3QD: Living in Bubbles

A crisis, by definition, has dramatic effects. It changes how we behave, where wealth goes, what policies we enact, and what we hope. But it also can bring into higher relief features of our lives that have not changed, but turn out to be more important than we realized.

Soap bubbles, by Jean Siméon Chardin (1733-4)

Like the fact that human life takes place in bubbles. This just means that humans like to form groups: somewhat closed networks of interactive relationships among a small number of relatives or friends whose principal job it is to care for one another. “Semi-permeable palliative social matrices” one could call them, but “bubbles” will work just fine. A bubble is an enclosed space, protected from the outside by a fragile boundary; all its points are equidistant from a center; it is almost invisible, but offers a hopeful shine when the light hits it right. All the same can be said of a circle of good friends. And all of human history has been built upon such bubbles.

More here…

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The Ring of Gyges (a story)

So, I’m no fiction writer (at least, not on purpose). I give it a shot now and then, for fun. A while back I had a plan to write a series of stories featuring the “wonder cabinet” of Dr Tenebris, which would be a stockpile of amazing and magical artifacts of the past. I wrote a story about the ring of Gyges (made famous in Plato’s Republic), and got partway through a story about the Antikythera mechanism before giving up. (This was the real Antikythera mechanism, the one that could change the motions of the planets, not the duplicate in that museum in Athens.) Like I said, I’m no fiction writer. But what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t embarrass yourself before a broader audience? So here is my effort at telling a story of the ring of Gyges.

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Richard Marshall interview at 3:16

Richard Marshall is a creative and interesting guy who has passions for making vivid paintings and interviewing philosophers. Somehow he decided to interview me, with the result to be found here. I had loads of fun answering his questions.

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3QD: Freedom and determinism – what we can learn from the failures of two pretty good arguments

The “Consequence Argument” is a powerful argument for the conclusion that, if determinism is true, then we have no control over what we do or will do. The argument is straightforward and simple (as given in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

Premise 1: No one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature.
Premise 2: No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future (i.e., determinism is true).
Conclusion: Therefore, no one has power over the facts of the future.

Premise 1 seems awfully secure. Authors of history books might change people’s beliefs about the past, but try as they might, they won’t actually change the past. Similarly, scientists may write about the laws of nature however they please, but nothing they write will change those laws. No one can control the facts of the past, or the laws of nature.

Premise 2 looks pretty good too. For at least great big patches of nature, events happen because of the way things are or have been, and because of the continuous governance of the laws of nature. True, there are subatomic phenomena that seem to be indeterministic (Einstein was wrong, and God or nature does seem to roll teensy-weensy dice). But for whatever reason, it also seems that as these subatomic bits are assembled into larger parts of nature, the dice rolling seems to no longer have any effect, and at that point we enter upon a deterministic universe. Certainly by the time we get to big globs of neurons within the skulls of homo sapiens, wired up to eyeballs and limbs, we are in a domain where the fact is that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future.

And the conclusion follows: we have no power to affect the future. So that’s it. We’re done.

More here…

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Structure, Energy, and Reality

This past term I’ve been teaching a capstone class in which students are supposed to write a longer paper on some topic that means a lot to them. It’s meant to be a culminating event for their undergraduate work in philosophy. The class is always a fun exchange of ideas in which I can just participate rather than lead. It’s unfortunate that the COVID-19 virus came along – for many more serious reasons, of course, but also because it meant our seminar meetings were cut short, and we didn’t get to continue having the fun we were having.

I decided this term to write my own “undergraduate thesis on a topic that means a lot to me”, and came up with the following treatise on the nature of reality. I may as well post it here!


Structure, energy, reality


(from the ICERM website at Brown University)

In this brief essay I will advocate the view that reality is a collection of possible mathematical structures infused with energy. There are many important questions I will not answer, such as what determines the range of mathematical possibility, what energy is, how a possible structure comes to be infused with energy, or whether there are any mathematical structures not infused with energy, in some universe or other. These are vital questions, but I do not know the answers to them. Still, one has to start somewhere. To provide a clear account of my view, I will divide this essay into three sections: (1) math as form; (2) energy as matter; and (3) the differences levels of interpretation make.

