18 02 2005
Next Sunday we are discussing "Interpreting Reality".
This should be fun because as I suspect a lot of subjectivism is involved. Of
course that is not a problem for us, we are used to expressing our opinions in
public. So I hope you can come a long and tell us what your reality looks like.
See you Sunday
SUNDAY 6.30pm START at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs, but just in
case there is no football on go to the very back of the pub, then turn left
and left again!
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Pub Molly Malone, c/ Manuela Malasaña, 11, Madrid 28004
metro: <Bilbao> : buses: 21, 149, 147
If a friend of mine sees me carrying a bag full of apples and asks me how many
apples I've got, I'll probably say, ''let's count them.'' And if before that I
happen to be walking down the street and saw this figure walking towards me and
though it was an old colleague, but on closer inspection I discover it is my
friend, then I would just change my belief to fit the real situation.
These sort of reality incidents or issues are common every day standard problems
about what is reality. The problem of reality has many aspects. There is the
semantic issue of what do we mean by reality? What is real, as opposed to is
what is not real? Some, at this point, take reality to mean what exists.
Strictly speaking the issue ''interpreting reality,'' is not the same question
as,'' what is reality?''
Strictly speaking, "interpreting reality" is an epistemological problem and not
a question about perception, physics or, at a pinch, metaphysics.
There is the temptation, however, to assume that reality is what is out there
and for us to find out. This approach implies questions like, how much can we
know, as human beings? How much is knowable, meaning how much can reality enable
us to know? And then there is the old question, how do we know that we know?
Let us, however, not get bogged down with such issues as, what's beyond the
Planck's constant in the microscopic world? Or what's on the other side of the
galaxy? These are all very interesting questions, but not necessarily within our
scope. Let's look at things closer to Earth, things that people like you and me
come across in our everyday life. Let's look at reality which depends on our
Before we can go into specific examples, however, we need to say a bit more
about the interpreting side of the question. When we say interpreting, it is
assumed to mean something like coming to the right conclusion about a state of
affairs or inferring what is reasonably expected from a given set of facts.
Now, since no one lives in a closed black box, and we are talking about our day
to day normal life, we have to take two factors into consideration: 1) our day
to day reality if full of distracting events and information; also known as
white noise. In other words, there are things that are relevant for the piece of
reality we are trying to interpret and things that are not? 2) Everything we
come across as reality has a context. Nothing, as far as our normal everyday
life is concerned, happens outside a context. Could it be that we find the idea
of the big bang so difficult to comprehend conceptually, precisely because it
happened outside a context?
Let's take a practical example, or at least an example that is closer to home.
It is now quite fashionable for governments to try and sell us the need for a
constitution. I mean sell us because the way these things are being promoted is
the way a company would promote its packets of washing powder. The face value
reality seem to be quite a laudable move on the part of governments. So
interpreting reality at face value is more or less settled as far as this matter
is concerned. The face value justification for a brand new constitution seems to
be historically entrenched; and if a country does not have such a document it is
really being out of tune with reality.
But if we really want to do some interpreting of our own we can do no better
than to ask a few awkward questions. For example, if this document is so
goooooood for us, why don't we have it already? I mean, it is not as if the idea
of a goooooood constitution is a new whiz bang discovery. Constitutions have
been around for quite some time now; not to mention what is goooooood for us.
Besides, what is going to happen to the old constitution anyway? So when we are
being sold a new constitution what is the white noise? What is the context? What
is reasonable to believe about the intentions of governments?
Another flavour of the month is globalisation. The face value reality seems to
be that having a world wide open market must be good for us. Think of the new
markets we can sell our goods to. And of course, developing countries can have
all these wonderful opportunities to sell to the developed world. At face value
we can all agree that open markets are good for everyone and unjustified
protectionism does not do any one any good. These are powerful arguments until,
that is, we add some relevant information. Such as the fact that the economies
of developed countries survive on credit; be it mortgages, car loans, or the use
of credit cards. On the other hand, developing countries can really make ago of
things because they don't need sophisticated labour laws nor excessive social
The reality about globalisation, maybe, is not that developed countries are
exploiting developing countries, but that developed countries have priced
themselves out of the market. And as a consequence they cannot even afford to
exploit each other any more. Maybe, reality should not be interpreted as needing
different markets, but a different way of doing business.
On the same theme of big business it is often argued that big corporations are
only interested in making big profits. I'm not sure if this is an analytic truth
or a face value reality. This can be further extended to suggest that big
corporations exploit their workers to make a few people rich and powerful. Yes,
of course, but we now that already and it has always been the case anyway.
However, big corporations do actually provide employment. Moreover, the entry
costs are much lower to join a company than starting one's own business. Maybe
there is an element of a catch 22 situation here; one is anti corporations
because one is not employed by the corporations, but one will never be employed
by a corporation if one has an anti corporation attitude. This, is clearly
another way of interpreting reality.
Some would argue that this way of interpreting reality is called cynicism. Maybe
the word cynicism is itself a cynical way to make us feel guilty. That's not the
issue, maybe even frivolous. The issue is that reality is very much context
driven. It is also dependent on how much knowledge and information we have
available. Indeed, we do say that knowledge is power, but the relationship
between knowledge and power is not, in my opinion, linear. I mean, it does not
automatically follow that the more one knows the more powerful one is or
becomes. I suspect knowledge is related to power in a non linear fashion. Maybe
what I know, plus what you don't know, plus the miss information I manage to put
your way, plus…plus…, you know, whatever.
Seeing through the white noise, whether intentional or even accidental, will
certainly give us a head start to interpret reality correctly. Being well
informed will also help us. And finally, being able to spin a good story will
certainly put us in a good position to help others interpret reality correctly.
So let me try it out on you and then tell me how you interpreted reality: "Once
upon a time there was this charismatic phi………"
Maybe next time.