foliumnondefluet: (Default)
I think a lot has been said about the reality of fiction, but not so much about the fiction of reality. I may have mentioned before that I believe "reality is fictional", but I should probably qualify what I mean by that. When I say "fiction" I do not mean it in the sense of "the opposite of real" but rather, an imaginatively created, made-up story. What I mean with reality is what is true and has meaning.

I do not propose to deny the existence of a physical reality. But a lot of what we tend to think of as hard physical facts are for the most part based on abstractions that do not *actually* correspond to anything that has concrete existence. For example, when I say "according to the wall thermometer, the temperature in my kitchen now is 19°C", this may seem like an objective, factual, "real", and true statement. It is, in the sense that I do not lie about it. I just went into my kitchen and looked at the thermometer. But it is also largely fictional, in that almost everything in the phrase corresponds to made-up concepts that have no concrete existence, and I don’t just mean the obvious observation that temperature refers to a statistical average of molecular motion. Even the simple concept of "my kitchen" is based on at least three fictions: the space partially enclosed by walls (which themselves are mostly empty space with some agitated atoms in it), and largely cluttered by appliances is not "a kitchen" in any concrete, intrinsic sense; neither is the cluster of transient processes that I refer to as "me" a concrete existence (All phenomena, including persons, are empty of any unchanging, isolated essence because of their dependence upon a network of causes and conditions from which they cannot be separated); and the "kitchen" belongs to "me" only in the context of an elaborate set of made-up social conventions.

It has behavioural implications also: if someone says something that they don't mean to be nasty, but I read it as nasty, is it nasty or not? It has no inherent value of nastiness. But I have perceived it as being nasty, so it is. Also, they have perceived it as being not nasty, so it isn't. There's only nasty-to-me and nasty-to-them, no inherent property that one can verify with one's senses. I think getting along with someone is in a large part a question of willingness to synchronise your story with the other person's story. If they say they didn't mean to be nasty, you can integrate that in your story, even though you were hurt by what they did. Or if something is a big deal to them, you can try to see what makes it so important even though it might not be a big deal to you...

What I’m saying is that "physical reality" is devoid of truth and meaning. If I remove all the made-up fictionalization of my statement, I remove all meaning from it at the same time. Point x in space at time t has a temperature of T – this doesn’t *mean* anything. So how can it be true, how can it be real? Only by "fictionalizing" can facts acquire truth and meaning. "It’s freezing outside but I’m cozy" is not fact. It’s a story. It therefore has meaning. Insofar as I am able to tell it well, its truth and meaning would be all the stronger and more poignant.

A winter morning,
A lone rimed rose,
I long for hot tea.

Another way to look at it is through the relation of "reality" to time – not ask "what is real" but "when is real". The past exists only as history – story. We can only relate to the past through story, accounts fictionalized of necessity, if only by limited scope and viewpoint. The future exists only as a dream, a promise… a fiction. The only "reality" we can experience is the infinitely fine edge between past and future. And by the time you’ve seen it, it’s gone already. People sometimes refer to "consensus reality", but the reality about which a consensus exists already belongs to the past.

Almost everything of meaning is fictional; faith, hope, love… Chemical states in our brains do not have intrinsic meaning, but the stories we make up about them do. And much of our interpersonal success seems based on finding people willing to hear our story, suspend their disbelief, and take part in it... whereas much conflict and sorrow results from not acknowledging others as having stories that are very compelling and meaningful to them.

Even if I died today, nothing "factual" of importance would change. I certainly wouldn’t be there to notice. Some made-up ownership claims would be shuffled. Anybody else would only notice my absence by referring to past memories – history, story, fiction. And it would only mean anything insofar as anyone cares about a made-up story in which my existence features in some meaningful way. If everyone forgot about that part of their stories, that would be the end of my existence; the fictional one, the one that has meaning, therefore the only one that is real.

Perhaps it is possible to look at the world without making up stories about it. One of the main tenets of Buddhism, as I understand it, is that suffering is caused by attachment to made-up stories. If we could just stop getting attached to our made-up stories about reality, or even just stop making up stories at all, we’d be forever at peace, free of joy and sorrow, pleasure and suffering… In that case I'll probably never be a good Buddhist, because I believe making stories is what humans do. Or maybe that's putting it a bit too simplisticly; the tenet is rather something along the lines that frustration arises from clinging to delusional notions about reality and thereby expecting impossible things. So our stories themselves shouldn't be a problem as long as we known them for what they are.
foliumnondefluet: (Default)
The prisoner who had lost faith in the future--his future--was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became the subject to mental and physical decay...
Regarding our "provisional existence" as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp's difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence...
Yet in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge.
One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.
Any attempt at fighting the camp's psychopathological influence on the prisoner... had to aim at giving him a future goal to which he could look forward.
(Viktor Frankl)
foliumnondefluet: (Default)
In the context of my speech to an organisation of secular humanists, I got to thinking about the way our mainstream culture is heading, and about Aristotle's idea that virtue is the mean between two vices.

