Sunday, April 29, 2012

Contra Mundum

I'm bemused from time to time by the view that the world (as in "reality" or the universe) is, in part at least, our creation, or perhaps is created by each of us for himself/herself.  One sees this view in the writings of a variety of thinkers, in a variety of manifestations.  This philosophical view has been taken up by non-philosophers rather as philosophers have taken up various scientific views or theories, though it's prudent to take the result with the proverbial grain of salt.  It's not necessarily the case that the original view, philosophical or scientific, has been understood.

I find the philosophical position in question so counter-intuitive I may have difficulty understanding it; may have not yet understood it, in fact.  To the extent I can understand it, it appears to be little more than the unsurprising claim that we are human beings, and as such interact with the world as human beings do.  I don't think Kant, for example, says much beyond this.  He contends, it seems, that humans have certain characteristics which necessarily preclude them from knowing the "things-in-themselves" which we interact with on a daily basis.  Others, metaphorically or otherwise, seem to go further, claiming we actively shape the world.

Of course, we shape the world all the time through our interaction with it.  We change the world quite frequently by making and destroying, getting and spending as Wordsworth would say.  But it's doubtful this is what is intended by those who extrapolate from what Sellars called the "myth of the given."  It's equally obvious that our physiology will impact on the manner in which we perceive and interact with the other parts of the world of which we are a part.  Again, though, one is inclined to assume something more is intended by those who think they shape the world.

In struggling to understand, I tend to refer to the fact that the world has shaped us for quite a long time even as we have shaped it, and that shaping (I prefer "interaction") has resulted in what we are now.  Therefore, we experience, perceive, interact with the world precisely as we should.  We can't do it differently without being non-human, or un-human (inhuman?).  It seem rather silly to give a great deal of consideration to this, as certain philosophers appear to do.  This doesn't mean that we fail to know the world, nor does it mean we cannot know the world, though it may have the result that we can't know the world as other creatures do given their physiology.  We are able to create devices which enhance our interaction with the world, though.  Regardless, there doesn't seem to be anything to complain about, or anything which would merit dwelling on the subject to any great extent.

Except perhaps in a context, i.e. under certain circumstances.  There may be instances when it would be useful to remind ourselves of our limitations in this respect.  To ponder it in abstract, though, seems unproductive.

I wonder if our tendency to engage in such theorizing is yet another example of our self-conceit.  Are we so fond of ourselves, so assured of our importance, we minimize the role other parts of the world play in our lives, even to the extent of maintaining we determine the world, merely by existing, experiencing?  There is a danger in such a point of view, because it can encourage if not contempt for the rest of the world then the belief that it is in some sense inconsequential, of secondary importance, next to us (or perhaps even me).

There is arguably nothing more harmful to us as a species, or as individuals, than the belief in our own exceptionalism.  This has led us to lay waste to the world, it being for our benefit, after all, just as other creatures exist for our benefit.  It has led us to conceive of the divine as being peculiarly human, or particularly absorbed in human affairs, a position which is untenable given the nature and extent of the universe.  It has played its part in extreme nationalism and racialism as groups of us come to believe that they are the best and most worthy of humans, and therefore especially entitled to the benefits of the world.

1 comment:

  1. There is a tee shirt that bears upon some of the issues you raise. It shows somewhat anthropomorphized versions of the Greek letter pi (Π) and of the expression √-1.

    Pi is saying to √-1, “Get real.” And √-1 is replying, “Be rational!”

    I’ll pause now while you slap your knees.

    The joke, of course, is that pi is an example of an “irrational” but real number, while √-1 is the definition of i, the foundation of the imaginary numbers.

    This is pertinent to your post because the historical development of mathematics looks a lot like a repeated series of inventions of ever-more outlandish sorts of numbers and sets. The names given to these invented sorts of numbers -- in chronological order "irrational," "negative," "infintisimal," and "imaginary," themselves seem outlandish.

    The paradox, then, is that the inventions of these outlandish notions by clever humans working at a very high level of abstraction, and often unconcerned with practical consequences, always turns out to have enormous practical consequences.