Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Like most white males with college degrees, I am deeply disturbed by Trump’s election. All the specific negative consequences (consequences I do not wish to list because reminding myself of them only increases my sense of despondency) contribute to that ache in my stomach, but a disorienting worm in that clot of concern is helplessness. I feel that way because my tool for dealing with things like the Trump victory—logical analysis—has been undermined by that victory. Logical arguments based on fact were not just insufficient; for many Americans, they were not even relevant. Appealing to emotions—telling people you will address their concerns, proving to them that you understand those concerns by stoking their fear and prejudice and anger while making vague references to solutions—is the kind of argument that won the day. Even Nate Silver’s painstaking logical analysis of the polling data was wrong and unhelpful.

Trump told people things were terrible when they were not terrible, but it is pointless to kick that dead horse because citing facts has been proven ineffective (an assertion based on fact) since people who make decisions based on wishful thinking are immune to logical argument. Even if the wishful thinking were less negatively motivated, it would still be a problem; that for so many, it is negative, makes the need for a solution more urgent. If facts and logic don’t matter, what are the tools we are going to use to fix this? How can I move beyond being helpless.

I am not thrilled with the conclusion I have come to. If hate and fear got us here, maybe compassion is the only way back to where we can start to use logic again. That seems like such a limp response, since my hurt and anger wish for a terrible swift sword. I am not good at compassion, but as I try out courses of action in my head, I keep getting to the last corner and turn to see Compassion sitting there smiling at me, not with a bright, cheerful, sunny smile, but a calm and slightly bemused smile that shows awareness of my internal conflict, a smile full of, well, compassion.

Looking for something else, I happened on a passage in Thomas Carlyle’s 19th Century Sartor Resartus, which suggested a way for me to start thinking about my approach to compassion:

‘In vain thou deniest it,’ says the Professor; ‘thou art my Brother. Thy very Hatred, thy very Envy, those foolish Lies thou tellest of me in thy splenetic humor: what is all this but an inverted Sympathy? Were I a Steam-engine, wouldst thou take the trouble to tell lies of me? Not thou! I should grind all unheeded, whether badly or well.’

Those who disagree with us, especially if they are particularly forceful about it, care about what we think of them. This sensitivity to the opinions of others is a clear Trump trait. Those who supported Trump are likely to respond well to some respect, and looking for some common ground to build that respect is a laudable goal.

Of course this might be easy for me to say because I live in Massachusetts, where Trump supporters are a clear minority. On the other hand, the compassion may be even more appreciated.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

People, Who Live in a Glass Houses

In the previous entry, “In a Glass Dome,” we considered the problem of accepting the simpler scientific explanation for something when that acceptance requires a change in world view. Perhaps global warming as a result of human activity is such an explanation. It may not seem as momentous as accepting that the earth moves around the sun, but it is akin to it.

God by Terry GilliamPhoto: Cinema 5/EMI Films (BBC America)
Those who believe that the natural world was created for us by a benevolent God (well, once we disobeyed, he became a bit less benevolent, but it was still our world) those believers, may have a hard time accepting that we can screw the place up and disrupt the divine order of things. For such believers, making that claim overestimates our power; besides, because divine intervention to destroy or restore the world is always possible, thinking that we can control what happens is an act of pride. However, if we see ourselves as just part of the natural world, not its overlord but the cleverest of its animals, we realize that we can die out, perhaps the victims of our own cleverness because nothing guarantees that our species will survive to the end of the world with trumpets and angels and all. So in order to accept global warming as a serious problem, we need first to accept that we are not the special creatures of an all powerful being who will do what is best for us.

The opposite of the humility-based argument is the hubris-based argument, expressed by those confident that humans’ godlike ingenuity can increase the capacity of the world regardless of what happens. They point to how the Green Revolution, resulting from an array of agricultural innovations that replaced traditional farming methods, radically increased the world-wide crop yield. The increase in food after World War II was almost miraculous, and some places where starvation was endemic were eventually able to produce surpluses. Those who feel that the potential for innovation is unlimited are not intimidated by the warming of the earth. 

