The Thickness of Reality

Very Bad WizardsThe Thickness of Reality

Technical note - I bought and downloaded "ZoomSounds - WordPress Wave Audio Player" but can't get the comments working so I created a transcription with MS Word and just annotated the transcription. I made some effort to clean up the transcription but some errors may still remain.

This is episode 267 of the excellent podcast "Very Bad Wizards", the episode is named "The Thickness of Reality". It discusses William James' 6th lecture (inspired by the French philosopher Henri Bergson) of his 1909 book "A Pluralistic Universe." The relevant part of the podcast starts at 26:13.

Before we begin, I think we need to make a distinction. Truth and reality are terms often used interchangeably or at least we assume reality to be true in some sense. But I would like to argue that we separate the two. Truth is absolute and unchanging and needs special treatment. For example, truth claims cannot contain assumptions or unsubstantiated elements. We need to work from first principles and every piece of the argument needs to be indisputable. Whereas reality is just experience, with the concepts that you believe in, applied to it. Real as real can be, to the experiencer, but wholly subjective, personal, changing and arbitrary. In other words wholly untrue. We will come back to this further below.

Let's get into it.

00:26:14 Tamler 

Let's get to this lecture. The 6th lecture in William James's 1909 work a pluralistic universe. The lecture itself is called Bergson, and his critique of... 

So... maybe I should disclose at the outset that I haven't actually read the lecture being discussed. I know, I know... but in my defense, I did order the book but it will take over a week to get here and, AND it is so totally and utterly plain and obvious what is going on here that I don't need to read it to know exactly what James is saying. Anyway...

00:26:28 Dave 

I was wondering if you were gonna go for the French pronunciation.

00:26:30 Tamler 

Bergson, I don't know. Like you do it. You're better at accents. 

00:26:34 Dave 

I'm. I'm gonna do Henry Bergson. Maybe Henri Bergson. Let's split the difference. 

00:26:41 Tamler 

Henri Bergson yeah, let's compromise. This was recommended to us by a longtime listener and someone like, he's very like minded in his view of philosophy and science, Fareed Anvari. 

00:26:56 Dave 

He's like a good he's, like, a good in between, between me and you like he's, he's probably closer to you, but he pushes you too. Yeah, sometimes, yeah. 

00:27:02 Tamler 

Sometimes, yeah. He also nominated it for the listener selected episode on Patreon, and I think it came in second place, but the winner of that is Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. We'll probably do that next, right? 

00:27:17 Dave 

Yeah, it just was going to take us a little bit longer, I think, to prepare for that one. So yeah, so you didn't win Fareed? 

00:27:23 Tamler 

You didn't win, but you, but you did, also. We're talking about it. This is... I think it's his last completed book. He published it. He gave these lectures but then collected them and published them a year before he died at 69. I didn't know that he died that young. 

He's kind of the goat. 

00:27:44 Dave 

I mean, he's... like, how many people have made that much of... had that much influence on 2 fields entirely like...? He basically birthed American psychology. 

00:27:54 Tamler 

And I feel like in their honest moments, both philosophers and psychologists want to get back to more of what he was doing.  And feel like their fields have strayed a little bit. Certainly, I believe that. But I think a lot of people at least sometimes believe that. 

00:28:11 Dave 

I think particularly his ability and willingness to do big picture stuff. Yeah,  so many psychologists quote William James, clearly they're envying something. 

00:28:22 Tamler 

So this lecture discusses the French philosopher Henri Bergson and his criticisms of the dominant strain of Western philosophy. James was 20 years older, roughly, than Bergson, but he had been a longtime kind of admirer and champion of his work. He says he took a lot of inspiration from Bergson. Now, this essay... obviously I'm going to love any kind of hardcore criticism of conceptual analysis.

But the real distinctive contribution for me was how James connects this critique of conceptual analysis with this other old debate. Two views: one that reality and life is in constant flux. That's the essence of reality is that it's constantly changing. Versus the view that actually everything is static, change is an illusion. The truly real things are static and unchanging.

So you had Heraclitus maybe the most prominent ancient Greek philosopher arguing for the flux view and Parmenides arguing that all change was an illusion. And then after Parmenides comes Plato who, according to James, argued that the changeless entities were the more real. That particular and constantly evolving things are just bastardized approximate versions of what their real, unchanging essence is.

As James describes it, the real essence of a thing according to Plato, is the definition, and we get that definition through this method of conceptual analysis. Now, I'm actually agnostic about whether Plato truly believed this, but he definitely presented the view in considerable depth. And James says, I think this is right, that at least in Western philosophy, this view of reality and also the methods of philosophy became dominant and everybody played the game on those terms, on that turf. Whether you were an empiricist or a rationalist or an idealist or an absolutist, he sometimes says, you were all playing on those terms. And maybe you get a Nietzsche or a Bergson later on, but they're late, they're outliers and according to James, they're right.

He doesn't talk about Nietzsche at all, but Bergson and that view is right and yeah. So, I love that connection of the changing nature of reality with the critique of conceptual analysis. I've never made that connection before, at least as much as I remember. And finally, last thing I'll say, the way he introduces this idea is through these kind of paradoxes or antimony's like Zeno's paradox that tie philosophers up in knots. But according to James, are based on this, and Bergson, are based on this misguided quote, unquote, intellectualist assumption about... So we'll get to that. But I'm actually very curious, what did you think in general of this lecture? 

about... reality. Tamler stops short of saying what the assumptions are about and tapers off. But let's be clear what this lecture and by extension this podcast is about, it is about the nature of reality and the nature of concepts. What is reality? What are concepts? Are concepts fixed? Are concepts true? Is reality real? Is reality true?

