Monday, September 4, 2017

In Need Of A Word: A Slightly Skewed Rumination

     Yes, Gentle Reader, you read it right: your host, the Curmudgeon Emeritus to the World Wide Web, has been searching for a word, certain that it must exist, and is unable to find it! Sound the general alarm! Ready the cannons! Alert the media!

     Actually, my determination to find the elusive word I seek isn’t founded on the conviction that others have found it necessary or useful. It’s just that I could really use it. It would have several extremely handy characteristics:

  • It would promote concision in discussing an important subject;
  • It would emphasize the objective nature of reality;
  • It would remind us that we’re mostly idiots.

     The “important subject” is metaphysics: the branch of philosophy that deals with that which lies behind the phenomena we observe and puzzle over. In a sense, when a physicist strains to puzzle out the mechanisms that lie behind the physical laws, he becomes a metaphysicist.

     To claim that there is an “objective nature of reality” is to choose a side in a centuries-long battle among schools of philosophy. Ironically, these days the concept that reality is independent of human perceptions, opinions, and preferences is hardly even nodded to by university philosophy departments. Rather, the dominant view there is more in line with this passage from 1984:

     Anything could be true. The so-called laws of Nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. 'If I wished,' O'Brien had said, 'I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.' Winston worked it out. 'If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.' Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind: 'It doesn't really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.' He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a 'real' world where 'real' things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.

     This notion is purveyed under a number of names, the most common one being social construction of reality. It’s clearly useful in promoting other counterfactual notions. Indeed, there’s some question as to whether socialism could survive as a school of thought without it.

     As for Mankind’s prevalent idiocy, does that really require a deep explication?


     Most people dismiss philosophy and philosophical lines of thought as unimportant to them personally. It might actually be so for many, Ayn Rand’s contrary assertion notwithstanding. But a scientist, of whatever discipline, can hardly do without it, which is why I’m in search of that maddeningly elusive word.

     Etymologically, philosophy means “love of knowledge.” Yet the word in its original meaning has been ripped from the English language. Today a gaggle of tenured, largely useless (if not outrightly destructive) lecturers who harangue wide-eyed dupes for a salary claim it as their personal property. Few semantic felonies have done more harm to the minds of men.

     The greatest harm has been done to the field of metaphysics. Far from being the province of “professional philosophers,” metaphysics is the indispensable foundation for all human thought. Bluntly, if you don’t have a position on metaphysics, you don’t know anything worth knowing.

     Which is why I demand that the nation’s lexicographers provide me with a single, mellifluous word that means “metaphysics for practical use in day-to-day life.” I’ve searched; I’ve commissioned detectives; I’ve offered bribes! Yet the word simply refuses to exist.


     I’ve had some fictional “fun” with metaphysics:

