Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fictive Desires vs Imaginary Desires

OK, here is a fun set of philosophical puzzles, courtesy of current philosophers like Doggett, Egan and Kind … English is pretty comfortable talking about perception-like imaginings (imagine a sunset), or belief-like imaginings (imagine that John Steward is going to run for president in 2016), but are there desire-like imaginings? If so, what would they be like? What role would they play? Is there a natural way to talk about them? Doggett and Egan call them “i-desires” and admit that English doesn't usually talk this way. Kind asks if there are any other natural languages that do talk about desire-like imaginings.

I for my part, have had several reactions here, and I'm sorta still processing them, but hopefully this blog post will be a little less confused about it, than my chats and emails so far, but not all the way to a scholarly article on it or anything. One of the reasons that desire-like imaginings would be handy if they existed, is that could serve explanatory roles parallel to actual desires in a variety of cases where there seems to be no parallel actual desire. So one of Kind's examples goes like this.
“A desire-like imagining is meant to be "a conative state that stands to desire as imagining stands to belief" (Doggett and Egan). The standard case of desire-like imagining is the conative attitude we take towards a fictional character -- as when I [want] Tony Soprano to get away from the cops. I don't believe that Tony Soprano is running from the cops; I (belief like) imagine it. And likewise, I don't want Tony Soprano to get away from the cops, I desire-like-imagine it.”

Or for Egan
“So for example, believing that the Packers are about to blow their lead in the 4th quarter of the NFC championship game might make me nervous. But not just all by itself. It's got to team up with a desire - for example, the desire that the Packers go to the Super Bowl. (That's why when I believe the Packers are going to blow the lead, I get nervous, and when Ned Markosian believes the Packers are going to blow the lead, he gets excited.) Sometimes, when I imagine stuff, I get that same kind of affective response. For example, when I imagine that Tony Soprano is in danger of getting caught by the feds, I get nervous. How come? If we think it's the same model, we'll want some state that plays the same kind of role in teaming up with my imagining that Tony is in danger to produce my nervousness that my desire that the Packers win played in teaming up with my belief that they were going to blow the lead. Tyler and I don't think we can count on there being a for-real desire around to play the role in all the cases where we get the affective responses. (I don't have the for-real desire about mobsters evading capture. I don't have the for-real desire about the content of the fiction not including Tony's capture. No other candidates seem to do better.) So we think there needs to be a state that stands to imagination as desire stands to belief.”

So the first thing I want to argue is that distinction we are looking for in these examples is the difference between a for-real-desire and a fictive-desire, not the difference between a for-real-desire and an imaginary-desire, and this is traditionally talked about in terms of “diegetic layers.” But maybe we'll be able to find other cases where the perception vs imagination distinction is a better analogy.

Fictional situations don't have to be imaginary, and they certainly don't have to be wholly imaginary. For example, if I am reading a novel about the exploits of Tony Soprano, what I am actually perceiving is letters and words on a page, and I am imagining Tony, and the cops, and the buildings and situations. The perception vs. imagination distinction maps really well onto the real world vs fiction distinction, in this case. If I'm watching a TV show about Tony Soprano though, I might see and hear (fictional portrayals of) Tony and the cops with my actual perception, but have to imagine the smells or ambient temperatures, or the action happening “off-screen.” Time sense is going to require a lot of manipulation here, and it's not unusual for setting and location to change rapidly in non-realistic ways in order to tell the story in an entertaining way. I also have to be educated about the “diegetic” conventions of the genre, understanding that the commercials and title screens and credits and such are not typically intended to be operating on the same “diegetic level” or fictional reality, as the main action, (although comedies and artsy shows can play with this, and asking the audience to clap for Tinker Bell in Peter Pan is a classic example of an intentional diegetic level breach). Here the non-fictional vs fictional distinction is just not mapping onto the perception vs imagination distinction. Plenty of perceptual stuff is intended to be non-fictional and plenty is intended to be fictional, plenty of the imaginary material is intended to be part of the non-fictional diegetic layer (in the jargon, the extradiagetic layer), and plenty is part of the fictional diegetic layer (the intradiagetic layer).

