The Madness of Reason

Commenting online brings one in contact with odd people. It is often merely irritating, but at times it can be fascinating to see all the strange ways humanity gets expressed.

I met a guy, Naj Ziad, on the Facebook page for a discussion group about Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He posted something expressing his obsession with logical coherence and consistency. We dialogued for quite a bit, including in a post on his own Facebook page, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. He came across as being genuine in his intentions and worldview, but there was simply something off about him.

It’s likely he has Asperger’s, of a high IQ and high functioning variety. Or it could be that he has some kind of personality disorder. Either way, my sense is that he is severely lacking in cognitive empathy, although I doubt he is deficient in affective empathy. He just doesn’t seem to get that other people can perceive and experience the world differently than he does or that others entirely exist as separate entities apart from his own existence.

When I claimed that my worldview was simply different than his and that neither of our personal realities could be reduced to the other, he called me a dualist. I came to the conclusion that this guy was a solipsist, although he doesn’t identify that way. Solipsism was the only philosophy that made sense of his idiosyncratic ramblings, entirely logical ramblings I might add. He is obviously intelligent, clever, and reasonably well read. His verbal intelligence is particularly high.

In fact, he is so obsessed with his verbal intelligence that he has come to the conclusion that all of reality is language. Of course, he has his own private definition of language which asserts that language is everything. This leaves his argument as a tautology and he freely admitted this was the case, but he kept returning to his defense that his argument was logically consistent and coherent. Sure.

It was endlessly amusing. He really could not grasp that the way his mind operates isn’t how everyone’s mind operates, and so he couldn’t escape the hermetically-sealed reality tunnel of his own clever monkey mind. His world view is so perfectly constructed and orderly that there isn’t a single crack to let in fresh air or a beam of light.

He was doing a wondrous impression of Spock in being entirely logical within his narrow psychological and ideological framework. He kept falling back on his being logical and also his use of idiosyncratic jargon. He defined his terms to entirely fit his ideological worldview that those terms had no meaning to him outside of his ideological worldview. It all made perfect sense within itself.

His life philosophy is a well-rehearsed script that he goes on repeating. It is an amazing thing to observe as an outsider, especially considering he stubbornly refused to acknowledge that anything could be outside of his own mind for he couldn’t imagine the world being different than his own mind. He wouldn’t let go of his beliefs about reality, like the monkey with his hand trapped in a jar because he won’t let go of the banana.

If this guy was just insane or a troll, I would dismiss him out of hand. But that isn’t the case. Obviously, he is neuroatypical and I won’t hold that against anyone. And I freely admit that his ideological worldview is logically consistent and coherent, for whatever that is worth.

What made it so fascinating to my mind is that solipsism has always been a speculative philosophy, to be considered only as a thought experiment. It never occurred to me that there would be a highly intelligent and rational person who would seriously uphold it as an entire self-contained worldview and lifestyle. His arguments for it were equally fascinating and he had interesting thoughts and insights, some of which I even agreed with. He is a brilliant guy who, as sometimes happens, has gone a bit off the deep end.

He built an ideology that perfectly expresses and conforms to his highly unusual neurocognitive profile. And of course, in pointing this out to him, he dismisses it as ‘psychologizing’. His arguments are so perfectly patched together that he never refers to any factual evidence as support for his ideological commitments, as it is entirely unnecessary in his own mind. External facts in the external world, what he calls ‘scientism’, are as meaningless as others claiming to have existence independent of his own. From his perspective, there is only what he calls the ‘now’ and there can only be one ‘now’ to rule them all, which just so happens to coincide with his own ego-mind.

If you challenge him on any of this, he is highly articulate in defending why he is being entirely reasonable. Ah, the madness of reason!

* * *

On a personal note, I should make clear that I sympathize with this guy. I have my own psychological issues (depression, anxiety, thought disorder, strong introversion, etc) that can make me feel isolated and cause me to retreat further into myself. Along with a tendency to over-intellectualize everything, my psychological issues have at times led me to get lost in my own head.

I can even understand the attraction of solipsism and, as a thought experiment, I’ve entertained it. But somehow I’ve always known that I’m not ‘normal’, which is to say that others are not like me. I have never actually doubted that others not only exist but exist in a wide variety of differences. It hasn’t occurred to me to deny all otherness by reducing all others to my own psychological experience and ideological worldview. I’ve never quite been that lost in myself, although I could imagine how it might happen. There have been moments in my life where my mind could have gone off the deep end.

