Monday, July 21, 2014

Crying at the opera

The opera Madama Butterfly equals King Lear in the intensity and detail with which the story builds to its tragic outcome. Even the title gives a hint: “Mrs. Butterfly.” Cio-Cio San, forced into life as a geisha by the ruin of her family, believes that she is married to the handsome, callow American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton. He thinks he’s just renting her, much like the curious paper house (999-year lease with monthly opt-out clause), while he’s stationed in Japan.

Puccini presents the crushing of Cio-Cio San’s hopes with all the art he commands – and Puccini’s music is hardwired to the lacrimal glands. In Act III, Pinkerton returns to Japan with his American wife. The devastated Cio-Cio San presents Pinkerton with their son – and then expunges her dishonor as a samurai’s daughter must.

If you’re not helplessly snot-ugly blubbering by the end there’s something wrong with you.

Why do we cry?

Because the story and the music make us sad? That can’t be right. It’s a ‘sad’ story with ‘sad’ music, to be sure. But we have no reason to feel sad; nothing bad has happened to us. Nor are we sad for Cio-Cio San. There is no ‘Cio-Cio San.’ Rather than dying of a self-inflicted stab wound to the heart, the soprano hops right up, takes a curtain call, and goes out for drinks after the performance.

“But,” goes the usual reply, “art involves the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.” That is, in the experience of art we bracket the fact that the tragic events we observe are not really happening, though if they were they would make us sad. We watch the tragedy ‘as if’ it is really happening.

I’ve always thought this ‘willing suspension’ notion silly. First, we know all along, and never forget for a moment, that we are in a contemporary opera house, not 19th century Nagasaki. We know the whole time that we are not looking at a dashing young American sailor but a middle-aged, slightly tubby Italian tenor. The singers may be pretending; but we never do. The question of belief or disbelief just doesn’t seem to enter in.

Second, if we really did prescind from the unreality of the story the proper emotional response would not be sadness, but shock and alarm. We’d rush the stage to stop Cio-Cio San from committing hara kiri. But we are not even momentarily disposed to prevent her. Indeed, we feel that she ‘should’ do so; it’s somehow ‘necessary’ for her to do it. If the director decided to have Cio-Cio San survive and ‘move on’ from this bad relationship (perhaps with an empowering job at Mitsubishi) we’d be disposed to demand our money back.

Finally, are we really ‘sad’? That we would feel sadness, or that we are supposed to made sad, seems implausible as a phenomenology of going to this opera. What we are feeling at the end, especially if the performance is well done, is a particular kind of pleasure. After all, we don’t pay $125 a ticket to be bummed out.

So why do we cry and experience pleasure at the same time?

A key to this puzzle is figuring out what it is for a story, and for music, to be ‘sad’. Again, the explanation can’t involve the power to make us feel sad.

Let me propose a way of understanding what makes a piece of art ‘sad’ borrowing from two philosophers, Aristotle and Suzanne Langer.

A work of art is ‘sad’ (or ‘joyful,’ or whatever) if it somehow presents to us the form of something sad. In the case of a story, a series of events which would be sad-making. In the case of music, what is presented is the form of sadness. For another searing example of sadness, listen to the opening of Act III of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. (An even better example from Wagner is the motif of ressentiment in the Ring Cycle, which even shows us how resentment feels physically. It doesn’t, of course, make us resentful. We haven’t been robbed of our Precious by an arrogant god.) Mozart presents Donna Elvira’s despairing grief and shame with equal vividness in her aria “Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata,” in Don Giovanni.

That is, art presents us with the form of a sadness-producing event but not realized in the ‘matter’ which would make it really so. Music presents us with the form of an emotional state, permitting cognitive access to that state without our literally being in the state.

It seems to me that the explanation of what’s going on here, that covers this complex reality, appeals to the Aristotelian notions of matter and form, and then to the principle that in cognition the content of the cognitive state is formally identical with its object. That is, when we have cognitive knowledge of horses, what we know is the substantial form of horses, not representations of horses or ‘ideas’ of horses.

A sad-making series of events has a form. As actualizing its ordinary matter (real human beings) it would have its ordinary effect on us. As actualizing other, different matter (characters portrayed by performers) it wouldn’t. Our response in this latter case, the cognitive states we are in as a result of observing it, is not genuine sadness, but its form as the object of a particular kind of cognitive state different from the actual emotion. Being in this state makes us cry. But we’re not sad. Langer would say that we are ‘virtually’ sad.

