Words, when there aren’t any

Here’s a thought: What are you thinking – right now? Can you describe what is happening inside your head at any moment you are asked? If you can, is it in a decipherable stream of words… or in something else? And, further, if it is something else, then how could you ever describe it in words?

When I consider such a subject, I find that I am reminded of the Buddhist koan that asks the disciple to imagine the sound of one hand clapping. It is an endless labyrinth in which it is also too easy to think of Dante’s Divine Comedy in which he describes what is inscribed on the entrance gate to Hell: Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

But you see what is happening already: a flight of ideas, some of which can be described in words after the fact, and yet the journey -and indeed, the destination- are fluid, and wordless. Much like watching a Fellini film in a darkened movie theatre, and then emerging, confused, into a noontime street outside where different rules, different realities apply.

It happened again, didn’t it? Right now -the activity inside my head somewhere… I have just attempted to describe it in words, and yet there weren’t any while it was going on… But nonetheless it was happening. If we can remember them, dreams can be like that sometimes, can’t they? Wordless, and yet often transcribable; there is usually an emotional overlay, and yet is it just that when we emerge into the daylight reality we struggle for descriptors if we are asked to remember. Is consciousness merely the translator, hired for the job?

I suspect these ruminations are not common in our everyday lives that expect to be able to explain something -everything?- when asked. It is, after all, the mandate of Science to subject the world and everything in it to scrutiny. But can we ever hope to describe our interior machinations in words, if the world in there is not primarily verbal? If journeys inside are not even always pictorial? Evocative? Is there even a language that does not depend on features we would characterize as consciously recognizable? Translatable? Can we, in other words, understand our minds? We all want to, don’t we…?

Despite the fascinating venue, even deciding where to start any such attempt eluded me. There was an article in a BBC Future article, that started me wondering again, though: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190819-what-your-inner-voice-says-about-you

Kelly Oakes, a freelance writer for the BBC, starts out by suggesting, ‘Interrogating what’s going on inside our own minds doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult task. But by trying to shine a light on those thoughts, we’re disturbing the very thing we want to measure in the first place.’ She goes on to describe the attempts of the psychologist Russell Hurlburt at the University of Nevada to get around the questions we ask about our inner thoughts which obviously prompt us to translate the inner activity into words -and hence reporting more as inner speech than is actually the case. So, he uses a technique he calls Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) which involves carrying a device that beeps randomly but only occasionally throughout the day. That is the prompt to tune into whatever was in your mind just before the beep. At the end of the day, you are debriefed and are expected to describe ‘what form it took: words, pictures, an emotion, a physical sensation, or something else.’ And, not surprisingly, it varies.

It’s not ideal, I suppose, but it does attempt to characterize something evanescent and amorphous and translate it into meaningful categories. But even if we were to concentrate on one form of activity -inner speech- there are still imponderables that have to be sorted out.

Is it an inner dialogue, or monologue? Indeed, how could it be a dialogue with only one brain involved? Or, for that matter, to whom would a monologue be addressed? Maybe Freud, with his Ego, Id, and Superego divisions of the unconscious was on to something…

But, Oakes mentions a description written by someone after they had recovered from a stroke, that is both existentially chilling, and yet also helpful in understanding some of our inner processing: ‘After neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor recovered from a stroke she suffered aged 37, she wrote in My Stroke of Insight [my italics] about what it was like to experience a “silent mind” without inner speech for several weeks: “What a daunting task it was to simply sit there in the centre of my silent mind…’ It wasn’t just the absence of words that was occurring, it was the absence of anything. Although I haven’t read the book, I assume that her mind was also empty of -what?- pictures, emotions, sensations -even identity. So maybe you either get everything -the melange- or nothing.

I find that a really sobering thought, for some reason. That in our brains -our minds– the way we process input from the outside –or activities happening on the inside- is more a jumble than a formula. I’m sure it doesn’t actually work that way, but just like it’s difficult to accurately render a poem, a metaphor, or a Weltanschauung into a different culture and language, there are similar problems in translating the inner language into the outer one we need to use.

In our constant quest to understand, and master the unknown, I sometimes wonder if we expect too much of our questions. But maybe that’s just my outer voice that speaks -the one that translates for the me that lives inside. How do I know if it’s even on the right path?

