Errare humanum est

After so many years distant from my university Philosophy courses, I have to admit that I’d come to believe that rationality is a process designed for avoiding mistakes. That to err is to have made a miscalculation in its undertaking. And given that we humans are prone to frequent miscalculations -or, to adopt the aphorism of our time, fall prey to unintended consequences- what does that say about our acumen, let alone our wisdom? Does our seemingly inherent ability to take the wrong path or deviate from the planned course of action, mean that we are too easily distracted? Too readily deceived? Or that we weren’t designed to act rationally?

These failures suggest that, far from being rational, we are at best, credulous about our abilities… or does it? To be able to be deceived, it is necessary to have arrived at some sort of  expectation of what is correct or appropriate in the first place. One cannot be fooled, if one doesn’t understand anything about what is happening. In a way, then, the ability to err, suggests that one has already developed a theory about how it should be -that the failure was not meaningless, in other words. Reasoning that comes to a different conclusion than one that has been widely accepted may still be reasoning.

In a democracy, there are usually several options from which to choose, but the outcome of a vote does not mean the other choices were wrong. It does not invalidate them, nor imply that they were irrational -it merely postpones their serious consideration to another time. That things change over the years does not negate the past; it does not suggest that those living in those benighted years were unable to think properly.

Many of these thoughts were highlighted in a somewhat obtuse essay I came across in Aeon written by Daniel Ward, a lawyer and PhD candidate in Cambridge University: https://aeon.co/essays/i-think-therefore-i-make-mistakes-and-change-my-mind

He writes of a dog watching a card trick being performed. ‘It will just ignore what it perceives as meaningless markings on bits of cardboard. Hence it is immune to deception.’ It has no idea what to expect, because it has no idea what is going on. There is no error in the dog’s mind, presumably, because ‘Susceptibility to error validates rather than detracts from rationality.’

For example, ‘Those who study the human visual system also draw a link between the capacity for error and the capacity for thought.’ But, the ability to be fooled by an optical illusion ‘demonstrates the success rather than the failure of the visual system. That your brain occasionally makes this kind of mistake is testament to the fact that it is doing complex, intelligent things that go beyond merely absorbing incoming sensory data. The antithesis of the view that normal, intelligent people are susceptible to error is a view that treats people as infallible.’ And we certainly aren’t that: ‘incapable of error in a wide range of matters, ranging from day-to-day decisions about how we spend our money to ideological commitments… Treating an individual’s attitudes and preferences as givens – as matters beyond debate or criticism – might seem to promote human dignity by forcing us to treat all views as equally worthy of respect. But such an outlook is likely, if anything, to have the opposite effect. This is because taking seriously a person’s capacity to make mistakes is critical to taking seriously their capacity for rationality. Only by recognising that people are capable of error can we properly value anyone’s goals or engage in rational debate.’

After all, if we had to assume that a rational person with whom we disagreed could not have made a mistake in their reasoning, then we could not depend on an intelligent debate to resolve the issue -only force. No, rationality does not preclude error in and of itself… And that’s okay.

“You do realize that I’ve put my shopping bag on there, don’t you…?” The elderly lady glared at me, and made no effort to move the bag from what I could see was the only empty seat on the bus.

Her statement was obviously correct and I had neither desire nor rhetorical skills, to contradict her assertion. I did, however, want to sit down. It had been a long day, and an even longer wait for the already crowded bus.

I decided to meet her challenging expression with a smile and a shrug, but to show her I hadn’t really given up, I continued to stand beside the almost-empty seat and waited for guilt to wreak its havoc on her conscience. Unfortunately she retrieved her eyes and sent them to scout the scenery outside her window. I was just another tree in a forest she did not deign to enter.

I sighed and was about to resign myself to a journey spent swaying on my feet, when I suddenly remembered something, and decided to try my luck again. “I imagine your bag is quite heavy,” I started, pretending I just wanted to engage her in idle conversation. Actually, I was hoping to cash in on a program about logical argumentation in a podcast I’d downloaded from the BBC.

