Category Archives: Ideas

A nerd muses on love

Truth is a quality of assertions, not of that about which assertions are made. But the fact that an assertion can have degrees of truth with respect to reality is important. I believe this is what is meant when people insist that “there is a truth”: there is a reality about which true or untrue things can be said. 

However, I am a pluralist, and this complicates things. Worse, it is a metaphysical pluralism. This means that I believe in a reality about which true or false things can be said, but that this reality is not reducible to any truth or any number of truths. No matter how many true things are known about even the simplest realities, the truth of that reality is not exhausted. More true things remain to be said. 

Further, as truth is something that belongs to assertions we make, we can only assert the truths we know how to assert. What we know how to assert is limited by the conceptualizations we have at our disposal. Concepts are thought-making thoughts, used both for making realities intelligible and for making assertions made about realities intelligible. Understanding realities and understanding what others say about realities* is limited by the concepts we know how to use.

An average quantum physicist could tell Aristotle myriad new truths about a rock, but before Aristotle could understand these truths he would need several decades of conceptual infrastructure removed and several centuries of conceptual infrastructure bestowed. With this conceptual infrastructure he would grasp the truths of the rock and of the physicist*. 

The most unnerving thing about concepts is that until we know how to use it to understand realities, it is inconceivable. An inconceivable concept does not exist to us, until suddenly it does exist. And each time we acquire use of a new concept (perhaps in an effort to grasp some particular fact), the new concept provides us new understandings about myriad other realities, and maybe about reality itself, as a whole.

The best indication we have that something inconceivable exist to be understood is that someone tells us that it exists. But this is a strange faith, and a faith that rests on a foundation of another strange faith — that new truths can irrupt into our souls and change everything, all at once, in inconceivable ways. The entirety of existence can, at any moment, undergo a transfiguration that, prior to the new conception, is literally, technically inconceivable, instantly populating the world with new truths, new kinds of beings.

Mine is a metaphysic of profound and inexhaustible surprise.

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* To understand a person, to know the truth of who someone is, we must understand the truths of the person. Both are inexhaustible. We can never finally know another person. The best we can do is to want to know and to want to keep knowing forever. 

This desire transfigures what could be taken as epistemological futility into an inexhaustible supply of new, surprising and sometimes disturbing things to learn.

File under “New Ways to Think about Love”.

Or file under “TL;DR”.

Hello…?

Understanding understanding understanding…

Understanding a person means understanding how that person understands — especially understanding how that person understands other people, and how they understand.

These meta-refractions and meta-reflections of understanding understandings of understandings can extend only so far, and this extent might be a good candidate for that vague quality we call “depth”.

Pluritarian Pluriversalism

To someone born into an autistic universe controlled by a single set of strictly logical natural laws, the experience of empathy and the subsequent revelation of an empathic pluriverse redefines the meaning of miracle, and of transcendence, and of religion.

Before, miracles were exceptions to the laws of nature. After, miracles are the irruption of something in the midst of nothingness: other minds, each with a world of its own — each with the power to change the meaning of one’s own world.

Before, transcendence was defined in terms of an infinite reality standing beyond the finite objective world.  After, transcendence was defined in terms of an infinite reality standing beyond myriad finite objective worlds, each rooted in the elastic mind of a subject.

Before, religion was the attempt for an individual to commune with a transcendent reality with miraculous powers. After, religion was still the attempt for an individual to commune with a transcendent reality with miraculous powers, but the change in conceptions of transcendence and miracle means that it is the individual and the individual’s world that is transcended, and this means the route to transcendence is not around the world and one’s neighbors, but through them and their worlds. The activity of loving, respecting and learning from one’s neighbors is intrinsic to loving, respecting and learning from the infinite God who cannot be confined to any one world, however vast.

Myriad worship practices are needed to worship myriad aspects of an inexhaustible and inexhaustibly meaningful God. By this understanding, empathy is worship.

Who really knows? (On epistemological privilege)

Epistemological privilege comes solely from working diligently and systematically to understand — accepting the help of qualified teachers, observing, asking questions, testing, revising and re-revising. This kind of effort is motivated by the realization that one’s current understanding is not yet good enough. People who think they already know everything worth knowing lack this motivation and do not put work into improving their understandings.

…Or at least, this is the general rule. As with all rules, however, there are exceptions. Here is a partial list of exceptions:

  • Some people have the privilege of being born into a marginal category and get to see the world through the clear lens of otherness. These lucky unlucky people, deprived of hegemonic coddling,  get to experience a rawer world. Knowledge is the consolation prize for an uncomfortable existence.
  • Others are born into a situation where the truth is known and taught. If you are one of the few who have been taught the true truth from an early age you are a truly fortunate person.
  • Others are just somehow born wise. Are they “old souls” who won their understanding in past lives? Maybe the universe chooses some people to be teachers? Or maybe nature just produces genius for no reason at all? Rational explanation may be impossible.mNobody taught them what they already know, yet they do know.
  • Others have had the truth revealed to them, usually through a shocking and traumatic event, sometimes chosen, sometimes inflicted. And part of this revelation is the insight that the event itself was destined.
  • Others are humble and have realized that  what a person really needs to know is really not that hard to understand, and that things that are too hard to understand are things that aren’t worth knowing. This kind of simple humility is shockingly rare.
  • Sometimes it is a combination of two or several of the above factors.

