Shhhh. The duck-rabbit is napping, which is just as well; later in this post I’ll be passing it over in favor of a different optical illusion, and I think it’s best if it remains oblivious.
Last weekend we went to a lovely late-afternoon birthday party thrown by a close family friend. We sat in her garden chatting and sipping Campari and orange and then, later, ate a vast array of delicious savory dishes (including an delectable goat cheese tart from a recipe by Ottolenghi*) before finishing with a similarly sumptuous array of puddings (including a dreamy trifle made by my Mum and a fantastic fig and Stilton tart made by our hostess).
At some point in the evening the conversation took a turn towards the supernatural. Crop circles, UFOs and “bilocation” (which I must admit, I had never heard of until this party) were discussed. I silently praised my foresight in deciding not to wear my David Hume T-shirt to this party; not the right crowd. Not that I regard stories of supernatural experiences with contempt (in fact, I’m about to share one of my own.) But, in general, I stand with Hume in assuming that it’s always more likely that someone is lying or hallucinating than that the laws of nature have shifted.** So, for the most part,*** I retained a respectful silence. But then, one of my dearest and oldest friends, the daughter of the hostess, reminded me of my own supernatural story (or, really, as you’ll see, non-story).
Everything went down (or didn’t go down, depending on whom you believe) on a night when my younger brother and I were staying over at our friend’s house. (My brother was not at the party while my friend and I were sharing our recollections; however, I spoke to him the next day and he confirmed our account.) Neither my friend nor I can recall how old we were, but I am four years old than both her and my brother, so it is possible that I was embarrassingly old (fifteen?) for the following scenario to have unfolded as it did. We were in the front bedroom of my friend’s house getting ready to go to bed. My friend saw some strange lights moving in the sky outside the window. She said something like, “Oh my God, this is so weird, you’ve got to see this.” My brother went over to the window, and they both stood there staring outside.
In my very dim memory, I was already feeling kind of nervy. Had we been telling ghost stories? I really can’t recall. But what I do remember is that when they both insisted I come over and see it, I point-blank refused. In fact, I believe that I got into bed and pulled the covers over my head and implored them to come to bed too. Which they did not. Instead (and I’m really not too sure of my memories here) they kept calling me over and telling me that what they were seeing was like nothing they’d ever seen before. I have a feeling (again, I don’t really remember) that I kept saying, in a voice that convinced no-one, especially not myself, things like, “it’s just a plane”; “it’s just fireworks, guys!” as they described the strange movements and patterns of light. But, they insisted, no, they knew what planes and fireworks and shooting stars and other ordinary things one might see in the sky at night looked like, and this was different. (Both witnesses describe a point of light moving rapidly and repeatedly from one place to another.) And then they said the light was coming closer.
I remember being terrified for myself and also terrified that they were standing so close to the window. I don’t know if I actually went so far in my mind as imagining alien abductions and hypothesizing that one was less likely to be abducted if one was under the covers in bed rather than standing by the windows. But I do think that I started rather desperately imploring them to come away from the window and I was absolutely certain that there was no fucking way that I was going over to that window. Whatever was out there, I was determined that I would not witness it. Here, for the second time on this blog, I am forced to admit that my behavior here does not reflect particularly well on my character. Not only did my behavior indicate a pathetic lack of intellectual curiosity. More damningly, did I shepherd the younger children away from the window? Hell no, I buried myself under the covers and essentially declared, “Every one for themselves when the aliens attack!”****
This put me in a somewhat paradoxical position the next morning and one that was, doubtless, infuriating to my friend and my brother, when I scoffed at the idea that they had seen a UFO, as they maintained, my disbelief based on the fact that I had not myself personally witnessed it. “But you didn’t see it because you were too scared to look out of the window!” they protested. They were absolutely correct. My disbelief conflicted with my terror, and yet I was firmly committed to both. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, as I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of him, my 15 year-old self was, at this moment, totally channeling James Boswell, who wrote in his journal in 1762 that a man “may be afraid of ghosts in the dark, although he is sure there are none . . . Judgment and Passion are very different.”
