Pets

Pets

 

I have two cats, four birds, fifteen fish, and one lizard. The cats are called Lucy and Blackie, both male, with quite different personalities (one a rabid hunter, the other a homebody). The birds are parakeets–white, blue, turquoise, and yellow. I have trained the yellow one (she has no name) to perch on my fingers and let me stroke her; the others won’t let me near them. The fish are in two ponds and approach when I bring them food. I have netted the ponds so that the raccoons can’t get to them. The lizard is an Uromastyx ocellata (a North African spiny-tailed lizard): her name is Ramon. She lives in a tank alone and likes to bask on a stone (I actually wrote a song about her). Occasionally I take her out for short excursions—last night, for instance, I placed her on Lucy’s back, to their mutual consternation (but also fascination). So I have a little zoo representing different phyla. It’s nice. I wonder how many pet owners enjoy such variety (I am an “inclusive” pet owner). I do actually believe in interspecies friends, or at least nodding acquaintances. 

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Immaterial Substance

 

 

Immaterial Substance

 

We already face a problem: what is meant by “immaterial” and what is meant by “substance”? I will bypass all this to raise a clearer question: is there a significant analogy between the structure of material objects (meaning middle-sized dry goods) and the structure of minds? By “structure” I mean primarily a distinction between primary and secondary qualities (but corpuscular structure can also be considered): does anything like that distinction apply to minds? On the face of it no, because minds don’t have shape and color (etc.), but maybe there is a subtler form of the distinction we can make. One fact about color is generally accepted: colors play no role in the causal powers of objects (though the underlying properties of light do). Let’s say they are epiphenomenal. Is anything like this true of properties of mind? What about color qualia? Aren’t they epiphenomenal? Isn’t the experience of seeming to see something red, construed as a phenomenal property, epiphenomenal? To be sure, the neural basis of it is not, but the phenomenal property itself plays no causal role; it is causally redundant. Just as the color is epiphenomenal, so the subjective impression of a color is epiphenomenal; the causality is carried by underlying primary qualities. Here we have a structural parallel.

            But aren’t these properties just brain properties and hence “material”? That is not a good question, given the vagaries of the word “material”, but we can rephrase it into something meaningful. We know that electricity is vital to mental functioning, so that all sensation has electrical correlates: let’s then agree that the causal powers of sensations are based in those electrical correlates. These are the equivalent of primary qualities in objects. Moreover, electricity (electromagnetism) is immaterial on some understandings of the term: it doesn’t fit the mechanistic Cartesian conception of matter. So we can say that mind divides into a phenomenal non-causal set of properties and a causal immaterial set of properties—just as material objects have both non-causal sensible qualities and causal material properties (in the sense of mechanism). It may be said that ordinary objects are not material either—and I have a lot of sympathy for that position—but still we have found a sense in which mind is immaterial (by the standards of mechanism): for mind is electrical, and electricity is not material in the old sense. Now if we extend the concept of substance to include stuff broadly considered (including electrical fields), then we can announce that the mind is an immaterial substance (a non-mechanistic stuff). Moreover, it is an immaterial substance that admits of something like a primary quality/secondary quality distinction.

            This electrical substance (stuff) might also have computational properties that play a causal role in mental functioning. That might be the best theory of its structure, analogous to the molecular theory of matter. It isn’t that the phenomenal properties are reducible to electrical and computational properties—as colors are not reducible to wavelengths of light—but we can truly say that the mind is in its nature partly constituted by such properties, because the mind is both causal and phenomenal. Would Descartes disagree with this? Not on the basis of his conception of matter, since electromagnetism counts as immaterial by his criterion of the material. This is a type of dualism we can live with, given that we already have to accept field-based physics before we get to the mind. Moreover, we can accept a corpuscular conception of the mind on the assumption that electricity has a quantum nature (is not a continuous magnitude). So the analogy between mind and matter is quite close except for the question of materiality, and even that might collapse if matter turns out to be less “material” than was imagined. First we discovered electricity, regarding it as spookily non-physical; then we discovered that mental activity depends on electrical activity: didn’t we thereby discover that mind is an immaterial substance (stuff)? The brain is an electrical generator and this electricity is what powers the mind: so the mind has a nature distinct from the world of matter as envisaged by mechanism– it is “immaterial” in one clear sense of the word (and is there any other clear sense?).  [1]

