Three years late, but a mate of mine shared this with me and it got me to thinking — sort of. No synapses were harmed (or likely even engaged) in the construction of this post.
Domino’s has a pizza tracker app, where a person can track their order from intake to delivery. Only the tracker does not reflect what’s actually occurring. It’s merely a facade built on historical timing. The pizza-making process is very well regimented, so at a macro-level, it may appear to work. If on average, a pizza takes 30 minutes from order to the time it shows up at your door, and your delivery conforms to this average, you’ll be none the wiser that the details didn’t otherwise happen to comport.
I feel that it’s almost fair to consider this app analogous to our cognitive processes. The details don’t really matter, so long as the stimulus-response corresponds to our expectations. Unlike the actual process underlying the manufacture and delivery process, we don’t have direct access to reveal the ‘reality’.
Around the same time as Domino’s fakery was being revealed, they did make progress by at least relaying GPS details via the app. Given that this probably accounts for most of the variability in their process, it would make sense to address this earlier than later.
My point is not to take a deep dive into the technology or remark on the integrity of this approach. I only wanted to point out that most customers might not have even questioned the progress meter. Others may have their own questions.
In the end, the state of the process could be transmitted, but it could actually slow the process by introducing additional steps, so the cost of conveying reality may outweigh the benefits. I’m not the one to make that call. Meantime, pizza’s up.
Nothing to add to what I’ve already said here. I just wanted to share another example of how our senses fill in what they expect rather than what is.
In other news, I just started reading Daniel Dennett’s classic Consciousness Explained. It starts with Brain in a Vat. Given that it was written in the late ’80s and published in the early ’90s, so it’s a bit behind the curve on the technology front. Artificial Intelligence—at least Machine Learning—wasn’t nearly as developed, and he didn’t quite grasp how fast and fast hardware and chip technology would advance in some 30 years. But this doesn’t alter the frame—just some peripheral details.
I’m not really even interested in consciousness. I favour Dennett’s take that consciousness is to the brain as wet is to water, so there’s not really any there there to find.
I expect that consciousness is a human nominative concept. Like religion, it will become smaller as science encroaches. In 1994, David Chalmers presented his idea of the hard problem of consciousness in a lecture, Toward a Scientific Basis of Consciousness, but I feel this is more due to the insufficiency of language than anything else. To me, consciousness isn’t well defined. It’s like a medical syndrome. It’s just a grouping of seemingly related conditions that haven’t yet been parsed. In time, it may be determined that they weren’t even related in the first place. Apophenia and cognitive dissonance are two significant human biases that affect perception.
At core, consciousness might be functionally reduced to that of an interpreter. Some have posited that the only thing that exists is ‘information’, whatever that means, so there only needs to be an interpreter—a translater. If that interpreter is defined as consciousness, then so be it. This appears to lead us to a Cartesian place—though it doesn’t follow that the self or ego exists. This would be a second-order event.
Anyway, just rambling. As seems to be the case lately, I’ve got little time to develop my thoughts. At least I’ve captured them for now.
God knows that I am not interested in God, but in the quoted sentence, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him‘, Voltaire has established a pattern: If X did not exist, it would be necessary to invent X. Identity is a possible X. Time and now are other possible Xs.
I’ll focus on identity. That identity is a social construct may be technically correct, but so what? My position is that identity doesn’t exist, yet people–including me–identify. We search for identities that don’t exist. What I was when I looked is no longer there. And if someone invents a new attribute of identity, we tend to evaluate how we relate to it. Among other things, cognition is a difference engine.
“The mirror is a worthless invention. The only way to truly see yourself is in the reflection of someone else’s eyes.”
When the concept of race is brought up—as invalid of a concept as it may be—, we assess how we relate to it. Sex, gender, self—it’s all the same pattern.
I’ve written on race identity in the past. Given it’s a fiction for the human species, it’s a moving target even within the realm of identity, a moving target in its own right. In my estimation, race is a conflation of colour, class, and culture—evidently, the 3Cs. So, although I don’t believe the concept of race is valid for homo sapiens sapiens, I still have a sense of what the users of this term mean. Besides colour, which I feel is the primary attribute, couched in this notion is cultural affinity as proxied by national original, another nonsensical notion.
