24 November 2009

on the varieties of experience

I felt it has become necessary to explain a few things about human existence. I'm not sure what renewed the kick into subjective experiences as a topic of contemplation, but there it is.

Suppose that I am seated next to a young lady who intimates that she feels cold (or warm, though the latter is much more likely to be less common an expression in my experience). Suppose also that I do not share this experience of feeling cold despite being seated in the very near vicinity. Let's try to examine why this might be. For starters, there might be some local phenomenon that differs even in this very small environment, such as a gust of cold air or a heating vent closer to my position. There might be distinctions in the amount of warm clothing presently on our bodies. There are in fact numerous possible factors which might impact the interpretation of the situation such that I don't feel cold and she does. But if these are all taken as equal, that is, we have roughly the same environment and roughly the same adaptations to it in the form of attire and temperature control, then the distinction is entirely a subjective variety of experience. That is, that I feel perfectly comfortable at a range of temperatures that others, such as this hypothetical lady, do not. Or at least that I am indifferent to a wider shift of temperature downward than some others. This does not change the fact that someone else feels cold at those given environmental factors and it thus requires some attempt to acknowledge or alleviate this discomfort (assuming that this is a desirable action on my or her part to do so).

One should note immediately that there are an incredible variety of things for which this sort of subjective interpretation applies. Matters of taste, foods, music, political expressions, sexual positions and partners, home locations, weather variations, and so on. Virtually all of these entail objectively identifiable factors, like temperature measurements, land value assessments, physical dimensions, taste buds, and so on which allow others with similar interests to cluster with very little investigation. This leads to several interesting phenomenon:
1) People with like minds tend to associate with others of like mind, or at worst, with complementary minds to allow them to enjoy their interests undisturbed and to share them with others to verify that those interests are valuable. This includes rare and obscure interests, which the internet has made only too available to those who have them.
2) People attempt to exclude things of undesirable functions. They don't deliberately consume products that they do not like, in my case country music, onions, or socially conservative media.
3) They will also, as a corollary, attempt to exclude people who intend them to consume things they don't like, or who make no mutual accommodation regarding their displeasure.

What that ultimately means is that we tend to discriminate against what is unfamiliar or unpleasant to our experiences. This to me is a somewhat unusual phenomenon. Perhaps because my likes are of a few disjointed things (sports, politics, economics, food, classical literature, and hip-hop music, as examples) that it gives me ample time to plumb into things that I don't understand or dislike and try to understand at least why I dislike or, at best, disagree with the subjective experiences of others in those ventures. The most common investigation is of course religion. A cursory survey of the world's population would determine that there are billions of people each holding distinct spiritual or non-spiritual views on the nature of existence, and as a result acclaiming various institutional schools of thought as to the nature of any deity which they accord as a cause or value to that existence (this is not an examination of science, which is not a belief system but the application of empirical logic to the quantifiable universe. One may assume that there is at least one assumption undercutting this: that we exist in a quantifiable universe at all. Once that philosophical objection is noted, I'm not impressed with religious critiques of science as though it were merely another formal school of subjective expressions in the way that religious institutions are and are therefore of interest to the topic of subjective experiences).

What is so fascinating about religion is that it holds exactly the same attributes as onions to me. Or maybe country music and of course, it very often results in the socially conservative media that I so disdain. To unpack this analogy, religion is a very personal device with very personal views, shaped largely by very subjective experiences. It is a layered device, built upon or stripped away by new experiences. It is also full of discordant noise and conflicting messages (much like country music) about "other" people. That is, the people who hold even slightly different views and experiences, and to some extent even people who are biologically distinct from the people who can share those experiences (such as homosexuals, women, or ethnic and cultural variation). I'm sure there's an anthropological explanation for why organisations of people treat rival organisations as hostile and engage in strategies and tactics to defame and defeat them, but the fact that we do this sort of thing, and that we can be so homogeneous in its application regardless of cultural effects, has often deadly consequences. Which is unique to the variety of subjective experiences. We don't tend to get into wars or even fist fights (lacking some alcoholic lubrication) over trivial matters like whether classical music is better than rap or whether a particular athlete was better than some other athlete, and so on. This is in spite of often very ardent defensive and offensive cases being made on the part of these arguments. I don't recall ever getting into a fight over whether someone else "felt cold" either. Typically the response is something like finding a blanket or determining if the temperature actually warrants a change (where possible, such as going indoors, building a fire, or turning up the indoor heat). Despite the fact that these experiences are often framed as very rigid objective knowledge, sometimes supported by copious amounts of data, they lack the rigidity of religious and spiritual expressions that can undermine cooperative efforts and even begin conflict. I'm curious to know why that would be. What provides religion and faith, largely subjective interpretations of events, with such hardened power as to resist adaptation and reasoned argument and instead move directly into exclusion and direct conflict. What makes it, along with sex, money , and politics, such a nuclear topic as to be avoided in polite discussion. So much so that most of the people I know of some quantity of faith seem to deliberately avoid noting this in public forums and most of the people I know without it seem to consciously avoid noting this as well. It would seem, from the proliferation of interpretation of dogma and scripture, that faith is very much like politics but also like picking which groceries to consume at this point, at least in liberal societies with a respect to freedom of worship and conscience. Why then are there still religious institutions with such hostile marketing campaigns as to exclude some others.