Perhaps it takes a poet to interpret what’s really going on. My mind drifts to the words of Kahlil Gibran: For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

The Me of Science

This is going to sound trite, but have you ever wondered about your role in Science? Really. I mean that of your consciousness in apprehending and interpreting that which is measured: the ‘Me’-ness which separates each of us from whatever we’re doing -or, rather, which joins us to it: joins us to the other?

I don’t mean to sound Cartesian here; I don’t want to get into mind-body stuff, and yet it comes down to whether or not we believe that the Mind is reducible to a bundle of interconnected neurons, or something more, doesn’t it? An emergent phenomenon -a synergism- or merely a synthesis: an entity wholly explainable in terms of its constituents.

Where, in other words, do I come in? And if I don’t, is there any proof -apart from my saying so- that I even exist?

Of course, why should I even care? I mean, cogito ergo sum, eh? I know I exist, and so I can investigate anything I want, acting in my own right as a valid agent. Science and I can look into any box and measure its contents… except, perhaps, reality itself -I can assume no God’s-eye view of that. I cannot absent myself from that box while I measure it -I am immersed in it. The box, really, is all there is.

I have to say, I was re-seduced into this type of thinking by a very perceptive essay in Aeon written as a collaboration between Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience

‘In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature. Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.’

So, ‘Elementary particles, moments in time, genes, the brain – all these things are assumed to be fundamentally real. By contrast, experience, awareness and consciousness are taken to be secondary.’ And yet, ‘We never encounter physical reality outside of our observations of it… [and] these tests never give us nature as it is in itself, outside our ways of seeing and acting on things. Experience is just as fundamental to scientific knowledge as the physical reality it reveals… The point is that physical science doesn’t include an account of experience; but we know that experience exists, so the claim that the only things that exist are what physical science tells us is false.’ Or maybe misleading.

‘Husserl, the German thinker who founded the philosophical movement of phenomenology, argued that lived experience is the source of science. It’s absurd, in principle, to think that science can step outside it.’ And Alfred North Whitehead, who taught at Harvard University in the 1920ies, ‘argued that science relies on a faith in the order of nature that can’t be justified by logic. That faith rests directly on our immediate experience… he argued that what we call ‘reality’ is made up of evolving processes that are equally physical and experiential.’ You’ve gotta love this stuff.

Anyway, I suppose the importance of all this palaver is to point out that ‘When we look at the objects of scientific knowledge, we don’t tend to see the experiences that underpin them. We do not see how experience makes their presence to us possible.’ However, let’s face it, without an observer -a measurer- the results are unacknowledged. Science is not science, if we are not there to do it and record it.

The whole subject is reminiscent of the discussions I remember from my university days when we would sit around for hours in a pub exploring our growing awareness of the world.
“I don’t know how you could say that,” somebody at the table -Brian, usually- would exclaim, throwing his arms up. “Science is about objects! It’s not at all comparable to religion…”

“And why is that?” someone else -usually Jonathan- would answer. “It just deals with reality a little differently, that’s all.”

“A little differently?” The arms again. “Religion is completely subjective! You can’t prove anything…”

“And does Science prove anything -or is it just the scientist who looks at the instruments who proves it? Somebody has to read the data. Experience them…” This was always Jonathan’s argument, I remember.

Brian was a little more excitable, and he would roll his eyes at the slightest provocation as disdain dripped unchecked from the rest of his face. “Come on, Jonathan! You don’t experience science in the same way as religion. You do science!”

“How do you read an instrument, or interpret a result without experiencing it, Brian? There has to be someone who looks at the measurement.”

Brian would always shake his head in disgust when Jonathan disagreed with him. “But the measurement was not created by the scientist, it was made by the machine, or whatever -and that’s about as objective as you can ever get.”

A little smile would always creep onto Jonathan’s face at this point. “Well, who designed the machine? Who built it for the purpose…?”

“Give me a break, eh? Once it’s built, it’s an object!”

“But the experiment -the question- which the object is built to answer, is subjectively constructed, is it not? And the results have to be formulated into a conclusion, don’t they? Accepted, or rejected, the results have to pass their way through a mind. Through consciousness… They have to be experienced!”