We'll get to that 🙂

00:31:38 Dave 

So, I'm a huge fan of James, so I don't think I can read something that I won't admire of his, I haven't at least yet. Later, you know, later life, James, when he starts getting a bit more toward this end of his eschewing like rationality. Maybe like I don't know how to describe it. Maybe a move toward the more mystical view of of life and existence is to me less satisfying than principles of psychology James, that you know 1890 or whatever. I almost think that he's holding back his mysticism at this point in his life. There's a reading of this that I find to be fairly reasonable. There's a different reading, though, that that leaves me wondering if he's not just completely gone off his rocker, so that's kind of what I want to talk to you about. Like some of this stuff that. Like what exactly he means. 

Note the word satisfying here. It's an interesting choice of words because our feelings shouldn't come into play here at all. We're trying to figure out what is real and true and our feelings should have zero bearing on that discussion. But it's exactly our feelings that keep us from seeing the obvious. It feels like we have free will, so we never question it. It feels like reality is true, so we never question it. It feels like we are humans, so we never question it.

Question it! Question everything. And be very, very suspicious of feelings while you're doing the questioning.

And don't be afraid to go off your rocker. If everyone is deluded, sanity looks pretty crazy.

00:32:33 Tamler

Right. I have some questions about what exactly he means in a couple of places, but in terms of my general impression, this is like heroin. This is philosophy heroin. 

00:32:48 Dave 

You were texting me as much, like. 

00:32:51 Tamler 

Just feed this to me and... I'll suck your dick.

00:32:56 Dave 

You'll experience the thickness of his reality. 


00:32:59 Tamler 

Yeah, exactly. 

So I love it. I think like I said, I just love that aspect of it, this connection. I guess I believe James, that this is Bergson who presented this position. But I'd like to learn a lot more about him and his work. Because if a listener has like, here's a manageable chunk of Bergson that you should argue about. 

00:33:21 Dave 

Preferably in its original French.

So here is like. I'll just say a couple of big big questions that I have one. Well, the first isn't so big a question. But it is to me, I'm curious who this enemy that he refers to as intellectualism is. Yeah, because it seems to me that like, it's more of a sentiment that he's attacking then, then... Or maybe he's lumping together a bunch of different ideas, like what you described and calling those things intellectualism. But I wasn't sure because he never, he never really says what he means by intellectualism. 

The answer to Dave's question is: any and all conceptualisation for the purpose of arriving at truth. It is the chopping up of the pattern into discrete things, through concepts, for the purpose of arriving at truth, that James is arguing against.

00:33:59 Tamler 

So I did kind of look through the other lectures. 

00:34:02 Dave 

Yeah, me too. Yeah. He doesn't really mention it at all. 

00:34:04 Tamler 

Well no, he does, he does. Like I would say, especially in lecture 5. Here's a quote that I found from the 5th lecture that was a little more illuminating for me. Intellectualism has as its source in the faculty which gives our chief superiority to the brutes our power, namely of translating the crude flux of our merely feeling experience into conceptual order. An immediate experience as yet unnamed or classed is a mere 'that', that we undergo. A thing that asks, 'What am I?' when we name it and class it, we say for the first time what it is and all these 'whats' are abstract names or concepts.

Intellectualism in the vicious sense begins with Socrates and Plato. Ever since Socrates, we have been taught that reality consists of essences, not of appearances, and that the essence of things are known whenever we know their definitions.

So first we identify the thing with the concept. Then we identify the concept with the definition, and only then, in as much as the thing is what the definition expresses, are we sure of apprehending the real essence or the full truth about it.

Here it is: by applying a concept we apprehend the real essence or the full truth about something. That's some crazy shit! A definition is a story told with concepts to define more concepts. Stories upon stories, all the way down. All of them made up. And through those we can arrive at the real essence or the full truth? 🤣

It's a ludicrous notion and that's what James is arguing against.

So that's one kind of definition, of it. That's kind of, at least as he thinks he's presenting it, neutral. The next sentence is: 'So far no harm done'. It's just when these concepts become tyrannies or that we can get ourselves bogged down in like something like Zeno's paradox, which just takes these concepts, which have some kind of practical use for us in organizing our experience and mistakes it for the reality and then cut and come up with logical contradictions. But that's, the contradictions aren't in the world. The contradictions are just in our, like, essentially imperfect way of modeling experience with our concepts. 

To be frank, I can't really place the 'so far no harm done' comment here. I do understand the rest as saying that concepts are fine for organizational purposes, for coordinating and communicating and such, just not for getting at truth. The contradictions are another way to point out that reality cannot be true. Two things cannot contradict each other AND be both true.

00:36:04 Dave 

Yeah, I guess, there are a few things that I think he maybe is slippery about in his use of this term. Cause like I get on the one hand what he could be saying is, these specific views, like that defended by Socrates or Aristotle, that there exists these essences and that once we define them, we get to know them. Like you can argue against that. But it does sound like he's mounting the..., like the use of that term sounds like he's mounting something broader, like a rejection of the use of reason for accessing external truth, and I don't know that that's what he's doing. a rejection of the use of reason for accessing external truth... Yes, that is exactly right. He is also arguing against the notion of external truth itself by the way. The notion of external anything actually. There is consciousness and its content, that is all we know, it is all we can know. The notion of some external or underlying reality is 100% based on assumption.