She dragged her eyes back from the window and plonked them on one of my ears. Her lips said nothing, but her face told me to mind my own business.

“My backpack is also heavy,” I continued, hoping I could build on the premise. “And,” I added, trying to twinkle my eyes, “there’s a bit of room left on the seat…” I cleverly added the ellipsis to show there was a conclusion inherent in my prologue.

Her eyes continued to grill me, but her forehead was beginning to wrinkle -so were her lips, for that matter. “And you think that I will be convinced by a faulty syllogism?”

“Which premise was faulty?” I suddenly realized that my memory of the podcast was sketchy at best, so I hoped I had understood the thrust of her rebuttal.

A tiny smile appeared on her face. “It was more the assumption that my bag was heavy, than that because there was room left on the seat, your also-heavy backpack deserved a place beside it.”

I thought about that for a moment. Did I flaw the first chance I’d had for engaging in a public rhetorical challenge? Did I waste the podcast?

I must have looked perplexed because her smile suddenly blossomed and she feathered her shopping bag onto her lap as if it were almost empty. “You passed the test,” she said and chuckled.

“Test…?”

Her eyes tapped briefly on my face and then flew off to other perches on the outside of the window. I wondered if she’d read the same article in Aeon.

Truth hath a quiet breast

What makes something ‘real’? For that matter, what does that even mean? Is a character in one of my favourite books any less real than what I remember of an uncle my family used to visit when I was a child? I used to wonder about that until I was old enough to be able to transition from pretending the space underneath the bed was a fort, to the understanding that it was somehow actually -and ‘really’- just a bed.

But imagination -so important to a child at play- assumes a different purpose as we age. It continues to offer an escape from the world around us perhaps, but in the cognitively unimpaired, begins to wear the patina of context -its potential seldom all-consuming, its boundaries identifiable.

And yet, for an adult living in a different perceptual Magisterium, the innocence of a child’s beliefs and the questions arising from them can be difficult to answer in kind. Once the heavy obligations of maturation have hardened the boundaries, even words may require translation, and unintended metaphors may have consequences.

I came across an interesting essay on this in Aeon in which a philosopher from Florida State University, Nathanael Stein, was wondering how to answer his young son’s queries about reality: https://aeon.co/essays/can-a-philosopher-explain-reality-and-make-believe-to-a-child

The difficulty seemed to be in deciding just what his son wanted to know. Was it simply a variation of the universal ‘Why?’ question, or something more deeply probing about reality itself?  As he notes, ‘there are surprisingly many ways of distinguishing what’s real from what isn’t. One of the most familiar contrasts we draw is between reality and appearance… reality is sometimes contrasted with what we might call mere appearance, like the motion we create on screens: pixels are turning on and off, and changing colour, so there’s change going on, but nothing that seems to be moving really is. This is different again from the kind of illusion of motion we get from certain patterns.’

We also distinguish ‘what’s real from what’s merely imagined or dreamt… what has existed at least at some time from what never has. Dinosaurs and ancestors are real in this last sense, but unicorns aren’t.’ His young son, though, was perhaps only trying to differentiate between what was ‘really’ real and what was only pretend-real, or make-believe.

Stein then goes on at length on discussing which of the several reality varieties his child was probably puzzled about, but ends up wondering if philosophy could ever solve the riddle for a non-adult. In fact, his concluding sentence seems to concede this point: ‘My son is only four, and by the time he’s able to explain what he means by Why?, he’ll have forgotten what puzzled him – if he hasn’t already.’

Stein’s difficulty in understanding the Lebenswelt of his son reminded me of a lengthy discussion I had many years ago with my similarly aged daughter.

“Daddy, what’s a ‘stralyer’?”

My daughter had a habit of coming up with sounds, part-words, and checking them out on me.

