Modern Spectrum: 1 Dimension

I’ve been pondering how to effectively dimensionalise the spectrum that illustrates the relationship among premodern, modern, and postmodern—and potentially, metamodern. I was researching and happened upon a YouTube video from a few years back by Rick Durst, a Conservative Evangelical professor. He was diagramming the chronological path from pre to post.

I think at this point it’s important to distinguish between Modern and Modernity and PostModern and PostModernity1. I feel that the noun form, Modernity, can be used to describe the chronology whilst the adjective form, Modern, describes the philosophy. I’m not sure that this is a standard distinction. If I adhere to this difference, then Rick is discussing Modernity rather than Modern. Perhaps I’m being pedantic.

I’ve taken liberties to rerender Rick’s model.

In his view, the stages are from God to Man to Earth. I don’t fully agree with the transition from Man to Earth, but the God to Man or Humanism doesn’t feel very controversial. Although Rick is describing modernity against a temporal backdrop, this doesn’t invalidate the God-Man-Earth aspect—leaving open the possibility that it may be invalid for other reasons.

Following the chronology, Rick points out that the overlapping periods between PreModern and Modern and Modern and PostModern are not clean breaks. As I’ve suggested before, in illustration B, some people today retain PreModern beliefs and others hold PostModern beliefs. On balance, I feel that the Western world today remains substantially Modern, philosophically speaking. I am not sure that I am qualified to assess this relative to contemporary Eastern cultures.

Again, without otherwise critically evaluating Rick’s model, belief and God and in particular, Catholocism was the hallmark of the PreModern, PreEnlightenment world—the supernatural and superstition ruled the day.

Many consider Modernity to have commenced with the Renaissance, roughly from the 14th to the 17th century—describing it as early modern. Given the prevalence of superstitious beliefs, I’d be more comfortable with something more along the lines of proto-modern rather than modern. Scientific discoveries were evident, but this was reserved for the elite.

Given the Protestant Reformation that occupied the 15th century, it’s clear that a declaration of Modern should be considered to be premature. One might even argue that even with the advent of the Age of Enlightenment, which spanned the 17th and 18th centuries, Secular Humanism become the theme for the empowered elites, but the masses never relinquished their PreModern belief systems. If we are to start the Modern clock at all, this seems to be as good a place as any.

Although Modernism is marked by Humanism, in the United States, federal and state government is still predicated on PreModern principles, so it is not unfair, twisting Lyotard’s phrase, to question, Have We Ever Been Modern? It is somewhat interesting how—at least anecdotally—how many people do not find it inconsistent to have faith in humanity to solve the ills of the world through technology whilst simultaneously believing in gods, angels, tarot, and homoeopathic and other anachronistic healing modalities.

Chronologically, Rick demarcates Modern and PostModern with the ecological crises of the 1970s, which turned the focus from Man to the Earth. Seeds of postmodernism were sewn post-WWII and even post-WWI with the devastation and realisation of the limits of human capacity.

For the purpose of the ternary plot, it seems easy enough to assess where a person might feel relative to gods versus humans. And whilst I could argue that the belief in gods and the supernatural is a discrete binary state rather than on a continuous scale, I could argue as well that someone could feel that their gods are in control but they retain some degree of what’s known as free will. As a matter of degree, one could be a Deist—believing in some Prime Mover—but feel that now humans are on their own. God is like a crocodile slithering into the darkness having enabled the next generations. On a 1 to 10 spectrum, they might get 90% Modern and 10% PreModern. A believer in astrology, tarot, and the like, might also have faith in Man, yet they may reside more on the 60%-40% in favour of Modernity—or vice versa.

The question is how to get past Man to Earth. I am not sure how to frame this. Perhaps this wasn’t the right avenue to pursue.

  1. For the record, I chose to render the terms PreModern and PostModern in camel case for no particular reason, save to think that it seems to make the prefix more readily distinguishable.

Postmodern Labyrinth

I watched the video, What Makes us Postmodern, and its predecesor, What Makes Us Modern, and I immediately discounted any attempts to synthesise Modernism and Postmodernism in some Hegelian manner, Hegel’s approach being somewhat Modern at the start. One can pair the essential dimensions and perhaps arrive at some moderate position, but, firstly, this is a Modern perspective; secondly, Moderns are not likey to abandon their position.

There may be a resolution, but it seems that it will require a paradigm shift—a different perspective still.

