Dismantling idols: the current cultural inflection point




As recent events—culminating yesterday with the US election—dramatically show, we are at a major cultural inflection point in Western civilization; one that bears relevance to how we see the world and reality itself. The US election is by no means an isolated event: the European Union has been in upheaval since the Greek debt crisis; last summer's Brexit would have been unthinkable only ten years ago or so; Brazil has impeached and removed from office a just-re-elected president; and Germany continues to wrestle with its national values and identity as it deals with the refugee crisis. These are but a few examples. The important point is that these and other events reflect a deeper dynamics: a profound shift in the ethos of the Western mindset, with significant implications for the future of our mainstream worldview. It is this shift—and the opportunities and risks it carries with it—that I want to explore in this brief essay, for it potentially bears relevance to the deepest philosophical questions of our time.

What follows is neither an expression of political opinion nor an attempt to judge the character or qualifications of any individual. A deeper phenomenon is unraveling here and focusing on individual personalities would detract from it. Moreover, although I still use discernment to exercise my right to vote, over the years I have grown increasingly unable to identify with any particular political position. So any attempt to read a political message into what follows is illegitimate. My invitation to you, instead, is to take a step back and contemplate a deeper pattern that transcends politics.

People have become severely critical of the mainstream. They no longer swallow the consensus narrative—still generously doled out by the media and leading personalities—unthinkingly. Mind you, this is a significant change. Not long ago, media-orchestrated cultural consensus was the norm and anybody breaking ranks with it was liable to be seen as either a crank or a zealot. Nowadays, divergence from the mainstream seems to have become the new mainstream. It has been culturally legitimized. Perhaps the Internet and the rise of social media have enabled this shift in attitude but, explanations aside, what matters is that the shift is here.

If this sounds clichĂ© or trite to you, then I am not managing to express myself clearly enough. Indeed, I remember that during my own youth (not so long ago, after all!), it took a lot of strength of personality and self-confidence for someone to genuinely hold—in their heart of hearts—a view or belief that outright contradicted the mainstream narrative. By and large, people felt insecure about diverging, doubting their own intuitions as unreliable and insignificant in view of the overwhelming weight of the cultural narrative under which they lived. The contrast with today's cultural ethos is remarkable. Take millennials, for instance: their felt reality is the individual's own worldview. They are insensitive to packaged narratives and feel no need to conform. Although the old guard may see this as a dangerous shift towards individualism, authentic community can only arise from the cooperation of individuals who are, first and foremost, aware of and honest to their own individual views. Otherwise, what would pass for cooperation and community would simply reflect the synchronized behavior of programmed drones. What kind of contribution can one make to the community if one is not honest with oneself first?

In my book Brief Peeks Beyond, I made the case that physicalism—a.k.a. materialism in the ontological sense—is kept in place by the strength of the mainstream cultural narrative, as embodied in the media personalities that pooh-pooh any diverging view. Moreover, it is the ubiquitousness of the mainstream that hides sound alternatives to physicalism. As such, by breaking the mainstream idols and questioning their authority, the cultural shift taking place right now may provide the best opportunity we've had in generations for a genuine overhaul of our collective understanding of the nature of reality. The people's ability to question the mainstream is a necessary prerequisite for a transition to a truer worldview. And whether we agree or disagree, like or dislike, rejoice or despair at Donald Trump, the Brexit, the upheaval in the European Union, etc., these events show—beyond any shadow of a doubt—that the mainstream narrative is no longer an overwhelming power in the culture. The system has become vulnerable and can be kicked out of local minima, which creates the conditions for both catastrophe and progress. While the potential for catastrophe needs no elaboration, missing the opportunity for progress would be a pity.

On a more somber note, recent developments also seem to show an increasing disregard for facts in Western culture. If the critical impetus that leads us to doubt the mainstream narrative goes unchecked, we may overshoot and start seeing everything—even facts—as questionable narratives. Naturally, there simply are such things as facts. It is imperative that we, as a culture, preserve our ability to distinguish between story and observable fact, lest we replace reality with our own paranoid fantasies. Whilst it's entirely possible to make choices based on fantasies, the consequences of these choices tend to manifest themselves in the real world, where they actually hurt. For instance, it's one thing to denounce physicalism, a philosophical interpretation of scientific observations; but it is another thing entirely to disregard the scientific observations themselves. It's one thing to question the authority of mouth-pieces who co-opt the clout of science; but it's another thing entirely to disregard science itself as a method for unveiling the factual behavior of nature. The legitimate drive to destroy idols must be limited to dismantling stories, not disregarding facts. Doing the latter is stupid by definition and also a sure path to short-term annihilation.

