An online colleague published an essay on another essay (en français). The gist was to say that their ideas were the same save for whether a core foundation was reality or truth. I am going to stylise these and derivatives in capital initials, e.g., Real and Truth. I am not sure I see the connexion, and perhaps Lance will chime in here directly to correct any misunderstandings and fill in any holes.
At least in English vernacular, True and Real are close synonyms. I don’t feel they are as close as we may assume at first glance. I think each of these terms carries with it its own ambiguity and connotation, so a meaningful discussion may prove to be difficult.
I’m not sure if it’s a fair characterisation, but I feel that most people consider Real as what they can sense or experience. Some may not even allow for the experiential component. In my mind, metaphorically thinking, of course, a book might be real; an idea might be real; even the idea of a unicorn might be real, but unicorns are not real. If we want to claim unicorns as part of Reality or include it in the set of Reality, then it would be a second-order sort. Substituting Harry Potter for unicorns, the idea of Harry Potter is real, but Harry Potter is a figment. Of course, Harry Potter may be the name of a human or your pet otter, but this is not the manifest Harry Potter of the idea. And Harry Potter is not a unicorn.
I mention Harry Potter and, indeed, unicorns, because I have had people argue that these things are real. For me, they are off the table, whether real or imagined. I feel that some people may also reduce Real to material, so a Realist would be the same as a Materialist. That’s fine except we end up with obvious non-material stuff on the cutting room floor. What do we do with emotions and so-called qualia? Sure, some might equate emotions with biochemical reactions and some synaptic exchange in some parts of the brain, further articulated through facial and bodily expressions and gestures. For the Materialist, we may not yet know the mechanism, but it’s only a matter of time—in the same manner as atoms became protons and electrons, which became quarks with spins and colour, and this morphed into fields.
Being sympathetic to Analytic Idealism, I might argue that none of this is real because all we can experience is what we can sense, but what we sense is a second order of Reality. We can’t even experience the first-order variety. The usual analogy is to look at computer bits or the funky Matrix code, and it doesn’t reveal what we see or experience through the interface. In the case of the Matrix, the interface is their perceived reality. But perception isn’t Reality. At least Descartes suggests as much. If first-order Reality is unattainable, we can either consider this sensed and experienced world second order. This leaves our unicorns and Harry Potter to be third order. In this case, we might idiomatically consider the first-order to be understood to exist, but our use of Reality extends only to the second-order variety.
In any case, I don’t expect to resolve the mystery of Reality here and now, but it is a dialogue where accord is necessary to be on the same proverbial page.
But then what is True? What is Truth? I’ve written about this previously. Here, we are explicitly invoking the capital-T version of Truth, not the minuscule-t version where it’s synonymous with pedestrian ‘facts’ and tautologies. By True, are we asking what is objectively real—unadulterated by subjective experience, some universal and invariable condition? And is this Truth what is Real? Are there Truths that are not Real?
To sum it up, it is quite standard—although not universal by a long shot—to consider Real what we can experience whilst True is something that requires proof. A physical table might be real. Like unicorns, mathematic concepts may be true—I’d argue that this is tautological whilst others might defend some Platonic ideal—, but they are not real. They are an abstraction. I suppose my point is to not take these words for granted and presume they can be directly interchanged. I suppose in the adjective form, they are more apt to coincide—Is that a true Picasso? Is that a real Picasso? Clearly, when we are asking if it is real, we are asking if it is truly genuine rather than questioning its materiality.
It may be true that I am wittering away online in some masturbatory pseudo-intellectual frenzy, and the results may be virtually real, but I needed to let my mind wander for a bit. If you’ve gotten this far, bless your heart, and leave a comment.
So this happened. I was working on a video response to a video on the Incoherence of Subjective Morality when I got distracted by the general concept of objective morality. And this video was the result.
I thought that this would be a short detour, but it wasn’t for a few reasons. First, it just wasn’t. Second, it takes a long time to composit even the simplest of digital image assets. Third, it takes a long time to scrounge around the internet for image and video assets. Fourth, creating videos takes longer when you aren’t set up to create them. Fifth, when your project file get corrupted 80 per cent of the way through. Sixth, when you realise that 80 per cent complete was really 60 percent complete. And seventh, when you take the opportunity to start over to upgrade your video editing software only to realise that the vendor has made substantial changes to the interface—some for the better, some for the worse.
