Tabula Rasa

As far as we know, a man blind from birth does not dream of colors. But how could we know if he did? More important, how could he know if he did?
This Winter and Spring have been cold, and I have been skating. I don’t mean the sequins and blades kind of skating, I mean snow skating. Skis take the place of metal runners, and the action is something else. I find it hard to describe. It has a smoothness to it, a chain of movement like climbing. It has a mental feel which is different than climbing’s though, a shifting attention with underlying focus. When it’s going well, I feel like I could close my eyes and never crash. I like it, but I think some people might not. That’s because they are who they are and not me. I like the feeling of skating because of my background, the kinds of activities I’ve learned to appreciate and the position which skating occupies in that pantheon of activity. I couldn’t explain to anyone else what I feel when I’m gliding uphill. I couldn’t make them feel what it’s like for me and therefore what it’s like to like it. I couldn’t accomplish a transfer of appreciation for skating anymore than I could explain a dream of red things to a blind man. It is something personal, mine to have.
The feeling of gliding with a constant effort is unique to skating. The association is unique. I am not sure that the feeling is unique. I’m not sure that the feeling is anything. Yes, it is the feeling of skating, but I’m not sure it is independently identifiable. Without the sensation of weight shifting over the lead ski, acceleration, and pole-push recovering the trailing ski, the feeling I like about skating might be about screaming down a trail on a mountain bike, swinging an ice tool, having a shot of good Scotch or anything else I enjoy. Take away my enjoyment, and I wouldn’t know what to make of the feeling.
Maybe this line of thought seems bizarre, but I am not to blame for it. I have been influenced to pursue it by reading philosophy. I’ll admit, most of the reading was voluntary. The preoccupation with the nature of subjectivity however, comes from the philosophers and their corrupting thought experiments, in this case one called “spectrum inversion”. Spectrum inversion proposes a flip in qualitative experience of color. Imagine that, when I see green things, I have a red experience. When you see green things, you have a green experience experience. It could be happening right now, and we would be oblivious to the fact(?). As long as you and I have no gap in our spectrums, the difference in our experience cannot be detected empirically. You call the stop-light red; I call the stop-light red. I call the grass green; you call the grass green. The point is, when I see a green thing I know something about it (its red appearance) which is not explicable on the basis of function or structure – my own or that of the green (red?) thing.
There are two problems with the moral of this story. One is a problem with philosophers. If philosophers were birds, they would be gob-smacked about their wings, and would puzzle endlessly about what it meant that they could fly. Without an acceptable theory, i.e. a complete theory, they are unhappy. They chose color for this thought experiment because people have a strong intuition about the reality of colors. The intuition probably owes something to a degree of a priori knowledge of color. Color perception is ‘baked in’ to us, probably with some pre-set associations. It may not be the best research subject in an investigation of qualitative experience in general. Our credulity gets in the way, doubly so for the philosophers among us.
The other problem is deeper. It is the blind man’s problem. My inability to describe a dream of blood, or stop-signs to him is merely a symptom. He cannot consider a theory of color perception – the consistencies of colors, their place among our other experiences, their rules and regularities. He needs an explanation first. He must be able to say, for himself, what he is to make of the quale in his hand. That explanation is a prerequisite to our discussion of blood’s appearance. Otherwise, his putative color experience refers to nothing; it is there, perhaps, but it pertains to nothing but himself and remains unremarkable, a tabula rasa, a point of order in the conscious process.
The status of qualia may seem a curiosity, but I think it’s a bit more. I think so because I didn’t start out skating because I knew I’d like it. I started out skating because I was sad.

Have you never heard about Lin Hui, the man who fled from Chia? He threw away his jade disc worth a thousand measures of gold, strapped his little baby on his back, and hurried off. Someone said to him, ‘Did you think of it in terms of money? Surely a little baby isn’t worth much money! Or were you thinking of the bother? But a baby is a great deal of bother! Why then throw away a jade disc worth a thousand measures of gold and hurry off with a little baby on your back?
Lin Hui replied, ‘The jade disc and I were joined by profit, but the child and I were brought together by Heaven. Things joined by profit, when pressed by misfortune and danger, will cast each other aside; but things brought together by Heaven, when pressed by misfortune and danger, will cling to one another…
-The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu by Burton Watson

