Truth Is Always An Open Question
By James Curcio
Source: Modern Mythology
This Is Only A Model
We are living in alternate realities. In one reality people see Trump’s incessant lying, and no one in power seeming to doing anything to stop it. Others see him as battling the deep state. Some see Brexit as a blind idiot kamikaze mission, while others see it as fighting back the evils of globalism. These are not equivalent claims, but they are both claims, narratives that claim to represent the way things are, and that’s what I’d like to examine here.
“All things are subject to interpretation, whichever interpretation prevails is a function of power and not truth.” — Nietzsche
Note that this aphorism doesn’t say “there is no truth,” nor does it question whether we all ultimately inhabit a single reality, only that whichever interpretation of the truth prevails is a function of power. Truth relies on an accurate or corresponding representation of reality. In this sense, we can talk of them singularly. But we only have our narratives and experiences with which to evaluate what that is.
And what is power? That demands at least an article in itself, but a popular 1984 quote lays the heart of what it’s purpose is: more of itself.
We know what no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
This interpretation of social dynamics doesn’t contest the legitimacy of the scientific method, iteratively approaching closer approximations of truth (a model) distilled from reality, through experimentation. In fact, this premise was presented by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their 2010 book, The Grand Design.
Model-dependent realism is a view of scientific inquiry that focuses on the role of scientific models of phenomena. It claims reality should be interpreted based upon these models, and where several models overlap in describing a particular subject, multiple, equally valid, realities exist. It claims that it is meaningless to talk about the “true reality” of a model as we can never be absolutely certain of anything. The only meaningful thing is the usefulness of the model.
However, social dynamics aren’t exactly like physics, either. Not being able to recognize the difference between the ideal (an appeal for rationality, consistent methodology, and balance), vs. how people actually engage with interpreting it is a serious problem. And got to catch up. Fast.
In other words, the appeal for truth — whether CNN’s recent “this is an apple” advertisement, or Fox New’s old “fair and balanced” — itself enters into the marketplace of ideas. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor is a battlefield, especially when we consider the amount of capital, technology and labor that states, corporations, and billionaires can throw at furthering their personal agendas.
Cognitive biases, innate responses like tribalism, the myopia of fear, etc. are all being leveraged via media, all around us, all the time. This includes all forms of media, since it’s all digital narrative building of a collective sort. Myth making, even. That’s the real point, and it seems to be drowned out across the spectrum. We’re all too familiar now with the ideas of dis/information wars, but all of them are fundamentally a contest over who gets to define the narrative. If we recognize that this is fundamentally about power, do we also recognize that it operates on dynamics that have absolutely nothing to do with our dearly held moral values?
An assumption some may draw from this is that vested interests have distorted reality; therefore there is no reality. However, that obviously isn’t quite right, either. What obscures clear thinking on this is that reality essentially has two meanings: the “state of things as they are”, which makes no assurances of what that state is, and the question of if things exist at all. The first poses an epistemological framework, the latter, an ontological one.
The former we might consider the social-linguistic definition. That shouldn’t be conflated with the absolute existence of a thing. No, it can only speak to the identity and meaning that we apply to what we’re given.
The Hierarchy of Reality
This may seem like a tangent, but consider the Turing test:
The Turing test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Turing proposed that a human evaluator would judge natural language conversations between a human and a machine designed to generate human-like responses. … If the evaluator cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.
In other words, the appearance of sentience is all we ever get. An AI that behaves as if conscious is, from the outside, precisely the same as a conscious agent. If we appear to be having a conversation, then so we are. But does that prove we’re real in some definitive sense? No. Again, we are being presented with the social-linguistic layer of reality, that speaks to perceptions.
The relevance here to society is to be found within Blade Runner, which of course takes a great deal of inspiration in its core mythos from the problems posed by the Turing test. The world presented there is a hierarchy of power based on perceived degree of reality.