You'll probably have feelings here too, but do me a favour and just put those aside for a minute. Also, try to put your conditioning aside for a minute. Approach this question with as open a mind as you can.

What do you absolutely know for sure? Descartes' evil demon can deceive us about everything except consciousness. We know that experience is being experienced. That consciousness is, something like that. What else do you know for sure? Absolutely nothing. You have no knowledge of anything. So why assume it? If we're trying to get to truth, why assume anything?! That includes external truth and external anything.

Here, it is probably time to discuss the notion of anything possessing consciousness. This is a very weird trick that we pull. The first and only thing we know is the existence of consciousness and the fact that experience arises in it. We then chop that pattern of experience up into discrete things through the application of concepts. We as humans are part of the pattern and one of the concepts being applied to the pattern. There is no evidence whatsoever that the consciousness that we appear in is somehow also a property of the concept of a human that we applied to the pattern appearing in it.

The hard problem of consciousness is hard because the underlying assumption is incorrect.

We kinda go:
consciousness --> pattern --> concepts --> human --> consciousness
How can consciousness be both property and container here?

Consciousness is the underlying reality, the base layer. Anything beyond consciousness can never be known because all knowing happens in consciousness. Even if we were made aware that we are living in the Matrix, that would also be known only in consciousness, and the same would apply there. We have no other knowledge but of the pattern in consciousness.

00:36:43 Tamler 

I think it's a specific kind of like a specific tradition within, like using your intellect, systematic, theoretical, that side of reason. 

00:36:53 Dave 

Yeah, but that's so much of what reason is like, even just the use of concepts at all, in anything. Like, it sounds like he's he's trying, right? He's not even like you were saying that it's an attack on conceptual analysis, but it's really an attack on concepts. Yeah. Not even, not even just conceptual analysis. But, I mean, obviously you need the former for the latter, but it's bigger than just like that particular methodology that modern analytic philosophy uses. It's like any reliance on concepts and so at times I was like, well, is he railing against the use of math? As in what Zeno's paradox is kind of showing that like when you start getting into infinitesimals like you start entering paradoxes and it's our desire to use even the most basic of logical methods to describe the world. Or is it more like the methodology that certain philosophers use or is it just in general? 

Just to reiterate: it is the use of concepts to arrive at truth that James is attacking. Not the use of concepts for practical purposes.

00:37:49 Tamler 

It's not that he has anything against concepts thought of properly, when they're understood as subordinate to the experience and not something that has a reality in and of itself. That's the thing. The whole assumption that underlies conceptual analysis is, if we nail down this concept, we will have figured out something real that isn't available to just experiencing the thing. That's the thing that he's against. I think he thinks if you use concepts as a way of organizing your experience and as a way of making predictions in science and all of that. Fine, just don't mistake that for reality, because fundamentally, reality is this constant flux of immediate pure experience and concepts have to be, you know, they're the map rather than the reality itself. And philosophers are confusing the map with the thing that it...

So close... Reality is concepts applied to pattern, that's what it is. And we assume that reality has some truth content, or even stronger, that reality somehow is true, but it doesn't and it isn't. It's real of course, by definition, just not true. So, if we just let go of that connection between reality and truth and see reality for what it is. Wholly made up and wholly different for everyone, the whole thing resolves into perfect clarity.

The pattern experienced as 'this constant flux of immediate pure experience' is of course true, but isn't any thing until we apply our (made up) concepts.

A quick note on meditation. Sit for long enough with a quiet mind and your experience of your body will start to change. Rather than feel your hand or knee or any other body part, you may start to feel a generic buzzing sensation. This is what happens when we experience undifferentiated and unconceptualized pattern. This is as close as we can get to 'the constant flux' without conceptualizing it into discrete things.

00:38:56 Dave 

The territory.

00:37:57 Tamler 

The territory, yeah. 

00:38:58 Dave 

Yeah, like if what he was saying is, every conceptual framework to describe reality is simply a model. Like we're never. You know, we're only approximating the truth in as much as we can. Like, it seems so reasonable. Like, I think most scientists believe that, like, you know, whatever scientists come up with a model like that, they usually are like, well, yeah, like. All we're trying to do is get better and better at predicting the way that this thing works. Like whether or not we're ever describing the actual fundamental truth like...

It's a fun thought experiment to think of different conceptual frameworks that we could have come up with. How many different ways could we invent to slice the pattern up in? If we had different senses for example, would our concepts be the same? Would aliens have the same concepts as us? Could we have come up with different categories and definitions? How many ways could we have come up with?

Would reality be different if we applied a different framework?

Actually, we already do this. We apply a scientific framework, a religious one, a philosophical one, a superstitious one, and many more, all at once. Incompatible frameworks mixed in some way that is different for everyone. And our realities are different because of it. The consensus in our consensus reality is very tenuous.

00:39:36 Tamler 

I don't think that's what he's doing. I actually don't think this is even that much of a direct critique. I think you could apply it to a critique of science and scientists and their methods. But I think this is more a critique of the way this manifests itself in philosophy. And maybe we should talk about Zeno's paradox and why he thinks something like that is a product of this misguided way.

So Zeno's paradox is this idea that if, you know, you have a race between Achilles and the tortoise, and if the tortoise gets a little bit of a head start, then Achilles can't pass the tortoise. Every time Achilles gets to where the tortoise was, assuming that he's moving continuously, the tortoise will have moved a little bit in that time and then if he just gets to the point where the tortoise is now, the tortoise will have moved a little bit. And so like, Achilles can't pass the tortoise, because the tortoise will always be infinitesimally ahead and yet we know from like experience, of course people can pass other people.

