Category Archives: Metaphysics

True love, fungible love, and the Flash

Barry Allen (the Flash) kisses Iris West

Is love possible across multiple worlds? Does True Love (TM) exist, metaphysically speaking? These and other fun questions are addressed by Mike LaBossiere in an article that is as much fun to read as it is an example of how philosophy — particularly metaphysics — can seriously miss the point when it comes to crucial aspects of our lives. Let me explain by way of a story concerning one of my favorite superheroes, the Flash.

In season 2, episode 13 of the television series, entitled “Welcome to Earth-2,” Flash — the fastest man on Earth (one) — travels to a parallel Earth in order to figure out how to defeat the supervillain of the season, a guy named Zoom. It doesn’t matter why all this is happening, what matters is that Flash, known to the world as Barry Allen, meets the doppelgänger of the love of his life, Iris West. Barry-1 is perfectly aware that he is in the presence of Iris-2, who is a parallel version of the woman he loves, not the “real” thing. And yet, he simply can’t avoid having the same feelings for Iris-2 that he has for Iris-1 back on Earth Prime.

LaBossiere’s article explores the metaphysics of this situation, considering two possibilities: (i) it is rational for Barry-1 to be in love with Iris-2, on the grounds that Iris-2 is, for all effective purposes, the same woman he fell in love with on Earth-1, meaning that she looks the same, has the same interests, sense of humor, way of speaking, and so forth. Love, in this scenario, is fungible. Or: (ii) it is not rational for Barry-1 to be in love with Iris-2 for the reason that she is not his True Love, even though she looks and acts like it.

LaBossiere defends position (i), pointing out that (ii) stems from a metaphysically Kantian, and highly doubtful, view of the self. I will argue that the real answer is indeed close to LaBossiere’s, but that it makes more sense to arrive at it by way of a very different route. Indeed, this has already been done by one of my favorite philosopher-comedians: Tim Minchin. Let’s parse this out carefully.

I’m going to start from option (ii), the “Kantian” view. As LaBossiere is careful to point out, Kant never actually wrote about True Love. But he famously did reject David Hume’s view of the self as just a “bundle of perceptions,” thinking instead that our experiences happen to a unified, metaphysically “thick,” self. A metaphysical self is necessary in order to talk about True Love, the sort of love that Barry Allen can feel only for Iris West-1, and not for her doppelgänger. This is because if Kant is right, and there is such thing as a metaphysical self, then each of us has one and only one self, and anyone who merely looks or talks like us is still (metaphysically) quite distinct from us.

One way to make sense of this position is to imagine meeting for the first time your loved one’s twin. You might naturally feel attracted by her, especially if the twin has no only the looks, but also the opinions and mannerisms of your love. But, according to LaBossiere’s interpretation of Kant, you would be mistaken: regardless of superficial similarities, the twin is metaphysically, at her core, simply not your love.

This, says LaBossiere, goes well with the Dysneyesque intuition that a lot of people seem to share that there really is such a thing as True Love. The problem, as he acknowledges, is that the notion is both scientifically unfalsifiable and metaphysically suspect, and that Hume’s view of the self is actually far more convincing than Kant’s. Hume’s take both makes fewer arbitrary assumptions and is more congruent with what we actually observe via introspection. Not to mention that it goes better with much modern research in cognitive science. As Hume famously put it:

“When I enter most intimately into what I call myself I always stumble on some particular perception or other….and never can observe anything but the perception.” (Treatise, 1.4.6. para. 3)

If that is the case, let us then consider option (i): love is fungible, as they say. It makes sense to be in love with anyone who shares a substantial number of physical and mental characteristics with your original love, other things being equal.

Here LaBossiere helps himself to the idea of parallel universes, in effect arguing that what Barry Allen finds attractive in, and the reason he falls in love with, Iris West, is just the sum total of Iris’ characteristics, from her physical appearance to her interests, from her mental abilities to her moral character. If this is true, it follows that it is perfectly reasonable for Barry to be in love not just with Iris-1, but with any Iris from any of the infinite parallel Earths (so long as, I suppose, their individual life trajectories don’t actually lead them to become adult human beings that are significantly different in some crucial respect from Iris-1).

