Matters of Parallax, and Process Over Outcome


In comments under a previous post, rhjunior puts it all together, it’s one of my Mother’s favorite stories about the three blind men and the elephant (although, behind the link, I see it has become six blind men).

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right…

The poster of the comment seems to wonder why I rambled on instead of linking to the story, then adds this pithy summation: “…[T]he liberal thinks that the only one that was wrong — was the elephant.”

There’s a simple reason why I chose not to link to the story. As we relate the situation to real life, we here in reality are lacking the luxury of a wise, sighted guru happening along and filling us in on what an elephant looks like. Everyone mortal is effectively “blind.” Which matters to us, since this is the House of Eratosthenes, who is some guy who lived thousands of years ago and figured out the size of the Earth by following clues. Not, House of some guy who was getting in nerd-fights with other guys before some wise sage or deity made the time to tell him the whole story so the fighting would stop.

In fact, while I was writing it, I was questioning my own judgment call as I moved on from something. The thing with the barn in the painting…

This is why liberals like art, I think. The barn in the painting, the direction from which the artist chose to paint it, the colors, the lighting, the flowers in the field in front of the barn, the time of day – even the frame in which the canvas is mounted – they all coincide together to make a unique experience, and that experience is the reality. You paint the same barn from a different angle, and to them that’s an entirely different thing. To people who actually have to build things that go, there is a linkage between the two, and we use this to figure out what the barn is really like. Therefore there is a reasoning process going on.

They don’t engage in any such reasoning process because they don’t see the linkage; therefore they don’t see the point. The sunflowers in front of the barn are just as important as the barn itself. Contradictions that arise, present them with no pressing reconciliation chore whereas the rest of us have to stop everything to figure out what’s happening with that damn barn, like: Why does the color appear different at midday from at twilight?

There is more inspection due here, because the “liberals” — in this context meaning, people who think reality is invested in the images perceived by the observer rather than in the object itself, which is generally true — are not exclusively ignorant, and neither are their counterparts, who see the images as merely manifestations of a reality that is too complex to be entirely encompassed in any one single image. Each side of this split is paying attention to something that its opposite is ignoring entirely.

I mentioned a pair of paintings of a single barn, taken from two different angles and two different times of day. I also mentioned sunflowers in a field, in the foreground of one of these. (Presumably, the sunflowers would be out of frame in the other painting, or perhaps off to the side, or in the background.) In the context here we think of “conservative” as an observer who envisions the barn in the painting as a three-dimensional object, with the painting simply a partial representation of it.

Four disparities in these world-views arise.

Beauty: The liberals appreciate the “art” as a complete story unto itself, in ways the conservatives do not. Each painting is a package deal and it may or may not involve a positive emotional experience. If it does, all the elements of the story are pertinent. The brushes, the oil, the matte, the frame, the barn, the flowers, the fence posts, the birds, the sky, the clouds. This is why Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made…if you ask a liberal. If a conservative is dragged into the conversation, the conversation falls apart as the conservative asks all these unwelcome questions like: Uh, there have been a whole lot of movies made about a character falling from grace, what makes this any different? And then the liberal becomes exasperated and tired of this conversation because it is a communication with someone outside of the emotional experience, so typically will say something like “You just have to watch it! I can’t explain it! Watch Citizen Kane, you’ll ‘get it!'” They aren’t being insincere. There’s a lot of tangential stuff that goes into the experience, like how a stained-glass window pane is photographed, which to the conservative is just so much noise — which brings me to —

TMI: The sunflowers in front of the barn. To the liberal, they’re every bit as important as the barn itself. To the conservative they’re just in the way, especially after the conservative has managed a gander at the second painting, and figured out that the barn is the common object, and that these two paintings are of the same barn. To him, this is a matter of interest and all sorts of fascinating chores emerge from this simple acknowledgement of the obvious, that the barn has three dimensions and is (probably) a real thing that stands, or once stood, somewhere. One can therefore figure out the barn’s size and shape, where the two painters stood relative to one another, how big the barn is, what doors and other openings it has. The liberal is not captivated by this because the liberal doesn’t acknowledge the link between the two paintings. He may favorably appreciate both of them. But if that’s the case, it is important to understand that the liberal mind finds these to be positive, pleasing, unique and independent experiences. And the sunflowers are part of it. To the conservative, trying to figure out the size and shape of the barn, the goddamn things are just in the way.

