Thursday, August 6, 2020

Literature, cinema and truth

Is there any point in trying to set out one's personal criteria for judging fiction, plays and films? I think there is. For me good writing etc. represents human realities without undue simplification, sentimentality or ideological distortion.

Let me explain what led me to address this question in the first place. Prompted by what I see as an ongoing crisis in the education sector and beyond, I have been trying to articulate (on this site and elsewhere) a knowledge-based approach to education and culture. Formal education, I argued, needs to be firmly knowledge-based if it is to resist the tendency to become a vehicle for various kinds of propaganda. But my concerns are with the broader culture, not just with education.

Knowledge and truth are concepts which can be applied to the propositions and theories of the various sciences, to claims made in ordinary life, and also – in a sense – to artistic representations.

Most forms of knowledge are practical. But knowledge doesn’t necessarily have to have a use to be worthwhile. Science, scholarship and general knowledge add to our understanding of the world and ourselves and so have intrinsic value even when there are no practical applications.

Those activities generally seen as constituting “the arts” have an unusual status. They are practices but (apart from traditional crafts) they are detached from mundane reality and are not “useful” in the normal sense of the word. In a general sense, the arts could be seen to involve an extension into the adult world of aspects of the childhood practice of play.

There are definitional problems with the concept of art: the term has a positive connotation but is intrinsically vague. But we can still talk sensibly about particular art forms and make reasoned assertions about particular kinds of object or product (novels or films, say) or individual works.

Serious imaginative literature and cinema can be seen as making claims about the world and human experience along the lines that life and human experience is like this. These claims are necessarily implicit and indirect and typically engage the emotions as much as or more than the intellect.

Even apparently explicit claims within artistic works are not direct claims. For example, explicit statements in the dialogue or narration of a novel or film are embedded within an imaginative construction and cannot be taken solely at face value. The statements are actions within a world which is not our world – at least not in a literal sense.

Literary and cinematic works seek to engage us in imagined worlds. These worlds may or may not be plausible representations of recognizable aspects of the world we know, or of our own subjective personal and social lives.

Truth in literature or cinema, then, means something like true to some aspect of life as we experience it. We respond: Yes, that rings true; that’s how it works, that’s how it feels.

Or not, as the case may be. All too often the representation in question is false in one way or another. It may be simplistic or sentimentalized or ideologized. In such cases we are being presented with a distorted or impoverished version of reality.

Some distortions and simplifications are worse than others. Simple escapism is harmless enough. To the extent that distortions and simplifications are understood and accepted as such, no harm is done. But we should, I think, be particularly wary of sentimentality and ideological bias.

In a sentimental novel or film, cheap tricks are used to manipulate the emotions. Sentimentality is the antithesis of art and the antithesis of truth. Does it matter if people enjoy this sort of thing? Perhaps not. But sentimental thinking is very insidious and can distort the way we think and see the world in serious ways.

To the extent that a writer exploits sentimentality, he or she is less of a writer. Charles Dickens, for example, had great rhetorical energy and inventive powers. But his personal and social understanding (as it is reflected in his novels) was marked by a strong tendency to sentimentality.

I won’t talk here about ideology except to say that art is not about propagandizing which is, of course, a form of manipulation. Though propaganda often exploits artistic forms, it does so to the detriment of the artistic integrity of the work in question.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

When is a discipline not a discipline?

Disruptions to business as usual, such as we have been experiencing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, inevitably raise questions regarding which activities or institutions are essential or important for a good or fulfilling life, and which may be happily dispensed with. Answers to such questions are often very personal, of course.

My focus here is on activities associated with education and research. A strong case can be made that – especially within the arts and humanities, but also within the social sciences – skepticusm about the possibility of objective knowledge has been taken to extremes and, in fact, weaponized to protect entrenched interests. In view of this, I thought it useful to articulate a firmly knowledge-based perspective on education and research.

I am always a bit uneasy talking about academic disciplines and discipline boundaries. For one thing, it feels a bit redundant. Disciplines are what they are, and practitioners and observers make their own judgments about where to draw boundaries and about the worth or value of particular fields. Nonetheless, judgments must be made. And their significance is all the greater in times of change, in times of crisis: in times like these, in fact, when the future is in the balance and business as usual is just no longer an option.