As LaBossiere summarizes the point (I changed the specific names he uses to keep with the example from The Flash):

“While this is less romantic than the idea of metaphysical True Love, it is more realistic and intuitively appealing. When one person talks about why they love another, they talk about the qualities of the person. Some dating services also make a big deal about testing people for various qualities and using them to find compatibility and love. Scientists also talk about the emotion of love as being driven by genes in search of suitable genes to combine with. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that when Barry loves Iris, he loves her qualities. As such, if it was rational for Barry-1 to love Iris-1, then it is just as rational for Barry-1 to love Iris-35756. There is, after all, no discernible difference between the Irises.”

LaBossiere’s conclusion strikes me as fundamentally correct, but it is also an example of what Italians sarcastically refer to as the Ufficio Complicazioni Affari Semplici (Office for the Complication of Simple Affairs). I mean, sure, one can invoke the multiverse to make the point, or — far more simply — one can do like the above mentioned Tim Minchin, and simply look at the issue from the point of view of basic statistics and biological-cultural diversity among human beings.

In his “If I didn’t have you,” a song dedicated to his real life wife and long time love, Sarah, Tim says, in part:

“If I didn’t have you [insert a number a good things about Sarah]
You would think I would have somebody else
If I didn’t have you, someone else would do
[more good things about Sarah]
Your love is one in a million, you couldn’t buy it at any price
But out of the other 999,999 possible others
Someone else would be equally nice
Or maybe not nice, but say smarter than you
Or dummer but better at sports
I’m just saying, I would probably have somebody else

It is just mathematically unlikely that I would stumble
On the one woman specifically designed for me

I don’t think you are special. I mean, you are special
But you fall within a Bell curve.”

You get the gist. Minchin has simply and straightforwardly gotten rid of the “Kantian” idea of True Love, as well as endorsed LaBossiere’s point about the fungibility of real love. All without the need for any metaphysical heavy lifting (assuming that metaphysics can, in fact, do any lifting at all). A simple understanding of how life works, a basic appreciation of probability theory, and a good sense of humor will do just fine.

I’ll leave you with the full video of Minchin’s song, well worth watching:

Against ecstasy

My friend Jules Evans has recently published an essay arguing that religion has no monopoly on transcendent experience. The essay is in part inspired by his new book, The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience. Despite the title of this post, I have nothing against ecstatic experiences per se, nor do I think that religion has, or ought to have, a monopoly over them. But I do think Jules gets a good number of things wrong, and I’m going to argue why.

Jules’ Aeon piece opens by recounting a mystical experience that occurred to the British author Philip Pullman back in 1969: “[he] was walking down the Charing Cross Road in London, when his consciousness abruptly shifted. It appeared to him that ‘everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes’. [He] wasn’t on drugs, although he had been reading a lot of books on Renaissance magic. But he told me he believes that his insight was valid, and that ‘my consciousness was temporarily altered, so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of routine ordinary perception.’ He had a deep sense that the Universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose.’ He says: ‘Everything I’ve written has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’”

Jules goes on to say that Pullman calls that sort of experience “transcendent,” but that he prefers the term “ecstatic.” I call it hallucination.

Is it possible that a sudden (apparently unprovoked by drugs, but it could have been) shift in conscious perceptions gives a human being temporary access to a deeper reality (whatever that means)? Sure, it’s possible. Is it the most likely explanation of what happened to Pullman? Hardly. And as I wrote in a previous post, confusing mere logical possibility with actual empirical probability is a major portal into woo-thinking, defined as “adj., concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey. Also n., a person who has mystical or new age beliefs.”

Jules continues: “Over the past five centuries, Western culture has gradually marginalised and pathologised ecstasy. That’s partly a result of our shift from a supernatural or animist worldview to a disenchanted and materialist one. In most cultures, ecstasy is a connection to the spirit world.”

Indeed, although I would call supernatural and animist worldviews rather naive and ungrounded in reality, while disenchanted materialism is about looking at the world as it actually is (insofar as we understand it), and not as we wish it would be. There is, based on what is reasonable to know, no such thing as a spirit world.