However, to the extent that this virtual realization of the form captures its essence, it provides us the cognitive satisfaction that good realizations of form generally provide. That gives us pleasure.

And that’s why we go, even though we know it will make us cry.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On morality: objective or subjective?

Is morality objective, or subjective?

If it's objective, it seems that it would need to be something like mathematics or the laws of physics, existing as part of the universe on its own account. But then, how could it exist independently of conscious, social beings, without whom it need not, and arguably could not, exist? Is 'objective morality', in that sense, even a coherent concept?

If it's subjective, how can we make moral judgments about, and demand moral accountability from, people of times, backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures different than our own? If it's really subjective and we can't make those kind of moral judgments or hold people morally accountable, than what's the point of morality at all? Is 'subjective morality' a coherent concept either?

Take the classic example of slavery, which today is considered among the greatest moral evils, but until relatively recently in human history was common practice: could we say it was morally wrong for people in ancient times, or even two hundred years ago, to own slaves, when most of the predominantly held beliefs systems and most cultures supported it, or at least allowed that it was acceptable, if not ideal? Does it make sense for us to judge slave owners and traders of the past as guilty of wrongdoing?

From an objectivist point of view, we would say yes, slavery was always wrong, and most people just didn't know it. We as a species had to discover that it was wrong, just as we had to discover over time, through reason and empirical evidence, how the movements of the the sun, other stars, and the planets work.

From a subjectivist point view, we would say no. We can only judge people according to mores of the time. But this is not so useful, either, because one can legitimately point out that the mere passage of time, all on its own, does not make something right become wrong, or vice versa. (This is actually a quite common unspoken assumption in the excuse 'well, those were the olden days' when people want to excuse slavery in ancient 'enlightened, democratic' Greece, or in certain pro-slavery Bible verses.) In any case, some people, even in those eras of the past, thought slavery was wrong. How did they come to believe that, then? Was the minority view's objections to slavery actually immoral, since they were contrary to the mores their own society, and of most groups, and of most ideologies?

Morality can be viewed as subjective in this sense: morality is secondary to, and contingent upon, the existence of conscious, social, intelligent beings. It really is incoherent to speak of morality independently of moral beings, that is, people capable of consciousness, of making and understanding their own decisions, of being part of a social group, because that's what morality is: that which governs their interactions, and makes them right or wrong. Morality can be also viewed as subjective in the sense that moral beliefs and practices evolved as human beings (and arguably, in some applications of the term 'morality', other intelligent, social animals) evolved.

Morality can be viewed as objective in this sense: given that there are conscious, social beings whose welfare is largely dependent on the actions of others, and who have individual interests distinct from those of the group, there is nearly always one best way to act, or at least very few, given all the variables. For example, people thought that slavery was the best way to make sure that a society was happy, harmonious, and wealthy. But they had not yet worked out the theoretical framework, let alone have the empirical evidence, that in fact societies who trade freely, have good welfare systems, and whose citizens enjoy a high degree of individual liberty, are in fact those that end up increasing the welfare of everyone the most, for the society as well as for each individual. So slavery was always wrong, given that we are conscious, social, intelligent beings, because as a practice it harmed human beings in all of these aspects of human nature. Slavery is destructive to both the society and the individual, but many people did not have a reasonable opportunity to discover that fact, other than through qualms aroused by sympathetic observation of so much suffering.

In sum: it appears that in many arguments over morality, where people accuse each other of being 'dogmatic', or of 'moral relativism', or various other accusations people (I think) carelessly throw at each other, is due to a basic misunderstanding. To have an 'objective' view does not necessarily entail one must have a fixed, eternal, essentialist view of morality which does not allow for moral evolution or progress. Likewise, to have a 'subjective' view of morality does not entail thinking that 'anything goes', or that morality is entirely relative to culture, religion, or belief system. Here, as is the case with so many important issues, simplistic, black-and-white explanations do not lead to understanding, nor to useful solutions to life's most pressing problems.

Amy Cools
Department of Philosophy Alumna
Sacramento State

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why Jesus died many times for our sins

St. Augustine was sure that Jesus died just once for our sins. However, Jesus died not only in our particular universe but also in many other parallel universes that are as real as ours.

Let’s explore the chain of reasoning behind this claim. One assumption is that whether a particular parallel universe exists falls within the field of astrophysics, not theology nor logic.

