Solipsism, Semantics and Science, Between You And Me

Previously I wrote that all our experiences of the world happen within our nervous system, that we cannot truly see past our perceptions and experience reality directly. While this is a fact, it doesn’t mean we remain completely separate from each other.

Dictionary.com defines solipsism two ways.

1. Philosophy. The theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist.

2. Extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption

Obviously if all we can ever experience happens within our nervous systems, it’s tempting to think that we will always remain apart, that our experiences are never truly shared and don’t even overlap. Too strong a belief in that separation can cause feelings of isolation. But experience happens on many different levels, and some of these levels allow more connection with other people and the world at large.

Nothing in the Universe happens in isolation. Fundamental forces tie all matter together, so everything is related to everything else in a real, physical way, in differing degrees ranging between 0 and ∞ (not inclusive). This is why we have theories like the Butterfly Effect which claim the wind from a butterfly wing can cause a hurricane across the planet. (Careful! Don’t watch the movie of the same name starring Ashton Kutcher.)

Everything that exists is in constant flux, constantly changing and never static. When we talk about any thing, that thing is different one moment to the next (it may change in temperature, mass, and so forth, but at a minimum, the atoms and electrons, etc., are in different positions). So it’s wrong to speak of things as static, unchanging blocks of reality. A static noun implies an unchanging object. It’s much more accurate to discuss reality in terms of process transactions, using active verbs and avoiding the verb is and its other forms (to be, being, was, etc.).

So here we are in a whirling field of activity (of which we are a part). When we observe a part of the universe, we can never know all the details of an event because the characteristics of any event are linked to the details of every other event which are always changing, and so really, the universe is just one big, continuous, ever-changing event, never twice the same. What we perceive are objects abstracted from that event that fall within our range of frequency response.

By frequency response I mean that there is a range frequencies that are perceivable by the ear, other frequencies that are perceivable by the eye, and so forth. These naturally observable frequencies—including others like infrared that, through technology, come within our frequency response—are all we can perceive externally.

So we observe an object, a part of the whole event, and we abstract a set of details. Let’s say I’m watching tennis. Tennis is a sport that depends physically upon the sun, Earth, gravity, nuclear forces, and so forth, even though we do not think about or even perceive these factors. Instead, I focus on the ball, or the short skirts, depending on who’s playing.

The ball or skirt that I perceive is a tiny part of the entire event. The characteristics that I perceive in the ball are finite (because I can only perceive so much), but unlimited (I can always find new characteristics by looking in different ways). So what I perceive, the ball or skirt, will always contain fewer details than the actual event.

But this perception comes together inside my brain. The visual information, audio, movement and relations to surrounding factors (rackets, the net, etc.) all happen on an unspeakable, objective level. My brain compiles the information together into a workable model before I even become aware of it. And I cannot take my perception directly out of my head and place it into the head of my friend. But now that I have a workable model based on perception, I apply a label to the object of my attention; I choose to call it “ball”.

When I call it “ball”, I am applying a verbal label to this non-verbal, objective level of experience. It is the label that I communicate to my friend. But this label is just a label, a semantic tool used to signify my experience. The word “ball” stands for the assembly of perceptions in my brain. The label does not contain the same quantity or quality of information that my perception does. The label has few possible values, because “ball” is a generic term, but for my tennis example, “ball” has one value; the word signifies the actual object being hit back and forth by the players. My label leaves out all the information that I perceive when I perceive the actual ball. But now that I have a label, a means to communicate with my friend, something special happens.

I can apply labels to my experiences and attempt to describe that wordless, objective experience, and my friend can do the same. If I say, “the ball is fuzzy and purple”, my friend can think about what those words mean, or look them up if need be, and say, “actually, you lunatic, the ball is fuzzy and green. Take another look,” at which point I can test my perceptions against his at the verbal level. When I look and find that the ball is green and not purple, I have learned something. I am colourblind.

