Does Beauty live with Kindness?

I don’t know how many times I’ve written about beauty, but it continues to intrigue me. Not so much about what it is -its constituent parts, its definitions, or even its historical and sociological roots- but more its ability to morph -mutate, if you will- from something that is to something that isn’t. How, in other words, can beauty -or its antonym, ugliness- change to its opposite without materially altering anything about its appearance?

To be sure, the duality has not gone unnoticed in historical philosophy (the appearance vs the charisma of Socrates), literature (think of the handsome Dorian Grey and his increasingly ugly portrait), or even in fairy tales (Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling), but its seeming capriciousness only adds to the mystique, I think.

For years, centuries, indeed millennia, we have sought to decipher beauty, and yet apart from vague generalizations like youthfulness, proportionality, or perhaps, symmetry, it has eluded our grasp, and slipped through our fingers like slowly moving mist. The most apt description for me, comes from Koine Greek, where beauty was associated with being of one’s hour -not trying to appear older or younger: authentic, I suppose. And yet even here, beauty remains a moving target, doesn’t it?

Amongst the many attempts to pigeonhole the concept, I am always on the lookout for seemingly unique approaches -although I fully recognize that over the centuries, pretty well every perspective has likely been canvassed. At any rate, I found myself drawn to an article in Aeon by the British philosopher Panos Paris: https://aeon.co/essays/how-virtue-morphs-into-beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder

His opening sentence certainly captured my interest: ‘Have you ever thought that someone is far from attractive – perhaps even ugly – only to later come to find that person beautiful?’ For sure this would not be a unique experience for any of us, and yet it made me wonder how such a perceptual change could happen -was it merely that we had come to know that person better and so ignored their outward appearance, or was there an actual phase-change somehow?

Paris links our perceptions to moral qualities: ‘[B]eauty and morality, and ugliness and immorality, are intrinsically linked. Specifically, the moral virtues – honesty, kindness, fairness, empathy, etc – are beautiful character traits, and the moral vices – their contraries – are ugly.’

That seemed a little too simplistic a view, but it was enough to make me read further. He qualifies it almost immediately: ‘Of course, the kind of beauty or ugliness in question is independent of physical appearances – it belongs to characters and actions.’ He calls it the ‘moral beauty’ view, and further qualifies it by saying ‘This view is rather unfashionable today. Contemporary philosophical and lay orthodoxy construes the realms of aesthetics and morality as distinct. It regards theories such as the moral-beauty view as signs of past conceptual immaturity that we have since thankfully shaken off our intellectual shoulders.’

But then he points to diverse historical languages and how many of these (admittedly cherry-picked examples) conflated beauty and morality. ‘In Ancient Greek, kalon meant both beautiful and good, while the [African] Yoruba word ewa normally translated as ‘beauty’, is primarily used to refer to human moral qualities.’ Or, more recently, ‘Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that ‘benevolence bestows upon those actions which proceed from it, a beauty superior to all others, [while] the want of it, and much more the contrary inclination, communicates a peculiar deformity to whatever evidences such a disposition’.

And, Paris explains, this conflation was not because of linguistic poverty. ‘[T]he Enlightenment philosophers did have the terminology to distinguish not only between beauty and goodness, but also between natural and artistic beauty, inner and outer beauty, and so on. Thus, their acknowledgement of an aesthetic dimension in morality, far from evincing confusion, seems to me to have reflected ordinary experience.’ This seemed a bit of a stretch to me -a mistaking of metaphor for prose, perhaps- but I pressed on nevertheless.

‘[W]hen people encountered others who were morally virtuous or vicious in their everyday life or in art… they felt, respectively, the sort of pleasure and displeasure evoked by other beautiful and ugly objects, and this phenomenon found its way into their language and thought.’ But with time, this view of beauty began to fade, and various detractors criticized the old approach -people like ‘Edmund Burke, who in 1757 considered it a ‘loose and inaccurate manner of speaking, [that] misled us both in the theory of taste and of morals’.

So, ‘beauty was thought to be mostly a matter of pleasure in the form of an object, and ugliness of displeasure in deformity; and form was limited to the visible or aural properties of an object. By contrast, goodness, and traits such as honesty and kindness, or selfishness and cowardice, are not like that; they are imperceptible, psychological traits, the goodness or badness of which stems from adherence to or violation of rational principles… Moreover, while the good is, or should be, desirable for its own sake, the beautiful is desirable because it’s pleasurable. So linking beauty and goodness might lead to a corruption or degeneration of moral motivation by encouraging the pursuit of goodness for its beauty.’