Notice, incidentally, Jules’ tendentious use of words here: “disenchanted” and “materialism,” rather than, say, “reason-based” and “naturalism.” To be disenchanted is not usually considered a good thing, as disenchantment is next door to cynicism (with a small-c, not the ancient philosophy). And materialism sounds harsher than naturalism (yes, I’m aware that philosophically the two are not the same thing, but the opposite of supernatural is natural, not material).

Jules mentions an interesting statistic: “The polling company Gallup has, since the 1960s, measured the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In 1960, only 20 per cent of the population said they’d had one or more. Now, it’s around 50 per cent.” He takes this as a good sign, telling his readers that if they had some such experience they are not alone. But I find it disturbing that half the population has at times lost contact with reality, and am puzzled by the fact that the percentage has more than doubled in the past half century. Why would that be? Are human beings suddenly developing better abilities to get in touch with the Deep Beyond? More likely (again, possibility vs probability!) we live in times that are alienating and disturbing for a larger and larger chunk of the population, which then seeks relief in fantasies, whether induced by drugs or not. Both the problem (alienation) and the response (fantasizing) are worrisome, because wishful thinking has never been an effective answer to life’s difficulties.

Jules tells us that “the philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, also had a ‘mystic moment’ when he suddenly felt filled with love for people on a London street. The experience didn’t turn him into a Christian, but it did turn him into a life-long pacifist.” I’m not so sure it did, Russell was a lifelong liberal-progressive. But at any rate I can hardly see one of the founders of modern analytical philosophy entertaining for a moment that his subjective experience was somehow a reliable window into an alternate, and better, perception of reality. The revealing phrase here being “it didn’t turn him into a Christian”…

Jules got interested in ecstasy after he had a bad accident when he was younger, a near-death experience during which he felt “immersed in love and light.” I’m really glad he survived and recovered, but a fleeting sensation one has under extreme circumstances hardly counts as evidence of a deeper reality, as much as I’m sure it was very psychologically useful to him. When he says “I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self,’ ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you,” I would say that no, there is nothing in you that cannot be damaged, and to believe so is a delusion. You just got very, very lucky. But then again, I am a “disenchanted materialist” who thinks that there is no reason to believe in a soul or a pure consciousness. (Though I do believe there is a self, of the Humean type, i.e., a constantly shifting, dynamic bundle of perceptions. That one too, of course, is hardly indestructible.)

Jules departs from the views of the above mentioned Philip Pullman, who thinks that ecstatic experiences just happen, they cannot be sought: “I disagree. It seems to me that humans have always sought ecstasy. The earliest human artefacts — the cave paintings of Lascaux — are records of Homo sapiens’ attempt to get out of our heads. We have always sought ways to ‘unself,’ as the writer Iris Murdoch called it, because the ego is an anxious, claustrophobic, lonely and boring place to be stuck.”

This passage reveals a number of things. First off, Jules is equivocating (in the philosophical sense, and very likely not on purpose, i.e., not in order to deceive his readers) on the meaning of ecstasy. Art surely is an attempt to “get out of our heads,” as he puts it, in a lose sense to “transcend” our selves. But so is, for instance, science. Just watch Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot if you doubt it.

Indeed, anything that we human beings do beyond taking care of our basic need to survive is an attempt to transcend ourselves, from paintings to music, from science to mathematics, from religion to philosophy. But it seems very strange to me to assent to the notion that our ego is a lonely and boring place. It is whatever we make of it. There is a wonderful world out there, full of other, fascinating human beings. There is a vast universe out there, full of wonders beyond our imagination. What sort of a small mind could possibly find that either lonely or boring?

How do we actively seek ecstasy, according to Jules? “In its most common-garden variety, we can seek what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow.’ By this he meant moments where we become so absorbed in an activity that we forget ourselves and lose track of time. We could lose ourselves in a good book, for example, or a computer game. The author Geoff Dyer, who’s written extensively on ‘peak experiences,’ says: ‘If you asked me when I’m most in the zone, obviously it would be playing tennis. That absorption in the moment, I just love it.’ … Or we turn to sex, which the feminist Susan Sontag called the ‘oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing their mind.’”