“And what is doing the experiencing? It’s just your brain -a physical, an objective, thing.” Then Brian would smile and sit back in his seat with his beer to deliver the coup de grace. “The brain is not a ‘who’ but a ‘what’ isn’t it?”

But Jonathan would like this part of the argument, I remember -it always took this turn. “If that which interprets data is an objective ‘what’, and if that which it is experiencing is also a ‘what’, then everything is a ‘what’ -Religion included; it’s doing the same thing… sort of like Science, eh?”

The arguments, fuelled no doubt by the effects of alcohol on inquiring minds, would go on in increasing complexity and implausibility until the pub closed, and we would all wake up the next morning with hangovers -but still friends, willing to take each other on again at the next opportunity. In a way, it makes me wonder what those authors of the Aeon essay were going on about with their questions about what role subjectivity and experience has in dealing with the world -its role as the Blind Spot. My friends and I -subjects all- don’t experience it as anything like a problem -not really. We see it simply as friendship. And that is the foundation for everything isn’t it…?

 

 

 

Is Seeing Believing?

Isn’t it interesting that some of us can look at a forest and miss the wind riffling through the leaves, while others see the moon as a ‘ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas’? What determines what we see? Does it have to relate to something we’ve seen before -patterns that we recognize? Is our apprehension of reality an expectation? A sorting through the chaos and discarding what we don’t understand -the noise– until something more familiar emerges? Why do we not all see the same thing?

If patterns are what we are evolved to see, if they are what we use to make sense of the world, are there always patterns everywhere? These are things I wonder about, now that I have time to wonder. Now that I am retired, I suppose I can wade more thoughtfully into the turbulence I once found swirling about my days. Clarity is certainly not a common property of old age, but occasionally it descends as softly as a gossamer thread, and then as quickly drifts away leaving only traces of its presence. Doubts about its visit.

Are these mere hints of what the gifted see? Is peering beyond the horizon just a gift, or is it fleeting and unstable unless learned? There was an interesting essay in Aeon, an online offering that touched on the subject of insightful examination, by Gene Tracy, the founding director of the Center for the Liberal Arts at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia: https://aeon.co/essays/seeing-is-not-simple-you-need-to-be-both-knowing-and-naive

‘When Galileo looked at the Moon through his new telescope in early 1610, he immediately grasped that the shifting patterns of light and dark were caused by the changing angle of the Sun’s rays on a rough surface. He described mountain ranges ‘ablaze with the splendour of his beams’, and deep craters in shadow as ‘the hollows of the Earth’. […] Six months before, the English astronomer Thomas Harriot had also turned the viewfinder of his telescope towards the Moon. But where Galileo saw a new world to explore, Harriot’s sketch from July 1609 suggests that he saw a dimpled cow pie.’ And so, the question must be asked, ‘Why was Galileo’s mind so receptive to what lay before his eyes, while Harriot’s vision deserves its mere footnote in history?’ But, as the author notes, ‘Learning to see is not an innate gift; it is an iterative process, always in flux and constituted by the culture in which we find ourselves and the tools we have to hand. […] the historian Samuel Y Edgerton has argued that Harriot’s initial (and literal) lack of vision had more to do with his ignorance of chiaroscuro – a technique from the visual arts first brought to full development by Italian artists in the late 15th century. By Galileo’s time, the Florentines were masters of perspective, using shapes and shadings on a two-dimensional canvas to evoke three-dimensional bodies in space. […] Harriot, on the other hand, lived in England, where general knowledge of these representational techniques hadn’t yet arrived. The first book on the mathematics of perspective in English – The Art of Shadows by John Wells – appeared only in 1635.’

But is it really as fortuitous as that? As temporally serendipitous? Tracy makes the point that, at least in the case of Science, observations are ‘often complex, contingent and distributed.’ And, ‘By exploring vision as a metaphor for scientific observation, and scientific observation as a kind of seeing, we might ask: how does prior knowledge about the world affect what we observe? If prior patterns are essential for making sense of things, how can we avoid falling into well-worn channels of perception? And most importantly, how can we learn to see in genuinely new ways?

