If you’re aware that there is a school of philosophy that rigidly separates “real” things from men’s experiences of them, you’re a rare individual, and I commend you. If you’re aware that the promotion of that dichotomy has engendered some of the fiercest disputes in the history of philosophy, you’re an even rarer individual, and I salute you. Finally, if you managed to grasp Phaedrus’s difficulties in coping with the concept of quality, and understand how it can be harmonized with Ayn Rand’s fictional defense of Aristotelianism, you’re among the rarest of the rare, and I applaud you.
(Yes, I’m sure you’re aware that your Curmudgeon is a long-winded bastard who spends too much of his time reading the effusions of other long-winded bastards. Hey, we all have our little flaws.)
Many a writer has brushed his thoughts over the question What is real? Few have coped with it successfully. Writers on the nature of perception have struggled to link it solidly to “real” things and events…and have usually failed. Writers who’ve concentrated on the inner workings of the mind have often stumbled into Plato’s Cave and failed to find the way out. Finally, there are writers like Douglas Hofstadter and your humble Curmudgeon, who muddle the mess with a big spoon – don’t stir, fold! – in the hope that their readers will like the flavor.
I once knew a very bright man – there were no flies on this guy; he had doctorates in both Physics and Theology – who contended quite seriously that all knowledge is illusory. His reasoning? Knowledge cannot be separated from perception, and our interpretations of what we perceive are irremediably “theory-laden.” When I pressed him for an explication, he merely smiled and moved away.
Are you feeling all right, Gentle Reader? Perhaps you sense a headache coming on? A glimpse down the road to solipsism can do that to anyone.
What is real? The question is basic…and ultimately irrelevant to human life. The world – whatever that is – provides a stream of data we apprehend through our several senses; we struggle to “make sense” of that data stream; we reach conclusions about it; and we act accordingly. Our nature as “project pursuers” (Loren Lomasky) dictates all of that and our reactions to it. Those who fail to steer the process into a sufficient degree of correspondence to reality – whatever that is – are generally classified as insane, and housed in pleasant institutions where the harm they can do to themselves or others is minimized.
That’s life, Bubba! It’s The Algorithm we all execute continuously:
- Select a technique that you think will get you what you think you want.
- Will this technique require you to lose body parts, go to jail, or burn in Hell?
- If so, return to step 1.
- If not, proceed to step 3.
- Do a little of it.
- Are you at your goal, approaching it, or receding from it?
- If at your goal, stop.
- If approaching, return to step 3.
- If receding, return to step 1.
Iterate until dead.
(If you can hear, far off in the distance, Alan Turing muttering “But does it halt?” congratulations. Some think it will, others think it won’t, but at some point we’re no longer around to quibble about it.)
That’s how people work, reduced to the bare elements. It’s not how beavers work. Beavers do what they do from instincts and drives built into their flesh. They don’t select among priorities or paths toward them. They don’t question the probable consequences of their projects. Above all, they don’t abstract.
That’s our blessing and our curse.
You’ve probably been wondering what bizarre events have me following the line of thought above. As it happens, this is a recurring line of thought for me. This morning it took the wheel owing to a stunning essay by N. S. Lyons. Therein the author discourses on two of my favorite writers – J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis – as predictors of a possible anti-human dystopia:
Which dystopian writer saw it all coming? Of all the famous authors of the 20th century who crafted worlds meant as warnings, who has proved most prophetic about the afflictions of the 21st? George Orwell? Aldous Huxley? Kurt Vonnegut? Ray Bradbury? Each of these, among others, have proved far too disturbingly prescient about many aspects of our present, as far as I’m concerned. But it could be that none of them were quite as far-sighted as the fairytale spinners.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, fast friends and fellow members of the Inklings – the famous club of pioneering fantasy writers at Oxford in the 1930s and 40s – are not typically thought of as “dystopian” authors. They certainly never claimed the title. After all, they wrote tales of fantastical adventure, heroism, and mythology that have delighted children and adults ever since, not prophecies of boots stamping on human faces forever. And yet, their stories and non-fiction essays contain warnings that might have struck more surely to the heart of our emerging 21st century dystopia than any other.
Talk about having encountered a kindred spirit! Lyons’s observations are both piercing and terrifying, for both Lewis and Tolkien wrote from a sense of mission: an inner foreboding about the dark possibilities that loom before us and what might be done to head them off. While his essay is long, it will amply reward your attention. It will also give you a new appreciation for Lewis and Tolkien not as mere storytellers but as seers, moral philosophers, and guides.
Lyons’s essay came to my attention through a shorter piece by Francis X. Maier:
Every so often an article appears that demands to be shared. So I’m doing that here. If you do nothing else in the coming week, read N.S. Lyons’s recent essay on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and technocracy at his Substack site, The Upheaval. It’s worth every minute of your time.
And note that the name “Lyons” is a pseudonym. In real life, the author is an analyst working in the U.S. foreign policy community. The Upheaval is not a religious site; it covers a wide range of global topics. But Lyons’s skills go well beyond the mechanics of foreign policy.
If you value a human future, you’d do well to read both pieces – preferably Lyons’s essay first – and give them your soberest consideration.
Now, concerning the unusually obscure title of this unusually obscure piece: every man lives in three different realms, depending on the degree of abstraction he indulges at any moment:
- The Triad: The three-part world of subject, object, and our thoughts and emotions about them;
- The Dyad: The two-part world of external things and our perception of them;
- The Monad: The integrated, entirely unabstracted gestalt we conventionally call reality.
Grasping the qualities of and the contrasts among those three realms compels an acceptance that only a mind that’s both capable of abstraction and capable of eschewing it can achieve. There is no clash among them; each is as necessary and valid as the others. We cannot validly dismiss any of the three, all of which pre-exist our opinions and reasoning about them, as unreal.
Our thoughts and emotions are real.
Our perceptions are real.
The world is real.
If not, then nothing is or can ever be. “Theory” has nothing to do with it.
If the above hasn’t tired you out, refer to Godel, Escher, Bach, specifically Birthday Cantatatata, the dialogue between Achilles and the Tortoise about Achilles’s birthday. Can you spot the escape hatch now? For extra credit, read Robert Nozick’s discourse in Philosophical Explanations on treating the word thing as a verb.