I see our educational and cultural infrastructure as having lost its legitimacy and being in desperate need of reshaping and radical reform. The early years of education are particularly crucial but universities find themselves having to do remedial work and teach basic skills. I won't go into detail. Most people know the situation and everyone has their own ideas about possible solutions.

What is clear is that much more needs to be done in the earlier years, both in terms of imparting practical skills and knowledge, and in terms of broader goals associated with education’s socializing – or civilizing – function. It is beyond dispute that the K-12 system in America and many equivalent systems elsewhere have been failing badly for years.

Universities are also struggling and the value of higher education is increasingly being called into question. College enrolments in America have declined by more than 10 percent over the last eight years. Last month NPR reported that the current crisis may be an existential one for many colleges. But what is being taught in many of these colleges may be part of the problem.

All intellectual disciplines – be they scientific or scholarly – can be seen as adding to a shared knowledge base and having knowledge as their reason for being. Many other possible raisons d'être for academic and intellectual disciplines could be given, of course. And are. My point is just that I don't find other justifications for classing activities as serious intellectual disciplines particularly convincing. The fields in question may well be intellectual, but where is the theoretical rigor, where is the discipline, if anything goes on the knowledge front? What is the point of theory if it is not a means of building or articulating or facilitating the acquisition of knowledge?

Of course, high levels of rigor and discipline are often in evidence in activities which involve various kinds of practical knowledge. Such activities may or may not be associated with a body of theory. To the extent that they are, they will depend on formal educational structures.

Explicit claims about the world always need to be assessed regarding their plausibility. This need not be – and normally isn't – done in a rigorous or systematic way. In day-to-day life and politics, all kinds of claims are made and assessed on the run within dynamic social contexts. I am not complaining about this.

What's more, in ordinary life the truth of a claim is often less important than its social function, its role in modifying behavior for example. Or think of politeness phenomena like white lies which are primarily designed to spare the feelings of others. Courtesy and truth don't go together well!

Within the strict confines of intellectual and technical disciplines, however, the truth or otherwise of the claims being made or assessed is (or should be) quite central. Unfortunately many academic disciplines – especially within the humanities – have lost sight of this simple and obvious fact and have become, wholly or in part, self-perpetuating talking shops, jargon-ridden and superfluous extensions of the jousting and jostling of ordinary social and professional life.

[This is a slightly edited and abridged version of a piece which first appeared at The Electric Agora.]

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Time and physics

Einstein's rejection of the notion of time as we know and experience it was squarely based in classical physics and classical mathematics. One problem with such a view is that it assumes the existence of infinite information (e.g. infinite decimal expansions).

Nicolas Gisin, a physicist at the University of Geneva, wants to reformulate standard physics in terms of intuitionistic mathematics. This approach holds the promise of resolving some of the paradoxes and confusions which have bedevilled theoretical physics for over a century.

Information is physical. We now know that there are strict limits on how much information can exist within any specific volume of space.

Nathalie Wolchover writes: "The universe’s initial conditions would, Gisin realized, require far too much information crammed into too little space. “A real number with infinite digits can’t be physically relevant,” he said. The block universe, which implicitly assumes the existence of infinite information, must fall apart."

Wolchover's non-technical article on Gisin's ideas and reactions to them by fellow physicists is well worth reading. This is how it begins:

Strangely, although we feel as if we sweep through time on the knife-edge between the fixed past and the open future, that edge — the present — appears nowhere in the existing laws of physics.

In Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, time is woven together with the three dimensions of space, forming a bendy, four-dimensional space-time continuum — a “block universe” encompassing the entire past, present and future. Einstein’s equations portray everything in the block universe as decided from the beginning; the initial conditions of the cosmos determine what comes later, and surprises do not occur — they only seem to. “For us believing physicists,” Einstein wrote in 1955, weeks before his death, “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

The timeless, pre-determined view of reality held by Einstein remains popular today. “The majority of physicists believe in the block-universe view, because it is predicted by general relativity,” said Marina Cortês, a cosmologist at the University of Lisbon.

However, she said, “if somebody is called on to reflect a bit more deeply about what the block universe means, they start to question and waver on the implications.”

