Thursday, 24 April 2014

Untranslatable

What's going on in other people's heads is nothing like what is going on in yours.  That's easy to accept when we think about people with views antithetical to our own, or of genius physicists who can barely even speak the same language as we do.  But that statement is true of a huge quantity of people, many of whom you could interact with quite normally without ever thinking about the problem.  Quine explained this to baffled philosophers who have trouble understanding things that everyone understands: If my mind is a black box and your mind is a black box then it doesn't matter that neither of us has access to the content of the other, so long as we follow the same protocols.  I say, "Terrible weather we've been having," and you say, "Quite."  It really doesn't matter what's behind that.

To be clear, though, it only doesn't matter if all we are interested in doing is functioning in well defined setting with a particular goal in mind.  I don't have to know the barista's life story or inner thought processes to order my obscene symbol of wealth.  But presumably we should try to know our spouses well if we want to share our financial and parenting responsibilities in a way satisfactory to both of us.  When we can't do that it would be very helpful to know what each of us really wants out of a divorce so that we can acquire those things with a minimum of pointless spite.

To be able to interact with other people successfully you need to be able to engage in proper behaviours and that is all.  It's like learning the code to open a locked door.  You associate a particular situation with a particular response.

To understand someone is to make the same connections that they make.  Spouse A's extended family is having a get together on the day of Local Sports Team's playoff game.  Spouse B wants to watch the game instead of going to the get together.  Spouse A is angry because spouse B is valuing a game higher than family.  Spouse B explains that B used to attend the playoff games with B's now recently deceased father.  B's father had always maintained a "masculine" aloofness from Spouse B but spoke proudly of Spouse B to other adults at these games.  The games are the most meaningful point of connection between B and B's father, and missing that game so soon after B's father's death would be painful.  Now A understands that B is not valuing a game over family, but valuing an important family connection.

Now when Spouse A thinks of Spouse B watching the sports game, A thinks of Spouse B's father.  Spouse A's brain has rewired to be more functionally similar to Spouse B's.  Understanding is actually physically becoming more alike.

We are not actually black boxes.  We are made of the same kind of material as one another.  If we think similarly, there is reason to think there is a similar physical structure.  What is going on in other people's heads is quite a bit like what is going on in yours.
If you have been skimming this to get the “gist” of it, it is not going to work in my opinion. If you are reading this to summarize it for someone else, please fuck yourself instead if possible.
When I read about what John Campbell wrote in his final update, a lot of people focus in on two things.  First, he burned a lot of books.  Second, he isn't going to give people the things he said he would when they donated to his kickstarter.  If Campbell is a black box then we have sensible ways to interact with these ideas within our existing systems.  People who burn books are bad.  People who don't keep their promises are bad.

But Campbell didn't offer us a few bullet points and call it a day.  Having read what he wrote, how could I consider burning books without reading about Calvanism's influence on religion in the southern states?  How could I consider what it means to break his promises without reading Bartleby the Scrivener for myself?

I am a very good translator of other people for other people.  I can very often resolve disputes by explaining each position in a way that the other person can understand.  I don't think I've been nearly so successful at translating myself, which here is a phrase meaning for most of my life I have kept what I consider myself as secret as I could because I didn't think I could possibly be understood.  Maybe it is just conceit - as Campbell says, the idea that getting the gist won't work.

I feel like Campbell has translated how I feel in a remarkable way.  I've never burned a single book, never made a kickstarter, never supported myself with my own creations, never found out the hard way that even creating my own art is just as oppressive as any other job.  I didn't grow up in the south, didn't have a religious family, didn't have absurdly rich friends to compare myself to, and didn't feel like I needed to reveal intimate information about myself to sell myself to others.  On top of that, I wouldn't have done these things given the chance.  Not only did I not stop a car to pick up a dead rabbit, but I would not have.  But I've never before read something and walked away with such a profound feeling that it reflects me.  If I took a personality test and the tester gave me this as my result I would say they really nailed it.

I am more like John Campbell because I read what he wrote.  But I think I was already a good deal like him.  I think I didn't need a teacher or a translator or a marriage counsellor to understand what he was saying.

So the problem is that Campbell didn't actually translate anything.  If I am an eccentric with my jargon and my obscure thoughts then the laity are still completely in the dark.  Except that really it's me who is in the dark.

1 comment:

  1. wow. did it just get really solipsistic in here, or is it just me?

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