Tag Archives: science

Nonfic: Unreliable narrators: When we talk, we say things

blog_snowconfusionWe make sounds that correspond to certain patterns we recognize as words and then we might be able to interpret from these words a meaning, and so we communicate. (Same goes for writing, only we go from visuals to meanings.)  But these meanings don’t necessarily have any connection to, well, anything, including reality. I find it useful (and I find usefulness a better standard for evaluating a statement than truth) to consider statements not as true or false, but simply the product of the statement-maker’s mind at the time the statement was made. As such, the statements characterize the statement-maker, but the statements themselves can be held by audience members without being evaluated; this way the audience member keeps an open mind and does not mistakenly privilege a statement as a “true” statement.

I’ve been thinking about this since Thursday when I was in a coffeeshop and two neighboring couples started making statements — assertions about and characterizations of and predictions for  reality. At the time I overheard (and recorded — there’s something wonderful about turning real life speech into symbols on paper) some of their statements, I understood these statements as political, in that they were discussing government policies, programs, and operations.

But today I’m thinking of their conversations as a philosophical one. These people were making assertions about reality (“The culture’s headed to where we want to take care of everybody…”). They were also characterizing — making metaphors and similes, drawing analogies, comparing — real things (“She’d dress like a street person” and “That’s what happened in Germany”), and they were also making predictions based on their assertions and characterizations (“They could shut the government down and you wouldn’t even know it”).

The content of their conversation may have been philosophical — metaphysical (pertaining to ultimate truth/reality), in particular — but the conduct of the conversation was not what I’d call philosophical, in that there was very little disagreement among them, and very few arguments were made to support assertions. Perhaps these people shared many premises and values so that they could deliver their assertions in brief. This also means, of course, that nobody was really learning much from each other; there was a “preaching to the choir” aspect there.

As a teacher, or as a philosopher, or as a busybody (or all three), I felt tempted to interrupt their discussion to challenge their assertions (as not being based on even so much evidence as poll results), their characterizations (which metaphors, analogies, and comparisons are not really statements that can be judged true or false, since these things are, by definition, not literally true. However, the comparisons seemed to be supporting their assertions by means of negative connotation.), and their predictions (as being pure bullsh!t, since, as Wendell Berry pointed out in “The Unsettling of America”, the future does not exist).

I did not jump in, which interruption likely would not have been welcomed and which would have likely upset the calm of the social situation. Everyone is entitled to one’s own beliefs, of course. But if we are not at least willing to entertain some philosophical skepticism about our own beliefs and assertions about reality, we risk becoming “unreliable narrators” of our own lives, people whose statements are always asterisked, in the sense of: “Well, Matt* complained about the party — (*but you know how he tends to be).”

I don’t want my statements to be predictable, and I don’t want my statements to be qualified with an asterisk. (I originally used the plural “we” in that sentence, but I ought to speak only for myself. How can I possibly speak authentically for others?) Yet, a way to avoiding being predictably biased seems to be to consider all statements I hear and read, as well as all statements I make, to be already-asterisked (with a different asterisk, one that indicates the statement is merely a statement, truth value unknown), and to not judge any statement as true or false too quickly.

Post Script: This post was partly inspired by A.M.B.’s post about reality in fiction. While I agree that statements in fiction works ought not to be taken as true, I’d also suggest that this skepticism be applied to nonfiction works, too. While a writer shouldn’t knowingly lie in any work labeled “nonfiction,” the writer’s statements aren’t really true, either. After all, we construct the stories we tell, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction; it’s not like we can go around picking stories we find lying around. Nonfiction assertions about “what really happened” are the products of a mind describing experience, which experience doesn’t really happen in words, anyway. Just as storytellers tend to naturally, unconsciously, compress time in their narratives and relate the events in sequence, so do storytellers label particular sensory experiences (like hearing a particular sound) with generally known terms (“a bell tolled”). Research suggests this storytelling may happen even at the subconscious level, as our brains coordinate sensory inputs in ways that make the world knowable to us.

So, it may be unsettling to live in a world of (mild) skepticism toward assertions about reality, but it can perhaps keep us from falling into believing wrong ideas, having a limited concept of reality. This skepticism reminds me of the epistemologically beautiful thing about science: any scientific idea must be liable to be revised or replaced — or else science isn’t science!

Links: Real art, fake science, philosophy nerds, etc.

There’s a bunch of links I want to post and comment on but they’re already getting days old and I gotta get this out:

1. An tale of an artist losing his artist’s voice in a move toward commercial success. I don’t think these two interests are always opposed, but I think it’s all too easy to subvert art to commerce.

