Quotes & Commentary #65: Proust

Quotes & Commentary #65: Proust

In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her.

—Proust

When it comes to love, artists can be usefully divided between romantics and cynics.

The former see love as something unambiguously wonderful, whose presence produces absolute joy and whose absence the most profound misery—something endlessly interesting to contemplate and unquestionably good. The cynical attitude—far less common—sees love as a kind of illusion, a self-hypnosis, which promises everything and delivers nothing. Proust was of the latter camp, whose solipsism admitted no possibility of genuine human connection.

I admit that I normally incline towards Proust’s view. I have never much liked love songs or love poetry, and most love stories leave me cold. Indeed, I wish that we did not dedicate so much of our art to romance. Human life is so rich in potential themes, and yet our art circles endlessly around the standard tropes of romantic love: the pain of rejection, the agony of desire, the triumph of success, the pangs of jealousy, and so on. The conventions are so well-established that it strikes me as artistically lazy to go through the same motions: first, because little originality is needed; second, because love, being an innate human desire, is something that people will respond to automatically, so little skill is needed to hold the audience’s attention.

I would even go farther, and assert that any art which relies so exclusively on these instinctual urges is a form of pornography. This is what I mean. However artfully pornography is directed and acted, it is still a lower form of art than non-pornographic films, since to be effective it only needs to appeal to a fundamental human desire. Food photography is arguably in the same class: even when well-done, its main appeal is to the stomach and not the mind. Extremely sentimental art, by appealing to the basic human desire for intimacy, falls into this category as well.

This is not to say that art should not involve emotions; that would be absurd. But true aesthetic appeal, for me, is always disinterested, involving the absence of desire. Thus any art which appeals directly to desires—and, like pornography, is really just the satisfaction of a desire in fantasy—falls short of real aesthetic appeal. Much love-themed art is clearly based on this fantasy satisfaction.

I do not wish to be dogmatic about this. Undeniably there are poems, plays, songs, and novels of the finest quality about love. My contention is only that these superlative works sublimize love into an aesthetic sensation, a pure appreciation of emotion devoid of pain or excitement. The ultimate example of this is Dante, who took his erotic passion and made it the primary element of his sweeping vision of the universe. But this, of course, is no easy thing. Rather I think it requires the greatest artistry to create excellent works devoted to love, since the artist must resist at every point the temptation to give into fantasy.

If Dante is the ultimate artist of the positive potential of love—describing God as “The Love that moves the sun and other stars”—then Proust is the ultimate artist of the cynical view. For him love was just another false prophet that distracts us from the truth of life and the tranquility of art. And nowadays it is hard to disagree with him.

We have found that love, far from a divine mystery, is the expression of an instinctual drive to procreate. Since stable pair-bonding is helpful for the survival of our children, it makes sense that we would evolve the tendency to fall in love. And now that romantic relationships are more fluid than ever before—with the rise of dating and divorce—we have clear and persistent evidence that even the strongest feelings of love do not necessarily, or even often, lead to permanent relationships.

Indeed, when you observe a person moving from partner to partner, equally in love with all of them in turn, equally convinced that each one is incredible (until he breaks up with them, at which point they become undesirable), then it is hard to resist the conclusion that love is a sort of self-hypnosis. For when we fall in love, we see only perfection in the beloved; and when we fall out of love, we see only ordinary flaws. The conclusion seems to be, as Proust says, that we love what we possess only because we possess it, and see the beloved as extraordinary simply because it is our beloved. This, of course, is an ironical situation, since the “most intimate” of connections appears, upon inspection, to be based on willful misapprehension. The loving eye sees least.

Given these reasons for cynicism, why is the romantic, rosy-eyed view of love so common in our culture? I would even go so far as to say that the cult of love has become a sort of religion. Finding the perfect partner is portrayed as the apex of happiness, the seal and guarantee of a good life.

Now, do not think I am some bitter enemy of love. Anybody who has ever been in love knows that it is one of the best feelings in life. Even so, I think it is unhealthy to dwell so insistently on romantic love, as if it could save us, complete us, perfect us. It is unhealthy, first, because happiness must always come from within us, and not from some external—not even a relationship; and, second, because our inflated notions of love ironically lead us to expect too much from it, which damages relationships.

Though it is a cliché to say so, I think the truth about love lies between the romantic and the cynical view. Neither salvation nor illusion, neither effortless nor impossible, neither invincible nor insubstantial, neither the point of life nor a pointless waste—love is a beautiful but ordinary thing. And art, insofar as it strives to represent reality, ought to try to show love in all its ordinariness.

Quotes & Commentary #64: Goethe

Quotes & Commentary #64: Goethe

And when your rapture in this feeling is complete,
Call it what you will,
Call it bliss! heart! love! God!
I do not have a name
For this. Feeling is all;
Names are but sound and smoke
Befogging heaven’s blazes.

—Goethe

We humans give the name “love” to so many different things that it can be difficult to tell what it means. No word is more overused. Turn on the radio we hear love songs; switch on the television and every show, comedy or drama, has a love story; open a novel, chances are the same is true. We love everything from our children to cheetos, from our friends to our phones. Some people love God and some love Lady Gaga. How can any word accommodate so many different relationships?

Part of the ambiguity comes from our using the word “love” to express three distinct things: feelings, preferences, and values. By “feeling” I mean some emotion felt in the present moment, in this case an emotion of intense pleasure. This is what somebody means when they take a bite of a hamburger and say, “I love this!” We are also expressing a feeling when, with a loved one, we spontaneously say “I love you!” In this sense, the word is purely emotive, comparable to smiling or laughing.

All feelings are, by definition, fleeting and temporary; but we use “love” in calmer moments to express more durable preferences. By “preference” I mean a tendency to enjoy and choose something; this is what somebody means when they say “I love the Beatles.” In less serious moments, we also use the word “love” this way with people, such as when we say “I love my coworkers.” By saying this, the speaker is clearly not expressing any level of commitment to her coworkers; she is only expressing her tendency to enjoy and appreciate their company.

