On The Presence of Things

IMG_1991My father died in January and his death has forced me to face a question for which I still have no answer. The issue is the relation of the psyche, or what I will call the “spirit,” to the material world. Since Plato, we’ve tended to think of human beings as defined more by their minds than by their bodies. This view is probably most pronounced among religious people, for whom the material world, including our physical bodies, are encumbrances from which we will one day be liberated. Our attachment to material things, or to physical reality more generally, is viewed as a kind of disease of which we cannot help but long to be cured.

Strive as we might, though, it appears we cannot be cured of it. When a person we love dies, we are almost never content simply to commune with their spirit, or to remember them in our thoughts. We crave relics that testify to their earlier physical reality, their tangibility.

When my father died, I took on the task of clearing out his apartment. This was not merely to help my siblings, but because I wanted to be among his things. It was comforting. In the beginning, when the apartment was just as he left it, it seemed almost as if he were still alive, as if he had just stepped out and might walk through the door any minute. I knew he wouldn’t, of course, but there was something comforting in the fact that his home was still there, just as he had arranged it. It was a physical expression of who he was and it gave him a physical presence even though he could no longer be physically present himself. As the days passed, though, and the apartment was gradually emptied as things were boxed to be shipped or given away, it became excruciatingly painful, like witnessing a wasting away of flesh.

I had difficulty parting with anything and, in fact, I kept many of my father’s things, things I know I will probably never use. Some things, such as the little metal box my sisters and I had bought him when we were children, and which he always used to store his cuff links, I have kept purely as mementos. That box sits now on my own dresser. I open it periodically and examine its contents. There’s nothing in it of any value, only a few pairs of cuff links, and some screws and safety pins, but looking at my father’s things makes me feel closer to him somehow.

My father was a writer. I also have his papers. It isn’t just the thoughts expressed in them, though, that are important to me. I’m attached to the papers themselves, to the faded and dirty typescript of his unpublished novel, to the yellowed copies of his newspaper articles. I’m scanning everything to preserve it and so I can share it with the rest of my family. If I were “prudent” I’d dispose of the originals once the process is complete. I don’t have a lot of storage space. I won’t dispose of the originals, though. I debated doing that and that debate is what prompted these reflections.

Religious people often think that contempt for the material world is supported by scripture. I suppose it is, at least to a certain extent, or in a certain respect. And yet, Genesis has God looking on physical creation and pronouncing it “good.”

Most contemporary philosophers are materialists of some sort. That is, they don’t believe in the non-material “mind” the way Plato did. And yet, the difficulties of reducing inherently subjective mental phenomena to inherently objective neurobiological phenomena, as Tom Nagel famously showed in his now classic article “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” appear intractable. The philosopher John Searle is as uncomfortable as are most contemporary philosophers with what is called “substance dualism,” or the view that reality comprises both physical and non-physical substances. To his credit, however, he is unwilling to ignore the difficulties of what is known as “mind-brain reductionism.” Even if you can map all mental phenomena, such as the joy one feels on being in the company of a loved one, onto neurobiological phenomena, you can’t actually completely “reduce” the former to the latter. Something is lost when you do that. We can all see, in principle anyway, the neurobiological phenomena, but we don’t experience the joy they represent. The experience itself is lost in the reduction.

Searle wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to acknowledge the intractability of the problems associated with mind-brain reductionism while at the same time avoiding the stigma of substance dualism. His answer is a new kind of substance monism –– not materialism, but “physicalism.” He believes that materialists operate with a very crude understanding of what it meant for something to be physical, an understanding that had remained essentially unchanged since the Enlightenment. People in the Enlightenment thought they knew what physical substance was. It was solid. It had extension, etc., etc. Searle argues, however, that since the advent of quantum theory we can no longer claim to have a good grasp of what a physical object is, that all of physical reality had become profoundly mysterious.

Perhaps all of reality is one substance, one substance pronounced “good” by God. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to things, to the things that have meant something to us in our lives, such as toys from childhood, awards we have won, things we’ve created with our own hands, or gifts from those we love. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to the things that meant something to those people, even if that meaning was merely utilitarian. Perhaps it is because our things are a physical extension of our selves. Perhaps we feel diminished when we lose something because we are diminished. The artist Al Gury lost nearly everything he had in a fire recently. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. Memories cannot substitute for the actual physical presence of one’s things. Memory is important, of course. If you couldn’t remember the meaning a thing had for you, then its physical presence would be meaningless. The presence of the thing adds depth, though, to one’s experience of the memory of its significance.

Even more mysterious, I think, is the fact that it is enormously important that the thing in question is the original. A facsimile of a treasured object does not elicit the same depth of emotional response, the same feeling of connection with the past, that the original does. This isn’t a physical property of the object, of course. We can be fooled when some cherished object is broken and then surreptitiously replaced. If we find out this happened, though, we’re disappointed. We want the original. A facsimile is better than memory alone, but it is not the same as the original. Why? Perhaps Searle’s insight holds the answer. Perhaps, if he is right that all of reality is made up of one substance, then it makes a difference whether one has the right bits of it. A facsimile is less “right” than the original.