Ancient Greek mythology gives us the story of the Labyrinth. As I am not interested in analysing this from a Jungian perspective, we can safely ignore the Minotaur. The story of the labryrinth is a story for Moderns. It’s a teleological story based on the metanarrative that suggests that one can find order in disorder, if only they have the key.

As the story goes, the labyrinth is an unsolvable puzzle. However, at least one person knows how to solve it, or at least knows how to beat the system. Depending on the source version, Ariadne either assisted Theseus with a thread or jewels.

In a tl;dr version of the story, Theseus is tasked with killing the Minotaur. I’ve recently discussed his ship. Exposition informs us that the Minotaur is mortal, thus killable, but there is no escaping the maze—for reasons. However, Daedalus, the architect of the labyrinth, told Ariadne that there was one way out. If someone were to record their ingress, with say, a thread or jewels, they could then follow these to egress. Definitely not a plot device. Hansel and Gretel took this to heart and marked their ingress with breadcrumbs—or stones, depending upon which version you’re reading.

What Makes this Modern

Though the story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur comes from a pre-modern era, it remains an apt metaphor for modernity.

There is a deliberate underlying structure. In fact, it has been architected by Daedalus. This mirrors the Intelligent Design narrative favoured by Christians.

There is a definitive solution to the puzzle. The story is teleological. If one follows the plan, stays on the path, they will prevail. Go off-script, and perish.

This is a story about structure, about order, about adopting and conforming to the rules. Even though it’s also about gaming the system with cheat codes in more modern parlance. Nowadays, I’d turn off clipping and collision detection, but Ariadne didn’t know these codes. I digress.

Postmodern Reaction

This is not a story for Postmoderns because it starts with a design. For moderns, there is a design. It’s either a vestigial god or science. The belief is that everything has structure. Even if that structure is yet unknown to us. If only we had enough time, we could suss it out. Perhaps it’s past time to re-task Shakespeare’s infinite monkeys.

Reconciliation of this teleological belief is intractable. Rather, it can likely only be solved with rhetoric. Moderns love rhetoric, which explains why they have so much faith in Aristotle and classical philosophers, who still provide a foundation to much philosophy of the Moderns. It’s intractable in the same way that converting someone with some religious conviction to no longer have that conviction.

Modernism is about faith. It may have shifted from faith in gods to faith in logic and reason, science and technology, or organisation and progress. Postmodernism points out that whilst these are possible solutions, they are not the only solutions. Moreover, these have unintended consequences and create collateral damage. They also rely on a privileged perspective. Perhaps I’ll create a segment to illustrate this point using the disruption of COVID-19 as a backdrop.

In the end, Modernism relies on teleologies. The end may not be known, but we can divine a vision and lead people in that direction anyway by employing rhetorical devices. Postmodernism knows that any such narrative is fiction. A postmodern may emotionally buy into the narrative, but they never forget that it’s still fiction.

Modernism relies on order and control to maintain that order. This doesn’t mean that all Moderns are top-down authoritarians. But it does mean that they need crowd control and compliance. The United States are probably mostly Moderns. They like to claim they are individualists, but they are more typically either keeping up with the Joneses or competing with them. Most individuality is trivial at best. “I’m an individual because my BMW is purple.” Quite. And Moderns don’t like much non-compliance. They may want change, but if someone expresses this need for change through civil disobedience, the Modern may viscerally agree, but they will also rationalise that the civil disobedients should have used the admittedly broken system. Moderns like what they call progress, but they can only accept change in small doses at a slow pace, so there’s a friction.

Finally, there’s power. I am not going to rehash Nietzsche or Foucault, but this is a schism. Moderns want order and control. Power structures assist this, but then they don’t like the current actors. If only there were better actors. Nietzsche noted that the masters and the herd had different interests and moralities. Moderns know this on one level but think they can remediate this dichotomy. Because of course, they think they can bring order to everything—Second Law of Thermodynamics notwithstanding.

In the end, these schools will likely attempt to coexist. As for me, I’m a nihilist and somewhat of an existentialist. Yet, I am also a pragmatist as I still have to operate within the world I’ve been thrown into, as noted by Heidegger.

Karl Popper and I Are in Disagreement

Whilst Popper is correct in saying that you may (seemingly) resolve conflicts if you ignore definition alignment and go with a subjective approach. Just assume you are talking about the same thing and find accord. This is problematic because once instantiated, it will be realised that there was no common centre, and so the next round commences.

In some ways this comports with my language insufficiency postion—these terms are undefinable, so waiting for full agreement will require an infinite amount of time—, but pretending that one can ignore this step is fool’s play.

