Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Northern Lights, the Moral Sense, and Form

In "Looking into the Black Box,"  (New York Times, 11/24/13) Michael Strevens raises an  interesting question.

Do we understand something if we know its causes? He gives an example:

To understand the northern lights, for example, is to understand how charged particles in the solar wind are guided to the earth’s magnetic poles, where colliding energetically with oxygen and nitrogen molecules they cause ionization that results in the emission of light. The guiding, the colliding, the ionizing, the emission are all causal processes; to see how these processes unfold is to understand the aurora.

Is this really true? I don’t think so. For one thing, I don’t think we really understand light at all? We’ve been able to devise increasingly elaborate descriptions of it, using terms from the realm of physics that we don’t really understand either. This type of analysis has its uses. But isn’t it annoying to stand on a deathly quiet, snow-covered lake next to an icy know-it-all who informs us that “those ghostly bands of green and white above our heads are merely an emission of light caused by collisions of ionized particles in the solar wind”? Something is missing here.  

Without quite answering the initial question, Strevens brings up a second one that’s no less interesting: is causality itself a valid principle or merely a useful way of codifying relations between things so we can predict their behavior? These reflections lead him to an implicit admission that “understanding,” whatever it may be, must take us beyond the realm of causal links. Yet he never abandons the idea that to understand something is to break it into parts and figure out how it works.    

It might be more illuminating, I think, to leave the Northern Lights aside for a bit and examine something with which we have greater intuitive affinity. How about Bach’s Art of Fugue, which I’m listening to right now. 

Bach was a master of counterpoint, and a popular exercise among composition teachers is to require that their students analyze a section of this magisterial work, pinpointing how the themes and inversions, the canons and stretta passages, fit together. In doing so, the students are supposed to come to a better understanding of counterpoint, and also of what remarkable things can be created following a fairly strict set of rules and a small collection of motifs. And I suspect they often do.

Once again, we’re examining how the parts of a thing work. But do we thereby arrive at a better understanding of The Art of Fugue itself? Once again, I think not.
We understand The Art of Fugue not by taking the pieces apart, but by putting them together—inside our heads. It’s an act, not of analysis, but of synthesis. And also of appreciation.

I have sat through more than a few pre-concert lectures during which I’ve been told that if I would only cast aside my hidebound prejudices and remained non-judgmental, if I patiently studied the score in an attempt to grasp the clever things an Elliot Carter, say, was doing in the third movement of his quartet, I’d come to recognize its worth. This isn’t true. I might develop a heightened appreciation for Carter’s cleverness…but the worth of music lies entirely in its sounds. If the sounds don’t come together in a pleasing way,  intuitively, inside our heads, the music is worthless—at least to us.

No doubt there are plenty of compositions that I lack the sensitivity to appreciate. And there are ways of sounding “pleasing” that will appeal to us only rarely, depending on the mood. The other day I was listening to György Kurtág’s  Kafka-Fragmente, and enjoying it. Soprano and violin fighting it out. In the liner notes I read:

Sudden, broken, the fragment is completed not only by its companions sounding around it but by us in silence. We see ourselves, too, in these shivers of mirror, in their sharp but uncertain edges; between humor and anxiety, between withdrawal and explosion, between assertion and indecision.

It’s a lovely partnership, though I wouldn’t want to go there again anytime soon. The author of the commentary, in comparing the piece to various emotions, probably leads us closer to understanding it that any technical analysis could.

There is no need to downplay the importance of analysis, of “tasking things apart,” in our quest for understanding. But in the end it means little if we can’t also put things together and feel them at work inside us. Such a feat come naturally to some, though it requires not only analysis and intuition, but also judgment. And if this in true in the realm of art, where the artifacts in question have been created  intentionally, it’s even more so in the realm of history more broadly conceived, where many events take place as a result of fortuitous interactions.  

The New York Times released its annual list of the ten best books of the year yesterday. I found several of the descriptions interesting in themselves. For example, here is how the editors described The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark:

Clark manages in a single volume to provide a comprehensive, highly readable survey of the events leading up to World War I. He avoids singling out any one nation or leader as the guilty party. “The outbreak of war,” he writes, “is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse.” The participants were, in his term, “sleepwalkers,” not fanatics or murderers, and the war itself was a tragedy, not a crime.

And here is how they describe After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead by Alan S. Blinder.

Blinder’s terrific book on the financial meltdown of 2008 argues that it happened because of a “perfect storm,” in which many unfortunate events occurred simultaneously, producing a far worse outcome than would have resulted from just a single cause. Blinder criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, especially for letting Lehman Brothers fail, but he also praises them for taking steps to save the country from falling into a serious depression. Their response to the near disaster, Blinder says, was far better than the public realizes.

