The Alt-Fact World
In the New Yorker (May 20, 2016) Adam Gopnik wrote in "The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump:"
"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,As, to be hated, needs but to be seen,”
the poet Alexander Pope wrote, in lines that were once, as they said back in the day, imprinted on the mind of every schoolboy. Pope continued,
“Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,we first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
Before those famous schoolroom lines, Pope made another observation, which was that even as you recognize that the world is a mixed-up place, you still can’t fool yourself about the difference between the acceptable and the unacceptable:
“Fools! who from hence into the notion fall, That vice or virtue there is none at all,” he wrote.“Is there no black or white?Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain;’Tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.”
Unfortunately for Gopnick, the pain was already upon us, inflicted by a generation-long assault on the concepts of truth, objectivity and rationality. And it all seemed so terribly enlightened, as long as it was being used to advance the "right" ideas. It liberated us from the constraints of having to conform to science, logic, and reason. It allowed us to impugn reason as a way of maintaining white male hegemony. It even made it possible to ignore moral constraints that were inconvenient. It only became dangerous when conservatives began appropriating its methodology and rhetoric.The pain of not seeing that black is black soon enough will be ours, and the time to recognize this is now.
The Central Fallacy of PhilosophyTheologian Ian Barbour (1966) described four approaches to science. Naive or traditional realism regarded theories as concrete realities: critical realism regarded theories as reflecting an external reality but as imperfect and subject to revision. Instrumentalism considered only the utility of theories in describing phenomena, so that theories could only be described as "valid" or "invalid," not "true" or "false." Idealism views theories as mental constructs, a school of thought we might now call "constructivist."
N.T. Wright nicely described critical realism:
I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of "knowing" that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence "realism"), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence "critical").Barbour's approach has been criticized by people who object to any attempt to put theology and science on any kind of level playing field. Nonetheless, I think (as did Barbour) that most scientists can be described as critical realists. We no longer regard electric fields as little vortices, nevertheless there's something around electrons or protons. It exists even if we're not aware of it or expecting it, as we see if we get entangled in a plastic bag, pull clothes out of the dryer or reach for a doorknob after walking across a carpet (or carelessly touch a computer chip). The fundamental principle is there's a reality out there. There's a knower and a thing known. It doesn't depend on our preferences, beliefs, cultural upbringing, or desire.
So how do we know what this reality is? How do we know if we've got it? How do we go about studying it? How do we deal with people who have a radically different view of reality, or indeed deny its existence altogether?
These are great and deep questions. They lead to fascinating discussions about how we can know the world, how we reason and evaluate evidence, and how much we can trust our perceptions. The one thing they do not do is give us any grounds for disbelieving in objective reality. The notion that questions of epistemology (how we know) have anything at all to tell us about reality itself, or whether it exists, is a grand non-sequitur. The fact that reality is difficult to know does not prove anything at all about whether reality exists; that's like saying that because the English Channel is hard to swim across, it might not exist. I call this The Fundamental Fallacy of Philosophy.
On Constructing Your Own RealityHere are a few excerpts on the notion that we all construct our own reality. Philosophers will no doubt object that some of them are not "serious." That's utterly irrelevant. Nobody cares what serious philosophers have to say, and in fact the "non-serious" nature of some of these excerpts is good, because these are the things that impact public consciousness.
Kristen Fox, Your own personal mass reality, 1998.
Note that this piece is almost twenty years old. Anyone who has never heard of any of the ideas expressed here has truly been living in a bubble.
“Physical objects cannot exist unless they exist in a definite perspective and space continuum. But each individual creates his own space continuum… I want to tie this in with the differences you seem to see in one particular object. Each individual actually creates an entirely different object, which his own physical senses then perceive.” – The Seth Material by Jane Roberts p. 115After I read this quote from the Seth Material, I started to examine what I believed I meant by the phrase “mass reality,” especially if each of us creates our own personal space continuum! Then, the following idea burst into my head: The division between personal reality and mass reality is as illusory as the division between ego and entity/oversoul. There is a division only as long as we choose to believe in it.