1. Math as form
Aristotle was right to think of substances as form united with matter, and right again to think of form as the more important of the two. When we seek to explain natural things or events, we always must turn to the form or structure of the things or events. When some atoms combine to form a molecule, what really matters are the structures of those atoms and their valences; the brute matter composing the atoms does not enter into the explanation, except as that matter is represented through structural and electrical properties. In this sense, materialism, understood literally as the view that everything is composed of matter, is false. If it were true, one would never be able to explain anything. There must be form as well as matter, and in any explanation, form matters more.

It might seem like form is not as real as matter, because form is usually not available to our senses except by being present in matter. We never see sphericality, but we see billiard balls and planets, and we might think of sphericality as a property that depends for its existence on some material substrate that has greater ontological weight. But this is an illusion that comes from the ways we are taught to talk about our sensory experience. When we become more serious about reality, we learn to talk about objects in the world independently of how they appear to us, and we try to talk about the world as it is in itself. As we do so, we begin to speak exclusively of the formal properties of objects: their structures, how they move, what other powers or properties they have, the range of ways they can affect other objects, and so on. The language of science is a language ranging over nature’s formal properties, and learning to speak it means leaving behind the ordinary supposition that material substrates are more important than the forms or structures they have.

Continue reading

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3QD: Our very own annus mirabilis

This isn’t the first time universities have shut down from fear of pestilence. In 1665, “it pleased the Almighty God in his just severity to visit this towne of Cambridge with the plague of pestilence”, and Cambridge University was closed. Students were sent home, and all public gatherings were canceled. Some students arranged to meet with tutors over that time, but we can suspect that a good number of students simply went home, forgot about their studies entirely, prayed fervently, and followed whatever strategies they could to lessen the chance of death.

More here….

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3QD: Thoughts on Killing a Dog

Last week we had our dog put down. It was time. She was getting old and facing some serious neurological difficulties. The tipping point was a pair of severe seizures in the middle of the night, spaced about a minute apart. I know that seizures can trigger more seizures, and as I was trying to help ease her through the second one, I was thinking “What if this is it? What if she keeps seizing until she dies?” and I wondered whether I would have the nerve to strangle her myself rather than let her die in that horrible way. Thankfully, I was not put to that test. She came out of the second seizure, and stumbled around blind for the rest of the night, trying to escape from the dark hole she thought she was in.

The rest of the essay is here.

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3QD: Reflections on It-ing and Thou-ing

We find ourselves always in the middle of an experience. But it’s what we do next – how we characterize the experience – that lays down a host of important and almost subterranean conditions. Am I sitting in a chair, gazing out the dusty window into a world of sunlight, trees, and snow? Am I meditating on the nature of experience? Am I praying? Am I simply spacing out? Depending on which way I parse whatever the hell I’m up to, my experience shifts from something ineffable (or at any rate, not currently effed) to something meaningful and determinate, festooned with many other conversational hooks and openings: “enjoying nature”, “introspecting”, “conversing with God”, “resting”, “procrastinating”, and so on. Putting the experience into words tells me what to do with it next.

Essay here

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3QD: Conversation with a Genie

Essay here.

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Back to 3QuarksDaily

After a bit of a break, I’m going to resume contributing monthly essays at 3QuarksDaily. The first essay is now up, alongside the fascinating essays, poems, and insights from the other contributors.

How To Be Kind

“There’s only one rule I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” —Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Despite Vonnegut’s strong counsel to babies entering the world, kindness seems to be in short supply. Little wonder. Our news media portray to us a world of power politics, corporate greed, murders, and cruel policies which are anything but kind. Our popular forms of entertainment, much more often than not, are stories about battles that shock and thrill us and gratify our lust for bloody vengeance, leaving no room for wimpy, kind sentiments. Success is advertised to us as requiring harsh discipline, dedication, and focus, and kindness, it appears, need not apply. Even though we all like to give and receive kindnesses, they seem to play no role in our political, social, and cultural economies.

The rest here.

