Keeping it Real

22 Jun

Is our world really about morals and being nice?

Who defines these words?  On what basis?

How do public declarations contrast with how people behave, speak, and emote in private?


Few things are as rife with nonsense as the practice of unilaterally declaring some behaviors valid and others invalid according to some supposed moral righteousness.  Emotionally, I’m mostly oriented as a humanist.  But so what?  Why should I regard my emotions as anything more than a product of evolution, chance, and upbringing?  Perhaps there is a good reason to think otherwise, but that would require some major breakthroughs to demonstrate.  Anyway, most people have weak ability to introspect on their own motivations in life.  Hint: skew petty…add 15 pounds, etc.  Nevertheless, the political incentive in public is nearly always in favor of saying the right things, so the party goes on.

My suspicion is that we ended up with the golden rule and a general sense of moral symmetry(“your pain is my pain”) because a fair measure of this allowed more powerful societies to develop.  I don’t think it’s helpful to identify these trends with some fundamental moral progress.  I believe it has everything to do with more organized and coordinated societies which yield superior economic and military results.  If people who believed x, y, and z ended up in control of everything, then which beliefs are going to be considered ‘best’?  Gee, I wonder.

Peoples who viciously infight all the time and who have no standards of fairness can’t get advanced societies off the ground.  It’s too inefficient.  It makes everyone insecure and hostilely oriented.  Delicate incentive structures can’t easily exist in that situation. People in such a situation are relatively less likely to take risks on ambitious productive and creative endeavors, and those who do take these risks are far more likely to be frustrated in their ambitions than are those who take such risks in more liberal societies.

Nevertheless, I feel that those who seek to premise moral outlooks simply on their traditional and emotional orientations are doing something of questionable merit.  My take: seek a less arbitrary basis or drop the pretense.  Because pretense won’t last.  It’s vanity.  The arbitrariness of the basis of the thing will always be sitting there, ripe for exploitation.

This point is hard for Westerners to swallow, because we think we’re special.  As a result, few people embark on Sacred studies, because they don’t see the Sacred in themselves.  They don’t really see themselves at all.  They just see ‘the way things are’.  Everything is amenable to science in the West — other than our holy common sense on which much of the rest depends.  YUCK!

Roughly put, Buddhism teaches that the self is basically a construct.  An appetite brought into the world.  A mad appetite which seeks only its own gratification and generates tragedy in the process.  While this view may have been excessively pessimistic, I find a lot of truth to it.  This outlook leaves one open to Sacred studies, at least.  How might one construct different types of selves?  How do such things interact, evolve, and so on?  What kinds of basis for personal identity might there be?  What is the source of these possibilities to begin with?  The line to the primeval remains open.

Yet in the West, this beacon of truth and inquiry, our beliefs about the nature of the self don’t seem to have anything to do with removed observant truth.  Instead, our subjective beliefs about ourselves seem carefully groomed to produce the most impressive results of production and achievement.  Things have become more sentimental recently, but, if anything, the sentimental outlook is even more detached from the bare truth than the earlier outlook was.  This is painfully dissonant in light of the constant proclamations of Dawkins, among others, that one must “always support beliefs with evidence”.  But don’t you see that sometimes our beliefs are co-authoring this very evidence?  Our persistent beliefs in ourselves, in the concept of progress, and so on…all of that affects our behavior and thereby influences the ‘moral evidence’ resultant from these processes.  ‘Reflexivity’.

Some results are obviously belief-dependent.  How many lives have been guided on the premise that God is always watching?  This was a belief which altered behavior in large numbers.  The behavior cannot be explained without referencing the belief which motivated it.

Dawkins would of course say, “ah, but the belief was delusional!”  Still, what if the belief resulted in a functional advantage of certain societies?  Why be so simpleminded about ‘belief’?  Perhaps there is more to belief than idyllic truth.

Even more frightening for the typical Westerner is the suggestion that some beliefs may only make sense with reference to a Sacred complex of accompanying beliefs in a way analogous to how a creature’s organs only make sense when ordered together in a functioning body.  That is to say that some beliefs, such as the belief in Self or the belief in the relation between the me of tomorrow to the me of today, may participate in the creation of a reality while simultaneously not being delusional since they do not mistakenly refer to/describe something which is not real.  The beliefs assist in conjuring their own evidence.  In this case, verification is not passive.  The processes of homeostasis may provide an interesting parallel study in this regard.

The beliefs are not independent from the evidence in this case.  If the beliefs are changed, the evidence may also change.  This isn’t Alice in Wonderland; it’s not a trick.  It’s real.  I believe the real function of this unnerving example is to remind the philosopher of the physical, embodied nature of beliefs. It also helps in melting the crust of common sense to enable a bit more upwelling to occur.  Beyond that, it reveals some of the limits of idealized ‘pure truth’ as an end in itself.

Of course, the so-called ‘creative’ nature of beliefs is strictly limited to very special cases.  It’s not an unlimited well of possibility, and it does not generate magic sovereignty from the rest of the Universe.  It is not a license to total solipsism or relativism.  It does not challenge the Universally invariant truths which science has uncovered.  But it’s certainly relevant, and it may even give hints of an enlarged conception of realism.  Human beings are, after all, intimate parties to some of these very special cases.



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