In is important to stress that these exceptions are so rare that it is safer to assume they do not exist at all.

I personally know only two people who definitely know the truth. I suspect five or six others might know, but I have not yet been able to confirm it. And, of course, I know many people who think they know but are definitely mistaken.

Knowledge funnel

  1. Hunch – a wordlessly sensed possibility
  2. Intuition – a hunch made articulate (gate: articulation)
  3. Hypothesis – an intuition supported by informal evidence (gate: evidence)
  4. Experiment – a hypothesis put in testable form (gate: operationalized as test)
  5. Theory – an experimentally-confirmed hypothesis (gate: affirmed by test)
  6. Fact – a theory that has been tested sufficiently that a community regards it as true (gate: community acceptance)

 

Menckenating

Menckenatingv. To believe that which one cannot understand cannot be understood because it is nonsense, and then to demonstrate how “the emperor wears no clothes” by exhibiting samples of apparently obscurantist language in order to justify refusal to seriously engage what is, in fact, ideas that are plainly fully-clothed to those who have successfully overcome the limitations of objectivist thought.

Turns

When philosophers talk about experiencing a “turn” in their thought (for instance, Heidegger and Wittgenstein), the turn is often taken to be as a philosophical crisis brought on by philosophical thought and resulting in a different approach to thinking.

Increasingly, though, to my eyes, these look less like philosophical crises and more like normal transitions from immaturity to maturity: A boy’s rationalist philosophy (a natural consequence of limited social entanglements freeing the mind to theorize about its own apparently autonomous workings and capacity to intellectually master the world) is supplanted by a man’s pragmatist philosophy (an attempt to make sense of a transcendent world within which he is entangled, has been entangled from birth, and from which one cannot extract oneself especially in that boyish state of  delusional autonomy).

The unexpected

The cash value of “expecting the unexpected”: Brace yourself for the distinctive angst that attends the arrival of the unexpected, and resolve to welcome the unexpected as an invited guest when she arrives.

*

In my view, it is very near the heart of morality to suffer for the sake of welcoming the unexpectedness of another being.

To refuse this unexpectedness is to refuse transcendence itself.

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The cash value of “transcendence”: The permanent remainder to everything we know, which by definition is unexpectable. To accept only what we expect is to lock the world out from the cell of one’s mind, and to regard it a prisoner.

*

You cannot stop at loving the person you’ve come to know. That’s only loving an image of your own making.

Political pluralism

Arendt’s quote on politics and plurality is one of my key intellectual landmarks:

Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition — not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam — of all political life.

Having immersed myself in Actor-Network Theory for the last several years Arendt’s characterization of action as “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter” seems a little quaintly 20th Century — but her assertion that “plurality is specifically the condition — not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam — of all political life” changed my vision of politics, and few days pass without my recalling this quote.

Prior to this understanding, I saw politics as an essentially coercive activity, done by one gang of people to another (that is, to me).

But this ignores the fact that gangs must cultivate relationships before they can become gangs, and even more importantly, it misses the crucial insight that operating as a gangs is only one possibility of alliance, and thankfully not necessarily the most common one. Certainly alliances can be a means to coercive action, but alliances can also be a end in itself, and if you think about it, one of the most fully satisfactory ends a person can accomplish. It could even be argued that goal of coercive force might actually be a means to an us-versus-them feeling of alliance, which could help explain the strange euphoria so many people feel in the face of an enemy.

*

To put it in terms of a professional dichotomy I’ve been entertaining/obsessing over, the idea of politics as essentially pluralistic changes the nature of a political problem from what is conceived as an engineering problem (active agents working on a “hard” system of passive/unfree parts) to a design problem (active agents working on or within a “soft” system composed at least in part of active/free participants).

If you see politics as social engineering, obviously you’ll want as little of it as possible. You’d be crazy not to. Social engineering is a horror (whether the social system is a governed public or a privately managed company) because it requires people to play set roles in a system and minimizes variance among parts for the same reason factories adopt Six Sigma: smooth and efficient functioning.

But if you understand politics as a participatory forming of alliances, its meaning changes from social engineering to social design: the belief that we are empowered to take collective action to change situations for the better (which pragmatists call meliorism and what innovation professionals call “design intervention”). Social design makes the system responsive to the people who constitute it, who in turn respond to the system by choosing to perform as participants — or by changing the system for more satisfactory participation.

