In the beginning, Father Cnoüs had a dream. What it really was is anyone’s guess, but his two daughters interpreted it in different ways. Hylaea believed she saw a world of perfect forms, the intellect’s heaven. Deät believed she saw a world ruled by an imperial deity and his angels – I don’t know whose heaven that is, but it would be whatever part of us yearns for someone to tell us what to do. Anyway, then enough time passed so that all the details were forgotten but what I just wrote was remembered.
Along came Thelenes (rhymes with “Socrates”), and his student Protas (rhymes with “Plato”) who used dialogue to explore the world Hylaea had believed her father had seen. It was the Hylaean Theoric World, or the world of the relations and forms which give our world its structure. Not long after this, the Ark of Baz (rhymes with “Christianity”) was established, predicated upon magic, superstition, and authority. People lived out the tensions between the daughters’ two interpretations.
After several centuries, Saunt (savant + saint) Cartas (sounds like Descartes, but maybe Augustine?) established the mathic disciplines. These were closed communities, within walls (intramuros) of concents which, depending on the particular order, would open their doors only once a year, or once a decade, or once a century, or once a millenium. The avout living within the walls dedicated their lives to study of science, math, logic, and philosophy, living simple and spare lives, and teaching one another chiefly through gentle and respectful dialogue. (Except when someone needed to be “planed”, or publicly humiliated through ridicule of unreasoned opinion.) They would sing songs based on harmonies of mathematic proportions, and tend giant clocks. Eventually there came to be various philosophical developments and divisions within the mathic world: the followers of Halikaarn (rhymes with “Leibniz”) split off from the followers of Protas, and the followers of Proc (rhymes with “Locke” – hey, it really does!) split off even more dramatically, and denied the existence of the Hylaean Theoric World. Tiresome bores. In dialogue they make frequent appeal to Diax’s Rake (don’t believe in something merely because it makes you feel good) and Gardan’s Steelyard (rhymes with “Occam’s razor”).
The outside world, extramuros, continued to be populated by people uninterested in such bookish things. Weird children who liked reading books would be collected, or sent off to the maths to become avout. Mostly they chattered away on their jeejaws (rhymes with “cellphones”) and treated themselves to unending videos (speelies) of celebrities, violent deaths, cats, sporting events, and hair styles. These people were the slines (derived from “baseline”), who made money and technology and attending their deities. Their rulers (called “Panjandrums” by the avout) ran the extramural world.
There were conflicts between the two cultures, and sackings and pillaging and disbanding and reunifications, but over many centuries this order maintained itself. And then the story of Anathem unfolds, in which we discover that the Hylaean Theoric World is in fact another possible world in the multiverse, one rich in informational content (so “up-wick”), and residents of some of the other down-wick possible worlds, including Earth, have found ways to travel to and threaten this Anathem world. The avout have to figure out what to do about it, and so on, and so on.
NS finds just the right balance of familiarity and strangeness, and it is difficult not to start using many of the new terms he invents. I have been spending more and more of my waking hours intramuros – meaning, in my head – and the world run by the panjandrums is becoming increasingly unfamiliar and bizarre. I think I shall continue to explore the Hylaean Thoeric World, and open my doors only every thousand years or so. You may call me Fraa Jad.
One of my summer projects has been to read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It’s a three-volume set which includes eight separate novels he wrote and then combined. I’m a touch intimidated by even trying to summarize, but here goes. The saga ranges over the years 1640-1714 (roughly), following three principal characters: Daniel Waterhouse, a British natural philosopher and non-conformist; Eliza, a woman kidnapped from a remote British isle and abducted into the seraglio, who is later rescued and who subsequently makes her way into the court of Versailles and the world of high finance; and Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, adventurer, galley slave, pirate, and sympathetic everyman who will out-connive everyone unless the Imp of the Perverse compels him toward actions uncommonly glorious. Along the way we meet Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, Wren, Boyle, Locke, Peter the Great, royals of Europe, harpoon-chucking Russians, insidious Jesuits, etc., etc. and are led on great many an escapade in which, as the phrase goes, hilarity ensues.
In some interview Stephenson defines science fiction as fiction that takes ideas seriously, and by that measure this is major league science fiction. There are no robots, cyborgs, or time travel, but we do encounter the beginnings of modern science (promiscuous with alchemy), the transmutation of rare earth metals into coins, credit, and finance, the operations of the British Mint and Royal Society, the various sultanates of Asia, the global slave trade, the manufacturing of watered steel, cryptography, the logistical difficulties of sailing and of naval warfare, the beginnings of steam engines, and the lived experience of London’s sewer problems, with lots of clanging swordplay along the way. None of these are merely glimpsed, but each is explored in such depth as to prompt the reader to wonder who the hell this Neal Stephenson person is and how many heads he might possess. For a guy who, as he says, gets paid to sit on his butt and make stuff up, the achievement of his series is jaw-dropping, and it is a ripping good yarn to boot, all 916 + 815 + 886 pages of it.
The length seems to scare off anyone to whom I’ve recommended this Cycle, though one might stop to consider that Mr. Stephenson wrote out the bloody thing in fountain pen, and (in this day and age) if a fellow believes enough in his project to be willing to do that, why then perhaps we might consider expending the effort to turn the pages. And while I would not put him in the league of novelists whose prose is in fact poetry, his writing does communicate the feeling that he is savoring the language as it emerges from his pen, noting the strangeness of words and how they have come about, relishing in the different speaking styles of his zoo of characters and delighting in how they might reply to one another. (Jack saying, “Let her rip, Ike” to Isaac Newton is one of my favorites.)
