring any external or anthropomorphic god.

To shift from this synchronic view (how the swarm functions across the space of the many particles) to a diachronic view (how the swarm functions across time), the swarm is the intelligence that drives the trajectories of evolution, terrestrial and cosmic, or, more viscerally, all a singular shudder in some vast cosmic orgasm. A fifteen billion year–old orgasm, you say? Why not? From what I know of Einstein and Hawking, the universe may be one minute old from some other reference point, but only seem fifteen billion years old to us because we are near the event horizon of some black hole, where time becomes stretched toward infinity.

I am no expert in these fields, but I hope that my lateral thinking about them can stimulate a few thoughts. Even if I do nothing but stimulate streams of imagination, I hope that that in itself is no mean accomplishment.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Albert Einstein)

The meme and the monad

Steve Morris recently posted a curious piece on the “meme.”   Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, coined the term in The Selfish Gene (1976). Predating the Internet, Dawkins’s interest was in how memes – units of cultural transmission – emulate evolution, with successful ones proliferating and duds dying out. Steve points out the irony that in today’s social media, it’s the most “unfit” memes – those that promote ignorance and bigotry – that seem to survive and proliferate. To enhance the scope of the entertainment, I’d like to weave in an additional discourse – Leibniz’s philosophy of the monad.

leibniz keks
h/t: Dank an meine leibe Freundin, Claudia, für den Bild von Leibniz’s Hanover

 

As a 17th-century German philosopher, Leibniz predated evolutionary biology as well as the Internet, but his speculative philosophy (the metaphysics of the monad) was grounded in his street cred as a mathematician and physicist, and perhaps for that reason it can sound eerily prescient of the holographic models of the universe about which today’s physicists speculate.

As in his mathematical theory of “infinitesimal analysis,”* which in the minds of many gave Leibniz a claim equal to Newton’s as the inventor of calculus, Leibniz sought to base his metaphysics on the idea of indivisible units. These indivisible units, “monads,” were “the elements of all things.” Because they are indivisible, they are in themselves inscrutable. “The monads have no windows through which anything can enter or leave.” After all, only a “composite” can add or subtract something, and the whole point of the monad is that it is a theoretical projection of the simplest, indivisible unit. (Mathematically, as far as I can understand Leibniz’s math, it is the unit that, having no increments, is by definition too small to ever be measured.)

Furthermore, each monad must be unique. For this, we need to get into the physics of space, according to Leibniz, of which I can only scratch the surface. For Leibniz, there is no such thing as empty space. There is only motion, rest, and change. And the fundamental unit of motion, rest, and change we call the “monad.” So there is no “space” per se, but there is a force field consisting of infinitesimal monads, each defined by inherent force, the qualities and laws of which are utterly inaccessible to the outside (no windows, remember). And the physics of the force field requires that “each monad while following its own inherent nature and laws adapts itself to all the others outside itself.” Each monad must by necessity fill a unique orientation point in the force field. And this is how Leibniz teases us to his logical (holographic) conclusion about the universe: “This connection of all created things … the connection and adaptation of every single thing to all others, has the result that every single substance [every monad] stands in relations which express all the others. Whence every single substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe … They are but perspectives of a single universe, varied according to the points of view which differ in each monad.”

Leibniz’s holographic conclusion applies not only to the objective world but to the subjective one as well: “Consequently, everybody experiences everything that goes on in the universe, so much so that he who sees everything might read in any body what is happening anywhere, and even what has happened or will happen. He would be able to observe in the present what is remote in both time and space.”

The limiting phrase here is “he who sees everything.” This suggests that although each monad contains all the information to reconstruct the entire universe of which it is a part, it is no simple matter for us to decode that information. Only “one who sees everything” would be able to see the entire universe within the single monad. Each soul is limited in its self-discovery by its own orientation. Each soul “can read in itself only what is distinctly represented in it; it is unable to unfold all at once all its folds; for these go on to infinity.”

So back to the meme. Whether or not it expresses the evolutionary model of adaptation, does it express the mathematical/metaphysical model of the monad? Take as an example this meme that I sent around on the Internet.

alpaca gay

The meme is not completely indivisible. There are letters and pixels and so forth within. But one could argue that the meme as a whole expresses one cultural orientation point, and that none of those simpler units is a cultural expression in the same way – they are not units in the cultural force field of the meme. It might lack the mathematical tightness that Leibniz would wish for, but perhaps that was Leibniz’s limitation. Math aside, it might be very useful to view the meme as a more-or-less simple expression of one cultural orientation point. To what extent is it in a holographic force field? With studious effort, one could certainly infer how the meme defines itself as a unit of force relative to the various positions staked out on gay rights. Perhaps from there, one could broaden the scope and see how the gay rights field of discourses illuminated by our monad-meme in turn illuminates all the discourses of sexuality implied thereby, not to mention various religions and philosophies and political formations at the perimeter, etc. Like ripples from a pebble dropped.

