What exactly are the boundaries around the things we are likely to call physical? Do all material things have mass? But some of the elements of theoretical physics might not have mass. Do they have to take up space, or have determinate spatial location? Again, some theoretical entities lack these as well. Galen Strawson doesn’t provide guidelines for what to regard as being physical or material, but he’s willing to enlarge the boundaries so that consciousness counts as a physical entity.
It’s a bold and somewhat bewildering claim. One of the ways we’re likely to demarcate the physical is by excluding ideas or concepts from it. Ideas and concepts aren’t the same as consciousness, but they seem closely related — you need consciousness to experience ideas and concepts. Thinking of consciousness as physical runs against that line of thought, but why not? My own metaphor for understanding GS’s view is to think of consciousness as the heat generated by an electric blanket. It’s not a very good metaphor, since heat hasn’t seemed unphysical in the way that consciousness has to some, but the metaphor captures the idea that consciousness is something like a physical field generated by active components when they’re functioning in a certain way.
Interesting consequences follow. GS is not a dualist; everything, including consciousness, is physical (it’s just that consciousness can’t be reduced to brain states). (Exception: GS might be a dualist about numbers and concepts, but he doesn’t discuss it in these essays.) Each time a “consciousness field” is generated, it’s a new one — so we’re not necessarily the same numerical person after each dreamless sleep or state of unconsciousness. Similarly, each time I turn on my electric blanket, a new heat field is generated, though it’s very similar to the last one. GS also has a couple of essays against the importance of “narrative” for selves — he’s happily “episodic”, meaning that he feels no deep need for his actions to belong to some over-arching theme or story of his life. He does one thing, moves to another, and doesn’t need to see a continuous thread throughout. Moreover, he argues there is no need for such a continuous thread in order to be ethical.
He’s also a hard determinist. He doesn’t see a lot of value in the compatibilist notion of freedom, and he thinks genuine freedom would be the capacity to be the total cause of one’s actions (a causa sui); but we lack this capacity. He doesn’t think there can be such a thing as ultimate moral responsibility.
What I really like about these essays is GS’s style and approach. He is a bit of an outsider to professional philosophy. That might seem incredible, since he is a professor at Reading, and the son of one of the more important philosophers of the second half of the 20th century (Peter Strawson). But he spent many years outside the discipline, working at the TLS and other places, before finally completing his phil degree. He has read very broadly in many areas (literature, science, Buddhism, psychology), and has read the Great Dead (at least the British early modern Great Dead) with considerable care. He’s very straightforward about his own shortcomings and isn’t afraid to show his own personality. Many of his essays are a dialogue with imagined objectors.
Indeed, as I read the essays, I often felt excited in the way that drew me first to philosophy. It’s fun to kick around cool ideas and see where they land, without fretting so much about what imagined critics might say. Why not think of consciousness as a physical force? Why not suppose that each time I wake up I’m a different “field” than I was when I went to bed? Why not accept that, in the end, no one is ultimately responsible for what they do? Fun ideas to mull over.
So if you’re in the knitting business, at some point in the process of turning wool into a sweater you will need to take a large, washer-like disk of steel and punch little notches into its outer rim, for some use in the process which I do not know. You will gradually collect a zillion little bits of steel, each measuring about two by three millimeters, unless you are so stupid as to throw them away. Then you will take these bits of steel and stick them onto the business side of a big roll of masking tape, creating a steel mosaic. But the yellow masking tape will show itself between the gaps, so you will rub black shoe polish over the whole thing to turn the tape black but leave the steel shiny. You’ll do this until your mosaic reaches, oh I don’t know, 34 meters long. Then you’ll take a tiny paint brush and some paint (of course) and commence to recreate the Bayeux Tapestry, an 11th or 12th-century tapestry depicting the battle of Hastings in 1066. It should take 20 years or so, if you also decide to invent yourself the last quarter of the tapestry which has gone missing over the intervening centuries.
That’s exactly what you’ll do, anyway, if you are Michael Linton, a sweater-maker in Geraldine, NZ. You can see his account of the process here.
But there’s more. If you purchase his twin CD-ROMs — and how could you not? — you will have the entire recreated tapestry at your disposal, and you can click on absolutely any item on the tapestry (person, Latin phrase, plant, dog, castle, etc) and get a full story of who the person was, what the Latin means, what the plant is, where the dog came from, and so on.
The discs also include some of Linton’s homemade puzzles. There are “alphametic” puzzles he’s made (example here) and several others of his own invention. Linton also sells a “magic cube” he invented, which he describes as follows:
This 8 x 8 x 8 magic cube consists of an array of numbers from 1 to 512, with no number repeated or missing. These numbers have been arranged so that every line, file, column and diagonal, including the four corner to corner diagonals, adds to 2052.
In addition, if you take the eight corners of any cube within the cube, you will get 2052.