Physicists who think carefully about time point to troubles posed by quantum mechanics, the laws describing the probabilistic behavior of particles. At the quantum scale, irreversible changes occur that distinguish the past from the future: A particle maintains simultaneous quantum states until you measure it, at which point the particle adopts one of the states. Mysteriously, individual measurement outcomes are random and unpredictable, even as particle behavior collectively follows statistical patterns. This apparent inconsistency between the nature of time in quantum mechanics and the way it functions in relativity has created uncertainty and confusion.

Over the past year [...] Nicolas Gisin, has published four papers that attempt to dispel the fog surrounding time in physics. As Gisin sees it, the problem all along has been mathematical. Gisin argues that time in general and the time we call the present are easily expressed in a century-old mathematical language called intuitionist mathematics, which rejects the existence of numbers with infinitely many digits. When intuitionist math is used to describe the evolution of physical systems, it makes clear, according to Gisin, that “time really passes and new information is created.” Moreover, with this formalism, the strict determinism implied by Einstein’s equations gives way to a quantum-like unpredictability. If numbers are finite and limited in their precision, then nature itself is inherently imprecise, and thus unpredictable. [...]

On this view the future is open (rather than closed or predetermined), and time is closer to how we experience it – and so intuitively envisage it to be – than most physicists have supposed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Is art a useful concept?

Daniel Kaufman recently talked about art and art criticism. His concerns were basically with what certain philosophers have said about these things. He explains that he used to accept Arthur Danto’s views but was persuaded (in part by reading Susan Sontag's essay, 'Against interpretation') that they were mistaken. He notes other philosophers' views which he also thinks are mistaken. And he suggests the outlines of an alternative view of art and criticism: “The idea, then, is that our critical engagements with works of art bring into existence extended, collaborative works, of which the initial artwork is only a first move; something for subsequent artists, audiences, and critics to “riff” off of…”

This, of course, leaves open the question of what counts as ‘art’ and who gets to say so. Does this matter?

Obviously, the word ‘art’ and its cognates are used in different ways. But basically it is a term which conveniently (or inconveniently) groups together and implicitly assigns a “special” status to a wide range of disparate activities/objects, contemporary and historical. That is, the term is extremely vague but generally carries a positive connotation.

I am not saying the word 'art' is meaningless or should not be used. But it cannot bear the weight that intellectuals often put on it. For one thing, it carries a lot of implicit (and dubious) metaphysical baggage and strong links to various kinds of philosophical idealism as well as to certain Romantic ideas. If (like me) you are uncomfortable with many of these historical associations and assumptions, this poses problems.

So also do institutional changes which have created a bureaucratized and self-perpetuating arts or culture "industry", significant parts of which are integrated into, or are directly or indirectly dependent upon, various levels and branches of government.

For me at least, the interesting questions are not about identifying "art" or about its promotion or support but rather about how we respond to and assess the aesthetic qualities of various specific products of human activity. The perceived value and worth of the activities involved will naturally depend, in many cases, upon such assessments.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Speaking of time

A confusing and (arguably) confused article about time which appeared late last year at The Electric Agora prompted me to set out a few of my own thoughts on perceptions of time and time and language.

There is the physics of time (that is, time as it is dealt with and understood in the context of physics) and time as we experience it. Natural languages provide subtle means for dealing with the latter.

There is no absolute dichotomy here, however. The physics of time cannot be totally divorced from our experience of time, though the connections may be convoluted. All our experiences of time involve the mechanisms of memory and various systems within the body which keep track of time at various scales.

Physics is an empirical discipline, one among many. I am committed to a consilient view of the sciences and intellectual inquiry more generally. Discipline boundaries should not be seen as rigid. They are largely matters of convenience, practicality and organization and a process or phenomenon can often be approached from various directions and dealt with in different – and complementary – ways.

We experience periods when time seems to pass more quickly or slowly than normal. The former tends to be associated with pleasant or absorbing activities and the latter with pain or boredom. And we have the sense that time in general and, especially, longer periods of time pass more quickly as we age. These are, and are clearly understood to be, subjective phenomena.

Moreover, fast and slow are intrinsically relational ideas. If last year seemed to rush by, it is only by comparison with how we remember previous years. And a slow motion or time-lapse photography-based film can only be identified as such by contrast to the pace of events in the real world with which we are familiar.

There is another sense in which time can be said to go faster or slower. Different kinds of nervous and perceptual systems run on different time scales. For example, we find flies and many small animals very hard to catch. Their perceptual and motor systems run faster than ours. It is as if to them we are lumbering giants living in a slow-motion world.

