It’s become a kind of an habit with me to bash Realists. The problem is: i do agree with them in a lot of things. That led Gorm to declare that we both believe the same things, and that my insistence that “THERE IS NO TRUTH” was a mere confusion in terms.
Take for example Levi Bryant from Larval Subjects: he quotes all the guys i’m reading and liking, he’s got terribly cool post titles (that make his blog much harder to “Mark all as read” than it really is). He proposes the Flat Ontology, which i discussed in there is only circumstance. He’s got this Principle of Translation thing (“There is no transportation without translation”), which is great, indeed, and which i had tangentially touched when treating the Fundamental Problem of Communication. Me loves such ideas, but i believe they are actually proofs of my point of view, so: what gives?
We do not believe the same things with different names, but indeed we are trying to deal with the same issues. At that specific point, in our intellectual histories, we are trying to avoid schizophrenia.
But, before i delve into such a discussion, there is a confidence i must make.
I must say that i miss my father.
I dreamt of him the other day, i was with him and i talked to him, and still, or later, i knew that he was dead and that i should not, i could not, it was not possible that i was with him. It was not like he was a ghost or anything like that. It was him, and he was playing a part into the opera of my life, and that was not something with any explanation, it was just something, it was just happening. And it was not right.
More than anything else, this dream left me with a vague but deep longing. I miss the old guy, i really wish he was still around.
And my dad was schizophrenic. He believed in a world that, well, it was not the same world i could believe in. He thought the neighbours had strange plans to steal things from him and incriminate him in mysterious misdeeds, the overall plot of all those ideas usually did get pretty convoluted pretty soon, so it’s difficult to describe exactly, but the gist was that it was hard to believe the things he believed. He was crazy, in the sense that a psychiatrist prescribed him anti-psychotics.
But his delusions were strangely functional, they worked, despite in a kind of painful way, but his not-real world was, in a way, real, and in another sense, he was not rendered any less capable of living in our world by living in his. To make it dramatic: if i swapped my over-liberal, over-relativistic, over-context-aware beliefs for his beliefs, i would be someone much less happy with myself but much more praised and recognized by society — in the sense i would probably have more money.
One way or the other, i don’t want to be schizophrenic. Me, personally, as an idiosyncratic choice, prefer to be not-schizophrenic. It is a choice i make.
So when Gorm or Bryant or Paz or Yudkowsky talk about realism, when they propose that “truth” is an important value and that we should strive for it, what they are really saying is that they do not want to be schizophrenic: they don’t want to feed some strange delusions that can’t be shared, they don’t want to live in their own private isolated delusional worlds. They don’t want to be schizophrenic. Neither do i.
But our attempts diverge strongly when they say that, in order to do so, they MUST guarantee that their ideas come from the world out there and not from inside their own heads.
They have this belief that knowledge must originate from the world. In saying this, they draw from an older than dust tradition of questioning (Greek, i think, but don’t feel like doing the research, it is boring) that is called the Mind-Body Problem. I think of the questions posed by such philosophy like this:
So, you see, those people, those nasty Greeks, they thought Mind and the World where two separate things. I guess the more traditional word to use here is Body instead of World, but i’ll cut through a lot of etymology and just make things easier (and besides M and W are symmetrical so they look cool on my diagrams).
Maybe an even better description of this is that the Greeks had just discovered the Mind: we swollen-head monkeys had had this consciousness trip for quite some time then, but the Greeks created all the fuss around the act of thinking, the myth of the “disinterested thinker”, and that in turn made apparent a whole field of things like «concepts», «formulae» and «truths». The brain existed previously, but the Greeks’ way of living brought to attention a whole different way to deal with the same brain. It made the idea of “Mind” almost necessary.
But this idea was curiously whimsical: the mind could be lord over the world, using the mind they could make the rivers run to wherever they saw fit and deny disease and reorder everything in new and previously unheard-of ways, the mind was doing that already. But the mind curiously could not accept some ideas. I could not for example think that i have a pony and this would come to be. No. Even if i could come up with an equation that would describe exactly the pathway of the stars.
Contrary to what some morons might try to convince you of, the Greeks’ confusion did not come from their ideas’ failure, they were not wondering about why some ideas where not working. Ideas not working is a common enough happening in any brain-equipped animal’s life. The staggering thing was that some ideas could actually work so well.
