What’s going on & The two ways of knowing

I uploaded this spoken essay to YouTube on May 27 2022 and laboriously changed their auto-generated subtitles to fit what I said, but I’ve since realized it’s more useful and also easier for me to simply provide what I prepared to read from, modified very slightly to fit what I actually said.

Hello out there. My name is Will. I’m the son of a farmer from Prince Edward Island and an artist and teacher from Cape Breton Island. I have but recently come to Cape Breton, which is Unamaꞌki to the Miꞌkmaq.

I’d like to talk to people about what’s going on right now, as I see it.

As you may know, a certain movie came out, and now everyone is embodying truth and beauty and truly complementing and sharing with one another and it’s absolutely beautiful. This has allowed for a lot of communication across and between political cultures, both in real life and online. Now I haven’t even seen the movie, but I took a bunch of Ritalin once in high school and watched a Fraser episode and realized how much easier everything would be if they all just told the truth, indeed the entire situation of the situation comedy would not have happened, so I feel like I get the basic insight.

As a side effect of people sharing their truth, the shared meaning that we thought we had, the corpus that ‘united’ us not in appreciating but rather in spite of our differences – indeed some parts of it denied we have innate differences at all – is falling apart.

In 1993, Terence McKenna said that history is ending. I will not say that it has ended, indeed there is still a lot of conflict going on out there, but I think it did trip over a frost heave on the sidewalk.

And, as the corpus that dominated us falls apart, we can set ourselves free from domination and fear, and make new meaning. And I think we can all play a part. But first, we have to have an idea of what knowledge really is.

There are two ways of knowing things. First, there’s received knowledge. This is the stuff you read and the things people tell you. And there’s lots of true stuff out there, not gonna lie. Now I’m not an astro fill-in-the-blank, but I can tell you that Kepler didn’t make up the fact that planetary orbits are elliptical instead of circular and cover equal areas in equal time. And Newton didn’t make up universal gravitation, he modelled it as best he could from what he observed. Indeed, I’ve even heard he was an alchemist. And maybe, and I’m not an expert, so I’m just gonna say this, if you surround the right frog with the right chemicals you could maybe make it into a fancy frog. So without getting too much into the weeds about exactly what is true among what’s out there, it’s enough to know that at least some is true and well-intended.

But, we have to be careful. And the reason we have to be careful is that the products of people with ideas (internet memes, for example) can spread regardless of whether or not the ideas themselves are wholly true or applicable. Indeed, the best way to spread a lie is to have a grain of truth in it. And some people will think that grain of truth is so important, that they’ll burn the world down to spread it. This is where we get things like straw men and arguments made in bad faith. I mean, we all kind of do it.

Now I must say this: Nobody’s got a perfectly privileged handle on a single objective reality. It’s just that some people think they do. They feel that truth means allegiance to the memes emanating from the corpus. And these memes can’t be wrong, because of course they represent objective reality!

No. Reality is fundamentally, unavoidably subjective. And you know why? Because the corpus of alleged objectivity does not interpret reality. You do. You interpret reality. Indeed, I think that is the role that has been given to us, or an art we found for ourselves in various ways over the eons.

Now we can still have objectivity within a subjective reality. We can measure things in a standardized way. We can compute things in a standardized way. We can make rockets go zoom. We can make cars go vroom, or whatever you call the noise that EVs make as the acceleration pushes you deep into your seat.

But these objects, at the end of the day, are really just objects. And a science lab actually needs scientists in order to produce science.

By the way, I’m open to there being a continuous substrate of natural reality underneath our perceptions and our objects. Like the Canso Causeway will still be there the next time I go to Port Hastings – the church will be there, too – and the Nova Scotian mainland will still be waiting on the other side. We just don’t have access to this substrate at anything beyond a local scale. I can only hear the birds chirping here, I can’t hear the ones chirping forty miles away.

And I think part of the problem with the corpus that we took for meaning is that it overextended itself. It thought it was universal. It wasn’t just for the peoples of one place, it was asserting itself to be for all people in all places. And now, finally, it is becoming clear to everyone not wilfully deluding themselves, that the corpus will never cohere.

But, we still have a few people who are convinced that their part of the corpus is an objective reality. They feel obliged to be loyal to it, and so they will defend it, in fact they will warp the world in this effort. When faced with doubting the corpus or doubting themselves, they will doubt themselves. Because the memetic conflict, not to be mistaken for discourse, is about winning the conflict rather than promoting what is true.

And we see the effects. (This is in the context of the culture war, you understand, not the new thing we’re trying to make.) That was goodbye to nuanced arguments, goodbye to subtle differences in interpretation, and goodbye to truth for the simple sake of truth. You can’t live like that! This is why a house divided against itself cannot stand. Indeed, he who troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.

And then of course there are people with clear incentives to lie. Like people paid to say that cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer, or people paid to tell you not to buy an EV because they take more than a few minutes to charge. (By the way, you should just plug it in when you get home. And if you’re on a road trip, stop somewhere with a fast charger and get out and stretch your legs and talk to people. It’s fine.)

So when it comes to received knowledge, I think it comes down to knowing that it is received, and just having an open mind about it, even if only because the truth that can be told is not the entire truth.