 

  [1] Prescientific Cartesian dualism conceives of immaterial substance by comparison with supernatural substance such as composes fairies and deities (whatever that may be), but scientific Cartesian dualism conceives of immaterial substance by comparison with electricity and magnetism—perfectly natural phenomena (if not totally devoid of mystery). It isn’t that phenomenal properties are electrical properties (at least under our current conception of electricity), but the causal powers of the mind are provided by brain-based electrical power. Thus we have what might be called “scientific immaterialism”. 

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Mental and Physical

 

 

Mental and Physical

 

The way philosophers use the terms “mental” and “physical” presupposes a conceptual dichotomy with no overlap: what is mental is not physical and what is physical is not mental (except by dint of some speculative metaphysical doctrine such as idealism or materialism). But is that the way we normally think about the things in question? Is there such a rigid separation? Isn’t the mental also physical and the physical also mental? I mean nothing remarkable by saying this—nothing that deserves to be called “metaphysical”. In saying that the mind is physical we can mean simply that it is an attribute of the body with bodily causes and correlates (see my “Truly Physical”): mental illness, say, is physical in the sense that it arises from conditions of the body and brain (it isn’t a matter of demons or immaterial perturbations). Many of our so-called mental concepts reflect this conception: people are said to have backaches, stomachaches and headaches, and suffer from fevers, or fall asleep and wake up. These all involve what the philosopher would call a “psychophysical” fact in which body and mind are brought conceptually together. No normal speaker thinks of headaches without heads or fevers without bodily temperature. The mind involves the body, and the body is a physical thing. Likewise, the physical is bound up with the mental; we don’t conceive of the objects of perception as wholly devoid of mental involvement (though that might be a philosophical doctrine). I don’t mean fancy metaphysics like idealism and neutral monism; I mean such things as secondary qualities and pragmatic classification. We ascribe colors to things and group them according to our interests and innate categories: objects are not conceived as completely mind-independent (which is not to say that none of their properties are mind-independent). When an animal is classified as a “blue-faced monkey”, say, it is tacitly brought under a mind-involving category. Nowhere does common sense stipulate that its objects of interest are completely mind-independent—again, that is a philosopher’s contention. These are described as “physical objects” but that is not taken to imply that they are not mentally tinged. Our ordinary ontology allows for physical objects that have mind-involving attributes, just as it allows for mental phenomena that have body-involving attributes.

            In fact, at the ground-floor level we don’t even operate with these abstract concepts of the mental and physical: we just talk about monkeys, tables, rainbows, pains, emotions, thoughts, and so on. The philosopher then comes along and tries to find overarching categories: he or she has a “craving for abstraction” (compare Wittgenstein’s “craving for generality”). We come up with these two words and then we reify them into broad natural categories that are only accidentally joined or not joined at all. Our ordinary ways of talking and thinking don’t respect such abstract distinctions; it is only on reflection that we are taken in by them. Tables have colors and human uses; pains have bodily locations: that’s what tables and pains are. Colors are related to sense perception, and human uses reflect human desires; pains are caused by and felt in specific parts of the body: thus we can apply the terms “mental” and “physical”, respectively, to them. Ordinary ontology is unconcerned with the dichotomy suggested by the philosopher’s exclusive use of “mental” and “physical”. Talk of a mental world and a physical worldis alien to it—a philosophical theory not a piece of cultural anthropology. What is odd is that common sense doesn’t provide any substitute for these terms—no way to describe in general what kind of thing we are dealing with. We want to ask what pains, emotions and thoughts have in common, and we come up with the word “mental”; similarly for tables, rocks and monkeys, and the word “physical”. Shouldn’t there be a way of describing these things that recognizes their double nature as mental-cum-physical? That would be less misleading than “mental” and “physical”—and it isn’t as if these terms have clear meanings. They are too dualistic and their extension is quite unclear. In the “lived world” there is no such dichotomy as these words insinuate. Whether there is one in the theoretical world is another question; but if there is, it is not founded in common sense. We experience external objects as possessing properties reflecting our minds, and we experience our minds as bound up with our bodies; only in theory do we force a wedge between the two. It is odd that our language lacks the means to express the mental-and-physical nature of things in general terms.  [1]

