The Good Stuff

After watching a bad movie which shall remain nameless which several people I know recommended highly, I have been prompted to write a post about semantic ambiguity and why we like the things we do.

Firstly, it’s actually a difficult proposition, semantically, to say that anything is “good.” What are you actually saying? The definition of “good” will, by definition, change according to the properties being measured according to each object, the intention of the speaker, the understanding of the listener, and the appropriateness of the environment. It might be “good” for something negative to happen, given the right circumstances. Or, it might be the understanding of the speaker that a certain property is good.

To circumlocute my semantically ridiculous point, I’ll approach it from Rene Descartes’ proof of the existence of God.  Yes, he did that.  Descartes said that within the world there must exist some maximally perfect thing in all respects, and that whatever that thing was must necessarily possess all the properties commonly ascribed to God. Therefore, whatever that thing is, he would call God.  There, God proved, now let’s get on with Cartesian mathematics.  I’m not sure if he actually believed this, he may have been agnostic and just included this in order to avoid being suppressed and possibly persecuted.  Anyway, this idea of “maximally perfect” is the crux of my point.  How is it possible for something to be absolutely perfect in all respects?  Included in the definition, perfect’s characteristics are relative to the object being described.  A perfect pen has absolutely different properties from a perfect refrigerator, or solution to a problem, or book.  You can even ascribe perfection to a specific property of an entity like “this book is the perfect length.”  To say “this steel member is the perfect lergth for this bridge” is essentially the same statement, but the circumstances change the meaning entirely.  So are we to think, Descartes, that God must be a perfect-length book, steel beam, and book, a perfect-weight human, elephant, and field mouse, etc. etc.?  Or are we talking about a perfect being, which would have consciousness and perfection in such fields as omniscience, omnipotence, etc., etc., in which case we are presuming the existence of a perfect being and haven’t actually concluded anythnig.

On a more practical matter, what do we mean when we say that a movie or book is good?  We actually mean that we enjoyed it or were pleased by it in some manner.  If we said some thriller was good, it presumably was exciting and had a good plot, possibly with enough other elements to keep it interesting.  A good stand-up comedy show was funnry, a good academic paper introduced some new idea into the world, and a good philosopher makes other people think.  So why have the word “good”?  Spanish, while having a word for “good” (buen@) actually uses “me gusta(n)” for something you like- literally, “it pleases me.”  But we English speakers love the word “good” to the point of distraction.  I believe that abstracting together the concepts of caliber, “a good/well-made X”, scalar judgment “that X was/is good”, and virtue along with a few other meanings serves a useful purpose.  It’s like we’ve taken all things that exist or could possibly exist and created a scale of meaning with two axes, “good for its purpose” and “I like it” and thrown them together.  Virtue can only be applied to people, and it’s a little improper to say that people are good for their purpose.  For entertainment content like movies, there is no function, so we are left to judge how much we like them and what it is we like about them.

The issue with this is that both of those scales are quite subjective.  One person might have a different perspective on what needs to be done, and judge the way certain things need to be differently from someone else.  However there are some widely agreed-upon factors, namely that regarding primary functions, more is better.  A pen that never runs out of ink is much closer to a perfect pen than a pen that is really comfortable.  Keep in mind that this applies to specifically desired properties as well.  As to fridges, colder is not better, because there is some ideal temperature desired within that fridge.  The faster and more robustly the fridge can maintain that desired temperature, the more perfect the fridge is.

However as to liking, anything goes.  The frameworks by which we make such subjective judgements are so complex, and sometimes tenuous, that someone else has only limited predictive power on others’ opinions.  Now we can finally get to the interesting stuff.  OK, let’s presuppose that different people with different frameworks derive different levels of enjoyment from different media.  Let’s say Bob reallly enjoys horror movies, and Jill loves reading classic literature.  Now let’s give them a machine that allows them to temporarily superimpose someone else’s subjective framework over their own perception, not damaging their own in any way except that they remember the experience.  Would Bob enjoy using this machine to adopt Jill’s framework, and then read classic literature, and vice versa?

If it is true that there is a certain set of information that makes you enjoy certain things and disgusted at others, then it should be possible to figure out why people like things and appreciate them for the same reason.  We could theoretically appreciate and enjoy pretty much every flavor of media anyone ever put energy into producing.  Does that make sense, or is there some objective standard of subjective judgment by which we should dismiss certain works as just outrightly bad?