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Can We Live With Contradiction?



Except it’s obviously a bad theory. Your mother might have been a popular conceptual artist who before getting Alzheimer’s surgically gave herself a beak. That would put her in the same category as the chicken. You could argue that the mother with dementia is worth more because she is a physical continuation of the mother you loved. But that won’t hold: some day, her body will be a skeleton and you will not want to invite skeleton Mom to dinner.
These are both pretty silly theories; obviously we can do better. But I bring them up to make a point about the inherent difficulty of theory as a tool.
Part of the reason this mother/chicken puzzle is so hard is it runs up against two contradictory beliefs we have about human beings:
a) Humans are meaningful; the things they do make sense
b) Humans are things with causes like anything else — as meaningless as forest fires.
Philosophers from Descartes to Kant to Donald Davidson have noticed this inconsistency and have tried to come up with a theory of how humans could be both sources of meaning and subject to causation. Descartes thought humans were just two different things in some mysterious way yoked together, as if you stapled a rhinoceros to a shark. Kant thought that humans were one thing with two aspects — the phenomenal, which placed us in a net of causes, and the noumenal, which revealed us as free. Davidson argued that the world was neither mental nor physical, but could receive physical or mental descriptions, and be understood differently depending upon which description we used.
One worry about all these theories is that they solve the contradiction — machine man versus meaningful man — at the cost of raising hard questions themselves. You feel like asking Descartes, “How do those two substances go together?” Or Kant, “How can a self be both noumenal and phenomenal?” Or Davidson, “Just why should there be mental and physical descriptions of the same event?” More upsettingly, they don’t seem to help us resolve the contradiction of “mother beats chicken” and “chicken beats mother.”

Did the mother with dementia lose her Cartesian thinking substance when the plaques in her brain got too plaquey? Did her noumenal self take off for noumenal heaven and leave her phenomenal self minding the store? Did she stop falling under the mental descriptions and become eligible only for the physical description? Just when and how did the mother cross the road from human-land to chicken-land?

We started with an ethical contradiction:

i) Mother is better than chicken
ii) Chicken is better than mother
and found behind it a metaphysical contradiction:
i) People are meaningful
ii) People are things.

But behind that lurks a deeper, really hard contradiction, namely:

i) People are best responded to with love and respect
ii) People are best responded to by understanding their causes and manipulating them when they don’t meet our goals.
If you are a cynic you could say we live in a culture in which people say they believe (i) and teach their children to say (i) when asked, but always act as if they believe (ii). So at the end of the day Singer, like the rest of us, lives in a world of causal relationships that he must manipulate in the usual way: by spending money. Spend it on Mom and you have less for the PETA campaign against factory farming, and vice versa.
As grown-ups we are always dealing with actual decisions where we try to cause other people to do things. Kant said that an individual human should never be used as a means but only as an end, but he had a servant. It’s a nice idea, but how do you put it into practice?

I may be a quitter, a product of a consumerist culture that demands instant gratification, but I despair of coming up with a rigorous consistent theory of what distinguishes demented mothers from chickens in time for all the people whose mothers have dementia (I am one of them).

If we can’t come up with a theory, or what amounts to the same thing, can’t come up with a theory in enough time for us to live our lives, what should we do? Obviously one response is to muddle through, hack it, suck it up. Or to put it in a way more pleasing to our vanity, accept that life is a mysterious wonderful paradoxical thing that can’t be thought through, and if necessary help along that acceptance with meditation or the appropriate psychoactive substance, maybe bourbon.
I think, though, that we can do better, and one step toward doing that is cutting ourselves — individually and as a culture — some slack for being inconsistent. When we look at other cultures we can see that they are attempts to square the circle of conflicting worldviews. The ancient Chinese were heirs to both a Taoist and a Confucian heritage. So sometimes an ancient Chinese literatus was inclined to let it all hang like a Taoist, and sometimes he wanted to impose a harmonious social system on unruly human impulses like a Confucian.

We don’t blame the ancient Chinese literatus for being inconsistent, so why not try to be at least as forgiving to ourselves? Not just because life will be less stressful or because people who are harsh and unforgiving to themselves end up being harsh and unforgiving to others, as the journalists were with Singer (although both things, I believe, are true) but because if we have two sets of practices that work, we will lose something by giving up on either one of them. It helps us make it as a civilization to view people as sources of meaning and it also helps us to view them as causally determined. Until we have something better we risk impoverishing our skill set by getting rid of either one of them in a foolish quest for consistency, the hobgoblin (or is it the bugbear?) of little minds.
But what do we do about mother and the chicken? Do we have any resources better than the bourbon for dealing with the times when our lives get paradoxical?

I think we have at least three: ritual, horror, and comedy.

Ritual: Every holiday dinner where the chicken is on the table and Mom, even with her Alzheimer’s, has a seat at it, helps resolve the tension in our treatment of humans and animals. We don’t have a way to think our way through it, but if Mom is part of the rituals of the family, the dance of acknowledgment and attunement, we solve our problems by living, even if we can’t solve them by thinking.

Horror: Horror is a response for when the paradox has strayed into territory that is unlivable. The movie “Freaks” ends with a beauty transformed into a chicken woman — it can still creep us out, and by keeping in touch with our capacity for horror, our bodies can navigate the treacherous waters where our minds can’t. Mother’s skeleton at the dinner table mentioned above makes us shudder — that shudder is worth holding on to.

Comedy: Finally, comedy has always been about connecting incompatible perspectives: that’s why traditional comedies often end with a wedding. At the end of “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen’s character tells a joke about a man whose brother thinks he is a chicken; the man won’t turn his brother in to doctors, he says, because “I need the eggs.” He invites us to see how some our distinctions are illusions from one perspective but necessary from another. It’s a contradiction and his joke lets us live with it.
The Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, when asked if he accepted the view that something could be p and not p at the same time, answered, “I do and I don’t.” I used to think he was kidding. Now that I’ve thought about it I think he wasn’t and he was. Source The New York Times

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