Our Resource of Dreams and Deceits
Strategies for Practical Metaphysics in Past, Present, and Future
updated February 5, 2008
This is a plain version.
Our Resource of Dreams and Deceits is included in the print anthology Rising in Words with this introductory note: "The great perspectivist philosopher Zhuangzi suggested we are all like dreamers. Our experience of life and orientation within it is like a dream. Even if the dreamer reflects on one dream because he awakes, perhaps he still dreams another. Yet these are different kinds and levels of awareness. In 2005, I wrote a theory of two different strategies of dreaming in order to live."
Throughout the ages the practical people practice this homely advice: live with facts as they are.
Live with facts as they are — this every single one of us must do, or tempt the backlash of reality. This does seem practical. “Reality” — our whole world of apparent phenomena — does not simply bend to accommodate whims, misconceptions, and fantasies. And so we must bend to reality. We must accommodate facts as they are, as we live. But the usual strategy, and common habit for the ‘practical’ accommodation of “facts as they are” has just involved attempting to accept things as they are — as they are, rarely as they might be.
Now the concept of “facts as they are” might imply that facts stay the same, immutable. But that being verb conveys a terrible lie locking us into a present we perpetuate. We should prefer to say “facts as they appear”, for we know nothing but the world of phenomena, in which viewpoint alters all appearances, and no one can make even the most stable fixtures stay fixed. Facts sometimes change with or without our approval or desire. That rule does appear immutable. Human appraisals and models for interpreting reality’s phenomena remain after change, and people, keeping them, attempt to maintain a self-similar world. Still, most do not account for this. Most believe at least to some considerable degree in trying to accept the undesirable aspects of immediate reality as an eternal cross to bear, rather than the provisional acceptance of an unwelcome guest whom one as yet cannot find a way to usher out.
I cannot merely accept, however. My facts of life as I experience life predetermine that I could never stand some of the more unbearable “facts as they are” without looking towards potential in the future — to facts as they may be, as they will be, and as they must be. This is a matter of using metaphysics for survival — the kind I would call imagination, aspiration, vision, but still not real in a sense. By “metaphysical” in this sense I do not mean “beyond physics”, i.e. “never existing” at all. After all the future I would like to see seems appreciably real within the apparent phenomena of my mind, and all experiences certainly count as real phenomena regardless of their locus or origin. Instead, I mean presently unsupported and unrepresented by everyday, mundane, outward phenomena, except for those which I believe confirm the future I dream of as a plausible one.
Sometimes this strategy of hope for the future means seasoning a bland present with thoughts of self-fulfillments which I may one day manage. Sometimes this means working with only a hope that my work will not be wasted. Sometimes, it just means feeling that trying strengthens me, and knowing that I need to try, regardless of success. And sometimes it means sanctifying the most dreaded realities of suffering, error and waste I know are all too real for humans living on the hard soil of planet Earth, only by imagining these things laying foundations, so that one day, humans may live without them, and may exceed all our greatnesses.
I am not alone in my approach of living with one foot in the future. However, fewer by far practice such sustaining optimism compared to those who try to reconcile themselves to acceptance in one manner or another. But is the potential approach, in the end, more or less metaphysical, more or less realistic than those who think they “accept reality” in the here and now, and who might dismiss all who dream about a future as impractical?
Consider that human beings necessarily have their limits in bearing the unsatisfying, the disturbing, the depressing and the harrowing with unflinching, continual recognition. Otherwise we would not even recognize such categories. That limitation is particularly unavoidable because first, humans as mental creatures continue to hold the memories of lacking, troubling, and devastating experiences in mind, as thoughts. Even if they contrive at some level to bury them, they do not forget them. Second, humans must create impressions and understandings of themselves and the world in order to live, using as raw material their past experiences, including their weightier baggage. They do not lack for bothersome raw material because clearly the Earth is no paradise, clearly human society makes a poor utopia, and even those benefiting from relative material comfort and psychological assurance find themselves dissatisfied from time to time for various reasons.
