Tagobjective reality

Truth is a Fad

On a recent trip to downtown Vancouver, my wife and I popped into Christ Church Cathedral on the corner of Georgia and Burrard.  I find it hard to resist a cathedral and always try the doors to see if I can get a look inside.  The door was unlocked and a pleasant woman offered to answer our questions.  I asked about the beautiful interior and she was delighted to tell us about the recent renovations.  There was even a photo album.

The original church was filled with local cedar, but in a previous renovation, the original wood had been covered.  The red cedar ceiling had been covered by fiber-board.  It was the same story with the floor.  With this new renovation, the foul fiber-board and hideous carpeting had been removed and the original red and yellow cedar, covered up for decades is once again gracing parishioners and visitors with its beauty.

Why had the natural wood of the ceiling and floor been covered in the previous renovation?  It seems preposterous that anyone could think that fiber-board and carpeting were an improvement on the natural cedar, but they apparently did.

Changing Fashions, Changing Ideas

This got me thinking about change, more specifically, changing tastes.  It’s a truism that fashions change, but they don’t just change; they change radically–what is all the rage in one time, is hideous and vile in another age.  This is true whether we are talking about clothing, church interiors or ideas.

The second truism is that we are completely aware of the first truism.  We are somehow convinced that the way we think at the present moment is, at long last, the end of changing “truth”–with today’s thinking, we have arrived.

Previous generations had it wrong, but we have figured it out.  As dumb as it seems now, there was a time when it was generally thought that wood ought to be covered by synthetic materials, and in fifty years the congregation will likely vote to cover the wood with synthetic polar bear fur.  So goes fashion.  So also go our ideas.

The Fashion of Truth

I look at some of the ideas that are spreading throughout culture, replacing the old ones, and I think they are beautiful changes.  Others are more like ghastly fiberboard and anemic pink carpeting obscuring beautiful red and yellow cedar.   And we take these new ways of thinking as absolute truth.  Consequently, in our conversations and disagreements, we condemn those with whom we disagree as bigots and freaks and ogres.  Given that our most recent truth is just a phase, perhaps we ought to be a little less certain about everything–a little less venomous.

In our conversations and disagreements we must remember that the way we think today, is a fad. Consequently, we ought to be a little less certain about everything--a little less venomous.

Doomed to Relativism?

I believe that there is something under the intellectual fads and whims of our culture that never changes.  Core ideas like courage is better than cowardice and it’s evil to harm a child for one’s own pleasure and the ocean is sublime.

Just because it’s new and in fashion, doesn’t mean it’s objectively true.  I say objectively because, although I’m not entirely sure which ideas are cedar and which are fiber-board, I firmly believe that there is an objective truth.  We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, we will continue to believe that we create our own reality, but I hope at some point we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.  And rip up the pasty carpet to expose the rich wood beneath.

We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, but at some point, we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.

Why read 1984?

1984 may be the most important novel for our time.

I feel vindicated.

I have been asked countless times, “Do you still teach that?  I read it when I was in school.”  This past week George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, topped Amazon’s bestseller list.  There is so much that recommends it.  One of the reasons everyone should read Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it is a relevant warning.  It is so masterfully articulated that the terms Orwellian, Big Brother and double-think evoke and almost visceral response in those who’ve read it.  Consequently, these terms are powerful weapons against the abuse of power.

This week, Kellyanne Conway was accused of double-think when she used the phrase “alternative facts” in defence of President Trump’s press secretary’s assertion that 500 000 is greater than 1.8 million.

We have entered an age where doublethink is possible #Orwell #1984 #alternativefacts
One of the reasons I am so committed to teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four every year, is to explore with students the necessary conditions that make double-think possible.  These conditions are, apparently, present in our “post truth” culture right now–as is evidenced by the phrase, “alternative fact.”

What are these conditions?

[Spoiler Alert]

One of the main ones is articulated by O’Brian in Part 3 of the novel.  O’Brian’s task is to “cure” Winston from his mistaken view of reality.  Winston’s error?  A belief in objective reality.  In a very early session, Winston objects to O’Brian’s assertion that “we, The Party, control . . . all memories.”  Winston challenges, “It is outside oneself.  How can you control memory?”  Winston is appealing to the existence of an external reality.  O’Brian counters,

But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external.  Reality exists in the human mind and no where else.  Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes . . . only in the mind of the Party.  . . .  Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is the truth.”

(Sound familiar?)

Winston has a hard time understanding this; he argues that the Party doesn’t control the climate or gravity.  O’Brian’s response:

We control matter, because we control the mind.  Reality is inside the skull. . . .  There is nothing we could not do.  Invisibility, levitation–anything.  I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to.  . . .   You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature.  We make the laws of Nature.

O’Brian is simply saying that reality or truth is defined by human minds, it is not a thing in itself.   Consequently, if one controls human minds, then one controls reality.