In my case, I was raised as a WASP. My family background is white, Anglo-Saxon (Norwegian), and Protestant (Northern Baptist), so in the US I am afforded privilege. Were I to play it up, I should be able to parlay this into better jobs, better housing in better neighbourhoods, with access to better networks, and on and on. And even though I don’t play that game, I still accrue some of these benefits. Others I eschew. But I have options. This is the nature of privilege.
I don’t identify as white, nor do I identify as black or brown. This mantle is cast upon me. I can deny the notion, but I am helpless. Just as the black person can’t escape being identified as being black, the white person is similarly chained to their whiteness. In the United States, historically, a white person can deny the attribute of white, but simpletons will still consider them as white. But this is not a disadvantage to overcome. Some might argue that with a shifting colour landscape these days are coming to an end, but they haven’t ended yet, to the chagrin of the white folk who want to continue to ride the wave of privilege. People of colour, on the other hand, likely want to see this wave crash (and burn, if that’s possible).
But I’ve gone off the plantation—or is that reservation? No matter. Identity is nothing more than a connected locus of stateless states. It’s an n-dimensional snapshot of everchanging moments. The relationship between identity and identification might be viewed by analogy as the relationship between sex and gender, both social constructions in their own right. As with sex, identity is assigned. Except in rare cases, one doesn’t have the option of denying their biological sex. As with gender, identification is a space where you can self-assess. It’s just as pointless, but it somehow makes us feel better.
As with Voltaire’s quip, if the Self did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. And invent, we do. As with objects in physical space, there is more absent than there, but that doesn’t prevent us from imagining it as real and present. In the end, identification is a heuristic that has survived as an evolutionary fitness trait. For what it’s worth, it affords us the capacity to differentiate between friends and enemies, us and them. But it also can be over-indexed and lead to unwanted or at least unexpected results. The question is how much energy should one expend on identity formation and assessment?
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.
This article suggests an interesting twist on the notion of peception and facts. In this instance, the human sensory organs don’t capture what’s there like a camera. It takes cues from the environs and fills in details heuristically. This mirror an effect I recall reading in a book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain*, where most people can’t draw what they see because their heuristic perception kicks in. This is essentially Kahneman and Tversky’s System I outlined in Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.
This may come with a heavy dose of confirmation bias, but it fits my belief that reality is generally unaccessible with huamn sensory perception organs. it adds another layer or dimention to consider.
* I am aware that the simplistic right and left side distinction is an oversimplification, but this is the way of categorisation.
I tend to go on about weasel words and the insufficiency of language, but I tend to get a lot of resistance by people who insist the chasm isn’t as expansive as I make it out to be. This makes me wonder how one might create a test to determine how much is similar and how much doesn’t.
To summarise my position, abstract concepts of this type are specious archetypes that cannot exist in the real world: truth, justice, freedom, fairness, and so on. The common thread here is almost always that they exist in the realm of morality, another false concept.
It seems to me that one could construct a sort of word cloud intersecting with a Venn diagramme. I’d assume that more articulate people would have more descriptors, thereby creating landscape with more details and nuance for any given concept.
Additionally, I could see a third dimension which would capture diametric meanings. There is also the issue of diverse contexts, e.g. in the case of justice, we have distributive, retributive, restorative, and procedural flavours, so one would need to be taken into account.
In everyday existence, I notice that these terms are good enough and have enough substance to trick people into believing not only that it’s real but that the are operating with a shared concept. My point is that it’s more apples and oranges. We could employ dimensions that make these appear to be similar.
Additional scrutiny would illustrate the differences.
This difference between this concrete case is that we can observe the objects to compare and contrast, but with abstractions, we have a sort of survivorship bias in play. We remember what we agree on and forget or diminish the parts we don’t agree on. And we don’t necessarily even know the complete inventory of descriptors of our counterparts.
The image at the top of the page is not to scale. I don’t know what the percent breakdowns are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a situation where there were 10 possible descriptors, that only 4 would be commonly shared—so 40 per cent—, leaving 6 not in common—60 per cent.
