A few things are annoying me today. Top on the list is people banning me, insulting me, and blocking me when I challenge one of their ideas and they can’t hold their own in an argument. Now, I’m not talking about just some jokers, but people who publish fairly serious articles. Apparently, you can write a scholarly article, but come completely unhinged and resort to insults when challenged, even if the article is about the primacy of the legacy of Modernism, and that being based on the notion that the rational intellect can apprehend objective truth/reality.
I’m no real fan of Postmodernism, but it did have one solid point, which was that all narratives, or maps of reality, are ultimately partial and subjective. Where Postmodernism went way too far into the land of the call of the cuckoo was when it declared that Western science was no more objective, pertinent, or practical than any other worldview, and was a tool of white, Western, patriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, and everything wrong with the world. It should be obvious that if we are going to attempt to map the stars, NASA and the Hubble telescope are going to do a much better job than Zelda the Astrologer. I think anyone can get this, and it’s a bit of a sophomoric triumph to realize that superstition isn’t really as useful as engineering when it comes to setting up your plumbing. For a rather extensive examination of the shortcomings of postmodernism, read my article here.
My criticism of those who want to return to Modernism, AND insist that there is an objective, knowable reality, which human minds can harness in its entirety or near entirety using rational thought, is that their concept of “objective reality” is a tiny sliver of what is most probably out there, disregards non-rational thought, thought not couched in verbal/written language, and insights and cognition that can’t be squeezed into the cubbyhole of rationally deduced conclusions. It also sidelines as irrelevant long traditions of non-Western cultures, all of religion (including Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism), spirituality of any sort, any psychedelic experience, and probably a lot of the insights, theories, and hypothesis of the likes of luminaries such as Aldous Huxley, William James and Carl Jung.
The Neo-Modernist pseudo-intellectuals (if you can’t hold your own in a debate with little old ME on your own topic of expertise, than, you get demoted to “pseudo” or “quasi”), typified by their guru, Sam Harris, have a very strong tendency to conceive of reality as that, and only that, which science has already proven. It’s a very safe bet, but not one we would want to inflict on people in the not so distant past. The problem with Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins is not their science, but rather what they extrapolate or interpret from it, because in the act of doing so they are engaging in narrativity, or story-making, and that is the terrain of debatable subjectivity.
Sam Harris has convinced himself that he doesn’t have free will, for example. Richard Dawkins concluded that all organisms, including humans, are throwaway machines for perpetuating immortal genes. I may have aced my college philosophy courses, but that doesn’t make me anything more than a one-time diligent student able to grapple with entry level concepts. Nevertheless, those basic skills can often shoot major potholes in the conclusions of people whose thought is circumscribed in a confirmation bias echo chamber (not that Harris or Dawkins are THAT limited). Yet I can make philosophical arguments against Harris’s conclusions, and nobody has yet succeeded in out-arguing me, though I was banned from a philosophy forum for upsetting the hierarchy via not showing adequate deference to the arguments of esteemed grand dragons of the cabal of egomaniacs. The problem with Harris’s and Dawkins’ conclusions is that they fly in the face of direct, observable reality. Their conclusions are tantamount to saying that science has proven that you don’t exist. Your mere existence, as in your exercise of free will, demonstrates that science merely hasn’t figured out how it works yet. Thus, if the assumed Modernist idea of an objective truth includes or is based on ideas that defy what we directly know, such as that we exist (as in Descartes’ infamous “I think therefore I am”), than that does not constitute a complete, objective truth, but rather a sliver of very concrete and practical knowledge about the physical universe.
I’ve written a long articles about free will here and consciousness, free will and art here, but, in a nutshell, people like Harris argue that because humans are made up of material we must follow physical laws, in which case whatever we do is the unavoidable consequence of previous events. An enormous problem with this is that, by their own admission, scientists cannot locate consciousness. They can’t see it, weigh it, or detect it. It’s not a subatomic wave or particle or both/either. What we can find is brain activity. If consciousness is not a physical thing, it is not bound by the laws of physics, which apply to physical things, and hence isn’t a link in the unbreakable chain of causality.
Further, there have been some rudimentary experiments that seemed to suggest that all of our decisions are made unconsciously prior to our conscious knowledge. And here this astounding discovery should strike one as utterly ludicrous, and when one looks at the experiments in question, it is. They merely show that in terms of physical actions which require no rational or complex thought whatsoever, there is brain activity BEFORE mental awareness of making the decision to do something as minor as tapping a finger. All this sort of experiment shows is that for purely physical activities that require no thought (and we know the heart beats and the lungs breathe without any conscious control, and it’s nothing new) the brain/body initiates before the conscious mind. Well, we wouldn’t be able to play ping pong if it were otherwise. We don’t need the conscious intellect to deliberate over inconsequential physical actions.
