Letting Go of Winning in Favor of Bread

Josef Mitterer makes an interesting point here. Discussing the longstanding tension between constructivists and realists, and how the two groups view science, he notes the following.

Whether scientists see themselves as Realists or rather as Constructivists depends above all on which philosophy (of science) is in fashion. There is no indication that realist-oriented scientists are more successful than constructivist scientists and it makes little difference for the results of our knowledge-efforts whether they are interpreted as inventions or as discoveries.

We tend to take stands, often without noticing, and our “stands” tend to align us with tribal thinking. “I’m a constructivist!” “I’m a Christian!” “I’m a Republican!” It isn’t always rational. Mitterer suggests it may not even be strictly necessary.

the loveliness of a little barn visitor is not contingent on proving it’s either “real” or an “illusion” . . .

When a group of scientists through research, prediction and testing improve a pharmaceutical such that it is more efficacious with respect to disease X, its efficacy is not contingent on whether we equate “research, prediction and testing” with either “discovered” or “interpreted.”

Indeed, the distinction is especially moot with respect to those whose lives are saved by the new drug.

If outcomes do not correlate with identifying as a constructivist or a realist, what does that say about the importance of identification in the first place? Might we scuttle it altogether? Debates about epistemology et cetera are fun and interesting but Mitterer is suggesting that the sides we take in them are effectively interchangeable.

If you go for a walk and an aggressive bear appears on the trail before you, your response is the same whether you are a constructivist or a realist.

Thus, winning the debate – constructivism is right vs. realism is right – isn’t germane to our function. It’s more in the nature of how language resonates (or fails to resonate) in conjunction with our present preferences. We’re all going to flee the bear, but we’re going to describe our fleeing differently.

Which is in part Mitterer’s point.

The conflict between a constructivist proliferation of worlds and a realist reduction towards the one (and “true”) reality needs to be decided according to preferences drawn from presuppositions, which are only imperative as long as we make them . . .

Something similar abounds in our discussions about consciousness – its nature, origin, responsiveness, et cetera. If you come at the question from a spiritual aspect, you’re apt to argue that consciousness is infinite and eternal, contains and is not contained by the material body, and so forth. You’re apt to cite Ramana and Nisargadatta and A Course in Miracles.

If you are disposed to the scientific method, then you’re apt to lean on reductionism: consciousness is just what it feels like when atoms are arranged in a way that makes human observers. Just look at Chris Fields, Douglas Hofstadter, Gerald Edelman.

It’s a fun and interesting discussion. But keep in mind that when the bear comes down the trail towards you, you will flee, and your flight will be the same whether you believe the bear is objectively real or merely an appearance in consciousness. And in that simple fact lies a lovely and liberating truth.

You can say that you’re not a body and that the world isn’t real all you like but notice that you still get hungry and you still eat bread. Notice that the bread you eat came from wheat that was grown in soil nurtured by sunlight and rain, was mixed with salt harvested by human hands, and baked in an oven designed by human ingenuity.

This is not a crisis! Feeling that it is means we are still taking sides in a conflict that is not necessary. Imagine some kind grandmotherly God saying “stop thinking so hard and enjoy this delicious bread.”

It is okay to be happy in an ordinary and embodied way. It is more than okay.

What if – faced with hunger and a loaf of bread – our focus was on finding others with whom to share the meal? As opposed to winning an argument about whether bread or those who eat it are real? What if it’s the argument that’s made up and illusory – not your body and not the bread? Would that be okay?

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