Friday, August 1, 2008

I am surely a dolt—or no?

There is the fact that I am here, seated by the fire, attired in a dressing gown, having this paper in my hands…. And how could I deny that these hands and this body are mine, were it not perhaps that I compare myself to certain persons, devoid of sense, whose cerebella are so troubled and clouded by the violent vapours of black bile, that they constantly assure us that they think they are kings when they are really quite poor, or that they are clothed in purple when they are really without covering, or who imagine that they have an earthenware head or are nothing but pumpkins or are made of glass! —Descartes’ Meditations

I’ve been thinking about this “last lecture” idea that’s going around. What would I say in such a lecture?

I would talk about the absurdity of our beliefs. What else?

I might talk about “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” You’ll recall that, in the tale,

An emperor …[unknowingly] hires two swindlers who promise him the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they tell him, is invisible to anyone who was either stupid or unfit for his position. The Emperor cannot see the (non-existent) cloth, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing stupid; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they dress him in mime. The Emperor then goes on a procession through the capital [to] show off his new "clothes." During the course of the procession, a small child cries out, "But he has nothing on!" (Wikipedia)

For me, the tale is best if we emphasize, not the Emperor’s semi-belief that he is naked, but, rather, his less semi worry that his perception that he is naked is somehow mistaken, thus exposing him, in his mind, to being revealed as a fool (for supposing he is naked when he is in fact clothed).

The story loses fascination, too, if we suppose that everyone else is pretending to see clothes that are not there out of fear of contradicting the Emperor. Fear of offending the Emperor is not interesting. Our capacity to believe things that defy what our eyes plainly see—now that’s interesting. In my mind, the peasants don’t miss a beat. Right away, they see the clothing. They cheer happily.

And the child—he (or she or it) hasn’t learned how to deny and complicate his own perceptions in the way that the adults have. (Not sure about the ministers, those sycophantic rat bastards.)

So, for me, it’s a story about epistemological innocence or purity. The adult peasants aren’t just going along with a charade; they are corrupted thinkers. The process of seeing what is not there happens so quickly, so naturally, that they are no longer aware of it.

In a way, it is a strange world that we are describing. What a bizarre story! And yet, in a way, it is not strange at all. Obviously, people are complex, are capable of learning all sorts of subtle and peculiar games with perverse twists and turns. Why not the weird epistemological game?

OK. I’m saying that this is our world and we play this game. My message? —Resist being another corrupted thinker. Duh.

Some will say, perhaps, that I have simply stated the obvious. Yes, they will say, that is the way it is. We knew that. Haven’t you read Orwell? People's beliefs are messed up. So what?

If you will say this to me, then I am surely a dolt, for I swear to you that the people I encounter all day long really, truly seem to me to believe, and not just to semi-believe, that “our nation is just and good,” that “the people are wise,” that “the jury system is the best system,” and that “the Administration would not lie to the people about so grave a matter as war.”

Really, I feel a great embarrassment at the thought that, despite how people clearly seem to me, I have utterly underestimated them, for (you will now insist), in truth (Roy, you knucklehead you), people actually do understand that our nation is often callous and arrogant and stupid, that most voters are clueless, that election campaigns struggle for the hearts and minds of the irrationally impressionable, that it would certainly be better to train jurors about fallacies and sophistry, and that the President and his people are certainly capable of lies and deceptions.

Good Lord! It isn't just the likes of me? Everybody recognizes this crazy hell game world?

Wait a minute. Nope, I ain’t going there. Nice try!

I know what I see.


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