Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Truth and reconciliation

Yet common sense and our intellectual tradition tells us we are. The fundamentally religious and the die-hard atheists may agree about very little, but one thing they do agree on is that there’s a best description of The World Out There – an intellectual programme which has primacy over the others, and has earned the label “the truth” over all competing accounts. What they disagree about is which of them has it.

They would agree this “truth bearing” account will be intuitively apprehended by any reflective intelligent being regardless of culture, biology and language, or heredity. It trumps all competing explanations, settles all arguments and, as such transcends the particular idiom in which it is expressed: (and hence such a truth is referred to as a transcendental truth).
Yet something seems to be awry: for if, with Ogden Nash, we’re incarcerated in our cells of padded bone, unable with certainty to parse each other’s communications, then it is a bit optimistic to expect to recognise transcendental truth when we see it. Anecdotal (and quite unscientific) evidence, in the shape of ongoing, insoluble disputes between just such reflective, intelligent beings (evolutionary biologists can’t agree even with each other, let alone with archbishops) suggests to me that the idea of transcendental truth isn’t without its own practical problems. Why do we have political, ethical and sociological debates at all, let alone intractable ones, if all the answers are obvious? Steven Pinker remarks at the opening of his celebrated book The Language Instinct:
As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision.
Pinker seems to me to put the cart before the horse. It is implausible that every nuance does carry every time. Since we can’t see inside each other’s cells of padded bone, we can only deduce what’s going on in there from output: words, gestures, intonation, and it’s our dilemma to decide when a narrowing of the eyes denotes irritation and when it means nothing more than forgotten sunglasses. There is never enough information to be sure.
To “shape events with exquisite precision” implies that, somewhere between my padded skull and yours, there is such precision, that one interpretation of our communication (an interpretation being the reduction down to a simple, expressible proposition of an infinitely complex set of utterances, gestures, background context and dependent circumstances) is correct over all others. That, upon a dispute, those of sufficiently pedantic disposition could, by appeal to science and reason (no doubt dispensed by a panel of linguists) to authoritatively settle the matter.
But how? With reference to what? What could possibly serve as such an eternal measure by which our conversation can be judged (and if there were such a standard, how would we recognise it and what would be its point?) When one allows for metaphorical and figurative interpretations, any statement has an unlimited number of potential meanings. There is no external standard of interpretation to which we can reliably appeal.
It is our own, lonely human dilemma to settle on the best one: the one we find to be the most useful to help us through our situation, stuck like the eternal motorists, hauling the black future towards us behind purblind wipers, as in Louis MacNiece’s The Wiper:
Through purblind night the wiper
Reaps a swathe of water
On the screen; we shudder on
And hardly hold the road
All we can see a segment
Of blackly shining asphalt
With the wiper moving across it
Clearing, blurring, clearing.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

My green and your green

You may recall, once upon a time, wondering whether your experience of the colours, shapes, sounds and smells of the world was the same everyone else’s. Perhaps your picture of the world was completely unique. After all, how would you ever know it wasn’t?
You could compare what you knew as “green” with a me, but that wouldn’t help: even if we agreed that, yes, that patch of grass is green – even if we were more specific: a bleached out sort of lime green, since it’d been trapped under a brick for a week – we still could not know we were having the same experience. Your green might have been different from mine: what you saw as green I might, if I saw it, see as maroon. For all I know, you may even perceive colours as smells or sounds, but so long as we couldn’t directly share each other’s sensations, we would remain none the wiser. Richard Dawkins sums it up nicely:
Perceived hues – what philosophers call qualia – have no intrinsic connection with lights of particular wavelengths. They are internal labels that are available to the brain, when it constructs its model of external reality, to make distinctions that are especially salient to the animal concerned.
I imagine most of us have, at one point in their lives, been through that thought process, and most resolve it in the same way. While we can’t really be sure, we just shrug our shoulders and suppose we must perceive the same things the same way – for how else could we understand each other?
A few years ago, I came across a poem by Ogden Nash – unusually for him, a serious poem, entitled Listen ...:
There is a knocking in the skull,
An endless silent shout
Of something beating on a wall,
And crying, “Let me out!”

That solitary prisoner
Will never hear reply.
No comrade in eternity
Can hear the frantic cry.

No heart can share the terror
That haunts his monstrous dark.
The light that filters through the chinks
No other eye can mark.

When flesh is linked with eager flesh,
And words run warm and full,
I think that he is loneliest then,
The captive in the skull.

Caught in a mesh of living veins,
In cell of padded bone,
He loneliest is when he pretends
That he is not alone.

We’d free the incarcerate race of man
That such a doom endures
Could only you unlock my skull,
Or I creep into yours.

To me, this poem, reflects on this very dilemma. We are social animals. We have evolved to communicate and co-operate yet, deep down, we never quite know whether experiences we take to be common really are. We never know for sure that our sentences are understood exactly the way we mean them, with every subtle and unspoken nuance conveyed. Nor do we ever know we understand, they way they’re meant to be, other people’s sentences.
We remain incarcerated in our own skulls, hoping against the doom, but never knowing, that we’re getting through.