Search for Meaning

I’ve been having a side debate with a Christian friend of mine who made these claims:

Whom do you serve?

Chrétien de Troyes — Perceval
  1. ‘[Non-religious people may] not define themselves as particularly “religious”, but…everyone is’, as he references lyrics from a Rush song, ‘even if you choose NOT to decide, you still have made a choice’.
  2. ‘One can choose to believe in nothing but themselves, but if they’re honest, “self” IS their religion. Everyone is religious.
  3. We all yearn for some meaning and we end up pursuing something or someone to fill that inward desire. Whether we organise that something and call it “religion” is beside the point, as he references Bob Dylan’s lyric, “Ya gotta serve somebody; it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but ya gotta serve somebody.”

This had been the fluid exchange of ideas, but I’ll reply in turn.


even if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

Rush — Freewill

I’ve won’t repeat my position on free will, but one can choose to be religious or not. To choose not to be religious is not also a choice to be religious. I can agree that some people substitute superstitious, metaphysical believe for, say, scientism, and this is just as ridiculous, but some people remain unconvinced in these metanarratives.

“Self” is their religion

Some Guy

Again, not everyone even ascribes to the notion of self, and there is little reason to believe that there is some element of religious worship involved.

We all yearn for some meaning

Some Guy

Again, this is fundamental attribution error, the assumption that because he believes there is some underlying meaning and yearns to find it that everyone else does. I understand that he surrounds himself with people who share this belief system, and they convince themselves that someone who says otherwise is mistaken.

Ya gotta serve somebody; it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but ya gotta serve somebody

Bob Dylan — GottA Serve Somebody

This is clearly dualistic thinking incarnate; a false ‘you’re either with me or against me’ dichotomy.

I remember self-assessing myself when I was in high school. Nietzsche notwithstanding, I could never agree with the frame or the assertion that there are leaders and there are followers. I did not identify with either. I do feel that within the society I was born, that I need to comply just enough to not be subjected to the violence inherent in the system for non-conformance, but that’s not exactly following. I also don’t care to lead.

It turns out that this (perhaps not coincidentally) manifested in my career, as I am a consultant—an adviser.

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The Rhetoric of Truth

I’ve shared a new video on YouTube discussing the rhetorical nature of truth.

Before the Classical Hellenes, Mesopotamians recognised the power of rhetoric as the art of using language to convince or persuade.
The term itself derives from the Greek ῥητορικός, rhētorikós.

As with any human construct such as language, truth and rhetoric are confined by limitations of the system and its logical structure.

In “Gorgias”, one of his Socratic Dialogues, Plato defines rhetoric as the persuasion of ignorant masses within the courts and assemblies.

Rhetoric, in Plato’s opinion, is merely a form of flattery and functions similarly to cookery, which masks the undesirability of unhealthy food by making it taste good.

Rhetoric typically provides heuristics for understanding, discovering, and developing arguments for particular situations, such as Aristotle’s three persuasive audience appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos.

But it’s more insidious than all of this. The notion of truth—or whatever we believe to be true—is nothing more than rhetoric.

If one is aptly convinced that something is true, it is. The physical world—the world of objects—contains facts—attributes of these objects, but these facts are tautological descriptors: a red car, une voiture rouge, ou quelque chose. In the conceptual domain of abstractions such as truth, justice, gods, and love, all bets are off.

As Geuss aptly suggests, most of society and civilisation don’t care about philosophical thought at this level. This is privileged activity. It’s not about level of intellect, per se; rather, it’s the privilege of free time to devote to abstract thinking.

Most people are more concerned with getting to the next day to earn a paycheque, and they accept sloganeering for any deeper meaning.

Humans are said to be rational beings. In fact, this predicates entire disciplines such as economics…

…and jurisprudence. Legal systems are founded on the concept that humans are at least rational enough to make fundamental decisions about right and wrong—and this, of course, presumes that the notions of right and wrong in and of themselves are meaningful.

