Criticism

Free Will

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d take fifteen hundred words to describe my position on free will.

We make countless choices each day, and we feel that these choices are ours, that they originate inside the self, that they depend on personal volition, which is to say that we are free to decide one way or the other — it’s up to us — so the outcome belongs to us. But what does this mean?

If I can make a choice by flipping a coin, or I can make it for cause, where does free will come into play? If my choice is made randomly, it is an act of chance, not one of will. But if my choice is made deliberately, for specific reasons, how is this different from saying that my choice is determined by those reasons? The choice is not up to me, it’s up to the reasons! Some of those reasons, of course, may be internal ones, aspects of my unique self, but the things that are unique about me are not things I asked for. I have judgement, but I never went shopping for judgement, picking a model that I liked off the shelf — it’s the sum total of the experiences I’ve happened to have and the qualities I’ve inherited.

If we are both invited to a party and you go but I stay home, do our differing behaviors show that we exercised free will? Perhaps I declined because I’m an introvert and you accepted because you’re an extrovert, so our choices depended on our individual personalities for sure. But if we didn’t also choose to be introverts or extroverts, where’s the freedom?

True, I can step outside the constraints of my personality and do something uncharacteristic, but when this happens, it’s for a reason too, and that reason itself has a reason which I probably didn’t choose. If I overcome my reluctance and go to the party after all, because I hear that John Doe is also going and I want to see him, then John Doe’s decision to attend can be said to have determined my own decision. My personal affection for John Doe may have been a factor here, but that affection is not something I chose to possess: it’s determined by preferences that I didn’t choose to have, and attributes of John Doe that I didn’t choose for him to have. I may have been on the fence about going, and when I finally decided to go I may have been unsure why I did so, but my own lack of insight into a wavering decision doesn’t mean it was free. Surely there were reasons that swayed me without my knowing.

How can we reconcile the feeling of freedom, the sense that we are making our own choices, directing our own lives, deciding which parties we will attend, so to speak, with the awareness that our choices are determined by things that we did not choose, and that every chain of causality – the reasons behind the reasons behind the reasons why we decide one way or another – followed long enough, must extend outside the self, into the realm of what we cannot choose?

If this is a conundrum that appears unsolvable, that’s because we forget that freedom is relational. I cannot simply be free. I can only be free in relation to something that might possibly constrain me. If the party was on a Saturday, and my boss doesn’t control my weekends, then my decision to go or not go was made freely with respect to my boss. He could neither have forced me to go nor stopped me from going. But it might be true that my friend Gary insisted I go, threatening great upset if I didn’t, so my choice was not free with respect to Gary. In the country where I live, I may possess something like freedom of speech, but that freedom only exists with respect to a government that could possibly constrain my speech; at the same time, I might be tightly constrained in what I say by customs I follow, agreements I’ve made with friends, contracts I’ve signed with employers, the language I speak, and the person I happen to be. Remove all possible constraints, all possible factors that could limit or control my speech, and I would be left howling, not exercising freedom.

And yet when we think about free will we think of it as an independent quality, something that exists on its own, something we either have or don’t have. We desire free will, or claim to have it, without specifying what it is free with respect to. Did I exercise free will in going to the party? To an observer who focuses on my boss’s influence, my choice will have seemed free; to an observer who focuses on my friend Gary’s influence, my choice will have seemed constrained. The appearance of freedom depends on which circumstances the observer knows about and considers important.

Still, we are bothered by the thought of an omniscient observer, an alien possessing superior cognition who could understand all the circumstances affecting our choices and use this knowledge to predict the outcomes. Where our behavior seems free to us because our understanding of its causes is limited, perhaps it would seem deterministic to a being that knew everything about us, a being who could see the causes that are hidden to us, a being whose viewpoint was panoramic where ours is narrow. And if our deepest, most intimate decisions could be predicted by an omniscient being, even just a hypothetical one, then our sense of freedom must be illusory, right? We insist that our actions make sense, that we have good reasons for what we do, that our behavior is coherent, on the one hand; on the other, we wish for assurance that no being could guess our next moves, even in principle. Our identity is bound up in the conflicting convictions that we are both rational and unpredictable.

