Counterfactualities?

Remember Plato’s Cave allegory? In his Republic he describes a scenario in which some people have spent their lives chained in a cave so they can only see the wall in front of them. There is a fire behind them that casts shadows on the wall that they have no way of knowing are only shadows. For these people, the shadows are their reality. There seem to be many versions of what happens next, but the variation I prefer is that one of the people escapes from the cave and discovers the sun outside for the first time; he realizes that what he had assumed was real -the shadows- were just that: merely the shadows cast by the actual objects themselves.

Sometimes we become so accustomed to seeing things a certain way, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe there could be an alternative view. Or assume that, even if there were another version, it must be wrong. But can we be sure that we are evaluating the alternative fairly and without prejudice? Can we assess it with sufficient objectivity to allow a critical analysis? Or are we unavoidably trapped in the prevailing contemporary Weltanschauung? It’s an interesting question to be sure, and one that begs for examination, if only to explore the world behind the mirror.

I stumbled upon an essay by Julie Reshe, a psychoanalyst and philosopher, who, after recovering from a bout of depression, began to wonder whether depression itself was actually the baseline state, and one that allowed a more accurate view of how things actually are: https://aeon.co/essays/the-voice-of-sadness-is-censored-as-sick-what-if-its-sane

I have to admit that I had to temporarily divorce myself from my usually optimistic worldview to be able to fathom her argument, and I found it rather uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s instructive -even valuable- to look under a rock.

As a philosopher, Reshe felt the need to examine both sides of an argument critically, putting aside preconceptions and biases. ‘Depressogenic thoughts are unpleasant and even unbearable,’ she writes, ‘but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are distorted representations of reality. What if reality truly sucks and, while depressed, we lose the very illusions that help us to not realise this? What if, to the contrary, positive thinking represents a biased grasp of reality? … What if it was a collapse of illusions – the collapse of unrealistic thinking – and the glimpse of a reality that actually caused my anxiety? What if, when depressed, we actually perceive reality more accurately? What if both my need to be happy and the demand of psychotherapy to heal depression are based on the same illusion?’ In other words, what if I am actually not a nice person? What if there’s a reason people don’t like me?

Whoa! Suppose this is not a counterfactual? After all, other philosophers have wondered about this. For example, Arthur Schopenhauer whose deeply pessimistic writings about the lack of meaning and purpose of existence I have never understood, or the equally famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger who felt that anxiety was the basic mode of human existence. ‘We mostly live inauthentically in our everyday lives, where we are immersed in everyday tasks, troubles and worries, so that our awareness of the futility and meaninglessness of our existence is silenced by everyday noise… But the authentic life is disclosed only in anxiety.’ My god, where’s my knife?

And even Freud wasn’t optimistic about the outcome of psychotherapeutic treatment, and was ‘reluctant to promise happiness as a result.’ He felt that ‘psychoanalysis could transform hysterical misery into ‘common unhappiness’. Great…

And then, of course, there’s the philosophical tradition called ‘depressive realism’ which holds that ‘reality is always more transparent through a depressed person’s lens.’ And just to add more poison to the cake, ‘the Australian social psychologist Joseph Forgas and colleagues showed that sadness reinforces critical thinking: it helps people reduce judgmental bias, improve attention, increase perseverance, and generally promotes a more skeptical, detailed and attentive thinking style.’

All of which is to say, I suppose, ‘The evolutionary function of depression is to develop analytical thinking mechanisms and to assist in solving complex mental problems. Depressive rumination helps us to concentrate and solve the problems we are ruminating about… depressive rumination is a problemsolving mechanism that draws attention to and promotes analysis of certain problems.’

I have presented these deeply troubling ideas merely as an exercise in perspective, I hasten to add. Sometimes it is valuable to try to grasp the Umwelt of the stranger on the other side of the door before we open it. We can only help if we are willing to understand why they are there.

