Wednesday, February 06, 2019

On Postmodernism?

"The Buddha says with our thoughts we create the World" ~ Monkey Magic, English Dub.

"for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." ~ Shakespeare, Hamlet.

"There is obvious truth to the Cynic Monimus' statement that 'all is opinion'; and obvious, too, is the usefulness of this statement if a man profits from it insofar as it is true." ~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book Twix.

Does an external objective reality exist? I do believe so. What I'm not so confident in, is that it's nonviable to believe that everything is but a social construction - a matter of perception.

Better minds over multiple lifetimes have contemplated the problem that experience itself happens within our own nervous system. Long before the Matrix philosophers were wondering how we tell if we aren't a brain in a vat. How do I know my experience of blue isn't your experience of red, Des Cartes established his own existence by asserting he's thinking and therefore is.

If you are in camp reality, then you basically believe that beliefs can be insulted by reality. A belief you are immortal will get slapped down when you are crushed by a boulder and what not.

What though of more subtler cases, like the Buddhist teaching that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional, or corresponding in the West, the stoic aim of being able to laugh upon the torturers rack?

Their is certainly subjective experience too, I'm given frequent examples where two people can look at the exact same stimulus and come to different conclusions. One may think that 'Chicken & Waffles' sounds delicious while another thinks it sounds disgusting. Is one right and the other wrong? Well no, because here reality becomes subjective.

Being myself a person who wants to believe that there is an objective reality, I've for a long time used the reconciliation of the subjective into objective reality with phrases like 'opinions are facts, but not all opinions are factual.' which is to say, we often have to deal with the reality, of an unreality a person might believe in.

Take as an example, a man who believes secret government satellites can read his mind. He has no concrete proof the satellite exists, nor can he provide any substantiation as to why government agents would be interested in the contents of his mind, yet regardless it shapes his behavior in the form of wearing an aluminium foil hat. And he and the people who interact with him have to deal with his unsubstantiated belief as though it were a description of an objective reality.

Thus opinions about the existence of conspiracies are part of the reality anyone has to contend with. Witness Obama having to release his long form birth certificate.

Then there's more trivial instances like sour grapes - derived from an Aesop fable where the protagonist unable to obtain the grapes they desired, instead convinced themselves the grapes were sour and they never wanted them anyway. The mind certainly possesses this power to turn lust to revulsion and vice versa, love to hate. Hence 'sour grapes' is a meme that has stuck around.

Now enter the big versions, the social constructions - Gods, nations, and gender identities. Of this trinity we know for example that nations are completely socially constructed. Subset of this are the economies we all operate in, the money whose only real utility is as money, bearing no alternative use.

The God debate is probably a much safer example given that militant athiesm either went out of style or ran out of steam/attention a good decade ago. But the gods that have stuck around tend to have retreated into a concept that is unfalsifiable. Which is to say, the Bible makes certain predictions about archeology, based on events it describes, yet the predictions get insulted due to an absence of evidence it predicts would remain of a worldwide flood, an mass migration exodus across a seafloor and the subsequent drowning of the pursuant army.

Virtually all religious claims about the nature of reality have bumped up against an alternative form of getting knowledge - the scientific process. Though science is restricted to experimentation it's a big part of it. And while the predictions made in some texts are wholly unimpressive in their reliability at describing my subjective experience of reality and others, there are texts that are remarkably reliable in their predictions.

One of the earliest being Ibn al-Haytham's books on Optics, where he described light travelling in a straight line sometime in the 8th century. And it is still the case that if I point a tube at a candle and look through it, I will see the candle flame, and if I remove my eye from the opening and look in another direction, the light will fail to bend around and enter my eye thus allowing me to still view the candle.

From these modest beginnings a communal knowledge base has snowballed into something that can describe an almost unbroken chain of the history of the universe. It fucks up continuously but is also continuously refined, by revealing the errors it makes.

Such that, for many, science is really the only game in town when it comes to the getting of knowledge. It's about the noble attempt of trying to make predictions that will be accurate indefinitely out into the future, be it tomorrow, in centuries or millennia from now.

Enter Jacques Derrida of which I've linked to a much better and more charitable summary of his life and ideas than I could ever offer. To be honest, I'm probably a fan of 'Deconstruction' and generally favor wanting to take weak positions on any issue, rather than strong ones and thus am all in favor of a state of 'Aporia'. But I bring him up because of 'Logocentricity'.

Logocentricity describes our tendency toward the 'logos', the logical, reasoning part of the brain. So the empirical method, experimentation, trying to work against our intuition is firmly in the Logos. Logocentricity draws attention to this privileging and implies a need to move away from, at least a dependence on the Logos.

