Review: The Realms of Being

Review: The Realms of Being

Realms of BeingRealms of Being by George Santayana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mind was not created for the sake of discovering the absolute truth.

George Santayana wrote the four volumes of The Realms of Being over a period of about twenty years. The first volume, The Realm of Essence, was published in 1927 after several years of work; and the last volume did not appear until 1942. When published together, the work fills some 850 dense pages, making it comparable in bulk and bearing with The Phenomenology of Spirit, Being and Time, Being and Nothingness, and other metaphysical monsters. And yet the book received a lukewarm reception during Santayana’s lifetime and has not found a more receptive audience since. So what is in here that Santayana found worthy to devote his final years to?

On the surface The Realms of Being is a metaphysical system. Like a philosopher king, Santayana divides up Being into four territories: Essence, Matter, Truth, and Spirit. Each book is devoted to one of these lands, attempting to delineate its borders and chart its geography. Santayana begins with “essence.” For my part I think this term poorly chosen, since his doctrine has nothing to do with essentialism. Rather, Santayana means “form” in the Aristotelian sense. An essence is any form at all—whether given in sensation, defined in thought, or manifested in the universe. Essence is just pure distinction, any and every quality that differentiates one thing from another. So the look of the Mona Lisa under bright lighting is one essence; the look of the same painting under dim lighting is another essence; and so on, for every distinction imaginable.

According to Santayana, essence does not and cannot “exist”—that is, be a part of the physical universe. Yes, an essence can be temporarily manifested in the universe; but its real being consist purely in its qualities, purely in the fact that it can be distinguished. Mathematics and logic, for Santayana, are just systems of essences; they have no existence save their defined qualities. Since essence consists in pure distinction, the realm of essence is infinite and eternal. Form must be possible before any real thing manifests form. Thus essence logically precedes existence, and is unaffected by existence. And since the vast majority of possible forms will neither be manifested nor imagined, the realm of essence is mostly unexplored and unguessed at.

Matter is precisely the opposite. Matter is the very thing that an essence cannot capture, since it consists of substance, change, and duration. Matter takes up space and morphs through time. Matter is not controlled or guided by any essence, though some essences—such as the equations of physics—may help us to understand how matter behaves, at least locally. But why matter exists in the first place is inexplicable; and whether matter might behave otherwise in other circumstances is unknowable. If the realm of essence is like a shop full of empty dresses, matter is like an impatient child who tries on every dress in an unpredictable order, thus momentarily bringing the essence to life. Matter is the principle of existence.

The historical path that matter charts through essence is Santayana’s realm of truth. It is all the essences that have been, are, and will be manifested in the material universe. Again, Santayana’s choice of term is puzzling, since most philosophers would call this “reality,” reserving the name “truth” for the quality of being correct about reality. But Santayana thought it important to use historical terminology, which is why he called his last realm “spirit,” when his meaning is far closer to “consciousness.” Spirit is the awareness of any creature alive in the universe. Now, for Santayana consciousness has no function in the survival of an organism, since spirit is entirely impotent. Thus the task of spirit is merely to observe and enjoy the world.

This is Santayana’s system in a nutshell. I consider the above paragraphs a fair summary of the basic facets of his realms, and they took me about half an hour and barely a page of writing. So why did Santayana need twenty years and 800 pages? This is because the book is not quite what it at first purports to be—that is, a metaphysical system. Santayana himself disavows having written an ontology of the world: “I am not concerned in these Realms of Being with alleged separate substances or independent regions. I am endeavoring only to distinguish the types of reality that I encounter; and the lines of cleavage that I discern are moral and logical, not physical, chasms.”

Putting aside for the moment whether this can be accepted, let us look at what else The Realms of Being might be. Santayana’s style is certainly not that of a Kant expounding his system. As always, he is suave, eloquent, and cultured. The organization of the book is also not exactly systematic—one part building on the other, with appropriate subdivisions and appendixes—but thematic, tackling different subjects chapter by chapter. All together, The Realms of Being seems more like a series of humanistic essays on metaphysical themes rather than a system of ontology itself. Seen in that light, the book has considerable merits. Santayana was a penetrating cultural critic, and here serves as a sort of critic on the highest planes of abstraction.

Aside from the metaphysical and the humanistic, there is a third aspect to this book: the spiritual. In this way, Santayana’s book is comparable to the Enneads of Plotinus, an ontology that serves as the backbone for meditative or mystical practices. Santayana’s own system is entirely secular and naturalistic. For him, spirituality consists in the mind’s absorption in the realm of essence—in the pure contemplation of form. Remember that, for Santayana, consciousness is entirely impotent; consciousness itself has no power to change anything, but is just a kind of byproduct of the brain. Thus all the suffering we go through in our way through the world, and all the worrying and fretting we do about ourselves, is just a waste. Santayana’s solution to this predicament has much in common with Proust’s—the appreciation of essence, stripped of all attachment to the material world—although Santayana does not consider memory vital for this task.

Here are three ways that this book can be read. Yet, though it is rich with ideas and pungent with wit, The Realms of Being is not wholly satisfying either as a metaphysical treatise, a humanistic critique, or a spiritual guide. First, Santayana is difficult to take seriously as a philosopher because he never deigns to argue: “Technical philosophy abounds in unnecessary problems, which the truly wise will not trouble about, seeing that they are insoluble or solved best by not raising them.” While I fully agree with Santayana that the disputatious tone and nit-picking arguments of philosophy can be wearisome, I also think that mere assertion is hardly less irritating. Indeed, for all his literary excellence, Santayana failed to understand the rhetorical purpose of an argument. To give reasons for an opinion is not pure quarrelsomeness. By understanding the author’s reasons for believing something and for finding it worth writing about, the reader better understands both the what and the why of the point.

Santayana seemingly wants to play an impossible double game by writing metaphysics and then disclaiming metaphysics. He scorns professional philosophers and their subject; and yet who else could be interested in this book? And what does he mean by saying that his realms of being are mere logical or moral categories? The definitions that he gives of his realms are undeniably metaphysical in the traditional sense. Thus I see no way that he can escape from the necessity of arguing his points, unless Santayana escapes into pure subjectivism, claiming only to describe his own experience of reality. But then what would be the point of the book, aside from autobiography? And as a spiritual guide, the book hardly fares better. For Santayana’s main insight—to live absorbed in the moment—is widely preached, without all of the ontological baggage Santayana attaches to it.

The Realms of Being is most successful when read as a collection of critical essays. For Santayana does bring an unusual perspective to bear on many traditional problems of philosophy—the nature of logic, truth, mind, and so on—and writes with the polished elegance that is his trademark. As I hope my updates of the book have shown, these pages brim with epigrams and ideas, touching on a vast intellectual territory.

And yet it must be said that, even here, Santayana is not beyond criticism. Bertrand Russell summed up Santayana’s defect as a writer by comparing his style to a river so wide and so placid that you cannot tell you are moving. This is to say that, when reading Santayana, it can be easy to lose track of where he is going or why he is going there. Partly because of the lack of argument, his train of thought is never obvious; and so elegant sentence follows elegant sentence without apparent direction or design. The final result is that it is easy to put the book down without being able to remember what it was about.

For these reasons I would rank this book behind Santayana’s Scepticism and Animal Faith, which was intended as a critical introduction to The Realms of Being but which adequately sums up the system as well as provides an epistemological argument. Nevertheless, I do not regret reading this book. Santayana’s writing is suffused with a kind of infectious calm, bordering on languor, as if he is an ambrosia-sipping god looking down from Olympian heights. It is invigorating to see somebody so sure of himself, so willing to think in his own terms, so careless of approval. I envy his detachment and his self-assurance even if I do not adopt his system.

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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 #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.  

Review: Scepticism and Animal Faith

Review: Scepticism and Animal Faith

Scepticism and Animal FaithScepticism and Animal Faith by George Santayana

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

 

Who was Santayana?

Santayana has long attracted my curiosity. He just has so many things going for him.

For one, his background is interesting: a Spanish citizen who grew up in Boston, and whose professional career was spent at Harvard during its golden age, alongside William James and Josiah Royce. Like Nabokov, he learned English as a second language; also like Nabokov, he was a fantastic writer of English prose. His philosophy is as unique as his background: a personal statement far removed from the technical problems of his discipline. And in addition to authoring several influential philosophical works, he was also a man of letters, penning a best-selling novel and autobiography. He belonged to no country and no philosophical school. He was an individual.