A friend of mine, another academic, recently suggested to me that all scholars are their books in some profound way. I’m not sure if that’s really true of all scholars but I do think that it’s the case with me. I find myself drawn to moments in literature or philosophy that either reflect upon or seem calculated to produce the co-existence of two incompatible thoughts in one’s mind, most usually a feeling (“I’m terrified of the aliens outside the window!”) that conflicts with a belief (“I do not believe that there are aliens outside the window.”) In the eighteenth century, they would have characterized this feeling of dissonance, as Boswell does, as a conflict between passion and judgment. Today, philosophers and cognitive scientists term this phenomenon, following Jerry Fodor, “cognitive impenetrability.”*****
In my recent work, I’ve found the late Peter Goldie’s work particularly helpful for thinking about cognitive impenetrability. For Goldie, cognitive impenetrability describes a situation in which one state of mind (typically a feeling) is impervious to another (typically a belief). Goldie develops the concept to get beyond the need to describe people whose feelings do not line up with their beliefs as irrational (is this, perhaps, why I’m so taken with Goldie’s work? Because it provides a way of viewing my simultaneous fear-of-and-disbelief-in UFOs as not irrational?). Goldie suggests instead that we see instances of cognitive impenetrability functioning analogously to the Müller-Lyer optical illusion in which two lines are perceived as of differing lengths even though they are really the same length.
So, the analogy here would be that, just as one still perceives the lines to be of differing lengths once one knows the Müller-Lyer figure is just an illusion, so, analogously, one can still experience fear of UFOs even when one disbelieves in their existence. Geddit? OK, we’re getting to the part where the Duck-Rabbit has to, somehow, block its ears. (Here’s a philosophical puzzle: if the duck closes his bill, can the rabbit still hear? Hmmm.)
So, here’s the thing. If I’m going to use an ambiguous figure to analogize the interplay between passion and judgment, why not turn to my beloved duck-rabbit? I guess I think that the Müller-Lyer figure works better because whereas the interplay in the duck-rabbit is between two represented objects—duck and rabbit—the Müller-Lyer figure asks its viewer to note how the perceptual illusion that the two lines are of different lengths persists even when one is aware that the lines are the same length. The Müller-Lyer figure, then, dramatizes how a spectacle can persist even when we know how it works. Indeed, it is the fact of the illusion’s persistence even when exposed as such that is the source of the figure’s interest.
Of course, my real interest in cognitive impenetrability goes back to literature. I think that cognitive impenetrability not only helps explain why we can be scared of aliens while disbelieving in them but also why we can be, for example, caught up in Elizabeth Bennett’s feelings for Mr. Darcy even as we are quite sure that neither Elizabeth Bennett nor Mr. Darcy exist or have ever existed.
Who needs bilocation! Or rather: isn’t reading itself a kind of bilocation, a way of being simultaneously in two places at once? And isn’t that what makes reading (especially reading fiction, but I think this also applies to reading engrossing non-fiction) so mysterious and its own kind of optical trick just as much as the Müller-Lyer or the duck-rabbit? For Elizabeth Bennett, too, is just black marks on white, and yet we can find ourselves tricked, again, and again, and again, into experiencing those marks as a living, feeling, human consciousness. Makes you wonder.
* After the publication of Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi is now very well known in the US too although not nearly to the extent he is in Britain. It has gotten to the point here where I am surprised if a middle-class Londoner’s kitchen bookshelf does not contain two or three books by Ottolenghi. No, I am not being snotty. I own at least two Ottolenghi books and that tart was bloody delicious.
**On the other hand (and this is a big on the other hand), I’ve recently become quite taken with Quentin Meillassoux’s argument that the contingency that Hume attributes to the laws of nature must also be attributed to the explanatory systems that describe such laws, which is to say that if we are ready, with Hume, to countenance the possibility that the sun might not rise tomorrow, then we must also be ready to countenance the possibility that the scientific method is equally contingent. That is to say, it is not just particular matters of fact that are vulnerable but the epistemic assumptions that underpin them. Or, to paraphrase Hume in a manner that would no doubt have him turning in his grave, just because God doesn’t exist today is no reason to think that he won’t exist tomorrow. BOOM!!!
*** OK, I may have ranted at some point that just because some crop circles are obviously made by humans doesn’t mean that the ones that are not obviously made by humans are made by something non-human, but that was as far as I went.
**** This is intelligence that you might wish to file away for now, but which you may wish to retrieve should you ever find yourself trapped with me in some kind of emergency situation. In the event of a zombie attack, for example, I would not blame you if you were to ditch me at the earliest opportunity because you now know that I will abandon you and make a run for it at the first possible chance. Not only that, but, should we both survive said zombie attack, I will doubtless mercilessly mock you afterwards when you claim that such an attack occurred, which I will vociferously deny until my dying breath.
***** See Zenon Pylyshyn, Computation and Cognition, 114, Jerry Fodor, Modularity of Mind, 68.