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…