[As usual, I wanted to write about something else, but my intro got too long. This will be a two-part post. What I’m saying might be familiar to you. Some of it may be philosophically inaccurate. Corrections are welcome on those parts.]
First, a short modern philosophy lesson. In the late 18th C and 19th C, the philosophy of humanism was a cornerstone of the Enlightenment. From the belief in a universal moral core of humanity it followed that all persons are inherently free and equal. By the 20th C, this idea had begun to come philosophically under attack. But it is a very powerful idea and most of us still believe it and do so proudly. Much of what we say about freedom, selfhood, choice, morality etc. was crafted in the late 18th C.
What many of us don’t realise is – before that, this idea didn’t exist. The idea of the human self as an autonomous being with the capacity and the right to choose the direction of his life is a modern invention. Philosophically, one can actually trace its genesis and birth and it doesn’t go back that far, though it might have been alluded to here and there.
But how can that be? From the time human beings existed, the individual slef existed no? Actually no. Creatures of a certain shape and form that we decided, retrospectively, to call human existed. And back then, they didn’t exist in the form we do now. Not just physically, but mentally. By which I mean, they didn’t exist in the way human beings exist in our minds now. We, in effect, created our ancestors and thereby, ourselves. The idea of a human being as possessing not just certain physical characteristics but of the free individual crystalised and became widely accepted only relatively recently.*
It’s all very like The Matrix. We exist because we created a narrative that gives ourselves meaning. Even the rebels are just characters in that narrative, and their rebellious speak and actions, an essential part of the grand narrative because opposition adds meaning and confirms exist. This is Neo’s startling realisation at the end of the Matrix – that he is also part of the fiction.
In human history, the little boy who called out the emperor’s new clothes was Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguist. He proposed that everything is created in language. What he said is something like that story of the blind men and the elephant. Unlike the version of the poem which concludes that all of them were wrong, however, the structuralist conclusion would be that all of them were right. This quote at the end of the Wiki article attributed to Werner Heisenberg, physicist and proposer of the uncertainty principle, on the poem might help us understand: ““We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
The post-structuralist philosophers Foucault, Derrida (who is still slightly incomprehensible to me), Althusser and the like took this idea further. Underlying all much of their work is a coming terms with the fundamental idea that meaning is created and often this negotiation of meaning is violent (not necessarily physically but in other ways). And somewhere in there is the implication that to believe in complete freedom is to be complacent at best, dishonest at worst.**
So while we would like to believe in truth, and choice and human freedom, at some point, we need to realise that what there really is, if anything can really be described as real, is a version of the truth that we understand to suit us by consensus at a particular moment in time and relative ability and desire to engage with that version.***
You can imagine that this idea rocked the foundations of everyone’s existence. It was worse than saying God doesn’t exist. It was like saying, nothing exists, not really. We are all players, as Shakespeare said, and now we have to face that that was not just a metaphor. The modern (20th C ish) position was to be all worried and agonised about this, reflected in the art (Picasso, Stravinsky, TS Eliot etc.) The post-modern position was to say, oh well, let’s just make the most of it then while always, at some point, reminding ourselves that hey, we’re just playing. Thus, post-modern art is very playful and reflexive.
(This is only possible if you’re living in a certain amount of luxury. If you have no food to eat, then whether it’s a game or not ceases to matter because you just really want to eat dammit. And to allow yourself to think that it’s just a game would be very dangerous because then you might consider stopping playing. No, better to just focus on finding that food.)
That’s all very well for art and abstract thinking but how to live like this? It’s kind of disorienting to function when the ground beneath your feet could be water. It’s sort of like religion. The purpose of religion is to provide structure for living and understanding life and the power of religion is that is provides a very simple one and gains consensus around it. It’s much easier to live when you have religion which is why I might well make the conscious choice to give religion to my children. (Though it might prove challenging since I know the structure is a structure; the crux of religion is to switch off that bit of knowing and you can only do that at a very young age.)
Okay, so for many of us, religion is too obviously fiction but a pleasant narrative that we like to adhere to sometimes, like a favourite storybook that we read when our nerves are jumpy. We know that we’re just players but what keeps us playing? In the past we were programmed to believe we must keep playing, the possibility of not doing so didn’t, wasn’t allowed to, exist. Now, that we have seen the game for what it might be (but not is) and that a terrible fate probably does not await if we stop playing, we why we keep doing it (by which I mean, existing)?****
Hopefully, because we enjoy the game, maybe because when we stop enjoying the game as it is, we get to change the rules a bit and finally, because we allow ourselves to think we have a choice.
I think that driving us all is the imperative not to end – this might be another of those things that is closest to truth though I may be wrong – that we go on, not because the priests or our parents told us to, but really because we want to and because in the end we have no choice. We are still the version of human being that either largely wants to keep going (and thereby make that going as pleasant as possible) or cannot seem to want to stop keeping on existing. A new dawn for human beings might be when this largely stops being a need. Then we will know something else.
* But but this table is real no? I can touch it, feel it, it exists dammit. Well, there’s definitely something there. But what is it? It is a table because you and millions of people say so. But it could very well be mud, or a rock.
* *And inherent in that is the seed of the idea that everything are saying could be completely baloney too because they are also constructing meaning in a particular way. They are the Neos, but well, you know how that story ends (or rather almost ends. It ends in very Hollywood fashion to make all of us feel good).
***The tattoo on my back is the Chinese word for “truth”. Or so I thought. But recently, the salesgirls at a shoe shop read it as the Chinese word for “real” or “really”, which when I thought about it, is very similar in meaning to truth. But slightly different in that it carries in it an existential crisis, the insistence that reality exists, really. It is more apt that my tattoo reads “really” rather than “truth” because really there is no truth. Oh dear, I’m doing post-structuralist analysis of my tattoo. What is the world coming to?
****That might be why videogames are popular among some very smart people. They are the storybooks of the 21st C. They tell back to us the story of life and in a form that reminds us of the one thing that might possibly be “true” – that it is all fiction.