Archive for category Rationality and Spirituality

Subjective and Objective Truth

I am better understanding the “dark night of the soul” that mathematics has been for me.

I think that truth needs to involve an element of fantasy. That sounds like a paradox; but I think that our fantasies are true.

If I visualize something so vividly that it feels at least as real to me as physical reality, what grounds do I say that physical reality is real, and the visualization is unreal?

Well, one ground would be that other people can’t see the visualization; but I’ll address that issue later.

Try it. Visualize a red triangle. Visualize it so strongly that it becomes as real as your own hand. Then visualize it so strongly that it’s more real than your hand. It can be done.

People regularly achieve this sort of transcendence of physical reality on the wings of pure faith. Think of the ascetics who deprive and punish their bodies for the sake of a belief. Think of the feminists, who have managed to make widely accepted a truth that has no evidence other than what people’s hearts tell them. Think of the mathematicians, who study a vast paradise of nonexistent and impossible objects. Think of the fiction writers, who live in an imaginary world of their own creation.

Fantasy, the truth that comes from inside us, is subjective truth. The truth that comes from examining the outside world, is objective truth.

Subjective truth is considered by many to be nonexistent. And indeed, I cannot assert the existence of subjective truth in the same way that I can assert that 2+2=4. The reason is that subjective truth is subjectively true; whereas objective truth is objectively true. But subjective truth is not objectively true. Similarly, objective truth is not subjectively true.

Objective truth can only be determined through the methods of empiricism. For subjective truth, the method is this: whatever you wish to be true, is true.

The nature of our experience at this nexus places great emphasis on objective truth. We are, in the ordinary course of things, absorbed in the shuffle of the physical world and its necessities. And this same emphasis on objectivity is reflected in our intellectual climate.

Subjective truth is hard to find, hard to notice, hard to hold onto. But it is better and more important than objective truth.

People have different subjective truths. I can see my own visualizations; you cannot. My passions are not your passions. My ideals are not your ideals.

There is therefore great paradox in trying to share one’s subjective truth. Subjective truth is not objectively true. What is true for me, may not be true for you. For the most part, therefore, we must have our own truth and let others have theirs. The problem of sharing truths is a hard one.

I cannot wish to share my truth with another, if for them it is falsehood. I can only wish to share it with them, if for them it is truth.

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Four Unreasonable Poems

Hey guys, look at all this truth I brought for you!
Oh, you don’t want any of it?
…Not a word?

I shouldn’t need
to dress up my intuitions in math
to make them acceptable to you.

But I’ll do it,
if it means you’ll finally listen.

First I believed everything I was told.
That’s what you do when you’re a child.

As a teenager I began to know things for myself,
and they told me I was wrong.

I was epistemically torn, and beaten, and battered
and bruised until finally I believed
that whoever has the power
is the one who’s right.

I fell for that ancient ruse,
like a rock off a cliff.

I played the game.
I believed only what I could force others to believe.
Damn could I play.

And I took all of this and began calling it “truth.”

But y’know, truth sort of has a different melody
than the one we’re singin’ in school.

I am sick of conspiring
in my own downfall because it’s easier
than standing up.

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The Academician

The academician does not see the truth.
He does not open his ears to the warbling sound of his inner teacher,
who speaks of the brightest of noons and the darkest of sunsets,
the highest of foothills and the lowest of mountains.

He does not set his gaze on the soft, caressing glow of truth,
but fades out that glorious sunset
with his Kodak monochrome image capturing software,
the tool of those great census bureau workers of the universe, reason.

The academician speaks the truth about all things outside,
but he omits the truth about himself,
and in this omission all of his words are reduced to so much dust,
so many files and records of tiny bits of data.
In his quest to know everything he finally knew nothing,
and in this miserable not-knowing he might finally learn to hear himself.
Let us hope!

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Why I do math, II

Earlier tonight I was walking back from a meditation session, and I concluded that math was nothing but a giant power trip, something people use to control other people and the natural world. So in my mind I renounced math, with that little nagging voice saying that there was no way I was done with it.

