Why do we value successful art works, symphonies, and good bottles of wine? One answer is that they give us an experience that lesser works or merely useful objects cannot provide—an aesthetic experience. But what is an aesthetic experience and how does it differ from an ordinary experience? This is an especially difficult issue with regard to wine. We drink wine for many reasons and in many contexts. Only sometimes does it produce an aesthetic experience. I try to show what is distinctive about aesthetic experience in this month’s Three Quarks Daily post.
Philosophers are not noted for their revelry. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen “philosopher” and “party animal” used in the same sentence. But there are exceptions. According to Skye Cleary, the French existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were the life of the party.
Existentialism has a reputation for being angst-ridden and gloomy mostly because of its emphasis on pondering the meaninglessness of existence, but two of the best-known existentialists knew how to have fun in the face of absurdity. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre spent a lot of time partying: talking, drinking, dancing, laughing, loving and listening to music with friends, and this was an aspect of their philosophical stance on life. They weren’t just philosophers who happened to enjoy parties, either – the parties were an expression of their philosophy of seizing life, and for them there were authentic and inauthentic ways to do this.
What, you might be wondering, is an authentic way to party?
De Beauvoir wrote of her wartime parties in occupied Paris: they saved up food stamps and then binged on food, fun and alcohol. They danced, sang, played music and improvised. The artist Dora Maar mimed bullfights, Sartre mimed orchestra-conducting in a cupboard, and Albert Camus banged on saucepan lids as if in a marching band…
Sounds like a barrel of laughs, but with the threat of Nazis banging down your door, any sort of laughter is an act of rebellion. But apparently not all their parties were so tame:
For de Beauvoir, there’s nothing philosophically wrong with having orgies, it’s the same as with any other aspect of life: it matters how you approach the situation. If a person, she wrote, ‘brings his entire self to every situation, there can be no such thing as a “base occasion”’. And it’s true that de Beauvoir and Sartre had many lovers, but casual sex wasn’t part of their repertoire. They thought that promiscuity was a trivial use of freedom and, instead, wanted intense love affairs and friendships.
That sounds like a lot of work for a lot of heartache; casual sex has its virtues. And then we find out what fueled the fun:
Both de Beauvoir and Sartre spent their rich lives embracing new undertakings, but took their whiskey and vodka bottles with them. This led to serious health problems, including cirrhosis, but they never regretted their partying or drinking, and by their own philosophy, there is no reason they should have done. They chose it freely, did it on their own terms, and took responsibility for the consequences. That’s what partying like an existentialist is all about.
Sartre liked his mescaline too, and they both used amphetamines. Brown liquor, clear liquor and “speed”—that’s a lethal combination.
For de Beauvoir in particular, philosophy was to be lived vivaciously, and partying was bound up with her urge to live fully and freely, not to hold herself back from all that life had to offer. She wrote that sometimes she does ‘everything a little too crazily … But that is my way. I have rather not to do the things at all as doing them mildly.’
I’ve always been suspicious of this view that to get the most out of life you have take every activity toward its extreme.
Wine drinkers think differently about these matters; we’re more Aristotelean, everything in moderation. If they had been wine drinkers perhaps neither they nor existentialism would have burned themselves out.
This is a bit of a detour from the wine and food topics on which I usually write. But it is an important issue that concerns the credibility of science. The credibility of science and expertise in general are now coming under constant attack. Yet no advanced technological society can survive for long without a science that is both accurate and is believed to be accurate by the public that depends on it. Attacks on science threaten the very foundation of modern societies. Yet the skepticism about science is not coming only from opportunistic politicians or whack-job nut cases. There is good reason to be skeptical of our scientific institutions and how they function because of the replication crisis that is beginning to effect all scientific disciplines.
