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Paul Grobstein's picture

From ambiguity to skepticism to social conventions

I can't but be struck by the variety of quite different concerns triggered by a relatively straightforward set of observations suggesting that what we experience is always a construction, an idiosyncratic resolution of inputs that are themselves always ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations.  Several quite different perspectives that one might have thought had little in common seem equally to be challenged by the notion that perception may necessarily always be a local construction.  Or maybe there is something else going on, also or instead of?   

One challenged perspective appears to be that of many scientists, and "realist" philosophers, for whom the notion of an "objective reality" seems, at least on the face of it, to be critical to their own enterprises.  The same concerns were provoked by, among others, Thomas Kuhn, Richard Rorty, and Paul Feyerabend.   Realist scientists/philosophers have yet to be fully persuaded  that an objectivity that emerges from multiple subjectivities will not only suffice for their needs but give them greater room and resources with which to work.  Trying to persuade them of this is something I'm used to.  

What is newer to me, and hence is to me more interesting, are the concerns of people who are more comfortable starting with subjectivity, and so who might feel a greater affinity for the notion of perception as construction.  But here too the notion seems to run into resistance.  My sense is that this relates in general to the issue of the "glassy mirror," ie to the notion that it is fine to treat skeptically objective descriptions of an external world but one's own subjective experiences need to be taken more seriously.  This is precisely the point where Descartes found himself, accepting the necessity of skepticism with regard to everything except certain inner experiences that could not be doubted, and hence asserting the existence of an internal certainty which he attributed to a realm distinct from that of ordinary experience. 

Internal certainty is of course an appealing characteristic, whether one attributes it a realm outside everyday experience or not.  What's interesting to me, though, is that in many ways internal certainty seems to serve the same function for subjectivists that an external touchstone does for realists: it provides a stable framework for coping with uncertainty elsewhere.  Perhaps then the need for subjectivists, parallel to that of realists, is to be persuaded that a subjectivity that emerges from multiple objectivities will not only suffice for their needs but give them greater room and resources with which to work.  For me, an appealing characteristic of the evolving systems framework, of presuming an absence of any fixed foundation either external or internal that might limit exploration, is that it could similarly serve to empower both subjectivists and realists. 

An intriguing and perhaps instructive experience in all this was finding myself being heard not as empowering by virtue of inclusion but rather as "against" various things - the glassy mirror, affiliation, community, society, and love - and hence as exclusionary. 

"I felt that we were being offered a tale intended to liberate us from social conventions, from the scripts that bind us, into alternate possibilities. But what (@ least some of us)  heard was the dark side of that tale. A script that separated us from one another. A script that might be freeing only to those who are already felt themselves free of such bonds.  The challenge here was that those under more pressure, more stress, are less likely to be able to play with interpretation, less able to imagine alternative explanations. And they are the ones who may need that capacity the most."  ... Anne

"I would like to think about Paul’s giving up the “glassy mirror” in relation to Mark’s idea of the “authentic experience of being alone”. It seems to me that in one way Paul’s idea reenforces Mark’s idea, but in another way it detracts from it ... There was a strong affirmation by Paul that the “glassy mirror” is unhelpful, unsupported by the facts, more wrong than the perspectival view! I got the sense that we are supposed to abandon it, give it up, ditch it, free ourselves from it. But all this vehement opposition presupposes the very sense of an objective reality, and saying that one view captures reality better than another." ... Bharath

"It is not possible to consider the intellectual or practical implications of the ways in which systems evolve without working simultaneously from (looping between) singularity and connection, autonomy and affiliation, agency and suffering ... I am hopeful that we can ...  create a meaningful zone of human existence in between an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality." ... Alice

As I've written below, I share Alice's interest in finding a space that declines both "an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality," and very much agree that such a space needs to acknowledge the fundamental role of phenomena of interdependence, affiliation, and, with some care about definition, love.  To put it differently, the story I intended to tell, however it was heard, was not "against" the glassy mirror nor "against" social conventions nor "against" love, unless  being "against" something is understood to mean one wants to eliminate it, to " to abandon it, give it up, ditch it."  For me, "against" doesn't mean any of these things.  "Againstness" means only "recognize the limitations of" so as to "free ourselves" from those limitations.  