What makes it even more magical, is that if you take any face and swap it parallel to itself (top to bottom, side to side, back to front, or vice versa), the cube remains magic. This can be repeated as many times as you wish.
The cube is represented virtually on one of the CD-Roms, which makes it easy to do the “face swapping.”
There are more puzzles and inventions to be found on his website (linked above), but you get the idea. In conversation with Mr. Linton, he explained that he didn’t do all that well in school, since they kept insisting that he pay attention to things that didn’t interest him. He’s involved his kids in his projects, and they’ve grown into fascinating, diverse, intelligent beings as well. One now invents games for Nintendo.
What struck me most about meeting him was the thought that in any little town you drive through, the most interesting and fertile mind may not (probably won’t?) be found in the local university or research lab. It is likely to be found in the sweater shop on the corner, the one hosting the world’s largest jersey:
My family and I just returned from two weeks in New Zealand. Short version: a fun, magical tour, with highlights of Belgian food and a man who made copied a medieval tapestry out of metal bits and masking tape. Long version follows.
We landed in Auckland, and spent a day and a night there on the seafront, adjusting to the warm summer weather, and discovering the typical coffee drink down there called a “flat white.” It’s just espresso with steamed milk, but boy, is it ever addictive. The regular catch phrase every three hours became, “Time for another flat white?”
The next day we flew to Christchurch, which has now become one of my very favorite cities. It reminded me a bit of Oxford, in terms of an overall vibe, but without the 39 colleges cluttering up the works. It’s a fun and quaint city, with ample public gardens, a public tram, a little river (yes, called “the Thames”), punting boats, and a Belgian pub (more anon).
We also discovered a shop called “Whisky Galore,” which had to be explored further, as it shares a name with the emblematic film of Logan’s Scottish Film Society.
The shop is run by two very pleasant Scots, who displayed to me an original movie poster of the film, and also introduced me to a NZ single malt, distilled just down the road in Oamaru. We stayed with an exceptionally charismatic and generous family, toured the city, beach, and countryside, and left only with great reluctance.
We had rented a car, which afforded the kids great amusement each time I sat down on the wrong side to drive. We drove south to Dunedin, and stopped more for a break than for anything else at a little town called Geraldine. It was there that we met Michael Linton, a man who by profession is in the textile industry, and who by avocation is a genius of several surprising dimensions. It was he who has made a complete replica — nay, more than that! — of the Bayeux Tapestry out of bits of steel, masking tape, shoe polish, paint, and a tiny brush. I have too much to say about him for this post; more in the next, or you can read more here.
We also stopped along the way in Oamaru for — you guessed it! — a tour of the distillery and a whisky tasting.
(Thank God, or whatever, for my indulgent family). Dunedin itself didn’t do much for us — it has a beautiful old train station and a very effective museum — but we left soon for Christchurch once again and ate at a Belgian beer cafe. It was so wonderful that I begged the waitress to let me live there forever, and daughter Hanna helped by suggesting that I’m a good cook, but son Ben spoiled everything by telling her that I snore. (It’s a lie!) Anyhow, now listen carefully: if ever you get the chance, proceed directly to Christchurch, and to the Belgian beer cafe on the river Thames, and instruct the post office to have all mail forwarded to you there. You will thank me for the rest of your blessed life.
We traveled on to some small towns along the east coast of the south island, ended up in Picton to take the ferry ride to the north island, and spent a couple days in Wellington. Wellington is also very charming, though more commercially oriented, and we enjoyed the cable car to the city gardens, the cafes of Cuba street, and the massive museum. We had lunch at a sushi bar where you seized the little plates as they traveled past on a conveyor belt.
Then on to the east coast of the north island, and some of NZ’s finest wine country. We did a fair amount of driving over our trip, and so saw a fair deal of NZ countryside, which is somehow always beautiful and always changing. There are always hills or stark mountains; there is always greenery, and sheep; and always little roadside cafes with flat whites. But every 30km or so brings on a new arrangement. The landscape is in a pleasant struggle between tropical Pacific and British countryside, which really works.
The little town along the coast were a little too touristy for us, but in each place we found something interesting to do, whether it was mini-golf or wine-tasting. We spent Christmas eve and day in Rotorua, renown for its therapeutic hot springs.
We ended with a return to Auckland, a flight to LA, a night, and then the flight home, where it’s now a sunny winter day. I plan to have a few more postings soon focusing on particular episodes in the trip.
When philosophers ‘give talks,’ or ‘give papers,’ that usually means one or the other of a few things: they read a paper aloud (most often), they read some and discuss some, they have a Powerpoint presentation, or they have a lengthy handout that they work through with the audience. Very rarely do they show up without any props and just say what they know — indeed, I only remember seeing it done twice, with Burton Dreben and Cornel West. Let me say right away that I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with doing any of these things. I’ve seen them done poorly and done well, meaning: I’ve learned from some of them and not from others.