I suppose also there are political campaigns that operate in this respect as well. But the most prevalent of them at the moment (republicans/conservatives) is operating largely in the same manner as a religious institution in large part because much of its politics are determined and shaped by religious voters and its institutional supports. While Democrats are prone to a variety of dogmatic viewpoints, it is obvious from observing their machinations in power that these views are not deemed to be necessarily universally binding upon membership in their institution. Indeed, much of the effective resistance to achieving the so called liberal agendas has been fueled by internal revolt and dissension and discussions over the prioritization of a broad range of particular issues all still well within the tent of "Democrat" or "liberal". By contrast, deviation from the dogma of the right is rewarded with expulsion from the right. Again, what is so necessary about this hostility that we should seek policies and behaviors which exclude others? Is it necessary that our prejudices should be so powerful? I have nothing against people who like onions. I just don't like to eat them myself. I tend to avoid people who listen to country music or consume socially conservative media in large part because they so rarely have other interesting positive attributes (such as intelligence or curiosity and a propensity to engage in discourse and reasoned analysis), but I don't find either to be an exclusive requirement upon others if they are otherwise tolerable individuals. If for example I uncover these flaws only after many hours of otherwise pleasant company, I am unlikely to judge these as people of lesser character. I will simply express that I disagree or do not enjoy these choices on their part and allow them their private pleasures. How does it occur to others that they should instead demand conformity, in some cases even where it is impossible (such as with homosexuals) and in most cases where it is extremely difficult to attain (such as with a classically liberal perspective attained after many years of subjective experiences which are vastly different from those of other people). Are these a people who have lived in so cloistered and clustered environments that when they announced they felt cold, so did everyone else around them, regardless of any objective temperature factors and slight subjective variations?

Because I can't seem to figure out what the explanation would be otherwise.

To clarify. This would be the list of exclusions I'm aware of and concerned about.
1) If you are an atheist/agnostic/not a member of our specific organisation and adherent of a similar dogmatic interpretation, you cannot be considered as a good or decent person and your motives are questionable.
2) If you are member, your motives are somehow above reproach and much otherwise acknowledged "bad" behavior is tolerated. I realize that humans make errors, sometimes grievous ones harming others and that we are better for some level of tolerance. But not simply because someone prays and their religious institution absolves them of their indecencies.
3) That religious institutions have tended to cohere around philosophies which are strongly anti-woman. Even though some of their philosophic roots are gender neutral or show a specific cultural basis and bias if not. Consequently, this results in stridently opposing feminine autonomy at the expense of losing out of otherwise productive and engaging people within a public society simply because they have different sexual reproductive organs (and a distinct reproductive purpose, which they are then denied an ability to exercise at their own choice) rather than because of some other more pressing personal flaw.
4) Exclusion and definitive discriminatory practices against homosexuals and other minorities whose distinction from norms is not a matter of choice as well as other material concerns of gender and personal identity which are matters of choice (such as transgendered people, or even personal interests in types of music and cultural expression), reflective of a general attitude toward conformity and repression of individuality.
5) Hypocrisy of such attitudes relative to the inclusive behaviors of a religious organisation's supposed founder. I'd have a lot more respect for religion if it were practised as a consistent and coherent set of ideals, even though I clearly don't understand the need for such ideals to emerge out of a supernatural event or being. Rather than being easily perverted and used as a justification for every set of sectarian bigotry and hate that can be found within humanity.

As a consequence, those institutional rules, such as they are, strike me as more arbitrary and conditional upon cultural mores than as general rules of sensible human behavior aiming for a decent and livable society that stand up under scrutiny, examination, and implementation.
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