There is, within this, the implications of Benthamite Utilitarianism, and Foucault’s later elaboration on those ideas: that we may consider the world based on externalities that are socially determined rather than based on our internal experience. This seems in some sense precisely the opposite of “lived experience,” which seeks to situate our internal experience as the center of our concerns.
This directly enters into Blade Runner 2049, for instance, Joi, who seems the lowest on the hierarchy of reality, is seen as a pure surface, and all but K seem to question whether she has any lived experience at all. Mariette observes to K, “Oh I see, you don’t like real girls,” and later to Joi, “I‘ve been inside you. Not so much there as you think.”
Of course, this question is always open, one must always be judged “sufficiently real.”
Another example of this dilemma can be found in a current medical crisis. As many Americans know, we have something of an opiate epidemic in the United States. Although there is no end of debate over why this is the case, for doctors concerned about liability and patients concerned about being in pain for the rest of their lives, much of the politics boils away.
The problem comes down to the nature of pain itself. We may exhibit external signs of pain, but some patients will present with those more or less, for various cultural, personal, and even biological reasons. So the appearance of pain or lack of it is little use, when trying to determine whether a patient is “drug seeking.” Even if we test the biological response of different patients who are experiencing pain, we find that it is very difficult to tell. This is especially true with those who experience chronic pain. For instance, blood pressure often rises when you’re in pain, but higher blood pressure isn’t proof, and one must also ask what the baseline is. All of this calls to mind the lie-detector style tests used in the first Blade Runner movie to assess the reality of the subject, from the outside in.
Patient reporting was seen as the golden standard for pain level diagnosis during the years that doctors were ostensibly over-prescribing. But this too is no better than asking a Replicant whether they’re “real” or not. What we’re left with is a dependence on trust of people’s own stories about their lived experience, but of course, people can also lie. It comes down to a matter of faith and trust, and those are commonly in short supply.
This outside-in valuation is also the basis for what has recently come to be called — with some contention — neoliberal capitalism.
… it [Utilitarianism] presupposes a very concrete theory of nature as well as human nature: an understanding of human beings not as unique, irreplaceable beings — as neighbors, friends, or members of a community oriented toward justice and fairness — but rather as nameless, faceless, calculating, hedonistic, atomistic units. Alongside of this it understands nature and the natural world of plants, animals, trees, oceans and mountains not as intrinsic goods in themselves, but merely as ‘things’ that have only human use-value.
This gives us a clue to understanding why utilitarianism is so attractive to a modern bureaucratized, consumerist culture that is prepared to uphold profit maximization over human health, environmental safety, clean water and nutritious food. In other words, utilitarianism is widely embraced precisely because it replaces the living, breathing, emotional and experiencing human being with the human as pleasure or profit maximizing machine; it prizes the quick technical fix over the difficult task of understanding the human condition; it valorizes thoughtless calculation over thoughtful ethical discernment and practical wisdom. — CounterPunch
So Blade Runner presents an acceleration of the myths many of us already apply to the world around us, one which is deeply suspicious of our ability to find singular truth, or maybe more aptly, to avoid inflicting our power fantasies, needs and fears upon one another, forever.
The Authority of Authorship
When we engage with narratives online, in the press, in the media, we need to remain constantly aware that it is presenting a view of the world, and it is a view which in many ways is likely to be self-serving. There is, at the same time, an invisible architecture at work underneath the ways the world is re-presented to us, and this composes one of the fundamental anxieties that Baudrillard presented in Simulacra and Simulation. We cannot always discern even our own motives, or the reasons why we feel that one thing is more true than another when truly sufficient evidence has not been provided. Because interpretations of truth are malleable. And there has never been a mass-surveillance, mass-behavioral and linguistic analysis machine like the Internet.
It is easy for us to apply this sort of cynicism towards our presumptive ideological enemies, but will always remain more difficult to apply that same consideration to narratives that immediately go, “ah, this seems true!” Again, truth is always a claim, which must be proven — and never finally.
All authority that seeks to stop this process and say “put no others before me” are plays at power. Even within our own minds and hearts this is true.
We mustn’t forget that.