How to See
Doesn't just about everything depend on our ability to see, or to perceive? We must be in dire straights then, because, as we have been seeing (sic), there is considerable confusion about what we are seeing, if anything.
Perhaps this confusion is only a symptom of reading too much philosophy. Perhaps. Philosophers get paid to make sense of the world, and evidently it is rough going. Their job is to make explicit the implicit assumptions that underlie our perceptions. If you pay them a little extra, they may even venture an opinion on those assumptions. Philosophical confusion is likely to be a reflection of a more endemic confusion.
For awhile, with the ascendancy of reductionism, we thought we were getting down to the nitty-gritty of reality. We were hoping that, by reducing things to their lowest common denominator, we would be increasing our common understanding of what there is in the world and perhaps even about what makes it go around.
I was once in training to be a part of that effort. I was training to be a particle physicist. I dropped out. Then a few years later Congress refused to pay the 100+ billion dollars to build the Super Collider, to be the world's most powerful microscope. It seems that reductionism had about played itself out, without much result. The much anticipated Theory of Everything remains a glimmer in the eyes of the handful of mathematical physicists who are able perceive the exceptional algebras of eleven-dimensional manifolds.
But life goes on, and so does philosophy.
As an ex-reductionist, I have been searching diligently for a post-reductionist initiative. I remain disappointed. Here you see my attempt at a one-person post-reductionist initiative. I may fail, but, for the life of me, I don't see how It can fail, not if We are to survive our state of global confusion and often militant contention concerning what there is and is not.
Yes, there is postmodernism: a sometimes militant refusal to speculate or allow others to speculate about what there is or is not; or, at least, to do so in a public venue.
Then along came the Internet and Google. Never has the opportunity or need for a public coherence been greater. There should be no doubt that more than a few people will be rising to this historically unprecedented occasion.
You don't believe me? Well, just watch us!
And this postreductionism is not going to be rocket science or brain surgery. One will not need to know the exceptional algebras of eleven-dimensional manifolds. One will not need the library card for a million+ volume research library. One will not need access to a 100+ billion dollar microscope.
One only needs to know how to see; how to perceive.
Ooooops! Pardon my Physics chauvinism. But in this holographic world of ours, one can see the macrocosm reflected in every microcosm, if one looks with sufficient care.
There were two other places where reductionism was ascendant, but now has also played itself out, in a rather timely fashion: Artificial Intelligence and Biology. We have been seeing, right here, with Google on the Internet, that those on the frontier of AI are turning their efforts now to metaphysical and ontological research, and they are not kidding about that, as I had at first assumed.
Meanwhile, the Human Genome Project has finished its task, under budget and ahead of schedule! Now that they have all the molecular pieces strung out on their lab bench, they have no choice but to try to put that poor Humpty Dumpty back together again. That might not be quite so easy as taking it apart, do you think?
So, yes, post-reductionism is in the air. We can all see it.
But where do we start with our post-reduction seeing? How about seeing that 'the cat is on the mat'? That's getting pretty ambitious, already. But, heck, we gotta' start someplace.
Can we actually see the cat on the mat? Or are we just inferring that there must be a cat on the mat? That is no small issue. In some sense, everything rides on it. Those of us in the minority who claim to actually perceive the cat on the mat are 'direct' realists. I have not taken a poll, but most of those realists are thereby, at least, latent idealists; and show me a latent idealist, and I'll show you a latent theist. Give me two hours with a latent theist, and we will be deep into a very serious discussion about the Best Possible World and Millennial Eschatology -- all because of that poor little kitty on the bitty.
Yes, we critical realists have a God problem. Everyone else? They have a Reality problem. Ultimately, as we shall see, these two Big problems are the same.
If you are not a realist, you are a reductionist, a skeptic or a mystic. Let's look at the reductionist.
Are not the reductionists also realists? Yes, and no. They are wannabe realists. Their problem is that they are not sure what to be real about. They wanted to believe that atoms were real, but then along came quantum physics and now they are not so sure. Atoms are just probabilistic configurations of quarks, and quarks are..., well, they're waiting for Congress to shell out $100 billion to see if quarks are real.
And that is only the beginning of their problems. What about the cat on the mat? OK, a photon leaves the Sun and hits the cat and then bounces into your eye and is focused on the retina. After that, things start getting complicated. Then there is a miracle: that objective physical complexity is converted to a subjective sensual complexity. Then there is another miracle: that sensual complexity is converted to the abstract conceptual understanding that there probably is a cat on the mat, unless......! Or, perhaps there is no subjective sensing at all; because, 1. there are no real persons, 2. there is no mind or consciousness, 3. we merely speak as if there were persons and minds, and we talk that way so much that we end up with those erroneous 'beliefs'.