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The impact of Boris Hessen

Reading: Gerardo Ienna and Giulia Rispoli, “Boris Hessen at the Crossroads of Science and Ideology from International Circulation to the Soviet Context”, Society and Politics, 2019, 13:37-63.

[These are just some preliminary notes on a very complex story I am only beginning to understand. I was introduced to the topic through discussion of a Facebook post by Martin Lenz.]

If Boris Hessen is known among historians today, it is primarily for playing a foundational role in launching “externalist” views in the history of science, or paying close attention to the social, political, and economic forces at work in the development of scientific theories. In a 1931 lecture presented at a conference in London, Hessen argued that Newton’s physics was inextricably bound up with a burgeoning early modern capitalism (“The Socio-Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia”). It was a Marxist exposition of Newtonianism, and it forcefully challenged the received opinion that Newton and his cohort were simply a bunch of politically neutral boys interested in the truth for truth’s sake. Hessen’s work led directly to Robert K. Merton’s dissertation and subsequent work which expounded “the Merton thesis”, which specifically claimed that early modern science in England had a lot to do with Protestantism, and generally claimed that, even in intellectual history, it’s not only ideas that matter.

But there is much more to Hessen than this. A short history: Hessen was born in modern-day Ukraine in 1893. He studied physics at St. Petersburg and Edinburgh, where he developed an interest in the history of science.  In 1914 he returned to Russia, and a few years later joined the Red Army to fight in the revolution. He continued his studies in physics and history in Moscow and in 1928 moved to Berlin to collaborate with Richard von Mises. Von Mises directed Hessen’s attention to Ernst Mach and the Vienna Circle, which was to prove fateful. He returned to Moscow in 1930 and became engaged in philosophical controversies over whether a good Communist could also support Einstein and be a Machian idealist. He lost these arguments – in the sense that he was accused by the Communist Party of conspiracy in 1934, and was secretly tried, convicted, and executed in 1936. He was officially rehabilitated in 1956, which probably would have pleased him had he not been dead already for 20 years.

It may seem surprising that anyone could be convicted and executed for being an idealist, but the dialectical space of the Soviet Union was a treacherous place. Earlier in the century, Lenin had argued that attempts to ground scientific knowledge in an individual’s fluctuating experience leads to the conclusion that scientific theories are necessarily open to revision as experience demands, which meant that Marxism in particular was open to revision. Hessen and his colleagues were arguing that Machian idealism (which is basically a ramped-up version of Berkeley’s idealism) was in fact a kind of lawbound materialism, inasmuch as “matter” could be  reduced to measurements and experience, and bound by lawful regularities. But in the estimation of Stalin’s courts, these arguments were insufficient – or, one speculates, the simple fact that Lenin’s word was not sufficient for these uppity philosophers was reason enough to convict them of something.

The effect of Hessen’s 1931 lecture on anglophone historians and philosophers of science was complex. On the one hand, there emerged several varieties of externalist approaches to the history of science, emphasizing economics, religion, culture, psychology, and politics in varying degrees. Some (e.g., John Desmond Bernal) held to a strictly Marxist line, putting economic considerations in front of everything else, while others (e.g., George Norman Clark and Robert K. Merton) assembled multi-causal explanations of scientific development. On the other hand, in opposition to Hessen, other historians and philosophers (e.g., Alexandre Koyré) leaned toward internalist explanations, maintaining that it was clear-eyed empiricism and logic that pushed science forward, and social factors could be safely ignored. Inasmuch as such internalist accounts were rooted in conceiving individuals as behaviorally free from social determination, they served to promote the ideology of liberal capitalism. It is not surprising that, for the most part, internalist approaches to the history and philosophy of science dominated anglophone academics for the better part of the 20th century. The principal exception was the sociology of scientific knowledge program (SSK), founded in Edinburgh by David Edge, advanced in following years by Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Steven Shapin, and Simon Schaffer.

I *think* it’s safe to say that the principal holdout nowadays for thoroughly internalist historical approaches is a sect of historians of philosophy, trained in philosophy departments with very little exposure to history. But even here, there is a steadily advancing wave of more externalist or “contextual” approaches, though these approaches still typically steer clear of economics, politics, and culture. They are contextualist only in the sense that they pay attention to lesser-read texts published in the period they study. So their subjects are still free, disembodied minds, though these minds have read more broadly than imagined previously.

