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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Notes on another napkin

Hamlet: “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

Only humans live in a world of 'appearances' because 'thinking' stands between reality and perceiving reality.

The question becomes, can one attune one's thinking in a way to allow reality in? And secondly, if so, can we handle reality?

12 comments:

Lifewish said...

What level of reality? Is the splodge of colour on the back of our eyeball any more real than the flower that it represents? Is the flower any more real than the invisible chemical processes that support it?

Thought comes not between reality and perceiving reality, but between perceiving reality and understanding reality. On the one hand, beauty; on the other, truth. Can we really say that one is more valuable than the other?

Bro. Bartleby said...

Reality. I would think the sundry meaning would be to ask oneself, if I could remove myself from a particular place and time, all that transpires would be reality, sight unseen. The reality would be everything that unbiased sensors could record in that particular place and time. When I step into the scene, I take it all in with my biased sensors, and yes, my biased mind will further make this my reality. And when you step into this scene, you will create your reality. And then, we arrive at the human condition, when two or more find themselves in the very same place and time, and discuss very different realitites. And this is what makes life interesting.

Lifewish said...

You're talking about two very different forms of reality - an objective universe that we can only infer the existence of, and the section of our subjective universe that we automatically attempt to paint in the same colours.

I guess you could say that the painting invovles thought of a sort, but it's so hardwired that trying to influence it is futile (sans access to hallucinogens, anyway). We can't do it better, we can't stop doing it. The interesting question is how we extend the painting to cover more subjective realities. Can we avoid clashing colour schemes? On what basis are we even making the attempt, anyway?

Is that the sort of thing you were thinking about?

Bro. Bartleby said...

Back to what Shakespeare is saying through his imagined Hamlet, it is the human mind that is attempting to make sense of "all" and in this attempt, humans realize that some sort of objective reality exists, yet each of us understands and experiences this in different subjective ways. I think that the human brain is not so much hardwired, it is "fluid" wired. Meaning that it is more like a grand computer that self evolves with growth and experience, is able to update its CPU and rewire circuits without downtime, but this is but the computer/brain. What I think is that this computer/brain awaits the software, the software being all feedback and input from the sensors, our senses. From mother's first embrace, the outside begins programming the computer/brain in ever expanding circles of input. First the mother, then add the father, then add the family, the extended family, the neighbors, the village encounters, all the way to random world encounters. All increase the complexity of the software. But, that computer/brain without all this intense input, does not develop in the same way. A feral child may lack every social skill that we deem normal, yet the brain is the same, but that brain didn't develop the software. Of course with this sort of complexity in each and every human, each will develop a subjective self completely different from all others, and this is where we as a group attempt to define that outside world, that objective world. That is when one looks up and says, I perceive the sky as blue, a nice word, will you agree to it? And you will say, okay, blue it is. And so it goes, we attempt to define the outside world in common terms, simply because it makes like easier for us all. And further, we build upon the perceived objects, and attempt to find common terms for the conceived concepts. So "bad" and "good" are agreed upon, that is, until someone points out that concepts are not reality and do not dwell in the objective world ... and so the arguments begin. The religious would say God created some "concepts" as solid as He created a rock, so that "bad" and "good" are objective standards that even the subjective cannot change.

Lifewish said...

Very good summary.

With regard to the issue of whether moral standards exist objectively, I find it interesting that:

a) No-one's ever managed to develop an objective test for morality
b) There are very few things that are considered bad by every culture. About the only major exception is incest, for some reason
c) When people start talking about objective morality and the natural order of things, it always turns out that the "objective" morality they're advocating is 100% identical to their own subjective morality. What a coincidence :)

Bro. Bartleby said...

a) No-one's ever managed to develop an objective test for morality

BB: Yes and no ... again, involving the human mind in this matter allows for a bit of creativity, so how about if one reduces morality to rightness or wrongness of an action by a human? Of course we must assume humans have purpose in life, otherwise it is pointless to continue this exercise. Let's be really inclusive and say, the purpose is for humans to continue their evolution, to pass on their DNA to the next generation. For the non-religious, I would imagine that this would be the only purpose that one could deduce from studying all other life forms. A bug just seems to replicate, its only purpose. Yet a thoughtful human could ponder the bug and create a bit of added value, hmmm, these bugs do a good job of cleaning up after the messy deaths of other creature. So, perhaps that is the bugs purpose. The bug is part of a grander picture, without the bug, the earth would be a stinking trash heap! But wait! Again, the human mind is creating this wonderful fable in order to provide the bug with meaning and purpose, for without the human mind, that bug is simply a replicator without purpose, it survives only because of chance and circumstance in performing a task that provides a better environment for other critters to live in, thereby improving its own environment, which then creates a richer breeding ground for it to reproduce. For the bug this is good. And so too with humans, anything that will move the DNA on to the next generation is good, anything that impedes this is bad. In a world without God, sitting and staring at a computer screen is bad, impregnating damsels is good. But, remove our assumption that humans have a purpose, then I'm afraid that either of those choices are equally meaningless.

b) There are very few things that are considered bad by every culture. About the only major exception is incest, for some reason

Every culture developes its own values, I like the values that Jesus taught. As for incest, usually humans develop from extended families to the small group, or tribe, and marriage plays a large role for maintaining peace with neighboring tribes, the chief 'gives' his daughter to the neighboring tribe in marriage, a new alliance is built, providing a bit more security and comfort for the chief. Incest hinders the evolution from family to tribe.

c) When people start talking about objective morality and the natural order of things, it always turns out that the "objective" morality they're advocating is 100% identical to their own subjective morality. What a coincidence :)

Perhaps it is possible for a human to reach a state when objective and subjective become the one ever-flowing moment?