“You mean trailer, don’t you sweetheart? It’s a thing on wheels that you pull behind you…”

I could see a sly look come over her face as she prepared to correct me. “That’s a wagn, silly.”

Pronunciation was never a strong point with my children. “I asked you about a ‘stralyer’…”

Catherine was only about three feet tall then, so it was hard to look her in the eye without considerable effort. She also insisted on wearing at least one of her golden curls on her face -to hide behind if necessary. She wasn’t hiding, however, so I crouched down as best I could and tried to read her expression. Actually, I was trying to read her lips. She repeated the word with me about six inches away and nose level, but it didn’t help much.

“Where did you hear the word, Cath?” Sometimes you can trace these things.

“From Michael.”

I waited for an explanation, but Godot would have arrived before she caught on. “And what was Michael talking about?” I finally asked.  Michael is my son, and he was terribly precocious for nine, I think. His questions were worse, though, because I understood them.

Catherine looked at me as if I were inordinately dense. “About a ‘stralyer’, of course.”  Sometimes I saw too much of her mother in her, with her hands on her hips, one foot tapping impatiently, and an expression of utter condescension nailed to her forehead. Only with Catherine, it looked benign -comical, almost. They lived with their mother then, so I supposed neither of them would adopt any of my mannerisms.

Children are tautological creatures; they have the good sense to stick to their guns when all else -adults, by and large- fail them. “Ahh, you don’t happen to know what else Michael said, do you?”

She nodded her head vehemently, convinced she was getting somewhere at last.

“Well..?”

She just looked at me. Sometimes I wondered if she was really four, or whether she had forgotten something somewhere around two and a half.

Finally, she got the idea. “He said it was under something.”

That’s what I like about Catherine: just like her mother, she remembered only things that stick out: a flower outside a thousand year old French cathedral, the smell of Machu Pichu, the colour of the mud in Manaus… Context, for her, was merely the background against which the really important things were displayed.

“I don’t suppose he happened to mention what it was under, did he?”

She was silent for a moment -no mean feat for Catherine- and then a smile lit up her face and her eyes grew large. “Under the water, I think…”

There are only so many things that sound like trailer and are under stuff -especially water. I took a stab at it. “Australia?” I said in my best adult voice.

“That’s it, Daddy… What is it?”

“Well,” I said, not entirely sure how much she wanted to know, “it’s a country.”

“But we live in a country…”

“Yes.” I also nodded, to give it added strength.

I could see her playing with it for a while before leaving it on whatever shelf she filed such things -Catherine’s face was a movie screen sometimes. But after a minute between shows, I could see a new thought growing. “How many countries are there, Daddy?”

That’s a good question, actually. Does anybody know? I was so relieved that she hadn’t asked me what a country was that I offered to look it up. “Have you ever seen an atlas, Cath?”

A new word! She perked up immediately. “Anatlus? Nope… Is it what reindeer wear, Daddy?”

Where do kids get their ideas nowadays?  “Antlers are what reindeer have, Cath. Atlas is what I’m going to use to count the number of countries,” I said, but I don’t think it stuck. I think she liked the idea of finding countries on reindeer heads.

“But don’t the reindeer have to know where they’re going?”

“Huh?”

“You know. On Christmas eve.”

Actually the thought had never occurred to me. I guess I just figured they did it by the stars, or that Santa kind of navigated by instinct, or something. Kids aren’t satisfied with the old stories anymore. “Ahh, well maybe if you looked at the atlas you’d understand what I mean.”

Her eyes positively sparkled. “You mean you have some reindeer here?” She looked wide-eyed around the room, expecting to see a nose pop out of a closet any moment, I’m sure.

