Excursis on Deception


The Renaissance theories about eyes and pneuma depend on a natural relation between the eyes and the underlying physical world.  For instance, a person could not give someone the evil eye simply by painting their own eyes with pigment.  The cause of the affliction must lie in the nature of the person who passes on this curse, and not in some extraneous cause.   Similarly, the eyes of the beloved must really transmit something of her soul through love’s arrows in order to ensorcle the lover.  In this sense, pneumatic theories are natural theories.

In my readings for the preceding blog, however, I came across a curious origin for the name of the belladonna plant.  According to some sources, the belladonna, an herb of the nightshade family, was once used as a cosmetic to dilate women’s pupils, which was believed to make them more attractive to men.  The belladonna’s name, consequently, is ascribed to its association with beautiful women.

Deh, bella donna, che a’ raggi d’amore
ti scaldi, s’i’ vo’ credere a’ sembianti
che soglion esser testimon del core

Ah, fair lady, who warmest thyself in the rays of love,
if I may trust to looks
which are wont to be witnesses of the heart

–Dante, Purgatorio XXVIII

The practical power of the belladonna, in effect, replaces a spiritual theory of love with a psychological one, for the eyes no longer mirror the soul but instead can be manipulated and enhanced by other means.  What is given by nature is transformed by art into something other, and the presuppositions about natural relations are undermined in the process, much as in the modern world, breast augmentation is preceived as displacing natural beauty with an artificial conception of what is beautiful.  The analogy is sometimes drawn with the binding of women’s feet in China, a practice that was propelled by a cultural desire on the part of certain men for small feet as well as coercion by women who had already undergone the grueling procedure.

The case with foot-binding may be something different, however, since the goal in this case is not to make one thing appear to be something it is not, but which is also natural, for instance transforming small eyes into big eyes, but rather to transform one natural thing into something else that is unnatural, and culturally conditioned.  Exceptionally large eyes, while unusual, do occur in nature, whereas feet folded over on themselves do not.  Thus the former is an act of deception, while the latter, technically, is not.

For Aristotle, the senses can never be deceived.  In On the Soul III:3 he states that “sensations are always true.”  To explain deception, then, he extends the faculty of imagination beyond something that is merely present in revery, and instead makes it a part of everyday experience.  To make this distinction between sense and imagination at the end of III:3, Aristotle draws on a distinction he made previously between special objects of sense and incidental objects of sense.  As an illustration (which is then used in several other works) Aristotle contrasts the patch of white that we might see in the distance with the son of Diares (the son of Cleon is sometimes also used in these illustrations).  The son of Diares is the incidental object of sense, while the patch of white is what we actually see.  While we might be in error about the former, we cannot be so about the latter.

Perception of the special objects of sense is never in error or admits the least possible amount of falsehood.  That of the concommitance of the objects concomitant with the sensible qualities comes next: in this case certainly we may be deceived; for while the perception that there is white before us cannot be false, the perception that what is white is this or that may be false.

Aristotle makes the imagination an intermediary between sensation and thought, functioning both as a high-level kind of sensation, or as something that often accompanies sensation, as well as a low-level kind of thinking.  Most interestingly, he ascribes this faculty of pseudo-thought to animals.

And because imaginations remain in the organs of sense and resemble sensations, animals in their actions are largely guided by them, some (i.e. the brutes) because of the non-existence in them of mind, others (i.e. men) because of the temporary eclipse in them of mind by feelings or disease or sleep.

tr. J.A. Smith

Contemporary biology supports the belief that animals not only have the faculty of imagination, and so are capable of being deceived, but goes further in suggesting that they also have the capacity to be deceivers.  In their book, How Monkeys See The World, Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth provide empirical evidence about the mental lives of monkeys, apes, and other species, including their ability to mislead others, even without the ability to introspect, which is the core faculty that allows humans to form notions about the inner lives of other people, and in turn allows humans to present themselves in ways that manipulate those inner lives.

The behavior and vocal signals of many different species often function to deceive or mislead others.  A review of the evidence, however, raises doubts about the flexibility of animal deception and provides little evidence for the attribution of mental states to others.  Great tits, for example give apparently deceptive alarm calls at feeding perches, and they are skillful enough to vary their false alarm calls depending upon who is nearby. If the birds at the feeding perch are lower ranking than the signaler, false alarm calls are rarely given, presumably because the caller can simply supplant his rivals by approaching.  When higher-ranking birds are present and a supplant is not possible, however, lower-ranking birds do give false alarm calls (Moller 1988).  There is, then, some flexibility in the use of deceptive alarms by great tits; however, the limits of great tit deception are equally striking.