The strongest and, you might say, the most proper use of the word “love” is to express a value. We “value” something when we are willing to act for its sake, enduring inconvenience, pain, or even death in its service. When we value something we identify ourselves with it, making it an extension of ourselves. This is the sort of bond that exists between close friends, family, and romantic partners. And I think it is important to understand love this way, since it explains how it is possible to simultaneously love somebody and be furious at them—which would be contradictory if love were simply a feeling.

Clearly, any good relationship will consist of a combination of these three layers. We feel good in the presence of a loved one, we prefer seeing them, and we value them deeply. Yet is is clearly possible to have one without the others. Specifically, I think a confusion between the emotive and the value aspects of love is what causes people to agonize over the question, “Do I really love x…..?” This is because it is clearly possible to value somebody deeply but to feel angry and hurt in their presence; and conversely it is possible to feel very happy in somebody’s company without being committed to them.

Part of this confusion is unavoidable. This is because it can be difficult to tell how much we really value something. Value is not something we feel and thus is not obvious. Rather, our values are revealed by our actions over a stretch of time. How much time and energy do we devote to somebody? How far are we willing to interrupt our lives for their sake? How consistent is our willingness? We cannot, in other words, simply introspect and feel value. And even when we see that we consistently value something, it is impossible to predict with certainty how long it will last. Thus love, like the rest of life, always requires a leap of faith.

Quotes & Commentary #63: Voltaire

Quotes & Commentary #63: Voltaire

The superstitious are the same in society as cowards in an army; they themselves are seized with a panic fear, and communicate it to others.

—Voltaire

When I was a child I was afraid of ghosts. Coincidentally, at both my mother’s and my father’s house, I had a nextdoor neighbor who very much encouraged the fear. Both were girls, both a couple years older than me, and both told me ghost stories that filled me with wonder and scared me half to death. Once, I remember being so frightened of ghosts in the attic that I begged my mother, with tears in my eyes, not to go up, sure that she would meet some horrible end. (She was miraculously unharmed.) I even went on ghost discovery missions with my neighbor and my brother, in the forest behind my house; we didn’t find anything, but once we took a polaroid in which the sun’s rays, coming through the trees, created an odd aura that looked vaguely ghostlike.

Naturally my superstitious beliefs weakened with age until they left me altogether. Admittedly, living in a very secular part of the country helped. Since those ghost hunting days, I have not personally come into contact with a lot of superstitious behavior. But whenever I have, I am filled with a strange mixture of pity and revulsion, for superstition strikes me as the lowest depth to which the adult human mind may fall. Traditional superstitions are the child’s fear of the dark, of the strange creaks at night, of the unexplained coincidence—in short, fear of the unknown—hardened into a belief handed down the generations. They are socially condoned phobias.

While I am no friend of religion, I can at least sympathize with the comfort provided by a faith in a just and caring God. I can see how a belief in a higher power might ennoble a person and lift them up above circumstances. But superstition, as I understand it, does just the opposite: it shrinks the universe down to petty dimensions, and fills the superstitious with debilitating and needless fears. For to believe that throwing salt over your shoulder, walking over a grave or under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors or saying some forbidden word, being passed by a black cat or doing something at a certain hour or on a specific day—to believe that these trivial events can significantly influence your life is to give monumental importance to one’s smallest actions, and is thus really a form of egotism.

And how does the belief in ghosts, spirits, demons, devils, monsters, or even “luck” itself, add to your experience of the world? All these are boogeymen who cause us to revert to a state of childlike terror. And what are the consequences of these beliefs? If you believe that certain very normal things are cursed, haunted, or even “bad luck,” you will go through life needlessly avoiding things. Indeed, I admit that it strikes me as an affront to human reason for a person in this century to become nervous because they have spilled salt.

But the most nefarious part of superstitions is not that they are illogical, but that they are socially condoned, often through association with religion. Thus people are not encouraged to test these fears in order to see if they are justified, but exactly the opposite, they are encouraged to obey the fears and never to criticize them. This is what I mean by calling them socially condoned phobias. For an irrational fear in one person is a phobia, to be treated by a psychologist; but in a whole society it is a superstition, to be respected.

In general I think that fear should be combated wherever it isn’t absolutely necessary, for fear limits our options, distorts our views, and shrinks our world. And superstition, being a socially contagious form of irrational fear, is perhaps the worst example of this. Yet having written this diatribe, I must here admit that I enjoy picking up pennies when I find them on the ground. I do not believe they give me good luck, but somehow it feels like winning a prize. What strange stuff we are made of!

Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. We neither argue with a lover about his taste, nor condemn him, if we are just, for knowing so human a passion.

—George Santayana

This quote sums up the apparent futility of argument—not only about religion, but about so many things that arouse strong feeling. I have never seen, or even heard of, a discussion about religion or politics that ended with one of the participants being convinced. If anything, conversations about these topics seem only to entrench the opposing parties in their positions.

This occurrence appears common and universal; and yet its implications strike at one of the pillars of western thought—that rational arguments can be used to reach the truth and to convince others—as well as of liberal democracy, which rests on the ideal that, to paraphrase John Milton, truth emerges victorious from open encounters with untruth. If debate is really futile in matters religious (which involves our ultimate views of life and the universe) and politics (which involves our stance on society), then are we doomed to endless tribal bickering based on nothing more than group mentality?

I strongly wish that this wasn’t the case; but I admit that, judging on my actions in daily life, I have little faith in the power of reason in these matters. I tend to avoid topics like religion and politics, even among friends. Powerful emotions underpin these aspects of life; values and identity are implicated; and individual psychology—background, traumas, inadequacies—may render the action far removed from cold calculation.

To a large extent, admittedly, rationality has only a subsidiary role in decision-making. Hume was quite right, I believe, to call reason a “slave of the passions.” We are never motivated by reason alone; indeed I don’t even know what that would look like. We are motivated, instead, by desires, which are organic facts. In themselves, desires are neither rational nor irrational. Rationality only applies, first, when we are figuring our how to satisfy these desires; and, second, when multiple, conflicting desires are at play.

The desires to be skinny and to eat three pints of ice cream a day, for example, conflict with one another, and reasoning is needed to achieve a harmony between these two. A reasoner may realize that, however, delicious ice cream may be, the desire to be skinny is consonant with the strong desire to be healthy and live long, so the ice cream is reduced. Both internally, within our psyches, and externally, within society, reason is how we achieve the most satisfying balance of competing desires.