For the sake of argument, let’s presume that humans are at least rational enough for our purposes, and whilst right and wrong may not be objectively validated, that within the context of a society—presuming that not to be mired in its own identity problem—, it can be defined in the manner of a social compact envisaged by the likes of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, et alii. As the saying goes, ‘if it’s good enough for the government… well.

Language is a human construct, yet it’s an apparition. Like a physical object, it appears solid, but there’s more space than not. What’s there is exiguous. Echoing Heisenberg’s observations at the atomic level, one cannot be fully certain of a particular meaning. This is what Derrida (via Barthes) meant by ‘the death of the author’, though there is nothing to guarantee that the author could fully articulate the meaning or intent even if they were present to defend it.

About the same time, Saussure was finding promise in the structure of language, Russell was creating a new language of logic to obviate its deficiencies. Structuralists and logical positivists were a natural extension of the scientism of the 20th Century, the prevailing wave since the Enlightenment, but as with the demise of gods, religious belief, and other things metaphysical, this faith in structure was also specious.

Historically speaking, there is progress (another illusion), and there are paradigm shifts. When a paradigm shifts, an old truth is replaced by a new one. This is typically credited to a progression of knowledge, but it’s actually just that, on balance, people have accepted a new frame, chalking it up to scientific method rather than some rhetorical sleight of hand.

Even so, scientific discovery is different to archetypal notions such as truth or justice. At least we can empirically test and verify a scientific notion, even if what we are observing is later revised because of some previously unknown factor or removed constraint. For example, until Einstein’s day, Newton would not have known that his theory of gravity would break down as it approached the speed of light. But truth is just an opinion—even if widely held. Enter the ‘appeal to tradition’ flavour of logical fallacy—I’ll not dwell on the fact that systems of government are based on this quaint notion of precedents. #JustSaying

“Truth is simply a culmination of the rhetorical power to persuade the ignorant masses.”

Plato

I’ve arrived at my philosophical position as an autodidact. I am not a conventional scholar, and my exposure to philosophy derives from books, videos, and online sources including Wikipedia, blogs, Reddit, and the such.

I consider myself to be a non-cognitivist in the realm of Ayers’ Emotivism, and I fully realise that society as we know it relies on some notion of ascertainable truth. Of course, Nietzsche was vilified for observing that ‘God is dead’ and unceremoniously subjected to the ad hominem attacks afforded to the likes of Marx.

I’ve got a certain amount of respect for Existentialists (and Absurdists), but I find the teleological component a bit at odds with the central tenet. To that extent, I am more of a Nihilist.

I am more comfortable with what’s been called ‘Post-Modernism’, despite admiring the effort of some Structuralists and Logical Positivists. Where this love affair ends is where the permeation of science fetishists begin. Scientific Method and Logic are the gods of the New Age.

As a post-Enlightenment child, I’ve been steeped in all of its unfound glory, and it’s harder still for me to escape the pull of my Western indoctrination. So, to argue, one is forced to comply with the rules of logic within the limitations of human language—even the limitations of Russell’s language of Logic. And like arguing with a proponent of religion who points out that you can’t disprove his Ethereal Unicorn, one is forced into positions of arguing against Quixotic figments introduced as metaphysical elements.

Happy Endings

If everything is just “rhetoric” or “power” or “language,” there is no real way to judge anything. 

Somehow, I happened across a blog post, Postmodernisms: What does *that* mean? Of course, this is right up my street, I skimmed a couple other posts on the site and followed some links to establish some contextual frame.

My by-now standard (read: autonomic) reaction to this line of questioning is that this is a correct assessment of the conditional statement.

If everything is just X, Y, or Z, there is no real way to judge anything.

Before evaluating the entirety of the content, let’s look at the lexical choices, in particular:

  • everything: Realising that this is hyperbole. I am going to assume that the author did not mean that everything is X, Y, or Z. I believe he means everything within some imagined yet undefined domain. I’ll guess that this domain relates to some moral or social sphere. Anything employs the same hyperbole, so I’ll ignore it.
  • just: This rhetorically modifies X, Y, and Z, in order to diminish them for the reader, to make them appear petty.
  • real: I believe the term he was looking for is objective or perhaps ontological. Otherwise, we’ll need to discern what he considers to be real versus not real.

