The Elusive Nature of Reality
Many philosophy programs lose their unserious students with the following inquiry: “How do you know that chair you are sitting on is actually there?”
I can’t do philosophy much justice, but let’s illustrate the dilemma.
We begin with the assumption that we are directly experiencing reality.
What we sense is indeed what is out there. Everyone senses the same reality that we do.
I started noticing the elusive nature of reality around the time I realized I needed glasses. What once looked like curved lamp posts appeared as a suspended firework display.
My understanding of reality began to look like this:
Not so bad, right? We roughly experience the same reality, except the details may differ a little. We can converge upon an absolute description of reality.
But with more life experience, we realize this isn’t quite right, either. We learn that reality is too vast to perceive all of it at once.
Where we place our attention defines our reality.
What was once big and scary is now friendly and familiar.
"As a species, we are caught in a unique and fateful reflective loop. We have the privilege as well as the curse of being able to reflect upon ourselves, as an object unto itself, but also through the eyes of others."
- Philip Rochat, Others in Mind
As we grow even older and become more active participants in the social fabric of reality, things get weirder still.
Our lives begin to revolve around developing a strong sense of self. We are in the business of co-constructing each other. You have to know who you are, what you value, and where you are headed. You become preoccupied by how others see you as, too.
For instance: my father and I experience the same events differently. He sees a room of people in awe and admiration of him. I see a room of people ready to laugh at my smallest misstep. Or rather, this is my own interpretation. He may have a significantly different interpretation.
Previously, we dealt with difference in observations that did not stir fear. If a painter sees the natural world differently from a carpenter, there’s not much resulting strife.
But now we are dealing with symbols. Outside of the natural world, in the human-centric world, symbols dominate.
It’s a second-order representation of reality. We observe a sequence of events, compare it to the symbols we have associated with that sequence, and then we make up our minds about how it affects us.
We double-check against these symbols to make sense of things -- ourselves and the world around us.
They are heuristics. Shortcuts. We cannot possibly know everything. There is always incomplete information. These symbols help us simplify our decision-making. String them together across time, and you’ve got yourself a narrative.
Person A: “That dog is a menace!”
Person B: “Not if you treat him well!”
Person C: “That dog is well-trained.”
Person D: “Dogs can smell fear.”
The reality we experience doesn’t seem so sure anymore. The specificity of the symbols we associate events with end up mattering more and more. Otherwise, we not only feel uncertain about the world, but uncertain about our uncertainty.
Are my fears or my biological instruments distorting my perceptions? What’s to say those same things are not distorting other people’s perceptions? Yikes!
“It’s a scribbled blue!”
“No! It’s a pastel mix of blue and red.”
“Oh yeah? Well, what’s your proof?”
“... My own two eyes!”
The thought that our reality is not quite the full picture is terrifying. It means we are never fully certain of anything (and possibly can’t ever be).
What if we are wrong? What does that say about us and our ability to trust any decision we make from there onwards?
Finding Your Dogma
"If your goal is to never make a mistake in your life, you shouldn't look for secrets. The prospect of being lonely but right - dedicating your life to something that no one else believes in - is already hard. The prospect of being lonely but wrong can be unbearable."
- Peter Thiel, Zero to One
It pays to turn a blind eye to finding evidence that disconfirms our event-symbol associations (aka beliefs). We can merely drown out any evidence of our symbols and associations being imprecise. We can tyrannize anyone who disagrees with us because the thought of considering their set of symbols terrifies us.
But in the long-term, we lose. We’ll either end up wrong in a major, existence-threatening way, or we’ll become a villain at best, or a valueless anti-hero at worst.
However, there are some things that are worth fighting for. Some truths (or conclusions) deserve more exposure and attention than they currently do. How we decide to fight for these is part of the struggle to figure out how one should live.
We need a system that is robust to such difficulties in making decisions under uncertainty.
Such a system has long been called religion
. Religion has too reverent of a connotation, so I will use dogma
Dogmas serve a few important functions:
- Provide time-tested heuristics (or rules of thumb) for making decisions under uncertainty.
- Distribute these heuristics to others so private realities have more shared, overlapping points.
Dogma provides a system for making decisions where complete information is impossible. And it provides metaphor-rich stories to communicate the motivations for these decisions. The whole point is to better allow individuals to order their world and make peace with other individuals who are also ordering their worlds.
