To be, or not to be

Pink or purple?

Yesterday I wrote about the SEP article on existence. Today I’ll describe what I think it means to say something exists, and what that implies for “reality“.

All the world’s a stage

When we think about the world, we have an image in our minds, though it’s not necessarily visual. I think of this as our inner or mental stage. It can become a blasted heath, the banquet hall in Hogwarts, the office, or our dream holiday location: let’s call these different sets. When we imagine something or someone to be “there”, we add a placeholder or avatar on our stage to that particular set (e.g. “blasted heath”) with mental notes describing the properties we attribute to that object or person.

A placeholder for a chair may have notes like: can sit on this, stand on it to reach top shelf, take it apart and throw in fire (n.b. owner might not like this), best not collide with it, as may hurt.

Let us say something exists with these properties relative to a mental set if adding the mental placeholder and notes there leads to good results, i.e. accurate predictions and appropriate actions. If I walk into the chair, I’ll hurt myself, just as I thought, and hopefully avoid it in future.

Appropriate properties are needed for these predictions: if I believe the bugblatter beast makes a good meal for tourists, rather than of tourists, our poor hitchhiker may well get eaten.

Both properties and existence belong to their mental set. When Harry Potter grabs his broomstick (note: it flies!), I’ll know what to expect, even though I’m aware my own broomstick can’t do that. And I can talk about Harry Potter, although I know he’s a fictional character.

Say thy opinion

For some things, we all agree they exist in this sense.

I’ve never met anyone who chooses to sit down just beside the chair rather than on it. I’m not talking about metaphysical beliefs. You may believe the world is an illusion; you’ll still take care to sit in the place where-the-chair-isn’t. That’s because if you step out in front of the tram you don’t believe exists, or walk off the roof you believe is an illusion, even once, I’ll never meet you.

For other things, it’s not quite as clear.

I accept that protons, electrons, and photons exist in this sense because the predictions based on them seem fairly accurate to me. I’m not sure what a photon is exactly, as it’s one of these strange things that is sort-of-a-wave and sort-of-a-particle, but I’m happy to stick a mental toothpick in my stage set for the “real world” with notes like: flies around, lets me see things, best not worry about it too much.

Some people think they see things just because those things are there. These people don’t feel the need to allow for weird things like photons and say, “mmm, whatever” – like I do when the physicists start talking superstrings.

It’s when we consider supernatural entities, e.g. God, that things get complicated.

For some people, God is an integral part of their life. They agree you can’t touch him like a chair, but they “feel” him, talk to him etc. They have a God-placeholder in their world, with varying properties depending on their particular faith, and that works just fine for them.

Others cannot imagine a world with God in it. When they  try to put a God-placeholder on their mental stage, it leads to all kinds of contradictions, and is generally unpleasant – so they remove it, and are completely happy without it.

Airy nothing

As both mental worlds work well, I believe both views, both truths, are equally valid. Whether or not you believe God exists*, you can come to a working view of the world – though the two will be rather different. And questions about truth aside, you may like one of these worlds better than the other.

*Caveat: I am talking only about the claim that God exists, not about claims concerning creation or miracles.

Now, on my mental stage there isn’t a place for God.

In my view, people who believe that morality comes from God are in fact creating their own morality. They pick which Bible stories to use and which to ignore for deciding what is right or good. And then they attribute this to God because having a clear moral authority makes them feel more comfortable than believing they have to make things up as they go along. But this line of reasoning is in my head. On my mental stage. With the placeholders and properties I put there.

I assume that conversely, people who believe in God think I’ve somehow derived my morality from God and just don’t realise it. On their inner stage the set for “the real world” looks quite different from mine.

To conclude with truth

I wish we could all accept that there is no absolute truth, no final answer to questions about concepts and supernatural entities!

If people from all sides accepted this, maybe we could stop arguing about who is right, and try to find common ground. On how to live together, on how to make this world a better place. Regardless of whether we believe in another one. O brave new world.

***

The quotes: 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06.

Next week I want to write on why hate hurts – a continuation of Heresy n°3.

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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?

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.

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.

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