‘Scientific objectivity is the achievement of a shared perspective. It requires what the historian of science Lorraine Daston and her colleagues call ‘idealisation’: the creation of some simplified essence or model of what is to be seen, such as the dendrite in neuroscience, the leaf of a species of plant in botany, or the tuning-fork diagram of galaxies in astronomy. Even today, scientific textbooks often use drawings rather than photographs to illustrate categories for students, because individual examples are almost always idiosyncratic; too large, or too small, or not of a typical colouration. The world is profligate in its variability, and the development of stable scientific categories requires much of that visual richness to be simplified and tamed. […] So, crucially, some understanding of the expected signal usually exists prior to its detection: to be able to see, we must know what it is we’re looking for, and predict its appearance, which in turn influences the visual experience itself.’

‘If the brain is a taxonomising engine, anxious to map the things and people we experience into familiar categories, then true learning must always be disorienting. […]Because of the complexity of both visual experience and scientific observation, it is clear that while seeing might be believing, it is also true that believing affects our understanding of what we see. The filter we bring to sensory experience is commonly known as cognitive bias, but in the context of a scientific observation it is called prior knowledge. […] If we make no prior assumptions, then we have no ground to stand on.’

In his opinion, there is a thrust and parry between learning to see, and seeing to learn. I have no trouble with that, but I have to say that Science is only one Magisterium in a world of several. Science is neither omniscient, nor omnispective.

I happened across a friend standing transfixed in the middle of a trail in the woods the other day. A gentle breeze was coaxing her hair across her face, but her eyes were closed and she was smiling as if she had just been awarded an epiphany.

At first I wondered if I should try to pass her unannounced, but I suppose she heard my approach and glanced at me before I had made up my mind. Her eyes fluttered briefly over my face for a moment, like birds investigating a place to perch, then landed as softly as a whisper on my cheek.

“I… I’m sorry, Mira,” I stammered, as surprised by her eyes as her expression. “You looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to disturb you…”

Her smile remained almost beatific, rapturous, but she recalled her eyes to brief them for a moment before returning them to me. “I was just listening to that bird,” she said and glanced into the thick green spaces between the trees to show me where, “when I felt the breeze…” I have to say, I hadn’t noticed anything -I hadn’t even heard the bird. “…And it touched my forehead like a kiss,” she said, and blushed for describing it like that. She closed her eyes and thought about it for a moment. “I can’t think of another word,” she added, and slowly walked away from me with a wink, onto a nearby path.

I don’t think that what she was saying was Science, or even meant to require a proof, and yet I felt far better knowing there are people like her in my world. I think I even felt a brief nuzzle by the wind as I watched her disappear into the waiting, excited fondle of the leaves.

 

 

 

It’s About Time

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.’ So wrote Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, more than fifteen hundred years ago. And we’re still confused… Okay, I’m confused.

When considered philosophically, you’d think it would be a relatively simple concept: I exist right now: the Present; I remember what happened to me: the Past; I don’t know what will happen to me: the Future. That is Time. It is divided into separate Magisteria like scenes through the window of a moving train. And yet… and yet the divisions seem so arbitrary. So evanescent. It’s almost as if Time were merely an all-purpose synonym for Change. A generic label.

But things happen in time, our bodies being no exceptions, so it’s difficult to ignore. We have come to prioritize those happenings as constituting Time. The intervals between events have gradually become divested of significance, although whether it is the interval, or the event that is prime could be argued -much as whether the placement of a comma in a sentence contributes almost as much to the meaning to be conveyed as the words themselves. And yet, is it really all contingent…?

Are habits -those things we do almost without thought- or the endless train of happenings the commas? Is it actually in the intervals between things where we live? Do we inhabit the interstices, and merely mark their boundaries by events -rely on things that happen in order to count? Do we live between the nodes or does reality only exist for me when stuff happens, when I am aware of what I am doing? And if so, then what about when I’m not aware? What happens to Time then? Do you see why I am confused?

And, at the risk of sounding too Cartesian, is the reality my body inhabits different from the awareness my mind tells me about? Bodily existence seems to have been issued with different rules because it is far more contingent than my mind. Too needy. Too ad hoc, and less spontaneous. It seems overly pulled by evolution and ontogeny, unable to explore new things. It straddles the intervals like a bridge. It is a scaffolded entity, constantly in a state of repair.