This behavior suggests Nietzsche’s analysis of the origins of ressentiment, through the exercise of which Nietzsche’s mass men are able to overcome his nobles since the latter are incapable of duplicity or even of understanding it.  Ressentiment is a tool that allows not only for the levelling of society, but also allows the weak of Nietzsche’s philosophy to overcome the strong using mendacity and illusions.  The power of ressentiment comes from the ability to shape the minds of others as well as the drive to do so.  In animals, however, this special faculty seems to be absent.  According to Cheney and Seyfarth, manipulations of this sort only affect behavior, not thoughts.

We have no evidence, for example, that the birds use any other signals to deceive each other or that they use deceptive signals in any other social context.  Even in the case of nonhuman primates, there is little evidence that individuals ever act to manipulate each others’ beliefs, as opposed to each others’ behavior.

Perhaps the power of the belladonna, unlike that of Dante’s bella donna, is of a similar kind for, as Cheney and Seyfarth point out, the limits of great tit deception are striking.

Of Zombies (Part II)

Before using zombies as a metaphor for the dehumanizing treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, Slavoj Zizek drew attention to a significant but often overlooked characteristic of zombies [1992]:

To a connoisseur of Alfred Hitchcock, this image instantly recalls The Birds, namely the corpse with the pecked-out eyes upon which Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) stumbles in a lonely farmhouse, its sight causing her to emit a silent scream.  When, occasionally, we do catch the sparkle of these eyes, they seem like two candles lit deep within the head, perceivable only in the dark: these two lights somehow at odds with the head’s surface, like lanterns burning at night in a lonely, abandoned house, are responsible for the uncanny effect of the “living dead.”

The eyes of the undead are typically turned up so the irises are hidden and only white is shown (or sometimes the irises are even blotted out completely by the noxious fluid that animates the zombie).  This blankness of expression emphasizes the lack of an inner fire, as well as an incongruence between what zombies once were and what they have become. 

Contrast this with the eyes of the Afghan girl above, captured by a National Geographic photographer’s camera in 1985, which seem to overflow with the story of her life.

Zizek plays on this common association of the eyes with the soul to draw a connection between the empty eyes of the undead and the windows of an abandoned house.  The origin of this perceived affinity between eyes and souls is difficult to track down, however.  William Blake observed that “This life’s dim windows of the soul / Distorts the heavens from pole to pole.”  This in turn appears to be a reference to an older English folk saying, The eyes are the windows of the soul or, alternatively, The eyes are the windows to the soul, which the OED traces back to the sixteenth century.  Yet we also find a variation of this proverb in French, Les yeux sont le miroir de l’ame, which can loosely be translated as “The eyes are a reflection of the heart.”  de.wikiquote.org turns up Das Auge ist ein Fenster in die Seele as a German proverb, but erroneously ascribes it to the Bible. 

Rather than the Bible, the connection may lead back to ancient greek psychology.  In the Timaeus, Plato propounds a theory of vision involving both an inner fire and an outer fire created by the Demiurge.   Following Empedocles, Plato states that the inner fire lies behind the eyes, and in the act of perceiving emits rays that reach out, Superman-like, to touch the object being perceived.  At the object, the rays carrying the inner fire co-mingle with the light around the thing perceived and return this mixed light to the eyes and to the perceptive soul. 

In On Sense and the Sensible, Aristotle rejects his master’s notion of an inner fire, among other reasons because he finds it unnecessary.  Rather than a fire going out and then coming back in, Aristotle proposes that light from the object simply enters the eye, as we believe today.  He points out the mistaken notion that the visual organ is made of fire (natural science in the ancient world always revolved around the four elements) has its source in the bright lights one sees when one presses a finger against the eye.  Centuries later, Isaac Newton describes a similar experiment he self-inflicted by pushing a stick against his own eye, to see what would happen.

