On two dualities

This is a tidied-up version of a blog post I posted back in 2013 here.


The question of whether something is real or not appears to relate to two axes:

  1. Real versus Arbitrary
  2. Personal versus Impersonal

As all categories of this sort, these are continua to describe things that do not lend themselves to absolute, perfect fits of one label or the other. Some, like the rationalist's real impersonal universe, try nonetheless.


By real I mean like a rock: no matter what you say, it - or at least the underlying matter constituting it - is still there. (And if what you say is You with the jackhammer, break this rock and clear our path, the resulting multitude of rocks and dust remains.) There is underneath the surface perception that, if known, becomes a connection to a greater world beyond our subjective interpretation, its existence and particularlity independent of our knowledge or will.

To clarify, by real I do not mean merely (but may include):

  1. the transcendental: an unseeable, unknowable Truth behind anything we can actually perceive.
  2. the brute: the mere being of the senseless, soulless matter and energy of the physical universe.

By arbitrary I mean the fact that we would call a certain composition a rock and not a pebble, gravel, lava or dust.

I would rather not imagine a society of people who would categorically value the arbitrary over the real, rather than valuing the latter as the important one and the former as a necessary evil to be tolerated. A predominantly urbanized, industrialized subculture with an economy where the biggest commodity is information can get very close to such a thing.


This pair makes explicit what was left muddy in the other one: the question is of a presence or negation of something. In the other, an external Truth (even if one asserts many "truths", if they are connected in any way then that connection is itself this Truth) that serves as the grounds for all perceived reality; here, the reality of what goes on between Persons that goes beyond mere atomized mental reconstructions of arbitrary symbols.

That it is a mistake to conflate the personal with the arbitrary can be demonstrated with the following examples:

  1. Arbitrary, minimally not personal: a solipsist world in which all things are one's own hallucinations. Minimal since we still have the person who perceives.
  2. Personal, minimally not arbitrary: an underlying structure that consists of a network of pre-existing persons, who then negotiate all other phenomena between them. Minimal since all things beyond that network are decided by the unrestricted will of the persons on the network.

Basically Buber's I-Thou/I-It.

Generally people from our society will find a world of purely one or the other to be unbearable: an inescapable hell of exposure and shame on the one hand, or a solipsistic hell of meaningless isolation on the other. It is also possible to have a mix of the best of both or the worst of both: the worst of the personal, to clarify, is not the din of being lost in the uncaring twittering crowd - that is about as impersonal as it gets - but the "ordeal of being known", all while fully cognizant of it and wanting none of it.

Four paradigms

The true world of the rationalist is real and impersonal. The personal is relegated to a separate universe, a multitude of isolated wills that observe and act upon a mechanical, passive it that constitutes our (however grudgingly) shared environment.

The true world of the ancients, with their gods and ancestors and karma and appeasements, is personal and arbitrary: it's all about who you know, and the what eventually follows.

The core Christian belief is in a transcendental personal Reality that is the only true and self-sufficient one over all the others.

This would give us hell on the opposite corner.

An arbitrary and impersonal world is a fungible anonymity in which love is literally nonsensical (not merely dismissed as irrational for being against self-interest), when everything is dictated by (merely) made-up, unaccountable systems of deeming and pretence that are real only in the suffering they create. A modern, comprehensive bureaucratic state is often invoked as an example, though there are less immediately brutal implementations:

Just as we've gotten used to being able to pull out our smartphones whenever we have a spare moment or need to settle some dispute or trivia, we'll reflexively ask Glass the answer to a question, or to snap a photo, or to check the news real quick, or to look through our Facebook and Twitter stream, even at moments when we probably shouldn't. And since the amount of effort it takes to do so will be so much smaller than it is with a smartphone (which is already terribly small), we will do all of it with that much more frequency. No event will be complete without taking a photo and posting it to our social network of choice, because unless it's documented and unless we've stuck it in everyone else's stream, then it didn't really happen.

I don't think that's a positive...

And in some cases the brutality of the arbitrary and impersonal need not even require the coercive violence of the state:

Other channels do away with the human actors to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos. The above channel, Videogyan 3D Rhymes — Nursery Rhymes & Baby Songs, posts several videos a week, in increasingly byzantine combinations of keywords. They have almost five million subscribers — more than double Bounce Patrol — although once again it's impossible to know who or what is actually racking up these millions and millions of views.

A frequent apparent contradiction, that God made the world good but the world is also a sordid mess ruled by Satan for the malefit of all, is resolved when the references are understood to mean two distinct worlds on opposite corners of this simple grid.