Monday, January 7, 2013

Reality Is What Reality Is (Slight Return)

Toby posted a comment to my prior post, which I responded to there.

I've given some more thought to things and felt it worth it to provide what I hope is clarification.

As a reminder, this is the language that I found so frustrating:

I believe we are transitioning from primarily ego-based interpretations of ‘reality’ – in which fear, control, ‘selfishness’ and ‘competition’ rule – to a paradigm in which we are far more consciously aware of the ego’s role in our perceptions and can therefore operate/react with greater consciousness and wisdom. A paradigm is emerging in which the sense that “our lives are not our own” is not reflexively dismissed as ‘socialism’, and money (whatever that is) is not a commodity to be hoarded, but a non-valuable record of economic transactions fostering cooperation and inventiveness in the interest of a growing commons which serves each ‘individual’. We are leaving behind one sense of what freedom is all about, and developing a different, perhaps more mature definition of freedom. Also up for redefinition are wealth, value and success; dessert, reward and punishment; obligation and responsibility; health and much else besides.
Toby's full post here.

This language springs from Western thinking.  The bedrock of Western thinking is Western philosophy, which assumes there exists an immutable, ascertainable Truth as a starting point for understanding reality through logic.  In the passage above, the applied Western philosophies of political economy and psychology are layered on top of that bedrock to form the foundation of Toby's analysis.  When I say that social "sciences" such as political economy and psychology are "applied philosophy," I mean that they are specialized applications of philosophy intended to reveal a specific aspect of "the Truth."  An important aspect of political economy and psychology (especially Freud's brand of it) is that both depend on the further assumptions that (1) society is merely the sum of the individuals which comprise it, so that we can fully understand society by understanding the individual, and (2) each individual in society seeks to maximize his utility, i.e., mainstream orthodox political economy and psychology apply some form of Utility Theory in their search for "the Truth."

Western thinking suffers from two major flaws.  First, its conclusions are only as good as its underlying assumptions, and the underlying assumptions described above have been proven empirically to be fundamentally unsound.  Second, it applies an iterative process of dividing a finite reality into an infinite number of either-or decisions that necessarily increase the perceived complexity of reality while simultaneously adding nothing towards understanding that reality.  This is the illusion of complexity.

While there is something like an "immutable" Truth (in that there is an objective reality whose future state is a function of its current state) it is not ascertainable by Western thinking because it fails to embrace the simple facts that the Western thinker, no matter how detached, is part of that objective reality, which obscures his ability to ascertain what "it" is because his interpretation of objective reality is subject to his personal biases and because his actions alter that objective reality, often without him understanding that to be the case (aka George Soros' "reflexivity").

I think Toby gets the rough outlines of my criticism of Western thinking, but he has been seduced by the lexicon of political economy and psychology, which themselves compound and perpetuate the fundamental flaws of Western philosophy.  For example, there is no such thing as an "ego."  The concepts of ego, superego, etc. were coined to create distinctions in theory where none exist physically in order to better understand how the human mind works.  This model of the human mind works to some extent, but it ultimately fails because how we interpret objective reality is not a function of ego but the basic cognitive function of human beings: all we are equipped to do is interpret reality by comparing what we perceive to what we expect.  You cannot change this basic function-- this paradigm, it is immutable.  You can, however, affect its outcome by altering its inputs (preferably both expectations and perceptions).  

Toby seems to get the rough outlines of this argument, as well, in that he understands that one of the major problems we have today is the extreme sense of "individualism" that seems to shout down any plea to consider anybody other than one's self as "collectivism."  Where he goes astray from my perspective is in confusing the societal values of selfishness and altruism as competing paradigms as opposed to them being mere inputs to the cognitive function that determines how we decide.

The sad fact is that the world has witnessed societies that exhibited far more altruistic societal values than we have today, and those societies were just as corrupt as the one we live in today because the values that social institutions espouse make no practical difference to those in control.  They merely change the language they use to collect and assert power.

Humanity will never find freedom so long as it is slave to a false certainty inspired by the belief that it lives outside objective reality and has any say in what it is.  I think that Toby basically agrees with the first part but not the last. In his comment, Toby says that he does not believe that we are separate individuals but "changing and repeating patterns/living systems embedded in complex networks and mysteriously capable of self-awareness."  Why can't we be both?  And how did he come across this particular either-or decision?  I think Toby has divided finite reality far beyond the limit of where doing so yields any real insights.  Reality is what reality is, and at some point you have to deal with it, especially the fact that you can never truly understand it.  I think this sentiment, which motivated my initial post, may be what came across to Toby as accusing him of solipsism.  I do get frustrated that intellectuals who are otherwise becoming aware of the limits of their ability to understand reality so often seem to retreat into the type of Western thinking that hid those limits from view for most of their lives.