Seeking an entry point into the writings of this half-forgotten sage, I picked up this book: Scepticism and Animal Faith. This is meant to be a critical introduction to a longer work that Santayana later wrote on metaphysics, The Realms of Being. But nowadays this book is more often read than its hefty sequel. It is a rich text. Santayana manages to compress an epistemological argument into just over 300 pages.

The first thing the reader will notice is Santayana’s writing style, which is elegant, humane, and often poetic:

Here is one more system of philosophy. If the reader is tempted to smile, I can assure him that I smile with him… My endeavor is to think straight in such terms as are offered to me, to clear my mind of cant and free it from the cramp of artificial traditions; but I do not ask any one to think in my terms if he prefers others. Let him clean better, if he can, the windows of his soul, that the variety and beauty of the prospect may spread more brightly before him.

He also has a knack for aphorisms. “Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer.”

But lurking underneath this melodious stream of words is quite a sophisticated philosophical argument. Ironically, Santayana’s eloquence actually makes him harder to understand than other, less literary, writers. He takes pains to clothe his thoughts in fine words, when more cumbersome and less artful language would actually make his point easier to grasp. By the time that I got halfway through this book, I felt uncertain that I was following his argument.

Seeking guidance, I picked up John Lachs’s On Santayana, which is a marvelous little book that I recommend to anybody struggling. For what it’s worth, I put my own attempted summary in this review.

Santayana in a Nutshell

Santayana was a realist, a materialist, a naturalist, and an epiphenomenalist. By realist I mean that he believed that reality existed independently of it being perceived. He is a materialist in that he thinks that matter, not mind, is the fundamental stuff of nature. He is a naturalist in that he thinks scientific investigation is the only valid explanation for the universe; that natural laws, not supernatural principles, are what govern reality.

Epiphenomenalism is just a fancy word indicating the view that mind is distinct from matter, but fully and totally dependent on matter. Someone who holds this view believes that mental events cannot possibly influence or affect material events. For example, you see a bear; the sight of the bear triggers a flight-or-flight mechanism in your limbic system; you run away. Subjectively you have the experience of seeing, of feeling fear, and of deciding to run away. But your body performs this action because of things happening in your brain, which fully determine the things that happen in your mind; not the reverse.

Think of foam on the top of an ocean wave. The foam only appears if the wave is tall and fast enough. The presence of this foam has no effect on the height or speed of the wave; it is a byproduct of certain conditions. This is what an epiphenomenalist thinks of the body (the wave) and the mind (the foam).

These are his general conclusions; so how does he arrive at them?

Santayana’s Epistemology

Like Descartes, Santayana starts the book by doubting everything that can be doubted. But Santayana finds—to his and our astonishment—that he can doubt himself out of existence. He doesnt get himself down to just a transcendental ego, like Descartes or Husserl; instead, at the end of Santayana’s doubting, all that remains is pure appearance.

Perhaps ‘doubt’ isn’t quite the right word for this kind of radical skepticism, since the word is too active; a better term would be ‘letting go.’ Santayana’s ultimate skeptic is completely and totally engrossed by pure appearance. Like a sage having a mystical vision, the experience absorbs him entirely—so entirely that the idea of him somehow being a distinct entity, or somehow possessing a quality called ‘existence’, couldn’t even be thought.

There’s no logical or philosophical way to return from this kind of skepticism. There is no argument that can be made; no kind of being that can be posited. The ultimate skeptic exists in a timeless, egoless ecstasy of images.

The thrust of this argument is that the Cartesian method of arguing outward from a condition of doubt can’t work; it’s an insoluble puzzle.

But clearly most people—including most philosophers—don’t doubt themselves senseless. They eat, drink, go to the bathroom, and fall in love. Idealists (who think all is mental) still enjoy eating spaghetti; anti-realists (who don’t think anything exists independently of perception) still run out of the way of oncoming traffic. Underneath all of the varied customs in history and around the world, in spite of all the different philosophies concerning the nature of reality, certain fundamental assumptions are constant to human behavior. And these assumptions, taken together, Santayana calls animal faith.

For example, one influential idea in the history of philosophy is phenomenalism. This is the view of knowledge which holds that, since we can never experience something that isn’t a perception, it is illogical to posit something that is ‘behind’ or ‘responsible for’ the perception, which in itself cannot be perceived. No such unperceivable object is necessary, they argue; the perception is self-sufficient. Imagine an apple. Now remove the color; now remove the texture; now remove the shape; now remove the taste; now remove the smell. What’s left? Nothing. Therefore (argue phenomenalists) an apple is merely a collection of sensations; nothing more.

Santayana responds by saying, of course we can never perceive something that isn’t perceivable; that much is obvious. And of course we can’t have evidence for something we didn’t observe; that would be a contradiction. But nobody acts on the phenomenalist assumption; nobody acts as though sensations constitute all reality; we all assume that substance exists. Now, Santayana uses the word ‘substance’ to indicate the thing that exists independently of it being perceived. He doesn’t mean that substance is metaphysical, distinct from physical objects; to the contrary, Santayana thinks that substance is a name for the fundamental constituents of matter—whatever they might be.

It is a tenet of animal faith that things are more than mere sensations. Nobody thinks that, if they were standing in front of an oncoming trolley, closing their eyes and plugging their ears would make it disappear. And we all consider children to be the same individuals as the adults they eventually become—a gratuitous assumption, in the phenomenalist view, since the sensations associated with the person have changed entirely. If you left your house to go to work, and returned to find that a large tree had fallen and crushed it, I bet you wouldn’t conclude that the house was a certain set of sensations when you left, and is now a different set of sensations. Rather, we all assume that the tree which fell in the forest did make a sound (or at least made vibrations travel through the air) and did destroy your house—even though you weren’t around to hear and see it.

Santayana’s point is that we believe in substance not for logical reasons, nor for experiential reasons; in fact, as far as logic and experience go, the phenomenalist argument is quite compelling. But we can’t help believing in substance. It is an assumptions that is inescapable. All attempts to doubt substance presuppose it. And any philosophical criticisms of substance are bound to be hypocritical, since the philosopher who offers the criticism also operates via animal faith.

So the task of epistemology, Santayana argues, is merely to describe these fundamental beliefs that make up animal faith. We all already assume and act as if knowledge is possible; that experience can be trusted; that reality is more than sensation or ideas. So all epistemological inquiries into the possibility of knowledge are bloodless, academic exercises—the wild play of the imagination when sophistry is embraced. These arguments are as far removed from reality as the wildest myths.

Santayana’s realization that he must believe certain things in order to function, regardless of their logical cogency, leads him to his materialism, his naturalism, and his realism.

This more or less sums up Santayana’s epistemological argument. What is his metaphysical argument? I confess that I found this aspect of his thinking both harder to understand and to accept. But I’ll do my best to explain it.

Santayana’s Metaphysics

Santayana thinks that there is not one simple type of being, but four distinct types of being: matter, essence, truth, and spirit. His conceptualizations of truth, matter, and spirit are hardly touched upon in this volume. Santayana spends most of his time explaining his notion of essence. His definition of essence, however, I find puzzling.

Before I muddle things up, here are some of the ways Santayana defines essence:

The realm of essence is not peopled by choice forms or magic powers. It is simply the unwritten catalogue, prosaic and infinite, of all the characters possessed by such things as happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed. It is the sum of mentionable objects, of terms about which, or in which, something might be said.

Later, he says “distinction, infinitely minute and indelible distinction from everything else, is what essence means.” I don’t know about you, but I’m still confused. Is an essence a potential object of experience? Is essence an adjective that isn’t necessarily attached to a noun? A disembodied quality? But Santayana thinks that essences exist independently of both mind and matter; they are eternal and infinite. But how could a quality exist independently of a perceiving mind to take note of it?

This quote made it more clear to me: “Substance is the speaker and substance is the theme; intuition is only the act of speaking or hearing, and the given essence is the audible word.” Let us recall Santayana’s view of the mind. Santayana thinks consciousness is an inner myth; that our experiences are quite literally fiction. But it is fiction that allows us to operate in the world.