For those preferring to read, here’s the source script.
What is objective morality? In this segment, I outline the challenges with the claim of objective morality, primarily through the lens of a subjective moralist.
In the simplest terms, objective morality is the belief that morality is universal, that it’s not up for interpretation. So let’s start there by framing the concept.
Let’s agree that there is some objective morality out there, beyond subjective experience. Following the Biblical account of Genesis. God created the earth from the void, and somewhere in these seven days, objective morality was created. Time, which was also created, presumably at the start of this endeavour, passed, until such time that humans were objectively subjected to this morality waiting in the wings. I suppose that this objective morality might have been created when God imparted the decalogue to Moses. Who’s to say. It feels like morality is bigger than the Ten Commandments, which, for the record, feels more like a highlight real. For our purposes, this objective moral code existed prior to our existence, and we are bound by it. Let’s continue.
This thing existed.
Let’s call this thing morality.
Because it exists independent of observers or subjects, we can further consider it to be objective. We’ve got objective morality. I think we are on to something.
And then god created the heavens and earth. I’m not sure where He was living before that time or why He felt it necessary to establish this. But reasons. Whatever. Let’s march onward, Christian soldiers.
Finally, the part we’ve all been waiting for. Humans. That’s us! Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, begetting and begotten. Wandering and wondering, pandering and pondering, we discover morality. Cain oft Abel, giving us evidence that this morality thing predated Moses on the mount. See how that works?
Let’s rewind a bit, and check out this objective morality thing. We’ve got morality springing from the void. It had to have even predated the heavens and the earth. Before the light. Before the first dawn. I’m not sure this is important to our narrative, so let’s ignore the actual when.
Eventually, there were humans that needed to adhere to this code. Non-humans are not required to abide by this code. But don’t be that dog who attacks a human, because you’ll be taken down as sure as you were subject to this code.
These wandering wondering humans were just chillin in the Garden, and someone ate an apple, a forbidden fruit. Thee forbidden fruit. No names. We all know the story. No reason to linger. Time to let bygones be bygones and leave the past in the past. Obviously, someone should have known about this objective morality. Shaking my head.
There it was. Apples. Figleaves. Objective morality. Apples, bad. Serpents, evil. We’ve got it all sussed out. Or do we. At this point we’ve got all that is, and then what is bad. Or evil. Take your pick. I’m not wholly sure I’ve got the distinction. Love the sinner. Hate the sin. Now I’m just confused. Time to leave this behind. No need to dawdle.
Humans are sensate beings. We sense things with perception. We perceive things. Generally speaking, we consider humans to have five senses. sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. To simplify the narrative, I’ll employ sight as a stand-in for all sense-perceptions.
The narrative goes like this: a thing we call morality exists objectively in the world, and then we discover it. Like a tree or a tiger, we perceive it. As said, our eyes are sense organs. They act as lenses. Light reflects off objects and our eyes collect this light, via rods and cones, but that’s TMI. The vertically inverted image is cast on our retina. But wait. There’s more.
Eyes are sense organs, but they don’t actually perceive anything. I hope I didn’t lead you astray. Eyes connect to a brain via an optic nerve. The brain translates sense-perceptions, and this is how we make sense of the world.
Now, back in the day, there was a cat named Descartes. He was meditating on how he could know if he existed. In doing so, he determined that if he was thinking that he was here to do the thinking, that at least he existed.
His thought experiment went along these lines.
He acknowledged that he perceived via input through sense organs.
Eyes, for seeing—scale, shape, contrast, and colour.
Ears, for hearing—amplitude, pitch.
Nose, for smelling. He had a large nose.
Tongue, for alimentary tasting. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.
And skin. Fingers, toes, and so on, for touching. Smooth, rough, and so on.
Humans don’t get senses for echolocation like bats and cetaceans , electroreception like sharks, magnetoreception like migratory birds, infrared vision like snakes or ultraviolet vision like some birds.
Descartes reflected on his sense organs and commenced enumerating sensory processing disorders.