In any case, I wonder if anyone has attempted this sort of inventory comparison. I haven’t even looked, do there could be tome upon tome published, but I don’t suppose so.
Postmodernism seems to have as many definitions as the number of people who encounter it, and that’s just not very useful. It’s less useful still when people with ulterior motives control the narrative. I’d like to take back the narrative and offer a succinct definition or description and offer reasons why some of the competing definitions are fundamentally incorrect. My journey commenced on my Descriptive Postmodernism post.
Each year, I start with a new notion to explore. For 2021, it’s postmodernism. I identify as practicing postmodernist, but it seems to have a nebulous definition, and many people assume it means different things. Some definitions seem to comport and others are curious takes. I am well-aware that some people in this space have opinions at least as strong as mine, and many have deeper and/or broader exposure than I do. Nonetheless, I feel confident that my logic will resonate.
As I pursue this definition, I will explore a line of inquiry that I hope will help to frame the issue.
These are my initial questions:
What is the core definition of postmodernism?
Why hate postmoderns?
Why can’t postmodernism be constructive?
Why do postmoderns deny Truth?
When did postmodernism, a critical, dis-integrative concept become identified as being integrative?
How does one parse the theory of postmodernism from the personality who espouses a perspective on it?
Postmodernism can be viewed as a reaction to so-called modernism, but it’s not so cut and dry. Postmodernism as an intellectual pursuit was in full force in the 1970s and 80s. But Modernism was still the main thrust, as is remains today. Post- is likely an overstatement, as it did not supersede. In comparison, post-Enlightenment thought—reason and logic—still competes with pre-Enlightenment thinking—metaphysical and superstition—, but even persons holding post-Enlightenment views still cling to traditional beliefs. Contrarily, people holding modern beliefs are not likely to simultaneously hold postmodern beliefs and vice versa. For moderns, postmodernism is a hot button, trigger item. For this cohort, any association will set them off.
What is the core definition of postmodernism?
From early on, postmodernism has been used as a pejorative term by its detractors. Many academics associated to postmodernism do not identify as postmoderns. They have been categorised as such, as something they have said or written is heretical to the Modern orthodoxy.
These days—if not from the start—postmodernism is nebulous. It has long since lost its brand to detractors, and its definition is undergoing some revisionist history by this cohort. What started as a perspective or lens to disintegrate content and context is now seen by many as possessing a point of view for constructing, for building.
The Condition of Postmodernity Before defining philosophical postmodernism, let’s first exclude a possible source of confusion: postmodernity. Postmodernity is a periodical distinction, a cultural state where it occurs chronologically subsequent to the period referenced as Modernity.
Postmodernity is a condition or a state of being associated with changes to institutions and conditions and with social and political results and innovations, globally but especially in the West since the 1960s, whereas postmodernism is an aesthetic, literary, political or social philosophy, the cultural and intellectual phenomenon, especially since the 1920’s new movements in the arts and literature.
To be fair, the philosophy of postmodernism is a reaction to the philosophy of Modernism, but there was a diversion of the periodic reference from the philosophical. If we adopt this definition, the only requirement for inclusion is to have been active in this period. Since Feminism and Marxism were coincidentally prevalent phenomena, it would be easy to include these by virtue of chronology, but it doesn’t follow that these fall into the philosophical notion of postmodernism. It may be a simple matter of the ambiguity of language.
Some social theorists and sociologists—Scott Lash, Ulrich Beck, Zygmunt Bauman, and Anthony Giddens—deny that there is a postmodern condition. Instead, they suggest that modernity has simply extended into a state of late or liquid modernity.
To establish a grounding and because he got there first, let’s see how Lyotard defines it in the introduction to his Postmodern Condition:
Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements – narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on. Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable.
The simple definition is captured by the first sentence. The rest is exposition. But let’s rewind for a bit and establish a frame. Admittedly, even at the start this is ‘simplifying to the extreme‘. Moreover, the context is relative to hard sciences. Lyotard admits he was over his head. In fact, he later referred to the book as his worst. But books have lives of their own, a sentiment with which Barthes might agree.
The central point here is to question metanarratives. Period. Full stop. The next task is to ask how a postmodern might accomplish this task and what might be their perspectives and tools?