Since reason rests on a fundamentally non-rational bases—namely, desires—it may be the case that reason has no appeal. In politics, for example, somebody may crave equality, and another person freedom; and no argument could move or undermine these desires, since neither is rational in the first place. Different political orientations are rooted in different value systems; and values are nothing but orientations of desires.

But I think it is often the case that competing value systems have many points in common. Grave inequality can, for instance, curtail freedom; and enforced inequality can do the same. For either party, then, a satisfactory society cannot have absolute inequality, absolute equality, absolute freedom, or absolute slavery. These different values are therefore not totally at odds, but are merely different emphases of the same basic desires, different ways to harmonize competing pulls. And in cases like these, rational argument can help to achieve a compromise.

What about religion? Here the case seems somewhat different from politics, since religion is not just a question of values but involves a view of reality.

Admittedly, political ideologies also involve a certain view of reality. Each ideology comes with its own historical narrative. Sometimes these narratives are nothing but a tissue of lies, as with the Nazis; and even the most respectable political narrative may make some dubious assumptions. Nevertheless, the validity of political opinions is not purely a matter of the truth of their historical narrative. Somebody may genuinely desire communism even if everything they assert about the Soviet Union is wrong; and if debunking their history makes us doubtful of the possibility of satisfying their desire, it does not invalidate the desire itself.

With religion, to repeat, the case is somewhat different, since religions assert some set of facts about the universe; and without this set of facts, the religion falls to pieces. All of Marx’s theories of history may be wrong, but you can still rationally want a communist society. But a Christianity without a belief in a divine Jesus has lost its core. It is no longer a religion. In this way religion is decidedly not like falling in love, contrary to Santayana, since love, being pure desire, makes no assertion about the world.

This seems to put religions on a different footing, since they rest not only on desires, but beliefs. And if these beliefs prove incorrect or irrational, then the religion ceases to make sense. From my readings in history, science, philosophy, and theology, it seems quite clear to me that this is the case: that insofar as religious notions can be disproved, they have been; and insofar as they are unprovable, they are irrational to believe.

Indeed, I think with enough time I could explain this quite clearly to a believer. But I have never tried, since I am almost positive it wouldn’t work—that their religious beliefs would be impervious to argument. I also admit that the thought of doing so, of trying to talk someone out of a religion, makes me feel uneasy. It seems impolite and invasive to try to exert so much pressure on somebody’s fundamental beliefs. And even if I were successful, I believe I would feel somewhat guilty, like I had just told a child that Santa wasn’t real.

But is this uneasiness justified? If religions are truly irrational, based on a mistaken picture of the world, then they can give rise to unjustifiable actions. The religiously inspired fight against gay marriage, climate change, and abortion are excellent examples of this. Furthermore, if people habitually accept an irrational picture of the world, basing beliefs on religious authority rather than reasoned arguments, then perhaps they will be more easily manipulated by unscrupulous leaders.

On the other hand, living in a liberal society requires tolerance of others’ beliefs, rational or otherwise. And living in a polite society requires that we respect even when we do not agree. So it seems that a balance must be struck between arguing against an irrational belief and keeping considerate silence.

Quotes & Commentary #61: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #61: Santayana

To abolish aristocracy, in the sense of social privilege and sanctified authority, would be to cut off the source from which all culture has hitherto flowed.

—George Santayana

Though I do not share Santayana’s sanguine attitude towards the aristocracy, I think this quote does bring up a vital point: the relationship between art and its patrons.

Nowadays we take it for granted that artists make their money the way that anyone else does, by trading their services on the open market. The buying public—concert-goers, music purchasers, companies that need songs for commercials, and so on—is the ultimate art patron. But this has not historically been the case. Wealthy institutions and affluent individuals have more commonly played this role. So what does this shift from artistic feudalism to capitalism signify?

This question is far more than merely financial. For the artist, however proud and independent, cannot help but be influenced by their audience and supporters.

It is easy to deprecate the vulgarity of popular art in the age of capitalism, but I am not sure aristocracy was much better. Goya’s most profound works are not his portraits of his aristocratic confreres, however excellent these may be; and the same goes—with some extremely notable exceptions—for Velazquez’s many portraits of the royal family. There is no logical reason why an aristocracy of power and wealth should also be an aristocracy of taste.

True, hereditary aristocrats, freed from laborious duty, do have more free time to devote to artistic appreciation. Without the necessity to make their way in the world, they may decide to compete in aesthetic refinement or in sponsoring living artists. This is possible, to be sure, and has happened many times in history. But this method of patronage—private, wealthy individuals—can easily lead to self-aggrandizement; the art it fosters, by being too allied to worldly wealth and earthly power, becomes yet another form of conspicuous consumption.

Perhaps the greatest art patron in western history has been, not royals or nobles, but the church. In music and the visual arts, at least, religious patronage has led to some of the greatest accomplishments in our history: the works of Palestrina, Bach, El Greco, Michelangelo. The advantages of church patronage are clear. An institution of enormous wealth, it can recruit the best artists and all the resources they need. More than that, though also prone to self-aggrandizement, the spiritual aims of religious art free it from the worldliness of the hereditary aristocracy.

Even more important, perhaps, is the continuity of tradition fostered by religions: establishing subjects, tropes, styles, and techniques, that are refined and passed down through the ages. How could Bach have written his Mass in B Minor, or Michelangelo conceived the Sistine Chapel, if they had not been the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of religious tradition?

Granting the church its honorable place in the history of art, we may, however, still admit that religious patronage can lead to a sterile conformity. There are only so many ways, and only so many emotions, that can be portrayed in a Madonna and Child; and, in any case, the church will not prove congenial to nonreligious artists—of which history is full. The Dantes of this world may find in the church all they need; but a Rabelais can never be so satisfied. Inevitably a religious organization will overlook or squelch some aspects of the human experience.

This became clear when a new patron emerged in history, far removed from the grandeur of nobility or the magnificence of the church: namely, the mercantile middle-class. The prime example of this are the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. All patrons, to an extent, like to see themselves represented in what they patronize; thus the newly powerful Dutch capitalists gravitated towards private portraits and intimate scenes of daily life.

