On Knowing, Dialogue and Mysticism (Part One)

comments 25
Reflections

Recently, through a series of clicks, I found myself watching a YouTube video of Julia Galef decrying the habit many of us have, in discussions with or about people who are different from us, of saying, “I just don’t understand how anyone could… [think, say, or do whatever it is the unfathomable ones in our lives think, say, or do…]” In her video she used the example of Richard Feynman, who once recounted a discussion he’d had with an artist friend. While the artist thought the scientific view of the flower detracted from the appreciation of its beauty, Feynman believed that “…science only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of the flower.” He concluded by saying, “I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

Julia Galef suggests in her video that Feynman could have tried harder to understand his artist friend, and goes on to use herself as an example of what is possible when we make the effort to understand another’s point of view. Unfortunately, I think she fails, at least from my perspective, and I think it’s interesting to consider why.

Her first attempt is to assert that “the property of mystery is commonly held to be a beautiful aesthetic property.” (Feynman, in his interview, also described the beauty of the flower as “aesthetic” and acknowledged that while his appreciation of this property may not be “as refined” as the artist’s, he appreciated it nonetheless.) As an experiment, Julia asks us to imagine we discover a key. There’s a certain allure here because initially the key is a mystery, but she notes that if we were to find out it opens a particular apartment door near where we found it, this would “not be revelatory or particularly satisfying or beautiful.” Generally, she asserts, the lack of an answer can be more aesthetically pleasing than any answer we could get. We simply enjoy the sensation of mystery.

In her second attempt, she provides a brief discussion of Construal Level Theory, which is about how abstract or concrete our thinking is about a particular subject, or the psychological distance that may exist between ourselves and the object of our thought, e.g. how “near” or “far” we are from it. Here she says that, “Far mode can have a certain beauty to it, even though I think sometimes it steers you wrong. There’s a certain beauty to abstraction and a zoomed-out, big picture.” An ocean, for instance, can be a symbol of vastness or the unknown, but if we were to look at a small portion of an actual ocean, the details we see would pull us out of the abstract view we had and this may be undesirable. In other words, the reason the artist may not wish to know the scientific details about the flower is that it would cause a shift from far mode to near mode, with loss of all the abstractly pleasurable qualities the far mode offers.

My first difficulty with Julia’s attempts to foster an appreciation for the artist’s point of view is that while she has offered two reasons the artist would not wish to comprehend the details of a flower, neither are reasons that seem very attractive to Julia herself. Or to me. The artist is a caricature in this discussion–one whose position Julia never really considers entertaining. In fact, she begins and ends her presentation with the need to ensure we understand she thinks the world would be a better place if less people felt the way the artist does. Holding this fixed vantage forces her into the position of explaining away a mistake: the best she can do is show it’s an honest one. Even though there’s something not that great about how these artist people think about flowers, at least we can understand the temptations that snared them.

This is ridiculous.

If you wish to truly understand another, it’s important to begin from the position they are your equal, and to assume that if they espouse a certain conviction there are likely very good reasons why–reasons you yourself may not understand until you experiment with those positions. Also, I think it should be considered that your own position is every bit as transparent as you perceive theirs to be, and that it is not some intellectual enfeeblement that causes the other person to think differently than you do, but an honest choice about what is more valuable to them given a reasonable understanding of the alternatives. It’s true that this condition of fully understanding the alternatives is likely not the case—meaning, at the outset it is unlikely the two of you really understand one another—but if no possibility for such an equitable footing exists, at least as a mutual goal to be arrived at, then there is no basis for genuine understanding.

This relates to a more fundamental difficulty I had with Julia’s position, which is that her understanding of the artist appears to have been based solely on her own comprehension of the world. This artist we never hear from directly is an individual who doesn’t want to understand the inner workings of a flower because he or she will lose the pleasure of perceiving it a certain way. It’s like learning Santa Clause isn’t real: once this individual learns the flower has cells, or the Calvin cycle inside of it, he or she will lose something vital. I have never met anyone quite so loath to learn something amazing about this universe, so my own projected opinion is that the artist probably had a more sophisticated point to make than is being portrayed, but this isn’t really pursued.

