Wing Surfing

Wing Surfing

Yesterday I went wing surfing for the second time with my friend Eddy in his boat. We were in Biscayne Bay, far out but in shallow water, virtually alone. I was using an inflatable paddle board and a 4.5 meter wing, which also had to be inflated (it’s a work-out). Despite my familiarity with wind surfing and kite surfing, it wasn’t easy, but definitely enjoyable. It provides an alternative to those other sports, which are equipment-heavy and in the case of kiting dangerous. I intend to persist with it. There was the usual struggle with the wind, getting blown downwind, falling off the board all the time, etc. But I did manage to stand up for a brief interval, instead of remaining on my chafed knees. It’s a good feeling. I like the feel of the wing, quite gentle compared to kiting, which is kind of violent. Eddy was learning to wing foil (he’s a good kite surfer) and became detached from his board, which entailed a strenuous swim back to the boat attached to the wing. We took the boat to retrieve it, successfully. All in a normal philosopher’s day. I slept soundly.

Let me add a couple of other things, also typical of a philosopher’s life. I’ve been learning the bass line to “I’ll Take You There” by the Staples Singers, a classic Stax track. The bass drives the whole song and is decidedly funky. Not easy to play, especially the quick part of it. I think I’ve got it down now after three days of practice (not all day!). Whoever came up with that line was a musical genius. I’ve also been singing “Nelly Was a Lady” (1849) by Stephen Foster, the saddest song ever written according to Bob Dylan. I recommend listening to it—the version by Tom Roush is I think the best. You might even try to sing it yourself. Meanwhile my knife throwing has been proceeding apace. I made a breakthrough when I discovered that sliding the tip of the index finger down the back of the knife (really a spike) as you throw enables you to control the knife and stop it from spinning, so now I’m sticking it nearly every time from 12 feet. I’ve been recommending the sport to my friends. All very philosophical.

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Explaining Knowledge

Explaining Knowledge

We have many kinds of knowledge: perceptual, introspective, scientific, linguistic, ethical, logical, mathematical, aesthetic, historical, and others. Epistemologists have asked which of these is best justified, and which least justified. We should be able to rank them for degree of justification: introspective and mathematical knowledge might get high marks for justification, perceptual and historical knowledge relatively low (skepticism will feature in determining this ranking). But I want to ask a different question: which kind of knowledge is the most easily explained, and which the least easily? The question concerns explicability not justifiability; it belongs more to natural science (in a broad sense) than to normative epistemology. Which kind of knowledge is the most easily understood and which the least easily understood? The various kinds of knowledge have different kinds of subject matter and different procedures of verification, so the explanation might not be the same in each case; some may be easily explained, some not explained at all, some inexplicable. A Cartesian might suppose that knowledge of oneself is most easily explained; an empiricist might contend that knowledge of perceived objects is most easily explained; a rationalist might think that logical and mathematical knowledge is most easily explained; a post-modernist might believe that knowledge of language (“texts”) is most easily explained. Any explanation must accept that it has to account for how the knowledge in question is knowledge, not merely belief or a certain kind of brain state or a disposition to verbal behavior. The explanandum is knowledge as such (under that description); it can’t be something merely correlated with knowledge. So, we will need to operate with a general conception of what knowledge is—something along the lines of true justified belief. The explanation will then take the form of specifying what accounts for the existence of true justified belief in a given area. How is such a state arrived at, by what mechanism or procedure?