When we see the color red, for example, we see a completely arbitrary mental representation of a certain wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. This representation is neither true nor false; it is a sort of visual symbol that indicates to you that something is in your environment. It is confirmed in experience when you point to a stop sign and say “that’s red,” and your friends agree with you. Similarly, the smell of spaghetti and meatball is an arbitrary mental representation of the atoms and molecules that are buzzing through the air and hitting your nostrils. Whether this is the ‘true’ smell of the spaghetti is besides the point; what matters is that this smell reliably indicates the presence of delicious food that makes your belly feel full and doesn’t poison your body. In summary, sensations are signposts that tell you what to do and where to go; they aren’t the things themselves.

Words are also arbitrary signs. The word ‘red’ is normally not printed in red ink; and the words ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ don’t smell like spaghetti and meatballs.

Now imagine there’s somebody near you speaking a foreign language. At least you think it’s a foreign language. For all you know, it could be meaningless gibberish. The only thing you know for sure is that it’s speech. You listen to the speech; but instead of listening as you usually do—interpreting the audible sounds into various meanings—you listen to the pure sound of it. In other words, instead of paying attention to the significance of the sign, you pay attention to the qualities of the sign itself.

The pure qualities of sensations are, I think, what Santayana is getting at with his term ‘essence’. The pure experience of red; the pure smell of spaghetti and meatballs. By ‘pure’ I mean the qualities of the sensation as a sensation—not purporting to signify something beyond the sensation. They are the qualities that differentiate one sensation from another. The visual qualities that make the letter A what it is are its essence. Every shade of red has its own essence. Every possible object of experience has its own essence—often multiple.

Parting Thought

In case you haven’t already guessed from this laborious summary, I found this book extremely engrossing. I must wait until I read his Realms of Being to pronounce on his metaphysics. But as an epistemological notion, I find “animal faith” extremely useful—and worth revisiting.

One of the things I most like about Santayana is his constant concern with the lived ramifications of philosophy:

My criticism is not a learned pursuit, though habit may sometimes make my language scholastic; it is not a choice between artificial theories; it is the discipline of my daily thoughts and the account I actually give to myself from moment to moment of my own being and of the world around me.

But to this humane and classical conception of philosophy, Santayana adds a considerable amount of dialectical sophistication. Thus in the same breath his system is convincing and vital.

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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.

Review: Stoic Pragmatism

Review: Stoic Pragmatism

Stoic PragmatismStoic Pragmatism by John Lachs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The questions of philosophy will continue to haunt us so long as we remain finite, baffled animals. The fact that philosophy offers no final answers is not an impediment but a lesson. That first great lesson of philosophy is that we must learn to live with uncertainty.

Since it’s that time of year, I’ve lately been seeing many of my friends—struggling artists, mostly—reposting graduation speeches by famous actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, and other celebrities. So many of these communal pep talks boil down to one message: persist. Every artist worth her salt has a story about how they struggled in the purgatory of unsuccessful oblivion for ten centuries—eating ramen and living in a closet—before finally ascending to the paradise of fame. Jonathan Goldsmith, for example—now famous as the Most Interesting Man Alive for the Dos Equis ads—was an obscure actor for over forty years before his “breakout” role.

But success stories and inspiring graduation speeches all have one obvious, debilitating shortcoming: survivor bias. Of course, every successful person was once unsuccessful and then became successful; so for them hard work paid off. But the vital question is not whether hard work ever pays off, but how often, and for whom? History has been the silent witness of generations of brilliant musicians and talented actors who remained obscure all their lives. The world is simply stuffed with artists of all kinds, many mediocre, but a fair number extremely talented—far more than will ever be able to support themselves in comfort with their craft. The plain fact is that, even if every budding artist in those ceremonies follows the advice to persist, not even half will achieve anything close to the level of success as the person on the podium.

And, indeed, even if there is an appealing wisdom in carrying on in the teeth of disappointment and failure, there is also a wisdom in throwing in the towel. Better to cut your losses and do something else, rather than struggle pointlessly for years on end. The real difficulty, though, is knowing which choice to make. What if you give up right when you’re on the cusp of a breakthrough? Or what if you persist for years and get nowhere? And this isn’t just a question for young artists; it is one of the basic questions of life. I recently encountered it in the philosophy of science: When should a hypothesis be abandoned or pursued? An overly tractable scientist may give up on a truly promising theory with the first hint of difficulty; and an overly stubborn scientist may spend a career working on a bankrupt idea, in the vain hope of making it work.

Seeking an analysis of this dilemma, I picked up John Lachs’s book, Stoic Pragmatism, which explicitly promises to address just this question. Lachs is attempting here to combine the pragmatist doctrine that we must improve the world with the stoic resignation to the inevitable. Unfortunately, he does not get any further than noting what I hope is obvious—that we should improve what we can and resign ourselves to what we can’t change. This is true; but of course we very often have no idea what we can or can’t change, what will or won’t work, whether we’ll be successful or not, which leaves us in the same baffled place we started. Insofar as truly answering this question would require knowing the future, it is unanswerable. Uncertainty about success and the need to commit to potentially doomed actions are inescapable elements of our existential situation. The best we can hope for, I think, are a few good rules of thumb; and these will likely depend on personal preference.

In any case, this book is far more than an analysis of this common dilemma, but an attempt to give a complete picture of Lachs’s philosophical perspective. Lachs promises a new philosophical system, but delivers only a disorganized gallimaufry of opinions that do not cohere. For example, Lachs begins by denigrating the professionalization of philosophy, holding that philosophy is not a discipline that seeks the truth—he asserts that not a single proposition would command assent by the majority of practitioners (though I disagree!)—rather, philosophy is better thought of as intellectual training that helps us to make sense of other activities. But the book includes lengthy analyses of ethics, ontology, and epistemology, so apparently Lachs does see the value in answering the traditional problems of philosophy. To make matters worse, Lachs continually excoriates philosophers who do not practice what they preach; and then he goes on to outline an ethical system wholly compatible with a middle-class, bourgeois lifestyle (our main obligations are to do our jobs and to leave other people alone, it seems).

I am being unfairly satirical. I actually agree with most of what Lachs says; and this of course means I must make fun of him. (According to the “Lotz Theory of Agreement” no intellectual will permit herself to simply agree with another intellectual, but will search out any small point of difference, even a difference in attitude or emphasis, in order to seem superior.) Lachs is an inspiring example of an academic trying to address himself to broader problems using more accessible language. He is an attractive thinker and a skilled writer, a humane intellectual capable of fine prose.

Nevertheless, I must admit that this book makes me despair a little. Here we have a man explicitly and repeatedly repudiating his profession and trying to write for non-specialists; and yet Lachs is so palpably an academic that he simply cannot do it. The book begins with his opinions about the canonical philosophers, frequently breaks off to criticize fellow professors and intellectual movements, and includes academic controversies (such as how to interpret Santayana’s use of the word “matter” in his ontological work) of no interest to a general reader. Lachs tries to come up with an ethical system that he can follow himself as an example of a committed intellectual, and then ends up creating an ethical system with no obligations other than to do one’s job (which, in his case, consists of writing books and advising graduate students). Lachs’s primary example of committed moral action, to which he returns again and again, is signing a petition to remove the president of his university (and he notes that most of his colleagues refused to do even this!).

I am being unduly harsh on Lachs. Really, he is one of the very best examples of what academics can and should do to engage with the world around them. And yet his example demonstrates, to me, the enormous gap that separates academia from the rest of society. Lachs dwells again and again on the pointless abstractions of professional philosophers and the wisdom of everyday people, and then the next moment he launches into an analysis of the concept of the individual in the metaphysics of Josiah Royce—Royce, someone who not even most professional philosophers are interested in, much less the general public—and all this in the context of a book that emphasizes self-consistency over and over again.

This makes me sad, because I think we really do need more intellectuals in the public sphere, intellectuals who are capable of communicating clearly and elegantly to non-specialists about problems of wide interest. And yet our age seems to be conspicuously bereft of anyone resembling a public intellectual. Yes, we have popularizers, but that’s a different thing entirely.

Seeking an answer to this absence, I usually return to the model of specialization in the university.

To get a doctorate, you need to write a dissertation on something, usually a topic of excessive, often ludicrous specificity—the upper-arm tattoos of Taiwanese sailors, the arrangement of furniture inside French colonial homes in North Africa in the 1890s, and so on. This model originated in German research universities, I believe; and indeed it makes perfect sense for many disciplines, particularly the natural sciences. But I do not think this model is at all suited to the humanities, where seeing human things in a wide context is so important. This is not to deny that specialized research can make valuable contributions in the humanities—indeed, I think it is necessary, especially in fields like history—but I do not think it should be the only, or even the dominant, pattern for academics in the humanities.