The artistic advantages of this shift in patronage are obvious, opening up unexplored vistas for artists to explore. Neither an aristocrat nor a clergyman, for example, would think of buying a work like Vermeer’s The Milkmaid—a work that has nothing to do with aristocratic virtues or spiritual consolations. Of course there is a downside to this, since the qualities that help merchants succeed have nothing to do with artistic appreciation; and, even if guided by exquisite taste, bourgeois art pays for its wider scope with limited depth. It is an art of prose, not poetry, with a weaker tradition to guide it and quotidian values to embody.

The ideal situation may be a mixture of patronage, such as was the case with Shakespeare. Having every rung of society as his audience, from paupers to princes, he had to strive for universality—and obviously succeeded. But the bard was clearly an exceptional case. Striving to please everyone can easily turn into pleasing nobody in particular, creating something bland and unobjectionable. While the particular taste of patrons may be constraining for some artists, it may help many others to focus.

In recent years the university has become a major source of patronage, especially for musical composition. The advantage of this is clear in an age when the general public has little to no interest in art music. But the nature of the university, as an institution, can also have negative artistic repercussions. Unlike a church, guided by spiritual values, a university is above all a place of exploration; and thus academic music tends to be experimental. Experimentation is usually an artistic virtue; but when cut off from any common set of aesthetic ideals, art degenerates into intellectual exercise.

The economy of the visual arts has diverged quite radically from either literature or music. In the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, the physical uniqueness of a painting has made it an ideal collectors item. Thus paintings are once more a form of conspicuous consumptions, with wealthy patrons spending millions on single works. And unlike in former times, when the aristocrats were the only ones able to afford art, the easy access to reams of high-quality art puts pressure on them to distinguish themselves through extreme taste as well as extreme expenditure. Given that the prize can be so huge, this is an irresistible incentive to inaccessibility—the competition to appreciate the unappreciatable.

The book and music industries are, by contrast, dominated by a relatively small number of giant publishing houses and record companies. Being companies, their fundamental motivation is profit. This makes them naturally risk-averse, since it is always safer to reproduce success than to bet on something different; and this encourages a conformity to commercially successful styles and topics. Acting as gatekeepers to fame, these companies can therefore exert a standardizing influence. And for obvious reasons these companies favor simple, popular styles in order to maximize their clientele.

But does an artist even need a patron? What about the Dickinsons, the van Goghs, and the Kafkas of the world, toiling away, unknown and unsuccessful, in some remote corner? It is true that many great artists never managed to make a living off their art during their lifetimes, relying on extraneous work or their families for support. And this arrangement does have the key advantage of allowing the artist to pursue her individual vision, without having to adapt her work to any foreign tastes, preserving her originality whole and entire.

Yet even this blessing is not unmixed. For patronage, if it subjects artists to sometimes undesirable pressure, can also give artists the direction and external challenge they need. Not every artist is self-sufficient enough to work in silent obscurity, following the bent of their own genius. The structure imposed by patronage can turn a vague or self-involved aesthetic impulse into a focused piece.

It may seem sordid to think of art in these monetary terms; but, as I hope I have shown, this is not a purely aesthetic question. Part of what gives any age is characteristic art is the way that artists make their living. The internet is now opening new possibilities for artistic entrepreneurs. The ultimate aesthetic effects of this new medium are only just beginning to appear.

Quotes & Commentary #60: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #60: Santayana

We read nature as the English used to read Latin, pronouncing it like English, but understanding it very well.

—George Santayana

This simile about relation between human knowledge and material fact expresses a deep truth: to understand nature we must, so to speak, translate it into human terms.

All knowledge of the world must begin with sensations. All empirical knowledge derives, ultimately, from events we perceive with our five senses. But I think it is a mistake to confuse, as the phenomenalists do, these sensations for reality itself. To the contrary, I think that human experience is of a fundamentally different sort as material reality.

The relationship between my moving finger and the movement of the string I pluck is direct: cause-and effect. The relationship that holds between the vibrations in air caused by the guitar string, and the sound we perceive of the guitar, is, however, not so direct. For conscious sensations are not physical events. You cannot, even in principle, describe the subjective sensation of guitar music using physical terms, like acceleration, mass, charge, etc.

The brain represents the physical stimulus it receives, transforming it into a sensation, much like a composer represents human emotions using notes, harmonies, and rhythms—that is, arbitrarily. There is no essential relationship between sadness and a minor melody; they are only associated through culture and habit. Likewise, the conscious perception of guitar strings is only associated with the vibrations in the air through consistent representation: every time the brain hears a guitar, it creates the same subjective sensation. But the fact remains that the vibrations and the sensation, if they could be compared, would have nothing in common, just as sadness and minor melodies have nothing in common.

I must pause here to note a partial exception. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke notoriously makes the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The latter are things like color, taste, smell, and sound, which are wholly subjective; the former are things like size, position, number, and shape: qualities that are inherent in the object and independent of the perceiving mind. Berkeley criticized this distinction; he thought that all reality was sensation, and thus there was no basis in distinguishing primary and secondary—both only exist in human experience. Kant, on the other hand, thought that reality in-itself could not, in principle, be described using any terms from human experience; and thus primary and secondary qualities were both wholly subjective.

Yet I persist in thinking that Locke was rather close to the truth. But the point must be qualified. As Einstein showed, our intuitive notions of speed, position, time, and size are only approximately correct at the human scale, and break down in situations of extreme speed or gravity. And we have had the same experience with regard to quantum physics, discovering that even our notion of location and number can be wholly inaccurate on the smallest of scales. Besides these physical consideration, any anthropologist will be full of anecdotes of cultures that conceive of space and time differently; and psychologists will note that our perception of position and shape differs markedly from that of a rat or a bat, for example.