The “replication crisis” refers to the fact that an increasingly large number of studies is the sciences and the social sciences can’t be replicated. When independent researchers try to repeat a study they come up with vastly different results that contradict the results of the original study. As Aubrey Clayton notes in a very useful article in Nautilus:
An analysis of preclinical cancer studies found that only 11 percent of results replicated; of 21 experiments in social science published in the journals Science and Nature, only 13 (62 percent) survived replication; in economics, a study of 18 frequently cited results found 11 (61 percent) that replicated; and an estimate for preclinical pharmacology trials is that only 50 percent of the positive results are reproducible, a situation that, given the immense size of the pharma industry, has been estimated to cost labs something like $28 billion per year in the U.S. alone.
This is not good. Clayton’s article is important because he explains why there is a replication crisis—it has to do with a long simmering debate in statistical analysis. I’m no expert in statistics but I will try to give a clear summary of what this debate is about—the fate of civilization may depend on it. Clayton uses several examples; I will focus on one of them.
Suppose an otherwise healthy woman in her forties notices a suspicious lump in her breast and goes in for a mammogram. The report comes back that the lump is malignant. She wants to know the chance of the diagnosis being wrong. Her doctor answers that, as diagnostic tools go, these scans are very accurate. Such a scan would find nearly 100 percent of true cancers and would only misidentify a benign lump as cancer about 5 percent of the time. Therefore, the probability of this being a false positive is very low, about 1 in 20.
This is an approach to statistics that uses significance testing to determine the validity of a study.
Suppose we scan 1 million similar women, and we tell everyone who tests positive that they have cancer. Then, among those who actually have cancer, we will be correct every single time. And among those who don’t have it, we will be only be incorrect 5 percent of the time. So, overall our procedure will be incorrect less than 5 percent of the time.
The claim about validity is based on how often a patient would test positive if the condition were absent. In other words the likelihood that there is no correlation between the lump and malignancy is less than 5%, meaning the result is statistically significant.
But as Clayton notes there is a problem here. The study doesn’t take into account the background rate of cancer among women with a suspicious lump.
For the breast cancer example, the doctor would need to consider the overall incidence rate of cancer among similar women with similar symptoms, not including the result of the mammogram. Maybe a physician would say from experience that about 99 percent of the time a similar patient finds a lump it turns out to be benign. So the low prior chance of a malignant tumor would balance the low chance of getting a false positive scan result. Here we would weigh the numbers:
(0.05) * (0.99) vs. (1) * (0.01)
We’d find there was about an 83 percent chance the patient doesn’t have cancer.
According to this analysis the woman in the example was likely misdiagnosed. The replication crisis is happening because many studies are finding a relationship between phenomena that does not exist. Thus, researches fail to duplicate it.
The problem according Clayton is that we should be including in our calculations, the prior probability of a theory before making an observation to test the theory. This is called Bayesian probability theory—it has been around for decades but has not been widely accepted.
Why hasn’t it been widely accepted?
The main reason scientists have historically been resistant to using Bayesian inference instead is that they are afraid of being accused of subjectivity. The prior probabilities required for Bayes’ rule feel like an unseemly breach of scientific ethics. Where do these priors come from? How can we allow personal judgment to pollute our scientific inferences, instead of letting the data speak for itself?
For Baysians, we have to assign a probability before making the observations and then we allow the observations to influence the initial probability estimate. But that initial assignment is only going to be an educated guess—like the physician’s judgment above based on her experience that most lumps are benign. Might such an all encompassing fear of subjectivity be irrational?
This may have a happy ending. As Clayton notes:
Medical students are now routinely taught the diagnostic importance of base incidence rates. Bayes’ theorem helps them properly contextualize test results and avoid unnecessarily alarming patients who test positive for something rare.
Thankfully, science when done honestly is a self-correcting practice, and now that the replication crisis is well known scientists are responding by taking a harder look at statistical relationships that seem implausible. But an awful lot of bad science has already entered the mainstream giving aide and comfort to charlatans, quacks, and opportunistic politicians who would love to ignore inconvenient facts. I hope the self-correction is not too late.
I had this thought while strolling through the wonderful Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island a few weeks ago. Imagine a world in which all we see is color transforming space into an entirely abstract form with no pathways, no lines, no boundaries, no objects. In other words, a world with nothing to do. A sea of color has an inchoate enveloping power charged with the potency of a genetic eruption, the plenitude of life, yet detached from any antecedently-existing world—an experience both cerebral and ravishing.