If I can put forward my own very modest proposal in this review, it would be the creation of another class of academic—let’s call them “scholars”—who would focus, not on specialized research, but on general coverage in several related fields (I’m thinking specifically of philosophy, literature, and history, but this is just one possibility). These scholars would be mainly responsible for teaching courses, not publishing research; and this would give them an incentive to communicate to undergraduates, and by extension the general public, rather than to disappear into arcane regions of the inky night.

These scholars could also be responsible for writing reviews and critiques of research. Their more general knowledge might make them more capable of seeing connections between fields; and by acting as gatekeepers to publication (in the form of a reviewer), they could serve as a check on the groupthink, and also the lack of accountability, that can prevail within a discipline where sometimes research is so obscure that nobody outside the community can adequately judge it (thus proving a shield to shoddy work).

I’m sure my own proposal is impractical, has already been tried, is already widespread, or just plain bad, and so on. (Even if you agree with it, the Lotz Theory of Agreement will apply.) But whatever the solution, I think it is a palpable and growing problem that there is so much intellectual work—especially in the humanities, where there is far less excuse for unintelligibility and sterile specialization—that is totally disconnected with the wider society, and is unreadable and uninteresting to most people, even well-educated people. We simply cannot have a functioning society where intellectuals only talk to each other in their own special language. Lachs, to his credit, is doing his best to break this pattern. But this book, to me, is evidence that the problem is far too serious for well-intentioned individuals to solve on their own.

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Quotes & Commentary #39: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #39: Emerson

 

Each soul is a soul or an individual by virtue of its having or I may say being a power to translate the universe into some particular language of its own.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

What does it mean for something to be subjective? This means that it depends upon a perspective to exist.

Pleasure and pain are subjective, for example, since they cannot exist independently of an observer; they must be felt to be real. Mt. Everest, on the other hand, exists objectively—or at least we think it does—since that hunk of rock and snow would persist even if there were no humans left to climb it and plant flags on its summit.

Humans, of course, can never get out of their own perspectives and know, for good and certain, that anything exists objectively. Thus “objective” facts are really inter-subjective; that is, they can be verified by other observers.

Contrary to common belief, facts cannot be verified purely through experience, since experience is always personal and therefore private. This is why we are justified in disbelieving mystic visions and reports of miracles.

Two things must happen for raw experience to be turned into objective knowledge.

First the experience must be communicated to another observer through language. Language is a bridge between observers, allowing them to compare, in symbolic form, the reality they perceive. Language is a highly imperfect bridge, to be sure, and much information is lost by turning our raw experience into symbols; nevertheless it is the best we have.

Second, another observer must try to have an experience that matches the experience of the first one. This verification is, again, constrained by the vagueness of language.

Somebody points and says “Look, a helicopter!” Their friend looks up into the sky and says “I see it too!” This correspondence of experience, communicated through words, is the basis for our notion of the objective world.

(There is, of course, the thorny Cartesian question: How can we know for certain that both the helicopter and our friend aren’t hallucinations? We can’t.)

Subjective and objective knowledge share this quality. Our knowledge of the external world—whether a fleeting sensation of a chilly breeze, or a scientific doctrine repeatedly checked—is always symbolic.

A symbol is an arbitrary representation. All words are symbols. The relationship between the word “tree” and actual trees is arbitrary; we could also say arbol or Baum and accomplish the same end. By saying that knowledge is symbolic, I mean that the relationship between the objective facts and our representation of those facts is arbitrary. 

First, the relationship between the external stimulus and our private sensation is an arbitrary one.

Light in itself is electromagnetic radiation. In other words, light in itself doesn’t look like anything; it only has an appearance when photosensitive eyes evolve. Our visual cortex represents the photons that strike our eyes as colors. There is only a symbolic connection between the objective radiation and the internal sensation. The red I experience is only a symbol of a certain wavelength of light that my eyes pick up.

As Santayana said, the senses are poets and only portray the external world as a singer communicates his love: in metaphors. This is the basis for the common observation that there is no way of knowing whether the red I experience is the same as the red you experience. Since the connection between the objective stimulus and the subjective representation is arbitrary, and since it is only me who can observe the result, we can never know for certain how colors look to other individuals.

When we communicate our experiences to others, we translate our direct experience, which is already a symbolic representation of the world, into still more general symbols. As I said above, much information is lost during this second translation. We can, for example, say that we’re seeing the color red, but we cannot say exactly what it looks like.

Modern science, not content with the vagueness of daily speech, uses a stricter language: mathematics. And it also uses a stricter method of confirmation: controlled experiments through which rival hypotheses are tested. Nevertheless, while stricter, scientific knowledge isn’t any less symbolic. To the contrary, modern physics is distinguished for being abstract in the extreme.

To call knowledge symbolic is not to discredit it; it is merely to acknowledge the arbitrariness of our representations of the natural world. Nature can be understood, but first we must translate her into our language. The truth can be spoken, but always with an accent.

On Morality

On Morality

What does it mean to do the right thing? What does it mean to be good or evil?

These questions have perplexed people since people began to be perplexed about things. They are the central questions of one of the longest lines of intellectual inquiry in history: ethics. Great thinkers have tackled it; whole religions have been based around it. But confusion still remains.

Well perhaps I should be humble before attempting to solve such a momentous question, seeing who have come before me. And indeed, I don’t claim any originality or finality in these answers. I’m sure they have been thought of before, and articulated more clearly and convincingly by others (though I don’t know by whom). Nevertheless, if only for my own sake I think it’s worthwhile to set down how I tend to think about morality—what it is, what it’s for, and how it works.

I am much less concerned in this essay with asserting how I think morality should work than with describing how it does work—although I think understanding the second is essential to understanding the first. That is to say, I am not interested in fantasy worlds of selfless people performing altruistic acts, but in real people behaving decently in their day-to-day life. But to begin, I want to examine some of the assumptions that have characterized earlier concepts of ethics, particularly with regard to freedom.

Most thinkers begin with a free individual contemplating multiple options. Kantians think that the individual should abide by the categorical imperative and act with consistency; Utilitarians think that the individual should attempt to promote happiness with her actions. What these systems disagree about is the appropriate criterion. But they do both assume that morality is concerned with free individuals and the choices they make. They disagree about the nature of Goodness, but agree that Goodness is a property of people’s actions, making the individual in question worthy of blame or praise, reward or punishment.

The Kantian and Utilitarian perspectives both have a lot to recommend them. But they do tend to produce an interesting tension: the first focuses exclusively on intentions while the second focuses exclusively on consequences. Yet surely both intentions and consequences matter. Most people, I suspect, wouldn’t call somebody moral if they were always intending to do the right thing and yet always failing. Neither would we call somebody moral if they always did the right thing accidentally. Individually, neither of these systems captures our intuitive feeling that both intentions and consequences are important; and yet I don’t see how they can be combined, because the systems have incompatible intellectual justifications.

But there’s another feature of both Kantian and Utilitarian ethics that I do not like, and it is this: Free will. The systems presuppose individuals with free will, who are culpable for their actions because they are responsible for them. Thus it is morally justifiable to punish criminals because they have willingly chosen something wrong. They “deserve” the punishment, since they are free and therefore responsible for their actions.

I’d like to focus on this issue of deserving punishment, because for me it is the key to understanding morality. By this I mean the notion that doing ill to a criminal helps to restore moral order to the universe, so to speak. But before I discuss punishment I must take a detour into free will, since free will, as traditionally conceived, provides the intellectual foundation for this worldview.

What is free will? In previous ages, humans were conceived of as a composite of body and soul. The soul sent directions to the body through the “will.” The body was material and earthly, while the soul was spiritual and holy. Impulses from the body—for example, anger, lust, gluttony—were bad, in part because they destroyed your freedom. To give into lust, for example, was to yield to your animal nature; and since animals aren’t free, neither is the lustful individual. By contrast, impulses from the soul (or mind) were free because they were unconstrained by the animal instincts that compromise your ability to choose.

Thus free will, as it was originally conceived, was the ability to make choices unconstrained by one’s animal nature and by the material world. The soul was something apart and distinct from one’s body; the mind was its own place, and could make decisions independently of one’s impulses or one’s surroundings. It was even debated whether God Himself could predict the behavior of free individuals. Some people held that even God couldn’t, while others maintained that God did know what people would or wouldn’t do, but God’s knowledge wasn’t the cause of their doing it. (And of course, some people believed in predestination.)