So while we cannot know reality directly, and we cannot know another’s perceptions, we can communicate with one another to compile more and more information about the experience of our fellow humans. Labels allow us to communicate, which is fundamental for human progress. Without communication, we would still be primitive instead of domesticated primates.

At the label level of life, we can have meaning. There is no such thing as meaning on the objective level of reality, and I doubt the universe as a whole has meaning. Meaning comes from language, and on that level we share reality with our friends.

If we really want to share reality, the key is clear communication. The more thoroughly we communicate our experiences, the more we are connected. This is part of the reason that clear language, proper grammar, and creativity are important to me. There is also a direct link between clear language and clear thinking. At the very least clear language is a symptom of clear thinking. But I have a hunch that clear language can lead to clear thinking. As our rational brains use language and logic to piece together our worldviews, increasing our linguistic capacities can only help the rational process.

Knowing what is communicable and how best to communicate is a key to creativity. Part of that is learning how to differentiate the real from the unreal, fact from fiction, and so forth, so that our friends can weigh our communications accurately. Semantics is essential to how we live and learn; it is how we translate our wordless experience of reality into shared experience. If we can nail down a systematic way of testing experiences against one another, we might learn how the universe operates. This is what science tries to do.

Science is based on a method of experiment and observation, a reduction of hopefully irrelevant variables, and then proper communication of the data to others for verification through further experiments. This is how we methodically tally one person’s experience with another. Through science we learn tendencies about the wordless, objective level of objects, and we can compile theories about the actual events, even the manifold of spacetime in which reality happens. Though science doesn’t prove anything 100%, the more scientific evidence there is for a theory, the more reason there is to believe it.

The goal of science is the discovery of our reality. Science is intentionally sterile to reduce the subjective variables that change so radically from person to person. If we can discover how the universe works independent of our personal experiences, we can fit our personal experiences to the truths of the universe to avoid unpleasant surprises.

In my personal experience, I can apply whatever metaphysics I want. I can believe in faeries, gods, demons, or whatever, and I can talk about them meaningfully and even use them to explain my experience, but this is not science. I might enjoy my metaphysics more than yours, but that doesn’t make them right. Even still, differing viewpoints are essential to scientific testing. The metaphysics of Ptolemy, Gallileo, Newton or Einstein helped move science forward because their metaphysics increasingly seemed to tally with the experience of others and the evidence of the day.

As science moves forward it becomes more and more sure of itself. Science continually out-modes metaphysics. That’s progress. It’s crucial that people keep posing new questions about the world as long as theories don’t get in the way of experience. Since theories can alter the power of our investigations, it’s a good idea to pause, take a breath, let the sense data register and be processed by higher abstractions, and try to see things for what they really are. Then, communicate.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. If my opinion tallies with your experiences, feel free to believe me. But you should feel free to not believe me as well. Belief might change your actions and perceptions, but not the external facts of reality.

A Belief In “Dog”

Once upon a time someone told me about “Dog”. “Dog” exists, they said. I took their word for it and had a new concept of something that exists out there called “Dog”. But sooner or later I figured out that all I really knew was that there was this word, “Dog”. How was I to know what “Dog” actually was? I needed someone to describe it to me. What are “Dog’s” qualities? How will I know “Dog” when I see it?

So they told me: “Dog” is a four-legged mammal covered in fur with big ears and a long snout, ranging from tea-cup size to nearly the size of a pony. Great, so what does “Dog” do? Well, it sleeps, eats, barks, runs, plays, sniffs, and leaves a mess on the sidewalk. By now I have a pretty solid concept of “Dog”. I should know it when I see it.

So I went looking for “Dog” and found a huge number of items that fit the description. Some of them were “Cats”, but I was able to sort those out pretty easily. Same with “Raccoons”. But some of these furry items that weren’t “Cats” or “Raccoons” didn’t really have a long snout but a rather short one. And how big is a big ear? Some of these things had huge ears and some were really small.

Someone explained to me that “Dog” comes in many different breeds and shapes. So I wondered, of all these animals, which one was “Dog”? They all are, I was told. It turned out that “Dog” didn’t refer to a single thing, but a rough human guideline that encompasses all sorts of different individual items called “Dogs”. So how do I tell one from another? Shouldn’t I call them Dog 1, Dog 2, Dog 3, and so on?