Since they cannot look with hope to a possible future of improved conditions which, though metaphysical now, can seem real and vivid in the phenomena of imagination and therefore satisfying, those who try to accept must reconcile themselves to more illusion — to deceiving themselves about facts, and ignoring information which contradicts manufactured ‘facts’ of some supposed, isolated, mental, noumenal world they could bear to live within and live with. To bear the present they may supplement phenomenal and ostensible facts with articles of wild, ranging and radical faith. Perhaps they subscribe to wholesale acceptance of religious dogma, or uncritically follow cultural values, or enshrine social conventions, perhaps they use escapist fantasies, or maybe they reduce complexities to seductive but shallow theories, premature ideas for holding in mind and feeling superior — any of which may contradict their own experiences of life, if they only bothered to examine the systems in which they operate closely. But of course they will not, for they dare not. Without the reinforcement of hope in a realistic future, they cannot allow themselves to test their ground too hard — perhaps they will find out what lies lie below and fall through into nihilism.
This is the limitation of their metaphysical strategy for survival. Their metaphysical construct must not reflect a possible appreciable state at all, and must in fact be carefully managed, so that they can accept the state in which they find themselves. Many edit and censor their own experience far more assiduously than any totalitarian state, especially through avoiding exposure to challenging exceptions, and carefully cultivating acceptable normalcy. This may require avoiding both peaks and valleys of experience. For heights raise hopes and breed dissatisfaction which might destabilize. And depths are not merely harrowing, but more relevantly provoke one to resolve to change and resort to adaptation, which the resistant, static mind never wants.
Those who think they willingly accept the facts of reality and do seem to betray little difficulty, more accurately accept and work with a fairly select and highly manipulated reality, and that is the secret of their supposed ‘realism’. Otherwise, like the rest of us, they could never bear an existence trapped in the here and now, without visions of change.
To satisfy their requirement for hopeful or sustaining belief, in ages harder and more hopeless in drudgery and oppression the more unfortunate humans invented otherworldly religions the more privileged did not require. Through this innovation, suffering slaves and peasants could believe they could escape from their lives to an inverted domain of heaven or paradise which the meek might inherit through faith. Then on second thought, they could also enjoy imagining the mighty made meek in the afterlife, even suffering worse than the meek in this life (a distinctly secondary, reactionary extension of the basic notion). But even the privileged created or followed metaphysics to supplement unpleasant limitations and changeable nature. For example, since all were more or less at the mercy of nature no matter their privileges, they personified its seemingly spiteful or pitiless treatment as moods of mercurial gods and spirits. Thereby they could gain a sense of overcoming, a sense of power over inclement circumstances through understanding, which is easier to gain from appreciable fiction than baffling scraps of information. They also created whole schemata of mythical worlds in which they had a place and a role, linking their mortal world they knew to complex cosmologies, pantheons and divine genealogies from which they wanted to descend. They created grand history in mythology, more past to root their present. Those who had reason to resent their present, in contrast, created a future unlike it. To bear life, they manufactured grandiose eschatology, and anticipated deliverance through death or apocalypse.
Those who accept present-day facts to accommodate practicality must also deal with the difficulty of stomaching inconvenient, unpleasant, miserable and depressing facts. Such facts taken as fixtures rapidly become unbearable to all human beings. As a survival instinct humans naturally assign importance to disquieting or shocking stimuli. The weight of this snowballs into stress and depression, and collides with acquired world views which cannot account for such stimuli in a satisfying way. Humans either break under the strain, becoming quite apparently deranged, or totter on the edge of a depressive, self-destructive, and ultimately nihilistic pit, until or unless their minds, with ever resourceful survival instincts, find a way to ‘trick’ any skepticism which might cling to harsh reality. Most human minds faced with unsurmountable facts do not perish, but adapt and circuitously find a crooked path to a bearable, believable, but manufactured and metaphysical salvation from them — a wily way to see the world quite altered from their sense experiences and derived knowledge. Fancy, held back otherwise through stubborn scrupulousness of senses, gets in through the back door, often a rational, seemingly pragmatic, wholly reasonable doorway, but still a tunnel leading to affirmative imagination, not “reason.”