 

Colin McGinn

  [1] We talk about “mental illness” while acknowledging that it is also bodily (an illness of the brain)—shouldn’t we talk of “mental-physical illness”? We call a flower “physical” while accepting that its color, smell and taste are all mind-dependent—shouldn’t we call it a “physical-mental” object? Our language is ontologically misleading. The mischief caused by the words “mental” and “physical” is incalculable. Yet we seem to have nothing better. Strange.

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American Psyche

 

 

American Psyche

 

Suppose you wanted to explain why it is that people in America speak English. America is far from England and its native people were not English speakers. The obvious answer is that Americans speak the language of the British immigrants who founded the country. They spoke English and their descendants learned language from them by imitative learning or some such. It isn’t some kind of strange coincidence or the result of a general law (English isn’t a human universal). The propensity to speak English is the result of historical facts that could have been otherwise—if the original colonizers were Spanish speakers, Americans would speak Spanish today. I want to suggest that much the same is true of other aspects of American culture: Americans are as they are mentally and behavorially because of the original British settlers.  [1] There is an unbroken (though modified) imitative chain leading from those settlers to contemporary Americans, and not always to the credit of either party. If you want to explain why people living in Great Britain are as they are, you do well to look to history; and the same is true of people living in America biologically descended from the original British settlers. Since British culture was the dominant force in America, despite other incursions, we find that American culture reflects British culture. Albion begot America, warts and all. This is not at all surprising, but the traits that originated in Britain, particularly England, may not be so obvious, or welcome.

            I am going to paint with a broad brush and from first-hand experience (I’m not a sociologist or historian). The traits I identify are four: puritanism, violence, social supremacy, and insularity. Different labels could be given and the psychological formations labeled are complex and multi-faceted. What is called puritanism might also be described as inhibition, repression, buttoned-up-ness, austerity, conformism, primness, prudishness, stuffiness, and straight-out sexual shame. I take it this is an old story and needs no defending. Violence is an aspect of British culture that is all too familiar to the inhabitants of the British Isles, particularly alcohol-driven street violence from predominantly working-class youths (I recall an American female graduate student in Oxford who was beaten up twice on the streets of that city by British thugs). My own school days were full of it. But let’s not forget the state-sponsored violence of the British Empire, which again is an oft-told story. The British are a violent people and proud of it (“Bring back the birch!”). By social supremacy I mean the burning desire to be better than your fellow man, or to be thought better: snobbery, class division, acting posh, looking down your nose, being well-bred, associating with the better sort of person, etc. etc. This desire to outclass others has racial and nationalist forms, but it should be remembered that it applies within the class of white British nationals. It is a desire for supremacy over others—foreigners, northerners (or southerners), the differently accented, the improperly educated, or the dubiously mannered. By insularity I mean a concern only with local affairs, a “little England” mentality, narrow-mindedness, a suspicion of “abroad”, a conviction that your way is always the best way, a lack of interest in anything beyond your own daily life. Much more could be said about these four traits and their connection to national peculiarities, like excessive drinking and football violence, or a rigid class system, or a tendency to get sunburned while holidaying in hot places; but I think I have said enough to convey the general picture. It is not an edifying spectacle, and many have been the souls that have fled it in search of other climes.