Also, notice the use or as a conjunction. This seems odd, as the listed items do not have equal weight or effect. Rhetoric does not exist without language, and power really feels out of place, Michel Foucault’s law of the instrument complicity notwithstanding. To him, power was his litmus.

Constructionism

Firstly, all social perception is the result of the construct of human language. Of course, there is the physical world that exists independently of humans and perception—perhaps this is the real world where real judgments occur. Let’s label this real world the terrain. The earth and the larger universe would exist absent of humans. In fact, it had for aeons and will persist for many aeons beyond the last semblance of humanity. Humans are also real, if ephemeral on a grander scale.

If this independent, objective, real world is the terrain, language is the map. We use language to communicate and make sense of the terrain, but it is only a representation based on our imperfect sense faculties.

cat saussure labels
Image: Symbolic language mapping of terrain

So when one makes a claim that everything [sic] is, say, language, they are making a claim similar to that of Saussure. Saussure was a structuralist. In fact, post-structuralism (or its expanded form labelled post-modernism) was a reaction against structuralists. Within the context of this post, Saussure believed that if one could fully qualify the structure of language, one could achieve a one-to-one fidelity relationship of the map to the terrain.

Post-structuralists pointed out all of the reasons why this was a fool’s errand. Like a geographical map, it is only a representation of the underlying terrain. Language serves the purpose of communication including expression and phatic aspects. One form of communication is rhetoric, which is a form employed for the purpose of persuasion. One possibility of this persuasion is to gain and retain power—or to at least win the upper hand in your argument. I suppose this is where the original statement starts to coalesce: rhetoric, power, and language.

quote-all-models-are-wrong-but-some-are-useful-george-e-p-box-53-42-27[1]
All models are wrong, but some are useful.
My point, then, is that our language map is always disconnected from the terrain. Moreover, it can be a pretty low fidelity map indeed. So when one says that everything is language, they are making a claim that we can not acquire this real knowledge. We can make sensory observations and construct narratives about it.

If you’ve ever taken a basic communications class, you’ve probably experienced the telephone game. Perception works in a similar manner. There are many things of which we have little or no experience save for conveyance through language. But as with the telephone game, fidelity can be lost. This is less likely to be a problem when interfacing with the so-called real world of rock and trees and of lions and tigers and bears.

terrain saussure
Image: Symbolic language mapping of nebulous concept

It is more likely to become a problem when dealing with non-ontic concepts, these ‘things’ that would not exist without humans or, more critically, without language. These artificial (in contrast to real) concepts are things like goodness, justice, democracy, liberty, sovereignty, nations, and on and on, ad nauseum. Humans have constructed narratives about all of these, but if the last human were to die tomorrow, these concepts would die, too. Whether some new lifeform would eventually evolve to develop language and further develop these concepts is debatable.

Judging

All of this aside, let’s look at the perceived intent of this statement, which is the same sentiment behind Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ quip.

As has been discussed, the Enlightenment replaced God with Nature and Nietzsche realised that if this worldview were universally adopted. the tyrannic role that God and gods had played could not be leveraged to maintain control or power, much in the same way that the divine rights or kings had withered and died. God played a vital role in this narrative. Nature, particularly human nature, was a weak substitute. This said, moral and natural realists, quickly (and relatively successfully) filled the void with cognitive filler, a perfect pairing for budding Enlightenment thinkers.

Given that even if there were some objective morality (terrain), there is no reason to believe that a human could gain access to it. Previously, priests and pharaohs claimed to possess this ability, but this vector was no longer extant or accessible. Even if a person did have this power through some miracle of some sort or another (or another or another), what reason (other than convincing rhetoric) would one have to believe him (or her—but let’s be honest; it’s pretty much all hims).

Without access to this objective morality, we are left with creating some subjective morality. I fully admit that trying to gain consensus and compliance to a known-to-be constructed moral code would be akin to herding cats. It is no doubt that society would operate more efficiently if all constituents follow the same code.