One approach might be to atomise a concept such as justice, thereby attempting to resolve a portion, but I’ll posit that this atomic approach will yield protons, neutron, electron, and then quarks and subatomic particles and quantum strangeness, so all we’ve managed is to kick the can down the road.

The best this attempt at a pragmatic approach yields is a pregnant pause, but it won’t remain resolved. It’s easy to blame the instability on the dynamism of society—and this does likely exascerbate the issue—, but this issue is inherently unstable at the start. Like an isotope, it’s just ready for any disturbance.

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.’


‘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.

Compatible with Compatibilism?

Full Disclosure: I consider myself to be a determinist. I looked for something like Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability to evaluate where one might be oriented on a scale of free will to determinism to fatalism whilst also considering compatibilism.

Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability

Let’s lay some groundwork by establishing some definitions from most constrained to least:

  • Fatalism : a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them
  • Compatibilism : a doctrine that maintains that determinism is compatible with free will
  • Determinism : a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws
  • Freewill : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

It seems that freewill and fatalism are bookends with compatibilism attempting to moderate or synthesise freewill and deteminism. But it also seems that one’s selection may be contexual. Ultimately, this argument is fraught with semantic challenges insomuch as some underlying concepts are yet unresolved.

Crash Course Philosophy does provides a nice summary of the challenges in defending even compatibilist positions away from detemininism and even fatalism.

As this video notes, our choices may appear to be free, but it doesn’t take much effort to perform a 5-whys investigation to remove anything but homoeopathic amounts of agency.

Taking a short example, let’s look at the cases of the trial judges mentioned by Sapolsky (Behave) and Kahneman (Noise). Given all of the factors entering into sentences, prior offences, sex or gender of either the defendant or the judge, education, income, and so on, but far the largest factor in determining the length or severity of a sentence was the time between the sentencing and the judge’s last meal—effectively their blood glucose levels.

Some may argue that this is a short interval, but behaviourists would argue that a person now is a culmination of all of their experiences to date. That the decision of the so-called criminal to rob the liquor store (going for the stereotype here) was not the result of low blood sugar. This may be true, but there is still an unbroken chain of confluent events that brought them to that place.

From a culpabilty perspective, even absent true agency, the offender should still be incarcerated or whatever to prevent this behaviour from repeating. Of course, if you believe in rehabilitation, you are necessarily a behaviourist in soem shape or form: the idea is to effectively repattern experience impressions. The other problem is one of probability. That you did X once, are you lilkey to do it again? If not, then there is no further risk to society, as it were. Given the probability of recitivism—and some argue that mass incarceration increases the probability or attempting criminal actions post-release—, is this even an effective deterence? It’s time to get out of the rabbit hole.

From my position, it is impossible to reconcile experience and freewill. The best you can argue is that one is free in the moment—like some strange improv exercise, where you are shown a film that stops abrutly, and you are instructed to act out the remainder of the scene. Is this free, or is this extrapolating on your experience.

Skipping to fatalism, how probable is it that absolutely everything is determined. Reality is just a film we are both in and observing or experiencing, but all of it is already laid down. We are just unawares. Every strange plot twist and early exit was not only already scripted, but it’s already been captured. There is no room for improvisation or flubbed lines. There is no opportunity to go off-script. Even these words are predestined. Even unpublished thoughts were not meant to be published.

There is no way to test this sort of system from inside the system, and there is no way to get a vantage above it, so here we are.

The notion of determinism affords humans some modicum of agency, perhaps akin to one part in a trillion trillions. Practically, we are taking credit for a butterfly effect—and punishing for this degree of freedom. As Sapolsky has noted, most instances of perceived agency are trivial. We can ‘instruct’ finger movement with our brain. Ostensibly, we think: move finger; bend; point; stop. And even so, what was the cause of the thought to move the finger? Was there truly a non-causal event?

Cognotive dissonance ensures that we can’t allow ourselves to be NPCs or automotons. We have to omuch hubris for that. We must have some free will. Some religions say we not only have agency here in this life but that we chose the life to begin with. Even so, we’ve not seen the script in advance; we’ve merely chosen which lessons we want learnt.

So what about compatibilism? Sort of, who cares? Whilst I can define some interstitial state between free will and determinism, it seems that it would not be even tempered or would otherwise skew heavily toward determinism.

