Friday, December 28, 2012

Ruminations 44: If Reality is not Fixed Can we Train People to Accept Anything?

Reality is supposed to be the state of things as they actually exist rather than as they might appear or be imagined.  It presupposes some sort of objective conditions again which behaviors can be judged, policy determined and people assessed and managed.
(From Polly Kahl, The 12 Steps of Reality TV Addiction Recovery, Technorati, Oct. 3, 2011)

But what if "what actually exists" exists in part only in your mind as a function of judgements and expectations that you internalized from the aggregates of premises that form the common knowledge and interpretive structures of a social order? It appears that science has provided clues about the way in which reality is not merely constructed from out of the relation between individual and sensory stimuli, bit also the extent to which the meaning of those stimuli and the valuation of their effects, are both managed and taught in an interactive process between the individual and object, the collective body of experience, judgments, conclusions, interdictions and directions  that serve as the referent for making sense of and determining the appropriate response to stimuli.   

This semiotic arrangement, is liberating for law and social systems that can, with greater confidence, approach questions of rules, interpretations and behaviors.  The only natural thing about the way people relate to stimuli is that they will trend to react as they are instructed, or they will be punished, or treated for deviance (a failure to relate to reality correctly). (e.g. Ruminations XLII: Conformity and Forbidden Knowledge--The First Rule of Fight Club, the Invisible Hand and the Semiotics of Obedience, Dec. 26, 2012). The connection between law and psychiatry religion and ideology is thus reinforced.  If reality, the objective foundation of law and governance, functions as a means toward the internal organization of external objects, judgments about which are formed as a function of obedience to rules connected to the reality that serves as their foundation (a circular relationship necessarily), then deviance is better understood as a moral and political judgement, the mechanics of which are psychiatric. If reality can be understood as the aggregate of how we manage meaning from the stimuli of the senses, that is how we are trained to see and understand these without question, then it is easier to understand both the positivism of law and social systems and the inevitability of social engineering whether visible or invisible   

The genesis of these questions started with an article exploring the possibility of an objective standard for judging the quality of wine. The goal was to determine if there was a way, with experiential goods, like food or hotels, to eliminate experiential cues and thus reveal the objective.  For the quality of wine, objectification was to be obtained through blind taste tests.  But one experiment, in articular, revealed something else. (From "In Vino, Non Veritas," Pacific Standard p. 14-15 (Jan-Feb 2013).

The Cost of Happy: In a 2008 experiment, tipplers hooked to a brain scanner drank three Cabernets presented as five wines--two of them repeated at lower or higher prices.  Knowing the price fired up the brain areas that register pleasure, but it didn't change activity in the parts that process sensory information about taste. The drinkers reporting enjoying the same wine more when they thought it cost more--and the brain scans showed that they actually did. (From "In Vino, Non Veritas," Pacific Standard p. 15 (Jan-Feb 2013).
This is actually quite comforting in a way.  It suggests that the isolation of reality from its interpretation, at least among humans, is quite the fool's errand. It also suggests that what is natural, or objective, or received as raw stimuli is incomprehensible, without the subjective act of judgement, which is then activated through response. That, in turn, suggests that what is natural in law (a prohibition against killing, for example) is the result of the application of judgement, and a mechanics of control, grounded in a response to stimuli (killing) that has been (collectively) judged NOT pleasurable.  And what of the killer? Well, she might register pleasure, but that act is also (collectively) judged as unnatural pleasure, a deviance, the correction of which also produces pleasure (the positive value of justice). And indeed, the search for objectivity is both naturally subjective and communal.  Thus the error in the popular quotation from Robert Anston Wilson's work:
"Is", "is." "is"—the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don't know what anything "is"; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.  — Robert Anton Wilson, The Historical Illuminatus, as spoken by Sigismundo Celine.
It is true that one does not "know" meaning of "is" in some sort of detached objective way, but it is equally true that one does not know how it seems to "me" at the moment without understanding that this "knowledge" is actually the application of the unquestioned rules of organizing perception and judgement only within which coherence and comprehension, judgement and response, is possible.
Here one finds the mutually useful arrangements between law, psychiatry, politics, and morals, but one that tends to look monstrous from outside the reality-community from which it springs.  See Richard J. Bonnie, Soviet Psychiatry and Human Rights: Reflections on the Report of the U.S. Delegation, The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 18(1-2):123-131 (1990).  He charges that for "more than 20 years, the Soviet Union has been charged with confining political and religious dissidents in psychiatric hospitals for other than medical reasons." (Ibid., 123).  For these practices that amalgamated psychiatry and politics, the Soviet Union was condemned by the World Psychiatric Association in 1977.  But viewed from the perspective of the 2008 wine tasting experiments described above, it is possible to suggest a different set of realities. For the Soviet Union, it might be perfectly plausible to consider a condition of mental deviance to manifest as rejection of the political order and disobedience or disloyalty to its premises and obligations the way that Western society increasingly views mass killing as inherently a manifestation of mental deviance.  The difference is on the value placed on conformity to distinct sets of rules and the rationalization of acts of disobedience. As a result, the  World Psychiatric Association was perfectly right to condemn the Soviet practice; but the Soviets could equally view the World Psychiatric Association's position as medically unsound and a bad reflection of reality.

This is NOT to suggest the value of relativism--or even that everything is the same or equally valued.  Indeed, it is to suggest the opposite: that within each interpretive community, as within communities of wine tasters, reality is constructed from out of an ordering of stimuli that reflects communal judgements and wisdom about both the character of the stimuli and the appropriate reaction to it (pleasure, pain, etc.). These are then developed as rule, law, moral, religious or other system, each of which also then shape the naturalness of the reality of stimuli and the frameworks within which this ordered reality may be enhanced and protected. Beyond this ordering there is either chaos, or evil or madness. It follows that the way in which other community's approach the ordering and relation to reality, to the natural, is necessarily abomination, immoral, unnatural (and wrong);  and necessarily threatening.  And this this view is correct, as far as it goes.  Self-referencing communities not not merely constitute themselves, they constitute the ordering of reality around them.  Same wine, distinct tastes and judgements of value are possible. 

We have heard all of this before--from philosophers, moralists, scientists, psychiatrists, social scientists and others--the blind people feeling the elephant and seeking, each in their own way to describe the part they are most within their reach. No surprises here; just reassurance that reality is at its most solid state, little more than received raw material--it assumes its character, it becomes natural, only when it has been adulterated by the framework within which stimuli can be transformed into a reality that makes sense and can be used;  and thus transformed, managed and directed. That is both the task of science and the function of law (whether clothed in its modern form of liberal politics, or in its more traditional forms of theology, determinism, or custom).  It s in this sense that one might now understand law, religion and psychiatry as among the most useful of humanity's practical arts.     

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