What is undeniably true is that we have the experience of freedom, whether that freedom is real or not, just as one may have the experience of communion with God whether there is one or not. It feels a certain way to make choices. The feeling ranges from one of open possibility and even mystery, when external constraints are few and we’re not sure which way we’ll go until the moment of decision, to one of greater confinement when we’re pressured by circumstances to act one way or another, and the chance of resisting what’s prescribed seems slim. This feeling of freedom, in all its variations, affects our behavior: we may love and seek the experience, or we may fear and avoid it. An alien who sought to predict our behavior would have to understand our emotions, including those surrounding freedom itself. This leads to something of a paradox, because if the experience of freedom depends on our limited comprehension, our ignorance of predetermining factors, how could a being with unlimited comprehension really know what that’s like?

So my position on free will is this: freedom requires a point of reference. Absolute freedom is incoherent as a concept. To say we don’t have absolute free will doesn’t mean we’re missing out on something available, unless one thinks we’re also missing out on empty cups that are full or sunny days that are cloudy. At any moment, our will is free with respect to some things and constrained with respect to others. The factors that constrain our will are different from choice to choice, moment to moment, and this swirling, ever-changing multiplicity of factors is often so complex as to be, from our mortal perspectives, unknowable. If we’re bothered by the possibility that a being with superior cognition could guess our next moves, we should remember that the experiences we hold dear, including that of freedom itself, depend on our obstructed viewpoints, on our partial ignorance. We might wish for more knowledge, but having too much would deflate the experiences that give us meaning.

Criticism

Art and Weed

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d take fifteen hundred words to state my personal aesthetic philosophy.

Although I never became a regular or even infrequent user of marijuana, my thoughts about art tie back to a few experiences of being stoned that I had in my early twenties.

Getting stoned was the first time I understood that what seems fascinating, profound, or moving to me is as much a function of the thing itself as it is of my current mental state. I remember being stoned and finding soap bubbles in the kitchen sink endlessly intriguing, or saying a word – I don’t know, “luminous” – and thinking its sounds were so fascinating that the word itself was some kind of masterpiece. One could say that my perceptions were distorted by the drug. In this view, drugs disconnect you from reality, and when a drug wears off, you realize that all the things it made you think weren’t really true. But one could also say that mind-altering substances expose truths about the self. Marijuana revealed to me that I have the capacity to find pleasure in places I normally wouldn’t find it. I have the capacity to be endlessly fascinated by soap bubbles. I didn’t know that before. What is it about weed that unleashes this latent capacity for appreciation?

I think it’s all about attention. Soap bubbles seemed so rapturous to me because, for once, I could give them full attention. Where normally I would have said that soap bubbles are pretty but I’ve got to get the dishes done, I was now free to stare at them intensely and endlessly, with no sense of time passing, no voice nagging me to focus on something more important, no inner chatter distracting me from enjoyment. Where normally, I would have said that “luminous” is a nice word, but it’s just a word, I could now repeat it again and again, loving its sounds without caring whether it was a piece of sonic art by a famous creator, or just a word. The critical side of my awareness, the side that gets bored and demands novelty, the side that gets haughty and says “This is not worthy of me!” had been subdued, allowing the appreciative side, the side that looks, listens, and thinks “Isn’t that interesting?” to have free reign of my consciousness.

If soap bubbles or a single word can be “art” to me when I’m stoned, why can they not be art when I’m in my normal state of consciousness? That’s because my normal state of consciousness is dominated by a critic who expects certain requirements to be met before he will step away and allow my attention to flow to the object in question. The inner critic, custodian of worth, helps me function in life by keeping me focused on priorities, stopping me from staring too long at any random thing that happens to catch my eye. While the critic is helpful in that regard, he also disrupts pleasure, treating pleasure as a limited resource which must be conserved. The critic expects that something called “art” should be made by an artist, and the artist should have a pedigree, and the piece at hand should have novel properties that can only be achieved through rare skill; otherwise it should not be allowed to produce enjoyment. When the critic’s requirements aren’t met, he refuses to step away and let the appreciator take the reigns.