Aristotle proposes that the eye, in particular the pupil, is made of water rather than fire, for it has this particular characteristic of water: it is transparent.  Instead of serving as an active organ of attention, shooting out rays towards the world, the eye is a passive organ that receives impressions of color and magnitude which it passes to the soul, forming an impression of the sensible forms upon the soul as a signet ring forms an impression upon a piece of wax.

There must, therefore, be some translucent medium within the eye, and, as this is not air, it must be water.  The soul or its perceptive part is not situated at the external surface of the eye, but obviously somewhere within: whence the necessity of the interior of the eye being translucent, i.e. capable of admitting light.

In On the Motion of Animals and On the Generation of Animals, Aristotle outlines a physical theory of pneuma, a fine substance which permeates the body and carries sense impressions to the heart, which is the organ of the sixth sense (an organ he earlier denied  exists in On the Soul), or the common sense.  This pneumatic theory was further developed by Aristotle’s disciples, then by the Stoics, and eventually made its way into Renaissance psychology.

In his 1984 study of Renaissance phantasmic pneuma, Eros and Magic, Ioan Couliano surveys the problem of pneumatic infection through the eyes.  On the one hand, this takes the form of the evil eye, in which a diseased eye or an eye filled with malice can infect a person through the sensory organ and pneuma, thus taking over the sensus communis and causing a wasting away of the infected victim.  On the other, it takes the form of romantic infatuation, in which the beloved’s image takes over the lover’s soul and, when the love is unrequited, causes a similar wasting away of the victim. This erotic phenomenon led the poet Giacomo da Lentino to ask, “How can it be that so large a woman has been able to penetate my eyes, which are so small, and then enter my heart and my brain?”  Following the Platonic theory of ingneous optical rays, French poets identified this with fleches d’amour, an image which still persists in modern culture, though out of context, as Cupid’s arrows.  In its proper context, we can better understand Leonardo da Vinci’s observation “that the eyes of virgins have the power to attract the love of men.”

Circulating through the same pneumatic passage in which contagion of the blood is spread are images that, in the mirror of common sense, are changed into phantasms.  When Eros is at work, the phantasm of the loved object leads its own existence, all the more disquieting because it exerts a kind of vampirism on the subject’s other phantasms and throughts.  It is a morbid distension of its activity which, in its results, can be called both concentration and possession: concentration because the subject’s entire inner life is reduced to contemplation of one phantasm only; possession, because this phantasmic monopoly is involuntary and its collateral influence over the subject’s psychosomatic condition is highly deleterious.

— Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, tr. Margaret Cook

All the foregoing has assumed that the affinity between eyes and souls is a cultural artifact.  An alternative case can be made that the cultural function of the eyes is actually a side-effect of how we see the world.  Studies of the brain indicate that the interpretation of other people’s emotional states tend to concentrate on the eyes, and a great deal of our brain capacity is devoted to this particular task.  The amygdala, a part of the brain connected to the visual cortex and responsible for regulating fear reactions, has been shown to respond more strongly to larger (fearful) eye whites than to smaller (happy) eye whites. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Arthur Arun, a New York psychiatrist, has performed experiments demonstrating that simply encouraging people to stare into each other’s eyes for a length of time can instill feelings of attraction. 

The proverb the eyes are the windows to the soul may mask a physicalist truth, that the eyes are not a metaphor for the soul, but rather the soul is a metaphor for the eyes.  In the eyes we see the essence of another person: their emotions which over time become a model of our expectations of how they will respond to us.  The eyes are a touchstone allowing us to project thoughts and beliefs upon other people.  We introspect to triangulate our beliefs, eye expressions, and emotions, and from this matrix try to determine if another person responds as we would, or as we would like.  We look to the eyes to determine a person’s depth of emotion, and consequently their depth of spirit.  And when those eyes are empty, there is no longer anything present to project upon or interpret.


As no part, if it participate not in soul, will be a part except in an equivocal sense (as the eye of a dead man is still called an ‘eye’), so no soul will exist in anything except that of which it is soul….