I began to lose interest at this point in his sign-wave and ultimately reductionist type of historical approach to beauty. I mean, let us suppose that beauty is largely subjective whereas, morality, because of the duties and obligations associated with being moral, is more objective… What does that mean? Is it an important distinction…?

Or… are we merely throwing everything into the pot in our frantic need for definition? Are we so desperate for a word, for a concept, that describes the pleasurable sensation of encounter, and engagement, that we flounder in the stew ourselves? Could it be that all the while, beauty was simply a metaphor -a way of saying we are pleased, and that what we are really struggling with is a way of expressing this?

And could it be why the word metaphor is so apt? Not to over-emphasize the need of delving into etymological derivations whenever we are stuck for something to say, its component morphemes are instructive: phore meaning ‘bearer of’ and meta designating an analysis at a higher, more abstract level. Personally, I think the famous 18th century French writer, Stendhal defined beauty the best: he called it la promesse de bonheur (the promise of happiness).

Do we really need more than that…?

The primrose path?

 

Every so often, I feel I have been blindsided -kept out of the loop either because I haven’t been diligent in my reading, or, more likely, haven’t thought things through adequately.

Philosophy concerns itself with the fundamental nature of reality, so I had always assumed there were few, if any, territories left untouched. In fact, I would have thought that the very nature of the discipline would have enticed its members to explore the more problematic subjects, if only to test the waters.

Of course, it’s one thing to continue to study the big topics -Beauty, Truth, and Knowledge and so on- but yet another to subject the more controversial, unpleasant issues like, say, Garbage, or Filth to critical philosophical analysis. At best one might argue it would be a waste of time commenting on their existential value. In fact, even suggesting that they might be worthy of philosophical consideration borders on the ridiculous, and the pointless -yet another example of a discipline grown dotty with age.

I have always felt that Plato was on to something in his insistence that what we experience are only particular and incomplete examples of what he called ideal Forms. We can all recognize a chair, for example, despite the fact that chairs can assume many forms, with innumerable shapes and sizes. And yet somehow, out of all the variations, even a child can recognize a chair: they can recognize the chairness of the object, if you will. So, it seems we can all understand the idea that any one particular example of a chair, or a triangle, say, is only a sample of the Forms of chairness, or triangleness… And because the Forms are only describable in the particular, we can never experience the true Forms except in our imagination. The Forms are, in effect, perfect and unchanging, unlike their earthly examples.

Where am I going with this? Well, although we might accept that this imaginary and essentially indescribable Form of what we’re calling chairness is ‘perfect’, could we say the same of other objects that make up our everyday reality -Garbage, for example? Is there an analogously ‘perfect’ Form for Garbage? Even thinking about that seems, well, valueless. Silly.

But, then again, uncharted waters have always attracted the brave -some may say, the unusual– among us. For my part, I was on my way elsewhere when I tripped over an article sticking out like a root on a forest trail. I suppose I should have known better than to start reading it. https://aeon.co/ideas/philosophy-should-care-about-the-filthy-excessive-and-unclean

‘[C]an the ‘unclean’ – dirt, mud, bodily wastes, the grime of existence – be relevant to the philosopher’s quest for wisdom and the truth?’ the author, Thomas White, asks. ‘Philosophers don’t often discuss filth and all its disgusting variations, but investigating the unclean turns out to be as useful an exercise as examining the highest ideals of justice, morality and metaphysics. In his dialogue Parmenides, Plato gives us an inkling of the significance of philosophising about the unclean, which he names ‘undignified objects’, such as hair, mud and dirt.’ When Parmenides questions Socrates about the issue, even Socrates is troubled and changes the subject. What hope is there, then, to include it as a legitimate topic for philosophical inquiry?

As White observes, ‘The unclean’s ‘undignified objects’ represent a kind of outer twilight zone – a metaphysical no-man’s land – that eludes overarching theories about the meaning of reality… The unclean’s raw existence is a great intractable that rudely interrupts a philosopher’s thinking when it fails to fit neatly into the theory of forms, thus forcing the philosopher to curb hasty, ambitious generalisations, and think even harder and more clearly.’ Of course, it has been suggested that ‘Plato attacked his own theory of Platonic ideas in order to know the truth, not to defend his own preconceived views.’ Indeed, maybe we need to be careful about insisting that any one particular philosophical model should be able explain everything. Even the discipline of physics admits that quantum theory and Newtonian theory seem to belong to separate Magisteria: each has its own domain -its own kingdom. Its own validity…

And yet for some reason, even in my dotage, I am reluctant to abandon Plato’s idea of Forms, no matter how societally objectionable the subject matter. Is there something to be said for, let’s say, filth -as in ‘not clean’- for which there may be a perfect Form? A ‘not-cleanness’ even a child could recognize?