Here we see scholars at work, taking things apart but also exercising their judgment; looking for causes, but only sometimes finding them. Readers like me can usually do no better than to single out a few pithy one-liners to remember, but these scholars, who understand their chosen subjects far better than we do, would probably agree that the greater truth lies in the music of the narrative itself.

You may object that there is nothing very scientific about my description of understanding. But the association of “science” with “understanding” is merely one of the odd prejudices of our time. Recent studies have underscored the fact that scientific research is far more likely to produce spurious results than accurate ones. (See Economist, Oct. 19, p. 26-30 for an overview).

 The type of understanding I’m describing here also has a long history, though it’s now largely forgotten. For example, in 1821 William von Humboldt gave a lecture to the Prussian Academy of Science, “On the Historian’s Task,” which became a landmark in the field. Here von Humboldt asserts that “an event…is only partially visible in the world of the senses; the rest has to be added by intuition, inference, and guesswork.” He compares the historian to the poet, then draws an important distinction between them: “The crucial difference, which removes all potential dangers, lies in the fact that the historian subordinates his imagination to experience and the investigation of reality…the imagination does not act as pure fancy and is, therefore,  more properly called the  intuitive faculty or connective ability.”

If you read on in the essay, you’ll come upon expressions such as “inner necessity” and “the breath of life in the whole and  the inner character which speaks through it…” It would almost seem that the historian is being called upon to fashion a work of art from events, in the same way that Bach fashioned The Art of Fugue from a few select motifs. 

Von Humboldt would probably agree. At one point he writes: “Hence, the historian, in order to perform the task of his profession, has to compose the narrative of events in such a way that the reader’s emotions will be stirred by it as if by reality itself.”

A good deal more could be said on this subject, but I’d like to add just one more piece of the story. I’d like to take us back yet another century to 1711, the publication date of Shaftesbury’s Characteristics. In this collection of essays (specifically the essay titled “An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit”) Lord Shaftesbury introduces the notion of moral sense, a faculty he compares to aesthetic sense. The basic point is that there is no way for us to develop  a sense of right and wrong via logic or reasoning, if we don’t already possess a fundamental humaneness or benevolence or sense of justice.

This may seem obvious, but there are many who would challenge the theory, and even call it “dangerous.” On the other hand, the historian Ernst Cassirer has described Shaftesbury’s theory, and its overarching significance, in the following terms:

[Shaftesbury] founds a philosophy in which aesthetics not only represents a systematic province but occupies the central position of the whole intellectual structure. According to Shaftesbury, the question of the nature of truth is inseparable from that of the nature of beauty, for the two questions agree both in their grounds and in their ultimate principle. All beauty is truth, just as all truth can be understood basically only through the meaning of form, that is, the meaning of beauty. That everything real partakes of form, that it is no chaotic amorphous mass, but possesses rather an inner proportion and evidences in its nature a certain structure, and in its development and motion a rhythmic order and rule: this is the fundamental phenomenon in which the purely intellectual, the super­sensible origin of the real manifests itself.

There are echoes of Plato in Shaftesbury’s emphasis on form, and anticipations of Hegel in his rarefied idea of “the real,” but we don’t have time to explore those connections now. We can only note that Shaftesbury  is wrong to equate form with beauty outright; the suggestion that everything in history is beautiful is simply outrageous. But in the same way that an artist brings form to his or her materials, making them beautiful, the historian uncovers the form of events, which is their truth. It isn’t the aesthetic faculty at work in this case, however, but the moral faculty. And when the historian stirs a reader’s emotions (to return to von Humboldt’s remark above), it’s the moral sense that’s being engaged and uplifted.

Where does causality fit into all of this? Nowhere, as far as I can see. A fan of The Art of Fugue might suggest that every note is perfect and necessary—nothing is gratuitous or out of place. Yet few would suggest, I think, that one note or phrase “caused” the next, because Bach’s creative genius is present in every line. 

The same can be said about history. There is little point in considering “what ifs” except as an imaginative—that is to say, a poetic—exercise. But poetry isn’t history. History is the study of what actually happened. And the radical force careening through history, defying merely causal forces at every turn of the path, is the creative spirit of the individual agents involved in it. Where such a force is not involved, there is nothing “real” to be found. We might as well be admiring charged particles in the solar wind colliding with oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere.

It’s a nice show, but it doesn’t engage our moral sense, and therefore, there isn’t much truth to be found in it.

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