Posted in Historical episodes, Items of the academy / learning | 8 Comments

Is there such a thing as the history of philosophy?

(Reading Christia Mercer. “The Contextualist Revolution in Early Modern Philosophy.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 57, no. 3 (2019): 529-548.)

Christia Mercer has revisited the methodological battles that have waged among scholars of the history of philosophy. She uses as her starting point a 2015 exchange between Michael Della Rocca and Dan Garber. Garber charges Della Rocca with being engaged in “rational reconstruction” of Spinoza’s Ethics. What this means is that Della Rocca is not concerned so much with Spinoza’s historical context as with the integrity of Spinoza’s thought. With such an approach, Della Rocca is prone to creating new arguments on Spinoza’s behalf, and considering objections Spinoza never conceived, in an attempt to push Spinoza’s philosophical system to its greatest philosophical potential. Garber, by contrast, is more interested in situating historical philosophers in their social and political contexts, without caring so much about whether the resulting interpretation of their views makes for “legitimate” philosophies, as judged by contemporary standards. 

Mercer’s main claim is that these two apparently different approaches really have more in common than one might initially think, and that since the 1980s there has been a decisive trend among historians of philosophy to pay closer attention to both texts and contexts. Until the 1980s, the prevalent methodology could be seen as “extreme appropriationism”, where so-called historians of philosophy in fact did not care at all about historical questions, and instead raided the works of dead philosophers for new ideas whose value rested in their applicability to the philosophical questions currently en vogue. But steadily over the following decades, according to Mercer, philosophers began to care about issues of translation, and so historical contexts, and so the relevance of other thinkers then important but now forgotten. Historians of philosophy as a group traveled in the direction of obeying a “Getting Things Right Constraint” (GTRC), which means paying attention both to historical context as well as philosophical intelligibility, with different individual philosophers perhaps placing more weight on one dimension than the other. In short: historians of philosophy have gotten much better at their craft, and as a whole are providing accounts and interpretations that are both historically informed and philosophically fruitful.

In short, a methodological revolution has come upon us like a thief in the night:

As the philosophical advantages of a non-appropriationist approach became increasingly evident and as innovative early modernists exposed the richness of the period’s philosophy, contextualism and its commitment to the GTRC gained a momentum that could not be stopped. Early modernists are now committed contextualists in that they aim to explicate as clearly as possible the authentic views of a wide range of historical texts, although they differ in the skills used and projects selected to attain that goal.

Mercer adds a further interest that historians of philosophy would do well to consider, which is to explore the ways in which historical philosophers, in their particular contexts, may have light to shed upon social and political problems of our own day. Some things, alas, never change; and understanding how Spinoza or Wollstonecraft responded to problems of their own day may give us further material to consider as we grapple with our own, and especially issues of diversity and inclusion.

I am always heartened to see someone offer a friendly, ecumenical approach, and so am cheered to read Mercer’s insights into recent history of history of philosophy. I think she is right to see that scholarship has gotten much better as a whole over recent decades, and that there is room within the GTRC for a variety of approaches, questions, and methods. But I would like to add to her insights some further issues about academic disciplines that her account does not address.

I think the bigger question that lies below Mercer’s discussion of methodological disagreements is the question of whether philosophy, and history of philosophy in particular, is to be counted among the humanities. It is a question about the sort of scholarly activity philosophy is: is it in the same general category that literature and history fall within, or is it something else? Historians and scholars of historical literature do work that often overlaps. An historian studying early 17th century London and a literary scholar studying Shakespeare will read each others’ works with great delight and profit, and can expect to have interesting disagreements. Some historians of early modern philosophy will be able to join in this discussion, especially those who are studying Francis Bacon in contextual fashion. But many others will twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines until a properly philosophical topic comes up for discussion, like the adequacy of empirical induction as a basis for science. The first group places philosophy within the humanities, and is interested in reading literature and learning history in order to deepen their understanding of the philosophers of the period. The second group cannot find much of interest in all this talk of guild formation and Atlantic trade routes. Their concern is over something the historian and literature scholar are ignoring: namely, whether Bacon (or whomever) managed to come up with anything of genuine philosophical interest, and not “merely” of historical or literary interest.