When my children were young -so young that the world was fresh and new- they felt the need to explore: to climb whatever presented itself to their eyes, to look under things for what might be hidden there, and, of course, to taste whatever titillated their imaginations, or seduced their gaze.

As a parent, I have to admit that I assumed I should restrict their investigations to what I felt was safe and otherwise to what I found personably acceptable, but I couldn’t microscope them every second they were in my charge.

I remember one time, shortly after my daughter had learned to toddle around, I took her and her older brother out for a walk in a park near my house. The day was warm, and there was only one available park bench particularly appropriate as a base from which to watch the two of them wander around noisily within a little grassy clearing.

I must have dozed off in the sunlight, because when I opened my eyes the two of them seemed praeternaturally quiet and huddled over something they’d found in the grass. Curious to see what they’d found so interesting, I sauntered over to find my daughter contentedly munching away at something she’d found.

It didn’t look particularly edible, so I gently disentangled it from her mouth. I’m not sure what it was, and although parts of it were white, other parts where she had managed to break through the exterior, were brown and, frankly, disgusting.

“That’s not a good thing to eat, Cath,” I said, as her face contorted into a proto-wail.

“She thought it was popcorn,” my son explained, with a theatrical shrug.

I saw another similar white object on the grass nearby that promptly disintegrated as I picked it up. “That’s not popcorn, Michael,” I said as I brought it as close to my nose as I dared.

He shrugged again, as Catherine began to cry. “I didn’t think it was,” he explained. “And anyway, I didn’t try any…” he added, rather guiltily I thought.

I picked up my daughter to calm her and stared at Michael. “Then why did you let her eat it?” I asked, shaking my head disapprovingly.

His little eyes slid up my face with all the innocence of childhood. “She thought it was pretty…” he explained.

I looked at the aged piece of canine detritus with new eyes. It was kind of attractive, I had to admit…

Love, which alters when it alteration finds

I’m not certain I understand why, but I am being led to believe that Love can be described mathematically using Bayesian Probability Theory… Okay, as a start, I have no idea what subscribing to Bayesian probability theory might entail, except maybe a club membership, and a considerably manipulated personal profile to attract some interest. But, ever alert to new (or any) social possibilities, I decided to read the essay by Suki Finn, a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at the University of Southampton in the UK writing in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/beyond-reason-the-mathematical-equation-for-unconditional-love

It starts with the not unreasonable premise that there are two basic types of love: conditional, and unconditional. Then, she dips her toes into some background to convince me that Thomas Bayes’ probability theorem is flexible enough to improve my social life.

‘Degrees of belief are called credences. These credences can be given numerical values between 0 and 1 (where 1 is being completely certain), to demonstrate how strong that degree of belief is. Importantly, these values are not forever fixed, and can change when given reason to do so… But how do you rationally alter your credence, and figure out how strong it should be, given the information that you have? Cue Bayesian probability theory to calculate conditional credences. A credence is conditional upon information when it is evaluated with regard to that information, such that the strength of the belief is sensitive to that information and is updated on the basis of it… But what if my credence is completely irresponsive to such evidence? … This is what it is like to have credence 1, in other words, a belief of certainty, which could not be any stronger and cannot be updated. It cannot be updated in either direction – it cannot get stronger because it is already at maximum strength, and it cannot get weaker on the basis of evidence because it was not built on the basis of evidence in the first place.’ Uhmm… easy, right? And these are the rational changes to credence. ‘When your strength of feeling is sensitive to information about how things are, a philosopher would call it rational, as it develops in accordance with that information. Such is loving for a reason: with more reason comes more love, and when the reason goes, the love goes. This type of conditional love is an analogy to rational credences between 0 and 1 (not including the extremes), which change on the basis of evidence.’

Still with me…? I mean with Suki, because I’m not in any way with her…  Okay then, ‘Alternatively, unconditional love is love that will not change according to any information, as it was not built on the basis of information in the first place. This is love without reason… This type of love has an untouchable and irrational mind of its own. As with credence 1, it can change only irrationally – it does not abide by any Bayesian law and so cannot be updated… You fall in and out of unconditional love at the mercy of love itself… This is loving in spite of everything, rather than loving because of something, and so appears unaltered by reason… But this does not make the love stable. It is simply out of your control, and can literally go away for no reason!’

