Back to Basics:

       Reality, Reason, and the Fifth Light Brigade    

In 2369, Captain Picard was captured by the Cardassians ("Chain of Command"[TNG6]).  Held for questioning, Picard was tortured . . . at first for information, and then for no other reason than the fact that his captor, Gul Madred, wanted to break him.  Inflicting unthinkable physical and psychological torment on the captain, Madred sought to break him little by little.   First, he sought to remove Picard's  dignity.  Then, he aimed for Picard's intellectual honesty, and with it his mind (for there is no discrepancy between the two).  Madred began with a small battle . . . just a little white lie Picard could tell to temporarily avoid the agonies Madred inflicted.  Madred felt that a small surrender would lead to larger ones.   

This battle was a tiny one, in the grand scheme.   However, both sides understood the import of it, and thus it was the most profound.  In Orwellian fashion, Picard was subjected to excruciating pain when he correctly identified four lights, instead of acknowledging a non-existent fifth one as Madred insisted.  Madred hoped this would eventually cause him to grow so weary, so uncertain, so close to sheer insanity that he would accept, by his own choice, whatever "truth" Madred wished to feed him.   He was, in effect, hoping to break down Captain Picard's objective reality, in favor of whatever subjective reality Madred wished Picard to believe in and accept.   

 Madred failed.

"There  are  four  lights!"
 - Picard

Perhaps it seems peculiar for a man who has authored a website comparing two fictional universes to talk about reality.  It shouldn't seem peculiar at all.   Reality . . . existence . . . epistemology  --  What exists?   How can we know of it?  --  these issues are at the very heart of any endeavor.   

I submit that an objective reality exists.   I find that concept unassailable.  Some claim to deny the concept, though they concede the point every day simply by living.   As example, consider that man must eat . . . this is a part of his nature, and a fact of reality.   Subjectivists who feel that the world around them is mere illusion cannot deny that without starving to death.

Here's a little personal anecdote on such things.  Several years ago, I encountered a living, breathing, hardcore subjectivist.   He was one of those pop philosophy retard people who say none of this is real, that life . . . matter . . . the Universe . . . everything . . . is an illusion.  He categorically denied the existence (even illusory) of that which could not be directly apprehended by his senses . . . atoms, nebulae, whatever wasn't right in front of him and clearly visible.  He claimed to not even be sure if the rest of humanity was real, thinking that the group of us at the table may very well have been figments of his imagination, or he of ours.  I assumed he was just kidding during the first half-hour of his diatribe.  After all, who could believe such silly things?  As he dragged it on and on, though, I realized he wasn't joking.

Me being me, I engaged him.  He was excellent at sophistry, but not even the best charlatan of logic can deny his own existence.   He was quite stubborn, however.

A little while later the group was growing bored, and I'd finally grown weary of explaining basic epistemology to him . . . after all, I was having to defend the entire Universe, which is a rather large job.  So, I suggested that we bring the debate to a close by testing his theory.   If he did not believe in the material world and unseen objects, then he obviously must've been convinced of the idea that bullets could not hurt him.  I thus proposed that I go acquire a firearm and shoot him.    I explained that he should be doubly-certain of the non-result he ought to expect, since he also wouldn't be able to directly observe the bullet in flight given the bullet's velocity.  A material object that he couldn't see?  Surely he wouldn't think it could do anything!

Curiously, he rejected my proposal.   

"Concession accepted."

Reality exists, and we learn of it through our senses.  Indeed, man is unique among the animals insofar as the level of learning he is required to perform in order to survive.  Unlike most other animals, our lives are not entirely pre-programmed via instinctual behavior.  We can learn about the world around us, question our own perceptions, consider what we've learned . . . man is a rational animal.   We must think to survive . . . our behavior is not automatic.  Unless I will myself to move so that I might gather, catch, hunt for, grow, trade for, or buy my own food, I will starve to death just as surely as the subjectivist. 

Ah, but knowing how to think is the trick.  In a world where most people think a stopped clock is right twice a day instead of realizing that it was just lucky, thinking clearly is an altogether uncommon skill.

