Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

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March 15, 2018

Today a set of items sewn together by threads firm and flimsy:

  • Some of us read not so much for plot as for style, but what is style? At The New Criterion Dominic Green has some ideas about it, expressed with style. It’s a splendid essay.
  • Joseph Epstein has written a nice appreciation of that delightful stylist P.G. Wodehouse. It led me to Roger Kimball’s older essay in a similar vein. And that led me to Christopher Hitchens’ thoughts on the subject. Wodehouse has been an obsession of mine of late; I’ve nearly completed all the Jeeves and Wooster novels. As displays of wit they are hard to beat.
  • And what about displays of Whit?
  • The film that won the Best Picture Oscar this year was del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which Ross Douthat sees as a rather unsubtle example of liberal myth-making. I’ve not seen it myself.
  • Neither have I seen — it was a strictly auditory affair — a recent debate between Jordan Peterson and philosophy’s own Angel of Death, David Benatar. At issue is anti-natalism, a view that holds that sentient life is an evil. (Peterson’s against it; so am I.)
  • I’m more likely to throw my support behind a proposition implicit in the novels of our great English moralist Charles Dickens: that coffee is an evil.
  • You have to wonder what the dickens the consciousness deniers are thinking. (Technical answer: nothing.) The linked essay is a good one, but over contented with its preferred solution, and not quite grappling with the scope of the problem. Most educated Westerners today are committed to a metaphysics that leads where the consciousness deniers have ended up. Do I hear someone whistling past this graveyard?
  • I think so, and I think I know the tune. Didn’t Ian Bostridge mention it in his reflections on the English choral tradition?

As an envoi, let’s hear something from that tradition. Here is Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose, sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Lecture night: Hart on consciousness

October 19, 2016

Today’s lecture is a treat: David Bentley Hart speaks about consciousness to an audience at (I believe) Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Hart is currently writing a book on the subject, a book which is to be an expansion of the treatment he gave the topic in The Experience of God. The talk describes a number of the problems faced by attempts to provide a materialist account of mind and consciousness, and outlines the features that a successful account of consciousness would need to have.

As usual with Hart, the ideas are challenging, the perspective is fresh, and the whole is expressed in melodious prose.

The talk raises a number of questions in my mind, but foremost among them is an issue that has long puzzled me. Many of the arguments against a materialist account of mind have the following structure: “Given the premises of the mechanical model of nature, it is impossible to provide a scientific account of this-or-that feature of mind.” The mechanical model is the one that has prevailed since the early modern period: the real is just atoms and the void, there are no formal or final causes, the mathematical structure of matter exhausts its properties. And, given those premises, I think the arguments Hart (among many others) offers are persuasive.

Yet it seems to me that one possible response, for those committed to a “naturalistic” view of mind and consciousness, is to challenge the prevailing premises of the mechanical model. Perhaps a materialist model of mind could succeed if the potentiality of matter were not stripped down to its mathematical minimum. For instance, if contemporary models of mind fail to bridge the gap between matter, on one hand, and characteristically mental properties (intentionality, unity, conceptualization, teleology), on the other, might this not be plausibly due to the fact that, in our theory of nature since Descartes, matter has been defined to have none of those characteristically mental properties, no final or formal causes? As such, the project was doomed from the outset by the very terms in which it was posed. If we were to restore the full panoply of causes to nature, à la Aristotle, might that not provide sufficiently rich resources to permit mind to find its place within the natural order? The pan-psychism that has been advocated by, for instance, Thomas Nagel, seems to me a step in this direction, and a not unreasonable one, given the objective and the obstacles.

In the lecture, however, Hart raises this prospect only to dismiss it, and I admit I didn’t understand his reasoning. If somebody feels able to explain this to me, I’d be grateful.

Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

September 6, 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli
(Riverhead, 2016)
96 p.

These short “lessons” were originally serialized in the Italian press, and are here collected and rendered into elegant English. Rovelli is an eminent physicist who gives us a series of meditations on developments in physics since 1900.

They are arranged in order of increasing speculation: he begins with general relativity and quantum mechanics, presenting in non-technical language the main points — space and time are dynamic and responsive, and are filled with a restless boil of quantum fields. He proceeds to give brief — and I do mean brief — overviews of modern cosmology and the Standard Model of elementary particles. All of this is solid science; questions linger, of course, and he draws attention to those loose threads and nagging problems, but basically he is describing successful theories.

In the last three sections of the book he moves to topics of greater uncertainty. The outstanding problem of how to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics he broaches with a very interesting discussion of theories of loop quantum gravity, the basic postulate of which is that space-time is quantized. (Rovelli is himself one of the architects of this theory.) Amazingly, and rather gratifyingly, he doesn’t even mention the other principal effort to solve this problem: string theory. This is unquestionably the book’s finest witticism, one that I imagine has raised a few consternated eyebrows in faculty lounges.

The last section specifically about physics tackles the vexing puzzles that arise at the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. Laying great stress on the time-irreversibility of thermodynamic processes, he argues that thermodynamics has something crucial to tell us about the uni-directionality of time itself. This is a common trope in physics circles, but, correlation not being causation, it seems to me suggestive at best. But then he reminds us of Hawking radiation, in which quantum effects near black holes actually cause them to radiate heat, and one feels a chill of delight running up the spine.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the book’s final chapter, in which Rovelli takes a step back to ponder the implications of all this for human self-understanding. He emphasizes that modern physics has revealed the world to be radically different from the way we intuitively think of it, which is fair enough, and then argues that more such intuitions — those pertaining to human freedom, for instance, or consciousness — are due to be superseded by counter-intuitive scientific explanations. There appears to be nothing more to his argument than the power of analogy. He tries to declare a peace between his commitment to the power of physics to completely describe the world, on one hand, and his commitment to the legitimacy of humanistic values, on the other, but it is far from convincing. And he is rather dispiritingly emphatic in his devotion to immanence:

“Immersed in this nature that made us and that directs us, we are not homeless beings suspended between two worlds, parts of but only partly belonging to nature, with a longing for something else. No: we are home.”

Nothing new here, of course, and this view does have about it a certain poetry — he even cites Lucretius, the patron poet of materialism — but there are such a host of issues being passed over in silence that such poetry as it possesses sounds rather hollow.

The book is written in a lyrical tone, and would be accessible, I imagine, to anyone who has an interest in the subject matter. There is only one equation — Einstein’s field equation for general relativity, which he describes as “the most beautiful of theories,” and I’ll not argue with that.

Medieval philosophy, without any gaps

February 19, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve been listening in on a very interesting long-term podcast series: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, by Peter Adamson. After covering Greek, Roman, and Islamic philosophy the series has recently reached its 200th episode and has begun to explore medieval philosophy. The podcast is very well done; each episode is about 20 minutes long, with a new episode every week or so.

The “without any gaps” modifier is part of the appeal. For instance, a typical survey of philosophy makes a fairly cursory mention of St. Anselm and his ontological argument for God’s existence; Peter Adamson devoted three or four episodes to exploring various aspects of Anselm’s thought. He also gave a few episodes to the 9th century metaphysician John Scotus Eriugena, who is often skipped entirely. Yet despite this level of detail the podcast is clearly pitched at non-specialists. The discussion is generally clear and often enlivened by an endearingly corny wit. I find it very enjoyable.

I can’t help wondering how far Adamson has charted his course into the future; he makes occasional jokes about the series never actually coming to an end, but the joke has a point. If Anselm gets four episodes, how many will Aquinas get? And Kant?! Well, with a podcast this interesting I can hardly complain.