The Mathematician and the Surgeon

Commuting days until retirement: 108

After my last post, which, among other things, compared differing attitudes to death and its aftermath (or absence of one) on the part of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell, here’s another fruitful comparison. It seemed to arise by chance from my next two commuting books, and each of the two people I’m comparing, as before, has his own characteristic perspective on that matter. Unlike my previous pair both could loosely be called scientists, and in each case the attitude expressed has a specific and revealing relationship with the writer’s work and interests.

The Mathematician

The first writer, whose book I came across by chance, has been known chiefly for mathematical puzzles and games. Martin Gardner was born in Oklahoma USA in 1914; his father was an oil geologist, and it was a conventionally Christian household. Although not trained as a mathematician, and going into a career as a journalist and writer, Gardner developed a fascination with mathematical problems and puzzles which informed his career – hence the justification for his half of my title.

Martin Gardner

Gardner as a young man (Wikimedia)

This interest continued to feed the constant books and articles he wrote, and he was eventually asked to write the Scientific American column Mathematical Games which ran from 1956 until the mid 1980s, and for which he became best known; his enthusiasm and sense of fun shines through the writing of these columns. At the same time he was increasingly concerned with the many types of fringe beliefs that had no scientific foundation, and was a founder member of PSICOPS,  the organisation dedicated to the exposing and debunking of pseudoscience. Back in February last year I mentioned one of its other well-known members, the flamboyant and self-publicising James Randi. By contrast, Gardner was mild-mannered and shy, averse from public speaking and never courting publicity. He died in 2010, leaving behind him many admirers and a two-yearly convention – the ‘Gathering for Gardner‘.

Before learning more about him recently, and reading one of his books, I had known his name from the Mathematical Games column, and heard of his rigid rejection of things unscientific. I imagined some sort of skinflint atheist, probably with a hard-nosed contempt for any fanciful or imaginative leanings – however sane and unexceptionable they might be – towards what might be thought of as things of the soul.

How wrong I was. His book that I’ve recently read, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, consists of a series of chapters with titles of the form ‘Why I am not a…’ and he starts by dismissing solipsism (who wouldn’t?) and various forms of relativism; it’s a little more unexpected that determinism also gets short shrift. But in fact by this stage he has already declared that

I myself am a theist (as some readers may be surprised to learn).

I was surprised, and also intrigued. Things were going in an interesting direction. But before getting to the meat of his theism he spends a good deal of time dealing with various political and economic creeds. The book was written in the mid 80s, not long before the collapse of communism, which he seems to be anticipating (Why I am not a Marxist) . But equally he has little time for Reagan or Thatcher, laying bare the vacuity of their over-simplistic political nostrums (Why I am not a Smithian).

Soon after this, however, he is striding into the longer grass of religious belief: Why I am not a Polytheist; Why I am not a Pantheist; – so what is he? The next chapter heading is a significant one: Why I do not Believe the Existence of God can be Demonstrated. This is the key, it seems to me, to Gardner’s attitude – one to which I find myself sympathetic. Near the beginning of the book we find:

My own view is that emotions are the only grounds for metaphysical leaps.

I was intrigued by the appearance of the emotions in this context: here is a man whose day job is bound up with his fascination for the powers of reason, but who is nevertheless acutely conscious of the limits of reason. He refers to himself as a ‘fideist’ – one who believes in a god purely on the basis of faith, rather than any form of demonstration, either empirical or through abstract logic. And if those won’t provide a basis for faith, what else is there but our feelings? This puts Gardner nicely at odds with the modish atheists of today, like Dawkins, who never tires of telling us that he too could believe if only the evidence were there.

But at the same time he is squarely in a religious tradition which holds that ultimate things are beyond the instruments of observation and logic that are so vital to the secular, scientific world of today. I can remember my own mother – unlike Gardner a conventional Christian believer – being very definite on that point. And it reminds me of some of the writings of Wittgenstein; Gardner does in fact refer to him,  in the context of the freewill question. I’ll let him explain:

A famous section at the close of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus asserts that when an answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question; that if a question can be framed at all, it is possible to answer it; and that what we cannot speak about we should consign to silence. The thesis of this chapter, although extremely simple and therefore annoying to most contemporary thinkers, is that the free-will problem cannot be solved because we do not know exactly how to put the question.

