On Philosophy

July 27, 2007

The Ark Problem

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Suppose that the Earth was doomed to destruction in the near future. But fortunately for us the international community has created a number of space ships, each of which is to preserve some part of the planet. People go in one ship, animals in another, art in a third, and so on. But of course there is not enough room to fit everything in.* The ark problem then is to decide what to take and what to leave behind. The ark problem is interesting for two reasons. The first of course is that it forces us to come up with a scheme for deciding the relative importance of things. But, more importantly, it reveals that some things are better than others, whether we would like to admit that or not. Someone may claim that there is no objective standard for art, and that works of art cannot be compared to each other. But when it comes time to actually load the ark I think we will find that even such people will leave out some children’s drawings to make room for the Mona Lisa.

Now the ark problem might just show that we have common preferences with regard to art. Maybe there isn’t really any way to compare works of art, but that we just happen to all prefer the Mona Lisa. It is unlikely however that the loader of the ark will just pick whatever they like best to save. No, the loader of the ark will probably try to correct for their own preferences. They will put on art that seems historically significant even if they don’t personally like it, and they will leave off the art that only they like, although it may pain them to do so. Now it could be that the ark loader is delusional, that art really is incomparable, and so it doesn’t matter what art they load the ark with. But if they actually loaded the ark in that way I do not think future generations would forgive them. If we arrived at our destination and opened the ark to find that it only contained medieval frescos we would think that the ark loader had made a mistake.

This puts someone who thinks that works of art can’t properly be compared to each other in a bit of a bind. They might try to weasel** their way out by arguing that the works of art should be selected by their historical or cultural impact, so that while the works of art do not have intrinsic value with which they can be compared to each other there is still some way of selecting among them. But that is essentially to admit that works of art do have objective value and can be compared to each other, we simply take their value to be their historical or cultural impact. And this is true no matter how we choose to load the ark; if we choose a systematic method which prefers some works of art over others then we are effective admitting that works of art do have comparable value, and that our criteria of selection roughly track that value. Or we can dogmatically maintain that there really is no way to compare art, and thus that every possible way of loading up the ark is equally good.

To deny that some ways of loading up the arks are better than others is, I think, patently absurd, which thus forces us to conclude that all things are comparable in value to each other. But of course this doesn’t mean that we actually know how to compare them. This is the second part of the ark problem then: how do we create a selection criteria that saves the most valuable pieces of art despite the fact that we don’t know exactly makes a piece of art valuable? As I see it there are two criteria we can use. One is simply to go by the historical and cultural impact of the piece of art, which we can calculate roughly, for example, by measuring how much it is referred to in other sources. But I do not think that that criteria necessarily saves the art that is the best art, it saves the art that is most essential to human culture, which only roughly aligns with the best art. Assume then that we have the ability to make judgments about whether a piece of art has positive or negative value (it’s hard to think of an example of art that clearly has negative art, unless we are talking about art that promotes certain undesirable ideas, but obviously I am giving a general analysis that can be applied to more than art). Take all the art that has positive value then and save those pieces that the most effort was put into making, and which the effort put into them had the desired result. Those pieces of art are the ones we should put on the ark. Now this is not to claim that the effort put into a piece of art correlates directly with its value. However, better art will of course require more effort to create, and we can assume that artists have some sense of what makes art valuable. Of course most of them are wrong to some extent (since we have already established that no one knows with certainty exactly what makes art valuable), but we can assume that at least some of them were more right than wrong. Thus the criteria is likely to save the best art, even though we don’t know exactly which art among the pieces that are saved is best. (Mathematical analogy: you have a set of vectors which you only know the magnitude of but not the orientation. Given a subset of size z, we can maximize our chances of picking the vector with the greatest extension in the x dimension by picking the z vectors with the greatest magnitudes.)

Obviously the ark problem applies to more than just art, it applies to human lives as well. And I would say that the same process we used for selecting the best art can be used to select the best people. We consider only the people with positive value (those who aren’t massively unethical) and then select from them those who have successfully put the most effort into their lives. Of course effort in this context doesn’t mean calories; while I have no desire to try to pin down exactly what it is I will say that effort involves striving to be better than we already are.

* Assume the arks are just for the preservation of Earth, not for starting over again; the practicalities of starting over skew things in ways that are irrelevant to the task at hand.

** In the technical philosophical sense.



  1. Though I may risk misreading you, please accept that I do so respectfully. Your Ark Problem poses an irresolvable dilemma. Indeed I see only one solution and it might be of biblical proportions. (Allow me some poetic license here.) Just as Noah could not have left any pair of any species out of his ark so cannot our ark loader leave any worthy works of art behind – i.e., masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa. But you propose a Noah with a heftier task than his original counterpart: in this Art Ark he must leave some “species” behind, for obviously if two masterpieces are of equal or similar artistic value leaving one behind would be like leaving none at all. However, leaving one essential work of art behind – for if it is not essential our ark loader faces no problem – how might future readers, say, understand contemporary poetry without ever having read “Leaves of Grass”? (Fill in your artistic blanks at will.) Art challenges most pragmatic methods of selection because it follows a peculiar – somehow unmeasured – form of development without which future art cannot be understood.* Hence, missing artistic links would alter the meaning of newer links which in turn would result in an audience’s basic incapacity to understand and appreciate art at whatever contemporary level our Art Ark might finally come to harbour.

    All of this, of course, presupposes that the art in question is worthy of the Ark: original, innovative and unique. Since the artist capable of original work has during his time “the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed”, as Proust wisely stated, it must follow that the audience for this art must have the opportunity to learn to appreciate that which has been left for it to appreciate. (Original art may in fact require an original audience that can appreciate it otherwise we end up with best sellers.) “When the great innovation appears, it will almost certainly be in muddled, incomplete, and confusing form. To the discoverer himself it will be only half-understood; to everybody else it will be a mystery. For any speculation which does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope.”** Thus, in my view our ark loader faces a true dilemma: Either some god allows him to take all worthy art work into the ark or he ends up making a Top 10 list of an interesting Western Cannon, albeit a tragically flawed one. And that would certainly be a mistake of biblical proportions.

    * A real problem posed by many philosophical inquiries may be the assumption that all problems have solutions and that we simply have not arrived at them yet. I wonder: Are there not philosophical issues that man cannot possibly resolve?

    ** F.L. Dyson, Innovation in Physics, as quoted by Randall Jarrell in “Poets, Critics, and Readers”.

    Comment by Alberto — July 27, 2007 @ 12:02 pm

  2. Well, I’m not putting you in charge of loading the ark. You are commiting several fallacies here. Here’s one of them: the assumption that something bad would happen if every work of art wasn’t saved. It is perfectly possible to understand contemporary poetry without reading Leaves of Grass. And even if it were the case that something bad would happen we could still minimize that bad outcome by saving the most valueable works.

    Comment by Peter — July 27, 2007 @ 12:16 pm

  3. “Have you practs’d so long to learn to read? /
    Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? /

    Stop this day and night with me and you shall posses the origin of all poems / ”

    You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,) /

    You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, /

    You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, /
    You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”

    Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

    Comment by Alberto — July 28, 2007 @ 1:55 am

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