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These Times They Are A-Changin'

By       Message John Bardi       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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Bob Dylan correctly anticipated the pulse of the 60's when he titled his epic 1964 album, The Times They Are A-Changin'. Those times were changing. But what about now? Are our times changing? I think so, and I have a suggestion about what is changing.

Our "defaults" are changing.

In order to explain, I will need to backtrack a bit. Our understanding of how the brain works has advanced significantly in recent decades. The older, naïve view that the brain functions like a camera and simply reflects what it "sees" in front of it is no longer tenable. A more current view sees our brains as "constructing" our experiences.

Unfortunately, this "constructivist" view is often misreported as indicating the brain actually creates objective reality, hence the oft-repeated Bush-world claim, "you create your own reality." Properly understood, however, the constructivist view is less grandiose. It only asserts that our experience--what we "see" when we look--is a product of a complex internal process.

One aspect of the complex internal process is that it involves conceptual "templates" (they could also be called "presuppositions," "mentalities" or "paradigms") that filter and shape our sensory input in order to produce the experiences we have. In other words, we don't simply "see" things; we see them "as things." Let me illustrate with politics.

Aristotle defined politics as the seeking of human betterment through public means. But, again, what is better? Obviously people differ on this, and here is where "defaults" come in. Except for the philosophically inclined, people generally do not inquire into what is better; rather, they absorb assumptions about what is best, mostly from their culture but also from their personal histories. These assumptions then become their "defaults."

For example, many now blame the Bush administration for screwing things up, but the Bush administration actually succeeded in the context of their "defaults." They intended to gut the regulatory capacity of government, intended to make it easier for special interests to manipulate the levers of power, intended to expand the snooping abilities of the state, and intended to use the techniques of scientific marketing to hoodwink enough Americans into supporting all of this. And they succeeded in a large way, giving rise to an intriguing paradox--that where left-leaning academics merely talked about the social construction of reality, the radical-right Bush administration actually practiced it.

Now if there is a philosophical weakness to the constructivist view, it is that it is difficult to come up with a working definition of objective reality in constructivist terms. For all intents and purposes, therefore, those who are most skilled at constructing and manipulating social consensus reality tend to ignore objective reality.

However, it turns out to be surprisingly easy to define objective reality. Objective reality is what exists independently of what you or anyone might think about it. It is a great cosmic irony, therefore, that the most aggressively post-modern government in history, one staffed by individuals who, as Ron Suskind reported, mocked the "reality-based community," ended up being defeated by objective reality. The Democrats simply rode the defeat to power.

Returning now to the question of what is changing, it is our "defaults" that are changing. Indeed, "defaults" that only a few months ago functioned on the unconscious level to support a toxic consensus reality are now being openly and thoughtfully questioned. Among the "defaults" being questioned are the notions that redistributing wealth through progressive taxation is bad, that cutting taxes on wealth is always good, that regulations hurt the economy, that government doesn't work, that personal greed is socially beneficial, that great things can be accomplished with military force, that health care is not a human right but a personal responsibility, and that God supports all of this. For a critical mass of people, these notions are no longer functioning as "defaults." Instead they are being treated as empirical assertions that are in principle falsifiable.

I guess you could say that the defaults, they are a changing.

 

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John Bardi teaches philosophy and religious studies at Penn State-Mont Alto. He is also a musician and has been playing blues and rock guitar since 1961. Author: "Conversations With A Philosopher From Another Planet" (available on Amazon)

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