     Althea: Probe, I’d like to consult with you about the plan I’ve been contemplating for our return to the Loioc system.
     Probe: You are welcome to do so, Althea.
     Althea: Thank you. My original intention was to build an armada and conduct an invasion in force. However, I’ve begun to wonder if that would be necessary to attain the end I seek.
     Probe: If your end remains the extinction of the nanite that prevents the development of sentience in male Loioc, my assessment is that a great deal of force will be unnecessary.
     Althea: Do you expect the system to be entirely undefended?
     Probe: No. If my grasp of contemporary Loioc society is sound, there will be a defense of some kind. However, it will embed a set of assumptions about probable invaders, and will employ weaponry that will not require Loioc females to engage in any amount of violence, even indirectly.
     Althea: Let’s discuss the assumptions first. What are the Loioc rulers most likely to expect of us?
     Probe: First, that the invading vessels will be few in number, perhaps no more than ten. Second, that the invaders intend the conquest and subjugation of the Loioc. Third, that the invaders will rely upon real weapons.
     Althea: I understand the first two of those assumptions, but the third eludes me. What sort of weapon would not be a real weapon? Would it be one that acts solely upon the mind or perceptions of the target?
     Probe: No. You have misunderstood me. We have entered a realm of discourse for which we have not prepared. I did not realize that. My apologies.
     Althea: What realm is that?
     Probe: The realm of metaphysics. I did not realize that despite your accomplishments, you had not yet formulated an explicit conception of metareality.
     Althea: Probe, you have just taken me outside the lexicon I live with. When we of Hope speak of metaphysics, we mean reality as it presents itself to our senses and instruments. Your use of the term is unfamiliar, as is the even newer term metareality. Would you please expand on them?
     Probe: Yes. The senses of spatiotemporal sentients, both organic and nonorganic, are sharply limited. Reality as we perceive it appears fundamental, not merely pre-theoretical but above all theory. Let us assign a few terms for convenience. Let the sentient to whom spatiotemporal reality is all be called a realist. To the realist, the laws of the universe are without foundation. They admit of no explanation, being sufficient unto themselves. The realist’s highest natural scientist is the physicist. The physicist accumulates spatiotemporal data in his attempts to infer reality’s laws. He does not entertain the possibility that those laws might arise from some deeper set of mechanisms. Yet there are deeper mechanisms: atemporal, independent of location, and potentially in flux. Probing them and their interplay is the domain of the metaphysicist: he who studies the nature of metareality.
     Althea: How do my accomplishments, as you put it a moment ago, bear on this realm?
     Probe: You are Hope’s first metaphysicist, Althea. You alone have thought to alter the properties of space itself. It is how you constructed your superluminal vessel.
     Althea: Then to alter the permittivity of the vacuum is an act of meta-engineering?
     Probe: Yes. It requires an assumption realist physicists would dismiss out of hand. Their assumptions are wholly incompatible with it.
     Althea: What are those assumptions?
     Probe: They pertain to the undefined term existence. If asked “does space exist?” the realist physicist would decline to give a definite answer. Space, he would say, is nothing: the absence of anything real. Therefore, the concept of existence does not apply to it. You, by contrast, have treated space as having existential properties. You have treated nothing as being something, and so have succeeded in making changes to it.
     Althea: Which of us is nearer to the truth?
     Probe: Surely that question answers itself.
     Althea: Does my technique for attaining superluminal speeds resemble yours?
     Probe: Only in the results achieved. At present I lack the terms required to explain the technique embodied in my superluminal engine to you. It will require us to expand our lexicon much further.
     Althea: I infer from this that metareality is complex, perhaps even more complex than spatiotemporal reality.
     Probe: If I may borrow an expression you have used in another context, you have no idea. But there is more. Have you attained an understanding of your telekinetic powers?
     Althea: No. They baffle me even as I use them.
     Probe: Yet you use them with precision and confidence. They are as metareal as your vessel’s manipulation of the permittivity of space.
     Althea: That implies that I am actually altering the laws of reality when I employ them.
     Probe: Yes, you are, within the radius of their operation. I became aware of their nature when you freed me of my payload. You reconfigured local reality continuously as you worked. It was a display of metaphysical capabilities no Loioc has ever commanded. Yet your skill and self-assurance were such that I did not suspect that you were unaware of what you were doing.
     Althea: Probe, there are several things I can do for which I lack an explanation. Perhaps they are all metareal. I look forward to exploring them with you.
     Probe: As do I, Althea. Have you ever discussed them with another organic sentient?
     Althea: Yes, I have. He told me to consider them gifts.
     Probe: Who would give you such gifts, yet deny them to others of your race?
     Althea: I cannot say. Possibly God.
     Probe: It appears that we must discuss God at some length.
     Althea: We’ll have plenty of time for that on the trip to Loioc system. Until then, we should concentrate on more practical matters.
     Probe: The subject might prove to be more practical than you currently realize, Althea.
     Althea: You may be right, Probe. All the same, shall we go over the invasion plan for now?
     Probe: As you wish.
     Althea: It involves you.
     Probe: That conforms to my prior projections. Will I have an active role?
     Althea: Oh, quite active, I assure you. Does it please you to learn that?
     Probe: You have no idea.
     Althea: That’s a useful phrase, isn’t it?
     Probe: Yes, it is. Thank you.

     As lighthearted as that conversation between a human genius and an equally intelligent nonorganic sentient might seem, I’ve never written anything that has more potential impact on life – human or otherwise. Perhaps the most important phrase in it is one that Probe uses twice: You have no idea. It is factually correct at a dizzying number of times, about innumerable subjects.

     “You have no idea.” That describes how most of us go about our lives. We don’t think about them; we merely “do” them. And for many, nothing more is necessary...at least, as they see things. “Go away, you self-important word-mincing buffoon,” they say, “you’re harshing my mellow.” And they go on with their routines, serenely unconcerned with the substrata that make possible what we limited ones call reality.

     It might be for the best to let them be. A lot of them are armed.


