A necessary lie

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Nihilist                     -                    Totalitarian
Pragmatist                -                    Realist
Relative                    -                   Absolute 
Complex                  -                    Simple
Poly                          -                    Mono
Centrifugal               -                    Centripetal
Destruction               -                    Conservation


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All things are so very uncertain. And that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.

[Too-Ticky]
Moominland Midwinter


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We must build structures and believe them - believe that they are solid, real, and 'true' - yet at the same time we must also be aware that they are transitory, illusory, and - in the the last - only 'true-enough'.

This dilemma has been referred to as 'the Divine Paradox': we must act as if things are absolute, whilst knowing that they are, in fact, only relative. We must play a game, and believe in it enough to play it well; whilst never forgetting that it is, when all is said and done, only a game.

If we believe too much in the solidity of things then we become dogmatic, fundamentalist, totalitarian; we stiffen up, all of our pores close, and we become unable to tolerate - let alone assimilate - new information. We believe in one meaning, one God, and to hell with all the others. We become as certain as statues, rooted and immobile.

Totalitarianism can be characterised by a pathological need to conserve, or hold-together.

If we believe too little then we become skeptical, pessimistic, nihilstic - we become formless, because all form is a lie. Nothing can stick to us, or even touch us. We believe in no meanings, no God (or gods), and to hell with everyone.We become as uncertain as the breeze, unable to connect to anyone, or anything.

Nihilism can be characterised by a pathological need to destroy, or break-apart.

Beneath our structures lies an endless sea of complexity. It is the place from which all structures emerge, and into which all structures return. To glimpse this complexity can cause us intolerable anxiety, and so we may choose to shelter within the safety of our sanctuary and avoid looking outside.

But sometimes a wave comes crashing over our walls, and bursts through our doors, and we're faced with a decision: sink or swim?

Realism is a way station on the route to totalitarianism. The realist insists that there are 'truths' out there; that they stand like monoliths, strong, tall and indifferent to what we may think of them. The realist understands the danger of the sea, but believes that there is such a thing as solid ground, and that if we are diligent enough we can map out these dry places, and live upon them; and moreso, that if only we can build our structures well enough - seal up all openings and make them watertight - that we need never fear the crashing waves or the monsters of the deep. The realist likes dry places, and strong walls.

Pragmatism is a way station on the line to nihilism. Whilst the pragmatist may value his structures, he always has an ear tuned to the sea that roils and roars beyond his boundaries. He does not literalize his structures, believing that even the most impressive monument is, in the last, no more than a castle made of sand. He does not, therefore, believe in objective truths, preferring instead to think of truth as a subjective agreement; as the point of overlap between multiple views. The pragmatist likes damp places, and permeable boundaries.

The realist chooses to believe that there is a wizard, and that he is all-powerful and in control, whereas the pragmatist pulls aside the curtain and reveals the necessary lie - that the wizard is only human, that he has little power; and that what power there is, lies within all of us; and that what sanctuary there is, exists because we create it.

And so here is the tightrope on which we find ourselves: we cannot live in the sea, and so must build our structures, and to build them well we must, to a degree, believe in what we are doing - after all, those that play the game best are those to whom it isn't 'just a game.' Yet we must also never lose sight of the fact that we are, in the last, only playing; we must never take ourselves, or our creations, too seriously.

But is it possible to believe in the wizard once his secret has been revealed? Perhaps the secret, like all esoteric knowledge, is only intended for certain ears.


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The neo-Freudian cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker […] believed that the emergence of self-consciousness rendered the individual’s existential position in the world permanently intolerable.

The individual aware of his or her mortal limitation has to hide from reality:

“I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right.... Who wants to face up fully to the creatures that we are, clawing and gasping for breath in a universe beyond our ken? ... Everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate.”

Becker therefore presumed that human character was of necessity a “vital lie ... a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation” […]

[…] Becker realized that there was something pathological about such “necessary” and “inevitable” dishonesty; knew that the trivialization of reality came at the cost of dignity and self-respect. He believed that too much exposure to reality produced an intolerable chaos, that too little produced a narrow and unbearable restriction, and that the middle ground constituted a form of far-from-admirable but perhaps necessary “philistinism” [...]

