Applied Liberalism

The Seeker’s Quest for the Ultimate Meta

I’ve posted before about what is real and my fascination with PKD.  But why is this quest so fascinating.  In short, it’s a quest for the ultimate meta.  In epistemology, the prefix Meta , isn’t something but about something.  We search not for just great ideas but the meta-idea of how to generate and refine those ideas.  We want not the best outcome but the process for arriving at the best outcome.  We feel a sense of progress we become aware of our beliefs (meta-reality ? ) moving toward reality.  But is this sense merely an illusion such that we are fundamentally irrational?  Materialists believe that the idea of a soul is at odds with reality such that those who believe in a soul or even the possibility of a soul are irrational.  However, there is no third person view of our own reality so we must determine for ourselves what is real.  If the materialists rule out the ontological possibility of a soul, how would they ever know they are incorrect?  Or, if we are living in a reality created by other beings and our existence is limited to our perceptions are we even capable of grasping such a reality?  Would it make us irrational to acknowledge such uncertainty in metaphysics?  Is it irrational to contemplate hypotheses which are not independently falsifiable?  From a utilitarian , point of view it seems useless, other than the byproduct of staying humble in avoiding overstating our beliefs about reality.  Considering ideas that cannot be demonstrated as true or false has an opportunity cost of not helping others living in the reality we know.  However, even that assumes a better alternative for experiencing consciousness.  We can work on more pressing matters but in the end do these questions really go away or are we merely pressing a snooze button within our consciousness?        

What is Real?

Philip K Dick’s characters seek the answer to the simple question - “What is real?”  The answer is contingent upon “What is reality?”  Something is real if it is based on reality but then how do we know what reality is?  For Dick, reality is information.  Reality is created from information rather than information abstracted from reality.  This idea is quite Platonic in the sense that the primacy of the forms or ideas over material representations.  So the next question then, is how do we determine what is information or the essence of reality?  

Gnosticism or knowing comes through revelation - a sometimes drug induced revelation for Dick.  If knowing information or truth comes through revelation, how exactly do you separate what is real from what is not?  How would you know if you found truth or you were simply in a drug induced delusion?  Dick would answer that if your life makes more sense - i.e. is more real - as a result of such that your knowing allows you to see that your life is in conformance with reality.  Dick believes he is not psychotic because:

the meta-abstraction was the birth of higher reason… specifically and precisely logos… And logos - not just as reason, although it is that- but Christ: Christ as the power of the rational principle itself.

If the revelation diverged from reality or logos, then you are psychotic.  However, the interesting point here is that if your life seemed to make more sense under delusion you would have no way of knowing it.  You are in essence living a lie with respect to the existential reality of others in the outside world.  A is A but you perceive A as B and yet your life makes more sense perceiving A as B so you do not consider your revelation delusional but instead as information - the essence of what is real.  If we contemplate this scenario under the assumption (as here) our fundamental soul is different such that fundamental reality for different people is different, then there may be others whose life is better perceiving A as B even if it diverges from the A is A of other materialists or even existentialists that agree with each other.  What we have then are two separate models of reality and two ways of identifying truth.  Gnosticism validates truth within the soul or the essence.  Materialism and existentialism validates truth externally and to the extent that truth is in conflict with the soul, the soul must transform itself to conform with external reality.  To know what is real, you have to know yourself before you can see yourself in relation to the cosmos.  As Dick noted in Exegesis:

Thus the motto of Apollo finds ecstatic glorification and in fact deification in Gnosticism: “Know thyself.”… To recap: it is the perception of isomorphism that overcomes cognitive estrangement because the perception of isomorphism is a grasping by the person (part) of his compatibility with the whole (Other, Cosmos).

The question of what is real cannot be answered any other way than by first knowing yourself.  You must see your self to relate it to external reality.  At some level then, aren’t we all Gnostics layered into existentialists?  The only alternative is to deny our essence - the knowledge of self;  run a fool’s errand to bend our essence to existential reality.    Do the materialists “know” that they are right because they have different souls than the mystics?  What, then, is real?

What Physics Learns From Philosophy -


Funny how the nerds have become the bullies.

The question, then, is which nerds?  Can nerds out-nerd other nerds?  Maybe but they can’t get very far beyond their own field.  

I was struck by the final quote by Nietzsche: 

“As the circle of science grows larger, it touches paradox at more places.” 

An interesting idea in questioning the existence of Dark Matter provides an example. Dark matter is a mystery - there is evidence that it exists even though we have know idea what it is.  It’s a paradox.  It may not exist at all but instead be evidence of a deeper level of reality as Verlinde, a string theorist speculates here:

“I think dark matter will be a sign of another type of physics,” Verlinde said.

The leading alternative to dark matter is known as MOND, for Modified Newtonian Dynamics. Verlinde has reinterpreted MOND not just as a tweak to the laws of physics, but as evidence for a vast substratum. He derived the MOND formula by assuming dark matter is not a novel type of particle but the vibrations of some underlying degrees of freedom—specifically, vibrations produced by random thermal fluctuations. Such fluctuations are muted and become conspicuous only where the average thermal energy is low, such as in the outskirts of galaxies. Astoundingly, Verlinde even derived the five-to-one ratio. “I started seeing this as a manifestation of this larger phase space,” he said.

What are string theorists - scientists, philosophers, or authors of speculative fiction?  Who is qualified to opine on the fundamental nature of reality?  Existentialism may lead to an answer but then again who will know if you’re right?   