We have a narrow and dangerous road ahead. It must be traversed if our understanding of reality and ourselves is to come closer to truth. But the same critical impetus required to break away from mainstream delusions can lead to destructive paranoia. Finding the correct balance is the challenge now incumbent upon us.

Comments

  1. As far as the elections, M@L certainly threw itself a curve ball with this one.

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    1. (tjssailor) "Go home, M@L. You're drunk."

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  2. "People have become severely critical of the mainstream. They no longer swallow the consensus narrative—still generously doled out by the media and leading personalities—unthinkingly. Mind you, this is a significant change. Not long ago, media-orchestrated cultural consensus was the norm and anybody breaking ranks with it was liable to be seen as either a crank or a zealot. Nowadays, divergence from the mainstream seems to have become the new mainstream. It has been culturally legitimized. Perhaps the Internet and the rise of social media have enabled this shift in attitude but, explanations aside, what matters is that the shift is here."

    I'd like to think that you are right (esp. with the opening up of new pathways of thinking). The problem is that these movements are almost entirely regressive in nature-even if they simply exhibited mere translation (alluding to Ken Wilber here), I'm not sure they would be worth getting excited about, either. But we're instead talking about the recurrence of very old patterns, not anything remotely resembling true innovation much less transcendence.

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  3. Interesting piece Bernardo. I share your belief that a new cultural narrative is needed - a shift of hearts and minds - to cohere the widespread resistance to the mainstream. I also believe that a deep understanding of materialism could be transformative. But I think we're some way off that. Not in our lifetime, even with the power of social media. And your books ;) So the question is what can be done, or rather what should we do (taking individual and collective responsibility being key) to effect real change? In simple terms I believe our analysis firstly has to focus on where and how power is concentrated. And this has to be precise and nuanced - not just 'the establishment'. It's about the structures and systems that maintain the status quo - the corporate media, the educational and political systems, the banking system etc etc. Nothing will really change until these power structures are democratised - made more transparent and egalitarian. They serve the interests of the few, not the many. It follows that redistribution of wealth is key, creating opportunities for all and healing the deep divisions in society. And to build a truly sustainable society we need to transition to a green economy. Social justice and sustainability must go hand in hand. The mainstream materialist narrative feeds and legitimises consumer capitalism and this has been disastrous for the environment. We simply can not keep growing economically on a planet of finite resources. For all these reasons I'm clear about my political commitment - Green. Leaving aside his highly questionable political pedigree, President Trump is an archetype of selfishness (the greedy pursuit of power and money) and materialism (conspicuous consumption). It's these fundamental values that have driven the growth of the US and globalised capitalist economies. But the American Dream has turned sour fuelled by fear. The threat to white supremacy. The threat to male identity. The threat from other economies undermining American post-war dominance etc etc. It's this primal fear that Trump, the master demagogue, has appealed to with extraordinary results. But it's a hollow message, as you'd expect from a man with a huge ego (delusions of the self and materialism) problem. And it will only be a matter of time before those that have bought into it will begin to hear its emptiness. In the meantime all those who oppose it (not forgetting that they're in the majority) must organise, at all levels, to quicken the process. And to ensure that lasting change for all Americans and citizens of the world comes about.

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  4. Bernardo

    I think you're right. There's the two issues, the freedom of views we are now allowed and the danger of responding by moving towards a relativistic post-modern mayhem that rejects science and the facts.

    The rejection of the metaphysical facts is more or less total, which for me is the root of the problem, but if this starts happening to scientific facts as well then we will be in even deeper trouble.

    I would see this freeing up of views and evaporation of orthodoxy as to a large extent thanks to the internet. It allows anyone to easily see the shakiness of the orthodoxy and also the other choices we have.