Of course the Catch-22 of that position is that since we have not been innovative enough to to reduce the rate at which the earth is warming as a result of our other innovations, why do we think we can solve the problems resulting from global warming when we could not deal with its causes? Even the Green Revolution, with its heavy reliance on chemicals, fossil fuel, mono-culture, and massive irrigation, is itself becoming a problem as the cheap food it has been able to yield has wiped out more resilient, low-impact, local agricultural practices. Now the climate disruptions created by global warming--the shifts in seasonal patterns, droughts and floods, and violent weather events—are putting stress on industrial agricultural practices that helped produce the warming. It is a gamble to go on in an unsustainable manner depending on some unspecified, future breakthrough to save us, to think of the earth as an infinitely open system.

In 1966, the economist Kenneth Boulding argued we should treat earth as a closed system and understand that we need to be as careful of what we are doing as we would be on a spaceship. Buckminister Fuller warned in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1968) that fossil fuel is a finite resource developed over millions of years, a resource we should treat as temporary, something we should use to develop renewable sources of energy. NASA’s Big Blue Marble composite photograph taken by Apollo 17 in 1975 shows the globe of earth as a whole surrounded by the blackness of space. Though we can travel over the continuous surface of the earth and never reach an edge, this image shows that sharp border between the earth and the blackness surrounding it: our earth is a small finite spot in a huge hostile universe. 

In 1988 when James Hanson of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified before the US Congress about global warming, some Americans began to take notice. People of my generation grew up with the fear of a nuclear apocalypse and were used to the idea that people could make the earth unlivable. However, the Mutually Assured Destruction approach to world peace (appropriate acronym, MAD) involved devices whose sole purpose was to destroy, so all we needed to do was not turn them on. But global warming is different because it is a byproduct of living well, the dark side of progress. In order to stop the destruction we must do more than not turn things on; we must turn things off, and to do that we must change the way we live at a fundamental level.

Just as Galileo’s observations and analysis cemented Copernicus’s heliocentric explanation in place, the subsequent work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forced us to accept that our actions are affecting the earth’s viability for humans. Global warming reminds us that in deciding what to do, we must not ask only “Can we do it?” but we must also ask “Should we do it?” The first is a scientific question; the second uses scientifically derived information, but it is an ethical question. We must rediscover that the universe does not revolve around us humans, that the earth was not made for us, but that we have evolved and thrived in the earth’s environment, and if that environment changes too much, our species will die out.

Once again accepting scientific results disrupts comforting religious and humanistic world views. To extend the survival of our species, we must accept the possibility of its death.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In a Glass Dome

So let us begin with a classic case of simplifying.
Ptolemy’s planets from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1st Edition, 1771). Wikipedia

In this diagram of Ptolemy’s universe (developed ca. 150), planets revolve in epicycles around invisible points revolving around a stable earth. This explanation squared with the ancient belief that our earth was the center of the universe. 

Based on Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Wikipedia
Move the sun to the center as Copernicus did in 1543, and the need for epicycles disappears. Natural philosophers had found Ptolemy’s explanation satisfactory for about 1200 years and resisted Copernicus’s. Beginning in 1609, however, Galileo began making observations with telescopes, producing a series of phenomena that made the geocentric model of the universe harder and harder to defend. However, even Copernicus, for whom the starry dome of the night sky overhead became the “immobile sphere of fixed stars,” did not get it all right.
The accuracy of the sun-centered explanation of the motion of the planets seems obvious to us now, since it is a so much simpler explanation. We often refer to Occam’s razor to explain the scientific preference for the simplest explanation, but William of Occam (1287-1347) was not the first one to formulate this idea; ironically, a much earlier statement of it, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible,” was made by Ptolemy. However, another formulation of Occam’s razor is more precise in its application of simplicity: “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected” (Wikipedia). 
The Ptolemaic model required many assumptions, some of which reached far beyond astronomy and were entangled with religious belief so that in the 16th Century, disassembling the world view based on the geocentric universe was hardly a simple act because the heliocentric view of the planets required a whole new view of the world.Religion functioned then as science does now: a universally accepted schema for explaining the world. For us, science predicts the future, tells us what to eat, heals us, speaks the obscure language of mathematics, explicates the stars and planets to us, and understands the mysteries of the invisible quanta, just as medieval Christianity did. If some discovery falsified crucial assumptions of the scientific process—the discovery that, for example, the earth is actually a computer simulation and the code has just been changed so that some conclusions already proven are no longer true—if such a proposition were itself proven, would we all embrace it immediately because it was a simple explanation for why some outcomes defied science? For the 16th Century, heliocentrism was not a simple solution.

