One writer’s struggle with philosophical paralysis, with cognitive dissonance.
When uncertainty becomes real.
This week, contrasting a position of enlightened rationalism, with findings of our contemporary cognitive sciences, we hear Ant Biggs describe a personal struggle to come to terms with the results of a philosophical quest.
What happens when you do find your cognitive landscape undermined, or challenged; if you are to stay “true to the truth”.
When you find out that maybe you are not what you thought you were… let alone that things are not as they seem.
Where does anyone go from there, when it really sinks in?
Back to writing again then
after a bit of a road block.
Not the terrifying writer’s block that I’d thought it might be,
more a stop at the services
ultimately yes, to make money,
but the real driver is a thirst for knowledge,
a quest for truth…
I guess a scratching itch,
or picking a scab.
There is something about writing,
that not only means you are communicating your thoughts,
but that you are also forming them, at the same time,
in a two-way process,
It is not simply me putting what I think on paper.
And going public means I need to be pretty clear about what I’m saying.
I have to refine the ideas,
understand what I’m saying.
And because of that the ideas develop
on the paper.
So the writing helps my thinking, and vice versa.
What happened last time I finished an article
was that I was left in a little shock,
with an understanding,
that left me proper uncomfortable.
If I’d written this next piece straight off the bat.
I’d have been close to cheering the achievements of L. Ron Hubbard, Or Nazism..
close to proscribing some form of totalitarian cognitive mind control.
On the cusp of advocating some form of neuro-linguistic brainwashing cult.
So I was terrified of where my train of thought appeared to be leading to.
because all the last piece really did was attempt to map
my own philosophical journey,
the assumptions and discoveries,
I’d made along the way
and what I’d found up to then.
Turns out that at the end of my philosophical journey.
I’d been proven fundamentally wrong.
And I’d come within a hair’s breadth of
coming to a terrifying conclusion,
It didn’t feel right.
I had to digest it.
The trouble with this personal journey stuff
is that if you are going to stick to this idea
of your writing,
then there is no-one else to blame
if it doesn’t come out as you expected.
To set this in some sort of context,
When the idea of writing began for me, to germinate
I guess had an instinct for a philosophical question,
and an instinct that what we see and hear
and experience in this world
might be nothing more than an illusion.
And I was desperately looking for some
moral structure in the world.
Something to found the house on.
House of cards maybe,
on sand, maybe.
I’d stumbled upon the grounding problem
but had this idea about mapping my “cognitive landscape”
as a way through the crisis.
I guess at the time I might even have been able to kid myself that I knew what I was talking about.
But now looking back I’m not sure I could have defined even what I thought “the crisis” was.
I was attempting to find some sort of certainty
The search led me away from it.
But bizarrely enough
whilst I’ve seen my position
slowly dissolve before my eyes.
it has been a liberating experience,
it has felt physically good.
If we understand the purpose of philosophy
is to determine how we should live,
then I had a position as a fan of science,
rooted in the enlightenment.
I didn’t know it…
but it was pretty much part of my DNA.
I believed, as many do,
that we have the capacity to stand apart from our bodies,
that the exercise of reason,
and a basis of objective truth,
will provide philosophical or ethical answers
to the great questions we face.
An article in the Guardian
recently equated this belief system with the political left,
something that pleased me,
but at the same time disappointed with its arrogance.
We all need to learn to think in new ways.
Descartes, you’d think with “I think therefore I am”
provides enough grounding for a lifetime.
300 years at least!
That was my go to position
on consciousness, existence, the whole lot.
It is only from this the idea comes
that given the right information
our rationalism might equip us to understand the truth…
The Enlightenment specifically challenged our grounding
in God, and subjectivity,
and went in search of our objective universe…
But it demands that thinking “I”
able to observe
It demands that self the ability to control its environment,
and the body that it inhabits.
We are all products of its success.
Not separate rational beings
but bound in a world where
The scientific, rational narrative
has become real.,
Rationality has displaced God, yes,
but for many, it is only as an alternative belief system…
Gone the inquiry, and experimentation outside of its own narrow boundaries.
Instead the belief in putting man’s rationalism above his animal brain,
as posited by Spinoza,
and by extension putting man above woman, etc etc.
An ever evolving hierarchy
of turtles all the way down.
It puts man over the animal kingdom, over plants, the land, and the rivers etc etc.
Placing man’s consciousness as somehow closer to God and truth.
Saying even the biggest questions of the universe
will give up their mysteries
once we are ready for them.
It is a strange but arrogant assumption and
We should be aware of the irony.
Let’s unpack it.
Let’s say our brains are sufficiently rational to make the right decisions.
Let that sink in…
Because how do you know that?
Because if you are going to argue that something is right,
and I’m referring here to the idea that
the left is better based
to understand “truth”
because of its “belief” in Science…
that rationalism is somehow closer to an objective truth…
then all you are doing is arguing that
subjective belief is a valid basis
for all ethical judgement.
And if you do that it means all ethical judgements can be philosophically “true”,
or equally valid.
They only require someone to believe them so.
It means you are arguing for the opposition.
