Sunday, 16 February 2014

"Please elaborate" - the bad idea that any complex thing can be re-stated in simple terms

I like this short film of Jacques Derrida, in which he tells what he finds typically "American" about a request that had been put to him by a journalist to "elaborate", presumably on some aspect of his thinking. The idea seems to be that such a question can be an act of levelling, or determination to eliminate difference in advance and make of whatever comes into view something totally assimilable to what I already am or know. Behind the question - so often a demand - is a determination to render everything of the same kind.

I came to the conclusion some time ago that it is impossible to demonstrate the existence of other minds to the "mind-blind". (The term "mind-blindness" is due to Simon Baron-Cohen, who is a cognitive psychologist exploring so-called autism-spectrum disorders. I'm not all that happy, myself, with this kind of talk, and it's focus on brains, but mind-blindness does seem to describe something). I arrived at this conclusion only after punishing efforts to do just this, having been caught in a difficult place, feeling compelled to justify or validate non-scientific practice to someone dear to me, for whom these things could contain, so he held, nothing of any value. For various reasons, at the time, I really needed him to understand why such practices could be of value and indeed are of value. It was very important for how I received his ideas, and how I addressed myself to him, that he conceived this value-less-ness as a fact of the world.

I had an inkling that what gave him to be able to pronounce this view so confidently, generally only in private (although it would show itself in his talk and expression in other situations too), that these practices could contain nothing of value, was his attainment of mastery, and through this a certain amount of power in the world, of science-based practice. It was the feeling of being in possession of a relatively small slice of scientific knowledge in the confidence that the rest of scientific knowledge, even though it may not be accessible to him, is of the same basic kind. With this, a further impression must have been there that the rest of science is the whole realm of knowledge. In other words, there was a sense of completeness, that even the few remaining unknowns must somewhere, sometime soon become known by the extension of this realm of knowledge by the same kind of investigation that has provided the slice of knowledge known to him.

Growing up, this sense of limitlessness impressed itself powerfully on my mind. I carried around a belief that whatever I might encounter in the world, or what I might begin to set about doing, the thing could already, in principle, be known in the same terms that all these other things are already known, by the same kind of investigation. There would be an inexorable logical chain through which whatever I imagined could be reached simply by following this chain, and this rendered whatever I imagined already known. Later this became intolerable, suffocating. But in my earlier life, it seemed quite pleasing. It was a way to explore things. However, along with this impression of the understandability of every phenomenon, I would experience a sense of injustice when I met things in the world, specifically people's creations or expressions, which had not been arrived at through this process of knowing. I had internalised an idea that only those people can be justified to make such expressions - say things about the world through which to affect others - who could demonstrate the truth, which meant the "correctness", of what was expressed.

Eventually, and not too late I hope, I came to have to dismantle this world-view. In retrospect I see it as the means to protect oneself from an awareness - which may be profoundly frightening - of difference (and therefore one's own difference) in the world.

Here is a quote from G Leibniz (which I found in a book review by Galen Strawson, the book was "Soul Dust" by psychologist N Humphrey):

'[C]onsciousness, [said Leibniz], "cannot be explained on mechanical principles, ie by shapes and movements…. imagine that there is a machine [eg a brain] whose structure makes it think, sense and have perception. Then we can conceive it enlarged, so that we can go inside it, as into a mill. Suppose that we do: then if we inspect the interior we shall find there nothing but parts which push one another, and never anything which could explain a conscious experience."

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