Critique of sensualism? An example from Radical Honesty


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Hello all,

 

I am currently doing a course in Radical Honesty (there are parallels imo to Objectivist ethics). One of the tenets of Radical Honesty is that only the noticings from your senses are true and real and everything your mind adds is a more or less arbitrary interpretation or story and cannot be considered THE truth.

 

This idea reminds me of sensualism. The idea that only the material from our senses is true.

Unfortunately I was unable to reconstruct a critique of sensualism.

How can we say that our abstractions (interpretations of sensual noticings, stories) are true?

 

In the basic Radical Honesty example it sure doesn't seem like we could. 

Example:

Noticing: Somebody frowns and walks out the room.

Story: I might interpret that person is angry at me.

Fact: I do not know why the person stormed out the room. All I know for sure (to be true) is that the person pulled there mouth down, something I imagined to be frowning, and walked out the room (something I imagined as storming out).

My attempt: I suppose in this situation I couldnt know for sure about the interpretation or story I make from my noticing. So I would just form a theory. At which point a theory becomes fact is probably the crux of all epistemology. I think the answer is when there is no contradicting evidence in my context? But still when is there enough evidence for it to assert it as fact?

To stick with the example, lets say I do a reality check and ask the person if they are angry with me and they tell me yes and start yelling at me. I suppose then I would know as truth above sensualism that they are angry with me. But even there you could ask questions such as: maybe they are angry with themselves and projecting it on me. Maybe they just want to pretend they are angry with me to achieve a certain eng (easier breakup, pity, etc.) so can I ever really know something about what I see?

I will always know for sure that the person yelled at me and made a frowning face at me. But can I be certain of the meaning / interpretation of that?

Thank you for reading and chiming in!

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1 hour ago, mpp said:

. . . that only the noticings from your senses are true and real and everything your mind adds is a more or less arbitrary interpretation or story and cannot be considered THE truth.

“. . . that one has forgotten how the concept of ‘the arbitrary’ was originated. An arbitrary idea is one accepted by chance, caprice, or whim. It stands in contradistinction to an idea accepted for logical reasons, from which it is intended to be distinguished. The existence of such a concept as an ‘arbitrary idea’ is made possible only by the existence of logically necessary ideas. The former is not a primary.” (73)

Also in that same Branden lecture: “Any human statement and any claim to knowledge must refer to something that exists or be derived from something that exists or be based on something that exists. An arbitrary statement based on nothing can be said to exist only in the sense that it is a series of sounds uttered by a human being. As far as its content is concerned, it refers, epistemologically speaking, to nothing” (77)

(These are from transcriptions of lectures in the 1960’s titled Basic Principles of Objectivism, in the book The Vision of Ayn Rand.)

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You can reduce everything to physicalism, but then you have wiped out actual consciousness and it's knowing content.

Radical honesty sounds like a road to mental hernias because such reductionism per se means you can't do anything with words. You have walked out of an operative picture.

As for truth, anyone claiming it's impossible is claiming to know that truth.

--Brant

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 Hey all,

thanks for answering in my thread! :)

Guyau, I agree with you, that arbitrary could be a stolen concept. But I am not saying that there at not non-arbitrary statements. I am asking, how we can achieve the same level of certainty about an abstraction as we have about an observation. There is a long way between arbitrary and certain. Something could be founded in evidence, hence not arbitrary but still just a hypothesis or theory. How can we ever say that our stories or interpretations are as true as something we observe with our eyes?

Brant, I am not sure I follow. Consciousness observes the physical so is still needed. Also I do not want to say that there are no interpretation, stories, abstractions at all possible. I am asking how we can be certain of the truth of these. :)

-m

 

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mmp,

Would you rate memory of the observation that I've begun this sentence as true as the observation of its completion? That memory over t1 to t2 as true as the observation at t2? I'd say yes, and various competencies of memory, including semantic memory, are involved in the observation that one is writing a sentence or that one has read a complete sentence. Observation engaged in our everyday reasoned maneuvers, such as getting to the coffee maker, is not so simple as old philosophers cracked it up to be. Scientific observation is even more elaborate and embedded in more elaborate reason. One wonderful book I can recommend up this alley is Harold I. Brown's Observation and Objectivity (Oxford 1987).

