How do we know what we know?
We often place things here at the Doomstead Diner into discussion based on fact, experience or belief. How do we know what we know? Why do we gather here in the shimmering blue light of this digital campfire?
“When you observe the world you see people, you see houses, you see the sky, you see tangible objects; but when you observe yourself within, you see moving images–a world of images, generally known as fantasies. Yet these fantasies are facts. You see, it is a fact that the man has such and such a fantasy, and it is such a tangible fact, for instance, that when a man has a certain fantasy, another man may lose his life, or a bridge is built–these houses were all fantasies. Everything you do here, all of the houses, everything, was fantasy to begin with, and fantasy has a proper reality. That is not to be forgotten; fantasy is not nothing. It is, of course, not a tangible object, but it is a fact, nevertheless. It is, you see, a form of energy, despite the fact that we can’t measure it. It is a manifestation of something, and that is a reality. That is just a reality. As for instance, the peace treaty of Versailles, or something like that. It is no more–you can’t show it, but it has been a fact. And so psychical events are facts, are realities; and when you observe the stream of images within, you observe an aspect of the world, of the world within.” – Carl Jung.
How do we know what we know? Why do we think we know what we know? These are the questions I have been wrestling with, on and off, for the last month. Regular Diners will recall RE’s “Orkin Man” wherein he advances the premise that predatory capitalism is so far gone and the organs of justice so utterly corrupt, that the only thing we can do to ensure justice is to employ the good works of the Orkin man to exterminate the Illuminati like so many bugs. My response, running to many thousands of words, was to assert that there is a reason that the good book says, ”Vengeance is Mine,” is that for any individual to assert the godlike power of life and death over others was to invoke a kind of madness, well documented in both fact and fiction.
I used Pol Pot as an example, citing his well-publicized attempts to remake Cambodian society according to his own vision, and in the process, causing the deaths of many thousands of Cambodians. Or so I thought. Later on, Re: posted an article by one Israel Shamir (http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-history-of-cambodia-pol-pot-revisited/5308998), which asserted that, on a recent visit to Cambodia, Shamir had the opportunity to speak with many ordinary Cambodians who remembered Pol Pot with fondness.
A much quoted American professor, RJ Rummel, wrote that “out of a 1970 population of probably near 7,100,000 …almost 3,300,000 men, women, and children were murdered …most of these… were murdered by the communist Khmer Rouge”. Every second person was killed, according to his estimate.
However, Cambodia’s population was not halved but more than doubled since 1970, despite alleged multiple genocides. Apparently, the genocidaires were inept, or their achievements have been greatly exaggerated.
The Pol Pot the Cambodians remember was not a tyrant, but a great patriot and nationalist, a lover of native culture and native way of life. . . He felt compassion for the ordinary village people who were ripped off on a daily basis by the city folk, the comprador parasites. He built an army to defend the countryside from these power-wielding robbers. Pol Pot, a monkish man of simple needs, did not seek wealth, fame or power for himself. He had one great ambition: to terminate the failing colonial capitalism in Cambodia, return to village tradition, and from there, to build a new country from scratch.
His vision was very different from the Soviet one. The Soviets built their industry by bleeding the peasantry; Pol Pot wanted to rebuild the village first, and only afterwards build industry to meet the villagers’ needs. . . But what he hated most was acquisitiveness, greed, the desire to own things. St Francis and Leo Tolstoy would have understood him.
The Cambodians I spoke to pooh-poohed the dreadful stories of Communist Holocaust as a western invention. They reminded me of what went on: their brief history of troubles began in 1970, when the Americans chased away their legitimate ruler, Prince Sihanouk, and replaced him with their proxy military dictator Lon Nol. Lon Nol’s middle name was Corruption, and his followers stole everything they could, transferred their ill-gotten gains abroad then moved to the US. On top of this came US bombing raids. The peasants ran to the forest guerrillas of Khmer Rouge, which was led by a few Sorbonne graduates, and eventually succeeded in kicking out Lon Nol and his American supporters.
In 1975, Pol Pot took over the country, devastated by a US bombing campaign of Dresden ferocity, and saved it, they say. Indeed, the US planes dropped more bombs on this poor country than they had on the Nazi Germany, and spread their mines all over the rest of it. If the Cambodians are pressed to name their great destroyer (and they are not keen about burrowing back into the past), it is Professor Henry Kissinger they name, not Comrade Pol Pot.