“You know how it is with you and your brother, out of sight out of mind,” my sister-in-law says.
For her, attachments subsist on their assigned meaning. They have a third-person ontology. Without constant refreshment and revision of their rules and regularities, attachments lose their meaning as circumstances pass them by. People must constantly find new reasons for their loves and loyalties, lest the sentiments be forgotten.
She made that comment because she was annoyed with a lack of active communication within the family and based on her observation of our response to our parents’ deaths. When my mother died, my father took her ashes to an unnamed place and scattered them. When he died, his sons did the same for him, and have spoken of it, and of their father, rarely since. From the outside, the silence may look like disinterest or even amnesia. But it is not. The attachment in question just can’t be corralled by words, memorials, or funeral rites. A jade disc cannot represent it, because no theory of value explains it. The attachment is part of our personalities, and though it changes with us, it persists. Attempts to push it into orbit around our persons would lead to misunderstanding at best, bitterness at worst. Master Sang-hu continues:

The friendship of a gentleman, they say, is as insipid as water; that of a petty man, sweet as rich wine. But the insipidity of the gentleman leads to affection, while the sweetness of the petty man leads to revulsion. Those with no particular reason for joining together will for no particular reason part.

‘Particular’, in Master Sang-hu’s statement, should not be mistaken for ‘specific and isolated’. He means personal, particular to the individuals. The attachments formed by petty men are outside of themselves and adhere by the stickiness of their emotional quid pro quo. The alternative is to give up on the boundaries of one’s identity. So the petty man may be forgiven; he’s got something to lose. Most people are not petty, or at least not entirely so. For instance, at some point, many will ask, “But why do you love me?”. However, even those who pose the question early in their lives don’t persist in the practice, and learn to beware the question themselves.
I don’t think my sister-in-law is being petty in her dissatisfaction with my and my brother’s behavior. There is another use for her third person ontology of attachment, besides its potential as sticky treacle. It is filler. It buys time for adjustment and reorientation in the face of change. It insulates against anxiety, pain and sadness, which are the true corrosives, time and change being guilty merely by association. With that understanding in place, she’s miffed about us not playing along properly, rather than disparaging us for simply lacking true attachments. Her way of using a theory of attachment is the way most of us use such things – as a buffer for our weaknesses. They remain grossly utilitarian, but are second order rather than primary.
Right after my wife died, I got some similar encouragement to play along. I couldn’t bring myself to participate in memorials or ceremonies. There is a core of dishonesty in those events. They claim to honor the deceased, but they really serve to push the person into orbit around the survivors, where the dead can’t hurt us. Worse yet, memorials and funerals are opportunities for certain parasites of death to pedal whatever bizarre spiritual beliefs they feel the world can’t do without. Functionally, death rituals are filler for the living. I could skate, that was filler enough and a more honest variety.
For the same reason, I turned down grief counselling, which is a more modern ritual to the same end. I actually have some data to back me up on that decision. A meta-analysis presented at The 2008 ADEC (Association for Death Education and Counselling – a cheery lot, no doubt) conference showed no benefit in universal counselling for those who had experienced loss. For those who had the most traumatic losses, such as the violent death of a child, counselling provided a brief benefit with no improvement in long term outcomes.
The only people who consistently benefitted were people who were referred, by others or by themselves, for trouble adjusting, especially those who experienced signs and symptoms of depression.
I think the last finding is most telling, for depression reflects a falling out of context. Depression is more than being sad, even very, very sad. In depression, the sufferer ceases to feel this way or that about experiences, and begins to experience the world in the light of sadness. Depression is the philosopher’s take on subjectivity taken seriously. Sadness, for the depressed person, is not made of anything; it is something identifiable and effective.
But sadness as a thing cannot make sense. It only works if something makes a person sad, and the person must contain the necessary elements to be made sad. The depressed person is constantly at work constructing those elements. A person in the grips of depression exists in a self-perpetuating cycle of justification which cannot succeed in finding an acceptable answer for the person’s sadness.
Because, just plain sad is an undifferentiated stake in the field of consciousness, and we are charitable to name it. It cannot be grasped anymore than love, or redness or the feeling of skating, and the mind groping after it must fail. That’s the danger of taking qualitative aspects of our world seriously; they cannot deserve it. If we do take them seriously, we may, in effect, mistakenly strap jade discs to our backs instead of our children, holding the byproducts of our attachments dear, though nothing adheres to redness, love or sadness – not even treacle.
Out of sight, even out of thought, but not out of mind, lost and distant relations remain. They cause love and sadness, but love and sadness do not explain them. Eventually, they leave love and sadness behind. When Winter returns, I will start skating again, and not because I am sad. I’ll do it because I like to skate. It’s my fate, in a sense, like it was my fate to love my wife, my parents, my children and my friends. No taint of sadness will cling to the snow, the skis or my limbs. No sadness will drive me over the snow. Turns out, it never did.