Nevertheless, based on this kind of experiment, Sam Harris has concluded the following:
This is a perfect example of extraordinary extrapolation based on experiments that may not show anything other than what we already know, which is that the intellect need not be engaged before the body for physical tasks which require no thought.
Dawkins has a rich theory about how organisms exist to perpetuate genes. Who’d have thought of that one? What? Organisms strive to survive? But, like Harris, he reduces all of human cognition, including the collected works of Shakespeare, or the musical oeuvre of Beethoven, to serving the interests of unconscious, unthinking genes. This is how he can call a human a “throwaway machine”. Let me quote him in a little more detail.
“I use this phrase, a ‘survival machine’. A body, an individual, is a ‘survival machine’, and that’s by far the most powerful way of interpreting what an individual organism is. And individual organism is a throwaway survival machine for the self-replicating, coded, information which it contains… So the genes in a swallow, or a kangaroo, or a hedgehog, or a human, are all very good at making swallows, or kangaroos, or hedgehogs, or humans”. ~ Richard Dawkins.
Here’s a video with Dawkins explaining “the selfish gene”:
Admittedly, my math skills are only rivaled in their poverty by my navigational skills, and my scientific credentials are somewhere on a scale of 1-100 between 5 and -5. I’m quite sure I could learn an extraordinary amount from Dawkins in the field of his expertise. But, like Harris, his extrapolations veer out into the territory of lived experience and general knowledge where we can all attempt to arm-chair assess their rational conclusions. I am to believe that Shakespeare’s sperm is or was more important than his poems and plays. Van Gogh is a failure because he killed himself without replicating his genes meanwhile the record of his immaterial mind has been manifested concretely in paintings that immortalize his having existed. The wisest man would be the one who most frequently provides samples to a sperm bank. Or, could it be that in the realm of conscious beings, in many cases, it is our ideas, inventions, art, music, contributions and so on that truly motivate us, and are paramount, and not the continuation of our genes? Sounds a hell of a lot more reasonable to me, and more in synch with how we behave.
I am to understand from these esteemed scientific masterminds that the human mind is controlled by unconscious physical forces and genes with the IQ of zero. If THIS is what is considered by some Modernists to constitute “objective truth”, than, I have to say that the truth in questions is woefully inadequate. The only thing in the known universe we are absolutely certain CAN think, reason, and make decisions is us people. Nevertheless, scientists conclude that because nothing else can do this, neither can we. Again, keep in mind that the only thing we can be absolutely sure of, as René Descartes infamously articulated way back when, is that we exist, and knowing we exist means being aware of our own awareness, which is also the definition of consciousness. Thus, the only thing that cannot be questioned at all is that we are conscious. However, the one thing that can’t be disproven simultaneously cannot be proven by science. When we consider what we are, we are our consciousness more than our body, as many things have bodies or mere materiality without being conscious. If what we are cannot even be detected by science, it doesn’t follow that we are limited by the same things which limit materials the properties of which can definitively be identified, weighed, measured, and so on. Harris is essentially arguing that because unconscious, unthinking, material does not have free will, neither does immaterial, thinking, reasoning, consciousness. Combine that with the fact that we experience free will constantly, and I see no reason to conclude we are bound by determinism.
And quickly, for those that say that we don’t get to choose where we are born, when, who our parents are, our race, sex, gender, and so on, free will is not the same thing as being God or having super powers. That’s some form of absolute free will. What Harris and I are talking about is on the level of your ability to decide where you want to go on a vacation, make a travel plan, and go. I say you can do it. He says background causes and the chain of causality make the decisions for you, and you are just along for the ride, deluded into thinking that when you are thinking it’s YOU doing it, while you are really merely observing the unfolding of physical laws. You’re just watching a movie.
This is NOT to say that the project of objective understanding of reality, the use of controlled, repeatable, peer-reviewed and uncontested findings haven’t made the most extraordinary leaps in progress and quality of life for the mass of humanity in the last centuries. It is rather to say that we shouldn’t put the lid on the jar and call it a day, thinking we have figured it all out, or even that we can do so using only our rational intellect.
Another problem with the idea that human’s can access objective truth is that we assume no other living organism we are aware of can. All other organisms are frankly too stupid. But I would counter that animals, and especially the smarter ones with the bigger brains, such as whales and gorillas DO experience reality even without recourse to abstract thought and spoken/written language. In other words, you don’t need a rational intellect to apprehend reality, nor is that intellect capable itself of doing so independent of other factors such as having a sensory body. Animals know they exist, whether they can write that down in a grammatically correct sentence or not. The mother Orca making distressed calls when her calf was removed knows she is alive without recourse to science.
