Objective Morality and Challenges

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.’

‘Wot?’

‘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.’

‘With wot?’

‘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.

Projected Reality

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.

Conceptual Abstraction

Shared Concept Image

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.

  • Approximate spheroids
  • Fruits
  • Contain fruits
  • Have skin

Additional scrutiny would illustrate the differences.

  • Colour
  • Taste
  • Consistency

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.

Discovering Postmodernism

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:

  1. What is the core definition of postmodernism?
  2. Why hate postmoderns?
  3. Why can’t postmodernism be constructive?
  4. Why do postmoderns deny Truth?
  5. When did postmodernism, a critical, dis-integrative concept become identified as being integrative?
  6. 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.

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives.

Jean-Francois Lyotard

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.

Disintegration – Reintegration Cycle

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.

2-dimensional render of a 3-dimensional red sphere

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?

Disclaimer

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.


Endnotes

[1] Postmodernism and Its Critics, Daniel Salberg, et al.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

Future Forward

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.

“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

Ray Cummings

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.

Perspective on Theseus

Chump in Chief* wrote a piece on dementia using analogue of the ship of Theseus. As a topic, Hobbes’** Theseus thought experiment has been well-covered, but that’s never stopped me before.

This is all about identity. Essentially, there are two perspectives. To an observer not on the ship or aware of the transformation, they would be none the wiser. For all intents and purposes, if they had ever seen the ship before, it’s the same. But what about those on the ship?

For nearly all of these observers, it’s almost unquestionably still the same ship. In a manner paralleling a person’s cells being sloughed off every 7 years, the cells in place at the start aren’t there after 7 years. Most will not doubt that you are the same person.

the average human cell is about 7 to 10 years old

As cells are continually dying and replacing themselves, for an adult the average human cell is about 7 to 10 years old, which might be interpreted as saying in the fashion of Theses’ ship that a person is anew each 7 to 10 years. Let’s ignore that this is an average, and many cells have a lifespan of only a few days whilst others—cerebral cells in particular—are here from the start and so are as old as the person.

Another perspective is to consider the replacement parts: would it matter if the colour of the parts changed in the process? What about the materials? What about the underlying architecture? What if the departing sloop arrived a schooner? Weight? What then?

My favourite extension of this thought experiment is to ask the question two-fold: Not only do we ask if this ship built with new materials is still Theseus’ ship—which to be fair is more a question of ownership than of identity—, but what if I reconstruct the original ship with the original materials. Are these both Theseus’ ships? Can we continue this exercise with new material ad infinitum?

As far as I know, we can’t repurpose cells in this fashion, but what if we could? There are many such Star Trek transporter mishap thought experiments, or the Duplicates Paradox.

In these experiments, a transporting device disintegrates the subject, and replicates the subject at a distance—but this replication presumably uses different atoms and cells, and so what if a duplicate copy is made rather than the replacement copy? Who’s identity prevails? Is it murder to eliminate one of the duplicates? Similar questions have played out in the science fiction / fantasy space.

Locke and others suggest that for people, memory and the continuity of thought are key, but your thoughts of me are not the same as my thoughts of me. This is why an amnesiac may no longer maintain some original identity, and yet to the familiar outside observer, this shell of a person remains intact. This is pretty much how it plays out with zombies and dementia patients. This sense of identity is projected upon the person rather than exuded from them.

So what is my perspective? Rather than a paradox, it is more a problem of vaguity or ambiguity and how we’re defining sameness. There are many dimensions to similarity. I can present you a red square, a green square, a blue triangle, and a green triangle and play the Sesame Street ‘one of these things is not like the other game.

Is the sameness the colour, the shape, or the number? Could one be comparing area or perimeter?

So, I’ve gone off the reservation. I don’t put a lot of weight in notion of identity. It has evolutionary merit and is an effect of humans’ nature (as it were) to categorise and taxonomise.

* This Chief Chump charge may be unwarranted or even understated, as I don’t know this bloke.
** This is the same Hobbes with the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ claim to fame.

Not Just a Number

That perception and memory work hand in hand is mostly taken for granted, but this case reminds us that this sometimes breaks down. This is not the case of the neurotypical limitations to fallible sense organs and standard cognitive boundaries and biases. This subject can’t discern the arabic numerals from 2 through 9.

To recap the study, the man can perceive 0 and 1 as per usual, but numerals 2 through 9 are not recognisable. Not even in combination, so A4 or 442 are discernible.

In a neurotypical model, a person sees an object, a 3 or a tree, and perhaps learns its common symbolic identifier—’3′, ‘three’, or ‘tree’. The next time this person encounters the object—or in this case the symbol—, say, 3, it will be recognised as such, and the person may recite the name-label of the identifier: three.

It might look like this, focusing on the numerals:

Encounter 1: 3 = X₀ (initial)
Encounter 2: 3 = X₁ ≡ X₀ (remembered)
Encounter 3: 3 = X₂ ≡ X₀ (remembered)

In the anomalous case, the subject see something more like this:

Encounter 1: 3 = X₀ (initial)
Encounter 2: 3 = Y₀ = { } (no recollection)
Encounter 3: 3 = Z₀ = { } (no recollection)

For each observation, the impression of 3 is different.

Phenomenologically, this is different to the question of whether two subjects share the same perception of, say, the colour red. Even if you perceive red as red, and another perceives red as red, as long as this relative reference persists to the subject, you can still communicate within this space. When you see a red apple, you can remark that the apple is red—the name marker—, and the same is true for the other, who can also communicate to you that the apple is indeed red because the word ‘red’ become a common index marker.