So, like I think what he's saying is it's, or what he's attributing to Bergson is this idea that you can only tie yourself up in these kind of knots that these antinomies present. You can only do that if you are mistaking like your conceptual framework for understanding experience as as an actual real thing, rather than just the reality of one person passing another in a race. 

Again, pretty close! Reality is of course real. What else could it be? Just not true. That's the distinction.

00:41:20 Dave 

Right, so like motion. Zeno wanted to conclude that motion didn't exist.

00:41:22 Tamler

Right, because of the paradox.

00:41:23 Dave 

So at least on this account of what, you know, believed. 

00:41:25 Tamler 

Right. Because of the paradox. 

00:41:31 Dave 

He was willing to bite the bullet in like the harshest of ways by saying like well. Like, I would rather trust my thought experiment showing that motion is impossible. So yeah, I mean, I think I disagree with you that this doesn't apply to, to,... very naturally to extend toward an attack on a particular view that scientists might have about what they're doing because of what it means to quantify the world into discrete units, but he doesn't go there. In this essay. You're right. Yeah. So here's a question I have. So you found it, like, very enlightening that he was bringing together this view. On the like immutability and that that debate between whether things are in flux, whether reality is in flux, or whether the most real things are unchangeable and immutable. But why is it that he, he says a few times, that concepts are by their nature fixed? And I wasn't quite sure what that meant. Why isn't this simply solved by having the notion that concepts are also changing, or that I have the concept of changing like it certainly? 

The question whether concepts are (or should be) fixed is quite illuminating here. Because we believe our concepts to be true, they necessarily have to be fixed too. How can the truth change? It makes no sense. But quite obviously our concepts change over time. Over history and over our lifetimes as well. And that causes a problem, because how can the truth change?! It obviously can't. Something that is true today should be true forever, otherwise it can't be true. The obvious resolution to this problem is that concepts aren't true. And by extension, neither is reality. Reality is real, to you, just not true. Now this is only controversial because we've been taught the opposite from a very young age. If you think about it for a few seconds it is obvious and uncontroversial. All concepts are made up. They are just stories. We could have made up totally different stories. And we do, we change our stories all the time. So, obviously concepts can't be true. And by extension, neither can reality, because reality is made of concepts. Simple... right?

00:42:44 Tamler 

Are fluid like that concepts like,... I think because I think he thinks this is essential to concepts. Right? Like you can't have that. You can't have the idea that empathy means one thing. Or it's supposed to be bad? That empathy in one study? Well, now I'm going to science, means this and then in another study means that. 

00:43:05 Dave 

Thank you. Thank you for calling psychology, science. Yes, yes. 

00:43:10 Tamler 

You're welcome. The whole point of concepts is, it gives us a way of talking about something, and if it can immediately just change overnight, not even overnight. But in like, the next successive moment, then it no longer is of any use to us. At that point, you know, empathy can't mean giddiness or horniness or else like, what is its use to us having the concept at all. So like, there is something about these concepts and the more defined ones, the more precisely defined ones are going to be the most unchanging, like this can have social political aspects too, you know, like with something like marriage or what is a woman. But if it is, that's going to be a fight and it's going to be one that is resisted at every level, both philosophically, scientifically, maybe politically as well. 

Obviously concepts change all the time and our reality changes right along with it. Therefore concepts can't be true and therefore neither can conceptualized reality. 'Everything is one' is obviously true if we're talking about unconceptualized experience in consciousness. It's just not any thing, it's just some buzzing sensation, some experience in consciousness.

00:44:13 Dave 

Right. I guess like I'm just confused that there's nothing in a concept that says that you can't have the concept mean fluid like the concept fluid means fluid and so, so maybe what he just means is? 

00:44:25 Tamler 

But fluid doesn't change like fluid doesn't suddenly mean static. 

00:44:28 Dave 

Right. But like, yeah, but like, fluid is a concept that is exactly about change, right? So like, it's not right, like the concept is about change, so there are so many conceptual tools that we have to describe fluidity and change, that it seems weird to equate the very notion of concepts with like that inability to be changeable. 

00:44:52 Tamler 

I think he thinks that in practice the problem is... So maybe you're right in some kind of ideal use of concepts would achieve this perfect balance of flexibility, but in reality they are... they end up distorting our view of the world, often not always. In fact, I think he thinks they're often extremely helpful and and potentially illuminating, but it's where we then start to think 'Ohh this part of experience is devalued because it doesn't match the concept.' which definitely happens in philosophy and science. That that does happen and I think he thinks this is a symptom of this, just fundamental mistrust of, I don't want to say lived experience, but what he calls raw experience or pure perception. That isn't... and here's where I think the mysticism comes out in this essay. Like, I think he thinks it's precisely when this experience isn't mediated by concepts that we can actually grasp the full truth of what's happening. Concepts will maybe help us organize it in a way that we can wrap our heads around it at times, but it it will also make us, it will turn us away ever so slightly or in some cases drastically from the thing itself, that we experience as like you know, he's trying to overcorrect for what I think is a definitely real tendency in philosophy here to lionize the concepts at the expense of the experience and to think that the experience should be subordinate to the concept rather than vice versa. 

Tamler keeps talking about 'the thing itself' but unconceptualized experience contains zero things. Things come about through the application of concepts. 