No, Time, for a body at least, was always thought to be continuous. Contiguity of events allows restoration and medicine discovered this. It started on its quest to heal the body, even if the mind was not always in synchrony and did not understand. But it assumed that mind was only a by-product of body. It is… isn’t it…?

At any rate, something that has often puzzled me is the difference in prescription instructions for various medications. Of course some drugs are relatively short-acting, and need to be taken frequently, say, Q6H (every six hours), or perhaps they are more potent and require a smaller, but spaced out administration, say, Q8H. That seems fairly obvious, so instructions as to how much and how frequently to take them would therefore make sense.

But suppose the directions are to take them QID (four times per day) or even TID (three times per day)? By comparison, that seems almost sloppy, doesn’t it? I mean, what is the difference…? And how much variation is permissible between the timing of every eight hours, and three times per day? What impact would, for example, a two hour difference -or even more- have on the medication efficacy? This is not meant as a criticism, but merely an exploration of time in the administration of a treatment.

And yet, even a more precise prescription of the interval does not usually state a specific time for its consumption like, say, 8 PM. Given that our bodies (and hence probably our metabolism) are subject to a circadian rhythm, I’ve often wondered whether that might make a difference in a medication’s effectiveness. An article in Nature that I ran across addresses that very issue: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04600-8?utm

‘The circadian clock is a remarkable system. A central timekeeper in the hypothalamus orchestrates a network of peripheral clocks in nearly every organ and tissue of the body, turning on and off a bevy of genes including some that encode the molecular targets for drugs and the enzymes that break drugs down. These clock genes are particularly important in cancer because they govern cell cycles, cell proliferation, cell death and DNA damage repair — all processes that can go haywire in cancer.’

Until recently, technology was unable to determine the genes involved, let alone the timing of their activation, and so chronotherapy remained on the fringe. But, ‘More than four decades of studies describe how accounting for the body’s cycle of daily rhythms — its circadian clock — can influence responses to medications and procedures for everything from asthma to epileptic seizures. Research suggests that the majority of today’s best-selling drugs, including heartburn medications and treatments for erectile dysfunction, work better when taken at specific times of day.’

Steroid levels, for example, ‘naturally cycle with the circadian clock. In the late 1960s, scientists found that the synthetic corticosteroid methylprednisolone is safer for treating arthritis and asthma if taken in the morning rather than at other times of the day. This is because the feedback loop in the hypothalamus, which controls the release of cortisol, is least vulnerable to inhibition in the morning.’ Other factors such as age and gender also seem to be important in circadicity. So is the inconvenience of the times when the appropriate genes might best be manipulated. Not only that, but ‘practical biomarkers are needed to help clinicians identify optimal times for treatment.’

There are many variables to account for, but clearly there is a growing appreciation of Time in understanding the body’s underlying physiology. There is a need to adjust not only the treatment, but also its provision in harmony with individually derived schedules that are often by no means intuitive or convenient. As if, by finding each body’s unique variations on the theme of circadian rhythm, we discover the hidden melody playing deep within.

Maybe Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali polymath who won the Nobel prize in Literature in 1913, was not so far afield after all: Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf.

I’d like to think we all dance in Time…

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…

 

 

 

The Kingdom of the Blind

 

Sometimes, after waking up from a troubled sleep, it occurs to me that I live in a world to which I have become so accustomed that I wander down its streets like a horse with blinders. I see those things at which I am pointed and accept what I am told about the rest –even about the other horses… And they, like me, process their separate realities as if they were representative. Common grounds. All, no doubt convinced of the uniqueness -the appropriateness- of their own interpretations. Certain that what they see is what we all see –should see- otherwise we are mistaken and groping. Remember, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

But we miss a lot unless we stand back and consider what passes for reality. And why. The other day I was listening to an archival podcast from BBC 4 entitled Body Count Rising –a thought-provoking and insightful documentary about how we have come to watch- and accept- crime programs that seem to glorify violence against women. Rape, murder, abuse –all common themes that, had they no fascinated audience, no prurience, would never have gained the popularity they seem to enjoy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wtggz

To me, only an occasional crime show adherent, the trend was largely invisible. And yet, as a man, maybe even a steady diet of such programs would have slipped past without a comment. Without a conscious recognition that perhaps the overly realistic depictions of female abuse, the preponderance of rape as an important component of the plot, and the salacious depiction of the female corpse was actually a not-so-covert titillation. A not-so-disguised form of necrophilia.

