In Sightseeing and the Sorites Paradox I posed the problem of optimality in the allocation of a finite amount of time in viewing the nearly endless artistic and cultural treasures that national museums hold. The sorites paradox emerges if we ask if our time is better spent viewing two objects in one hour, or three objects, and if three objects, is it better to allocate our time to view four objects instead of three objects, and so on.
In another context I had approached this problem in a very different way. Some time ago (in late 2009) the Portland Art Museum showed Raphael’s La Donna Velata painting, in which a single painting was shown in a single room, alone, by itself, so that the viewer was forced to focus on this one work of art and there was no browsing or aimless wandering around a collection to divert or distract from this single work of art.
In my post on Raphael’s La Donna Velata I wrote:
“Sometimes lingering in front of a particular work of art is the only way to cope with the vastness of some museums like the Prado, the Uffizi, the Louvre, and the Rijksmuseum.”
Something similar happens in the Louvre, more or less spontaneously, as large numbers of people gather around the Mona Lisa and stare at this one painting for extended periods of time, as though the rest of the collection didn’t exist. But the Mona Lisa is boxed in and behind glass, whereas Raphael’s La Donna Velata was gloriously exposed to the viewing public.
In my post Sightseeing and the Sorites Paradox i wrote:
“It could be argued that my decision to skim the collections of Athens’ major museums or the Tokyo National Museum was an experience only of a mass of art, lacking in individual appreciation. It could be argued along the same lines than any rushed form of tourism is merely the experience of an undifferentiated mass — of cities, of paintings, of peoples, and so forth.”
After writing this I realized that the mass experience that comes from total immersion in a particular cultural context is its own kind of experience, distinct from quiet, focused, meditative contemplation of particular works of art or objects of culture. In other words, mass experience may be as authentic as singular experience in its own way.
We recognize the immersion within a particular environment changes the context of individual experiences, and in so doing changes the meaning and value of these experiences. In this eventuality, it is the environment of immersion taken on the whole that is unique, rather than the singular experience taken to be unique. Uniqueness, then, can enter into human experience in distinct forms.
One could then argue for both individual experience and mass experience as essential to understanding and appreciating a given cultural context. We experience our own world and our own cultural context as a mass of experience whizzing by us every day, scarcely ever slowing down to “smell the roses” as they say.
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When I arrived at the Tokyo National Museum (a visit I described in East Meets West at Ueno Kōen) the person at the ticket window asked me if I understood that the vast museum, at which one could easily pass many hours, was only open for another hour. I said that I understood and bought my ticket. I’ve always believed that half a loaf is better than none, and by the same reasoning I thought an hour at the Tokyo National Museum would be better than nothing — for one never knows if one will get another chance, so one takes what one can while it is available.
I had similar feelings when I had eight hours in Athens in 1993, and used it to visit three major museums — The Acropolis Museum, The National Archaeological Museum, and Byzantine Museum (in that order). I walked though collections that deserved sustained attention, and which have absorbed countless hours of scholarly contemplation. Despite the superficiality of my visit, it was an overwhelming experience.
To formulate this more explicitly, think of it as a thought experiment: if you had one hour to see some of the greatest art treasures of the world, however superficially, would you rather spend your hour viewing these art treasures, or see nothing at all rather than experience this superficial exposure? Presumably most would prefer to see something rather than nothing, although I do not doubt that there are some persons who might choose nothing at all over an inadequate opportunity for aesthetic edification.
But modify the thought experiment and it becomes a little more complicated — and a little more realistic. Few of us are presented with all-or-nothing dilemmas. Life is usually much more subtle in the choices it forces upon us. So imagine, instead, that you have one hour to view some of the greatest art treasures in the world. Would you rather spend your hour viewing a single work of art for that hour, or would you rather split your hour in two and view two works of art?
The astute reader will see the sorites paradox coming — next, would you rather spend your single hour of aesthetic appreciation viewing two works of art, or three works of art? And next again, would you rather spend your hour viewing three individual works or art or four works of art, spending fifteen minutes apiece with each?
At what point in this mathematical induction do we pass the threshold of isolated acts of contemplation of individual works of art and merely encounter a heap or mass of art no longer individuated?
It could be argued that my decision to skim the collections of Athens’ major museums or the Tokyo National Museum was an experience only of a mass of art, lacking in individual appreciation. It could be argued along the same lines than any rushed form of tourism is merely the experience of an undifferentiated mass — of cities, of paintings, of peoples, and so forth.