It seems to me that the author is saying that conditional love is probably more predictable, or maybe controllable than unconditional love, because it is not subject to random (uncaused) fluctuations. It’s not as liable to be indiscriminately, or inadvertently snatched away. Nice. But have I learned any non-obfuscatory take-home lessons? Is it readily transferrable to any situations other than amongst rhetoricians? Could I use it in the car on the way home, in other words?

Sometimes the grandest ideas fall short of the mark in actual combat… sorry, relationships. How, in practice, and when you’re just getting to know somebody, can you possibly profess conditional love? And why would you? It sounds like a sort of one-time stand thing. It is of course, but normal rules of courtship require hyperbole. Metaphors -as in: ‘My love is as constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, but there’s but one in all doth hold her place.’ As long as she doesn’t know you’ve cribbed the lot from Shakespeare’s Caesar, and you don’t mess up the words, everybody wins.

People are attracted to metaphors -they conjure up sincerity without linking it to unconditionality. Without requiring the intrusion of credences into an otherwise emotionally friable situation. It seems to me there’s nothing but trouble in store for anyone who decides to numerically assign emotional attachment parameters on the way home from a lovely dinner in an expensive restaurant.

Anyway, Thomas Bayes was a Presbyterian minister, and heaven only knows what that entails in terms of the slideabilty of relationships. I mean, their Regulative principle of worship (according to Wikipedia, at least) ‘specifies that (in worship), what is not commanded is forbidden.’ I’m therefore not entirely convinced that he would approve of the commandeering of his theorems in the somewhat tottery realm of Love, whether or not it is entwined with the idea of worship.

Of course, on the other hand, I suspect he would no doubt denounce any effort to charm with untruths, or at least equivocatory declarations. I certainly admire Suki Finn’s attempt to clarify intrinsically opaque emotions, but I’m afraid it will not do. And to revert back to Philosophy -her specialty- for a moment, there are just too many perils for any practical attempt at a Kantian Categorical Imperative application here, either.

It seems to me that I blundered into a more satisfactory solution to the declaration of Love: metaphor. It does not require any numerical assignations that might confuse or even spoil the moment; it does not even require positioning the feeling along a Bell curve for comparison with other loves you might have had. Nope, at the party -after you muster up the courage to ask her to dance- you merely say: ‘When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that’, or in the car on the way home, you just have to come up with something like, ‘O, how this spring of love resembleth the uncertain glory of an April day which now shows all the beauty of the sun…’ and let it go at that.

 

 

 

All That Glitters

“My uncle wants to come,” Jasmin announced as she sat in the hard wooden chair by my desk, looking worried. She was almost due, and as her obstetrician, I was seeing her for what she hoped might be her final prenatal visit. She wanted to know how many people could be present in the delivery room at the hospital for the birth.

I nodded encouragingly -so far, only her husband and mother were expected to be present.

“Uncle Jonathan used to be one of my favourites when I was younger.” She smiled at the memory. “He was so smart!” She sighed and looked down at her lap. “He was –is,” she corrected herself, “a professor of Philosophy at the university.” She stared at something behind me for a moment. “I was so impressed that he had even published a book… I remember trying to read it,” she added, rolling her eyes for effect, “but it was too abstruse for me in those days.”

I smiled at the idea of anything being too difficult for her -she was a PhD candidate herself, although not in Philosophy like her uncle. “You seem a bit concerned that he wants to be present for the birth, Jasmin.”

She shrugged and glanced nervously at her lap again. “I haven’t seen him for a while,” she admitted. “We… we kind of fell out a few years ago.”

I sat quietly and waited to see if she wanted to explain.

“He… I mean, I don’t like the way he treats his wife –treated…” she qualified her tenses again. Then she sent her eyes over to explore my face to see if she should explain further. “Even Mom was upset with her brother…”

I tried to keep my expression neutral, but I suppose she could see my curiosity.

“He expected her to have a meal ready for him when he came home…” Her eyes never left my face, but had perched on my cheeks as if they were resting. Waiting. “She had to do all the work around the house, you know. He always said he was exhausted from lecturing and writing at work.”

I nodded again, but she could sense I was trying not to judge.

“Mom said it was abusive…” she said in answer to my unasked question. “I… I refused to believe her at first. I always knew he was arrogant, but if anybody deserved to be arrogant, it was him. He was such a brilliant thinker… is, I mean…”

Jasmin seemed genuinely conflicted. I could see it was difficult for her to accept what she saw as imperfections in a childhood hero.