In some genres, such as theatre, almost all the fictional action is perceptual rather than imaginary. In stage drama much may be intentionally left off-scene, and to the imagination, and the special effects or lighting or such may be unrealistic enough to require imaginary re-editing. But in, say, a professional wrestling match, or a drag show, the fictional layer may be entirely embodied, and the imagination may have almost no role to play in making sense of the fictional context. It's possible to have stories within stories, with multiple fictional diegetic layers, as in Hamlet of 1001 Arabian nights. The movie Inception has six distinct fictional diegetic layers to keep straight at one point. It's also possible to have multiple non-fictional diegetic layers, as in video games or role-playing games. This can all get pretty complex, and is a topic of much discussion among literature and art theory types, and it's often important to actually doing the art and crafts sides of movie or video game or theatrical storytelling well. As the audience “identifies” more strongly with a particular character, or becomes more fully “immersed” in the fictive setting, the outer diegetic layers start falling away in our phenomenological experience of the piece. But a clunky interface moment, or an intentional reference to the world beyond the diegetic frame can bring the attention back to the outer layers.

If we are being careful, imagining, pretending, and storytelling, are all slightly different activities, even though in practice they are often mixed together heavily.  My account of desires about fictional stories is that I have for-real desires, but desires which are organized by diegetic layer by my training in the practice of being an audience member (or even participant) in the storytelling genre. Contra Egan, I'm saying that if I'm nervous that the cops are closing in on Tony Soprano (rather than excited that the cops are closing in on Tony Soprano), that means that I have a desire that the content of the fiction not include Tony Soprano's capture, probably because at some level, I have come to identify with him more than I have with the cops trying to capture him. (Often because the storyteller has worked to make it easy for me to identify with Tony, and harder to identify with the cops pursuing Tony). I probably also have a desire that the fictional contents be entertaining, internally consistent, and artistically satisfying and that desire may wind up overriding my desire that Tony not be captured in the fictional setting.

Organizing the desires involved in consuming fiction by diegetic layer, has several advantages over organizing them via analogy to the perception vs imagination distinction. For one thing it can account better for cases where juggling 3 or more diegetic layers are important. Similarly it can account for the learning necessary for navigating diegetic layers in unfamiliar narrative conventions, or for errors made when the diegetic structure is complex (as it often is in video games and roleplaying games). The distinction between perception and imagination in contrast is usually more transparent, and while there are perceptual illusions, and hallucinatory border cases, it's usually pretty hard to confuse a perception like-imagining with an actual perception, they are just so much less vibrant and full. (Belief-like imaginings, delusions, and beliefs are much easier to confuse phenomenologically.) Similarly, the organize-desires-by-diegetic-level strategy does a much better job with fictions that are highly performative, where imagination is playing little role. On Jan 15, Triple H, (a WWE “heel”)
broke kayfabe to console a crying fan.  The problem is that the character Triple-H, portrayed by Paul Michael Lavesque for the WWE, is supposed to be a bad guy. So Lavesque's real world desire to comfort the crying child is in conflict with Lavesque-as-acting-Triple-H's desire to fulfill the antagonist role well, or Lavesque-as-Triple-H's desire to defeat his opponent by any means necessary. The thing is as person, actor and character, he is a fully embodied actual object rather than a merely imaginary one. The character of Triple H is a fiction, a pretense, and element of an an activity of pretending, and an element of a narrative construct, but he isn't strictly speaking an imaginary being.

My desire that Tony Soprano not get caught is a intradiegetic desire rather than an extradiegetic desire, or we could maybe say a fictive desire rather than a non-fictive desire, but I don't think it's best understood as a desire-like imagining. As Egan says, he's not convinced we'll have real world desires for all cases where we get affective response, and my intuition is similar, but I think fictional cases DO have real world desires. However, maybe we can find something else that will look like desire-like imaginings ...