It is important to note that, in this view, free will is an uncaused cause. That is, when somebody makes a decision, this decision is not caused by anything in the material world as we know it. The choice comes straight from the soul, bursting into our world of matter and electricity. The decision would therefore be impossible to predict by any scientific means. No amount of brain imaging or neurological study could explain why a person made a certain decision. Nor could the decision be explained by cultural or social factors, since individuals, not groups, were responsible for them. All decisions were therefore caused by individuals, and that’s the essence of freedom.

It strikes me that this is still how we tend to think about free will, more or less. And yet, this view is based on an outdated understanding of human behavior. We now know that human behavior can be explained by a combination of biological and cultural influences. Our major academic debate—nature vs. nurture—presupposes that people don’t have free will. Behavior is the result of the way your genes are influenced by your environment. There is no evidence for the existence of the soul, and there is no evidence that the mind cannot be explained through understanding the brain.

Furthermore, even without the advancements of the biological and social sciences, the old way of viewing things was not philosophically viable, since it left unexplained how the soul affects the body and vice versa. If the soul and the body were metaphysically distinct, how could the immaterial soul cause the material body to move? And how could a pinch in your leg cause a pain in your mind? What’s more, if there really was an immaterial soul that was causing your body to move, and if these bodily movements truly didn’t have any physical cause, then it’s obvious that your mind would be breaking the laws of physics. How else could the mind produce changes in matter that didn’t have any physical cause?

I think this old way of viewing the body and the soul must be abandoned. Humans do not have free will as originally conceived. Humans do not perform actions that cannot be scientifically predicted or explained. Human behavior, just like cat behavior, is not above scientific explanation. The human mind cannot generated uncaused causes, and does not break the laws of physics. We are intelligent apes, not entrapped gods.

Now you must ask me: But if human behavior can be explained in the same way that squirrel behavior can, how do we have ethics at all? We don’t think squirrel are capable of ethical or unethical behavior because they don’t have minds. We can’t hold a squirrel to any ethical standard and we therefore can’t justifiably praise or censor a squirrel’s actions. If humans aren’t categorically different then squirrels, than don’t we have to give up on ethics altogether?

This is not justified. Even though I think it is wrong to say that certain people “deserve” punishment (in the Biblical sense), I do think that certain types of consequences can be justified as deterrents. The difference between humans and squirrels is not that humans are free, but that humans are capable of thinking about the long term consequences of an action before committing it. Individuals should be held accountable, not because they have free will, but because humans have a great deal of behavioral flexibility, thus allowing their behavior to be influenced by the threat of prison.

This is why it is justifiable to lock away murderers. If it is widely known among the populace that murderers get caught and thrown into prison, this reduces the number of murders. Imprisoning squirrels for stealing peaches, on the other hand, wouldn’t do anything at all, since the squirrel community wouldn’t understand what was going on. With humans, the threat of punishment acts as a deterrent. Prison becomes part of the social environment, and therefore will influence decision-making. But in order for this threat to act as an effective deterrent, it cannot be simply a threat; real murderers must actually face consequences or the threat won’t be taken seriously and thus won’t influence behavior.

To understand how our conception of free will affects the way we organize our society, consider the case of drug addiction. In the past, addicts were seen as morally depraved. This was a direct consequence of the way people thought about free will. If people’s decisions were made independently of their environment or biology, then there was no excuses or mitigating circumstance for drug addicts. Addicts were simply weak, depraved people who mysteriously kept choosing self-destructive behavior. What resulted from this was the disastrous war on drugs, a complete fiasco. Now we know that it is absurd to throw people into jail for being addicted, simply absurd, because addicts are not capable of acting otherwise. This is the very definition of addiction, that one’s decision-making abilities have been impaired.

As we’ve grown more enlightened about drug addiction, we’ve realized that throwing people in jail doesn’t solve anything. Punishment does not act as an effective deterrent when normal decision-making is compromised. By transitioning to a system where addiction is given treatment and support, we have effectively transitioned from an old view of free will to the new view that humans behavior is the result of biology, environment, and culture. We don’t hold them “responsible” because we know it would be like holding a squirrel responsible for burying nuts. This is a step forward, and it has been taken by abandoning the old views of free will.

I think we should apply this new view of human behavior to other areas of criminal activity. We need to get rid of the old notions of free will and punishment. We must abandon the idea of punishing people because they “deserve” it. Murderers should be punished, but not because they deserve to suffer, but for the following two reasons: first, because they have shown themselves to be dangerous and should be isolated; and second, because their punishment helps to act as a deterrent to future murderers. Punishment is just only insofar as these two criteria are met. Once a murderer is made to suffer more than is necessary to deter future crimes, and is isolated more than is necessary to protect others, then I think it is unjustifiable and wrong to punish him further.

In short, we have to give up on the idea that inflicting pain and discomfort on a murderer helps to restore moral balance to the universe. Vengeance in all its forms should be removed from our justice system. It is not the job of us or anyone else to seek retributions for wrongs committed. Punishments are only justifiable because they help to protect the community. The aim of punishing murderers is neither to hurt nor to help them, but to prevent other people from becoming murderers. And this is, I think, the reason why the barbarous methods of torture and execution are wrong, because I very much doubt that brutal punishments are justified in terms of further efficacy in deterrence. However, I’m sure there is interesting research somewhere on this.

Seen in this way, morality can be understood in the same way we understand language—as a social adaptation that benefits the community as a whole as well as individual members of the community. Morality is a code of conduct imposed by the community on its members, and derivations from this code of conduct are justifiably punished for the safety of the other members of the community. When this code is broken, a person forfeits the protection under the code, and is dealt with in such a way that future derivations from the moral code are discouraged.

Just as Wittgenstein said that a private language is impossible, so I’d argue that a private morality is impossible. A single, isolated individual can be neither moral nor immoral. People are born with a multitude of desires; and every desire is morally neutral. A moral code comes into play when two individuals begin to cooperate. This is because the individuals will almost inevitably have some desires that conflict. A system of behavior is therefore necessary if the two are to live together harmoniously. This system of behavior is their moral code. In just the same way that language results when two people both use the same sounds to communicate the same messages, morality results when two people’s desires and actions are in harmony. Immorality arises when the harmonious arrangement breaks down, and one member of the community satisfies their desire at the expense of the others. Deviations of this kind must have consequences if the system is to maintain itself, and this is the justification for punishment.

One thing to note about this account of moral systems is that they arise for the well-being of their participants. When people are working together, when their habits and opinions are more or less in harmony, when they can walk around in their neighborhood without fearing every person they meet, both the individual and the group benefits. This point is worth stressing, since we now know that the human brain is the product of evolution, and therefore we must surmise that universal features of human behavior, such as morality, are adaptive. The fundamental basis for morality is self-interest. What distinguishes moral from immoral behavior is not that the first is unselfish while the other is selfish, but that the first is more intelligently selfish than the second.

It isn’t hard to see how morality is adaptive. One need only consider the basic tenets of game theory. In the short term, to cooperate with others may not be as advantageous as simply exploiting others. Robbery is a quicker way to make money than farming. And indeed, the potentially huge advantages of purely selfish behavior explains why unethical behavior occurs: Sometimes it benefits individuals more to exploit rather than to help one another. Either that, or certain individuals—either from ignorance or desperation—are willing to risk long-term security for short-term gains. Nevertheless, in general moral behaviors tend to be more advantageous, if only because selfish behavior is more risky. All unethical behavior, even if carried on in secret, carries a risk of making enemies; and in the long run, enemies are less useful than friends. The funny thing about altruism is that it’s often more gainful than selfishness.

Thus this account of morality can be harmonized with an evolutionary account of human behavior. But what I find most satisfying about this view of morality is that it allows us to see why we care both about intentions and consequences. Intentions are important in deciding how to punish misconduct because they help determine how an individual is likely to behave in the future. A person who stole something intentionally has demonstrated a willingness to break the code, while a person who took something by accident has only demonstrated absent-mindedness. The first person is therefore more of a risk to the community. Nevertheless, it is seldom possible to prove what somebody intended beyond the shadow of a doubt, which is why it is also necessary to consider the consequences of an action. What is more, carelessness as regards the moral code must be forcibly discouraged, otherwise the code will not function properly. This is why, in certain cases, breaches of conduct must be punished even if they were demonstrably unintentional—to discourage other people in the future from being careless.

