Subverting Rationality (Part 2)

“The only thing(s) real is that which is meaningful”

The Limitations of Objective Rationalism

Objective rationalism is a way of knowing and reasoning using empirical methods to deal with reality as opposed to subjective means. Objective rationalism has its basis in striving for impartiality devoid of bias and prejudice. It identifies knowledge as coming from outside sense data as opposed to internal structures that we use to interpret the outside world. It is a useful tool when, for example, a detective is trying to solve a difficult homicide case or when research is conducted to cure a deadly disease. In these examples, biasness and personal (subjective) opinion can skew the results.

 My argument states that objective rationalism is (1) limited, (2) is not how we construct our world, and (3) collapses on itself. Because of the myopic nature of objective rationalism, my contention is that ways of knowing and reasoning reality can be accomplished through pursuing that which is meaningful. In other words: that which is most real is that which is most meaningful.

 Objective rationalism is a limited way of perceiving the world because it dismisses the meaning of experiences; it tells us only ‘what is’ and not ‘why it matters’. When we analyze something or someone from an objective viewpoint, we focus strictly on the sense data (touch, taste, feel, sight, smell) and that which is falsifiable. It’s this method that speaks to the ‘is-ness’ of the situation, and that’s about it. In many situations this is useful, and in fact needed, for instance, when a medical examiner is conducting an autopsy and brut facts is paramount.

Objectivity, however, is limited in that it cannot tell us why it matters. The medical examiner can determine how the person died, but not why their life mattered. This is excruciatingly important given human beings are meaning-making creatures who are driven and motivated by that which is purposeful and significant. Our lives are narratives of meaningful and significant events linked together to form our personal life story.

Imagine how difficult it would be to recount your personal autobiography through only objective lenses? In other words, in recounting your past, you stripped away any subjective assessments and only articulated that which was demonstrably real. Not only would this be an impossible task as you focus solely on the ‘is-ness’ of everything in your past, but it is also a sterile account that would put most listeners to sleep. This is simply not how we live life. When we recount our past or construct an idealized future, we do it with meaning as our guide.

Because objectivity is so limited, we can make the argument that that which is most real is most meaningful. First, each of us creates a narrative (a story) of our ‘self’ and that narrative is constructed against the backdrop of meaningful and significant events. Each of us sees our life as a play, as Shakespeare articulated, “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” We can’t help but view ourselves as the lead actor in our play, and more importantly, our script and plot strive to illuminate meaning. If you are skeptical of this point, simply think about this question: how would you like your life to be in ten years? I guarantee the way you answer that question will focus on that which is meaningful to you.

Second, meaning is what moves us forward to an idealized future. I touched upon this in my first point, so I won’t belabor this thought. So, here is another question to ask yourself: Why didn’t you commit suicide this morning? Once again, I can guarantee that your answer to that question will center on reasons that focus on meaning, purpose, and significance.

Third, our brains are wired to interpret the meaningful as real. Simply put, our brains are wired to react to things that have meaning before they construct the perceptions that you think of as objects. The reason for this is that the meaning of things is more real, in some sense, and more important than the viewing of things as objects. When you approach a cliff, you don’t see a cliff, you see a falling off place. It isn’t that it is an object ‘cliff’ to which you attribute the meaning of the ‘falling off place’ to. The ‘falling off place’ comes first, and the abstraction of the object ‘cliff’, if it happens at all, comes much later. Much later conceptually as well, given that babies can detect cliffs without knowing the concept of ‘cliff’.

All this to say: that which is most real is most meaningful. We instinctively construct our world through meaning – having done so for millennia – which is why our brain has predispositioned us to react to meaningful experiences before we have the chance to begin the process of objectively rationalization.

 Objective rationalism is not how we construct our world

 Knowledge does not begin in the ‘I’, and it does not begin in the object; it begins in the interactions. There is a reciprocal and simultaneous construction of the subject on the one hand, and the object on the other. We are not simply surrounded by things made of matter (objectively speaking), the things around us literally matter (subjectively speaking).

Our world is constructed through our daily experiences that unfold our perceptions; a type of perpetual un-concealing. Through this unfolding and un-concealing, we have interactions – some positive, some negative – that results in dis-covering the world around us. For example, the object ‘dog’ can be revealed to one person as a ‘friendly loveable canine’ and to another as ‘a vicious beast’. It is un-concealed as either ‘loveable’ or ‘vicious’ based on one’s interactions with it. This is why if someone is attacked at an early age, often all dogs will be regarded as a threat – because of the previous (dangerous) interaction between the subject and the object. It is through these interactions with objects, that our world emerges.

