Mr. Rogers’ Metaphysics

Day 105: Friday

Dear Zak,

I’m given to understand that one of the reasons young children tend to enjoy the game of peek-a-boo is that they lack a theory of “object permanence,” the notion that objects in the world (such as a person’s face) continue to exist even in moments when we do not directly perceive them. Perhaps a better way of putting this is to say our failure to appreciate the game as adults stems from our presumptive belief in such a theory. I’m also given to understand that many modern physicists take the children’s side in this, not the adult’s. Their math requires particles to pass in and out of existence and to be determined in some way by our observation of them.

One of the key lessons that every child learns along their way to moral maturity is the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.  A parent’s face exists as an object independently of a child’s subjective perception of it. Something is objective if it doesn’t depend on us, but in some way transcends human experience.

Mr. Rogers, whether he knew it or not, used to teach objectivity to children through his proper use of language.  Whenever Mr. McFeely used to come knocking at his door, Mr. Rogers would exclaim, “Ah, it is he!” Why not, “It’s him”? Because Mr. McFeely is the subject of the sentence, not the object.

What is a grammatical subject? Is it the person performing the action of the sentence?  That would mean that in the sentence, “Cereal gets eaten by me every morning,”  the subject is “me.” Micheal Haliday contends that a “subject” is actually the person or thing on which the truth of a sentence depends. The truth of the sentence, “The duke gave me this teapot,” depends on the duke. If the duke didn’t exist, the sentence could neither be true nor false; we probably wouldn’t utter it at all. It is true if and only if the predicate “gave me this teapot” is something applicable to the duke, who must in some sense exist, if any predicates are to be applicable to him whatsoever.

If a young boy sees a dog in the window of a pet store, he might turn to his Dad and say, “I need a dog.” For the sake of discussion, let us stipulate that in English, the verb to need (in contrast with the verb to want) implies an objective phenomenon—that is, necessity doesn’t depend on a human subject, but in some way transcends our experience of it. You can need something without knowing it. You can think you need something but be mistaken. This means the objective statement, “I need a dog,” is only true if the sense of it can accurately be expressed without depending on me as the subject.

If I fell down a well in the middle of the night with no one but Lassie around to see, I might accurately exclaim, “Only a dog can save me now!”  Here the truth of the sentence depends on the dog, who is the subject.  Indeed it does depend on the dog—her inherent qualities, strengths, and weaknesses—whether she can actually save me or not. In contextual terms, making the dog the grammatical subject implies that we are conceiving of the situation from her perspective; the state of affairs transcends human experience—in this case passing over into dog experience. Parents, teach your children that this is the only sort of context in which it is appropriate to say, “I need a dog.”

The sentence, “Your Dad loves you” may be objectively true of “you,” the object, regardless of whether “You feel loved.” The second sentence depends on you for its truth, while the first depends only on your Dad. Parents, teach your children this as well.

But if true objectivity, pure and simple, transcends all human experience, how could we have any evidence of an objective truth? Isn’t evidence, by very definition, something we experience? This is what makes the metaphysics of objectivity so elusive. Perhaps we don’t have evidence either for or against the Objective. What we do have is language. Language itself constitutes a theory of metaphysics that can be recovered to our consciousness by maieutic analysis. Our grammar relies on a series of metaphysical assumptions in order to function. From a pragmatic perspective, we could potentially lend some credibility to these assumptions based on the success of the analyzed language when used to communicate.  In other words, the fact that you can successfully understand what I’m writing here might implies there is such a thing as objective truth, since the English language, according to our analysis above, relies on that assumption.

In the context of the metaphysics of objectivity, perhaps many readers would feel that this method is not very helpful. Of course it is pragmatic to believe in objects that exist independently of subjective experience! We didn’t need to analyze grammar to figure that out!  I will concede the point.  Still, one thing our analysis does add to mere common sense is the suggestion that objectivity and subjectivity constitute a binary opposition. English has no place for either vagueness or ambiguity when it comes to assigning the roles of subject and object to constituents of a sentence. The pronouns even have a closed paradigm (he vs. him, I vs. me) that, along with other systemic choices, compels the speaker to commit to one and only one function for each element.