I will begin by stating, intuitively and dogmatically, what I take the correct ordering to be. Then I will enquire into the principles governing it. None of this will be obvious or easily demonstrated; we are in uncharted and muddy waters. Still, some suggestive results may emerge. Here goes then, from easiest to hardest: proprioceptive knowledge, introspective knowledge, linguistic knowledge, perceptual knowledge, ethical knowledge, logical knowledge, and mathematical knowledge (I will eventually get to philosophical knowledge). I am pretty firm in this ranking, down to the precise ordering of subject areas, arbitrary as it may seem. Perhaps astute readers have a sense of the naturalness of the ordering already, but we will need to elucidate that sense; it doesn’t correspond to any existing ordering in epistemological studies. The claim, then, is that knowledge of one’s own bodily position and motion is the most easily explained type of knowledge, with knowledge of one’s own mind the second easiest; knowledge of one’s native language is the third easiest; then knowledge of objects in the external perceivable world; followed by knowledge of right and wrong; then logical knowledge; and finally mathematical knowledge (philosophical knowledge will be left dangling for now). The easiest to explain is proprioceptive knowledge; the most difficult to explain is mathematical knowledge—does any hypothesis spring to mind? Is there a detectable pattern here?

I think a chord will be struck if I say that knowledge is most easily explained when the object of the knowledge (its subject matter) “comes before the mind”. When the object rears up in front of the mind, presenting itself to the mind, then the knowledge arises explicably (relatively speaking). For then, and only then, is the thing known clearly accessible to the mind in its cognitive endeavors—right before its gaze, so to speak, begging to be known. Let’s scrutinize this phrase “before the mind” more analytically; so far it has only been an intuitively natural idiom or image or picture. There are two sides to it: the object is before the mind spatially and immediately. It is removed from the mind, separate from it, and it is also directly apprehended by the mind. It is outside the mind and also inside it—proximate to it, touching it. It is without and within. It needs to be outside the mind because knowledge is a relation between the mind and the world, but it needs to be in close proximately to the mind in order to be apprehended directly. Then, and only then, do we have knowledge. If the object were identical to the state of knowing, then we would not have the relation of knowledge; but unless it is directly apprehended, we cannot easily understand how it can be genuinely known. The object needs to be right there but it can’t be just the knowing mind itself. Perhaps it is now clear why I said that proprioceptive knowledge is the easiest to explain: the body is not identical to the mind, coinciding with it, but it is immediately present to the mind—we can therefore know things that are thus given to the mind. The body is spatially removed but directly apprehended: it is before the mind spatially (it is an object in space), and it is before the mind epistemically (fully given). It thus fulfills the two conditions for knowledge to be explicable, given what the concept requires—relational immediacy. It is intelligible to us that we know our own bodily position; nothing in the concept of knowledge is violated by this type of knowledge. It makes sense that we have knowledge in this case: the body comes before the mind, and hence we know about it. It is up close and yet at some distance.