Savoring a great wine with eyes closed tuning out that pre-existing world, has much the same effect, a phantasmagoria of swirling sensation requiring nothing of us but attention.
Our brains don’t handle such experiences well. We always slip back into that extant world. To linger too long would be frightening, psychotic.
But experiences such as strolling through gardens or savoring wine creates a fissure in our ordinary lives, an intimation of something inexhaustible, a world of pure sensation resting on life’s endless fertility.
We need a new brain to fully appreciate it.
Today we pulled into Seattle to do some wine tasting. Instead I’m sitting at home with burning eyes and scratchy throat researching N95 particle respirators. There are fires to the east in the Cascades, and fires to the north in British Columbia. Even Vancouver Island is ablaze. Hot temperatures, high pressure and wind blowing from the east funnel that smoke into the Seattle area. Yesterday, planes were grounded because of low visibility.
Last year the issue of how to get rid of smoke taint emerged as an important topic among winemakers, especially after the Napa/Sonoma fires at the end of harvest. This year its importance has skyrocketed since pre-harvest smoke might effect all the grapes in an exposed area. And it is hard to find an area of the West that isn’t exposed to smoke this year. The consensus so far is that there is no way to get rid of unpleasant smoke and ash flavors without stripping the wine of other flavor components as well.
Of course the greatest tragedies are the lost lives and property. Given the past few summers, it looks like wildfires and smoke damage are now permanent features of life in the West as well as life in the wine business.
And of course we know what is stoking these fires and making them larger and more destructive. Anyone who thinks climate change has nothing to do with it is simply a fool.
2500 years ago, the Ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, argued that it is rationality that distinguishes human beings from the rest of the plant and animal kingdom, which launched philosophy on its quest to find the rational core in most human practices. Our generation has the distinction of proving Aristotle wrong. It’s not rationality that distinguishes us; it is the capacity for self-destruction.
What would philosophy and indeed civilization be like today if, 2500 years ago, the Ancient Greeks had identified the capacity for self destruction as our distinguishing characteristic?
We have returned home after a month exploring the wine regions of Northern Italy, a month of glorious food and wine, charming landscapes, and warm hospitality–plus 1 cancelled flight, a vicious cold virus that had us dragging for days and the constant grind of figuring out how things work in an unfamiliar place. (Apparently becoming Italian means learning to tailgate at 130 kph.)
The return home after such a trip is never really a return. We change as we travel, in ways that are often not apparent, and at home, in our absence, life moves on, proof that we are all replaceable. Homecoming is more like recalibration than a return.
This sense of recalibration was enhanced by a decision I made on the flight to Europe to forgo writing for the duration of the trip. For me, not writing is like not living, the first thing I think about in the morning and the last before falling asleep. But recently I have been craving release from this compulsion, wondering what it would be like to be free of the need to explain, describe or justify.
Alas, all liberations are temporary. The allure of home just is the allure of old habits re-asserting themselves, new forms of enchainment in the guise of familiarity.
The feeling of being drawn back in, the past as tractor-beam, is one of the pleasures of home.
Bogle is one of the most consistent large producers, excelling at making varietally-correct, affordable wines. They are one of the few budget producers who use real oak barrels rather than oak substitutes to age their wines. But they gained their reputation with Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon, not Pinot Noir. Yet even this notoriously difficult grape, seldom an aesthetic success in the lower price range, comes off well.
Exuberant cherry, smoke, cinnamon and tobacco leaf aromas give the nose some interest and complexity. The palate is simple and glossy lacking the suppleness and nuance of more expensive wines. But fresh fruit, bright, lifted acidity and very fine tannins that maintain a subtle, supporting presence give the wine plenty of structure and a medium length finish. Nothing to blow you away or turn you away, a good, middle-of-the-road, everyday food wine that will pair with just about any dish—at a very good price for Pinot Noir.