I mean, how else could it be? For everything that happens, there are infinities of contextual, natural causes, most of which we don’t even see, let alone understand to any extent.

In 1637 René Decartes wrote, “Je pense, donc je suis.” I think, so I am. Now philosophers of various schools can argue about this in the comments, but from this I get that inasmuch as we are thinking beings, our thoughts are what we are. But, we are not zombies who merely run on received knowledge, no.

Because the second way of knowing things, which is FAR more important than the first way, is through your direct experience of nature. This is the type of knowledge that you feel. It wasn’t described to you – you lived it, through your own senses.

Now don’t get me wrong. The conclusions we draw from the evidence of our senses can be incomplete, at least in a contingent way, especially in the eyes of others, because they don’t know your inner world.

But, I think that inasmuch as we’re appreciating the truth and beauty in each other, it follows that we appreciate the truth and beauty that comes out of ourselves.

‘Living’ under the dominator meant that we had to mask ourselves, doubt ourselves, even hate ourselves.

And a self divided against itself cannot stand.

So, what do you do now? I’m not going to say just “believe in yourself!” because those are just empty words now. It shows you what you need to do, but not why. In fact whenever you use aphorisms or proverbs from the Before Times, you might also want to explain why they’re apt.

For example:

Birds of a feather, flock together. It’s a good survival strategy. Also, side note, don’t be surprised when humans with similar interests and dispositions get together and do things. To ask them to be more inclusive just to fill a quota is to attack what they are, the same as it would be to ask a flock of starlings to accommodate an owl, wise and venerable he or she may be.

But for me, the most important thing is that the flock didn’t have to listen to an ornithology podcast in order to learn how to flock.

So I would like people to consider the truth in unmediated experience, and the purity of their own senses and even intuition. And then once you do that, you can contribute so much more to the stories that we’re telling together, the stories of the art of living.

But, maybe I should say arts of living. Because, on this planet, there can be found all manner of different environments. In fact, just about every kind of world you see in science fiction – a desert world, an ice planet, a forest moon – can be found right here on Earth. And these environments shape us, over generations and over millennia, and not only physically but also spiritually, or culturally if you want that reduced to material terms.

And when all this has played out, as humans looking for new opportunities go to new places where there isn’t existing competition, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Scottish Highlanders turn out to be different from the Tahitians or the Bedouins turn out to be different from the Koreans. And it won’t just be a difference in blood and appearance alone, but also how they form their communities, how they trade, and indeed how they worship. From a materialist perspective, the environments and therefore the mindsets are different, and so then must be the comparative values of things. Indeed, the dictums of morality will be different, but it still comes out of nature at first. In my view, the spirit of morality is to form in us the object-level ideas of how to live well together in nature, in accordance with our combined interest. But we can talk about object-level stuff another time.

Now I just said the word mindset, but what even is a mind?

As you know, we have bodies. These bodies have brains in them. But where does the brain end and the, uh, ‘non-brain body’ begin?

The answer is…

The answer doesn’t matter. (Now if you’re a professional philosopher or neuroscientist, leave it in the comments, and go have smart babies.)

For the rest of us, we are our bodies. I think, therefore I am, but we think within and feel throughout our bodies, holistically. Your brain is not cotton candy on a stick. Walt Disney’s head is not in a jar underneath the Epcot Centre going MOAR MOAR COPYRIGHT I WANT TO OWN ALL CULTRAL EXPRESSION OF HUMANS MOAR MOAR MOAR

Actually, that would explain quite a lot.

But, first principle, we think with our bodies, because our brains are a part of our bodies. Indeed everything that comes to the cerebrum is mediated through the rest of the body. The body is the interface with the substrate, with nature, in fact the body is part of nature. You are natural and a part of nature. Human nature is subordinate to nature nature. (Human nature is a subset of nature, if you want to put it that way.) And when we try to act otherwise, we fill the planet with lies and garbage and conflict and many of die. And would nature even miss us if we all died? Would an intelligence like ours emerge once more?

You know how everyone has a message they’d like to send back into the past?

For some, it’s “Pewdiepie, stay off that bridge!”

For me, for many years, it was “You know, when your sweetheart tells you to stay, maybe you should.”

But we can’t travel more than one path at a time, and in the most meaningful cases you shall pass a particular way but once. Tonight, the thing I would say to the past is, “Maybe you shouldn’t take stuff that was written down centuries ago in other lands so seriously. Writing is not a replacement for living lore. The final word is not in fact the final word. Also maybe don’t turn the rules of animal husbandry back onto people.”

But what’s done is done, and maybe there was no alternative for us but to go through history. Luckily, we now also have technology. Without technology, we would have immense difficulty communicating and cooperating between peoples, and even within a people when the people are isolated. (Which is very much the case in many alleged communities. Communities that don’t commune are not communities!) And now that we are committed to communicating true things, the system of cooperation will grow and grow. So good luck out there!

And, if you want to remix, translate this, put in some music, or whatever good thing you want to do, you can. This video and others in this vein I will be putting up under the Creative Commons – Attribution licence. Just don’t make me say something I didn’t say. I’m trusting you guys. We’re all going to be excellent to each other, right? Right? Good, good. Okay, so, again, good luck out there!

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