Next in the ordering comes introspective knowledge. Here we notice that one condition is amply fulfilled but the other violated: the mental state known is immediately present to the mind, but it is not spatially remote from the mind and not apprehended as such. It threatens to collapse into the knowing mind. Thus, there is pressure to deny that the concept of knowledge really applies in this case; one of its necessary conditions is unfulfilled (cf. Wittgenstein). It is difficult to explain why there is knowledge in this case—more difficult than in the case of proprioceptive knowledge. And yet we do have a clear case of epistemic immediacy, even certainty, so we can always cite this in defense of a claim of knowledge. There is some difficulty explaining the existence of introspective knowledge, but it is not (felt as) decisive. Linguistic knowledge comes next—knowledge of meaning, grammar, and use. Here also we find a dilution of the constitutive conditions for knowledge, though not an abrogation: we have a fair degree of immediacy, but the spatial condition is again found wanting, since language is in the mind, not in the world outside (I am speaking of the idiolect primarily). Do I really explicably know the meaning of my words? Well, I am not often wrong about such things, but my meanings are not in space removed from my mind, unlike my body. My meanings are not before my mind in any kind of space, though I apprehend them directly (not by inference or conjecture). So, there is some difficulty explaining how I have knowledge in this case (and of course this has been denied). Meanings are not as transparent as pains, so the immediacy condition is less clearly met, but it is met well enough to allow knowledge of language to be so described. Perceptual knowledge of the external world satisfies the spatial condition perfectly, but it stumbles with the immediacy condition: we can easily be wrong about what we are seeing and hearing (etc.), so justification is wanting in this case. External objects don’t come before mind like pains and meanings; they are more susceptible to illusion and error (hence the possibility of skepticism). Still, we can allow that we have knowledge of this kind because we have evidence concerning external objects, and they clearly meet the relational requirement. Here knowledge is arguably explicable following the paradigm already laid down, though imperfectly. What about ethical knowledge? Obviously, we are now moving into the normative domain, but the same principles apply in this case as hitherto. Values such as right and wrong can be apprehended by the mind, but they are not as clearly separate from the mind as one would like; they seem to hover somewhere between mind and world. The externality condition is not clearly met, so it is less explicable that we have a case of knowledge here. The initial paradigm for adequate explanation is breaking down, though remnants of it remain; we feel uncertain about the “before the mind” condition. The possibility of error and the appearance of internality start to undermine the propriety of applying the concept of knowledge in the ethical case. It becomes harder to explain why there is such knowledge (though it is evident that there is). Logical knowledge is not dissimilar: it is normative and non-spatial (in reality and phenomenologically), yet we do have reasons in good standing for our logical beliefs. We don’t experience logical truths as laid out before us, spatially or even quasi-spatially, so the relational character of knowledge is not clearly respected. We thus have no model for how such knowledge is to be explained, or only part of a model. The case of mathematical knowledge pushes the problem even further: numbers are not spatially related to us, or apprehended as occupying space, so we can’t explain the application of the concept of knowledge in the usual way. The presence of the infinite only exacerbates the problem: infinite totalities don’t “come before the mind”. It is very hard to explain how mathematical knowledge arises. One is tempted to describe it as a complete mystery. It is even hard to understand how numbers could be immediately given to the mind, apprehended as the objects they are; the phenomenology is obscure. It is nothing like the experience of awareness of one’s own body, an object in space whose properties are immediately presented. Thus, I anoint mathematical knowledge as the most difficult type of knowledge to explain.[1]

I have said nothing about explanation and causality. Is it that knowledge gets harder to explain the less causally explicable it is? No doubt causality is involved in questions of explanation, but I don’t think it goes to the heart of the matter. It is a blunt tool for current purposes. First, it is too poorly understood itself (as Hume pointed out). Second, it is too various and vague. Third, it is not specific to the case of knowledge. Fourth, the condition captured by the “before the mind”” formulation works better in describing particular cases. If we relied on causality to make the relevant distinctions, we couldn’t distinguish proprioceptive knowledge from introspective or perceptual knowledge in point of explanatory difficulty. We need something more fine-grained, more supple, less binary. The concept of causality has proven less useful in epistemology than we thought in the heyday of causal theories.

I have stressed the duality inherent in the concept of knowledge, which I described as separation and immediacy. But I suppressed the tension that exists between these two requirements, and hence afflicts the concept of knowledge itself. For the more separation there is, the less immediacy there is; and the more immediacy, the less separation. Knowledge requires distinctness from the mind but also proximity to it. Ideal knowledge would consist in identity with the knowing mind, but then it wouldn’t be knowledge at all, which requires relationality. Knowledge calls for a balance between these two forces—separate but not too separate, immediate but not too immediate. This is why proprioceptive knowledge is the paradigm: the body is not the mind, but it is close enough to afford epistemic immediacy. Introspection gives us plenty of immediacy but no separation. Mathematics gives us neither. It seems conjured from nowhere. Certain knowledge is not ipso facto explicable knowledge, because we need an explanatory framework that renders it intelligible. The further we move away from this framework the less intelligible the putative knowledge becomes. This is why knowledge has been disputed in many areas (but not on skeptical grounds): either lack of immediacy (perceptual knowledge, historical knowledge, and scientific knowledge) or lack of separation (introspective knowledge, ethical knowledge, logical knowledge, mathematical knowledge). But we don’t find a denial of knowledge in the case of proprioception (on non-skeptical grounds anyway): here we have the perfect blend of distance and immediacy. I really do know that I am in a seated posture now.