He recognised that the eyes were fallible. Among animals, visual acuity is fairly mediocre. Eagles can see more clearly at twice the distance than humans. Beyond this, the eyes or visual perception could be tricked by hallucinations. Magicians routinely fool the eyes with legerdemain. Humans perceive a series of still frames as moving, whence motion pictures. We don’t have to mention dreams and chemically-induced visual perception challenges. It seemed real enough. Right? Had Descartes have the Internet in his day, he may have had an opinion on the blue versus gold dress debate.
The ears are fallible as well. We can’t hear sounds as low as elephants and ferrets or as high as bats, dogs, and whales. I’m not sure if he’d even consider the Yanni and Laurel debate.
Aside from anosmia and hyposmia, respectively the inability and diminished ability to smell, olfactory perception has as many challenges as sight and sound. Interestingly enough, smell and taste are tightly linked, so a problem with smelling can affect taste.
Speaking of taste. Like the nose, the tongue can experience similar deficits as ageusia or hypogeusia, the inability and diminished ability to taste . Dysgeusia, which is where a person’s taste senses to be confused, is estimated to occur in about 15 percent of the population, but few people actually seek treatment. Still, Descartes accounted for its fallibility.
Finally, we’ve got the sense of touch. Yet again, we’ve got phantom limb sensations for amputees, and many other somatosensory disorders. We all likely know the pins and needles feeling when our leg ‘falls asleep’, and as we get older neuropathic sensations and discomfort becomes more probable.
Descartes didn’t even mention synesthesia, where auditory cues are processed and interpreted as visual information, so musical tones might have taste; sounds and shapes have colour, and so on. Even so, Descartes came to the realisation that our senses are crap. And don’t get him started on challenges with other cognitive functions or memory degradation. Now where were we?
Right. To throw a spanner in the works, morality isn’t actually a thing. It’s an abstract concept. But, that’s not fair. That’s from a subjectivist’s point of view. Not to put words into the mouths of a moral objectivist, but I’ll suggest that, rather than label it as an abstract concept, they might be more comfortable referring to it as something outside of the material realm. Not to be snide, but that’s a typical fallback. If you want to refer to something otherwise unreferenceable, just make a claim that it is outside of the material sense-perception realm.
The challenge for an objectivist, now, is to reconcile how this non-material sense-perception content is perceived. For the subjectivist, it’s simple. It’s a culturally transmitted social construction. But this isn’t about subjectivists, so let’s forge on.
The claim of objective morality isn’t merely a conceptual claim. It’s a truth claim. It wouldn’t be meaningful to make an argument for objective morality if it weren’t a claim about the truth of an objective morality.
Here, we have a challenge. There is some objective morality out there. Following the logic, it doesn’t exist in the material world, so we have multiple subjects, with all of the inherent sensory processing fallibilities. As with the blue and gold dress or the Yanni-Laurel debate, how do we mediate this truth? Who is the arbiter of Truth? Let’s consider another couple examples.
Whether morality is subjective or not, perception is. There is no way to determine if you and I perceive anything the same way.
Colour is experiential. Besides this point that different cultures and languages name colours differently. I don’t mean that the colour of this cylinder is red in English, rouge in French, and roho in Spanish. In essence, colours are the categorisation of the visual spectrum, arbitrarily dividing the spectrum in ranges. These colour ranges don’t align perfectly. Some languages don’t have colour names for colours that otherwise exist, and some languages derive colour names by attributes not based on frequencies. Some cultures have no colour names. Moreover, what Newton referred to as blue in his colours of the rainbow, we now consider to be cyan, so colour names can drift. I could produce an entire series on colour and perception, so I’ll stop here and share some anecdotes.
Aside from this inconvenience, I’ll convey a personal story. I had a mate who had a colour perception disorder. What I saw as the colour red, he perceived as mustard.
What I perceived as mustard. A colour in the dark yellow portion of the spectrum, known in English as flax, or mustard-colour by the uninitiated, he also considered to be mustard. Check out this cool mustard car.
To put a bit of a spin on it, he perceived the condiments, mustard and ketchup, as the same colour. In a dish, he couldn’t tell the difference without smelling or tasting.