Of course. And I lose myself, or experience flow, in all sorts of experiences, including — bizarrely, I know — while writing blog posts or books. But none of this has anything whatsoever to do with Jules’ starting point, which, remember, was the perception of a deeper reality about the world. One can be a perfectly thoroughgoing “disenchanted materialist” and still lose oneself in a game of tennis. Or in sex (I much prefer the latter.)

Jules tells us that “such everyday moments might seem a long way from the mystical ecstasy of St. Teresa of Ávila, but I would suggest that there is a continuum from moments of light absorption and ego-loss to much deeper and more dramatic ego-dissolution. Csikszentmihalyi agrees, saying that moments of flow are ‘the kind of experience which culminates in ecstasy.’”

But there is, in fact, no reason at all to think that either Jules or Csikszentmihalyi are right. Rather than a continuum I see a hopeless mix of apples and oranges, and I seriously doubt St. Teresa would appreciate her mystical views being mentioned in the same sentence as tennis playing and sex.

Yet Jules tells us that “that’s what humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, through various ecstatic techniques such as strenuous dancing, chanting, fasting, self-inflicted pain, sensory deprivation or mind-altering drugs.” Okay, if those are the choices, I’ll take sex and tennis, in that order. Or perhaps a dose of my favorite drug, a dirty martini with three large olives, shaken, not stirred.

Despite his skepticism of disenchanted materialism, Jules does bring in science when it seems to favor his take on things, as many people inclined toward mysticism do: “researchers have discovered that one dose of psychedelics reliably triggers ‘mystical experiences’ — moments where people report a sense of ego-dissolution and connection to all things, including to spirit beings or God. … One dose of psilocybin helped to reduce chronic depression and addiction, and also significantly reduced the fear of death in patients with cancer.”

But, insofar as we can reasonably tell, there are no spirit beings or gods, so what psychedelics are triggering are hallucinations, defined as “a sensory experience of something that does not exist outside the mind, caused by various physical and mental disorders, or by reaction to certain toxic substances, and usually manifested as visual or auditory images” ( And while there is no doubt that drugs can help with medical conditions, that does in no way make them reliable guides to the Deep Beyond, nor does it mean we should take them to buttress our wishful thinking, in turn generated by our “lonely and boring ego.” You feel lonely? Get out and meet people. You feel bored? Read a good book, enter in conversation with the best minds humanity has ever produced. Have sex. Play tennis, even.

And then comes more (pseudo)science from the article: “A 1979 study by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield in California found that 40 per cent of participants on a two-week meditation retreat reported unusual experiences such as rapture and visions (including hellish visions). Kornfield writes: ‘From our data it seems clear that the modern psychiatric dismissal of these so-called ‘mystical’ and altered states as psychopathology … is simply due to the limitations of the traditional Western psychiatric mental-illnesses oriented model of the mind.’”

Uhm, no. What the study shows is that meditation can trigger side effects of the hallucinatory type. Which may still be acceptable if meditation provides benefits to its practitioners (it does, I myself practice), but, again, is absolutely no reason to reject “Western” science (i.e., science). If you have hallucinations while taking drugs you are normal. If you have them at frequent random intervals in your regular life you should see a psychiatrist.

Jules gives us another fascinating personal testimony: “I spent a year exploring the world of charismatic Christianity, including the globally renowned Alpha course, and eventually succumbed to the ecstasy myself. It happened in a church in Pembrokeshire filled with Pentecostal pensioners. Suddenly, I felt filled with a force that knocked me back and took my breath away. It felt like proof. The preacher asked if anyone wanted to commit their life to Jesus and, at the back of the church, I raised my hand. The next week, I announced my conversion on my newsletter, and around a third of my subscribers immediately unsubscribed.
A few weeks later, however, the high passed, and the doubts came back. There were still basic tenets of Christianity that I couldn’t accept, particularly the idea that the only way to God is through faith in Jesus. So what had happened? Had I been hypnotised by the preacher, the ritual and the crowd emotion? Yes, probably. But that doesn’t mean it was unhealthy or unspiritual.”

