Reality is Bunk

No, it’s not about the matrix. And I don’t think life is a dream. I’m not even talking about Kant’s Ding-an-sich / Welt-für-mich. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the physical world we experience really is the way it seems to us. Even then:

– Heresy n°1 – 

98% of reality is simply what we choose to believe.    

Choose gravity!
You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Split reality

2%of our world is what I call “imperative reality”.  This is reality that we ignore at our peril. Not respecting it carries swift and sometimes fatal punishment. Illusions that you can fly off a tall building generally don’t last long. So we can easily agree that things fall down. This does not mean that we need to agree on gravity. If someone chooses to believe there are invisible imps that push things down, however ridiculous that belief may be, there’s nothing to stop them. There is no natural penalty attached to ridiculous beliefs, only to ignoring the “imperative” facts.

Another 8% of reality consists of scientific, or testable, facts. These  however can be ignored with impunity. Evolution e.g. is easily proven to anyone who accepts the scientific method, but there are still people who reject it. These people don’t drop dead, indeed they can live long and healthy lives. A bit annoyingly, they can enjoy all the mod cons provided by science, with their minds firmly stuck in the dark ages.

The remaining 90% of reality are things like expectations, abstract ideas, value judgements, philosophical theories, psychological explanations:  This time I’ll do better.  What is justice? Or freedom? It is good to help others and bad to be late. Does God exist? Is epiphenomenalism true? Do we have free will? What is A’s real motivation? Is B a true friend? Why did C do that?

What does “true” mean?

For the first 10% of reality, I have an idea of what it means for something to be true. Something is true if adding it to my worldview allows me to make better predictions about the future. This also gives me way to decide whether something is true. Choose something relevant, make a prediction with the idea, and with it’s negation. Then see what really happens.

Personally, I find the old “adaequatio rei et intellectus”, the correspondence of mind and reality, a bit circular. How do we check the correspondence? We can only compare our  mind with … our idea of the thing – which is still our mind.

And while a coherent world-view may be elegant, I think our views are at best “locally coherent”, i.e. they don’t obviously contradict the other ideas we commonly are aware of at the same time (I’ll come back to this another day).

As for saying that something is true, if it’s satisfactory to believe it…

What about the other 90% reality? What does it mean to say “epiphenomenalism is true”, or even “God exists”. These are statements that have no testable consequences, so my own definition above doesn’t work. The classical definition of truth fares no better: you can’t have an adaequatio rei et intellectus, because there simply isn’t a res. The same goes for value judgements, or statements about abstract ideas.

So?

Without a clear idea of what it means for 90% of reality to be true, maybe we should just accept that it’s largely subjective. Then we can stop arguing about it. This does not mean it doesn’t matter what we think, or that there is no reasonable way of choosing between two conflicting views. Just that the way to do it is not their “truth” value.

© K / ablogdog.com 2012. Please respect the copyright notice.

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Homo Narrans

Weltanschauung

I believe Vaihinger once wrote  “our brain is not developed to know the truth, so it’s not good at it.”

Being able to see connections between events is a survival advantage. Say your sheep get restless before the tiger comes. Not seeing the connection may bring death: if you don’t get to safety before the tiger comes, you’ve had it. The penalty for going into hiding when the tiger doesn’t come is…  a loss of face, perhaps?

How we believe this connection works, usually doesn’t make a difference, as long as we get ourselves to safety in time. Even if we believe the tiger comes to punish the sheep for behaving badly. And if we kill a few sheep for “naughtiness” and throw them to the tiger god, it may even stop us from being eaten.

So we learn to see the connections, and we make up stories about them. Homo narrans, the story-telling ape. And we acquire a need to explain things. To ask “why?”

Our reality is the story we tell ourselves about the world and everything in it. Unless we’re looking very carefully, we don’t see the world. We see the tapestry of stories we’ve woven around ourselves.

When we meet a new idea or theory, what counts is not whether it is true, or even helpful. What matters is “do I like this idea?” and “does it fit in with the ideas I already have?”

How we process new ideas.

Our Tangled Web

I’ve maintained before that our reality is a story we  tell ourselves, and a lot of it isn’t necessarily true in any deeper sense. It is also not particularly consistent.

Imagine a tapestry around yourself as an individual. This is your world, and you’ve decorated each bit as you choose. You may have taken care that things that are close together go well together – let’s call it locally consistent, and that gives you the illusion that it all harmonises. This is only because you never actually see different parts of the tapestry at the same time.

