Rule #5: Get Back to the Rules

Reality is elusive. Truth hides beyond our reach. Break-these-rules makes it clear that we simply are looking for GSOT, not truth. Let’s not make the mistake of those who tried too hard to grasp reality.

Truth is supposed to be the same from the beginning to the end of time. GSOT is dynamic, in the moment, demanding courage as well as commitment, urging us on impulse to break the rules that guided well thus far. As we reach for GSOT, then, will the last word be break-these-rules?

When Rule #4 bids us to break these rules, which rules are meant, 1 through 3, or 1 through 4? Does break-these-rules refer to itself as well? The only possible answer is yes.

Break-these-rules, tripping on itself, cannot be the last rule. Break-these-rules led us to infinity, but infinity was not the last word. Now it’s time to breathe consciously and slow, to look around this small room in which so many hours have passed. The last rule is an humble one.

Rule #5:  Get back to the rules.

Explorers cannot survive without supplies. Our supplies are the words, relations, arguments built into the rules – we cannot leave them behind. Hunger and chaos fall upon those who sail too long in uncharted seas.

Get back to the rules. But what were they? Where have we been? Let’s review.

We began by looking at two curiously similar forms of GSOT, positivism and religious fundamentalism, both of which adhere to a principle that the best starting point is that which maximizes confidence. For positivism, confidence is gained from agreement alone. Any proposition that does not compel agreement is judged to be inconsequential. For religious fundamentalism, confidence in shared belief is a principal means by which a person seeks to glorify God.

Both positivism and religious fundamentalism are expressions of modernism, which features confidence as a key operational principle. Their starting points are simple, clear, and decisive…and they are completely different. To justify the founding principle of his creed, either the positivist or the fundamentalist will argue the worthlessness – or the nothingness – of alternatives. That is to say, the founding principle is chosen because it appears to be better than nothing.

Now we live in a time beyond modernism. The byline of our postmodern era is suspicion rather than confidence. Let our GSOT be that which survives under withering suspicion. Ours shall be a grudging, gritty kind of confidence. Our concern is not with soaring brilliance. We protest when those who would rule from such heights demean the value of everyday life. We begin the trek toward GSOT in the midst of busy days and nights. We shall start from where we are.

Our take on reality will be anchored in time, place, and person. As for the time of GSOT, it may be momentary or prolonged. As for the place, as small as a point of touch or as large as the physical universe. As for person, either singular or plural, either living or dead or yet to live.

Early in this series we contrasted the immediate, the personal, and the particular against that which is enduring, public (anonymous), reproducible (universal). But the purpose of that contrast was never to choose one pole to the neglect of the other. Instead the purpose is to emphasize the full range of phenomena versus sole attention to a single pole of enduring, public, and reproducible – whether that single pole happens to positivistic science or religious fundamentalism.

Positivism attempts to elevate science by casting a nihilistic judgment on everything outside of science, but this maneuver ends up leaving science barren, out of contact with human hopes and needs. Because we attend to the full range, however, science is included and embraced within our goals. Religious fundamentalism is not the opposite of science, but has its own definition of enduring, public, and reproducible truth – God’s truth accessible through a bestowed text and a single interpretation. Enforcement of one interpretation, though meant to glorify God, may leave no room to value the immediate, personal, and particular, where perhaps God may touch us more recognizably than through any sacred image of unblinking, stonehard truth.

To declare that “Every sentence is first person” is to assert that every judgment, question, and exclamation has an immediate, personal, and particular aspect. This aspect is implicit in the pronouns “I” and limited “we.” To deny the validity of the overarching viewpoint is to refuse the presumption of Godlike wisdom by one human mind or many. The “universal we” of science is really an “almost-universal we,” which fails to provide an overarching viewpoint. Because there is no overarching viewpoint, no interpretation of GSOT can command or require agreement from everyone.

Pragmatism reminds us that the search for truth operates through human decision-making. When the search for truth arcs back on itself to ask what is the truth about human decision-making (most crucially is it free or not?), pragmatism gives no firm answers. Because there are no firm answers, philosophy cannot exclude “inner factors” which might be called operations of will. These factors, the existence of which cannot be studied reproducibly, nevertheless have tangible effects. Operations of will cannot be excluded for lack of tangible effects.

The denial of free will generally claims to show a lack of evidence that would compel affirmation of free will. This strategy only signifies that free will cannot be affirmed in a positivist framework. When we ask the question of free will without preconceptions, our asking reveals a choice, which is the choice to ask the question.

It is impossible to tie choosing down within a philosophically chosen axiomatic system. When this is attempted, free will may often be proven false by the axioms. Free will flashed, then disappeared at the moment of choosing the axioms. The only way to dismiss free will is to forget that moment of choosing. The problem is mainly a confusion of past, present, and future. That which has been chosen is no longer free. Free will can be understood only in the expression of first person voice and only in the moving moment. Reproducibility of events and interchangeability of observers do not apply to free will, and therefore free will is not accessible to scientific testing. According to pragmatism the function of will, understood as axiomatic itself, is the filter through which all apparent truth comes to comprehension.

