Dry November: Day 29

November 30, 2019

And death shall have no dominion. A productive day, 320 pages read out of 413, and everything else more-or-less done. A friend’s raucous fortieth, I stayed on the soda and lime.

The best conversation was also the worst, about whether there’s any point in saying that there is an objective reality at all, or whether even the barest of facts, turn out, on inspection, to be interpretations, interpolations. I’m coming down on the side that there cannot be anything usefully described as objective reality, that we cannot inspect without interpretation, without the lens of the senses, which evolved not for objectivity but for survival. And certainly we can know little or nothing without trusting others.

But I still argue that this lack of any hard reality upon which to balance our beliefs does not mean that therefore everything is subjective. It’s more like everything that matters exists in an intersubjective space, a social level which requires some consensus, and ideally, which will also provoke and absorb critiques of itself without violence. No one individual can have much apprehension of anything like “reality.”

This got a bit hot when the topic turned to famine, as proof that there is a real world, and that denying “reality” has consequences. But when a famine occurs, presumably because of some belief, what “reality” was denied? Only a different kind of social belief. I definitely was not saying that there are no consequences to this; just that even a famine, or the causes of a famine, consists in consensus. Leaving aside causality, and whether any single belief could be said to have “caused” a famine, there is the question of what a famine is. No single person can “see” a famine, because it’s a social concept. Just look at how wildly famine statistics vary to see what I mean.

I am saying that even something like a famine — or something less charged, like whether the earth is round — depends more on consensus, and the senses of others, than it does on our own direct apprehension of reality. And I’d take it further, and say that there is no reality, to which we have access, that doesn’t also involve human concepts, which are an interpretive layer.

Again, this does not mean that all subjective views are equally worthwhile. It just means that we are more-or-less the blind leading the blind. The answer is not “anything goes” but rather that we must be even more assiduous, and better at coordinating than we already are, because of how easily we, individually, are misguided.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.