Another mate of mine had a visual disorder. Although he could see, he was legally blind. Also. His eyes functioned perfectly. They would have made a nice organ donor gift. His disorder was caused by a deteriorated optic nerve due to medical malpractice at birth. He also has anosmia and ageusia, but I’ll share his optical challenges.
His disorder resulted in, firstly, his visual perception reduced everything to a 20 percent scale. Think of it as what the world would look like if you viewed in through the wrong end of a telescope. He would perceive a 182 centimetre person as about 35 centimetres, a 5-foot person would appear as 1-foot-tall to him.
Related to this disorder, he had no depth perception. This made perambulation particularly difficult. Practically speaking, he can’t distinguish between a line on a sidewalk and a step, and vice versa. Subjective perception.
But these people are not normal in this regard. Their perception is atypical. I admit that this is true. Let’s continue.
I’ve rendered a red cylinder on the screen. The red I perceive is the red I always perceive as red.
Perhaps you perceive the red cylinder as this. I can’t know how you see red, or blue, or chartreuse, or flax. And vice versa.
You might defend that the colours evoke some emotional response. Red represents fire and passion. Blue is calm and cool.
The problem is that these emotions are just attached to the colour attribute. That firetruck is always red to you, and the ocean and sky are always blue. But it doesn’t have to match mine or anyone else’s rendition.
Where were we? Oh yeah. Perception is Subjective. Let’s take the popular example of the blind men and the elephant. Like objective morality, let’s consider this to be a conceptual elephant and not a physical, material elephant.
I suppose an objectivist might argue that the objective morality is perceived at once and for all, interpreted perfectly, but I’m going to push back with the defence that there is no evidence that it even exists in the first place. To stretch this to being fully grasped in one fell swoop, feels a bit much. This said, I’ll continue as if this objective morality exists, but I am going to entertain that one might suss out what it is through the experience of trial and error, which feels like it might parallel how we or other animals, figured out which plants and berries were edible. Sorry Grog. Rest in Peace.
In this scenario, the elephant is a metaphor for objective morality. These blind persons have never encountered or imagined an elephant to date, so they’ve got no experience. One blind person feels the trunk and perceives it as a snake whilst the other perceives the tail as a rope. I supposed these guys could taste or smell the elephant for a better assessment. Or walk around the elephant, feeling different aspects. But this didn’t happen. They never experienced this elephant holistically.
In the extended director’s cut, there are more blind people, each with restricted experience. Even if they are communicating amongst each other, it’s still a guessing game. And even if they create a sort of map to the terrain of this previously uncharted elephant territory. They have some aggregated collection of facts, a bunch of object nomenclature, yet they likely remain in the dark as to its purpose. Elephants have no moral truth value.
Let’s take some time to look at maps and terrains by example.
Rene Magritte created a famous postmodern painting, La trahison des images, The Treachery of Images. There is a representation of a smoking pipe. Written under the image are the words forming the sentence, Ceci, n’est pas une pipe. This is not a pipe.
Upon reflection, it’s almost immediately apparent that Magritte is letting his viewing audience into a secret. This is not a pipe because it is a picture of a pipe. This is a map, not the terrain, which is the object named pipe.
In The Matrix, the Wachowskis rendered a scene where the adept boy informs Neo, the protagonist and proto-saviour, that there is no spoon. Neo perceives the spoon, but it doesn’t exist. In fact, the Matrix is an immaterial world. Everything is a figment. This is not the simulacrum of Baudrillard, but it is a simulation. This is not a map and terrain problem so much as the map has replaced a terrain that has never existed in the first place.
Now we go from Ceci, n’est pas une pipe to Ceci, n’est pas un éléphant. This argument is not following Magritte’s claim that it’s a representation of the object, and it’s not pursuing the Wachowskis’ line of logic, that it is somehow simulated. This reasoning is more along the path of Saussure. It’s merely a reference to the object itself, which Saussure deems a sign.
If we accept that anything exists in the world, this object exists in it, but is it an elephant or un éléphant. This object is a sign, an icon. We can assign this sign a nominative reference, and we can assign it all sorts of attributes,— scale, mass, colour, and composition, such as those discovered by the blind people. We can describe physiology and behaviour patterns, create lineages and hierarches. We can even categorise and differentiate these things. In fact, one major functional purpose of language is precisely differentiation. And we can classify all elephants into a bin and then sort them into Indian and African varieties. We can construct a concept such as time and then again a sub-concept such as age. And we can generalise these.
