Monthly Archives: June 2009

Two solipsisms

Though I’m generally leery of coopting the vocabulary of theism to refer to non-theistic philosophical ideas, I find it irresistably appropriate that the King James translators chose to represent the name of God, the ultimate mystery, with the words “I AM” — existence, first person, present tense — a trinity of incomprehensibles economically expressed in three letters. Setting the issue of existence aside for the moment, I find that the other two — the two solipsisms — can profitably be considered together, that thinking about the one sheds light on the other.

I know, in theory, that there are billions of conscious minds in this world, each with its own subjective experience, but one of them, the one known as Wm Jas Tychonievich, stands out from the others because I am Wm — and by that I don’t mean anything as simple as “Wm is Wm” or “Wm wrote this sentence.” What I mean is that Wm is in some sense the person; that his is the point of view; that qualia are experienced only when he sees or hears or feels something; that when he closes his eyes the world goes dark; that while others have subjective experience in theory, only he has subjective experience in fact. Others no doubt feel that the same is true of themselves, and to some extent I can grant that. From Joe Schmo’s point of view, Joe Schmo is the person; ditto for every other sentient animal in the universe. There’s nothing special about Wm. And yet, and yet — there undeniably is something special about Wm. “From Joe Schmo’s point of view” is a counterfactual. When I say, “What would it be like to be Joe Schmo?” (or a bat, or whatever), I’m imagining a possible world which is different from the real world — not different in any objective way that could be detectable by a third party, but different nonetheless.

The same goes for time. Time is a vast and perhaps infinite continuum, but one particular point on that continuum, the one called “the present,” is the time, more real than any other. While few people subscribe to literal solipsism with regard to persons, temporal solipsism is much more mainstream. Many people would be quite comfortable saying that the past and especially the future do not have actual existence, that only the present moment is real — an odd point of view, given that the present is infinitesimally small and impossible to pin down with any precision. And just as there is nothing objectively different about the person called Wm, there is nothing objectively different about any particular point on the timeline. Just as every person thinks he is the person, people have at every point in history thought that that point was the present — and are we going to say they were wrong? As I write this, I feel quite sure that the present is a point contained within the span of time referred to as the year 2009, but last year I felt just as sure about 2008. You can say, “In the past 2008 was the present year, but now it’s 2009,” but that doesn’t really mean anything. As used here, “in the past” and “was” are counterfactuals analogous to “from Joe Schmo’s point of view,” and the sentence means something like, “If the past were the present, then 2008 would be the present,” an uninteresting near-tautology. In fact 2008 “is” not the present (a fact which would be easier to express if English didn’t require every verb to have a tense).

If I say, “I wish it were tomorrow,” I’m wishing that something were different about the world — but, again, the difference is not anything objectively observable. If my wish came true, not a single objective fact about the history of the universe would be different. I’m not wishing that two days become one day or that the calendar skip a day; I don’t want to change the timeline of history at all. All I’m wishing is that a different point on the timeline be the time, the present, the only point in time which is really experienced (and only by the person). It’s a comprehensible wish, just as comprehensible as “I wish I were a bat,” but neither wish can mean anything at all unless you take for granted the quasi-solipsistic idea that there is one particular mind and one particular point in time which exist more directly — are more real — than any others. The wish is that a different mind, or a different time, be the special fully-existent one.

There are different ways to approach these two issues, varying degrees of actual solipsism. The most extreme solipsism, the kind we usually have in mind when we use the word, denies that anything or anyone other than “I” exists in any sense at all. The same extreme solipsism could be applied to time. An intro-to-philosophy staple is the speculation that perhaps the universe sprang into existence five minutes ago, complete with false signs of antiquity and false memories of a nonexistent past. We can whittle that five minutes down until we reach the logical limit: that perhaps the universe has no past at all, that perhaps the present moment is the only moment and all else is illusion.

A more moderate solipsism tries to have it both ways, usually with the help of possibly meaningless expressions like, “The past was once the present, and the future will be the present anon.” This takes advantage of the tense system of English to ascribe some sort of existence or reality (“was,” “will be”) to the whole continuum of time, while at the same time singling out the present moment as different, because it alone is the present. Various verbal tricks can be used to do the same thing with regard to persons, admitting the reality of other people and their subjective experience while still seeing oneself as somehow different and “What would it be like to be Bill Gates?” as a counterfactual. This kind of moderate solipsism seems to be what comes naturally to most people.

The final option is to reject solipsism completely, accepting that every person and every point in time is equally real and that the idea of one special person called “I” and one special time called “now” — the idea implied in the appropriately monotheistic words “I AM” — is an illusion. It’s probably a logically inevitable illusion — since, while my subjective experience and your subjective experience are both real and are both experienced, they cannot both be experienced by the same person — but an illusion nonetheless.