Just as I would, for this purpose, point to limitations of taking as fundamental either "experiential singularity" and "objective, universal reality," so too did I point to limitations of taking as fundamental the glassy mirror and was heard (correctly) as pointing to limitations in taking as fundamental affiliations and other social conventions.  What I intended wasn't to deny the existence or value of any of these things but only to suggest that none of them should be treated as "unwobbling pivots" or "unshakeable starting points."    One uses any or all of them to act ...

observes the consequences of action, and then uses those observations as part of one's on-going inquiry into anything and everything for which they may have relevance. If they raise questions about the appropriateness of the stories of other people, so be it. If they raise questions about the appropriateness of thinking, that's fine too. And the same, of course, holds for the validity of the feelings one had, or the logic one was using, or the sense data one had collected. Its all open to reconsideration and renewal ... Writing Descartes

While I certainly intended to dethrone the "glassy mirror" in general, it didn't occur to me to think particularly about the relation between perceptual ambiguity and human interpersonal relatedness, so perhaps that needs a little more detailed consideration.   I don't think that the "authentic aloneness" implied by perceptual fluidity calls into question human interpersonal relatedness in any general sense.   Humans are fundamentally social creatures, and so our ways of resolving ambiguity are always informed by our interpersonal interactions, both direct and via culture.  When we resolve ambiguity, we are not alone; we draw on our human interconnections in experiencing whatever we experience.  On the other hand, perceptual fluidity does imply, as Bharath says, that our actual experiences themselves must be presumed to be "singular" unless and until they are shown to be otherwise by interacting with others.  Our relatedness both contributes to our ability to resolve ambiguity and is enhanced by our individual resolutions of ambiguity.  Such looping it seems to me helps us to appreciate the importance of interpersonal relatedness rather than denying or demeaning it. 

There may though be a greater concern about the relation between perceptual fluidity and "social conventions."  While perceptual fluidity contributes to an appreciation of the important general role of interpersonal relations in our lives, it can indeed be a challenge to particular social conventions and perhaps to particular attachments, insofar as these depend on people seeing things the same way.  It is perhaps for this reason that perceptual fluidity is felt by some people as challenging to  human values that seem particularly fundamental to some people.  I don't think perceptual fluidity is actually so inconsistent with human values, and have made this argument below with regard to concerns about love, attachment, and  suffering.  Here I want to address the more general issue of "social conventions."

As humans, we all, to one degree or another, have to live and make our way in a world of inanimate things, living things, and other human beings.  "Social conventions" evolve from the interactions of human beings, and in turn influence human beings both unconsciously and consciously.  Such influences can open new possibilities for the evolution of individual human beings but they may also be oppressive/constraining to them (cf Culture as Disability).  From the evolving systems perspective, social conventions are no less significant than "objectivities" or "subjectivities" but also no more so.  To put it differently, social conventions are no more certainties than are rocks and trees our our deepest feelings.  They are all things to pay attention to but also to be skeptical of, all things about which to entertain the possibility of changing.     

Yes, the story I told was, if not quite consciously intended as such, an encouragement to "liberate us from [among other things] social conventions, from the scripts that bind us, into alternate possibilities."  And I'm happy to have had it heard this  way by others.   I would further  argue in that context that that story is not at all a luxury to be conceived by and made use of only by tenured academics.  "those under more pressure, more stress, are less likely to be able to play with interpretation, less able to imagine alternative explanations. And they are the ones who may need that capacity the most."  I don't know that those "under more pressure, more stress" need the capacity to conceive alternatives more than the rest of us but I'd argue that the importance of that ability is both recognized and made use of at least as often by "oppressed" people as it is by advantaged ones.   Using constraints, both internal and external, to bring into existence new ways of being is central to both revolution and evolution, human and otherwise.  Individuals, groups, and cultures are bound only by those constraints they have yet to find ways to transcend. 

Along those lines, what intrigues me is not only how the conversation grew to encompass issues of interpersonal relations and social conventions but the significance of those things for the conversation itself.  I had a strong sense of not only being heard to say things I was unaware of saying but also of  being myself seen to be things that I don't think of myself as being.  As Bharath pointed out:  one can't both tell a non-foundationalist story and insist that it is "right."   I felt myself to be offering a story for whatever use it might be to others without making any "truth" claim.  And felt myself to be opening possibilities rather than rejecting possibilities, though I was clearly felt by others to be doing the latter.  Similarly, I felt myself to be sympathetic to those oppressed by social conventions but was felt by others to be ignoring such issues or  positioning myself above them. 

All of this is to say, at a minimum, that the interpersonal/social arena is itself clearly one in which "what we experience is always a construction, an idiosyncratic resolution of inputs that are themselves always ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations."   And in that arena too the existence of multiple resolutions is generative.  But, in thinking about it, I suspect there is a bit more to what is going on.  My guess is that other peoples' experience of me differs from my own not only because I exhibit behaviors other than those I am aware of, but also because I am seen by others as occupying particular niches as defined by social conventions.  Since I am a male, white, tenured, academic scientist, the story I tell is presumed to have particular characteristics whether those are what I am myself intending to convey or not.  I would of course, like others, prefer to be seen as an individual, rather than a representative of a social group.  Perhaps this is another reason to acquire an appropriate skepticism of social conventions?      




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