I’ve read other books by Stephenson, and clearly this is a guy who likes to understand and explain how things work, or how things came to be as they are (or were). In the same vein, he takes obvious delight in setting up a pivotal showdown. At times I knew I should try to make a map of the scene, because obviously I was missing some of the notable constraints upon the action, but I fell back into trusting the author. Maybe the next time I read it….
I’ll let it go at that. I finished the series last night, with great reluctance, as I will surely miss these characters, especially Daniel. That by itself, I imagine, is the mark of a tale well-told.
When I first started reading philosophy of law, I was drawn to the realist or positivist approach. Realists (not like Platonic realists, but rather get-real-ists) take their theoretical cue from actual practice. Oliver Wendell Holmes expressed it in his own definition of law, that law is what enables you to predict how a judge is actually going to rule. The positivists step to a more abstract level and emphasize that there is no necessary connection at all between law and justice or morality. A draconian regime may have a horribly immoral set of laws, but for all that it is still a system of laws. The laws of Nazi Germany, though loathsome, were still laws. This approach seemed to me sound and plausible.
But reading Fuller’s book has made me reconsider. Fuller lays down eight conditions a system of laws has to meet in order to produce a recognizably law-governed society. They include that laws have to be made public, not retroactive, stable, general, enforced, and so on. All this seems about right; Fuller offers a tale of King Rex who tries to run his realm in all sorts of backwards ways that flout these eight conditions, and it seems right to judge that his imagined realm is “law” governed in name only. But then as Fuller explores these conditions, and examines actual and imagined cases, he provides good reasoning for thinking that law does require at least a minimal set of moral conditions.
For example, consider the Nazi case. In many instances, the judges upheld the Nazi regime by perverting the way systems of law are supposed to regulate human conduct. People would be murdered by soldiers, and then after the fact condemned as traitors. Many trials were merely a sham for inevitable convictions, and certainly not all citizens were equal before the law. Once we know more details of the Nazi judicial system, we’d be likely to conclude that the society was “law-governed” in only the very thinnest sense: a better judgment would be that the society put up only a pretense of being law-governed. Fuller’s argument is that in order for a society to really be law-governed, some basic conditions need to be met, and those conditions have a kind implicit morality in them, and in how various legal wrinkles get worked out in actual practice.
In response to a criticism by H. L. A. Hart, who asserts that there is no necessary connection between morality and the rule of law, Fuller asks,
Does Hart mean merely that it is possible, by stretching the imagination, to conceive the case of an evil monarch who pursues the most iniquitous ends but at all times preserves a genuine respect for the principles of legality? … Does Hart mean to assert that history does in fact afford significant examples of regimes that have combined a faithful adherence to the internal morality of law with a brutal indifference to justice and human welfare? If so, one would have been grateful for examples about which some meaningful discussion might turn.
When he puts it that way, it does make the positivists’ insistence look a bit awkward.
Closer to home, Fuller explores cases in the U.S. that violate his conditions. Very often, people end up in situations where the law does not say very clearly what they are (or were) supposed to do, or they end up in the crosshairs of two laws that contradict one another. What happens then? Well, lawyers and judges try to think through the laws and interpret how any rule of law ought to decide in those cases, taking into account similar cases, other possible future cases, what the laws originally were aimed at achieving, and the practical circumstances of the litigants. In any particular case, it is difficult to imagine working through these arguments without at least some minimal moral reflection about fairness, impartiality, impact, and the clarity of any ruling. Fuller calls this a “procedural” rather than “substantive” natural law, but it is moral enough to give the lie to any strict positivism.
That’s not to say, of course, that there could not be a law-governed society that practices legalized slavery or oppresses women or administers the death penalty. Fuller’s natural law does not reach that far. But it reaches far enough to conclude that being law-governed means engaging in a process in which a system of laws might well lead to verdicts that go against what judges and their superior would otherwise prefer, given their own prejudices and agendas. And it also argues that the ongoing endeavor of law requires that we listen to one another and take one another’s causes into practical consideration:
Each [side in a dispute] is orienting his words, signs, and actions by what he thinks the other seeks and in part also by what the other thinks he seeks. Here there emerges from the parties’ interactions no hard factual datum that can be set off against the purposes that brought it into existence. The quality and terms of the parties’ emergent relationship – its “laws” if you will – constitute an important social reality, but it is a reality brought into being and kept alive by purposive effort and by the way each of the parties interprets the purposes of the other.
(Reflections on Peter Kail’s Projection and Realism in Hume’s Philosophy. Oxford, 2007.)
In the first part, Kail shows that Hume’s account of how we come to believe in external objects is parallel to his account of how we come to believe in God. In both cases, we begin by experiencing changing sets of impressions. The instability and unreliability of the change unsettles us, and we seek psychological relief. We find that relief in positing the existence of something unchanging that is somehow causally responsible for the changes we experience. And thus we come to believe in an unseen world of stable objects, or in unseen spiritual forces, as ways of assuring ourselves that all is not as fleeting as it appears.
Of course, if we recognize what’s going on, we lose our confidence in those beliefs. But typically we don’t know what’s going on, and some of us even go on to construct sophisticated theories about the natures of external bodies, or of God, and in these extended efforts we just make ourselves look silly, according to Hume. As Kail writes, “Both sophisticated beliefs are ‘monstrous’ and ‘absurd’, while the primitive beliefs are instead ‘natural’ and merely false” (73). And if those are the choices, then better to be natural and false than monstrous and absurd.