And yet, any hero-worshipping can be fraught, can’t it? I discussed some of the ramifications of this in a previous essay entitled Life’s Fitful Fever https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/?p=10396 , but I continue to be intrigued by the subject…

We all have subsurface faults that could weaken our glossy reputations if exposed. After all, each of us is a book of stories, only some of which we prefer to read -even those exemplary figures we choose to pedestalize.

None of this is a surprise, of course, but it is sometimes important that it be reconsidered in times like this when we are busy tearing down statues of people whose past is not as monolithic as we once assumed -or, at least, not as we wanted to remember it. An essay by the British philosopher Julian Baggini in Aeon provided an interesting counterbalance to our resurgent iconoclasm: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-sexist-and-racist-philosophers-might-still-be-admirable

‘Praise Immanuel Kant, and you might be reminded that he believed that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,’ and ‘the yellow Indians do have a meagre talent’. Laud Aristotle, and you’ll have to explain how a genuine sage could have thought that ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject’.

‘We seem to be caught in a dilemma. We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left… However, the idea that racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted views automatically disqualify a historical figure from admiration is misguided. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are.’

Historical revisionism is an interesting phenomenon: the belief -no, the assumption– that our present day ethos is, by default, the gold standard against which to compare all other eras, and all other societies. But, ‘why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment… The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.’

‘Accepting this does not mean glossing over the prejudices of the past. Becoming aware that even the likes of Kant and Hume were products of their times is a humbling reminder that the greatest minds can still be blind to mistakes and evils, if they are widespread enough. It should also prompt us to question whether the prejudices that rudely erupt to the surface in their most infamous remarks might also be lurking in the background elsewhere in their thinking.’ And yet, ‘Many blindspots are remarkably local, leaving the general field of vision perfectly clear. The classicist Edith Hall’s defence of Aristotle’s misogyny is a paradigm of how to save a philosopher from his worst self. Rather than judge him by today’s standards, she argues that a better test is to ask whether the fundamentals of his way of thinking would lead him to be prejudiced today… But there is a very important difference between the living and the dead. The living can come to see how their actions were wrong, acknowledge that, and show remorse. When their acts were crimes, they can also face justice.’

But, as Baggini summarizes in his essay, ‘The dead do not have such an opportunity, and so to waste anger chastising them is pointless. We are right to lament the iniquities of the past, but to blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today is too harsh.’

Memories of that visit with Jasmin re-surfaced after I read the article.

“Is Jonathan’s wife going to come to the birth as well?” I remember asking.

She stared at her lap briefly. “No, unfortunately she passed away last year.”

I could see it really bothered her, but I sat in silence for a moment. “Were you two… close?”

She nodded and then sighed as she looked at me again. “I just don’t understand, though,” she suddenly blurted out. “The two of them seemed happy, you know… Happy. Content with each other…” She took a deep breath as she tried to expunge the thought. “I suppose he was just a man of his time –is, I mean: his attitude is fairly typical of that era, I think…” Then, after she considered it briefly, she added “But I don’t know how she could stand it: being a slave in the house, I mean.”

She kept scanning my face to see if I agreed -after all, I was probably the same age as Jonathan. Subject to the same biases, the same unrealistic expectations of a wife.

It was my turn to sigh. “You said the two of them seemed happy…”

She nodded. “They loved each other.”

I smiled. “Then perhaps she, too, was a woman of her time, Jasmin.”

She thought about that for a while and then her whole demeanour changed. “I… I hadn’t thought of it that way.” She smiled and sent her eyes to my face to thank me. “I’ll introduce you two in the delivery room. I think you’ll like him,” she said and winked at me as she stood to leave.

 

 

 

Infirm of Purpose

Conscience is a difficult master, and although few would argue the need for one, I suspect that most would agree that at times it may be hard to obey. As my mother used to say, it’s why guilt was invented.

Society seems to assign great worth to those of us who are able to resist the temptations in which we swim -those of us who emerge dry on the beach I think. We owe a lot of the anxiety we wear to our prevailing ethos, to struggling against a current which would tire even a saint . Indeed, the Christian concept of Saintliness usually implies a rare, single-handed ability to resist the allure of the everyday world.

And the failure to do so, despite our best attempts, often leads to remorse and regret -the unforgiving parents of guilt. But maybe we expect too much of the individual, maybe there’s a better way of looking at the problem. An enlightening article in Aeon made me wonder if Society -and my mother- had borrowed a little too much character-centered virtue from the Greeks: https://aeon.co/essays/aztec-moral-philosophy-didnt-expect-anyone-to-be-a-saint

I suppose in her day, you took what medicine you were given, never expecting there to be credible alternatives. Western virtue ethics -although she probably wouldn’t have recognized the term- were in part the result of the teachings of Plato, and eventually his pupil Aristotle. They believed in what the article calls character-centred virtues, but these were ‘too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices.’

