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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Idealism, Realism, And Virtuality– How Befuddled Politicians Bang And Whinge Their Absurd Way To Office

Metaphysicians since the Ancient Greeks have pondered the nature of the perceived world – what is real and what is not; what exists only in the eye of the beholder and what actually exists – but have never agreed.  

Plato, considered to be the father of Idealism, believed that the physical world was not real and since it undergoes constant changes, one cannot take its measure. Only the individual’s immediate subjective, personal experience –‘ the intuitive self’ – which is able to achieve a direct knowledge of ultimate reality. 

Consequently, the idealist can bypass normal cognition and eliminate the process of mediation interposed between the objects observed and the perceptions of them.  Such mediation – or the intrusion of cognitive, rational analysis and the disruption of direct intuition – reduces the ability to perceive and understand the world.

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Realists like Aristotle believe that reality exists independent of the human mind and the ultimate reality is that where physical objects actually exist. Realists, therefore, believe that truth is objective, and can be discerned through logical analysis and scientific method.

Phenomenologists like Bishop Berkeley muddied the waters by saying that human perception influences the nature of reality. If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, it does not make a sound. Of course this was an irrefutable position, since it could not be proven, but it did add an unusual dimension to metaphysics.  

Max Planck, the father of quantum physics travelled down the same road as Berkeley, suggesting the role of perception in determining the nature of particles.  If you can determine the speed of a particle, then you cannot determine its place; and vice versa.  Einstein suggested that time and place were not absolute but relative, subject to the speed of movement.

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Virtualists believe that none of this matters, for within a generation the symbiosis or interface between mind and computer will be so complete that existence within a virtual, personally mediated world will be the norm.  The virtual world will be so indistinguishable from reality and so preferable to it (who could possibly turn down a world of imaginative fantasy when only brick, mortar, weeds, and jealousy await on the other side?) that choice will not be an option.

For the time being, the world will have to put up with the competing visions of idealists and realists.   Idealists are now in the American political majority.  In their Platonic rejection of cognition and embrace of intuition and subjective perception, progressives are pure idealists.  Millennia of history and the persistent expression of self-interested, territorial, defensive, defiantly aggressive human nature notwithstanding, progressive idealists believe that the world can become a better place.  It has be become a better place because goodness always triumphs over evil, or so their tautology goes.

Conservative realists say that on the basis of human history and its inevitable, predictable repetition of war, expansionism, civil conflict, international dispute, and short-tempered nationalism, belief in progress is but a vain hope.

It is hard to disagree with this assumption.  The Twentieth Century alone should be enough to convince even the most idealist doubter that mayhem, brutality, insane ambition, slaughter, and genocide are very real indeed, and haven’t changed much since the days of Genghis Khan, responsible in the 14th century for more deaths than all those of the many centuries to follow.

Both conservatives and progressive idealists pile on the idea of virtual reality.  Progressives see entry into virtual worlds as escapism, flights of irresponsible fantasy, and dereliction of duty.  The world can only progress to a better place, to Utopia in fact, if everyone pulls his own weight.  Selfish absence is tantamount to gross immorality.

Conservatives, always grounded in reality, one which to be sure has been unpleasant and bloody but which after all has Jesus Christ, travel in a virtual universe as an escape from penance, redemption, and resurrection.  The real world is the necessary precursor to the spiritual, heavenly one. 

Historians like Francis Fukuyama who thirty years ago proclaimed the end of history and with the fall of Communism the entrance of a new, harmonious, conflict-free world.  Fukuyama of course was as wrong as could be, for the demise of superpower antagonism only let political dogs out of their kennels - ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Hamas, and the Ayatollahs - and once détente, the nuclear stalemate, and the modern Pax Romana of the Cold War were ended, human nature and its violent ways were once again rampant.

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Virtuality will also sound the death knell of history; for once everyone has pulled the plug on brick and mortar and can travel freely within a personally mediated universe, the features of history – nationalism; territorialism; and ethnic, religious, and civil conflict - will cease to matter. The only vestiges of the real world left will be the automated support systems that will nourish the new cybernetic race, genetically engineered to be finally mind over matter and requiring little sustenance.

Meanwhile, in this pre-virtual reality interregnum, the New York Times and Washington Post howl about systemic racism, economic inequality, and white supremacy;  the National Review, the Federalist, the American Spectator, and the Christian Science Monitor rail against the self-righteous intrusiveness of big government and the erosion of Constitutional freedoms. 

Commentators on both sides of the political fray decry the divisiveness of American political discourse, the loss of civility, compromise, and good faith; and hope for a meeting of the minds to resolve America’s problems; yet their political philosophies are set in concrete.  It is not disagreement on border, financial, economic, or foreign policy which divides the nation and its politicians, but very fundamental beliefs.  

How can two groups which so profoundly and adamantly disagree on the influence of human nature and the course of history ever agree on anything?  Progressives insist that they are good and represent goodness; and that they are the avant-garde on the march to a better world.  Conservatives sniff and say that there has never been any goodness – or evil for that matter – in the world.  Competition – the upside of divisiveness – the opposition of countervailing forces, is the engine of evolution, an amoral process which sorts out strength and weakness and results not in a better world, but a different one.

In conservatives’ minds progressives who harp on community, cooperation, love, responsibility, and dutiful investment in a common future are just whistlin’ Dixie.  The world will change not because of any deliberate attempts to mold it to any particular philosophical notion, but because of social evolution.   

Progressives of course insist the opposite.  Goodness does indeed exist as an absolute, and they have the keys to that particular kingdom.

So, for anyone with even a slight interest in human nature and the philosophies which have grown up to explain it, the antics of today’s politicians are comic, more worthy of vaudeville and Barnum & Bailey than Washington. Those who have seen beneath the veil and the absurd doings of legislators and presidents appreciate Donald Trump.  

While no philosopher, Trump was the liveliest exponent of Absurdism – perhaps the most important philosophy of the interregnum.  He was never a conservative purist, religious fundamentalist, historicist, or idealist.  He was a performer, a Hollywood star, a vaudevillian, and ringleader of a three-ring circus who saw only the absurdity of political expression and its deadening, suffocating, self-righteousness and reveled in it. 

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Absurdism is nihilism taken to the nth degree – not just Nietzschean will, but a flamboyant rejection of all cant and dutiful, right action.The world is an absurd place, but a delightful one.

Philosophy is often considered an academic subject, stuff of professors; but it is no such thing.  Political philosophy – the way one sees the world – is the heart and soul of human enterprise, politics in particular.  One should not expect politicians, willingly engaged in an absurd world with no clue as to its meaning, to probe any depths.  Let them hector, admonish, preach, and dun in the name of whatever they are selling.  It simply adds freaks to the side show.

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