But I digress.  Man, the rational animal, has created television programs and motion pictures to entertain himself with.   (This is a really peculiar thing, if you think about it.  We tell ourselves stories of things that never were.)

Two groups of such entertainment forms are known as Star Trek and Star Wars.   Created by writers, artists, actors, and technicians, the stories are fictional accounts of events which have never occurred.    There is, of course, the reality of the situation . . . what we see is nothing more than a series of pictures, many per second.  These pictures are of people in costumes and make-up saying and doing whatever they were instructed to from the writer's pages. There are pictures of metal and plastic models, paint, and computer graphics.  All these are combined and designed to give the appearance of starships, space stations, and incredibly advanced technology.

There is no reality in the stories told . . . no human named Picard has ever been a starship captain who was tortured by an alien from Cardassia named Madred.   Hence the seeming peculiarity from earlier, insofar as my discussion on reality is concerned.

However, if you focus on the stories, suspending disbelief and viewing the stories as if they have an internal, consistent reality, you can come to understand that sub-reality in and of itself.  "There is," to employ the Bertrand Russell quote I use on the main page, "much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge."

In the rounds of the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate, acquiring this knowledge is done by pretending that the events we see are not mere dramatizations, but actual events occurring in the sub-realities (i.e. the two universes).  We therefore consider ourselves to be in possession of two-dimensional historical records, documentaries of a reality about which we suspend our disbelief.  This is not insanity . . . we do not think the sub-reality is real (or at least, I hope you don't).  It's simply a game of pretend.   We pretend that the universes are real, and try to quantify and understand them accordingly based on what we are told and shown.

It is a game.  Of course, how people play games can tell you a lot about them . . . but we'll come back to that later.

The great weakness is that we cannot know everything.   That's not just true for what's going on in the sub-realities . . .  it is, unfortunately, a truth of the reality around us.  I do not know the thoughts bouncing around your brain (beyond the fact that, if you're reading this, you were probably just thinking of thoughts bouncing around in your brain). 

That having been said, though, our ignorance about certain elements of reality does not invalidate the existence of reality, or our attempts to learn of those elements.   A color-blind man may not be able to distinguish certain colors, but those wavelengths of light don't cease to exist as a result.  In my mind, the experience of red (i.e. what I experience in my mind due to the nerve impulses from my eyes and the neural processing thereof) may be the same as your experience of blue.   Nevertheless, we are still dealing with the same wavelengths in the EM spectrum.

Further, our ignorance about certain elements of the sub-realities does not invalidate the fact that there is an objective reality about that sub-reality (though, of course, not within it).  To put it another way, there is definitely a reality about the fiction.   For example, one could ask:  "On Star Trek, warp engines can propel the ship faster than the speed of light . . . true or false?"  The objective reality about the sub-reality of the show Star Trek (i.e. the reality of the fiction) forces us to answer "true".

That said, however, it would be reckless to ignore the fact that these are entertainment programs.  Though special visual effects get better and cheaper every day, the fact remains that they'll never be perfect illustrations of the writer's intent.   Nevertheless, the data contained within those illustrations is itself part of the objective reality of the sub-reality under the documentary viewpoint, and it is on that basis that we watch each of those little pictures per second so carefully.

An unfortunate truth about the situation is that sometimes, there is simply a contradiction between different events.   Those can be dealt with in a variety of ways, and some of those ways are better than others.   By applying a consistent, rational standard to dealing with contradictions, one can craft a consistent theory about the sub-reality's sub-reality.

By assuming that the two sub-realities share a sub-reality between them . . . or, to translate into the way the idea is commonly put, "by assuming that the same physical laws apply in both universes" . . . one can compare Star Trek and Star Wars.  

The way to do so is simple:  observation and reason.   All it takes is looking at the evidence and thinking clearly about it, in the spirit of intellectual honesty.

It is a very curious thing . . . the principles above are not the sort of ideas that should result in unremitting hostility, slander, death threats, and so on.   Nevertheless, the principles above, and the ideas borne from them in the course of making the comparison, have indeed resulted in such behavior by the opposition.  To be sure, there have been times when there has been an honest disagreement, but it is a capital error to confuse that situation with one in which there is no honesty.