The “humanities” as a group of disciplines was a 19th century invention, and it has never been exactly clear where philosophy fits. Practically, of course, the academic departments have been shoe-horned into colleges of humanities, mainly because there has been nowhere else to put them. Several subdisciplines of philosophy – like metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and philosophies of action, mind, and science – really have nothing to do with other humanistic disciplines. Really nothing: the separation is entire and complete. History of philosophy, political philosophy, and ethics are mixed cases, depending on the sorts of interests of the individual scholars. A philosopher interested in the ways in which gender has been portrayed in films will have much to discuss with humanists, as will a philosopher interested in the politics of race. But a philosopher interested in the legitimacy of Rawls’ theory of justice or rule-based utilitarianism can expect to have little to say to other humanists, and little to learn from them. (For the most part; again, individual types of interest vary considerably.) 

When it comes to the history of philosophy, this disciplinary aporia gets played out in disputes over methodology. Questions over “the right way to do history of philosophy” are in fact questions about the sort of discipline philosophy is. Normally questions over methodology can get settled at least somewhat by trying to see which methodology yields the best results. But what is at issue here is what counts as best results. Do we want a richer understanding of the world in which Spinoza crafted his philosophy, and why his context led him to raise some questions while ignoring others? Or do we want to explore the conceptual space in which Spinoza carved out a distinctive niche? The answer here depends on the philosopher, and what gets them excited, or at least which group of peers they are trying to engage.

In this way, history of philosophy (and perhaps also ethics and political philosophy) come to resemble “multidisciplinary disciplines” like religious studies, international studies, or gender studies. There isn’t a single disciplinary model, no shared methodology, which brings unity to these areas of study. That is not to say they are not valuable, of course, but they are not, properly speaking, disciplines. They are instead “areas of study” admitting of different kinds of questions and different methods. A scholar in religious studies may be more of a historian, or more of a sociologist, in terms of method and approach. The same is true of historians of philosophy, as they may be more historical or more philosophical. Just as it would be futile to try to establish a single method for religious studies, it would be futile to do so for history of philosophy.

(That being said, I will state my own preference. I think philosophers ought to be humanists, mainly because that suits my own inclinations. It also is a good idea, I think, for academic programs to try to integrate with others, where possible; and, frankly, no one else has much interest in the non-humanistic endeavors of philosophers. But this latter point is merely one of strategy in the politics of academia.)

In all, I suppose this leads me to a question I would like Mercer and others to reflect upon – namely, whether there really is a discipline of history of philosophy, which has its own distinctive kind of methodology. I suspect the answer is no, which means we should stop looking for the right way to do it. Let’s just do it, and see what we learn.

Posted in Items of the academy / learning | 2 Comments

Hobbes and coins

Thomas Hobbes saw humans as purely mechanical devices. External objects press against us in one way or another, setting off a chain reaction of interior pulleys, wheels, and ratchets that engage one another and result in some version of “Cuckoo!” escaping our lips. In some way that he saw no need to explain, the motions of our inner works are paired up with the contents of our experiences: our ideas, premonitions, appetites, urges, and fears. And so when one idle thought casually links up with another, there is at the same time some mechanical action causally linking up with another.

Hobbes offered an example of what seems like a “free” association in fact being causally determined by a host of associations and traces of memory:

For in a discourse of our present civil war, what could seem more impertinent than to ask (as one did) what was the value of a Roman penny? Yet the coherence to me was manifest enough. For the thought of the war introduced the thought of the delivering up the king to his enemies; the thought of that brought in the thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the thought of the 30 pence which was the price of treason; and thence easily followed that malicious question; and all this in a moment of time, for thought is quick.