My father’s things are now spread about my house. His cuff-link box is on my dresser. His books are on my bookshelves. His pictures are on my walls, and the hutch that he made is in my kitchen. I look at these things as I move about the house, and I feel closer to him. Religion, with the exception, to a certain extent anyway, of Catholicism, has tended to discredit this feeling. That is, religion has tended to give spiritual significance to only the non-material, to our memories of those we have lost rather than to their things and the meaning those things have for us. This does a disservice I would argue, however, to human beings, because human beings are physical beings who cannot help but have a deep emotional attachment to physical reality. It does a disservice to creation as well, because physical reality, whatever it ultimately is, is a part of reality, even if, perhaps, it is not the whole of it.

I am taking careful care of my father’s things, and this act of caring for them is comforting. It is, in a strange way, almost as if I am caring for him. It isn’t just his things that have come, since his death, to command my attention. I’m so grateful for the fact that my father existed, that he was a part of physical reality, that I am trying to be a better steward of the whole of it, and that has been enormously comforting as well, though I am still uncertain concerning how best to articulate why.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the  March 7, 2018 issue of Counterpunch. I’m indebted to the editor, Jeff St. Clair, for his excellent suggestion of a title. I am indebted, as well, to a reader, Henry Galmish, for reminding me that Catholicism is better than Protestantism at recognizing the spiritual significance of material reality.)

The Idiocy of the Ivory Study

I just finished reading a review by Tom Nagel in The New York Review of Books of books by Sissela and Derek Bok on happiness and I can tell you one person who isn’t happy–me. Did you know that one of what Nagel considers the “interesting results” of empirical research on happiness is that “almost all of the most pleasurable activities of the day take place outside of work.”

Wow, who would have thought! But I’m being facetious, of course. What blithering idiot doesn’t know that? That remark reminds me of a documentary I saw recently on PBS about happiness which reported that this really long and expensive study of happiness revealed that interpersonal relationships were the single most important factor in determining how happy a person was. Oh, really? We needed a long and expensive study to tell us that? Haven’t we known that since, you know, ancient Greece! Why is solitary confinement considered inhumane? Come on, we are spending money on studies like this? Could our situation get more absurd?

An “unexpected finding” observes Nagel of all this empirical research on happiness is that “greater economic equality of a society is not correlated with higher average happiness.” I’ll bet that was a surprise, and why, because it is flat out false. Who designed that study? My guess is that it was the guys who ruined the economy.  Don’t worry, I can just hear them say, however unhappy you are now, you’d be no happier, really, even if you could pay your bills.

Yeah, right. If you want to convince me that we are just as happy as, for example, Danes, then you’ve got to convince me that happiness is compatible with seething rage. Danes don’t shoot people who cut them off on the highway or take their parking spaces. I’ve feared for my life in this country when I just accidentally stepped in front of someone in a line. In fact, I’d have to say that the undercurrent of anger in this society was so obvious to me when I first moved back here from having spent eight years living in Denmark that it was the single most striking difference to me between the two cultures.

And you know why people are angry? Bok observes himself that Americans work more hours “than almost any other advanced industrial nation.” Yet he doesn’t see what ought to be the obvious implication of that fact–Americans don’t have time for “almost all the most pleasurable activities of the day.” The long hours point doesn’t cohere with the claim that we are as happy as people in countries where there is greater economic equality. That is, most of the people in those countries are working fewer hours and thus have more time for those “most pleasurable activities of the day that take place outside of work.” Since they have more time for them, one can reasonably assume they are having more of them. Most people probably don’t need that spelled out in such detail, but you never know, Derek Bok could be reading this.

“Opinion surveys,” observes Bok, “show that Americans are twice as likely (60 percent) as Europeans (29 percent) to believe that the poor can get rich if they only try hard enough.” He then goes on to observe that “lower-income Americans are less likely to blame society when inequality grows and more inclined to believe that persons of great wealth must deserve their good fortune.” Bok suggests, unless I have misunderstood Nagel’s presentation of his point, that this is a good thing, as if blaming yourself for your inability to pay your bills is going to somehow make you happier than being able to blame someone else.

“Any incremental [increase in] happiness for the poor is likely to erode,” writes Bok, “as beneficiaries grow accustomed to their income and adjust their aspirations upward.” Give a guy a shopping cart and the next thing you know, he’ll be lusting after a refrigerator box. People are just never satisfied with what they have! “Moreover,” continues Bok, “as researchers have discovered, taking money from one group creates much more distress than the added happiness gained by giving the same amount to another.” Oh yeah, I forgot, we certainly wouldn’t want to “distress” the super rich just to keep people from having their houses foreclosed upon.

Bok, et al. would do well to come out of their ivory towers, or ivory studies, as the case may be. It is absurd to conduct empirical studies on happiness in a country where increasing numbers of people are sinking into a debt so deep that they will likely never be able to dig themselves out of it. Yeah, sure, fine, a raise may not make someone happier who is already able to meet the basic requirements of life, someone who doesn’t need that raise in order to be able to keep his house, or keep his kids in college. But our current challenge is not solving the mystery of why people are never happy with what they have, even when by most reasonable objective standards what they have is more than enough. Our challenge is solving the problem of the multitudes in this country who don’t have enough by such standards. Bok would do well to remember Dickens’ lines from David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.” And just think, Dickens figured that out all by himself, without the aid of an empirical study.

This essay appeared in CounterPunch on 1/24/2011.