Worldview
Locally consistent worldview

Some examples

Recently Sam Harris pointed out that we associate wood fires with comfort and well-being, whereas of course smoke from a wood fire causes cancer, asthma etc. We just think of it in the context of warming ourselves by it, of cosiness and relaxation, not in the context of health hazards.

Typically, we expect others to adhere scrupulously to any rule or law, while allowing ourselves just that little bit of leeway. When I am five minutes late it becomes one-or-two, when you are are five minutes late I make it around-ten. Even when we are aware that we are tweaking the truth just a tiny little bit, this does not stop us from doing it.

Our judgement on any situation or action depends strongly on how we feel towards the person concerned. The same story, “I was late…” will provoke a “you just couldn’t help it, don’t worry” (to a friend) and an unspoken “well, I guess you just couldn’t be bothered” or “like you always are” (about someone we don’t like). And the same interaction will be judged differently, depending on which side we are on.

Amazingly, many people seem completely unaware of the double standards they use, saying things like: that was completely unacceptable/unfair/inexcusable etc., without even stopping to realise they themselves do exactly the same thing sometimes. Of course, when they do it themselves, they judge it rather more charitably.

Irregular verbs

Remember Bernard Woolley’s irregular verbs? Bertrand Russell called them “emotive conjugation”.

Bertrand Russell
I am firm. You are obstinate.  He is pig-headed.
Bernard Woolley   (Anthony Jay & Jonathan Lynn)
I have an independent mind. You are eccentric. He’s round the twist.
What about:
I am honest. You are outspoken. He’s abrasive.
I am diplomatic. You are evasive. He’s a liar.
And some of my favourites from a competition:
Carol, Belchertown
I peeked in your medicine cabinet. You nosed around in my stuff. He violated my personal space.
Bob, Philadelphia
I’m devout. You’re a heathen. They’re infidels.
Nowhere Man, Nowhere,CA
I am a soldier. You’re an insurgent. He is a mass murderer.

Can you think of more?

The Fundamental Heresy

Why it matters

If we invent (most of) our reality, does it make a difference what we believe? Isn’t it like choosing your favourite colour?

For some questions, maybe. For others, not. Suppose that preferring blue over red could make you happier. Suppose that our cultural bias towards red causes conflict, wars, and misery.  Suppose that by favouring blue we could move towards peace. Wouldn’t you try to get used to blue?

I shall not argue that blue is better. Or that there is a higher truth to red = bad. But I shall show you that all your life you have been brainwashed to prefer red, and encourage you to try, just for a moment, to move towards  blue. Who knows, you may get to like it. And you can always go back to red, if you prefer.

The fundamental belief

Stated below is one of the basic tenets of Christian philosophy, the fundament of occidental culture. You encounter these ideas a hundred times a day. You may never even have thought of this as a question. And still the answer you unwittingly give has the most profound effect on your life.

There is Good. There is Evil. As humans we know the difference, and must choose between them.

In more detail:

  1. Suffering comes from evil.
  2. Innocence is the basic human condition. The roots of evil lie hidden.
  3. The other is different from us, an evil and dissembling creature.
  4. When they see the error of their ways, those who do evil can be saved. Confession and penitence are the road to salvation.
  5. Cure (for society) lies in the eradication of hidden evil.
  6. There is one absolute truth.

Now suppose that were not true.

I think it’s the small stake that worries Bertie most.

The tragic view

  1. Suffering is an essential part of life.
  2. Human motivation is multi-layered. Bad acts often stem from positive qualities or motivations.
  3. The other is similar to us.
  4. When we understand why someone acts the way they do, we can find ways to help them change their behaviour, or ways to protect ourselves from that behaviour.
  5. The ubiquity of suffering requires acceptance, compassion and consolation.
  6. There can be different, equally valid points of view.

Alon/Omer, see below, call this the tragic view, and the fire-and-brimstone one the demonic view.

Unfamiliar ideas

This way of thinking may seem unfamiliar, awkward. It certainly goes against <insert age here> years of brainwashing. You don’t think you’ve been brainwashed? Compare how often you’ve heard:

  • The bastard, he really deserves to be punished.
  • Who does she think she is?
    vs.
  • Well, I don’t like what she did, but I guess that was the best she could do.
  • I suppose he must really be in a difficult situation, if it makes him act like that.

So the second kind of thinking feels unfamiliar, maybe even just plain wrong, because you’ve rarely or never done it, or heard it. Each time you think a thought it becomes easier, and seems more plausible, but that doesn’t make it true.

Right or wrong?

