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Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Four Illusions of Political Thinking

I turned the car onto Tremont Street, but was sure the sign said Fairmont because that was the street I was looking for.

The elevator came, the door opened, and I started to jump on when two people came out confronting me blocking the way. "Oh, excuse me," I said, expecting the elevator to be empty for me.

My spouse said that she was the one who talked about us going to Africa on vacation; but I remember clearly that it was me.

How could anyone say that about me? Don't they realize what a good guy I am?

I just illustrated four illusions I often have. I experience what I want to. I neglect others by being so involved in me. I have an erroneus interpretation of what happened or is about to. And I live in the world as I would like it to be by forgetting the world as it is. They are called by psychologists and philosophers 1) the objective fallacy, 2) the solipsist deception, 3) the illusion of the absolute, and 4) the realist fantasy. 

These illusions are endemic to the special behavior we humans have evolved. They have their uses but often mislead us as well. I explain.

1. Human behavior is symbolic. We use artificial forms to act in and know about our environment. Examples of these forms are words, models, stories, formulas, and media.

2. There is a four-fold tension in our behavior: 

  • When we use forms, we objectify things apart from us. in the same moment we have a background awareness of our self objectifying things.  Objectifying is subjectifying.
  • Though we feel ourselves solely in charge of our behavior, our behavior and its products are collaborative or social constructions. Our character, our style, our personality, our soul is developed interacting with caregivers, teachers, peers, and others. So are our forms and thoughts. Socializing is personalizing.
  • When we use thoughts to interpret the past, we are projecting a future. The forms and friends we choose determine and are determined by the vision we have of what is good and right. Our vision of what is right and good is shaped by the language we inherit and the heroes we adopt.
  • In all this we experience ourselves as intending the world as we want it to be and living in the world as it is.
In other words, I am in between objects out-there and consciousness in-here. I am in between my personal self and others who are influencing me. I am in between the past and the future. And I am in between the real and the ideal. Some philosophers and theologians call this being present: that is, being here, with, now, and towards. Sages encourage us to be totally present by accepting our ambiguity, our dialectic, our contingency, and our transience. 

3. Illusions arise when we deny, forget, or avoid our in-betweeness: the ambiguity, dialectic, contingency, and transience of human existence. We do this by resolving the tension of being in the world by reducing one or more of the four tensions to one pole or another, rather than accepting our dynamic tension between poles.

Let me call the pole of a tension a "Transcendent," like truth, good, beauty, unity, ideal. Let me call living and acting in-between "Transcendence": passing beyond, critiquing, and developing the forms we are using to come to terms with our environment and build our world.  To objectify, personalize, absolutize, or realize the Transcendent is a mistake that makes illusions and undermines Transcendence. The moral is: Eschew Transcendents by accepting Transcendence. 

4. Political illusions. Now I try to show how these illusions work out in our politics. I will not make explicit how this applies to our choices among policies, parties, and politicians. But I do urge you to do so.

The libertarian illusion is the experience of an independent self and free will. Consciousness is the awareness of subjectivity, a sort of loop back, in and from our behavior to objects in the world. We know from experiment that our brain moves our body to act before we are conscious of that act; and we then rationalize that act as if it came from nothing but our will. We experience ourselves in charge of our activities, oblivious to the background experience of how determined our decisions are by genetics, upbringing, and especially interaction with others.

For the libertarian, freedom is lack of restraints, the negation of limits. The individual is a rule unto himself and has no need to rely on others. Nor should he do anything for others since that destroys the others' freedom. Such freedom is the basis of laissez faire capitalism and neo-Darwinian morality.  For the libertarian, the common good is simply the sum of individuals acting on behalf of their own self-interest without interference.

Free will of the independent self is a helpful illusion because it encourages us to take responsibility for our personal acts. It also encourages us to treat others so that they become more responsible and self-reliant. But it is an illusion that can be very destructive when it rationalizes inequity and blames the less fortunate instead of working with them to change the conditions of oppression.

The liberal illusion: The classic liberal (and modern conservative) assumes that there are eternal values ordained by the divine or by nature. And it is the responsibility of Tribe, Church or State, to enforce the rules and norms that correspond to those values.

The conservative discovers these rights and laws in the past and especially in the great ideas taught by our ancestors. The liberal discovers these rights and laws in a future anticipated by the trajectory of history. Both are subject to the illusion of time as an object out there and of history as divinely or naturally determined as it so seems in our lived consciousness. Both the liberal and the conservative claim to be on history's side. They both believe that there is a key to the portal of  progress and they have that key. Both believe that there are correct principles to righteousness and they know what they are.