We can group in any number of ways. Elephants is one way. Large mammals is another, to liken them to whales or plesiosaurs. Or as land mammals, we can relate them to mice and men. Grey things liken them to my favourite jumper or pavement. Tusked animals sorts them with walruses and boars. Quadrupeds with horses, with whom they share lineage and DNA, as do their whale brethren. Sistren?
What we perceive as an elephant is a signifier, a symbol. Elephants only exist conceptually. Any description has been assigned to it. We can assign it a name with spoken or written words. Me Tarzan. You elephant. We can render a likeness through photography, by other art media. We can even represent it as a shadow puppet or by other reference, such as mimicking their telltale trumpeting sound or reproducing it onomatopoeically.
It’s important to note that a sign is only a sign if it is recognised as a sign. Conversely, I can create any number of meaningless, orphaned signifiers.
Finally, we have the signified. If the signifier is denotative, the signified is connotative. What is evoked when you see or hear a signified. For elephants, I envisage Hannibal crossing the Alps. I think of nurturing animals, who never forget, who will exact revenge, and who are afraid of mice. I also think of Dumbo and Jiminy Cricket. And, of course, the colour grey, poaching, circuses and zoos, and the attributes they’re known for having, a trunk, tusks, large floppy ears, and the rest.
Let’s return to see how this works for the notion of objective morality.
We’re back with our two subjects observing some object. Only they aren’t observing anything. They are moderating a concept. If our two subjects have the same, let’s call it an opinion, on the Truth of the matter, we are in a relatively good place. But only relatively speaking.
The problem is that just because two people agree on something, doesn’t make it so. Just because a million or two-million people or even seven-billion people agree on something, it doesn’t make it true. There was a time when most people thought that slavery was a good idea. Even the Bible was cool with slavery, but let’s not stray into theological territory.
Objectivists have a solution for this dilemma. It’s the single source of Truth we started with. The one that not only predates humans, it likely pre-dates dates. Take that subjectivists.
Wait. What’s that. My producer is telling me I’ve still got a problem. Let’s see if I can work this through.
Our subjects are stuck in their own perspective, but there is a True Truth to be found. It’s just immaterial. Without exception. everyone is subject to the limitations noted by Descartes. Everyone is fallible. ahem. Apologies to the Pope.
I guess I can’t escape a theological account. Let’s see how that might play out. Let’s rewind back to before time, before it all began. Just the void. And God.
We’ve seen this already. God creates this objective reality. Time passes. More time passes.
Christ. God hasn’t yet created time.
Now time passes, and more time passes.
Our subjects appear. Bicker a bit about morality.
God appears to one of them. In a vision, I suppose. Perhaps it was someone else. In any case, the voice in the visions tells the visionary, ‘This is the moral code. Remember it. You’re not gonna forget it in the morning. For My sake. Write it down. Here. I’ll write it down.’
Stone tablet and all. 3-D printed in stone. Very edgy. ‘Now go tell your friends, Romans, and countrymen.’
‘Romans?’ you ask yourself.
God sniggers to himself thinking, ‘Oh, just you wait’.
Later. This smug visionary waits for the opportunity.
‘The way I see it…’
Bam! Right. ‘The way you see it. Mate, listen. It’s not about you. I’ve got the inside scoop. No reason to argue. I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.’
‘Talking horses?’, your mate scoffs incredulously.
‘It’s a saying. I just made it up.’
‘Right. Cuz, I’ve never even heard of horses.’
‘Yeah, well. These are the rules. I’m calling it a code. And it’s not what you said.’
‘It’s what I was saying all along.’
‘That’s bollocks, mate. And you know it.’
‘Nope. I had a dream. It’s all true. And it’s all written down.’
‘You can’t write.’
‘Didn’t have to. Geezer in the dream did it for me.’
‘But you can’t read. No one can. Writing hasn’t even been invented yet.’
‘Then I suppose we can start with this.’
‘This stone tablet. It was just here. Well anyway, I remember what it said is all that matters.’