Free will, expressed in first person voice in the moving moment, is capable of self-reference. Positivism and fundamentalism are not capable of self-reference. Let’s ask Epimenides to come help us remove the plague of modernist philosophy.

The ancient Pythagoreans, who gave us the word “mathematics,” believed that secrets of the universe could be learned by the study of numerical relations. Their dream re-emerged in the 19th century as George Boole and other mathematicians developed systems of thought that founded statistics, quantified every field of science, and foreshadowed the binary logic of computers. As the 20th century began, Principia Mathematica or simply PM, the epic work of Whitehead and Russell, enticed students of logic with the promise of a starting point for the true understanding of reality. But in 1931 Kurt Gödel showed that no advanced system of logic based on the principles of PM could be both complete and consistent. The Pythagorean dream blew away like smoke in a breeze.

Emphasis on the first-person origin of every sentence calls attention to the limited reach of every conversation. Recognizing the limits, daily we pursue our interests under a set of intersecting and variously sized domes (introduced in Rule #4). For the individual, the cranium. For small groups, the rooms, houses, and buildings in which we interact. An arc of dirty air over a city by day, a glow of light by night. The sky above a nation, where guardians plan for desperate battles that should never be fought.

Now let’s realize that breaking the rules means moving, joining, or expanding some combination of domes. At best, it means discovering you. You are no small achievement; you are the joiner of worlds, the telos of creation. You signify the meeting of peers, until inescapably some form of rank and authority takes shape, and every joining of domes tends to dissolve into a single larger one, as you and I begin to say us.

Break-these-rules severs the causal chain by which the past maintains totalitarian control over present and future. Break-these-rules detaches the ropes that moor the present to history’s solid ground, sets a person swirling in the tide, swept away by a fluid present somewhere between the advancing past oranges-mango-squareand the receding future. If there is any anchor at all, it’s a sea anchor dragging behind in the water that keeps no fixed location, but only a direction relative to the prevailing wind.

A person cannot stay too long at sea. We need produce from the ground, Lind’s oranges, before gums bleed and arms weaken. Get back to the rules, then.

Break these rules. Get back to the rules. Break these rules again. Get back again. Here is a to-and-fro repetition which, far from being meaningless, gets to the heart of life, a beating pulse.

Let’s recognize in the cycling repetition an image of play. The most serious of all endeavors is that from which the sense of seriousness lifts away. Hans-Georg Gadamer understood this, and a long quote from him is appropriate. In the following, he provided the italics:

Here the primacy of play over the consciousness of the player is fundamentally acknowledged and, in fact, even the experiences of play that psychologists and anthropologists describe are illuminated afresh if one starts from the medial sense of the word “playing.” Play clearly represents an order in which the to-and-fro motion of play follows of itself. It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose but also without effort. It happens, as it were, by itself. The ease of play – which naturally does not mean that there is any real absence of effort but refers phenomenologically only to the absence of strain – is experienced subjectively as relaxation. The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the actual strain of existence. This is also seen in the spontaneous tendency to repetition that emerges in the player and in the constant self-renewal of play, which affects its form (e.g., the refrain). [1]

In retrieving this crucial paragraph from Gadamer, my eye was drawn (as it usually is) to the parenthesis. What does “the refrain” refer to? Gadamer gives no explanation, and I almost left it out of the quote. But if it is like the refrain of a song, could you allow that it also means getting back to the rules? There are moments in almost all sporting games when the players or the teams re-set according to fixed rules – think of the football teams lining up, the softball pitcher and the batter eyeing each other from a certain distance – and these moments remind us of getting back to the rules, recalling the theme, before the next chaotic effort begins.

Break these rules, but get back to the rules. Rules are qualified first by an adjective, then by an article. Why? First, it just seemed to fit. Perhaps these rules feel more modest, controllable, personal; the rules more expansive. The rules to which one returns need not be exactly those which were broken. Perhaps the subjective dome, I or we, will be constituted differently. It may be that something was learned from jumping into the unknown, from dancing in the ether. On returning, like Kate Smallwood coming home from China, you will be not be the same person. The words of the rules might be the same, but they could mean something different. Self-reference calls for reversal, built into the rules that tell us to break and get back. The rules and the person belong to each other. Over time, can they be distinguished? Over many rounds of breaking and returning, both the rules and the person may change.

Recall what Martin Buber said, that the world is two-fold to us. At the heart of the universe is a pulsing urge that beats continually from striving to reflecting and back again, creating this two-fold existence in which we play and work and love.


Next post:  Pragmatic Free Will for Individuals and Groups

Previous post:  Saying Thou to the Universe

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Own photos. CC0 Public Domain.

[1] Gadamer, H.-G. Truth and Method. Transl. Weinsheimer J. and Marshall D.G. London, Continuum, 1989, p. 105.


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