Here’s a question I’d like to see discussed: Can there be a theory of everything? I don’t just mean it in the physicist’s sense, where it concerns unifying quantum theory and relativity. I mean a single theory of the physical world, the biological world, the psychological world, and whatever other worlds you might think exist (mathematical, ethical, esthetic, social, and so on). Could all these domains be brought under a unitary empirical theory? The idea sounds very dubious to me. But why exactly?
I went to see the film The Martian yesterday. I think it is the best film I’ve seen as a film about science. It actually is about science: the hero is a botanist who saves himself not with guns but with botanical knowledge, and he escapes Mars by means of a piece of mathematical reasoning (plus some technology). My only misgiving about the film was the overly frequent use of the word “shit”: not because Watney uses his own to grow potatoes on Mars, but because the word is clearly intended to make the science audience-friendly. This was not necessary and detracts from the ethos of the film. It is perfectly possible to be a “cool dude”, if that’s what you want to be, and not say “shit” all the time. Anyway, the science glowed like the sun on Mars’s horizon.
I see my book Inborn Knowledge: The Mystery Within is now advertised on Amazon, as well as the MIT Press website, publication date December 18. I first wrote about the topic as a postgraduate in psychology in 1972 as my MA thesis, but have published nothing on it up till now. It seems to have taken me forty years to sort out my thoughts. I discuss it very much as a philosophical topic rather than one of empirical psychology, though the two are obviously connected. It’s a fascinating subject.
Dawkins likes to think of the genes as getting together to build a survival machine, i.e. the animal body, which acts as their vehicle and protection. A good metaphor for this would be the way humans get together to build a fortified city to enable them to ward off attacks and generally survive against the elements. The city needs walls to defend its citizens and it needs weapons to ward off attack. The body is the gene’s moat, high wall, cannon, etc. And just as no gene could construct such a thing alone, requiring the cooperation of many genes, though each is inherently selfish, so no individual human being could build the right sort of fortified city, and so needs to cooperate with other selfish individuals. The genes make a social contract and then proceed together to defend and arm themselves. Thus “The Citizen Gene”.
I have an idea for a better way to present papers, which I intend to follow myself. Instead of the usual one hour paper followed by a one hour discussion, present two short papers each of which is followed by a shorter discussion period. Thus in the first hour present paper 1 for half an hour or less and then allow half an hour or so for discussion; then in the second hour present paper 2 following the same format. This will make it easier for the audience to listen and punctuate the proceedings with discussion earlier on. It also allows for a wider coverage of topics so that more people will find something to be interested in. I like this idea in part because I have been experimenting with composing short pithy philosophy papers instead of the usual longwinded efforts. One could also go further and present three or four very short papers in the usual couple of hours.
I’ve been reading a lot of Dawkins lately. Here’s an idea for a new paper: “Arms Races Between Extended Selfish Cooperative Memes”. Memes get together in the battle of ideas using extensions of the mind to do so. You just have to put the theoretical pieces together. I invite someone else to write the paper.
I watched an excellent documentary on The Jam the other day, with the incomparable Paul Weller in fine mod form. It reminded me of the state of England in the early 1980’s, especially as captured in their song “A Bomb in Wardour Street”. This is the world I tried to depict in my novel Bad Patches, which I wrote around that time: the world of the yob, with artist-as-yob. The anger and despair of the Jam song matches the anger and despair of the main character in my novel. I wanted my novel to feel like their record–raw, violent, sad.
Readers may be interested to know that I have just published four papers on philosophy of logic in a journal they may never have heard of. The journal is edited from Tunisia and publishes in English, French and Arabic; the chief editor is Hamdi Mlika. It is called: AL MUKHATABAT: Journal for Logic, Epistemology and Scientific Thought. I like the idea of publishing in such an out of the way place (by local standards) and joining with philosophers and logicians from the Arab world (French too). So much cooler than Phil Review of J Phil! I have no idea how available the journal is to readers across the world, but part of me wishes that it is hard to obtain.