If wouldn’t matter if this society adopted, say, monogamy over polygamy, so long as everyone accepted this as the rules of engagement. Cultural subjectivism would provide a moral framework for this situation, We have many examples of social arrangements where this is the mode of operation.

Sports are an example. There are rules. Players agree on the rules, protocols, and procedures, and they operate within this socially constructed framework. There is no objective sportsball deity on high that conveyed the commandments, and yet it works.

John+Locke+-+Jean+Jacques+Rousseau[1]

Locke and Rousseau each wrote about social contracts. Granted, they believed in a supernatural Nature with a capital N, but they still felt that people could operate as a society based on some sort compact or accord.

This missing element would be power because those in power could not use some higher power to justify their actions especially in regard to retributive justice and so on.

Commentary

What I still don’t understand after all these years is how this logic works. It is eerily similar to Pascale’s Wager.

If not SOME CONDITION,
then not DESIRED OUTCOME
therefore FABRICATE SOME CONDITION

If not [belief in God],
then not [eternity of bliss in Heaven; instead eternal suffering in Hell, so double down]
therefore [convince yourself of or feign belief in God]

If not [objective means of judgment],
then not [real judgment]
therefore [delude yourself into the belief that an objective means of judgment exists]

And they all lived happily ever after

jessica-brooke-real-lesbian-wedding-orlando-florida-alternative-life-photography-design-first-kiss[1]

 

happily ever after

God is Dead. God is Necessary.

I stumbled upon Professor Jordan Peterson and his defenders of virtue morality, like Dr Stephen Hicks, and I decided to watch some vids.

Full Disclaimer: Not a fan

I ended up on his lecture about Carl Jung.

I’d been interested in archetypal and depth psychology for ages, and I’ve read most of Jung’s work. I still own all of the volumes of his complete works. The difference between me and Professor Peterson is that I take it as metaphor and, by his words, I presume that he doesn’t.

The video clip is cued to the location where Jordan says, speaking of Nietzsche,

“…‘God is dead, and we have killed him’ led Nietzsche to pose another question, which was: What are we going to do to replace him? Because Nietzsche believed—and I think he was absolutely right about this. I can’t see how it could be otherwise—, he believed that the morality that had structured Western society was predicated on the fundamental axiom of divinity, and so, as far as Nietzsche was concerned, the whole purpose of morality was dependent on that axiom being true—or at least being accepted as true. And when that axiom was knocked out by, say, the conflict between science and religion—because in some sense that’s what did it—, then the whole system no longer had anything to stand on and could become entirely questionable…”

The whole purpose of morality was dependent on [the existence of divinity] being true.

As I’ve said time and again, this is the primary reason people—especially those defending or seeking some sense of status quo, conservative vanguards, and morality warriors—insist on the existence of a real, objective moral centre or a good-enough version of it—one that coincidentally conforms to their worldview.

I’m afraid that I am going to need to hear something well more convincing than that because I’m not buying what these guys are selling.

Post-Post-Modern Subjectivism

I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.

Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.

All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.

Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawlsveil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.

In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.

As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris

Ethical Subjectivism

Many people are pragmatists, so when I submit that there is no objective morality, the response is that this is unworkable, so I need to find another system. It’s akin to running out of petrol in the desert, and your travel partner responds similarly:

“There has to be petrol; otherwise, we can’t get to where we need to go.”

Hat tip to Captain Obvious, but unlike ethics and morality, one can’t just conjure fuel. This is why we have created normative ethics—the operative being normative.

“How can anyone work with a system without objective morality?”

I get this reaction often when I broach the topic of ethical subjectivism.

Ethical subjectivism [or moral subjectivism] is a philosophical theory that suggests moral truths are determined on an individual level. It holds that there are no objective moral properties and that ethical statements are illogical because they do not express immutable truths.”