It’s not like you will learn everything from the world through your senses. And it’s not as if you only project onto the world as interpretation. It’s something in between and it’s a dynamic, like bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is the processes that occurs when, for example, your computer boots up. Your computer is first ‘off’, and when turned ‘on’, a bunch of simple processes occur, and from those processes more complex processes emerge, and then out of those some more complex processes emerge. Well that’s what happens to us with regards to reality – you bootstrap yourself. Each experience in life changes us, even in microscopic ways, towards new realities. This is akin to the lesson of Heraclitus that says no person can step into the same water twice. There is a constant flow to life that we are a part of, in which, we incessantly are emerging in an ever-changing way.

Why in the world is this important? Because as you act in the world, you generate information, and out of that information you make the structures inside of you and you make the world. Your reality is neither objective in that it is driven solely by sense perception. And your world is not simply whatever interpretation you project. Rather, your world emerges to you as it unfolds and unconceals itself to you; putting you in the position to interact and cope with the (positive or negative) physiological reactions to experience.

Objective rationalism collapses into itself

Objective rationalism collapses into itself because it assumes a God’s eye view of reality, when really, it’s just a slightly different angle at best. Let’s dig deeper. Objective rationalism purports to be able to uncover an objective reality. Its apparently value-free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this “view from nowhere” to use Thomas Nagel’s phrase, is itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer or more real or closer to the nature of things.

Simply put: what we come to know consists not of things, but of relationships, each apparently separate entity qualifying the others to which it is related. Objective rationalism collapses into itself because while it privileges detachment from objects, it utterly ignores our relationship with the object. It focuses on isolation while excluding connection. Let’s fact it, everything has a particular context and within that context, we imbue certain entities with meaning. It is our context and connection with the world that constructs our reality. A parasitic dependence on objective rationalism is what you have with robots, and simply collapses with humans because of our complex ability to abstract experiences and process phenomena in meaningful ways. Therefore, one person may reasonably conclude that, for example, capital punishment is just, while another can reasonably conclude it is unjust, and thus murder. Objective rationalism cannot adjudicate this dilemma because people have different experiences, affects and interactions of phenomena.


Subverting Rationality (Part 1)

Written over 2 days after my philosophy group called Symposium, met to discuss myth and objective rationalism. This is a short 700 essay that attempts to buttress my claim that the only thing(s) real are that which is most meaningful, as opposed to that which is objectively demonstrable through empiricism.


One of the most important foundational questions to our existence is this: How should we best construe the world if we are to determine how to act properly within it? The world in which we live can either be construed as a forum for meaningful action, or a place of objective things. The former finds its place in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, and literature and mythology. In this construal, meaning is shaped by our social interactions which produces a guide to action. The latter manner is a world of things and finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. In this construal science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validated properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely determined things as tools.

These binary construal’s – one aimed at meaning and the other aimed at reality as it ‘is’ – ought to prompt us to ask another foundational question: How is it that complex and admirable ancient civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon Pre-Enlightenment nonsense? I frame the question this way because modernity has a way of elevating today’s (post-experimental) objective rationalism over-and-above (pre-experimental) mythos of meaningful action. However, if a culture grows and survives, does it not indicate in some profound way that the ideas it is based upon are valid? It myths are mere superstitious proto-theories, why did they work? Why were they remembered?

We have made the great mistake that the “world of spirit” described by those who preceded us was the modern “world of matter,” primitively conceptualized. That is not true – at least in the simple manner we generally believe. The cosmos described by mythology was not the same place known to the practitioners of modern science – but that does not mean it was not real. We have not yet found God above, nor the devil below, because we do not yet understand where “above” and “below” might be found.


Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is qualitatively different phenomena. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique for shared affective valance, their value, their motivational significance.

Much of the clash between mythos and objective rationalism is that the modern notion reduces ‘true’ and ‘real’ to that which can only be demonstrated empirically while completely stripping the affect of every encounter we experience. But let’s take the ancient Sumerians as an example. The “world” of the ancient Sumerians was not objective reality as we presently construe it. The Sumerians were concerned, above all, with how to act (were concerned with the value of things). Their descriptions of reality (to which we attribute the qualities of proto-science) in fact comprised their summary of the world as phenomenon – as place to act. They did not “know” this – not explicitly – any more then we do. But it was still true.