And so, when I’m stoned, I can give my attention freely to soap bubbles and experience so much pleasure from staring at them that they seem like magnificent, intentional creations, when I’m not stoned, I require a justification for why I should give them the benefit of my time: are they worthy? Were they hard to make? How much do they sell for? Who made them and what is that person’s status?

So my aesthetic philosophy in a nutshell is this: appreciation is an inner capacity. When our internal critic is silenced, the raw experiences of color, form, light, and sound can captivate us endlessly. What makes a work of art successful for a particular viewer is that it unlocks the viewer’s latent capacity for appreciation, realizing a potential that was within him or her to begin with. It does this by conducting the viewer’s attention. We look to art to guide and control our attention in ways that we cannot will to happen. If the viewer is in an altered state of consciousness, his attention might flow so generously that the art object needn’t struggle to capture it. But if the viewer is in a typical state of conscious, his attention might be constrained by an inner critic that must be appeased. In this case, the work of art must accomplish the appeasement, and it can try for that in myriad ways.

We can divide these ways into those that are intrinsic and extrinsic to the artwork itself. On the intrinsic side, the art object can present a series of surprises, things that startle us because we sense they are rare or difficult to achieve. In a state of surprise, our experiences are heightened. You could read me your journal entry, and I might listen to it, but if it’s in iambic pentameter and all the lines rhyme, I’ll listen harder because you’ve done something difficult that holds me in a state of surprise as I hear each line. By itself, this doesn’t make your journal entry into a great piece of art, but it means I have a better chance of appreciating what’s there because I’m tuned in. If you then go on to add internal rhymes, startling but effective metaphors, and a provocative juxtaposition of topics, I’ll keep tuning in, and so the more I’m likely to notice.

On the extrinsic side, the piece of art might happen to be famous, or ridiculously expensive, or historically significant, or it might have been made by your best friend. All of these thing signal to the inner critic that an exception should be made, more attention should be afforded to this piece than to others. Even if some scribbles on a canvas don’t interest you at first, the knowledge that they are worth twenty million dollars would make you look closer in a desperate attempt to understand how its value and merit could be so utterly uncorrelated. And yet now that you’re looking, you stand a better chance of finding merit in what you see than if you had never looked. In a topsy-turvy way, the outrageous price of the art – or any other outrageous quality that might be attached to it – opens a path to appreciation. It shocks you into noticing, and perhaps looking further.

I don’t mean to imply that art is nothing but artifice aimed at subduing the viewer’s inner critic so that stoned appreciation can then ensue unimpeded. We experience art over time, and a critical voice that had been subdued in one moment might resurface in the next. Aesthetics would be a simple domain if a piece of art needed to pass only one test, once. In reality it must pass many tests over time, and it must pose tests for the viewer himself to pass, thereby fostering an interaction. It demands things from us, and those demands build our investment in appreciating it. It gives us riddles to solve. It confuses us and makes us struggle to understand. It tires us and forces us to build our own endurance. It promises and withholds. It plays hide and seek. It prompts observations and questions which we can discuss with our friends. It generates gossip that we overhear and repeat. So we should name a third set of ways that art can bind our attention: first, through its intrinsic virtues, the difficult and surprising things it achieves; second, through its distinguishing extrinsic attributes, the circumstances around it that attract our notice; and third, through the interaction it fosters, the way it involves us and makes us work.

The interaction of these mechanisms gets very complex, beautifully so, and when I promised to state my aesthetic philosophy I didn’t promise to explain the fine details. I am not addressing how human attention works, nor all the specific ways that art might engage it, nor what communication means, nor how culture and community frame interpretation. What I am offering is the conviction that when art is successful for a particular viewer, that is because it has mastered the viewer’s attention. Somehow, it has subdued the viewer’s inner naysayer and unlocked the same appreciative capacity that one might experience under the influence of a mind-altering substance. In that sense, art is a way of getting stoned.