00:46:50 Dave 


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00:49:20 Dave 

So I think actually, his critique goes way deeper than any like particular reliance by philosophers, even though I know he's using that as an as example. And so just now and thinking about what he's saying. I think that he is arguing against the practice of abstraction in general and our normal human use of it, like our use of concepts just in daily life, because I think you're right. He thinks of it as a, as a way in which we make sense of the world so that we can navigate pragmatically. But I think that he thinks that the minute that we start acquiring concepts and abstracting from instances, that there is a mistake being made and that philosophy is like the, at least the philosophers he's talking about, are the extreme version of that. But I think that he's he's going down deep. So when he says we of course need a stable scheme of concepts. Stably related with one another, to lay hold of our experiences and to coordinate them with all, when experience comes with sufficient saliency to stand out, we keep the thought of it for future use and store it in our conceptual system. What does not of itself stand out. We learn to cut out so the system grows completer and new reality as it comes gets named after and conceptually strung upon this or that element of it, which we have already established, the immutability of such an abstract system is its great practical merit. The same identical terms and relations in it can always be recovered and referred to, change itself is just such an unalterable concept, directly responding to what I was saying. Yeah. So you know. 

In his principles of psychology, James has this famous, people quote it all the time in psychology, where he describes the baby's sensory experience as he describes the baby's world as a blooming, buzzing confusion. And he means by that, that because you know, James being the empiricist that he is, he believes that you need exposure to. You know, you need to have actual experience to make sense of the world around you, and he believes that since the baby didn't have experience yet that there were no categories, there were no concepts. There were none of these reality crutches to allow the baby to make sense of the world. So that was something like a more pure experience. But then as time goes on, the baby starts developing concepts. And so I think just in the way that the baby develops concepts is, as he says, is by finding like things. And when you find two things that are like, you cut out the differences and now you have a new concept and you use that to move along. It's directly relevant to the Borges 'Funes the Memorious' when he talks about abstraction as ignoring differences. Yeah. So, I think, I do you agree with this, like that I think the critique goes down to just like what it means to even... human concepts that allow us, like they're pragmatically very useful. And we probably couldn't without them. But I think he's getting to this deep metaphysical point that, well, the only real true things is the stuff before that, like the stuff before. We start. Yeah, forcing things into groupings and abstracting away. 

Again, reality is made up of concepts applied to pattern. Untrue, arbitrary and different for everyone. There is, and can be, only one truth: unconceptualized experience in consciousness. The pattern in consciousness that we chop up into discrete Lego blocks is true. Everything is one interconnected buzzing blob of experience, all distinction is untrue and illusory.

You are a concept.

You are an illusion.

Everything IS one.

Until we start chop chopping away.

00:52:18 Tamler 

So he says, we are so subject to the philosophical tradition, which treats logos or discursive thought generally as the sole avenue to truth and then to fall back on raw unverbalized life as more of a revealer, and to think of concepts as merely practical things, which Bergson calls them, comes very hard. It is putting off our proud maturity of mind and becoming again as foolish little children in the eyes of reason. But difficult as such a revolution is, there is no other way (supporting your point), I believe, to the possession of reality. And I permit myself to hope that some of you may share my opinion, after the next... So, he's essentially saying like you need beginners mind here. Concepts, in a lot of like the Buddhist practice, concepts are the thing that you are trying to not bring to meditative experience. You are just in search of the raw experience. And that's like the mind when you're a a child or a baby and the world is blooming burgeoning, it's kind of almost a like tragedy, like a tragic in that sense. And because it's. But like that's I think where he lands. 

00:53:25 Dave

Right. So there's actually in the appendix, he has a definition of pure... what he calls pure experience. He says pure experience is the name which I gave to the immediate flux of life, which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories. Only newborn babies or men in semi coma from sleep drugs, illnesses or blood. May be assumed to have an experience pure in the literal sense of a that which is not yet any definite 'what'. Though, ready to be all sorts of what's full both of oneness and of manyness, but in respects that don't appear changing throughout, yet so confusedly that its phases interpenetrate and no points, either of distinction or of identity can be caught. 

00:54:19 Tamler 

Yeah, he says earlier the intellect carves joints where there are none and I think he thinks that's essential to like this kind of systematic... the way of abstracting from the world that we do. 

Yellow is a color. Color is visual perception based on the electromagnetic spectrum. Yellow is light that has a wavelength between 575-585 nm (nanometer). Yellow sits between green and orange. Green has a wavelength between 495-570 nm. I think tennis balls probably have a wavelength of 572 nm making them neither yellow, nor green.

But look at that joint... we don't even have a hard number to say where yellow ends and green begins. Yet we are so confident that color is an actual thing. And so it is for everything, just look at the joints and the fuzziness and arbitrary nature of our concepts should jump right out at you. 

Look at yourself, where do you begin and end? Zoom in. Zoom in more. Why exactly there? What are you? Your body, your mind, your experiences, your soul? Where does your body begin and end? Where exactly, down to the molecule? A hair that falls off your body, is that still your body? For how long, exactly? Air that your breath, food that you eat, does that become you? When, exactly?

All the joints are illusory. Everything is one.

