Exploring the shadows in Plato’s Cave: ‘Tricks of Light’ by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Detail from the book cover of Tricks of Light. Hands cast shadow rabbits over the face of a real fox.

How do we know what we know? When will we be sure? Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Tricks of Light (2020) explores these questions in poetry.

There are a number of themes in this book, which contains over 80 poems. One theme is human connection. Rutkowski admits to not having many social needs, though he finds it important to keep friendships alive so they don’t dissolve into memories (“Drifting Apart”). He describes becoming an empty nester and having no need to fill the space with a pet (“Empty Nest”) and of sometimes wanting to get away from even himself (“Being Alone”). He leans into the subtle distinction of accepting a hug or reciprocating it (“Personal Space”). An animal, too, he notes, reacts to the way it is held (“Holding the Chicken”).

Some poems describe a sense of otherness, as when he is asked if his dental work was done in another country (“Foreign Fillings”), or no one has heard of his small hometown (“Where I’m From”), or other people of color don’t seem to accept him (“Nothing in Common”), or he’s asked to perform a domestic task on the Jewish Sabbath (“God Will See”). In our lives, more generally, we encounter so many situations in which the conflicting expectations of two people are juxtaposed, and this type of situation, too, is brought up. Who’s encroached on whose lane: the motorist or the bicyclist (“Close Call”)? Who’s suffering culture shock: the tourists or the locals (“In the Valley”)? For that matter, how do we even know when we are inhabiting our own words and not merely someone else’s interpretation of them (“Owning My Speech”), especially when a word like “afraid” cannot encompass everything we feel (“Compulsion”)?

Loss is a common theme in literature. Words, after all, are shortcuts to recall what we’ve once known. But loss is even more primal than language, as even a turtle wordlessly remembers her eggs that were taken (“Brief Life”). Almost anything can remind us of a loss, big or small. When we break a glass, we are upset not so much about the glass but about being reminded of something else that has broken (“Glass and Tears”); similarly, the name “mourning dove” is assigned because the bird’s call is a sad sound to our ears, though the bird itself is not sad (“Farmers and Dove”). Such illusory losses can be confusing, and we may have to wait for an answer. Like fishermen, often we don’t know whether we have caught something or nothing at the end of our lines (“Man Fishing”).

Tricks of Light includes musings on money. Rutkowski keeps track of his own pennies and spends them on candy, yet he won’t bend to pick up a penny, an act that somehow feels different to him (“Pennies”). He is willing to give away money, but he recognizes that someone must first give him money before he can pass it on to someone else, as money flows in a circuit (“When Will I Get Something to Give?”).

And, yes, there are mysteries and tricks: of sound (“Seal Sounds,” “Noise to My Ears,” “Beef Brisket”), of light (“The Speck,” “Lights in Darkness,” “Moon and Airplane”), and of velocity (“View from a Bridge”). Sometimes we simply do not know whether we are looking at a snail or a wad of gum until we lean in closer (“Mimicry”). This kind of sensory illusion gives the book its title. But the idea of “tricks of light” is also, I think, a more general commentary on knowledge. A great deal of what we think we know, whether from direct experience or otherwise, is illusion—shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave.

‘Agnotology’: The study of ignorance

Prof. Robert Proctor, who teaches History of Science at Stanford University, is the co-editor of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. He coined this term for “the study of ignorance.” On July 8, 2020, he was a guest on Alie Ward’s “Ologies” podcast (episode: 1 hour, 8 minutes).

“Ologies with Alie Ward” podcast, July 8, 2020 episode with Robert Proctor.

In this interview, Proctor explains: We begin in ignorance when we are born. Then—because human eyes are focused, and for any number of other reasons—“we ignore almost everything. We have the focus of a predator and not the eternal watchfulness of prey.” Most of what we do notice, we must forget; that is the only way we can absorb and remember the most important information. And some kinds of ignorance are “virtuous” in their intent—for example, when a person means to protect privacy or maintain neutrality in an appropriate situation—while, by contrast, people have often practiced willful ignorance regarding the causes and effects of forms of social oppression including racism and sexism.

Outright brainwashing is one way to foster ignorance, but “misdirection campaigns” are more “subtle” and “clever” strategies to manipulate others’ thought. Big Tobacco, for example, “knew that cigarettes cause cancer,” Proctor says. “And their whole goal was to create ignorance, to stave off people learning the truth, by creating doubt, by throwing up a smokescreen, by throwing sand in the gears. And they were able to instrumentalize science by doing that. By funding genetics, by funding the study of viruses, they created all these blind alleys and false etiologies” to deflect from the fact that certain diseases were really caused by tobacco. Through trade groups, such industry agendas coordinate to become “engines of uncertainty, engines of ignorance.” Proctor studies “how science itself can become corrupted.”

“I think we live in the Golden Age of Ignorance,” he said. “Ignorance spreads at the speed of light now, and—with the rise of conspiracy theories, with the rise of denial campaigns, with the siloing of people into reinforcing ‘like’ communities through Facebook or whatever—it’s easy to find self-reinforcing bubble worlds, and that’s a huge problem.” He continued: “That democratization has also been a kind of a dumbing-down. I think a lot of media is very easy to circulate. If everyone can pop off anything they want on Twitter, and that’s all you read—there’s no quality control there.”

