“Virtual reality satisfies man’s need to stick his head in a box.” – Oderus Urungus.
Sophism! A philosophy of ancient Greece that proposed the purpose of philosophy was not to establish the truth, but instead to convince other people of one’s claims. If the claims can be cast as convincing by evidence, fair enough, but if rhetorical trickery or a knock on the noggin carry the day then the sophist is the winner. A philosophy of ancient Greece, but the modern world is not without its sophistication.
Perhaps the sophists had the right answer. Evidence and logic have their evident limits. We trust our senses and sensibility because we have no gnostic direct knowledge, not because they are the best tools for problem solving. Our senses deceive us night and day. We see the lightning… there is a pause… then we hear the thunder, and the knowledge that the lightning and the thunder happened simultaneously does nothing to change that they are sensed sequentially. This is just one of the many ways our senses seem lacking to their task.
Logic is equally lagging. An argument can be logical but false if it includes false premises. Incomplete information (you know, the kind you don’t know) incapacitates us. Infants and people who are asleep, these are not outliers to the human bell curve but are at the height of the hump. And yet infants and people who are asleep have cognitive patterns that are entirely a-logical. Infants do not possess object permanency (thus the delights or terrors of peek-a-boo). You’ve been to sleep, you know what dreams are. Mental error is infinite, leaving no room for the real. We use rationality to rationalize. And what’s so morally superior about the truth? Who are you hiding in your attic?
In the United States, February is Black History Month. Among the many contributions to humanity that came out of Africa are bipedalism, clothing, architecture, theater, cooking, tools that make tools, art, medicine and most of all language. These are the greatest inventions ever made. Only the recent utilization of electricity has come close to the impact of these black inventions. But like all inventions, language has come at a cost. Whether it be gesture, sound or writing, language is never the thing it describes. Language is a representation of the world that is eternally seductive, forever turning our head away from the world that is not language. It is not clear if the human mind exists outside of language, making language a candidate for the delineation line between animals and humans. Language makes us sophisticated, it puts us in the toney class and separates us from a more direct experience of the non-language world. The world that all inanimate objects and all non-human animals experience every day.
The sophisticated world of today is taking away ever more of our ability to discern what is true. The mob courts of public opinion are weaponized with social media. Graduation rates from public education have never been higher and the quality of public education has never been lower. College degrees are easier to get and worth less. Our leaders can make the most self-evidently false statements and yet our nations lap it up as divine ordinance. The United States has never been dumber.
In the sophisticated world of today, good guys and bad guys are not recognized by what they do but by what others say of them. Plagiarism is what bad guys do but when a good guy does it, all is forgiven and quickly forgotten. Taking sexual photographs of underage girls is what bad guys do but when a good guy does it, all is forgiven and quickly forgotten. Internet trolling that makes innocents appear to be promoting fascism is what bad guys do, but when a good guy does it, all is forgiven and quickly forgotten. And when the marching morons get it stuck in their melons that some guy is a bad guy, they’re a bad guy and there’s no redemption. It’s clear that Saudi Arabia had a hand in 9/11, and so the United States attacked… Iraq, because by gum they’re the bad guys. It’s clear that the United Kingdom has a problem with Muslims doing what Muslims do, and so the United Kingdom… banned the most peaceable and articulate critics of Islam from entering the country, because by gum they’re the bad guys. Women around the world are being subject to genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor killings, stonings, being set on fire, acid attacks, second-class citizen status and more by Muslims, so feminists are criticizing… video game authors, because by gum they’re the bad guys. The Islamic State is abducting children who are then sold sex slaves, or crucified, or beheaded, or buried alive, and so the White House is… waiting until the Islamic State gets a nuclear weapon and then they’ll get ‘em because by gum they’re going to be the bad guys. When the masses of asses – or the democratic will of the people, take your pick – get together with their torches and pitchforks, there’s no stopping them with trivial evidence and objective fact. Some men are crowned with halos, some with devil horns, and the world gets slightly more sophisticated.
But the slide into sophistication doesn’t stop with occupations and opinions. This year (2015) TriLite Technologies will begin marketing a new sort of electronic billboard. Arrays of lasers will fire directly into the eyes of those nearby, creating three-dimensional images that do not require special viewing glasses. The science of directed sound was perfected twelve years ago (2003). The HyperSonic Sound device can project sound into human heads. If the TriLite and the HyperSonic are combined, a person would have option of viewing an advertisement or closing his eyes but would not be able to turn off the sound of the advertisement. You will not be able to escape.
Perhaps the sophists had the right answer but were asking the wrong question. It may be that as part of the real world, we have limits to the accuracy of how much we can comprehend the real world. No ruler can measure itself, no mirror can reflect itself, and the human mind cannot hold a full representation of itself and itself. There’s no dry land to check the boat for leaks. Sophism says nothing is real… reality is what you can get away with… my country right or wrong… in sickness and in health… sophism is a commitment to the symbolic world, not a shattering of the symbols. Sophists believe in natural rights, specifically the natural right that you are in the right if you can convince others you are in the right. But that natural right is no more real than the rights of the State, of the clergy, of the wealthy, of the beautiful, of the mob. Sophism says that what is right is a brass ring that anyone can grab. Sophism says might makes right (an egoist might say might is right, if it is the egoist who is mighty).
Egoism has a different set of questions. Egoism asks: who is it trying to understand or change the real? Who is it that is real? And the answer is none other than myself. I am real. The reality of the not-me is at best secondary. While sophism disappears in a dog pile of deception, egoism emerges with its own one truth. “I am” is the only sentence, all others are commentary. Sophism says no one can know the truth, egoism says I am and can know the truth. Maybe we can’t get away from the lies, but we can decide which lies are likable. Stop trying to unmask and decide which mask is of use – to me. Or even you!
- Trevor Blake is the author of
Confessions of a Failed Egoist and Other Essays
(Baltimore: Underworld Amusements 2014)