What Color Is Gold?

What Color Is Gold?

In The Book of Yukel the Egyptian-born Jewish poet Edmond Jabès (1912-1991) reminds us that “gold turns blue when hidden.” Silly, of course: everyone who has looked at (unhidden) gold thinks it is yellowish. College freshman who learned the truth tables in the second week of Introductory Logic can work out the details that if gold is observed it appears yellow (P à Q) and we are observant (P) gold is yellow (Q). But Jabès must have stayed for the third week where is was explained that (P à Q) plus ~P leads to a valid inference that ~Q.

This looks like a very stilted way of saying that we do not know the things we do not know. I think Jabès was gesturing in the direction of something more. There is a relationship between observing and knowing that is difficult to pull apart. We cannot have opinions about things without making a cognitive commitment. But when we have an opinion, it is the opinion we have and not the thing the opinion is about. Heaven knows, the idea of our first fall while learning to ski is neither wet, cold, nor painful. The neurological representation has none of these characteristics either.

If we wanted to make a big fuss about gold being yellow even when it is hidden from our mental operations we would be tricking ourselves. It is not too difficult to imagine blue gold or even unicorns. That claim is not about the color of gold at all; it is about what we believe. We are bringing in a false witness, one who has not in fact seen the hidden gold but has opinions about things that have not been experienced.

It would be so much more convenient if we had a toolkit of opinions that were bulletproof. This would not have to be a large collection because we could fabricate a working model of the world with almost nothing. The elements would not even have to be strictly speaking true as long as we convinced ourselves that they were known to be true whether we knew anything about them or not. Descartes was pretty clever in this way.

Other examples of this logic include the so-far never refuted assertion that anyone who reaches the end of the rainbow will find a pot of gold and Kant’s claim in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals that pure rationality can function as the foundation for practical moral choice by boundedly rational individuals.

There is no logical proof that (P à Q) plus ~P ~Q is false. Obviously neither is there much chance of piling up sufficient empirical data to demonstrate it. The worst we can say against Jabès is that we are not interested.

I tend to stay away from folks who claim immaculate conception. It somehow seems that they are snickering at me for failing to imagine the world exactly the same way they do.

Jabès is pretty serious about this. More typical of his poetry is the quote: “The writer can get rid of his writing only by writing it, that is, by reading oneself.”

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