Later this evening I found myself reading about sheaves, and ejaculating wild screams of ecstasy as if I were a woman in orgasm. What a deep conundrum this is! What other human could possibly empathize with my soul’s dilemma?

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Proof vs. Listening

Most of the time, we don’t have the option of formally proving our ideas. It’s really only in math and science that we can do this. But most intellectual problems in the real world don’t fit that paradigm. Most real-world intellectual problems are decision problems. You have a group of people who are trying to decide something (a workplace, a family, a country, a group of friends, a romantic partnership). They need to share ideas with each other, and eventually they need to agree on something. But they need to do this without the use of formal proof, because almost always, you can’t prove that your idea for what to do is the best one.

The situation is the same in philosophy and religion. We don’t have the luxury of formal proof in these disciplines, but we still need to think about things together and eventually agree about something.

We want to hold philosophical and religious beliefs, but it’s sort of meaningless to do so unless other people agree with us. I’ve tried being a lone believer who has his own perspective on reality that nobody else shares. But I can’t shake this feeling that I’ve regressed into solipsism when I do that. If my beliefs are unproven and held only by me, by what metric are they tested? How do I know that they’re right? How could I possibly distinguish between a private true belief, and a private delusion?

“Proof” can take many forms. There’s formal proof, which is the best kind. But you can also know something just through having experienced it. It is in this sense which I know, for instance, that my happiness is mostly a function of my inner state, rather than a function of what’s going on in my life. I’ve ascertained that experientially, though I can’t prove it to somebody else.

And a further kind of proof, I think, comes from a lot of people adopting a belief. We’ve never had any formal proof that democracy is a good idea; but the fact that a lot of people believe in it constitutes a strong argument for it. Similarly, the very fact that most people believe in God constitutes an argument in favor of God’s existence.

Now, if I have an idea, and I share it with other people, two things can happen. Other people can think the idea is good and adopt it; which boosts my confidence that the idea is right. Or other people can say, “hmm, I don’t think that’s such a good idea;” which lowers my confidence that the idea is right.

People act as a sounding board for each other’s ideas. You put an idea out there, and if it echoes throughout the social matrix, resounding again and again, then it’s a good idea. If it dies soon after it leaves its maker, then it’s not a good idea; so the theory goes.

The problem is that our social matrix doesn’t seem to be a very efficient sounding board. I’ve probably written up hundreds of philosophical ideas, but the number of these ideas that gained traction among my peers is close to zero. I spent years making music, but nobody really listened to my music.

Am I to conclude, from these facts, that I’m a bad philosopher and a bad musician? That seems false. More like, people aren’t listening to me. But I can’t just blame other people: maybe I’m not listening to other people either. We’re not listening to each other.

I think this is what stymies philosophy and metaphysics. To do philosophy, you really need the sounding board effect, because it’s basically all you’ve got. The social sounding board needs to be sensitive and of high quality. People need to be able to give you honest and sympathetic feedback based on genuine listening to your idea.

We don’t have that for philosophy. Even philosophy departments aren’t that. If you tell your idea to a philosophy professor, they’ll probably say it’s wrong. Everybody thinks everybody else is wrong in philosophy departments. That doesn’t get you anywhere; being told you’re always wrong teaches you nothing.

I think science has flourished over philosophy, religion, art, music, etc., in large part because science has the advantage of formal proof. With science, you can have ideas getting widespread traction, without people, y’know, actually having to listen deeply and sympathetically to each other. We don’t know how to listen, so we like science.

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Skepticism? Skepticism!

For a long time I’ve been puzzled by skepticism. Skepticism is the perfectly rational idea that you should only believe something if it so captures you with its undeniable truth that you have no choice.

The problem is that it seems like a lot of religion breaks down under skepticism. But maybe a lot of religion is actually something I want to believe. So maybe I should be a little merciful with my doubting?

As of tonight’s experience, this no longer worries me. Skepticism is the correct position, and insofar as it really is certain, religion can defeat skepticism.

A true mystical experience cannot be doubted. The skeptic need only be willing to test the hypothesis that “if you use this mental technique, then you will be struck down by a Thing so fantastically brilliant and real that there will be no atom left in your body capable of denying it; and then you will be a believer.”