It’s handy to give them all individual names. That way when I talk about one or another, I know which one I’m talking about. But it got me thinking: does “Dog” actually exist? It turns out that no, “Dog” is not a real thing at all, but a word that describes a whole range of experiences. It reminded me once again that the words we use to describe things are much different from the things they describe.

A while after I figured out what “Dog” was, and could speak about “Dogs” in a way that made sense, someone introduced me to “Cerberus”. “Cerberus” is a three-headed guard dog from the “Underworld”. It’s confusing because I know that a “Dog” only has one head. But I also know that “Dog” does not actually exist. But now there’s this thing called “Cerberus” which is a “Dog” but has three heads? How does that work?

Well, it turns out that “Cerberus” doesn’t exist either. When I went looking for “Dog” I didn’t find “Dog”, I found dogs, each of which were individuals, very different from one another, and each of which I could reach out and touch. Well I can’t reach out and touch “Cerberus”, so it must be less real than “Dog”, right?

If “Dog” doesn’t exist, but it still means something, can’t the same be said for “Cerberus”? Then I found out that “Cerberus” does exist in mythology, in paintings, literature, and heraldry, and in each case “Cerberus” isn’t just meaningless noise, it stands for a real experience. So it doesn’t seem to have any physical reality other than the representations of it that manifest as sound (spoken words), images, and stories, but it still means something.

Every time “Cerberus” is invoked must be unique, because it is used by different people at different times for different purposes. So in a way once again there are many individual Cerberuses, each of which exist in different ways for different people. Some people probably consider “Cerberus” “bad”, and some people out there must consider it “good” (even though both of those words have no objective meaning whatsoever), but we should assume in most cases that “Cerberus” is meaningful and can have a real effect on the objective world, even if that effect only happens in our minds (F.Y.I., our minds also have no objective reality).

So how do I know if something is real? I have to use the experiences of my senses. But any kid who has watched The Matrix knows that the senses are compiled and coordinated inside the brain. Each of my eyes register a two-dimensional image on the retina. The third dimension is inferred from the relation of two two-dimensional images in my brain. Similarly with taste, “bitterness” does not exist in the world except by relation to some human tongue connected to a nervous system.

It’s interesting also that the computer I’m using to write this seems solid enough to my touch, but we have proven that it is not what it seems. It is made out of keys and a touch pad and screen and circuitry all of which are made out of molecules that are made out of atoms that are made out of protons and electrons and so on and so on. When you get down in there, it seems like the computer is mostly empty space.

“What we see is structurally only a specific statistical mass-effect of happenings on a much finer grained level. We see what we see because we miss all the finer details.” – Alfred Korzybski, Science & Sanity

So we have perceptions, and beyond them we have the unknown. We can look deeper, use tools like telescopes and microscopes and stethoscopes to find out what’s really going on, but when we look into the microscope we again are left only with a perception. The objective facts have to be inferred, and they can never be 100% proven.

How can I possibly know a thing? I can look at it from different angles, using different sense organs and nervous centers, and I can gather a mass of data about an object, but my personal, internal representation of that thing will never be the thing itself. Furthermore, I will never have absolutely all the data about that thing. There will always be something unknown. This is a fact.

Everything we think exists, exists for our nervous systems. To state that something is “real” without relating our own perception of it is inferring and speculating, a convenience which can have dangerous repercussions.

Let’s say I’ve been snacking on wild mushrooms while camping and I see a bright light inside a cave. I go inside and see something absolutely amazing, which I’ll call “Bob”. I come out of the cave and tell people all about “Bob”, how he looks, what his qualities are, what he does, and I never mention how I perceived him (where I was and when, what psychoactive chemicals were floating through my brain, etc.), people might begin to believe that “Bob” exists objectively, out there, in reality. They’ve never seen “Bob”, but they were convinced by my description and how enthusiastic I was.