Julia’s video carries the subtle logic that the artist’s appreciation of beauty depends upon a certain form of ignorance. Both Julia and Richard describe the artist’s position as purely aesthetic, and Julia’s two examples of understanding the artist’s position both suggest that the artist’s pleasure is derived from eschewing deeper understanding. Neither Richard nor Julia questions whether or not the artist’s position is as shallow as they perceive it to be, as they haven’t made any attempt to imagine otherwise. But they’re careful to say, look, we appreciate the attraction here, too. We understand it, but we go beyond it. Their position is that you can enjoy a fantasy, or you can get in touch with reality. Julia’s effort at understanding the artist ultimately boils down to this: I appreciate that a fantasy can be enjoyable.

If you said this to a friend, he or she would quickly infer you were trying to stage an intervention. Some may perceive this as an act of love and thank you for caring enough to rescue them from what you perceive as a self-destructive position, then politely excuse themselves from the conversation, while others may become profoundly annoyed at discovering how trivial your respect is for their faculties. The point is that it doesn’t allow for the possibility I wish to explore in this series of posts, which is that there is actually a there there. Forms of knowing exist—and faculties on which they ride—that are neither enhanced nor diminished by scientific understanding, and which may freely express in either condition.

These are not self-indulgent aesthetic pleasures, or the obfuscation of genuine understanding, but something else entirely. These are impulses from the authentic nature of our being seeking to become known in us, and through us, in our lives. The difficulties that sometimes arise—such as we see here in the archetypal conversation between the rationalist-scientist and the artist-aesthetic—is that conclusions are being made on only a partial understanding of the reality from which these impulses arise. We solidify them quickly into our conceptual frameworks, where they can only ever be slices of the whole, and then we debate them. And unless we’re exceedingly careful, we find ourselves unconsciously promoting the views we have collected at the expense of the views others may have. We talk past and marginalize one another, and the irony when this happens is this: both sides believe a vantage they enjoy is vulnerable to accepting the validity of the other, and attack the other as a defense, but neither side actually comprehends what they are doing.

There is a better way, and I plan to explore it in the posts ahead…

25 Comments

  1. I agree with not agreeing with Ms Galef. 🙂

    For one thing, her position about the value of mystery seems contrary to the notion of making an effort to understand the mystery of another mind.

    For another, speaking as someone able to appreciate both the science and the beauty of a flower, I don’t see why this is necessarily an either-of choice. One needs both Yin and Yang for wholeness.

    I think the artist is just wrong: understanding only deepens the beauty. That abstract big picture of the ocean is more deeply informed by an understanding of the ocean and by actually having swum in it.

    Looking forward to see where you go with this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Wyrd,

      Thanks for the note. I agree with your points. Nothing like actually swimming in the sea!

      If we keep with the caricature of the artist as implied by both videos–that of an individual who believes aesthetic pleasures are undermined by scientific understanding–then I agree with you the artist is “wrong” in a sense. I’ve many times swooned at descriptions of scientific discoveries, and undoubtedly will do so again. I’m not enamored of positions that must be insular to the point of discarding science to be valid. That said, I do think there is a territory the artist could, in face, be protecting, and it is this I hope to explore more directly in the next post or two.

      A question is this: can the artist and the scientist savor the shared area on a ven diagram, and mutually respect that the territories outside of their specific circles are in some sense unknown to them? Or do they need to assert that only the areas defined by their specific circles is “correct?” If the latter is chosen, as it often is, they would be asserting they “own” the area of mutual intersection, and would perhaps be discrediting the validity of most of the other’s circle. When this occurs, it is not incorrect for one party or the other to say wait a minute, you don’t get to define the entirety of my known reality…!

      Reality is a circle large enough to accommodate both, as well as other positions I hope to explore in the posts ahead, and the issue I have is when attempts are made–whether implicit or direct–to shrink the outermost reality circle to the point that it is symmetrical with one’s own vantage, and puts people who are different on the outside…

      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think either circle is either “correct” or “incorrect” — we’re talking about appreciation of beauty, which is personal and very much a matter of taste.