This is a fair criticism. For my own part, I would say that in my skimming of museums and indeed of cities I have paused to examine those that particularly interested me, but I might never have encountered these had I not made an effort to expose myself to a wide variety of aesthetic stimulation, some of it admittedly superficial. I have also dedicated particular trips to the seeking out of original works of art that remain in their original contexts — for example, the Michael Pacher altarpiece in St. Wolfgang — which constitutes a kind of aesthetic pilgrimage.
The paradox posed by sightseeing is always that of attempting to take in as much as one can coherently appreciate, while not trying to do too much, so that nothing ultimately comes of the experience.
There is no “resolution” of a genuine paradox, but in the practical world one must do something or do nothing, so that what one does in fact do becomes one’s de facto resolution. I have responded to this paradox by traveling in different ways to different places at different times. If I am fortunate, I will continue to seek various resolutions to the sightseeing sorities paradox, and if I arrive at a definitive formulation, I will certainly share it here.
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Descartes is remembered mostly for his method of doubt — trying to doubt everything until what remained as indubitable could serve as the foundation for “first philosophy”
Most who come to Descartes’ Meditations for the first time read the first two meditations, in which he gives an exposition of methodical doubt — and this is probably what is of lasting value in Descartes. After Descartes’ initial excursion into radical doubt, however, what follows reminds me of a passage from Kierkegaard:
What is madness? When a privatdocent, every time his scholastic gown reminds him that he ought to say something, says de omnibus dubitandum est, and at the same time writes away at a system which offers abundant internal evidence in every other sentence that the man has never doubted anything at all: he is not regarded as mad.
The Cartesian madness was to systematically set out to doubt all of traditional philosophy, and then to painstakingly reconstruct scholasticism. One of Descartes’ favorite authors was Aquinas, and in the later portions of the Cartesian system there is more of Aquinas than there is of methodical doubt.
After doubting almost everything at the beginning of his philosophical effort, Descartes returns to a philosophical effort not unlike scholasticism, and patiently reconstructs not only the world simpliciter but also the philosophical world of his predecessors.
There is a sense in which this more comprehensive view of Cartesianism (i.e., understanding that once Descartes doubted the world away, he then reconstructed it in a fairly conventional manner for this time) resembles the theoretical position of physicalism.
Physicalism was formulated as a contemporary analog to materialism, though recognizing aspects of the world recognized in physical theory that did not figure in classical materialism. Contemporary physics requires a battery of entities that cannot be encountered in ordinary experience: “not just matter but energy, space, time, physical forces, structure, physical processes, information, state, etc.” (as Wikipedia puts it).
Contemporary physics not only entails unobservable entities and theoretical entities, among the theoretical entities it requires are those required by mathematics. The mathematization of physics has made the two — i.e., mathematics and physics — inextricable.
Moreover, we know from indispensability arguments in contemporary philosophy (sometimes called Quine-Putnam Indispensability arguments) that contemporary physical science requires mathematics, and quite a bit of “higher” mathematics, so that the reliability of physical science entails the reliability of mathematics. Mathematics quantifies over abstract entities, therefore physicalism requires quantification over abstract entities. Exactly how much mathematics is necessary to physics is a matter of continuing controversy, but no one doubts that a good deal of classical mathematics is implicated in physics.
I would argue that there is very little mathematics that can be excluded in good conscience on physicalistic grounds, up to and including large cardinal axioms for the farther reaches of transfinite set theory. If we can quantify over “lower” abstract entities and manipulate “smaller” infinite sets, at what point do we draw the line for “higher” abstract entities and “larger” infinite sets? And how can we even confront this question without seeing that we face a sorites paradox here?
I would further argue that quasi-Kantian transcendental arguments can furnish a bridge from the higher mathematics indispensable to physics to other abstract objects and non-observable entities not specifically mathematical. Once again, a sorites paradox would force us a draw a line that would, in practice, be arbitrary. To paraphrase F. H. Bradley, short of Platonism mathematics cannot stop, and, having reached that goal, mathematics is lost, and strict physicalism with it.
And so it is that, like Descartes, beginning with radical doubt and ending with a nearly conventional scholasticism, physicalism begins with an apparent radical rejection of all non-physical phenomena but is compelled to let back in — by the back door, as it were — all (or almost all) of the conventional non-physical apparatus of ontology, and in so doing rendering physicalism meaningless because indistinguishable from theories that do not deny the non-physical dimenstion of the world.