Flusser puts it better than me:
Since the Renaissance, we have stumbled upon an amazing and heretofore undigested fact: The Heavens can, it is true, be formulated and formalized in Ptolemaic circles and epicycles, but better still in Copernican circles and Keplerian ellipses.
How is that possible? Did God the Creator use circles, epicycles or ellipses on the first day of creation? Or was it the Masters of Astronomy, not God the Master, who set out these forms? Is it that the forms are not God’s but Man’s? Is it that they may not exist eternally in the World Beyond, but that they exist to be formed and modelled in This World? Is it that they are not Ideas and ideals but forms and models? What is difficult to digest about this is not God’s demotion and His replacement by designers as creators of the world. No, what is really difficult to digest about all this is that the Heavens (along with all aspects of nature) cannot be formalized in whatever way we might wish, as ought to be the case if we really had assumed God’s throne. Why, for example, do the planets follow either circular or epicyclical or elliptical orbits rather than quadratic or triangular ones? Why can we choose to formulate the laws of nature in a variety of ways but not in any way we wish? Might there be something out there that is prepared to swallow some of our formulae but that spits out others, spits them out in our face? Is there perhaps a ‘reality’ out there that allows itself to be informed and formulated by us, but that nevertheless demands that we adapt ourselves to it?
This question is difficult to digest since one cannot be the designer and the creator of the world and at the same time have to submit to this world.
So, the minute you discover mind, this jumps at you: what can possibly be the relation between mind and world? How can that work?
It might not seem so, but i do not care about the ancient Greeks that much. I appreciate that they had to go through all those steps, but i also think that for us to spend our time stumbling on the same blocks they did stumble is just boring. So, let me cut the crap and show you why this all “let’s rehab truth” program can’t work:
Mind and World do not exist separated. Drugs (things from the World) fuck up Mind, for example. And technologies (things from the Mind) fuck up the World. The Mind is, obviously, a part of the world.
If we look at the frontier between Mind and World, we see that it is the ONLY frontier that Mind has, in our diagram.
And this IS a problem to Realism, because it takes away Realism’s support points. They can’t shield themselves from schizophrenia in the “World”, because all ideas are influenced by things that are exterior to Mind, both my ideas expressed in this blog as well as my father’s ideas that his neighbours had an evil secret plan to screw all his best wishes. And they can’t shield themselves in the “Mind” because, well, mostly because they chose so.
That means that we can never invoke a “external arbiter” for the “Truth”. It just does not exist. There are no ideas that are exclusively in the mind. Every idea has a relationship both to mind and to the world.
And this is akin to taking out the excuses. Einstein can’t excuse himself from Hiroshima because, well, you know, the neutrons are neutrons whether he wants it or not, and because with or without his mathematics the “Little Boy” would have killed exactly as much people. Unhappily for him, and for a host of other nuclear scientists that grew bitter after the war, without their ideas the “Little Boy” would not have been built. There is no “Truth” and “Falsehood” in this mess, there are only people, and each and every one of them have ideas and must make themselves responsible for them.
When we acknowledge that Mind is INSIDE World, we see that the whole issue is not to seek a safe point, to discover where does “Truth” springs from. Many people have tried that, and it was always foolish.
If Mind/World is the only frontier that the Mind has, topologically you can simplify it to a point. In other words, the relationship is the same as if we said that the World belonged to the Mind: a single smooth frontier without preferential points we can use to justify our ideas safely. It’s not to say that all ideas are unjustified, or false, or unreliable, but their value is never as simple as a binary condition of being “from the World” versus being “from the Mind”. Therefore:
M ∈ W ≡ W ∈ M (!)
So we have learned a lot about the Mind, and about the World, but we are still left with our first problem: how to avoid schizophrenia. Realists are sure that insisting on “Truth”, or “Simple Truth”, or externality with whatever name they seem to prefer, that insisting on that will solve all the problem. I am happy for them, that they can be contented like that, but i simply can’t swallow this one. And, what’s more, i think that methodologically their approach is simply idiotic.
If you bypass the rhetoric and look at their methodology, it basically says: ignore all possible interferences, and consider any knowledge as “truth” if you can get away with it. Their stance seems to be that they acknowledge all the complex questions that have been proposed about knowledge, all the difficult problems that contemporaneous technology poses to our epistemology, all the new understanding that we have about our own inner workings, they seem to listen to that all and say “good” to all of it, while at the same time trying to pretend that it does not change anything about their previous beliefs. They just want to keep their “naive” idea of “truth” and keep going with their lives.