But I keep thinking of a couple of passages in Plato’s dialogue, the “Phaedrus,” where Socrates relates an old Egyptian tale. A king named Thamus goes to the god Theuth, who has given people the arts of arithmetic, geometry, writing, and astronomy, etc., and Thamus asks what each is good for. When they come to to the art of writing, Theuth says it will make people wiser and improve their memories, but Thamus the king thinks otherwise:
And so it is that you, by reason of your tender regard for writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows. (Hamilton & Cairns, p. 520).
The idea is that, in ‘giving a paper,’ I am only showing ‘what the paper knows.’ Of course, I wrote the paper, and so there is some sense in which the paper represents my knowledge — but it is ‘my’ knowledge as scattered over the course of a few weeks or months, on separate occasions as I pondered this part of the problem or that part. It’s knowledge I’ve never had at any single point in time — not even when I’m ‘giving the paper’ (since otherwise I wouldn’t need the paper now, would I?). The paper makes it seem as if I do have knowledge and memory; though Thamus would say it’s only the ‘conceit’ of wisdom, coupled with some reminding props.
Could it be that if I need a paper, outline, presentation, etc., then I really have not gained an understanding of the material? If so, then perhaps what I need to do is put together the paper, and then study it myself so well that I truly know it, myself, at a single time, and can rehearse it without any props or crutches. (Sounds like Descartes’s third rule of method, come to think of it.) Is this possible? Would it represent an advance in my understanding, or just some needless compulsiveness? I mean these all as genuine questions. I think it is worth some experimenting with.
A further problem is that it seems to me that when people address other people, they ought to engage in a real-time, constructive project that grows from the knowledge and interests of both speaker and audience. That is to say, it is a genuine dialogue among individuals (even if one person does most of the talking), and not a canned speech to be given irrespective of who is in the audience. Here is the way Plato puts the same concern in the dialogue:
[O]nce a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong.
In short, pre-conceived papers and presentations are not necessarily attuned to the audience to whom they are delivered.
What would be best — according to this line of thought — would be to master a subject totally, so that one can explain it as easily as one might give directions to the nearest market, and then ‘give talks’ in such a way that everyone in the room gets involved in the common project, even if they aren’t necessarily experts. I think that’s very hard to do — but on the other hand, it seems to me a worthy goal to strive for.
(There’s an added irony here I’ll just gesture toward: here I am writing about what Plato wrote about the evils of writing. Does this post, if successful, undercut its own argument?)
I was at the U of Utah yesterday, and had a great time in a number of activities. I visited my friend Mariam’s class, and we debated whether the evolutionary account of religious inclinations should cause a believer to doubt. Then I had lunch with six engaging grad students, and visited Elijah Millgram’s Nietzsche class, in which he gave a “walk-through” presentation of how to write a philosophy paper. (I could use two or three more of those.)
Then I was to give a colloquium paper. The room was packed, maybe 50 people, and a little warm. I have a lot of friends in that department, but I was still feeling a bit nervous. Normally philosophers read papers to audiences, or have some sort of organized Powerpoint presentation, or an outline on a handout, but I was trying something different: I wanted to just explain what I think I know, with only some texts along with me for supportive quotes. That might sound easy — just say what you know! — but when you get in front of a group, there’s a decent chance your mind will go blank, you’ll panic, and then train wreck ensues. Still, I’ve done it before, and do it in class all the time, so I had some reason to think I could pull it off. (Moreover, I have philosophical reasons to recommend this sort of performance — I’ll blog about that another time.) But I was a bit worried about keeping my mind ordered and relaxed; and being worried about not being relaxed enough is something of a self-fulfilling worry.
Everything began okay. I started by framing the problem, and began to chew away at the solution. But I was feeling really hot. I thought, “I’ll bet I’m blushing! How embarrassing! Just stick to the ideas; you’ll be okay.” But I still felt really hot. Really hot. So I stopped my presentation and asked the audience, “Is anyone else hot in here? I feel like my face is turning red.” They said the room was warm, but I looked fine. So I asked for a glass of water and tried to continue. But my mind was getting fuzzy, and then my ears started to tune out, and the next thing I experienced was my friends gently lowering me down to the floor and explaining that I had passed out!
That’s a first.
I was impressed by how the Philosophy department sprang into action. They elevated my feet, put a jacket under my head, and called 911. I felt fine almost immediately, and passed all the EMT’s tests — good blood pressure, pulse, blood sugar, EKG. I even seemed coherent, which is rare. I will go to a doc to rule out anything more troubling, but I’m betting it was just “some damn thing” — overdetermination of heat, worry, and the drugs they slipped into my tea. (No.)
I was taken to dinner afterwards and enjoyed good and fun conversations, and drove home to Logan just fine. I’m always glad to give a memorable performance.