What keeps me from being a hard determinist is that I hold out hope for statistics, chaos, and stochasticism. One might argue in return, that these, too, are determined; we just don’t see the underlying connection. And that’s my cognitive cross to bear.

To be fair, it seems that the notion of free will or even compatibilism are secondary, let’s say, reactions to the need for culpability, for moral responsibility. Societies are built upon these notions, as are legal systems. Necessary ingredients to invent are:

  • ‘Individual’
  • Agency and Volition
  • Choice, Motivation, and Intent
  • Responsibilty and Blame

None of these actually exist, so they need to be invented and constructed in order to associate self-control to actions. In fact, we have insanity escape clauses to recognise that there are cases where control is lost, whether temporarily or permanently, or never had in the first place for any number of ‘reasons’. At core, these attributes are necessary to exert power in a society. The next goal is to convince the actors or subjects that these things are ‘real enough’— as the saying goes, ‘good enough for the government’.

Even if we accept these things at face value, the interpretation and processing of these are different animals still. The notion of Will itself is likely speceous or another fabricated notion. Perhaps, I’ll address Will on another day. Probably not, as all of this is distracting me from my language insufficiency work.

When I think about free will, it is foisted on humanity in the same manner as gods and religion. With gods, we have been defending against theism for millennia. The gods fetish and free will are inextricably linked. As with the chicken and egg connundrum, the question is whach came first. Is God a reaction to fee will, or is it the other way around. Did we create free will to allow for responsibility and then fabricate Supreme busy bodies to act as ultimate judges? Or did we create the gods and build out the myth of free will to accommodate punishment of deviant behaviour. Or are these just parallel constructions? Enquiring minds want to know.

Why the world does not exist

Markus Gabriel was brought to my attention, and I immediately thought of Lance at The Dog Walks.

In essence, part of his argument touches on the insufficiency of language, but his key rationale for this claim is anchored arount Kant and set theory. He published a book by the same name on this topic in 2015. This TedX talk is from 2013. I haven’t read it and am unlikely to do so in the near term, but it might be interesting if it expands upon the notion presented here.

Painting with Hammers

Free association of words.

I was on a videoconference call at work, and someone was having work done at their apartment. People were painting, yet banging was evident. The phrase ‘painting with hammers’ was uttered, and the world will never be the same.

If I were still performing, it might have made a good band name. It may still make its way into a song title or lyric.

If you read this and are inspired. Feel free to run with it. Remember the origin, and comment or link back to here.

Gender Constructs

I’ve been following Philosophy Tube since Abigail was Ollie. Always top-notch material. Their content has gotten longer over time, so I’ve found myself skipping over in favour of shorter presentations. I am so glad to have decided to watch this one.

As anyone who follows me knows, I am a big advocate of social construct theory, yet I learned so much in this vid, which is proper well-cited AF. Lot’s of new content to add to my backlog, so I’ve got more than enough reading material for my next few incarnations at least.

The biggest takeaway for me is the notion that not only is gender a social construct, but so is sex itself. Previously, I have defended the sex-gender distinction, but in fact, scientific taxonomies are still social constructs—only in the scientific community rather than the greater community at large.

Abigail’s platypus drives home the point. Not that it’s some big reveal. Another less poignient analogy is fruit and vegetable classification. Tomatoes are fruits. Mellons—watermellons, pumpkins, and so on—are fruits. Say it ain’t so.

Give it a viewing and like or comment here and/or there.

Design and Purpose

This viral TikTok by @viral_actor demonstrates with humour how designs and purposes don’t always coincide. The narrative of the clip is that the woman on the left designed a shape sorting toy. Metaphorically, we could assume that the design is the user interface for some software application or game.

The tester, in the right frame, ‘tests’ the interface. One way of testing is to provide the tester with a purpose and little else, as this is how much people will approach a new product. It’s quite likely that the instruction was to put the shapes into the bin. The design, on the other hand, was supposed to pair a unique avenue for each block shape (in a particular orientation) with each opening through which to insert the shape.

Let’s be clear, the user who inserts the blocks ‘incorrectly’ relative to the design is doing nothing wrong (morally or kinetically). The problem is that the designer had an intent in mind and didn’t consider full domain of possibilities. This interface design can be improved to solve for the unique 1:1 piece-hole relationship. In fact, the testing feedback provides input for an engineering—or interface design—solution.

The tester, having been giving the task of putting blocks in a bin might be justified in entertaining the belief that the best design might have been a lidless bin—or that a single hole would have sufficed.