For the framework of this article, I define “mass reality” as the belief in a space continuum which exists objectively outside what we’d consider our own personal space continuum and would somehow seem to supercede (sic) our own choices, or personal reality. With this understanding, in “mass reality” a alternate set of beliefs holds true or there would be no point in distinguishing it from “personal” reality. Most often we’d think in terms of leaving our personal reality and interacting in “mass reality” when we go out in public or otherwise deal with “others.” And I define “mass EVENTS” as those events in physical reality in which we perceive ourselves as interacting with at least one “other” person.
When we believe in a mass reality outside of our own personal reality, we have CREATED that mass reality through belief. And yet, we are so used to thinking in these terms that we have difficulty looking at the concept of a “mass reality” as merely a BELIEF instead of REALITY. We each probably have “good reasons” for arguing either for or against the existence of “mass reality,” in which case we can ask ourselves why do we choose one or the other point of view? What would either maintaining or dissolving this division mean to us individually and emotionally?This is a wonderful piece because it embodies so much of the "we create our own reality" philosophy. It's remarkable only in that it does it so explicitly and that it's still on line after almost two decades.
Looking at this illusory division through the eyes of habitual creation, we are USED TO perceiving and interacting with others and ASSUME then that these others exist outside of ourselves. This is usually because we’ve associated ourselves solely with our singular physical focus for so long. And yet, when we interact with “others,” we are creating our physical experience of their ESSENCE in our own personal space continuum. Their essences DO exist independently, and yet the interaction and perception of them that we experience in physical reality are our creation of them in our own space continuums. We’ve drawn their essences to us and then create our own version of them to interact with.
The problem with debating a philosophy like this is it's so impervious to analysis and contradiction. "The division between personal reality and mass reality [exists] only as long as we choose to believe in it."
"When we interact with “others,” we are creating our physical experience of their ESSENCE in our own personal space continuum." does that mean that if someone is a misogynist, you can choose to experience him as an enlightened feminist instead? Somehow, I doubt it. And no, believers in creating your own reality will say that's not a valid argument because reasons. Like Riegler offers below.
Riegler, A. (2001) Towards a Radical Constructivist Understanding of Science
Foundations of Science 6 (1–3): 1–30.
Constructivism is the idea that we construct our own world rather than it being determined by an outside reality. Its most consistent form, Radical Constructivism (RC), claims that we cannot transcend our experiences. Thus it doesn’t make sense to say that our constructions gradually approach the structure of an external reality."We construct our own world rather than it being determined by an outside reality." Could it possibly be clearer than that? Interestingly enough, George W. Bush didn't "construct his own world" when he said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. No, he lied. Because that was "determined by an outside reality." On the other hand, when Karl Rove said "when we act, we create our own reality," that wasn't at all like Radical Constructivism.
Radical Constructivism (RC) is the insight that we cannot transcend the horizon of our experiences. Experiences are all we can work with; out of experiences we construct our world. Thus, there are no mind-independent entities on which our cognition is based. This does not imply that Radical Constructivists deny the existence of such an objective world populated by mind-independent entities, the reality.There are no mind-independent entities on which our cognition is based, but we're not denying an objective world exists. Whiskey...Tango...Foxtrot? The external world exists only in so far as it's expedient to the Radical Constructivist. Things crystallize into sharp objectivity when anyone tries to apply constructivism to legitimize anything the constructivist doesn't approve of.
Since the mind is operationally closed, i.e., semantically impenetrable, we cannot know any ‘external semantics’; thus we arrive at the Epistemological Corollary: Reality is neither rejected nor confirmed, it must be considered irrelevantGive Rove his due. He, at least, never said reality was irrelevant. But if you wonder where Rove came up with it, look to people like Riegler.
In neurophysiology, it is useless to search for neuron clusters whose activations correlate with external events in a stable referential manner.Oh, I don't know. Let me hook you up to an EEG and mash one of your fingers with a hammer. I bet we'd see "neuron clusters whose activations correlate with external events." Actually, neuroscientists hook people up to EEG's all the time to observe "neuron clusters whose activations correlate with external events in a stable referential manner."