Finally, philosophy: how hard is it to explain philosophical knowledge? Does it combine separation and immediacy in the right proportions to count as full-blown knowledge? That depends on its subject matter. If it concerns platonic essences, it will approximate to mathematics. If it resembles empirical science, it will conform to that branch of knowledge. If it is about concepts, construed as psychological entities, then it will belong with introspective knowledge. I can’t think of any meta-philosophy that assimilates it to proprioceptive knowledge, so it will not fit that paradigm. If it combines all these forms of knowledge, then it will vary in its difficulty of explanation. You choose.[2]

[1] Astronomical knowledge is much easier to explain than mathematical knowledge, despite the distances involved and the absence of certainty. Mathematical entities are not even in space. Nor do they emit light.

[2] This paper flies at a very high altitude. It would be understandable if the reader felt oxygen-deprived.

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Bat Science

Bat Science

What does the science of bats (Chiroptera) include? There are 1,400 species of bats and they make up 20% of all mammals. Many of them use an echolocation sense, though not all. We can expect a science of bats to deal with their anatomy, evolution, physiology, and psychology. With respect to the first three of these we have made substantial progress, but concerning the fourth we have hit a brick wall. True, we have a decent overall psychology of bats, as good as our psychology of other animals, but there is a glaring lacuna—we don’t know what being a bat is like. That is, we have no adequate conception of (knowledge about) the nature of the sensations experienced by bats when they echolocate. The reason is obvious: we don’t have such experiences ourselves. Perhaps we have some knowledge of bat echolocation experiences, based on our own auditory and visual experience, but we don’t have a full conception—our understanding is partial. So, our science of bats is partial. This implies that our physiology of bats is also partial if we define physiology as “the branch of biology concerned with the normal functions of living organisms and their parts” (OED). We don’t have an adequate biology of bats. And if biology is conceived as a department of physical science, then we don’t have an adequate physics of bats either. All these disciplinary divisions are more or less arbitrary and institutional; the plain fact is that we have only a partial science of bats—very partial. We don’t even know how they experience the world! At best we have a kind of functional, structural, skeletal, abstract knowledge of the bat mind, not comparable to our knowledge of the human mind (we do grasp those experiences). Generally speaking, we don’t have a comprehensive science of any animal whose experience radically departs from our own. Nor do we really have complete knowledge of animal minds that differ only quantitatively from ours: we don’t know what it is like to smell like a dog or see like an eagle or hear like a cat. We can extrapolate from our own case to some extent, but we don’t have a clear and distinct idea of what these superior senses involve; we can’t imagine it. The fact is that we have this kind of knowledge by analogical reasoning: to the extent that our and their experiences are analogous we can possess such knowledge, but not otherwise. If our senses were even more impoverished, we would know a good deal less than we do now: if we were deaf or blind, we would not grasp the auditory or visual experiences of the vast majority of animals. Some animals are deaf or blind (not many), so they can’t have knowledge of the mental worlds of hearing and sighted animals—no matter how scientifically intelligent they might be (the octopus has virtually no sense of hearing). It is just luck that we have a wide enough range of senses to comprehend the minds of other creatures. It could have been all bats so far as human science is concerned—no animal mind would fall within the human science capacity. The reason is that knowledge of animal minds is first-person experience-based and unavoidably analogical.

We could put this by saying that empiricism is true for knowledge of experience (animal psychology). Classical empiricists divided knowledge into perceptual knowledge and reflective knowledge: they may have been wrong about the origins and limits of knowledge of the external world, but they were not wrong about knowledge of the internal world. We know about the mind only by experiencing it: if we haven’t experienced it, we can’t know it (fully anyway). We have no idea of bat experience because we have no impression of bat experience—that is, no introspective awareness of it, or anything like it. We have no analogue of bat experience in our own mind. Such knowledge is inescapably egocentric: we must proceed from our own case. According to this kind of empiricism, we cannot have a complete science of animals that are radically different from ourselves psychologically. Nor could other species have a complete science of us without sharing our psychology—as with a highly intelligent (but deaf) octopus. What this means is that the sensory physiology of a creature fixes the limits of its knowledge: human physiology stands in the way of a science of bats (or even cats and rats). We know other minds by analogy with our own, but sometimes there is no analogy. Hence, our psychological science is inherently limited. Some animal minds are conceptually and scientifically closed to us. Psychological empiricism precludes psychological omniscience.