Set aside the political point of the example, with the gratuitous comparison of Charles I with Our Lord and Savior. We might instead wonder who it was who raised such an “impertinent” question? Of course, it may have been just some fellow with whom Hobbes was conversing one day. Or, if you run a search on Early English Books Online, looking for any tract concerning ancient coins published during the civil war but before Hobbes’s publication of Leviathan (1651), you will find exactly one: The Scripture Calendar, Used by the Prophets and Apostles, and by our Lord Jesus Christ, paralleld with the new Stile, and Measures, Weights, Coyns, Customes, and Language, of Gods ancient people, and of Primitive Christians (London: printed by M. B. for the Company of Stationers, 1649), written by the clergyman Henry Jessey (1603-1663). For the most part, Jessey’s work is an estimation of just where notable Biblical events happened to fall on the calendar. But he also translated ancient measures and weights to more contemporary ones, and briefly calculated the contemporary values of several ancient coins, according to their weight in silver. In his estimation, the Roman penny, or drachma, was perhaps worth about seven pence. So that’s settled.

Jessey was an apt target for Hobbes’s example, as he was a somewhat radical Protestant and supported the revolution. Jessey would have been the sort of guy Hobbes would seek to skewer. More specifically, Jessey was a “Particular Baptist”, which is a baptist who restricts holy communion only to fellow Particular Baptists. A fellow member of this sect was a guy named “Praisegod Barebone” (c. 1598-1679), which you would think is one of the greatest names ever, at least until you learned that in fact his given name was “Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone”. Good ole UJCHDFTTHBD Barbone was a leather worker who also offered the occasional brimstoney sermon, and was imprisoned for some time in the Tower because of the religious ruckus he stirred up. Praisegod was rewarded later by Cromwell with a position in the Nominated Assembly (the rebels’ form of parliament), which was ridiculed by its critics as “Barebone’s Parliament”.


Praisegod Barebone (Wikipedia)

Praisegod had a son with the considerably less flashy name “Nicholas Barbon” (1640-1698). Nicholas had a greater measure of worldly sense, and was one of several entrepreneurs who hit upon the idea of selling fire insurance in the aftermath of the London Fire in 1666. He seems to have been an expert manipulator, gathering his creditors into an ornate dining room and affecting such aggressive bonhomie as to guilt them into backing off on their demands. He is known today as an early “scientific” economist, as he thought in theoretical terms about the value of the tarnished lucre he was accumulating. He realized that it really did not matter what rare metals coins are made of, so long as everyone agrees to treat them as valuable. He argued for this view against John Locke, who viewed money as itself a commodity whose value depended on relative scarcity. (For more, see this account.) In the end, there may have been some truth in both views: money is what people think it is, but people at that time did think of money as valuable precisely because of the precious metals involved. Hence it was important to keep the pound as sound as a pound, which is why someone no less than Isaac Newton was assigned the role of Keeper of the Mint.

So, in all, it would seem that Hobbes was wrong, and it was not “impertinent” at all to speculate in the midst of civil war upon the value of the Roman penny.  Anyone trying to manage a government, let alone a revolution, would do well to pay attention to such things.

Posted in Historical episodes | 2 Comments

What we know when we know particulars

Some reflections on the early sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit:

georg-wilhelm-friedrich-hegel-the-phenomenology-of-spiritIf we try to think about what is most obvious in our experience, and what the most basic elements of knowledge are, we turn to sense perception. For it seems like the more our minds and our concepts are mixed up with what we are trying to know, the more likely it is that there will be some “ideological pollution” through psychological or social forces. We would like to have something pure and basic that is what it is, no two ways about it. So we look to a green button, a patch of red on a coffee mug, the smell of mint. No matter how we have been raised, or what other confusions lurk within our minds, those sense experiences are simply and humbly given; we cannot change how they appear by changing our minds about them.

But Hegel asks us to think more carefully and try to grasp what it is we come to know when we turn to our sense perceptions. Let us take that patch of red as an example. In order to make a solid knowledge claim of the form, “I know that X”, we shall have to fill in the value for X. For starters, we might let X be “there is a red patch”. But there are many shades of red, and many shapes of patches. If we are seeking knowledge of a sense particular, and not knowledge of redness or shapedness, we shall have to be more specific. We might try “coral red” or “fire-engine red”, and we might try “trapezoidal” or “blobby and nose-shaped”. But these are also general qualities, and not sense particulars. If we want to make our knowledge claim focus on a given particular, and not general qualities, we shall have to somehow manage to refer to the this in our experience, the particular thing we are experiencing, and not its general features. If we allow ourselves to do so, what we can say we know is that this is here, or this is now – understanding “this”, “here”, and “now” to have a special emphasis and to somewhat mysteriously latch onto the elements of our experience. But we should not deceive ourselves; even with our special emphasis, “this”, “here”, and “now” are not particular items, but are general terms that can be applied in infinitely many other cases to infinitely many other objects. For there are many thisses, many heres, and many nows.