Such insights also have impacts on communication and language. (a) Meaning is a human construct. It does not reside somewhere else and is not independent of the person who makes it.“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
(b) Meaning cannot be transmitted as an entity. It is not in the words, gestures, symbols with which we express ourselves.
The operational closure results also in a Methodological Corollary: Explanations are necessarily circular since there is no outside point of reference 5. Experience is thus a form of self reference 6. “Cognition serves the subject’s organization of the experimental world, not the discovery of an objective reality”,
Appealing to reality as the ultimate arbiter of (scientific) disputes gives rise to the belief that there exists a mind-independent reality (MIR) which defines what is true and what is not. What is the sense of clinging to such a concept which is the metaphysical extrapolation of our experiences (or observations)? Clearly, many psychological and social reasons can be put forward to account for this way of reasoning, among which we can find:
- (R1) Claiming authority by referring to an external truth makes one’s own point of view unassailable (Mitterer 1994).
- (R2) Justifying research expenses, as the true description of reality “…is what we are working for and what we spend the taxpayers’ money for” (Weinberg 1998).
- (R3) In more general terms, claims of objectivity are for the purpose of forcing others to do what they would not otherwise do themselves (Maturana 1988).
I just loves me a good conspiracy theory. People believe in realism only for ulterior motives like making one's point of view unassailable, justifying funding, coercing others and asserting authority. Just remember all the scientific controversies where realistic points of view proved eminently assailable, precisely because they were realistic.
- (R4) Finally, realism is equated with seriousness and rationality.
Here's a personal scientific experience. I once tried to write a computer program to model phase diagrams, diagrams that show what happens when a mixture of different materials crystallizes from the liquid state. Most books present these as a series of rules. I found that trying to program the rules was impossible.
Then I had my epiphany. I'd simply model the evolution of the mixture itself, and just plot it on the diagram. Not only was that much simpler to program, It revealed all sorts of things I hadn't noticed before. I began teaching the subject from that perspective (http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/Petrology/beutect.htm).
So when I looked at the problem from an instrumentalist or constructivist perspective (it was all about what happened on the diagram), I got nowhere. Once I approached it from a realist perspective (there was a real molten mixture in a real system), it all came together.
From a RC perspective the purpose of science is not to seek for truth or to map out ‘reality’.There is no justification for an exclusive claim of objectivity.
Critics of RC often conclude that because knowledge is constructed, the mind is in principle free to construct anything it wants. We must not forget that constructions are historical assemblies. The historical aspect imposes a hierarchical organization in which more recent additions build on older ones. Such a hierarchy causes mutual dependencies and thus canalization among its components. It severely restricts the degrees of freedom in the way constructions can be accomplished, as described by the Limitations of Construction Postulate. Therefore, the constructions of the mind cannot be arbitrary.
The crucial point is that observation can only be understood as invariants of these cognitive measuring devices. Therefore, they are strictly human-specific, and do not represent independent ontological elements of an outside reality. The notion of truth can no longer be used as a criterion to evaluate physical theories. Instead theory-building must seek for consistency. This leads to the RC-typical circularity as mentioned above. Furthermore, the fact that different set of cognitive operators brings forth a different cognitive phenotype makes it virtually impossible to communicate with beings equipped with that alternative operators. However, such beings do not necessarily have a less consistent or efficient world-view.Except, of course, when those alternative operators cause them to conclude, say, that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or homosexuality is a danger to society. Those are "false facts."
