Subjective Objective Reality – It’s Complicated… and Complex

Objective knows.

Subjective believes.

Reality needs both.

Objective does complicated. Think organizational chart nodes, arrows, lines… linear, hierarchical, systematic, intellectual, orderly, predictable, solvable, scalable, recursive… control, rules, authority, supervision, duties, reports, obligations, pecking order… STEM, formulas, metrics, mechanics….

Subjective does complex.  Think Venn Diagram overlapping and interacting circles, shifting magnitude and color… nonlinear, intuitive, relational, emotional, unpredictable, unsolvable, idiosyncratic… dynamic emphasis, trends, fading in and out…. liberal arts, creativity, improv….

Objective + subjective = complicated, complex reality.

The way reality really is.

We don’t get much reality these days. We don’t get objective to deal with complicated, and we don’t get subjective to deal with complex. Instead, we get the worst of neither – a toxic corrosive chemical intravenous cocktail of unreality we can’t unhook, injected in ever-escalating doses to satisfy our ever-escalating addiction to it.

Take away objective input and subjective balance and what do we get?

We get septic ideologies and the excesses of the rich and famous, the celebs and sycophants, the glitz and glam, the bad boy barons behaving badly, the ratings-rule-so-we’ll-say-and-do-anything-to-make-a-bigger-buck crowd, the economic and educational elites who don’t realize that’s what they are, the whole crowd of fat cats and bikini bodies that we in our moral superiority all agree are morally despicable but we want to be just like them.

We get adrenaline and cortisol as the drug of choice, keeping us in a state of outrage powered by the outrageous — individual and collective amygdalas running full-out, stoking the rage, stabbing us with the drive to survive, revving the fight or flight mechanism, keeping the trigger finger twitchy.

We get “truthiness” and “we create our own reality” and “all news is fake news” and “do your own research” and “freedom” cutting the tether of substantiality, sending us spinning off to the Lost in Space Land of the more bizarre the better, sowing the wind of nutcase-ness and reaping the whirlwind of reality unhinged.

We get confused and threatened and hang-wringing opposition that still believes there’s good in everybody so we can’t just give up on the bastards, we need to reach out and collaborate, compromise, negotiate, and bipartisanize our way to the family photo shoot — preferably without the arsenal but I’m sure we can all agree to keep the progressive cousins out of it otherwise we won’t be America anymore, and then what would we do if we can’t tell our children upward mobility bedtime stories anymore?

That’s what you get when you lose touch.

That’s what you get when objective and subjective don’t come to dinner together anymore.

Meanwhile those of us who, like me, just have to write stuff like this are dutifully playing out the role of the nerd in middle school chemistry class who can’t keep his mouth shut and just has to make a crack about the dumb jock in back who’s going to pound him for it.

We just can’t help ourselves.

We should learn to help ourselves.

I mean, Covid is over, right? I mean, it is isn’t it? So that means it’s time for capitalism to lead the way again – I mean, it will, won’t it? So how about the nerds just agree to shut up? If we’re unlucky enough to ever get noticed, all we get for a reward is another pounding.

You’d think we’d learn.

We need to learn.

We need help.

We need reality.

Reality is complicated – we need to figure it out and put institutions and organizations and models and checks and balances in place to control it and then be accountable for what we do and think and say and for God’s sake check the damned lies at the door. We need people like that, and we need to listen to them.

Reality is complex – we need people who aren’t stuck to agendas or caught in nostalgic backwaters or revelations of the illuminati but who can instead improvise and innovate and manage for the sake of the rest of us until we’re assembled into a safe grouping of common welfare… and check the damned idealism at the door. We need to listen to them, too.

Is there anybody like that out there anymore? And if we met one, how would we know?

Simple rule:  My guess is that if we ever met one, they would be somebody you’d like. You’d be sitting there maskless sipping your espresso and thinking this is someone I could hang with – just be around soaking in the confident vision and self-respect that comes from accessing both sides of the brain. This is someone who can think and feel. Someone who can dissect and integrate. Someone who’s safe to be with, so I don’t have to be so guarded, always watching what I say. Probably someone who is over the need to rant every now and then… but maybe not entirely. Probably they would admit to the label “progressive” even though it gets them kicked out of the family photo and the bedtime stories, and even though they realize that Bernie’s too old and AOC and the Squad… I mean, no offense, but after all they are… I mean, young and… um, I mean, you know… not white.

[Sigh]

It’s tough to find friends these days.

We need friends – reality friends. We need reality. We need objectivity and subjectivity to help us create and understand, channel and guide, articulate and empathize our way through life, through tricky times and troubled waters.

Like that’s going to happen.

Like it will – in time.

Like we hope it’s before the Dystopian Reality Show we’re living in actually stops being reality TV — which everyone knows isn’t reality – and actually becomes reality.

Or something like that.

Never mind. I guess I lost the thought.

Something about reality.

For more:

Complex versus complicated problems (fastcompany.com)

Smart Leaders Know the Difference Between Complex and Complicated. Do You? | Inc.com

JohnKamensky.pdf (businessofgovernment.org)

Amazon.com: It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business (Rotman-Utp Publishing): 9781442644878: Nason, Rick: Books

Belief in Belief

ya gotta believe

New York Mets fans at the 1973 World Series
(they lost)

The quest to resolve the consciousness hard problem needs a boost from quantum mechanics to get any further. Either that, or there needs to be a better way to state the issue. As things stand, neuroscience’s inability to locate subjectivity in our brain matter gives pro-subjectivity the right to cite quantum mechanics as its go-to scientific justification.