00:54:34 Dave 

OK, so here's my other big question because like I think I'm fine with him up and you know about the abstraction. Giving you less and less reality the more and more you abstract. Do you know, by the way, have you have you heard of the coastline paradox of the coastline problem before? So it's this very cool thing that if you try to measure the coastline, say like the coastline of England, do you want to say how long? How many miles is the coastline of England? And you take a measurement and the way that you do it, since the coastline is jagged is, you obviously have to like take some straight, you know, like straight lines and map them onto the coastline. And every time you use a straight line, say, like a yardstick, you are erasing some of the little jagged parts within that. But it happened at one point that 2 surveys of the same coastline yielded such wildly different estimates that they figured out that it's because they used, like different sticks, different size lines. And it turns out that just the smaller the stick you use to abstract away that little distance, the longer the coastline is going to be calculated, to the point that infinitesimally small lines are going to yield infinitesimally large coastlines.

So, this is just to say that there is no true answer to how big is the coastline of England? It's like actually indeterminate, right? There's there's not. There's not an answer. And that's what I thought about abstraction like abstraction is that like choosing to put a straight line over the jagged edges? Because, what you really want to know is how long it's gonna take a fucking ship to sail around England, right? Like so you're purposefully ignoring something because it's going to work, because you don't need that level of information. And what James seems to be saying is like. Yeah, that's all well and good. In fact, like I can probably build a theory of pragmatism where I can call that truth with, like a lowercase T. But if you really want to know what reality is, just let let the experience sink in and don't use any straight lines for the jagged edges. 

Our tiny minds can't deal with reality in its entirety, it's obviously too big. So we abstract it away. We create a model, ignoring differences, and use that model to reason and communicate. We then assume that model to be true. We further assume everyone else to have the exact same model. If their behaviour doesn't seem reasonable or ethical viewed through the model, then we deduce bad intent. And then we start yelling at them, on Twitter (X🤣). But they have a different reality, because they have a different model. And through the lens of their model, their behaviour is just fine. And if it isn't then the model is amended.

Donald Trump believes everything that he says. He also believes his hair makes him look pretty good. And he acts accordingly. Of course he has to put in quite a lot of work to ignore the dissonance that is created where his model doesn't fit very well onto the pattern. That dissonance is continuously on full display. It's what he is trying to yell over the top of.

00:56:41 Tamler 

Edges like don't try to measure it. Don't try to control it. Don't try to just. 

00:56:44 Dave 

Yeah, live every moment without abstracting. Yeah, without like noting the similarities and differences. So here's what I was really left wondering, which is because, like I fall, I buy that like experience independent of abstraction or concepts is going to be a very different thing and maybe closer to the pure... But why put any faith in that our experience is yielding anything that's true. Like. Why is it that he seems to value so highly our sensory experience, like independent... that pure experience independent of abstraction? Why not go full Kantian and say, well, like actually the way that we acquire information about the world around us is already flawed and fucked up? So we shouldn't trust that as as yielding anything close to truth. So, like, maybe the truth. The external world is just something completely unknowable. It's neither knowable through our sensory organs via like the peer experience he's talking about, nor through the blood, sweat, and tears of conceptual analysis. It's almost like he's an idealist. 

If we are going to look for truth from first principles, without making things up and without assuming anything, we have to start at consciousness. Consciousness is. That's undoubtedly true. Experiences arise in consciousness. So far, so good.

'But why put any faith in that our experience is yielding anything that's true.' The experience IS true. What the experience itself is, will always be made up. 'The world around us' is an assumption. Anything outside of consciousness is assumed and should be discarded. You can protest all you like, but there is no evidence for an underlying reality, for matter (other than as experience in consciousness), for reality having any actual substance whatsoever. Any evidence that could possibly be mustered can only be experienced in consciousness. 

Kicking rocks and refuting arguments thus, is clearly rubbish. The rock is experienced in consciousness, so is the foot and so is your sore toe. Everything is just that, an experience in consciousness. An external world, matter, physical anything, are all assumed.

Don't assume them if you want to get to truth.

And yes, he is an idealist, but a very radical one, an idealist that does not believe in humans. Advaita Vedanta and Taoism at their core have the right idea, but are both bastardized, because humans have trouble realizing they don't exist in truth. They only exist in made up reality.

00:57:52 Tamler 

But no, he's not because he has a lot of separate arguments against Hagel and Kant, and where he thinks they go wrong. But I totally take your point that there is a faith in raw experience that you might wonder, why is that justified? And I think maybe this is... at this point the mystical assumption is that, you know truth when you experience it in a certain way and that's why he believes that, you know, that this kind of experience can bring you knowledge. Which I think that is kind of... the the Buddhist answer to your question is, I can't explain to you why this is giving you truth. This is illuminating because that would be to use concepts and I would be bastardizing what we're talking about. But I will say, like just if you do do the thing, you will get more and more of a sense the more you do it of what we're talking about. But it's always this tension. Because you're always trying to, sometimes in the kind of teaching process of any kind of mystical practice, you are using concepts and you're using concepts that heavily involve constant flux and change to get you to that point. It's not a satisfying answer to a question. But it is, I think, the answer that he gives is ultimately this is something that you have to do and and open to if you're going to be convinced of its truth. I don't think. There's a way to be antecedently convinced that raw experience is reliable, right? 

It does get a little tricky pointing at unconceptualized experience with concepts. That's why it helps to go have look for yourself. In my opinion that's the main benefit of meditation. Sit down, breathe, observe your sensations with a quiet mind, notice how your body dissolves into an undifferentiated buzzing sensation. Presto! Unconceptualized experience.

No more arms or legs or other things. Just experience. No knowledge to be had anywhere by the way. For knowledge you need assumptions: that concepts are true, that there is an underlying reality, that there is an outside to experience.