On the one hand, a regressive, nostalgic traditionalism that focuses on the past can lead to fundamentalism and fascism. On the other hand, a progressivism that rejects the past can lead to utopian jacobinism. Yet in practice, the mean between the two extremes doesn't seem to be a virtuous middle road, but rather a stagnant, degenerate bourgeois capitalism of bread and circuses. Perhaps we are on the verge of a Renaissance, wherein these opposites will be transcended.
It does seem that the Enlightenment idea of Progress has lost its steam, mostly giving way to a depressing nihilism and pessimistic view on the future, wherein greed and craven self-interest seems to be the extent of our collective cultural aspirations.

Obviously, many people reject greed as the primary motivation of their lives. Aside from from the violent reactions of fundamentalists against the soullessness of capitalism, we can also infer a collective aspiration for a framework of transcendent meaning from a steady interest in pre-modern trends, ranging from Asian religions, martial arts, the gothic revival, alternative medicine, fantasy literature, piercings, tattoos, raves, gangs, internet tribalism, and other such "barbaric" practices by which people distance themselves psychologically from the bourgeois mindset. So far however, there doesn't seem to be one culture-wide vision for where we should be going. Many people still find meaning in their lives, but because current society offers no compelling framework to support meaning, mostly this occurs in a relatively isolated, fragmented and individualistic way. I think this represent some danger, as a widespread need for meaning could easily be filled by some variation of fascism (which may already be happening in some parts of the West).

Where do you think we are heading, as a culture?
foliumnondefluet: (Default)
I was reading Stephenson's "The Art of Writing" and wanted to copy this passage for future reference:

There are two just reasons for the choice of any way of life: the first is inbred taste in the chooser; the second
some high utility in the industry selected. Literature, like any other art, is singularly interesting to the artist;
and, in a degree peculiar to itself among the arts, it is useful to mankind. These are the sufficient justifications
for any young man or woman who adopts it as the business of his life. I shall not say much about the wages.
A writer can live by his writing. If not so luxuriously as by other trades, then less luxuriously. The nature of
the work he does all day will more affect his happiness than the quality of his dinner at night. Whatever be
your calling, and however much it brings you in the year, you could still, you know, get more by cheating.
We all suffer ourselves to be too much concerned about a little poverty; but such considerations should not
move us in the choice of that which is to be the business and justification of so great a portion of our lives;
and like the missionary, the patriot, or the philosopher, we should all choose that poor and brave career in
which we can do the most and best for mankind. Now Nature, faithfully followed, proves herself a careful
mother. A lad, for some liking to the jingle of words, betakes himself to letters for his life; by−and−by, when
he learns more gravity, he finds that he has chosen better than he knew; that if he earns little, he is earning it
amply; that if he receives a small wage, he is in a position to do considerable services; that it is in his power,
in some small measure, to protect the oppressed and to defend the truth. So kindly is the world arranged, such
great profit may arise from a small degree of human reliance on oneself, and such, in particular, is the happy
star of this trade of writing, that it should combine pleasure and profit to both parties, and be at once
agreeable, like fiddling, and useful, like good preaching.
foliumnondefluet: (Default)
Something I dug up from

In our world we have separated mind from body to our great loss. Here a man may betray his wife and neglect his children, but say he loves them “down inside”.

Bullshit. There is no “down inside.” Love is something you do, not something you feel.

Likewise, we think having faith means being convinced God exists in the same way we are convinced a chair exists. People who cannot be completely convinced of God's existence think faith is impossible for them.

Not so. People who doubt can have great faith because faith is something you do, not something you believe. In fact, the greater your doubt the more heroic your faith.

I learned that it doesn't matter in the least that I be convinced of God's existence. Whether or not God exists is none of my business, really. What do I know of existence? I don't even know how the VCR works.

What does matter is whether or not I am faithful. I think faithful is a hell of a good word. It still has some of its original shine. It still calls us to action.

It has been said (but now I don't remember by whom) that belief and faith are opposites. The believer will unshakably cling to an idea, convinced with a certainty beyond question even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Belief gives one the strength of knowing all the answers. To have faith is something else entirely. Credulitas versus Fides. A "leap of faith" is not about certainty, but about how we act in the face of the deepest uncertainty. To have faith is to act as though life and the universe have meaning even when we doubt whether it is really so.

I haven't much in the way of beliefs, but I do have a little faith in this world.


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June 2015

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