Astrophysics’ well-accepted Big Bang theory with eternal inflation implies a multiverse containing an unlimited number of parallel universes obeying the same scientific laws as in our particular universe. These other universes (which the physicist Max Tegmark calls Type 1 universes) are distant parts of physical reality. They are not abstract objects. Some contain flesh and blood beings.

Parallel universes are not parallel to anything. They are very similar to what David Lewis called possible worlds, but they aren’t the same because his possible worlds must be spatiotemporally disconnected from each other.

I cannot state specific criteria for transuniverse identity, but we do need the assumption that, in a universe, personal identity (whatever it is) supervenes on the physical realm. That is, a person can’t change without something physical changing. It is also reasonable to require that in any parallel universe in which Jesus exists he has Mary and Joseph as parents.

The claim that Jesus in our universe is identical to Jesus in another universe does conflict with the intuitively plausible metaphysical principle that a physical object is not wholly in two places at once. This principle is useful to accept in our ordinary experience, but it is not accepted in contemporary physics. The Schrödinger equation of quantum field theory describes the extent to which a particle is wholly in many places at once. This is why physicists prefer to say the nucleus of a hydrogen atom is surrounded by an electron cloud rather than by an electron. In the double-slit interference experiment, a single particle goes through two slits at the same time. So, the metaphysical principle should not be used a priori to refute our claim about the transuniverse identity of Jesus.

Our universe is the product of our Big Bang that occurred 13.8 billion years ago. It is approximately that part of physical reality we can observe, which is an expanding sphere with the Earth at the center, having a radius of 13.8 billion light years.

Our universe once was a tiny bit of explosively inflating material. The energy causing the inflation was transformed into a dense gas of expanding hot radiation. This expansion has never stopped. But with expansion came cooling, and this allowed individual material particles to condense from the cooling radiation and eventually to clump into atoms and stars and then into Jesus.

The other Type 1 parallel universes have their own Big Bangs, but they are currently not observable from Earth. However, they are expanding and might eventually penetrate each other. But, they might not. It all depends on whether inflation of dark energy is creating intervening space among the universes faster than the universes can expand toward each other. Scientists don’t have a clear understanding of which is the case.

Why trust the Big Bang theory with eternal inflation? Is it even scientific, or is it mere metaphysical speculation? The crude answer is that the theory has no better competitors, and it is has been indirectly tested successfully. Its testable implications are, for example, that the results of measuring cosmic microwave-background radiation reaching Earth should have certain specific quantitative features. These features have been discovered—some only in the last five years. The theory also implies a multiverse of parallel universes having our known laws of science but perhaps different histories. If we accept a theory for its testable implications, then it would be a philosophical mistake not to accept its other implications.

One other important assumption being made is that the cosmic microwave-background experiments have not detected any overall curvature in our universe because our universe is in fact not curved. Our universe being curved but finite is also consistent with all our observations. Similarly, if you are standing on a very large globe, it can look flat to you. If our 3-D universe is finite but curved like the surface of a 4-D hypersphere, then space would be extremely large with a very small curvature, but there would be only a finite number of parallel universes, and the argument about Jesus would break down. The most common assumption now among astrophysicists is that our universe is in fact infinite, the multiverse is infinite, and matter is approximately uniformly distributed throughout the multiverse. As Max Tegmark has pointed out, twenty years ago there were many astrophysicists opposed to parallel universes. They would say, “The idea is ridiculous, and I hate it.” Now, there are few opponents of parallel universes, and they say, “I hate it.”

Having established that there are infinitely many parallel universes with the same laws but perhaps different histories, let’s return to the issue of whether Jesus died in more than one of them. One implication of the Big Bang theory with eternal inflation is that some universes are exact duplicates of each other. Here is why. If you shuffle a deck of playing cards enough times, then eventually you will have duplicate orderings. The duplicate orderings are the same, not just “David Lewis counterparts.” Similarly, if you have enough finite universes, which are just patterns of elementary particles, and each has a finite number of possible quantum states, then every universe has an infinite number of duplicates.

One controversial assumption used here is the holographic principle: Even if spacetime were continuous, it is effectively discrete or pixilated at the Planck level. This means that it can make no effective difference to anything if an object is at position x meters as opposed to position x + 10 -35 meters.

This completes the analysis of the chain of reasoning for why Jesus died more than once for our sins. Have you noticed any weak links?

Brad Dowden
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State