Part of the solution may lie in puzzling out Reshe’s counterfactuals. She seems to want to assign meaning to her former depression, as have many of the other people she mentions, to buttress her point. She also seems to feel that there was a time when that point of view might have seemed more mainstream. That nowadays there is just too much expectation of happiness -unrealistic expectations by and large, which presents a problem in and of itself. If we constantly expect to achieve a goal, but, like a prairie horizon, it remains temptingly close and yet just out of reach, we are doomed to frustration -a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet, it seems to me that resigning oneself to unhappiness, or its cousin depression, doesn’t represent a paradigm shift, but rather a rationalization that it must be the default position -and therefore must serve some useful evolutionary purpose; a position benighted and stigmatized because it advertises the owner’s failure to achieve the goal that others seem to have realized.

I’m certainly not disparaging depression, but neither am I willing to accept that it serves any evolutionary strategy except that of a temporary, albeit necessary harbour until the storm passes. And to suggest that positive emotions -happiness, contentment, joy, or pleasure, to name just a few- however short-lived, are illusory, and unrealistic expectations, is merely to excuse and perhaps justify an approach to depression that isn’t working. A trail that only wanders further into the woods.

I’m certainly cognizant of the fact that there is a spectrum of depressions, from ennui to psychotic and that some are more refractory to resolution than others, but that very fact argues against leaving them to strengthen, lest they progress to an even more untenable and dangerous state.

Perhaps we need to comfort ourselves with the ever-changing, ever-contrasting nature of emotions, and not expect of them a permanence they were likely never evolved to achieve.

Goldilocks, it seems to me, realized something rather profound when she chose the baby bear’s porridge after finding papa bear’s porridge too hot, and mamma bear’s too cold: it was just right…

Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them

I’m puzzled –it seems to be happening a lot nowadays despite my age. But maybe that’s what retirement is for –to sort through things previously deemed obvious but which, on closer scrutiny, are not. Or, at least, not anymore… Same thing, I suppose.

The latest effort of digging roots seems to have arisen after telling a friend that I hadn’t visited a recent exhibition of a famous painter because I’d thought the admission price was a bit steep for something which I could admire in as much detail online. My friend, of course, was shocked and subjected me to an unwarranted rebuke for thinking the two modalities were in any way comparable.

I have to admit to a certain agnosticism in the matter of Art, but, as art is wont to do, it started me wondering. What qualities, if any, does the original of anything, have that is so special that it has to be experienced in person? But I’m not advocating virtual reality, or proxy visitations, so much as an explanation of what makes the thing-in-itself seem so valuable.

I’m reminded of a podcast discussion I once heard about an exhibition of a Viking long boat. To see the real boat, the host of the program said -even if it was displayed behind a rope fence- was like experiencing the boat pulled up on a beach in Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. when they first raided Britain.

“But some of the boat had to be restored,” the expert explained. “In the original style and using the same type of wood, of course…” he quickly added, lest the magic seem to slip away. “But you’re right, it’s a Viking boat that they used for raids.”

Then someone –another expert, perhaps, spoke up. “So… Just to add a note of caution here… Let me ask how much of it was restored?”

“Pardon me?” The first expert seemed aghast that it would even matter.

“How much…? I mean, if you restored, say six boards on the deck, but the rest was original, could you still call it the original boat…?”

“Of course,” the first man blustered.

“Suppose you replaced the entire deck as well as a few boards of the gunwale? Still the same original boat…?”

“Yes…” he replied, but hesitantly. He could see where these questions were leading.

“Tell me,” the skeptic said quietly. “At what point –at what board, if you will- does it cease to be the original boat?”

I don’t remember the answer now, so many years later, but it was an interesting point. What is it about the ‘real’ thing that fosters the awe? If someone had simply built another boat, even using the same techniques and period tools, it would be admired, I’m sure –but not in the same way. Something would be missing… But what? For all intents and purposes, it would be the ‘same’ thing as the original.

Upon deeper reflection, I am reminded of another concept that intrigued me as a much younger student: Plato’s idea of Forms –a simple example being that of, say, triangleness; all triangles are examples –manifestations- of this, but not the thing-in-itself which is unknowable. Or, perhaps more illustrative: boatness. How is it that we can recognize a thing as a boat, even though boats have many designs, sizes, and shapes? What is it about boatness that permits its attribution to something, even if we have never seen anything like it before?