It’s dodgy territory,
how we end up proving that black is white,
and getting ourselves run over at the next zebra crossing…
and I’m not going to go into the depths of it here,
trying to keep this short.
But I’m going to show you the evidence,
the scientific evidence to rock the foundations.
Maybe it is unfair to point to this logical confusion.
Because yes, the scientific method, at its core
at least, attempts to remove subjectivity from its enquiry…
and it is by far the best method we have to “know” anything.
but it is a totally different thing,
to attempt to remove subjectivity from an inquiry,
and to actually do it.
And what many are now missing,
in blindly defending the validity of objective truth
so valued by our enlightened 17th Century philosophers,
is that the project
has arrived at its very own crossroads.
Science is moving on,
and getting hoist with it’s own petard,
The further we get in our search
for an objective reality,
the further it seems away.
We think of ourselves, as separate, godlike creatures.
Separate from the reality we observe.
Rationally picking and choosing,
a nice colour,
a better pair of shoes,
or between an abstract good and evil,
but as George Lakoff, maintains
Cognitive Science, for example, which first emerged in the 1950’s
has come up with a number of challenges to this world view.
Here are some of them.
The brain is embodied.
It would have no function without a body.
The body senses the world according to subconscious demands.
Our minds are not fast enough to see the world as it happens.
We project and model what we expect to see.
We communicate reality through a constructed narrative.
It is Learned by strengthening and weakening neural networks in the brain.
MRI scans show these networks functioning in the brain.
The narrative serves to protect and enable the body.
Behaviour is based on this narrative.
98% of our behaviour, if not more, is un-conscious.
Most of what we do is in the animal brain.
Our rational brain has limited to no power to control our selves.
The brain talks to the environment through the body.
To think otherwise, that the brain is a somehow independent,
privileged entity just receiving the info and processing it
is to have a distorted view of the game that it is playing.
It is not just receiving input
but it’s going out there and sampling the stuff,
under the control of all of the imperatives
that having a body implies.
Senses for example don’t just make what’s sense of simple reality.
The world is full of ambiguity.
Our brains look for supporting evidence to make sense of stuff
We actively choose where to look.
We choose which bit of the puzzle we want to see.
The cognitive sciences are beginning to reveal the extent to which we are incapable of a rationalist separation.
It was this realisation that I’d found difficult.
And by extension the way we are controlled, and might control others through language programs.
We think in terms of typically unconscious structures called ‘frames’.
These include semantic roles,
relations between roles,
and relations to other frames.
Think of a hospital.
in the brain,
with its relationships and roles and links to other frames
includes: Doctor, Nurse, Patient, Visitor, Receptionist, Operating Room,
Recovery Room, Scalpel, etc.
And specifications of what happens in there,
the relations between the roles.
Doctors operate on Patients in Operating Rooms with Scalpels etc
These structures are physically realized in neural circuits in the brain.
All sparking off in regular patterns, linking with others…
All of our knowledge makes use of frames,
and every word is defined through the frames it triggers.
As I speak Doctor, so my framing fires,
and as you hear it so the same for you.
All thinking and talking involves ‘framing’.
And since frames come in systems,
a single word typically activates not only its defining frame,
but also much of the system its defining frame is in.
More than that,
many frame-circuits have direct connections
to the emotional regions of the brain.
Emotions are an inescapable part of normal thought.
You cannot be rational without emotions.
Emotion provides meaning.
you would not know what to want,
since like and not-like would be meaningless to you.
And when there is neither like or not-like,
nor any empathetic judgment of the
emotional reactions of others,
you cannot make rational decisions.
Where does that leave the enlightenment search
for the objective?
After the last episode
I had been excited to open up
about how we think in metaphor,
about the effect our use of language
has on those metaphors,
about how its all bound up with the way we behave…
and about how we can change our minds with careful programming.
The logic was this
Since political ideologies are, of course,
characterized by systems of frames,
ideological language will activate that ideological system.
It might be a single word or an entire concept.
But synapses in neural circuits are made stronger
the more they are activated,
the repetition of ideological language strengthens
the circuits for that ideology in a hearer’s brain.
Essentially the louder you shout, the stronger they get.In short, you cannot avoid framing.
It is happening now and we are all products of it.
The only question is,
whose frames are being activated
and hence strengthened
in the brains of the public.
I was ready to launch some form of neuro-linguistic program that would ensure it was mine!
I wanted it to be mine.
Trouble is Scientology has that kind of thing pretty much wrapped up for now.
But luckily as I said…
It didn’t feel right.
And while we might now subconsciously know
that we might have fallen from our near godlike status
to become nothing but
simple and vulnerable robots,
there is at least liberation
in our common ground.
Some comfort in knowing we are all alike in this,
and perhaps some ethical grounding in that..
And that does feel better.
I’ve gone over, apologies but can’t help myself.
Any questions, insights or comments pop by
I look forward to the conversation. And I think next week
Spinoza… Wow! Spinoza.
Today’s image – Georges Seurat‘s 1886-1887 The Bridge at Courbevoie. Copied and enlarged by Op Artist Bridget Riley, it had a powerful influence on her approach to painting.