I watched The Truman Show for the second time in a couple of days this evening. It was released in 1998 – imagine that! It's such a great movie with an excellent script and actor in the leading role. Carey understood the metaphor. He knew what the movie needed to portray, I would argue, because he perhaps had already lived it. Or maybe he was living it. Either way, he played the part well. I believed him. The story attempted to show the thinness of contemporary life, the deception of the firework display, and the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. It is a reality that is ultimately unsubstantial, and in our recognition of such, is it apt to fight or be passive? Let us explore this.
Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality published in 1929, said;
In the inescapable flux, there is something that abides; in the overwhelming permanence, there is an element that escapes into flux. Permanence can be snatched only out of flux; and the passing moment can find its adequate intensity only by its submission to permanence.
Any deeply investigative mind worth its salt understands that there are no facts. Yet common everyday language, the words of politicians, the media, the legal system, economists and our beloved socialites suggest that the world and everyone in it is fixed.
Or at least it should be.
Like in a novel, the characters must remain the same.
Whenever circumstances show us otherwise, it becomes an offence to our common sense. We become outraged at what is our very own diabolical creation. In other words, we believe the photograph we have taken is real, that the world we occupy is it.
But the world is not a photograph, or even a series of photographs or fixed frames in transition like a movie. There is no one person responsible although the law would suggest there is. In fact, every time we turn around there's nothing there. There is no one to blame, yet we dish it out with certainty.
“The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, seek simplicity and distrust it”.Alfred North Whitehead | Mathematician and Philosopher
Reflective of the truth is that both sides of this apparent reality are involved in a dance. Like partners on the floor, both are required for the dance to happen. In the same way, inside implies outside, black implies white, I imply you, and space implies matter. Always, with the existence of either one, there is the implication of the other.
And so in assigning fixed labels we commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. According to Whitehead, by mistaking abstractions, beliefs or mental constructs for physical or “concrete” reality, we hypnotise ourselves.
A trivial example;
The word jam refers to the fruity sticky stuff inside the jar that you spread on toast or scones. Jam is just a word I write or a noise I make with my mouth that everyone else understands to be the stuff in the jar. The word jam is not the fruity sticky stuff, it’s just a concept, or rather, it invokes a concept on your part. Unless, that is, you are one of my American cousins in which case jam is not jam, it's jelly.
But jelly is certainly not jam where I’m from.
Either way, I’d rather spread the fruity sticky stuff on my toast than the concept.
Whitehead was critical of reductionist ideas of reality and he proposed the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in relation to the temporal location of objects in space. He rejected the idea that we can assign physical objects temporal existence without reference to their relationship to other objects.
In other words, everything exists as an extension of everything else. Go far enough into one thing and you'll arrive back where you started.
I am what I am because of what I am not, and what I am not, because of what I am. The two seem diametrically opposed, and yet each is required for the other to be.
Be. And, at the same time, know what it is not to be.Rainer Maria Rilke
The emptiness inside you allows you to vibrate
in full resonance with your world. Use it for once.
In science, or indeed in ordinary everyday life, no matter how objective we consider ourselves, the observer can never be truly be removed from the scene. We have an impact on the outcome, no matter how slight and therefore we must always report our findings as tentative, temporary, in flux.
Like a series of photographs of the same scene taken in close proximity, the changes are so subtle we barely notice them. But taken months or years apart and the apparent changes can be dramatic.
Permanence is an illusion of the brain. Just like the concept Larry Maguire is always changing, dependent on environmental conditions, its relationship to that and every other animated thing, conditions change.
Change is what we have, always change.
And so, that thing we seek in society and in fellow human beings cannot be found, however, we pursue it anyway. And when conditions change so dramatically as they have done in recent months, we have no concept by which to express it.
We freak out.
In truth, we love the drama of it all, even though today COVID-19 has shaken most people to their boots. If you find yourself in the company of others, which may be rare in recent weeks I’ll admit, then you’ll find COVID-19 is all people are talking about. The drama is disruptive but exciting.
Everyone is an expert or knows an expert that knows an expert, and to be honest, I find it all a little irritating.
However, back to the philosophising…
We can account for all experienced phenomena as “a happening”. It is the nature of relationship, an on-off, in-out, up-down complimentary arrangement of something with itself. We can't fully explain it and it goes on absent of time and space.
In Eastern philosophy it is the Tao, the unknowable, unnameable, natural self-organising, fundamental reality underlying everything. It both is and is not all at once. The Hindus call it Brahman, and they say that the Brahman is unknown to those who know it, and known to those who know it not.
Somewhat cryptic, but if you’ve felt it, then this idea makes sense. You’ll know without uttering as much as a word, that you are as much a part of the happening as the thing you perceive — there is no separation. In fact, the you that you perceive yourself to be may disappear for a moment, and as soon as you try to think about it, it disappears.
Realisation of this to-and-fro reality becomes relevant in times such these when change is so abrupt. It’s like a big storm has hit land and is tearing up towns and villages, but just like the storm, COVID-19 is not permanent — it will pass. It's when we are so embroiled in it that we cannot step outside it, and we suffer.
“Trying to understand is like straining through muddy water. Have the patience to wait! Be still and allow the mud to settle.”Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The recent health scare and subsequent upheaval in society is not a thing in of itself. Rather, it is a response to a perceived fixed reality. Some believe Covid is malicious, and that may prove to be the case. Regardless, as with all corrections, we have an opportunity.
The planet is getting a break from human activity and that can’t be bad. People are getting a break from the invisible pressures of what we have come to know as normal life. Priorities are being reset, attitudes are changing, and people are wishing each other well and actually meaning it.
Additionally, we have a chance to establish new meaningful relationships with work instead of the dominant transactional relationship many of us have. Millions have lost their jobs, but even this presents an opportunity. In my humble opinion, there is no better time to build something for yourself.
COVID-19 is temporary, not permanent, and although matters are serious for many of us, we need to be careful to what we assign truth.
We have a period of adjustment ahead, no doubt about it, but I want to believe that things will be better when the dust settles.
It’s up to us.