NOR is not a position, model, or system in its own right: it is a critique of conventional ideas regarding the human condition.
For simplicity, our everyday ways of thinking about the world are summarized as objectivity – basically the idea things or objects exist and can display certain relationships to one another within three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension.
From a philosophical perspective this is often seen as materialism. However, for discussion purposes, objectivity also includes intangible things such as emotions or even gods and demons – basically anything the mind can hold as a conceptual object.
A brief overview of some aspects of objectivity is given below – together with an outline of NOR criticisms.
Objectivity’s evolutionary success
The abstract form of thought we humans have evolved to construct our model of objective reality and to communicate with one another by referencing that model, appears unique to homo sapiens – at least as regards its level of sophistication. As regards human development in general, our ability to think in such sophisticated manners has surely been hugely instrumental in our becoming the most dominant species on the planet. Hence, it is no surprise that our cultures generally applaud objectivity and everything that goes with it.
The effectiveness of any strategy does not prove its depth of understanding. It also does not indicate that either the strategy or its understanding are optimized. Simply because our model of reality appears generally beneficial does not mean it cannot also be somewhat flawed. In fact, the development of most human understanding involved seemingly imperfect but useful ideas being improved over time; a full understanding was rarely derived instantaneously.
In any case, NOR would suggest a full understanding in any intellectual area is an intrinsically suspect idea given intractable issues with the mind’s conceptualization processes.
To illustrate this criticism, consider that early agriculture seeded the land and harvested crops but, because it lacked an understanding of biology, ran into problems when it continued farming the same land without allowing it to replenish itself. Although this example is provided primarily to illustrate that knowing how to do something does not necessarily indicate a comprehensive understanding of matters, it also happens to be eerily close to today’s reality in which we are arguably failing to let the biosphere as a whole replenish itself. We may have learned from many small mistakes, but have we understood their common root or the bigger picture?
Objectivity’s technological success
Human ideas – especially within modern science – have focused heavily on the practical development of technology, whilst philosophy has increasingly been seen as rather pointless and unproductive. Objective thinking has ushered in a plethora of processes, actions, and inventions allowing humans to manipulate their environment in more and more ways. Generally, this process is approvingly called human progress, but has come at the cost of any wider reflection on where we are headed.
From all evidence, the development of the objective worldview and its form of knowledge is primarily centered on achieving concrete goals – typically via technology. And so, contrary to the facade of academia, the amassing of human knowledge is not driven by some unfettered and apolitical desire for pure knowledge; historically it has in fact often been driven by necessity within situations of conflict and war. Armies with the most sophisticated weaponry have always enjoyed military superiority and success for obvious reasons. Hence, it is simply false to see human ideas and knowledge as evolving through some sanctimonious search for maximized understanding – human enquiry having always seen tangible results as its primary goal.
Furthermore, this utilitarian approach to knowledge has meant we only concern ourselves with flaws if and when those flaws become troublesome. Consequently, the objective approach to knowledge can prove hopelessly misguided without us knowing or bothering until such wrong-thinking manifests itself in problematic outcomes. And as regards such outcomes, the current state of our war-torn planet and its endangered biosphere are evidence that our historical way of thinking is indeed misguided in terms of meaningful values and outcomes.
The objective world is one filled with things or objects, and these things are seen as optionally having relationships with one another.
NOR Criticism 1
This things aspect within conventional ideas appears to be a foundational and necessary aspect of how human abstract thought operates – even if it cannot be shown to be an aspect of external reality through any known experiences or experiments. Cognitively, we may rely on conceptualizations to process perceptual data in a useful manner, and we may come to believe the things thereby conceived actually populate the world. However, this can be envisaged as a sort of organic digitization of reality – a process similar to the manner in which digital cameras create pixels to represent whatever is photographed, even though those pixels are no part of the subject.
Notably, those pixels are essential inasmuch as there is no image in their absence. They form a simplified and useful image, even though they do not exist at all in whatever is imaged. In a similar way, it is less demanding on our memory resources to for example store the simplified idea of a cat, than to store all the sensory data we have ever processed of feline animals. It’s easy to see why abstract thought would evolve this compact thing-based conceptualization aspect – a cognitive strategy now so developed within human culture that it stands wholly unquestioned outside the world of philosophy. But none of this addresses abstract thought’s potential flaws.
NOR Criticism 2
When for example we talk about an atom and its relationships with one or more other atoms, we not only gloss over criticism 1 by assuming that the atom is somehow a valid and uniform unit of reality, but we unwittingly cast doubt on that validity by accepting that the atom is in fact not discrete. Even if we assume some validity for the things-plus-relationships model on which our minds normally run, how can we be sure we have defined correctly the supposed limit where any given thing stops and its relationship with other supposed things starts?
