Posts Tagged ‘reality’


October 31, 2012

More good report presentations yesterday in CoPhi, including one from Michael and another from Jon that independently observed something important about how we live now: many of us are so busy crafting and  projecting Platonically-ideal social media versions of ourselves that we’re actually lost in cyberspace. Danger, Will Robinson: those “friends” are not reliable, those experiences are not real.

Michael said we’re like Plato’s cave-dwellers, mistaking our own projected “forms” for reality. Jon said real Forms are all around us. Both were really saying, I think, that reality is immediate, embodied, personal, and subjectively experienced. I concur. So would William James, who said “the only form of thing we directly encounter, the only experience we concretely have, is our own personal life.”

“Impersonal experience” is an oxymoron. Virtual experience is better, but still not as direct or immediate or concrete as a walk in the woods or a face-to-face in exterior space. Or a hurricane, lest we forget that reality is not always more pleasant. But it is always more honest. More real. As a very old philosophy primer puts it:

If we ask the plain man, What is the real external world? the first answer that seems to present itself to his mind is this: Whatever we can see, hear, touch, taste , or smell…

So, I vote for the “plain” empiricists, as opposed to the flighty and speculative rationalists… for Aristotle over Plato, Locke and Hume (but not Berkeley) over Descartes and Leibniz. (But I like Spinoza, determinism aside.) I will continue to tweet and blog, but will also continue to resist full immersion in the second-hand, mediated world of clicks and strokes. Step away from the keyboard.

And now I really must turn to an immediate and concrete encounter with that pile of student essays. I’m sure it’ll be real.

Feeling ambivalent about feelings

January 28, 2012

Rachel in A&P the other day read us a quote she found on Julian Baggini’s blog, averring the joint testimony of both modern philosophy and psychology as to the irrelevance and unreliability of feelings in establishing truth.

Responsibility is one area in life where philosophy and psychology leave us with the message: do not trust your feelings. You carry responsibility for whatever is within your control, whether you feel its weight or not.

If so, this represents a real shift – a stunning and almost patricidal development in the history of thinking about feeling. William James, father of modern psychology and of pragmatic philosophy, thought and felt very differently. He defined rationality as a sentiment, a “feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment,” and the divine “only such a primal reality as the individual feels.” In Principles of Psychology he wrote:

In its inner nature, belief or the sense of reality, is a sort of feeling more allied to the emotions than anything else.

In Varieties of Religious Experience James says, as I reminded some friends in Maine a few years ago,

Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done. Varieties of Emotional Experience

And he commenced “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” with the declaration that

Our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only thing our minds could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes  at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

So it’s in that light that I continue to waver over JMH’s tenth quiz question, about evidence.

Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

No, I don’t. But I do think feelings matter, and while they’re not evidence per se, speaking strictly and empirically, they still have a great deal to do with the evidence we allow ourselves to see and act upon. Reality is not simply a feeling, nor does it depend on your feelings or mine. Reality is ultimately mind-independent. But our feelings are nonetheless inseparable from what we take for real, for how we establish our personal sense of reality (deluded or not). So, is that a good thing, or do we need to aspire to a more “radically feelingless” regard for truth?

Yes. No. Not sure. And that, I guess, is why I’m a humanist of the pious variety.

squiffy narrative

June 28, 2010

Ian McEwan’s unappealing but misunderstood narcissist/Nobel scientist/energy pioneer Michael Beard responds in Solar to someone’s stated “interest in the forms of narrative that climate science has generated”:

People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to be of equal value.

He means the kind of people who also go on about “hegemonic” power structures and the social construction of reality to benefit a narrow (white male) elite, as well as the kind of people who prefer to de-construct reality and the very concept of same, who consider no textual narratives reliable enough to merit consistent action and belief, who prefer a stance of ironic detachment from the “so-called facts” etc. Postmodernist feminist relativist subjectivists. Neo-pragmatists.

Some of my best friends are those kinds of people, but I  have to side with Prof. Beard on this one.

The basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop [pumping excess amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere], or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Beard’s troubled personal reality, though, is that he has no grandchildren and does not care deeply enough about anyone else’s. He gives a nice (and oddly controversial) speech about sustaining civilization and ending poverty, but he lives for his own day-to-day gratification.

Fortunately for the rest of us, his self-gratification entails seeking professional success, and that drives him to seek the literal power of light. That means spinning and enacting a narrative about himself that impels work which, if successful, will help sustain civilization and end poverty.

Whatever works, we pragmatists say. Telling a good story and doing good work go together. Self-knowledge of the Socratic kind, though, might be more elusive.


January 13, 2010

I was praising my colleague Rabbi Rami the other day, for the cosmopolitan/pluralistic spirit of his openness to the arcana of Hindu spirituality in peaceful coexistence with his equally distinctive native cultural identity. He follows up here:

God is change, reality is change, you and I are change. Note I didn’t say we are changing for that implies we are something that changes into something else. This is not so. To be change is to be nothing at all. The “I” I feel myself to be at this moment is not the same as the I, I felt myself to be a moment ago. What ties moments together is the narrative I spin about who I am. The story creates a continuity that reality rejects.