 

Difference and reconciliation

Friendship is the parallax of two people’s existence in one shared reality.

Friendship is difference of perspective reconciled in depth.

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Friendships are tested and actualized by fighting.

The first test is whether one fights. A second test is how one fights.

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Friendships can end in irreconcilable difference; but conciliatory indifference can cause a friendship to never begin.

Irreconcilable difference can kill a friendship, but conciliatory indifference keeps it dead.

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Like every reality, friendship exists in the “double-bind of resistant availability.”

Variant doubles

Two eyes reconciling independent perspectives gains depth of vision. Two ears hearing slightly different emphases hears a stereo space. A memory that recalls and compares past and present dwells in historic depth. A mind that can grasp details while maintaining awareness of the meaningful totality that provides it significance can be said to have intellectual depth.

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To understand the effects of parallax, we can cover the left eye and look through the right, then cover the right and look through the left. To understand stereo we can try listening through one ear alone and then the other. Philosophical hermeneutics attempts to repeat this basic operation with history and thinking.

*

Whatever remains perfectly constant barely registers as existent. A changing world is a bigger world, and a changing person is a bigger person.

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Plato’s allegory of the cave begins with “And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: — Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads.”

 

Real

This quote has become important to me: “What is love but understanding and rejoicing at the fact that another lives, feels and acts in a way different from and opposite to ours?”

Does this mean we follow Rilke’s advice to maintain distance in order to get a better view? If difference were exhaustible, that might be the best strategy.

However, no matter how much we try, difference always eludes our attempts at familiarization. There is always more difference — if we want it.

Adam Miller says the real is an irreducible “resistant availability.” Love wants the real.

The USA is not a cult

The Founding Fathers of the United States of America were not and never claimed to be Old Testament prophets. They were smart Enlightenment Age men, finite, fallible, time-bound and 100% lacking divine magical powers to foretell the future and to lay down eternally valid algorithmic laws of conduct.

So, let’s stop turning our Founding Fathers into cheap copies of Moses, Isaiah and Ezekiel. This sort of nationalistic piety is specially inexcusable among “objectivist” libertarians who claim to be atheists, or at least hard-nosed secularists, but who run around like holy-rollers spewing Jefferson and Franklin.

I imagine the Founding Fathers would have seen all this patriotic fundamentalism as a symptom of decadence and a warning sign of decline. But to put it more patriotically (in a specifically American sense of the word): according to my own perceptions and judgment this appears to be the case, and to further intensify this patriotic performance, I invite your opinion on this matter — because perhaps you disagree with me, and we have something to learn from one another by duking it out. Conflicts are opportunities to deliberate and actualize our nation.

If Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Washington were alive I’d love to get them involved, too, but they’re dead. Further, having been dead and out of the loop for centuries, they are all woefully uninformed on what’s going on in our times, and entirely unable to comment on what to do in a world where a single suitcase bomb can take out half a city, where electronic surveillance makes it more and more possible to efficiently spy on billions of individuals, where a single well-placed disturbance can collapse a fragile electronically-mediated global economy, where people do business with people on the other side of the Earth everyday, often anonymously or in vast aggregate, where an identity can be stolen and used… etc., etc., etc.

It is up to those of us who are still alive to follow the example of those who came before to take responsibility for shaping our future. And also to not follow them. We should always be re-founding. While we’re at it, I think we could benefit from some Founding Mothers. (I nominate Elizabeth Warren.)

To summarize: The USA not a cult. We’re a tradition founded on reason and sustained by the exercise of individual judgment.

Mere gods

Without thwarted lusts and transmuted animosities even the most powerful men would remain mere gods.

A corollary (added July 2): To the degree a man gains the capacity to lust and despise without constraint, he is free to devolve into a god.

[Note of explanation: I just finished reading a book on paganism written by a right-wing European thinker. This aphorism is a dig at him and his vigorous and stunted religiosity. These day, I’m trying to purge my vocabulary of romantic words like “gods”, “wisdom”, “spirit”, etc., out of loyalty to the realities they fail to represent. Please excuse this lapse.]

What is metaphysics?

To use Levinas’s distinction, ontology is inquiry into being within a totality; metaphysics is inquiry into the being of infinity.

The two inquiries can be seen as “containing” one another in different senses, the former subjectively, the latter objectively. Ontology contains metaphysics within its subject — its manner of inquiring — because metaphysics can be seen as a category of being, but one that is understood to “overflows” or stands beyond contact (and certainly the grasp) of the mind. The “object” of metaphysics contains the object of ontology, in that every entity treated within ontology is also treated within metaphysics as a subset of some kind — an effect, manifestation, superstructure, etc. of metaphysics’s more primordial categories of being.