Monday, September 3, 2018

Loving Life Invites Truth: Deconstruction, “Fake News,” and Making Meaning

One of the more compelling elements of the yoga tradition are sources that suggest we change the world when we understand more about it. Our actions, intentions, feelings are driven by feelings and impressions, and often incomplete and lazy arguments. The tasks that demand rigor, seriousness, a conscientious appeal to facts---best we can discern---and arguments---organized to insist we must all play by some of the same rules to communicate---are not easy or welcoming. It’s gonna take time, effort, a willingness to ask very uncomfortable questions as well as a deep intention that demands a willingness to change your mind in the face of changing evidence. Are we asking honest questions or just the ones that we feel we can ask?

Careful here. We can put ourselves in peril with too much candor. Candor might be asking too much. It’s unlikely adults will be persuaded or dissuaded of much of anything that they regard as hard won conviction or tribal dogma. The best we might hope for is a budge, some listen and learn and maybe bend, some move just a slight from where we started. But I digress. The issue here is to distinguish the messenger and the message, the explanation from the implication of advocacy.

In a recent Washington Post piece philosophy professor Aaron Hanlon makes an insightful argument about the uses of meaninglessness for political purposes. Here’s the link:

I think he’s got this bit right, “…the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes. Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis. The postmodernist theorists we vilify did not cause this; they’ve actually given us a framework to understand precisely how falsehood can masquerade as truth.” One of the more mordant ironies expressed here is that those claiming “fake news” are not only propagandists actively distorting truth---they can claim with a straight face that “truth is not truth” and at the same time claim reliance on absolute religious truths. Whateveris said is manipulated to further any given agenda or just as easily ignored when some other goal is expedient. Because their God abhors abortion, shameless lying and other “sins” can be summarily dismissed. This isn’t mere hypocrisy, it’s an authoritarian artifice meant to maintain power at any cost without the slightest nod to conscience, integrity, or care.

At the outset Hanlon captured the meaning of “post-modernism” in a few clear sentences. How ironic is that, eh? Gotta’love that. Clarity about a world that we now know can’t ever be made clear? A world that we can reasonably argue has no inherent purpose, natural objective, or meaning because it doesn’t need any of those things---much less a God---to continue to do what it does. But Hanlon does a fine job here explaining the honest purpose of deconstruction and it’s worth quoting at some length (so here we go, read on, please), “Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” sought to understand language as a system capable of constantly hiding and deferring meaning, rather than a simple conduit for conveying it. Another thinker, Jean Baudrillard, developed the concept of the “simulacrum,” a copy without an original, that leads to the “hyperreal,” a collection of signs or images purporting to represent something that actually exists (such as photos of wartime combat) but ultimately portraying a wild distortion not drawn from reality. Each of these concepts was an attempt to identify trends that, according to postmodern theorists, were changing our understanding of language, truth and knowledge.”

Hanlon suggests that these ideas are meant to explain our modern situation, not loose chaos, nihilism, and meaninglessness upon us. So even if the world is more chaos than comprehension and order little more than a distorting consolation, even if life has no inherent purpose, meaning, or goal, we need not be captive or victims of nihilism. These are interpretationsof what is happening rather than efforts to change the world further into such vagaries of being. He argues these philosophers offer insights and interrogations and have forsaken Marx’s plea: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” On the contrary, the effort here is to fathom something about the world first and what's left to change can only follow from that effort. I think there are Indian philosophers who would admit as much: understand what you can first, even if it’s just māyā, and do what you can because that’s true enough. That there’s no effort on the part of deconstructionists to change the world with meaninglessness, well, for that I think we can be grateful.

I want to side with Hanlon on this and say that true deconstructionists demur nihilism as a way of life, they're here merely explain it. An inherently meaningless world need not be made into meaninglessness and so it spares us the cost to our sanity that Marx would extract if the philosopher’s agenda is to change the world into personal vision. I want to live with believable explanations, however rife with limitations and complaints of incomplete, unfinished understanding. I also want to invent some meaning and try to live by those principles and values, no matter how contrived they may be. I can live without morenihilism in my life, there’s plenty. I’m pretty sure I don’t need more help feeling more desperate about the mortal condition. But I’m sure I don’t want any more consolations that demand more “faith” or belief than this storm of reality seems to offer.

I never tire of reminding my students that Charles Darwin withheld the findings and averred the implications of the theory of natural selection for twenty odd years before he was compelled to reveal his place in the history of ideas. After Alfred Russel Wallace came to much the same ideas about evolution and natural selection, the truth needed to find a way forward. Wallace was a good sod about it because Darwin got the credit he deserved. But they both came, more and less, to the same theory: a theory that really does explain how we got here as living beings. Truth can do that: it can appear without consultations or conspiracies because human minds can discern from evidence things worth knowing. I confess my own bias in this matter since I would regard Darwin’s idea as the single most important insight in the history of human thought. But both Darwin and Wallace understood how unready we humans are for truth.

Before Darwin we had no explanation of human existence that wasn’t mere religious assertion; after Darwin we found out that these meaning-making efforts were at best consolations and, more truthfully, memes of historical recursion imposed upon us by traditions, by the kind of authority that can use them to direct and dictate our behaviors and control our interrogations of human nature. The outcome of this Single Best Idea Ever is eventually the explaining deconstructionist.