2. On whether people are drawn to philosophy because they aren’t natural at enjoying life as they find it. Reminded me of this post of a couple years ago about some of the most remarkable thinkers becoming thinkers because they weren’t so good at understanding other people intuitively. Perhaps people turn to philosophy because they are less inclined to be social, but I’m also reminded of this recent theory — that “computational demands of living in large, complex societies that selected for large brains” — which would seem to suggest that philosophical thinking could be a social capacity turned in a new direction.  I’m not a scientist, but I do consider myself an introvert, and a little socializing fulfills me for quite a while. It sounds so selfish to talk about how interesting I find myself, how well I can occupy my own time, and yet …

3. Real science vs. fake science, a primer. Also, the TED institution considers fake science.

4. Poetry’s significance during U.S. Civil War era.

5. Mary Karr on meditation and ego.

6. The Dish picks out a couple interesting paragraphs from a piece about whether colleges can admit and educate artists. As someone who seen plenty of education (having earned my master’s degree, though a silly education one in the “arts of teaching,” and having taught high school for nearly 12 years), I’m tempted to say that the best thing schools can do is not impede true artists. Of course, teachers can introduce students to a wide range of things, some of which may “turn on” the student, many of which will not. But I was a student who mostly was glad that I could get by in my academic classes and still have free time to pursue my own interests in reading and writing. I suppose a school can teach a student to write like some other person, or to write to some standard of acceptable work, but I don’t know how a writer can become an artist — someone who really sees things in new ways, someone who challenges the status quo, the received wisdom, etc. — without doing so on one’s own. In fact, learning to rely on myself as my arbiter of what’s worth doing, of what’s valuable, seems like the most important step I had to go through as a writer. There’s probably more to say about this in a future post. And I don’t mean to deny that there could be more done by colleges to support creativity. I’ll have to think on this more.

More boring than silence: A runny-nose manifesto

Coming back from eating pizza at Subway tonight, I turned off my car radio. What we were hearing was “more boring than silence,” my wife said. It’s a good line. It prompted me to think about myself (as so many things do) and my writing and whether any particular post I’d write here would be more or, perhaps, less boring than silence, than not writing. I’ve been telling myself for the last couple hours that I wanted to write something today, but since I’ve also been battling a cold the last several days, I’m not sure I’m quite thinking clearly today. Maybe this is an experimental trial — some people have written while drunk, high, or, as Mark Leyner proposed, while having to go to the bathroom, so why not try to write while having a cold?

So, anyway, here is a link to a story I saw earlier about how slang lights up the brain — I don’t know so much about brain scans, but I know that it’s fun for me to play with words: make up new lyrics to songs, invert consonant sounds of adjoining words to make  spoonerisms, etc., so yeah, it seems these language things can be brain-engaging. Also, there’s this story about a theory of how the brain creates meaning from language, of which article I’ve not read the entirety, but I read enough to want to link to it and read it later. Maybe that’s something having a cold does for my brain — it seems to make it OK (less guilt-inducing) for me not to have to fully explain why I found an article relate-worthy.

But also, I tend to have this belief that the specific idea of a piece of writing doesn’t necessarily matter so much as that the text exists as a communique from one conscious mind. I tend to be interested in the raw text, as contrasted to the stylized, formalized, familiar text. While I feel hospitable to Kerouac’s idea of spontaneous prose being valuable, I don’t know that I’d assert the merit of the spontaneously written prose text over the structured, revised text. But I like the rawness, the sense that with a text that has not been overly edited, that is the author’s voice pouring, more-or-less uninhibitedly, onto paper (or screen). These texts can sometimes reveal more than the author even knows he/she means to say. But all meaning can be so … boring. (Note to self: easy on the generalizations).  I guess I mean to say that whatever we mean to say, we still say words.  Our meanings may be different tomorrow — tomorrow I may disagree with what I wrote today, but I still did say it today. I am alive now, at least.

Not that my mere being alive is in itself interesting to others who are also alive. But I guess that if I were to propose a manifesto (and it’s such lovely fun to do so), I’d say I’m interested in finding writing, in doing writing, that isn’t written with an outcome, a final shape, in mind. I’m interested in finding words — on signs, boring old words, and playing with them. I’m interested lately in writing down the things I hear — in turning everyday speech into words-on-paper, which somehow makes them seem more note-worthy, more significant, than speech. This preserves speech — and I’m not sure why that’s a good thing. But I guess I’m less interested in the writing project of a novel, of setting out to write a novel, or of setting out to write any particular thing that is defined before one even starts writing. Why not allow yourself as a writer to be smarter than you are?  Why try to control what you say?  Why try to structure it?  Haven’t we already seen the same stories over and over?

I guess what I’m saying is this: the frontier of new ideas is wide open. We — it is all too easy for our (or any) culture to live in a world it has defined, a mental world on top of/separate from the physical world. This mental world we have partly inherited from generations and cultures before us — for two small, simplified examples, Plato’s theory of Forms (ideas ) as existing separately from, independently of, physical/sense-able reality, and Aristotle’s urge to classify.