Let me pause here to sketch out some more philosophical objections to the Utilitarian and Kantian systems, besides the fact that they don’t adequately explain how we tend to think about morality. Utilitarianism does capture something important when it proclaims that actions should be judged insofar as they further the “greatest possible happiness.” Yet taken by itself this doctrine has some problems. The first is that you never know how something is going to turn out, and even the most concerted efforts to help people sometimes backfire. Should these efforts, made in good faith, be condemned as evil if they don’t succeed? What’s more, Utilitarian ethics can lead to disturbing moral questions. For example, is it morally right to kill somebody if you can use his organs to save five other people? Besides this, if the moral injunction is to work constantly towards the “greatest possible happiness,” then we might even have to condemn simple things like a game of tennis, since two people playing tennis certainly could be doing something more humanitarian with their time and energy.

The Kantian system has the opposite problem in that it stresses good intentions and consistency to an absurd degree. If the essence of immorality is to make an exception of oneself—which covers lying, stealing, and murder—then telling a fib is morally equivalent to murdering somebody in cold blood, since both of those actions equally make exceptions of the perpetrator. This is what results if you overemphasize consistency and utterly disregard consequences. What’s more, intentions are, as I said above, basically impossible to prove—and not only to other people, but also to yourself. Can you prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your intentions were pure yesterday when you accidentally said something rude? How do you know your memory and your introspection can be trusted? However, let me leave off with these objections because I think entirely too much time in philosophy is given over to tweezing apart your enemies’ ideas and not enough to building your own.

Thus, to repeat myself, both consequences and intentions, both happiness and consistency must be a part of any moral theory if it is to capture how we do and must think about ethics. Morality is an adaptation. The capacity for morality has evolved because moral systems benefit both groups and individuals. Morality is rooted in self-interest, but it is an intelligent form of self-interest that recognizes that other people are most useful as allies than as enemies. Morality is neither consistency nor pleasure. Morality is consistency for the sake of pleasure. This is why moral strictures that demand that people devote their every waking hour to helping others or to never make exceptions of themselves are self-defeating, because when a moral system is onerous is isn’t performing its proper function.

But now I must deal with that fateful question: Is morality absolute or relative? At first glance it would seem that my account would put me squarely in the relativist camp, seeing that I point to a community code of conduct. Nevertheless, when it comes to violence I am decidedly a moral absolutist. This is because I think that physical violence can only ever be justified by citing defense. First, to use violence to defend yourself from violent attack is neither moral nor immoral, because at this point the moral code has already broken down. The metaphorical contract has been broken, and you are now in a situation where the you must either fight, run, or be killed. The operant rule is now survival and not morality. For the same reason a whole community may justifiably protect itself from invasion from an enemy force (although capitulating is equally defensible). And lastly violence (in the form of imprisonment) is justified in the case of criminals, for the reasons I discussed above.

What if there are two communities, community A and community B, living next to one another? Both of these communities have their own moral codes which the people abide by. What if a person from community A encounters a person from community B? Is it justifiable for either of them to use violence against the other? After all, each of them is outside the purview of the other’s moral code, since moral codes develop within communities. Well in practice situations like this do commonly result in violence. Whenever Europeans encountered a new community—whether in the Americas or in Africa—the result was typically disastrous for that community. This isn’t simply due to the wickedness of Europeans; it has been a constant throughout history: When different human communities interact, violence is very often the result. And this, by the way, is one of the benefits of globalization. The more people come to think of humanity as one community, the less violence we will experience.

Nevertheless, I think that violence between people from different communities is ultimately immoral, and this is why. To feel it is permissible to kill somebody just because they are not in your group is to consider that person subhuman—as fundamentally different. This is what we now call “Othering,” and it is what underpins racism, sexism, religious bigotry, homophobia, and xenophobia. But of course we now know that it is untrue that other communities, other religions, other races, women, men, or homosexuals or anyone else are “fundamentally” different or in any way subhuman. It is simply incorrect. And I think the recognition that we all belong to one species—with only fairly superficial differences in opinions, customs, rituals, and so on—is the key to moral progress. Moral systems can be said to be comparatively advanced or backward to the extent that they recognize that all humans belong to the same species. In other words, moral systems can be evaluated by looking at how many types of people they include.

This is the reason why it is my firm belief that the world as it exists today—full as it still is with all sorts of violence and prejudice—is morally superior than ever before. Most of us have realized that racism was wrong because it was based on a lie; and the same goes for sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and xenophobia. These forms of bias were based on misconceptions; they were not only morally wrong, but factually wrong.

Thus we ought to be tolerant of immorality in the past, for the same reason that we excuse people in the past for being wrong about physics or chemistry. Morality cannot be isolated from knowledge. For a long time, the nature of racial and sexual differences was unknown. Europeans had no experience and thus no understanding of non-Western cultures. All sorts of superstitions and religious injunctions were believed in, to an extent most of us can’t even appreciate now. Before widespread education and the scientific revolution, people based their opinions on tradition rather than evidence. And in just the same way that it is impossible to justly put someone in prison without evidence of their guilt, it impossible to be morally developed if your beliefs are based on misinformation. Africans and women used to be believed to be mentally inferior; homosexuals used to be believed to be possessed by evil spirits. Now we know that there is no evidence for these views, and in fact evidence to the contrary, so we can cast them aside; but earlier generations were not so lucky.

To the extent, therefore, that backward moral systems are based on a lack of knowledge, they must be tolerated. In this why we ought to be tolerant of other cultures and of the past. But to the extent that facts are wilfully disregarded in a moral system, that system can be said to be corrupt. Thus the real missionaries are not the ones who spread religion, but who spread knowledge, for increased understanding of the world allows us develop our morals.

These are my ideas in their essentials. But for the sake of honesty I have to add that the ideas I put forward above have been influenced by my studies in cultural anthropology, as well as my reading of Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Spinoza, Santayana, Ryle, Wittgenstein, and of course by Mill and Kant. I was also influenced by Richard Dawkins’s discussion of Game Theory in his book, The Selfish Gene. Like most third-rate intellectual work, this essay is, for the most part, a muddled hodgepodge of other people’s ideas.

A Trip to Toledo

A Trip to Toledo

 

“Where’s the damned gate?” I asked my friend, as we stood in the train station, bewildered, worried, looking at every sign, nervously checking the time as the appointed hour of our departure neared.

I thought it must be upstairs, since that’s where the arrow seemed to point; but my friend, more perceptive than myself, noticed that the sign said bajo on it.

“That means it’s on the ground floor,” she said.

She pointed this out while we were already on the escalator up; so after we lamely rode all the way up, and then the adjacent one all the way down, we began again to scour the ground floor for our gate.

“Maybe it’s this way?” my friend offered, pointing in the direction that most people were walking.

We joined the crowd, and found ourselves headed towards the door outside.

“No, no,” I said. “This is to exit the building.”

We returned to where we started, once more examining the sign with the ambiguous arrow. Time was running out. We’d given ourselves a good 45 minutes to get lost, and we’d used nearly all of them. Luckily, we soon noticed the (very obvious) gate entrance, where people were lining up to pass through security.

After walking through the metal detector, we walked frantically down the platform, passing car after car of the train, looking in the windows for open seats. Finally, we got to a car that was mostly empty; we hopped on, found the two nearest seats, and sat down—happy that the stress of the morning was over.

Our peace was disturbed when, just two minutes later, two very nice Spanish women politely informed us that we were sitting in their seats.

Perdone,” I said, as we got up, again confused and embarrassed, and walked away.

“I told you we shouldn’t have sat there,” I said as we recommenced our desperate search for seats. (I’d said no such thing, by the way.) “That must’ve been the reserved section!”

“Whatever.”

We went through one, then two, then three cars—all of them completely full—until finally, in an otherwise full car, there were two empty seats.

We sat down again, hoping that finally we could relax.

As I sat there, letting my breathing slow, still a bit disoriented from the activity and lack of sleep, I noticed that an elderly British couple was sitting in front of us. This would not be worth mentioning if, a moment later, a Spanish man hadn’t came up and told them that they were sitting in his seat.

“What?” said the Englishman.

“Yes, look,” the Spaniard said in English, holding up his ticket. With his finger, he pointed to two numbers on the top of the slip of paper.

“E6 and E7, car 3,” he said.

I looked up and found, to my surprise, that the seats had numbers and letters. We had assigned seats!