One way of discussing this question involves considering a continuum in which one end sees the universe as wholly populated by utterly discrete and utterly unrelated things, whilst the other end sees the universe as a single and utterly indivisible whole. The extreme idea of utterly discrete and utterly unrelated things seems clearly nonsensical as it would for example, necessitate that one atom could never affect another atom – and in fact that nothing could ever affect anything else. Such a worldview is obviously at odds with our everyday ideas and our many sciences. However, at the other extreme of the continuum there is nothing ridiculous about the idea of an utterly indivisible universe – beyond that the idea seems impractical and hard to grasp. But as regards why the human mind evolved to prefer the objective perspective, what else could be expected given that such a form of cognition delivered tangible survival advantages within a threatening world?
However, if objectivity can therefore be seen as a crucial element in human evolution to date, that does not prove it adequate for transcending problems it has created along the way. We arguably ought to look at both ends of the continuum and recognize that each has its strengths and weaknesses.
Although the seemingly ascetic nature of NOR might have been useless to our ancient ancestors, today’s world very much needs a conceptual revolution to address its accumulation of man-made problems. Real threats are no longer wild beasts that might eye us as their next meal: they are the effects of our own runaway exploitation of a world we generally still refuse to see in a meaningfully holistic manner.
Objectivity’s object-based perspective
As an artifact of believing the world to be made of objects or things, objectivity has a background tendency towards the idea those things are actual entities, essences or materials in their own right – an idea that more than just being markers within human cognitive machinery, they are actually out there as discrete parts of reality.
NOR Criticism 1
No essential building blocks have ever been found for reality as we understand it. We have looked into atoms but have only found what we speculatively believe to be numerous subatomic particles inviting yet more probing. Nothing can be directly seen within the atom, and so we merely presume experimental results reflect physically existing particles of reality – even when quantum mechanics struggles to resolve its counterintuitive mix of particles and waves. The very idea of physical particles appears mere assumption carried over from how we conceive reality on the everyday scale of things. There is in any case no established base granularity to reality in the sense that we might see bricks as the the essential elements of wall-building.
NOR Criticism 2
In relation to the idea bricks are elements of a wall, we can observe how the mind’s functioning does not primarily concern itself with exactitudes, but prefers dealing with practicalities – wall-building in this example. Each brick is obviously unique and can be analyzed by our minds – loosely reflecting how it can be physically broken down into smaller parts or dust, and even into constituent chemical compounds and elements. Hence, the concept of a brick is revealed as a mere convenience – being neither a pure nor a complete understanding of any delimited thing that exists in a fundamental sense. The same principles obviously apply to all other physical things, and it can therefore be asked if the whole notion of anything being fundamental is anything more than mental idealism.
NOR Criticism 3
Not only is a brick neither a pure nor a complete understanding of any thing, but the supposed thing we habitually imagine to be defined by the term can be seen as many things: a weapon, a weight, an abrasive tool, a hammer, a stepping stone and so forth. Logically, all these different supposed definitions cannot be proper and complete definitions of any thing – whilst common sense dictates that any such would-be thing must be infinitely more complex than our mind could ever grasp. Again, it seems that our mind’s functioning is best understood as conceiving reality in whatever manner best suits its practical goals within a given context. It appears we understand reality in relation to how we can manipulate it for our supposed benefit, rather than according to what it might truly be – if indeed the latter is even knowable.
Our abstract model of thinking tends towards a black-and-white simplicity of ideas. At its extreme, this can result in binary ideas that one position is correct and that an apparently competing position must therefore be incorrect. As an immediate example, it could be imagined that either objectivity or NOR must be correct, and that the other must therefore be incorrect.
NOR Criticism 1
An alternative notion is that any and all human ideas inform us in some way about whatever brought those ideas into existence. In short, nothing has no significance. However, such openness and willingness to look into all phenomena as being equally present and therefore of more or less equal import is suppressed amidst objectivity’s typically simplistic black-and-white stances. Even supposedly wrong ideas are nonetheless real.
NOR Criticism 2
There is also a certain cultural politicization of ideas to be seen when for example the terms right and wrong replace correct and incorrect. Hence, wording with such moralizing overtones can be used for even the most mundane information, such as the right length for a piece of wood. This arguably results from abstract thought having been long used to corral human thought into robotic approaches to life – approaches concerned more with performing duty than gaining insight. And if creating a sense of obligation and duty has underpinned many hierarchical forms of human organization, the resulting robotization of the human mind has in fact been instrumental in regimenting many of history’s greatest atrocities. The irresponsible attitude with which any individual blindly follows orders from above is nothing other than stupefaction through ideology – but is exactly what many in power have purposefully sought from the masses. It can therefore be asked if current human problems will ever be transcended without replacing ideological absolutism with more critical and circumspect approaches regarding the true nature and value of human thought and action?
The grand irony in all this is how the cultural sidelining of philosophy as wasting time on mere thinking overlooks any possibility that philosophy itself might justifiably criticize objectivity for its excessive faith in mere ideas. For at the end of the day, the unbounded field of philosophy is intrinsically open-ended – whereas objectivity can be revealed as a closed system of beliefs and doctrines.