Vain Repetition

(Incidentally, this is the 93rd post I have made to this blog.)

Regular readers of this blog (all ten of them) have probably noticed that I regularly use a couple of phrases. One is “to an extent” (and variants thereof) and the other is “in a sense.” This is not because I am lazy. Well, not entirely. Nor are these phrases intended to be meaningless “bridges.” In fact, they express what I consider a key component of my own philosophy: that any statement of “truth” is only such in a particular sense and to a certain degree.

“In a particular sense,” is probably the primary element, epistemologically speaking. The first and only thing an individual can be sure of is the perspective they are looking at something from. (Of course, the degree to which a person understands their own perspective is always uncertain.) This is the “sense” in which something under discussion is being looked at. The phrase can be a good deal more mercurial than this, of course. Generally, however, the intent is to say “if you look at it this way…”

This is not to say that I see all “senses” as equally important in all cases. There are some perspectives which are irrelevant to the subject matter, though it can sometimes be hilarious to consider, say, “furries” from the perspective suggest by Thus Spake Zarathustra, for instance. And there are some ideas or points of view that I simply think are incorrect in either a significant or almost total degree.

“To an extent,” “To a degree,” and similar phrases, suggest a way of evaluating ideas that appears to be disappearing from the wasteland of discourse, particularly the internet. It seems that, as the technical ability to convey ideas has grown, the ability to see shades of meaning within those ideas has shrunk. In a certain sense and to a great degree, we have become colorblind when it comes to seeing the distance between extremes. Recent years have seen an increased blunting of our mental knives, until it seems that be shatter all subjects into supposed diametric opposites of strange and ragged cleavage.

For those of us mad enough to still credit the Hermetic mysteries that (if you study history) actually form much of the background for our modern civilization, “opposites” exist as part of an overall unity. Indeed, almost any opposition can be seen as a point arbitrarily designated along an infinite scale, defined only by another point. But practically speaking, there is only so far one way or the other that something can travel before it becomes something else entirely. No longer opposite, but meaningless in the context in question. In most situations, we can identify two distinct opposite extremes (very hot and very cold for instance).

The way in which ideas are received today seems to me the equivalent of saying that one is either on fire or encased in unbreachable walls of ice. “There is no way to be totally certain of anything” thus gets read as a call to abandon any hope of finding any notion even remotely secure in truth value. “Totally certain,” however, is a definable point along a continuum. “Nothing is even remotely worthy of confidence” is another, distinct point. Between them there may be countless other degrees of certitude and ambiguity. There is a hierarchy of knowledge that determines this. It begins with how sure one can be of their own senses, and descends to how well they can evaluate their ideas in relation to what their senses tell them. An individual with no musical experience does not know what note they are looking at on a page. A person with basic understanding can look at a note on a scale and tell you what it is. A more advanced musician can tell you when that note is played without looking at the instrument or the staff. The fact that the “note” itself is actually a point along a continuum of vibration and can only be said to be that note and not another by relation, and that given the conditions in which that note is produced it may or may not be exactly the same point along that continuum for every single person is kind of irrelevant. For all practical purposes, two individuals with a slightly different apprehension of a given note will be able to play together.

All of this is to say that I think we need to refine our understanding of the gradations between extremes. This would be particularly true when we are looking at something that is the apparent opposite of the pole to which we are naturally attracted. Could a person who thinks it should be okay to pray out loud in public schools possibly not be a fascist theocrat bent on replacing evolution with cartoons of primitive humans living with dinosaurs? It is quite within the realm of possibility, I think, although I would caution that person to consider the current advocates of prayer in school before going along with part of their agenda.

The problem is that we are psychically balkanized. Our society has fragmented into so many narratives, most of them claiming to be the exclusive and absolute truth, that our conversations with those unlike us tend to be either very brief and superficial or very heated. This is not what I think a pluralistic society should look like.

We seem to be in a double bind. On the one hand, our mainstream narratives are limited and manipulated by various interests, mostly commercial. On the other, our “radical” narratives contain within them an almost Manachean aspect. “Radical” is almost always defined as being on one end or the other of an historically determined axis of opposition. Both polarities apparently see the other as dominant, with varying degrees of validity, and thus represent the social order as something that must be overturned.

This will undoubtedly happen, but not in the way that the extreme parties might wish. One or another side may gain power over the institutions of society, or even manage to destroy the old ones and create something that looks to them like a “successful revolution.” But what they have in fact done is perpetuate the primary error of all dualistic sects: impose an imbalanced abstraction upon an organic whole. This will create new forms of oppression, leading to further shifts later on down the line. One day, the “illuminates” in power will become the evil overlords.

None of what I have said should be construed as a call to be “moderate.” The horizontal axis of opposition that determines the degree to which something tends toward one pole or another is offset by the vertical axis of how “high” ones capacity of perception has managed to reach. It is theoretically possible in my view to occupy a very high point on the vertical axis while also dwelling on the fringes of either point along the horizontal. But the higher the state of awareness, the more the horizontal oppositions appear less severe. If you see a long road from a very high mountain, it will seem to be a rather short trip. From that vantage, it could be that a little nudge in one direction or another is part of a process of getting somewhere that the traveller actually needs to be in order to reach something higher than where they are. There may even be a bend in the road that those below aren’t aware of that will cause them to double back.

What I am really saying is that extreme oppositions are something the ego constructs so that it can build defenses against the onslaught of contradictory information. On a long journey, our ego often becomes an armored tank, its driver ever vigilant to shoot perceived enemies from the tiny slit it has to look out at what is coming. From a point of view higher than the ego, such behavior looks like a child playing army. Humorous until someone loses an eye.

The world is bigger than the oppositions we create within its unity. As a defense against the spell of absolutism, I therefore fully intend to keep invoking my much worn mantras of “in a sense,” and “to an extent.”

  1. Jeremy said:

    It’s occasionally difficult having something very close to this as a philosophy of science, that we’re in the business of building models which are useful (within their various domains) but not “true” in any particularly deep sense. My fellow graduate students are totally on board, but some of the professors seem to have trouble with the idea — or more specifically, that I can think that and still favor some models over others. The pithiest way of expressing this that I’ve come up with so far is, “All models are wrong, but all models are not *equally* wrong.”

  2. I don’t really have anything to say, other than I loved this post, especially the phrase “The world is bigger than the oppositions we create within its unity.”

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