In the second part, Kail takes on Hume’s view of causality. Hume is widely read as claiming that we really don’t have any evidence whatsoever for believing that events are conjoined to one another by bonds of metaphysical causal glue; at the very most, we are merely conditioned by our experience to expect patterns of seeming causality to recur; and so, while it is quite natural that we should end up believing in causal regularities, we really don’t have any good reason for doing so. In short, we have no good reason to expect causal laws to persist, but we can’t help ourselves.
Kail joins the ‘skeptical realist’ readers of Hume in saying that this reading misses something. It is right about our not having any evidence whatsoever for metaphysical causal glue. But, according to this reading, our lacking evidence doesn’t mean that really there isn’t any metaphysical causal glue; it means only that we don’t have any evidence for it. In fact, there are plenty of passages which seem to imply that Hume thinks there is metaphysical causal glue after all, this despite our not having any cognitive access to its existence. For example, from the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (5.2.22): “We are ignorant of those powers and forces, on which this regular course and succession of objects totally depends.” And there are several other passages which similarly imply that there really are powers we are not seeing.
This raises a puzzle: just how does Hume have any idea of what he is talking about? Kail suggests that it would not be inconsistent for Hume to claim that while we don’t have detailed knowledge of metaphysical causal glue, we can at least know what it would be like to have this knowledge: it would be to be able to see the effect in its cause, to be able to somehow see why the effect had to come about, given the cause. In short, we can have “the Bare Thought” of causal necessity, even if we do not have knowledge of it, or even a clear idea of what it is. So Hume can consistently believe that there is genuine causality, and we do not have any good knowledge of it.
But what then would motivate Hume to believe in this glue that he has no way of knowing? Here is where things get interesting. According to Galen Strawson (The Secret Connexion), Hume was just too sensible a fellow to take seriously the view that there really isn’t any genuine causality. Perhaps, as he writes, it simply never occurred to him to make much of an effort defending such a basic belief. In fact, Hume made the firmness of his belief pretty clear in a letter to a friend in 1754:
“But allow me to tell you, that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a cause: I only maintain’d, that our Certainty of the Falshood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration: but from another Source” (quoted by Galen Strawson in The Secret Connexion, p. 5).
Kail helps to show what this other Source is. As experience unfolds, we become so accustomed to seeing A then B, A then B, A then B, that we start to infer B-type events from A-type events. Then we make a mistake: we mistake the naturalness of our inference for an insight into a metaphysical necessity. “So the necessary connection depends on the inference, rather than the inference depending on the necessary connection” (108).
But it’s all still a mistake, then, isn’t it? Or, better, it is a lucky mistake, since even though our belief isn’t based on any reason or experience, it nevertheless ends up matching what’s really out there (according to the skeptical realist Hume). Would it be better still to say that our belief ends up matching what Hume himself can’t help but believe is out there?
I think this question brings us to what I call a “dual focus” in Hume’s epistemology. He’s trying to do two things at once, and they don’t quite line up. First, he is offering a “systems approach” to human cognition, explaining how the mind ideally should work as it manufactures ideas out of sensory impressions. If you built a pure Humean system and set it running, the system would never gain an idea of external objects, or of God, or of genuine causal connections. (It also would never become superstitious or have any moral feelings.) Then, secondly, Hume is offering a “natural approach” of understanding the place of humans in the world – we are in the same league as other animals, and because of our animal nature (our imagination, and our passions) we end up believing all kinds of things to which reason itself is blind. In developing this second account, Hume has to rely on causality, as obviously there is no making sense of our place in the world without it.
I think the incoherence of these two approaches becomes apparent in Hume’s discussion of causality in the Enquiry. He first sets out to demonstrate that experience and reason do not give us any evidence for genuine causal connections. Then he turns to explaining why we think there is causality, and his answer is: custom (or, what is the same, conditioning). But custom/conditioning is itself inherently a causal notion: repeated exposure to patterns causes us to expect them to continue into the future. He is taking an element from his naturalizing project to answer a question in his systematic project, and it just can’t do the work it is supposed to do.
It is precisely this incoherence which finally allows Hume to be untroubled by his own skepticism. He proves to himself that we are unjustified in our most important beliefs about the world. But this troubles him only in his philosophical study. As soon as he leaves the study, and goes out to play backgammon and billiards, the acute consciousness of the skeptical man recedes, and he gets on with a natural life. And he realizes that this is the human condition. The examined life makes living impossible. The unexamined life is where we belong.
A couple of students and I are reading David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been, alongside our reading of Schopenhauer, which, among all the ways of passing sunny summer days, must count among the most inappropriate. Benatar’s book is an argument for the claim that bringing people into existence causes them harm. He admits that, once you exist, there may be plenty of good reasons to continue to exist; but there are no good reasons to cause anyone to begin to exist, and in fact strong reasons for not doing so.
His whole argument turns on an alleged asymmetry. We DO think it is a good idea not to bring a being into existence when we know that being’s life will be unrelentingly horrible. Indeed, we are apt to censure someone who brings suffering beings into existence. (Set aside the abortion debate; think of couples who are genetically determined to bring about suffering children, or AIDS babies, or whatever; they ought to refrain from doing so.) But – here’s the alleged asymmetry – we DO NOT think it is a bad idea not to bring into existence a being whose life will be pleasant. That is to say, we are not apt to censure couples who decide not to have children when it is clear that the lives of those children would be very pleasant.