Prof Doofenschmitz, the mad scientist villain of Phineas and Ferb, has at one point a musical number about how he wishes he hated Christmas, but how in fact he is pretty meh about Christmas.

The usual philosophical way of making sense of this situation is in terms of “second order desires” - desires that our desires be different than they are. Classically a junkie or pedaphile may intensely desire that they not desire the things they do in fact desire. The thing is, it seems that part of framing a desire to desire something, or not to desire something, would be framing some kind of conative state about the desired state. Often memory will do the trick. If I remember a time before I was a junkie, I might be able to desire that my desires be like they were back then. But phenomenologically, it certainly seems to me that sometimes the best we can do is “imagine” what it would be like for our desires to be a certain way. Maybe I no longer remember what it is like not to crave heroin all the time. Maybe I've never really hated Christmas, and have to imagine what it would be like to hate Christmas, as part of the process of desiring to hate Christmas. Maybe I'm so depressed that I can no longer desire to go to work, but I can still sorta force myself to go, and do so partly by framing an imaginary desire to go to work, and using that as an imperfect substitute for a genuine desire. Or to move it over to sexual desire, maybe I've read 50 Shades of Grey and find that hot.  Maybe I desire that I desire to be beaten, but once I actually try it, it doesn't suit me and I realize that I don't actually desire it.  I am in fact not much of a masochist, even though the thought of myself as being a masochist is appealing. My wife asserts, and I'm tempted to agree, that folks can even be in the tense state where the 2nd order desire is still present, even after experience has shown that you just don't have the first order desire.

One of the hallmarks of the perception vs imagination distinction is the limited nature of imagination, and it's phenomenological “paleness.” Imagination is typically less detailed, less robust, and less intense than the perceptual analogous. It has more “aboutness” in it too.  A perception can be a confusing welter of experiencing that we feel ourselves having to work to organize into a coherent aboutness structure, but a perception-like imagining has the aboutness structure more apparent. This seems to be true of those 2nd order desires that we have to frame via imagination (rather than memory, or full actual presence). My i-desires in this sense are dimmer, more tentative, less detailed. If I later feel the parallel actual-desire it may not be that much like I'd imagined it.

Maybe there are other cases besides some 2nd order desires, where we have to imagine desires that we don't actually feel. In empathy, maybe I partially imagine what it is like to desire a heroin fix above all other things, when I am trying to understand the behavior of junkies, even though I don't have the second order desire to desire that I desired heroin above all other things.  Indeed, these constructs in philosophy of mind are sometimes called pretend-desires, or off-line desires, and it's been suggested before, by Currie, that pretend-desires are the same thing as i-desires.  Again pretending, imagining, and storytelling are closely related and intermixed, but not really the same activities.  Also it's easy to make this kind of imagining sound like a belief-like imagining instead, perhaps I'm actually imagining a world where it was true that I desired heroin above all things. Phenomenological though, it seems to me that I can do both, and that they are distinct. I can belief-like imagine a world or situation where I have this desire as one of the facts of that world/situation. I could then write a fiction, or daydream about it. But trying to desire-like imagine that I crave heroin above all things feels possible a but like different project. Similarly, I see why people would think that in the case of fiction we are imagining desires that we don't really feel.  It's just that I think part of how “involvement” or “immersion” in fiction works, is that we start to genuinely feel desires about the fictional context rather than just imagining how the fictional characters feel about their own fictional context. That's it!  When I “empathize” with Tony Soprano, I may imagine what it is like for him to desire not to get caught (especially if the pacing is slow and introspective enough), and that may be a desire-like imagining, but because I am involved with the story myself, (especially if the pacing is more griping), I also have an intradiegetic desire on my own part that Tony Soprano not get caught within his fictional setting, and that's what accounts for my nervousness.