00:59:40 Dave 

It's interesting, I think I think he must have particular antipathy toward philosophers who use concepts. In ways that are so useless, right, because at least scientists are are using conceptual tools to yield some utility. But like there is a particular kind of mental masturbation that...

The utility of science for certain endeavours is pretty obvious. The truth of science is entirely unsubstantiated. Philosophy is a big old circlejerk of conceptual ping pong. Fun perhaps, but when taken too seriously, tedious and pedantic. Try reading a philosophy book if you doubt my point.

01:00:02 Tamler 

Yeah, like you know, take a Gettier problem. It's just I think he would say is like, it's based on this fundamental confusion that there's this real thing 'knowledge' and we have to be able to come up with these necessary and sufficient conditions, and maybe that's one of the more absurd examples, but that you find that in all the way through analytic philosophy, especially in like the 20th century. 

The Gettier problem assumes that knowledge can in principle be found.

01:00:25 Dave 

The truth that you get from raw experience or pure experience isn't very useful. Like it's not very practical, right?

01:00:37 Tamler 

It depends. Like what you mean by practical. That's a good I think he believes that it is a accurate, but also like morally better way of understanding the world and weirdly intellectually honest. Way of approaching reality. Yeah, I don't know if, like, you're going to need concepts if you're going to try to build the atom bomb. 

01:01:03 Dave 

Right, you need abstraction like it's. Yeah. And there's an arrogance, I think that the the reification of concepts as like discovery of ultimate truth is arrogant and potentially like lead to downfall. You know, it's interesting. He uses as an example in here, the concepts of space and time. He says conceptually they're separate but in reality, but in practice they're not but you know now conceptually we have the space-time right? Like from Einstein and it is kind of true that if you got stuck on saying that it was a logical truth, that space and time were independent of each other. You might not let the math take you where Einstein let the math take him and conclude something that's wildly counterintuitive, that space and time are the same thing. 

01:02:01 Tamler 

Yeah, but James would say, Einstein is a conceptual advance over what came before it, because it of its predictive and explanatory virtues. But it is still relying on like these discrete concepts, when everything actually is completely fluid. You could probably get closer and closer to reality through an improvement of concepts, but you'll never be able to reach it because that's your method of approaching it. 

Reality is real, just not true. You can't get closer to reality, but you can make up a better one. Still untrue but more useful for shooting rockets into space perhaps. You can argue over utility, but it's a fool's' errand to argue over truth.

01:02:40 Dave 

And I think like I again, like I, maybe maybe I'm wrong, but I think most sensible, say scientists believe that, like that they're not. That they're just. Right, like getting like a bit closer and a bit more accurate, but not that they're touching ultimate reality. The difference is simply that they would say. Yeah, but like, we're not going to get any closer to reality by just like a blow to the head or whatever. That they would think that, like the ultimate reality maybe is so independent of the human mind. 

Again this notion of an ultimate reality... why would there have to be an ultimate reality? It's a total assumption that there is such a thing. What would it be and how would we know anything about it other that in consciousness? And would we then have to assume an underlying reality to the first underlying reality? How many imaginary turtles are we going to go down?!

01:03:07 Tamler 

I think you're right. He's on dangerous ground if he's saying that through our concepts, we're getting better at describing reality. I think he just thinks there are better and worse ways of using concepts more or less distorting ways of using concepts, but you are already taking a step into something that can't succeed if you do that.

01:03:30 Dave 

And I like to believe that what he means by intellectualism is that deep belief that the concepts are yielding reality and that arrogance to think that the concepts that we've come up with are connecting us to deeper reality. I have to read this quote. The only way in which to apprehend reality's thickness is to either experience it directly by being a part of reality oneself, or to evoke it in imagination by sympathetically dividing someone else's inner life. But what we thus immediately experience or concretely divine is very limited in duration, whereas abstractly we're able to conceive eternities. 

Time is of course also made up and so are past and future. There's just experience in the unbounded now.

01:04:07 Tamler 

Yeah, as much as you might question why he trusts our sense experience definitely could ask why he trusts imagining somebody else's subjective experience, you know? 

01:04:17 Dave 

Yeah. Yeah, that was weird. Yeah.  

01:04:20 Tamler 

You could look at this, which I do, as also just a corrective because there's definitely ways that philosophers and scientists do mistake the model for the real, do mistake the map for the territory and that that gets them into a lot of different fundamentally misguided ways of approaching the subject, the phenomena. Right, like that does happen and when that happens often it's because we've made this mistake and we're just not paying attention enough to the raw experience. We've strayed away from that, so that we can control and organize and systematize what it is that we're trying to do. 

01:05:04 Dave 

Yeah. So like probably the way, like this is probably too weak for what James wants to say, but maybe experiencing the raw experience trying to get to that mode of like not categorizing, not abstracting, not conceptualizing, is just a good reminder that reality is independent of our concepts. If you got to the point where you thought that thinking that all of these concepts were actually getting you in touch with reality...

01:05:36 Tamler 

This will remind you that like, these are tools and yeah, but I do think he's like you said, he's making a slightly stronger claim 

01:05:43 Dave 

Yeah, I think. 

