Monday, July 24, 2017

Reading the World

"What, tho' no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found;
In reasons ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice."
--Joseph Addison--

Tennyson tells the story of the Lady of Shallot, who was doomed to spend her life in a tower, working at a loom. She could never leave or turn to look through the window behind her. However, she did have a mirror through which she could see what passed in the world beyond her narrow tower. This was her only contact with the outside world. Though she never left her tower, the mirror allowed her to see many of the things that happened outside, giving her a sight of the world from which she herself was barred.

And the truth is that we are all like the Lady of Shallot. We too are cut off from the world and only able to experience it indirectly through the mirror of our senses and our intellect. Light bounces off objects and passes through our eyes to our brain--through this mirror we have “sight.” Objects come in contact with nerve endings on our skin which sends electrical impulses into our brain--through this mirror we have “feeling.” We never have direct experience with anything in the world (except, perhaps, God)--we see only the reflections of the world in the mirror of our mind. This is a fact we cannot escape.

This fact has led some into skepticism. Since all we see of the world is reflections in a mirror, how can we be sure that the world is even real? Our senses sometimes deceive us. Why should they be trusted at all? This is neither the time nor the place to enter into a refutation of such skepticism. It will be enough here to point out that it is only by the mirror that we know of the mirror. It is only by use of the sense that we know that we have senses. In fact, it is only because we trust our senses generally that we can know that they deceive us in some particular instance.

I do not, therefore, intend to preach skepticism here. Nor do I bring these things up merely for the philosophical fun of it. There are many who feel that such discussions are morbid and pointless. And to some extend they are right. What matters is the world we see in the mirror--knowing that we see it in a mirror is only a secondary matter. A knowledge of our own distance from the world should perhaps knock some of the conceit out of us, but it does not substantially change our life. We can still be happy and live out a productive life in our tower. Tennyson said of the Lady of Shallot that “In her web she still delights/To weave the mirror's magic sights.” Even if we see the world through a glass darkly, we can find pleasure and good work to do.

Indeed, we would probably be better off if we never gave a second thought to our senses--just as you will get the most out of reading a book when you lose consciousness of the fact that you are reading. But there are certain specialized circumstances when this is not true. The present moment of cultural history is one of those points.

But to understand what I mean, we will have to stop for a moment and consider more about this mirror in which we see the world.

Across the room from me as I'm writing there is a red couch. I can only see the top and one side of it over my computer screen, but I've seen it many times before and I'm summarily familiar with it. As I look at it, light is hitting it and being reflected into my eyes so that I see it. Or so I am told by the scientists. I am certainly conscious of no such transaction. As I see it, there is a sensation of something red, but it is separate from other red sensations, such as the red book on the shelf next to the couch. I am also conscious of a very unique and even awkward shape for (though I never thought on it before), a couch is one of the oddest shaped things imaginable. It is like some sort of mutant, side-show-freak chair twisted out of all proportions. The couch is composed of a vast number of molecules composed of a vast number of atoms composed of a vast number of other things which should probably not be called things at all. But I am not directly conscious of any of that. I only force myself to think of that because I am writing this article and even with the thought in my mind, I have difficulty in truly internalizing it. The couch is also composed of a great many pieces of wood stuck together by staples or nails of some kind, padded around with cushioning and covered over with various strips of cloth. But, again, I am not conscious of any of that until I force myself to think about it, as I'm doing now. In other words, when I look at it, I do not merely see redness combined with a couch-shape, nor do I see a certain combination of wood and cushioning or of electrons and neutrons--when I look at it, I merely see a red couch. In the same way, on the other side of the room, there is a blond kitchen chair sitting askance. I see it and think of it as a chair--it is only as I write this that I see it as sixteen distinct pieces of wood stuck together--even though I can see all sixteen pieces clearly from where I sit. But, as I said, when I look at it, I only see a chair unless I consciously force myself to think of its individual parts. Perhaps one could train their mind otherwise--perhaps a carpenter would, because of his experience, see the chair as separate pieces of wood first and only secondarily as a chair. And if the chair were badly constructed, it might take me a minute or two to realize that it was, in fact, a chair and not merely pieces of wood stuck together. But these exceptions do not change the general fact.