"A scientist’s aim in a discussion with his colleagues is not to persuade, but to clarify."
          - Leo Szilard

Part of the problem might revolve around a term commonly used to describe discussions about which fictional universe would win in a war.   You see, it is often called "the versus debate", the "Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate", et cetera.   It would, perhaps, be better if it were called the "Star Trek vs. Star Wars rational discussion and careful analysis by a group of open-minded individuals interested in determining the Truth of the situation" . . . but that, as you can see, would be quite a mouthful.   Those who treat this as a formal debate will invariably end up approaching the following position, espoused by Ian "Kynes" Samuels:

1. Debate is not a search for truth. It is an exercise in rhetoric.
2. As it is not a search for truth, positions which I do not personally agree with may be adopted to win.
3. The objective of debate is to emerge the "victor," having used superior rhetorical tecniques
[sic] to gain victory.
4. Any tactic empirically effective at advancing a position should be used.


Obviously, the above concepts, while theoretically valid for crooked lawyers and other debate practitioners, are invalid in any honest inquiry.   An idea is not right or wrong based on the rhetorical techniques used to defend it . . . the idea either conforms to reality, or it doesn't.   Add to that the fact that, inevitably, some have concluded that incessant flaming and character assassination are empirically effective means of advancing one's position(which is true, provided that one's audience is composed of idiots), and the Star Trek vs. Star Wars discussion can take some ugly and peculiar turns.

I have condemned both that kind of behavior and the hostility it engenders at length previously, and see no need to repeat what I've said before.  However, recent G2k-bashing by my opposition hiding in their haven got me to thinking about the basics again, and specifically the basic issues that separate my side from the opposition.   Though the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate is, of course, irrelevant in the grand scheme, it nevertheless is interesting insofar as it exposes these elements.  I find it striking that the differences have little to do with Star Trek and Star Wars.  It's often just how many lights we see . . . what reality is, and how it is to be determined.  I see four lights and say so.  And yet, some claim that there are five.

What follows, though inspired by certain debaters I've faced, is in no way limited to them.  You can find the same sort of beliefs and behavior everywhere, sadly enough.  

The Fifth Light Brigade

1.  The Nature of Reality and Perception

An implicit conceit held by the Fifth Light Brigade is that reality can be altered by belief.  By extension, this requires that the control of belief is important to them.  They therefore seek to persuade: to claim something which is not true and instill that belief in others in order to make what they say appear to be true.    Whether that persuasion is in the form of a lie, a fallacious argument, the threat of force, or just annoying phone calls in the night, they believe that they can change what and how a person thinks, or just short-circuit his thinking altogether.  This, they feel, will validate their beliefs.

That is why they feel that the outcome of a debate matters . . . the audience dictates reality, to them.  This is why they are debating to win the audience, and not because they believe the truth of what they say.  This is also why they try to claim numeric victory, either in reference to a majority if there is one, or even by saying that "no one agrees with" X, whatever X may be.

(Incidentally, this is why they are so flummoxed by the existence of supporters to a concept they disagree with.)

Meanwhile, some of us debate on the basis of the facts.  Victory is achieved when arguments conform to facts and reality.   There is no such thing as a validation of a false belief.   Reality exists; the unreal does not.  This, then, is the battle between the objective and the subjective . . . much of what appears below derives from this most basic difference of opinion on reality.   

"Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
          - Richard Feynman

2.  Objective vs. Subjective Interpretation of Words 

It is the position of the Fifth Light Brigade that words do not have meaning, and that context is a very fluid thing . . . you can ignore the original context, insert your own, or both.  No matter what is written, they feel that its meaning can be warped into something else and that this is a perfectly valid methodology.  It's all interpretation . . . who's to say what was really meant?

That subjective viewpoint is incorrect.  Words have meaning in context, and those words were selected by a person who was trying to express a thought.  