For me, as a moral anti-realist (vacillating at times toward non-cognitive emotivism, if not outright moral nihilism), it’s been relatively easy to hold this subjective meta-ethical position whilst simultaneously adopting a pragmatic ethical theory, though I have always found the prevailing frameworks to be lacking—whether consequentialism, deontology, or virtue ethics. In fact, this is why I decided to go deeper into philosophy, to see what others had to say about the matter. Fortunately, David Hume had trodden this ground before in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Subjectivism allows one to have a preference for a given moral framework, it just simultaneously claims that one cannot objectively be judged as better.

This is about where people’s Hitler and rape fantasies are introduced into the argument, and always with an air of checkmate, so let’s explore this. We’ll take historical, evil, bad person, Adolf Hitler and his ill-treatment of Jews in the years leading up to and through World War II.Adolf Hitler, Politiker, NSDAP, D - Lagebesprechung im Hauptquartier des Heeresgruppe S¬∏

The reasoning usually follows these lines: Of course there is good and evil, right and wrong. Don’t (won’t) you agree that what he did was immoral? Sidestepping, that personally, in my opinion, Hitler was not cool, it doesn’t answer to the morality. In the subjectivist domain, there is no good and evil, but I tend to reserve that response, as it falls on deaf ears.

Instead, let’s follow through and reflect on the speculative outcome represented by Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High CastleIn this world, the Nazis won the war and conquered the free world, but in the vein of  “history is written by the victors”, society found a new equilibrium. That’s what people do. Sure, there are always dissenters, as there are today in any government, but this evil moniker is applied by the glorious and victorious Allied Forces over the Axis (of Evil). Had the Nazi’s prevailed, it would have been but a footnote in history—if that. Morality is just perspective. From a societal perspective, it may take the form of ethnocentrism. But in the end, morality and ethics distil down to an individual vantage, even if the individual adopts a package off the rack, as most do in the form of religions and community guidelines.

man-high-castle-clip-pic[1]
The Man in the High Castle (AmazonVideo) – Life goes on.
Nietzsche’s Nihilism (and Heidegger) captured this in his subjective authenticity, which is being true to one’s self. In this view, it is irrelevant what moral systems others impose upon you. If you resolve to go to the gym at least once a week yet don’t, you are not being authentic.

Camus noted in his Myth of Sisyphus that one has the option upon realising the Absurd, that there is no inherent meaning to life. Aside from suicide and acceptance, one could adopt a worldview, whether religious or spiritual to Capitalism, Socialism (his preference), or Pastafarian, essentially denying the Absurd.

Ignorance is Bliss™

In a way, the religiously devout have it simpler. They are indoctrinated with a pre-packaged belief system, and they don’t really question it. But other people have political and jurisprudence systems prêt-à-porter, and they are willing to defend them, seemingly to the death.

Some stated arguments against ethical subjectivism are as follows:

“Ethical Relativism has implications such as moral infallibility and moral equivalence. It does not offer a way for parties engaged in ethical debate to resolve their disagreements because each side is required to acknowledge that the opinion of their opponent is equally as factual as their own. Individuals can never have a moral disagreement if both sides are morally ideal. As well, blame cannot be placed in a conflict if moral truths are always objective [sic].”

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

no way for parties engaged in an ethical debate to resolve their disagreements

True. If you can’t turn a screw with a sledgehammer, perhaps you need to question whether you’re are using the appropriate tool instead of cursing the sledgehammer for not being a screwdriver. If a tool isn’t suitable for a task, perhaps you are using the wrong tool.

one can’t have a moral disagreement if both sides are morally ideal

True. Again, perhaps you need a different instrument.

Blame cannot be placed in a conflict if moral truths are always subjective

True. I’ll sidestep the question of why blame is necessary, but yet again, this may not be the right instrument.

On balance, people seem to need pragmatism, so they seek a workable moral framework. Assuaging cognitive dissonance is as natural as breathing. Ah, the joy of delusion. Humans fabricate moral systems in an attempt to address issues such as these, but all of these systems are, in fact, human constructs, and none are objectively better than another. Subjectively, one may prefer one over another.

Don’t blame me. I’m just the messenger.

 

 

Absurdism: Myth of Sisyphus

I am re-reading Albert CamusThe 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.