This mirrors some of my own thoughts about that particular philosophical problem – a far more slippery one than those on either side of it often claim, in my opinion (I think that may be a topic for a future post). I can add that Gardner was also on the unfashionable side of the question which came up in my previous post – that of an afterlife; and again he holds this out as a matter of faith rather than reason. He explores the philosophy of personal identity and continuity in some detail, always concluding with the sentiment ‘I do not know. Do not ask me.’ His underlying instinct seems to be that there has to something more than our bodily existence, given that our inner lives are so inexplicable from the objective point of view – so much more than our physical existence. ‘By faith, I hope and believe that you and I will not disappear for ever when we die.’ By contrast, Arthur Koestler, you may remember,  wrote in his suicide note of ‘tentative hopes for a depersonalised afterlife’ – but, as it turned out, these hopes were based partly on the sort of parapsychological evidence which was anathema to Gardner.

And of course Gardner was acutely aware of another related mystery – that of consciousness, which he finds inseparable from the issue of free will:

For me, free will and consciousness are two names for the same thing. I cannot conceive of myself being self-aware without having some degree of free will… Nor can I imagine myself having free will without being conscious.

He expresses utter dissatisfaction with the approach of arch-physicalists such as Daniel Dennett, who,  as he says,  ‘explains consciousness by denying that it exists’. (I attempted to puncture this particular balloon in an earlier post.)

Martin Gardner

Gardner in later life (Konrad Jacobs / Wikimedia)

Gardner places himself squarely within the ranks of the ‘mysterians’ – a deliberately derisive label applied by their opponents to those thinkers who conclude that these matters are mysteries which are probably beyond our capacity to solve. Among their ranks is Noam Chomsky: Gardner cites a 1983 interview with the grand old man of linguistics,  in which he expresses his attitude to the free will problem (scroll down to see the relevant passage).

The Surgeon

And so to the surgeon of my title, and if you’ve read one of my other blog posts you will already have met him – he’s a neurosurgeon named Henry Marsh, and I wrote a post based on a review of his book Do No Harm. Well, now I’ve read the book, and found it as impressive and moving as the review suggested. Unlike many in his profession, Marsh is a deeply humble man who is disarmingly honest in his account about the emotional impact of the work he does. He is simultaneously compelled towards,  and fearful of, the enormous power of the neurosurgeon both to save and to destroy. His narrative swings between tragedy and elation, by way of high farce when he describes some of the more ill-conceived management ‘initiatives’ at his hospital.

A neurosurgical operation

A neurosurgical operation (Mainz University Medical Centre)

The interesting point of comparison with Gardner is that Marsh – a man who daily manipulates what we might call physical mind-stuff – the brain itself – is also awed and mystified by its powers:

There are one hundred billion nerve cells in our brains. Does each one have a fragment of consciousness within it? How many nerve cells do we require to be conscious or to feel pain? Or does consciousness and thought reside in the electrochemical impulses that join these billions of cells together? Is a snail aware? Does it feel pain when you crush it underfoot? Nobody knows.

The same sense of mystery and wonder as Gardner’s; but approached from a different perspective:

Neuroscience tells us that it is highly improbable that we have souls, as everything we think and feel is no more or no less than the electrochemical chatter of our nerve cells… Many people deeply resent this view of things, which not only deprives us of life after death but also seems to downgrade thought to mere electrochemistry and reduces us to mere automata, to machines. Such people are profoundly mistaken, since what it really does is upgrade matter into something infinitely mysterious that we do not understand.

Henry Marsh

Henry Marsh

This of course is the perspective of a practical man – one who is emphatically working at the coal face of neurology, and far more familiar with the actual material of brain tissue than armchair speculators like me. While I was reading his book, although deeply impressed by this man’s humanity and integrity, what disrespectfully came to mind was a piece of irreverent humour once told to me by a director of a small company I used to work for which was closely connected to the medical industry. It was a sort of a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to the different types of medical practitioner:

Surgeons do everything and know nothing. Physicians know everything and do nothing. Psychiatrists know nothing and do nothing.  Pathologists know everything and do everything – but the patient’s dead, so it’s too late.