We have failed to come up with a specific object in our knowledge of sense particulars. Though we tried to find a value for X that was itself a particular, our best efforts resulted in knowledge not of a particular, but of terms or concepts that range over a broad array of cases. What we know in our sense perception is not anything particular, but only that “This is here now”, a claim which is always true of every sense perception. Hegel thinks the lesson to be learned from this failure is that our knowledge of sense experience is not of particulars, but of universals. We thought initially to turn to our senses in order to find a concrete thing that was unpolluted by concepts, and instead what we found is that our sense experience – at least, insofar as it can be articulated in language – is only of universals.

We might seize upon the qualification about language, and place fault there. We might insist we really are experiencing and knowing a particular, but due to a shortcoming of language we cannot find the right words to express it. But we should consider seriously whether we want to make this move. If we start allowing for knowledge that cannot be captured by language, we allow for knowledge that cannot be articulated and transmitted to others. We close off opportunities for testing, for experiment, and for disagreement or confirmation. We close off the public dimension of knowledge, and we should begin to wonder whether essentially private knowledge can do any of the work we normally expect knowledge to do. If it cannot be articulated, communicated, and assessed, then is it really knowledge?

Hegel puts the point this way:

We also express the sensuous as a universal, but here is what we say: This, i.e., the universal this, or we say: it is, i.e., being as such. We thereby of course do not represent to ourselves the universal This or being as such, but we express the universal; or, in this sense-certainty we do not at all say what we mean. However, as we see, language is the more truthful. In language, we immediately refute what we mean to say, and since the universal is the truth of sensuous-certainty, and language only expresses this truth, it is, in that way, not possible at all that we could say what we mean about sensuous being. (section 97; Pinkard translation)

In this case language is our teacher. We thought we meant one thing, but language shows us that we cannot possibly say it. What can be said, and what can be articulated as knowledge, is not what we mean when we inwardly point to our particular experience and call it “this”; the only value we can have for X is a universal. What language teaches us here, according to Hegel, is that so far as knowledge is concerned, what we learn through sense experience is not knowledge of particulars, but knowledge of universals.

Of course, there are further surprising consequences that this recognition leads to in Hegel’s philosophy, but we might pause to note that this result is obviously true. Consider the wide range of published items of knowledge: scientific papers, books, articles, etc. Not one of them makes use of any sense particulars, at least not any of the kind we were looking for at the beginning of this discussion. They make use of correlations, causal connections, generalizations, and, in short, universals. Someone might introduce a paper by cleverly noting, “At 12:01 a.m., I saw the black needle swerve to indicate 1.025”, but that would be of only passing interest, and would not itself play a crucial role in the articulation of what the author has learned. (Furthermore, as we have seen, such a claim would fail in conveying knowledge of any sense particulars anyway.) An article might include detailed tables and graphs of what has been observed, but the data would be meaningful only insofar as they were representative of some deeper and more universal phenomenon. Our knowledge is of generalities, not of particulars, and the more significant our knowledge is, the more this is true.

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Unvatting the Brains: Putnam, Bostrom, and thinking the unthinkable


The worry is familiar. All of my experience comes to me via my central nervous system, which is a biochemical electrical network. It can be hacked. The data coming from my eyes and ears and so on are converted to electrical signals, and so if those electrical signals were stimulated artificially (i.e., not from eyes and ears), I would not be any the wiser. All my experience, including all experience I have ever had up to and including this moment, could be experience not of the world, as it seems, but experience of some neural stimulation machine. I could be a brain in a vat.

