Language and Reality

It often sounds to me as if there is a disconnect between the sciences and critical theory, and I think that much of this can be attributed to how scientists and critical theorists view language. Scientists often think of language as a poor substitute for reality, while critical theorists view language as the only means through which we know reality. These are such vastly different points of view that dialogues between scientists and critical theorists often fail because while they are using the same words, such as reality, they have two very different things in mind.

From the structuralists onwards, language has taken a place of primary importance in the world of critical theorists. Language forms our experience of ourselves and the world, and is thus the vehicle by which we experience the world. When I read articles by critical theorists, and they are speaking of reality, it feels to me like they are speaking of this reality created by language – the reality of the subjective and objective mixed together to form a network of words that encompasses all we can express. Within this context, it makes sense that they are interested in identities that cannot be spoken of, forbidden dialogues, and overarching narratives. These are how they think all humans construct reality.

Scientists, at least in my experience, have a much different relationship with words. Richard Feynman summarized this point of view best when he tells a story about his father. His father told him the word for “bird” in several languages, oiseau in French, pajaro in Spanish, and vogel in Dutch. Feynman’s father asked him if he now knew anything about birds because he knew more words for it, upon which the young Feynman realized words do not constitute reality. This seems like the viewpoint of most scientists. Words are messy, clumsy, awkward constructs that do not capture reality in any meaningful way, but they are necessities of human communication. For scientists, mathematics captures reality much more accurately, but it is still imprecise and filled with error.

This is the fundamental difference – critical theorists believe that words and symbols not only represent, but in fact create reality. Scientists, on the other hand, believe that words and symbols poorly represent reality at best, and that to mistake the word for the objective fact is to commit a serious error. This has led to many misunderstandings on both sides, particularly when critical theory tries to analyze science. Such analysis rely on the words scientists use, and often assume that scientists are using words naively while supporting a larger narrative structure; however, scientists mostly use words operatively. The assumption is that words are a poor way to capture reality, so they assign a word to operate as a place holder, and while that word might draw the attention of a critical theorist, a fellow scientists will likely treat the specific word as having very little meaning.

This also leads to very different attitudes towards political activism, which critical theorists and those influenced by it concentrating efforts on the change of language as a means of social progress. For many scientists, it does not matter what the issue is called, but whether or not there are real behaviors and policies in place for the change to occur. Both points of view make valid points, but both can also generate problems when taken dogmatically. To assert that language completely constructs reality is to lose touch with the blunt facts of our existence which even the most hardened critical theorist takes for granted, while to assert that language has no role in shaping our view of reality is to be blinded to the social and psychological harm generated by social narratives.

The Cul-de-Sac of Postmodernism

I didn't know it, but I was born into a time without a center, uprooted and in flux. In many ways I think my own trajectory recapitulates (to bastardize the Haeckel's phrase) the historical trajectory of Western thought. I grew up religious, and I was as sincere a believer as I think one can be. I was born with asthma so bad that I was regularly hospitalized and more than once my mother was warned that I might not survive the night, but my belief in a creative and intelligent design filled me with such comfort that I found it impossible to be afraid. There was a plan. Whatever happened was part of it, and thus good. I wonder sometimes if this wasn't how medieval people felt for a thousand years, despite the horrors that they often endured. But just as the medieval period came to a close with the Renaissance as a new generation began to value personal experience, reason, and logic, my own love of science fractured my relationship with my childhood beliefs and led me down the path of reason. 

For me, this led to a decade long reassessment of my relationship to religion and belief until I landed firmly in a materialist philosophy. I have to say, I feel that a decade is very good compared to the three or four hundred that it took Western philosophy to move from the Renaissance to the culmination of the Age of Enlightenment. And I think that I took Enlightenment values to heart: reason as a guide for making decisions, constitutional government and individual rights as a basis for organizing society, education for all, and most of all a sense of progress. John Amos Comenius, an early Enlightenment Moravian (or Czech now), is a personal hero of mine. He laid the groundwork for the modern educational system, and he was the first to promote universal education.