However, the Aztecs –the people dominant in large parts of central America prior to the 16th-century Spanish conquest- looked at virtue from a different perspective which the author of the article, Sebastian Purcell -assistant professor of philosophy at SUNY-Cortland in New York- describes as a more socially-centred ethic. The Aztecs apparently believed ‘we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.’

And he raises a good point: ‘This distinction bears on an important question: just how bad are good people allowed to be? Must good people be moral saints, or can ordinary folk be good if we have the right kind of support? … it also matters for questions of inclusivity. If being good requires exceptional traits, such as practical intelligence, then many people would be excluded – such as those with cognitive disabilities…  One of the advantages of the Aztec view, then, is that it avoids this outcome by casting virtue as a cooperative, rather than an individual, endeavour.’

I like the idea that everything doesn’t rest on my shoulders alone. That there may be communal resources around to raise bail.

Exercise is a similar taskmaster to conscience, however, yet it wields even more guilt than my mother ever could. And it’s not on my shoulders that it rests -I could probably take that for a while; it seems to pick on my legs and anything that tires easily. But when my joints are talkative and my muscles are already weary from standing around, temptations are convincing liars -especially when I think I can get away with them. Know I can. Okay, am pretty sure I can…

For some reason, a grey and stormy autumn afternoon a few years ago comes to mind. I was living outside a little rural village then, and rain was lashing the roof like a Bollywood monsoon. The windows were shaking with the constant slap of discarded leaves from the dancing trees that surrounded the house, and I remember looking forward to sitting in a comfortable chair with some cookies and a book. It wasn’t that I was tired or anything, but it was certainly better than risking the storm outside.

Sometimes, on a sunless day, discretion has to win out, don’t you think? And I thought that maybe peanut butter chocolate chip cookies would go a long way to expiating any residual guilt for not getting any exercise that day. Retirement was fairly new at that point, but sometimes you have to practice filing away the hours efficiently before they get out of hand and mess things up.

I’d already let the dog out into the back yard a few hours before the storm hit. He had a little house back there and lots of grass to putter around in so I figured he’d be fine. I even peeked through the door at him to make sure, before I assembled the cookies on my favourite plate and turned on the light over the chair. I mean, sometimes dogs just know they’re not going to be walked, eh? And just like us, they don’t always need it. Besides, I could exculpate myself by giving him a few treats later -he’s so easily placated.

Anyway, I remember settling into my chair with a niggle of guilt that even the cookies were unable to dissipate. It wasn’t so much about the dog, I don’t think –he’s pretty good at forgiveness- but I’m still a work in progress, and torpor tends to make me logy and bloated. Anyway, when the plate was almost empty and the book still unopened, I decided that perhaps a bit of wine might help.

I didn’t wake up until I heard the scratching. At first I thought it was just the wind, but when I opened my eyes and looked around, I realized the rain had stopped and there was a bit of sun peeking through the kitchen window. Time for supper maybe…?

The scratching was persistent, however, and coming from the door -coming from the dog, actually. Interesting, I thought -he doesn’t usually scratch- and I opened the door expecting him to come bounding in. But he just sat there, tail wagging, and eyes pleading. I knew what he wanted; dogs talk with their eyes, communicate with their bodies. They have no need for words, and as soon as I reached for the leash, he thanked me with his tail. I reciprocated by offering him the only cookie I hadn’t eaten and we set out together to explore the world -guilt a distant memory, and my mother smiling from wherever…

But I need to be sure. A dog can exhibit social virtue can’t it? A dog can help -I mean, I can still be an Aztec, right?

 

 

Should We Bell the Cat?

What should you do at a dinner party if the hostess, say, declares that she believes something that you know to be inaccurate -or worse, that you consider repellent? Abhorrent? Should you wait to see how others respond, or take it upon yourself to attempt to correct her belief? If it is merely a divergence of opinion, it might be considered a doctrinaire exercise -a Catholics vs Protestant type of skirmish- and likely unwinnable.

But, suppose it is something about which you are recognized to have particular credentials so your response would not be considered to be merely an opinion, but rather a statement of fact? Should that alter your decision as to whether or not to take issue with her pronouncement? Would your silence imply agreement -acquiescence to a view that you know to be not only wrong, but offensive? And would your failure to contradict her, signal something about her opinion to the others at the table? If it is an ethical issue, should you attempt to teach?