Grossly unfair to all to all of them, of course, but nonetheless funny, and perhaps containing a certain grain of truth. Marsh, belonging to the first category, perhaps embodies some of the aversion from dry theory that this caricature hints at: what matters to him ultimately, as a surgeon, is the sheer down-to-earth physicality of his work, guided by the gut instincts of his humanity. We hear from him about some members of his profession who seem aloof from the enormity of the dangers it embodies, and seem able to proceed calmly and objectively with what he sees almost as the detachment of the psychopath.

Common ground

What Marsh and Gardner seem to have in common is the instinct that dry, objective reasoning only takes you so far. Both trust the power of their own emotions, and their sense of awe. Both, I feel, are attempting to articulate the same insight, but from widely differing standpoints.

Two passages, one from each book, seem to crystallize both the similarities and differences between the respective approaches of the two men, both of whom seem to me admirably sane and perceptive, if radically divergent in many respects. First Gardner, emphasising in a Wittgensteinian way how describing how things appear to be is perhaps a more useful activity than attempting to pursue any ultimate reasons:

There is a road that joins the empirical knowledge of science with the formal knowledge of logic and mathematics. No road connects rational knowledge with the affirmations of the heart. On this point fideists are in complete agreement. It is one of the reasons why a fideist, Christian or otherwise, can admire the writings of logical empiricists more than the writings of philosophers who struggle to defend spurious metaphysical arguments.

And now Marsh – mystified, as we have seen, as to how the brain-stuff he manipulates daily can be the seat of all experience – having a go at reading a little philosophy in the spare time between sessions in the operating theatre:

As a practical brain surgeon I have always found the philosophy of the so-called ‘Mind-Brain Problem’ confusing and ultimately a waste of time. It has never seemed a problem to me, only a source of awe, amazement and profound surprise that my consciousness, my very sense of self, the self which feels as free as air, which was trying to read the book but instead was watching the clouds through the high windows, the self which is now writing these words, is in fact the electrochemical chatter of one hundred billion nerve cells. The author of the book appeared equally amazed by the ‘Mind-Brain Problem’, but as I started to read his list of theories – functionalism, epiphenomenalism, emergent materialism, dualistic interactionism or was it interactionistic dualism? – I quickly drifted off to sleep, waiting for the nurse to come and wake me, telling me it was time to return to the theatre and start operating on the old man’s brain.

I couldn’t help noticing that these two men – one unconventionally religious and the other not religious at all – seem between them to embody those twin traditional pillars of the religious life: faith and works.

Consciousness 3 – The Adventures of a Naive Dualist

Commuting days until retirement: 408

A long gap since my last post: I can only plead lack of time and brain-space (or should I say mind-space?). Anyhow, here we go with Consciousness 3:


A high point for English Christianity in the 50s: the Queen’s coronation. I can remember watching it on a relative’s TV at the age of 5

I think I must have been a schoolboy, perhaps just a teenager, when I was first aware that the society I had been born into supported two entirely different ways of looking at the world. Either you believed that the physical world around us, sticks, stones, fur, skin, bones – and of course brains – was all that existed; or you accepted one of the many varieties of belief which insisted that there was more to it than that. My mental world was formed within the comfortable surroundings of the good old Church of England, my mother and father being Christians by conviction and by social convention, respectively. The numinous existed in a cosy relationship with the powers-that-were, and parents confidently consigned their children’s dead pets to heaven, without there being quite such a Santa Claus feel to the assertion.

But, I discovered, it wasn’t hard to find the dissenting voices. The ‘melancholy long withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith’ which Matthew Arnold had complained about in the 19th century was still under way, if you listened out for it. Ever since Darwin, and generations of physicists from Newton onwards, the biological and physical worlds had appeared to get along fine without divine support; and even in my own limited world I was aware of plenty of instances of untimely deaths of innocent sufferers, which threw doubt on God’s reputedly infinite mercy.

John Robinson

John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich (Church Times)

And then in the 1960s a brick was thrown into the calm pool of English Christianity by a certain John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich at the time. It was a book called Honest to God, which sparked a vigorous debate that is now largely forgotten. Drawing on the work of other radical theologians, and aware of the strong currents of atheism around him, Robinson argued for a new understanding of religion. He noted that our notion of God had moved on from the traditional old man in the sky to a more diffuse being who was ‘out there’, but considered that this was also unsatisfactory. Any God whom someone felt they had proved to be ‘out there’ “would merely be a further piece of existence, that might conceivably have not been there”. Rather, he says, we must approach from a different angle.