Where I struggle, is if you are going to level a complaint like 'too logical' it leaves the alternative options ambiguous. And outside of gambling and risk taking, I'm not a fan of ambiguity.

Is there another way to get knowledge? Reason, Science, Logic are a binding form of knowledge, they subtract from the possible by disproving things. Fundamentally this process puts restrictions on what we can believe is true. It says we can't fold a puddle, nor slice gas into quarters, and among other things, spoiled the fun of turning lead into gold, or shooting heat rays from our eyes.

One unpleasant thing of science, is we may not like what science gets us. In which case would it be good to have an alternative?

I can jump on board certain criticisms of logocentricity. The unintelligible should not be confused with the unintelligent. A piece of music can be persuasive on a purely emotional level. There's also Nassim Nicholas Taleb's beautiful 'Green Lumber Fallacy' for which one does not need to understand something intellectually in order to use it successfully, correctly.

There are people I'm told, that are such hardcore materialists, that they would have people cease to say things like 'I'm happy' and replace it with 'my serotonin levels are increasing.' I regard these people as idiots, and I'm happier to use shorthands like 'happy' to describe emotional states.

And so on and so fourth, there's a place for the irrational within the useful, and converserly there are extremes to which the rational becomes not useful.

However, I am not sure a move away from logocentricity by necessity elevates any alternative to its equal. I don't personally believe, that we get to believe what we want. At the very least, that isn't the strategic play.

I'm impressed and impressionable to the Martial Philosophers, and the Classical philosophers (particularly the Cynics and the Stoics) because the dealt with a method of knowledge that was very exposed to insults from reality. The Cynics and Stoics appeared to have some immunity to the state of slavery which is why I will give them credence on describing an ideal state of mind. Similarly, when Musashi writes a treatise on combat, he does so having survived a lot of it and is writing about a form of knowledge that, when it doesn't work, you tend to die and then not be able to write about it.

If all is opinion, then not all opinions are equal, and to me the opposite in standing opinion wise to Musashi Miyamoto is 'the Parrot Who Cried Victory', a fable told in Marcos' book 'Our Word Is Our Weapon' about a Parrot that only knew one word 'victory' and at the conclusion of the anecdote the Parrot is actually swept up by an Eagle who proceeds to devour it, as it dies the Parrot keeps crying 'victory'.

The Parrot probably doesn't have an opinion about what constitutes a victory sure, and this probably never happened. But I can imagine a scenario where the avidly dedicated to seeing reality as is Musashi cuts down the Parrot who can only squawk victory, such that both parties ultimately achieve what they set out to.

Victory is in Musashi's mind because all there is to him is cutting down or being cut down. Victory is in the Parrot's mind because Victory is what it perceives to be victory, which is everything.

And while a 16th century Samurai fighting a parrot is of course completely a construction of my imagination, I feel most adults would have experienced playing a game with a child that can loosely be described as 'You lose, I win.' where that basically describes the rules of the game and the rest is all jazz improvisation. This game is not played well by children together 'Bang! you're dead' 'No you missed!' 'Na-uh, I have seeking bullets that can't miss.' 'But I have a force-field.' and so on.

The space in which we get to construct our own subjective reality requires the consent of others to live our reality. Adults are better at giving this consent perhaps than more egocentric children. I do not however believe that reality is capable of consenting, I'm a believer that 'truth will out'.

And I suspect all of us are to some extent, the brilliance revealed of Marcus Aurelius is in his qualification 'insofar as it is true.' and I feel that nobody is so hardcore in their belief that life is but a dream that we are dreaming, that they would find the word 'disillusioned' as unintelligible.

We can possess illusions for as long as we can avoid them being punctured. And thus, believing what we want becomes a practice of avoiding, typically that which prompts negative emotion. When I look back at the words of the Buddha, Shakespear and the Cynics and Stoics, I generally interpret that all are talking about acceptance, and fighting the intuition that acceptance is a passive, rather than positive act.

Were I a male Angler Fish though, would I be less motivated accept what the logos shows to be true and more motivated to avoid it?

Probably, I think myself lucky to be inhabiting the most privileged life available which makes accepting whatever explanation is offered to describe why I'm so lucky. Conversely if for example somebody tells me people from Asian populations test better on IQ tests than me and my kind, it's a pretty easy pill to swallow.

But avoiding is one thing at a certain (low) level of sophistication, and another as the sophistication of avoiding playing with reality at more sophisticated levels.

