Everything is ideology

September 19, 2022

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The word ideology is drenched with dark meaning. Ideologies are presented to us as distortions of reality---a synonym for 'false belief'. In this way, ideologies implicitly become the enemies of truth. But it is this very conception that isn't true.


Ideologies are presented to us as distortions of reality---a synonym for 'false belief'. But they are merely a subjective understanding of the relationship between things. In this sense, all things are ideologies. We can only choose those better or worse.

Ideologies are often presented as 'false beliefs'. Distortions that obscure the true nature of things. But these distortions aren't imaginary ones---they represent real relationships between things, only that the causes and conditions are distorted. Ideologies only come about because there is evidence for them. Indeed, ideologies generate their own evidence. Ideologies aren't just thoughts, but practices---actions we take in the name of the ideology. Ways of being that reflect our ways of thinking. These ways of being act themselves on the world, making the evidence for our ideology stronger. Ideologies are systems of ideas that both try to explain the world and change it. This picture of ideology is very close to a brain scientist's understanding of the brain. The brain also acts to explain the world and change it---to map our perceptions of the world to the action possibilities that exist. Our ideas about the world cannot go very far beyond these action possibilities---it is difficult to imagine things that don't overlap, such as a 5-dimensional structure, or the nature of quantam objects for example. The world, as it exists to us, is not objective then. It can only ever be comprised of those things that are meaningfully connected with our being in it. We cannot perceive or conceive of it otherwise. For us, everything is a distortion that obscures the true nature of things. More importantly, everything in the world is impossibly interconnected---it is impossible to draw a distinct boundary around where I start and the world around me ends, for example---the meanings that we perceive change depending on the circumstance. A fishpond is water in a depression, but at times it also includes the concrete floor, the pipes that provide the water, or the air just above it. The lines we draw around things are defined by their purpose as it relates to our being in the world at the time. This is what an ideology is. Not a distortion of the truth, but a frame we are using to transform chaos into meaning, and in doing so, sacrificing some meaning to chaos.

The word ideology is drenched with dark meaning. Ideologies are presented to us as distortions of reality---a synonym for 'false belief'. In this way, ideologies implicitly become the enemies of truth. But it is this very conception that isn't true.

The Marxists have a more specific term for these darker ideologies. They call it 'mystification'. A mystification is a distortion in our perceptions of reality that masks or obscures the truth of reality.

For example, we were once so convinced that the sun moved around the earth that we would happily burn those who'd claim that it was stationary and we were the ones moving. The ideologies of the time acted as a mystification of the relation between the sun and the earth, obscuring our understanding of it.

Marxists are more concerned with social mystifications. Because we observe that some poor people remain poor and some poor people become affluent, we develop an ideology about the relation between poverty and affluence that is about the person. The nature of the structures perpetuating poverty are obscured.

For the Marxists, 'mystifications'---ideologies that distort our perceptions---generate a subjective understanding of the relationship between things that masks their true nature.

This distinction between ideology and mystification is better, but still not quite correct. It does, however, highlight two important things.

Ideas become actions then institutions then evidence

The Marxist 'mystification' might be a distortion of reality, but it isn't imaginary. These ideologies represent real relationships. If I stand in my backyard and look up, the sun does indeed move through the sky. If I attend to the stories of impoverished people, some do indeed appear to make poor financial decisions. The mystification is in the distortion of my understanding the character of these things---their causes and conditions. This is what makes them so troubling: these ideologies have evidence.

Our second helpful takeaway from the Marxist mystification is that ideologies aren't just thoughts. Ideologies are practices. Actions that eventually reify themselves into institutions. And these practices and institutions act to continue the mystification and obstruct de-mystification.

If we believe the poor are poor because of something they are doing, we might be less likely to help them. This action of ours helps keep our poor person poor. And if everyone feels like the poor should not be helped, we might bring into being laws and structures that stop us from helping them. Said in the mystified fashion, these laws are those which help those who help themselves, but are actually the reification of the practice of not helping the poor who we observe doing whatever thing we think is making them poor. Now our poor person's poorness is facilitated by our institution---an idea that became a thing. And of course, intervening on this cycle is far more difficult. Changing this ideology of the poor is not simply about changing minds, but changing structures.

And of course, we are left with even more evidence for our ideology because the poor we have targeted with our practices and institutions are now even less likely to stop being poor.

That's a more complicated example. The moving sun idea had fewer moving parts sustaining its existence. Our ideological practice here was to report people who had different ideas to the Church. The church was our helpful institution propagating the ideology in the first place, and who promptly quietened alternative ideas with threats, imprisonment, exile, or a fun conflagration party. We don't really need more evidence for our distortion if there is no other evidence to be had.