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13 thoughts on “Tabula Rasa

  1. Beautiful. Keep skating. Whatever that means…. x

  2. The problem of qualia is poorly addressed by philosophers because they can’t see the computer for the gray matter. Love can be addressed, as can the color red and I have tried to do so on my blog.

    In the philosopher’s thoughts (even though they can’t define what a thought is) they fail to see the non-physical representation of the world around us in our heads. We all live in a simulation and it runs in our head. The world we experience is not the physical world but a simulation of it which is informed by our senses and prior knowledge and experience.

    A proper response would be as long as your post.. so I will stop here.

    • keithnoback says:

      A lot of these issues (representation, internalism, externalism) boil down to questions about truth. Truth is like peril, we should only have a little bit at a time. Having too much is unhealthy. I think there is probably something to qualia, but that something is epiphenomenal. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter unless we use it to make mistakes.

      • There is the problem in a nutshell. Your thinking and everyone else it seems, is to address qualia as a thing on it’s own. Qualia do not exist because they are not things. Ideas are not things. A thing is physical. Qualia is meta data about a thing or sequence of things etc. Our brains create an illusion that qualia are like things, but they are not. We live in a simulation and it creates meta data to model the real world. Experiencing qualia is the act of our brains simulating some thing in the real world.

    • keithnoback says:

      If we’re living in a simulation , how do we know it, and how do we know what is simulated? More important, how does it matter? We need a definition of “thing” and “physical” to get started, and nobody really has gotten beyond the start. Most people think a thing at least does something. I tend to agree. I can’t see how we could claim to know about it otherwise. Yet here are all these things which we seem to know, which don’t do anything obvious (qualia). So we are either wrong about things, wrong about what we can know, or wrong about qualia being inert. That is the problem which philosophers have laid out, in a nutshell. I want to split the difference along the obvious seams. I think we are mostly wrong about qualia being inert, and we are a little bit wrong about things due to inadequate methodology – and here I’d say that, if I were a bird, I wouldn’t think twice about the meaning of flying.

      • I may not have communicated well. We live in a simulation not in a manner that our bodies are simulated – no, they are real. The simulation happens in our brain. It is informed by our senses and there in the simulation we model the world around such that the ‘we’ part never actually touches the real world save for it’s existence within the confines of our brain.

        The simulation is prone to errors and misinterpreted data. Qualia is the translation of sensory data to information suitable for use in the simulation. In the simulation there is ‘red’ and ‘good/evil’ so these things _seem_ to exist… just like the voices in the head of a psychotic.

    • keithnoback says:

      No, I think I understood well enough, I just think there are some problems with what you are proposing. It seems like you are heading toward eliminativism – the idea that say, “pain” isn’t real, what’s real is “increases in molecular motion causing sodium channels to open with subsequent salutatory transmission of membrane depolarizations, etc.”. That’s lovely. It’s very precise, and quite useful at times for the neurologists, but all those bits and pieces are representations, or – like math – theories about representations themselves. You need to demonstrate that they are somehow more true of the situation which they represent than is pain. How will you do that without referring to “pain” or “you” or even worse, “we” – things which are mere representations in your account. I don’t see how you can advance your case, unless you want to consider the idea of the mental theater seriously and take a crack at dualism. 🙂

      • By take a crack at dualism, what is meant exactly?

      • keithnoback says:

        I mean take up the idea that there’s what’s simulated in the mental movie and there’s the little man in our heads watching it. I’m not suggesting you do that. Others have gone that way from this point in the conversation, however.

  3. […] this stuff really intrigues me. His latest post, Tabula Rasa, might well mean something and it’s beautifully, even poetically written. He receives praise […]

  4. violetwisp says:

    Okay, I need to apologise. I didn’t understand any of the comments I’d seen you leave anywhere, and I only skim read the start of this post. I didn’t realise it was so personal and I’m really embarrassed I linked to it and suggested it didn’t make sense. I think I’ll just delete my post, unless you want it to stand for some odd philosophical reason. Let me know.

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