20 December 2006

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?

In my story Regarding Them the refrain, “and if everyone agrees, then it must be true” is repeated many times. Of course, you’re thinking “Just because everyone agrees doesn’t make it true. What about objective reality?” That refrain is not, as this response suggests, a negation of the possibility of an objective reality, but it is an assertion that we human beings are limited in our ability to verify the existence and actual nature of what we refer to as an “objective” reality.

We derive all our possible concepts from literal bodily experiences and a set of culturally determined linguistic formalities to connect them. We imaginatively use the logical structure of our literal experiences, with only the very minimum of reference to the original literal content, to understand other kinds experiences, i.e., How can a man be out of his mind? (reference: Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson)

What separates us from our primate cousins who have successfully learned to communicate via sign language is that fact that we can talk about minds and how to be out of them, whereas Koko the gorilla and other signing apes cannot get beyond the correspondence of symbols with literal experiences. The signing primates demonstrate the communicative abilities of about four year old humans and make no further progress because they cannot maintain the logical structure of a symbol independent of the content of the experiences that the symbol indicates.

When researchers teach apes to sign they do it in mostly the same way we teach children, through an immersion in an environment where language is a very useful and frequently used tool to achieve individual and social purposes. When we want to communicate with small children we are most successful when we are able to use concrete and literal language. A cup is a concrete object and the concept of a cup is understandable to both four year olds and signing primates. Another example of a concrete idea is a room. What cups and rooms have in common is that they share in the logical structure of bounded regions in space.

When we say that a man is “out of his mind” we have utilized several methods of abstraction. First, the abstract concept referred to by the word ‘mind.’ A mind is a cause of behavior. When you are in your right mind, you cause your behavior and are responsible for what results from those behaviors. When you are out of your mind then the behaviors that occur were not really caused by what we consider to be the real you, therefore you are not held fully responsible for the results of those behaviors. Thus, ‘mind’ consists of causal interpretations of different sets of behavioral patterns with normative implications.

Koko and a four year old can both understand that someone can be crazy. It means they are behaving abnormally. But they will fail to understand the phrase “out of his mind” unless it is explained to be the same as being crazy, or in the case of the four year old you can wait a year or two and it will make complete sense. The difference is in how the phrase refers to the logical structure of bounded regions in space to the abstract idea of mind as a bounded category of behaviors within which is normal behaviors and outside of which are abnormal behaviors. Thus the logical structure of bounded regions in space, such as rooms and cups, are applied to the categorization of behaviors into normal and abnormal with implications for the proper assignment of personal responsibility for the results. The apes do not appear to be capable of preserving the idea of bounded regions in space independent of the concrete experiences of cups and rooms, nor to be able to conceive of causal interpretations of different sets of behavioral patterns with normative implications. In other words, they will not understand the word ‘mind’ as a reference to anything real nor how a person can be inside or outside of one. (reference: The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon)

Because the only conceptions we can ever have about Truth are based on experiences of having the kinds of bodies we have, then the only truth that we can ever validate through shared experiences are, based on this fact, those that can be conveyed to others with similar bodily experiences. This does not negate the possibility of experiences that are ineffable, that is unique to an individual and incapable of being conceived of and/or expressed within language. However, if any aspect of “objective” reality occurs in a way that is beyond the scope of body-based conceptions, then we are incapable of sharing them with anyone else and therefore they cannot in any meaningful way be validated. The only kinds of experience that can ever possibly be validated by anyone else would have to be expressed through body-based concepts. Thus I feel obligated to qualify the very term ‘objective’ with quotation marks because it’s normal usage as a form of reality that is collectively validated is in important ways self-contradictory based on this understanding of our existence.

We are, therefore, equally limited in our ability to verify the existence and nature of anything that could qualify as a “spiritual” reality, as well. Thus science and religion are on equally shaky ground with regards to capital ‘T’ Truth. Thus I have drawn the conclusion that universal human agreement is the highest Truth we can ever hope to obtain, and it can, exclusively within the constraints of the logic and extent of bodily concepts, change.

Regarding Them Commentaries:

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About God?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Morality?
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