In this case, the video producer is employing humour, so we can ignore that an adult is not likely to be the target audience would probably be infants or to test persons for visual-spatial perception. If this is the case, the tester group should necessarily be infants. Below, we can see a similar problem, again using humour.

The parents are overjoyed to see their infant distracted by the hanging mobile. Little did they anticipate the enduring trauma it would commence.

Most people with experience in the design space have seen many of these design faux pas. Here are some design-experience chestnuts. Notice the common thread. It’s also good to remember our maths lessons: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line—as evidenced axiomatically by the hypotenuse is the square root of the sum of the squares, and so will always be shorter for any right angle (and even this slightly obtuse rendition). Thanks for that, Pythagoras.

Next, we have evidence that a designer created a barrier against bicycle traffic. To be fair, it did deter bicycle traffic from that path, but somehow I don’t think that was the sole intent. I’ll also imagine that the designed footpath route is as well travelled as the alternate path.

Design versus Experience
Please Use Sidewalk

For the image above, it seems that the path traversers (users) should put up their own sign, but for now they protest performatively.

Below, we see an intentional and mostly effective design meant to keep bicycle riders off of this footbridge.

None Shall Pass

One final note is to illustrate the difference between user interface design (UI) and user experience design. At teh top, we see two catsup (ketchup?) bottles. The traditional design on the left opens at the top and would not balance well upside down. On the right, the bottle opens down, and it sets well in this orientation. (To be fair, I’ve stored the top-right bottle upside down in my fridge, so perhaps a visual signal, say a narrower top, might obviate this habit.

At the bottom, we see the experiential result of the interface design: The age-old challenge of getting the product out of the bottle on the left versus the instance on the right. It also appears that the narrow top of the left design was intentional to slow the flow, so perhaps widening the aperture may have countered that requirement. The righthand design does have an even smaller aperture, but the egress is broader until that point, and the orientation must compensate for it.

We’ve also seen this design carry over to shampoo bottles.

So there you have it…

Criminal Conservatism

A few years ago, I shared with a colleague that I had noticed that my high school classmates who seemed to be the most non-conformist (or perhaps the most anti-authoritarian), the ones most likely to have abused drugs and alcohol and most likely to criticise the Man, have by and large become extremely conservative on the political spectrum. Most are card-carrying Republicans, and dreaded low-information voters, continuing the trend of low-information acquisition and processing. He said that he had noticed a similar trend.

I still keep in contact with some some old mates who are Conservative Republicans, but who were high-information consumers then and still, so I am not saying that all Conservatives are low-information people.

A man who is not a Liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a Conservative at sixty has no head.

—Benjamin Disraeli (Misattributed)

The past couple of years, in a sort of nod to Bukowski, I’ve been researching or circulating among the underbelly of the United States, the veritable dalit-class comprised of drug dealers and users, pimps, prostitutes, and thieves. And I’ve noticed the same trend. These people might fear or hate the police and the system, and they may not vote or even be high-information seekers, but they seem to have a marked propensity to Conservatism. I admit that this is anecdotal and rife with confirmation bias, but this is my observation.

To broad brush any group into some monolith is always a fools errand and missing dimensional nuance, but the general direction holds. In my observation, these people are very black & white, and they want to see law & order (as much as they want to avoid its glance). They are interested in fairness, and call out being beat, as in being shorted in a drug deal or overpay at the grocery store–the same grocery store from which they just shoplifted.

When they see a news story, ‘That bank robber deserved to get caught’ would not be an unexpected response. Even if they got caught, they might voice that they deserved it. The received sentence might be a different story.

I am not sure why this shift from anti-establishment to hyper establishment happens. I’ve also noticed that even if they dislike the particular people serving government roles, they still feel that the abstract concepts of government, democracy, capitalism, and market systems make sense, if only the particular instance is not great.

One reaction I had is that some of these people feel that the transgressions of their youth might have been avoided only if there were more discipline, and so they support this construct for the benefit of future generations, who, as embodied in Millennials, are soft and lack respect for authority.

I’d recently re-discovered a Bill Moyers interview with moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and there is some relationship. And whilst I could critique some of Haidt’s accepted metanarrative relative to society, his points are valid within the constraints of this narrative.

The video is almost an hour long and was produced in 2012, it is a worthwhile endeavour to watch.

I am wondering if anyone else has seen this trend or who has experienced a contrary trend. Extra points for an explanation or supporting research.

Cover image: Sean Penn, excerpt from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Brett Cavanaugh, SCOTUS and posterboy Conservative hack