Galileo’s proofs of the Copernican universe met with serious push-back, and he died while still in official disgrace, but later, when he was reburied in a place of greater honor, the middle finger of his right hand was removed from his body. Currently on display in a glass dome, it is suitably mounted in a vertical position, perhaps as a warning to those of us too invested in our assumptions to see the simple truth of our situation.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Natural Language Processing

I am writing this during allergy season, which many people associate with the appearance of goldenrod. However, goldenrod is not a problem for allergy suffers, because its flashy flowers mean it depends on attracting insects to spread its heavy pollen. If you are searching for a culprit, look among those plants who do not care whether anyone notices them, those with, say, green flowers, like ragweed, which blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Its nondescript flowers sticking straight up in the air depend on wind pollination, so they fill the air with their pollen that we then breathe in. How we understand the world influences how we see it.
Monarch Butterfly on Golden Rod
I have thought that perhaps I can help people find that richer relationship with the natural world through the power of metaphor, which charges the world with the electricity of imagination and enables us to see and feel the excitement inherent in the world that surrounds and includes us. Just look at the names of those two late summer plants: “golden rod” for the tall beautiful plant that entices insects to itself as part of its sexual reproduction and “rag weed” for the unattractive, low down plant that promiscuously spreads its pollen to unwelcome passages. The contrast in their natures is captured in the imagery of the popular name—riches and rags.
I call what I want to do “nature writing” rather than “environmental writing”, because environmental writing seems more journalistic and news/event driven and shifts focus as the news of the day shifts focus. Nature writing, in my lexicon, strives to be reflective and universal; I want my writing to be powered by our engagement with the nature where “lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” However, I am beginning to think that I can no longer write about nature without some environmental undertones or overtones. To deal with a real place is to deal with its ecology, and as McKibbon pointed out in 1989 (and is even more obvious today) there is no ecology that is unaffected by human decision making.
But even my dependence on explicit metaphor may be suspect. As George Lackoff and Mark Johnson pointed out in Metaphors We Live By, first published in 1987, even our everyday language is shot through with metaphor, and we use interconnected networks of metaphor to define and clarify our expression. For example, an idea is like a plant: it grows and spreads and can be nurtured and can die. Metaphors drawn from concrete experience of nature weave their way into our thinking, and those ideas then echo in our descriptions of nature, so that the ancient forest becomes majestic and inspiring like a grand idea. That relationship suggests that language is a good way into nature because language and nature interact in our experience, just as our abandoned fields of disturbed earth create an environment for ragweed, and ragweed creates an environment for us. And now I will go blow my nose.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


We were visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I bent over a display case in the Yellow Room, one of whose themes is music, to look at a letter, which I think was written by Brahms, but as I did so I noticed a small card in the corner of the case explaining that its contents were copies, since the originals would be damaged by the light. I was surprised at how quickly I lost interest in the case once I knew that.