Another component of the podcast documentary that I had not considered until then –and one that I found powerfully compelling- was not so much the increasing demand for these kinds of stories, but rather the effects on the female actors who had to play the role of the victims. I suspect that most of us become so enmeshed in the storyline, so enveloped in the plot that we forget that to be convincing, the actor has to become the character she is playing. Those kinds of victim roles must be devastating -especially when the story purports to depict what is actually happening out there in real life to real women. And yet for the rest of us, we experience it vicariously and from the safety of our living rooms.

Where does the fault lie? The documentary makes an honest attempt to dissect it –from the writers who decide what species of story is saleable, to the networks and producers who pander to audience demand, and even to the actors who, despite their reluctance to glorify the ugliness they are asked to portray, dare not risk declining or criticizing the role for fear of subsequent unemployment… Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t another form of abuse. More subtle perhaps, more deniable, and yet one more gossamer-thin thread in a web of denigration so easily ignored in our society. So readily dismissed. So invisible…

We are all to blame, aren’t we? There are blind spots in each of our lives.

I walked into in a crowded restaurant for lunch the other day, and the only table left was uncomfortably close to one where a man and a woman sat arguing. To be fair, they were initially discreet about it, never raising their voices, nor gesturing suggestively with their cutlery, but nevertheless, I felt almost as if I was a guest in their kitchen and forced to witness a family squabble.

“… Whatever!” the woman hissed sotto voce, as she glanced at me sitting so close to them. She was young –maybe in her mid-twenties- and looked as if she had just come from work. Dressed in a grey skirt and a white now-creased blouse, her auburn hair once pinned on top of her head, escaped strand by strand as she tossed her eyes back and forth from the leftovers on her plate to her partner’s face.

He was probably in his forties, and dressed in a brown suit with a red tie loosened at the neck. Staring intently at the woman, a patient smile tattooed on his face, he was leaning forward on the table when I sat down. He made several desultory attempts to touch her arm, but she withdrew each time. “Sheila asks for it, though, Janice…”

Evidently, this was not the response Janice wanted to hear and she sat up stiffly on her chair and glared at him. “Asks for it! What kind of an animal are you, Jeff?”

“Come on, Jan. Get off your high horse!” he sat back on his chair and his facial tattoo expanded sardonically. Cruelly. “She flirts with every man in the office… Including me,” he added, as if this proved his point.

“Flirts?” Janice’s voice rose unintentionally, but she glanced my way and subdued the rest of her words. “Sheila is just friendly; that’s how she interacts with people.” She shook her head sadly, and several more strands of hair tumbled to her shoulder and danced as she spoke. “You’re so shallow!”

“Friendly is one thing –you’re friendly, but you don’t stand as close as she does when you talk. And you don’t start fondling people to make a point. Sheila bores into your face with her eyes, like she wants to peer inside, or something…”

“You mean she actually listens when you talk…?”

Jeff frowned at the remark and shook his head. “No… it’s more than just listening, Jan. It’s… seductive.”

The skin on Jan’s face tightened, and her eyes tore a strip off his face. “So that’s why Jason gropes her every chance he gets? Because she’s asking for it?”

“Gropes her?” His voice rose unpleasantly loud and people at the nearby tables turned to see who was yelling. He dropped his eyes to his plate again, and lowered his voice. “Janice you’re so bloody naïve! He’s just responding to her. Stimulus-response –it’s not groping! You make it sound so… so damned lewd.”

Janice’s eyes grew to the size of the plate in front of her and her face reddened as the veins on her neck grew fat and swollen. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. “Suppose Sheila kept grabbing his ass –what would you call that? Or his crotch…? I saw him trying to finger her in the corner, Jeffrey!!”

Jeff rolled his eyes and guffawed. “He’s just playing the game, Jan… And anyway, Jason wouldn’t do that unless she was okay with it.” He toyed with the bit of food left on his plate and then chose a large, dripping piece and put it in his mouth –but slowly and carefully. I could tell he thought he was being seductive.