All this being granted, I think that Locke was right in distinguishing primary from secondary qualities. Indeed, this is simply the difference between quantifiable and unquantifiable qualities. By this I mean that a person could give an abstract representation of the various sizes and locations of objects in a room; but no such abstract representation could be given of a scent. The very fact that our notions of these primary qualities could be proven wrong by physicists proves that they are categorically distinct. A person may occasionally make a mistake in identifying a color or a scent, but all of humanity could never be wrong in that way. Scientists cannot, in other words, show us what red “really looks like,” in the same way that scientists can and have shown us how space really behaves.

Nevertheless, we have discovered, through rigorous experiment and hypothesis, that even these apparently “primary qualities”—supposedly independent of the perceiving mind—are really crude notions that are only approximately correct on the scale of human life. This is no surprise. We evolved these capacities of perception to navigate the world, not to imagine black holes or understand electrons. Thus even our most accurate perceptions of the world are only quasi-correct; and there is no reason why another being, adapted to different circumstances, might represent and understand the same facts quite differently.

It seems clear from this description that our sensations have only an indicative truth, not a literal one. We can rely on our sensations to navigate the world, but that does not mean they show us the direct truth. The senses are poets, as Santayana said, and show us reality guised in allegory. We humans must use our senses, since that is all we have, but in the grand scheme of reality what can be seen, heard, or touched may be only a miniscule portion of what really exists—and, as scientists have discovered, that is actually the case.

To put these discoveries to one side for a moment, there are other compelling reasons to suspect that sensations are not open windows to reality. One obvious reason is that any sensation, if too intense, becomes simply pain. Pressure, light, sound, or heat, while all separate feelings at normal intensities, all become pain when intensified beyond the tolerance of our bodies. But does anybody suspect that all reality becomes literal pain when too severe? When intensified still further, sensation ceases altogether with death. Yet are we to suppose that the stimulus of the fatal blow ceases, too, when it becomes unperceivable?

Of course, nobody makes these mistakes except phenomenologists. And when combined with other everyday experiences—such as our ability to increase our range of sight using microscopes and telescopes, the ability of dogs to hear and smells things that humans cannot—then it becomes very clear that our sensations, far from having any cosmic privilege, represent only a limited portion of the reality, and do not represent the truth literally.

What we have discovered about the world, since the scientific revolution, only confirms this notion. Our senses were shaped by evolution to allow us to navigate in a certain environment. Thus, we can see only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—a portion that strongly penetrates our atmosphere. Likewise with every other sense: it is calibrated to the sorts of intensities and stimuli that would aid us in our struggle to survive on the struggle of the earth.

There is nothing superstition, therefore, or even remarkable in believing that the building blocks of reality are invisible to human sensation. Molecules, atoms, protons, quarks—all of these are essential components of our best physical theories, and thus have as much warrant to be believed as the sun and stars. From a human scale, of course, there is a strong epistemological difference: they form components of physical theories; and these theories help us to make sense of experience, rather than constitute experience itself.

But that does not make them any less real. Indeed, our notion of an atom may be closer to nature than our visible image of an apple, since we know for sure that the actual apple is not, fundamentally, as it appears to human sight, while our idea of atoms may indeed give a literally accurate view of nature. Indeed, the view of sensations that I have put forward virtually demands that the truth of nature, whatever it is, be remote from human experience, since human experience is not a literal representation of reality.

This leads to some awkwardness. For if scientific truth is to be abstract—a theorem or an equation remote from daily reality—then what makes it any better than a religious belief? Isn’t what separates scientific knowledge from superstitious fancy the fact that the first is empirical while the latter is not?

But this difficulty is only apparent. Santayana aptly summarized the difference thus: “Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.” That is to say that, though religious ideas may take their building blocks from daily life, the final product—the religious dogma—is not fundamentally about daily life; it is a more like a poem that inspires our imaginations and may influence our lives, but is not literally borne out in lived experience.

A scientific theory, on the other hand, is borne out in this way: “Science is a bridge touching experience at both ends, over which practical thought may travel from act to act, from perception to perception.” Though a physical theory, for example, is itself something that is never itself perceived—we never “see” Einstein’s relativity in itself—using it leads to perceivable predictions, such as the deviation of a planet’s orbit. This is the basis of experiment and the essence of science itself. Indeed, I think that this is an essential quality of all valid human knowledge, scientific or not: that it is borne out in experience.

Like quantum physics, superstitious notions and supernatural doctrines all concern things that are, in principle, unperceivable; but the different is that, in quantum physics, the unperceivable elements predict perceivable events with rigid certainty. Superstitious notions, though in principle they have empirical results, are usually whimsical in their operation. The devil may appear or he may not, and the theory of demonic interference does not tell us when, how, or why—which gives it no explanatory value. Supernatural notions, such as about God or angels or heaven, are either reserved for another world, or their operation on this world are too entirely vague to be confirmed or falsified.

So long as the theory touches experience at both ends, so to speak, it is valid. The theory itself is not and cannot be tangible. The fact that our most accurate knowledge involves belief in unperceivable things, in other words, does not make it either metaphysical or supernatural. As Santayana said, “if belief in the existence of hidden parts and movements in nature be metaphysics, then the kitchen-maid is a metaphysician whenever she peels a potato.”

Richard Feynman made almost the same point when he observed that our notion of “inside” is really just a way of making sense of a succession of perceptions. We never actually perceive the “inside” of an apple, for example, since by slicing it all we do is create a new surface. This surface may, for all we know, pop into existence in that moment. But by imagining that there is an “inside” to the apple, unperceived by equally real, we make sense of an otherwise confusing sequence of perceptions. Scientific theories—and all valid knowledge in general—does essentially the same thing: it organizes our experience by positing an unperceived, and unperceivable, structure to reality.

Thus humanity’s attempt to understand nature is very accurately compared to an Englishman reading Latin with a London accent. Though we muddle the form of nature through our perception and our conception, by paying attention to the regularities of experience we may learn to understand nature quite well.

Quotes & Commentary #59: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #59: Santayana

The highest form of vanity is love of fame.

—George Santayana

This sentence, taken by itself, is somewhat ambiguous. By “highest,” Santayana means most exalted; and by “love of fame,” he is mainly thinking of posthumous fame. The rest of the passage makes this clear:

It is a passion easy to deride but hard to understand, and in men who live at all by imagination almost impossible to eradicate. The good opinion of posterity can have no possible effect on our fortunes, and the practical value which reputation may temporarily have is quite absent in posthumous fame. The direct object of this passion—that a name should survive in men’s mouths to which no adequate idea of its original can be attached—seems a thin and fantastic satisfaction, especially when we consider how little we should probably sympathise with the creatures that are to remember us.