Trying to determine that thought is not an invitation to a a shopping spree in a dictionary . . . you cannot pick the definition (or bits and pieces thereof) which you like the best and which come closest to the revision of the quote you need, and use it.  And yet, that's exactly what was done in the canon debate with simple words like "however", and in the superlaser debate with the term "sun".   Multi-word (aka compound) terms such as "parallel universe" have their existence denied entirely . . . they feel that no multi-word term has a meaning, but that picking and choosing helpful definitions for each individual word and claiming that for the definition is the way to go.

I've occasionally presumed that the idea has its genesis in the fact that many Fifth Light Brigade members are EU completists, and are thus forced to intentionally misunderstand what they read in order to make contradictions fit in with their preferred conception of the rest of the EU.   But, then, we've all had to engage in some form of rationalization in the case of contradiction in sci-fi, so I could be mistaken.  Then again, EU completists are forced to do that far more than most.

Similar to the point above regarding words, it is felt that by naming a thing, you can destroy it, as if Rumplestiltskin will simply disappear.  In effect, labels (or mislabels) are thought to be as effective as arguments.  

3. Anti-Chronological Thinking

By putting facts out of temporal order, a new interpretation can be born.   

Of course, that interpretation has no relation to the truth.  For example, if I tell you that (1) the United States declared war on Japan, (2) dropped atomic bombs on Japanese cities, and (3) that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a totally new interpretation . . . "Why, Japan was just defending itself!" . . . can be formed.   Of course, the events I describe, though each come from WW2, in no way represent WW2 when stated in that order.

Events occur in a certain sequence, and we make choices based on our perceptions during that sequence.  To deny the sequence of events is to deny the thought process.

An extension of anti-chronological thinking would revolve around, not the reshuffling of events, but the outright denial of middle events.   One of the most often-used excuses today when people do something they know to have been wrong is "it just happened".   People say that as if the event willed itself into being, and the person was just an unwilling participant, a slave to the sudden magical force of the event.   That, of course, is ridiculous.  No event "just happens" . . . every choice determines the likelihood of future choices.  Each choice is a step, and the destination . . . the final act . . . is thus where one has walked of their own volition.   A man thinking of murder who acquires a gun cannot claim that the shooting "just happened".    A wife who is attracted to another man and who chooses to be alone with him cannot say the affair "just happened".      Each choice and each action determines the next, and is determined in part by the one prior.   One can either choose to continue the sequence, or they can choose to end the sequence, and start walking in another direction.

4.  Spin, M.D.

The best, most popularly known example of subjectivism in the modern world is known as spin-doctoring.  By altering the context of an event, one can alter its appearance.  

For example, a man breaks into a home and shoots the homeowner, who dies.  Stated that way, it seems that the situation is murder . . . an act of evil perpetrated by some damn criminal who killed a man trying to protect his family or possessions.   However, that example statement could also describe an event wherein a police officer who knew that a man was holding his family hostage forced his way into the structure, had no choice but to fire on the man to end the crisis, and then started performing first aid while awaiting medics.

Both statements are accurate to some degree, but only the latter properly conveys the flavor -- the context -- of the event.

Similar examples abound.   For example, there are some who feel that the Galactic Empire of Star Wars is not evil.   The main way they seek to accomplish that goal is to take the Empire out of context, and/or challenge the definition of evil . . . usually both simultaneously.   They argue that the Empire is not a tyranny based on fear and under the direction of an Evil Overlord™, but simply an everyday government trying to defend itself.   They argue that evil is a nebulous thing, virtually non-existent, and based on nothing objective. 

As judged by the results of that survey, there are some who buy into that.

Related to spin doctoring, as seen in the example above, there is the attempt to make use of confusion and uncertainty.  A prime example of recent memory would be trying to avoid acknowledging the truth of one's actions by attempting to debate the definition of "is".  That, of course, leads us back to the subjectivist notion that words have no meaning.

5.  Virtue Versus Consequentialism

This section, I fear, is going to be briefer than it should be, since there's far too much philosophical ground to cover, and, being me, I could go off on far too many tangents.

Man is a social creature.  Individual social creatures commonly have to govern their behavior in order to be a part of the community, and people choose to govern their behavior in different ways.  