            Now we move to America: don’t we see the same basic pattern playing out, though in gaudier colors? Do I even need to spell out the American national character? The chief difference is the influx of other immigrants to the American continent (voluntary and involuntary): this has given a peculiar twist to the underlying personality type. A fanatically puritanical frame of mind, extreme violence, appalling racism and bigotry, and a magnificent indifference to anything beyond these American shores: the basic components are all there. Above all, there is a sublime lack of awareness of the American psychopathology. England is an island nation and so is America, and people like it that way: they don’t want anyone interfering in their traditional ways. And it isn’t as if both countries are models of internal harmony: the internal conflicts of the British Isles, many within England itself, are notorious; and the United States is a country with deep divisions, not to mention hatreds. In both countries we have a combustible mix of contempt, insecurity, supremacist thinking, and a refusal to heed the interests of others. At its crudest we have raging hatred and simmering (as well as overt) violence. The American psyche has adopted the characteristic traits of the British (mainly English) psyche and amplified them to screeching levels—bigger, nastier, and stupider. Combine this with unrestrained capitalism and simple greed and you get a version of Albion that is quite recognizable but also grotesque. The love of personal destruction is one of the manifestations of this pathology: lynching, legal execution, imprisonment, financial ruin, Internet defamation, and a callous disregard for human suffering (not to mention animal suffering). That is America and always has been, but it derives from the culture that created it—the culture of Great Britain. Look at Monty Python and the Holy Grail and you will see the bare bones of England satirized; now transpose this to a continent three thousand miles away. Of course, there are differences, born of climate and geography, of indigenous and neighboring peoples, but the toxic mixture of puritanism, violence, social supremacy, and insularity is present in full force. How could it not be, given that the architects of the country as it now exists were themselves steeped in this kind of culture? It didn’t disappear when British feet touched American soil; it was simply transplanted to a new place. Indeed, it might be argued that America allowed the pathology greater freedom to express itself, thus assuming more virulent forms.

            American English is recognizably the same language as British English (which itself has multiple forms) but with certain accretions and deformations: some would say it is harsher-sounding than its British progenitor (it is certainly spoken more loudly and confidently). American culture is the same: it is recognizably a version of British culture, but harsher, more extreme, and less modulated. Or to put it in more old-fashioned language, the American soul is really the English soul unleashed.  [2]            

 

  [1] This basic thesis was defended at length by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). I have given my own version of the general idea but without following his precise division of traits and without tying those traits down to geographical locations in England. For example, he traces the origins of American violence to the Scottish and Irish borderlands with their distinctive history, while I see British violence as a far more distributed characteristic of British society. His perspective is based on the American experience; I am drawing on my experience growing up in England (I moved to the USA when I was forty). Neither Fischer nor I wish to condemn both countries without qualification—there are good things about both places and other countries can be terrible too—but we want to present a clear-eyed picture of the realities of the countries in question. In many ways American history is just a continuation of British history, though occurring in another land: a “special relationship”—no doubt about it. What about the relationship of identity? 

  [2] What I have offered here is a general framework for thinking about American culture and Anglo-American relations, obviously in need of fleshing out. I doubt that I have said anything remotely original. If we want an acronym we could use “SPIV”: Supremacy, Puritanism, Insularity, Violence. There have always been critics of SPIV culture, internal and external, and some progress has been made in overcoming its direst forms, but it has proved remarkably resilient. Everyone should ask himself or herself to what degree he or she is a walking embodiment of it. We are all creatures of history.

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Cosmic Compression

 

Cosmic Compression

 

Many a student of cosmology reels at the idea of the universe squeezed into a tiny dense point. How could all the matter (and space!) of the known universe be condensed into such a point? There is just too much of it! Our student is not bemused by another feat of condensation: placing all the particles of an object into close proximity and witnessing drastic downsizing. We are told that most of the atom is empty space with electrons and protons set widely apart, so if you eliminate the space the object shrinks dramatically (I remember reading that if you did this to the earth it would be the size of an orange). But this doesn’t help with the kind of cosmic compression envisaged in the big bang theory (or what I prefer to call the hot speck theory): for placing all the elementary particles of the universe next to each other would still produce a very large object (the size of the Sun, say). So how are we to understand the physics of that original tiny dot? How is such a thing possible? How can you cram that much matter into so small a space?