The wish to achieve “immortality”—not literal deathlessness, but the enduring survival of one’s name and works—is one of the oldest and most grandiose human urges. We see it from Homer to Ovid to Shakespeare, in the statues of Egypt and the symphonies of Vienna. And yet, is this passion rational?

The fear of death is universal and powerful; it has dreamed up afterlifes and constructed monumental tombs. But the notion that one’s book will be read in 1,000 years is of very little consolation. Whether you are in heaven, hell, or have disappeared completely, being worshipped by posterity will not do you any good. This seems doubly true when you consider, as Santayana reminds us, that your future audience will likely have the most inaccurate and incomplete idea of who you were.

Yet I admit that the possibility—exceedingly remote, to say the least—that my writings will survive, that my name will be known by perfect strangers hundreds of years from now, that something I created will endure and become part of our heritage—this fills me with fascinated delight. And to write something so powerful that I could confidently believe in its longevity strikes me as the highest goal to which a writer can aspire.

All this sounds exceedingly quaint, even contemptible, nowadays. John McPhee, in his book on writing, shudders at the thought of “writing for the ages.” And, indeed, self-consciously writing for future generations may be a very poor compositional strategy.

Nevertheless, I think that there is a core of sense in this apparently senseless urge for immortality. The true test of any work is survival. Case after case has shown that something intensely popular in its day can quickly fade, and even become unreadable by the next generation. And, conversely, something ignored in its generation may go on to become immensely successful.

Arnold Toynbee is one such example of an intellectual who was universally respected in his lifetime, and who was confidently predicted to pass the test of time, but who is nowadays unrespected in academic circles and little read elsewhere. Born just six years earlier, Franz Kafka was almost entirely obscure during his lifetime, but subsequently went on to become one of the most influential writers of his century. Examples can be multiplied indefinitely.

Survival is the ultimate test of a piece of art because it demonstrates that its worth does not rest merely on good fortune or passing fashion. For there is a great deal of luck involved in achieving fame; and fame, once achieved, may be due to the most superficial trendiness. Provincial political considerations, a striking but facile newness, the whims of popular taste—all of these contribute to hoist some works to public knowledge, and to pass others by in silence.

Great works transcend these transitory factors of fame. They do so by touching on some enduring aspect of human experience—and giving this aspect a wholly original portrayal and interpretation. Nobody had ever so deeply considered the problems of human knowledge before Plato, and nobody’s investigations have proven so memorably unique. Nobody before Shakespeare had given such a convincing representation of the ebb and flow of human passions and the inner dialectic of thought.

Thus to strive for “immortal fame,” while irrational in itself, is rational insofar as achieving immortal fame is the test of the greatest art: art that adds to our heritage, expands our faculties, and captures some basic aspect of the human condition.

Quotes & Commentary #58: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #58: Santayana

Indeed, the enlightenment common to young wits and worm-eaten old satirists, who plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion—something which the blindest half see—is not nearly enlightened enough: it points to notorious facts incompatible with religious tenets literally taken, but it leaves unexplored the habits of thought from which those tenets sprang, their original meaning, and their true function.

—George Santayana

This little passage contains multitudes. Santayana’s attitude towards religion is refreshingly balanced. An atheist himself, he nevertheless finds much to value in religion. He has the admirable ability—so rare, apparently—to balance an awareness of religion’s irrationality with its nobler impulses.

I am tempted to agree with Santayana in dismissing those who “plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion,” ridiculing their dogmas and disproving their tenets, such as the so-called New Atheists do. For one, it is very easy. Every shred of evidence and convincing argument is on the side of the naturalistic, scientific worldview. Indeed, no thinking person could fail to note the huge part played by hopeful emotion, unchecked by the cold light of reason, in religious belief. As Santayana goes on to say:

The only truth of religion comes from its interpretation of life, from its symbolic rendering of that aspiration which it springs out of and which it seeks to elucidate. Its falsehood comes from the insidious misunderstanding which clings to it, to the effect that these poetic conceptions are not merely poetical, but are literal information about experience or reality elsewhere—an experience and reality which, strangely enough, supply just the defects betrayed by reality and experience here.

The last remark of this passage is key to my skepticism of all religious belief. For it always seems that the promises of belief—blessings, good fortune, an afterlife—all coincidentally compensate precisely for the defects we find in our lives here and now. In other words, it is almost naked wishful thinking, thinly disguised as a supernatural promise.

In any case, the lack of logical cogency of supernatural beliefs, combined with the obvious emotional motivation of such beliefs, would seem to render it superfluous to argue with or disprove them. They fail every test of reasonable belief, and thus do not merit reasonable rejoinder. Nevertheless, the huge prevalence of such supernatural beliefs—present in the majority of our species, their absurdity apparently not “something which the blindest half can see”—and their concomitant influence on human behavior, would seem to make it necessary to lay out the case against religious belief.

Of course, such a rejoinder need not be done with vituperation and bitterness—qualities guaranteed to make any listeners unreceptive. And, in any case, explaining why religious belief is unreasonable leaves untouched the far more mysterious question: If it is manifestly unreasonable, why do so many people believe?

Theories abound. James Frazer thought that superstition and religious belief were just proto-science. Sigmund Freud thought religion an illusion motivated by psychological drives, and Emile Durkheim thought religion a tool of social cohesion. Daniel Dennett put forward the idea that religion was a kind of mental virus. Jonathan Haidt largely agrees with Durkheim, though he puts his own Darwinian twist on the idea. And this is only a small sampling.

All of these theories may have their grain of truth. But I think any explanation will be incomplete if it does not take into account what Santayana was so acutely aware of: religion’s poetry. Indeed, for Santayana religion was itself a kind of poetry:

Thus religion has the same original relation to life that poetry has . . . The poetic value of religion would initially be greater than that of poetry itself, because religion deals with higher and more vital themes, with sides of life which are in greater need of some imaginative touch and ideal interpretation than are those pleasant or pompous things which ordinary poetry dwells upon. But this initial advance is neutralised in party by the abuse to which religion is subject, whenever its symbolic rightness is taken for scientific truth.