“Cath, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Just wait here, okay?” I went into the den and rummaged around for the atlas. It was an old Reader’s Digest variety -you know, solar system in the front few pages, then what each country does for a living and how many did it, at least in 1969. The rest was a smorgasbord of colors and names that brought back painful recollections of Miss Pleasance in Grade 4 or 5 and having to pronounce them in front of the whole class by memory. I could never say ‘Afghanistan’ and everybody would wait for it and laugh. Not Miss Pleasance, though. It’d just get me another turn the next day. I hated geography.

When I returned, Catherine was prowling through the cupboards and sniffing. I didn’t ask why. “This is an atlas, Cath,” I said proudly, holding it in front of me like a jewel.

She took one look at it and her face lost interest. “That’s just another book, Daddy,” she said, her voice pleading with me to say I was kidding.

“Just another book?” I pretended to be hurt. “Catherine, this is a genuine, nothing-else-is-remotely-like-it Reader’s Digest version of the world.”

Her eyes resumed their dinner-plate imitations and her mouth fell open. “The world! In there?” I had the sinking feeling that I’d lost again. “Lemme see,” she said grabbing the book firmly, but reverently from my hands.

I was pleased to see that she at least started from the front, but she whipped through the solar system at a breakneck pace and was half way through the gross national product of the Netherlands before she slowed down. “Awhh…” She leafed through a couple of pages of countries outlined in their pale reds and yellows, crammed with lines and unreadable letters and put the book down gently on the table. She looked at me -sadly, I thought- and shook her head. “Daddy,” she said slowly, and carefully, sounding for all the world like she was choosing her words carefully so as not to offend me. “Daddy, did you pay a lot for the anatlus?”

“Atlas,” I corrected as gently as I could. “No, not a whole lot. Why?”

“Well… I think you got gypped.”

“Huh?”

She stared at me and sighed with a little shake of her head -just like her mother used to do. “I saw the world on T.V. and it’s different.”

She was right, you know. And I’ll bet they pronounced Afghanistan correctly, too.

Wearing Life but as the fashion of a hat

Every once in a while I find that I am confronted by an idea which, even were I to have thought of it first, I would have put aside as of little relevance -or worse, of little consequence.

Clothing, has always been one of those for me: it’s something you wear, not something you are. And despite the desperate claims by Fashionistas that it reflects an inner self -or at least would, if you let it- I’ve always found the argument largely specious, and to reword Samuel Johnson’s quip about marriage, is a triumph of hope over expenditure.

And yet, I was drawn into an essay about clothes -albeit reluctantly- written by Shahida Bari, a lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London, for Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/why-does-philosophy-hold-clothes-in-such-low-regard?

I have to admit the article was not at all what I expected: I was neither deluged with praise for couture, nor subjected to shaming for my sartorial insouciance. At first, I was merely confused by her fascinating ruminations about clothes: ‘Ideas, we languidly suppose, are to be found in books and poems, visualised in buildings and paintings, exposited in philosophical propositions and mathematical deductions. They are taught in classrooms; expressed in language, number and diagram. Much trickier to accept is that clothes might also be understood as forms of thought, reflections and meditations as articulate as any poem or equation. What if the world could open up to us with the tug of a thread, its mysteries disentangling like a frayed hemline?’ What an utterly fascinating thought that what we wear is not merely a passive display, but has a voice of its own.

‘What if clothes were not simply reflective of personality, indicative of our banal preferences for grey over green, but more deeply imprinted with the ways that human beings have lived: a material record of our experiences and an expression of our ambition? What if we could understand the world in the perfect geometry of a notched lapel, the orderly measures of a pleated skirt, the stilled, skin-warmed perfection of a circlet of pearls?’

Do you see why I kept reading? The very idea that clothes have agency in and of themselves is powerful. She goes on to observe that ‘clothes are freighted with memory and meaning… In clothes, we are connected to other people and other places in complicated, powerful and unyielding ways, expressed in an idiom that is found everywhere, if only we care to read it.’

Bari seems to understand that ‘for all the abstract and elevated formulations of selfhood and the soul, our interior life is so often clothed… The garments we wear bear our secrets and betray us at every turn, revealing more than we can know or intend.’

