The latest issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine has hit the stands. I got the chance to interview Frank Jackson for it. It was particularly fun for me, as Jackson’s famous Knowledge Argument for dualism was the subject of a part of my PhD thesis several thousand years ago. The argument itself is one of those rare things in philosophy, a crystal clear thought experiment that seems to just flatten the opposition, and you can get it up and running in a few sentences.
“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes…. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”
If you think that Mary knew all the physical facts but learns something when she first sees red, then there’s more to know than just physical facts – by hypothesis, she had all those already. So if she learns something, physicalism is false, because it leaves out part of the world she discovers on experiencing red.
Remarkably, Jackson has rejected the dualist conclusion of the argument — he’s a latter day physicalist. You can read the whole interview on tpm’s site, right here.
Drat — the final leg of our journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats has been postponed. We made it through vile weather and horrible headwinds in Cornwall, past the disaster of a crashing Garmin Edge in Bristol which made navigation interesting, through Shropshire and a wheel popping out of true, all the way up past Carlise and nearly to Glasgow, until an injury forced us off the road. It was a fantastic ride, and we’re looking forward to another attempt in Spring. But meanwhile here’s some reflection on long bike rides for the Guardian bike blog. Interesting that so many people in the comments know what I’m talking about. Long distance cycling really does put your brain in an interesting place.
I’m going on a very long charity bike ride, about 1,000 miles, raising money for Shelter From the Storm, a shelter for homeless people which survives entirely on donations. If you’re so inclined, please consider making a donation here. There’s a short post about it on tpm’s blog, talkingphilosophy right here. I’d go on about the weird philosophical questions raised by long bike rides, but I haven’t picked up waterproofs yet, and it looks like this where I’m going.
I just gave a talk in a workshop at the university of Leeds, for the UK Energy Research Centre, called New Fuels, New Rules. It was, according to the bumpf: “an interdisciplinary exploration into the impact of low carbon passenger vehicles on society and aims to bring together experts involved in the development and implementation of low carbon vehicle fleets”. Here’s the talk (new fuels new rules sept 2012) — it’s just an argument for the idea that we know a lot more about how our tools work than how we ought to use them. A similar point is made about climate change — as a culture, we’ve got something of a grip on the science, politics, and economics of climate change, even a grip on the technology we might use to do something about it, but when the moral dimension of climate change is mentioned, well, that’s it. It’s merely mentioned. There’s no depth yet.
I’ve had a few experiences as “the ethicist” in a room full of experts on something else who haven’t thought a lot about the ethical implications of what it is they do. It’s fascinating and rewarding (for me anyway), but there’s a real danger of being mistaken for a moral expert — a person who knows more than most about making good moral choices.
If someone were a lecturer in English literature, would you expect her to write excellent s0nnets?
The latest issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine is now published, and, just in time for the Olympics, it features a series of essays by philosophers of sport. We’ll post a few for free online here for a time. One of the articles, by Stephen Mumford, addresses the profundity of sport. Is the experience of sport, the training, the effort — is it somehow profound or a complete waste of time? Mumford accepts that sport is indeed trivial in a certain sense — whether or not someone can reach an arbitrary goal a fraction of a second faster than someone else can’t really matter all that much. But it’s sports triviality that enables us to enjoy it, to appreciate it. If sport mattered a lot, if the loser lost his house, we couldn’t cheer, couldn’t enjoy sport in the way that we do. Because it doesn’t matter in one sense, it can matter a lot in another. He has interesting things to say about the exercise and expression of freedom in sport too. It’s convinced me that sport is a serious subject for philosophers, and that maybe that old line, ‘one can philosophize about anything’, really is true.
Photo by Colin Smith
I’m back from a splendid weekend of talks, music and sunshine in Hay on Wye, and the phenomenon that is the philosophy and music festival How the Light Gets In. Before it was tried, I have no idea how anyone would have thought it would work. I have a fragmented image in my head of a meeting with Dragon’s Den style backers: ’Right, we’ll get some space just over the Welsh border, yeah, miles from the nearest train station, and schedule talks on ecstasy and Turing and physics and poetry, get some lives bands in, and, um, food and sketch comedy. Everyone will wear wellies. What do you say?’
What would you have said? Who would have thought it could work? Having spent some time there, though, it’s now difficult for me to imagine it not working. It seems run largely by a team of alarmingly competent but fractionally frazzled women, linked up by radio into some sort of collective, hive mind. I went to as many talks as I could, on such topics as God, metaphor, mathematics, happiness, laughter, sex, love and drugs. Every talk was sold out, the music and food and atmosphere were fantastic, and I met some fundamentally excellent human beings. If you ever have anything like a chance to attend next year, take it.
And who said philosophy is dead?
A book written with Jeremy Stangroom, called The Story of Philosophy, is now out there in the world. You can read a review by a fundamentally decent person here. Here’s a bit from the cover blurb:
“Philosophy can’t be pinned down. There are histories which attempt to stitch the whole convoluted thing up into a single, long coherent sequence of events. Other books are organized thematically. Here we have metaphysics. This is ethics. Here’s what we know about the nature of knowledge. Similar books plough through the big questions. What exists? What can we know? How should we live? What does it all mean? Some of these books are excellent, but they’re all attempts to civilize something wild, something that mostly mistrusts authority, something that’s really only human, something messy that moves around in different directions at once. Maybe the best way to pass along a feel for this kind of thing is to do what people have always done when they’ve got a great deal of complicated information to convey, and that’s tell a story.”
We really did try to do something other than write another history of philosophy, another collection of -isms, another list of theses and objections. If a philosopher did or said something interesting that makes for a good story, we tended to put it in. Reading philosophy can leave you with the thought that philosophers aren’t really people. Maybe that’s too strong — maybe we just forget their humanity from time to time, and think of them as The Greats, rather people with first names. This book tries to understand philosophy by getting to know philosophers a little. It was fun to research, and I hope it’s a good read, too.