It’s an easy doubt to walk away from, but harder to disprove logically, because any witness called to the stand could (again) be the result of the neural stimulation machine. But it is this very fact – the disprovability of the Vat hypothesis – that has caused many philosophers to wonder if some mistake has been made along the way. G. E. Moore famously asserted that his real, definitive knowledge that he has hands, that his shoes are tied, and so on, is more than enough to demonstrate that any such far-out skeptical hypothesis is false. (Samuel Johnson provided the same “argument” when he refuted Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a stone.) In a contest between the certainty of our immediate world, and the vague possibility that we might be thoroughly deceived, certainty wins out.

But other philosophers have dug more deeply into the argument and have come to the conclusion that the radically skeptic scenario is, in fact, self-refuting. The most famous of these philosophers was Hilary Putnam, in a paper entitled “Brains in a Vat”. I think Putnam’s argument is correct. But I have found it difficult to convey to others, so I am going to try to sneak up on it from behind. In an effort to make the central idea clear, I am going to turn to Nick Bostrom’s argument for thinking we may be living in a simulated universe.


Neo, Sims-style

The argument can be made quite sophisticated, but the central idea is this. The universe is really big; in fact, it is mind-bogglingly huge. And it is super-duper old. In all that space and all that time, there must have been intelligent civilizations. And some of these must have developed supercomputers. And – assuming that some sort of supercomputer can house a consciousness, or even house several or many consciousnesses – some civilizations must have become interested in artificially creating consciousnesses believing themselves to be living in environments that seem real, but in fact are artificially created. (Think of “The Sims”, but suitably ramped up.) Maybe some of these advanced civilizations, or even just one of them, really went crazy and artificially created trillions and trillions of such conscious entities. All of this is possible, and maybe even probable, depending on the assumptions that are made and how the numbers are run. Upshot: there could be vastly more “simulated lives” than real ones. And so, by the numbers, it is more likely that you are experiencing a simulated universe than that you are experiencing a real one. Call this “the simulation conclusion”.

Grant all this for the moment. Suppose all the numbers check out, and the conclusion is indeed more probably true than its denial. If the conclusion is true, then all our experience is of a simulated universe (probably). But this means we really don’t know anything about the real universe. We don’t know, in particular, how big it is, or how old it is, or how many advanced civilizations there may be, or whether computers are possible (let alone artificial intelligence). In fact, we do not know any of the premises that led us to the conclusion. So if the conclusion of the argument is true, then the argument should be dismissed.

But the disaster of the conclusion is even worse than this. If the simulation conclusion is true, then none of our words or ideas refer to anything in the real universe. For all our words and thoughts have been gained as a result of electrical transactions within the supercomputer that houses us. “The tree stands alone on the quad” has nothing to do with trees or quads, for such things have never entered into our experience, and may not even exist in the Real World. Instead, “The tree stands alone on the quad” has its meaning, and is either true or false, depending on certain states of the supercomputer. The sentence is really about the supercomputer, though it may seem to us to be about something else. That, in fact, is just another way of expressing the radically skeptical scenario: our thoughts aren’t about what they seem to be about, but are instead about something else.

But if this is the case, then our simulation conclusion – “We are probably living in a simulated universe” – is itself not about us, or living, or universes, or simulations. None of these words really mean what we think they mean. And so the sentence is either false or meaningless (or true, we might say, but true about electrical states of a computer, and not true about us or the universe) – in any case, it isn’t true in the way we supposed it was. Thus the simulation conclusion refutes itself.

Hilary Putnam makes the very same argument about brains in vats – namely, that if we are brains in vats, then none of our words mean what we might think we mean, including the words “brains” and “vats”, so the supposition is self-refuting. I think it’s easier to see the main idea in Bostrom’s argument because it lays out so many suspicious premises – assumptions about the size of the universe and relative frequency of advanced civilizations and so on – that we can easily begin asking how we can be sure of those premises (especially if it turns out we’re living in a simulation). Putnam’s premises, by contrast, aren’t as prominent, or as jarring to our sensibilities. We’re only talking about a brain in a vat, after all – how far off can our assumptions be?

Posted in Metaphysical musings, Uncategorized | 3 Comments