Let me also submit that, in this particular case study, the analysis may actually be more useful the other way around: the intuitive appeal of subject/object beliefs might justify some degree of grammatical prescriptivism. Mr. Rogers said, “It is he!” not only because his English teachers told him to, but also because this way of speaking is somehow pragmatically right.

So we can derive from language moral truth—such as the truth that most boys do not need dogs. We can also derive from morals grammatical truth—such as the truth that “It is he” at the door, not “him.”  This might seem to suggest either that these morals are objective or that language is, but the pragmatic method of doing metaphysics I have described should not be understood this way. It cannot not justify grammatical prescriptivism on the basis of morals any more than it can moral categoricalism on the basis of grammar. All we really accomplish is to reframe questions about metaphysics as questions about language—or vise versa. You might ask, does moral obligation exist independently of our subjective intuitions of it? It depends—does language exist independently of our speaking and writing? If we believe that “In the beginning was the Word,” then I suppose the answer to both questions would be “yes.” If not, the method isn’t pertinent to either question.

Mr. Rogers was teaching children all these things simply by saying, “It is he,” whenever the delivery man knocked on his door.

Until next time,

Tim

Reconstructionism

Day 102: Wednesday

Good Morning Zak,

Zak this morning I find myself in the middle of a very busy season as well as of Umberto Eco’s Trattato di semiotica generale.  I’m not really sure which of the two deserves more of my attention.

What’s the difference between a gerund and a gerundive? …

The reason I bring up Eco is… well… how can I explain?

That!  That phenomenon is exactly the reason I’m bringing up Eco.  You know that feeling, where you have something to say, but you can’t seem to find the words to say it. How does that happen?  I mean, I use words to think, don’t I?  How could I have a thought for which there are no words?

… About four hours of excruciatingly dry explanation.

Or have you ever said a word over and over so many times that it seemed to lose it’s meaning?  Frog legs, frog legs, frog legs… frog legs…

We’ll there’s a word for that.  It’s called jamais vu…  The neglected cousin lurking in the shadow of déjà vu‘s limelight.

Anyway, my question is basically this: which comes first, thoughts or words?  As I put it a while back:

Which came first, the chicken, or the word we use to distinguish said young-domestic-fowl-raised-for-meat-and-dairy-products from the so-called “egg”?

Or maybe the title of that post captured the question more concisely:

“What are words, even?!”

Well, it’s a difficult question… one that would take a lot of words to answer.  Faced with problems like these my first impulse is usually to read some ancient Greek:

“In the beginning was the word…” (John 1:1)

I guess that solves it.  Words come first.  That’s what that means right?

But what about every time you’ve tried to say something and the words just wouldn’t come?  What about that time you forgot the word for piano and accidentally called it a “pumpkin”?  Or when you had an entire conversation with someone about your pet cat before realizing that the words “your pride and joy” were probably intended to refer to your daughter instead?  Or what about that time you gazed longingly into someone’s eyes, and all the brokenness of the world seemed to somehow reconstruct itself for just a minute—but the only words that would come to you were a dry exposition on the meaning of the term fungibility in modern philosophical usage?

What… are those examples a little overly specific?

Anyway, one thing Umberto Eco brings to the table is his insistence on the general semiotic function of culture as a whole, not just of language.  Zak, I believe there may be some contributors on this blog who feel that language is a precondition of moral agency.  Eco says that (moral) intelligence can exist without language but semiotic function is the same thing as intelligence.

I’m not sure if I feel language has much to do with morality.  I do believe there’s something moral about expressive clarity… you know, that magical phraseological tension that happens only intermittently between the usual drunken babbling of life.  Every once in a while you pick up a book and encounter this mystical sort of translinguistic purity… something that seems to escape the limits of words and directly expresses l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

The so-called deconstructionist perspective that’s dominated literary theory since the later part of the last century seems to represent a breach of faith in that Amor which gives structure to the universe.  On the one hand there’s nothing wrong with our desire to move beyond the pedantry of a purely structuralist reading; it’s perfectly understandable.

