Beguiling Ambiguity


An iconic face as unambiguous as he thought the universe is.

I wrote a theoretical reflection about binary communication with babies a few weeks ago, and I’m going to add something to that. Don’t worry: I won’t advocate ternary or n-ary communication here. Rather, I want to say something about ambiguity and undecidedness.

About half an hour ago, Miru was hungry (she eats a lot) and her soft groans heralded a bout of crying that I was going to prevent with my experiment. I leaned over her croissant-shaped pillow, and stuck out my tongue, at about 15 inches of her face (they can discern objects at that distance at two months), moved it left and right, pulled it back in, moved it toward her and shook it, swung it, rolled it, tongue-in-cheeked it – but she didn’t seem attracted by it. In a happy mood, she loves this, and instantly smiles whenever a colossal exoglossal grimace appears in front of her. But this time she was hungry.

Miru seemed (my claims have to remain modest here, full-scale interpretative encephaloscopy hasn’t been invented yet) to weigh her options:  Should she cry or should she smile. These two basic modes of being might be fully hard-wired instincts triggered by a traceable linear flow of complex chemicals, but her inner undecidedness seems(!) to strive beyond that.

Philosophers have contemplated that high Moment of undecidedness, where we stand before an important decision in our lives, and some have boldly associated it with the undecidability theorem of quantum physics. These instants, when we are thrown back at the very core of our selves and have to make a decision upon which the rest of our lives (or that of others) could depend, have been called sacred and nominated as seat of our freedom (“A freedom we can believe in”). We are tempted to identify it as the nexus that connects our bodily existence to something higher, but I claim to be much more modest here.

Perhaps it’s just the law of large numbers. Billions of neurons are firing within her little head, and I imagined I could hear the signals lighting up the frontal lobe of her brain.

Then she produced a few smiles, causing considerable paternal satisfaction “thanks darling, now I can write that piece on ambiguity in baby communication everybody has been waiting for“, and lasting for perhaps half a minute, before the more profound stimuli of her hunger kicked in and decided the debate in their favor.

Watching her develop a sense of ambiguity (or how the phenomenon that I observe is called from a baby’s perspective) and suspense is wonderful. It seems like she is developing a character (that is: giving meaning to the question “what would Miru do?”), even though all her actions are probably still merely instinctive reflexes of her sensory input.

(It also made me realize my way of philosophy is not a steady climb of the staircase that Truth has installed in her duplex apartment for our convenience. It is more like the rapid repetition and constant alteration of falsehoods that might be familiar to those who know the history of philosophy.)

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