01:05:44 Tamler 

I'll quote this here talking about Bergson and he says he thus inverts the traditional platonic doctrine absolutely. Instead of intellectual knowledge being the profounder, he calls it the more superficial, instead of it being the only adequate knowledge, it is grossly inadequate and it's only superiority is the practical one of enabling us to make shortcuts through experience and thereby to save time. The one thing it cannot do is reveal the nature of things. Dive back into the flux itself, Bergson tells us, if you wish to know reality, that flux, which Platonism in its strange belief that only the immutable is excellent, has always spurned. So yes, it's a rejection of Platonism or what he calls Platonism, but it's also that it's only giving us practical. That's the stronger claim. It's not getting ever so close to the wall. It's moving away from the wall, but maybe has other practical uses.

01:06:46 Dave 

It does make me wonder how this. Like whether his pragmatic theory of truth and this are consistent with each other, or whether this was like a step toward a different view of what truth is.

01:06:58 Tamler 

I do think it is a step away from it or it's saying the pragmatism is subordinate to this. Whereas I think before maybe in the will to believe or something like that the reality was defined by the practical, and here it's like no, good pragmatic use of concepts can orient you in such a way that you'll be in a position to actually achieve some kind of real enlightened understanding of the nature of reality. But it's... that does exist apart from the practical, in fact the practical should be guided towards getting us to this thing that transcends it. So I think it's actually in some ways it's not. It's not. Like it's still...

01:07:48 Dave 

Transcendentalist. Yeah. It's transcendentalist. Not in the Kantian annoying way. No, but you know he has. It's like the nicest I've heard somebody beat a count in a while. Like when he says like at least count at least count had the decency to place ultimate reality before experience like not like these other folks. 

01:08:07 Tamler 

Don't pretend. Like again, he says Plato is right. It's interesting. Like a quick sidebar and then maybe we should wrap up, but Plato's actual views on like philosophy being this constant thing of two people, you know, it's not something you read in a book and learn it's something that you actually have to do is is, is very much I think in line with the books in view. But this is a constantly evolving organic process. Plato's. Often put in contrast to process philosophy, which is, but I think Plato is like a great example, at least the Plato that I like to imagine of someone who actually believes that the that the truth is evolving through these conversations that are that are continual. And that's the philosophical life. 

01:08:45 Dave 

That's interesting. Yeah. 

01:08:57 Tamler 

Is never resting with thinking that you've like arrived at something. But just to be having the conversation. So yeah, I I think that's an A fascinating aspect of Plato. 

01:09:09 Dave 

Yeah, that's true. Like Plato does get get sort of attributed a lot of the. Like the the Platonism. Yeah, I was trying to think of any other word. Yeah, I mean, there was a book that I was reading not too long ago about, like, the the emergence of, of the science and the Enlightenment and they they were saying like, yeah, it was actually a platonic problem that people were unwilling to think of the world. Was moving like things that were moving were imperfect, and how could like God have created this perfect world and put it in motion? You know, like, that was anathema to. 

01:09:45 Tamler 

To the Enlightenment people, but actually, maybe Plato was. At least his view of. Philosophy was that it's never stops, it's always evolving and progressing and when it stops, that's when it's dead. And so like that, I think there's a lot of consonants there with the James Berkson view. Even though he. Really is associated with and probably responsible for, you know maybe unintended way. Kind of the opposite. Trajectory and philosophy. 

01:10:16 Dave 

Yeah. Well, I I I can already see it now. New from Oxford University Press. Tambler summers. Why? Why player is misunderstood. Why Plato is an anti played miss. Has anyone written that? 

01:10:32 Tamler 

I don't know. I call it dibs, except that I I don't want to have to read Greek. Yeah. Yeah, it's true. All right. Any other favorite quotes? 

01:10:49 Dave 

Yeah, let me see. What I have? 

01:10:51 Tamler 

The thickness one was my favorite thought that deals less only with surfaces. It can name the thickness of reality, but it cannot fathom it. It's insufficiency here is essential and permanent, not temporary. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that kind of sums it up right there. It's like your your science can't is is than you know. 

The thickness of reality is zero, that's the whole point of this lecture. Reality may be real (by definition) but it cannot be true. Consciousness is primary. The pattern in consciousness isn't any thing until we start chopping it up with concepts and definitions. All made up and therefore wholly untrue. In fact there is only one true statement: experience is. Everything else is made up. Held together by a precarious consensus and a deep seated desire to not examine the logic of our beliefs about reality. This desire is called ego and it is very, very tenacious. Once you remove concepts from the pattern it is quite obvious that the pattern is one interconnected thing with no discrete anything. And the human, the thing that you call 'you', is just as much an integral part of the pattern as everything else. Of course splitting up consciousness and pattern is also arbitrary. Everything is one undifferentiated buzzing blob of experience suspended in nothing forever. And that's you! Hi 👋🏻

01:11:16 Dave 

There are more things than. What does both Shakespeare quote? 

01:11:20 Tamler 

In heaven and earth then yeah, yeah. 

01:11:22 Dave 

Then your concepts allow you to believe. 

01:11:25 Tamler 

Also relevantly, it's not the size of the boat, it's the motion. Of the ocean. 

01:11:29 Dave 

It's the thickness of the reality. 

01:11:32 Tamler 

Of reality. Also Shakespeare, I think. I think you have a mystical side too. I've always, yeah. And it's the the tragedy of your like experience that those two things are always fighting each other. Let's see. 

01:11:49 Dave 

Well, also that I'm not willing to take hallucinogens to get to the pure experience, so I'm definitely going to need a blow to the head. Semi coma, yeah, it's so. 

01:11:58 Tamler 

Much more fun to just do the mushrooms. 


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