The $12 Billion self-help industry and its coaches, speakers, and authors love quantum mechanics:  if subjectivity works on a sub-atomic level, the argument goes, then why not apply it on a macro, conscious level? Meanwhile, quantum scientists seem to have resigned themselves to the notion that, if their theories don’t have to be grounded in traditional objective standards like empirical testing and falsifiability, then why not hypothesize about multiverses and call that science?

Thus scientific rationalism continues to be on the wane — in science and as a way of life — especially in the USA, where belief in belief has been an ever-expanding feature of the American Way since we got started. To get the full perspective on America’s belief in belief, you need to read Kurt Andersen’s book, Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017), which I quoted at length last time. (Or for the short version, see this Atlantic article.)  The book provides a lot of history we never learned, but also reveals that the roots of our belief in belief go back even further than our own founding, and beyond our own shores. Although we weren’t founded as a Christian nation[1] (in the same way, for example, that Pakistan was expressly founded as a Muslim nation), Andersen traces this aspect of our ideological foundations to the Protestant Reformation:

“[Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered.

“However, out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”

But even the Protestant Reformation isn’t back far enough. Luther’s insistence that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible is the Christian doctrine of sola scirptura, which holds that the Bible is the ultimate source of truth. And the Bible is where we find the original endorsement of the primacy of belief, in the teachings of none other than Jesus himself:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart,  but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

Thus, the Christian rationale for belief in belief goes something like this:

  • “We believe the Bible tells the truth;
  • “The Bible says Jesus was God incarnate;
  • “God knows what’s true;
  • “Jesus, as God, spoke truth;
  • “Therefore, what Jesus said about belief is true.”

The rationale begins and ends in belief. Belief is a closed loop — you either buy it by believing, or you don’t. And if you believe, you don’t doubt or question, because if you do, belief won’t work for you, and it will be your own fault — you’ll be guilty of doubting in your heart or some other kind of sabotage. For example,

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” And if your doubts persist, there are consequences. When I expressed some of mine back in college, the same friend handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

“Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

But not here, not in this blog. Here, our mission is to challenge cherished beliefs and institutions. Here, we’ll to look more into what it means to believe in belief, and consider other options. In the meantime, we’ll set aside the hard problem of consciousness while we wait for further developments,

For more on today’s topic, you might take a look at Should We Believe In Belief? (The Guardian, July 17, 2009), and be sure to click the links at the end and read those pieces, too. All the articles are short and instructive.

[1] For a detailed consideration (and ultimate refutation) of the claim that American was founded as a Christian nation , see The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019).

How Impossible Becomes Possible

active nerve cell in human neural system

network

Scientific materialism explains a lot about how the brain creates consciousness, but hasn’t yet fully accounted for subjective awareness. As a result, the “hard problem” of consciousness remains unsolved, and we’re alternately urged to either concede that the human brain just isn’t ready to figure itself out, or conclude that reality is ultimately determined subjectively.

Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano isn’t ready to do either. He thinks the “hard problem” label is itself the problem, because it cuts off further inquiry:

“Many thinkers are pessimistic about ever finding an explanation of consciousness. The philosopher Chalmers in 1995, put it in a way that has become particularly popular. He suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems. One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What it meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable. Again, calling it the hard problem is a euphemism, it is the impossible problem.

“The hard-problem view has a pinch of defeatism in it. I suspect that for some people it also has a pinch of religiosity. It is a keep-your-scientific-hands-off-my-mystery perspective. In the hard problem view, rather than try to explain consciousness, we should marvel at its insolubility. We have no choice but to accept it as a mystery.

“One conceptual difficulty with the hard-problem view is that it argues against any explanation of consciousness without knowing what explanations might arise. It is difficult to make a cogent argument against the unknown. Perhaps an explanation exists such that, once we see what it is, once we understand it, we will find that it makes sense and accounts for consciousness.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. by Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

I.e., if science is going to explain consciousness, it needs to reframe its inquiry, so that what is now an “impossible,” “scientifically unapproachable” problem becomes a “technically possible problem” that can be solved “given a lot of scientific work.”

Technology and innovation writer Steven Johnson describes how he thinks the impossible becomes possible in Where Good Ideas Come From — available as a TED talk. book, and animated whiteboard drawing piece on YouTube. In his TED talk, he contrasted popular subjective notions with what neuroscience has discovered about how the brain actually works:

“[We] have to do away with a lot of the way in which our conventional metaphors and language steer us towards certain concepts of idea-creation. We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration. We have … the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have ‘eureka!’ moments, we have the lightbulb moments… All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it’s something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.

“But in fact, what I would argue is … that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is, how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form?”

Johnson expands on the work of biologist and complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, who dubbed this idea the “adjacent possibility.” Adjacent possibility is where the brain’s neural networks (top picture above) meet data networks (the bottom picture):  neither is a static, closed environment; both are dynamic, constantly shifting and re-organizing, with each node representing a new point from which the network can expand. Thus the shift from unknown to known is always a next step away:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

Vittorio Loreto and his colleagues at Sapienza University of Rome turned adjacent possibility into a mathematical model which they then submitted to objective, empirical, real world testing. As he said in his TED talk:

“Experiencing the new means exploring a very peculiar space, the space of what could be, the space of the possible, the space of possibilities.

“We conceived our mathematical formulation for the adjacent possible, 20 years after the original Kauffman proposals.

“We had to work out this theory, and we came up with a certain number of predictions to be tested in real life.”

Their test results suggest that adjacent possibility is good science — that impossible doesn’t step out of the ether, it waits at the edge of expanding neural networks, ready to become possible.[1] As Steven Johnson said above, that’s a far cry from our popular romantic notions of revelations, big ideas, and flashes of brilliance. We look more at those next time.

[1] For a nerdier version, see this Wired piece: The ‘Adjacent Possible’ of Big Data: What Evolution Teaches About Insights Generation.