And so it goes.
All we’ve done is kicked the tin into the long grass. We’ve shifted focus from one incorporeal object to another. Introducing God into the equation did nothing to promote objectivity, if only because any God experience is just as subjective and just as unverifiable. It’s a veritable chain of evidence problem.
To add insult to injury, we’ve got some other blokes a few blocks down claiming that their god laid down some different laws. And it has to be true because the entire neighbourhood is in agreement.
And so it goes. Even if there were an objective moral truth, it is inaccessible, so the argument over its speculative existence it pointless. The defence that it’s immaterial doesn’t help the objectivists cause. This is akin to the parent telling the insubordinate child, because I said so.’ That doesn’t advance the argument or get us very far.
One final point. I know, right?
As Nietzsche pointed out. In a world with no objective morality, it will be difficult to maintain order. But just because it’s easier to control populations when they perceive a single unadulterated source of order and power, it doesn’t follow that it exists. As I illustrate in another video on moral subjectivism, you may have run out of petrol and are stranded in the desert, but it doesn’t follow that your inconvenience can conjure this need into petrol in the material world. You are just as stranded. Just because you can imagine a solution on an imaginary plane doesn’t mean it’s real or has any impact on the material world. Just as you can imagine throwing the winning hail Mary touchdown with seconds remaining in the Superbowl to bring your underdog ragtag bunch of misfits, a come from behind victory, you shouldn’t be surprised to discover it yields you nothing in this material world, for I am just a material girl.
My girlfriend’s mother with whom we live was raised a Catholic. She asked me what my religious beliefs are, and I responded that I don’t believe in gods, angels, divine anything, a higher intelligence or power in the manner people ascribe to gods. She conveyed that she had been upset with her husband but got the last laugh after he died.
As she related it to me, the night after he dies, he came to her in a vision and told her that he was wrong and she was right, so now she knows that there is life after death. I’m not entirely sure if he was heaven-bound in this scenario.
So, as she finds comfort in this belief (and of the other spectres she’s seen, heard, and felt, I just nod and smile and say ‘that’s nice’). I try my best not to sprain anything as I roll my eyes on the inside.
At least Descartes admitted that his senses might be deceived. No such thing here. One of the issues I have with so-called religious tolerance is that it is not politically correct to call BS on nonsense like this. Of course, I am not about to jeopardise my relationship with my girlfriend by mocking her mother.
My girlfriend is a different story still. she was raised in a Catholic household but was not subjected to the church or parochial school like her mother, but she was still fed a diet of religious nonsense growing up. To her, hell is real. The fear of a hell actually influences some moral decisions. To the righteous, this is a fine consequentialist approach, the ends (of normalised behaviour) justify the means (of believing a lie).
To me, the lie is immoral, but to some, they actually believe it (or believe it enough) that they don’t see it as a fabrication. I suppose it’s easier for people like me who consider morality to be fabricated from whole cloth.
Whether in English or in French, I don’t believe Foucault ever uttered the words, ‘It is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – Reason, Truth, or Knowledge‘*, but I don’t think he’d disagree with the sentiment.
Foucault was a postmodernist, and on balance, political Conservatives (Rightists?) dislike the notion of postmodernism. Evidently, a lot of Postmodernists are also Leftists (Progressives or Liberals in the US), so somehow critics such as Jordan Peterson conflate the two clearly distinct concepts.
A basis for Conservatism is the notion of an objective truth, and despite recent sociopolitical trends, they at least say they are guardians or truth and purveyors of knowledge. Conservatives (OK, so I am broad-brushing here) are staunch individualists who believe strongly in possession and property, of material, of an objective reality. Fundamentally, the are aligned to a monotheistic god or at least some discernible (and objective) moral compass.
On the Left, especially post-Enlightenment, they’ve substituted God with some anthropomorphic Nature. In fact, they find comfort in natural laws and human nature. Science is often their respite because science is objective. Isn’t it? Leftists are friends or Reason, and one can’t acquire enough knowledge. Moderation need not apply here; the more the merrier.
This being said, evidently, many on the Left seem to have abandoned this comfort zone. Of course, this may be because the Left-Right dichotomy doesn’t capture the inherent nuance, and so they were miscategorised—perhaps, much in the same manner as persons are miscategorised in a binary gender system. No. It must be something else.
