Disclaimer: I hold a regular Salon discussion group, with wide-ranging conversations on politics, philosophy, society, and life. The ideas in this post came from a recent Salon, but are not meant to be an accurate reflection of the dialogue.
Books mentioned at the salon:
* Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
* Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions
* Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
* Cormac McCarthy, The Road: how long will social structures last after resources become scarce?
* Alan Weisman, The World Without Us: thought experiment about environmental consequences of humanity vanishing
* Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own: "the most important philosophy book you've never heard of"
* The Blowfellow Institute for Practical Engineering: www.blowfellow.org, where inventions meet social engineering
Our discussion wandered from the nature of experience to free will to individuality to organizational structures to post apocalyptic scenarios to the plasticity of minds to the classification of people to the Bush administration's worldview, plus a long tail of other topics I've forgotten. It's unsummarizable, as usual, so feel free to add in comments.
One of the flirted-about cruxes of our discussion was the question, "How do we experience the world?" The world is a physical phenomenon, and yet our experience of it is vastly different from its physics. The world is objective beyond our reach, while experience is subjective beyond the reach of science. Light is only photons, but our experience of light has no relation to our experience of photons. If we experience red a certain way, that has everything to do with us, and not a property of the photons themselves, beyond their fundamental physical property of wavelength.
Everything we know about the world comes from experience. The world of physics-- made of infinitesimal particles, following laws of nature-- is a abstraction. It's a fiction we tell ourselves because of what it lets us do. The capacity of mathematics to describe nature, as far as we can tell, is a lucky draw. Moreover, we believe that the physical world is more real than our subjective world. "Free will" (a solely Western concept, but no matter) is integral to our subjective experience, but incompatible with our physical world view. At the salon, we mostly decided that it didn't exist, except as an experience.
Our experience of the universe is such a constructed phenomenon, built of ideology. Political worldviews, physical understandings, visual and auditory comprehension, even sensation, is for us the echoes of past or expected impressions and ideas. Every context and experience draws upon past experiences. The first bite of bowl of ice cream confirms or conflicts with what we expected; the seventh bite is a warped, half-forgotten memory of that first bite.
Our conscious experience of the world is only a small, filtered part of the chaotic information that constantly bombards our senses. Our minds construct models of the world, and mostly only allow through information that conforms to them. We react to be people by classifying them: conservative, funny, stuck-up, presidential, awake, like me, like mom. It's natural and necessary, but it's also flawed and warps our accurate perception of people.
The same is true of our selves. Lacan said that we all have a entity that we mean when we say "I" (he called them phallic signifiers), like "the liberal" or "the lost one", and that this organizes our whole conception of the world. We have models of ourselves that define our limitations. When making decisions, we only conceive of choices that fit our model.
Max Stirner would say that all ideologies that involve themselves in who you think you are (like Christian or a boss) are limiting. Stirner also says that we should pursue our own good as the highest good. I agree with both claims, with a caveat. Our paradigms construct hand-in-hand who we are and what the world is. It's impossible to conceive of the world without implicitly creating a role for oneself in it. It is impossible to conceive of a good for oneself without implicitly imagining consequences on the world, which in turn will change who one is in the world. The perfect murder-- beneficial and untraceable-- still makes you a murderer.
Stirner would applaud the neo-conservatives for shaking off their ethical limitations and making war to their own unhindered benefit. By harnessing the power of money and media and manipulation, they stand on the top of the broken backs of the world. They make themselves Sartrian masters to us slaves by shaking off the ties that limited their freedom. And yet, by placing themselves so centrally in the world, they've long since lost their humanity, and their free will is no longer their own.