In this respect I am most skeptical of the claims of those who believe they can in a sense do without beliefs — that they live faithlessly, empirically, logically and rationally, and also positively and humanely, as if these logically follow from their rationality. This way of spinning a positive ethic into a kind of positivism seems to me at least a temporary phase in the development of quite a few remarkable individuals, who are propelled by the thrill of deconstructing their own inherited burdens weighing them down, and realize they feel light enough to fly. They are understandably convinced of the significance of that experience, for them, and mistake it for a general or intrinsic result. But sometimes the phase hardens to an enduring position, and the latter seems the most likely to hinder individual progress. It seems particularly interesting that those who dismiss the relevance of metaphysics for themselves and for others mainly focus on deconstructing, debating and dispelling others’ ridiculous beliefs, as if they already “know” they have no superstitions of their own to uproot. While these crusades may help liberate those oppressed by the effects of beliefs, and may even prove profitable to the rest of us, by no means do they suggest any great capacity for the difficulties of introspection, or demonstrate creativity of their own. It seems most instructive that affirmative rationalists have so little of their own to offer to those rationalists who live with despair, the depressed questioners and seekers, who may have to follow in the wake of Pascal, and jump ship to find a life preserver. And to include a historical perspective, it seems more than a little curious that so many since the “death of God” associated with the scientific “Enlightenment” should have found themselves lost in a darkness devoid of direction, unless they resorted to mystic, albeit rationalized beliefs (e.g. deism, pantheism).
Many of the finest and most exacting minds feel drawn to the conceit of independence from faith — perhaps with the naiveté of those never stunned by the ground falling away beneath their feet, a sensation familiar to those conscientious intellects who had once relied on God, during the pervasion of science. Now avowed rationalists rely on science, or rather believe they do. They seem to operate under a misconception about how human beings including themselves really function. Human beings conceive things, and live in large part imaginatively, metaphorically, theoretically, abstractly, figuratively and conjecturally. Lovers of ideas, also known as intellectuals, tend to miss the context for their own subject of adoration because they hold it so particularly close, so intrinsic.
The avowed rationalists further ignore just how much life involves leaps of faith of one kind or another, even on a momentary basis — much less for the reassurance of purpose, for resilience in difficult times, and for grounding in a perception of worldview. These aspects do not indicate special weakness or "irrationality" among individuals, but a universal evolutionary factor for creatures who live in a largely irrational world that seems largely unpredictable, indescribably complex, difficult to understand, and not designed for our ease. To assume otherwise belittles universal human concerns, such as the enormity of existential questions and crises.
My experience strongly suggests that confirmed rationalists who remain affirmative have their articles of faith, in some cases just as orthodoxical as any religion’s, but secular and scientific in aesthetic suggestion. Like other humans, avowed rationalists rely on models as others do, even quite possibly indescribably inaccurate (“false”) models. They require provisional and operative beliefs as others do, in every moment of action and interaction, even if such beliefs prove baseless later. They also need belief in something to value as humans do. For even the hardiest humans doubt, fear, and wonder at their own place or worth, and require reassurance in order to recover — reassurance one must either assert or adopt, which one cannot simply observe objectively or deduce logically but must ‘see’ through one’s own subjective lens.