But we cannot hide in clothes -as the poet Kahlil Gibran observes, ‘Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful’. And Bari goes on to suggest that ‘to entrust to clothes the keeping of our secrets is a seduction in itself.’ I would have thought that this alone would have been fodder for the Philosophers, but as she goes on to explain, ‘the discipline of philosophy has rarely deigned to notice the knowledge to which dress makes claim, preferring instead to dwell on its associations with disguise and concealment.’

She seems to think that Plato had something to do with Philosophy’s aversion to treating clothes as a worthy adversary. ‘Haunted by Plato’s anxiety over how to distinguish truth from its ‘appearance’, and niggled by his injunction to see beyond an illusory ‘cave of shadows’ to a reality to which our back is turned, philosophy’s concept of truth is intractably aligned to ideas of light, revelation and disclosure.’

Still, in fairness, she turns her spotlight on various other philosophers and notes that although appearance has always been a fair topic for discussion, it has rarely concerned itself about physical appearance or dress. And yet, after a tedious, albeit poetically expressed, litany of the views on clothes of characters, both fictional and academic, she concludes with a one sentence précis that I think might have made her point much sooner: ‘Philosophy might have forgotten dress, but all that language cannot articulate – the life of the mind, the vagaries of the body – is there, ready to be read, waiting to be worn.’

I did enjoy her metaphors and evocative language, and I have to admit that, until the latter half of the journey, I was swept along quite contentedly in the current of her thoughts. It reminded me of a recent conversation of two women, both laden with large cloth bags who plonked themselves down beside me on a couch that break-watered the teeming throng of shoppers in a downtown mall. Both were middle-aged, and both spread themselves out as if I wasn’t there.

I’m not keen on being jostled on a seat, and was about to launch myself into the chaotic tide of passing elbows when I saw the woman next to me pull some garish fabric partly out of her bag to show it to her friend.

“What d’ya think Jesse?” she asked, stuffing whatever it was back in her bag once Jesse had seen it.

Jesse looked frazzled by the crowds, and her once-coiffed, greying hair floated in little strands from her head while her eyes stayed anchored on her face. “Colour’s interesting, Paula…” she said, after a noticeable pause.

“It’s a statement, Jess…” She relaxed her buxom frame further into the couch and settled an elbow into my rib without seeming to notice the infringement. “I think it’s time people noticed me.”

Jesse blinked and a weak smile surfaced on her lips for a moment. “I don’t think you need the hat, dear,” she added, as tactfully as the situation allowed.

I could see Paula’s eyes harden, and then the pressure on my rib cage lessened briefly as her hand searched for a pocket in her incredibly wrinkled ankle length coat for a Kleenex. She blew her nose untidily and then tried to stuff what was left of the tissue back in the coat somewhere, and her elbow back into my side. “What are you saying, mirror-child?” she shot back. Clearly they were both tired, but I was beginning to enjoy the exchange.

“Just that you don’t have to wear a sign to attract attention…”

Paula’s face somehow retracted further into itself and her eyes peered out through the bars of their lashes like caged animals. And then, just as suddenly, her expression softened, and she shifted the position of her elbow again. “Oh, you mean that blouse, I bought…?” A smile darted onto her lips and stayed there like a runner that had made it safely to second base. “It’s really more me, isn’t it?”

Jesse’s eyes twinkled mischievously as she nodded. “But I don’t think you should wear them together, do you…?”

I could feel, as well as see Paula sigh. “You’re right, dear,” she said, as they both struggled to their feet. “I’m someone else with the hat on, aren’t I?” Another smile surfaced briefly, like a seal. “But it’s always nice to have a choice, Jess,” Paula added, hefting her bag onto her shoulder. Then pulling her friend with her free hand, they both stepped into the ever-passing flood like branches falling together in a river and were swept away.

I think you learn a lot about philosophy in malls if you’re patient…