Tuesday 5 May 2015

Choice Blindness and the Point of Aesthetic Reasons

This post is by Dominic McIver Lopes, who teaches at the University of British Columbia and has written books and papers on pictorial representation, photography, the aesthetic and epistemic values of images, computer art, and the nature of art and the ontology of art works. His current project derives an account of aesthetic value from accounts of reasons for aesthetic action.

Know Thyself. Maybe the advice is that we should each acknowledge our most dearly held values and come to terms with our capacity to act upon them. Or maybe the tone is less Socratic, more practical. We plan. Planning requires a coordination of intentions with the outcomes of action. To reliably get good outcomes, we must act on reasons we know we have. My days go best when they begin with a dose of something bitter. I purchase Cooper's Original because it is bitter. Thus do I assure my well-being. Suppose I lacked access to my reasons for acting. Then my life would amount to a fishing expedition. Only by luck would I end up satisfied.

Alas, to know oneself is easier said than done. Petter Johansson, Lars Hall, and their team (2005, 2006, 2010) have developed an elegant protocol that delivers results that bespeak a sobering conclusion. Subjects are tested in two main conditions. Controls choose between two items, are shown what they chose, and then are asked for their reasons for their choice. In the experimental condition, subjects choose between two items, some trickery happens so that they are shown the item they did not choose, and then they are asked their reasons for choosing that item (though they did not in fact choose it).

Folk psychology predicts subjects will detect and protest the ruse. Yet surprisingly few detections are made. Few sense any discrepancy between the item initially chosen and the item shown as the one chosen. Worse, there is no significant difference, along any of several measures, between the reasons subjects give in the two conditions. Controls who choose mango jam over Pernod jam give reasons for their choice. Subjects who choose mango jam also supply reasons when sneakily presented with Pernod jam as their choice. These are not reasons for their choice, but their reasons are the same as the reasons given by controls. In choice blindness, intention detaches from outcome.

The manipulation protocol is a powerful tool for psychological research because it permits adding conditions as a way to probe the mechanisms responsible for choice in a domain. Noting that Johansson and Hall have mainly looked at aesthetic choices, I have argued (2014) that their conclusions challenge the dominant methodology in aesthetics. We cannot take critical reasons as data to explain aesthetic action. Whether or not the methodological point is sound, there remains the question of what purpose might be served by practices of giving aesthetic reasons.

Consulting Google nets some examples of aesthetic discourse. 'Cooper's marmalade: a very subtle tea aroma followed by rich orange notes with a silky jelly and robust sliced rinds'. 'Her is sweet, soulful, and smart'. 'Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements is startling in its breadth of energy, complexity, originality, and contrasts'. If we confabulate when asked to explain our actions, then bits of aesthetic criticism do not express reasons for making aesthetic choices. The tempting and pessimistic inference is that they are empty, nonsense.

Provided there is no alternative. Back in the 1940s the philosopher Arnold Isenberg rejected the (still) standard understanding of critical statements as reports that a marmalade has a tea taste, that a movie is smart, or that a dance is original. He wrote:

It could not be the critic's purpose to inform us of the presence of a quality as banal and obvious as this. … the critic is thinking of another quality … which he sees and which by his use of language he gets us to see. [The critic] gives us directions for perceiving, and does this by means of the idea he imparts to us, which narrows down the field of possible visual orientations and guides us in the discrimination of details, the organization of parts, the grouping of discrete objects into patterns. (1949: 336)

As we might say now, critical discourse is a tool used by experts to direct the attention of non-experts so that they can apprehend what is on offer. Critical statements do not report reasons for action that track preferences; they direct action. Aesthetic choice blindness is hardly surprising, for it is a side effect of asking subjects to supply reasons in a context where reason-giving is not functioning per design.

What if Isenberg's model generalizes beyond the aesthetic domain? Perhaps a great deal of what looks like looks like first-person reason-giving properly functions to direct the attention and shape the behaviour of third parties. Knowing thyself is not where the action lies.

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