The World as a Picture or Collage

In an earlier blog I introduced the term *collage* and distinguished it from related nouns, picture and presentation. A collage, as commonly used, includes recognizable objects but also the arrangements and juxtapositions of items in an unexpected, spurious, curious manner. The collage itself may also include spaces between objects — blank spaces which have no identity except for their hue or lack of form, their formlessness. Look at the sky at night. Twinkles, some larger objects, some streaks of light moving at speed, respectively named stars, planets, airplanes or spacecrafts. Also much darkness, emptiness.

So when we look outside ourselves we invent names for every item we can distinguish from its indifferent (black?) background. We make special efforts to do so, to order and arrange our perceptual world. Whenever we are unwilling or unable to identify a pin-of-light, a manifestation of an object we tend to speak of “the void” — and secretly treat it as an object! But — as we have learned — today’s “void” may be tomorrow’s treasure-chest, filled with fascinating objects which hold secrets to our understanding of our universe!

The history of science illustrates how fickle we are in this regard. The history of ourselves also tells how determined we are to complete a story — a fantasy — once begun. We seek “understanding”, not only recognition. We recognize the latter, but when this fails we create objects, but also we invent processes to help and assist our understanding. This has been the pattern since Aristotle raised “understanding” as our highest goal, the hallmark of our god-like nature.

The objects we distinguish around us may have clear relations to each other. Thus, several philosophers — and more recently some scientists — have urged that we study the act of perception and other attributes ascribes to human (e.g. R.S. Peters: Motivation and D. Armstrong: Perception) more critically than our predecessors since it does not follow that everyday descriptions of ourselves, though old, are necessary faultless or correct. Common sense, it is claimed, is not a good guide in these matters. We have been repeatedly warned not to assume that our current self-descriptions and especially those of our so-called “states of mind” have greater accuracy or authority than our descriptions of “the external world” (G. Ryle: The Concept of Mind) but that these are subject to great hazards. Better to be than certain!

The trend throughout the 20th century has been to view descriptions of the external world as a scaffold which rest on the certainty of our perception of our own inner experiences, but one should remember that descriptions are invariably constrained by limits which reflect the descriptive habits of far earlier periods, periods which have promote their own “wisdom” and “habits of thought” and which are untainted by contemporary knowledge! History is only a record of our past achievements, which includes its failures to describe ourselves and our attributes well. A health system based on well-tried prescriptions from the past, list of uncritically accepted cures?

The world as a picture therefore includes some temporary successes but primarily failures to describe “matters of current interest” in terms of dated concepts. This does not mean that the pictures of the past make sense, but only that some aspects of the composite may. The paintings of Marc Chagall are replete with suggestions of self-contained episodes — and this can also be said of paintings by surrealists, yet we regard each as self-contained, not as an episode of pictures whose outlines have never been seen!

Successful achievements and failures to achieve may just happen to come together — under the same umbrella, so to speak — like pedestrians seeking temporary shelter during a flash rain-storm. In that respect these form a collage. The term *collage*, furthermore, is not currently part of the elaborate vocabulary of philosophy, or of cosmology, but is more at home in the arts than in formal disciplines. It stands for the idea that we normally judge something after “scanning”, that the idea of a moment is imprecise and covers too many judgements based on a succession of temporary impressions and viewed as a composite. In philosophy itself the term “theory” has long been been elevated to a paramount position to contrast with formlessness, with the notion that the pieces in hand cannot be assembles into a whole. The emphasis is on an “integration” of seemingly coherent parts into a wider, more comprehensible position, of bringing “ideas” together (see a classic of the genre, namely, A.N. Whitehead: The Adventure of Ideas, 1933). Perhaps *collage* should become part of the working vocabulary of philosophy?

Philosophers have often claimed that they were concerned with eternal verities, about matters which not confined by the limits of time, matters which have lasting values. As self-declared lovers of wisdom, philosophers are often assumed by others to be priests without a formal religion. They were bound to their own beliefs and therefore carried an obligation to defend these against the multitudes, the “common people”, as well as others equally skilled in handling thoughts and speculations. They were said to theorize, to discuss theories as objects, just as scientists discuss their methods of inquiry and what it is they have already achieved or hope to achieve through the rigorous application of such methods. By common consent these methods were the rewards of discovery. Their methods were viewed as tools of discovery which could be ordered, a process which demands that each move gets evaluated by agreed criteria. For scientists then, the discovery of a method was a “rightful tool” which had as much significant as a miniature screwdriver has for a watchmaker, or a needle for a tailor. (Threads or strands of fibres existed before needles!) Two centuries ago we discovered and developed the tools of statistical analysis, how aggregates of measures of a trend can be used productively and how this helped to change our studies and investigations of “natural” but also of “social” phenomena (appearances). It is useful to keep this analogy in mind whenever we discuss “science” and what it suggests to us about the nature of Nature (Aristotle’s quest).

Philosophers have singled out logic and the analyses of arguments as their primary tools. Logic has been used to analyze the consistency of existing arguments, or of fragments of an argument, especially beliefs widely held by others. It is used to show where an argument would lead to if it were pursued rigorously, or to demonstrate that a particular argument may be itself be based on empirically false premises. For centuries there has been an understanding that sooner or later errors in logical derivations from premises would surface sooner or later, and that this would automatically lead to the rejection of the argument as a whole! This has happened occasionally, but not consistently or always. More recently there have been discoveries of a contradiction which had remained undiscovered but that the argument had terminated too early for the discovery of such contradictions to be made. This potential fault line may have been dealt with by translating any argument into a mathematical form and testing it with the help of high-speed computers. The results to date have only shown that all things considered that the chances of identifying a contradiction are disturbingly high. It means, in effect, that we cannot guarantee — as was initially required — that an argument is logically faultless and was impervious to contradiction. Yet without this the aim of a logical analysis cannot be guaranteed that it is itself faultless — that is represents an unbroken line from given premises to conclusion. A conjecture can be correct even if an argument to support it is faulty.

Many early philosophers, unlike priests, were not inclined to employ arguments to support a viewpoint for which they could not find independent support: their task was being primarily critical. One states the premises and then works out the implications. The model was that an argument starts with some widely held and unchallenged conclusion — e.g., “eating pork is bad for your health” — and then proceeds to demonstrate that the conclusion has been reached by following authorized logical procedures. In this respect philosophers have acted more like teachers and sages than defenders of an official faith — a habilitated-belief — something which might set them on a collision course with a viewpoint of a powerful “establishment”, where official views were backed by an enforcement agency. Habilitated-beliefs are a new concept and will be discussed in a separate blog.

(for Tim)

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