Proctor cited the “commercialization” and politicization of Christianity as a problem, as well as its theological exclusivity (especially in the United States, where it is uncommon—as contrasted with India—for people to claim multiple religious identities). This exclusivity limits people from examining and choosing what might be good from other religions.

“We’re going to have to rethink our metaphors,” he said, regarding how we can persuade people away from science-denialism having to do with, for example, climate change. “We’ve got to think much more creatively about how to bond people in the stories we tell—the allegories—the stories we tell about why we need to act differently from how we’ve acted in the past.”

Empathy allows us to see that much ignorance is driven by fear. To begin addressing situations in which people are acting fearfully, Proctor recommends that we take a step back and ask: “What is at stake? Who benefits? What are the alternatives?”

On Certainty

From the Santa Barbara Free Press
Lex.jpg
(1922-2015)
Rev. Dr. John Alexie “Lex” Crane died on August 7, 2015 at the age of 93. Lex was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 14, 1922 to John A. and Minnie E. Crane. He graduated from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1939, and served in the U.S. army in the South Pacific and Europe from 1942 to 1945. He was severely wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. He went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1949 and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing in 1950 from Johns Hopkins University; a Master of Divinity from Starr King School for the Ministry in 1951; and a Master of Arts in Social Psychology from the University of California in 1971. . . .

Lex was a good friend. Below is a link to one of his papers.

Certainty as Demonic in Religion, Science, and Society

by Lex Crane

Certainty is easily accessible

and is

impossible to achieve.

This paradoxical circumstance has nurtured demonic forces in human life, which, in turn, have found expression in violence, destruction, and death on a massive scale. The forces are within us and in our institutions. They must be transcended if we are to ensure the survival of our own species, as well as that of countless others.

Easily accessible certainty is rooted in need; the unreachable is based on knowledge of reallity. Thus there is subjective certainty on one hand; and objective cer-tainty on the other. Since subjective certainty emerges in response to need, it is always available in the amount required. (Wheelis 81) The deeper the need, the more intense the certainty that develops. All humans have a need for some degree of certainty in order to feel secure in a contingent existence.

 Read the paper here: Certainty

The Blessings of Doubt?

“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that ain’t so” – Will Rogers

seed
Anecdote a)
In my first year at VIU I was a psychology student taking the required statistics class taught by Kim Iles. Kim was an engaging teacher, that much I knew, but the subject, like most things mathematical in nature, never clicked. Unfortunately for me, Kim was the type to pick people in class whether their hands were raised or not, just to check if they were listening. When they got it right, he might toss them a little chocolate bar. When they were bullshitting or guessing, they suffered an acute public shaming. It was always one or the other. I knew I was not even close to sweet chocolaty understanding, so each time he scanned the room I sunk in my seat and looked away. Bless the guy, he usually spared me. But one day my time came and indeed I couldn’t make an educated enough guess to show an even faint grasp. I gave the only answer I knew: “I don’t know”. He threw me a full-sized Snickers bar and said “Good answer.” I rejoiced.

I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic until he gave us a brief aside on how IDK is always a good answer to any question you genuinely don’t know, how so many problems in the world are attributed to people pretending they know something they don’t. This is the lesson that stuck with me most in that class, which I ended up technically failing (but given the minimally passing grade anyway on account of being smart in “other ways”). The next year I found philosophy, the only place not knowing seemed to work.

Anecdote b) I later had a boyfriend who was a devout Christian. I was so in love but couldn’t reconcile his faith. “If you don’t believe in anything then you’ll never move forward” he’d say. “I’d rather be suspended in doubt than deluded” I’d say back. Our fundamental issue was not so much whether God exists, but the irreconcilable difference of me believing the assumption of doubt is healthy and that beliefs should be true, and him believing that doubt is paralyzing and beliefs should make you feel good.

Anecdote c) My latest ex, a politically opinionated atheist, accused me of being too dogmatic with my belief in doubt. He wanted me to take a side on issues. I’d rather not pretend I know something about which I only have or can only have partial knowledge. He’d rather fill in the gaps with whatever logical fallacies he can get away with. I’d rather not, and I’d rather he not.

I know that doubt is a virtue. When we doubt our mind is open to other possibilities which are more likely to be correct. I know that when I am feeling insecure or not comfortable about being unsure, I’ll make more assumptions and thus an ass out of myself. I know that being caught in false claims of knowledge makes us less credible to our peers over time and that being around know-it-alls is fucking exhausting. I am pretty sure I’d rather be in doubt than be wrong and find out later, or even be living a blissfully ignorant but less optimal timeline.

But only one out of these three examples led to a happy ending. So, to what extent is doubt a virtue? About what sorts of things?  Am I denying myself happiness or progress by trapping myself in suspended disbelief about things that I can never know anyway? Are there certain situations where faking it until you make it, or believing for the sake of it, is the way to go?

I just don’t know.


Descartes