Finally I want to point at an important issue which I call the Limitations of Construction Postulate. One of the most frequent arguments against constructivism consists of a mere question such as “Surely, you still believe that when the door is closed you cannot walk through it don’t you?”. It seems that an adverb inevitably sneaks in: Constructing our own world is equated with arbitrarily constructing our own world. However, RC is far from confusing both versions. Experiences are made subsequently. As such, they are connected with each other in a historical manner and form a network of hierarchical interdependencies.Perhaps the most offensive feature of this word hash is the use of "Postulate" to create a pretense of rigor. A postulate, in mathematics, is something like "Vertical angles are equal" (If two lines cross, the angles opposite the intersection are equal) That's a statement that can be used to derive or prove other facts, and it's justified because you can superimpose any two vertical angles and see that they are congruent. The truth of the postulate is demonstrated by external reality. The Limitations of Construction "Postulate," on the other hand, is "proven" by mere assertion. It says that RC doesn't mean you can't use RC to create arbitrary realities because you can't, because Riegel says so, and the believer in RC gets to decide what's "arbitrary." Of course, someone like David Duke or Donald Trump also has a hierarchy of interdependent experiences, but those somehow don't confer legitimacy on their worlds. Because that would be "arbitrary."
The problems with word salads like Fox's and Riegel's is they absolutely defy rational parsing. To be utterly crass about it, it's like trying to nail Jello to a tree. Their utterances, like Humpty Dumpty's, mean just what they choose them to mean.
Fake FactsIn 1999, Carroll Case wrote The Slaughter: An American Atrocity, alleging that over 1000 black soldiers had been massacred at Camp Dorn, Mississippi in 1943 and buried beneath what would later become a reservoir. The Army went to the unusual length of tracking the fates of every single soldier in the unit. Most of them ended up being sent to Siberia - actually the closest we could come to it - the Aleutians. They concluded that everyone could be accounted for and there had been no such atrocity.
"We had the whole area sealed off--it was like shooting fish in a barrel. We opened fire on everything that moved, shot into the barracks, shot them out of trees, where some of them were climbing, trying to hide. . . ."So why would the Army conduct a mass murder on post, where it would be heard by everyone, probably seen by many and leave bullet-riddled and blood-splattered barracks to be fixed up by still more witnesses? Why not march the victims to a secluded area and massacre them out of sight? Or better yet, simply declare their training concluded and pack them off to the Aleutians? This has one of the classic earmarks of a crank conspiracy theory - a tendency to concoct Rube Goldberg mechanisms that any intelligent person could figure out how to accomplish better and more simply.
From "Camp Van Dorn massacre; Mississippi Massacre, or Myth? Army Tries to Put to Rest Allegations of 1943 Slaughter of Black Troops," By Roberto Suro and Michael A. Fletcher, Washington Post, Thursday, December 23, 1999; Page A04
Case (author of book) argues that the lack of any accounts by members of the unit shows that those the Army wanted killed were separated from those to be spared. As to the Army's reconstruction of personnel records for the more than 4,000 soldiers who served with 364th at Van Dorn, Case said, "I believe the records have been falsified."Classic conspiracy thinking. Lack of evidence proves there was a conspiracy after all, and contrary evidence has been faked.
"This does not tell us anything about the actual history of blacks in America because there is no proof that it happened, but it does reveal something very interesting about the way people see that history," said John Sibley Butler, a professor of sociology and management at the University of Texas at Austin. "So many bad things happened to black soldiers during that time period that something like this supposed slaughter could have happened, and because of that, people can put aside the question of whether or not there is evidence and simply believe that it did happen," Butler said.
Rationalism and Male Hegemony
Here are a couple of examples by women describing the radical feminist view of rationality.
There is a measure of consensus within feminist theory that rationalist values are in crisis—that the very arrival of women on the scene of intellectual activity necessitates a reappraisal of those values.  Sometimes the claim is that conventional scientific research procedure reflects an objectifying, control-seeking attitude to its subject-matter which can be regarded on psychological grounds as characteristically masculine; the large-scale entry of women into natural science could then be expected to lead to the development of a different, more empathetic and conservationist style of enquiry.  Sometimes there is an attempt to introduce new moral categories informed by feminist reflection on the shortcomings of ‘normal science’, such as Lorraine Code’s ‘epistemic responsibility’.  Sometimes however, and more iconoclastically, it is argued that reason is an inherently gendered concept—an element in a discursive system organized by the assumption of male superiority.Noretta Koertge "On feminist critiques of science," Skeptical Inquirer, March-April 1995 v19 n2 p42(2)
As Daphne Patai and I interviewed faculty, students, and staff from Women's Studies programs for our book Professing Feminism, there emerged a complex picture of what we call "negative education" - a systematic undermining of the intellectual values of liberal education. And as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt have so impressively documented in Higher Superstition, it is the natural sciences that are under the heaviest fire.
