Reflections of Hops Past
The glass rests on the table in front of me. The contents are restless, making puny movements. I can see the bubbles releasing themselves from the bottom and sides, taking flight toward the top. Occasionally the bubbles make it just a fraction of the way, catching on again to the glass, having been impeded by another bubble or slowed down no doubt by the weight of the surrounding liquid which is far more languid by comparison with the carbonated activity. On top of the liquid is the head of foam which is inexorably losing height and mass both. Initially the foam crested above the lip of the pint in a fluffy white cloud. The irregular tendrils of this not quite liquid, not quite gas substance (clouds indeed) have been collapsing back on themselves and leveling off, first to the pint’s edge and now below it. However, the subdued foam is not resting into a uniform blanket over the beer. Whatever initial state the foam erupted into has left its recognizable influence, determining the pattern of the constant dissipation. In time the fluffy white cover will separate and allow us to peek over the top of the glass and see through to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, we see through the sides of the glass, from the near wall through to the far one. It would appear as if our view ended there but placing our palm against the far side we see our fingers and their inner creases, however distorted by the liquid.
Describing a pint as I have would be recognizable to many people. Perhaps all but the biggest beer geeks would not bother going into such detail, but what I care to highlight is not the beer so much as the experience of the beer. I appreciate how well we share ideas, using little more than grunts, yet wish to push further.
Recounting the experience of tasting beer is intricate stuff. Describing the physical characteristics is simple enough. Some make it more interesting by tying together unexpected imagery and descriptions, walking the tightrope between mingling in the imagination new thoughts with old reminiscences and overdoing it by waxing poetically. References to taste, flavors, and smell fall under this umbrella though are a bit more difficult to nail down, these targets of description being more elusive than what can be seen with the eye alone.
Somewhere toward the top of the difficulty scale is having to describe the actual experience of drinking, of tasting. To go beyond the physical and to imbue a sense of the phenomena itself. It is an elusive endeavor, a target that oftentimes recedes more quickly the harder one presses forward, as a not yet forgotten dream upon waking that resists standing still but leaves glimpses of itself, tantalizing impressions that disappear by the time you get out of bed.
What I have described is present and knowable to most of us. Describing my impressions of the pint makes sense based in large part due to sharing a physical, historical, and linguistic overlap. I may only experience the presence of a pint through my own sensory being but it retains recognition to others of a similar make up. That we point out, grunt about, and nod in recognition of the same object and impressions given off, suggests there are objective phenomenal sources available to our species. We do not presume the perspective of another in describing the color, feel, and odor of a drink but may intuit each other’s experience of the object quite well. Language, a shared language, has a lot to say about this possibility (pun intended). Yet still these experiences are tied to the subjective nature of our constitution. It is only possible “for someone sufficiently similar to [the person making the descriptions] to be able to adopt [their] point of view (What Is it Like to Be a Bat?, Nagel).” It is this common ground we rely on to make sense to one another, but even granting this bridge it is not necessarily simple, or even satisfactorily possible, to cross it.
To speak of and describe our experiences we will rely on a bunch of facts, almost certainly on a bedrock of facts and agreed-upon statements. However, in talking about taste and attempting to disentangle and disseminate the experience to others we will have to go beyond simply listing details. Definitions, chemical compounds, biological mechanisms, and physical measurements will take us only so far. This straightforward factual information will set the stage, providing guidelines and boundaries from which to work from. However, just because the experience of tasting a delicious beer creates facts, it is not necessarily reducible to facts (PB, Farkas).
The interaction between the separate properties, the action and impressions created, all potentially convertable into mathematical relationships will provide little, perhaps less, insight in this at once abstract and precise form with respect to the experience of having a drink. We need not rely on mystical and nonsensical approaches but it is worth keeping in mind that we must make due with the use of language to convey our thoughts and that we certainly know more than we can say, especially so when we are out of practice, imprecise, or our vocabulary is limited, either by education, experiences, or culture (the Japanese for instance have 400+ words to describe the texture or food [Bitter, McLagan]).
Yet speak we must. Talk, writing, and language is at one and the same time a scaffolding to reality, a restriction to our connecting with others, and still the only “way out” to extend our knowing of objects, facts, practices, and other beings. We must talk and be ready to widdle, discard, and pick up again dismissed pieces (Brillat-Savarin).
“A rose by any other name…”
Imagine having to describe the smell of a rose to someone unfamiliar with the flower (Epiphenomenal Qualia, Jackson). We would almost certainly start with some common ground from which to venture forth. The two conversationalists might ask one another about shared experiences, looking to identify impressions about similar encounters in an effort to better calibrate an understanding of the other’s expectation, experience, and preferences. In the overlaps they may, and should, dig deeper to underscore that they mean the same thing, and to a like degree when they categorize something as sweet, rank, rough, oily, whatever. After a meeting of meaning, to a greater or less or extent, they will entice one another to envision combinations of attributes, combinations that are meant to approach ever closer the impression of having experienced the smelling of a rose; that ultimate, elusive goal.