On the Generation of Animals, tr. Arthur Platt

Of Zombies (Part I)

Asking the question “What is a zombie?” raises methodological issues which must be addressed before any attempt to answer the question may proceed.  For instance, it must be determined what kind of zombie we are trying to define: voodoo zombies, movie zombies, philosophical zombies, some other kind of thing called a “zombie”.  We might also want to arrive at a definition that covers all these various sorts of zombie.  Additionally, we need to concern ourselves with how we should go about determining what a zombie is.  We might follow a natural language philosophy, in which case we would replace the question “What is a zombie?” with the semantic question “What do we mean when we say zombie?”  We might, on the contrary, decide that we want to determine the deep meaning of the phenomenon of zombies, in which case we replace “What is a zombie” with the structuralist question “What is the cultural function of the zombie?”  Both of these questions have empirical, hence verifiable, procedures for persuing their respective questions.  We might also pursue a non-verifiable manner of determining what a zombie is.  To find out what a movie zombie is, we might ask George A. Romero what he intended his zombies to be.  We might also take the tack that the author is unreliable in matters such as this, and so a true revelation of the deep meaning of zombies would require that we ask anyone but the auteur what zombies represent. 

One tendency in evaluations of the undead is to discover a political meaning in the zombie phenomenon.  In doing so, the intent isn’t simply to show that there is a political dimension to zombies, but rather that the political exhausts all the deep meaning inherent in zombies.  For a survey of the political analyses of zombie-hood, see Reason Magazine‘s survey of zombie literature, which covers interpretations of zombies as alienated labor, Vietnam vets, white supremists, consumer culture, and a few more.  This follows a tendency in certain circles to see all deep meaning as ultimately political.

David Chalmers goes in a different direction with his discussion of philosophical zombies.  Chalmers makes clear that he is not trying to reinterpret the phenomenon of zombies, but rather is merely appropriating the language of zombies to describe something technically different.  Thus, while there may be overlaps between philosophical zombies, movie zombies and voodoo zombies, these are not necessarily relevant to the study of zombies that he is pursuing.  Which to some extent is unfortunate, since the relationship between philosophical zombies and political zombies is a rich one.  There is an apparent connection between zombies as a manifestation of alientated labor, zombies as a manifestation of aliented man, and zombies as beings without interior lives.

Zombies can be defined provisionally as empty vessels into which any sort of meaning may be poured.  This is what Descartes does in the Meditations to resolve the problem of other minds which he initially poses.  Early in this work, Descartes wonders how he can know that the people around him are indeed real people rather than automata, devices created to emulate human behavior but which have no being other than that of a seeming-nature.  Only after proving his own existence, which serves as a ground from which to prove the existence of God, is he able to return to the original problem and declare that other persons most likely do have an interior life like his because they outwardly behave as he does, and that God would not create a world in which an appearance such as this is not accompanied by a similar reality.  God is not a deceiver.

God has been pronounced dead in the intervening years, and so we are left with various problems we once thought resolved.  The notion of a natural political order upon which democracies such as the United States were founded have fallen aside in His wake.  Without a ready repository of pre-determined meanings founded on religion, modern man is left unmoored and in search for relevance.  Once apparently settled by Descartes, the problem of other minds rises from the dead to trouble us once more, and the attempt to unravel the meaning of the Zombie is entangled with the attempt to unravel the meaning of our own existence.

Concerning Facts

In the early chapters of A Study In Scarlet, John H. Watson observes of his friend Sherlock Holmes:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.  Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing.  Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done.  My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.  That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could harldly realize it.

There is a similar strain of incredulity, both within the United States as well as without, when it is observed that a vast number of Americans claim they do not believe in Evolution.  It is a source of such consternation that the beliefs of presidential candidates on this matter are speculated upon and discussed as a sort of key that will reveal the secret heart of these men and women.  Are people who do not believe in Evolution simply of lower intellectual abilities than the rest of us?  Or is it rather that the decision not to believe is an indication of other values, tied together in a web of beliefs, that hinge on certain characteristics which make these people ultimately alien in their thought patterns, radically other in their perception of reality?  Do these people pose a threat to the homogeneity of world view that we take for granted in public discourse?

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise.  “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like alittle empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be ueful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other tings, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it…. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

If they deny one fact, what else might they deny?  If they hold this set of beliefs, what else might they cleave to?  As a Scientific American article put it,

“Embarrassingly, in the 21st century, in the most scientifically advanced nation the world has ever known, creationists can still persuade politicians, judges and ordinary citizens that evolution is a flawed, poorly supported fantasy. They lobby for creationist ideas such as “intelligent design” to be taught as alternatives to evolution in science classrooms.