From where I sat, I could see Jan’s fists opening and closing. She seemed momentarily speechless, although I suppose she was actually trying to calm herself down before she exploded. “Jeffrey, you’re missing the point!” The words came out between clenched teeth, her eyes locked on his. “Jason is her boss, for god’s sake! She feels she has to take it…” She tried to soften her face for a moment as she explained the obvious, but it was a losing battle. “Don’t you understand…?” she said quietly while shaking her head. I could tell she wasn’t far from tears.

But Jeff’s face stayed blank. It was as if Jan hadn’t explained anything. “Sheila could just tell him to stop, if she wanted to.” It was so obvious to him.

Jan glanced at her watch and stood up. “I’ve got to get back now, Jeffrey…” He smiled again and pointed to some food still left on his plate. “Wait till I finish this, Jan,” he said, and not kindly. It was an order, really, so she sat down again and leashed her eyes obediently.

But not before they strayed briefly to my face in apology –a silent recognition of the way things were. An invisible shrug.

 

Science and Simulacra

One of the problems with Science for many people is that it keeps changing its mind. We are in an era when to say that an idea is scientifically proven is to imply that something profound has been uncovered: a truth has been revealed that is forever irrefutable. It is a time of global angst, when religions and cultures appear to be at odds with each other; only science seems to have anything to say that can transcend boundaries: something reliable to believe in.

Now we learn that yet another theory –i.e. that mammography would reduce deaths from cancer by detecting them sooner and at an earlier stage- doesn’t seem to be valid : http://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g366 or perhaps a more readable summary: http://www.jwatch.org/fw108466/2014/02/12/annual-screening-mammography-produces-overdiagnoses-no?query=pfw  Maybe this might have been better described as a scientific hope than a fully fledged theory; nonetheless it does not inspire confidence that we are on the right track…

But it is in the very nature of science to be open to refutation and revision. Paradigms shift and new theories replace older ones… So what can we believe? Is science wrong?

Philosophy offers some insights, and how we view reality lies at the heart of it. There are many ways of apprehending reality. Realism is perhaps the most pervasive nowadays: the common sense view that scientific theories say verifiable things about the world –stuff out there exists and even if we aren’t able to see it (a quark, or a lepton, say) we can measure it. But there are other ways people have viewed reality –everything from Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (there is something out there but we only know about it through our senses, and they –as in the case of, say, hallucinations- may be deceiving us), to what has come to be called instrumentalism –Science just measures things and theorizes about them (somebody else can worry about whether or not they are real).

As I suggested earlier, since theories and paradigms change –and always have- why should we believe that the ones currently in vogue are correct? And if they’re constantly subject to revision, then how then can we believe they are telling us anything about reality? Well for one thing, the scientists say, the technology engendered by them works doesn’t it? That’s surely a testament that we’re on the right path. And yet how can we balance the discrepancies? It’s a terrible pickle we’re in if we try…

But theories don’t talk about real things, only our interpretations of theories do. Science is usually couched in mathematics, hidden in numbers, but meaning –interpretation- requires metaphor.  We are creatures of stories, myths, legends… It’s only through these that we make sense of our world. Numbers almost have a separate reality –they describe our world, but they don’t really live where we live. To an extent, they are contingent on metaphor to have any descriptive function.

So, what does all this obfuscation have to do with the value of mammography? The problem of being told one thing today, only to have it rescinded –no, revised– the next? Well, as I see it, reality is still obscure: we think we understand it, think we are wearing it –and yet, like an onion, it has many other layers, deeper layers…

I’m struck by the prescience of that allegory told by Plato so many years ago. You know it: the one about the Cave. Prisoners are chained in a cave and only able to see the shadows of objects cast on a wall from a fire behind them. These shadows, they think, are real –indeed, it’s all they’ve ever known. But a prisoner escapes the cave and sees the world outside where he can finally appreciate what is truly real… Maybe the shadows have prepared him somewhat, but only when he is outside can he understand that what he had been calling real were, at best, approximations. Some were no doubt better than others, but simulacra nonetheless.

Although perhaps closer to the entrance to the cave, we are still imprisoned, still mistaking shadows for what they represent. For reality. For now…