The Enlightenment was over long before I was born (the French Revolution in 1789 is often used as a marker for its end), and I grew up in a modern and postmodern world. Modernism grew out of disillusionment following the horrors of the First World War, and then was firmly locked in after we repeated the whole thing with the Second World War. Modernism retreated from universal values, and especially from a sense of progress. Artists and philosophers moved towards irony and absurdity to express their feeling of losing value, and Nietzche summarized what was left when you took away universal values and the idea of progress - the will to power. Born in in the latter quarter of the 20th century, I can see that I integrated modernist sensibilities from birth. I love irony, tend towards the absurd in my humor. Modernists loved to turn old values upside down, dash tradition to pieces, and try something brand new to world, and I love all of this. But for me, it's not a belief system, rather a way of approaching the world - an attitude. The problem for many modernists was that this pretty much summarized their viewpoints as well, and they were unable to come up with a coherent belief system to guide social action.

Finally, the postmodernists (Derrida's speech in 1965 to Johns Hopkins is a handy marker for the movement's beginning) were able to articulate what the modernists had been trying to express in their minimalist music, happenings, and abstract art. Postmodernism is the era I was born into, and while the name has changed frequently (deconstructionism, structuralism, posthumanism, cyborgism), I think that its permeation of our culture is too deep to ignore. I take its claims seriously, and I think they inform many of my decisions, yet in the end, it feels difficult to move forward without resorting to the old Enlightenment values that started it all, and I wonder if there is some way to blend the two into a stronger philosophy (cyborgists should love that - but they probably won't). 

Postmodern articulated the feelings of the modernists around two keys tenets - there is no center, and people like power. A million ramifications flow from these two statements, and there is no way I can do it justice or pretend that I understand it all. But the fundamental idea isn't complex. If there is no objective truth and no universal values, then there are only preferred truths and values. Why prefer one truth or value system over another? Power. Look behind any belief system, and you will find the tendrils of power, oppressing some and privileging other. And who can deny these claims? Even a single reading of Howard Zinn's "A People's History" or Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" should be sufficient to convince a person that privilege and power are constantly operating throughout society. The idea is horrific to me not just for the perpetuation of injustice, but also its inherently bleak take on humanity.

The human posited by postmodernists is a character from Kafka, navigating mazes of power, sometimes attaining enough agency to rebel against the current power structure, only to replace it with another one just as oppressive. The philosopher Simon Thorpe has denied this terrifying end point and argued that postmodernism can lead to revolution through interconnected grass roots movements to promote new power structures that are equal and just. But honestly, that doesn't give me much hope. For me, the postmodern world that I inhabit now feels like it's necessary to entertain fifty contradictory elements at once. I still believe the Enlightenment values of universal education, constitutional government, and reason as a tool to guide decisions, and although postmodernism correctly points out deep fundamental cracks in these ideas, what else is left? How can we make decisions as a group without reason and objective scientific truth? Is climate change a fiction? Is education? Can we agree on fundamental human rights, or is each one hiding a power grab? The postmodern viewpoint doesn't feel like it gives me any tools to build, only tools to tear down. It doesn't feel like it gives me faith in another person's charity and humanity, only a sense of suspicion of their motives. Postmodernism offers no clues as to how progress can be made because it doesn't believe in the idea of progress, only the reorganization of power structures. 

I wish I knew of some way forward, but I don't. Philosophically, I feel that we have backed ourselves into a cul-de-sac. Maybe it's possible to reinvigorate the old Enlightenment values that gave rise to the first schools, the first encyclopedias, the first hospitals, and Declaration of Independence. To dust off our belief in self-determination, the dignity of humans, and progress while still keeping our eyes open for injustice. Or have we reached the point where it just seems like an absurd hope?

Is it possible to have the heart of Voltaire and the eyes of Foucault?

Symbols of the Self

I have finished up some of my reading on Dewey, and while he does not write about the creation of the self, he does write about our use of symbols, which led me to reflect on the creation of the self. According to Dewey (and there is always a caveat in my writing that I misunderstood him), symbols are internal representations that are generated in childhood through a combination of culture and biology. I don't think he claims that these symbols are biological in origin; however, there is good evidence that the basic visual shapes are hardwired into our brains, so I'm making a leap for Dewey that he might not appreciate. Overall, he's more interested in how we manipulate the connections between these symbols and test those connections scientifically. 

It got me thinking about the symbols we use for our identity. The creation of identity is something that is well outside of my expertise, but as an educator working with a diversity of identities and as a trans-woman undergoing many fluctuations in my own identity, Dewey's theory of symbols made me wonder how we connect the symbols of our identity and test that against reality. 