It might be wondered whether something similar holds for knowledge of physical reality. I don’t mean the claim that physical reality is itself experiential (idealism); I mean the suggestion that the human body provides the basis for all physical knowledge. The idea is not unheard of in cognitive development circles, but it has lacked clear elucidation. It would be odd if knowledge of other minds were inherently egocentric but not knowledge of other bodies (including inanimate ones). Isn’t egocentricity more likely to obtain across the whole field of human knowledge if it holds in part of it? The question is difficult to decide because of the homogeneity of matter: the matter of the body is the same as the matter outside the body, so we don’t have the situation in which the knowing mind is trying to extrapolate beyond its own nature. We don’t have a bat-type situation with regard to other bodies, animate or inanimate. We are not in the position of trying to use our own body as the model while other bodies differ drastically from it. So, our means of acquiring physical knowledge might be egocentric without encountering any limits analogous to the bat case. Luckily all bodies resemble my body, matter being homogeneous (but see below). Knowledge of my own body thus suffices for forming a conception of all other bodies; my knowledge-forming capacities are never put to the test in the way the bat’s mind puts them to the test. But we can formulate a fanciful thought experiment to determine how it might challenge our ability to think about other bodies: what if we had no body, being immaterial beings, and yet we tried to form a conception of material bodies? If you couldn’t use knowledge of your own body as a point of comparison, could you really grasp the nature of material bodies outside of you? You couldn’t think, “This thing is like my body and I know what that is, so I know what it is “. Surely you would have a different conception of rocks and squirrels if you had no body to form your basic notion of physical things. You wouldn’t know what those things are without knowledge of your own body to rely on. You would find them alien and mysterious without this epistemic prop.[1] Just as we don’t grasp what ghosts are, ghosts don’t grasp what we are—because these things are just too different from each other. We would not know what a bat’s body is if we had no body ourselves to compare it to—just like our current ignorance of its experience. Our knowledge would be at best partial. The further physical reality departs from the perceived reality of the human body the less we understand it—witness the idea of an electromagnetic field or a black hole or the quantum world. We lose our grip on the physical reality we are trying to grasp. We struggle with abstractions, mere words. If so, there is an underlying egocentricity in our knowledge of the physical world, though it doesn’t show up in ordinary life, because we don’t generally encounter anything sufficiently alien. Minds are heterogeneous, so we encounter instances alien to our own mind; but matter is (generally) homogeneous, so we don’t find radical departures from the matter composing our body.[2] Other bodies are analogous to our own body, so we can use analogical reasoning to grasp their nature; not so other minds. Still, both types of knowledge are epistemically egocentric, and hence subject to egocentric empiricism. The basic knowledge is knowledge of self, whether of mind or body; the rest is derived by analogical extension. That, at any rate, is a hypothesis worth exploring; it makes a lot of sense of our epistemic predicament. According to this view, all science is egocentric and limited, not just bat science; bat science is just a special case. Fundamentally, all scientific knowledge is grounded in knowledge of self.[3] All our knowledge is filtered through our self-awareness, imbued with it, conditioned by it. It is proprioception extended. I first know myself; then I work outwards from there. The more remote the other mind or body is, the more tenuous our grasp of it becomes; the more alien to our nature, physical or mental, the more incomprehensible. This is what bats teach us if we listen carefully to their message.[4]

[1] There is a lot to be said about how one’s own body shapes one’s view of the physical world, but I won’t go into it now. We feel our own body at every moment, from the womb onwards, so we naturally think of other bodies as potential objects of feeling. An animal needs a special awareness of its own body in order to function and survive. If we try to separate our concept of body from our body, we are apt to conceive of something thin and etiolated, like mere geometrical extension. The lived human body is not like that. We call other bodies “bodies” for a reason. Our concept of matter ultimately has its roots in the felt reality of the human body. We can imagine creatures that refuse to extend the concept of body beyond their bodily boundaries. The body is our primordial physical object. Plus, we are naturally self-centered, self-obsessed, self-interested. We have a special epistemic relation to our own body.