You might like to consider also in what ways, if any, scientific observations are more true than a theory presumed substantively true (at least partially and substantively) where that theory predicted the new observation (or invention). Might theory T, being partially true (where the bounds of the partial truth are discerned ever-better by subsequent encompassing theories) be as true as the scientific observation O that T predicts. (This is not like the two Greek astronomers having competing mechanical [alternate kinematics of imagined alternate machines in the sky] explanations for observed paths of planets [as observed from earth] that later turned out to be indifferently both true because the differences in the models turned out to be superfluous.) An example would be the discovery of Neptune. The planet was found using a telescope (notice, they depend on our theory of optics) to see it (observe it) motivated by observational records showing that the orbit of Uranus deviated from the Newtonian theory of what its path would be given the then-known gravitating sources that would be exerting attraction on Uranus. The Newton theory---the law of gravity given in that theory---would seem as much true for Uranus as the confirming observation of the existence of Neptune, even if it is only part of the truth of gravity, as later shown by general relativity and its observational confirmations of its (perhaps only partial, but less partial) truth. Substantive partial truth is substantive truth, I'd say, and such truths of theory have made this medium of communication from dirt.

 

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10 hours ago, mpp said:

Consciousness observes the physical so is still needed. Also I do not want to say that there are no interpretation, stories, abstractions at all possible. I am asking how we can be certain of the truth of these. :)

What does truth even mean in the context of your last sentence? If you say we cannot know if an abstraction is true, for example, while the truth itself is an abstraction, you're going in circles. The 'truth' depends on consciousness, and the accordance of the contents of which with reality.

 

Your question is basically: We can know, but how can we know we know? This is a contradiction. If we can't know we know, then we can't know. And though we can think we know something we do not, that doesn't mean that everything we think we know is false.

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12 hours ago, mpp said:

 Hey all,

thanks for answering in my thread! :)

Guyau, I agree with you, that arbitrary could be a stolen concept. But I am not saying that there at not non-arbitrary statements. I am asking, how we can achieve the same level of certainty about an abstraction as we have about an observation. There is a long way between arbitrary and certain. Something could be founded in evidence, hence not arbitrary but still just a hypothesis or theory. How can we ever say that our stories or interpretations are as true as something we observe with our eyes?

Brant, I am not sure I follow. Consciousness observes the physical so is still needed. Also I do not want to say that there are no interpretation, stories, abstractions at all possible. I am asking how we can be certain of the truth of these. :)

-m

 

Through validation. Einstein became famous when a scientist went to an island off west Africa and made confirming observations during a solar eclipse. Before that Relativity might just have been a word salad.

--Brant

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I presume this is the Brad Blanton thing. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Years ago I remember seeing a lady who was one of Blanton's assistants or star pupils or something like that give a demonstration of what Radical Honesty can look like when externalized at an Eben Pagan lecture.

She got in her zone, then started bouncing her thoughts out in a literal stream of consciousness, one instant mewling in fear and almost crying at the prospect of addressing the audience, then squinting at the light, then laughing at how something looked funny, and so on

It was very weird in an Uncanny Valley kind of way. Instant mood swings like with on-off switches. And no mood (or state or whatever one calls it) lasted longer than a few seconds.

I don't know if it is typical to do that. I kinda remember her saying you have to go deep into the techniques to get to where she was at, but I can't guarantee the accuracy of what I remember right now. It's been years since I've thought about this.

I remember liking the idea of opening my inner awareness to what my inner mental processes were leading me to think and feel about inputs at the moment they were doing it, and even dominating them with this awareness.

But I didn't like being so stuck in the present that everything else gets shut down.