Foucault wrote a lot about the creation of identity, and it's the only area in which I agree with him. Foucault seemed to believe that our conception of the self was a modern invention, and not just of the sort in which we now think of ourselves as "modern people." Probably everyone throughout history thought of themselves as modern to an extent. My interpretation of his writing is that he thinks we have changed how what our fundamental definition of subjective identity since the 17th century. Before, humans created identities by associating them with physical things (body, possessions), role in society (carpenter), or thoughts.

The modern person has switched to an historical definition of self, in which each identity has to be linked to a narrative and history. This has a couple of implications. The first is that all of our life events have to be simplified to fit within an identity narrative. The second is that all narratives and identities come with baggage, and Foucault wrote a lot about how the act of creating an identity in this manner obligates each person to pick an "in" and "out" group, creating a them and us mentality. Honestly, this is a bit dull to me.

But Foucault also said that the creation of a subjective identity in this way needed a history behind it to validate the narrative, thus leading to our modern obsession with personal and cultural histories. As history is always partially a subjective creation that can have as many interpretations as there are humans, we become stuck in an infinite loop as we create an identity, create a historical narrative to justify it, judge our identity against i, and repeat. Advertising has become adept at helping us associate these identities with products. I have to admit that Foucault seems to have a point here, in that it's very difficult to even talk about identity within our current framework without referring to an historical narrative. Even a person's career is put in terms of, "I always knew..." instead of saying something like, "I have a real talent for..." Foucault believed that when our culture changed how we define subjective identity, then the entire project of identity politics and narratives would be done, and "man would be erased, like a face drawn at the edge of the sea."

What can we do now though, in the midst a culture that defines our identity through historical narrative? How do we proceed, once we know that we have created these evanescent identities, these symbols of who we want to be and hope we are, through an alchemy of history, will, and imagination? Speaking as a teacher at a community college and as a trans-woman, I think we have to treat them as magnificent and living art - the art of ourselves. And like art, I believe that we can appreciate each person's unique creation, and celebrate those that bring us a sense of authenticity and dignity and beauty. And we can celebrate a plurality of identity instead of getting caught in the trap of the "other." 


Where is the truth?

The concept of truth may be problematic to philosophers, but I don't think it's that complicated for most scientists. In my experience, which is admittedly limited, scientists believe that there is an objective reality and that we are able to understand it. The scientists that I have spoken to about this also have a very nuanced view of how they are able to understand reality, and they fully realize that a model, whether mathematical or descriptive, doesn't fully capture reality, is prone to error, and must be continuously revised. For this to happen, scientists use evidence, and only evidence. Basically most scientists seem to have a common sense belief that we can develop models that roughly correspond to reality, and that we judge these models using evidence. 

This fundamental belief about truth and evidence guides scientific dialogue, both in peer reviewed articles but also within the community at large. Whether at scientific conferences, gathered in small journal clubs, or over beers at the local pub, the conversations that scientists engage in are focused on how a belief corresponds with reality and what evidence would justify it. Scientists are just humans, so there's certainly a fair share of ridiculous opinions, poorly informed platitudes, and blind hero worship that crops up in any social gathering, but these don't gain much purchase before they get cross-examined for evidence. It is not only socially acceptable, it is a social imperative in the scientific community, that all beliefs be questioned and justified based on evidence, rather than expert opinion, general consensus, or emotional weight. This shifts even personal dialogue away from opinion and into a discussion based on truth, something badly needed in other social arenas, particularly politics. 

Political issues are currently awash in opinion without reference to either truth or evidence. Discussion center on what each person believes, or their ideals, or their emotions, but by their nature participants in these discussions have little chance of finding common ground. There is no common ground if the issue is what I believe versus what you believe. Common ground comes from a hard discussion of our models of reality, usually called opinions, and how they are supported with evidence. This type of dialogue forces participants to cede ground when their opinion lacks evidence, and it removes many of the negative emotions associated with being wrong. Being wrong isn't stigmatized in the scientific community. In fact, it's almost celebrated. Scientists change their opinions a lot because they're not attached to being right; they're attached to understanding the truth about reality. This type of focus in the political arena would be a breathe of fresh air.