Neither view is right or wrong: they are different ways of interpreting the world. There are some arguments against the demonic view, like its basic lack of symmetry: I am good, you are bad, I am right, you are wrong, see the irregular verbs. There also reasons why it’s helpful to adopt the tragic view. More another day.

Recommended Reading
Alon, Nahi & Haim Omer. The Psychology of Demonization, Promoting Acceptance and Reducing Conflict. NJ: Erlbaum, 2006.

Why God Invented Free Will

What is free will, anyway? Here some ways of seeing it._____

Free decision _____
“If we went back to a situation and faced it again, we could go another way.”
This is simply meaningless. As Heraclitus already knew, you cannot bathe in the same river twice._____

Unpredictability _____
“Before we decide, it could go either way.”
Recent findings suggest that someone looking at your brain can see what you will decide, before you become aware of it.
More relevantly, simple factors are good predictors of our lives._____

Changeability _____
“If we go through the same type of situations again and again, we can make different decisions.”
No, we can’t. No matter how badly we want to change our behaviour, as long as the situations remain the same (for us), we tend to make the same bad decisions over and over.
What we can do, is change the situation. Often by changing the way we think about it. Therapy types that change how we think about a situation are the ones that seem to be most helpful. ___

Harm avoiders ____
“We can take measures to avoid bad things we see coming.”
Undoubtedly. In fact, we cannot do otherwise.
Call that freedom? Prisoners of the world: you are free. Well, free to remain in your cells.

Manual override 
Why do we actually want free will? Who wants to bother with all the little stuff: breathe in, breathe out, lift foot, blink eyes…?
What we want, is to have the power to make the big decisions. Especially when our actions seem to go against what we think we want. Then we want a “manual override” button, to do as we choose.

We are simply not aware of many of the factors going into the decision making process. An override button might do more harm than good. Anyway, why should our conscious self be allowed to skew the decision in its favour?

But it feels like I’m deciding 
Someone told Wittgenstein that people had thought the sun revolves around the earth “because it looked that way”. He is said to have asked: “But how would it have looked if the earth revolved around the sun?”
Now, how would it feel if you were not consciously deciding? Of course, “you” do decide. It’s just not a part of you that is in the spotlight of conscious awareness.

Where does that leave us?

Our decision making process is largely an unconscious one. Our cognitive brain may be asked for an analysis of the situation, but that’s it. Our conscious justifications come after the fact. There is an “out”: when we are too unhappy with our decision making, this triggers conscious reflection and we can take steps to improve.

German philosopher Schmidt-Salomon says: we are free to act according to our desires, but not free to choose what we desire (here).
Good enough for me.

Thought Experiment on Anger

Why is the free-will question so important, especially if reality is bunk, anyway? Do this thought experiment:

Step 1: Choose a situation in your life, where someone made you really angry. Angry, not devastated; no murders etc.

Don’t read on until you’ve chosen. “Person A did X, and that really pissed me off.”

Continue reading Thought Experiment on Anger

Embracing Fear

I am scared. I’m having surgery, and it’s really making me nervous. I’m currently sorting mail from 2009, it’s that bad. Normally my filing is chronological (with some local turbulence, where I had to root around in the pile to find something).

A few weeks ago I spoke to a colleague who was also having surgery, and she seemed very relaxed about it. It wasn’t anything major, but then I’m not getting a heart transplant either. And she’s always moving so fast, perhaps she never stops long enough to be scared. Or maybe she just didn’t like to say.

It did make me wonder: are other people less afraid than I am? Or are they just better at hiding their fear, or ignoring it? And is that a good thing?

– Heresy n°3 –

Emotions are an essential part of our being. To accept ourselves is to notice our feelings and to accept them.

We are taught to reject all our negative emotions, to suppress them, to ignore them, or to distract ourselves from them. Don’t worry. Don’t be sad. Don’t be afraid. Cheer up. It’ll be alright, I promise. How often have we heard these phrases?

But when I am afraid, or I am sad: that’s me. You’re telling me not to be myself. At the same time all these things are meant kindly. What they mean is: “I can see that you are sad/scared/… and that makes me sad/upset… because your happiness is important to me. I would like to help you feel better.”

Sweeping our negative emotions under the carpet guarantees that they stay with us. In order to let them go, we need to walk through them, to let them be there. In other words: it’s OK to be sad, or afraid.

The other day the fear was even worse, and I took the time to sit down and feel it. I even allowed myself to realise that I can still call the whole thing off if that’s what I want. At the same time the alternatives are not that great. For now, I’m OK with doing it.

Am I still scared? Sure: I dare to be scared.

And I may even get that pile of letters cleaned up.