There are some important facts about time which were discovered in the 20th century which are very puzzling but which can be known and accepted by anyone, including those without any training in theoretical physics. For example, we know by experiment that synchronized clocks do not stay synchronized under certain circumstances (relating to motion and exposure to gravitational fields). If two clocks are synchronized at a given place and one of them is sent off on a journey in space and then brought back, the space-travelling clock will register significantly less time having passed than the other clock. And a clock exposed to a stronger gravitational field than another clock with which it has been synchronized will register less time having passed than the other clock when the clocks are reunited.

These facts have important implications for how we think about time. This becomes clear if you substitute living human bodies for mechanical clocks. An astronaut who travels on a long space journey and returns to earth will be younger than his twin who remained at home.

A natural interpretation of the end result is that time (from the point of view of the stay-at-home) has passed more slowly for the astronaut, and (from the point of view of the astronaut) has passed more quickly for his twin. Such claims need to be clearly distinguished from claims about the other person’s experience. Quite obviously, the claims do not relate to the experience of time passing or the experience of aging. They represent perspectival views and constitute a natural gloss or commentary on the basic facts.

Has the astronaut travelled to the future? In a real sense, he has. But, again, there is scope for confusion and misunderstanding here.

Of course, there is often a tension between scientific and commonsense perspectives. The latter are inevitably shaped by language as well as by other inherited modes of thought. Applying a language which evolved to deal with certain limited sets of possibilities to situations which involve contingencies which transcend these limits inevitably poses problems. And these problems are all the greater if we are dealing not just with incremental technological developments but with ideas, circumstances and possibilities which are radically new and which lack analogues in the world within which language originally evolved.

I am not questioning the adequacy of ordinary language for ordinary communication nor its adaptability and flexibility in the face of technological change and development. When it comes to the physical and social world as we normally encounter it – and to our perceptions of time – language works just fine.

There is great variation in the way different languages deal with time. Some languages are tenseless (e.g. Burmese, Vietnamese, Thai, Malay and most varieties of Chinese) and have other ways of dealing with time but, in most languages, the grammatical category of tense plays a central role. The category of tense interacts with aspect and mood in complex ways which vary from language to language, allowing precise, time-related distinctions to be made. The complexity and sophistication of the grammatical structures involved testify to the importance that a command of the subtleties of time (and perspectives on time) have played in human thought and interaction over many millennia.

Tense is relational. The time of the event or state denoted by the verb is indicated in relation to some other temporal reference point or points. In the case of absolute tense, the temporal reference point is the “now” of the speaker, the moment of utterance. (“It was raining.” “It has been raining.” “It is raining.” “It will rain.”)

More complicated cases involve absolute-relative tense. This involves reference to a time which is related to a temporal reference point which is not the moment of utterance; this temporal reference point is, in turn, related to the moment of utterance. So you are in effect juggling three points or periods in time. The main kinds of absolute-relative tense are future perfect, past perfect, future-in-future and future-in-past.

The future perfect, for example, involves reference to a time located before a contextually determined temporal reference point that must be located in the future relative to the moment of utterance. (“He will no doubt have forgotten about it by the morning.”)

And the past perfect involves a time in the past relative to a reference point which is itself in the past relative to the moment of utterance. (“I had hoped to find her at home but she wasn't there.”)

The inferences involved in conditional sentences are often time based. Past perfect tense is often involved. (“Had he been here when you passed, you would have seen him.”) Or the future perfect. (“If she completes the task by tomorrow afternoon, she will have proven herself.”) Note that a particular view or “map” of the structure of past, present and future is implicit in these forms of expression, and the logic of the sentences rests upon a shared understanding of this time “map”.

In addition to these and similar grammatical structures, there are also many common idiomatic expressions which pertain to how we experience time. Such expressions are almost invariably metaphorical. Crucially, they are generally taken as such, and are not seen as literal or metaphysical or proto-scientific claims. The same can be said for many common expressions about the natural world which, taken literally, are in conflict with a scientific understanding but which, used in the normal way, are perfectly acceptable. (Sun rising, wind blowing, etc..)

Time may not literally “pass” or “flow”, but these and similar expressions capture something of our experience of inexorable change.