But at the same time, there’s no escaping the fact that the very act of reading is predicated on structure.  The moment the receiver of a semiotic expression loses faith in the structural integrity of that message, he or she ceases to be a reader.  A reader is someone who intentionally seeks to reconstruct the coherent meaning of semiotic fragments.  Human contact simply cannot exist without that reconstructive process.

It’s a good thing that semiotics have been deconstructed.  I think Derrida’s school would be cool with me saying this: without deconstructing, how would we ever be able to reconstruct?

Frog legs,

Tim

 

 

Circles and Lines

Day 75: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

This is the signature of composer Giacinto Scelsi:

Pretty jokes, right?  The circle and the line represent the Eastern and Western perspectives of time…

Remember the movie Groundhog Day?  Bill Murray somehow gets caught in an endless circle where he’s reliving the same boring day over and over again.  But literally.  He wakes up every morning in the same stupid little town where he was supposed to spend only one day—groundhog day—to film an on-site news special.

That movie is pretty popular.  Probably because a lot of us can relate.  Time is moving in an endless circle, with no final destination.  The story of my life.  Right?

Well, take away the pessimism and that outlook is basically the Eastern perspective of time.  Life moves in cycles.  The cycle of seasons, of days, of birth, death, and rebirth…

Then there’s the Western view.  Remember Machiavelli’s The Prince?  Machiavelli basically thinks that a ruler should be as cruel or dishonest as necessary to instill civil order.  As the saying goes, the end justifies the means.  So if there’s an end, then time moves linearly, right?

Some people say that Christian thought proposes a strictly linear view of time.  We waited for the Messiah, he came, and now we’re waiting for the end.  The same people who point out these things also tend to complain about how boring our vision of Heaven is.  Just eternally praising God?  In an endless circle of eternity?

The East and the West aren’t as different as we sometimes make them out to be.  We just don’t think about things the way the early Christians did.  There’s a reason Dante’s nine circles of Heaven are the least appealing part of the Divine Comedy for the modern reader.

In your last entry:

“I’d propose that by ‘willing’ we often mean lacking desires that are against what’s ultimately best for us, and, when they do appear, being able to deny them anyway.”

I became a composer because I had a poetic vision.  I think everyone has that on some level.  I mean the ability to look at something and see potential in it.  That’s what an artist does.  But you know, things are complicated.  While in the process of realizing it, it’s easy to lose sight of that vision—that end, if time is linear.  

“We always say ‘Gertrude Stein’ – she said, ‘In the beginning was the word. Then they put two words together, then they made a sentence, then they made a paragraph and they forgot the word.’”

-Morton Feldman

But every time I hear something beautiful and see what it does to people, it makes up for the sacrifices I’ve had to make along the way.  I’m like an old gramma who never studied music.  They’re really the ones who appreciate this stuff the most.  The rest of us tend to get too caught up in everything to remember the reasons we’re making music in the first place.

But an old grandma is fantastically disinterested.  She doesn’t care about anything but the music right in front of her, and that music is simply a gift—no strings attached.  I wish I could appreciate my peers the way an old grandma would.

So the moral of the story is be like an old grandma every now and then.  But I don’t mean to stereotype.  My apologies to all the mean and anxious grandmas out there.  I hope I didn’t offend you.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

The Connection Crisis

Day 61: Monday

Good morning Zak,

Remember this post from before Christmas?

I wish I could bring you back something that would summarize what Milano means to me… There’s just something in the air here that I wish I could share with you.  Cigarette smoke, smog, and then something else.

What I ended up getting you was coffee and conversation.  Here in Italy, coffee is what you Americans call “espresso.”  In retrospect maybe I should have gotten a different gift, since the coffee-drinking habit might kill us some day.  On the bright side, it may also help us live longer

Many news sources and journalists say that our society is entering a post-truth age.  This is supposedly a recent development.