The illusion is helpful in that it encourages persons to consider the role of culture with its values and ideas in shaping our viewpoints and our worlds. This makes reform possible. But it is destructive insofar as it accepts the inevitability of the division of humanity between the endowed and the less endowed as well as the inevitability of progress. It is an illusion that overlooks that culture and history are fabrications of human thinking rather than divinely or naturally ordained. It often overlooks the fact that values and ideas are human artifacts which can lead to the next illusion.

The authoritarian illusion: Often called the illusion of the absolute or the objectivistic fallacy. This illusion arises because in my activity in the world I am focused on things, objects I have named. A rose is a rose by whatever name, as is snow, mountains, dogs, and humans. This attention to the objective neglects the roles our brain, culture, history, and consciousness are playing in shaping the object. I tend to think that the truth is absolute and "out there." Propositions seem true when they correspond to the reality I experience as shaped by language and culture. And if I do not experience things the way others do, or the way my tribe or nation or religion does, too bad for other persons. They are in error.

The illusion is helpful in that it does direct me to the world and to the data I am receiving as I interact with the environment with others. It is harmful when it does not uncover the fantasies of myth and leads to ideological thinking without understanding the origins and fallacies of ideological thinking. It confuses beliefs with faith that transcends all beliefs and stimulates critical thinking.

The despotic illusion: we are born as naive realists taking everything that we see and hear as the way things really are. Through education we begin to understand that conventional thinking or common sense expressed in ordinary language is continually challenged. Even so we want to believe that the truth is out there in the wisdom of the ancient sages, the formulas of science, the authority of sacred writings and divine revelations. However, presently the new science, accounting for new data through advanced technology, is questioning the classical science of Newton to Einstein.

Contemporary philosophy of science, enlightened by advances in neuroscience, has discovered that our knowledge of nature and of yourselves is mediated by the symbols and tools we use to categorize and relate the data. The holy grail of a unified field theory in which we have the theory of everything, the certainty of truth, and the definitive law of nature is recognized as a fools errand, an impossible dream. This for some might be an occasion to give up the quest and resign to a life without meaning. But for those with faith, it situates truth and good, not at the beginning or end of the journey, but actually in the quest itself. Our reason for life is not to receive meaning from some outside authority or illumination, but rather to creatively and collectively choose and make our meanings.

These four illusions relate to the structure of human behavior that, with the help of many of my mentors in science, religion, and philosophy, I have described many times elsewhere. That structure I call "presence"--being here, now, with, towards. It affirms and even celebrates human existence as a tension between inner and outer space, between past and future time, between self and others in community, between belief and faith or transcendence.

The illusions consist in resolving the tensions by a preoccupation with or absorption in one of the poles. So the libertarian reduces community to the individual. The liberal/conservative reduces transient temporality to paradise in past or future or both. The authoritarian dogmatist loses the subjective in the objective. The despotic realist reduces becoming to being by denying existence in its ambiguity, contingency, and transcendence.

The authoritarian and despotic illusions lead to the great man theory of politics, including the rationalization of demagoguery or the divine right of rulers, and to tyranny in practice. These illusions leads to a fixed ideology, apocalyptic theory, and, in practice, to violent conflict including state terror and counter-terror.

All four illusions reinforce each other. Polarization of parties, withdrawal of people from political life, ordination of autocrats, acceptance of inequity, diminishment of publics and civil society, violence and terror, populist demagoguery born of fear of loss, measuring human happiness by private wealth, all are rooted in these illusions unrecognized as illusions.

Political thinking is a critical response to all four of these illusions. The illusions will always be there as long as humans exist, being-in-and-to-the world, through symbolic and mediated behavior. However, the political thinker recognizes and so dispels these illusions by seeing them as such.

But ethical and political thinking is more than a theory; it is a practice, a way of life and a way of action in the world. Political thinkers choose to 1) accept the contingency, frailty, and suffering of existence, 2) engage in existence through action despite all evidence of the meaninglessness and futility of existence, 3) relate to others, and especially those who have been left or forced out, and work with them to create a relational world of shared power.

Now go and vote. Better yet, organize to make your vote count.


Note: some of this is found in my The Adventure of Philosophy. Later I will apply this to the American elections and the candidates.


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