Technical Notes: 11 months in French and American Oak, fruit from Russian River Valley, Monterey, and Clarksburg.
Price: $11 (widely available or purchase from the winery)
The Kings of Convenience “Love Is No Big Truth” brings quiet, cheerful good taste to this quiet, cheerful, good tasting wine.
Food and wine have not been taken seriously as forms of art throughout history in part because of the belief that vision and hearing are the only senses that lend themselves to the intellectual explorations we associate with art. This ideology, called the “sense hierarchy”, and masterfully traced by Carolyn Korsmeyer in Making Sense of Taste, treats taste and smell as thoroughly functional sources of brute pleasure, too primitive and instinctual to be worthy of genuine aesthetic discrimination.
This ideology is ancient. 2500 years ago, Plato argued that vision and sound give us information about the world that engages the intellect, while tastes and smells only encourage the appetite which he likened to a ravenous beast that overcomes our rational faculties. (I suppose Plato can be forgiven for not knowing about the porn industry or trivial pop melodies that suck you in each time you hear them.)
…the gods made what is called the lower belly, to be a receptacle for the superfluous meat and drink and formed the convolution of the bowels, so that the food might be prevented from passing quickly through and compelling the body to require more food, thus producing insatiable gluttony and making the whole race an enemy to philosophy and culture, and rebellious against the divinest element within us.
One wonders what was in Plato’s kitchen that threatened to sap his self-control. But Plato’s assertion rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of how appetite works. Appetite has its own internal control mechanisms.
This point was brought home to me as I read Jay Rayner’s book The Man Who Ate the World. Rayner, a British food critic, often on the judges’ panel for Top Chef, set out on a worldwide quest to discover the perfect meal. With perfection being an impossible standard, his quest involves more disappointments than successes. But the penultimate failures could be attributed to the fact that his ambling about the world was avoiding the one place where such perfection is alleged to be routine—Paris, where he endeavors to eat 7 meals in 7 days at the finest restaurants.
The regrets begin on Day Two, and by Day Six:
Oh, god, I don’t know. Another Parisian three-star. Doormen in peaked caps.Claw-foot chairs. Side tables for the ladies to put their handbags on. The food was standard three-star stuff: langoustines on sticks wrapped in sea-water foam, beetroot meringues, yeast ice cream decorated with silver leaf. You know the score by now.
Rayner’s weary lamentation shows that appetite is not quite a ravenous, insatiable beast. It’s not that the food wasn’t good. Most of it met his expectations. But the adage “too much of a good thing” applies even to the finest cuisine. In the absence of compulsive disorders, pleasures aim at their own extinction. (There is probably an evolutionary explanation for this. Organisms that are never satisfied will ignore everything else to their obvious detriment)
Many philosophers have noticed this tendency of pleasures to be satiated but argue that the desire for pleasure always returns in a never ending cycle of debilitating craving. But, again, Rayner’s experience shows that this is not necessarily the case.
But the wonderful thing about perfection is that it is, of course,unobtainable. That didn’t stop me searching for it. That hasn’t stopped me wondering about it. All I need is the appetite. There is only one problem. I’m no longer sure I have one.
Having experienced the best cuisine in the world, the post-quest prospect of the many failed meals that await the restaurant critic no longer appeals to him. Once one develops aesthetic standards and acquires an ability to discriminate, fewer pleasures seem attractive. Critical awareness enhances self-control. The motivation to seek pleasure can be tamed by the very intellect that Plato thought would be overwhelmed.
There is no reason to think there is something peculiarly “brute” or instinctual about taste—it can be refined and disciplined just like any other sensation.
From the Archives
One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters; that’s our one imperative need. So as not to feel Time’s horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows you down, you must get drunk without ceasing.
But what with? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.
Perhaps we should assess our lives according to how conducive they are to drunkeness, to the loss of a sense of time passing. How many pregnant moments are available to us where every blade of grass or drop of water is a source of such hyperbolic fascination that time flows without measure?
The authorities would surely be opposed, which is why few think of this as the paradigm of a good life. Why do we listen to them?