Thursday, January 13, 2011

Asking Good Questions

The following is largely based on chapter 1 of Bertrand Russell's "The Problems of Philosophy"

1. Asking a Good Question
If I have learned anything, it is that no matter how complicated you think things are, they are always more complicated. There is always another layer to uncover, another angle to explore. You don’t have to keep digging, and most people would usually prefer to let things be, but that doesn’t mean that those other paths are not still there to be explored. Of course, no matter how long you keep going, how long you keep looking, there will always be something else to discover. This can be frustrating or inspiring. Take your pick.
To access this kind of complexity is to become aware of all the potential questions that you could ask but that most people don’t. Look around you. Pick some object, any object. I notice the chair at the desk across the room from where I am typing this. It is simple to describe the chair. In fact, describing household objects is the kind of thing any kindergartener can do. The chair I am looking at is a folding chair. It has a gray, metal frame and a sea foam green, plastic seat and back. It is the color of the plastic that makes this chair special. Other than that, it is the kind of chair you could imagine set up in any auditorium.
This feels like a pretty exhaustive description. You must have formed a mental image of the chair, and probably whatever your picture is pretty close to the truth. But next, I try to draw the chair. I am not very good at drawing. The picture I draw looks nothing like the chair I am looking at. As I move my pencil across the table, I realize that I don’t really know what to do with it. The doodle I produce has for legs, kind of, it sort of has a seat and back, but I am sure that if I showed you my drawing, you wouldn’t be able to pick the chair out of a lineup. Why can’t I draw a realistic chair? I am certainly able to describe it. I can get up and look as closely as I want, yet I feel confident that your mental image of the chair is much closer to what the chair looks like than my drawing.
As I look closer, I realize that it is because I left all kinds of things out of my description. The back of the chair is facing me and there is a line of shadow across the seat. The whole back of the chair is shadowed and looks like a darker shade of green than the seat. There are much lighter spots on the chair where the light is hitting it directly. I realize that I left perspective out of my drawing. The parts of the chair that are farther away from me look narrower.
It’s much easier to describe a chair than to draw a chair. This is because when I describe it, I imagine myself to be describing it as it is, whereas when I draw it, I can only draw it as I see it. Good artists are able to draw the chair from their own particular perspective. They are able to represent the particular pattern of light and shadow, bright patches and dull patches that are an effect of the particular point of view from which they see the chair. Bad artists, like me, imagine that somehow we can draw the chair from no perspective, or from a universal perspective. Failing to take into account the aspects of the image of the chair that change depending on the viewer yields stunted representations of the chair.
So how much of what I see when I look at the chair depends on my perspective and how much depends on the chair itself? I tend to think that a thing like the color of the chair (that strange sea foam green I described above) doesn’t depend on where you stand. But the color does depend on the light in the room. I remember going to the Boston Science Museum as a child where there is a room lit by a black light. I was amazed to see that my white t-shirt looked purple! The thought occurred to me, if all light were black light, things would look like this all the time. All of a sudden, the colors of objects, which had seemed fixed, were dependent on tricks of lighting.
One wants to insist that the chair has a definite color that doesn’t just depend on the circumstances in which the observer finds him or herself. One wants to say, “The color of the chair is whatever color the chair is in normal light.” But unfortunately, it is not obvious what “normal light” is. Can I specify it as a time of day? A brand of lightbulb? A particular wavelength? Regardless of what standard I choose, I acknowledge that any standard will be just that, a choice. There is no scientific experiment I can perform to decide whether or not some particular light is normal or not. This is because the only way we can perform a scientific test of whether something is or isn’t normal is if we have already established a standard of what counts as normal.
At this point, most people are going to shut off. For most people, it is enough to say that we all basically agree on what colors things are. We know that the world is not black lit, and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter because it would be that way for everyone. And frankly, I agree with this. It doesn’t really matter that objects look different from different perspectives. I don’t worry about whether the chair is really green or not. In fact, the only time I think awareness of different perspectives matters in my life is when there is a glare on the T.V from one angle and not from another, or when I am trying to figure out how to tilt the laptop screen so that both Ziva and I watch a movie.
But there is something much deeper going on here. The analysis of the different perspectives from which we can see the chair shows us that often times, the way things look depends less on inherent qualities of the thing we are looking at and more on where we are standing. I asked above about how much of what I see when I look at the chair depends on me and how much depends on the chair. This question is not necessarily that interesting when applied to the chair, but it becomes important and essential when applied to other parts of life. How much of my opinions, and belief system is determined by the way the world is and how much is determined by the way that I am? For example, what effect did being raised as an orthodox Jew, or in Massachusetts, or as one of three brothers have on my world-view? Many people feel like they can shed their particular context and simply see the world as it is, unadulterated by context.
What the discussion of the chair raises is that not only is it difficult to distinguish between the way the world is and the way that we are, it may not even be possible. In some sense, the qualities of the chair are reflections of qualities in ourselves. We want there to be a context-free way to look at the chair. Just as we may sometimes wish that we could reexamine many of our beliefs without context. But this is like asking for a context-free context. The discussion of the chair convinces me that there is no context-free context. All our observations, all our beliefs, all our experiences are always from our perspective. Just as the artist asks about the effect of her perspective on the chair, training ourselves to ask what is the effect of our perspective on the way that we see the world.
Once you look at the chair as something that may not have qualities that are entirely independent of the person looking at the chair, whole new avenues of exploration open up. I start to want to know more about my own beliefs. I start to see my perspective itself as something worth analyzing and investigating. What do I believe exactly and how might those beliefs shape the way that I see the world? At this point, it is not clear how we would go about answering these questions. If everything I believe is influenced by my perspective, how can get a clear look at my own perspective? I feel like I am trying to trim my fingernails one handed.
But at least we have some interesting questions.

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