This is, of course, the story very different from that retailed in our public prints and official histories. My immediate reaction was, that it would not be the first time that the agencies of government employed various media propaganda points of view at odds with facts. So then I attempted to look up what I could find about Israel Shamir. That too was a murky journey with no determinate conclusion. Apparently he is also known by the names Jöran Jermas, and Adam Ermash, is a Swedish writer and journalist by way of Siberia and Israel, looks very middle-eastern, and travels between Moscow and Stockholm.
One Norman Finkelstein is quoted by Tablet magazine as saying of Shamir, “He has invented his entire personal history. Nothing he says about himself is true.” So how do we know what we know? History is indeed written by the winners. Or by those scribbling on their behalf. Hell, how do we know anything?
A Diner Epistemology
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, “How do we acquire it?”, “What do we know?”, “How do we know it?”.
Now to blow decades of accumulated dust from old memories. I recall being greatly struck by studying Plato’s dialogues as a freshman and sophomore in college. Of particular note was the study of Plato’s Forms. (http://www.niu.edu/~jdye/forms.html ) Main takeaways seemed to be that Opinions are not a good source of truth, or beauty. There must be some a priori standard with which we are acquainted– Knowledge of ‘the beautiful itself’ is a prerequisite for knowing whether ‘A is beautiful’ or ‘B is beautiful’ are true statements. Nor can we know whether that or any other statement is true unless we understood what such a statement means. What then is the status of the vast majority of our assertions which we make before we have established a clear understanding of the terms they contain? Plato would say that they must only be opinions, since they clearly cannot be instances of knowledge.
Because they are the patterns or ideal models to which we compare individual things or actions in order to determine how beautiful, just, or whatever, they are, he also refers to them as ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas.’ For this reason, Plato’s view has been called idealism. Evidence of the senses, in Plato’s view, is not entirely to be trusted. But if that which is sensible is not most real, but only the forms are “real,” then what is? Plato asserts that sensible objects could not possibly be real; they could at best be “copies” or “images” of underlying realities which can be thought about but which cannot be perceived. In short, what we usually call “the real world” is not that at all, but is rather just a world of appearance or seeming. This of course summons what we know today about quantum mechanics and particle physics (in my case is a thimbleful). Yet the echoes of Plato remain in today’s science reporting: the presence of the observer affects the outcome of the experiment; that all of what we experience as “matter” is actually energy fields separated by a vast space; that out thoughts, being energy, create a version of reality.
As I write these lines, millions of neurons fire in my brain; thoughts emerge and are expressed as words, typed herein. Something is in charge, an entity we loosely call “mind.” Cognitive neuroscience teaches us that our perception of the world is organized within different regions of the brain. What we call reality results from the integrated sum of countless stimuli collected through five senses. Cognition, the awareness of being here now, is a fabrication of countless chemical reactions flowing through myriad synaptic connections between my neurons.
So by one definition, we are a self-sustaining electrochemical network enacted across a web of biological cells.
“The theater of the self happens in the brain and the brain is an assembly of interacting neurons firing nonstop like a Christmas tree.” However our perception of reality, that upon which we base our sense of self, is severely incomplete.
Only the Forms really exist, according to Plato. Forms are the “causes”or archetypes of whatever we discern by our senses. This was brought to light for me in one of the most durable images from my education, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Plato’s allegory of the cave is concerned with different stages of knowledge. I could recount my limited understanding of this, but in sniffing around, I found this guy, who does it better, and with more irreverence, than I could possibly summon:
Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave”: A Summary
Socrates: “Why do people think philosophy is bullshit? Let me put it this way – imagine you’re in a cave, all chained up so you can’t turn your body at all, and all you get to look at is this one wall. Some assholes behind you are making shadow puppets using the light from a fire and making echo noises and that’s all you or anyone else chained up has seen or heard all your life. Sounds terrible, right? Except it’s all you’ve ever known, shadows and echoes, and that’s your whole world – there’s no way you could know that, really, you’re watching a slightly-improved M. Night Shyamalan film.
“In fact, you get pretty good at understanding how the patterns in the show work, and everyone else chained up is like, ‘Holy shit bro, how did you know that that tree was going to fall on that guy?’ and you’re like, ‘It’s because I fucking pay attention and I’m smart as shit.’ You’re the smartest of the chained, and they all revere you.”
Glaucon: “But Socrates, a tree didn’t really hit a guy. It’s all shadows.”