Next thing you know you have a cult of Bob.

“I don’t know what anything ‘is’; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.”

- Robert Anton Wilson

 

Weekly Insanity

Good sitcom characters are likeably insane. The television industry is very careful with its money, preferring long-running franchises to succinct, original storytelling. This means that sitcoms are populated with characters who generally will not change week to week. We want to count on Diane Chambers to act intellectual, Michael Scott to be inappropriate, Sheldon Cooper to be a difficult genius, and these characters have to get into the same kinds of problems every week.

I’m using Einstein’s definition of insanity here – each week these characters do the same things but expect different results. Characters are usually coloured with at least one type of mania. Their obsessions and blind spots serve as the engine of their adventures. Real personal growth in any of these characters alters the dramatic dynamic of the show, which is why if there are any major character changes, they usually happen after the first season (often redundant characters are written out and where the dynamism is weak new ones are written in or roles shift).

In Modern Family, for example, Cam and Mitchell each are foils. Cam is full of flair and fabulousness while Mitchell is the neurotic, nervous type. Each week they are afraid of getting caught being who they are and they usually lie to avoid awkward situations. These awkward situations each week resolve in reconciliation and life goes on as usual. But each week they make the same mistakes. They never learn, never become less fabulous or nervous, things don’t get better or worse for them.

Because television needs to generate stories dependably, fictional characters need their blind spots. A conscientious character would stop getting into trouble while a slightly insane character provides more dramatic latitude, more comedic opportunity and a more consistent viewing experience.

If these characters were friends of ours we would be frustrated they keep getting into the same trouble. Unless, of course, we were stuck in a complimentary pattern of enabling.

While sitcom characters are generally unrealistic. Of course there are plenty of people in the world who do make the same mistakes every week. None of us fix all our mistakes, but some people are particularly bad. Enter reality television.

The reason shows like Jersey Shore are compelling is that they actually do feature insane people who seem to learn nothing from their experiences. They repeat mistakes ad nauseum. In fact, these people don’t seem to notice their mistakes at all. If every week you get drunk and get into a fight, I must assume it is because you want to get drunk and fight. In which case I don’t like you.

The challenge for sitcoms is to make characters insane while remaining likeable. Jack Donaughy, super-Republican of 30 Rock, pursued corporate and social domination every week but remained hilarious. By contrast Leslie Knope, political nerd of Parks and Recreation, ran out of steam after the first season and has grown consistently more erratic to keep us entertained.

Every week we can count on Sterling Archer (Archer) to get the job done while bagging girls and killing spies, and because the character is a fresh iteration of an old archetype, we don’t get bored. Reagan Brinkley from Up All Night started as an ambitious TV producer, and when she decided to stay home with her child the show fell apart, both creator Emily Spivey and star Christina Applegate left, and the show now hangs in limbo.

The insanity is just a matter of personal taste. Give me someone with my own brand of insanity and I’ll watch. If the insanity mirrors some of the mania I have in my own life, it will resonate and I’ll tune in to vicariously experience my own passions and paranoia play out every week.

Even better is to watch shows with dynamic and nuanced characters. Have you seen Breaking Bad yet?

Cinematic Ontology: “World on a Wire” vs. “The Matrix”

Ontology is the study of being, or reality as it pertains to our existence. Film is arguably the most absorbing art form for dealing with this issue. After all, films represent realities of their own. 8 1/2; Blade Runner; Solaris; Inland Empire and The Tree of Life are all masterful ontological film-essays. Film effectively orchestrates sense data to engage the mind. In this way, it’s kind of like real life.

I just had the pleasure of watching World on a Wire, recently released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection. Rainer Werner Fassbiner offers up a three-and-a-half-hour psychological detective story set in the merging realities of a dystopian future and the virtual reality it has created. This German masterpiece is Chinatown set in the world of The Matrix, though it predated both.

World on a Wire is a smooth, stylized film noir that that happens to be “science fiction”. It avoids projecting future technologies that might in time look outdated or embarrassingly naive. Here the technology is incidental; it’s the psychological journey that counts.

