Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Philosophy at the Kitchen Table

Philosophy at the Kitchen Table
Recently I arranged a dinner party. The guests were invited to my house for sumptuous food, good wine, and good conversation. The guest list included Virginia Woolf, Michel de Montaigne, David Hume, Rene Descartes, and William Wordsworth. Unfortunately, Mr. Montaigne was unable to attend. He claimed to have some business to attend to in his tower. William Wordsworth also sent his regrets because he would be vacationing in the Alps. He wished that we have a splendid “spot in time” although I am still not exactly sure what he meant by this statement.
Descartes was of course the first to arrive. He always seems to be the forerunner.
As I placed his coat in the parlor, I asked, “ How was your week?”
He replied, “ God, I’ve been doing a lot of meditating and I think I have finally proved God’s existence. Perfection don’t you think?”
As I was about to say that was quite a large undertaking for a week, Virginia walked in the door. She had heard what Descartes had said and replied, “Even in the clearest light, I find it impossible for you to claim that you have proved the existence of God. I would find that impossible to do, well ever, much less in a week!”
Descartes kept his mouth shut for the moment; perhaps he was taking in her words. I was certain that the conversation would continue later on in the night.
Hume was running late, so I went ahead and served dinner to my two other guests.
When Hume arrived, Virginia said, “It seems that no matter where I am, at least one or two of the guests always seem to run late.”
Hume replied that, “ Time can only be measured by cause preceding the effect, wouldn’t you agree Virginia?
She rebutted, but with a smile, for the wine finally seemed to be taking its course, “Why yes of course, but much later you might have had to picture us at the kitchen table while you ate because we would no longer be here.”
Descartes, straying from the conversation, turned to Virginia and said, “I would like to discuss further your opinions on God.”
Virginia said, “I find the idea of such a thing preposterous. Once, I got lost in my thoughts, and I actually considered the possible existence of God.”
Hume interrupted “From what impression was that supposed idea derived? I’ve always thought that to be the most important question to ask.”
Virginia replied, “Well, I was sitting in a dark room when the lighthouse beam rolled through my window. I was staring into the light, considered the possibility of God and then went as far to say it out loud. I was incredibly angered with myself when I did though”
Hume spoke, “Ah yes. I too have had similar experiences. I have often thought about what happens when we bring our ideas into so clear a light we may hope to remove all disagreement about their nature and reality.”
Descartes rebutted, “But there is a natural light. A clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting. It happens to be the center of our conversation, the beginning of our conversation- God.”
Virginia supposed, “You cannot possibly think that our perception of everything is based on a divine, perfect being.”
Descartes replied, “But I can. Because how can we perceive everything, which is imperfect, without perceiving the perfect? You cannot enter into a valley without understanding a mountain.”
Hume choked, “You give way too much credit to your experience. You cannot experience a mountain once and expect it to be the same in the rest of your experiences. If Wordsworth were here, he would agree with me. He is both an expert on mountains and the imagination. He knows the importance of imagination and the forming of our ideas. I mean, of course it is exceptional for someone to extrapolate something like a missing shade of blue, but our society has done amazing things with our senses and our imaginations. Unicorns, man, unicorns!! He would also agree that not every mountain top experience is the same, so how could you possibly say that either all are perfect or that the subsequent valleys will all be alike”
I interrupted, hoping that their conversation would become less stiff, asking, “How is the wine?”
Descartes said “I can only base my opinion on the wine by my senses which I cannot trust. Therefore, I’m not even sure I can say that the wine exists prior to further evaluation.”
Hume then said, “ I have an idea about what I think about the wine, but that idea is solely based on memory. My impression of the wine is that it is pleasing to my senses and my emotional state. Therefore, because my impressions are more palpable than my ideas, I would have to conclude that the wine is good.”
Virginia nodded and replied, “ It is very good. I do believe I remember it from your party about 10 years ago. ’52 chardonnay? I don’t know. My memory may be a little fuzzy. There is nothing like time passing to change someone’s perspective”
At that, Virginia said that she must be leaving. She expressed her sadness that as soon as she left this most enjoyable evening would be in the past, but she said that she would be rising early in the morning to go to the lighthouse and therefore must leave.
I told her we would have to do it again sometime.
First, however, she said that she had brought me a picture. It was one that she had been working on for a while. She said it was fuzzy at first, but she believes she finally had had her vision. She said that if I didn’t like it I could just put it in my attic or something, and that it wouldn’t matter. I thanked her and said that it was more than enough. She responded kindly, “It is enough! It is enough!” Those were her last words, she grabbed her shawl, and she was gone.
After Virginia had left, Hume, Descartes and I retired to the parlor where they spent some time analyzing the picture. I was thankful that Virginia had gone so that she would not hear their critique. I had heard from a fellow friend that she was not a big fan of critics.
Descartes pointed at the triangle. He said, “ I have spent some time thinking about triangles.”
Hume had a puzzled look on his face. I’m sure he was thinking that this man (Descartes) not only wastes his time proving the existence of God, but also spent time thinking about triangles. Hume was too much of a skeptic to understand Descartes, but Hume, although a closet atheist, could not say much since he had spent part of his own book contemplating the existence of God.
Descartes, seeing Hume’s puzzled face, quickly began to explain. “You see”, he said, “ I was meditating on the existence of God for a second time, and I came across the idea that even if something does not exist outside of me, it still cannot be called nothing if it is something. It was then that I began thinking about triangles. There are many qualities of a triangle that are essential. Three sides, three angles, largest angle across from largest side, etc, etc. Anyways, see it would have been impossible for Virginia, even if she wanted to, to remove one of these characteristics from the triangle she remembered because it could not have been invented by her.”
“Is that a matter of fact?” Hume replied.
Descartes responded, “Your words, not mine”
Hume was the next to leave, and as Hume gave his goodbyes, he told me he hoped that this chance encounter would arise more frequently than others. I told him the probability of that would be high. Hume corrected me and said “ We can’t predict the future from our past experiences”. I smiled and he was gone.
Descartes was the last. I told him “You know I will always think of you like a father”. He thanked me for an enjoyable dinner and left.
I sat down at the kitchen table. Dishes and wine glasses slung about the room. The painting Virginia had left me. The smell of burning thoughts coated the air. I wondered what I was going to do when I left this place. I wondered after our delightful conversation how I would fair in a world that Hume says is left to my own free will. A free will that is decided by my own determination. I would be leaving this place tomorrow, this place that I had called home. I stared out my window and saw the blinking neon sign welcoming graduates and their families.
I found myself most like Virginia, and wondered what she would do in this situation. I would imagine she would have me picture this kitchen table when I’m not there. I, too, was sad like Virginia, knowing now that the event was in the past. My only comfort would be the passing of time, and bracketing off the most powerful moments. They were the ones that would bring the most emotion.
The other two (Hume and Descartes), although they would most likely confuse me, would also have an opinion about the experience. Hume would say that my recollection of the table would be fuzzier than my experience of actually having the impression, and it would be hard to understand the depth of the experience.
Descartes would first question the existence of the experience and the table and only prove that it existed after a full understanding of God (and who knows how long that would take).
But I suppose Descartes is right about one thing. I know I am not perfect, but this night was perfect, and therefore must have arisen from a perfect being. Speaking of which, too bad Montaigne wasn’t here.