Interesting. But here’s where the pragmatic radical empiricist (me) must part company with the Rabbi. The “I” changes, but there’s real continuity in experience. To change is not to be nothing, it’s to be something incomplete but in the making. Narrative spin may distort reality’s continuity but does not spin it from whole cloth, except in the purest cases of delusion and mania.

See, that was Goober‘s problem. (“It seems like the me that is really me and was bein’ held back by the I that I am is comin’ out all over my face.”) He tried to spin a self-narrative that conflicted with the reality of his actual relationships in Mayberry. This matters because it shows we can err in our interpretations of experience but can also correct our errors. “Corrections” make no sense in a world of pure discontinuity.  Like it or not, our stories have to fit the stubborn facts.  I happen to like it.

So, I respect many elements in the respective story-lines of Hinduism and Judaism and Christianity and Buddhism and Taoism and on and on (and on thru most ‘isms, insofar as they’re rooted in the actual experiences of real people). But I won’t become an Initiate myself. I’m keeping a respectful distance, it being the spin most in keeping with the continuities of my own experience.

100 monkeys

December 22, 2009

You know the ubiquitous legend (not sure it’s particularly urban) about the hundredth monkey who tips the critical mass and creates a shared attribute of consciousness for all monkeys ever-after? Or something like that. Weird, as I learned in logic class years ago.

The implication is that a collective consciousness can be created by a cadre of initiates who transform their myth into our reality simply by believing. Reality is just that up for grabs, supposedly, for all us primates. This is another of Carl Sagan’s “demons,” and an invitation to philosophical skepticism. Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping points” may be real enough, but they’re incrementally viral– not magical.

But beware, holiday revelers. You can get in big trouble for calling the emperor out and naming this as the nonsense that it is. Better to let people at Christmas parties have their tipping, typing, believing, reality-manifesting monkeys and save the critical thinking for class. Alas.

Will I ever learn? Probably not. But if I do, I want personal credit for my educability. I’m already catching the blame.

James bio – 6

October 16, 2009

jameslThe story continues. It’s the late ’70s, James is about to become a family man (Henry III was born in May ’79), his philosophical future is resolving into sharper focus, his brilliant but troubled sister Alice has begun a steep, inexplicable decline (diagnosed as “neurasthenic”), and his parents are nearing their respective ends.

William is now articulating some of his most distinctive positions. For instance,

On habit: “The great thing is to form habits which then leave the hemispheres free for higher flights…” 

On emotion: “No conscious event can occur without some parallel event occurring in the nervous system on which the conscious event depends… the bodily event is the condition, the mental event the consequence. What we esteem the highest is at the mercy of the lowest…”

On consciousness and human evolution: It “means the end of the reign of chance and the beginning of the reign of intelligence.”

On human “powers” and free will: We may profess a “natural faith that our delights and sorrows, loves and hates, aspirations and efforts are real combatants in life’s arena, and not impotent, paralytic spectators of the game.” And: “The trouble with determinism, fatalism, pessimism, the unconscious, and materialism is that in our better hours we feel such limited and limiting forces… to deny our most intimate powers all relevancy…” And: “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”

On attention: “Emotional interests are the great guides to selective attention.”

On life as an adventure, without guarantees: “All that the human heart wants is its chance.”

On effort and free will: “What makes it easy to raise the finger, hard to get out of bed on a cold morning, harder to keep our attention on the insipid image of  a procession of sheep… It is a question of getting to the point where we want to will something or other…”

In January 1879 James publishes “Are We Automata?” No, he insists, and would insist to Dan Dennett today with his neuroscientific idea that our minds are assemblages of billions of miniscule cellular robots. But T.H. Huxley’s argument in the affirmative had sounded some characteristsic Jamesian themes too. For example: “In men as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism.” Remember, on James’s early psychological view we are sad because we cry, not the other way ’round.

But in “Are We Automata?” James is mainly concerned to keep free will in the game, and this seems to require a big role for the emotions as selective, attentive, and integral to the possibility of real human choices and acts. In the process, he says things that might remind you of Cartesian homunculi. The point of consciousness is to allow us to choose, just as a ship’s passenger may choose to seize the helm and “raise, lower, or reef the sail, and so, in small but meaningful ways, direct the voyage. Such a person, taking such actions, cannot be called an automaton.”

No. But neither is it clear that such an understanding of the role emotion plays in our lives is quite consistent with the James-Lange theory. When concept-laden theory confounds our actual experience, James will always opt for the preservation of experience. The details may need working out, but he’s typically happy to go back to the theoretical drawing board rather than deliberately distort perceptual reality in the name of a tidy but misleading picture.

(BTW: James would be fascinated by a story that appeared in the Times science section this week, suggesting the possibility that the Hadron Super-collider might actually interfere with time itself. Perhaps what we do really does alter the space-time causal landscape in tangible ways… does wiggle our dominoes, to return to a strange metaphor that came up in the course of one classroom discussion this week.)

It was during this time that James began experimenting with various psycho-active substances to see what effect they might have in expanding his consciousness and recognition of reality. Hilariously, he read Hegel under the influence of nitrous oxide with predictable results.