And that general fact is that we do not see the world as raw data. Our mirror does more than simply reflect the world. We see the world in individual pieces grouped together. Our mind sorts our sense data into categories. Another example--also across the room is a small keyboard sitting on a metal stand. I see these as two separate objects, because I know from previous experience that they are separate objects even though, from where I'm sitting at the moment, I cannot see any break between them and they could (from all I can tell right now) be really a single, unified object. Of course, it is remotely possible that someone snuck into my house today and welded them together in which case my perception of them as two separate objects would be wrong.  But despite that possibility (which I cannot at the moment disprove without getting out of this chair), my mind still perceives them as two separate objects. In other words, our mind sorts our sense data into categories, based on experience and other factors.

Of course, there are some who pounce on this and say that our minds may be playing tricks on us. But of such skepticism I have nothing here to say. Especially since, if these people are right, the words you are reading right now may have no meaning at all except one arbitrarily assigned by your mind--and so to use those words to argue the matter would be a little silly.

But that idea of reading may bring us most easily to the point I'm trying to make. When a man (a man well used to reading) looks at the words on a page, he does not necessarily see them as individual words--or, at least, is not primarily conscious of them as individual words and certainly not as individual letters. The words are only means of communicating something to his mind, something he grasps without paying much attention to the words themselves. That is why it takes careful thought (for most people) to catch all spelling errors in a written work--because the mind can “read” the information in a word, even if the word is slightly misspelled. If I see the word tree written on a page, I do not think: “There is an alignment of the letters T, R, E, and another E in an order which indicates the presence of the word tree.” And when I see a tree in the world, I do not think: “There is a combination of greenness of a particular leafy-shape combined in a certain pattern with rough cylindrical wood-like projections which leads me to believe I am looking at a tree.” In other words, we do not merely see the world, we “read” the world. The mirror through which we see the world is not merely our senses but our reason which interprets and sorts the data gathered by the senses.

There may be certain states of mind in which this does not happen. A person in or awaking from delirium is sometimes described as lacking such ability to categorize and distinguish the world. But such states--if they actually exist--are rare. It would have been worthy task for the late Jack Kirby to try to picture the life of a man who lacked this ability--who woke one morning with no memory even of the forms of the world and could see the world only as a formless mass of sense of impressions. But the story would probably have driven Kirby and his readers insane--as the experience would most certainly do to its victim. We do not and cannot see the world except through the mirror of our understanding, except through the categories of our mind.

Understanding the way we “read” the world should help us refute a very silly sort of skepticism which, silly or not, is becoming very fashionable today. I can explain the matter best by a personal example. I have a great fondness for rivers, especially for small rivers that flow in forests. There is something about a small watercourse rushing through the silence of a green wood which often awakes in my soul a sense of awe and wonder. Apparently, a vast majority of people in the world do not feel this. It may be that the feeling is merely a subjective, personal feeling like enjoying ham and peanut-butter (another taste that most of the world does not share)--I will not argue about that here. But I do know that there is no point in surrendering my feelings about a forest stream to one who says: “But a stream is merely a certain collection of water molecules flowing at a given rate through an assortment of woody-plants. You could get the same affect by turning on a spigot in a green house.” It is true in one sense--a river is a combination of water molecules just as the word river is a combination of letters--and this is true of every physical thing and every word. But you do not prove that there is nothing worth reading in a book by proving it is composed merely of letters (letters which, in some other combination, might be vile and degrading); and, in the same way, you cannot prove that there is nothing of wonder or value in a physical thing by breaking it apart and looking at its composite parts. My joy in a river may be a private, subjective thing like Mad Margaret's obsession with the word Basingstoke, but a river is as plain and concrete a thing as the city of Basingstoke, whether we like it or not.