In Reclaiming a Scientific Anthropology, Lawrence Kuznar claimed that « the primary tenets of the postmodern movement include: (1) an elevation of text and language as the fundamental phenomena of existence, (2) the application of literary analysis to all phenomena, (3) a questioning of reality and representation, (4) a critique of metanarratives, (5) an argument against method and evaluation, (6) a focus upon power relations and hegemony, and (7) a general critique of Western institutions and knowledge. » [See end note 1]
Postmodernism is a disintegrative system. It disassembles, deconstructs, atomises, and lays bare. It is suspicious of underlying metanarratives—and I’d be willing to argue that it is equally suspicious of stated narratives as well. It questions who is served by a given narrative, who gains and loses power by one interpretation over another.
[tools and systems]
In the end, a reader may disagree with what I am proposing here, and the reader may even be correct in claiming that my definition is too reductive. Perhaps, I should abandon the postmodern label and simply recast my definition as Disintegrationism or some such. Deconstruction is already taken, so why not?
Why hate postmoderns?
One problem I notice is that postmodernism, long being applied as a pejorative term in a similar vein to the use of SJW, is a way to discredit personalities and ideologies they disagree with. We see entire ideologies being besmirched as postmodern theories. We might see Stephen Hicks misrepresent postmodernism and conflate feminism with it. Moderns are by nature traditionalists or conventionalists, so whether postmodernism, feminism, Marxism, and the like, these are unconventional. It may be a simple heuristic trick to paint all of these with a broad brush. Nuance and difference be damned. [See end note 2] Jordan Peterson‘s bete noir is cultural Marxism, that he insists is part of the blight of postmodernist thought.
Many have attempted to conflate social theories with postmodernism, whether Marxism, feminism, identity politics, and so on. But this is inherently wrong. Lyotard provided postmodernism with its original definition in his book, but detractors have been annexing other unpopular concepts to it in order to create a sort of critical mass for the uncritical opposition.
Why can’t postmodernism be constructive?
Postmodernism necessarily can’t be constructive, because after one disintegrates a perspective into its primitive elements, any reconstruction needs another narrative to serve as a foundation. It is true that one may reconstitute a disintegrated narrative through a different lens, as cited above Marxist, and so on, but all this does is to shift perspective, point of view, and creates a new power play.
There is nothing wrong with this approach, but neither is there a reason to privilege this interpretation over the original or some other. A Marxist perspective may resonate better with Marxists, and Feminist perspective with Feminists, but this doesn’t make the interpretation better or more generally applicable. It just brings it into clearer focus for that cohort. As near-sighted lenses help the hyperopic and far-sighted lens aid the myopic, neither is inherently better outside of the defined context. And each solution would create a distortion for a person neither near- or far-sighted. There is no lens that is all things to all people.
On balance, I think it’s fair to say that postmodernism is descriptive and not prescriptive, so whilst one can play at disintegrating and reintegrating, but this is simply to gain a new perspective and new insights. In literature, we might consider, say, Philip K Dick’s, The Man in the High Castle. In this, Dick explores what might have been if the Axis led by Nazi Germany had prevailed. This alternate historical rendering can be evaluated as a postmodern exercise. Dick is not promoting this outcome, he is merely playing what-if—reordering the actors to create speculative new narratives. Although the Amazon.com version takes liberties and injects additional narrative perspective, the reintegration is still evident.
As well, postmodernism cannot be constructive because it would be infinitely recursive. For each construction, there would exist a deconstruction. All that’s occurred is a rearrangement. From the same Lego pieces, we apply a new map—a new narrative. From the position of purpose, one construction may be deemed better or preferred, but this is not likely to persist from another.
Whilst I am more interested in the philosophical, postmodernism has much application to literature. This might be better defined as poststructuralism.
Why do postmoderns deny Truth?
Some people have argued that postmodern thinkers don’t believe in the notion of Truth.
There are a few things to clarify first: the definition of truth and the context of a truth claim.