And here I have to begrudgingly mention Jordan Peterson because I suspect he is right to attribute much of popular left-wing beliefs as being a product of post-modernist thought. Where I'd push back, is that I've done an economics degree, and economics is an old hand at making up sophisticated ways to just ignore reality, and having gone through my degree I know it is possible for someone to study a degree in Economics and not realize or be informed they are actually studying 'Neo-Classical Economics' which is but one of many 'schools' of Economics.

Thus I don't know, but I suspect a bunch of people studying arts and humanities are never really informed that their worldview privileges Postmodernism. More of the phenomena being witnessed is a user friendly level 'believe what you want' behavioral trend that may have it's foundations in the theorising of Derrida and Foucalt, but it's easy to avoid the allegations of a JP, himself an accomplished obfuscator, by just saying 'no it's not' because possibly nobody ever told them they are educated with a Postmodern perspective.

And that too is understandable, at a Bachelor Degree level, does anybody want to actually fucking explain what something like this means:

"As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse which breaks with the received historical discourse, and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs, then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down."

That's a quotable quote (translated admittedly) from Derrida. And bearing in mind it is me speaking, me who starts sentences and often paragraphs with 'And' the postmodernists are probably the worst writers I've ever come across, and I've read Academic Papers in Economics.

I'm not sure if the grand-daddies of post modernism can be blamed though, apart from perhaps committing the informal fallacy of 'blinding with science'. Or what I would describe as 'heavy lifting' which is to take the long way round evidence to get it to support what you want.

For example, if I have one apple, and then I pick another apple, then how many apples do I have? Well first let's deconstruct the concept of intergers and point out the historical privilege afforded to the Indian numeral system (commonly known as the Arabic numeral system) and notice that we are prejudicially comparing apples with apples when in fact the atomic boundaries of the fruit of the apple tree are at some point indistinct from the air that surrounds them, the structure is being penetrated by photons and other background radiation and at any given time what quantifies an apple is itself a historically prejudiced notion, also privileging sensations like sight over heft, touch, smell. All of which is to say, I have as many apples as I like.

The light lifting would be to just say I have two fucking apples. And there's perhaps good reason for the privileging of our system of intergers and our conception of what is a whole and distinct fruit, because I can bite into one apple piercing the skin and allowing the air to oxydize the flesh within it, and the other apple won't begin to oxydize and go brown, I can save my other apple for later, but once I eat both apples, I will have no fucking apples. (but that privileges possession as a quality of the hand and not the digestive track!).

I pick on postmodernism because of it's particular reputation for obfuscating language and because it criticizes 'Logocentricity' suggesting an alternative way of getting knowledge without clearly saying what that is.

Then I came across this meme shared by a friend on facebook, I don't know how serious it is:
Authored in hubris no doubt, for I would struggle to explain how 'Theory' fundamentally differs from Propaganda. History, I understand to be a science, one of the 'soft sciences' to be sure, but there's standards, rules, principles and furthermore it makes predictions that can be tested one way or another. For example, the Christian Bible as a history book, has been terrible at making predictions - like the presence of remains of an Egyptian host at the bottom of a sea, or archeological evidence of a 40 year mass migration of peoples from Egypt to Isreal. And when I was in primary school, I was taught that Captain Cook 'discovered' Australia, by high school the textbooks had been revised to say he mapped the East Coast of Australia and circumnavigated New Zealand, that the Dutch had been there before more than a century earlier and that it was used by Pirates and Privateers.

Some of history (most) is unknowable and becomes the province of Archeology, Geology and speculation, but in the presence of ignorance, not all speculative arguments are equal. For example, it's impossible to know if the person of Jesus ever actually existed, but the Historian's consensus is that he did, using an 'argument from Silence' which is to say, if he didn't exist we'd expect a bunch of different claims of Messiah like characters to crop up in texts from the same era as the Gospel scripture with one mentioning Jesus and another Pete. Instead they are all pretty consistent and in terms of Christian communities, Jesus is their man.

Moving on though, if History sometimes and at any given moment, might function as Propaganda (like what was taught to Australian school students to shore up a British Cultural identity about the discovery of Australia and the legal standing of the Aborigines) Propaganda could be described as history or other information unbound from objective reality to serve a motivated interest.

In which case by the time I get to 'Theory' if it refers to something other than testable, experimentally reproducible, logocentric theory accepted by the greater scientific community, then I don't know how to distinguish it from propaganda as a source of knowledge. My options are binary, either something describes reality or it doesn't.

And here I'd like to leave postmodernism and it's offshoots behind, and turn instead to spirituality. Particularly witch craft, astrology, tarot etc.