My natural tendency has always been to be more solipsistic about person than about time, and I think this is probably a near-universal proclivity for which there are good Darwinian reasons. A high degree of reality is ascribed to other points in time, particularly to the future, but not to other subjectivities — other points in time will be the present, but no other person will ever be “I.” This lopsided solipsism is where the fear of oblivion comes from: the horrifying realization that there will be “real” points in time at which the one “real” person no longer exists. That’s what we’re really afraid of when we fear death — not just that one particular person will cease to exist, but that, because that one person is “I,” the only “I,” subjective experience itself will cease with his death. When “I” dies, the whole universe might as well have come to an end. Philip Larkin expresses it well in “Aubade”:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

But if we are but consistent in our solipsism, approaching time and person in the same way, this fear turns out to be unfounded. Under pure solipsism, there is only one real person — but there is also only one real point in time, so the imagined future in which that one real person no longer exists is an illusion; it will never come. Pure anti-solipsism acknowledges that the future is real — but also that other minds are real and that each is equally an “I”; subjective experience will continue for as long as sentient minds — any sentient minds — exist.

Actually, pure anti-solipsism goes further. Even if there comes a time, as there almost certainly will, when all intelligent life is snuffed out, there is no need to fear oblivion, because time does not actually pass. Past, present, and future are all equally real, just as all points in space are equally real. The fact that life exists during this time period and not during that one is no more significant than the fact that it exists on this planet and not that one.

Acknowledging the past as fully real is probably the hardest part of maintaining a consistently anti-solipsistic point of view, because (again, for good Darwinian reasons) we naturally focus on the present and future, considering something not to exist at all if it exists only in the past. But the whole continuum of time is equally real. It exists as a unity. Designating a particular point “the present” doesn’t make everything to the left of it disappear. To adapt a catchphrase from my Mormon upbringing, everything that exists, exists for a time and for all eternity. Good poets like Byron remind us of this:

I die — but first I have possesst,
And come what may, I have been blest;
(The Giaour, 1114-1115)

And so do bad poets like James Blunt:

And though time goes by, I will always be
In a club with you in 1973

Recently, in coming to terms with the death of someone who had been close to me, I found myself thinking in very Giaouresque terms: “She will always have existed.” Though it may sound like just so much grammatical prestidigitation, conjuring up an “always” where there is none, it was nevertheless only that — not turning to pipe-dreams of heaven or reincarnation, not settling for memory as a substitute for existence — that in the end had any real power to console. Eternity isn’t about things continuing for an infinite span of time; it’s about the recognition that all time is equally real.


Filed under Philosophy, Time

Reading: Charles Darwin

  • The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, edited with an introduction by J. W. Burrow (25 Jun 2009)

My family read this together when I was a kid and we were all creationists, and the only thing that stuck with me was the comical image of a bear swimming around with its mouth open catching insects. At that time I took the truth of Mormonism (as interpreted by my father, for whom creationism is something of a hobby) for granted and didn’t really give it a fair hearing. Actually, I didn’t give it any kind of hearing in the sense of engaging its ideas at any deeper level than, “Well, we all know that’s wrong.” I was unsympathetic without managing to be actually critical.

I’ve since come back to Darwin’s theory and found it compelling, but until now I had approached it only through modern popularizations, especially those of Richard Dawkins (an author who was recommended to me by my father, of all people). This is my first time rereading Darwin himself. Here are a few brief thoughts:

  • Darwin’s not a bad prose stylist. He overuses a few phrases (a lot of “light” is “thrown” on a lot of things by Darwin’s theory, and he always tells us so in those particular words), and the sometimes archaic technical terms call for frequent use of the glossary (apparently amphibians used to be called “batrachians”; who knew?), but overall the writing is clear and even elegant.
  • Given the way histories of evolution tend to focus on the contrast between the two men’s theories, Darwin turns out to have been much more of a Lamarckian than I would have expected. Many times throughout the book he grants the possibility of acquired characteristics being directly inherited, or learned behaviors being passed down as instincts. Of course he had the considerable handicap of not knowing anything at all about genes. Knowing about genes changes everything.
  • I like Darwin’s empirical spirit. Rather than just speculating, for example, that seeds might have been carried across the sea by birds, he carried out experiments to test the ability of various seeds to germinate after being immersed in salt water, ingested by a heron, etc. He didn’t take anything for granted. He also came up with some clever ways to test his theory which I wouldn’t have thought of myself, such as seeing whether species belonging to larger genera are more variable than those from smaller ones. This attention to detail and knack for making things testable — not the general idea of evolution by natural selection — is what set Darwin apart from all the evolutionary conjecturists who preceded him.
  • It’s true about the barnacles! They turn up again and again, though usually in disguise as “sessile cirripedes.” He knew an awful lot about the little beasties.