But in the anomalous case, the name marker would have little utility because ‘red’ would be generated by some conceivably unbounded stochastic function:

Colourₓ = ƒ(x), where x is some random value at each observation

It would be impossible to communicate given this constraint.

This, as I’ve referenced, is anomalous, so most of us have a stronger coupling between perception and memory recall. Interesting to me in this instance is not how memory can be (and quite often is) corrupted, but that fundamental perception itself can be corrupted as well—and not simply through hallucination or optical illusion.

Pragmatism and Samsara

I was engaged in a conversation in a Facebook Philosophy group for Pragmatists. I feel that these groups take me as adversarial because I question their system of belief. To the extent that I accept any categorical distinction, I consider myself to be a Postmodernist first and foremost and a Pragmatist second. In a similar fashion, I am at once an atheist first, but I operate as a Buddhist. I am a nihilist first, but I operate as an Existentialist. In any case, in explaining this, I hit upon an analogy that I hadn’t considered before.

everything just ‘is’

Pragmatism is Samsara. In Buddhism, there is the concept of Samsara, which contains the realms we reside in before we reach Enlightenment, the state of realising that everything just ‘is’, is , and is undifferentiated, at which case we either exit the system or remain as aware (woke anyone?) Bodhisattvas.

everything is a constructed illusion

The ‘just is’ is the postmodern condition. Nothing is as it seems and everything is a constructed illusion. There is no good, no bad, no right or wrong—not even black or white. This is all perception of difference, but there is no difference.

I am a Buddhist in the same way I am a Pragmatist. I know that this is all a cognitive construct—or constructs—, but I am still stuck in the middle of it, ‘thrown in’ (Geworfenheit) to echo Heidegger, and I attempt to make the best of it. None of it is real, but, as with people of the Matrix, I can’t perceive my way out of it.

The risk for Pragmatists is that they are empiricists. They trust that the past will ostensibly operate the same as the future. It’s been generally that way thus far, and we’ve misinterpreted how things operate in the past, but we’ve corrected this interpretation, and we’ll correct and refine these interpretations in future. That’s the employed logic. I’ve not got a better plan, so as shoddy or rickety as it might be, it’s my life raft replete with holes, but I’ll patch them as swiftly as I can and hope my history of having not encountered any sharks or tidal disruptions or undertows persists.

none of this exists

All the while, my core beliefs are that none of this exists—not in a solipsistic way, just not as we imagine it does. It’s the wall constructed of atoms and molecules that is more space than not, and yet we can’t pass through it. If only we could all be Neo and overcome this misperception.

The Truth about Truth (First Amend)

Please note that this content has been subsumed into the originating article: The Truth about Truth.

We have no idea how close or far we are from Reality on the Y (Truth) axis.

Graph: Correspondence of Truth to Reality (Asymptotic Curve)

Assuming for the time being that there is an approachable truth, we have no reference to understand how close to reality we might be. In practice, we seem to operate on a basis of always being within some level of statistical significance of where Truth = Reality, and when new information is introduced, we say, “Hooray for Science!” Aren’t we glad that science is self-correcting. And Empiricism has its own issues.

Historically, we’ve had ‘wrong’ correspondence between Truth and Reality, but then we got it ‘right’—until we didn’t.

We may all know how Einstein progressed and refined Newtonian physics. What Einstein did is to create a new narrative—a synchronous shift of paradigm and rhetoric—, which has been accepted into a new orthodoxy. In our mind, this feels like progress. How close are we to the real truth?

Taking our understanding of gravity or of the fabric of space-time, we still have no idea what’s going on or how it operates, but this doesn’t prevent us from accepting it as a black box and making pragmatic predictions from there. So, for all intents and purposes, the ‘truth’ mechanism is less important than the functional relationship, just as I can tell time on a watch I have no idea how it operates.

Humanism is Speciesism

Why is racism wrong but speciesism OK? Primarily, other species have no voice, and to have no voice is to have no say. This advert got my attention.

Joaquin Phoenix Advert

Humanism is part and parcel of specious Enlightenment tripe, where ‘coincidentally‘ humans put themselves at the forefront. Copernicus removed Earth from the centre — though to be fair, even Christians had elevated gender-non-specific-Man above other animals — , but Humanism makes it more poignant that it’s Man at centre not God. Gods be damned. In fact, it’s often an afterthought that humans are animals at all, despite only the slightest veneer of consciousness and, more to the point, language to separate us from them.

Otherness has proven itself to be an evolutionary survival aspects, one that has brought me tho a point where I can write this, so one can call it natural, another term fraught with connotational baggage. To be able to differentiate and discriminate appear to be valuable attributes, but how much is enough, and how much is too much.

Buddhism teaches that we are all one with the cosmos, that any distinction is an illusion. Buddhist Enlightenment — not to be confused with Western Enlightenment — is to understand this, to not be bound to the illusion.

But, if racism is wrong, why is speciesism OK? Humans do give some animals some rights, and some places give different animals different rights, whilst other give animals categorically more and fewer rights. Some places ascribe divinity upon animals, elevating them above humans.

Racism seems to be more wrong because humans are more genetically homogeneous — at least phenotypically. Other mammals and herptiles don’t look so much like us. In observation, when they do, we have an additional layer of empathy, so chimps and canines with expressive eyes gain sympathy not afforded crustaceans and pinnipeds.

I don’t have an answer save to say that it’s just convenient and some day we may see a world as portrayed by science fiction where some — mostly bipedal species — live quasi-harmoniously with humans. But even there, humans are always the start, front and centre to provide to moral POV.