Plurality of PerspectivesContradictions:Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” So says Professor Hugh Axton in the first third of Atlas Shrugged, winding up Part I which is called “Non-Contradiction.” The fact that a genuine contradiction cannot exist, makes apparent contradictions quite useful. For example, this is how parallax works. If two stars are 45 angular minutes apart in March, and 15 angular minutes apart in September, and one of the stars is much further away so that our distance to it is functionally infinite, this tells us a great deal about our distance to the closer one. In pursuing this trajectory of reasoning we are making use of a duality of perspectives. Confined to only a single perspective, we would be deprived of this evidence and would not be able to arrive at this conclusion until we came across some other way to gather the information. For a much simpler example, we can ponder the visual chores done within the brain of anybody who enjoys the advantage of two working eyes as this person experiences visual depth. It’s all about reconciling apparent contradictions between two images, known to be associated with each other. Liberals, by and large, don’t do this. And that’s why the conflict persists. They don’t seem to appreciate the value of it. Many among their number have two working eyes apiece, I think. How is it they can ponder weighty subjects, like what to do about our indigent, whether there is such a thing as human effect on the climate, and in so doing fall short of the thinking capacity they engage whenever they look down the street? I don’t know the answer to this. You will have to ask them.

Distortion: For all the noise liberals make about the value of nuance, you would think they’d be able to appreciate that different stories can be told about the same reality, there may be different observations made, and yet both stories might be true. And yet, time after time we see conflict arise around them, which they then blame on others, because they perceive that the other story must be a “lie.” Like William F. Buckley used to say, “…liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, [but] it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.” This very often causes them to confuse “do you agree” with “do you know”: The “true” story is somehow established as being one and the same with somebody’s telling of it, much like, again, that barn in the painting. Somehow it is established that a certain painting is the “Original Van Gogh.” It would therefore follow that anything else purporting to be the same thing, with detectable differences, must be a replica and therefore fake, worthless, even a blight. This makes sense with paintings, doesn’t make quite so much sense with the perception of reality. Because, again, with paintings the value is linked to the painting itself — it is the object of value. Problems arise when they carry this mindset into the real world. A great example is climate change. I have no problem “admitting” that humans might possibly have an effect on it, in the sense that all organisms within an environment affect each other, along with the environment itself, and the environment affects them right back. That much is just how nature works. Even when you jump off the ground into the air, in the purest technical sense you are engaging in an interaction with the Earth as the force from your legs repels the two of you momentarily apart. And yet, have you been in a climate change dispute that failed to degenerate, as they so often do, into something like “What qualifications do you have to question the science that says global warming is caused by humans?” Think of it from their mindset: The “theory” is a painting, it doesn’t reflect anything else, it is its own reality. Any statement about the same thing, deviating from this prototype in any detectable way, is a demonstrable fake. Anything done about a certain thing, must adhere to an orthodox process, or else it is invalid — nevermind the outcome.

The take-away from all this is, our friends the liberals are at the center of a great deal of conflict, and they’re probably to be blamed for it, but we shouldn’t be too hard on them before we make an effort to understand things…from their point of view. In a lot of ways, they’re simply children who have made a mistake about how to perceive the world around them, and then unfortunately went through the ensuing years of maturation with this mistake left uncorrected. They just haven’t gone through the experience that would compel them to make the correction. They think images are reality, and that explains most of it. Probably watched too much television or something.

Why are they so nasty sometimes? People who are hoodwinked by something, and secretly suspect this is the case, tend to want everybody else to be hoodwinked by the same thing. Peers who have not been hoodwinked the same way, offend them, because it shows that they haven’t had to be hoodwinked and somewhere they must have made the decision that this should happen. Inferiors who have not been hoodwinked, offend them the same way, because it reminds them that they have the intellectual fortitude to solve their own problems and they haven’t seen fit to marshal this fortitude. Superiors who have not been so hoodwinked, offend them, because it poses a problem for their dogmatic “truth” that all good things come from communicating and investing belief in a common set of “good” messages, read that as, genuine, truthy images. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush believing in un-liberal things, and rising to the office of President of the United States, offends the dickens out of them. But as soon as Barack Obama is sworn in, the Reagan and Bush things are effectively scrubbed from history; not never happened (until the time comes to blame something on them). Welcome to the age of “We know we’re right because Obama is President.”

And that gets into a fifth perception-discrepancy that arouses conflict, the perception of time. Liberals do not view time the same way normal people do. But that is truly a post for some other day.

Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes and Rotten Chestnuts.

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