“What is truth?” -Pontus Pilate c. 32 A.D.

what-is-truth02

The public too often disposes of facts and evidence in favor of conspiracy theories and other unfounded nonsense.  In a post-truth society, science and fact are sometimes replaced by gut-feeling, superstition… and mystery.

Every year in ancient Greece there used to be this famous religious rite known as the Eleusinian Mysteries.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  This was an initiation ceremony for the cult of Demeter and Persephone.  As any good history student can tell you, participants in this ceremony were required to… well…

We have no idea what they did.  It’s called the Eleusinian Mysteries not the Eleusinian Tell-Everyones.  Initiates to the cult were required to keep its practices a secret, and they remain a secret to this day.

It’s easy to understand why people were attracted to this sort of thing—it’s about connection.  I mean, secrets can be a lot of fun. They can bring people closer together.  As a case and point, take our blog’s secret peer review process for unusual uses of spoons.  It’s nice to be a part of a small community that shares certain exclusive knowledge—even if that knowledge is of no real consequence.

fvf-lgThe scientific community is like that.  It has its secrets I mean.  Only scientists really understand why we believe humans evolved from fishes, or how the entire universe once fit into a mass the size of a golf ball.  As a layperson, I don’t really have access to all the data and methods that lead to those conclusions.  But Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and other public pundits insist that I adopt these beliefs and the ideologies that accompany them as an article of faith.  Faith in a method and process that I do not see.

Speaking of faith, it might be worth pointing out that the modern English word “pundit” comes from the Sanskrit paṇḍita—a Hindu pandit is a priest or wise-person.

The gradual dogmatization of science has begun to cause us problems.  Whenever philosophical opinion gets presented as scientific fact, it undermines faith in the objectivity of the field as a whole.  Needless to say, this is starting to have very negative consequences…

280px-a_small_cup_of_coffeeBut the biggest problem with the cult of science has nothing to do with politics.  In my view, the main issue is much more personal—it’s about connection.  Unlike traditional cult mysteries, the secrets of science don’t bring people together; if anything they do the opposite.  The founders of the new religion have failed to consider some very fundamental questions: where are the faithful supposed to gather? what rituals will they perform together?

“And if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, […] but have not selfless love, I am nothing.”

Corinthians 13:2

Those are not rhetorical questions; they represent the main syndrome of our society.  If we solve the connection crisis, if we figure out how to have meaningful human contact in the Age of Information, a lot of the symptoms we’re experiencing will start to go away.

To our American readers, hope Saint Valentine is good to you tomorrow… or whatever you people say.  Seriously though, hope you can find yourselves some coffee and conversation.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Twisting an Arm

Day 53: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

There once was a little frog named Josephine.  She had a pet human named Robby.  Every morning, she let little Robby out to play and do his business.  Robby’s favorite toy was a sack of paper.  He took this with him when he went out, wearing his red and blue hat with the yellow helicopter propeller on top.  Josephine spent most of the day playing twister.  In the evening, Robby came back in and Josephine fed him.  He was always naughty at meal time because he didn’t keep his food in his can.  It would end up in Josephine’s room.  She ate it so it wouldn’t go to waste.

One day Robby came home, and his face was bright red.

“You’ll never guess what happened today, Josephine!”

Josephine couldn’t guess.

“Freddy payed me five dollars, and I kissed Gracie on the lips!  It was so funny!”

Josephine couldn’t believe it.

“I told Freddy it was gross, and he couldn’t make me do it.  But then he gave me five dollars, and I thought it was funny, so I did it anyway because I thought it was funny.”

Josephine looked at him.

robby-and-josaphine

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Love isn’t onion breath

Day 50: Friday

Morning, Tim!

Yesterday wasn’t my best day. Nothing dreadful happened. Much worse has happened in my life, let alone others’. But it still wasn’t good.

I spent nearly 13 hours in a windowless room. Lunch was catered in, and we worked through it. Breath after eating Middle Eastern food is potent; multiply it by 40, heat it up – not one of my top 5 favorite smells. Following work I went to school, listening to my professor lecture about investments for 2 hours without pause. Good stuff.