            As I understand it (I am no expert), we are to drop the idea of matter altogether and replace it with energy: that is, we are not postulating a cramming together of material particles such as electrons and protons. Such entities did not exist at the time the universe was so compressed; they came into existence only as the original stuff cooled down (like space itself). Instead we are to envisage a point of extremely high energy sans matter. From this concentrated energy matter is thought to have emerged, by the equivalence of matter and energy in physics. Energy converted to matter in the big bang; it isn’t that the matter already existed then in a highly compressed form with all the particles jammed tightly together. And energy is not something that needs to take up space according to its intensity: you can increase the energy of an object without increasing the volume it occupies. A hotter thing is not necessarily a bigger thing. Suppose we think of energy as oscillatory motion: the more rapid the oscillations the greater the energy. Then energy (motion) can increase indefinitely while not taking up more space. Suppose we say that all the energy of the universe can be condensed into a tiny spot: that occasions no conceptual recoil in our keen student, because it just means that we can envisage a very high degree of energy contained in a small area. Energy has no spatial dimensions; it is, as physicists say, just “work done” (or the potential for such work). So there should be no conceptual difficulty in the idea of a speck with the energy levels of the whole universe; we are not being asked to cram particles into a tiny space. The theory is that this concentrated energy can be converted into particulate matter; it isn’t that all the particulate matter of the universe can be crammed into a tiny spot. That conversion may be conceptually troublesome (though a truism of current physics), but the idea of near-infinite levels of energy in a tiny area is not. The universe as it now exists doesn’t contain such high-energy spots (except perhaps in back holes, and hence not observable by us), but theoretically energy can be raised to arbitrarily high levels without violating any basic principles of matter and space. That is, the hot speck could be incredibly hot without ceasing to be tiny.

            So we needn’t be fazed by the idea of a tiny speck containing (potentially!) all the matter of the universe in virtue of its extremely high energy level. This is good to know because we don’t want the universe beginning in a paradox.    [1]

 

    [1] This is my attempt to make sense of what has long troubled me and troubles many people. I don’t believe I have ever read an exposition of big bang theory that puts things quite this way, but it seems to correspond to the underlying idea (I may be wrong, though).

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Big Bang Metaphysics

 

 

Big Bang Metaphysics

 

Metaphysics typically deals with the universe as it now exists: material objects, space, time, mind, moral values, and so on. But it wasn’t always like that: at the time of the big bang it was very different and didn’t include any of those things. Shouldn’t there also be a metaphysics that deals with the universe as it was then—a truly cosmological metaphysics? And shouldn’t it relate that old universe with the one that confronts us now? We are told that the big bang led to the creation of many things: matter and its constituent particles, space, time itself, and eventually life and mind. Are there metaphysical questions about how this is possible? I am going to raise one such question, but first I need to attend to some terminological matters that have impeded comprehension and muddied the waters. The whole subject is a linguistic morass, sorely in need of revision.

            First the phrase “big bang”, used in contrast to “steady state”. As has been pointed out, there was no bang, since there was no sound medium to transmit waves; nor was there any one to register such waves in a form of a banging sound. The event was also not “big”: there was no space within which to make such judgments, and anyway the universe was tiny at this point. So the phrase is multiply misleading. We need a phrase to contrast with “steady state” that is more literally correct: I suggest “sudden surge” (we could also say “abrupt inflation” but that is a bit of a mouthful). What happened at this seminal moment was certainly sudden—an extremely rapid eruption (nothing like the stately steadiness envisaged by the rival theory). I choose the word “surge” to suggest a swelling, an outpouring, a leap forward and outward. I could have used “eruption”, but it lacks the alliteration and suggests volcanoes. So let us say that the universe exists by virtue of a sudden surge not a continuous steady state; that captures the theoretical difference nicely (and is euphonious). The universe ballooned spectacularly into being.