 Blue Room from the Gardner Museum (
The Gardner Museum is a wonderfully bizarre place, designed by Isabella Stewart Gardner herself to house the particular art collection that she owned. She envisioned the museum itself as a work of art, so she specified where and how all the art was to be displayed. The museum was completed in 1903 and her decorating tastes are Victorian, and by today’s standards, she is into clutter. Of course, the museum professionals have built a modern wing where they can do it “right,” but the main part of the museum embodies the vision of a particular person shaped by a sensibility different from today’s. An exhibit while we were there featured some masterworks from the collection. A section of the museum was closed and they had placed (as it says in the exhibit description) “[a] select group of paintings and drawings in our contemporary exhibition space, [to be] seen up close and lit to best advantage.” We could indeed see the paintings, hung at gallery height with space between them, but the effect seemed generic compared to Isabella Gardner’s more idiosyncratic arrangements.

That same disconnect from the past may also be at work in my response to the letters in the Yellow Room. The difference between the real thing and an accurate reproduction of the thing makes me recall Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” written in 1936, and prompted by the rise of photography, sound recording, and film. The ability to reproduce a work of art raises the question of the role of the original. The problem has only intensified since 1936 with the creation of digitization, since the colors of a painting on a high definition screen glow from the inside and allow the examination at extraordinary detail.

This reproduction of Rembrant’s The Night Watch and this detail of the left eye of the central figure [though such detail is possible anywhere on the painting] are from the Google Art Project.

Benjamin talks about the real thing having an aura, and surely that is part of it. An original is something Rembrandt touched and being in the presence of the actual object gives me, at least, a slight tingle that resonates from the physical connection with an object created over 300 years ago.

 Night Watch Gallery --Eric Smits
The actual object today is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, so the setting of the original is quite different from the one I see it in, a computer screen in a small second-story room in a house in northern Massachusetts. The context in which we see something has an impact on how we perceive it, even though that context is generally extraneous to the work of art. As my Gardner Museum experience reminded me, displaying art is itself art. Ultimately, however, we cannot look at a work of art in its original context because contexts have quick expiration dates; any film with the world Trade Center in the New York skyline has been changed forever. 

The ability of a reproduction to take the work of art out of context seems less damning than what reproducing implies about the object itself. To value the high quality reproduction, we must assume that the essential aspects of the work of art are being reproduced in the reproduction. We capture the color, the structure, the tones and shades, even the cracks in the texture. But each age has its own values, its own sense of what is important and what is unimportant, and we will leave out what we think is unimportant, and something is lost in the transmission across time. Only some fresh eye looking at the original will see it and point it out, and our eyes will be reopened to something we have become blind to, even when we look directly into its huge, enlarged eye.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mystery Lessen

From Hans Jenny. The Soil Resource (1980, Reprinted 2012)
Rainwater falls randomly from the sky into a tree where the rain becomes organized into drip patterns defined by the shape of the leaves, branches, and bark of the tree until, dripping into the soil, the water becomes randomly organized once again. Wendell Berry, in a letter to Wes Jackson (reprinted in Home Economics, 3-5), critiques this description from a scientific book on soil by arguing that randomness is not “a verifiable condition,” but is “a limit of perception.” He asserts that “random” is a misleading word that assumes there is no possible pattern in what is observed; the more proper term is “mystery.” “Random” assumes that there is not possible pattern; “mystery” assumes we just can’t see it.

While Berry emphasizes practicality, he associates mystery with religion and there is danger in letting mystery come trailing that umbilical cord. The earliest uses are theological and often were associated with secret religious rites. The most common and comprehensive theological use of “mystery” today is probably based on this Oxford English Dictionary definition: “A religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; esp. a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving.” Defined this way, “mystery” becomes as much of a dead end as “random,” shutting down further exploration with certainty. If we posit a god capable of creating unsolvable mysteries, in a sense the mysteries disappear into God, who embodies the solutions. Why do we die? God does not die. Why are there evil people? God is perfect and entirely good. Why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? It will all work out because God is perfectly just. God resolves all mysteries, but if we take God out of the picture, what remains are the mysteries for which there are no facile answers.