If all other animals are, we believe, constitutionally incapable of apprehending objective reality/truth, what makes us assume that we are not similarly limited, but merely less so? Even the proponents of “objective truth” would admit that someone with an IQ of 60 is not going to be able to apprehend the “objective truth” of which they speak. Thus, what is to say that an alien species with much greater cranial capacity (way bigger brains), astronomically higher IQs, and infinitely more complex technology would not look at us as incapable of grasping objective truth?
Even on our Earth we cannot see the way that a bee or hawk does, and we cannot interpret how a cuttlefish communicates with another through pulsating shows of color. We do not know what it is like to be an octopus spontaneously changing its color and form to imitate some other creature or object. Our bodies alone restrict our perceptions of reality. For all these reasons I argue that any “objective truth” we humans come up with is most likely a mere slice of a pie that might be infinite in size.
On top of this, while Modernism is primarily concerned with objective reality, in the East there was an inward quest into the subjective mind. Do we discount enlightenment as a hoax? Admittedly, it’s kind of hard not to as one after another sacred guru is revealed as a fraud. But even science has shown that there are changes in the brain while an accomplished mediator undergoes meditation. If we don’t have this experience ourselves – I’m not very good at meditation, and I’ve tried – we can only imagine a blank or nothing, where even brain scans are showing something physical is happening, and there definitely is a subjective corollary. What knowledge is gained through this sort of non-verbal introspection? Is the truth gleaned thereof inferior to that established through the rational mind?
I’ve dabbled in Eastern philosophy, and a chief idea is that language and rational thought is NOT the way to apprehend reality, but the impediment. How easy it is to dismiss thousands of years of this investigation and practice as nothing more than nothing? Any knowledge, insight, cognition, impression, or feeling gained through these traditions is absent in Neo-Modernism.
And then there are those who engaged in psychedelic forays into hitherto uncharted conscious landscapes. As far as intellects go, Aldous Huxley was no slouch. And like Timothy Leary, who thought he had it all figured out and was at the top of his game, Huxley had to do a complete reboot, so to speak, after imbibing mescaline one fine afternoon. Did he just go bat-shit crazy? No. He wrote a book about his experience and insights, and continued to possess a formidable intellect, but now equipped with an unexpected vista of knowledge gleaned through the opening of a window he didn’t even know was there. Mescaline, of course, is in Peyote, which I’m sure you’ve heard of, and has been used by Native Americans for over 5,000 years, while Modernism was completely unaware of this opening into another or higher consciousness. This is another example of how other cultures may have knowledge and understanding that is well outside, or even imagined, by a traditional, Western, objective worldview.
Another thing I’m starting to really be interested in is the non-verbal communication of visual language art, and by that I mean imagery. We are now in an era of rabid political polarization, rampant ideologies, and ostensibly political activism run amok. People label others as fast as they can spit out the epithet, and are willing to clobber people over the head for holding what they see as the wrong view. Thus I have to be very careful what I say, and there are certain topics – just about anything political, especially as regards identity politics – I am better off not addressing at all. However, I find that in visual images I can articulate things I wouldn’t dare write, or even say out loud, or even myself understand.
Visual language art (as in visual images, and ones created by hand and via the imagination in particular) are not only a form of free speech, but a form of freedom from speech, as in the freedom to express outside of the tyranny of spoken/written language (and it should be apparent I am quite fond of rational thought expressed in language).
For expressing this argument, I was deemed uninterested in having a conversation on the topic of Modernism, tedious, and I gather blocked. My original comment on the article in question was deleted/censored from the site that published it, while the debate happened (or rather didn’t) on Facebook.
You can see the sort of arguments I make, and how I make them. Whether one agrees with me or not, I am being civil, am interested in the dialogue, and am willing to debate it and admit if I am wrong. In fact I hope to be wrong because I am far more excited by new discovery than merely being right about something I already know. THAT is boring. I want to know who sees something on the distant horizon that I don’t. And if I’m befuddling myself with some stupid misconception, I would prefer to be disabused of it.
One of the reasons I’m writing this rant on my blog is that when I comment elsewhere I have a history of being banned by the left, abused by the right, and ignored by the middle (though now censored and blocked by them as well). I’ve been banned from Hyperallergic (online art magazine), a salvia divinorum forum, a philosophy forum, and my comments have often just been deleted. I’ve also been kicked out of college classes. And this will happen while other people are calling me an idiot, moron, turkey, or whatever, and while I’m remaining civil. Usually, if not always, my crime is refusing to accept someone elses circumscribing of reality as definitive. After I am banned, people can say whatever they want about the excommunicated person, and thus achieve the victory they sought. I can no longer defend myself.
That’s probably long enough for a rant.