It is a difficult situation to be sure, and one that is no doubt difficult to isolate from context and the responsibilities incumbent upon a guest. Still, what should you do if, uncorrected, she persists in promulgating her belief? Should you leave the table, try to change the topic, or merely smile and wait to see if she is able to sway those around you to her views?

I can’t say that the situation has arisen all that often for me, to tell the truth -we tend to choose our friends, and they theirs, on the basis of shared values- but what risks might inhere in whatever course of action I might choose? I happened upon an insightful and intriguing article that touched on that very subject in Aeon, an online magazine:  https://aeon.co/ideas/should-you-shield-yourself-from-others-abhorrent-beliefs It was written by John Schwenkler, an associate professor in philosophy at Florida State University.

He starts, by pointing out that ‘Many of our choices have the potential to change how we think about the world. Often the choices taken are for some kind of betterment: to teach us something, to increase understanding or to improve ways of thinking. What happens, though, when a choice promises to alter our cognitive perspective in ways that we regard as a loss rather than a gain?’

And further, ‘When we consider how a certain choice would alter our knowledge, understanding or ways of thinking, we do this according to the cognitive perspective that we have right now. This means that it’s according to our current cognitive perspective that we determine whether a choice will result in an improvement or impairment of that very perspective. And this way of proceeding seems to privilege our present perspective in ways that are dogmatic or closed-minded: we might miss the chance to improve our cognitive situation simply because, by our current lights, that improvement appears as a loss. Yet it seems irresponsible to do away entirely with this sort of cognitive caution… And is it right to trust your current cognitive perspective as you work out an answer to those questions? (If not, what other perspective are you going to trust instead?)’

You can see the dilemma: is the choice or opinion you hold based on knowledge, or simply belief? And here he employs a sort of thought experiment: ‘This dilemma is escapable, but only by abandoning an appealing assumption about the sort of grasp we have on the reasons for which we act. Imagine someone who believes that her local grocery store is open for business today, so she goes to buy some milk. But the store isn’t open after all… It makes sense for this person to go to the store, but she doesn’t have as good a reason to go there as she would if she didn’t just think, but rather knew, that the store were open. If that were case she’d be able to go to the store because it is open, and not merely because she thinks it is.’

But suppose that by allowing an argument -an opinion, say- to be aired frequently or uncontested, you fear you might eventually be convinced by it? It’s how propaganda endeavours to convince, after all. What then? Do you withdraw, or smile and smile and see a villain (to paraphrase Hamlet)? ‘If this is on the right track, then the crucial difference between the dogmatic or closed-minded person and the person who exercises appropriate cognitive caution might be that the second sort of person knows, while the first merely believes, that the choice she decides against is one that would be harmful to her cognitive perspective. The person who knows that a choice will harm her perspective can decide against it simply because it will do so, while the person who merely believes this can make this choice only because that is what she thinks.’

This is philosophical equivocation, and Schwenkler even admits as much: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question… In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have.’

As much as I enjoy the verbiage and logical progression of his argument, I have to admit to being a little disappointed in the concluding paragraph in the article, that seems to admit that he has painted himself into a corner: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question: that climate change is a hoax, say, or that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have. And what could assure us, when we exercise cognitive caution in order to avoid what we take to be a potential impairment of our understanding or a loss of our grip on the facts, that we aren’t in that situation as well?’

But, I think what this teaches me is the value of critical analysis, not only of statements, but also of context. First of all, obviously, to be aware of the validity of whatever argument is being aired, but then deciding whether or not an attempted refutation would contribute anything to the situation, or merely further entrench the individual in their beliefs, if only to save face. And as well, it’s important to step back for a moment, and assess the real reason I am choosing to disagree. Is it self-aggrandizement, dominance, or an incontestable conviction -incontestable based on knowledge or unprovable belief…?

I realize this is pretty confusing stuff -and, although profound, not overly enlightening- but sometimes we need to re-examine who it is we have come to be. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.

Understanding as…

There is so much stuff out there that I don’t know -things that I hadn’t even thought of as knowledge. Things that I just accepted as ‘givens’.  You know, take the ability to understand something like, say, an arrangement of numbers as a series rather than a bunch of numbers, or the ability to extract meaning from some sounds -for example words spoken in English- and yet not others in a different language.

And, perhaps equally mysterious is the moment when that epiphany strikes. What suddenly changes those numbers into a series? Is it similar to what makes figure-ground alterations flip back and forth in my head: aspect perception? Is it analogous to the assignation of meaning to things -or, indeed, picking them out of the chaos of background and recognizing them as somehow special in the first place? Is it what Plato meant when he referred to the Forms –‘chairness’ or ‘tableness’ for example- abstractions that allow us to identify either, no matter how varied the shapes or sizes -the true essence of what things really are?