Everyone’s entitled to their own poetry, but not to reciting it in public
One of the issues worth mentioning and being clear about is the subjective nature of perception, paying attention to phenomena, and the cataloging of experience. With each person being their own primary source of information on the topic of experience it is not difficult to imagine a sort of relativity running into subjectivity, sliding into incomprehensible nonsense. An anything goes kind of acceptance is not what we are after. Experiences are to be communicable if they are to be worthwhile investigating. In fact, the ability to be precise in description, strict on meaning, and able to communicate ideas will differentiate those who we should take seriously and others we should view skeptically. Outright dismissal is also not warranted but certainly the degree to which we can accept the perspective of another will be determined in part by how well we can observe the same elements they bring up.
The act of creating poetry is worth mentioning to drive home this point. Technically anyone can write a poem but that does not make each submission equally worthy of praise. A poem’s quality may be judged by others based on numerous criteria, including though not limited to clarity, imagery, structure, use of words and impact of ideas. The factors vary slightly and are weighted differently from our endeavor but the main point to take away is the qualitative differences in effectiveness when conveying ideas. We can say some have a better handle on how to convey thoughts and feelings and that goes for what we may expect in analyzing our individual perceptions.
We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world
To discuss the experience of a pint we must describe the sensations involved, to mention sensation we must highlight the senses, and here we have to point out that oft ignored obvious fact that to speak of such capabilities and experiences we must speak of physical constructions and biological make up. Drinking a pint is a specifically physical activity. It is performed by a certain type of creature(s).
As savanna dwelling primates we arose out of, and developed within, a certain environment that favored specific “readings” of the world. A failure to sense the world at the scale, both spatially and temporally, that we natively interacted with would have cut off any chances of my writing these sentences. We are a specific type of animal from an unique time and particular planet. Our very survival and flourishing depended on being attuned to the environmental demands placed on us. The experiences we are able to have arise from this make up. Our interpretation of senses and assignment of meaning, in the form of language no less, are grounded in our experiential abilities and follow from them, they do not proceed it. And here in lies much of the interest in contemplating our perceptions.
While granting that light and x-ray and gamma rays form part of an enormous light spectrum we only see a sliver of and taking that model and suggesting it as a metaphor for our limited senses in other areas (time, distance, size), what it is we are able to perceive makes up who we are and how we experience the world, it lays the groundwork for future interpretations and offers a shot at understanding how our mind appears to work from the experiential perspective.
Atoms, forces, and energy are excellent predictors of physical, chemical, and biological entities but they leave out the appreciation of describing at/from the human scale, which will always have to be translated back to mental concepts by way of some language, whether it be mathematical, logical, narrative, or something a bit more abstract (poetry) that approaches the intended target, discussing (the experience of) experience, more obliquely. While our experience of thought and consciousness has been taken as proof of existence (Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum), it is also the type of exact beings we are that determines in what ways we think, in what sense there is an “I” and what it means to “be”. We might as easily say, “I think because I am.” Existence precedes essence by biological and physical necessity. That essence, which in one way or another, we associate with our thinking, volitional selves is not boundless, by its very grounding in existence.
Barely conscious pond scum
That our experiences come to our awareness when they break through to consciousness far too often makes us believe that these are mental experiences alone, that they take place solely in the mind. This is both true and false depending on how one demarcates the mind, brain, and body. Let us take the first two pairs and agree that the mind encapsulates that conscious experience we are all familiar with, it is what it is like to be ourselves. Our thoughts and sensations are centralized there. The brain is the biological and physical organ that through its neuron firings somehow brings about that aforementioned experience. The body is the forgotten addendum to the previous two, though of course it is more than that and absolutely a part and piece of what it means and matters to have the others function as we have come to expect.
Moreover, the brain extends from within our skull, to the base of it, down our spinal cord and radiates throughout the nervous system. Our body gives us motion, provides positioning in time and space, and grounds our understanding of who we are, grounds our brain, grounds our mind.
The world outside of ourselves (may or may not) exists prior to our being but we may only know it through our senses and instruments, the readings off the latter again having to be filtered through the former. What we can say about the world is only possible to make sense through our abilities to sense. What we can say about the world rebounds onto what we can say about ourselves and the types of beings we are.
It was a question, only the beginning
To taste, but also to feel. And to smell. To touch, to feel the impression of liquid on the tongue and as it passes the lips. Temperature comes into play, viscosity and carbonation. Each of these spark a stimulus and create impressions. To one extent or another they tickle our taste buds and enliven our attention.
This entry was but a first step towards a curious investigation. Matters of particular interest were hinted at and will be made increasingly more explicit with subsequent forays. For now “to know what to ask is already to know half.”
Edmonds, D. (Interviewer). (2017, November 6). Philosopy Bites - Katalin Farkas on Knowing a Person [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://player.fm/series/philosophy-bites/katalin-farkas-on-knowing-a-person.
McLagan, J. (2014). Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com