Now for “singularity”: the OED gives “a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially a point of infinite density at the center of a black hole”. Note that the dictionary makes no reference to the origin of the universe according to the big bang (sic) theory, perhaps because this was not a mathematical point of infinitedensity and heat (just extremely high). The word sounds very grand and no doubt mystifies earnest seekers after cosmological knowledge. George Lemaitre in 1927 called the entity in question a “primeval atom”—and he invented the theory: I think this is a better term than “singularity”. It conveys the idea of an extremely small indivisible entity, along with the suggestion that the whole universe once existed inside a mere atom. We might modify it slightly to form “seminal atom” so as to stress the idea that this atom was not only primeval but also creative—seed-like, full of potential. Then we can say that the seminal atom underwent a sudden surge—and lo, the universe came into existence. If we want something a bit more colloquial I suggest “hot speck”: the universe at this stage was certainly extremely hot (also extremely dense) and it was a mere speck. For brevity we might just talk of the Speck (“the Speck rapidly surged to create space and time” etc.)

There is also a question about using the verb “explode” in this connection. It is sometimes pointed out that this was no ordinary explosion: there was no surrounding space to start with, and no destruction of objects in the vicinity, and no mushroom cloud (also it was completely silent). All true, but there is a definition of “explode” that lacks these connotations: “increase suddenly in number or extent” (definition 3 in the OED). That seems perfectly correct as a way of describing the results of the sudden surge, and it corresponds to the definition of “expand” in the OED: “make or become larger or more extensive”, which some cosmologists prefer to “explode”. What we want is the idea of growth, increase, enlargement; then we can say, “the hot speck grew extremely rapidly during the first second of the sudden surge” and not be accused of misleading metaphors and inaccurate description. Also, this is a lot more comprehensible to the layman than, “the singularity made a big bang” and the like (the what made what?). As a seed grows into a tree, so the hot speck grew into a massive universe (but see below). It wasn’t always fully grown trees existing in a steady state: there was transformation, expansion, and novelty. These ways of talking and imagining help with grasping what the so-called “big bang theory” is really saying. The usual terminology has produced obfuscation not clarification.

Now let’s talk metaphysics. According to the hot speck theory, the universe at this stage was devoid of particulate matter, space, and even time—so not subsumable under Kantian categories. There were no spatial objects existing over time. These concepts are geared to our current universe, but that was just a glint in the eye of the hot speck (if that). But does that mean our entire conceptual scheme fails to apply to the universe as it then was? I think not (as our discourse about it would seem to suggest): I think we can perfectly well apply the concepts of object, event, and process to the early universe. The hot speck is an object, the sudden surge is an event, and the subsequent expansion and cooling is a process (still going on today as the galaxies continue their recession). These basic categories have application even in those remote days to that peculiar entity. Can we be materialists or idealists about the universe as it was then? Not in the sense of claiming that the hot speck was made of atoms and occupied space; and Berkeley’s God had precious few ideas on his mind (just the idea of that tiny volatile speck).  [1]Did causality exist at this juncture? Well, there was no propinquity or constant conjunction (because no space and time), so if causation did exist it wasn’t as it is now. Were there any primary qualities (clearly there were no secondary qualities)? Were there shape and number, solidity and volume? Apparently not: these emerged in the aftermath of the Surge. The composition of the Speck is hard to conceive and it is certainly alien to human perception. Perhaps it needs a new metaphysics—a new type of “substance”, a new conception of “body”. People say the laws of physics break down for such “singularities”; maybe the laws of metaphysics do too (except for the very general categories of object, event, and process). The Speck might need its own special brand of ontology.