This is a sidenote, but it worth inserting here. Most of this work in breaking this world apart has been the work of science--science which turned water into H20 and turned that into atoms and turned atoms into subatomic particles and will probably have turned those into something else by the time this article is finished. When I was much younger, I felt a certain antagonism for science in this regard and doted on those lines of Wordsorth: “Our meddling intellect/Misshapes the beauteous form of things--/We murder to dissect.” I do not feel that way now. Partly because, as I said above, knowing what a thing is made of does not destroy what the thing is--science cannot take the awe and poetry out of the world any more than grammar and spelling take the meaning out of literature. But there is another reason though, as I said, this is a sidenote--and that is that the more science breaks down the world, the more awe-some and wondrous the world becomes. It is as if you ripped apart a beautiful picture and found a still more beautiful one on the canvas behind it. Some ancient people believed a river was the home of a Naiad. Some modern people believe the river is the home of the atom. There can be some debate which of these views is right. But there is no debate that the Naiad is a dull, prosaic, and commonplace thing compared to the atom. I think an uneducated, unprejudiced foreign intelligence would find the atom the far more wonderful idea of the two. He would also probably, by-the-by, find it harder to believe. So far from sweeping wonder and awe from the world, science is continually opening new volumes, new rooms, filled with fresh wonder. And if we do not see it here, it is because we have lost the ability to “read” the world and would not find anything so very wonderful in any possible universe, even if it was designed and built by a poet--though, indeed, this world may have been designed and built by a Poet, which we might see if see we had the eyes to read it.

This matter of “reading” the world is not confined to emotional and poetical matters such as those above, however. Suppose you saw a man, maddened by unfounded suspicion and self-imagined injuries, take a gun and put a bullet through the the heart of his rival. Suppose you saw a man, driven to the breaking point by real insults and abuse, by the deliberate trampling on all things sacred to self, pull his gun and with a shot silence his persecutor. Suppose you saw a man who, out of love of his homeland's flag and safety, braved his life for her sake by shooting down one of her enemies. Suppose you saw a man, in the last desperation of danger, with the life of himself and his family on the line, purchase their safety by a bullet in the chest of their attacker. If you are one sort of Nihilist, you would thinks all these actions right. If you are another sort, you would think them all wrong. If you are the rest of the human race, you would think some of them right and some of them wrong. But whatever view you take on the ethical matter, you have to see that each situation I described is very different. If they were all right, they would be different kinds of right. They might all be wrong, but they would different kinds of wrong. Yet, if you did witness such scenes, the essential physical characteristics would be essentially the same. The crack of the report, the acrid scent of powder, the sensation and appearance of the wound (... but this article is rated E so no more about that...)--they would all be substantially the same whether the action was murder, war, or self-defense, just as the same letters may appear in many words and the same words may appear in many works and yet mean something different in each specific context. This is just another example of our “reading” the world--of how we turn the sense data into real information. Of course, we must note that if we did witness such a shooting, we might have difficulty in determining just what kind of action it really was--it might appear at first sight to have been self-defense when further examination would reveal it was simple murder. But the very fact that we can misread something indicates that there is something to read.

