Tina-Sarah

Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin was certainly very funny, but it missed some of the less attractive parts of its target. The voice was high and almost melodious but Palin’s voice has grown guttural and aggressive. Fey’s intelligence and general niceness shone through but Palin is neither of those things. I found Palin’s endorsement speech frightening, depressing, and incredible–indicative of dangerous tendencies.

Share

Poisonous Snakes

I was watching a nature program on PBS and it was observed that poisonous snakes and other poisonous animals tend to be brightly colored. This raises an interesting explanatory question: why make yourself so conspicuous, both to predators and prey? The suggestion made was that some kind of altruism is at work–kindly signaling to others that you are a dangerous character best avoided. But animals don’t engage in this kind of altruism, so why do they signal their presence so rashly? I think the reason is to deter other animals from ganging up on them: it warns other animals to keep away from them, not for their sake, but for the sake of the snake. But why, if the poison is so dangerous a weapon? Because the poison is very limited in supply: the snake cannot kill or incapacitate one attacker after another, because its poison will quickly run out. If a gang forms against it, it will eventually exhaust its arsenal of poison and then become vulnerable to attack. So it tells other animals that it is poisonous and dangerous, as if daring them to attack it. It’s a form of bluster to deter the collective attack: “Don’t even think about it!” But in fact the snake is very vulnerable to group aggression–unlike, say, the lion, which can bite over and over again. Poison is a one-off form of defense. Bright coloring is, for snakes, a complex form of arms-war trade-off.

Share

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?

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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”?

Share

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.

Share