So what? Well, Benatar draws from this alleged asymmetry two claims: (1) it is bad to create a being who suffers; and (2) it is not-bad, or just plain neutral, not to create a being who has pleasure. Now think of all the beings who have been brought into existence. All of their pleasures, or high points, count as morally neutral with respect to the act of creating them. But all of their pains count as “bad” with respect to that act. Since every human life includes some suffering, we can say, of every human life, that it was better for that person never to have been brought into existence in the first place.
I keep calling the analogy “alleged” because I think the contrast is between claims of different logical structure. Take claim (1) above – “it is bad to create a being who suffers.” Now it is GRE time: which of the following is its asymmetrical counterpart?
(2) “it is not-good to create a being who has pleasure”
(3) “it is not-good not to create a being who suffers”
(4) “it is good not to create a being who has pleasure”
(5) “it is good to create a being who has no pleasure”
And, as with any good GRE question, after this you should feel like you no longer understand your own language. I have no idea which of (2)-(5) is the asymmetrical counterpart to (1), though Benatar is sure it’s (2). But after trying to think through all of these, it seems to me that a symmetrical counterpart to (1) – namely, “it is good to create a being who experiences pleasure” – seems to me at least sometimes true. I see a happy couple, with wisdom and means and love; they have children, and I think “How wonderful that these kids have such great lives!” Or I see the same couple without kids, and think “That is a loss; the world is a bit worse off for their surplus of loving support never having been spent.” I’ll admit that my complaint in this latter case is not nearly as strong as my censure when couples stupidly bring into existence suffering children; still, my feelings are a bit more colorful than neutral. And this is exactly what Benatar denies.
Now maybe my logic is limp; it wouldn’t be the first time. But I am so far unconvinced that we always do harm in bringing anyone into existence. It seems to me the truth is messier – sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, and usually we don’t know, or there just isn’t a fact to the matter. Once again, flat-footed skepticism prevails. No shortcuts to case-by-case thinking.
But despite my disagreement, I think Benatar’s book is a great model for contemporary philosophy. It pursues a question that gets at our philosophical hearts – to be, or not to be, that is his question – and it does so with clear prose, short sentences, good analogies, elegant insights, and without getting bogged down in citations and narrow in-fights among the experts. It’s a noble and worthy effort. The world is better off for the book’s having been.
This is an interesting and insightful book on Nietzsche’s philosophy and on ancient skepticism generally. I really admire Berry’s ability to adopt and clearly express judicious opinions, and her ability to anticipate readers’ questions and objections and she moves through her story. This is the best book on Nietzsche’s philosophy I’ve seen in quite a while.
First, it’s clear Nietzsche was thoroughly familiar with the ancient skeptics. As a student and early on as a professor, he was studying several topics that would have led him to Sextus Empiricus. Moreover, as Berry documents throughout, Nz often refers to the skeptics, and they seem to be one of the very few groups he does not heap scorn upon. (French novelists and Italian operatic composers are two others.) In many instances (as Berry documents), Nz frames problems and solutions in ways Sextus himself would appreciate. Plus, Nz is often engaged in the problem of balancing one perspective with another, so that the first ends up less appealing or discredited. When Nz attacks an ideology, he points out the other causal factors which might be leading the ideologues to their conclusions – psychological, societal, dietary, and so on. After we hear Nz’s alternative account, we’re supposed to feel not so sure about the ideologue’s defense of his own position. And as we treat ideas and hypotheses, he wants us to carefully line up considerations for and against, with finely-attuned noses, ears, and tongues for sensing when something is rotten. This “ideology management” technique is very Sexy. (As in “like Sextus,” of course.)
In fact, I think Berry is right to construe Nz as a skeptic on metaphysical and scientific matters. In metaphysics, he does trot out the will-to-power doctrine late in life in all apparent earnestness, but it seems to me he really employs it only as a splendid tool for talking himself and the rest of us out of “thingy” metaphysics. In accounts of humans and nature, he often seems to side with scientific naturalists, but again it’s only to discredit and deflate competing metaphysical views. For on occasion he also deflates naturalistic scientific views, like atomism and belief in universal laws of nature, as beliefs arising from scientists’ own biases. Nz is not so much interested in establishing any metaphysical or scientific truths as he is in establishing an experimental, skeptical attitude that we should take toward ourselves and our experience. We should always be second guessing (or triple guessing) our own psychologies and our own motivations, even when we are doing science, and especially when we are doing psychology or philosophy.
One question Berry must consider (and does) is whether Nz could share the skeptic’s expectation that tranquility will arise from the suspension of belief. The skeptic’s story is that when we successfully purge ourselves of ideologies, we will experience tranquility. Sextus’s own account in that this tranquility simply arises from the suspension of belief – he has no account why it should, and doesn’t laud it as a goal; it’s just a welcome accident. Nz certainly isn’t an advocate of spiritual tranquility – he wants perpetual struggle and strife – but he does think there is a welcome benefit attending to all the hard work. We gain health, and the joy of a free spirit. So one might view this as a Nietzschean variant upon Sextus’s skepticism, and Berry does.