Many have deceived themselves into vainly grasping for the perfection of science as a centrality in life. But in their scientism they subvert their own science — the process of learning which may yield more apparent facts, but will never provide values. Such dispositions must be held deep within our body-minds in conjunction with superficial semantics. The epistemology of scientific methods will never yield a reason to insist on atheism, for example, yet many rationalizers claim just that, unwilling to own up to their own hostility toward theism as the explanation for their assertion. Nor can logic argue against any physiologically predisposed tenet of hopelessness. If secular “rationalists” indeed feel some deep optimistic humanism, it rests on some faith of instinct within the body-mind, in strength, in health, in self-expression which attracts them to scientific means, subjects and aesthetics.
Even properly understood as a tool, science requires its own contexts of assumptions, and its own framework of faith for its practices (including tenets such as an understandable universe and experimental reproducibility). Throughout its past application as a tool (including the introduction of rigor into theology) science has called beliefs and values into question — which means it freed us from many primitive superstitions and misunderstandings incorporated within our consciousness, rendering them implausible. At the same time it left us stripped of many old moorings as well as tethers, to find we need new and more carefully considered ideas. For this enormity, it should have our respect, not our overestimation.
To return to the problem, in summary: we can identify two strains of metaphysics acquired to solve the problem of how to bear the difficult, discouraging, even dreadful, yet apparent facts encountered in life. These strategies consciously appear as relying on potential, and relying on acceptance. The latter may pretend not to have a metaphysical component and yet, reliably does, either consciously as in the admission of highly ‘practical’ people that faith sustains them, or subversively in the maneuvers of the mind below the surface. One path involves hopeful dreams and aspirations which trace the realities of the present into the future and imagines improved possibilities, on the assumption — the faith — that personal action can alter troubling patterns and improve circumstances. This both requires and affirms an engaging attitude towards the experience of life and any problems one may encounter, including the prerequisite that one will make a continual effort to face and comprehend the most repulsive aspects of life in order to learn how to remedy them. The other path, more accurately a multiplicity of variations on a theme as we have seen, involves self-deceit, frequently rationalized considering the premium put on appearing considerate and rational precisely when one acts on instinctive motivation. To avoid oversimplification we should note that real life people typically do not match archetypes. Individuals almost certainly act and function through some combination of the two strategies, and are not absolutely devoted to either, although they do have definite preferences.
The peculiar thing about both paths is that they both spring from a desire to retain health of mind during trials, to triumph over pessimism, depression and nihilism. Either might suffice as spirituality, depending on the needs of the individual. In this respect it is not immediately clear that we should avoid acceptance through self-deceit, or that self-deceit proves self-defeating. In fact this has served as the major psychic survival strategy of the human race ever since the evolved prehistoric human mind, when it was still largely powerless to change the world, gained the astounding ability to imagine and thereby satisfy itself. The effective differences between the traditional and the revised, actualized strategy which make one preferable over another involve degree of illusion, integration with the phenomenal, real world, and the limitations of staticism.
In effect the problem with adopting self-deceptive acceptance instead of potential aspiration is this: why should those content to accept otherwise unbearable facts because they live in part in a mythical world ever obtain sufficient motivation to change the real world, to improve their lives or life in the future? They feel at best an incomplete compulsion to reconcile faith and reality. They might just reconcile themselves to suffer the penalties of ideas which do not match reality, and which more importantly do not serve us by improving our lives over time in material advantage and other expressive ways — after all if starving, beaten slaves in ancient empires could learn this habit, people today certainly can. Many of those who try to reform the world today do so partly because their religion requires it. That is, their metaphysics imposes some demands upon the real world, some commandments. But to make reality into the substance of faith by working in the present to bring about a changed future, and thereby fulfill belief within reality, as one who faces the facts and has faith in the future does, must seem unnecessary. This is particularly so for those who believe in a sinful material and human world they plan to escape. To believe in an altered, reformed, and real future may seem to such believers the real self-deceit, a foolish, impractical pipe dream.
To be able to deal pragmatically with any and all of the facts of life as we live it one may also have to dream. To think realistically one may also have to think idealistically. To live with the present one may also have to live in the future.
page created on August 23, 2005
page updated May 2, 2008 0:50 EST
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