2016

I’m hoping the world will be a better place in 2016 but I rather doubt it. Let’s see. Human vices spring eternal. We must continue to seek the good and shun the bad. What else can we do?

Silence and Speech

Is it possible to mean something (in the Gricean sense) by being silent? Surely yes: we have the pregnant pause, and silence can speak volumes. I could also make an arrangement with you whereby if I don’t speak at a certain time I am wishing to communicate to you that (say) I want to leave. But then meaning is possible without a speech act, without any kind of utterance. How then can speaker meaning be an action at all? Speech acts need not be acts! Could all communications be silent? If so, Gricean speaker meaning is not a type of action in its essence. Speaker meaning happens to consist of acts with us most of the time, but this is quite contingent. So-called speech act theory is not essentially about acts.

Butterflies and Philosophy

I went to Butterfly World in Ft Lauderdale the other day–which includes several large enclosures where butterflies fly freely around the human visitors. The latter were all entranced; the former generally gracious. Why can deny the magic of lepidoptera? But what does it derive from? It is often remarked that the wings are gorgeous but the body is as unprepossessing as that of any insect. Does this mirror our own dual nature as both glorious and disgusting? They delight the human eye–how do other animals see them? Do other primates thrill to the sight of them? More prosaically, there is the old puzzle of identity: are the caterpillar and the butterfly numerically identical? Are they the same organism? The orthodox view in my day was that they are, because of causal continuity; but then we’d have to say that butterflies are caterpillars and caterpillars are butterflies, by Leibniz’s law. We’d also have to say that caterpillars are as beautiful as butterflies, that they can fly, and that they eat nectar: but none of these seem true. By all means admire the caterpillar, but don’t confuse her with the butterfly. And what of the chrysalis–is that identical to the butterfly? I envisage a nice popular book: The Philosophy of the Butterfly.

Knitting and the Meme

My interview about Prehension was broadcast yesterday from Michigan on NPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. My section of the hourlong show (called “Handwork”) was preceded by a section on the therapeutic value of knitting and followed by discussions of the delights of drawing and the manual typewriter. This was all good manual propaganda–spreading the hand meme to the culture at large. Today my essay “Memes, Dreams and Themes” ran in the NY Times as one of those Philosopher’s Stone columns. Oh, the comments! No comment. The hand is certainly a theme of Prehension but it needs to become a meme: it needs a jingle or catchphrase. Any ideas? I like the phrase “Grand Order of Gripparians” but it’s not too snappy is it. How about “handlib” or “handlove” or “handiology”?

The Vital Question

I’m reading Nick Lane’s book of that title: it’s all cells and biochemistry and proton gradients. The book is quite philosophical in a hard-nosed science kind of way, because it is about explaining early life from first principles. He dares to suggest that we don’t know the answer to fundamental questions of biology. There is not one reference to Dawkins in it. He avoids discussion of genes, replication and information, preferring to focus on the energetics of the cell, thus grounding biology in chemistry and physics. Not the selfish gene but the energy-sucking cell: it could have been called The Greedy Cell.

NPR

I was recording a couple of interviews for NPR the other day, one on the hand and evolution, the other on mysterianism, and they asked me to do a short piece on an “outrageous idea”. I chose to speak about my opposition to laughter: I propose that it be banned. It is like the shrieking of children, an indecorous and annoying habit best avoided. All that sniggering and giggling and howling–so uncivilized. I’m all in favor of humor and amusement, and I even approve of smiling, but laughing is just so much inarticulate noise. I would like to put up notices saying “No public cachinnation!” Laughter has no part in the properly humorous life. This will go out on public radio in due course and I expect to see a steep drop in incidents of laughter across the nation.

Jeopardy

Every weekday night I watch Jeopardy, which I think is a beacon of civilization in a corrupt world. Tonight was the final of the tournament of champions, won by Alex Jacob against two very strong contestants. The final question was about the the death of a a nineteenth century philosopher, which I did not get (nor did the winner). What is amazing to me is that this show has been on the air for decades and still commands a large audience. All is not lost!

Oliver Sacks

I just spent the weekend in New York, mainly to attend the memorial service for Oliver Sacks at the New York Academy of Medicine. There were hundreds of guests, with music, speeches, and film of Oliver. I have been to quite a few memorial services but this one was particularly memorable. He was so unusual, so beyond the norm, that it is impossible to convey his presence without actually interacting with him, or at least seeing him on film. The way he fondled a piece of metal, his gentle enunciation, his shy warmth, his simmering humor–no one quite like him. We had been good friends for many years, and his fundamental decency always impressed me–also the size of his appetite. My only reservation about the service was that some people couldn’t contain the urge to clap, though it was at least subdued. Afterwards the warmth and good feeling in the room were palpable.