I think it’s easy to get lost in this, especially for an amateur like me, but I suspect that what I am wondering is whether ‘original’ might capture some of this idealized yet still intangible feeling of Form.

I tried the idea out on a couple of friends one evening at a pub. It was probably not a great place to discuss anything as nuanced as Plato, or Viking boats, but I get excited about things.

“Why is it better to see the actual painting in an exhibition rather than a picture of it?” I had to yell, because there was a lot going on around us that night.

“We were talking about Facebook news… How did art exhibitions get into this?” John, who was a recently retired lawyer, usually wanted to talk about politics, so I’m not surprised he was the first to notice my not so subtle segue.

In fact, I wasn’t sure what triggered the painting thing –maybe it was John’s insistence on going to the original news source and not relying on third hand copies. He had a point I thought, but I wondered if it also applied to paintings. And if so, why?

“But that’s a good example of why you go to the source, eh?” he added, smiling broadly at my perspicacity.

“With news, yes,” I yelled, as someone shrieked with laughter close by. “But why is it the same with a painting? Why isn’t it just as good looking at a high-quality photograph of it? They’re identical, aren’t they?”

Jason, a retired accountant put his empty glass on the table and tried to signal a waitress. “Are they?” he asked, turning to me when the waitress ignored him.

I shrugged. “I don’t know… that’s why I’m asking. Why are they different, Jason?”

He leaned over the table so we could both hear each other in the melee. “A photograph is just a copy.”

“Is what the painting contains –the image, the colour, the composition, and so on- not exactly the same in the photo?”

He thought about it for a moment, but started shaking his head. “I don’t know… somehow, there’s something missing in the photo, don’t you think?”

“What?” I was hoping he could narrow it down for me.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Maybe it’s that the painter –the creator– actually touched it…”

I smiled and had a sip of my wine. “Do you remember Plato from university?”

“I remember the allegory of the Cave… Loved that one…” John piped up, but quietly and Jason and I had difficulty hearing him.

I was thinking more of his Forms. Remember?” The blank looks on both their faces told me they didn’t. “Triangleness?” I offered as a hint.

“Oh yeah,” John said, obviously pleased at himself. “The ideal -of which something like any triangle you could draw would only be an example…”

“Didn’t Kant…” Jason was deep in memories. “… Something about noumena… Oh yeah, and the ‘thing-in-itself’ or whatever…”

“Uhmm, what I remember about his Critique of Pure Reason, I could write on a grain of salt,” John yelled to nobody in particular.

Jason mounted a condescending smile and launched his eyes on another search for the waitress.

“But I did love the Cave thing,” John continued, this time turning to me. “I always got it mixed up with the Forms, because I figured they were actually saying the same thing.” He leaned over the table so he wouldn’t have to talk as loud –I think he found the topic an embarrassing one for a pub. “I mean, think about it. All those prisoners in the cave chained so they can’t see the fire behind them, or the people holding up puppets that cast shadows on the only wall the prisoners can see. Naturally the prisoners think the shadows are the authentic world. And then one of the prisoners slips his chains and escapes to the sunlight outside and sees the real thing –not copies of it…”

Jason had given up by now and stared at John. “So, where do the Forms come into it…?”

It was John’s turn to look haughty as he rolled his eyes. “He sees reality, Jason. In a sense, he sees the Forms… the prisoners only saw the facsimiles –the copies, if you like!”

Jason just blinked at him. If I didn’t know him better, I would have thought he didn’t understand. “You know, this all started with G’s question about why it was better to see a painting in an exhibition than a copy of it somewhere else… How did we get to Plato’s Cave?”

“I think we just answered his question,” John said quietly, as we all leaned over the table to hear him in the noisy room. “It’s like experiencing reality, rather than the shadows it casts.”

“But…” I could see Jason was struggling with the idea. “…But couldn’t the prisoner just go back into the Cave and tell the others what he saw? That they were just looking at copies…?”

John smiled his best lawyerly smile. “Would they believe him if they hadn’t experienced what he had?”

I sat back in my seat with a big smile on my face and finished my wine. Sometimes it’s good to have a drink with people. Sometimes you just have to leave the Cave…