Poetry allows us to dwell on the too often overlooked beauty of life, to savor the ironies and tragedies of the day, to pinpoint and express fleeting emotions. Religion does this, too, but on an altogether grander scale. Rather than imbuing life with a personal aesthetic sensibility, the aesthetics of a religion are impersonal, belonging to a whole community. Not only that, but the subjects that religions concern themselves with—birth, marriage, suffering, death—belong to nobody and everybody, being the most universal and critical of the human condition.

The beneficent social role that such communal poetry can play should not be underestimated. Religions allow us to see the meaning of times of crisis, prompts us to feel the significance of life’s transitions, and gives us a common emotional language that binds us together. Like any sublime poetry, religion can raise our eyes above humdrum concerns, and point our gaze to things of lasting importance.

From this description I hope you can see that I am not wholly insensitive to the value of religion. Believe me, the trivial pursuits of modern life, with all its squalid materialism and narrow selfishness, make me all the more acutely aware of the role that religion can play in a society. The prosaic world of today is in desperate need of poetry.

The problem, as Santayana points out, is that religions insist that their poetry be taken literally. And in the process, the poetry is destroyed. Religion then ceases to be a sublime poetry and becomes a vulgar superstition. And the more that these traditional beliefs clash with our scientific understanding of the world, the more it drives a wedge into the fabric of society, forcing people to choose between faith and reason. Indeed, in such circumstances religions can lose their moral superiority completely, becoming just as worldly as the rest of the world.

Is it possible to maintain the benefits of religious belief—its ability to guide us through times of crisis, its source of common values and a common language, its ability to remove us from vulgar materialism—with the benefits of rationalism? Can we have a communal poetry that we acknowledge to be poetry—not truth? Looking around the world, the answer seems to be no.

Quotes & Commentary #57: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #57: Santayana

History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory. … Memory itself is an internal rumour…

—George Santayana

I tend to be distrustful of my own faculties.

As I mentioned in my last post, the reliability of my own senses (or lack thereof) is something that has long troubled me. It is not that my senses are themselves deficient; though I wear glasses my eyesight is not bad, and my hearing not much worse. Partially, it is my lack of attention. Most days I am in my own world and overlook what is right in front of my eyes. What use is good eyesight if the eyes are vacant?

Beyond this tendency to drift off mentally, I lack faith our ability to sense the truth. Vast regions of the electromagnetic spectrum are hidden from human sight. A dog’s nose or a cat’s ears put our primate parts to shame. And even the finest organs of sensation are inadequate to probe the finest reaches of matter, the basic building blocks of reality.

I also distrust my memory. This is not without reason. Experience after experience testifies that my memory is not to be blindly trusted.

When I was younger I had the nasty habit of stealing one of my friend’s jokes. He was much funnier than me, and the temptation to repeat what he said proved irresistible. The problem was that I would do it in his presence, and without crediting him. This may sound ungrateful; but the truth is that, in the moment, while telling the joke, I would forget that he had said it. My memory had wishfully appropriated the joke, and somehow I had convinced myself that it was I who had said it first. His complaints would destroy the illusion, and momentarily give me a sickening sense of self-doubt. Memory had played a trick on me.

Yet memory, for all its failings, is normally remarkably dependable. We remember our address, our friends’ names, our schedule, how to tie shoes and to spell words, the plots of our favorite novels and the lyrics of our favorite songs, and a thousand other things. Life as we know it would be simply impossible if we did not. Most of this remembering, it is true, is done unconsciously, in the form of habit. Indeed, the automatic responses of habit, being born of repetition, are far more dependable than our attempts to remember isolated events.

This is where Santayana’s remark, that memory is nothing but an “internal rumour,” rings most true: in trying to recall something that only happened once. In these cases, without a routine or a habit to tie it to, the lone memory must stand on its own power, with nothing to corroborate it. How can we be sure we are not mistaken? In my experience, we often are. If you have ever heard somebody narrate an event at which you were present, you may have had the same experience: the selfsame event can be completely unrecognizable in someone else’s telling.

I find these situations particularly distressing, since there is usually no way to decide which version of the event is correct, your own or the other person’s. The reason for this unreliability is not difficult to discern, I think. Memory lies on the same spectrum as imaginative fancy; and what we remember, and how we remember it, is shaped by our own constitution: what we notice in the moment, how we interpret what we notice, what we find amusing or interesting, all of this colored by our own vanity, our hobby horses, our desires, and our insecurities.

Memories are not just filed away and pulled out. Subsequent experience affects them. To pick just one example, the urge to dramatize a story—exaggerating some details, omitting others, shifting around the order of events—in the telling and retelling is, for me, impossible to resist. Yet strangely, I have found that the act of dramatizing a story actually changes my memory of it, until the warped version is all that is left.

One major problem is that good stories are memorable in a way that unadorned reality is not. Life simply flows on, a long chain of events with no beginning, middle, or end, and in itself reality has no meaning or moral. Memory selects from this tissue of events and weaves them together with its own logic. You might call this “narrative logic,” the logic of stories: with a defined setting, a discrete cast of characters, a climax and a resolution: events with human meaning and emotional resonance.

I think that narrative logic is highly artificial, a perceived order imposed on events by the wishful mind, and that its substance is pure feeling. It is true, as I have written before, that this tendency can be unhealthy. But we humans, as emotional creatures, need these narratives: they give us a sense of purpose and direction. Nearly everyone, to some extent, has their own personal mythology, a group of stories about themselves that explain who they are and where they’re going. 

Narrative logic also governs politics. As Jonathan Haidt observed, every political ideology has its own narrative. The American left has a narrative based on overcoming bigotry, and the American right a narrative about oppressive government; the Nazis, the Soviets, the Spanish anarchists all had their own narratives. These narratives normally have a degree of historical validity, being based on some real events and actual facts. But the interpretation given to the events and facts is inevitably dubious; and, even more importantly, the facts and events left out, silently omitted, are what give the narrative its sense of direction and purpose. Historical forgetting is crucial to political grouping.