Upon arriving home, I nestled in, just thankful for the day to be done. I complained to my wife, who simply listened. I was grateful.

But then it got much better.

For our first anniversary (months ago, now), my wife made me a box of presents. Envelopes to open at different times given the occasion — perhaps a wonderful day, perhaps boredom. All of these envelopes had letters fitting the occasion, a way to make me smile. Many had a present accompanying. One letter was when I needed to feel handsome — a beautiful note of encouragement, a pep talk, and a mirror to show me what she sees.

I had forgotten about these, but am thankful to have stumbled upon them last night. I opened the box, rifled through it a bit, and was thoroughly blessed to find this:IMG_1074.JPG

One was for having a bad day.

In it there was yet another beautiful letter, comforting me. Not knowing one bit about my day the near year ago when it was written, it was just what I needed. It also contained this gem:

IMG_1072.JPG

which should make anyone smile. Especially me. Puns are the best.

You may have noticed the Gift #2 on the envelope. In case you’re curious, it was a book – Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. So I read it in a silly voice, and felt much better.

It’s great to feel known, cared for, loved.

My day wasn’t so bad after all. I drifted off to sleep, cherishing as always the sound of John Cage’s 4’33’’ as my eyelids slowly came to a close.

Until Monday,

Zak

Paradox

Day 47: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

So a while back I posted this word-cloud representing the frequencies of individual words in the love poetry of Cino da Pistoia.

schermata-2016-11-13-alle-18-02-25

My point in posting this was to illustrate Pistoia’s great obsession with death.  Morte is one of the most common words in his poems.  But Pistoia is by no means alone in this.  Many love poets have a similar morbid fixation.  The tendency can be traced all the way back to the beginning of love itself.

Love began around 1100 A.D.  Before that, it wasn’t really a thing.  Seriously.  I mean there was such a thing as friendship or erotic passion or fondness or charity… But “romantic love”?  The notion of some kind of noble or ennobling passion for which one should make great sacrifices—that more or less began in Languedoc around the turn of the second millennium.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
-Love Story

Could someone please tell me what on earth that line is supposed to mean?

Anyway, for as long as love has existed, the sentiment has almost always been accompanied by a sort of psychotic preoccupation with death.  Even the troubadours—the first true “love poets” in the modern sense—were like this: if Freud were somehow able to transcend the threshold of time and sit one of these guys down for a free word-association test, no doubt the pairing between the words amors and mortz would be as natural as it is automatic.

“And Rudel knew that she who embraced him was the countess.  And immediately he regained his sense of hearing and smelling, and he praised God that He had sustained his life until he had seen her.  And then he died in her arms.”

The association remains deeply engrained in our subconscious even today:

“To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.”

-Mary Oliver, from “In Blackwater Woods”

So that’s weird, isn’t it?

Anyway, Zak, you raise a good question:

“If we love others in part because there is potential to become beautiful and they are not yet there, how and when do we engage them in change?”

So basically, if we take poets seriously when they say that love is supposed to be some kind of transformative experience, how does that transformation actually work in practice?

The internet is full of opinions.  I don’t offer you an answer here because I don’t have one.  All I can say is that the collective wisdom of Western poets throughout history tells us that love is a kind of death.  Some people like to call it a petite mort.  However petite or not this poetical death really is, the concept creates something of a paradox: poetical death is also the (pro)creative impetus of new human life.

It’s not at all strange that romantic love suddenly became the central topic driving most Western literature after the middle ages.  Really, the sentiment embodies everything our society ever wanted out of a story.  Writing a good story is about having a vision and being willing to suffer for it.  Pursuing life, even at the cost of death.  That’s what the heroes in every epic have done since the dawn of man.  It’s also likely what we humans will continue to do for as long as this crazy little adventure of ours keeps us turning the pages.

Well, we’ll also continue to do other things… we’ll probably also keep pooping.

Until tomorrow,

Tim