If truth and reality are defined by human minds, then one need only control human minds to determine truth and control reality. #1984 #Orwell
For this conclusion to be true, O’Brian’s first premise must be true.  Is reality defined by human minds or is Winston right, does reality or truth exist outside the skull?

Human beings have always believed that reality or truth exist outside the human–the Ancient Greeks called it the kosmos, Taoists and Buddhists think of it as a transcendent truth, the Jews and Muslims understand it to be in a transcendent God, Christians find it in the person of Jesus Christ  (this is another majority view held by all religions).

Recently, within the last 150 years or so, something changed in our culture–in the West.  We broke with the rest of humanity and began to consider the possibility that the universe might be made up of just material.  This meant that there is no God or gods or transcendent truth.  Objective reality had not place to live but in matter.

All this has lead to a different way of talking about truth.  Truth and fact used to mean different things.  You used to be able to call all sorts of things true, not just things like,

  • water is made up of two hydrogen and one oxygen atom
  • the Battle of Hastings was in 1066
  • 2+2=4

but sentiments could also fall under the heading of “truth”:

  • the waterfall is sublime
  • the Parthenon is beautiful
  • courage is better than cowardice

In a world of only matter, truth is reduced to fact.  The rest of what used to be truth has to find a different place to live–it did.  It took up residence in individual human minds.  The truths in the second list are now “just” opinions–or are said to be merely subjective.

We’ve been going along quite happily so far with our separation of fact and opinion, but it couldn’t last.  As Orwell warned, without an external objective reality, rational facts will eventually go the way of rational sentiments.  If the truth is in the mind, then the, so called, facts have no more chance than did true sentiments.  This is how O’Brian can state with confidence that 2+2=5 if Big Brother says it does.

This is what happened this past week on Meet The Press.  It was officially declared by a representative of the President of the United States of America that 500 000 was greater than 1.8 million.

When we separated the mind from the world outside the mind, the first casualty was the loss of true sentiments, but it was only a matter of time till the facts themselves fell victim to the denial of objective reality.

The only way to get back to reality is to recover the pre-modern idea of objective truth. Objective truth, not only links reason to reality, but grounds sentiment as well. This is expressed in The Abolition of Man, where C. S. Lewis argues that emotions are not “in themselves contrary to reason” (19).   Some sentiments are reasonable or unreasonable only as they conform, or fail to conform, to something else–to some external standard.  He said that “a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can only lead to ruin” for it “has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship” (“Poison” 80-81).

It is appropriate to be alarmed by the “double-speak” coming from the White House this past week, but we oughtn’t be surprised–Orwell warned us in Nineteen Eighty-Four that this was coming.  It has apparently arrived.

There’s Meaning in the Mug

Coffee 1Do you choose to drink your morning coffee out of a Styrofoam cup?

To cure the feeling that are lives are in some ways “flattened” we need a dose of objective Reality.

We have this idea that meaning is in the mind–the individual mind. The logic being: It has to be, because it can’t be anywhere else. We start with this assumption and are forced to the conclusion. But what if the assumption is all wrong.

The Greeks used to think meaning was external–in creation–in the logos. Judeo-Christianity also taught that meaning was external–it’s source in the transcendent God. In the recent past, we made a couple of optional turns in our thinking and end up assuming that meaning lies within us as individuals–meaning, indeed reality, is subjective–this is subjectivism.

It’s as hard to disprove this foundational assumption as it is to prove it, but we can look at where this view takes us in the end, and perhaps draw some conclusions.

Do you choose to drink your morning coffee our of a Styrofoam cup?  I don’t know anyone who would. The coffee itself doesn’t taste any different, but the experience is, for some reason, inferior. It sucks to drink coffee out of Styrofoam. My grandfather, it is said, refused to drink coffee out of a clear-class cup–I’m with him, but glass is better than the paper cups we get from Starbucks and nothing is as good as a ceramic one. This may be a universal experience.

I think tea drinkers are even more aware of this principle–the mug matters.

There is meaning in the mug.

I don’t subjectively decide one vessel is superior to the other for the consumption of hot beverages, it’s an objective truth and it lies in the mug itself. These objective qualities that make one mug superior to another is not simply a matter of practical considerations, although these are important; if the vessel it too large, or the walls too thin, the beverage will cool too quickly. There is inherent value in the mug itself that most enhances the consumption of its contents. This has to do with blending of a host of qualities, not the least of which is tactile.  That point at which its physicality encounters my own.  A mug is more than a mug, the physical thing, in the same way, although perhaps to a lesser degree, that I am more than a physical thing.

Perhaps the mug is magic?

If the mug is just a mug, then the drinker is just a drinker. When we devalue the world of objects, we also devalue ourselves.

When the world is flattened, we become flattened.

If you sense that you are more than a resource, than a thing that has value only for its utility, then perhaps you are in no immediate danger of the modern malaise.  If you want immunity, start by seeing the inherent value in your coffee cup.

So part of the cure for the modern malaise is the recovery of objective reality.

Read a related post here.  It’s about onions.

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