But I want to discuss a different question, one that I have not seen discussed; it concerns what might be called “the puzzle of plurality”. The puzzle can be stated simply: how did the hot speck produce the multiplicity of objects we see today? It was one object, minute and homogeneous, not even articulated into component parts, and yet it created a huge number of separate objects—galaxies, stars, planets, molecules, atoms, protons, electrons, animals, plants, and people. It went from unity to plurality, from One to Many, from undifferentiated stuff to articulated objects. What made this possible? High density and heat would not by themselves allow this to happen, so what did? The problem arises already at the level of elementary particles: we are told they arose when the hot stuff of the Speck cooled sufficiently, but how could a mere cooling lead to the plurality of entities that resulted? We have an explanatory problem here: how can we explain the emergence of plurality on this scale from a complete absence of plurality? The problem is analogous to the mind-body problem: how does consciousness emerge from the brain given that neurons carry no trace of it? We have a yawning explanatory gap. We don’t know how to get from the One to the Many. It is a mystery how the undivided Speck produced the vast array of discrete objects that populate our universe. Why didn’t the Surge leave the Speck in its undivided form, just a lot more spread out? Are there other universes in which precisely this happened—ballooning undifferentiated specks, distended primeval atoms? They would be a lot easier to understand. Our universe seems like something from nothing, a miraculous ontological proliferation. If the process were reversed, wouldn’t it seem totally unaccountable? Suppose all of matter started to retrace its steps, speeding towards a singular spot, eventually vanishing into a tiny homogenous speck. Where has it all disappeared? How could that vast plurality turn into a speck of compressed homogeneity? How do we get One from Many?

You might think I am exaggerating the problem: don’t new objects come into existence all the time? Mountains divide, cells split, animals are born. Yes, but notice that these examples of increased multiplicity all involve intelligible production: fission produces new objects and genetic reproduction is the basis of animal proliferation. You can cut things in two and progeny arise from differentiated chunks of DNA. But the Speck has no such internal differentiation; even the idea of parts seems inapplicable. During the Surge there was no fission into distinct objects and there was nothing corresponding to genetic copying—there was just a miraculous coalescence into particles (and later big clumps of them). So the usual models of plurality production break down (compare panpsychism).  [2] Imagine if someone told you that the whole universe came from a single electron with no internal structure—wouldn’t you wonder how so many things came from just one? And being assured that the electron was extremely dense and incredibly hot would not assuage your puzzlement. So we have a puzzle, a mystery, an explanatory gap. That should not be so surprising given how little we know about the early stages of the universe: what triggered the Speck into its sudden surge, how did the Speck come into existence, what was the universe like before the Speck took over? We have some idea, sketchy though it be, of how clouds of gas formed into solid objects, how galaxies were created, how animals came to exist, how minds evolved: but we have no idea how the stuff of the Speck managed to create a multiplicity of objects from its non-object-like interior. More abstractly, how did the Many come from the One? Something from nothing is bad, but so is many from one, plurality from unity. No doubt the theory known as the big bang theory (ineptly so called) is broadly speaking true, but that doesn’t prevent it from harboring serious mysteries that boggle the mind (if I may reach for this cliché). The mystery I have focused on is the metaphysical mystery of the Many-from-the-One, which the theory raises in a sharp form. Let us not malign the hot speck as a hot mess, but we can acknowledge that it raises profound problems for which no obvious solution lies to hand (it’s a hotbed of mystery).  [3]

 

  [1] A monist might retreat to the idea that the universe was once an indivisible unity even if it is an irreducible plurality now. Hegel would have been right then. The universe shattered into innumerable parts, destroying that beautiful unity. We live among the debris of that ugly shattering.

  [2] Panpsychism postulates hidden mentality in microscopic matter in order to explain its emergence at macro levels. An analogous move would postulate plurality in the initial state of the universe—the hot speck is really a humming hive of discrete objects. That seems distinctly unappealing.

  [3] One can understand the temptation to credit the Speck with all sorts of supernatural powers, as if it is vaguely spiritual and tinged with the divine. But we should resist all such mystical meanderings; they are sure signs of deep natural mystery, i.e. lack of comprehension on our part. In fact, the Speck is as objectively ordinary as a mote of dust, nature not being inclined to intrinsic mystery. But what a work of nature that Speck was! 

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Reply to Michael Huemer

Reply to Michael Huemer

 

I had hoped to send this reply to Huemer by email but the department website apparently blocks email sent to faculty (I have no idea why). So with some reluctance I am posting it here in the hope that it comes to his attention.