The most expansive non-theological use of the term “mystery” is related to the OED definition, “A hidden or secret thing; something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension; a person or thing evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood; an enigma.” Despite the use of the word “inexplicable” in the definition, a Google search on “solve a mystery” or “solve the mystery” yields 8.6 M hits, so that for many of us a mystery is something to be solved; it is open-ended, and in that sense calling something a mystery in the non-theological sense is a beginning.

The popular genre of the murder mystery turns on the axis of logical analysis. A satisfying ending generally involves explaining motivations and events with proof that establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, though such stories also allow for the operation of “justice” outside the law. Such an extra-legal conclusion would be unsatisfying, would become a crime in need of solution.

I have argued earlier that not all conflicting dualities can be resolved and that perhaps our best understanding is to accept both and see the world in 3-D. Maybe the better way to describe our response should be to say we can’t ignore dualities. They suggest enigmas, mysteries, in need of deeper exploration, though I suspect that we will discover deeper mysteries that allow us to understand our state more clearly; it will likely be mysteries all the way down.

Science should be done surrounded by mystery. Religion and science could both use more respect for mystery. Perhaps if religions treated God as more mysterious and thought twice before claiming to know what God wants and to speak in God’s behalf, the world might be a more peaceful place.

Friday, May 13, 2016


If we are condemned/blessed to see always double with our two, separated eyes, this biological fact may point to a philosophical assumption: we cannot know the one, unquestionable truth about anything. What we know should be built on a foundation of uncertainty, but that does not mean we can build in a shoddy manner.
Wright's Imperial Hotel in the 1930's (Wikipedia)

On September 1, 1923, Frank Lloyd Wright's new Imperial Hotel opened in Tokyo. That same day a 7.9 scale earthquake struck Tokyo causing widespread destruction. Wright received a telegram from Tokyo: "Hotel stands undamaged as a monument of your genius hundreds of homeless provided by perfectly maintained service congratulations[.] Congratulations[.]" The building was designed to sit on alluvial mud so it was not anchored to the heaving and twisting earth but built to ride on that uncertain foundation.

The story of the hotel’s response to the earthquake, an episode in the legend of Frank Lloyd Wright, has a heroic ring to it, and we depend on such heroes who stand as shining mountains among the lowly hills and valleys to give us a sense of security about our value as a species.
A photo taken shortly after the 1923 earthquake. The hotel is 
on the left, and a burning bank is on the right. (Wikipedia)
However, not all accounts of the events are so unambiguous. Robert Reitherman, speaking at a world conference on earthquake engineering in 1980, concluded that while Wright’s Imperial Hotel was an impressive building, the success of its response to the 1923 earthquake has been overstated. The building did suffer some damage, while other large buildings in areas as or more severely affected by the earthquake suffered less or no damage. The “floating” foundation was probably of dubious value in the earthquake, and in 1968, when the building was torn down, it had been and was continuing to sink into the mud. What did help, however, were the separation joints between sections of the building, which allowed the building to flex with the undulations of the earth. The story of its unique and exceptional success persists, however, because we love such stories.

The best heroes, of course are fictional, with no existence outside their heroic stories, because no troublesome facts will emerge later like impurities in metal to pollute and weaken the hero’s stature. We climb into the willing suspension of disbelief, and we are swept along with those heroes on their great adventures. We feel as if the events happened, and when they conclude, the afterglow of triumph persists in the memory. No reality will undercut the heroics, because supported by our experiencing of them, they need no reality to support them.

Sometimes, some of us who hear the stories, want them to be real so badly, want so much to recreate that feeling of triumph in the real world, that we create organizations and gather with other Trekkies or Jedi Knights. Even though the believers know the stories did not actually happen, for them the stories embody truths that can be applied to real life, when the Force is with them. The worlds created by such untrue, true stories and floating on foundations of belief will remain intact only if they flex with the pushback from the forces outside their enclaves, for if they remain rigid those beliefs will collapse into a formless and fiery heap.