In any case, both side claim to the parties of knowledge, reason, and truth because the opposing parties are clearly abject morons. There is no hint of irony in the situation where each side claims some objective notion of truth—whether divinely granted or self-evidently reasoned—, yet they can’t resolve what the true truth is. If only the other side were more rational.
By now, we are well aware of the demise of homo economicus, the hyper-rational actor foundational to modern economic theory. In reality, humans are only rational given the loosest definitions, say, to (in most cases) know enough to get in the shade on a 37.2°C day. However, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely noted by the title of his book, people are Predictably Irrational. Ariely is just standing on the shoulders of Kahneman and Tversky and Richard Thaler. My point is that humans are only marginally rational.
As I’ve written elsewhere, truth is nothing more than a rhetorical endpoint. It is hardly objective. It’s a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, systems of government and jurisprudence require this objective truth. In truth—see what I did there?—, social fabric requires a shared notion of truth.
A shared notion doesn’t imply that this notion is objective, but if it’s not objective, how does one resolve differences of opinion as to which is the better truth. Without establishing a frame and a lens, this is impossible. The problem is that frames and lenses are also relative. Whether the members accept a given frame or lens is also a matter of rhetoric. It’s turtles all the way down.
Even if all members agree on all parameters of truth at day 0, there is nothing to prevent opinion changes or from new members not to share these parameters. Such is always the problem with social contract theory. [How does one commit to a contract s/he is born into with little recourse to rescind the contract, renegotiate terms, or choose a different contract option. The world is already carved up, and the best one can do is to jump from the frying pan into the fire.]
In the end, the notion of truth is necessary, but it doesn’t exist. Playing Devil’s advocate, let’s say that there is a single purveyor of Truth; let’s just say that it’s the monotheistic Abrahamic God of Judeo-Christian beliefs. There is no (known) way to ascertain that a human would have the privilege to know such a truth nor, if s/he were to encounter, say, a burning bush of some sort, that this entity would be conveying truth; so, we aren’t really in a better place. Of course, we could exercise faith and just believe, but this is a subjective action. We could also take Descarte’s line of logic and declare that a good God would not deceive us—sidestepping that this ethereal being was good, as advertised. I’m afraid it’s all dead ends here, too.
And so, we are back to where we started: no objective truth, limited ability to reason, and some fleeting notion of knowledge. We are still left with nothing.
Enter the likes of Jordan Peterson, he with his fanciful notion of metaphysics and morality—a channeller of Carl Jung. His tactic is to loud dog the listener and outshout them indignantly. His followers, already primed with a shared worldview, are adept (or inept) cheerleaders ready to uncritically echo his refrain. To them, his virtue-ethical base, steeped in consequentialism awash in deontology, Peterson speaks the truth.
He also potentiates the selfish anti-collective germ and rage of the declining white man. He’s sort of a less entertaining Howard Stern for the cleverer by half crowd. He gives a voice to the voiceless—or perhaps the thoughtless. He uses ‘reason’ to back his emotional pleas. He finds a voice in the wilderness where white Western males are the oppressed. If only they hadn’t been born centuries earlier—albeit with iPhones and microwaves.
Those would be the days.
* I believe this phrase attributed to Foucault was a paraphrase by philosopher Todd May.
Magritte used art to comment on the distinction between the map and the territory. His The Treachery of Images, likely more commonly known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe, may be the most famous example in art.
The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!
— René Magritte
People commonly or at least idiomatically refer to the terrain when they should be referencing the map. Likewise to the film Inception, we can recurse these maps all the way down. This is represented by the image above, Ceci n’est pas un GIF, which is a further reflection of Magritte’s work.
But the precursors of social constructionism predate post-structuralism. In fact, they predate structuralism itself. Although Surrealists like René Magritte were products of the post-structuralist era, there were hints of it at the dawn of the Enlightenment.
In 1772, Denis Diderot uses his story, Ceci n’est pas un conte (This is not a story) to demonstrate that a person’s behaviour is not in itself moral or immoral. Morality is not universal, and therefore it is not revealed either.