        When I appreciate the sheer physical beauty of, say, a rose, I’m not thinking about plant cells or growth patterns or how scent molecules work. I’m thinking, “Damn, this smells delightful and looks wonderful!”

        If I choose to, I can shift to a different mindset that does appreciate the stunning physics behind it all, but how I see anything is up to me. And, in particular, neither point of view has any “correctness” associated with it — just presence.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Agreed, Wyrd. You actually began with noting pretty directly that the the artist’s view was “wrong,” so I ran from there. And I still think you were correct in the sense that a person solely focused on aesthetics, to the exclusion of scientific understanding, doesn’t have some authority to define what reality is and is not for anyone else!

          I follow and agree with your reply here: we can choose to perceive the flower on many levels. As to your note about presence, well said… What emerges in any moment is a quality of our own presence–what we bring to it, what we choose to witness, and what we experience as a result. But in all of these, the irreducible ingredient is our presence! It’s the (forgive me, Wyrd) magic ingredient in the intersection of “me” and “the world.”

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          • Ah, ha, good point, let me try to clarify: The artist is objectively wrong in their objective belief that a scientific understanding erases an aesthetic one. It’s certainly not true for me, for one. However there is nothing wrong in choosing to stick with a purely aesthetic view if that’s what one favors. And certainly the aesthetic view isn’t in any way wrong in itself.

            As you say, neither side has a claim to a correct view in exclusion of the other.

            There’s an old saying that the first trick to life is showing up (being present). 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Michael,
    When I first saw the video years ago, I was annoyed with Galef. I’ve often said, “I don’t understand why people think X” and meant it sincerely. The idea that every time I said it was just being snide, well, felt somewhat unfair. How else was I ever going to get an explanation of why people think a certain way if I can’t admit ignorance?

    But watching it again, I think I see her point. Many do use that phrase in a somewhat formulaic manner, not as an invitation to dialog, but as a pre-emptive put down. It does mean that if we’re genuinely expressing puzzlement, we have to be careful in the way we present so it doesn’t come across as a veiled insult.

    It may well be that Galef is failing to achieve her goal of actually understanding the artist’s viewpoint, but I feel like she’s making a genuine effort. It sounds like where she got in trouble with you was in her specific examples. But this raises an important point. She did provide examples. It exposed her to further criticism, which I take as an important part of an open dialog. (As opposed to a lawyerly approach which just sticks to rhetorical strikes and never exposes a vulnerability unless absolutely necessary.)

    Which leads me to ask, as someone whose view is broadly in line with hers, what is she getting wrong? Or what is she missing? I understand that she’s failing to fully empathize with the artist. But what are the types of things actually entailed in the artist’s viewpoint that she’s overlooking?

    There’s a good chance I’m jumping the gun here, asking about things you plan to address in upcoming posts. If so, no worries. I can sit tight until then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mike,

      I agree with your initial points about Julia being well-intentioned, and also your realization that just saying “how the heck could anyone think this way?” is often counter-productive. I actually enjoyed the video, and think she is a thoughtful and bright and well-meaning individual. And as you said, saying what you think without getting too lawyerly is certainly necessary for a meaningful exchange. A one-way video is not exactly a dialogue, so the replies unfold in fragmented fashion as they do here. Probably if we (Julia and I) actually had the chance to discuss this directly we’d go in a completely different direction!

      Where she rubbed me the wrong way was yes, her examples, because they assert or impute a validity to one position that is not granted to others. And that is problematic for me. I tried to say in the post what it was about this that bothered me, but to summarize: she imputes on the artist what is, for me, a pretty shallow position, and which within her own thinking is a “less than” position. She herself would never espouse the position of the artist that she has envisioned, so she is reducing the artist to a known or fixed point within her world, rather than acknowledging that her world may be limited and not contain the artist’s actual position within it. She could have said, “This is really interesting, I wonder what’s going on here? Because for me, no serious person would hold this view.” But she didn’t. Instead she said, “Hmmm. Some people think mysteries are cool, so the artist might not like the scientific knowledge of flowers because he or she has an aesthetic preference for mystery.” But Julia is the one who defines what the word mystery means, or is, and she may not have any clue what this word connotes in another. What this does is set up a strange dynamic where she is effectively saying: this makes zero sense to me, and BTW, I wish less people were like this in the world (b/c then the world would be better), but now I’ve made a good-faith effort to understand these people.

