This is a follow on to my last post.
I’m going to assume you’ve either watched or heard of The Matrix — yes? The movie’s point (spoiler alert!) is that our entire reality could be a lie, and we would never know it. Descartes, who also worried about this, once said “I think, therefore I am”, arguing that at the very least, we know that we exist. Even that, though, has been called into question; sources as disparate as scientists, spiritualists, and postmodern philosophers all argue that even our sense of self is an illusion: just a story that our minds tell ourselves to try to fit life into some kind of coherent narrative.
I’m not going to rehash the whole debate, but basically I think that that’s right. All we really get from the universe is a flow of raw experience, billions of discrete sensory impressions. Our minds form stories out of those experiences to serve as organizing principles and filters. We have ourselves as the protagonists, and things around us become obstacles and opportunities, major and minor plot points. This storytelling is necessary, because without stories to filter our reality, we would have no way of prioritizing the infinitude of things we could observe at any given moment. We wouldn’t be able to tie our shoes or brush our teeth because we’d be too busy tracing the seams in the wood of our kitchen table. We would all starve.
So this is good, and our minds have evolved for millions of years to become adept at filtering out essential from inessential. However, on the flip side, every time we form a story about the world, we limit our ability to perceive things that don’t fit into it. Abstract concepts like “you” and “me”, “good” and “bad”, “science”, “society”, and all the rest explain a lot of what we see around us, but only in approximation. The real world is messy, and when our minds clean up the mess to keep things simple, we throw out a lot of baby with the bathwater.
At the end of the day it’s raw experience, not ideas, that make being alive a joy. It is the pattern of the grains in the table, or the shape of a smile on a friend’s face, or that queasy feeling where you can’t tell if you’re happy or afraid that makes the whole thing worth it. You can’t nourish yourself on concepts. I’m guessing a smaller but still large percentage of you have watched American Beauty. That’s that movies’ point. We get so lost in our stories that we can’t find the real world that’s right in front of our face.
If I were to sum up psychological maturity in one sentence, it would be the ability to choose from either perspective at will and need: both the raw experiential and the abstract conceptual. Most people I know can’t do this, not reliably. There is a desperately strong tendency to get attached to our concepts. We form our entire identities around a story of ourselves: the outsider, the loner, the smart one, the Christian, the Jew, the put-upon daughter, old reliable, the yuppie, successful, a little dorky, going to accomplish great things some day, deserving, a little wild but basically a good person. We live in a world of Republicans and Democrats, big government vs big business, middle class values and order vs chaos. Threats to those stories threaten our entire reality: they undermine our sense of control, the very structure of our lives. I’ve been through the trauma of losing faith in concepts I believed in, and it is completely destructuring. And I know that ahead of me is only more disruption, things I’m attached to that I don’t even see yet that someday will break for me if I don’t choose to keep my head in the sand. Perfect freedom from one’s concepts is only an ideal; in practice, there are only varying degrees of attachment.
The fact is, concepts — human thoughts — are not high-bandwidth enough to capture reality. They are approximations and generally poor approximations at that; the real world is infinitely more complex than our minds can fathom. So a healthy mind is constantly forming and releasing concepts, evolving them as new experiences break them down and build them up again. Like an artist sketching and re-sketching his drawing, we’ll never achieve perfect fidelity, but after years of practice we might come up with something more or less recognizable. And in the process, there’s spaces for psychological freedom and joy.
I want to emphasize that both the creation and the destruction are important. Traditional counterculture, presumably reacting to the seriousness with which most people take their perceived reality, tends to emphasize breaking down concepts. This is a theme running from the “turn on tune in drop out” hippies to the death-of-the-author postmodernists to the meditation and yoga crowd. Although it may be true that a state of pure awareness, just experiencing life without feeling the need to construct a story at all, may be the most joyful, “present” state of being available, the fact is that we are also biological beings that need to take action in order to survive and reproduce, which requires some amount of planning and structure.
Creativity, in fact, may be the process of going back and forth between the conceptual and experiential; escaping from your old concepts, but then creating new ones, only to repeat the cycle, building off previous iterations along the way. When a new concept hits the scene, for example “military-industrial complex”, it opens up the ability to perceive the world in ways that were previously impossible, opening the space of potential actions. But when people are still critiquing the military-industrial complex fifty years later, it becomes an anchor, locking down a certain way of perceiving the world that isn’t fluid with reality. A good test of whether something is true or not: if it’s really true, and you say it, it becomes not true any more.
Anyway, to put it succinctly: our minds make stuff up. That’s what minds do. That’s what they’re for. That doesn’t mean the stuff they make up is right or accurate, even though 99% of the time we believe it. So when we look at the basic facts we have to take for granted, the things that any software we want to write for the human mind has to start from, my perspective is that the list is very short. What we know, what we really know, is pretty much absolutely nothing.
This changes the game: it means that family tradition, religion, culture, science, everything we think we know about the world is up for grabs. In fact, that’s really what the scientific method is all about. Believing in science doesn’t mean believing in a body of knowledge such as Einstein’s laws or evolution or geology, it means taking a “show me” approach to reality. It means taking the things you believe and asking “how can I prove myself wrong?” And if you fail, then saying “Okay, I couldn’t prove myself wrong today; I’ll keep on assuming it for now, and maybe I’ll be cleverer tomorrow.”
So there we are. We’re at a bit of a crisis point as a culture with this realization. Over the last century we’ve broken pretty much everything down. But we still cling onto a lot of empty beliefs we don’t really hold with, because we haven’t learned how to live with uncertainty. We’re still a little afraid to let go. But I think we’re starting to learn, and what I want to do in the following posts is to build some tools that work in a world where we don’t take our concepts too seriously.
Next: Ontology and Epistemology, yay!