And so I’m saying that it’s all too easy for us — OK, for me — to think that what we think is real, matters. That our perceptions and theories are somehow … let’s give an example I use when I talk about philosophy and argument in my philosophy classes. I’ll ask kids if atoms are real, and someone says they are, giving the definition that they are the “smallest amount of indivisible matter.” But, of course, they aren’t — the science story continues beyond the atom, to say that they are divisible into electrons, protons, neutrons, and these last two are further divisible into quarks, and … so, no one really knows what is the smallest piece of matter. Sure, maybe there are vibrating “strings” below that, whatever that metaphorical explanation means. But, so, here’s the thing: nobody knows. There are explanations and theories that accord with known evidence, but these are basically stories, and when I taught science, I felt that all too often, I wasn’t teaching actual inquiry, but a story of science.

When my students and I talk philosophy, I say things like, “scientists would say that the university began at the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, when an infinitesimally small piece of matter and energy expanded to create the universe.” And this doesn’t seem really any more satisfactory of an explanation than giving the Biblical account of creation. But do we need either one? Do we really need to have an account of the origin of everything, which account would be necessarily speculatively fictional at some point?

In fact, why even do we make the distinction between real and not-real?  This is the distinction I present to my students and I lead them through a discussion of the definition of real, and how we’d decide what’s real and what’s not-real, and then we apply this definition to some particular, like numbers or ghosts or optical illusions. I want to show them how unsettled these biggest of questions truly are — which, by extension, (and I’m not sure how many kids do extend their thinking), shows how flimsy are most systems of belief (of any flavor of religion or philosophy or ideology), requiring as they do acceptance of some ultimately unprovable premises and definitions.

OK, this feels a tad sophomoric here, and of course I want to seem not that — I want to seem Worldly and Intelligent and so on … and of course, as soon as I start making generalized statements from a relativist position (“There is no truth,” he said, speaking relatively), arguments fall apart. But I guess I say this as background to justify/rationalize my feelings of disinterest in Perfectly Constructed Stories or Insightful Essays. I want to see people who are aware of the openness, the possibility, of being alive, of being conscious, right now, or, since right now is always moving on, passing away, people who are at least not bullsh!tting themselves into thinking that there are answers. That last part seems harsh, but I guess I sense that there’s urgency to this quest, this feels important, more important to me than writing some story or essay that peels off from this target and gets occupied in some little side-cave, when the main cave still is unexplored. I’m not sure the cave metaphor is a good one, either. Metaphors too are wonderful bullsh!t, the flocked wallpaper on the sentences of life (whatever that means — ha!).

I’d better quit before my brain shuts down anymore. But I guess this description is as good as any I’ve done before in trying to explain (to myself, even) my sense of urgency, of importance, of my mission — which mission is …?? I don’t even know it’s a cave. I usually console myself with the idea that there is no place we’re trying to get to, so I’m already there, so I don’t need to push on. That, if there are no particular answers (and why would there be? I’d only recognize a meaning of life if it came in the form of words, in the form of an idea, or a feeling, or something — so that if the purpose of life is merely to procreate more life, that seems unsatisfying, somehow, to my intellectual consciousness — perhaps my consciousness, since it feels like it was born new to each moment, it finds itself alive in this moment, cannot be satisfied with any mere answers to the question of the meaning of life, or of any other enduring, basic questions) —

That, if there are no particular answers, then satisfaction is to be found in the process, in the act of expressing, in the act of thinking, in the acts of being engaged in thinking and writing — and maybe this is as good an explanation as any as to why I’m more interested in the act of the person talking, the writer writing, than in what are the messages of the talker or the writer. Lately I’ve noticed some of my students saying things to me that are true only for them — “it’s hot in here,” or “this song reminds me of when I was 8 and  …” — and I think, “OK, I don’t feel hot,” and “this song reminds me of something totally different,” but in some sense, it doesn’t matter what they say. That they say it, that they can express some perception or some association their consciousnesses made, is beautiful.  Parenthetically, I don’t always think these are beautiful — sometimes I have wondered why they are saying these things aloud. But as I wrote this tonight, I recognized the beauty of their speaking, and now I’m glad I did this writing and learned from it. And (here comes the titlular tie-in), this learning is why writing and speaking aren’t more boring than silence.

What we are to do with the insights/new ideas/epiphanies that come to us while writing, I don’t know either. Again, I don’t want to say that these things are valuable as independent ideas that should be printed in some Tome of Wisdom someplace — but perhaps having these insights, learning from ourselves, is how we shape our consciousnesses as these arrive in each new moment of consciousness.

Nonfic: Metaphors to explain invisible science

[31 Jan 2012: This is a thought from when I was teaching high school science.]

Everything we can’t experience directly is/must be a metaphor! That is, it must be explained in terms of things we DO experience or can picture at our macro, real world level. Thus electron “orbits,” or electron “clouds” — this is what we must do to make sense for ourselves of indirect data.

— Mh, 26 Sept. 2002