 

Dear Professor Huemer,

 

I have read your comments in the interview about a seminar you attended with me many years ago at Rutgers (probably in the early 1990s). I wish to point out to you that your statements are quite untrue. First, my recollection is that the topic was the mind-body problem not the free will problem, but I may be wrong about this and it is immaterial. On the substance of the issue I was then and still am a compatibilist, so I don’t know what I could have been objecting to in your describing me as a compatibilist: that would be perfectly true and not at all stupid. You then suggest that I was reluctant to  engage in philosophical argument, which would be deplorable. Nothing could be further from the truth, as my entire teaching history (and publishing history) amply confirms. You are quite correct in your quotation of my words to you—I did indeed say that your comment at the time was stupid (I don’t recall now what it was). Why did I do that? Because I thought it was stupid and just one instance of a train of stupid comments you had made. The question then is whether it was indeed stupid. Why did I think it appropriate to say it to you? Because you had proven yourself completely oblivious to earlier hints that you were not making helpful comments, and it seemed to me that you needed to hear some stern words if you were to be prevented from continuing in this way. I have never before or since felt the need to speak so harshly to a student and certainly weighed my words carefully on that occasion. Wouldn’t it be odd if my alleged tendency to refuse to engage in argument had led to a single instance of calling a student stupid (or rather their words) if that were the reason for my comment? Surely you yourself have taught classes in which some young guy (it’s always a guy) lowers the tone by repeatedly making stupid comments and you are faced with the question of what to do about it. Is it inconceivable to you that you might at one time have been that guy? Is that the true explanation or is it that I call anyone stupid who raises a reasonable objection to me in a class or elsewhere (where would that get me)? I think you should after all these years have thought a bit harder about your version of events, even going so far as to make your grievances public, thus compelling me to reply.        

 

Best wishes,

Colin McGinn

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Is the World Vague?

 

Is the World Vague?

 

Either the world is intrinsically vague or our words and concepts are but the world is not. We say that “bald” is a vague predicate and bald is a vague concept. We don’t mean they are vague as such—that the predicate is a vague linguistic entity and the concept a vague psychological entity. We mean that they denote or express something vague: they themselves are determinate entities that determinately express something vague. What is this? A property of course: the property of being bald is a vague property (borderline cases etc.). So the question becomes whether this property is part of the world or is confined to language and the mind. Is it that the world is perfectly precise and our modes of representing it are not? Suppose we say that baldness lies in our representations (the properties we bring to the world) and not on the top of people’s heads. Then nothing we say or think involving this property will be true, since there is no vague property in the world corresponding to the property we mentally represent when we say “bald” or think bald. For we are attributing a property to things that they objectively lack—nothing is objectively bald. Similarly for other vague predicates or concepts. This means that there is an enormous amount of falsehood in our statements and beliefs. But that is surely absurd: surely some people are bald and some objects are red (etc.)! So we had better say that objects do have the properties they are said to have when we use such predicates, which is to say they objectively have the properties in question. Ergo the world is vague.

            But are these vague properties mind-independent? It might be maintained that they are all in some way dependent on the mind for their instantiation: experience-dependent, interest-relative, or pragmatically defined. In addition the world has properties that are not mind-dependent and these properties are never vague—say, the properties spoken of in fundamental physics (mass, spin, charge, etc.). Maybe so, but the point makes no difference to the argument, though it raises the interesting question of why there should be such a partition (is the mind inherently vague but the physical world inherently precise?). For we still have the result that a great many properties of things are vague: reality is still vaguely constituted, not a determinate realm, not a totality of precise facts. When God made the world he made it blurry at the edges, inherently fuzzy, not a mathematician’s paradise.  [1]

 

  [1] If you think that precision in a property is a necessary condition of its objective instantiation, you will end up denying the reality of many facts, leaving a skeletal world or no world at all. Anti-realism about vagueness leads to anti-realism tout court. On the upside, bald men will be able to proudly announce their non-baldness (philosophy as the cure for baldness).

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