Actually, Jules, that’s precisely what it means: it was both unhealthy and unspiritual. As shown by your own rather quick de-conversion (“the high passed”), once you had time to reflect on what had happened.

“Ultimately, there’s something in us that calls to us, that pulls us out the door. Let’s find out where it leads.” Well, go ahead, but proceed with caution. As for me, I’m heading to sharing a nice dirty martini with some of my close friends.

The metaphysics of constitution and bodily awareness: a case of philosophers studying chmess?

IMG_9167In a famous essay that was republished as part of his Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Dan Dennett introduced the difference between chess (the well known game) and “chmess”:

“Some philosophical research projects — or problematics, to speak with the more literary types — are rather like working out the truths of chess. A set of mutually agreed-upon rules are presupposed — and seldom discussed — and the implications of those rules are worked out, articulated, debated, refined. So far, so good. Chess is a deep and important human artifact, about which much of value has been written. But some philosophical research projects are more like working out the truths of chmess. Chmess is just like chess except that the king can move two squares in any direction, not one. I just invented it. … There are just as many a priori truths of chmess as there are of chess (an infinity), and they are just as hard to discover. And that means that if people actually did get involved in investigating the truths of chmess, they would make mistakes, which would need to be corrected, and this opens up a whole new field of a priori investigation, the higher-order truths of chmess … Now none of this is child’s play. In fact, one might be able to demonstrate considerable brilliance in the group activity of working out the higher-order truths of chmess. Here is where psychologist Donald Hebb’s dictum comes in handy: If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.”

The point, which I try to keep in mind every time I decide to invest time and energy in a project, is that some philosophical problems are well worth the effort (chess), and others are more akin to mental masturbations (chmess), even though the latter can be both difficult and pleasurable in themselves. I also, reflexively at this point, apply the same criterion when I read or listen to other people’s works, filing away my impressions in a continuous effort to adjust my opinions about different fields of philosophy (or science) by the method of reflective equilibrium. Couple this with my occasional returns to the field of analytic metaphysics, to see what’s it about and what’s it worth, and you have the theme for this post. (There are other kinds of metaphysics that I find more obviously worthwhile, as in this case.)

A recent occasion for such chess vs chmess reflections was given to me by attending a talk at the City College of New York, delivered by Rina Tzinman of Bilkent University (Turkey), entitled “Constitution and bodily awareness: a puzzle.” The rest of this commentary has nothing to do with the philosophical abilities of Tzinman, which struck me as of high level, but rather with whether what she was doing was chess or chmess.

Let me set the stage, based on the handout that Tzinman provided us to better follow her talk. Before getting to what the “puzzle” referred to in her title is about, we need to introduce a definition of constitution: it is an asymmetric, irreflexive relation between a material object and that which it is made of. For instance, some statues are made of (constituted by) lumps of clay.

This is relevant because some philosophers have advanced a constitution view of personal identity, and personal identity is one of the major issues in analytic metaphysics. The constitution view says that human persons are constituted by, but are not numerically identical to, human animals.

Hence the puzzle: persons and the human animals that constitute them seem (to the metaphysician) to share many properties, including, importantly, mental features. For instance, whenever a person thinks “I am a person,” the animal has that very same thought. (Obviously, adds the biologist and no-nonsense philosopher in me…)

Why is this a problem? Actually, according to some analytic metaphysicians, this opens up a number of issues, listed by Tzinman at the beginning of her talk:

(i) It is absurd that we share our place with coincident thinkers. (Wait, what??)

(ii) The constitution view of personal identity leads to an epistemological problem: how can we know that we are persons, rather than human animals that coincide with persons? (Again, wait, what??)

(iii) The same view undermines the commonly (though by all means not universally) accepted Lockean notion of a person as “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself.” (Well, if so, too damn bad for the Lockean notion, no?)