Criticism

Overconfidence

I’m tired of seeing bits of social science research taken out of context and presented to the public in soundbites that purport to offer insight into life — strategies for being happy or successful.  There’s nothing wrong with seeking better ways to be happy or successful, and to the extent that academic research sheds light on the matter, journalists should examine the research and share it with inquiring non-specialists.  But too often this sharing is done irresponsibly, in the form of soundbites that purport to have the authority of “research” behind them — soundbites that encapsulate a provocative idea without offering the reader enough context to think critically about it.  A particularly dangerous article in this genre cropped up in my newsfeed a few days ago, courtesy New York Magazine: It Pays to Be Overconfident, Even When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing.  Really?

The article summarizes a couple of academic papers that suggest that overconfident behavior — speaking firmly and making exaggerated claims of your ability — leads to increased social status and influence, and that even when people “overestimate their skills so grievously that you might expect to see backlash,” there is usually “insufficient downside” to deter the behavior.  The benefits of overconfidence outweigh the drawbacks, even when the overconfidence has been exposed as such, so you might as well “act like you run the place.”  Donald Trump may be a blowhard but it hasn’t hurt him — he’s still rich and famous, in some part because of his arrogance.

What should we make of this claim by academic psychologists, filtered through popular journalism, that it “pays” to be overconfident?  I should point out that the article is styled as a casual update on recent research, not a definitive statement on the question of how to behave.  The author acknowledges that overconfidence has some disadvantages, and never tells us explicitly what attitude we should adopt.  We are even told that the psychologists who conducted the research are undecided about what its practical implications should be.  But it’s the title of the article that will linger in readers’ minds — “It Pays To Be Overconfident” — along with the idea that this dictum has been somehow vetted by science.  The downsides of overconfidence are never thoroughly explored, the question of what makes good or bad research in psychology is ignored, and the criteria for judging a behavior’s worth are never mentioned: if it “pays” to be overconfident, whom does it pay, and in what measure?

The article mentions the Iraq war as an example of “overconfidence getting us into trouble,” and I feel the key points of the article can be rebutted simply by giving this one terrifying example the attention it deserves.  Why doesn’t the author linger just a little here?  Yes, overconfidence paid off handsomely for a bunch of elected officials as they sought to lure a nation into war.  The beneficiaries of overconfidence were those in power, and the benefit came in the form of influence.  The losers were everyone else: the Iraqis who lost their lives, the U.S. soldiers who lost their lives, an entire group of nations that got sucked into a costly, destructive, and unnecessary war.  As a behavior, overconfidence was both highly valuable to a small group of powermongers and extremely damaging to society at large.  Does it really pay to be overconfident?  Of course the answer depends on whether you look at the immediate returns for the overconfident individual, or at the long-term consequences for the many people in that individual’s sphere of influence.  If we were to judge behaviors by the former criterion — considering only the immediate returns for the perpetrator — it would be just as easy to argue that stealing is beneficial.  And of course, many people think it is.  I don’t.  I don’t think we should live our lives by blindly adopting whatever behavior brings us maximum individual advantage.  I believe we have a moral obligation to behave with honesty and integrity.  Overconfidence conflicts with those qualities, especially when it is adopted as a deliberate social strategy.  To me this point is so obvious that I shouldn’t need to write about it, but I fear that in a sea of soundbites claiming the authority of science, we very easily forget the obvious.

Criticism

Strategy Reporting

When I turn on the news I very rarely hear political issue reporting.  What I hear is political strategy reporting, and I don’t know what to make of it.

Let’s say there’s a candidate running in some election with lots of Latino voters.  Instead of asking “Why would a Latino voter prefer this candidate’s platform?” journalists are more likely to ask “What is this candidate doing to reach out to Latino voters?”  These are different questions.  The first question requires an analysis of the candidate’s record and policies as they relate to the concerns of a particular group of voters.  The second question only requires a reiteration of what the candidate has recently done or said in effort to look appealing to that group as part of an explicit campaign strategy.

I’ve never planned to run for political office, yet in listening to the news over the past couple of decades I’ve received thousands of hours of political strategy coaching from pundits eagerly describing just what a candidate would need to do to convince someone to vote for them.  Why should I care?