There are different and competing theories on what truth is—whether correspondence, coherence, or some other version—but that’s beyond the scope of this content. Some people use ‘truth’ as a synonym for ‘fact’, but in the name of clarity, we should separate the two concepts even if idiomatically the terms can be used interchangeably. [See end note 3] In creating this bond, it’s easy to see how these people might be confused. Virtually no one is proposing that ‘facts’ are not ‘facts’. It may be that postmodernism should have a weak and a strong version.
If the colour red is defined as the reflection by an object having a wavelength between 625 and 700 nanometres and a corresponding frequency between 400 and 480 THz, and a ball as a 3-dimensional object where every point on the surface is the same distance from the centre, and all of the incumbent terms are similarly defined and accepted with concordant definitions, then a sighted person with no colour vision perception deficiencies in an environment with natural full-spectrum lighting, will agree with the fact that the sphere is red. If one prefers to label the correspondence of a red sphere and the perception of the red ball as true, then this trivial relationship is valid.
It may be a correct assessment that some thinkers deny all truth, but it’s more likely that these thinkers are suspicious of the person claiming to know the truth because of the relationship between truth claims and power. Although Lyotard’s commentary was directed at hard science and underlying metanarratives such as progress, most postmoderns are more concerned with claims of moral truths.
This is related to the context of a claim. Per Foucault, if one context gives me power, I am more apt to adopt that perspective in order to manifest that power. I am not going to delve into some political discourse at the moment. Apart from this, Truth—where synonymous with fact—is contextual.
Using a typical example, one can evaluate the moral claim that killing another human is immoral. In fact, many—not all—people may agree with this as a general principle. But when we apply context—say, self-defence, military action, or capital punishment—, we discover that some of the same people now evaluate that killing another human is moral. So, we arrive that this moral assessment is subject to be either true or false depending on the context it’s evaluated in. Myself, being a non-cognitivist, I find moral claims to be lacking truth aptness, but that’s another story.
When did Postmodernism become a constructive rather than decompositional philosophy?
I’ll reserve the option to finish this section later. A quick internet search finds that David Ray Griffin coined the term constructive postmodernism. Griffin appears to have an agenda to return to modernism, particularly, it seems at first glance, Pragmatism.
My initial thought is that it was not thinkers fully invested in postmodernism; rather it was people with ulterior motives. Infusing Christian elements appear to be the most common thread. This line of thought is entirely speculative, so please stand by for an update or retraction. Metamodernism appears to have similar attributes, though perhaps simply metaphysical rather than Christian in nature.
How does one parse the theory of postmodernism from the personality who espouses a perspective on it?
Many people identified as postmoderns don’t self-identify as such. Kuznar labels postmodern anyone whose thinking includes most or all of these elements, but there is a compositional challenge inherent in this claim.
There are several compositional problems. First, one can apply postmodernism to a narrow domain and operate fully as a modern in the rest—perhaps even the majority of situations. Second, one can apply a postmodern lens theoretically, but be more pragmatic in more mundane matters. Third, one might apply a postmodern lens among many lenses, defending each in turn. Fourth, one may have had strong postmodern tendencies at one point in life but not held this perspective at other points.
Taking Foucault as an example—as well as one who eschewed the postmodern label—, he did disintegrate history and did question the underlying narratives, hitting all of Kuznar’s touchpoints. For one, I would categorise him as a postmodern thinker. Moreover, his disintegration led to the discovery of a common power thread throughout. Much of his writing was focused on this power relationship and illustrated how it was manifest.
Foucault was also a vocal Marxist. This is a constructive (integrative) worldview. This perspective gives privilege to Marxism, which is antithetical to postmodernism. As a rational interpreter, Foucault determined that this was a better form of government—but clearly, that’s because he accepted the underlying narrative and historicity proposed by Marx. Does this invalidate his postmodern credentials? Do we revoke his PoMo card?
Excuse me for occasionally using this space as a scratchpad, but it serves the purpose well. I’ve never delved deeply in to critical theory, though I suppose I suppose that at least some of it resonates with me.
Note that I approach this as a stream of consciousness. It’s not meant to be a robust academic treatment. Although, I do cite source documents in some cases, many of my points are anecdotal or pulled from memory, understanding fallibility and so on. I expect to return to flesh out some details, but I figure I’ll publish my thoughts now and make updates in future. I may even correct spelling, grammar, and redundancies.