Berry also argues that Nz was a moral skeptic, though here I am unsure. I read Nietzsche as playing back-and-forth with scientific naturalism, with the aim of undermining any confidence we have in any sort of metaphysics. But I don’t see him playing that game at all with morality. He’s straightforward: it’s all wrong, diseased, misguided. Berry’s strategy is to show that the ancient skeptics also committed themselves to the same, profoundly anti-realist conclusion, and maybe that is so; I cannot judge. But here is my thought: if we understand skepticism generally at undermining confidence with the result of not having any beliefs, then Nz wasn’t a skeptic about morality in that sense. He thinks we should end up with some beliefs: namely, that morality is bad, and health is good. Nz seems pretty dogmatic on that score; indeed, I think he can only be a realist about health. If the ancient skeptics were too, in some way or other, well then okay; then the skeptics weren’t skeptical, and were Nietzschean instead.
I recently read James Gleick’s book Information: a history, a theory, a flood. It’s a fascinating account of our varying relationships to information. For a long time, we were only set on getting as much of it as we could; then a theory of information developed in the 20th century (principally by Claude Shannon); and now we are drowning in the stuff. But the question that has been bothering me is : what is it?
It’s not that Gleick ignores the question. It’s just that he’s a journalist, and so his aim is to tell a string of interesting stories. Along the way he mentions the physicist John Wheeler’s view that, ultimately, information is the stuff of the universe – in a slogan, “It from Bit.” But what could it possibly mean to say that everything is composed of information? I can understand a hunk of matter or energy or a field somehow having information. Stuff can have a structure which allows us to extract information from it. But what could it possibly mean for the stuff to be information?
So what is information? I’ve gone from reading Gleick’s book to reading Greene’s The Hidden Reality, which also discusses the idea, and supports Gleick’s account that Wheeler thought information may be everything. There’s a lot more studying I need to do, but right now it seems to me that there are two ways of understanding information. The first is purely objective, having to do with being able to quantify and summarize a thing’s structure, regardless of its usefulness for human beings. On this account, the harder it is to exactly summarize an entity’s features, and transmit it exactly to someone else, the less information it contains. So an unending sequence of “01234567890123456789…” doesn’t contain a lot of information, since even though the sequence is infinite, it can be fully summarized as “0123456789, repeat without end.” On the other hand, a random sequence like “73885629199…” is packed with information, since you can’t adequately summarize its exact features without actually giving it. But this view seems counter-intuitive. Consider this message:
“It is a truth that the group identified as the enemy will in the future do something that can be accurately described as attacking at a time that can be described in complete accuracy as dawn.”
That, according to this first view, contains a lot more information than “The enemy will attack at dawn,” since you would have to transmit a longer sequence in order for another person to reproduce it accurately. Wrong.
The second way of looking at information requires humans to enter the picture and sort out what’s useful and relevant or interesting from what isn’t. In this case, the sequence “314159265…” has a lot more information than our earlier “73885629199…”, since it describes pi, while the second sequence isn’t useful for anything. But bringing in subjective human evaluations sort of makes the science of information less sciency.
Also entering into this mess is the notion of entropy, or lack of order, which also seems to me to draw upon both objective and subjective measures. But I’ve read enough now to believe that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. I need to read more, and some other books are on their way to me.
OK, now that I’ve admitted I don’t really know what information is, what could it mean to say that everything is made of it? Here’s the best stab I have at it, courtesy of Greene’s book. Imagine making a computer simulation of the universe. This simulation would have to include a representation of you doing what you are doing now. That virtual you, in the program, and the virtual everything surrounding that virtual you, exists in the computer program. That is to say that the virtual you and the virtual everything are ultimately bits of information – perhaps being processed by some physical, colossal supercomputer, but that isn’t relevant, since information isn’t tied to particular structures, and nothing would be different in the virtual world if it were running on some other kind of system. It’s the data, and the processing of the data that counts. Now if you really are the virtual you, and everything around you is the virtual everything, then indeed everything is composed of information.
Sounds loopy, but apparently that is one of the ideas being bandied about by those crazy physicists. It is impossible for me to think about any of this without going back to Aristotle, and his account of form. He didn’t go so far as to say that everything is form, but he knew it was what we need to focus on when we want to understand things; the underlying stuff or matter doesn’t really matter much, except as a carrier of form. I’m surprised, sort of, that neither Gleick nor Greene make anything of this. But only “sort of” surprised, since they’re anxious to point out how new all of this is.
I just finished E. L. Doctorow’s novel, Homer & Langley. It’s a retelling of the true story of Homer & Langley Collyer, who, by the time they died in the late 1940s, lived in a place that looked like this:
The Collyer brothers were born in the 1880s and lived until 1947 in their parents’ brownstone in Harlem. They both were educated at Columbia, Homer in law and Langley in engineering. They began to hoard objects after their parents died in the 1920s. After the brothers died (more anon), the police excavated their home and removed about 130 tons of — well, you name it. According to Wikipedia,
Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a child’s chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of the old Model T with which Langley had been tinkering, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old. Near the spot where Homer died, police also found 34 bank account passbooks, with a total of $3,007.18 (about $40,000 in 2008 dollars).
The brothers shunned the outside world, which of course led to many wild rumors about “what they were doing in there,” hidden riches, etc. Children threw stones at the windows and there were several break-in attempts. By the early 1930s, Homer was crippled by rheumatism and had gone blind. Langley foraged for food throughout the city at night and brought it home for Homer. Their story, as you should expect, ends badly. Police entered the house on a tip that there was a dead body in the house. Well, they tried to enter. They ended up having to excavate their way into the house, working through various windows, throwing tons of materials into the streets so they could make their way into the place, until finally an officer found Homer sitting in a chair, slumped over, starved to death. Langley was nowhere to be found. Rumors circulated about how Langley had done his brother in and there was an attempt at a national manhunt, but after a few more days of searching in the house, Langley’s body was found under a mountain of garbage and treasures. Apparently, Langley had constructed various tunnels through the house, rigged with booby traps to ward against intruders, and he accidentally tripped a wire while trying to bring food to Homer. Langley died first, and helpless Homer died days later.