Did Jesus actually walk or water? Was Muhammad really the last prophet of God? Does it really matter? The net effect of religious worship is ethical adherence. You gauge the viability of a dogma on its ethics, or its principles for behavior when things are not so sure. Spiritual dogmas often fail when observations about the world clash with their stories and metaphors.
Here’s another dogma: science! The scientific method is an extremely strong and rigorous heuristic for figuring out what to do and then sharing that knowledge. It operates under the assumption that more is measurably and empirically knowable than we realize. Scientific dogmas often fail when tools of measurement are treated as objective arbiters of truth.
Here’s another dogma: political partisanship! American politics navigates a large, complex socioeconomic structure. You may understand how things work in Gary, Indiana, but that may not give much insight into how things work at the scale of Indiana. If you somehow figure out how Indiana works, that doesn’t mean you understand national-scale factors. Choosing a party is a shortcut, and a valuable one at that. Political dogmas often fail when they become pure symbolic salesmanship.
One of my favorite thinkers, Ido Portal, describes his own pursuit of dogma well:
“My dogma? Movement. I will use whatever will serve it and hence will contribute to my movement development.
I am not the gymnastics guy, I am not the barbell guy, I am not the martial arts guy, the stretching guy, the meditation guy, the Capoeira guy, the acrobatics guy, etc. I don't need to protect those dogmas because I don't serve them. Not anymore. I used to....
If you are looking to improve your movement or claim to but are actually serving a different dogma- you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
I will use tools and aspects of those disciplines and others to serve my movement development and that of my students, though. Don't get me wrong - we MUST use them, but we shouldn't get caught in their 'dogma pull'. Sometimes that current is a strong one - careful!”
Choosing a Dogma
We need our dogmas, and we need to call them what they are: dogmas
. They are not infallible, as they are merely models for reality. All models are useful, but they are always wrong in some important way.
So what are some required principles for dogmas? What is the dogma of a good dogma? Philosopher James Carse pretty much wrote the book on this (Finite and Infinite Games
). I’ll briefly contextualize some of his ideas below.
- It must participate in the marketplace of dogmas.
“No one can play a game alone. One cannot be human by oneself. There is no selfhood where there is no community.”
A dogma belongs to the pot of other dogmas. This pot creates and it destroys. It brews a spicy stew of ideas merging, splitting, combining, and aligning in infinite ways.
A bad dogma seeks to destroy the stew of all other dogmas. Salafi and Wahhabi strands of Islam are bad dogmas. Social Justice Warriordom is a bad dogma.
- It must seek constantly to eat itself.
“I can explain nothing to you unless I first draw your attention to patent inadequacies in your knowledge; discontinuities in the relations between objects, or the presence of anomalies you cannot account for by any of the laws known to you. You will remain deaf to my explanations until you suspect yourself of falsehood.”
A dogma belongs to a vast ocean of change. Depending on circumstances constrained by space and time, the meaning and imagery of a dogma will change. To stay alive, it thus must allow itself to fall into obscurity as it renews and changes its outer husk.
A bad dogma seeks to remain unchanging. It wants to be the impenetrable wall against the tide of continuity.
- It must seek symbol specificity.
“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”
A dogma must cherish education as its highest value. Education differs from propaganda in that it invites questions. It embraces more and more context-relevant symbols to describe and make sense of itself in relation to reality. It learns from other dogmas. Because to be educated is to be prepared to be surprised.
A bad dogma seeks war against other symbols. Currently, the Republican Party is a bad dogma. Currently, the Democratic Party is a bad dogma.
- It must value attention.
“Storytellers do not convert their listeners; they do not move them into the territory of a superior truth. Ignoring the issue of truth and falsehood altogether, they offer only vision. Storytelling is therefore not combative; it does not succeed or fail.”
A dogma spends a lot of time on becoming a better observer. It is constantly learning how to see. In the process, a good dogma is a damn good storyteller. And yet, it is not trying to convert anyone to any way of being.
A bad dogma speaks only with a loudspeaker, drowning out all other narratives. It brutalizes its own attention. It focuses on making sense of everything before even learning how to see a single thing. Your Facebook feed is a bad dogma. Your Instagram feed is a bad dogma.
Spoiler: At some point, your dogma becomes you. Finding your dogma is finding yourself.
This isn't the brand of Finding Yourself that sounds like "I don't have to apologize for who I am!! #STRONG #INDEPENDENT"
This is much different. It requires real work. Chop chop.