[2] What if some animals had bodies composed of dark matter?

[3] This doesn’t mean science isn’t objective (in one of the many senses of that word); it just means that our conception of its objectivity has to be more nuanced than we might have supposed. We still have objective confirmation procedures, but what is confirmed reflects us as well as mind-independent reality (Ernst Mach had a view like this—science as physiologically constrained).

[4] There could be a follow-up paper entitled “What is it Like to be a World Completely Different from the Human World?”, or simply “What is it Like to be Non-Human?” Human epistemology is human epistemology, as bat epistemology is bat epistemology. We can never escape our own biological nature.

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Four Types of Quantification

Four Types of Quantification

It has been said that there are really two types of quantification not one: “objectual” and “substitutional”. The objectual type may be paraphrased as follows: “There is an object x such that x satisfies F, where F is a predicate” (and similarly for the universal quantifier). The substitutional type may be paraphrased: “There is singular term t such that when t is substituted into the appended open sentence it produces a truth” (similarly for universal quantification). The intent of the distinction is clear enough, though the terminology leaves something to be desired. We might better speak of metalinguistic quantification versus objectual quantification, and admit that the former is a special case of the latter, since bits of language are also “objects”. Also, why is inserting a term into an open sentence a type of “substitution”—isn’t it just occupying an argument place (a blank)? Still, there is no very good terminology to fall back on, so we can stick with the standard formulation, so long as we are clear about what is involved. The question is whether the quantifier is “over” objects or “over” words, i.e., what the “domain” includes.

I think this two-way distinction is too limited. There are (at least) four distinguishable types of quantification; we need to add what I will call conceptual quantification and intentional quantification. Again, the terminology is not pellucid, but the distinctions are real. Intuitively, a conceptual quantifier says something like this: “There is a concept C such that when C occurs in a certain proposition the proposition is true”. For example, “There exists a man” is equivalent to “There is a concept C such that when C is combined with the concept man we get a truth”, where C might be the concept Socrates. This is really the twin of metalinguistic quantification except that we “substitute” concepts into propositions not words into sentences. It proceeds at the level of sense not of reference or signs. What I am calling an intentional quantifier (read “intentional object quantifier”) ranges over existent and nonexistent objects: thus, we can say “Some men fly” meaning to include men like Superman. We no longer require that our range of quantification includes only existent objects; we also quantify “over” nonexistent objects. Obviously, this type of quantifier belongs alongside the usual “objectual” kind. Even if natural languages (or logic texts) don’t include such quantifiers, we can stipulate them: they range over objects of thought as well as objects that exist. Ontologically, there are four kinds of entity to work with—existing objects, objects of thought, concepts, and words—so we have four types of quantification to go with them.

We can construct languages with each type of quantifier and explore their properties. One type may be suitable for some purposes but not for others. If we are discussing fiction, we might want the intentional quantifier (“All of Shakespeare’s tragic figures are flawed”); whereas in the sciences we will limit ourselves to existing things. If we are discussing quantificational thoughts, we might want to keep language out of it. Nonsensical language might invite the substitutional quantifier (“Some mome raths are greedy”). Quantifiers are not logically univocal or ontologically parsimonious. They are flexible and pragmatic, up for anything. They are willing to “range over” anything we can think up. They are not semantically austere or judgmental. They are certainly not the measure of what we take seriously and literally to exist in the world of actual objects.

