March 27, 2006

Reality and Perception 

This is something I've been mulling for quite some time - and while this article does not pretend to be either complete or conclusive, it serves to explain some of my opinions.

It should be clear after even a cursory examination of history that people most often act on the basis of perceptions and opinions, rather than hard facts (one reason is that in many cases a collection of hard facts needs to be placed within some kind of framework in order to make sense).

Yesterday I was reading a paper about vampire fiction and folklore: the ignorant and superstitious peasants intepreted certain natural aspects of decomposition as sign of vampirism, and thus killed the corpse a second time with the traditional wooden stake. In more recent times, ivory-tower intellectuals howled rabidly against science (causing the now-famous Sokal Experiment) and a few weeks ago crowds of Muslims around the world rioted violently as a reaction to some cartoons depicting Mohammed.

While there are differences of degree and kind between these phenomena, they also have common ground: they're all about perception. Post-modernists deny the existence of an objective reality, and say that only subjective perception matters.

But the height of perception is indeed offence. Physical injury and economic damage can be measured and quantified, but offence is completely subjective. Offence is what anyone says it is. On a webforum years ago, some moron posted a message similar to "I'm looking for a woman willing to have hot sex", only in more explicit terms. A girl posted a very indignated reply, basically stating that the guy in question shouldn't write offensive stuff like that. I replied her that she could easily ignore the rude moron and surely doesn't have to sleep with him - and for this she accused me of being a phallocrat.

Yes, I agree with the idea that it shouldn't be like that, and adult people should be able to take decisions on a rational basis and considering the hard facts. Skeptics are the ones trying most hardly to do so. It is largely a matter of degree; there are people who can look at 90% of things with a rational eye, and others completely lost in world of mysticism, symbolism an conspiracies.

However, I am a realist: this is the harsh reality and we'd better deal with it before trying to change it (it can be argued that our brain is wired in a certain way, as well). Perceptions do matter even more than facts, like it or not.

One reason not to be enthusiast about direct confrontation (added later- ed.) is that when you pit frontally worldview against worldview, what you get is millions dead and ravaged countries. Yes, sometimes it is necessary because a different worldview is so unrelentigly hostile and dangerous that it has to be destroyed - else it will destroy the others.

But war is not a lovely thing, and success in war always comes at a high price. When possible, it is better to try and convince people that their worldview is erroneous, and their perceptions are utterly divorced from reality. A change of beliefs is generally the result of an inner, private process of soul-searching that starts with asking questions. This process is often triggered by external events like exposition to different ideas and environment, but it proceeds internally. Try to tell someone "Mate, your most deeply held beliefs are bullshit!"; can my Christian readers imagine how they would react if a militant atheist did something like that to them? It would end in an argument at the very least.

Yes, you can break a man by brute force, but that's far from an ideal solution: some will still bear resentement, and others will be so damaged to be dysfunctional.

The conclusion, tho, is that I have no universal rule to write. I can only say, pragmatically, that each case must be considered an analyzed largely on its own.


Good post. The Sokal experiment especially is very interesting.
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