      Only she hasn’t. She’s behaved like people behave when they assume or know they are right. They don’t have to do the hard work of truly understanding what others think or feel; they can just offer a plausible explanation or motivation for others that paint them in a somewhat irrational light (because they’re not of their tribe) and then say they’ve understood them.

      Some artistically-inclined people may consciously think the way Julia portrays them, which would make dialogue with someone like Julia even more difficult because there would be minimal intersection between Julia’s world and their own. But it would be really interesting! It would potentially be fruitful IF both parties entered into it acknowledging their sensations of self and world are not only very different, but tenable. Then the question would be: where do they overlap? And about the parts that don’t overlap… why does one party or the other need to own those? Julia’s video implies an ownership of what lies beyond the intersection, and that is what bothered me.

      And yes, more to follow!

      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So well said Michael. There is a lack of seeking true understanding. She seems to want to evaluate a difference that is foreign to her own perspective. Labels create dualistic barriers to understanding. Im going to come back to this one. 💛🙏💛

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Val! This is so true, and why I always cringe when I meet a new person and they respond to me by giving me the ole’ “so you’re one of those…” Labels create a here and a there, an is and an isn’t, that isn’t necessarily so, as you’ve said. We may generally align in certain ways, but they never define the totality of us!

      Liked by 1 person

        • They certainly can be good shorthand–like saying what neighborhood you live in–but the reality when I invite you over to hang out and listen to records is always somehow unique, no? There’s always that little something that defies categorization I think. I’m writing this thinking of visiting friend’s houses in elementary school and junior high, and how profoundly different each family was…

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          • Absolutely. Labels, words in general, are just signs for something larger. If I mention Bat of of Hell or its singer Meat Loaf, those are just labels, and no doubt our experience of them varies. We only tap into and begin the discussion with the labels. As you say, it’s a way of getting to the neighborhood.

            It might be good to distinguish between “labels” and (for lack of a better term) “Labels” — the former applying to all words, the latter to the relatively new notion of not being labeled, of being an individual. It’s the latter sense most mean when they talk about labels being bad.

            As with so many things, I think it’s a matter of degree. It’s impossible to discuss anything without agreed upon labels. Even digging into the many nuances still requires those labels. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

      • Smiling … for me, my favorite is “I love your Irish accent.”
        No question or curiosity, just a wrong assumption based on what they know. We all tend to pigeon hole … but when we are at the receiving end, it can hurt or at best disappoint the part of us that wants to be seen and appreciated for who we are.
        What an opportunity to educate and open the minds of others!
        Keep working it my friend 🙏

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Lee Roetcisoender says

    You have selected an excellent topic to discuss my friend; one that I know all too well. Looking forward to your future installments.

    All the best….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Lee. Working on it! Thought I had responded to this but must have been in thought alone. More to follow!

      Peace
      Michael

      Like

  5. I’ve been chewing on this for a couple of days, thinking about how I’ve used the phrase in the past, and while I agree with Mike that when used to someone’s face it can be intended as a put-down, I think in many cases it’s no more than a mostly neutral expression of astonishment.

    For instance phrases along the lines of “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” (say over an amazing circus act) are not uncommon and, I think, maybe shouldn’t be taken too seriously as having deeper meaning.

    As phrases go, it can cover a wide ground, insult, inquiry, amazement, so maybe the words aren’t as important as the intent and stance of the speaker.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sure. I would agree completely. The words themselves are not a problem depending the intention and the context. I think the starting point for Julia’s video is that it’s easy to say, “I just don’t get those people,” and stop there, but that this isn’t a great stopping point. If I didn’t say it already, I think her position on that point is good and well-intentioned. There’s an opportunity to better understand one another if we don’t stop, and I think when it comes to relating with other people, it’s worth the attempt.

