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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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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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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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

              

 

Zizek Revolution

Why hasn’t the Left been able to counter the rise of right-wing populism these last few years? Slavoj Zizek makes an excellent start at answering that question (video clip below, h/t to my friend, Balazs Zsido). I would only quibble a bit, as I believe he may tend to overstate his case at times and leave a little something out at times.  When he says that every populist movement is caused by a failure of the Left, I think it would be more accurate to say that a failure of the Left is one of the things implicated in the rise of right-wing populism. There are probably multiple causes in each case, but in each case, one could also ask how the Left failed to put forth a viable alternative. I’m with him about 90% on that one, as historical analysis.

Turning from historical analysis to the current crossroads, I agree with him 100% that the Left is failing to produce a viable alternative today. The “old” Left of protecting universal health care and worker rights established post-WWII is a good thing but not enough to get us across the new horizons today. I agree with him there, although I might emphasize more than he does that the freedoms and socialized elements of Western democracies are the best thing going right now. Some of the rage against capitalism and the West needs to be thoughtfully reconsidered, as simply taking down the Western democracies revolution-style right now may well result in more oppressive structures — a turn for the worse. When I look at existing models of governance outside of the West – Russia or China, Iran and the Middle East, North and Central Africa – the freedoms of the West’s liberal democracies look relatively good. Simply knocking down the West would leave a vacuum for the other power brokers of the world, who do not seem to promise more enlightened governance. Even within the West, the “identity politics” branch of the Left (at least in the U.S.) seems all too eager to replace the West with their own oppressive and demographically determined structures. Be careful what you wish for. Things could actually be a lot worse than they are.

Am I then an “apologist for capitalism,” as some of my leftist friends might say? Not at all. Capitalism is approaching its limit. The age wherein human fulfillment is defined by how many resources you can hoard, wherein the primary relationship between people and resources is one of private ownership – this age will end, whether dystopically or utopically. The writing is on the wall in the form of ecological collapse and worldwide economic disparities that are increasingly visible with globalization. But beware the negative possibility. Just knocking down the West and leaving the field to, shall we say, less liberal and less democratic forms, may not yield the answer young Western radicals seek.

Like Zizek, I don’t have a specific answer for today’s Western leftists, but I do have a framework for answers. My framework is simply this: We need to think of the next stage not as a revolution against the West but as a revolution within the West.  We do need to move into the (post-materialist, post-capitalist) 21st century, but capitalism and liberal democracy are the matrix from which new forms will spring. Every age begins as a new birth but carries the seeds of its own destruction in the form of its own contradictions. When those contradictions reach a critical mass, the shell starts to crack. As the shell of capitalism starts to crack in the face of ecological and economic imperatives, the idea is not to crush everything but to bring forth the hidden seed that has been nurtured and throw away the husk. In particular, we need to keep the freedoms of liberal democracy intact while pushing hard and mindfully on the transformation into a post-capitalist economy that leaves no group stranded.

So yes, we need to move into a post-capitalist, post-materialist 21st century, where for example green technologies can be deployed based on what is possible, not on what is profitable. Following Zizek, I might say that we need a new Left to articulate a transformational vision for our age. Something may come of the Alt-Left, if its presently amorphous and contradictory energies coagulate around the best it has to offer. Then again, I’m not sure this radical vision will come from the Left at all. It may be that the last true radicals were in the 1960s.  Since then, Left and Right may both have become too damaged, too entrenched, to make the next turn. So be it. If the new radical vision comes from outside of today’s Left-Right spectrum, that is fine with me.

Zizek video clip

Won’t Get Fooled Again

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Post-Trump path to a whole new vision

To be honest, I was as disappointed as my liberal brothers and sisters at Trump’s victory. Equally disappointing, though, is that most liberals seem to have gotten exactly the wrong message.

2016 should have been a cakewalk for liberals. A civil war raged within Republican ranks between the old guard and the alt-right. The demographics of the U.S. population was growing less favorable for Republicans every year, and Obama had won two straight victories. Add Trump’s unlikely candidacy, and many wondered if the Republican Party would survive the next few years.

