Improper Subsets

“Your occupation is to keep your disguise intact and you succeed in it because your mask is the most puzzling of all; to wit you are nothing, you are constantly only in relation to others, and what you are you are only in virtue of that relation.” S. Kierkegaard, Either/Or, own translation.

One word can make a world of difference. The word that makes the difference in the above quote is the word ‘only’. It is not a problem to be constantly in relation to others. Likewise it is not a problem to be yourself in virtue of that relation. The issue is when you are ‘only’ that. It is simply true that you are at least that and the sad truth is that in atomistic times that simple truth is swiftly swept under the rug. You can deny that what you are you are in virtue of your relation to others but the result of your denial is that you’re nothing because you add nothing; what remains of you is ‘only’ your mechanical relation to others.

It may be a stretch to go from Kierkegaard to mathematics. Still, there’s a sense in which it is improper to call the subset of all your relations a subset of all your relations. Somehow it is an impropriety shining through a most modern sense of self: by taking everything one is taking all that can be taken and this everything just ‘has to make do’. Well, it doesn’t and I will now rant a little on how this failure explains current political issues around identity as well as the intuition that personality-changing medication strikes us as ‘unreal’. It will be a rant that takes the Heisenberg principle as consequence – not cause! -of Kierkegaard’s above use of the word ‘only’. Call me crazy and just read on regardless. Crazy is fun.

We have been told to be scientific about things. When we wonder about whether that is all there is, our wonder will be waved with reference to there being too many things to take in by our insignificant brains. The subset of all things is still a subset, one which we can’t get beyond. There is no truth in that. Contemplating any subset, including that improper one, creates a new thing which wasn’t in the set of all things. Contemplation creates a moving target which necessarily pulls us out of any synchronous timeless scientific assessment. It is not a paradox but a brute fact, it is the fact of Bergsonian time which – combined with a conscious contemplation of facts – creates new facts. It creates moments of choice where a person becomes a personality by being more than ‘only’ a set of relations to others.

Science does not come before this act of choice. It is a matter of choice. It is dynamic and it comes into being on top of the relations we have with others. That doesn’t mean science is not expressing what the world really is. It only means that the expression adds something, a choice, to what the world really is such that the world is no longer what it was before this choice was made. Science is creative and, as Hacking reports based on Goodman, a matter of (also) making the world. The passive impersonal stance leading to perfect knowledge is what needs to be debunked rather than what needs to do the debunking.

When we decide to investigate something, we pick the something to be investigated. There is nothing unreal about any of this. In a way it’s the most real thing there is both in what’s picked and that we pick. Still, it should humble us; not into thinking we are imperfect, but in realizing we cannot and should not believe we are perfect. The belief we’re perfect is the thing that really haunts us. It makes us talk of ‘real’ muslims as the ones that are terrorist at heart. It makes us see us as ‘truly’ enlightened to state our identity as against others. In the improper use of these adjectives the improper subset shines through. It stops wonder dead in its tracks by putting up a straw man where we contemplate all the facts and others only a subset of it. The political mechanism is to define the subset of muslims as that one including those who are terrorist at heart. Others are not ‘really’ muslims but insofar they proclaim to be muslims they are not, as we are, ‘truly’ enlightened either. It is a safe self-fulfilling prophecy in which we can have our identity put ourselves to bed.

It makes for a convenient resting place where we can have the totality of relations we have to the world as essential for our individuality. It allows us to stop questioning ourselves, as we have it ‘all’ figured out. As Kierkegaard has it, it also strips us of the responsibility that may be difficult to bear but that precisely makes us individuals by making choices that we know alter the world. Maybe the best way to illustrate this is the thought experiment some professor of philosophy thought would provoke thought: is it ethical to make a pill that, if taken, removes being gay? Obviously assuming that there’s no compulsion whether direct or indirect to be not gay. He thought there was no rational reason why such a pill would be unethical as long as there was respect for a genuine respect for the individual identity that someone felt was expressed in being gay. He is wrong. The problem with such a pill has nothing to do with the provocative element of homosexuality in the thought experiment. I am pretty sure that the ethical problem lies in the external change in personality that does not respect the history in which the self has grown in its relations with others as well as in its relation with its own history.

Being gay as being stubborn is just one element of the set of all things, it is not essential in some kind of special way. This personality-changing pill is suspect not because it changes an element but because it changes the element that makes you more than ‘only’ a relation with others. It changes the element of your becoming yourself through choices. Obviously, you can see yourself as a particle interacting with others, such a way of seeing yourself may inform your choices (e.g. of taking anti-psychotic meds). At the same time however, there is a limitation because you also have to see yourself as a wave, in time, making the choices and knowing there’s one choice you cannot make (rather shouldn’t make): that of cleaning the slate and escaping from your previous choices. That choice is worse than death. It may, coincidentally, also be the one argument against suicide even if it is not a knockdown one.

If uncertainty is inescapable it is because of time.

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