“In addition to the theory of evolution, meaning the idea of descent with modification, one may also speak of the fact of evolution.  The NAS defines a fact as “an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as true …. All sciences frequently rely on indirect evidence. Physicists cannot see subatomic particles directly, for instance, so they verify their existence by watching for telltale tracks that the particles leave in cloud chambers. The absence of direct observation does not make physicists’ conclusions less certain.”

The atheism entry on About.com puts it more baldly:

“Evolutionary theory is the organizing principle for all modern biology – denial of it is like denying relativity in modern physics. The fact of evolution — the fact that allele frequencies change in populations over time — is as undeniable as are the actions of gravity or continental shifts. Despite this, only a third of Americans actually think that evolution is supported by the evidence…. People who don’t “accept” evolution are guilty of very unfortunate ignorance, but it’s probably an understandable ignorance. I wouldn’t be surprised if people were similarly ignorant of other aspects of science. It’s a sign of the great scientific illiteracy of American culture.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue marks this conflation of theory and facts (evolution is a fact, but it is also a theory) as a product of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Empiricism is based on the notion that what we see is what there actually is.  It depends on the belief (or is it fact?) that our experiences are reliable.  Natural science, on the other hand, depends on tools of measurement as the arbiter of what is real.  The telescope tells us more than our unreliable eyes can. 

“…[I]n the measurement of temperature the effect of heat on spirits of alcohol or mercury is given priority over the effect of heat on sunburnt skin or parched throats.”

Just as theory is dependent upon measurement to verify it, so measurement is dependent on theory to justify it.  We require a theory of how heat affects mercury in order to be able to rely on our thermometer.  Yet this is so far from the notions of common sense and perception which undergird empiricism.

“There is indeed therefore something extraordinary in the coexistence of empiricism and natural science in the same culture, for they represent radically different and incompatible ways of approaching the world.  But in the eighteenth century both could be incorporated and expressed within one and the same world-view.  It follows that that world-view is at its best radically incoherent….”

Out of this notion of the fact, as something both self-evident and obscure at the same time, Max Weber formulated the opposition central to his theorizing, and still central to the modern world view: the fact-value distinction.  Just as a fact has a dual nature, a value also has an inherent ambiguity. It is both a choice as well as something imposed upon us by society.  In its second form, it is something that can be studied by the social sciences, and consequently can be analyzed to some degree as a fact.  In the first form, it is radically subjective, and as indeterminate as the swerve of Lucretius.

The matter can be framed as something even stranger than that.  In existentialist terms, the choice is something we are always obliged to make, so that the notion of a “factual” value is ultimately false, or worse, inauthentic.  From a scientific view point, on the other hand, choice is illusory, and merely a stand-in for facts we do not yet know.

It is these two terms, as vague as they are, that inform our public discourse.  On the one hand, facts are something we should all agree upon; the replacement of values for facts is considered an act of civil disobedience.  If we can’t agree on the facts, then what can we agree on?  On the other hand, we should not be driven by facts alone.  Is it enough to say that a market economy in the long run is the most efficient way to distribute goods?  What about social justice?  What about idealism?  What about values?

I was on the point of asking him what that work might be, but something in his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one. I pondered over our short conversation, however, and endeavoured to draw my deductions from it. He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him.

It is the state-of-mind of Evolution-deniers I find most fascinating.  The more I think about them, the more I long to be one.  They hold a strange position that while they want to leave room in public science education for the creationism — hence the insistence on the public avowal that evolution is “only a theory” — they appear to have no desire to actually displace the teaching of evolutionary biology.  Perhaps this is merely strategic, a camel’s nose under the tent. 

But what if we take them at their word?  In that case, they want to find a way to make the fact of evolution and the value of creationism exist side-by-side.  They want to take nothing away from evolution to the extent that it is a practical tool that provides technology for them and extends their lives, but they also want to take nothing away from faith to the extent that it provides a reason to live and a way to go about it.  It is a world-view only possible with the construction of the fact-value distinction.  It is a beautiful attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, and to make possible a plurality of beliefs that should not co-exist.  Still, it is a world-view that is at its best radically incoherent. 

“I don’t like to talk much with people who always agree with me. It is amusing to coquette with an echo for a little while, but one soon tires of it.”

— Thomas Carlyle