Socrates: “No shit, Glaucon, but you don’t know that. You think the shadows are real things. Everyone does. Now shut up and let me finish.
“So eventually, someone comes and unchains you and drags you out of the cave. At first you’d say, ‘Seriously, what the fuck is going on?!’ Well, actually, at first you’d say, ‘HOLY SHIT MY EYES’ and you’d want to go back to the safe, familiar shadows. But even once your eyes worked you wouldn’t believe them, because everything you ever thought was real is gone. You’d look at a tree, and say ‘That’s not a tree. I know trees. And you, sir, are no tree. THAT DOWN THERE is a tree.’ But you’re wrong. Down there is a shadow of a tree.
“Slowly, as your eyes got better, you’d see more and more shit. Eventually, you’d see the sun, and realize that it’s the source of all light. You can’t see shit without the sun. And eventually, you’d figure it out. Something would click in your brain: ‘oh, shit, that IS a tree. Fuck me. So… nothing in the cave was real? I feel like such an asshole.’ But it’s not your fault, so don’t be so hard on yourself.
“Finally you’d want to go down and tell everyone about everything you’ve discovered. Except, and here’s the hilarious part, they think you’ve gone fucking crazy. You’d say, ‘Guys, real trees are green!’ and they’d say, ‘What the fuck is green? THAT is a tree over there.’ And you’d squint and look at the wall, but you know you’re fucked because now you’re used to having sunlight, and now you can’t see shit. So they’d laugh at you, and agree that wherever it was that you went, no one should go there because it turns people into dickheads.
“Philosophy, same thing. The soul ascends and apprehends the forms, the nature of everything, and eventually the very Idea of Good that gives light to everything else. And then the philosopher has to go back to the cave and try to explain it to people who don’t even know what Green is, to say nothing of the Good. But the philosopher didn’t make up the Good, it was always there, and the only way to really make sense of it is to uncover it for yourself. You can’t force knowledge into a dumbass any more than you can force sight into a blind man.
“So if you want to learn, be prepared for a difficult journey, and be prepared to make some mistakes. That’s okay, it’s all part of the process. True knowledge must be obtained the hard way, and some people just don’t want to see the light.”
Had someone taught philosophy in this manner when I was an undergrad, I might have pursued a different career.
All of us deal with others who do not want to see the light. To confront the reality of the evidence of our lives. It does not take great leaps of inference to imagine what happens when cheap oil runs out. When the conduits stop flowing. When the grid goes dark. Those of us who like to have faith in our fellow citizens need look only to the spectacle of Black Friday near–riots to see what others will do in the pursuit of low low prices and black Friday deals. What, indeed, will people do when the shelves at their beloved Walmart are empty?
Last month I went walkabout from the Diner for a bit. Some of the disagreements here weighed on me heavily. Found myself also dealing with family illnesses and frailties of one sort or another. It is a matter of personal choice about how we handle disagreements here, or anywhere. It is often governed by how we feel, as as Plato might have observed, that ain’t good enough. At the end of the day, we all have to address the question of “Why are we here?” I like to think that, as we confront the very existential issues of collapse, we are as the many blind men, gathered around an elephant.
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.” They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.”
All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.
”Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
”Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
”It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?”
They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said.”
“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.
The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what another says, even when we find it disagreeable, even when we do not agree with their premises.
All of us have different perspectives about what “collapse”, or “doom” will look like. By which vector it will ensue. Whether it will be “lite” or “full” or “uber” in character and completeness.
What brings me here each day, and makes me a willing participant, if not as indefatigable as I once was, is RE’s motto, “Save as many as you can.” Not every post leverages that. But I have to think that this site, as a body of work, ranging from spirituality to survivalism to economics to psychopathology, edges us to a better sense of well being as a result of our work as a group. If you show up every day and read, and participate, you end up knowing things you may not have known before. And of all the tools that protect us against the Great Uncertainty looming, knowledge shared is probably the best vector to enable us to “Save as many as you can.”
Perhaps what we do here is like pointillism. A Seurat painting, or one of those photos made up of thousands of images.
We all contribute, according to our lights, experiences, expertise, even outrageous opinions.
We’re told that Solomon sought wisdom above all else. So perhaps we seek wisdom here, discounting the immediate, distrusting all mainstream media accounts, and trying to win for some version of reality from the different points of light that accumulate here. After all, what is the “wisdom” conferred from experience aside from the aggregated lessons of life for which we have already paid retail?