Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Brief History of Reality (as it relates to the culture wars of our times)

Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rorty. Each proposed a different model of reality.
I’m not trained in philosophy, by any stretch, although I’ve done some reading on the topic. As well, I’m not a sociologist, nor even a close observer of contemporary culture, but I do live here and observe things.

And so I publish this blog post with the idea of starting a discussion that is looking forward to diagnosing some of the cultural difficulties that we face today, and not because I’m not suggesting I have all the answers. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I see myself as more of a journalist, a reporter (but an honest one), collecting information and passing it on, than anything else.

The study of “reality” may be found within the fields of “metaphysics” and “ontology” (with the differences between them viewed as):

Metaphysics is a very broad field, and metaphysicians attempt to answer questions about how the world is. Ontology is a related sub-field, partially within metaphysics, that answers questions of what things exist in the world. An ontology posits which entities exist in the world. So, while a metaphysics may include an implicit ontology (which means, how your theory describes the world may imply specific things in the world), they are not necessary the same field of study.

While there are many complexities within these discussions, in broad outline form, the history of “reality” has kind of followed this trajectory:

Plato defined reality as consisting of “forms” and “matter”. That is, the “reality” of a thing existed in the “form” of it – with “forms” themselves existing in some unknown place. Some, like Augustine, have kinda-sorta relied on this model, and placed “the forms” within the mind of God.

Aristotle used the “form/matter” model, but he placed the “form” not in some unknown place, but rather, “within the thing itself”. Thus, in the Roman Catholic model of communion, for example, “the body of Christ”

This Platonic / Aristotelian distinction existed through much of history, and even some today claim some agreement with these models (Steve Hays has said that he kind of agrees with the Augustinian view of the Platonic model, and many Roman Catholics, for example, still cling to Aristotle).

Modern science, the roots of which were relatively contemporary with the kinds of understanding (and a rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics) brought about by the Reformation. God existed and created the world, and this understanding underlay “reality” as a concept that existed, was rational, and could be observed and measured. The earth genuinely was not the center of the universe, but rather, the earth revolved around the sun. Names like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton supply some of the impetus for this kind of understanding. And with this understanding, science made great progress.

From a philosophical perspective, however, after “the enlightenment” period, and the verbal wars between the rationalists and the empiricists, Kant proposed a model in which “the reality of things” exists only (or primarily) in the human mind. Here is a description of that in his own words:

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us.

This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest.

Now in metaphysics we can try in a similar way regarding the intuition of objects. If intuition has to conform to the constitution of the objects, then I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori; but if the object (as an object of the senses) conforms to the constitution of our faculty of intuition, then I can very well represent this possibility to myself.

Yet because I cannot stop with these intuitions, if they are to become cognitions, but must refer them as representations to something as their object and determine this object through them, I can assume either that the concepts through which I bring about this determination also conform to the objects, and then I am once again in the same difficulty about how I could know anything about them a priori, or else I assume that the objects, or what is the same thing, the experience in which alone they can be cognized (as given objects) conforms to those concepts, in which case I immediately see an easier way out of the difficulty, since experience itself is a kind of cognition requiring the understanding, whose rule I have to presuppose in myself before any object is given to me, hence a priori, which rule is expressed in concepts a priori, to which all objects of experience must therefore necessarily conform, and with which they must agree. (Bxvi-xviii)
For Kant, one distinction that needs to be drawn at this point is whether we can know what physical things are really like, compared to whether we can know what nonphysical things are really like. Kant's skepticism is overextended. Even if sensory perception falls short of showing us what the physical world is really like, it doesn't follow that we can't know what God is like, or know about abstract objects like logic, numbers, and possible worlds. To some extent, that's not based on sensory perception but reason and intuition.

I’m sure I am greatly simplifying, but the bottom line here turns out to be that we cannot know the reality of things, but is our perception of things that shapes the reality of them.

This has been taken further by the postmodernists of our era, who have removed the reality of things yet another step, not only away from the reality of the things themselves, but to the language that we use about them. Here is a citation from Richard Rorty that Stephen Wolfe posted, which I find to be very significant:

"If we could ever become reconciled to the idea that most of reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it, and that the human self is created by the use of a vocabulary rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary, then we should at last have assimilated what was true in the Romantic idea that truth is made rather than found. What is true about this claim is just that languages are made rather than found, and that truth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences .... A talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change." From Richard Rorty, “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity”, © 1989, Cambridge University Press.

Maybe not coincidentally, Rorty was an instructor at the University of Virginia for many years, located in the town of Charlottesville (recently in the news).

This idea that “the use of a vocabulary” is what really shapes reality is Kantian in nature, except that it moves beyond “reality is created by the human mind” to “reality is created by the language that we use”. I noted in the comments that Sam Harris (a leading luminary of “the new atheists”) considers himself to be a fanatical follower of Rorty.

And in our contemporary culture, what we see, generally, is that things are being re-defined, and that this re-definition is reinforced by both universities and by the media. Here are a few common examples of language being used, modified, and in fact, even turned on their head, in such a way as to (force) shape the cultural discussions.

  • A very real struggle, that of the Native Americans, was associated with the original term racism. The Oxford definition was, “Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.” So initially, this racism was intended to provide for the inclusion of Native Americans into the mainstream of the American culture (which, when I was going to school, involved something of a “melting pot”). But in more contemporary usage, “racism” involves identifying a particular ethnic group for the purpose of assigning a “victim” status in the context of a “victim/oppressor” paradigm which I hope to explain in some detail later.

  • It is not “the right to an abortion,” and it is not even “the right to choose to have an abortion”, but simply, “a woman’s right to choose”. We are not told what they are “choosing”, nor when they are “choosing” it, merely that a particular right is being taken away. This is a way in which women are cast in the role of “victim in that same “victim/oppressor” type of paradigm.

  • A person is not “homosexual”, (biblically, practicing what is an “abomination”), but rather is “gay” – the old meaning of the word “gay” (“happy and cheerful”) somehow attached to a state that, until 1973, was named as a psychiatric disorder. There is a whole new language, now, that has been created (or adopted) – including things like “LGBT community”, “homophobia”, etc., which also have been used to cast the issue in terms of a “victim/oppressor” paradigm.

  • Now, I haven’t gone into great detail concerning the etymology of these terms, but I do recall some of these evolutions of meanings in my lifetime. It is this modification of the language, this detachment of reality from itself, attaching it to something that is completely malleable (a form of “postmodernism”, as I understand it), provides a great deal the philosophical underpinning of the cultural “left”, as I understand it.

    The root of the word conservative is “to conserve”, and at a very fundamental level, our role as “conservatives” should be to conserve the meanings of some of these words and terminologies – to resist (even now) the popular usage of some of these terms.

    Of course, much more explanation is needed for all of this, and more, I hope, will be forthcoming. I appreciate any corrections or clarifications that you might make in the comments, and I look forward to an edifying discussion.

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