The point here is to underscore the difference between the referent and the symbol, whether by visual or auditory means. Dualist, René Descartes in his Cogito even understood this difference when he pointed out the ways each of the senses can be deceived. What he didn’t fully appreciate (or at least articulate) is how this disconnect is more prevalent than he had even considered.
Returning to the modern era, in 1966 Peter Berger published The Social Construction of Reality (PDF). This theory centres on the notion that human beings rationalise their experience by creating models of the social world and share and reify these models through language.
In closing, this is important because even when discussing facts about the world, we are still mired by perception. The legal system understands that eyewitness accounts of an event are among the least trustworthy. Ambiguity exists in language.
An example I used when I was teaching undergrads was the concept of fairness. Who felt that ‘things’ should be fair or that any person should be treated fairly. Accuse me of argument by anecdote if you must, but I have never encountered a person who disagreed with this notion.
But then the conversation got interesting: What was their perception of fair? Did it need to result in equality of outcome or was equality of opportunity sufficient? I wrote about this last year. Similar conversations happened when discussions arose over justice and so on.
My conclusion: There is no reason to believe humans’ employment of language results in a very precise representation of reality. There is even less reason to believe that language provides some vector to know moral truths—or any truths, really. The best course of action is to rely on the slight
My parting gift is this classic Annie Hall bit with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
Alvy Singer’s Therapist: How often do you sleep together?
Annie Hall’s Therapist: Do you have sex often?
Alvy Singer: [lamenting] Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.
Annie Hall: [annoyed] Constantly. I’d say three times a week.
I am re-reading Albert Camus‘ The Myth of Sisyphus, but it’s not as I remember all those years ago. My first comment is that it is a product of its time. Even though some people still believe that without some inherent ‘higher’ meaning, chaos would ensue—the same who believe that atheists will behave this way and that anarchists will smash windows and resort to hedonism.
I think that Camus chose suicide because people at that time would have a ‘natural’ propensity to feel that a life without meaning would necessarily result in suicide. It’s especially humorous given that ostensibly there is no meaning. Of course, the larger question is why people appear to be hard-wired to search for meaning. Secondarily, even if there were some higher meaning, as Camus suggests, there would be no objective way to confirm it.
« If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences. »
Back to reading… (less typing and more reading)
« The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. »
« I don’ t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. »
When Camus cites Nietzsche,
“It clearly seems that the chief thing in heaven and on earth is to obey at length and in a single direction: in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind—something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine“,
he also nods to the reader his accord with Nietzsche’s adherence to virtue ethics praising how he ‘elucidates the rule of a really distinguished code of ethics‘, and therein lies the rub. Why should any of these be any better than any other thing?
Nietzsche and Camus were both products of their age, and as Descartes was before them, as brilliant as they each were in their own rights, they were blinded by their age: Descartes by God, and Nietzsche and Camus by virtue.
The Myth of Sisyphus is an interesting exposition, but, try as it may, it falls short.
I’ve been reading Robert Nozick‘s Anarchy, State, and Utopia because it was recommended by Ian Shapiro. Although I am only about a quarter way through, and he seems to have tried to hit all the angles; unless I missed it, perhaps hits these bits later on.
He thoroughly raises issues and works to resolve them, but, as with Descartes with his Discourse, Nozick seems to exogenously accept certain aspects in an appeal to tradition sort of way. With Descartes, he stripped all belief in the truth of his senses, but then he injects God into the equation from out of nowhere. For Nozick, he just takes property and value as given.
One of the biggest issues I have with modern, Western political theory is Locke‘s so-called ‘workmanship ideal‘, a concept stemming from the Enlightenment belief that a maker of something should be the rightful owner of something. The Age of Enlightenment (AKA Age of Reason) was supposed to have divorced science from other rationale, whether divine rights (as ascribed to kings) or something else. The problem—the same problem Descartes had in his Discourses—is that God (even if vis-a-vis ‘nature‘) is injected exogenously and irrationally into the works. Philosophers even into the 21st century, if barely, have concluded that this concept breaks down when we attempt to secularise it, but we are subjectively comfortable with the notion. Of course, the more our beliefs lean towards ‘higher powers‘, intelligent design and the such, the more comfortable we are apt to feel.