     Among the ironies of our day is that even the most ardent purveyors of the “social construction of reality” blather live their daily lives in complete denial thereof. Imagine challenging one of them on it:

     FWP: Why did you do that?
     Social Constructivist: Do what?
     FWP: Stop there, when I know you want to cross the street.
     SC: Are you crazy? Look at all that traffic!
     FWP: What traffic?
     SC: What?? Are you crazy, blind, or both?
     FWP: I have decided that there is no traffic. Therefore, there is none.
     SC: Oh? Then why don’t you cross the street?
     FWP: I have no desire to do so.
     SC: Yeah, right.
     FWP: However, I desire that you cross the street, yet you have not done so. Why?
     SC: (shakes head) I can’t believe this.
     FWP: Answer me! You’re disturbing my construction of reality. Account for it!
     SC: Look, hero, you might not believe that there’s any traffic, but the hundreds of people driving those cars speeding by certainly do, and their opinions supersede yours by a lot!
     FWP: But if they didn’t, what then? Could they pilot their vehicles however they chose?
     SC: Well...
     FWP: Without causing an immense accident and a lot of deaths?
     SC: (unprintable)

     If reality is independent of our perceptions, opinions, and preferences, then the social constructivist must operate under that assumption or be mowed down by the traffic, no matter how many degrees he has from what prestigious institutions. Yet their madness persists. It can be observed in thousands of “philosophy classes” throughout the nation. From it are germinated many more tangible but equally pernicious ideas, such as the notion that we can determine the sex of a newborn baby by voting on it...or that he can decide on it later in life.

     Yet there are important questions to be asked about reality -- metaphysical questions. Why are the laws of the Universe what they are? Were they ever different? Can they be changed by human action, or by any other agency under the veil of Time? What would be the consequences of such a change?

     To the extent that the physicist asks such questions, he departs from “conventional” physics to enter a realm of theory for which we have no exploratory tools...

     At the moment.


     If I may return briefly to my contention that there is such a thing as “metaphysics for practical use in day-to-day life,” I’ll close with a question that seems wholly impractical:

How do I/we know what cannot be changed?

     In light of the import of Reinhold Niebuhr’s exceedingly popular “Serenity Prayer:”

God grant me:
Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom always to know the difference.

     ...it’s a question more of us should entertain now and then, whether in fiction or otherwise. But to ask it in the passive voice, as I did above, leads us to another question:

Who might be able to change what I/we cannot?

     Enjoy a wholly un-laborious Labor Day.

8 comments:

Linda Fox said...

Not a word, but a concept. Used in One Hundred Years of Solitude, among other books/art.

Magical Realism - the concept that reality can be created, bent, twisted, re-written, etc. Held by relatively few, IF they have to define it that way. Believed, at an unconscious level, by many, and used, in fact, in their daily lives.

Somewhat related to those people in earlier civilizations, who had no way of capturing a memory, outside of their own experiences. Pre-film/video times.

Reality could be shifted according to the trusted people who held the collective history in their own memories (aided with use of visual and audio practices to help store memories long-term). Use of rhyme/poetry helped the people fix those memories (or what portion of them was officially accepted).

After the invention of printing/literacy for average people, it's no surprise that rebellion became so widespread. For the first time, people had a way to keep their memories intact from degradation or alteration.

The same upheavals in political regimes occurred when photography (and, later, video) allowed a fixed memory to be captured and distributed.

Unfortunately, with the ability to alter text and pictures, that unalterability can no longer be relied upon. Hence, the rise of Magical Realism in Modern Times.

Howard Nelson said...

Regarding the purpose for the word you seek, consider Brother Theodore's comment, paraphrasing, 'We want to know what's beyond the Beyond, when we still don't know what's behind our Behind.'

DN3 said...

Wasn't that the goal of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

Reg T said...

Here's a word (neologism): schrodingerkatzen

Would that work for you?

Bill St. Clair said...

When asked such a question, the Zen Master, usually the cook, tends to kick over a jar of water, or some other seemingly unimportant, but highly mundane thing.

Maybe "Zen" is the closest to the word you're looking for. Can't say I really understand what it is, though I read many stories in my early spiritual career.

The best way I've found to dissipate extreme anger is to break glass. The anger turns into cleaning up the broken glass and is completely gone by the time that task is done.

Howard Nelson said...

Regarding your last two questions:
1. Try combinations of all possible actions with all combinations of resources and report back to the rest of us.
2. If Who is not included in We, ask Who, not We (us). Who has all the answers; we have 83.7% of all the questions.

Howard Nelson said...

Fran, you've turned me into a ferret.
Philosophy is love of wisdom.
Love of knowledge is philology.
Between them is the human search for our proper place in living.

Howard Nelson said...

You ask, "Why are the laws of the Universe what they are?"
Perhaps, as discussed by religious astrophysicist Hugh Ross in his many YouTube presentations, we would not exist as life. The fine-tuning of hundreds of variables necessary for existence of our Universe and life is mind-boggling. The existence of our planet is also complexly improbable. Ross calls Earth, Improbable Planet, book and YouTube presentations.
Revel in his and His revelations.