diogenes

I had started to use the word “wins” in the title of this post, but recognized the implication of a “contest” that I did not mean to convey. We humans generally claim success when the future turns out to be just what we had intended it to be, but forget to credit reality for its essential part. Nothing we ever do turns out the way it does by itself. The real world is always involved, because every human being is merely a part of a complex system of an untold number of interconnections among us human beings and between humanity and the rest of the world, alive or not.

The corona virus pandemic is a great example of this. It arose from a series of random events, first at the level of molecules, next in the chance encounter of a human with the virus that had been formed, then spread by additional encounters, and, now, spreading unchecked throughout the world. That’s what I call reality. And, if we humans are to act deliberately in any way to effectively respond to this current chain of events, it must also be based in reality. There is no other way!

The same can be said of any situation that we, individually or collectively as a nation or even globally develop intentions to act in response. The closer our actions conform to the reality of the situation, the more likely we can expect things to turn out the way we want. Even if we are close, the complexity of reality does not usually respond in quite the way we expected. Reality is complex and does not adhere to the abstractions we use in developing and executing our intentions.

Facts, beliefs representing our state of knowledge about reality, are the medium by which we create our intentions and actions. The future rarely conforms precisely to our intentions because we tend to lack all the facts, and because those we have are pale abstractions of reality, lacking its rich, ever-changing context. This failing is always the case any time people are involved.

Facts about complex systems are not enough when the outcomes we seek are emergent, like beauty, flourishing resilience, liquidity and so on. These only show up when the entire system has moved into a state that, as if by magic, produces the hoped-for outcome. Such emergent properties are not relatable to the facts through any abstract set of relationships.

Whatever happens from one moment to the next is determined by reality. We may set something in motion by our intentions, but the instant we act, the world, another name for reality, takes over. There is absolutely nothing we can do about that, but wait to see what actually happens. Wishing is of no use at all.

It should be obvious that the closer our facts match reality, the better our chances of success. Operating, deliberately, from some alternate reality or alternate set of facts is to lose whatever control we might have over the inevitability of reality’s plans for us. More to the point, lying about what is out there may present a believable world to those who have no way to find out what’s what for themselves, but cannot serve as a basis for effective action. It follows then that other non-facts based on these lies cannot cope with the present or any other situation.

We are experiencing a very bitter lesson, brought to us by Covid19, of the reality of this reality. The US, claiming to be the most advanced, prosperous nation on the Globe, has completely fumbled the ball. Without an organized way to observe the movement and severity of the virus, we have thrown in the towel and walled us off from our familiar everyday worlds. The cost is immeasurable in monetary and humane terms. The cause for our failure lies squarely in the lap of President Trump. The house of cards he has built from the get-go on lies and alternate facts is falling down. Unfortunately, all of us are under its roof and will not emerge unscathed.

Getting one’s arms around reality is not easy. Science can take us only so far, not for lack of trying, but because complexity demands a different kind of understanding, gathered by careful deliberation, based on the equally careful observation of the reality of the situation out there. For some time, we have, encouraged by our political leadership, tossed such deliberation and attention to reality to the winds. In our two-party system, the failure of bi-partisan deliberation is not just a failure to serve all the citizenry, the very basis of the “Government,” but an utter failure to face reality.

Never has the need to “speak truth to power” been so critical, but to turn this around, it is also critical that, “power speaks truth to us.” Reality is at work, doing her thing. It is not about winning or losing. Part of our current difficulties in dealing with big “problems” like Covid19 or climate change is that we see nature as an adversary and as separate from us. Big mistake—we are part of the reality that “nature” usually connotes. She is not inherently at odds with human intentions and dreams. Hardly, reality is always the biggest player on the stage of life. We do forget that. But we must play with her by her rules and by the myriad rules we have established though the creation and evolution of the web of institutions that form the social reality of our lives.

“Just the facts, ma’am.” Ironically, this quote has been attributed to Sgt. Joe Friday, the central chapter of Dragnet (fact). In fact, it was said during a parody of the show.

Image: Diogenes of Sinope. “According to Diogenes society was an artificial contrivance set up by human beings which did not accord well with truth or virtue and could not in any way make someone a good and decent human being; and so follows the famous story of Diogenes holding the light up to the faces of passers-by in the market place looking for an honest man or a true human being. Everyone, he claimed, was trapped in this make-believe world which they believed was reality and, because of this, people were living in a kind of dream state.” (From the Encyclopedia of Ancient History)