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Darwin vs. Jared Diamond, part 2

I’m still reading The Origin of Species and found another passage that made me think of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

It is a remarkable fact, strongly insisted on by Hooker in regard to America, and by Alph. de Candolle in regard to Australia, that many more identical plants and allied forms have apparently migrated from the north to the south, than in a reversed direction. . . . I suspect that this preponderant migration from north to south is due to the greater extent of land in the north, and to northern forms having existed in their own homes in greater numbers, and having consequently been advanced through natural selection and competition to a higher stage of perfection or dominating power, than the southern forms. And thus, when they became commingled . . . the northern forms were enabled to beat the less powerful southern forms. Just in the same manner as we see at the present day, that very many European productions cover the ground in La Plata, and in a lesser degree in Australia, and have to a certain extent beaten the natives; whereas extremely few southern forms have become naturalised in any part of Europe. . . (The Origin of Species, pp. 370-71 in the Penguin Classics edition).

What Darwin observes in the plant kingdom — namely, that it is generally the northern (and specifically Eurasian) forms that have successfully invaded the south, rather than vice versa — has its parallel within the human species. It is disproportionately those races that developed on the great northern continent of Eurasia that have been successful in invading other continents and displacing other peoples, a phenomenon which Diamond attempts to explain in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Diamond, an enlightened anti-racist, casts his explanation mostly in terms of culture and technology rather than biological evolution, invoking genes only to explain racial differences in resistance to particular diseases, and would of course never dream of using Darwin’s language about advancing “to a higher stage of perfection” — but for all that, his ultimate explanation is essentially the same as Darwin’s: that Eurasia is simply bigger. Diamond also notes that, in addition to being larger in absolute terms, Eurasia has the further advantage of being oriented east-to-west, which means that any given climatic zone on the Eurasian continent is likely to be wider than the corresponding zones on north-to-south continents such as Africa and the Americas. For Diamond, Eurasia’s size and orientation facilitates the wide dispersion of domestic animals and technological advances. Based on Darwin, we can add that a larger population and easy migration between regions would mean more mutations, more intense competition, and therefore accelerated evolution.

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The Bestseller’s Daughter

What’s up with all the “daughter” books these days? Every time I go to the bookstore now I find myself surrounded by interchangeable-looking novels called The ______’s Daughter. The following list could easily be made much, much longer. As you can see, there were a handful of novels with such titles in the 1990s, but the Daughter industry really took off around 2005 and shows no signs of slowing.

  • The Optimist’s Daughter (Eudora Welty, 1996)
  • The President’s Daughter (Jack Higgins, 1998)
  • The President’s Daughter (Mariah Stewart, 2002)
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter (Amy Tan, 2003)
  • The Preacher’s Daughter (Beverly Lewis, 2005)
  • The Storekeeper’s Daughter (Wanda E. Brunstetter, 2005)
  • The Sea King’s Daughter (Barbara Michaels, 2005)
  • The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (Kim Edwards, 2006)
  • The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Luis Alberto Urrea, 2006)
  • The Quilter’s Daughter (Wanda E. Brunstetter, 2006)
  • The Alchemist’s Daughter (Katharine McMahon, 2006)
  • The Tailor’s Daughter (Janice Graham, 2007)
  • The Mortician’s Daughter (Elizabeth Bloom, 2007)
  • The Professor’s Daughter (Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert, 2007)
  • The Abortionist’s Daughter (Elisabeth Hyde, 2007)
  • The Chief Inspector’s Daughter (Sheila Radley, 2007)
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter (Joyce Carol Oates, 2008)
  • The Heretic’s Daughter (Kathleen Kent, 2008)
  • The King’s Daughter (Sandra Worth, 2008)
  • The Thief Queen’s Daughter (Elizabeth Haydon, 2008)
  • The Admiral’s Daughter (Julian Stockwin, 2008)
  • The Virgin Queen’s Daughter (Ella March Chase, 2008)
  • The Ditchdigger’s Daughter (Yvonne S. Thornton, 2008)
  • The Mistress’s Daughter (A. M. Homes, 2008)
  • The Bishop’s Daughter (Honor Moore, 2008)
  • The Pirate’s Daughter (Margaret Cezair-Thompson, 2008)
  • The Horsemaster’s Daughter (Susan Wiggs, 2008)
  • The Apothecary’s Daughter (Julie Klassen, 2009)
  • The Bishop’s Daughter (Tiffany L. Warren, 2009)
  • The Tsarina’s Daughter (Carolly Erickson, 2009)
  • The President’s Daughter (Barbara Chase-Ribound, 2009)
  • The Frontiersman’s Daughter (Laura Frantz, 2009)
  • The King’s Daughter (Barbara Kyle, 2009)
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter (Eugenia Kim, 2009)