But even the most reasonable conclusions of the most reasonable of us float on a thin layer we construct atop reality. When we think our knowledge is firmly anchored in the material world, we must remember that earthquakes shake the ground, and some separation joints, allowing flexibility in our thinking, might help our ideas survive.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Science and Arts

At one point, I thought I had figured out the crucial difference between science and the arts: Science could speak with authority only about things in general; it could not say anything about a specific individual. Science draws conclusions about the species acer saccharum; the artist writes about what a specific sugar maple outside the window means to her as a window into the connection between humans and trees.
Sugar Maple planted 
in front of our house 
in Wellsboro, PA
One problem with my tidy conclusion grew out of my work with biologists in our university’s environmental studies program. When I looked at specific trees with them, they saw so much more than I did so they could spot variations that I missed. They seemed better equipped to appreciate individuals than I was.

My brother Tim is a research scientist and a medical doctor who is senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the University at Buffalo Medical School. So I thought he might have some insight into this paradox; so one day as we were sitting on the patio during a visit to our younger sister, I summarized my theory:

Me: Science can speak only in generalities. Since scientific conclusion must be replicable, it can draw a conclusion about a species but not about one particular tree.

Tim: Actually, your statement ignores the importance of the particular in science because the foundation of science is statements about particular events, each one maintaining its individual characteristics. I run a series of experiments and then look at the outcomes of each instance, and the initial conclusion I draw is that in n% of t cases, when we did x, we obtained a result y in the range between a and b, or whatever. We make a restricted statement about what we observe in the sample we analyzed. Any subsequent generalization we draw is valid only in so far as it connects with what happened in the particular instances in the experiment we performed. If a generalization is insufficiently connected to those original specific incidents, then it is not scientifically valid.

Based on what Tim said—that scientists depend on their ability to observe and distinguish particular individuals to draw their conclusions—I concluded that I needed to revise my neat distinction. And the more I thought about his point, the more I began to question, for example, the role of the specific in literature. After all, Emily Dickinson sits in her room and writes,

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

Dickinson packs into four brief lines the insight that a person standing under the sky (contained by it) can also contain the sky in her mind so that each one contains the other. In addition, both the mind can contain “You,” which could mean the reader, who is in the poet’s mind as she writes, or it could be the universal “you,” so that not only does a person’s mind contain the sky that contains it, but the brain also contains the person who contains it. Folding these ideas in on themselves should unbalance us a bit and force us to look with fresh eyes at our place in the world.

Dickinson exploits both her insight into experience and the elasticity of language to point to a universal experience. She draws a conclusion based on an insight; when that conclusion is (finally) published, we get to see whether it resonates with others so that, as in science, the particular is the foundation for the general. The experiment in this case is the work of literature, and where v is value, p is the number of people who read it, and t is the time over which people continue to read it, we decide whether something is a great piece of literature based on v = pt. If the poem contains an effective combination of particular and general experience, then the value is high.

For a while I had a shiny new theory about the difference between science and art, not one based on general vs. particular, but one based on unambiguous vs. ambiguous or single statements vs. double statements of truth. The goal of science is a statement so restricted in its meaning and scope that there is no difference in understanding between speaker and listener, or that difference approaches zero. Thus, scientists can communicate (ideally) without ambiguity,

In previous posts I have argued for the complexity and ambiguity inherent in questions, in metaphors, in creative non-fiction, in art, in humor, and in the concept of truth, and have asserted that the ability of artistic and humanistic expression to embody and help us understand the ambiguity inherent in our worlds is its great strength. So, here is another tidy distinction.