God is, by definition, ultimate reality. And one cannot argue whether ultimate reality exists.

My pencilled zig-zags in the margin of the book indicate that I felt there was something wrong with this at the time. Later, after studying some philosophy, I recognised it as a crude form of Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, which is rather more elegant, but equally unsatisfactory. But, to be fair, this is perhaps missing the point a little. Robinson goes on to say that “one can only ask “what ultimate reality is like – whether it… is to be described in personal or impersonal categories.” His book proceeds to develop the notion of God as in some way identical with reality, rather than as a special part of it. One might cynically characterise this as a response to atheism of the form “if you can’t beat them, join them” – hence the indignation that the book stirred in religious circles.

Teenage reality

But, leaving aside the well worn blogging topic of the existence of God, there was the teenage me, still wondering about ‘ultimate reality’, and what on earth, for want of a better expression, that might be. Maybe the ‘personal’ nature of reality which Robinson espoused was a clue. I was a person, and being a person meant having thoughts, experiences – a self, or a subjective identity.  My experiences seemed to be something quite other from the objective world described by science – which, according to the ‘materialists’ of the time, was all that there was. What I was thinking of then was the topic of my previous post, Consciousness 2 – my qualia, although I didn’t know that word at the time. So yes, there were the things around us (including our own bodies and brains), our knowledge and understanding of which had been, and was, advancing at a great rate. But it seemed to me that no amount of knowledge of the mechanics of the world could ever explain these private, subjective experiences of mine (and I assumed, of others). I was always strongly motivated to believe that there was no limit to possible knowledge – however much we knew, there would always be more to understand. Materialsm, on the other hand, seemed to embody the idea of a theoretically finite limit to what could be known – a notion which gave me a sense of claustrophobia (of which more in a future post).

So I made my way about the world, thinking of my qualia as the armour to fend off the materialist assertion that physics was the whole story. I had something that was beyond their reach: I was a something of a young Cartesian, before I had learned about Descartes. It was a another few years before ‘consciousness’ became a legitimate topic of debate in philosophy and science. One commentator I have read dates this change to the appearance of Nagel’s paper What is it like to be a Bat in 1973, which I referred to in Consciousness 1. Seeing the debate emerging, I was tempted to preen myself with the horribly arrogant thought that the rest of the world had caught up with me.

The default position

Philosophers and scientists are still seeking to find ways of assimilating consciousness to physics: such physicalism, although coming in a variety of forms, is often spoken of as the default, orthodox position. But although my perspective has changed quite a lot over the years, my fundamental opposition to physicalism has not. I am still at heart the same naive dualist I was then. But I am not a dogmatic dualist – my instinct is to believe that some form of monism might ultimately be true, but beyond our present understanding. This consigns me into another much-derided category of philosophers – the so-called ‘mysterians’.

But I’d retaliate by pointing out that there is also a bit of a vacuum at the heart of the physicalist project. Thoughts and feelings, say its supporters, are just physical things or events, and we know what we mean by that, don’t we? But do we? We have always had the instinctive sense of what good old, solid matter is – but you don’t have to know any physics to realise there are problems with the notion. If something were truly solid it would entail that it was infinitely dense – so the notion of atomism, starting with the ancient Greeks, steadily took hold. But even then, atoms can’t be little solid balls, as they were once imagined – otherwise we are back with the same problem. In the 20th century, atomic physics confirmed this, and quantum theory came up with a whole zoo of particles whose behaviour entirely conflicted with our intuitive ideas gained from experience; and this is as you might expect, since we are dealing with phenomena which we could not, in principle, perceive as we perceive the things around us. So the question “What are these particles really like?” has no evident meaning. And, approaching the problem from another standpoint, where psychology joins hands with physics, it has become obvious that the world with which we are perceptually familiar is an elaborate fabrication constructed by our brains. To be sure, it appears to map on to the ‘real’ world in all sorts of ways, but has qualities (qualia?) which we supply ourselves.


So what true, demonstrable statements can be made about the nature of matter? We are left with the potently true findings – true in the the sense of explanatory and predictive power – of quantum physics. And, when you’ve peeled away all the imaginative analogies and metaphors, these can only be expressed mathematically. At this point, rather unexpectedly, I find myself handing the debate back to our friend John Robinson. In a 1963 article in The Observer newspaper, heralding the publication of Honest to God, he wrote:

Professor Herman Bondi, commenting in the BBC television programme, “The Cosmologists” on Sir James Jeans’s assertion that “God is a great mathematician”, stated quite correctly that what he should have said is “Mathematics is God”. Reality, in other words, can finally be reduced to mathematical formulae.