I am actually a person that does advise if you must read a newspaper, the most informative thing you can probably read in it is the horoscope. This however, is quite logical - most 'news' is white noise, narrative fallacies, effective gossip and information with no predictive power. Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests 'to cure oneself of the news, spend a year reading yesterdays newspaper.' the weather for many may be more useful than the horoscope, but the horoscope is a sufficiently vague Barnum statement that it really functions as a dice role that will have you pause and reevaluate a spending decision, a prospective new romance, a move, a holiday, or how to interact with people at work.

I don't put much stock in Astrology as a personality test, or tool of prophecy, here for example is a description of me according to my birth chart, you be the judge:

In theory, *********s are peace-loving. In practice, they can quietly stir up all sorts of trouble with their ways. Because ******** enjoys balance in their lives, they seek the middle ground. In the process, they may end up trying to be everything to everyone. This is where their reputation for untruthfulness comes from. Generally, their untruths spring from a true desire for peace and fairness--although they may not be comfortable with direct and malicious trickery, they feel totally justified when they lie in order to avoid making waves. Peace at any price! In this sense, they seem harmless. But, what can result is quite a ruckus! People involved with ********s may crib about their lack of directness and their apparent inability to take a stand. ********s are experts at avoiding being the one to blame. When confronted, they'll (calmly and reasonably) say, "What, me? No, I just want peace." "On the fence", "middle ground", "middle road" -- these are all expressions that we can safely associate with ******.
And of course:

Weaknesses: does not think enough, he is frivolous. A dilettante in love. He is easily swayed by group pressure. ******* ascendant Aries

Amazing, and recently when asked for my star-sign, I have resorted to what I've increasingly been resorting to for 'peace at any cost' (apparently) and requesting 'you tell me' or 'can't you guess?' on the most recent occasion, they got my star sign on the 12th try, which even to the logocentric thinker is an impressive achievement.

But belief in astrology can persist beyond empirical proof. Carl Sagan a great scientific mind and greater communicator designed a very simple experiment anyone can reproduce that will reliably demonstrate that astrology is not a science - not a reliable source of knowing either what is going to happen today, or to know how a person will behave. Astrology becomes an alternative way of knowing, a way of knowing that for lack of a more intelligible expression knowing things that don't work.

A knowledge perhaps, that cannot be debunked and therefore is infinitely compatible. By analogy, the wretched science aka Economics is currently under threat of revision, from within - by a school called 'Behavioral Economics' and at the risk of oversimplifying, what behavioral economics does is say 'Economics as a science has to square with psychology.' Economics earned it's reputation as the wretched science because by-and-large it assumed away human irrationality, and government fiscal, monetary and taxation policy is based on the assertion that people don't believe in things like Astrology.

Economics is recently under pressure to square with the science of Psychology, Psychology in turn is forced to conform with Neuroscience, Neuroscience has to be compatible with Biology and Biology Chemistry, Chemistry has to conform to Physics. Pretty much everything we call a science at some level we expect to be explainable by physics and the achievements of Physics are impressive, you're looking at one of those achievements now.

Science, or the Logos, belongs to the Earth Element - a stable structure has to be built upon a foundation, each additional piece must fit that which comes before, or made to fit by correcting the new piece of knowledge or the old such that it fits together like the masonry of Machu Pichu.

By contrast, Astrology, Tarot, Witchcraft, Alchemy et al. are of the fire element, it has been my experience that one can simply feed theory after theory, model after model on top of one another with no necessity to reconcile say the Chinese Zodiac and the Western Zodiac, Chinese Numerology and British Nautical Superstitions. All can feed the fire, and this form of knowledge appears to be only limited by the power of an individual to assert its truth.

My belief is the definitive limit to what an individual can assert about reality is reality itself. None yet has the power to make reality behave. And cruelly, what does tend to work in the school of Logos-alternative thought, can be explained by the Logos and becomes part of it. The diversity and nature of religious beliefs on Earth are easily explained by Evolution through Natural selection, much more simply than the religions themselves can explain the phenomena. The effects of superstition can be explained by psychology through phenomena like confirmation bias, the placebo and nocebo effects.

It is thus I am concerned about a wholesale belief in the alternatives to Logocentricity, the idea that there is another game in town. There is a different game in town, but the logocentrics can game it. It can game itself.

The phenomena of believing what you want has a dangerous flaw in its design - my every experience of people who sign on to believing what they want is that it lays a ground ripe for exploitation. People who believe what they want, want to hear things, want to do things and have suspended their empirical faculties. It is a state the logocentric refers to as 'naive'.

I am concerned that a person could meet a kind, honest, intelligent, tolerant, generous, loyal, courageous, sensible person they are sexually oriented to be compatible with and upon learning they are a Sagittarius lose all interest. Finding instead a conceited, deceptive, petty, intolerant, duplicitous, cowardly, dumpster of a human being who is nevertheless a Scorpio and therefore, compatible.