So in conclusion, like Egan and Doggett, I'm optimistic that there are such things as desire-like imaginings, and that they have some philosophically explanatory roles to play in some cases (although how distinct they are from more familiar kinds of mental states I'm less convinced of). Like them I suspect there isn't a good existing term in English for them, so i-desires seems as good as any. I'm not aware of any foreign languages with clear terms for i-desires. However, I think i-desires, are importantly different from fictive desires. Fictions aren't always imaginary, and are often partly imaginary and partly perceptual. The philosophical explanations we want for most fictional contexts can be done more elegantly with “real-world” desires aimed at fictional contexts and organized along diegetic layer lines. (We really need a term for desires that aren't i-desires, maybe a-desires?). But other cases, like empathy, or 2nd order desires where memory or presence is insufficient, might be much closer phenomenologically to "desire-like imaginings."  

For more info see
Andy Egan - especially “How We Feel about Terrible, Non-Existent Mafiosi” (with Tyler Doggett)  Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 
Alan Fine's old sociology book Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games As Social Worlds, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1983. 
(and since I haven't been in academia a while I need to read most of these too ...)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Skepticism and Hope

When I was a professional philosopher I was quite taken by Skepticism. One of the three main sources of my dissertation was the ancient Greek Skeptic, Sextus Empiricus. Zhuangzi, who I talked about last week, was among other things a skeptic. Sometimes today we use the word skepticism for people who disbelieve in God or ghosts or conspiracy theories or global warming or whatever. But the older use of the term is for people who don't have a belief yet one way or the the other, who are open, literally in Greek it means something like still-investigating. I thought, (and still think) of skepticism as an epistemic virtue, it's part of being a good knower, knowing what we can know, and knowing that there are limits to what we can know, to how certain we can be. It's related to honesty, it's about being honest about the limits of our evidence, about admitting when we are partly guessing, when we are proceeding “as if” something were true, but we know we aren't sure and we might be wrong. It's being humble about our powers to know.

But in my own life as someone struggling with suicide for years, and someone coming out to themselves and then others as trans, and as someone who talks to suicidal trans people regularly now, I'm more and more thinking of Skepticism as a moral virtue too, as something related to hope as well as related to honesty, or humility or being a good knower.

When I was suicidal, I “knew” that I was worthless, that my life did more harm than good to the world at large, that the world would be better off without me, that I would never again be of value, that my potential was all used up, spent on a gamble that didn't pay off. My heart told me those things over and over, and my brain believed them. But in my better moments, another part of my heart and brain fought against those certainties, balancing that argument out with arguments on the opposite side, and resting at some uncertainty, some suspension of beliefs, some irresolution. I couldn't see how I could ever be valuable, or happy again, but I had to admit that I didn't know the future, that my predictions had been wrong before, that I couldn't really be as certain as I was pretending to be. Maybe my future would suck, probably, but I couldn't really be certain. Maybe something will happen that you can't imagine now. Maybe, your situation will change only a little, but your mentality towards your situation will transform. Maybe you're wrong about some assumption somewhere in your train of reasoning, in your train of feeling. It wasn't hope exactly. Or at least it wasn't the sort of thing I've often seen portrayed as hope. It wasn't blowing sunshine up my ass, and it wasn't about positivity. It was a different kind of negativity. I'm limited and weak enough, that I cannot be sure of the dark certainties that I feel so sure of. It wasn't about having a positive attitude, it was about openness to possibilities I couldn't really imagine.

And, of course, for me, this worked. Your mileage may vary. I argued myself out of suicide time and time again, and I got slowly better. Eventually I discovered (literally dis-covering) that I had been repressing my gender issues, and that being more open about them to myself and eventually others was vastly more comfortable. I became happy, and in ways, that I literally failed to imagine when I was at my worst. And again, giving up an assumption that I thought I knew (that I was male), was a key part of the psychological process for me.