One could argue that to be an informed voter we must understand the tactics of persuasion employed in political races so we won’t be fooled.  And one could argue that a candidate’s strategy reflects something about his or her character — that in analyzing a candidate’s strategy we learn who the candidate is, how they think, and what matters to them, and that in studying how voters respond to campaign strategies we learn about the mood and sentiment of the country.  These are fair points but they don’t address the disaster of political journalism – that in focusing on the endless intricacies of strategy, we lose track of substance.

Strategy is easier than substance and safer than substance to discuss.  A journalist striving to remain impartial never needs to endorse or oppose a candidate’s position, or pass anything resembling judgment on it.  The journalist only needs to ask how the candidate’s recent gestures are likely to be interpreted by voters, a question that can be explored through the endlessly bountiful mechanisms of gossip and polling – certain to fill as much airtime as necessary.

And I, as a voter, am left with little information to use in selecting a candidate, but a whole lot of information I might be able to use in crafting an image that would make me appealing to Latino voters (or black voters, or elderly voters, or young voters, or whatever) if I decided I wanted to enter politics.  No need to pay a campaign strategist, I could just turn on the radio and do what they tell me.

Just today I listened to my local radio station WGBH and got some advice I could use if I were Bill Clinton and I were wondering whether my involvement in Hillary’s presidential campaign would be an asset or a hindrance.  And I got some great advice I could use if I were Chris Christie and I wanted to know whether voters considered my presidential bid to be over.  But since I am neither of these people I’m still struggling to find any practical application for the generous strategy guidance I spent a chunk of my morning receiving.

As for journalistic impartiality, I don’t consider strategy reporting impartial at all.  Journalists who focus on strategy reporting are casting partisan votes in favor of strategy over substance as the thing that’s worth our time.

Criticism

A little meta-criticism

I grow suspicious when someone praises a work of art by saying “It’s not about X, it’s really about Y,” where X is the immediate subject matter and Y is some lofty theme that is supposedly embedded in the subject matter. The problem I have with this form of praise is that it can be applied to anything, anytime, because a critic can always claim to have identified a deeper theme anywhere; and that’s not to say that thematic connections are always fabricated by the critic, but simply that themes of sufficient generality do have apparent manifestations everywhere – that almost anything in life can be seen as comment on impermanence, or love, or hubris, or whatnot, if you really want to look at it that way. It seems to me that critics wax enthusiastic about the implicit themes in a work of art when they happen to like the work, but in pointing to such themes as the basis for their approval of the work, critics mix up cause and effect: it is because they like the work that they feel compelled to construct a justification for their belief in its aesthetic superiority, and in the making of this justification, they invariably discover a connection between the work and some theme that would confer importance upon it. For example, there could be a guy next to me and I hear him burp. Now, my previous interactions with this person, along with his impeccable reputation, may have convinced me that he is a great artist, and there may be something in his particular style of eructation, which when assessed with immense charity, sounds somehow captivating: I liked the burp. I could then go around saying that this burp wasn’t really about the release of gas from the stomach. Actually, it was about gender stereotypes. It was a parody of machismo, it was a daring provocation that challenged listeners to reconsider the very idea of crassness. Did it sound unpleasant or make you uncomfortable? It was supposed to do that. Good art pushes boundaries. Would you say the artist should have excused himself? You prude! You anti-belcher! Are you blind to the hidden meaning of this gaseous release? It was a deep burp! Now of course if the critic didn’t like the burp, the critic can just as easily marshal one of those negative tropes that may be applied anywhere, anytime: yes, the artist burped, but he didn’t burp in an interesting way. The burp was shallow, its style overwrought, its content conventional. The burp was not a paradigm-redefining burp – it didn’t tell us anything new about the act of burping, or about the world in which we burp. What theme did it grapple with beyond the narrow domain of dyspepsia? This was a burp that did not truly come from the artist’s gut, er…. well… Yes, yes, the artist burped; yes, in fact he’s a virtuoso of the art of burping, but he does it mechanically – there’s no feeling in it, no soul, only hot air!