A final example, simply to touch on the subject of culture. The institutions, or 'apparatus' in the Marxist sense, that structure and inform an ideology don't have to be literal institutions. They can be culture too. If I had a patriarchal ideology, I would be inclined to believe that men and women should participate differently in activities and act to make that so. A patriarchal culture would support that by socialising men and women to be more likely to participate differently in activities in the first place. And the cycle continues.

Ideologies are the natural product of the brain

So now we have some helpful material to work with, beyond the basic notion that ideologies are false beliefs. Ideologies aren't hallucinations. They are perceptual distortions based on real relations between things. But more than that, they aren't just thoughts, but actions. And this entire package becomes reified as some form of institution, which goes on to support the ideology. Back to the Marxists, Louis Althusser puts this well:

The existence of the ideas of his belief (i.e. the cognitive form of the beliefs) is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject

We think things, so we do things in a particular fashion, and those thoughts and ways of doing are given to us by the structures around us. The practical elements of an ideology are as prominent as the theoretical ones---they are systems of ideas that both try to explain the world and change it.

Here's a good place to depart from the Marxists, and tread in more familiar terrain---philosophy of mind. The above, more fleshed out, interpretation of an ideology might sound familiar. I quote myself:

As Marvin Minsky ... wrote: "it makes no sense to speak of brains as though they manufacture thoughts the way factories make cars."

Rather, the processes that the brain engages in are processes which change themselves. These processes transform perceptions into actions, and they lay down or alter memories which change the ways we process information in the future. The brain tries to create habits, and update them in response to the world around it. As such the brain is an ever-changing piece of machinery, perhaps less stable in its composition than the rest of our bodies.

Ideologies are what brains do. What all nervous structures do. They take in information about the world and map those things to the appropriate actions, storing the information as a model of the world, or a prediction which serves as the information the next time. The brain both tries to explain the world and change it. Ideologies are simply the product of their architecture.

This is a very important point. Ideologies are most commonly posed against truth. 'Mystifications' that distort our perception of reality and obscure something more objective. But this marriage of ideology and the architecture that supports it---our brain---reveals that ideologies can only ever be about a certain kind of truth. Truth that makes sense to our brains and the body it uses to make meaning. To put it another way, ideologies are presented as distortions of reality, but everything we think is a distortion of reality.

Let me show you why.

Everything is a distortion: we cannot perceive the truth

The world that humans live in is a very different world to the one birds live in. Humans are trichromats: because our eyes have three kinds of photoreceptor, we have three colour channels. There are, thus, three dimensions to our colours. We can see light on wavelengths that correspond to red, green, and blue. Birds are tetrachromats. They have four dimensions to their colour vision. They can, for example, see ultraviolet light. We cannot.

image The colours of the animal world: even goldfish one over on us. Source: Varela et al., The Embodied Mind.

Being able to see ultraviolet---or rather having four-dimensional colour vision---is not quite the same thing as being able to see a colour you've never seen before. We can get a better flavour of this if we add our sense of time to our colours. Rather than pink, we might also have 'fast pink' or 'slow pink'. Something like this better approximates the world that birds live in.

This might seem a little trivial. We can't see ultraviolet, but we know it's there. We can measure it with a UV probe. We use sunscreen to protect ourselves from it. We still have access to something of that reality. But I think it's not trivial at all. Our distorted picture of reality fundamentally means that some things are possible for us and others are not. Because we are only sensitive in certain ways to the world, the world only provides to us certain opportunities to respond. James Gibson described these affordances as 'perceived action possibilities'.

These perceived action possibilities are our ideas, and our ideas can't step far outside these possibilities. It is very difficult indeed conceive of things which do not have some possibility for action associated with them. To return to our example of colours, some animals (in fact, maybe even birds) may see in five dimensions, which defies any sensible human-level analogy. These animals live in a world we can't even approach describing, never mind have ideas about. We run up against the same problem when we consider questions of quantum mechanics, which operate at a level of action possibility we have only the slightest overlap with. Or when we consider mysteries of the cosmos, like dark matter, for which we can derive no purpose largely because we cannot perceive it.

Our perceptual world is not an objective rendering of some truth which sometimes goes awry, but a particular distortion of the world that represents our being in it. One possible strand of phylogenetic development in the evolutionary tête-a-tête between the environment and living creatures. We can only have perceptual distortions based on real relations between things we can perceive.

Ideologies are simply maps of transient meaning

Another way of talking about this same issue is to talk about something like purpose. We could consider the world as something like undifferentiated potential. The world is presented to us a some kind of huge cosmic puzzle. The way we resolve this puzzle into observable phenomena is according to the purpose or the meaning which aspects of the world have to us. We bring forth the world as it is. The architect Christopher Alexander puts this somewhat more eloquently:

for example ... a fishpond ... Obviously the water is part of the fishpond. What about the concrete it is made of? .. the air which is just about the pond? … the pipes bringing in the water? These are uncomfortable questions … The pond does exist. Our trouble is that we don’t know how to define it exactly ... When I call a pond a center, the situation changes … the fuzziness of edges becomes less problematic. The reason is that the pond, as an entity, is focused towards its center. It creates a field of centeredness ... The same is true for window, door, walls, or arch. None of them can be exactly bounded. They are all entities which have a fuzzy edge, and whose existence lies in the fact that they exist as centers in the portion of the world which they inhabit.

Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: Book 1

Each center, for Alexander, is defined primarily by its purpose---its reason to be. The human world is a world of patterns connecting and connected by these purposive centers. What a science of the mind tells us is that outside of these purposive centers, the world may as well not exist.1 Without a meaning to us, defined by the possibilities of our acting upon it, there is no reason to perceive it.

Maps of meaning are never complete

This may seem like a fairly substantial deviation from our initial foray into ideology, but it isn't particularly. What we have pointed out to ourselves is that the structure of our world is much closer to something like the Marxist 'mystification' than might seem comfortable. The Marxist mystification is something that generates a subjective understanding of the relationship between things that masks their true nature. Our perceptions are something that generates a subjective understanding of the relationship between things that ignores their true nature. Our world is not the world, but merely the one we have brought forth.

This does not simply happen at the metaphysical level. It happens within and between humans as well. I quote myself:

Knowledge is a peculiar concept. It's a form of belief, really. We believe in things and some things that we believe in, we feel so sure about that we call it knowledge.

As I detail there, the path to knowledge is most often conflated with the scientific method. A way of breaking down the mysteries of the world into their constituent parts. We generate a hypothesis and test it until it proves false. This produces a new hypothesis and we repeat the process. But the scientific method is a belief system like any other.1 Here, we are producing meaning by proving the absence of the thing---by rejecting hypotheses and accepting (for now) what remains. But there are many ways of producing meaning. Indeed, no matter how wedded to science one is, that is not at all how the vast majority of knowledge is produced for individuals. It can't be---it's not a compendium of knowledge but a compendium of what isn't. And perhaps more importantly, as John Dewey noted, "for all experiment involves regulated activity" it is at its core "directed by ideas, by thought."

More frequently, we create our knowledge through observation and reflection. Our experiences of a thing teach us about its character, and we store these as memories. These memories are strung together into a pattern---a map of the statistical structure of the environment we live in and the ways in which we respond to it. Psychologists call such things 'mental models' and 'schemas' and whatnot, but they aren't substantively different to Christopher Alexander's meaningful 'centers' and the patterns which connect them. Our knowledge isn't just something one has, it's also something that one is.

The terrible problem with this is that we aren't really anything at all. Just like Alexander's centres are fuzzy at the edges, so are we. Without recapitulating everything in those two linked articles, it is simply impossible to draw a distinct line between where I end and the world outside of me begins. The lines we draw around ourselves are arbitrary. Indeed, as so much of this article has pointed out, the lines we draw around everything are arbitrary. They are defined merely by their purpose, and their purpose changes as our needs to act change. The pond is the water when we want to swim in it. But it is the concrete that lines it when we need to repair it. We are our bodies when we are injured, but we are a mother when we are with our family, or 'the food we eat' when we're thinking about nutrition. The edges are always a little fuzzy, and we can never bring everything into focus at once.

We don't choose between truth or ideology, we choose between ideologies

I would argue that this is what an ideology is. It is any heuristic or frame through which we filter the world for its purpose. A way of transforming some of the chaos into meaning. The scientific method is one way of achieving this---filtering out the meanings that correspond to nothing. Experience is another---filtering meaning according what what we're doing at the time, and what relationship this time has to similar times in the past. Identity is a very trendy filter these days---filtering the world by our various oppressions. But crucially, because the structure of our world has all these fuzzy edges, when we apply a frame that transforms some chaos into meaning, we necessarily sacrifice some meaning to chaos.

To put it more simply, ideologies are not false beliefs. They are simply things that reflect certain patterns in the world, but not others. Habits of thought, feeling, and action that map some purposeful relationship between things, and without which there would be no capacity to engage with these things at all. But these are all necessarily distorted maps of reality. Distorted by our needs at the time. Distorted by our experience, or lack of it. Distorted by our very perceptual capacity. Distorted by the indefinable structure of the world we must constantly bring into being. We'll never be able to capture the truth of the thing, because the truth of the thing is not something that it is possible to capture. Not all at once. And with our perceptions as they are, not ever.

Our choice is not one between truth and distortion; reality and ideology. Our choice is simply between better and worse distortions. A mapping of perception to action possibility; theory to practice; of the purpose of a thing as it relates to our way of being in the world at the time. This is an ideology. There isn't anything else.

  1. As most famously detailed in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. See also the same critique in medicine  

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