The ancient Sumerians faced the same challenge as we do today: How do we live with purposeful meaning? This is the fundamental drive for human beings. We wake up in the morning and begin moving towards some-thing, meaning. Meaning means implication for behavioral output. Therefore, there are three excruciatingly important questions that guide our being, and they are: (1) What is? (2) What should be? and (3) How should we therefore act?


Objective rationalism is silent and utterly impotent to these questions. Not even analyzing brain states can tell us why any meaningful experiences even matter. To the contrary, we are all moved by a goal that resides in an imaginary state – in fantasy – as something (potentially) preferable to the present. We then tweak how we act within the world so as to one day obtain the idealized future we have in our head. What I am describing is a forum for action; it’s what every myth is based upon. No, it’s not ‘true’ or ‘real’ in the modern sense, but the affect on us is absolutely true, and real.


Values: On What Basis is a Value Wrong

“Words like “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are empty if we don’t consider what the Good Life is, along with personal well-being. If we want to strengthen our morality and deepen our spirituality, we must strive to improve our personal well-being, and promote the well-being of others.” – Wes Fornes with 2 shots of espresso

In Starbucks last night, I overhead a lady ask rhetorically, “can we really fault an indigenous tribe that practices human sacrifice if it’s part of their spirituality?” After I almost choked on my venti hot chocolate, it got me thinking….

What would the world look like if we ceased to talk in terms of right and wrong, and good and evil and spoke in terms of well-being?

Values come in all shapes and forms. In Albania, there is a tradition of vendetta called Kanun. If a man commits murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. This means that a son of a murderer will live his life in fear while missing out in the pleasures of a normal life. In parts of the Middle East, women are required to wear a burqa. In parts of Africa, it is traditional practice for girls to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) for the goal of purity.

Can we say that these cultures are morally wrong for structuring their societies this way? Is their tradition a form of evil? Are their values inferior to our own? If so, on what basis?

Perhaps it is best to think in terms of well-being, rather in terms of right or wrong, good or evil. Well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists definition, and yet it is indispensable. In fact, meanings of both terms seem likely to remain perpetually open to revision as we make progress in science. Today, a person can consider himself physically healthy if he is free of detectable disease, able to exercise, and destined to live in his eighties without suffering obvious decrepitude. But this standard may change. Moreover, we must occasionally experience unpleasantness – medication, surgery, etc. – in order to avoid greater suffering or death. My point: all sane people would prefer to have good health over bad health; and we can have consensus to what good and bad health would look like.

Let’s further unpack well-being. Most people would describe a Good Life as involving: happiness, fulfillment, no stress, meaningful friendships, all basic needs are met, etc. All of these have a high degree of personal well-being. At the same time, most of us would describe the worst possible life as involving pain, isolation, war, lack of basic needs met, etc. Again, the Bad Life carries a low degree of well-being. Anyone who doesn’t see that the Good Life is preferable to The Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion on well-being … Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?

I believe that these three examples (Kunan, the burqa and FGM) above are morally reprehensible, on the basis of well-being. Simply put, the well-being of these individuals is compromised, as well as their ability to flourish, thus, it is wrong. We do not need a sacred text, Confucian principle passed down or prophet to tell us what is right or wrong. Often when people think in terms of morality, their basis rests on religion or on a simple superficial maxim: that just seems wrong. Many others would look at these cultures and say that their actions are part in parcel to their culture and should be tolerated and respected. But just as the burqa is embedded in Muslim culture along with the Christian teaching of Hell embedded in hundreds of thousands of Sunday School classrooms across America, both are objectively wrong on the basis that is inhibits well-being.

So here is the question: can we really fault an indigenous tribe that practices human sacrifice if it’s part of their spirituality? I can objectively say that human sacrifice for a “noble” cause is immoral on the basis that it does not promote the flourishing of well-being within the tribe. I do the same with Kunan, mandatory burqas, FGM and for adults who teach 7 year olds that Hell awaits them if they don’t choose the right God.

So think about what a flourishing well-being looks like to you and strive for it.

Written at Starbucks in Los Gatos on 1/24/2015 around 9am