Lifewish said...

For the non-religious, I would imagine that this would be the only purpose that one could deduce from studying all other life forms.

I should mention in passing that, although reproduction is something we're constructed to be very effective at, it does not necessarily follow that we should take that as our purpose in life. Most atheists I know take as their purpose something considerably more expansive, often incorporating the Golden Rule. Just because we're naturally equipped with certain drives and responses doesn't necessarily mean we have to act on them.

On with the show.

In a world without God, sitting and staring at a computer screen is bad, impregnating damsels is good.

Not quite. The "aim" isn't to have as many kids as possible, but to have as many descendents. The difference being that, if you spread the wild oats too far in a single generation, your kids will mostly grow up in single homes, in generally poor conditions. For most of the history of the human race, that's been a recipe for death in childhood - hence no grandchildren. So actually the fact that people can behave like this is a testimony to our ability to resist or subvert genetically-motivated impulses.

(Incidentally, it's notable that sufficiently sneaky adultery doesn't come with this disadvantage - and adultery is very common in both the human and animal worlds.)

Staring at a computer screen, on the other hand, is a superb way to gain knowledge about the universe. For most of the history of the human race, lack of knowledge of how the universe behaves has been a good way to die messily - the ability to predict and to plan is fairly crucial.

But, remove our assumption that humans have a purpose, then I'm afraid that either of those choices are equally meaningless.

You seem to be confusing two different concepts here - "good" from the perspective of something, and "good" defined universally. Stuff may be completely meaningless in the second sense, and yet very meaningful in the first.

For example, a friend of the family has had no children - she just never felt the need. From the point of view of her genes, this is bad - they don't get passed on. From the point of view of the woman, this is good - she doesn't have to waste years bringing kids up - although she runs the risk of her genes attempting to override her in some way (by inciting broodiness, for example). From the point of view of the universe as a whole, this is completely meaningless either way. The stars and galaxies couldn't care less what she does.

Every culture developes its own values, I like the values that Jesus taught.

Me too. They're not always the best approach to every situation, but on the whole they're damn good defaults.

Incest hinders the evolution from family to tribe.

Except that it's taboo even amongst the lower-ranking members, who don't have to worry about political marriages.

My guess is that the explanation ties in to the fundamental reason we have sexual reproduction in the first place: parasitism. Diseases and parasites adapt to an individual over the course of his or her lifespan, so producing genetically identical offspring means that they're going to get hammered by the parental diseases. Mixing and matching via sex means that each generation is a unique problem for the germs to overcome...

...except in the case of incest, which massively reduces the number of different combinations of immune-system genes in play. In short: inbred people can be expected to be hit far harder by infections than others. In a small community, the resulting sickliness will very quickly become lethal, as some other tribe rushes to claim one's territory.

Perhaps it is possible for a human to reach a state when objective and subjective become the one ever-flowing moment?

I'd tend to say that objective and subjective will always be different; some people just won't care. Personally I don't think that's a healthy trait, at least as far as the rest of the community is concerned. There's nothing scarier than someone who's absolutely sure about something despite not having a shred of evidence.

For exhibit A of people who don't distinguish between objective facts and subjective opinions, I present these lovely folks.

Bro. Bartleby said...

Good conversation. But time for me to reflect, instead of reply, for I sense that as with many conversations comes a point that if one does not pause, then each ends talking to oneself. Yet fun nevertheless.

Lifewish said...

I think the problem here is that, when you think of ideas like reaching "a state when objective and subjective become the one ever-flowing moment", you think of them in terms of meditation and pure thought. I think of them in terms of what would happen if people actually acted on them.

I would fully agree that Zen-like thoughts like this are wonderful ways to shake us out of our preconceptions, to challenge our minds and maybe to allow us to comprehend a few fragments more of the universe. Applying them to everyday life, however, would in general be completely disastrous - the external world is far more willing to challenge us on our mistakes, confusions and fuzziness than is the world inside.

Wondering whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound is fine. Standing under falling trees listening intently is not.

Lifewish said...

Sorry, when I said "problem" I meant "discord" - wasn't dissing your approach.

Bro. Bartleby said...

"Perhaps it is possible for a human to reach a state when objective and subjective become the one ever-flowing moment?"

I agree with your thoughts that this zen-like state would be impractical in daily life in the modern world, the Zen Buddhist "get away" with it by removing themselve from the modern world, first physically by retreating to somewhere that modern life has not yet touched, then mentally by allowing modernity to exit the mind. That said, my quote above was a question, not necessarily about the here and now, but a future, a future much different than our surface oriented modern societies. But for now this is all imaginations, for the real world has taken a very different path, leaving behind a few lucky individuals that have discovered a more zen-like path to follow.

Lifewish said...

That said, my quote above was a question, not necessarily about the here and now, but a future, a future much different than our surface oriented modern societies.

There's no way that, for example, India could sustain its current population without an attitude oriented more around function than form. There just isn't land for everyone there to live in a monastic rural idyll. Say what you like about modernity, it at least makes efficient use of resources.

Hence, this future society of yours begets the question: who exactly do you plan to euthanise or sterilise first?