When we can explain the world without gods, the specious excuses of mysticism, or some or another fanciful assertion of supernatural ineffability, the world becomes more believably ineffable: it really is more than we can fathom and daunting in all of its prospects. If we want a life that is more than mortal we’re asking for something that we’ll never all agree is real. The Buddhists, like their Hindu brethren, seem to have captured the problem of suffering correctly: we suffer, things will go amiss from whatever benchmark of happiness we desire, and what we want is often the cause of further suffering. In the spirit of Darwinians and deconstructionists we might stop right there---we can admit the first two “noble” truths, ignore the third about nirvana, and then query what’s all that’s “right” about any path’s claims to right this and right that. Buddhas are supposed to know, supposed have solved the problematics of this human condition but then we find ourselves tripping again over religious claims. Can we make peace with our condition when, after all, no one is reallyin charge of anything or really knows what’s going on? How could they? Who would that be?

Darwin understood that his theory left out god, buddhas, siddhas, the whole lot of them, anyone claiming to having all the answers. And so did Hawking more recently when he declared in print that the physical universe was well enough understood without a god and that what we do seemto know doesn’t require any such claims to omniscience or omnipotence. Leave out the fantasies, stick with what we can try to prove with our human tools, like math and imagination. We are indeed left to our human devices however incomplete, provisional, and co-dependent they are upon our merely human agreements and perceptions. It would appear that Nagarjuna was right after all when he told us that the Buddha we experience as our experience is not at all the Buddha. That there is something more ineffable than our experience is now self-evident. The “problem” is that this ineffability is no consolation and provides nothing better than our very human achievements. But do we need better? I think we being slightly more attuned to being mortal might suffice.

The (further) good news is that these hard truths about life don't make life harder. They will require us, as Darwin foresaw, that we change our very stubborn opinions inherited from history, culture, and habit. No one likes that. It’s important, I think, not to get all angry the facts, even if they’re grim or disappointing. Nothing about a world that made us from physics, chemistry, and the accidents of biology cooked in a crucible of time, space, and luck tells us that our human accomplishments, ideals, or values are nonsense or pointless.

Despite the conspiracy theorists and wingnut deniers, we humans have been to the moon and back, we’ve cured some terrible diseases and we can make mortal life more pleasant and tolerable because we have understandings and the means to do as much. We can’t stop death and it’s likely we’ll never knock human evil off its perch but we are capable of amazing things, some even wonderful. Our prospects for venality and abilities to cause pain may be beyond attenuation but there’s plenty about what we have invented that brings joy to our individual embodied and oh so brief tenure in this world. Is death as a finality really that gruesome? Hume joked that because he didn’t miss the world before he got here how could he miss it once he left.

The deconstructionist reminds us that meaning isn’t merely hidden and deferred, it must be invented and imposed if it is to be believed at all. Belief doesn’t make things true or real but it’s part of how we function in a world that will otherwise annihilate us, with alacrity. Rather than deny us our need for character, the argument for a meaningless world invites human beings to acknowledge that they are creating worlds of human invention and distorting them to suit their needs and desires. We tell ourselves the stories that please us, even if those stories cause us pain. While we can’t control what we need, we can dream and want and imagine in ways that really do soothe and animate and encourage us to keep doing things we value. Those things don’t have to bevaluable prove, the proof is that we value.

There’s something here quite like the many versions of māyā theory that inhabit Buddhist and Hindu traditions: the world we are measuring may be little more than a measure of ourselves and that often turns out poorly, with all the limitations and terms imposed upon us by a world that makes us from itsprocesses of measurement. But not all māyā takes us to pain or worse; there’s plenty of māyā, no matter how illusory or invented or contrived that gives us reason to live life a bit more audaciously and love what we do. Even if all we cando is fool ourselves, we need not think ourselves fools.

The Sanskrit verb here that takes us to māyā is /ma, to measure, and is obviously cognate to our English words “measure,” “meter,” you get the idea. We measure in worlds defined by our experiences of difference and its values. When we do this māyā “well” then things like technology “work” in the natural world and we become socially capable of virtue, acting both for and against immediate self-interest’s measurements. Things will break, after all “things fall apart; the centre cannot not hold,” but that is precisely what the deconstructionist tells us could never have been true and won’t be, not matter what we do.  Is that really so awful?  It doesn't have to be.  We can decide for that.

When we insist on measuring poorly---or when we give up caring about what we know we do not control---we seem capable of doing nearly anything without regard for conscience or consequences, to ourselves and to others. Humans can be deplorable in ways no other living creature could warrant such description. But we’re capable of inventing better and it doesn’t have to be more real than temporal and ephemeral, composed of the limited terms of a human life. We can be good and we can do good, even imperfectly, incompletely, with all the failure and shadow included.  Pay that measure forward and we might even have reason for hope. Give freely what you love and others might come to respect you for your commitments.

Just because the world doesn’t provide meaning doesn’t mean we can’t construct some, deconstruct what we’ve constructed, or commit further to efforts to understand what we want and what we are prepared to do about it. What we understand about life may preclude any greater certainty but what’s more dangerous to ourselves and others than being certain? I’ll tell ya’: it’s the propaganda that denies that meaning has meaning even if we’re only just human. We will be better humans when we decide to create from a deeper commitment to our mutual joys. There’s just not enough time (or anything else) to ever get it “right,” so let’s try to make things work a bit better for everyone.

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