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Stock and Tuvel

Stock and Tuvel

I was just watching a video of Kathleen Stock and Rebecca Tuvel at Cornell talking about their experiences in academia in recent years. Both women struck me as eminently sensible and decent people with perfectly defensible (and innocuous) views. Yet they have been subjected to vicious persecution and cancellation by assorted idiots. The worst offenders have been other so-called professors, often women. This is really a major scandal in the universities: stemming either from malicious or spineless individuals. How anyone could defend this treatment beats me. It is a sign of a deep sickness in contemporary intellectual culture (sic).

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The Situation Room

The Situation Room

I just read my friend George Stephanopoulos’ book The Situation Room, an account of said room over the last sixty years or so. It is a well-researched, clear, and smoothly written book, full of information, eye-opening. As a window into American politics over the relevant time period, it is exemplary; everyone in government should read it, as well as any responsible citizen. The moral tone is understated but strong. The realities of modern government are vividly evoked. Of course, the author is perfectly placed to provide such an account, given his involvement in front-line politics and political journalism; but I also appreciated the personal qualities of the man, of which I have direct experience. I recommend it. The chapter on Trump alone is worth the price of admission.[1]

[1] An oddity: there isn’t a single semicolon in the whole book, as I pointed out to the author.

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Albert Einstein: Logical Positivist

Albert Einstein: Logical Positivist

In chapter 3 of Relativity (1916) Einstein writes: “We entirely shun the vague word ‘space’, of which we must honestly acknowledge, we cannot form the slightest conception, and replace it by ‘motion relative to a practically rigid body of reference’” (22). Overlooking the use-mention error, Einstein is stating, as if self-evident, that we have no conception of space—not because it exceeds our cognitive powers, but because there is no such thing. We must replace this pseudo-concept with the concept expressed by the quoted words; replace not reduce or identify. Later we read: “The concept [of simultaneity] does not exist for the physicist until he has the possibility of discovering whether or not it is fulfilled in an actual case. We thus require a definition of simultaneity such that this definition supplies us with the method by means of which, in the present case, he can decide by experiment whether or not both the lightning strokes [strikes?] occurred simultaneously.” (37) Does he think physicists are somehow conceptually impoverished compared to the rest of us? Presumably not: he thinks that no one has a concept of simultaneity independent of a method of verifying statements of simultaneity. No method, no concept. He doesn’t argue for this position but takes it as self-evident. Does he think the same thing applies to all concepts or just these two? Apparently, it applies to all. In fact, he thinks these concepts (and maybe all concepts) need what he calls a “physical meaning” in order to be genuine concepts; in so far as they don’t, they are empty. Thus, space comes down to measuring rods and time to clocks. His whole theory rests on these assumptions. But they are straightforward instances of verificationism. Einstein admitted that he was influenced by Hume, and we should take him at his word. One wonders what he thought of mental concepts or ethical concepts or logical concepts.

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Friendship

Friendship

In our society we treat romantic and friend relationships differently. Romantic relationships go through predictable stages, often culminating in marriage: they progress to the point where a legal contract is in order. But friendship does not follow this course: it develops but it doesn’t culminate in a legal contract, or any kind of contract. It remains informal, unregulated. People may have lifelong friends but this is never sanctified by anything like marriage, legal or otherwise. There is no friendship ceremony, exchange of vows, pledge of constancy. Accordingly, there is nothing like divorce, with accompanying protocols. It is possible to terminate a friendship without any legal repercussions or even social stigma. True, people may feel let down, hurt, and betrayed; but there is no legal recourse, no penalty. Nor is there any ritual whereby the friendship is ratified and made public. Everything is left loose and casual. There isn’t even anything corresponding to a “dating” phase, recognized as such; it just meanders along. Would that seem desirable in romantic relationships? Suppose a society treated romance like friendship—wouldn’t that be highly unsatisfactory for all concerned? It carries no commitment, no security. And people like to know where they stand in their interpersonal relations. The institution of marriage, legalized or not, is there for a reason. But friendship is left to its own devices, as if it can take care of itself. The OED defines “friend” thus: “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations”. A bond is defined as “a force or feeling that unites people”. Yes, friendship is a uniting of people in mutual affection—as is marriage—but we don’t treat it correspondingly. It is taken more lightly, as a matter of law and custom. The bonds of friendship can be broken with relative impunity, whether the break is warranted or not. Since this happens with some frequency, people can suffer in consequence, sometimes badly.

