PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, January 18, 2019

Making Decisions

Making Decisions

We are all familiar with the paintings in the Altamira Cave, Spain, the ones with bisons, hunters and other creatures. Scientists might not agree how old the paintings are, who did them and what they mean, if any, but we all agree that they are really old. We can safely assume that the paintings are genuine, and that the drawings are sufficiently complex not to be random strokes of paint. Some might argue that people at the time did not have the dexterity to create complex paintings, but that’s a different issue.

So what do the Altamira paintings have to do with philosophy and decision making? Each and every one of those paintings represent a person making a decision on where to start the painting, and even more important, when to stop painting. Making a decision to stop painting represents a belief, an intention and an act to make the intention happen; in other words the painter is satisfied with the work. And the fact that the paintings have a pattern that is recognizable of being an animal or a hand or a human being also reflects a purpose. We can say that the person who painted these images fulfilled his or her purpose because the decision to stop was made when the paintings met the necessary and sufficient conditions of the purpose.

Making decisions, I would argue, is a basic human (and animal) function that goes back, way back into pre history. But can we possibly say that the decision a cave painter made was a rational decision making process? Sure, we might argue, anyone can abstract a form and reproduce it with an acceptable degree of form to pass as a shape of an animal. I would argue that these paintings represent more than just acceptable degree of form, but rather a mind set to pass on experiences to others; these painting are no doodles. The mixture of the paint, the tones and intensities of the pigments all suggests an endeavour rather than a whimsical fidget with paint.

Surely, an endeavour can only be a rational process full of value judgments, trial and error, and comparative analysis between experience and memory on the one hand and skill and dexterity in reproducing such memories on the other.

So far I haven’t said anything other than make obvious observations of facts. There is nothing strange or unusual to suggest that each and every process and stage of an endeavour involves a series of decision making and associated actions. But can we deduce from these obvious facts what were the intentions and purposes of doing so many unique figures and shapes (mostly) of real world things and objects? What these cave painters want to convey to their society? I exclude the idea that the painters wanted to create a work of art, any more than Pope Sixtus IV commissioned the Sistine Chapel for art’s sake. The paint and shapes are the means, the media, to convey ideas and concepts. I don’t use Ariel font for my essay as a work of art but as a means to make reading on a PC relatively easy on the eye.

I make no apologies for my bias now and suggest that the cave people were early “photojournalists” who wanted to “report” what they witnessed and thence to “inform” others in their society; ie those who saw the paintings. The fact that they show people hunting (action) fulfils the first criteria of photojournalism: it is about people. Surely, the painter had direct experience of the events depicted in the cave, either as a participant, witness or observer. As I said I betray my bias towards photojournalism, but there can be no doubt that the painter or painters wanted to educate members of the tribe. Especially since the scenes and animals depicted could be quite dangerous thus these paintings communicate to the rest of the tribe “how things were out there in the field”!

Making decisions is a process including beliefs, be them true or false, and a rational process to arrive at an acceptable (even if subjective) intention and then acting on it. But there is and another aspect to making decisions: do one’s decisions make sense to other observers? Why did he buy a blue car when he hates blue?

Of course, some of our decisions are made in private and even for our own private concern, but the issue still remains that if others had access to these decisions would they be categorised as rational or even reasonable, in the absence of mitigating circumstances? Basically we do apply value judgements to other people’s decisions.

It is at this point that our subjective decision making becomes public interest and maybe even moral judgements and beyond. If our decisions do not make sense to others the chances are that they won’t trust us. If our decisions do not make sense people would want to know why such a decision was made and there are real consequences if there is no answer to the why. Leaders might not be followed, politicians might be derided and empires might fall. In modern history Operation Barbarossa brought the downfall of the third Reich, the failed invasion by France and the UK of the Suez Canal resulted in the USA becoming the absolute power in the Middle East. And Brexit is a catastrophe in the making.

This means that although our decisions are made in private they do have public implications. In effect we can either “think twice, and act once” or “act in haste, and repent at leisure”

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