But then, of course, there is quantum mechanics, with its wave-particle duality and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Erwin Schrödinger, by creating a thought experiment—a metaphor of sorts—tried to point out the absurdity of positing that the quantum state of an electron should be measured using probability. In his experiment, a cat in a sealed box has an equal probability of being alive or dead. Using probability, quantum theory would assert that the cat was partly alive and partly dead, a patently ridiculous idea. Unfortunately for Schrödinger, his opponents embraced his experiment as an explanation, stating that opening the box and observing the state of the cat collapses the superimposed states and resolves the conflict. Unobserved, however, the cat is both alive and dead, just as an electron can be in more than one state.

I do not pretend to understand what is going on with quantum theory yet, but out at the edge, where theoretical physics is operating, we are dealing with ideas where opposites must be held in tension, the kinds of ideas that have long been formulated in the language of art and literature. I don’t know what we will discover when we are finally able to open the quantum mechanics box and look inside, but right now the unopened box seems to be half art and half science.

So ultimately, science and art both contain ambiguities and set side by side are contained in a larger ambiguity, which also includes all of us.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

One Can’t Handle the Truth.

“It takes two to speak the truth,—one to speak, and another to hear.”
I came across this passage in doing the research for another blog post. When I first noted it, the sentence struck me because it suggested that truth is collaborative: it has two participants who must coordinate their understandings. The expression captured another complexity in how we know the world. However, the statement now suggests something deeper.

Person A
Person B
Person A
in the present
Person A
in the past
Person A
in the past
Person A
in the present
Variations on "two to speak the truth"
Collaboration may be a potential attribute of truth, but it may not be an essential one. It may take “two to speak the truth,” but that does not mean it takes two different people; it can also be two versions of the same person. The gap between my original understanding of Thoreau’s statement and my subsequent understanding illustrate one aspect of how I can function like two people. We can also tell the truth to ourselves, perhaps after deluding ourselves for a while. On the other hand, we write things down, time passes, and we change, so the new person we become can learn the truth from the old person we were.

In the present or the past, we can tell the truth to ourselves, and though the gap between speaker and hearer in this case may be small, the two are not identical.

In addition to the speaker/hearer duality in “truth” is the statement/reality duality. In the Oxford English Dictionary one high-level definition for the word “truth” is “Something that conforms with fact or reality.” That definition means that the “Something” is not fact or reality; it bears a relationship but is not identical.

What fits between the arrows, we may accept, but beyond that 
right arrow we might decide the gap is too large.
Because the statement is always a translation of the case, there is always a gap between the case and the statement, even when we are doing no more than quoting someone (orally, the tone and timbre will not be identical and in print the context will differ). We accept some slippage in the case-statement relationship; we allow for adjustments, but sometimes the statement moves too far from the case and the statement is no longer a truth, even if the speaker believes it is true. No matter how close, however, necessarily a gap opens up between the case and the statement of it.

This doubleness of the truth is no basis for dismissing “truth” as an illusion or as relative, nor does it mean there are two truths involved when “two speak the truth.” The separation of the human eyes means that each eye sees something different; Nick Sousanis in Unflattening [page 4] suggests we can observe this effect by closing alternating eyes as we look at a finger held up against a background. The two separate images converge into a single image to give us our depth perception. The constituent elements of truth act in the same way; though those elements are a unity, they do not collapse into a single entity, but remain in tension, and it is in the tension among the speaker and the hearer and the case and the statement that the truth lies and does not lie. In both senses.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Ambiguity of Humor: The Joke’s on You

From the King Trump Bible. Real Time with Bill Maher
September 18, 2015
This Bible parody from Bill Maher’s show is intended to be humorous. I think it is. It uses the wonderful camel/needle eye, rich man/heaven comparison, which appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, and uses it to satirize a man whose primary claim to fame is that he is a rich man as he tries to gain the support of Christians. It also throws in a shot at Trump’s exaggerated promises and his Mexican wall proposal. 
However, the humor depends on what the reader or viewer brings to the transaction.