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  5. It's comforting this morning to wake and find thoughtful responses to recent events. I am determined to bring about change by starting where I am by countering the culture of judgment, labeling and blame that has risen to the surface. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

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    1. YES!!! Agree! my goal is to be the Unversial Christ to the world regardless of ideologies... Be the change and be the love to humanity. Great reading

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  6. Take heart ... "to everything there is a season" ... which includes disintegration and dissolution, so integral to the metamorphosis of the paradigm. As a metaphor it is fitting: the caterpillar devouring its host plant before spinning an insular cocoon, doesn't then just sprout some wings and antennae, and divest itself of all but six legs; rather, effectively dying, it completely decomposes into a featureless muck, from which its cells eventually reorganize into an entirely new imago ... a lovely creature born of a not particularly pretty, albeit necessary process. However, perhaps the metaphor breaks down, in that the caterpillar resists not its inevitable demise, but surrenders to it, perhaps dreaming peacefully of its transfigured reawakening. Alas, the transformation of the materialist paradigm seems not to be happening without some significant amount of struggle and suffering. Still, in the infinitely creative profusion of this magnificent cosmic mystery, what exactly should be precluded?

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  7. Hey Dana, wonderfully written sentiment :) Just can't get the image of Trump as a butterfly out of my head now ;)

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    1. Hi again Steve (and Peter) ... nice to hear from you again. Last we chatted, you were creating some works in progress ... A book? A country inn, 'a la Provence?'

      I envision Trump as more the worm at this point, though no doubt he envisions himself as an orange 'Monarch' ... ha ha! In a more draconian mood, I see him as Trumpasaurus Rex, king of patriarchal dinosaurs, unwittingly on the verge of extinction ... a transitory nightmare in this self-perpetuating dream ;)

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  8. When I watch how many people have to flee from their countries because of war, how many people come to Europe to try to make a better life for themselves and how many children are born each day in poverty, I dare to say: we are with too many people on this earth.
    I saw a video wherein was stated that the U.S. alone welcome one million refugees a year in their country. At the same time more than ten million children are born in the world. So what is given with one hand nature itself takes away again with the other.
    I guess a disaster like climate change (which has occurred many times before in the history of the earth) cannot be conquered by humans unless we start to feed every human being on this earth.......... Do we have the resources for that? And how can we do it with all those colossal interests at stake with the 1% of the very richests?

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  9. How about this question to candidates in a debate. "You're both going to die fairly soon. What do you think will happen to you personally at that time and how does that inform your decisions now?"

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  10. No one can answer that question, simply because we do not know. We all have the backpack of moral and educational upbringing and our own way of dealing with that. I guess each individual is responsible for his/her own deeds and the only one who will judge in the end is the individual him/herself. I have seen the movie with Ghandi and even he had to admit in the end that he couldn't do it all to get it right. So each one of us has to consider this for him or herself. I have to do what I think is decent in my life: what I radiate I receive back so that can be positive or negative and holds the judgement in itself. Get entangled in the daily whereabouts and at the end of the day: reflect and get disentangled........

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  11. I have a question, Bernardo. Could you give me an example or two of what you consider to be a *scientific* fact? I mean, I can give you an example of a mere fact, such as that Donald Trump has been elected to be president, or that the British public recently voted to leave the EU, or that if I jump from a tall building, I'll likely end up dead. But does gravity exist in the way physicists think it does? Was there a Big Bang? Is evolution by natural selection a fact?

    I'd argue that science is thoroughly permeated by *models* of reality -- holding more or less explanatory power -- to explain facts (which are confirmable by observation). Observation doesn't require science; rather, *explanation* requires science. To the extent that scientific explanations are successful, all well and good: at least for a time, until they become inadequate to explain reality as actually observed.

    Actual observations don't change. People falling from high places die now, just as they did millennia ago, and the reason hasn't changed; but what that reason *is* probably has changed. Maybe at one time, the god of the underworld pulled us towards himself with greater glee according to how high we were; whereas now, we have this thing called gravity that explains certain phenomena, and which can be mathematised, leading to highly predictable results. But is gravity a *fact* in and of itself? Does it really exist as a force obeying an inverse square law, or is it something that is merely accurately (for the time being) modelled by such an explanation?

