Blog 3

My ontology seminar dealt with a paper by Chomsky about physics. He argues that since Newton the mechanical philosophy had to be abandoned, because of the remote operation of gravity, and that physics presents us with mysteries that mark our cognitive limits. As Hume observed, Newton drew the veil on some of nature’s mysteries only to reveal the deeper mysteries of nature. I find this view very congenial: not only is free will a mystery, or consciousness, but also a physical force like gravity. I think myself that mass, electricity and magnetism are pretty mysterious—we know only their manifestations. Physics tells us only the dispositional and structural properties of matter, not its intrinsic nature—as Russell long ago argued. Mysteries lurk everywhere, even in our “hardest” science. Since I regard consciousness as a form of matter, it isn’t surprising that it should be mysterious—since matter in general is mysterious. (This isn’t to say that the science isn’t perfectly ok, so far as it goes.)

In my ethics class divine command theory went the way of ethical relativism. There was some squirming from the students as God was removed from the grounds of ethics. Actually, I respect DC theory more than relativism, despite my atheism, because at least it’s a theory with some philosophically interesting aspects, and not simply a confusion of the descriptive and the normative. The problem with it is that you cannot base moral principles on a stipulation, no matter who the stipulating authority might be. That would make morality entirely arbitrary—as if it were like driving on the right rather than the left. God commands us to keep our promises because it is right to do so; it’s not that it’s right because he commands it (would it be right to break our promises on God’s say-so?). Socrates’ “Euthyphro argument”, that the gods love the holy because it’s holy and not because they love it—or that God commands the good because it is the good and not because he commands it—is one of the best arguments ever produced. It shows the power of clear analytical thought. What is amazing is that after over two thousand years his incontrovertible point hasn’t yet sunk in to everyone’s mind—with so many people still thinking that morality results from God’s naked will. God doesn’t create the good; herecognizes it (assuming he exists).

My review of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought just appeared in the New York Review of Books. There has been a three year hiatus since I last wrote for them, owing to the fact that the editors and I were at loggerheads over the philosophical content of a (positive) review I wrote of a book by Vincent Descombes on cognitive science and philosophy. The review was never published. The Pinker book is not very philosophical, so we haven’t had that kind of trouble this time. People do find pure philosophy very difficult, and writing about it for the general public is always a challenge. Anyway, the book is vintage Pinker—though I do have some reservations about the substance of some of the chapters. Check out the chapters on verbs and obscenity, in particular.

The US Open has given us some amazing tennis, with Roger Federer in his all-black tux outfit delivering his usual display of athletic and aesthetic brilliance. (I love that guy.) Novak Djokovic (I call him No-Joke) gave a marvelous impression of Sharapova and Nadal serving last night: she with her prissy jig and high bounces, he with his swerving sprint and the fussing with socks and shorts (needlessly plucking them from his crack before every serve). He’s a bloody good player, too, the young Serb—but also quite the comedian. My prediction: Fed and Djok in the final—the former wins. I find that watching tennis improves my game, by motor osmosis I guess. Yesterday I unleashed a distinctly Federerian backhand—at least that’s what it felt like.

Thanks to people for their comments. I agree that Soros’ success in predicting the markets sits ill with his Popperian suspicion of inductive knowledge of the future. I think we need to distinguish context-sensitivity in ethics from ethical relativism: in some contexts it may be right to break a promise, say, though not in others; but this has no tendency to show that what is right varies with what cultures take to be right (on this see any introductory ethics text, e.g. Julia Driver’s Ethics: The Fundamentals). As to my views on consciousness and the brain, I refer you to my many publications on that subject—no need to repeat old stuff here. Walking on water: I’ve always liked that story (“I believe”). Maybe Jesus was wearing some especially buoyant sandals at the time of the feat. A proto-paddle-boarder, I like to think. I saw a picture of my old friend Jennifer Anniston the other day, looking lovely, upright on a paddleboard—so even the stars are doing it.

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