I was intrigued enough to be curious and remember this event (I saw it on video), but I never pursued it. So it has been in my mental box of one day finding out more about it, but only if I have time.

I don't know if this is useful or interesting to anyone, but there it is.

:) 

Michael

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I like the comparison Stephen makes between experience and memory of experience, because that is what I focus on when thinking of the basis of knowledge. You know you're experiencing in the moment, but how do you know your experience from just two minutes ago is accurate? But before considering the validity of the memory we must consider why the knowledge of our experience in the moment is true. We are experiencing, but how do we know we are experiencing? Those are different things. To know means to conceive of consciously what is real. To know we are experiencing means more than just experiencing, it also means to have some concept of experience. The concept of experience implies a subject and an object.

 

Do our senses tell us we exist? No, that is our mind. Therefore even our knowledge of our own experience, or own existence, depends on abstraction. This abstraction contextualizes our experience and gives us a new dimension to measure truth vs falseness in the form of contradictions.

 

How do we know our memories are accurate? We cannot measure their accuracy perfectly. We cannot measure anything perfectly (infinite precision). But obviously we can measure them. A memory of me sitting down in my office chain is measurably more true than a memory of me teleporting into the chair. Again, the measurement is based on congruity vs contradiction. It is because we live in a conceptual world and not just a world of sensory data that we can compare the validity of these two memories; and this is true for interpretations, stories, and abstractions of all kinds.

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In 2018 and 2019, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia several times on business.  Most of my time was in Moscow, but I also visited St. Petersburg and Ryazan and a couple of other small towns in the vicinity of Moscow.  Before every trip, I and my colleagues were briefed on acceptable behaviors in Russia and on what topics to avoid in conversation - the usual suspects including religion and politics.  I found out on my first day in Moscow how difficult it is to avoid those topics as Russians are direct and often ask questions like

  • "Do you go to church?"
  • "Why are you single?" (this not in a flirty way, but in a judgmental way)
  • "Who did you vote for in your last presidential election?"
  • "Do you think Russians are less free than Americans?"
  • "Do you agree that Russian hackers have interfered in your country?"

They also like to debate the nature of freedom, the US constitution, who really won The Great Patriotic War, and whether the US moon landing was faked, among many other topics.

I eventually stopped trying to be diplomatic in my responses, and would respond that my employer strongly discourages me from having these types of conversations.  And now to the point...

One of my Russian colleagues then explained that their directness is an implementation of Radical Honesty developed over decades (possibly centuries) of being in literal life or death situations where they have to ascertain quickly if the person they are interacting with can be trusted.  It's not enough to see a smiling face or engage in pleasantries as the senses can be easily tricked or manipulated.  It requires potentially uncomfortable interaction and the speedy collection of multiple data points to determine how safe one is in a situation.

So, while there is value in the philosophical question how do I know what I know is true, there is also value in the practical question why do I need to know what I know is true.  In the example of the frowning person storming out of the room (or not), if the person is a stranger to me and his presence, or lack thereof, is irrelevant... I probably don't care if he's mad, what he's mad about, or who he's mad at.  However, if he's my fiance and the room he just stormed out of is the room in which we were about to be married, then I very quickly damn well figure out who he's mad at and why and I can't sit around observing stuff to get to the bottom of that.  

 

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On 11/25/2020 at 7:41 PM, dldelancey said:

One of my Russian colleagues then explained that their directness is an implementation of Radical Honesty developed over decades (possibly centuries) of being in literal life or death situations where they have to ascertain quickly if the person they are interacting with can be trusted.  It's not enough to see a smiling face or engage in pleasantries as the senses can be easily tricked or manipulated.  It requires potentially uncomfortable interaction and the speedy collection of multiple data points to determine how safe one is in a situation.