My goal at the start was two-fold (at least). First, is to describe the domains of postmodernism from the perspective of a proponent (as opposed to accepting a definition imposed by detractors). Second, is to assess where critical disintegration diverged to an integration theory. It’s obvious that you hold that deconstruction and discourse analysis fall within the domain. They are certainly orthodox post-structural concepts, so I suppose a third goal might be to define the boundaries of poststructuralism relative to postmodernism.
 This modern cohort has a similar tendency to paint any form of Socialism as Communism, and they see the Soviet Union’s failed experiment of whatever they attempted to do as Communism. Therefore all forms of Socialism are destined to fail. The failure to appreciate nuance and detail is the common thread. I might posit that it’s similar to the phenomenon where, on average, women tend to perceive more colours (or colour names) than men.
 Aping logical empiricism, idiomatic language allows for broader definitions of truth and allows it to be synonymous with fact. This is similar to the idiomatic similarity of sex and gender, though this distinction is necessary for technical and academic discussion.
How Soon Is Now? Is there anything beyond now—is there a future? Was there a past? What better occasion to reflect on this than the turn of a new year, of a new decade?
Now is easy. It right here, and here, and here, and here… and interminable series of heres. The past is easy, too, we were there—the accumulation of former heres—, so at least we can claim it was real at the time—or as real as we could perceive and can imagine. Memory frailties notwithstanding, the past is indelible. Whether we are or can be aware is another story.
Past is different to history. Past is an event or events. We may not even become aware of these events until they have passed—perhaps centuries or millennia later. These may be historicised. History is a story. In French, the terms aren’t even separated. L’histoire is simultaneously a story and history, a reminder of how inextricable they are.
But what about the future? A conceptual future is a fairly new human construct. Some events occuring after now have happened since the beginning of time. In fact without time or the invention of a notion of time, there can be no future or past. It’s been said that time is what keeps everything from happening at once.
We talk about the future, but when we reference it now, it’s only some speculative future—some admixture of uncertainty and probabilities. There are no guarantees any given event will actually manifest, whether we will be there to experience it, or whether any future will even arrive. This is a known limitation of empiricism. That the sun has risen for some 4 billion years doesn’t guarantee it will rise tomorrow. There is nothing necessarily preventing the universe from ceasing to exist tomorrow or in an instant, pardoning the nomenclature of time.
Where our perception of now is already quite limited in scope and experience, any notion of future is decidedly worse. And of all of the possible threads and imagined threads, only one will manifest—unless you subscribe to parallel universe models, in which case you can still only experience one and only one, at least for the time being.
From the perspective of now, the future, like history, is just a story. In these times of COVID, we should realise that some stories hadn’t been written. Similar storylines had been imagined and authored, but the one that manifest was different still. Truth is stranger than fiction—and worse.
But does the future exist? Can we discuss the future other than conceptually? Is the notion of future reserved for a privileged few? One so-called cognitive bias is that humans favour now and near-term events over further future events? From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. First, I am here now, and whether I am here to experience the future remains to be seen. This bias is the basis for why most people don’t save enough for a comfortable retirement—a retirement with a comparable standard of living and quality of life as one’s ‘productive’ years.
One consideration is expected lifespan. Actuarially, a person might be expected to live on average, say, 76 years. If people my family historically live to 65 and I expect to retire thereabouts, saving past that is inefficient—transferring wealth across generations notwithstanding. If I die at 65, there is no mismatch. If I die at 76, then oopsie. Retirement income and savings is predominantly a First-world problem—a challenge for people who live in an income-based, consumerist society, so worrying about the future takes on a more relevance.
Even if I expect my village, tribe, or family care for me in my twilight years, there is still a notion of future to consider. Will they be there for me. But from an evolutionary perspective, this doesn’t necessitate a future beyond a generation, so the probability of an uncertain event is lower than, say, a thousand years from now.
NB: What had been a concept riffing on Hoffman’s evolutionary argument against reality was intercepted by the related notion of the future. I hope to return to Hoffman presently—if the future allows.