What if we changed our practices regarding friendship—would life improve? Suppose we had friendship contracts like marriage contracts: formal ceremonies, document signing, the works. You could be “friended” to X, Y, and Z. This would be the culmination of a kind of trial period and carry serious commitments; it is supposed to be binding. You can’t just a break up a friendship so sanctified without adequate grounds. You have to appear before a judge and specify your reasons for abrogating the friendship contract. We can predict that such separations would be rare, because people would not enter into friendship contracts without serious consideration. This would add structure to human relations: it would produce a degree of stability and assurance, prohibiting the dropping of friends on a whim or because of selfish considerations. It would provide a solidity to friendship that shores it up against human weakness. Moral integrity cannot be relied upon in romantic relations, so we have marriage; similarly for friendship—it needs the backing of custom and law. False friends would be weeded out by such a set-up, or at least minimized. Surely that would be an improvement on the existing arrangements (or lack thereof). People would be happier, less subject to unscrupulous treatment. The system would be entirely voluntary: someone who felt themselves incapable of real friendship need not participate, instead of hiding behind the pretense that they are true friends. Everything would be out in the open. It would take a lot of the uncertainty out of the friendship relation. There would have to be public declarations and promises not just unspoken understandings. You could “propose” friendship to someone and they could accept or decline your proposal. The more one thinks about it the better it sounds; this could substantially improve human relations. It might enhance interpersonal harmony, encourage fellow feeling, prevent conflicts. Not “All you need is love” but “Let’s enter into a friendship agreement”. It would be nice to feel bonded in this way to selected others; not just to one’s spouse but to one’s closest friends. It would introduce a social category that corresponds to a felt human need. You could say, “This is my wife, Claudia, and my friend, Horace”. Ideally, we should have a new term for this category (none exists at present), but pending that we might resort to the description “legal friend” or some such. As things stand, we say things like “dear friend” or “old buddy” or “good mate”, but something semantically like “wife” or “husband” would be desirable. Probably a cap should be put on the number of these permissible in law—say, five. You don’t want to be accused of spreading your friendship too thin. Monogamy is not required, but not unlimited polygamy; we don’t think much of people with twenty “best friends”. It all seems quite doable and potentially beneficial.[1]

We already have something like this set-up with other human relations outside of the romantic. The employer-employee relationship and the teacher-student relationship follow this pattern: obligations and formalization are part of the deal. In both cases there is mutual reliance (if not affection), so that breaches and breaks are frowned upon or worse. There is a kind of contract at work, even if quite loose. If I undertake to teach you something and you agree, it is expected that I follow through, and you too. Teaching, like marriage and friendship, is an investment of time and effort; it needs some sort of institutional backing to keep it on track. Same for employment: hence, employment contracts. These things can’t be left to individual whim or opportunistic opting-out. We recognize this for teaching and employment, so why not for friendship? Indeed, they often both involve friendship. What is not acceptable is violating the trust implicit in friendship without adequate grounds. Here an element of formality is required, given (alas) human nature. The fact is that people need friends—life without them is difficult and dismal—so the social bonds need to be supported by institutional scaffolding. It is really high time in human history that friendship be given its due. It needs all the help it can get.[2]

[1] It would be possible to begin locally: you could ask your friends what they think of the idea and institute a system among yourselves. Verbal declarations would be an obvious starting point (“I hereby promise to act as a friend henceforward”). That way people can’t suddenly turn on you out of the blue.

[2] As a side issue, it might be healthy to view marriage as a special case of a more general type of social bond, along with friendship (also teaching and employing). All of these involve commitments, promises, and obligations. Marriage is not unique in this respect.

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