    I do wonder if you are conflating "fact" with "apparent accuracy of models". At any rate, as I said, I'd appreciate your supplying examples of things that you consider to be scientific fact. For my own part, I'm having a hard time trying to come up with any scientific facts. Maybe I'm being dense, and maybe you'll succeed in persuading me that scientific facts exist. I'll wait and see.

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    1. Hi Michael,
      A scientific observation is one made under controlled conditions, so as to isolate probable causes and eliminate spurious contributors. Informal observations do not have this property. A properly confirmed scientific observation reveals a scientific fact about reality, even prior to its interpretation or modeling. Examples are countless and include myriad things we cannot observe "informally." We know, for instance, that time dilates with speed. This is a scientific fact. Irrespective of the (relativity) theory that motivated the observation in the first place, by putting atomic clocks on planes, under controlled conditions, we know this to be the case. Ignoring this fact ignores reality. We also know the weird result of the double slit experiment as a scientific fact, even though we have no intuitively satisfying model to make sense of it.
      Cheers, Bernardo.

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    2. Thanks, Bernardo. You say "We know, for instance, that time dilates with speed. This is a scientific fact." But is it, or rather a widely-accepted interpretation of data? There are other interpretations, such as can be found here:

      http://www.alternativephysics.org/book/TimeDilation.htm.

      For all I know, the one interpretation, or neither, might be correct. Your much better physics education leads you to confidently declare time dilation a fact. Maybe you're right, but I remain sceptical (Wikipedia: "Philosophical skepticism is a systematic approach that questions the notion that absolutely certain knowledge is possible.")

      The concept of time dilation enables us to construct GPS's, for example. We are seen as having to compensate for time dilation effects, and the mathematics works out well -- bears practical fruit -- based on that assumption. However, is time dilation a *fact* or an *interpretation* that works well enough to explain certain phenomena?

      If there is such a thing as incontrovertible scientific truth in a given field, then surely we have closed the book on making any significant progress therein? Science is supposed to be an ongoing enterprise that quite possibly has no endpoint. After all, isn't that a tenet of Popperianism?

      In certain circumstances a phenomenon can be interpreted as waves or alternatively particles: this is indubitably a fact, as is that the mathematics of quantum theory, which by all accounts is extraordinarily accurate, works. Nonetheless, as you yourself admit, "we have no intuitively satisfying model to make sense of it." Whereas, in respect of time dilation, you presumably think we have a satisfactory model (whether or not it makes intuitive sense).

      Maybe this is partially about semantics. You don't actually use the phrase "scientific fact" in your original article. But in your reply you do, and you're emphasising controlled observations/experiments expressly designed to determine whether something is a fact or not. But this isn't the exclusive domain of "science": we all at times employ such methodology to determine facts, e.g. by checking our sources, or investigating something that's happened and eliminating certain possibilities. The "scientific method" is a refinement of this.

      I suspect it existed long before Francis Bacon attempted to formalise it in the 16/17th centuries. If you want a modern example, check out Douglas Axe's approach to putting the argument for Intelligent Design in his recent book, "Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed". I'm not pushing ID, but simply agreeing we all are able to employ his "common science" (an allusion to "commonsense") to evaluate certain propositions, such as Darwinism. Modern "science" has simply refined this into (irony alert!), an art form.

      Controlled experiments can be used in at least two ways: first, to establish the factual existence of a phenomenon, without necessarily having an explanation for it; and secondly, to test out predictions of an explanation for it. In my view, the first elucidates facts, and the second is used to confirm explanations or theories, which aren't necessarily facts at all, however great their apparent explanatory power.

      The point is that a lot of people, apparently including you, don't always distinguish between the two. If you did, then you'd have said that time dilation was a theoretical construct to some extent confirming explanations accepted by consensus. You might have said it was the best explanation we've so far been able to think of. But you wouldn't have baldly stated it was a fact. It's this that I'm taking issue with. YES, it's a fact there's a real phenomenon that time dilation theory attempts to explain. But NO, time dilation isn't necessarily a fact.

      Michael Larkin

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    3. My point is precisely that there IS a distinction between fact and interpretation, so it surprises me that you seem to interpret my words in the opposite way. Let's try to bring this down to bare bones, because what I am trying to say is a lot less complicated than what you seem to make it out to be. Imagine that two people make conflicting statements. Person 1 says:

      1) If I synchronize two clocks, leave one on the ground and fly the other around the globe in a jet aircraft, they will remain synchronized.