And, no joke:

  • Somebody Else’s Daughter (Elizabeth Brundage, 2009)

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Darwin vs. Jared Diamond

I’ve been rereading Darwin recently (for the first time since my creationist childhood) and came across the following passage in The Origin:

If it has taken centuries or thousands of years to improve or modify most of our plants up to their present standard of usefulness to man, we can understand how it is that neither Australia the Cape of Good Hope, nor any other region inhabited by quite uncivilised man, has afforded us a single plant worth culture. It is not that these countries, so rich in species, do not by a strange chance possess the aboriginal stocks of any useful plants, but that the native plants have not been improved by continued selection up to a standard of perfection comparable with that given to the plants in countries anciently civilised (The Origin of Species, pp. 95-96 in the Penguin Classics edition).

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues the native peoples of America, Australia, and Africa advanced less rapidly than those of Eurasia in part because of the relative lack of large domesticable animals on those continents. At first glance Africa would seem to have plenty of horse-like, ox-like, and goat-like animals that could be profitably domesticated, but Diamond assures us that none of them are really suitable — that, for example, the zebra is far more bad-tempered than the horse or the ass and will often bite people.

Though I’m reluctant to take someone as an expert on animals who doesn’t know the difference between an aardvark and a hyena, let’s assume Diamond is right about zebras and other non-Eurasian megafauna. Darwin’s comment on plants quoted above, which would apply just as well to animals, offers a different interpretation. Diamond’s argument is that African animals are inherently unsuitable for domestication, that they were therefore not domesticated by the Africans, and that as a result the Africans remained relatively “uncivilized” (not that Diamond would use that word). Darwin’s logic suggests that the arrow of causation may go in the opposite direction. It’s possible that the Africans were a relatively uncivilized people, that they therefore failed to domesticate many animals, and that African animals were therefore not subjected to thousands of years of artificial selection and as a result remain far below the “standard of perfection” set by livestock of Eurasian origin.

I’m not saying that explanation is any more likely to be right than Diamond’s — assuming that non-Eurasian animals just happen to have been less “domesticable” is no more or less reasonable than assuming that non-Eurasian peoples just happen to have been less “civilized” — but it’s another possibility. Though not in the race-is-skin-deep camp myself, I think Diamond’s project is still the right idea. In the long run, all differences among various peoples, even the genetic ones Diamond so scrupulously ignores, have to be explained in terms of environment, since environment is what drives natural selection.

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Arrogance and humility

A recent post by Bruce Charlton argues that only the religious are capable of true humility.

For Christians the ideal is humility before God. But humility before God is compatible with – indeed often demands – resisting any amount of consensus or social pressure.

However, for atheists there are but two options – selfish arrogance or submissiveness. If an atheist resists social consensus (perhaps a consensus of peer groups, or managers, or society at large) then this can only be on the basis of selfish arrogance.

Well, of course this is not really true – because it may be that the atheist is making a principled stand on the basis of natural law – on the principle of their own convictions of what ought to be right behavior. But these convictions are subjective, and if everyone else’s convictions are different (or if everyone else claims that their convictions are different) then a stand on the basis of principle is indistinguishable from a stand on the basis of personal whim, motivated by selfish or malicious goals. For the atheist, there is no external ground for appeal.

I’m not so sure that the situation is any different for a Christian than for an atheist. I know in theory a Christian’s convictions are supposed to come directly from God, but God’s will isn’t a given any more than the scientific truth is. In practice, one’s idea of God’s will comes either from the doctrine and traditions of a church (a social consensus) or from one’s own conscience (subjective convictions). God is not in any practical sense an “external ground for appeal.” You can’t say, “Well, I think this, and the church says that; let’s see what God has to say about it.” The only way to bring God into the question is to simply assume that one’s conscience, or the church, reflects God’s will. This allows one to be either arrogant or submissive, according to taste, and still claim the moral high ground. (Atheists can of course do the same thing, since “the scientific truth” can mean either the consensus of the experts or one’s personal interpretation of the evidence.)

The atheist arrogantly stands by his personal convictions. The Christian, in contrast, humbly submits to God’s will — which he arrogantly assumes must coincide with his personal convictions. Is there really any difference in practice?

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Family tree for Shakespeare’s histories

This is a work in progress. So far it only includes the Plantagenets and their relatives and only covers King John and Richard II, though a few of the characters also appear in the Henry IV plays or Henry V.

Rather than putting new trees in new posts, I plan to just keep updating this one.

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