Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Real versus the Important

I have recently been bothered by a near-omnipresent confusion between the importance of thing and its degree of objective reality. I will attempt here to explain a possible origin of the confusion and to give my arguments against it.

I suspect that this emphasis on the objectively existent as the sole source of importance had its origin in enlightenment-era rationalism (especially empiricism), but the seeds were perhaps sown back in Rome: "Nihil nihil fit" implies that a thing that does not exist can do nothing -- and with the enlightenment, this was taken as material existence rather than metaphysical existence. Combined with the limitless human capacity for delusion for the sake of ego boost, we've got an epidemic these days of people claiming that anything that is important to them is physically, materially real -- and choking on the menu.

Now, don't take me here as a non-materialist. When I talk about things that are 'real' (or that 'exist'), I'm talking about things that physically and materially exist. This is why I have a problem with things like the Tinkerbell Effect, which despite being a good explanation for confusions, does not further my aim in eliminating them. The Tinkerbell Effect could perhaps be better stated as this: there exist social constructs, and their importance is entirely dependent upon the belief that they are important. Since the unicorn is the canonical example of a non-existent thing, I will base my counterargument to the typically phrased Tinkerbell Effect on it. Take as given that unicorns do not exist.

(1) That I can conceive of a unicorn does not mean that a unicorn exists. I can conceive of many things that not only do not exist, but could not exist in the material world.

(2) If I happen to believe that unicorns exist, that does not mean that they do. No matter how important it is to me that unicorns exist, that doesn't make them physically and materially real.

(3) If I happen to live in a society that uses violence to maintain the belief that unicorns exist (say, anyone rumored to deny the existence of unicorns is tortured, or only those who believe in unicorns are allowed to buy or sell goods), that has no bearing on whether or not unicorns materially exist. It does, however, have bearing on whether or not it is important to believe in unicorns.

An analogous argument can be made for money:

(1) I can conceive of money as having an implicit symbolic value, and I can conceive of that value as being objectively real.

(2) That I believe my money has value does not mean my money has objective value.

(3) I live in a society where trade is conducted using money, and if money is perceived as valueless the economy ceases to function. Those who use alternate currencies are not allowed to buy or sell. Therefore, it is fundamentally important to pretend money has real value, because its symbolic value is entirely dependent upon the perception of real value that it symbolizes. However, this has no bearing on whether or not the value in fact exists. Any monetary economy is based entirely upon mutual faith that the symbolic value is stable.

Likewise for government:

(1) I can conceive of people who inherently have far more power than me.

(2) That I can conceive of them does not mean that they exist, or that they can exist.

(3) I live in a society wherein order is maintained by the assumption that some people (the government) have more power than other people (criminals). The government is allowed to mint money; criminals are not. The government is allowed to legally kill criminals under some circumstances, while criminals are not allowed to kill the government. The government defines what constitutes a criminal, but the criminal is not allowed to define what constitutes the government. These must be accepted as axiomatic if one wishes to get along in my society. In truth, there exist government employees that are in no way superior to particular criminals, and there exists an overlap between the two groups. The supremacy of the existing government is due entirely to the fact that a big enough majority accept the above axioms to make it very difficult for some anti-government organization to outnumber, outgun, out-strategy, or out-tech the government enough to replace them.

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