Yet my sympathy only goes so far. It is hard to sympathize with someone who refuses to acknowledge your independent existence as a unique human being with your own identity and views. There is an element of frustration in dealing with a solipsist, but in this case my fascination drew me in. Before I ascertained he was a solipsist, it was obvious something about him was highly unusual. I kept poking and prodding him until the shape of his worldview became apparent. At that point, my fascination ended. Any further engagement would have continued to go around in circles, which means watching this guy’s mind go around in circles like a dog chasing its own tail.

Of all the contortions the human mind can put itself into, solipsism has to be one of the greatest feats to accomplish. I have to give this guy credit where its due. Not many people could keep up such a mindset for long.

4 thoughts on “The Madness of Reason

  1. Nice to encounter you again thanks to our mutual friend Nicole who mentioned this blog. I have missed interacting with your presence. Fascinating piece. I’m married to a high functioning Asperger and most likely both my sons are too. Just a different way of looking at life and the world. Never a dull moment. Fondly.

    • Hello again! I’m not on FB much these days. Nicole is one of the few reasons I still visit FB at all. She is my oldest online friend.

      About the post, I have sympathy for neuroatypical people. For one, I’m neuroatypical to a fair extent, although I do a decent impression of a normal person, enough that I’m able to hold down a job. Also, I know some people with Asperger’s.

      In my immediate family, there is more depression, anxiety, learning disorders, etc. But my niece was diagnosed with Asperger’s and her mother, my sister-in-law, probably has undiagnosed Asperger’s. I’m used to psychological diversity.

  2. When I said his views sounded postmodern, he denied that was the case. But giving it more thought, I still think he has some at least kinship with postmodernists.

    He reduces everything to language, as is common among certain postmodernists. Also, like many postmodernists, he has a contrarian attitude toward science, including the social sciences like psychology. To drive this point home, he uses odd jargon and an obfuscatory writing style that is typically seen among postmodernists. Maybe he isn’t a postmodernists, but he has either directly or indirectly been influenced by their style of thought and communication. I’m not sure what relevance that has. I guess I bring it up because of the difficulty in talking with this guy and trying to understand where he is coming from. One gets the sense, as with some postmodernists, that he isn’t particularly concerned about being understood and, if anything, his concern is to not be too clearly or easily understood.

    My intuitive sense was that his extremely opaque and highly abstract writing was at times a defense mechanism, holding people at a distance. His whole ideological worldview felt like a wall that keeps outside the larger world, such that he doesn’t even have to fully acknowledge it as being other. Most fundamentally, it felt a lack of self-awareness that went hand in hand with a lack of other-awareness, a lack of realization that not all selves are the same. His obsession with language stood out to me, most of all. Ideas, thoughts, metaphors, emotions, and even music — it is all ‘language’. And this makes my spidey sense tingle when I consider precisely the kind of language he uses which feels so psychologically detached or even dissociated.

    This is where we most strongly parted ways. I’ve always had a more down-to-earth writing style and I try to avoid jargon as much as possible. But also I see so much more to humanity than language. I don’t have any totalizing ideology, no theory of everything, no singular explanation. As I see it, humans are complex and so I never assume what seems true for me is true for everyone else. Furthermore, as with language being built on potentials and capacities that aren’t linguistic in nature (an argument Daniel Everett makes in Dark Matter of the Mind), much of what is human originates in pre-human evolution and is shared with the non-human world. Open-minded humility, rather than confident certainty, is a more appropriate response or at the very least a more interesting way of relating to the world.

    In this, I’m reminded of a book I’ve been reading or rather listening to, Antonio Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things. Here are two book reviews:

    “When, in 1842, Queen Victoria saw Jenny, an orangutan that had recently arrived at London Zoo, she is reported to have commented that she found the ape ‘disagreeably human’. Like Charles Darwin, who had visited the zoo a few years earlier, the monarch saw in Jenny our near kin. ‘When we observe the great apes,’ writes Antonio Damasio, ‘we sense the presence of precursors to our cultural humanity.’ Chimpanzees are like humans in creating tools, using them intelligently to feed themselves and transmitting their inventions to others. But their most important affinity with us, Damasio believes, is their capacity for feeling, which they share with species as different as elephants and marine mammals: ‘mammals possess an elaborate affective apparatus that, in many respects, resembles ours in its emotional roster.’

    “According to a conventional view, the most fundamental difference between humans and the other great apes is humans’ more highly developed capacities for thought and language – in other words, our superior intellects. A more decisive difference is the human capacity for feeling, and it is this that has enabled us to develop our cultures. As Damasio points out, however, cultural behaviours do not exist only in ‘minded creatures’. They can be found in very simple unicellular organisms, which rely on chemical molecules ‘to detect certain conditions in their environments, including the presence of others, and to guide the actions … needed to organize and maintain their lives in a social environment. For instance, bacteria can sense the numbers in the groups they form and in an unthinking way assess group strength, and they can, depending on the strength of the group, engage or not in a battle for the defence of their territory.’ Organisms without minds display kinds of behaviour we normally reserve for animals like ourselves; though humans do not descend directly from bacteria, our lives are governed by the same imperatives. The common thread linking the two is a process of homeostasis, operating in organisms to secure not only their survival but also a state of flourishing. This is where feeling comes in: ‘Feelings are the subjective experiences of the state of life – that is, of homeostasis – in all creatures endowed with a mind and a conscious point of view.’”!