One of the trans people I talked to today was very near the end of her rope. Obviously, I don't want to disrespect her privacy by saying much about her, but it's fair to say she'd had a surprisingly rough couple of years. She'd heard most of the lines of thought on suicide before, from friends, family, or therapists. I certainly wasn't trying to argue with her in anything like the philosophical sense, and I certainly didn't want to present false hope. But one of the things I said to her has stuck with me today. I said “Two years ago, could you have imagined that you would be where you are now?” And she was very much, no way, not at all, the things that have happened to me I couldn't have believed or imagined until they happened. “Ok, then realize that two years from now, you could be happy again, somehow. I don't know how, and I'm not saying it's certain, or easy. Just that it's possible. It feels like there are no possibilities anymore, for you, I know. But we just don't know the future.” Sometimes life surprises us. It can be terrible, horrible surprises. But it can be slow, wonderful, healing surprises too.  People that become disabled through injury or disease, sometimes find that after a hard period where everything is very difficult, they actually get to a point where they are happier than they were before the injury, whereas people who win the lottery often find that after an initial period of increased happiness, they wind up less happy than before the event.  Happiness as it plays out in actual human lives is complex and often mysterious or paradoxical.  You just don't know how you will be two years from now, or five or whatever, if you can survive that long.  If you have faith, well, that's one way to spin it. And the theological virtue of faith is the traditional precursor to hope, and then, love in the Christian tradition. But doubt, skepticism, those are ways to spin it too. We just can't really know that things are as hopeless as we can think we know they are. Skepticism, as a purely epistemic virtue, preaches non-hopelessness as a moral virtue. It isn't quite the same thing as actual hope, I'll admit. But it is a kind of substitute for hope when hope is hard to find.

"Come, dream a dream with me; come dream a dream with me; come dream a dream with me; that I might know your mind;
And I'll give you hope, when hope is hard to find; and I'll bring a song of love, and a rose in the winter time."
From the UU hymn "Come Sing a Song" that I used to sing all the time.

If it all seems meaningless or pointless, well, OK, it seems that way to you, fair enough. But you can't really KNOW that it is meaningless or pointless. Maybe the meaning will emerge later. Or maybe it is meaningless after all. But proper skepticism can pry open the space for the possibility of meaning, the possibility of hope, in a heart or mind that is all but closed off to these possibilities.

That is it, that is my philosophical plea, leave a little space in your heart and mind for possibilities that you can't really comprehend, even hopeful happy ones.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Zhuangzi and my Gender Identity

I often turn to ancient Chinese philosophy to try to make sense of things. It's odd for a white, Midwesterner who doesn't speak Chinese, I know, but it is true. (In fairness, I use Greeks, and Frenchmen, and old professors too).  Here's a classic example of me turning to the Ancient Chinese thinkers. So yesterday, I was thinking about Zhuangzi's most famous parable (he's an ancient Daoist I like, whose writing style involved lots of bizarre parables). In his “butterfly dream,” Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly, and on waking is uncertain whether he “really is” Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly, or “really is” a butterfly, who is currently dreaming that he is Zhuangzi. So let's switch things up a bit, but still basically plagiarize Zhuangzi ...
“On many occasions, I, Dr. Morton, dreamt I was a woman, living my life as a woman. I was conscious only of my happiness as a woman, unaware that I was male. And soon I awaked, and there I was, male. Then later, I realized that I did not know whether I was a man dreaming I was a woman, or a woman dreaming I was a man. Between male self and female self there was such a distinction. This is called the transformation of things.”

Now first note, at the level of ontology, this is not all all how we usually use the notion of transformation. No physical thing has changed here, rather we have an uncertainty of perspectives. We are shifting between two different interpretations of self, and in a sense between two whole worlds, rather than watching a change within one perspective or interpretation or world. It is that one's assumptions have come unmoored, and things that previously seemed impossible, or not even thinkable enough to bother rejecting as impossible, suddenly seem possible. I have an old argument about free will somewhere that works just like this. But my early bits gender transition fit this picture well too. I “knew” that I was male (albeit barely so), but there were all these opposing bits of data that I just wouldn't or couldn't take seriously, or frame into an opposing account. And then, I framed the account, and the “knowing” dropped away, and suddenly things had been transformed, because I stood between two accounts, that seemed so distinct, and yet could not both be so. Maybe I was a man who routinely dreamed of being a woman, or maybe I was not a man, but routinely worked to convince myself that I was. How would one go about deciding an issue like that, once it has become plausible enough to be entertained? How do you know you aren't a butterfly dreaming that you are a human? Well, obviously, most people prevent this worry by never really allowing it as a possibility worth serious consideration in the first place. But once you do allow it, what then? Similarly, for me, for so long, I just refused to entertain the possibility, but once I had, I had no further defenses … And once the two possibilities, I'm a man who dreams regularly of being a woman vs I'm a non-man regularly working to pretend to myself that I'm a man – stood together epistemically roughly equal, I quickly knew which I wanted to be true ...