What went wrong? Surely, the 24/7 right-wing propaganda machine from talk radio and Fox News had some impact, but we had known their impact for years and Republicans still seemed on the ropes. So the real question is, how did liberals alienate so many people that they could not close what should have been a done deal? I believe a large part of it is liberalism’s self-inflicted wounds in the culture wars – “self-inflicted” because conservatives never had and still don’t have any credible vision of social harmony for white, black, male, female, gay, etc., people. Liberals had easy dibs on the moral high ground, but chose another path, a path that eschewed the traditional liberal principle of “shared humanness” as the cornerstone of race and gender analytics and opted for “us vs. them” models of identity politics.

This abdication of the moral high ground directly or indirectly alienated many people who might otherwise have been progressives. To make this as politically incorrect as possible, I think a lot of the blame (I offer this as a hypothesis and not as a fixed conclusion) may go to those Women’s Studies, Black Studies, etc., departments that have mushroomed in recent decades. No doubt, these departments emerged in response to real inequities and problems with representation, and I myself have known some good and noble faculty members in those departments. But then came the unintended consequences. Suddenly, they had a captive audience (required and recommended courses) to force-feed whatever the theories of the day were. And since they were now institutional structures with annual funding to protect, it became easy to reify “blackness” or “femaleness” into an absolute, perpetually at odds with the outside demographic (white male), in need of perpetual funding. And this funding is further secured in perpetuity if you jettison the old liberal tenet of “shared humanness” and play up your demographic (black, female, etc.) as the defining attribute of identity. Once the institutional structures were in place, it was inevitable that divisive theories would replace the old unifying approaches to racial and gender issues that we once saw in Mary Wollstonecraft and Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Mandela.

It was a terrible time for the left to crack – 2016 – a year when they should have flourished and when the cost of failure was a Trump presidency. That they were unable to thwart Trump indicates just how far the university re-education committees had alienated non-aligned moderates, many of whom were no doubt sick of political correctness, with its ever-growing repertoire of what we cannot say, do, or think, based on our demographic identity, and with its scarlet-lettering of any dissenter as racist, sexist, or xenophobic. If election pundits are to be trusted, white males were particularly affected, both those who were subjected to the forced re-education regimes in universities and those working-class whites who had worked hard all their lives, had now fallen on hard times, and felt they were being told daily by college liberals and HuffPo editors that they should shut up, sit down, and appreciate how privileged they were. This is no way to win people over. Many of these college kids and working class whites could easily have become progressives if progressives had not gone to such extremes to alienate them.

Oddly (or perhaps predictably, given the egocentrism of the human condition), most of my liberal friends seem to have gotten exactly the wrong message. The correct message, I should think, was that expressed in John McWhorter’s CNN op-ed, “We need a PC that includes white people.” Trump’s victory should have been a wake-up call for liberals to quit circling the wagons so narrowly, to quit building walls around this or that demographic, to open the doors and be more tolerant and inclusive. It was an opportune moment to review and retrieve a little of the freewheeling 1960s (when liberals celebrated the cacophony of viewpoints, let people speak freely and make mistakes, and thought that all progressives — including whites and males – were in this struggle together). Instead, many post-Trump liberals simply lumped in the half of the country that disagreed with them with the KKK (another self-inflicted wound, as they give far, far too much to the KKK). And I have even seen a number of my liberal compatriots “unfriended” for stepping outside of the party line on this or that cultural point, even though they share the broader liberal vision. Thus, my heretofore liberal allies, after shooting themselves in the foot by turning people away when they should have been more inclusive, have responded by becoming even less inclusive, circling the wagons tighter and tighter.

There is hope though. I myself feel alienated from both the left and the right. But therein lies an opportunity. I know that I am not alone. Yes, some of my liberal friends have become more intolerant than ever after Trump, but some have not. Some, I think, are open to a grass-roots movement, a new radicalism that must begin outside of the current political spectrum and outside of academia’s pseudo-radical theories. It must, at least temporarily, confront the liberal as well as the conservative fixtures of that establishment. That means it must be willing to take on the “identity politics” departments, which have already become a very powerful establishment in their own right (and an establishment that brooks no dissent). Or so it seems to me. I am willing to hear some other voices (including old friends and new students in women’s and ethnic studies departments, who may be able to qualify my generalizations with inside information).

Until then, as ever, I await the new hippie uprising.

