Wednesday, April 28, 2010

let the children play

What makes sense of regret? Obviously, there are the moral kinds of reasons, but that’s not what I have in mind. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I end up regretting past actions, I do so believing that things could have been different than they in fact were. I could have made a different choice, imagining an alternate version of myself with slightly to vastly different desires, temperament, and beliefs at the crucial moment of decision.

This ability to reason or, at the very least, to imagine alternate scenarios – states of affairs that are in fact false but might have been true – is a really awesome and important ability (often called “counterfactual reasoning”). For instance, I imagine an alternate version of myself from this morning, and that version of myself has breakfast (when in fact it’s false that I actually had breakfast this morning).

I don’t think it’s unique to human species. There’s empirical evidence that many animals engage in behavior that is best explained with a theory of mind that attributes some similar power to them. In humans, however, the ability is deployed at higher levels of sophistication and placement within a social ecology.

Take little children, for example, who play make-believe. They imagine themselves not merely as alternate versions of themselves but as utterly different kinds of things, human and otherwise. My friend’s son plays make-believe, pretending to be a king or an animal or a fire truck or a school teacher or a... This complex cognitive behavior is actually practice for adult moral sensibility. It is a rudimentary form of the combination between counterfactual imagination and empathy. The dual abilities to imagine oneself in “another’s shoes,” so to speak, and to be able to see alternate possibilities of behavior and consequences retrospectively into the past (i.e., regret) and into the future (i.e., choice) form the raw materials of moral agency. Hence when children are whiling away hours and hours of pure, unbridled play, they are actually constructing the cognitive and conative structures that undergird high-functioning ethical character.

When I regret an action, especially one where the action affects someone other than myself, I perceive in my mind’s eye at least two things: (a) how things could have turned out differently and (b) what it’s like to be the other who suffers because of my poor decision. While these components are built into us by evolutionary mechanisms, they are also nurtured by things as innocent, simple, and vital as pure play.

These components are also the root structures that allow for us to be so good at deception and manipulation.

Two sides of a coin...

Monday, April 26, 2010

ode to Alexander Calder

I attended a lecture by one of my colleagues (an art historian), and I was treated to a discussion of the lovely work by the American artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976).

The second work is titled “Two Systems.”

I think that all of us will recognize this as a mobile.

The mobile has become so common that it’s a cliché hanging over practically every crib in America.

Alexander Calder, the inventor of the mobile, had a deeper vision articulated in the form of the mobile.

The mobile is a representation of reality. The visual image implicates little bits and pieces moving in a playful dance. While everything is carefully balanced, there is a play and fluidity of suspension. Nothing is static; everything is moving.

The very artifact is altered with each spectator, since different bodies will cause the ambient air to brush the mobile into different morphologies, resulting in analogically different morphologies of meaning – quite independent of the artist’s intention. Existence vividly precedes essence.

It’s the perfect collision of surrealism and existentialism.