Doctorow’s novel is loosely rooted in the real story, but follows its own path. In the novel, the brothers are born a little later and survive into the 1970s, witnessing the transformations of the century: automobiles, gramophones, wars, beatniks, hippies, and so on. Homer goes blind early on, and then in later years goes deaf as well. Langley fights in WWI and is scarred by mustard gas and becomes embittered toward humanity. His life’s project is an eternal newspaper: convinced that nothing ever really changes except names and dates, he thinks he can assemble the perfect newspaper that captures each and every every day’s events throughout the rest of human time. In a sense, Homer is the reclusive brother – losing sight and then hearing, retreating ever inward into his own mind – and Langley is certainly the hoarder, gathering up all of the changing news and technology of the century into a single place where it can be somehow transformed into an unchanging present. It’s a haunting tale – both the novel and the fact.
I’m just about finished with this book, and I’ve found it very interesting. Laudan approaches the legal process with strictly epistemological interests, asking whether it’s a good system if what we’re after is convicting bad guys and not convicting good guys. On the whole the answer is “no,” so he engages in some speculation about how we might make the process better at tracking the truth.
He knows, of course, that no system will be perfect. So one interesting question he raises is this: what degree of imperfection are we willing to tolerate? Clearly most of us would rather see some guilty people go free than see innocent people convicted — but how many? What’s the ratio? How many murderers or rapists are we willing to see go unpunished for every innocent person wrongly convicted? Let n represent this number. Previous legal theorists have suggested that n equals 5, 10, 100, and 1,000. Laudan seems to settle on 10, though probably just for the sake of making ensuing discussions a bit clearer and more definite. (I suppose experimental philosophy could try to settle this question.)
Laudan also explores what anyone could possibly mean by “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is an important matter, as judges have to say something to jurors about what this means, and if they get it wrong, a case can be overturned. So what does it mean? Laudan claims that it’s usually understood subjectively: it’s when you feel very, very strongly that that defendant is guilty. But he rightly notes that this is not the sort of standard we’d accept anywhere else. Do we tell our scientists to regard a theory as proven when they feel really very sure about it, or disproven when they don’t? Instead, Laudan writes,
The principal question is not whether the jurors, individually and collecively, are convinced by the prosecution. The issue is whether the evidence they have seen and heard should be convincing in terms of the level of support it offers to the prosecutor’s hypothesis that the defendant is guilty.
So it looks like jurors ought to have some schooling in philosophy of science. That’s the only objection I have to Laudan’s recommendation: if only a jury of my peers could be relied upon to make that assessment!
The second half of Laudan’s book argues that the rules of what evidence can be presented slant courts too steeply in favor of defendants. That is, defendants already begin with some sort of presumption that they are innocent (lengthy and intriguing discussion about what this could mean, too), and it’s up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. Laudan basically thinks this is enough of a presumption of innocence. But the rules of evidence preclude the prosecution from bringing in a lot of relevant evidence, relevant for finding the truth of the case, if there is any reasonable doubt (there it is again) about how the evidence has been obtained. Laudan thinks this grotesquely exaggerates the presumption of innocence and makes for far too many false acquittals (i.e., letting the guilty go free). Of course, he wouldn’t argue that the prosecution should be allowed to present anything, however gathered; his claim is only that the existent rules make it too hard to present evidence that really would help the courts to track truth better.
I’m certainly unlearned about all of this, but my first reaction is that I’m leery of relaxing rules of evidence, if only because I don’t see any reason to believe that the police and prosecutors have any interest in getting to the truth as opposed to getting a conviction. There’s no incentive for them to get to the truth. In that context, a defendant needs very strong protection indeed against a very capable and sometimes ruthless team working very hard to put him in jail. Hey, I just want a fair fight.
In any case, I’m finding this a very interesting read.
So suppose you stumble across a packet of four index cards. They read as follows:
#1: “At E there is evidence of M, L, F, and D”
#2: “At M there is evidence of D and F”
#3: “At G there is evidence of D, E, L, and M”
#4: “At T there is evidence of G, L, and F”
If you are a little bit of a puzzle nerd, and you have some urge to interpret these cards as representing moments of time, you can eventually deduce their sequence:
2 -> 1-> 3 -> 4
But this sequence is something you have deduced from the information on each of the cards, and the cards themselves of course exist simultaneously. The temporal sequence is an interpretation of the available evidence.
Okay, this idea is basically what Julian Barbour is proposing in his book The End of Time. Instead of index cards, he begins with a huge quantity of temporal slices of the universe (“Nows”), many of which (“Time Capsules”) contain structures which can be interpreted as implying facts about a temporal sequence. Any structure in which you and I exist, with the active and functioning meat in our heads, is a Time Capsule because of whatever it is about us that encodes our memory. So we end up believing there is a flow of time, since each Now we inhabit is filled, from our point of view, with all sorts of implications about what has happened and will happen. So at every moment, it seems to us there is time. But there isn’t any. Not really.