Which is pretty OK, to be sure, i don’t want to learn anything about current biochemistry, and no one is forcing me to. You’ll also notice i do not discuss much biochemistry. They can avoid learning anything, if they want. Now, on the other hand, to try and discuss epistemology without acknowledging that human beings are the actors, that every piece of “knowledge” is an act of language, and that language is fundamentally devoid of any real referents — that is, that words do not have any meaning outside the brain of the person saying them — that is plain dumb.
To discuss epistemology today we must acknowledge the reality we are in. For example, we must acknowledge anthropology discovery that etnocentrism leads us to take our biases as reality. We must acknowledge that the internet changes the dynamics of our thoughts, sometimes in bad ways. We must acknowledge that thinking is an effort, that it wastes energy, that it is an action. And we definitely MUST accept that knowledge does not happen isolated from human experience.
If there is no idea that is not thought by someone, and if an human being has no access whatsoever to any source of ideas that is completely reliable, then there is no idea that is universally reliable. If we accept that schizophrenia is a problem without simple answers, we are better off than naively assuming truth, even if at last there was a real final knowledge that was really “in the world”, because we will be searching further.
If we deal with schizophrenia not in moral terms, making truth good (and supposedly untruth ungood), we will take knowledge to always be something dynamic.
Realism, despite it’s claims of being concerned with ideas that are “more than just talk”, is fundamentally irresponsible. Realism accuses “litcrit” of being concerned only with itself, since they supposedly deny any idea besides their own, but sadly it is the other way round. To be responsible about our ideas, we must act in accordance with a very obvious characteristic of knowledge, namely of being relative. We must deal with the fact that every knowledge is at best a point of view. And we must remember that every form of confirmation that we can add to an idea is an temporary confirmation.
If we use all our best tool to make ultra-super-duper-sure that a given piece of data is “real” and not merely an idiosyncratic delusion, it does not make it anything it wasn’t before. It is still a piece of data. What we do with it is open to negotiation. Always.
Since W ∋ M ≡ W ∈ M, we MUST assume the stance that Mind contains World, purely because we must take responsibility for our world. And we do answer for our mind. It is a domain where our actions matter.
We must accept that we do have a role to play in this world, and that we ARE playing it. That we make a difference. And that means that we must accept the world around us, and the ideas around us, and that we must accept that there are some ideas that lack our preferred means of confirmation, we must accept that some ideas seem to us like a fucking delusion, we must accept it, and deal with it, instead of simply relegating those ideas to “not truth” department and forgetting about them.
Accepting a radical relativism, where all ideas are just points-of-view, where no idea at all is ever “truth”, this is less schizophrenic than just assuming there is a “World” external to the subject and hoping for the best that some beyond-my-control agency or characteristic of the world will lead me to “truth”. Relativism is simply a better recipe against schizophrenia.
It’s peoples attitudes and wills that make knowledge trustworthy, not some unfathomable characteristic of it like “truth”. Concrete, real people, which happen to be fallible, temporary, subjective people, unreliable in many ways but, above all, creative, intelligent.
In the end, Realism is a false promise. Even if it is a reasonable promise — you first make the remark that one will never find truth, and then promise truth — it is still a false one. People will never have truth. Or, to be sure, what really matters to me: i will never have truth.
In yet other words, i know that people have came up with all those sorts of tools to ascertain the “truth” of ideas, labelled them “Science Method”, that they have built tools like the many-tons-heavy sensors in the LHC, and that there is a whole current of debate about such issues, and i am actually even fairly knowledgeable about all that, but all of that does not help me in deciding whether or not i should ask for the tubby blond girl’s phone. Because this is not a problem of “truth”. It is a problem of what to do with my life. Of what is “relevant”. It is messy.
And, after all, there is always the possibility that there was something outside our two circles, our M and W, and in that case the actual graph would be like that:
Where the U stands for Unthinkable…
[Final note: the diagrams are much more beautiful than the explanations, and i guess this is mostly because i ended up making another anti-realist rant, and running up to 2800 words, so i’ll sometime soon make another post, with just the pictures and much less text, to see how this turns out…]