“Oh, terribly sorry,” the Englishman said, as he and his wife relocated to their proper seats—which, as it turned out, were right behind us.

“Quick,” I said to my friend, “the tickets!”

She pulled out the tickets from her bag, and we hastily examined them. E8 and E9, car 3. I looked up: we were sitting in our exact seats.

One thing to remember when traveling in foreign lands: even simple things can be a challenge, since here your conventional wisdom is unconventional, and your common sense far from common. This can make you come across as a fool, and feel like one, too. But you know you’re not a fool—you’re an American. And although there’s a large degree of overlap in the two categories, they aren’t exactly equal.

§

I had been urged, repeatedly and sometimes urgently, by friends and family who had been to Madrid that, once there, I shouldn’t miss a chance to visit Toledo.

Toledo is a small city, situated about 75 kilometers south of Madrid. It can be gotten to cheaply and quickly, by train in 30 minutes and by bus in an hour, making it the ideal place for day-trippers. It is a city of long history and rich culture, of fine architecture and splendid sights.

But of course I didn’t know any of this when, after much cursing and petty frustration, I booked two round-trip tickets (ida y vuelta) on the train for a Sunday trip. Really, I didn’t know anything about the place at all, other than that its cathedral was reputed to be one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.

As a result, I had nothing definite in mind when I stepped off the train in Toledo, blinking in the bright sun, looking around in a befuddled daze. My ignorance didn’t bother me, however, as going places without knowing anything about them is something I tend to do. After all, I’d moved to Spain without knowing Spanish—or really anything about Spain at all except that there was bullfighting, flamenco, and an inquisition a long time ago—so why not try the same approach with Toledo?

My friend was less keen on this, though, so she went about procuring a map from the nearby tourist office—even as I insisted that it was unnecessary, since we have phones.

Yet we needed neither a map nor a phone to tell us that we’d arrived somewhere special; even the train station was lovely. In fact, it hardly seemed like a train station at all—more like a renovated relic. I know now, since I’ve looked it up, that the building was constructed in the early 20th century, and so was far from ancient. Nevertheless, the amount of effort exerted on a purely functional edifice—elaborately ornamented on the inside and outside, with finely carved wooden railings and stained-glass windows—was enough to convince me that Toledo was not an ordinary city.

Since we were traveling on the cheap, we decided not to take a cab or a bus into town, but to walk. This was, it turned out, an excellent choice, not only because of the agreeable weather, but because the approach from the station to the town took us across a bridge, spanning across a sparkling blue river, and allowed us to see the whole antique city, nestled up on a hilltop, almost as a traveler would have seen it a few hundred years ago.

I admit I indulged in a bit of romanticizing in the last paragraph; for it is impossible to forget that, however old Toledo might be, it is now the twenty-first century. Indeed, the juxtaposition between old and new was a constant refrain during our trip there. City buses crawled up twisting roads, alongside fortified walls; modern cars squeezed their way through crooked, narrow streets, forcing pedestrians to press themselves up against the sides of buildings, as if in a police line-up, to avoid getting clipped by passing side-mirrors.

To an American, at least, and I suspect to most other people, the past has a strange and eerie power, which lingers in the present like a faint, musty odor. The whole city felt old. We went through a stone gate, passing churches and abbeys, climbing up a road that had possibly been laid down before my country was a country—perhaps before my country was even a colony.

In these moments, when in the presence of something truly antique, there is a certain type of pensiveness that comes upon us, a certain reverie which, we hope, is akin to wisdom. Being in the presence of an object so much older than ourselves puts our own lives into a historic perspective. We feel ourselves, all too briefly, to be but a small and passing phenomenon in the pageant of works and deeds that came before us and will continue after us. Our problems, struggles, and triumphs are made ridiculous in the face of these accomplishments, and we are humbled.

If there is something edifying or character-building about visiting historic sites, I suspect that the above is it. The problem, however, is that these contemplative moments—when the passing years yawn open in your mind like a chasm, swallowing you up until nothing remains but mute astonishment—are cut short by all the other people there, trying to do the exact same thing.

It is one of the paradoxes of travel that, because it’s supposed to be good for you, everyone does it; and because everyone does it, it ceases to be good for you. Nothing quite ruins the romance of gazing at an old statue like two people in front of it, taking a selfie. And not only does this ruin the romance, but it makes it hard to even get a good selfie yourself.

§

The first thing I wanted to do was to visit the cathedral—since that was the only thing I knew about, anyway. I typed “Toledo Cathedral” into my phone, and was helpfully shown the way with a blue path extending from the tips of my toes to one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe. Still, we managed to take a few wrong turns (I’m not sure mapping software was built for the crooked, tightly packed, criss-crossing roads of old towns like Toledo), and, as usual, I managed to leave my friend behind a few times as I ruthlessly powerwalked in whatever direction I thought was correct.

But gothic cathedrals are notoriously hard to miss; so in just twenty-minutes time, we found ourselves gaping upward at the magnificent Catedral Primada María de Toledo. It was even more marvelous than I’d expected. It was, in fact, probably the most beautiful structure that I’d ever seen. Most conspicuous was the tremendous spire, ornamented with spikes, reaching upward like a hand grasping towards heaven.

Hypnotized, we made our way towards it (though we took a short detour to examine the metal swords on sale in a gift shop), trying to find the entrance. Our search took us past the three great doors. In typical gothic style, these were surrounded by concentric archways, which had the effect of making them seem like portals to another world.

Every corner of the façade was stuffed with bas-reliefs of religious figures; the whole building, in fact, was covered in little statues, who prayed and chanted and sang endlessly to the heavens and to the earth. The entire Judeo-Christian tradition was there, the prophets, the apostles, angels and psalmists and kings and priests and even God.

It was a very strange feeling, standing there in front of those doors; it was as if the entire cathedral was looking down at us, judging our little lives. Perhaps because there were so many human figures carved into the walls, or perhaps because the whole building, both in its large-scale design and its fine details, was redolent with symbols and tradition—for whatever reason, the cathedral did not seem in that moment to be a mere hunk of stone, but strangely alive.

But of course, I couldn’t let this feeling linger long, for I had to take pictures. This done, we kept moving, slowly circling the entire edifice, until we ended up at the tourist entrance. Strange: there was no line; only a couple employees standing in front of the open door.

“Ask him if this is for the cathedral,” I told my friend.

“¿Por el catedral?” she asked.

Sí, pero se abre a las dos,” he responded.

“It opens at two,” my friend told me.

“Damn.”

Somewhat despondently, we pulled out the tourist map (the damn thing was useful, after all) and began looking for other things to do until then. The nearest attraction was the El Greco museum, so we decided on that.

§

Like most everything I encountered here, I knew almost nothing about El Greco before coming to Spain. I’d seen a few of his paintings in an art history textbook, and remembered liking them—but that’s about it. So I was understandably not very excited for the museum.

But I perked up a bit when the lady at the front desk told us it was free.

“Sweet!” I said, and in a few minutes we found ourselves standing in an old house, refurnished to give it the appearance it would’ve had during El Greco’s life.

“Imagine, El Greco, the famous painter, lived here!” I said to myself, looking around the quaint old place.

Unfortunately, I soon found out from reading a sign on the wall that he’d never lived here; in fact, his old house no longer exists. This museum was bought and built by some eccentric nobleman (if memory serves) under false pretenses, and the true state of affairs was discovered later.

Somehow, learning this made the experience considerably less cool. I’m not exactly sure why this is, mind you. Really, when you think it over, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the tourist’s search for the authentic is a bit silly.

The simple truth is that “authenticity” is not a property of objects, but of our perception of objects. Take these two scenarios: First, what if the sign told me that this was the real house, when it really wasn’t? And second, what if the sign told me that this wasn’t the real house, when it really was?

In the first scenario, I’d be thrilled; and in the second scenario, I’d be disappointed—even though the physical house would be, in both cases, identical. The simple fact is that I have no direct way of telling whether this or that particular house was the previous home to a famous Spanish Renaissance painter. My feelings of awe or anticlimax are thus pure exercises of my imagination; they are only tenuously related with the physical object. If told the house was real, I could imagine the painter himself (not that I know what he looked like) walking through these very halls; while if told the house was only a replica, these pleasant images wouldn’t spring so easily to mind. But of course, I can imagine El Greco wherever and whenever I want. And if I was a master of self-deception, maybe I could even convince myself that he’d lived in my own apartment?