Trump completes the circle

My conservative friends have abandoned all hope for me long ago, and with good cause. My liberal friends, at least those under the age of 40, may also have their doubts about me. The 2016 U.S. election gives me an opportunity to complete the circle, so let me take a few moments to drive my liberal brothers and sisters crazy.

First, my thoughts on Trump in brief. My hunch is that he will be a terrible president – ill-informed, reckless, and easy manipulated (despite the outward braggadocio) by people who actually understand politics and world affairs. But I understand why many, including some of my friends and family, voted for him (albeit a mistake in my view). They were sick of politicians, sick of political correctness, sick of the climate in which everyone must parse every word and self-censor before every comment. To them, Trump’s showy disregard for political correctness had its appeal. And the white working class people who had worked hard all their lives and were now struggling were perhaps tired of being told to shut up and appreciate how privileged they were. (To my liberal friends, I am not commenting on the truth value of “privilege” claims, but only on the perception by this segment of voters.) This predicament left them easily swayed to vote Republican and vote Trump (against their own economic interest).

Am I saying that liberals are to blame for Trump’s victory? No, conservatives who have created the alt-right through talk radio, Fox News, and other media arms of disinformation carry most of the blame. But I do say that liberals do not get out of the blame scot-free. At least some self-examination may be helpful. The tendency in the past few decades for liberals to build walls instead of bridges has perhaps contracted their sphere of influence outside of academia and left them all too often preaching to the choir. It was not always this way. In the 1960s and 70s, hippie liberals were out to bust it all wide open and eliminate restrictions on what to do, what to say, on living and loving arrangements. They were the rebels against cultural policing. Today’s liberals, on the other hand, have become the cultural police. I understand the good intent – to stamp out racism and xenophobia and toxic speech and ideas – but the practical result is counterproductive. Forever warning people that they can’t do or say or wear this because of their demographic identity, scarlet-lettering everyone who disagrees with you as racist or misogynist, shuts down communication. Sure, official members of the KKK needs to be scarlet-lettered. But in this case, branding 47.2% of the U.S. population, burning that many bridges, has no practical value. If you’re lumping in half the population with the KKK, you might revisit your metric because you’re giving way too much to the KKK.

I live in a conservative part of the country (when not in Germany). Although my inner-city neighborhood in New Orleans tracks liberal, the metro area in general tracks conservative. I have friends and family members who voted for Trump. They did not do so because they hate women or minorities or immigrants. When Trump made his comments about the border, they did not hear, “He hates all Mexicans and Muslims.” They heard, “He has no problem with legal immigrants or Mexicans in general; he wants to better control illegal immigration to serve those who are here (including legal immigrants). He believes that stable, successful Mexicans are less inclined to jump the border, so the ones who come, although some are good people, tend to include more of the criminal element … He has no problem with Muslims in general; he believes the world has an Islamic terrorism problem and we need to address it at our borders.” Etc.

You can argue until you’re blue in the face that what you heard was more accurate than what they heard, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere. That’s just wall-building, getting both sides to circle the wagons. Since my own ear tends to track liberal, I could conclude that they are racist xenophobes and effectively shut down all communication. I prefer to conclude that they are wrong on the policy and on some of the social assumptions, but that they are essentially good people. I prefer to keep communication channels open. I prefer to hear any crazy theories they want to put forward and to haggle them out over a beer. I prefer to build bridges. May they learn a little bit from me, and may I learn a little bit from them. We should be celebrating conflicting voices at the table. The only way forward is through dialectic, not monologue. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Especially now. There is too much at stake with the impending Trump presidency, which does not bode well in my opinion, for the 47.2% (Trump) and the 47.9% (Clinton) to each construct their own walled citadel.

Thus Trump may complete the circle for me. Conservatives wrote me off long ago and perhaps my liberal friends may do the same, pushing me off the existing spectrum and one step closer to my own post-political wonderland. Then again, maybe i’m not the only one heading that way.

Caveats

  1. Do not misread. This is NOT an argument against passionately opposing Trump and Republican policy proposals whenever you find them unacceptable.
  2. I know I might have to eat these words one day, but until then I’m sticking to the idea that we’re all on the spaceship Earth together, like it or not.