It is a trippy idea, but Barbour is led to it by reasons most sober. I skimmed most of the details, but the gist is that nothing known by physics today explains why there should be any flow of time. That is, physics talks about different events existing in time, and talks about what happens over time, but why time should be moving in one direction rather than another is unexplained. Moreover, as is widely deplored, the two big camps of physics today, QM and GenRel, do not seem to have ever met one another. Barbour proposes a solution to both of these puzzles: just get rid of time. (Note: in this sense, Barbour is just finding new reasons to agree with McTaggart, in his 1908 essay.)
The idea is exciting to me because of how closely it approaches an idea I’ve been flirting with, balls-to-the-wall skepticism. According to B2WSk, it is perfectly possible that the universe is nothing but random noises, except for a few little islands in which there appears something like WHAT YOU ARE EXPERIENCING RIGHT NOW with your ordered perceptions and memories and feelings of temporal continuity and anticipations of the future. But every seemingly ordered moment is only an island. There is no past, and no future, and precious little present. It only seems like there is, right here, right now; but don’t worry, it will pass.
B2WSk, in my mind, is solipsistic (now that’s a nice phrase!), but Barbour thinks each well-ordered Now is a state of the whole universe. Actually, Barbour goes even broader, and includes the Nows of possible states of the universe — all Nows of all possible worlds — and then arranges some sort of probability distribution over them which makes some of the Nows more likely to exist than others (in accordance with QM).
Does this all mean we should start ignoring our beliefs in the past and our memories. No, according to Barbour. His book concludes:
[Ernst] Mach once commented that ‘In wishing to preserve our personal memories beyond death, we are behaving like the astute Eskimo, who refused with thanks the gift of immortality without his seals and walruses.’ I am not going without them, either. I cannot even if I wanted to: they are part of me. Like you, I am nothing and yet everything. I am nothing because there is no personal canvas on which I am painted. I am everything because I am the universe seen from the point, unforeseeable because it is unique, that is me now. C’est moi. I am bound to stay. We all watch – and participate in – the great spectacle. Immortality is here. Our task is to recognize it. Some Nows are thrilling and beautiful beyond description. Being in them is the supreme gift.
Except for the little bit at the end there, I think Barbour has managed to come up with the only metaphysics that could compete with Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence as a means of affirming the value of the here and now. It’s not the thrill or the beauty that makes a Now valuable. It is, I would suggest, it’s uniqueness, the sheer improbability of something like this ever cropping up in existence, no matter what beauty, ugliness, thrills, or banality it includes. And it is no gift, if ‘gift’ implies a giver. It comes from nowhere, and then goes back home.
Close, A Very Short Introduction to Nothing – a neat and fascinating summary of contemporary thought about vacua. Turns out we can’t find nothing anywhere – there’s always something going on.
Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas – an intelligent summary of the history general education in American universities, including thoughtful suggestions and some incisive criticisms of professorial complacency.
Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop – or, “I am a Self-Involved Mathematician.”
Stephenson, Anathem – wow. An adventure in a parallel universe where philosopher/scientists live in monasteries, walled off from a world of consumerism and fanatic religions, and are visited by a huge spaceship piloted by denizens of four other possible worlds. Really interesting and creative … but 900 pages?!
Barbour, The End of Time – “After 35 years of thinking about it, I now believe that time and motion are illusions.”
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.
I recently finished this book, which aims at correcting current ways of doing metaphysics by insisting that metaphysicians take seriously what contemporary physics tells us about the world.
The problem is that “many” (I guess) contemporary metaphysicians suppose that the world, ultimately, is composed of tiny, billiard-ball like particles, which bang in to each other, and somehow generate the macroscopic world we experience. Sure, there are supposed to be some complications coming from the direction of quantum mechanics, but metaphysicians typically suppose that whatever complications there are may be safely ignored.
Not so, say these guys. Lots of claims passing for “apriori” or “intuitively certain” among metaphysicians are just false, if we take physics seriously. The positive campaign of this book is to show what a scientifically-respectable metaphysics would look like. As it turns out, we are wrong to think of thing-like particles as fundamental. What’s fundamental, it seems, are certain structures best described through mathematics, from which we derive claims about so-called “particles” and “waves” and “fields”. So what’s real, ultimately, are structures. Further down the road, we discover that these structures somehow contribute, at some level of analysis, to “patterns,” which we may identify as macroscopic objects (including you and me), and their characteristic behaviors. Structures and patterns; that’s it. Every thing must go!
I skimmed 80% of the book, since I’m not well-educated enough to follow all the science. But I hope I’ve come through with a roughly accurate summary. I like the way it confirms Nz’s view that we are wrong to let our grammar determine our ontology, and Spinoza’s view that individuals aren’t genuinely real, when all is said and done. But I’m wary, since more than once I’ve read something like this and entered into discussion with physicists, only to discover I’ve been sold a bill of goods. It really does frustrate me that there’s no easy way to get a decent synopsis of all this important stuff, and incorporate it into philosophy, without doing all the real work required to have a thorough understanding. What’s a lazy guy like me to do?
Most readers are probably familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis. The basic idea is that the Bible, as an artifact, is best explained by supposing that it is a compilation of several ancient texts, written by different people in different times and cultures. Somebody (“the Redactor,” maybe Ezra) compiled many of the texts by the third century BCE. This explains why not all of the stories fit smoothly together; why there are two accounts of creation, and two accounts of the ten commandments; and why the style varies so much. Moreover, as one delves into the Bible along with archeology and the study of ancient civilizations, one begins to suspect that many of the stories served quite different purposes that the ones uninformed readers project upon the stories nowadays — or, indeed, from the first century CE onward.