Where does that leave our poor chat? Sur la mat? Maybe. But is it not also quite likely that both we and the cat are the simulation products of a not so distant future Metaphysical and Artificial Intelligence Research Lab, probably in some parallel universe? Which all sounds to me rather like the God problem, which is what I anticipated a few paragraphs back. The skeptic and the mystic would tend to agree that the world is indeed illusory.
So much for philosophy? Must we all become skeptics or mystics? That is an option which an increasing number of thoughtful people are taking.
But life goes on and we are faced with many other choices, some of which will determine our survival as a civilization or even as a species.
The other option is reconstruction: the reconstruction of a coherent worldview that would inform us as to whence we come and whither we go.
This would be a true miracle! Yes and no. As we begin to appreciate the miracle or our being able to perceive the reality of the cat on the mat, we will realize that it would not be that much greater of a miracle for us to see the essential nature of that reality and what it all means for us.
Once again, where do we start?
We start by suspending our skepticism and our mysticism.
We see, as if for the first time, the cat on the mat. But how do we avoid those doubts that keep intruding? We roll with those doubts, we don't try to fight back. Fighting back is to demand certainty and objectivity, but as we have seen, the pursuit of certainty and objectivity, while always on the lookout for the bed rock of an absolute....something, leads us down endless blind alleys. The postmodernists throw up their hands in defeat.
This pursuit of certainty was not wasted. If you can read these words, it is partly because, evidently, there was some light at the end of at least one of those tunnels.
But why was there this pursuit to begin with? It had to do with our egocentric predicament. Julian Jaynes speaks of the 'breakdown of the bicameral mind.' Very early in our mythic, dreamtime development, we had some sort of proto-verbal, intuitive, psychic umbilical cord to some collective, proto-conscious intelligence. Something happened, suddenly or gradually. The umbilical cord atrophied. Like it or not we were being weaned. We were thrown out and back onto our meager, individual, egocentric resources. We floundered within an ambience of increasing alienation. With religion we tried to replace that primordial cord. Success was elusive. The Scientistic quest for an objective, absolute certainty, was a quasi-religion pursued by other means.
We are left with bits and pieces of truth, broken on our lab benches, burnt on our altars.
So the cat is still on the mat, we know. We accept that knowledge as given to us, really as a gift of unknown provenance. We know that if we try to pry open and look into the horse's mouth, we may learn a lot of things, but we will find no ultimate answers. We will neither banish doubt nor escape our egocentric predicament.
Realism, of the sort we take up here, is radical. This is also direct or critical realism. When I perceive the cat, there are not thereby two cats: one on the mat and one in my head. There is not even a representation of the cat in my head. Radical realism is not representationalism. How can this be? It's very simple. The cat and my knowledge of the cat are of a piece. There is nothing intermediating between me and the cat. The void, the photons, the retina: what about them? Are they not real, too? They have a derivative, relative reality. Everything is relative. Relative to what? That's a good question.
Radical realism is very strange, seeming to us moderns. The best analogy we have is that of authorship and dramatis persona. The lazy author and playwright do not actually have to do any work. All they have to do is invite the characters to take up residence in their minds and let them do all the scripting. The characters become their own muses. You can see where this is going. You can see there is no logical gap between radical realism and idealism.
But wait! The cat may be all in my head, but where am I? You, my friend, are in the mind of your cat, or of whomever. But then aren't we back where we started, with multiple copies, and won't Occam disapprove? Yes, he would. The only way to keep Occam happy is to realize that, logically, there can only be one mind. There can only really be one author, and that is the big Author in the sky. Like I said: show me a realist, I show you an idealist; show me an idealist, and I show you a theist. End of story? Yes, that's the Eschaton! Is this rocket science? It's make believe, writ large, taken seriously. And it is not just our lives that depend on the outcome.
In the cosmic mind, how do we keep everything form happening all together, all at once? We don't, it does. That is the aspect of eternity. Your dream happens in no time. There is a knock on your door. As you awake, the knocking pulls a temporal plot line out of your slumber in a seemingly teleological fashion. The knock becomes the final cause of your dream. The Eschaton is the final cause of this dream from which we are awakening. (I'm reminded that the British sometimes refer to this particular manner of awakening as of one's being 'knocked up'. I suppose it might have something to do with the ecstasy of it all, don't you think? Or does it just mean that we're f***'ed?)
Is this straining your credulity (and your good humor)? Do you prefer the cat on the mat plus the puss in the head? That's fine, but then try explaining to a six year old how it is that you are able to see the cat in your head? The six year old can see perfectly well that your eyes open outward. Are you telling him that you have another set of eyes inside your head? The child will not have to know Occam to know that this sounds crazy. Why doesn't it sound crazy to us adults? Well, we have been housebroken by modernism. Our spirits have been broken, too, almost. But now the Eschaton is knocking and its time to awake.
It's high time for us to open our eyes and see the radically real world.
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