      Person 2, in turn, says:

      2) f I synchronize two clocks, leave one on the ground and fly the other around the globe in a jet aircraft, the one in the aircraft will count less time elapsed than the one on the ground.

      These statements can be empirically verified without ambiguity. Now, my claim is simply that person 2 would have been demonstrably, factually right and person 1 demonstrably, factually wrong. There is no relativism here. Statement 2 is demonstrably right and statement 1 demonstrably wrong, independent of interpretation, model or theory. It isn't polemic. Nature settles the discussion. Ignoring that there are such things as facts is, in my mind, a flight of fantasy.

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    4. But is that what you said, Bernardo? We agree there will be a difference in time on the two clocks, but you said earlier: "We *know*, for instance, that time dilates with speed."

      With respect, I don't think we do. What we *know*, viz. the fact, is that the two clocks will register different times. Whether or not that's because "time dilation" is a fact is debatable. Something else -- other than time dilation -- could explain the difference in time as registered on the two clocks.

      It doesn't really help that there is a mathematical model to explain apparent time dilation, even if the model is what sparked investigation of the phenomenon in the first place. Maths doesn't prove anything: it just helps support the time dilation hypothesis, which could still be wrong. I'm not saying it *is* wrong, only that we don't *know* for sure it is right, and hence it can't be said for sure to be a fact.

      I'm sorry if you think I'm making too much of this, but I think it's important.

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    5. When I said "time dilation" I meant that the elapsed time registered by the clock in the plane would be less. It seems perfectly reasonable to say that, if one clock measures less time elapsed, then time dilated for that clock, whatever else that may or may not mean. I feel you are splitting hairs on word usage. If we need to be so extraordinarily careful in weeding out any possible vestige of conceivable interpretation in our use of words, we will end up mute. Either way, I guess we agree that there is the FACT that one clock measures less time elapsed than the other, which can be verified under controlled conditions, so that's a scientific fact distinct from interpretation, regardless or how well or unwell I describe it in words.

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    6. Mickjo - I think what you're getting at is that, as one early Greek philosopher noted, a scientific theory is only ever a likely story. I doubt anyone would disagree, but the difficulty is distinguishing between theories and facts. They are not always easy to distinguish.

      This problem accounts for the tendency of people to kick rocks and conclude that this falsifies idealism. They do not notice where the facts stop and the theorising begins.

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  12. On another point, Bernardo, I do think that something is afoot in the world at the moment, and I do wonder what the correct interpretation of it is. Whether, for instance, the widespread challenging of authority is a good or a bad thing; whether Trump being elected or Brexit occurring is a good or a bad thing; whether political correctness is being dismantled before our very eyes, and whether it has to be so if we are to make progress as a species.

    I'm speaking as an inveterate skeptic of so many things: anthropogenic climate change, the sincerity of the green movement, materialism, HIV as the cause of AIDS, Darwinian evolution, religion, modern cosmological models...the list is long.

    Yes...something appears to be afoot, and different people are interpreting it in different ways. But, if I remember correctly, Buckminster Fuller said that outcomes are at right angles to expectations: neither this nor that, despite the certainties of different groups of observer, but in some totally unpredicted direction.

    Michael Larkin

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  13. It is great to see you all go through the questions and answers, but in the end it is only the journey that counts. The journey is the destination and the destination is the journey. There is a wonderful game out now that is called "No man's Sky". In the exploration of the universe in this game one can find out one's own perspective in life and of life. At my age and speaking from experience I am truly impressed by this game that really gives the ultimate solution to what life is really about...........

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  14. More or less in agreement. However, there are many disagreements within science itself, as well. Mostly the types where there are arguments as to what extent certain psychological phenomena and behaviors are determined by biology, and to what extent by other factors. And it is in these types of arguments precisely that the materialist worldview is shown to lead to bias in hardcore biologians: https://www.independentsciencenews.org/health/still-chasing-ghosts-a-new-genetic-methodology-will-not-find-the-missing-heritability/

    There are problems in other areas of science as well. For example, the whole "dark matter" phenomenon has many scientists scratching their heads, with many resulting arguments: https://aeon.co/ideas/has-dogma-derailed-the-scientific-search-for-dark-matter

    Also, it seems that the Modern Synthesis of evolution (so-called "Neo-Darwinism", although that's a bit of a misnomer) needs to be updated to take into account recent findings: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/the-biologists-who-want-to-overhaul-evolution/508712/

    You also seem to ignore how hard it is to express unconventional views in the scientific community without getting into trouble via loss of opportunities and ostracism.