    “When I reached the end of The Strange Order of Things, I recalled the closing words of William James’s Psychology: The Briefer Course when he tells readers that “the darkness” is “great” and urges them not to “forget that the natural-science assumptions with which we started are provisional and revisable things.” After noting that there is no theory of everything, Damasio concludes his book this way: “This is a sobering reminder of how modest and tentative our efforts are and of how open we need to be as we confront what we do not know.” To which I can only add, Amen.”

  3. It occurred to me what this represents. It’s a broader pattern among diverse people. There is an easy trap to fall into where the assumption is that the world is or should be closely resembling, if not identical, to oneself and to those one identifies with.

    Some people create a God in their own image who so happens to agree with everything that the individual or a group thinks and believes, prefers and desires, fears and hates, values and obsesses over. Other people do that with identity politics where they seek to create a society in their own image, whether white supremacists demanding authoritarian ethno-nationalism or liberal class Democrats dreaming of a world full of gentrified creative class hubs.

    Naj Ziad, on the other hand, has invented an idiosyncratic ideological worldview and life philosophy to explain all of humanity and reality. And it just so happens to perfectly match his idiosyncratic way of perceiving and experiencing the world, his idiosyncratic psychological profile of neuroatypical personality traits and neurocognitive condition(s), whatever exactly that is.

    This line of thought became clear to me from something another person said. An old online friend, Nicole Smith, shared this post on Facebook with the following comment:

    It got me thinking about a lot of things. First, of course, non-duality, something near and dear to my heart. But I don’t think I understand it the same way that this person Benjamin was talking with does. I also started to think about solipsism and the title of the blog: The Madness of Reason. In my mind they conflated and became the Madness of Solipsism.

    To me, it is not just the problem of ego taking over and pitting one person against the world, though that is a real problem for many. It is also the problem of tribalism, where one becomes hyper-focused on the group you are in, whether an ideological group like liberals or conservatives, or a religious group, or people who are super fit, or whatever it is. As humans we often tend to identify with a tribe and look suspiciously at people outside the tribe.

    But the only hope for us as a world is Ubuntu (here is a link about what that means).

    And I responded:

    You took this in another direction. I hadn’t thought about it in a larger sense of identity. That maybe does capture the essence. It isn’t exactly about or limited to ideological worldview or life philosophy. I was trying, in my own way, to point in this direction. My argument, such as it was, simply was about their being different views and essentially that is about different identities.

    But I went further than this. I was trying to get him to see that identities, like views, don’t need to be totalizing. We can acknowledge other possibilities and even enter into them. There is more to life than finding an absolutist ideology that is so coherent and consistent that it is self-contained. It’s easy to get trapped in an identity and, when everything confirms our identity such as with group belonging, our identity can become a reality tunnel.

    The difference for Ziad is that he maybe is trying to create a group of one. That might be a nondualism of sorts, but it is one that disallows the fundamental existence and full inclusion of others. He is the God of his own world. His ‘now’ is the only ‘now’ and that is everything. Everyone else is only significant to the degree they are, at best, considered extensions of or aberrations within Ziad’s solipsism. If anyone dares to disagree that they are as trapped in Ziad’s reality tunnel as he is, then they are deluded fools playing power games.

    This ideological worldview of linguistic absolutism has a gnostic quality of it, but one with no escape and so with an elements of postmodern-like skepticism and determinist-like philosophical pessimism. He states that everything comes down to epistemology. What is implied, though, is that there is only one ultimate epistemology — the solipsistic nondualistic ‘now’ built on the tautology that everything is language because language is everything. There is nothing other or outside, no different possibilities. All imagination is shut down by an oppressive ideological dogmatism and stultifying ideological realism.

    I come from a different perspective with more radical influences. Ever since I read Robert Anton Wilson in my early 20s, I’ve preferred epistemological anarchism, which is where the notion of reality tunnels comes from. We don’t ever escape all reality tunnels, but potentially we do have freedom to step out of one reality tunnel into another. Some reality tunnels such as that of Ziad’s are linguistic. Others are not. There is some advantage, if simply for the sake of curiosity and enjoyment, to seek out the freedom of not becoming overly attached to any given reality tunnel.

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