So, while there is value in the philosophical question how do I know what I know is true, there is also value in the practical question why do I need to know what I know is true.  In the example of the frowning person storming out of the room (or not), if the person is a stranger to me and his presence, or lack thereof, is irrelevant... I probably don't care if he's mad, what he's mad about, or who he's mad at.  However, if he's my fiance and the room he just stormed out of is the room in which we were about to be married, then I very quickly damn well figure out who he's mad at and why and I can't sit around observing stuff to get to the bottom of that.  

 

Good thoughts. I was struck again while watching a Jane Austen film how simpler it was once, especially for human relations. Early humans were aware at one time of *only* what they sensed and perceived in their immediate vicinity, acts of other individuals included, and could conceptualize from those. (Since mankind survived, there is testament to the fact that they did). That stays the same, the epistemology is unchanged and constant, but information of concrete things and human actions multiplied exponentially with increasing modernization - and the mass media - and so requires much further abstraction. The argument is validly made that an opposition to reasoning has been underway, and that sensations/emotions have taken over. Largely to do with the internet, "reality" is now what other people perceive it to be.

Well put: your fiance storms out with an unpleasant expression on his face, you 'see' and 'know' the expression and action to which your rational response is instant concern: I.e. A greatly valued individual is evincing some clear disvalue which is -automatically- of disvalue also to yourself. Before even knowing the cause of his discomfort.

Agreed too, the relevance of a passing stranger's frown/smile/etc.,  is an arbitrary and insignificant matter to the rational. He/she could be totting up figures in their head, recalling a good meal, anticipating meeting someone - and so on. Although you see and know the perception, you don't know the cause, don't care, nor would you involve yourself in his private affairs; ultimately, in his mind and life. (A cry of anguish nearby, I'd argue however, would be of concerned attention to a rational person).

And seeing this is about "radical honesty" how much do people's expressions mirror their true values and feelings, especially in the latter five years? From long observation (watching, suggesting and capturing facial expressions relate to my profession and are of abiding interest), I noticed a growing trend of deception. People have always dissembled. This same applied In Austen's time when someone might show concern, pleasure (etc.) while inwardly thinking and feeling otherwise. Hypocrisy has been forever a feature of humans. It is understood hereabouts that "Faking reality", is foremost of damage to oneself, but secondly it seems inarguable, also to worthwhile, truthful, human relations ending in the effects on societies; now it seems everyone's an actor in his own movie (and becoming so younger then ever. One thing one used to count on was the innocent honesty of young faces: what they felt, they guilelessly showed. Now they've learned guile and 'appearances to others' from their elders or social media and that is a crying shame). 

In short, the self-awareness of your facial appearance to the senses of the random other, has become all-critical. Supposedly they tell of your inner state and moral virtue. (A mirror isn't needed any more, one can rehearse one's facial expressions on "selfies" in instant feedback).

Getting to this point, I'm very conscious more recently how the smile and laugh and public tears have turned inauthentic, or overdone. Everywhere you look, from movies to (extremely unfunny) comedians, audiences and individual lives, masses of people are smiling more broadly and laughing hilariously at the least inducement, obviously for personal and internet consumption. The conforming mode one sees, is an exaggeratedly thrown back head accompanying a huge belly laugh - has anyone noticed this new behavioral phenomenon that has crept up on the world?  Clearly, that's less to do with true pleasure and amusement, more a show to the omnipresent 'other' and those cameras everywhere.

The intention seems a psychological need to over-compensate, to convince others, pleading: See? I am not a threat; I feel empathy; I have love. Known popularly as Virtue signaling. And that points to existential fear not pleasure and amusement. As fear of others - and their 'tribes' - and of our world increases, visibly so does the shallowness of public behavior to cover it over.

That rare, serious frown of thought or a relaxed, appropriate, smile on someone's face is now a highly welcome change to recent universal physicalism. Hide that frown, it will be taken to signify hatefulness to any stranger...

The clamp-down on Freedom of Expression goes past controlling your language/words, implicitly trying to disallow even the freedom/privacy of one's thinking - and your face also is not free and private today.

 

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