Or let us take another example--an ethical problem as brutally practical as murder and far more pressing at the present time. Nearly all civilized societies have recognized the importance of the family; the duty of parents to children, children to parents, and all members generally to one another has been seen as one of the most fundamental duties of humanity. “Honor thy father and thy mother” is not just a Biblical principal--it can practically be said to be common to all civilizations. But I remember hearing an acquaintance of mine make fun of this whole concept. “Why,” he asked, “would the mere fact of giving birth to someone make you worthy of respect?” And he had a point. The process which creates the family is merely a physical process of chemistry and biology like many other mundane, prosaic chemical and biological processes. How can the family be a moral matter when it is the result of simple, physical processes?--which is exactly like asking how family can be a meaningful word when it is simply an alignment of the letters F, A, M, I, L, and Y. Refusing to admit the moral claims and perils, the goodness and evils of the family because it is merely a result of physical processes is exactly like denying that anyone could ever sit comfortably on a couch because, after all, a couch is merely a combination of wood and nails and cloths. Just as an illiterate man would see only black marks on paper where a good reader would see soaring lyrics, so the cynic sees only physical processes where the rest of us see the family. The fact that some people cannot read does not prove that reading is a hoax, and the fact that some people do not see the family does not prove that the family does not exist. But there is a strange addition to this--the illiterate man sees only black marks where the reader sees words. But the reader also sees black marks. In other words, he sees what his unlearned friend sees but he sees something else as well. The moralist sees the family, but he also sees and knows the scientific processes which creates the family--he sees the whole, while the cynic can only see half.

To some, this all will seem dangerously subjective. To some, the claim that we can “read” the world means only that we “read into” the world our own ideas and thoughts. Usually these people will advise us to content ourselves with understanding the world with the more exact and dependable tools of science and give up the hope of finding meaning or value in the world. There is something to be said for this point of view, but there is a problem.

Take a few lines of poetry, like these from Tennyson's Princess. “The splendor falls on castle walls/And snowy summits old in story;/The long light shakes across the lakes,/And the wild cataract leaps in glory.” If we read these in the right spirit and heart, we will feel something of what the poet meant--the awe and wonder of twilight and the special beauty and terror it gives to ordinary things; the weight and glory of all things old and majestic; the joy and thrill in wild nature. But there is another way to read them, and that is analytically: “[The] splendor (main noun, metonym for sunlight) falls (intransitive verb, describes metaphorically the action of the main noun) on (preposition followed by complex prepositional phrase describing where the splendor fell) [1] castle walls and (conjunction, coordinating the complex prepositional phrase) [2] snowy (adjective) summits old in story (functions as an adjectival phrase, also describing summits).” And so forth. It is harder, less interesting, and takes a good deal more time to read, but it is more exact and it is, in certain situations, necessary. One could draw out a full-blown analogy between the poetical and analytical approach to literature and the philosophical and scientific approach the world. That is not my purpose here. I just want to point out one thing--neither one could be done by someone who could not read. Neither one could be done to a sheet of blank paper. If this world has no meaning, then the philosopher and the scientist are equally wasting their time. If the mirror through which we see the world lies, then we are all deceived and can know nothing of the real world.

Someday, we shall know as we are known--but till then, we see through a glass darkly. We cannot leave our mirror and see the world as it “truly” is. When the Lady of Shallot turned away from her mirror and tried to look out the window, “The mirror crack'd from side to side;/'The curse is come upon me,' cried/The Lady of Shalott.” If we try to escape from our senses and our reason which interprets them, we will be cursed with madness, trapped in the tower of our own ego without any ability to see the world outside. And that curse is coming slowly upon our world as we slowly reject the possibility of objective knowledge of the world outside us. Once you could (and with most people you could still) work some kind of theistic argument out of this--you could say that since we see the world accurately through our mirror, we must believe that God made the mirror. There is no reason to suppose on an a naturalistic worldview that we would have ever gained the ability to accurately understand the world. Only the WORD could teach us to read. But in this day, we must increasingly say it the other way around (though it sounds perilously presuppositional)--we must say that because there is a God, therefore we have the ability to understand and read the world. Because the WORD is in the beginning, there can be such a thing as reading. We can honestly and sanely read the world, only because the world was written to be read--and the world can only be such because it has an Author.

[Note: Though I have not directly referenced the work, much of the thought for this was drawn from The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis. The specific analogy of reading morality out of the raw data of a shooting is taken (though treated differently) from chapter 12 of The Best Things in Life by Peter Kreft.]

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