This alternative form of knowledge, has one grounding and one grounding only in reality and that is power. As Orwell wrote in 1984, it's the power to say 2+2=5. And a world in which Pete has 2 apples and Jenny has 2 apples, and Pete gives Jenny 2 apples so she has 5 apples in exchange for a blowjob, that is problematic. This is the world many of my friends live in.

Power becomes the ability to speak without articulating any content. Without content, without definition, things become unfalsifiable. No religions are still extant today that claim 'after one does they travel to paradise, located approximately 10,000 paces north of our great town.' Nature selected such beliefs out, such that notions of the afterlife survive that nobody can go, except of course those who demonstrate amazing psychic abilities, the ability to communicate with those who have passed over but only so long as the communication is limited to them being safe and happy and in a good place and that all if forgiven. Not things like 'yeah and I left an updated copy of my will in the third draw of a filing cabinet in Uncle Pete's attic.' or anything specifically useful.

There is a somewhat well known test for artificial intelligence called 'The Turing Test' of which spawned the lesser known 'Reverse Turing Test' a person can be declared unintelligent if their text cannot be distinguished from a generated one. Before the Grievance Studies Affair, way back in 1996 (that's over 2 decades ago) Sokal ran his original hoax and a Monash professor programmed a postmodernism generator:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Or

Narrativity is intrinsically dead,” says Sontag; however, according to Cameron[4] , it is not so much narrativity that is intrinsically dead, but rather the genre, and subsequent absurdity, of narrativity. In Virtual Light, Gibson examines postcultural dialectic theory; in Neuromancer, he analyses precapitalist socialism. Thus, the premise of Marxist socialism implies that the task of the artist is social comment.
Which is actual writing from a postmodernist scholar and which is generated? The bigger question to me, is why are educated people insufficiently self-conscious to be embarrassed to speak this way? And most consequential of all, did stressed out humanities students realize they could just get a computer to write their thesis? Better than the reverse-Turing test is the 12 year old test. Could you explain your concept to a 12 year old? Yanis Varafoukis a discenting economist I respect did just this with his book 'Talking to my Daughter About the Economy' a book probably more positively consequential for the goals of feminism, than most postmodern texts.

Asserting truths onto reality leaves one open for exploitation and insult. An unsustainable practice where the best one can hope for is to create sufficient space for an assertion before it expires. When a belief is trying to survive I find the ability to steer a person who holds it. You can find the ground the cannot cede and have them against a wall, or you can goad them towards what they wish to conclude and watch them follow you into what they cannot distinguish peril from sanctuary. It is an act of self restraint on my part, and one that requires constant vigilance, to not exploit these boundaries people assert upon themselves.

Where a 'science' like Economics is guilty of these assertions, such as GNP growth as a measure of progress, it gets us into trouble. I can only testify to my experiences of being an economics student, but in both my secondary and tertiary instruction on Economics, to the wretched science's credit I was instructed as to the myriad problems of using GNP or GDP growth as a proxy measure of human progress, like for example that a catastrophe like an oil spill will increase GDP growth, but it is most certainly not progress to have oil spills, it is simply costly. The works of Kahneman and Tversky would describe the GDP error as an error of substitution, it is hard for a governing body to establish if its constituents are making progress towards higher quality of life, it is relatively easy to determine whether more finished products have been produced this year on last, so GDP or GNP gets substituted in.

Where Economics could be better is at admitting, part of reality is what people believe reality to be, and how it shapes their behavior. Many people change reality by believing what they want - such as lower taxation stimulates more growth, or that the market is an efficient value calculating machine that should be deregulated and left to it's own devices. It should do a better job of teaching students they often aren't studying economics but being prepared for the realities of the job market and learning instead Political Economy, the science of being restrained by the irrationality of public opinion.

'insofar as it is true' deserves to be the last word on whether you get to believe what you want or not. I could make a case, that the stoics are right, and better to adopt opinions and beliefs that are compatible with stark reality. But this would just be an opinion. All we have is experience, and experience of the present moment, I believe and would behave accordingly that coming to terms with and accepting reality, even unpleasant ones like that I may be at a natural disadvantage that requires no agents working against me, a may be not an individual but a cluster of inherited thoughts competing for dominance, a may be judged not by my merits but by the whims of fortune are I feel better for me than denying what reason shows to be true.

It is beyond my capabilities though to make a convincing case that objective reality exists and should be accepted. I can only live as such and subsequently continue to test this theory every day. My experience has been thus far, more comfort in harsh beliefs than those designed to be comforting.

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