      I think we’ve seen this a LOT with our former President. People saying I just cannot understand how someone can still support, protect, endorse, or vote for–pick your verb–this individual. That’s a tough one because depending on your starting point it can be very difficult to project yourself into a mindset where these choices make sense. But to some people they do. And not just to the fairly narrow spectrum of people we see in the media who appear to be cult followers at first glance, but to an apparently broader range of people it would seem. There’s something there to be unpacked if we’re genuinely curious.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed. For me, “I don’t understand” is a starting point — I have a drive to attempt to understand everything! 🙂

        In terms of the current political situation, I’d agree in the general case. All things being equal, another’s point of view is always reasonable to them and understanding it is often just a matter of putting yourself in their shoes. (But give the shoes back when you’re done, please.)

        I’ve understood what’s going on with the far right (and far left) from the beginning, which is why it all terrifies me so much. This isn’t a normal time, and there’s no need to understand anything about this kind of evil. It’s necessary to thoroughly repudiate it.

        Racism, fascism, nationalism, and misogyny, are not “opinions” anyone is entitled to. They are forms of human insanity that need to be either fixed or removed.

        Liked by 1 person

        • For me there are a couple layers to this, Wyrd. I should be clear up front I agree there’s no place for these -isms, the hatred or violence they engender, etc.

          But two things are important to me: one is to be clear that understanding does not necessarily correspond to agreement, and certainly not to condoning acts that bring harm to one another. And the second is that I don’t think any of us are inherently evil, although we can become so removed from what we actually are that we choose to do evil things sometimes… this is true.

          These -isms are wrong, plain and simple. At the same time, for me personally, I think it is important to recognize that a basic goodness so distorted it produces hateful actions is still a basic goodness. Recognizing what is ultimately true can have effects we don’t always see or recognize in the immediate present, particularly if we are as profoundly interconnected as I believe we are. This again does not mean that the hateful images and actions some people present are to be accepted or condoned–it just means they are repudiated or denied at one level even as at another, alongside of this, the truth of them is remembered.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I quite agree. No one is born evil, but one can make evil choices or pick an evil path.

            It’s, perhaps, a bit as with children. They can fall into unacceptable behaviors that need to be addressed and corrected. Obviously one doesn’t simply discard the child and try again.

            I confess to very mixed feelings about the notion of “basic goodness” in those who’ve become so terribly corrupted. I do believe in redemption, but one must choose to be redeemed.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. “that it is not some intellectual enfeeblement that causes the other person to think differently than you do, but an honest choice about what is more valuable to them given a reasonable understanding of the alternatives. “ I’m sure I’ve told you before how much I admire your ability to respect an individual’s viewpoint even if it doesn’t match your own. This is a quality that is desperately needed right now. I’m pretty fed up with the rampant condescension. Your essays always take me on such an intellectual journey. I’ll be pondering this for a while. Hope you are enjoying your winter, Michael!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate it, Julie. Very much. I agree that we should be striving for respect first, especially of differences. We’ll never all be the same and that would be horrendous anyway. But there’s a lot of territory to explore in which our thinking doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive of the “others.”

      Winter is going well. Hopefully for you, too. Today we’re enjoying one of those brilliant winter mornings–the day after snow–with full sun and clear skies and drips of water from the roof edges and crystalline sparkles everywhere you turn. The birds are in full song and enjoying it, too, I think. Yesterday was a slow but steady snowfall that went all day and into the night, and that was beautiful, too… I sat outside on the porch for a little while and noticed all these tiny motes of ice blowing in under the eaves mixed in with the much larger flakes, and I couldn’t help but feeling they were tiny beings excited to find their landing spot. Curious what it would be. Like children rushing from the doors of the school into the playground or something. So yes, the winter madness is setting in!

      Hope you have a lovely day!
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When one decides to go beyond just “black or white dogma” to obtain a right or wrong action, you seem to say we are on the road to better understanding. Correct?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello USFMan!

      Certainly going beyond dogma is essential to understanding. An important part of what I was trying to say is that if my attempts to understand another do not involve consideration of the fact that they may be having an experience I myself have never had, and that it’s potentially valid, then I’m merely painting them with a position I already know and discarded. It’s not that every position is valid and there’s no distinguishing to be done–but part of my frustration is all the considerations Julia didn’t even feel obliged to consider, which I tried to address in the follow-up post.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Michael

      Like

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