I want you to consider two basic concepts of behavior . . . virtue ethics and consequentialism.  (The term "consequentialist ethics" could be used, but I find that to be a contradictory term.)

In the best case scenario, one's ethics -- one's sense of right and wrong -- will be based on objective standards of virtue.  The act is what is important, and its context as well.  Of course, simply having a basic ethical code leaves one's field of behavior wide open . . . many acts are not necessarily wrong, but might not be the best way to behave.

One can also apply aesthetic considerations and go beyond mere avoidance of wrongdoing, and toward the pursuit of behavior that is the most right.  This is a type of morality.  It is true virtuous behavior, and in the best case makes for a strong moral center.

Of course, those aesthetic considerations could be construed as subjective, and that may be so.  However, that is not the sort of subjectivism to be avoided, since it is derived from and built upon an objective standard.   Or, by analogy, the fact that Justice has been embodied in paintings and sculpture (as a blindfolded female form holding scales) does not in any way detract from the objectivity of Justice. It is art placed alongside the concept, much as a proper virtuous morality is something built atop basic ethical considerations, such as those relating to the rights of man.

Meanwhile, there are some for whom rights and right-and-wrong in general do not exist.  Their guidelines of behavior are based on whim, mixed with avoidance of the social censure which comes from behavior against the popular morality (which may have nothing whatsoever to do with ethics, as is often the case).  These are the people who ask "can I get away with this or not". They don't care if it's right or wrong, and they don't care if it's beautiful or not . . . they just worry about whether it will serve their interests (whatever they think those are), and whether they can get away with it or not.

Consequentialists are not unlike children.  You can explain why they mustn't steal, for instance, but it is unlikely that such a thing will affect their behavior . . . they'll often try to steal again when you're not looking.  (See the panopticon prison of Bentham the Utilitarian.  Utilitarianism, being a form of consequentialism, can yield interesting data in regards to consequentialists gone awry.)   So, when you're not sure if someone understands aesthetics (or even ethics), it can help to argue things from the good ole consequentialist perspective.  For example, "don't steal from me or I'll f--king shoot you."  This is not a right-or-wrong claim regarding the act of stealing, or the property rights of man.   It is also not an argument regarding the lack of aesthetics involved . . . it's a pure-consequences argument.

It is an unfortunate truth that in this decadent age (a cliché, I know, but a valid one), proper morality is hard to find.  Either a person's morality includes unethical concepts (often derived from some peculiar religious idea), or else a person is simply a consequentialist and does whatever they want simply because they think either they won't be caught, or that they won't be called on it, or that they can simply get away with it.

If you look back at the Kynes theory of behavior in Star Trek vs. Star Wars discussions, you can see that his is a strongly consequentialist perspective.  There is no ideal of virtue present.   Indeed, the very heart of virtue, the search for and acceptance of Truth (without which Justice cannot exist), is irrelevant in his view.

On the contrary, I say:

1. This debate is a search for the Truth.  
2. Any position which conforms to the evidence must be accepted.
3. The objective of this debate is to burn away irrelevancies, errors, falsehoods, and so on, in order to arrive at the Truth.
4. Any tactic
not firmly based on the precepts of rational discourse should not be used.

(I'd be lying if I said #4 was easy to maintain, given how my opponents love giving away insults and flames so generously.  Indeed, I'd be lying if I said I haven't given back as good as I've received.  But hey, I never said I was perfect . . . I'm just a damn sight better than the 5thLB.)

6.  Facts and Persons, Pt. 1

"RUMOR, n.    A favorite weapon of the assassins of character."
          -Ambrose Pierce, The Devil's Dictionary

A person has a context just like a word in a sentence.  Hitler wouldn't be Hitler and Churchill wouldn't be Churchill without the context between them and their positions in the world of World War II.  The police officer in the spin doctoring example above has a context.   If someone tried to charge him with murder for shooting the hostage-taker, they would be ignoring the context of the event and of the man.