Maher introduces the segment including this and other Trump Bible passages by referring to Trump’s ranking his The Art of the Deal as the second-greatest book of all time. Anyone’s response to this joke and the others will depend on what the reader/viewer thinks about Trump and the bible. A Trump supporter might see this as an attack on his values, an effort to ridicule his beliefs; he is unlikely to notice the point about the incongruity between the avaricious Trump and the poverty espoused by Jesus. A Christian Trump supporter may see this as mocking the inconsistency between the teachings of Christianity and the wealth in religion. Some people could see it as an insult to the bible. Humor is all about frame of reference. Part of what makes the Trump campaign so frightening for some people is that given their values, the Trump campaign is a joke; those people are terrified and astonished to realize that so many people actually have values that are so outlandish that Trump is a serious real option.

Let’s look at someone who is the opposite of Donald Trump: Henry David Thoreau. Here he is talking about taking a walk. After referring to the Crusades, Thoreau advises,

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk. “Walking” The Atlantic (June 1862).

He is exaggerating, using hyperbole, for humorous and rhetorical effect. I always smile at the end, when his list crescendos. For me, he is not making fun of taking walks seriously; he is pointing out that a walk in the natural landscape is an opportunity for adventure, and though he is exaggerating, his description endows the simple walk with an air of grandeur. Later in the essay he compares the landscape of Italy, rich in Roman ruins, to the landscape of the U.S. and concludes that we are actually living in the kind of golden age that those ruins commemorate.
Henry David Thoreau
There he is arguing seriously; in the case of the walk, he must overload the comparison using irony to make the point and not make the point at the same time.

Not everybody got Thoreau’s ironic humor. Based on Thoreau’s writing, in 1865 in the North American Review, James Russell Lowell concluded that, “Thoreau had no humor, and this implies that he was a sorry logician” (338). Though Lowell did have some reputation as a humorist, as well as a poet and an essayist when he wrote that, he has little reputation left to speak of today.

Perhaps even Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson may have not always gotten the joke:

The tendency to magnify the moment, to read all the laws of Nature in the one object or one combination under your eye, is of course comic to those who do not share the philosopher's perception of identity. To him there was no such thing as size. The pond was a small ocean; the Atlantic, a large Walden Pond. He referred every minute fact to cosmical laws. (Emerson’s Eulogy)

Many, more modern critics, including E. B. White, have found humor in his writing, but how can we tell whether Thoreau was serious about preparing for a walk by preparing for death? Surely if he was, he would be Lowell’s “sorry logician.”

We can’t know for sure, but Thoreau was a great admirer of Thomas Carlyle and of Carlyle’s brilliant and wierdly ironic Sartor Resartus. In his essay “Thomas Carlyle and His Works,” Thoreau observes,

Sartor Resartus is, perhaps, the sunniest and most philosophical, as it is the most autobiographical of his works, in which he drew most largely on the experience of his youth. But we miss everywhere a calm depth, like a lake, even stagnant, and must submit to rapidity and whirl, as on skates, with all kinds of skillful and antic motions, sculling, sliding, cutting punch-bowls and rings, forward and backward. The talent is very nearly equal to the genius. Sometimes it would be preferable to wade slowly through a Serbonian bog, and feel the juices of the meadow.

Here Thoreau uses ice skating images to describe the “antic motions” of the work. According to Sophia Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, Thoreau was “an experienced skater” who executed “dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps on the ice.” Thoreau contrasts two extreme states—the swift, precise movement of the skater and the slow, deliberate movement of one wading through a bog—both of which his life and writing suggest he was capable of and capable of appreciating.

Whether a passage like his prescription for walking is humorous or not will depend on what each of us thinks of the context and the author. The difference between Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report version) and Bill O’Reilly was essentially the audience. Lowell thought Thoreau was a humorless mediocrity; I think Thoreau was brilliant. Although what the author intended to say does not determine the outcome (many who intend to be funny are not), in the case of humor, we would like to know whether we are laughing at or with the author. Sometimes we will never be sure, especially when authors sail close to the wind, the most exciting point of sail, but ultimately humor depends on an agreement, real or illusory, between an author and an audience.