Let’s pause for a moment. By this point in the talk I began to lean strongly toward the conclusion that I was witnessing an example of chmess studies in action. Let me be clear about what I (and Dennett) mean by this. I’m definitely not saying that this is “bullshit,” or “nonsense,” some of the preferred terms abused by so-called skeptics who think they know enough philosophy to criticize it (see the recent Boghossian-Lindsay debacle). I’m saying that a number of talented philosophers, including but not limited to Tzinman and several of the scholars she cited, have been spending time and energy to solve a problem that appears to be such only because they bought into a number of assumptions that the rest of us simply scratch their head about before tossing them out.

For instance, (i) above is clearly a non-problem: there is no absurdity brought about by the existence of coincident thinkers, because the whole idea of “coincident thinkers” comes out of a misguided mereological account. I — the human person Massimo Pigliucci — am not a distinct thinker from the animal that is a member of the species Homo sapiens that other such animals label as “Massimo Pigliucci.” We are one thinker, not two.

Similarly, there is no epistemological problem (ii) at play here: obviously I know that I am both a human person and an animal, no possible confusion could arise here, other than in the minds of analytic metaphysicians who got accustomed to think in an odd way throughout their training as graduate students.

Finally, and as much as I don’t actually buy the Lockean account of personal identity, the current situation presents no problem at all for it (iii) for the simple reason that there is no absurdity and no epistemological issue at play.

Nevertheless, let us follow Tzinman a bit more in her chmess game, before finally recover some sanity and go back to chess. At this point in the talk she presented Lynne Baker’s solution, against which she later raised objections, as her original contribution to the debate.

Baker distinguishes between non-derivative and derivative possession of properties. The idea is that we have the property of being a person non-derivatively, while “the animal” has it derivatively. “It” is a conscious, thinking being in virtue of me being a conscious, thinking being. “The animal” inherits those properties from me.

Contrariwise, I inherit some properties from my constituent animal, like the ability to digest, circulate blood, metabolize, etc.

Therefore, Baker suggests, even though there are strictly speaking two thinkers (as well as two digesters, metabolizers, etc.), there is only one primary thinker, me, the person. That, allegedly, solves problems (i)-(iii) above.

New pause. What the heck?? But then again: clever! Baker’s solution is brilliant because — once you bought into the modus operandi of analytic metaphysics — there is indeed a logical puzzle in place, and Baker’s answer is very good (though not without problems, argued Tzinman). But of course there is no sensible reason at all to buy into that modus operandi to begin with. There is no distinction between me the person and “the animal” within me. It makes no sense to say that the animal is conscious in virtue of the person being conscious. In fact, if anything, a biologist would say that it is the other way around: certain neural and other characteristics of the human animal make it possible for it to be conscious, and therefore to be a person. Similarly for my ability to digest, metabolize, etc. I don’t “inherit” it from the animal because I am the animal. It is misleading talk, rooted, again, in a bizarre mereological error.

Okay, let’s resume with Tzinman’s talk, to see what her problem with Baker’s “solution” to the chmess problem under examination is. She introduced the distinction between self- and bodily awareness. Self-awareness is awareness of consciousness, of oneself as a subject. Bodily awareness, by contrast, is being aware of oneself qua object. For instance: if I think of a red ball, I am aware of my own mental state as a thinker; but when I become aware of my body because I press it against another object, I experience body awareness. So far so good, though not terribly enlightening.

How are bodily and self-awareness related? The token identity thesis says that some token states of bodily awareness are identical to token states of self-awareness. For instance, if you go jogging and you exert yourself, you are both — at the same time — aware of your aching and sweating body (bodily awareness) and of the fact that you, the person, is jogging (self-awareness). This does not mean that every token of one type of awareness is identical to every token of the other, just that that is the case in some instances. (Clearly, as sometimes I am aware of my thinking processes without paying attention to my body, and sometimes I am focused on my body sensations without thinking also about myself as a person.)

Stay with me, we are almost there. The puzzle raised by Tzinman against Baker gets going with the observation that self-awareness is a personal property, while bodily awareness is an “animal” property. Persons are self-aware, non-derivatively, while animals are self-aware only derivatively. Vice versa, human animals are bodily aware non-derivatively, while the person that they “constitute” is bodily aware derivatively.