1882 was a year of loss. Darwin died, Emerson died. His mother died at age 71. Before the year was out, his father followed suit. James was abroad when his Dad began his final descent, and quickly drafted a letter that preceded him back to Boston. But it did not arrive in time for Henry Sr. to read.

It is a remarkable letter, one which I found it fitting to read to my own father* when his remaining days were few. William was still aboard ship on Dec. 21, continuing his Atlantic transit,  when his brother Henry stood at their father’s graveside  and  read aloud from that letter that began: “Darling Old Father…”

“The letter concludes: “As for us… we will stand by each other and  by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodby how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note, it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again– Farewell! A blessed Farewell! -Your William”

Richardson rightly observes: “Letters, even undelivered, outlast life. It was a scene a novelist would be hard-pressed to improve.” *It sure was.


September 28, 2009


“The fons et origo of all reality is subjective, is ourselves.”

-William James

Reality is a concept we may find easier to glimpse through the back door, by noticing the innumerable daily examples of people being out of touch with it. We may not be able to say precisely what it is, but we know when someone’s missing it. The “reality based community” has room to grow.

The invocation of Einstein to grace a chapter on Reality implies some preference for  inquiries into the far-flung cosmos and its abstract underlying principles.  No doubt, much light is to be shed on the real nature of things by looking “out there.”

But we shouldn’t overlook our more intimate acquaintance with reality at first hand, in our own immediate perceptions and observations. The late great literary critic Alfred Kazin graced us, shortly before his death, with sharp insight into William James’s passionate respect for each person’s “own sense of the exceptionality of his existence” as part of  “the axis of reality,” what he called the deep and insistent “throb of our actual experience.”

On this view, our own original thinking and feeling present our most concrete encounters with “fact in the making.” We are ourselves pieces of natural reality. “The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience,” so we should “take reality bodily and integrally up into philosophy in exactly the perceptual shape in which it comes.”

There is a long tradition of dispute among philosophers as to whether we can directly know reality, or must filter it through the presumably-distortive lenses of our words and concepts.  The radical empiricist’s position on this is unambiguous: use concepts in the same way a carpenter uses his tools, to get the job done; but choose the right tools,  remember their instrumental (not essential) nature, and when the time comes lay them down. Sometimes, too, you have to fashion a new tool.

The “job” here  means respecting (and accurately characterizing) reality when it jumps up to greet (or bite) us… as it did James in Palo Alto in 1906, for instance. Or, as Garrison Keillor says of his recent medical adventure, as it “bit [him] in the butt.”

There aren’t always words for our most primal and immediate and delightful experiences, but that shouldn’t shut us off from them. We just need to remember to holster the “conceptual shotgun” we all use to excess, and that philosophers more than anyone ought to be wary of:

Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy...

The thrill of a crisp autumn sunrise, a new idea, a sharp feeling of love, a subtle feeling of separation, an empty feeling of loss atautumn sunrise the death of a loved one, a rollicking earthquake, a brush with your mortality… all such experiences may give rise to feelings you can’t articulate but also can’t ignore. “There are occasional moments,” wrote James’s student and biographer R.B. Perry, “when experience is most fully tasted—in the exhilaration of a fresh morning, in moments of suffering, or in times of triumphant effort, when the tang is strong, when every nuance or overtone is present. James would arrest us at such moments, and say, “There, that is it. Reality is like that.” There’s no formula, no E=mc2, to encapsulate those moments. But they’re very real.

Our chapter begins with a list of items we’re to rate on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being “most real”:

___The person sitting next to you. ___The chair you’re sitting in. ___God. ___Last night’s headache. ___The wo(man) of your dreams. ___Electrons. ___Love. ___Truth. ___Beauty. ___Einstein’s brain. ___Your mind. ___The color red. ___The NFL. ___Your body. ___Your soul. ___Time. ___Dreams. ___[          ]…

Strange list. Everything on it is real, right? So what does it mean to be more or less so? Maybe the question is really asking you to prioritize your sense of reality. Are particulars more real than abstractions? Are things less real than experiences, events, and processes? How can you even compare unseen, unproven things (souls, Deities) to tangible objects? Is reality itself even real, or is it just a concept? But wait. Why aren’t concepts real, since real people invent and entertain them?

The pre-Socratic materialists wanted desperately to summarize and simplify reality (“It’s all air/water/fire/number…”) but, most moderns would say, were too reductive in their analyses. It’s not all any one thing.

school of athensPlato had some wild ideas about reality. Aristotle was more grounded. (Recall your art history.) Two worlds or one? Are essences (Forms, Ideas) here or there? Are we in a cave, or in the light? Myth of the Cave, Republic Bk VII… cave

“A strange image, and they are strange prisoners.”

Like ourselves?

What would Socrates say?


The great critic Alfred Kazin graced us, shortly
before his death, with sharp insight into James’s passionate
respect for each person’s “own sense of the exceptionality of his
existence” as part of “the axis of reality.” His deepest
commitment was to “the throb of our actual experience.” His
spiritual sensibility was not that of a true believer but of a
“fellow soul.”