If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.
Philosophy is where you find it.
The Story Of Three Umpires
There’s an urban legend around the American sport of baseball that has not only to do with perception and subjectivity, but about the very nature of reality itself.
It goes back at least a century. It is known as the story or joke about three umpires, and it describes a conversation between three referees and how they judge actions in the game of baseball.
The first umpire says: “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ’em like they is.”
The second umpire says: “No, there’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ’em like I see ’em.”
The third umpire says: “There’s balls and there’s strikes, but they ain’t nothin’ until I call ‘em.”
Baseball, to its ardent fans, is a surprisingly philosophical sport. Perhaps since games unfold at a leisurely 19th century pace there is plenty of time to think.
The aforementioned three umpires have starkly contrasting views of the nature of reality embedded in their pithy statements about their refereeing policies.
A Philosophy Of External Immutable Reality
The first umpire ascribes to the philosophy that there is an external immutable reality that has no particular relationship to the person perceiving it. Moreover, they are convinced that they have perfect access to this reality and merely have to report back this objective truth to the observers of the game.
In a world like the first umpire’s world, is there any place for art?
Wouldn’t all artists create the exact same art because they are reporting back a singular external truth?
But since all the artists are not the same, the art would vary, but it could still be objectively compared against a universally agreed upon reality and judged upon this basis.
This way of thinking places the emphasis on technical mastery, such as Audubon’s paintings of birds that are intended to help naturalists identify them in the wild. They’re beautiful because they are impeccably rendered and executed and constitute an impressive body of work.
A Philosophy Of Participatory Reality & The Space Of Subjectivity
The second umpire cracks the door open to a participatory reality. This umpire acknowledges that s/he lives in an imperfect world that is constrained and limited by her perceptions.
We talked about this in the blog post about Plato’s Cave and an art opening in Carmel where the lights went out because a tree fell in the forest, even though we didn’t hear it.
To reiterate, there is an objective reality but we only have access to bits and pieces of it. We have to use the power of contemplation to infer the existence of the higher truth from the flickering shadows that we are able to observe directly because of the limitations of our senses.
The second umpire has only one point of view and is not omniscient, and therefore acknowledges and tries to account for that limitation and does not claim to report the Truth.
The second umpire’s world has space for subjectivity, and therefore more room for art.
Even though there is agreement that there is an external ground truth, there is no law that says how one should access or infer this truth.
There are many paths to the mountaintop of enlightenment, but everyone agrees that there is a mountaintop destination where the paths converge.
This kind of art celebrates the point of view – a certain time of day, reflections on water, a certain mood. I think of Claude Monet’s studies of Rouen Cathedral, over 30 paintings of the same object under different circumstances (times of day, different weather conditions).
Monet acknowledged, explored, and celebrated the subjectivity of perception in this series of paintings. Everyone who sees them knows that it’s a cathedral in general and some are aware that it’s the Rouen Cathedral in particular, but that’s not the point. If it were, one painting would do.
Monet was taking a constraint, The Rouen Cathedral, and exploring the reaches of his imagination in regards to that particular motif.
Working with a particular constraint is a powerful practice and we’ve explored this topic on the blog recently when we talked about Occam’s Razor and earlier when we explored the power of simplicity and constraint in art.
A Philosophy On The Nature Of Perception & Consciousness
But it’s the third umpire we want to focus our attention on.
By saying that actions aren’t anything until they’re “called”, s/he is getting at the nature of perception and consciousness.
Giving something a name creates an identity that was not there before.
It is a profound simplification that allows us to navigate the world. Much of what we do is automatic and unconscious. For example, if we had to think about each step we take as we walk, it would encumber us in profound ways.
Sadly, in certain neurological conditions where one loses sensation on the bottom of one’s feet, a loss of proprioception, we no longer have the automatic awareness of where we literally stand and we lose balance. In this case, you must think through each step you take because you no longer feel it in your body. This becomes a situation of mind over matter, requiring vigilance and concentration to be aware of each step, and it tends to be exhausting.
In a previous blog post, we discussed the nature of simplicity and constraint, and naming gets at this process. Some naming conventions are straightforward, such as classifying things that are heavy, hard, cold, and inorganic as rocks. Others are more diffuse and slippery, such as desire or danger.
We give sets of sensory inputs names, but once we’ve done so, they take on a life of their own and these things we have learned to recognize on our own or through others become the cast of characters in the play we write every day. They become the scripts of our lives.
This is a double-edged sword.
It performs an essential simplification that allows us to compress the wealth of sensory input we receive and navigate life and make decisions, but it can also exclude and crowd out other information that could be important and valuable.
Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.
Abstraction in art has deep underpinnings in how we perceive the world.
Abstract art belongs in the realm of the third umpire.
Abstract art is not referencing an agreed upon external reality like the first umpire (an accurate anatomical rendering of a bird) and often not even referencing a personally perceived objective reality like the second umpire (Rouen cathedral), but instead establishes that the process of perception and expression is a subject unto itself.
Abstract art does not depend on reproduction of an identifiable external reality to have meaning. It creates its own meaning out of its own components and the relationships between them.
This is why the concept of the adjacent possible is so important to the study of creativity.
Not only are the components of the artwork the creation of the abstract artist, so are the relationships between them.
As a work of art is put together, one move at a time, our mind looks for patterns in what has already happened. This guides the perception of what could happen next, the adjacent possible.
The word adjacent immediately begs the question, “Adjacent to what?”.
The word what asks after things. The artist defines the things that make up the piece of art, which in turn defines the unfolding of possibilities.
This is the true nature of abstraction.
“They ain’t nothing until I call ‘em”.
With gratitude from my studio to yours,
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P.S. I hope you enjoyed this exploration of existential philosophy via baseball. No deep understanding of baseball is required.
We make a case that abstraction in art has deep underpinnings in how we perceive the world.
And, to top it all off, we connect this foray into philosophical baseball to previous musings on the Adjacent Possible and Plato’s cave.
Leave me your comments below and share this with a friend.
Take a few practice swings and join the team! Indeed, swing for the fences!
Also published on Medium.