Santayana is, of course, correct in a general sense that history is nothing but assisted and recorded memory. Without memory, we could do nothing characteristically human—neither read nor write, much less write history. But what this quote leaves out is that memory, once catalogued and recorded in cold records rather than a living brain, changes its character.

Technology helps humans overcome our biological limitations. Just as the microscope and the microphone make our normally untrustworthy senses more dependable, so does the act of writing compensate for the failings of our memory. What is written down is no longer subject to the passions, fancies, and revisions of our imagination. Thus, by basing our records on documentation—whether it be cuneiform tablets or government records, or archeological remains—we may break the spell of narrative logic.

Of course, we may choose what records to read, and then choose what to write in our history books, and we may choose to selectively read those history books, and so on. Humans are remarkably resilient to facts that do not accord with their worldviews. Indeed, as we have seen with the proliferation of fake news and the information bubbles that partition the country ideologically, this problem is just as acute as ever. As Santayana went on to say:

History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten. The conditions of expression and even of memory dragoon the facts and put a false front on diffuse experience. What is interesting is brought forward as if it had been central, and harmonies are turned into causes. … Such falsification is inevitable, and an honest historian is guilty of it only against his will.

All of this notwithstanding, it is also true, I think, that the discipline of history makes progress in breaking the spell of these political narratives—at least enough to make them more honest, more just to the facts. This is how it should be. To fabricate the historical record, as the Nazis and the Soviets did, opens the door to extremism. But we could not live, either individually or socially, without any narrative to guide us. As long as humans look for meaning in life or group together behind a cause, they will tell stories about themselves. And these stories will inevitably rest upon the internal rumor of memory.

Both philosophy and history are, among other things, forms of criticism; and as such their function is to “surprise the soul in the arms of convention” (to use another of Santayana’s felicitous phrases). This criticism and the skepticism it entails are healthy and desirable. But we cannot remain thus untethered. The point of criticism is not to achieve pure skepticism but to give us enough mental and emotional distance to be able to consciously choose our ideals and stories, and not have them chosen for us by convention.  

Quotes & Commentary #56: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #56: Santayana

Consciousness is a born hermit.

—George Santayana

When I was very young I acutely felt the isolation of consciousness. I have always been naturally unathletic; so in gym class I tired out very quickly. Reflecting on this, I wondered if the pain and fatigue I felt were somehow more intense than that experienced by my classmates. If, somehow, the consciousness of a more athletic student were projected into my body, would they feel my pain sensations as unbearably agonizing compared with what they were used to?

Reflections like this naturally led me to other questions. My father is colorblind; what does the world look like to him? And for that matter, how can we know what the world looks like to anybody? Does the red I see look the same as the red my brother sees? Without the ability to check our experiences against each other’s, we can never know, it seems, whether our experiences are truly similar or whether we simply use the same names for things.

Thinking along these lines, I tried to imagine what it would be like for another consciousness to inhabit my body. Would they recognize the world through my sensations, or would it be entirely alien to them? More chillingly, I sometimes wondered whether other minds existed at all. Certainly I never saw any. And what of the world? If reality could look different to any perceiving mind, how did it look “in itself”? Could all of us be deeply mistaken about the world we live in?

The suspicion that our senses are limited and untrustworthy was bolstered from my early interest in science. From books I learned that the fundamental organization of matter—molecules and elements and electrons—is only intelligible on a scale far beyond the finest reaches of our eyesight. I learned that the earth and everybody on it were a mere speck in the universe, and that our vision and even our imaginations were inadequate to the task of comprehending the true scales of things, large and small.

All this adds up to Santayana’s image of consciousness as a hermit: connected to reality through our unreliable sensations, fundamentally cut off from other minds, forever at a distance and in the dark, like a goldfish in a movie theater.

It was Descartes who initiated this solipsism with his famous skeptical method. And philosophers have been struggling with this set of problems ever since.

Santayana saw no rational way out of skepticism, and instead cut the gordian knot with his notion of “animal faith,” the irresistible animal impulse to act, survive, and socialize. This impulse notwithstanding, Santayana considered our knowledge of other minds to be purely speculative—a kind of guessing game in which one person imputes their thoughts onto another, blindly trusting that their friend’s basic constitution is similar enough to make their own reactions a good guide.

Proust was even more extreme in his views. For him all human relationships were just vain illusions, a tissue of self-delusion based on mutual misunderstanding. Indeed, for him it was impossible to really understand somebody else, at least through conventional means, and the path to reality lay through introspection alone.

Nowadays I am not so inclined to see humans as so inevitably isolated. We are social creatures to our cores. As Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle persuasively argued, language—and significance more generally—is intrinsically public. For communication to be possible there must be a community of like-minded speakers.

By nature, too, we are open to the public. It takes effort to teach children to read silently; and indeed silent reading did not become habitual, historically speaking, until quite recently. This is just one example of a more general phenomenon: public behavior is the rule, private the exception.

Though it may be possible to doubt other minds in the speculative privacy of one’s study, doing so while looking into somebody’s eyes is another matter. Subtle movements of muscle—the crinkling of the eyes, the knitting of the brow, the pursing of the lips, and a thousand other things that normally escape conscious attention—tell us, immediately and exactly, how other people are feeling.

Of course it is possible to be mistaken; and of course the exact situation motivating the emotional response might be impossible to guess. But in general I think that most people, most of the time, are sufficiently aware of other people’s emotional states.

Indeed, the natural tendency to display emotions is so strong that it takes years of social training to allow citizens of dense urban civilizations to suppress these signals enough to get along in society. Our modern world, in which we must daily interact with strangers and acquaintances, requires that we leave unexpressed many passing emotions. But this situation is, evolutionarily speaking, extremely recent, and one which is not “natural” to our species.

To put this another way, I think that Santayana greatly underestimated the degree to which we are fundamentally similar, and did not fully grasp the strength of our unmediated, instinctive social behavior. This was natural for him, since Santayana was known for being himself a born hermit—aloof and solitary. So although we can never know whether another person’s experiences are the same as our own, we have good reason to believe they are not fundamentally different.