Please notice how all of this makes perfect sense. It isn’t gibberish. There is an internal logic to the whole thing. Again, this isn’t “nonsense” or “bullshit.” It’s just chmess rather than chess.

And finally for the puzzle itself: what happens when a person is in a token state of self-awareness that also happens to be a token state of bodily awareness? It seems like, according to Tzinman, we have to say that the person is self-aware both derivatively and non-derivatively, which is a contradiction, and therefore a reductio ad absurdum of Baker’s view (she actually spelled out this is a properly formal argument, with a number of premises leading to the reductio as a conclusion).

Indeed, this is a formally valid reductio. But only if one bought into the whole bizarre idea that persons and their constitutive human animals are two mereologically distinct things in the first place. If one rejects that way of thinking, in favor of the more obvious biological account that being a person is a normal property of adult members of a particular species of social primates, then you just wasted the last several minutes following the meandering of a clever argument that is not relevant to anything of import. Moreover, Tzinman, Baker, and others have wasted years of their lives playing chmess rather than chess.

One more time: this is not meant to imply that these people are not clever, or that it doesn’t take effort to do what they do. And before you smugly say something along the lines of “I knew it! Philosophers engage in mental masturbation, so philosophy is useless,” I’ll remind you that there are lots of philosophers who play chess, devoting their careers to things that matter — for instance Michael Sandel on applied ethics, just to mention an example among many.

Let me also remind you that, as a scientist, I could easily come up with loads of examples of scientists who have engaged in their version of chmess. One of my favorite is that of a colleague who gave a talk years ago when I was at Stony Brook University, and who had spent his whole life studying the sexual habits of a particular species of moth found in Panama. When pressed, during the q&a, about the more general implications of his research (which few of us, apparently, could even begin to imagine), his ultimate answer was a shrugging of the shoulders accompanied by “well, it is intrinsically interesting.” That’s academese code for “it interests me, and I’m lucky enough to get paid to do it.”

The moral of the story: lots of clever people do lots of clever things. But it would pay off, both for themselves and for society at large, if they did remind themselves of Donald Hebb’s dictum: If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.

One more on mathematical Platonism

IMG_8215Mathematical Platonism is one of those things I changed my mind about over time. And, of course, I may change it again. I began with curiosity and at least partial assent, convinced that mathematics is, indeed, uncannily weird. Too weird for there not to be some substance to the idea that mathematical truths are not invented by mathematicians, but rather “discovered,” in a way analogous to how astronomers discover planets (though, obviously, not literally: no telescope will ever show you the Pythagorean theorem…).

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Can evolution have a higher purpose? No.

Robert Wright, the author of The Moral Animal and a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary, has written a provocative article recently in the New York Times’ Stone column, entitled “Can evolution have a higher purpose?” His answer is a qualified and rather nuanced yes. Mine, as we shall see, is a decided no. But my no also comes with some qualifications. Our differences might be useful to those who want to think about the nature of science (the subject matter of philosophy of science) and the nature of the world (the subject matter of metaphysics).

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Biological essentialism? No thanks

P. Godfrey-Smith (left) and M. Devitt (right)

A few weeks ago my CUNY Graduate Center’s colleague Michael Devitt gave a colloquium entitled “Individual essentialism in biology,” which was followed by a response/commentary by Peter Godfrey-Smith by the title “Modality, essence, and biology.” I thought it was a really interesting example of two top notch philosophers going at each other, respectively defending and criticizing a given central thesis, in the best tradition of analytical philosophy (no, I do not mean this as a sneer). It was also, however, a rather surreal experience for a biologist turned philosopher of science such as myself. I mean, essentialism, seriously?

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Against biological Platonism

A rendition of the Library of Babel, by J.L. Borges

Despite the title of this blog, I have made it clear that I reject any form of Platonism, from the original idea of “Forms” to the mathematical variety. This is something I’ve given quite a bit of thought to, and one of those instances were I can document having changed my mind, from a positive position to a negative one. But of course I’m neither a metaphysician nor a philosopher of mathematics, so my opinions in this area are simply those of a scientist and philosopher with a general background in both disciplines.

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