But that is not really the main thrust of Zhaungzi's thought on the matter, even in that chapter, book 2 of Zhuangzi, entitled “The Evening Out Of All Things.” He makes a lot of points about epistemology, and logic, and mysticism there. But one reflects where I wound up on the gender stuff with a couple more years of work and reflection. This is a passage I've come back to, many times over the years. I've recently re-read at least 10 different translations of it, here is my own translation (heavily dependent on Sarah Snyder's translation, and careful word by word 'trot' and analysis, in "Science of Myself", but also many other translations and my own opinions and understandings.)

“There is no being that is not 'that.' There is no being that is not 'this.' From 'that' standpoint we cannot see, but from the standpoint of knowing oneself, one can know. Therefore it is said 'that' comes from 'this,' and 'this' comes from 'that' – which means 'that' and 'this' gives birth to one another. And so with life then death, and death then life. And so with possible then impossible, and impossible then possible. 'This' causes what is uncaused, and what is uncaused causes 'this.' Thus, by means of the sage shedding the light of heaven, 'this' is not the cause, and also is the cause. 'This' is also 'that,' and 'that' is also 'this.' 'That' is also one that 'this' is not, 'this' is also one that 'that' is not. Is the result that 'that' and 'this' are in the same place? Really? Is the result that 'that' and 'this” are not in the same place? Really? When 'this' and 'that' are not incautiously taken as opposites, this is called the pivot of the Dao. At the pivot of the Dao, only then do we attain the center of the ring, where one is not impoverished by what must be so. 'This' also does not exhaust the whole, 'not' also does not exhaust the whole. Consequently, we do not use a limited perspective when we seek to shed light on a topic."

There is an epistemic/mystical place, where traditional opposites no longer stand in opposition. And this is different from the moment of transformation in opposition (as in the first passage), or from an opposition where the tension is being held and used for some useful purpose (as in Heraclitus' notion of opposing coherence). Rather yes and no, no longer “stand against each other,” they seem complementary, or aspects of a whole. It's also not that 'this' and 'that' merge, or lose all distinction, or disappear into a mystical Monism. Rather the distinction between 'this' and 'that' ceases to be a source of “exhaustion” or “impoverishment,”- the situation is “rich” enough to allow different and distinct accounts to have space to be. In gender, my male-self and female-self do not merge fully, or stand in some transcendent unity - but rather both stand together as different and distinct as they are united or blurred - but as elements of a vaster richness, elements in a coincidentia oppositorum. Nor am I holding the two under tension to use the power of the frission, the two stand distinct/non-distinct as they are testifying to the case, rather than working as an engine of becoming.

So I say genderqueer and androgyne and non-binary, rather than male or female. And I don't mean epicene as in unisex, and I don't mean not-any-of-either-male-or-female, and I don't mean actively alternating, or paradoxically-fused, or a simple unity of the two, or transcending the categories of male and female entirely. I mean sitting in a wide lavish ring of wealthy selfness, where Brian and Patricia are present, and no one account is vast enough to account for both together, but I say “BP” as a symbol of this being-together-within-myself.  I mean Anekantavada in Daoist drag, dancing to some crazy Heideggerian euro-pop or something.

And so I remain, as I long have been, a connoisseur of many extremely fine grades of beyond-binaryness.