If the skeptic is a talented mystic, then after they do the experiment, they will be a believer: without having had to sacrifice an iota of their skepticism.


Faith! Faith?

I am absolutely bewildered by the word “faith.”

When I hear the word “faith,” I think of that inexplicable gusto that the mystics have, that tireless devotion and unswerving ‘inner certainty’ that lets them turn the Earth without guns or tanks, but only pure love and pure will.

But when I hear the word “faith,” I think of the act of believing in something without proof — i.e., something that you should never do.

Let me try to make you sympathetic to this idea. In science we go to outrageous lengths to make sure that we are right. We use these tedious, miserable things called “mathematics” and “formal reasoning” to try to rule out all possibility of error. We spend a lot of time caring about tiny, trivial things, just to avoid being wrong.

And you know what? Half the time, we’re still wrong. Turns out it’s really, really hard to be reliably correct, correct without error, not merely thinking that you’re correct but actually, truly correct.

No matter how intuitively appealing your idea is, sometimes you do the math and find out it’s wrong. Not just partially wrong, not just reduced to a matter of opinion — but flat out wrong. And sometimes you even do the math, and it all checks out and looks perfect, but then you find that you flipped a negative sign in one single, miserable equation and it makes the whole thing wrong. And if you’re a good scientist, you see that flipped negative sign and you throw out your beautiful idea and don’t look back.

You don’t struggle to salvage it, you don’t cling to it, and you sure as hell don’t start doing fuzzy epistemology like “oh you know, some things are a matter of opinion; let’s just agree to disagree; reason has its limits after all; you scientists think you know everything, but there’s a lot of mystery in the universe.” No. You just throw the idea in the garbage bin. Because hey, it might be beautiful, but it’s not true.

So: faith? Believing in something without proof? Without any proof at all? Hell to the no, not if you want to be right. If one flipped negative sign can destroy a brilliant scientist’s beautiful, meticulously constructed theory in its entirety, what the hell makes you think you can believe something without proof?

Now Euthypro in the audience pipes up. “OK, I get it, we’re wrong a lot, and so if we want to be sure we’re right we need proof. But surely you can’t do this all the time? You yourself pointed out that life is too complicated to scientifically study every aspect of it before we do anything. That’s not feasible. Our informally drawn conclusions are the best we’ve got; and sometimes, most of the time even, we’ve just got to go with them for the decisions we make.”

Yes, I agree. I have opinions. I have beliefs that I haven’t proven. But there are different degrees of belief. There’s the “I’ll still say the same thing if you ask me tomorrow” degree of belief. There’s the “I’ll make logical deductions from it” degree of belief. And then there’s the “I’ll tell the whole damn world and mercilessly shoot down anybody who disagrees with me” degree of belief.

This final degree of belief, you may informatively note, is almost exclusively found in scientists, politicians, and the religious.

The scientists? They deserve it. They really are right. The politicians? The religious? It’s entirely less clear that they deserve it. Not because scientists are some special, privileged group. But because it’s entirely less clear that the politicians and the religious, regarding the claim that sets them so afire, really are right.

Now let’s take an informative example: creationism. There are people who teach this in public schools, for crying out loud. That is surely the final, ultimate level of dominance that any belief can obtain. And creationism, at least in its more naive forms, is false.

In general, religious people are entirely willing to get up on the pulpit and preach their beliefs, as truth, without proof, while absolutely oozing that pompous air of authority. As a lover of the truth, this bothers me. I’m all for religion. But I’m also all for, well, actually being right before you get up on that pulpit. And I’ve seen how hard it is to achieve that.

Now we return to why I am perplexed by the word “faith.” This word surely denotes the highest and purest religious attitude, the most desirable quality that a person could have. And yet it also denotes believing something without proof. Which is something that you should never do. What am I to think about this?

Now Euthyphro says, “OK, so just invent two words. One of them can mean the highest, purest religious attitude, and the other one can mean believing something without proof. No more conflict.”

But I feel like they have something to do with each other.

I don’t really have any answers here. I just want to point out that I am confused as hell about this word. I think we philosophers don’t do enough admitting when we’re confused.

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