An unfortunate part of context is that part of it is mental.   That means that, for the outsider, part of a person's context is unknowable.  The outsider can guess, or make inferences based on what they know of the person, but the outsider can never truly know what it was to be that man at that moment.   The police officer's mental context when he walked into the room with the hostage-taker might've been strictly rational, based on his training . . . or he might've had memories of fatherly abuse . . . or he might've been abused and yet that didn't enter into his equation at all.  Or, he could've actually been intent on murdering someone, expecting to get away with it because of the badge.

That having been said, though, a person's context is an objective thing. 

Unrelated to that context, there is reputation.  Reputation is a belief held by others.  A person's context is an objective thing, while a person's reputation is subjective, as often dependent on spin-doctoring and ignorance as anything else.  A lie told about a person can change his reputation in the minds of others, but the only change to his context is the fact that he has been lied about.  Multiple reputations can exist for a man, depending on the group holding them . . . but he has only one context.  

A spin-off of this regards honesty . . . an honest man can tell you his context, provided he knows himself, and it is up to the honesty of the audience to accept or reject a man's context as part of his reputation.

For the Fifth Light Brigade, appearances are more important than facts.   Reputation, then, is more important than what really happened.   What you can say a man believes is more important than what he has actually espoused, according to them.

This leads us to:

7.  Facts and Persons, Pt. 2

In his "Common Sense", Thomas Paine . . . one of the greatest and most influential political thinkers of his or any other century . . . did not acknowledge his identity.  As he said in his preface to the second edition, "Who the Author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the Object for Attention is the Doctrine itself, not the Man."

That viewpoint is completely opposite to the one held by the Fifth Light Brigade.   They feel that a person's "doctrine" -- his argument -- is inexorably linked to the man, and that the truth-value of that argument is solely dependent on that person's reputation within the groupthink of the Fifth Light Brigade.  Attacks on reputation, then, are allowed as counter-arguments.   Whether those are outright lies or the distortion of spin-doctoring or some other such thing, the facts of the case are considered less important than the reputation of the man within the group.   Control his reputation, and you control the truth value of what he said.   Of course, to avoid charges of ad hominem, you actually have to say something topical against the argument, too . . . but that unfortunate requirement needn't get in the way of a good character assassination (or simple G2k-bashing) attempt.

The viewpoint in the above paragraph is, of course, quite perverse, but it is one way in which the Fifth Light Brigade feels that it can "win".  Unfortunately, there's plenty of empirical evidence to show that such a concept is commonly held in the world around us . . . it is, for example, strongly embedded in politics.  That, however, doesn't make it right.

Even more perverse is the view that if you can eliminate the man from the debate, you can eliminate his argument.   At the most mild level, that view is the origin of the vicious flaming that is hurled against any new voice that disagrees with their view.   Somewhere after that comes the use of an interpersonal sort of force, in the form of the harassment of the party in question, threats of lawsuit, and so on.   If that fails some will take it further, threatening to replace the "social violence" of flaming or harassment with real violence and murder.

And with that, we have come to the ultimate expression of the philosophical underpinning of the subjectivist Fifth Light Brigade.   

The Fifth Light Brigade does not argue on the basis of objective reality, but on subjectivity . . . appearances over truth, numbers of adherents over logic, spin over fact, reputation over argument, and force over reason.  The members of the Fifth Light Brigade and their allies are not interested in truth, but on whether or not a person can be broken . . . whether or not he can be made to tire and relent, made to give up, or just made to shut up in any way available.  If that fails, they simply try to prevent others from listening to him by sullying him as much as possible.  If that can be done, they believe they have achieved victory, and can thus bend reality to their whims.  The fact that they have sent death threats my way is nothing more than the logical outcome of their beliefs.

It is an attack on reality.  It is an attack on epistemology.  It is an attack on reason.  It is an attack on the mind of man.

"There are four lights."   


Suggested further reading:

Orwell's 1984 - Ingsoc, the supreme literary example of a subjectivist regime.  The endgame between Winston and O'Brien is particularly pertinent . . . pay special attention to part three, chapters two and three.

Cicero's De Officiis - I can't recommend an online version, since the version I read was a rather floral and loose translation in a book from the 1920's, compared to the dry, technical, soulless translations usually available online.  The former had power and meaning . . . the latter can be a bore.

Logical Fallacies