I think Steve is right about the meme’s relations to evolutionary biology. I have serious doubts about whether the Internet is predisposed to favor the “fittest” memes, unless we define “fittest” in an extremely idiosyncratic (and humorous no doubt) way. But the meme might express in its way Leibniz’s metaphysics of the monad. The holographic universe of the cultural dimension. And for those physicists who balk at the holographic universe, we give you the black hole. No, I am not inventing a new insult (“giving you the black hole”), although that in itself might be a tangent meme worth following. What I mean is this: Black holes are universally accepted in today’s physics, and what are black holes after all? Monads, universes unto themselves, with “no windows,” units of force that are utterly inscrutable and yet “perpetual living mirror[s] of the universe” around them. They might be like the mysterious “signs” in the modernist linguistics of Saussure and Wittgenstein, where words/signs have no “windows” to any referent in the world “out there” – there is no peephole into the system of signification – but each sign achieves a unique meaning relative to all the other signs within the system. Like signs in the linguistic universe, so black holes in the physical — monads, my friends, cosmic scale reflections of the sorry memes of which Steve Morris laments.

buttonsI once heard of an art historian who said, “Show me one artifact, one button, from a long-lost civilization, and given time I will reconstruct all the values of that civilization.” Academic bravado aside, this art historian was a monadologist par excellence, a believer in the holographic universe. Perhaps, when we are long gone and re-discovered by some future civilization, some wily future art historian might do me the honor of an infinitesimal analysis of my gay alpaca meme.

*The way I understand it, Leibniz’s infinitesimal analysis offered a solution to the age-old problem of rectifying curvilinear figures – squaring the circle – and thus rendering them accessible to precise geometric analysis. By casting the circle as a series of infinitesimally distant next points, Leibniz could in theory decompose any curvilinear figure into partial triangles.

Postscript: See this National Geographic article suggesting that our universe may exist inside a black hole, with many other inaccessible universes in their own black holes:

 

The World as Palimpsest

Here’s an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Mr. Robert’s Bones, in which the world is revealed as a palimpsest, with images of the past living and breathing in layers all around us, covered only by a thin veneer of the present …

xxx

It was early morning, dense and dark. The view from this side of St. Peter Street was of a palimpsest, with all the cosmic folds of history present, like all the rings of a tree. Furthest back, the stars, fresh and bright in our own night sky, the flash and sparkle of millions of years ago just reaching earth. Closer and newer, the cool silver moon, the same moon the Greeks saw as Artemis, the Romans Diana the huntress. Our moon. Layered on top of that primordial goddess, the leaves and branches of oak, waving behind the dormers and gables of the house across the street, expressing themselves from trees a few hundred years old, a few hundred feet away, give or take. Those dormers and gables, the very surface of our palimpsest, a mid-city house from perhaps the 1890s, perhaps once full of life. Once white but now chipped and weathered, four wooden columns creaked and bent to sustain the gloomy pediment, clawed at by half-dead webs of ivy above the porch. One window was boarded, the rest lay carelessly unattended, some with glass panes, some open to the elements, gaping mouths to an unimaginable emptiness. The house had turned since the death of Robert Marigny, and represents not only the 1890s but some more recent layer of our palimpsest. Somehow, in its abandonment, this house represents above all the present, upon which dawn began to rise over low-flung clouds, over dank smells of peat and earth long neglected under the house, over the immediate sound of crickets, frogs, pigeons scattering before a feral cat, and other, more dark and secretive creatures, scurrying in the bowels of the house itself. The eeriness of the present, dawn-scattered scene, indeed, cast an ominous pall over our entire palimpsest, making it very difficult to look upon without a swamping melancholia of the soul.

And yet dawn must come. And with dawn, the brighter sounds of well-fed dogs running into front yards to do their morning business, car engines cranking for the workday, and children playing. In this case, three children zigzagging down the street kicking a soccer ball. They suddenly bunched to a scrum, and the oldest, whom we know as Melissa, kicked hard. So hard that the ball broke through the side window of a house. Luckily, the house was currently inhabited by no human form. Unluckily, it was the Robert Marigny house.

Who sees dead people?

A friend recently inquired whether my oft-inflated sagacity could cast any light on mystical experiences involving a recently deceased relative. Some, it is true, may be overeager to accept such communication, or to accept apparent evidence for reincarnation, at face value. Some dismiss it all as nonsense. It is tempting to say that every case of communication with the deceased is self-deception, and every reincarnation tale a hoax, and for all I know they may be just that. But let’s take some ideas from the Vedantic religions of the East and see if we can work through to a place that alienates neither the claimant nor the skeptic.