An example. After Moses and the Jews have left Egypt, they get into a battle with the Amelekites (Exodus 17). Moses’s plan is to have Joshua command the Israelites while Moses stands atop a nearby hill and holds up his hands. So long as Moses’s hands are outstretched, the Israelites do well; but if he lets them drop, they begin to fail. Moses’s arms get tired, so his helpers give him a rock to sit on and help prop up his arms, and the Israelites eventually prevail.
Weird story. What does it mean? Jewish commentators say something along the lines of, “So long as we turn up our hands in supplication to the Lord, we have his favor.” Christian readers suggest that Moses, in stretching out his arms, foreshadowed the crucifixion, and the victory over death. But compare these readings to a more ordinary hypothesis. The name of the place where the battle takes place, Rephidim, resembles a Hebrew phrase meaning “spread out” or “prop up.” When you say the name aloud, it sounds sort of like you are saying “the hands grew weak.” So maybe, in the area, there was a prominent hill with a couple of rocks on top of it, called “Rephidim,” and the Moses story was invented to explain how the hill got its name. My family when I was growing up similarly made up all sorts of stories about how “Sheboygan” got its name, all of them invoking an ancient Indian who was disappointed at his wife’s inability to give birth to a daughter (“She boy again!” Har har).
Kugel, in this book, provides many similar etiological hypotheses (explaining weird stories as attempts to explain how a place got its name, or why we have some expression, or why two groups don’t get along, and so on). The overall effect is twofold. On the one hand, the Bible becomes a very interesting and complicated text from which you might be able to learn a lot about how ancient people saw their world, as well as how they tried to explain it. On the other hand, a lot of divine significance is drained from the work. Many allegedly inspired and inspiring stories turn out to be just about as rich as my old “Sheboygan” stories.
What’s fascinating is that Kugel is an Orthodox Jew, and so he really wants to revere the text, though his reverence is challenged by his considerable expertise and knowledge. He ends up with the following view. Yes, there are humdrum natural explanations for everything in this old, complicated text. But what makes it sacred are the layers and layers of interpretations that commentators have shellacked over it for centuries. The text has managed to hold the fascination of brilliant scholars for all that time, and the interpretations are wondrous, and somewhere in all that lies the sanctity of the work.
I’m glad this works for Kugel, and I’m hesitant to ask whether he’d also revere any work that supported wild misinterpretations over several generations. (He does give a groovy religious reading of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes,” so I’m guessing this possibility has already occurred to him.) This seems to me to be clearly a case of denying what he knows to be true, and hiding behind a thin veil of hermeneutics.
This is a fascinating book, though — highly readable and well-informed (I guess, but what do I know?). I really think it needs to be read by anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously, or by anyone who wants to get a clearer picture of how this book — the most influential one in the western world, by far — came to be written.
I’ve been reading a weird variety of books lately, two of which are The Cambridge Companion to Charles Darwin and Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (actually, re-reading this one).
Several of the essays in the Darwin book concern Darwinism and ethics. I think a reasonable view of the connection between the two is as follows. There is, no doubt, some evolutionary account to be given of why human beings have ended up with a certain range of moral emotions, including fear, anger, surprise, happiness, sadness, disgust, and contempt. Having these emotions, and sharing roughly the same responses to the same things, helps foster coordination and cooperation, which seem to be a good thing for the survival of individuals.
Some people might raise Moore’s objection: but so what if caring about other people has evolutionary advantages? What is the link between such advantages and morality? What makes it good? I’m not much interested in this objection, since it makes sense only if you assume there is some pure form of morality. Seems unlikely to me.
But here’s a more interesting objection: are we beholden in any way to continue caring about others, or to continue to foster coordination and cooperation? Well, no, I would say — except for the fact that all or most of us actually do have an interest in living in a stable society, counting on sympathy from others, etc. It’s only our actual interests that give us any reason to further promote the “virtues” that evolution has coached us toward promoting. And if our interests change, so too will our virtues. But it’s hard, at least right now, to see the advantages of coordination and cooperation fading away. (Unless I get that Iron Man suit.)
This general approach ties in well with what I’ve been reading about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Menand’s book. The Civil War taught Holmes that certainty leads to violence, and so he became skeptical of ideologies, moral certainties, and all isms — except, I guess, for his own certainty that war is unspeakably horrible. You might see connections to Vonnegut here; but actually Holmes ends up far colder. He must have seen the job of gov’t, and law, as trying to stave off violence that inevitably comes about, since people can’t help feeling certain. It’s sort of the job of a herd manager: these animals will end up wanting to kill each other, so try to sort things out ahead of time to keep carnage to a minimum. What the animals believe is almost beside the point; they’ll all end up adopting the beliefs of the less-losing side anyway, eventually. His opinions on social issues brought before the Supreme Court weren’t determined by any high ideals, but from a colder, distant, managerial perspective. He famously agreed with a state claiming the right to sterilize mentally-deficient adults, saying that three generations of idiots were enough.
And, of course, I hear Nietzsche in the background. The task is to legislate our moral ends, in full cognizance of our evolutionary past and the constraints of the present. But the Darwinian/Holmesian thinking lacks the Nzean end of producing some sort of heroic individual. We have to get not only beyond good and evil, but also Prussian “Big-Man”-ism.