Young women are being alienated from science in many ways. One strategy is to try to redefine what counts as science. For example, instead of teaching about the struggles - and triumphs - of great women scientists, such as Emmy Noether, Marie and Irene Curie, and Kathleen Lonsdale, feminist accounts of the history of science now emphasize the contributions of midwives and the allegedly forgotten healing arts of herbalists and witches. More serious are the direct attempts to steer women away from the study of science. Thus, instead of exhorting young women to prepare themselves for a variety of technical subjects by studying science, logic, and mathematics, Women's Studies students are now being taught that logic is a tool of domination and that quantitative reasoning is incompatible with a humanistic appreciation of the qualitative aspects of the phenomenological world.One suspects that the problem in the eyes of some feminists, as in the case of other anti-rationalists, is that reason is the last obstacle to a world of total solipsism.
Narcissism and the Exploitation of Non-Western PhilosophyFrom "The Revolution That Didn’t Happen," Victor Stenger, Huffington Post, July 18 2014, Updated September 17, 2014.
I disagree. In fact, no small portion of the blame for the excessive self-absorption that has characterized America for all this time lies at the feet of the proponents of the new mysticism. Anyone listening to New Age gurus, such as Zukav and Deepak Chopra, and modern megachurch Christian preachers, cannot miss the emphasis on the individual finding easy gratification, rather than sacrificing and selflessly laboring for a better world.
Holistic philosophy is the perfect delusion for the spoiled brat of any age who, all decked out in the latest fashion, loves to talk about solving the problems of the world but has no intention of sweating a drop in achieving this noble goal.
Reductionist classical physics did not make people egoists. People were egoists long before reductionist classical physics. In fact, classical physics has nothing to say about humans except that they are material objects like rocks and trees, made of nothing more than the same atoms—just more cleverly arranged by the impersonal forces of self-organization and evolution. This is hardly a philosophical basis for narcissism.
The new quantum holism, on the other hand, encourages our delusions of personal importance. It tells us that we are part of an immortal cosmic mind with the power to perform miracles and, as Chopra has said, to make our own reality. Who needs God when we, ourselves, are God? Thoughts of our participation in cosmic consciousness inflate our egos to the point where we can ignore our shortcomings and even forget our mortality.
The modern versions of traditional religions feed on this desire. Where once Christian preachers shouted hell-fire and brimstone from the pulpit, their successors in the very same sects now present the soothing message that we are all perfect, worthy, and destined for infinite happiness. The only sacrifice required is a regular check. Then Jesus will provide all.
The rising number who identify themselves as “not religious but spiritual” have not found the new Christianity either sensible or congenial. Unfortunately the new spirituality they find in quantum mysticism is just as much of a con game.
Mystical physics is a grossly misapplied version of ancient Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, which were based on the notion that only by the complete rejection of self can one find inner peace in this world of suffering and hopelessness. However, you won’t find selflessness in these religions as they are practiced in America today. I once attended a Buddhist meditation class in Boulder, which is a center for that sort of thing (Capra’s book was published in Boulder). The first thing we did was sit around in a circle and talk about ourselves. Needless to say, the meditation did not help me get rid of my own self-centeredness—and this wasn’t the only time I tried it.
Capra and his colleagues say they are putting a modern face on ancient Eastern philosophy. I say they are covering a noble edifice with graffiti. Where they see similarities between the new and the old mysticisms, I see only contrasts. Where they promote the new mythology as an antidote for self-absorption, I assert that they are manufacturing a drug that induces it. And while they blame rational science for the ills of the world, I hold rational science as a source of genuine hope for reducing the severity of this latest addiction, if only we and our successors have the wisdom to use it properly.