Fassbinder’s protagonist leads the action, and this is what makes the film great. All philosophers and scientists at some point, despite their metaphysical babble and mathematical systems, have to deal with reality through experience. Whether experience is sensuous, cerebral, or mysterious depends on the individual’s character, and character is story.

People may say that plot is story, but I would argue that plot is simply the sequence of a character’s actions and reactions. There are, after all, no stories devoid of characters.

The protagonist is the character the audience empathizes with. You can get a sense of the intended audience of a movie by looking at the protagonist. In World on a Wire, Fred Stiller is a smart, cynical guy searching for meaning. By contrast, Neo from The Matrix is a confused geek.

I remember people raving about The Matrix. Watch World on a Wire. Originality in The Matrix took the form of newly-realizable computer-cartoon effects. The ideas behind The Matrix were good enough, just unoriginal. Obviously ridicule is the only reason for me to mention Avatar. Ever.

I once saw a philosophy book based on The Matrix in which the Wachowski brothers claimed they crammed more philosophy into the movie than anybody will ever know (I’m paraphrasing; I didn’t read the book). This strikes me as the statement of someone who wants you to think they’re smarter than they are.

Don’t get me wrong, when I saw The Matrix I thought it was okay. Films made as showcases for new special effects have a way of being amusing. This is a dangerous thing. In this way, producers get kids to spend their time watching stupid nonsense. See Transformers or 300 for an example of a bunch of stupid nonsense.

Perhaps the most recent film along these lines is the remake of Total Recall. I don’t remember enjoying the original movie despite it being based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (I’m an admitted Philip K. Dick-head). By the looks of the trailer, they’ve put most of their efforts towards making the movie look like a video game. Does anybody else get the impression that, since The Matrix, the plan has been to assault our senses to distract us from the story?

World on a Wire, though made for German television in 1973, felt fresh like a true classic. It isn’t afraid to ask about reality, and its final moments roll out a beautifully enigmatic truth.

 

 

 

Real Is My Middle Name

Real is my middle name. It’s true; it’s on my birth certificate.

When I was thinking of ways to gain experience and exposure as a writer, I kept coming back to conclusion that a website and blog is probably the best way. Somehow a couple years went by and I’m just getting to it. This is a good thing, as two years ago I wasn’t writing regularly. My blog would have sat vacant like my accounts at other networking sites.

To find a market writers need a niche. If you can write the same type of book every year like most bestsellers do, you can make a good living. Obviously it helps if your niche is interesting to the majority of the public. Somehow despite knowing this, I can’t seem to specialize.

Grey areas interest me. I’m logical but I’m drawn towards ideas that lack clear definition. I like things a little fuzzy, like that point when music becomes noise (Bardo Pond), or when a film takes a weird left turn (Lost Highway).

The ultimate grey area is between the “real” and the “unreal”. I get a kick reading philosophical takes on reality, religious experiences, hallucinations, dreams, and all that fringe stuff that keeps our skepticism sharp without killing our sense of mystery.

Dictionary.com says “real” is:

1. true; not merely ostensible, nominal, or apparent: the real reason for an act.

This sounds reasonable until I tell you a real lie.

2. existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary, ideal, or fictitious: a story taken from real life.

This definition claims imagination is not real. By extension, thinking is not real and does not exist. That’s an interesting one to think about. If I think I’m thinking, do I cease to exist?

3. being an actual thing; having objective existence; not imaginary: The events you will see in the film are real and not just made up.

So you mean to tell me that non-actual things aren’t real!?

And so on. William James is rolling over in his grave. America existed as an idea before it was founded. As an idea is actualized, does it undergo grades of reality, or does it remain unreal up to a point and then—boink—it’s real? I’m curious about that boink, about that gap between the real and unreal.

Mind the Gap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can tell I also get a kick calling bullshit on things. This is my niche, if I may call it that. I’ll use that trope to discuss literature, music, movies, meditation, and anything else I can boink into words.