    There is the scientific method and the scientific spirit of inquiry. And then there's science as an institution with all its dogmas and political, interpersonal conflicts.

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  15. OK---facts and science. Nature and physics---I hope someone has said this before but there are only laws of nature and only approximations of physics. but Strict causality went out the window almost 100 years ago with quantum mechanics. I would say that the atomic clock airplane experiment Bernardo mentions says more about the nature of machines than the nature of time..the only time thats relevant is the present moment and now its gone! The nature of reality I think is best and beautifully described in poetry from Goethe: My instruments you mock me to my face, with cylinder, wheel, motor and cog, You were my way to reach the secret place, but the hinges lock the levers clog. For Nature keeps her veil inviolate, Hidden still by light of day, and where the Spirit cannot penetrate, your screws and iron will never make a way.

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  16. Bernardo,

    Pardon for a question unrelated to the topic, I can repost to another page if it makes it easier for you to sort out. Anyway, here goes:

    How would you refute someone when they say that we can tell what is real by having it verified thru an independent, third party....for example, I kno this pink unicorn I'm seeing isn't real but that this table is, because other people can see the table and not the unicorn. I kno this is begging the question but I'm having a tough time articulating why.

    Thanks,
    George

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  17. Well mrtecclcy, if I may interject, the verification strategy you cite suggests that you're thinking of "reality" as something that's "out there". Now, no one else was "there" 15 minutes ago when I was experiencing some quietly puzzled feelings about a problem here at work, but I'd strongly assert that my experience of (fortunately temporary) puzzlement was nonetheless quite real. This is what some sages call "knowledge by identity" (albeit one of a secondary nature in the magnificent scheme of things). And while I'm sure Maestro Kastrup is capable of offering a vastly superior response, I'd highly recommend a patient and thorough reading of his "Brief Peeks Beyond", which offers fairly lucid and concise answers for your question, as well many others.

    BTW, you ought to consider buying a few extra vowels for that moniker of yours :)

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    1. Haha, thank you. Yes the reason I asked is because I've been debating a few materialists who completely discredit the validity of direct perception, even tho any knowledge about an "objective" reality (if it even exists) must first be inferred from what we gather directly thru the senses. This is where they inevitably bring up the "pink unicorn" argument I mentioned above, and I can kind of intuit that there is a flaw in the logic of saying: something is real if multiple people can verify it, but if anyone happens to disagree, or see something different, then they are automatically discredited by virtue of the fact that they didn't agree in the first place....Something seems awfully circular about that. I hope Bernardo can see my post and offer a more polished explanation as to why they're using a flawed argument.

      I totally agree with you tho, it'd be a frightening thought to think that our entire reality is up in the air or unsubstantiated every time we are alone. And aren't those supposedly independent, third parties still existing within our own private perceptions?

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  18. I agree that it is likely that Western democracy is turning a corner, and I agree that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are related.

    However, I see both events in a more positive light than many here - a sign that majority populations are starting to assert themselves against a political system which has become indifferent to their needs, and incestuously linked to the media.

    Although the West prides itself on its democracy, I think that democracy was increasingly meaningless before these two events, and is still very much in need of support.

    This was particularly obvious in Europe, where people vote for national parliaments that can't do much because of EU rules, and for the European parliament, which doesn't seem achieve much except debate. In effect, people did not feel democracy meant much for them - until Brexit.

    Clearly in the US, a lot of people felt the same for slightly different reasons, and I very much hope the West will not turn back. Democracy has to mean that sometimes politicians don't get their way! It also means that policies can't just be focused on minorities while the bulk of the population struggle.

    Yes, people are also critical of the MSM, and for us perhaps that criticism is particularly directed towards their treatment of unorthodox views of reality/science. Their treatment of the new President, and their treatment of 'paranormal' topics is very similar - scoffing based on a total lack of understanding.

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