The akashic record in the Eastern mythos is the record of everything normally considered past, present, and future (in our clumsy linear sense of time). Every thought, every movement of every leaf, is contained in this vast database, as it were. But the akashic record is more than a database. It is the ultimate reality. All our daily actions are reflections of, or abstractions from, the akashic record. We are right now living the akashic record, experiencing it from one orientation point.

All forms of prayer, meditation, yoga, etc., are strategies for bringing us closer to the akashic record (or God-consciousness), where all things past, present, and future are perceived as oneness. Who knows how many levels of transcendence are folded between our localized consciousness and the all-embracing God-consciousness of the akashic record, but if we could reach bottom we would recognize that we ourselves, at the deepest level of our existence, are living all lives past, present, and future simultaneously – we would be viewing reality not from the orientation point of our individual consciousness but from the orientation point of the akashic record.

It may be that if we stripped away all hoaxes and self-deception, and found some instances of communication with the other world still standing, those instances would be the result of a dipping down into the roots of consciousness in the akashic record, and bringing back up what fragments we could find.

So as of today that is my “unified field theory” of reincarnation, precognition, clairvoyance, and all manner of communication with the dead. I now reserve the right to come at this topic from mutually exclusive orientation points as suits my whim in the future.

Kant’s supposed relativism

To my friend who argued that Kant denied that we have any direct knowledge of the objective world and is therefore a relativist, I’ll give my take on Kant, and maybe one of my professional philosopher friends (at least one of whom I know is listening) can add his or her two cents.

My friend’s premise that Kant denied us any direct knowledge of the objective world is true. The conclusion, that Kant is a relativist, might then seem a no-brainer, but a close look shows that this conclusion does not follow from the premise.

Kant is indeed famous for subjectifying everything at the end of an eighteenth century which sought, through empiricism, to objectify everything. What is the most basic thing about the world as we know it? Space and time. Kant meticulously argues that space and time are not “out there,” not things in the world but ways of organizing the world. They are the subjective categories through which we make sense of the otherwise inaccessible flux of reality. But crucial is the idea that they are subjective categories and not objective facts. And if space and time are subjective categories, then it follows that everything we know about the world is subjectively constructed. Or, in Kantian terms, the world we know is the phenomenal world. It turns out that our knowledge presupposes a noumenal world anterior to the phenomenal world, but we have no access to such a world – it exists for us merely as an abstract, logical prerequisite.

This radical subjectification of the human experience would seem to throw us into a dizzying relativism, but not so in Kant. Indeed, Kant tells us in his early notebooks (before the Big Three critiques – of pure reason, of practical reason, of judgment) that his whole goal is to find universals in a world that seems to have spun off into relativism. It was David Hume who had carried empiricism to its logical conclusion, using the five senses to show that we have no evidence that external reality exists. Kant felt the justice of Hume’s argument, but like many was uncomfortable with the loss of all universal reference points. He felt that there is something universal about reality, that there is some shared universe we occupy. Kant’s epiphany came when he saw that if we were to have universals, we would have to locate them subjectively, not objectively. The objective world cannot give us universals because it is, insofar as we have access to it, always already shaped by subjective categories of understanding.

So how does Kant find a universal ground for ethics? I’m not sure because the Critique of Practical Reason is the one I’m least familiar with. But I can say how he does it in regard to aesthetics (the subject of the Critique of Judgment).

A true (valid) aesthetic judgment is (1) disinterested, (2) subjective, and (3) universal. Disinterested: “The satisfaction which we combine with the representation of the existence of the object is called ‘interest.’” I.e., if the satisfaction involves a vested interest in the existence of the object, it is an interested judgment. “You’re beautiful because our sex is great” is NOT a disinterested judgment: “A judgment about beauty in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste.” To be freed from such interest, a judgment must be subjective: “When the question is if a thing is beautiful, we do not … depend on the existence of the thing … but … judge it by mere observation … We wish only to know if this mere representation of the object is accompanied in me with satisfaction, however indifferent I may be as regards the existence of the object of this representation.” Only a subjective judgment is truly disinterested, and thus only a subjective judgment can be universal: “For the fact of which everyone is conscious, that the satisfaction is for him quite disinterested implies in his judgment a ground of satisfaction in all men.”

So to achieve an unbiased view, you must strip away all vested interest in the existence of objects at hand. Only then can your judgment be disinterested and therefore universally valid (and by definition, then, you are viewing it subjectively, as mere “representation” without regard to its objective existence).

I assume the analogy holds for ethics. An ethical judgment, to be valid, must be universal, and it can only be universal if disinterested, and only disinterested if subjective (stripped of all self-interest in the objective reality of the representation at hand).

What my friend who started this discussion wants, Kant would say, is not an objective ground of ethics per se; he wants a universal ground of ethics. And he would do best to find it subjectively, not objectively.