To return to the museum, I wasn’t very impressed with it. Seeing old-fashioned furniture and old-fangled kitchens does not play strongly upon my passions. So I walked from room to room, my eyes passing over every surface, my mind somewhere else, until I found myself in a room filled with El Greco’s works.

My interest was piqued. Most of the paintings were individualized portraits of saints. One detail I remember in particular, which I learned from reading a caption, is that it’s a tradition in Catholic art to portray martyred saints holding the instrument with which they were killed. Thus, there were a few portraits of saints with crucifixes leaned upon them, staring straight into the viewer’s eyes, as if challenging us to equal their conviction.

But the most arresting painting of the lot was the portrait of St. Peter, teary-eyed, his hands clasped in prayer in front of his chest, beseeching heaven for forgiveness. He had just denied Christ (as in, denied he knew Christ) three times, just as Jesus prophesied, and was repenting for his cowardice.

It’s difficult to capture the feeling of standing before a great painting—especially for someone such as myself, who knows so little about art. But what I remember most are St. Peter’s eyes, sad and soft, seeming to twinkle as you looked at the portrait.

This was near the end of our walk through the museum; and soon we found ourselves, once again, standing on the streets, wondering what to do. Thankfully, it was almost two o’clock; so after eating a brief lunch—and a very early lunch, for Spaniards—we were on our way, once again, to visit one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.

§

The line was short, the wait was brief, the price of admission came with an audioguide; and in just a few minutes, we found ourselves standing under the vaulted ceiling of Toledo Cathedral.

The first thing I noticed upon entering was the smell. It was a scent I had experienced at least once before, at a concert in a church in New York. Perhaps this is a scent associated with all catholic places of worship—I don’t know. What I do know is that, whatever the smell is, I love it. I find it intoxicating and irresistible. I know this sounds funny, but I wish my whole life smelled like this, for there is something unearthly and calming about it, as if this faint fragrance is above all of the petty concerns and vain ambitions, all of the weaknesses and frailties that beset human life. It is a smell that puts the whole cosmos in perspective. I’d buy it if I knew where to find it.

The next feeling is a vertiginous sense of height. The ceiling, made entirely of heavy stone, hovers high up above you, suspended in mid-air. Light pours in through stained-glass windows, dozens of feet up, making the top of the cathedral brighter than the bottom; it is as if heaven itself is illuminating the space. At ground level, meanwhile, the place is dusky and dim—a twilight of religious mystery. The building is just as impressive on the ears as on the eyes. Footsteps, snatches of conversation, coughs, sneezes, and whispers are all quickly picked up by the towering room, carried up to the top of the building, bounced off the walls, and returned to you as indistinct murmuring. Even your own breath seems far away.

I put on the audioguide and began the virtual tour. I’ve quickly developed a strong liking for audioguides. They are private—preserving the individual experience, and giving you the freedom to go where you please—but they also connect you intimately with your surroundings. Left to my own devices, a particular religious work of art, for example, might be wholly unintelligible; but with an expert in my ear, guiding my eye, feeding me information, a meaningless image becomes an icon, laden with symbolism. This way, I was led by my ears all through the cathedral, then into its museum, then outside into the cloister, and then back in again, learning about kings, cardinals, saints, and artists.

Perhaps this is only a modern prejudice, but I am normally tempted to say that art is a form of self-expression. Yet this definition is wholly inadequate when faced with something like the Toledo Cathedral. So many hands contributed to this building, across so many years, in so many different styles, that it’s obvious that the building is not the expression of any individual. Rather, the building seems to be the expression of an age, of a religion, of a whole people. It is a blend of sensibilities across centuries.

I can’t hope to recount all the different tombs and temples contained in that church; and besides, such a straightforward list would be dull. I will try, however, to articulate why I found my time in the cathedral so profoundly moving, even though I am not at all religious.

But what does it mean to be religious? Does it mean to believe certain dogmas and to endorse a particular mythology? A single glance at the cathedral would give you this impression. Every spare surface has been ornamented with an image from the Judeo-Christian saga. During the Middle Ages, I can imagine these pictures and sculptures being a visual Bible for the unlettered farmers who prayed here, inculcating the faith through the sight rather than words.

“Faith” and “belief” are words we often hear associated with religion. Although some church fathers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, attempted to persuade others with reason, in the church’s history tremendous clashes of power and violence were waged over doctrinal differences. Arianism, the belief that Jesus was distinct and subordinate to God the Father, came very close to being made the orthodox belief, until it was slowly beaten back by its opponents; and a war had to be waged during the Middle Ages, the Albigensian Crusade, to wipe out a puritanical sect of Christians who had adopted a dualist view of the cosmos (i.e. holding that there was both an evil and a good force in the universe). I give these two examples only to show that, in the history of religion, or at least of Catholicism, a lot of ink and blood has been spilled to establish one belief over another.

Insofar as religion consists in holding beliefs in the supernatural, I can’t abide by it. It seems to me a violence to human reason to enforce beliefs based neither on evidence nor logic. But once the pretentions to reality of Catholic dogma are pared away, once we discredit and ignore the occult elements, what are we left with?

What remains is a complex medley of stories and rituals, myths and legends, customs and ceremonies. Without the core of belief, this remnant can perhaps be called the “shell” of the religion. For Catholicism, this shell is partly physical, partly immaterial. The intangible portion of the remainder consists of the wonderful stories—Adam and Eve, David and Samuel, Jesus and the apostles—full of drama and wit and wisdom. The material remainder consists of things like the Book of Kells, the Hagia Sophia, and of course the Toledo Cathedral.

Taken together, I’d argue that the remaining shell of the religion can be seen, not simply as an anthropological curiosity, but a tremendous work of art. The Catholic religion is like a beautiful, multi-colored tapestry, spread over the whole of human life. Or perhaps it can be better described as an aesthetic system, through which the mundane events of daily life are dramatized. The beauty often hidden in our humdrum affairs is accentuated and given meaning within this tradition. Like a painter, the myths and rituals of religion begin with something ordinary—a shopkeeper, a sunny evening in the park, a few objects sitting on a table—and transforms them into something beautiful and significant.

Of course, I can’t claim any originality for this thought; many have said this before. The Spanish American philosopher, George Santayana, is my most direct influence in seeing religion this way. Here is a quote from his book, The Life of Reason: “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.”

This is an image which has stuck with me: a flower taking nutrients from the unremarkable and ugly dirt, and turning them into a blossom of color. And is not something similar happening when, as in Catholicism, every day of the calendar year commemorates the life of a saint, whose heroic deeds are recounted in dramatic stories? Is not something similar happening when every stage of life and death is marked by a sacrament and a ritual?

These meditations filled my head as I wandered through Toledo Cathedral, gasping up at the ceiling, staring in continuous awe at the many paintings and statues and frescoes contained therein. It was an experience which, I predict, I’ll remember all my life.

§

The rest of my time in Toledo was, of course, something of an anticlimax compared to this. We visited a synagogue, used by the Sephardic Jews before they were expelled in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs. But the main impression left on me by that museum was that I would do well to read The Ornament of the World, by María Rosa Menocal, which tells the story of the brief period of mutual tolerance between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain.

We also visited a temporary exhibition on torture devices, which consisted of replicas of torture devices, alongside gory descriptions of how they were used on their poor victims. The information was framed in the context of the Spanish Inquisition, when torture was used to extract confessions from accused heretics. However, I now suspect that the information presented was untrustworthy, or at least greatly exaggerated. For example, the exhibition had an iron maiden, but according to the Wikipedia article—which I trust!—there is no reliable evidence of the existence of iron maidens before 1793; and although several iron maidens are on display around the world, its unlikely that any of them were ever used. It seems to be an invention of our morbid modern imagination, rather than a condemnation of medieval times.

After this, we tried to visit the Hospital de Tavera, a medical center constructed during the Renaissance. But, unfortunately for us, the place was closed by the time we got there. Oh well.

We were out of time. The train was leaving in 25 minutes, and the station was 20 minutes away. So we powerwalked and jogged the kilometer between the town and the train station, quickly passing through the beautiful station building, presented our tickets, and boarded the train—this time, making sure to sit down in our proper seats. My friend fell asleep shortly after sitting down, and I almost did the same; in thirty minutes, we were exiting the gate which had so eluded us that morning.

“Whew, that was fun,” said my friend. “What’s next?”