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Moral Moments


by Joel Marks

“JOOOOOOOOELLLLLLLLLL?!” The shrill call of my name made me jerk the phone from my ear. In that instant I thought, “Mom.” I was flabbergasted: My mother had been dead for five years.

As the person on the wire continued to speak I had time to question myself. Could the death of my mother, even the sense that so many years had passed by, be only something I had dreamt the night before? Was it just that I had had no occasion to doubt it since waking up this morning, until this telephone call jarred me back to my senses and the realization that my mother was still alive?

I know there was a time in my life when I believed I could fly, for I remembered having done so. The image in my mind was of my body parallel with the ground, close to it but not touching it. My arms were crossed like a Cossack dancer’s, and I was moving forward steadily, following the path of a sidewalk near my home. In my daily life I felt I had this power, although it wasn’t exactly clear to my child’s mind when I could exercise it. Then one day I realized it must have been something I had dreamt; so it was not a memory – or it was a memory, but of a recurring dream, not something that had actually happened. This was the kind of realization one experiences when, in the light of increasing knowledge, the belief in Santa Claus evaporates like dew at daybreak.

A few more words from the person on the telephone dispelled my confusion. It was Svetlana, a new acquaintance. The way she had spoken my name had been her enthusiastic greeting, probably also prompted a bit by nervousness because of the novelty for her of speaking English without seeing the person she was speaking to. Now that I thought about it, her age was not far from my mother’s when I was in college and would receive calls from her. That was how they would begin: “JOOOOOOOOELLLLLLLLLL?!”

The experience of Svetlana’s call served as a reminder to me of the fragility of belief. For one second I had believed my mother was still alive. The belief was patently false, but I was taken in by it all the same. It is not an uncommon experience, is it? I’m sure you can empathize. Here is another example: many times I have found myself gripping the chair when (for no particular reason) I have fallen into a momentary reverie of being in a plummeting airplane. I feel real fear. I believe I do believe at those moments that I am in an airplane. I am not asleep and dreaming; nor are my eyes even closed. It is just that there has been a shift of belief brought on by an image in my mind.

Yet, at other times, belief is recalcitrant. If somebody were to hold a gun to your head and demand that you believe in Santa Claus or he would shoot, could you do it? I doubt it. But that’s not because there is no Santa Claus; it’s because you don’t believe there is. If you were a Creationist, you would be just as much at a loss to conjure up a belief in evolution under the gun.

The startling revelation is that the entire world one inhabits is in some significant sense not the world that exists but the world one believes to exist. Everything that we know is first of all something that we believe, and in the end is that as well. In other words, what we know is, for all we know, something we only think we know. Our belief may be more or less justified, but even our deepest conviction is still a belief. And the hallmark of a belief, unlike a fact, is that it could be mistaken. That is the problem of skepticism: if beliefs are only buttressed by other beliefs, how can we know we have anything ‘right’? It is humbling, then, to realize that one’s mind has a mind of its own.

But skepticism is, in the end, just a bugbear, for reasons that Wittgenstein explained in philosophy and sociobiologists have explained in science: We must be getting it all basically right or we couldn’t function – we wouldn’t even be here. Indeed, for all the pleasure there is to be had from pondering the occasional lapse from perfection, such as mistaking Svetlana for Mom, the educated mind takes an even greater delight in understanding the inevitability of our exquisitely fine-tuned cognitive faculties. As others have pointed out: The question was never, “How could I have made such a mistake?” but, “How do we get it right so much of the time?” And now, amazingly, we know the answer: natural selection. What is more, the answer, now that we know it, seems totally obvious.

Descartes’ intuitions were sound when he forgave the occasional illusions to which we are liable by pointing out that we also have the ability to disabuse ourselves of them (although he misattributed the source of that ability to the goodness of God rather than to the even more astonishing, because self-explanatory, mechanism of evolution). The late perception psychologist J.J. Gibson further developed this idea when he argued that illusions typically occur only under very limited or artificial circumstances, such as in the psychology laboratory, and are quickly remedied. Hence my swiftly figuring out that the person on the telephone was not my mother but Svetlana.

© Joel Marks 2008

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. More of his essays can be found at http://moralandothermoments.blogspot.com.

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