There a couple of limitations that I see to this sort of conversation taking root in the political arena. First, it would require people to be ok with being wrong and willing to change their opinion when they see evidence to the contrary. A lot of people hate this idea. Second, these types of discussions would require that participants actually pay attention to the facts. This means asking hard questions about funding limitations, embedded social structures, trade-offs, and risk evaluation. It means being honest about subjective priorities and values and their place within an evidence based discussion. Third, and perhaps the most difficult, it would require that citizens understand what constitutes evidence. This means that the anecdote and the feeling would have to be recognized as an important determiner of values, but not as a justification for a belief about reality. Rather than focusing on how people feel about issues like gun control or education, discussions would focus on real goals, limitations, and embedded trade-offs. This does not mean, of course, that feelings are unimportant. They are arguably one of the most important aspects of a political or social decision. This does not mean they are evidence. 

How can society move towards truth and evidence based discussions, without everyone returning to school for a PhD in an already glutted field? Actually, I don't think it's that daunting, if we begin to utilize this type of conversation in our daily lives. What if it becomes socially acceptable in America to question a person's social or political belief, not maliciously, but in terms of evidence. More importantly, we should begin to question our own belief systems. Are we using anecdotes to justify broad generalizations, or feelings to justify a social policy? Without this type of daily practice, and without the social acceptance for this type of questioning, how can we question our politicians? 

If you believe that there is no reality beyond a subjective social opinion, then the future is simply a bleak replacement of one social paradigm followed by another, with the face of power being the only thing that changes. But if there is an objective reality, as all but the most extreme Foucauldians believe, then our decisions regarding issues such as war, education funding, gun law, lgbtq rights, and a myriad of others, have real consequences for every member of society, giving each person a responsibility not just to themselves but to all. If reality isn't informing these decisions, if we reject evidence, then we are rushing blindly through the world, mistaking the volume of our voice for the light of truth. 


Difference as Knowledge

Temperature and motion. Two fundamental features of the physical world. Strangely, at least to me, we can only understand them relatively, or when they are different from our own state. Temperature is a reflection of the amount of energy inside a physical object (and how much that energy is spread among microstates T=dU/dS), but we don't know what the temperature is unless the object is put into contact with something else. Motion is a reflection of the energy in a traveling object, and we only are aware of the motion if we can gauge it against something else. Right now, I am spinning in motion on the back of the planet at 1265.8 km/hr (for NYC latitude) and circling the sun at 30 km/sec. I would be unaware of my own motion based on sensory information. The atoms and molecules in my body have enough energy to produce a temperature of about 37 degrees Celsius, but the room air is comfortable. I would be unaware of my own temperature based on sensory information. From a sensory point of view, we only learn the temperature of something when it is different than our own.

Our nervous system, and thus our basic perceptions of reality, have evolved so that we only notice fundamental physical variables when they differ from our own state. The perpetual spinning, the heat flowing from our metabolism, fades into the background of our consciousness unless we encounter something different, and we only know it in relation to our own state. Our brain actively fades out the noise and keys in on differences for many sensory experiences, but that's something for another post. The election has me thinking about analogies in belief systems. 

There is not a part of our sensory nervous system that detects beliefs; however, I think there is something to the idea that we don't understand our own belief system until we run up against a different one. Like fish in water, we are immersed in our invisible beliefs, their currents guiding our actions in ways we don't understand most of the time. When we encounter another belief system, its currents push us out of our comfort zone. Through this contrast we can see what is of value in our own beliefs, and what is ugly. Every application I've seen for a community college system has a question about the value of diversity, and to me, this is it. The value of diversity is to challenge us, to make us question parts of our beliefs that we have lived with so long we think they are universal truths.

There are two ways I think we can fail when we encounter different beliefs. The first is to insist that our belief is singularly correct, and to wrap ourselves in the comforting insulation of other people who share it. The second is to give up on seeking universal human truths and to accept that each belief is equally valid, leading us into a morass of relativism in which it is impossible to justify beliefs that dignify human beings and their journeys. How do we do this? How do I do this?

I wish I had the answer, but as someone who teaches hundreds of students a year from every conceivable background - my own approach has been to listen, with compassion and respect, as closely as possible to what other people are telling me about their world of perceptions and values. To listen, and then to reflect on my own beliefs, holding fast to the beliefs that I think will lead to dignity, justice, and truth, and letting go of the rest. Then...repeat.