Mysticism over Reason?

Phillip K. Dick’s Exegesis raises some fascinating questions as discussed at the Stone (here).  Modern times have made mystical subservient to reason in much of the intellectual realm.  It would be easy to dismiss Dick’s insight as hallucination but what if there’s some truth?  Gnosticism could help Christianity arrive at truth even if there are significant areas of disagreement:

But the core of Dick’s vision is not quite Christian in the traditional sense; it is Gnostical: it is the mystical intellection, at its highest moment a fusion with a transmundane or alien God who is identified with logos and who can communicate with human beings in the form of a ray of light or, in Dick’s case, hallucinatory visions.

Dick’s gnosticism also allows us to see in a new light what is the existentially toughest teaching of traditional Christianity: that sin lies within us in the form of original sin… We are not wicked. It is the world that is wicked. This is an insight that first finds its modern voice in Rousseau.

  1. Assume that Mysticism and Reason exist along a scale and we each have a combination of what “feels right” (balance as in the Tao).
  2. Assume that there is an absolute scale on which exists such that you could determine Dick is relatively more naturally mystical than I am.
  3. In general the more mystical our nature is, the more we would gravitate toward a more mystical answer in the case of ambiguity and the rational toward reason (e.g. mystics would prefer art over science).
  4. Those with lesser faculties of reason would feel exploited by those more reliant on reason if the material world held them hostage.
  5. If we assume a sense of fairness and cannot identify each other’s level of comparative mysticism / reason, how could we fairly resolve conflict?  In other words, a Gnostic, if in doubt would say go with a more mystical/aesthetic solution.  A more rational nature would say, if in doubt rely on reason (science trumps art).  
  6. If mysticism requires expression of the true self over the ideal self as embodied by Christ, is the Christian tradition oppressive to the mystic by declaring him wicked through original sin?  What if sin were a necessary component to determining who we are?

Modern times strike me as reason gone amok at the expense of mysticism.  We have chosen Aristotle over Plato in the secular; Aquinas over Augustine in the moral order.  Science reigns supreme over art; the moral over the spiritual.  What if the tides turned and reason no longer reigned supreme?  

On True Wisdom

True wisdom is the ability to separate the conventional from the wisdom in conventional wisdom.  Hubris is the belief in true wisdom.

Are Republicans More Rational Than Democrats?

Bryan Caplan asserts in The Myth of the Rational Voter that voters chose preferences over reality.  He goes on to mention that:

Information is “asymmetric” when more knowledgeable people interact with less knowledgeable people… A politician knows if he has been dishonest, but the public may not. 

A recent study of the Twitter indicates that Democrats may be representing voters preferences over reality:

Republicans, the study found, tweeted 52 percent more, and in particular had 60 percent more links to multimedia like photos and videos, and also on average tweeted 75 hashtags, compared to the Democrats who tweeted 54 hashtags. In addition, Republicans made reference to specific pieces of legislation 3.5 more times than Democrats.

Democrats are in a quandary when attempting to have substantive discussions about reality because the facts do not align with voters preferences.  Knowledge of specific pieces of legislation is asymmetric because the politicians spend more time evaluating legislation than the public does.  If the specific legislation were equally aligned with reality as presented by both sides, then we would expect for each side to have similar levels of motivation for bringing the details of the legislation to the attention of their respective constituents.  However, the study indicates that Republicans are 3.5 times more likely to reference specific pieces of legislation than Democrats.  Could it be that Democrats’ beliefs are at greater odds with reality than the beliefs of Republicans?  If the Democrats views on legislation were equally representative of reality, then it is reasonable to expect an equal number of tweets about specific pieces of legislation.  

I can already hear the counterexamples of the Republican view on global warming is biased against science and science is strongly grounded in reality.  My point, however, is not that Republicans are 100% rational and Democrats are 100% irrational.  It is instead that the Republican tendency to tweet information about specific legislation indicates a less biased position overall than the position of Democrats. 

Education and the Real World

Bryan Caplan seems to be surprised by how little is required to become a tenured professor:

I’ve been in school for the last 35 years - 21 years as a student, the rest as a professor.  As a result, the Real World is almost completely foreign to me.  I don’t know how to do much of anything. While I had a few menial jobs in my teens, my first-hand knowledge of the world of work beyond the ivory tower is roughly zero.

I’m not alone.  Most professors’ experience is almost as narrow as mine.  If you want to succeed in academia, the Real World is a distraction.  I have a dream job for life because I excelled in my coursework year after year, won admission to prestigious schools, and published a couple dozen articles for other professors to read.  That’s what it takes - and that’s all it takes.

He wonders what skills he has to teach:

 How can I possibly improve my students’ ability to do a vast array of jobs that I don’t know how to do myself? 

What if he is better at (and maybe even more importantly interested in - after all he’s said he’s an “openly nerdy man”) identifying the cultivation of IQ over time than employers are?  If IQ were a static number, then an IQ test at a point in time could identify strong performers - no schooling would be necessary.  However, businesses change and the requisite skills to succeed change so imprinting students with specific skills is useless in the long run, particularly those who don’t want to do the same job for their entire lives.  The skills to be a vice president or CEO are much different than those of an entry-level analyst.  The desire to learn and grow are a big part of success in the real world (whatever the term “real world” means).  I’d suspect becoming a tenured professor likely requires much of the same desire for learning.  Why else would professors desire the reward to research and write about whatever they want for the rest of their lives?