I suppose I’m becoming rather opaque -or is it obtuse?- but the whole idea of aspect perception, of ‘seeing as’, is an exciting, yet labyrinthine terra incognita, don’t you think? I’m afraid that what started it all was an essay in the online Aeon publication: https://aeon.co/ideas/do-you-see-a-duck-or-a-rabbit-just-what-is-aspect-perception

It was the edited version of an essay written by Stephen Law, the editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK. He begins by discussing some of the figure-ground changes found in, say Necker cubes whose sides keep flipping back and forth (a type of aspect perception) and then suggests that ‘A[nother] reason why changes in aspect perception might be thought philosophically significant is that they draw our attention to the fact that we see aspects all the time, though we don’t usually notice we’re doing so… For example, when I see a pair of scissors, I don’t see them as a mere physical thing – I immediately grasp that this is a tool with which I can do various things.’

Another example might be ‘…our ability to suddenly ‘get’ a tune or a rule, so we are then able to carry on ourselves.’ Or, how about religion? ‘The idea of ‘seeing as’ also crops up in religious thinking. Some religious folk suggest that belief in God doesn’t consist in signing up to a certain hypothesis, but rather in a way of seeing things.’ But then the caveat: ‘Seeing something as a so-and-so doesn’t guarantee that it is a so-and-so. I might see a pile of clothes in the shadows at the end of my bed as a monster. But of course, if I believe it’s a monster, then I’m very much mistaken.’

I have always loved wandering around bookstores. Maybe it’s an asylum -a refuge from the noisy street, or a spiritual sanctuary in a chaotic mall -but it’s more likely that the range and choice of books allows me to exercise an epiphanic region of my brain, and to practice ‘seeing as’ to my heart’s content. I’d never thought of bookstores as exercise before, of course, but I suppose the seed of ‘understanding as’ was sown by that article… or maybe it was the little girl.

Shortly after reading the essay, I found myself wandering blissfully through the quiet aisles of a rather large bookstore that seemed otologically removed from the noisy mall in which it hid. Coloured titles greeted me like silent hawkers in a park, the ones that sat dislodged from their otherwise tidy rows, sometimes reaching out to me with greater promise: curiosity, as to why someone might have dislodged them, perhaps. But nonetheless, I also found myself amused at their choices: book shops are catholic in the selection they proffer and I relish the opportunity to switch my perspectives… and expand my Weltanschauung, as the Philosophy section into which I had meandered might have put it when the thought occurred.

Of course, unexpected concepts like that are one of the delights of a bookstore -turn a corner into a different aisle and the world changes. It’s where I met the little girl talking to her mother about something in a book she was holding.

No more than four or five years old, she was wearing what I suppose was a pink Princess costume, and trying to be very… mature. Her mother, on the other hand, was dressed for the mall: black baseball cap, jeans, sneakers, and a grey sweatshirt with a yellow mustard stain on the front. Maybe they’d just come from a party, or, more likely, the Food Court, but the mother was trying to explain something in the book to her little daughter. The aisle wasn’t in the children’s section, but seemed to have a lot of titles about puzzles, and illusions, so maybe they’d wandered into it for something different: for surprises.

As I pretended to examine some books nearby, I noticed a Necker’s cube prominently displayed on the page the girl was holding open.

“Why does it do that, mommy?” Even as she spoke the perspective of the cube was flipping back and forth, with one face, then another seeming to be closer.

The mother smiled at this obvious teaching moment.

“It’s a great idea, anyway,” the daughter continued, before she got an answer.

“Idea…?” the mother said, with a patient look on her face. “What’s the idea, Angie?”

Angie scrunched her forehead and gave her mother a rather condescending look. “It’s an exercise book, remember?”

That apparently caught the mother by surprise. “It’s a book of puzzles and magic, sweetheart. I didn’t see any exercises.”

Angie rolled her eyes at her mother’s obvious obtuseness. “The nexercise cube, mommy…!”

Necker’s cube, sweetie,” she responded, trying to suppress a giggle. “It’s not an exercise cube.”

But Angie was having none of that, and stared at her like a teacher with a slow pupil. “It keeps making my mind move, mommy!” She shook her head in an obviously disappointed rebuke. “That’s exercise.”

I slipped back around the corner, unnoticed by them both I think. I felt I’d intruded on a very intimate moment and I didn’t want to trespass, but I couldn’t help wondering if Angie had come far closer to understanding Plato’s Forms than her mother or I could ever hope to.