Becker was therefore finally sceptical of the benefits of psychotherapy, in general (“psychology as self-knowledge is self-deception, because it does not give what men want, which is immortality. Nothing could be plainer”) [...]

This sophisticated neo-psychoanalyst saw the world, finally, as a place of existential catastrophe, from which human beings are protected by a shield of religious and ideological delusion – the delusion being first that life has some transcendent and ultimate value and second that human beings, qualitatively different from mere animals, somehow partake in that value.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
‘Complexity Management Theory: Motivation for Ideological Rigidity and Social Conflict’, in Cortex, December 2002, p. 429-30


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Our lack of "essence" or preordained structure, our "nothingness," leads us to crave solidity. We are, you could say, whirlwinds who wish they were rocks.

We cling to things in the hopes that they will provide us with a certain "weight." We try to turn our loved ones into things by demanding that they not change, or we try to change them into perfect partners, not realizing that a statue, though it may live forever, has no love to give us.

[C. George Boeree]
'Towards a Buddhist Psychotherapy'


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While to THE INFINITE ALL, the Universe, its Laws, its Powers, its Life, its Phenomena, are as things witnessed in the state of Meditation or Dream; yet to all that is Finite, the Universe must be treated as Real, and life, and action, and thought, must be based thereupon, accordingly, although with an ever understanding of the Higher Truth.

Under any hypothesis the Universe in its outer aspect is changing, ever-flowing, and transitory — and therefore devoid of substantiality and reality.

But (note the other pole of the truth) under any of the same hypotheses, we are compelled to act and live as if the fleeting things were real and substantial.

Were THE ALL to imagine that the Universe were indeed Reality, then woe to the Universe, for there would be then no escape from lower to higher, divineward–then would the Universe become a fixity and progress would become impossible.

And if Man, owing to half-wisdom, acts and lives and thinks of the Universe as merely a dream (akin to his own finite dreams) then indeed does it so become for him, and like a sleep-walker he stumbles ever around and around in a circle, making no progress, and being forced into an awakening at last by his falling bruised and bleeding over the Natural Laws which he ignored.

Keep your mind ever on the Star, but let your eyes watch over your footsteps, lest you fall into the mire by reason of your upward gaze.

Remember the Divine Paradox, that while the Universe IS NOT, still IT IS. Remember ever the Two Poles of Truth– the Absolute and the Relative. Beware of Half-Truths

The Kybalion, Chapter VI: "The Divine Paradox"


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Humans are often caught off guard by or slow to recognize the rare and novel, partly because built into the very nature of our experience is the propensity to extend existing knowledge and experience to future events and experiences.

To exacerbate this natural propensity much of our cultural education both formal and otherwise is built upon historical knowledge forced on us by others. Of course both the natural physiological propensity and the cultural phenomenon are somewhat a necessary precondition to learning, since complete openness to every event would be inefficient. Bertrand Russell observed, "An open mind is an empty mind." So we cannot be completely open, but we must guard against being completely closed as well. It would be most efficacious if we could find a balance between the known and unknown and the limits of our knowledge and experience. The effect of unexpected events is likely integral to finding this balance. Thus, the rare and unexpected is far more significant to our formation of knowledge than people often imagine.

Taleb argues that the proposition "we know", in many cases, is an illusion, albeit a necessary one; the human mind tends to think it knows, but it does not always have a solid basis for this delusion of "I know". This notion that we do not know is very old, dated at least as far back as Socrates. The Socratic method of questioning and avowal of ignorance is the type of corrective action to the delusion that we know something completely and truly.

Similarly, to those who might argue that the advancement of science has rendered the world well-known, Taleb argues that while science added knowledge, we always run the risk of experiencing the improbable, rare, and novel. We can be shocked by this knowledge and experience or we can be open to it. As with the dictum of Socrates, "the only thing I know is that I do not know", which is as true as ever, Taleb concludes. Taleb further expands this idea of finite knowable worlds (e.g., a game) vs. infinite and thus unknowable worlds (our natural world) in what he calls the Ludic fallacy.

'The Black Swan (Taleb book)'


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Related posts:-
All is Change
Everything and Nothing
Escaping Uncertainty
Taking the Rough with the Smooth
The Dangers of Dogmatism
Sailing the Turbulent Seas
Do Not Disturb  

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