Wednesday, June 28, 2017

There Is Nothing Either Good Or Bad But Thinking Makes It So


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- Our president can get away with anything, it's almost mystical. As he told a rally during the election he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose voters.
- It's no mystery. His supporters don't believe in human character. They believe his lies that he is on their side or he will make them richer. And the Republicans in control of congress, as long as he plays along with them, block political consequence.
- Americans think they have nothing to fear from bad character. They believe, as famously put by Hamlet, 'there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.' I've wondered at that line for a long time. Did Shakespeare mean it as a bit of philosophy or as the characterization of a mad man?
- On Youtube there's a wonderful television interview* with the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. The interviewer asks her the difference between philosophy and literature. Both, she answers, are in search for the truth, but philosophy is about clearing away illusion, literature is about the deliberate construction of illusion.
- And what do you think?
- Both philosophy and literature are stories.
- Then how are they different?
- Stories model the truth, summarize in miniature how life goes. Philosophy talks about the fact that life itself is to our perception a kind of story, is filled with illusion, but some elements of which are not illusion. Our perception of the world is constructed, is a model that reflects some aspects of the world and not others. Our consciousness however seems to be, sometimes at least, at moments of love and beauty, not subject to the model making illusion of perception. Or so philosophy claims, giving itself the job to extend into the world of perception as far as possible that un-modeled, un-storied truth. There's a philosopher by the name of Hoffman** who argues the contrary, that all we know of the world is models, and since they are fictions constructed by our minds it is futile to use those models to explain our minds, but the reverse should be possible, using consciousness to explain the sort of models of the world we make. To do this he comes up with a mathematical model of consciousness, a function of mind that goes from world to experience to act to changed world to experience, which he then works up into the basic mathematical equations of natural science.
- And leaves out the un-modeled beauty and love included in your conception of philosophy?
- Yes.
- Then it's only a kind of fiction explaining a kind of fiction.
- In Iris Murdoch's first novel Under The Net the protagonist enrolls himself in a medical study testing a medicine. By chance today I went to the University Hospital to do the same, signed myself up for a test of migraine medicine. I am among those who have one fairly rare form of migraine in which 'object blindness' occurs in the first stages: you can see shapes, but not identify objects. Model making of perception is disabled. What's seen is what the retina works up without benefit of memory of past experience and future expectations of good: object blindness generates a sight that feels insignificant and inapplicable. Memory of similar sights seen in the past and the good the objects can be used to bring us to is required for meaning to arise.
- And what you've just done is an example of philosophy: a model of experience that includes elements that aren't modeled: the good aimed at. Hoffman's mathematics of consciousness leaves out the good aimed at, which is, as it were, hovering above on another level, which other level mathematic's own Godel's theorem is supposed to have proved cannot be brought into any mathematical formula.
- And in any case his model is a description of what goes on with any living thing of any degree of consciousness.
- And so what do you say is consciousness?
- Precisely this looking down from one level on another.
- Looking down on the modeled world of perception from a place where the un-modelable experience of beauty or love resides.
- Yes.
- And the story you are telling now about it is a model of experience, the special kind of literature or story telling we call philosophy that includes elements of the story that are on another level which are not modeled and cannot be.


2.

- As to Hamlet, here's the passage in which the line occurs:
HAMLET: Denmark's a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one.
HAMLET: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.
ROSENCRANTZ: We think not so, my lord.
HAMLET: Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ: Why then, your ambition makes it one; 'tis too narrow for your mind.
HAMLET: O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
GUILDENSTERN: Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.
HAMLET: A dream itself is but a shadow.
ROSENCRANTZ: Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow's shadow.
HAMLET: Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars' shadows. Shall we to the court? for, by my fay, I cannot reason.
And what do you say to it?
- Hamlet is awake to the illusion of experience, he is living in the migraine state of object blindness. He knows there is something to be done, but suffers from detachment.
- He has forgotten love in his wounded pride and defied ambition. It's like he's the philosopher Hoffman: beginning from a loveless consciousness and building a world upon it nothing seems worth doing.

Further Reading:
Philosophy Of Betrayal
The Show
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* Philosophy And Literature
** The Interface Theory Of Consciousness