In case this makes Robinson sound even more heretical than he in fact was, I should note that he goes on to say that Christianity adds to this “the deeper reliability of an utterly personal love”. But I was rather gratified to find this referral to the concluding thoughts of my post by the writer I quoted at the beginning.

I’m not going to speculate any further into such unknown regions, or into religious belief, which isn’t my central topic. But I’d just like to finish with the hope that I have suggested that the ‘default position’ in current thinking about the mind is anything but natural or inevitable.

Consciousness 2 – The Colour of Nothing

Commuting days until retirement: 437

When it comes down to basics, is there just one sort of thing, or are there two sorts of thing? (We won’t worry about the possibility of even more than that.) Anyone who has done an elementary course in philosophy will know that Descartes’ investigations led him to believe that there were two sorts: mental things and physical things, and that he thus gave birth to the modern conception of dualism.

Stone lion


As scientific knowledge has progressed over the centuries since, it has put paid to all sorts of beliefs in mystical entities which were taken to be explanations for how things are. A good example would be vitalism, the belief in a ‘principle of life’  something that a real lion would possess and a stone lion would not. Needless to say, we now know that the real lion would have DNA, a respiratory system and so on, all of whose modes of operation we have much understanding – and so the principle of life has withered away, as surplus to needs.

Descartes mental world, however, has been harder to kill off. There seems nothing that scientific theory can grasp which is recognisable as the something it is like I discussed in my previous post. It’s rather like one of those last houses to go as Victorian terraces are cleared for a new development, with Descartes as the obstinate old tenant who stands on his rights and refuses to be rehoused. But the philosophical bulldozers are doing their best to help the builders of science, in making way for  their objectively regular modern blocks.

Gilbert Ryle led the charge in 1949, in his book The Concept of Mind. He famously characterised dualism as the doctrine of ‘the Ghost in the Machine’: to suppose that there was some mystical entity within us corresponding to our mind was to be misled by language into making a ‘category mistake’. Ryle’s standpoint fits more or less into the area of behaviourism, also previously discussed. Then, in the 1950s, identity theory arose. The contents of your mind  colors, smells  may seem different from from all that mushy stuff in your head and its workings, but in fact they are just the same thing, if perhaps seen from a different viewpoint. There’s a name, the ‘Morning Star’, for that bright star that can be seen at dawn, and another one, the ‘Evening Star’, for its equivalent at dusk; but with a little further knowledge you discover that they are one and the same.

Nowadays, while still around, the identity theory is somewhat mired in technical philosophical debate. Meanwhile brain science has made huge strides, and at the same time computing science has become mainstream. So on the one hand, it’s tempting to see the mind as the software of the brain (functionalism, very broadly), or perhaps just to attempt to show that with enough understanding of the wiring of those tightly packed nerve fibres, and whatever is chugging around them, everything can be explained. This last approach  materialism, or in its modern, science-aware form, physicalism  can take various forms, one of them being the identity theory. Or you may consider, for example, that such mental entities as beliefs, or pains, may be real enough, but are ideally explained as  or reduced to  brain/body functions. This would make you a reductionist.

But you may be more radical and simply say that these mental things don’t really exist at all: we are just kidded into thinking they do by our habitual way of talking about ourselves folk psychology, as it’s often referred to. Then you would be an eliminativist  and it’s the eliminativists I’d like to get my philosophical knife into here. Although I don’t agree with old Descartes on that much (I’ll expand in the next post), I have an certain affinity for him, and I’m willing to join him in his threatened, tumbledown house, looking out at the bulldozers ranged across the building site of 21st century Western philosophy.

Getting rid of qualia  or not

Acer leaves

My acer leaves

I think it would be fair to say that the arch-eliminativist is one Daniel Dennett, and it’s his treatment of qualia that I’d like to focus on. Qualia (singular quale) are those raw, subjective elements of which our sensory experience is composed (or as Dennett would have it, we imagine it to be composed): the vivid visual experience I’m having now of the delicately coloured acer leaves outside my window; or that smell when I burn the toast. I’m thinking of Dennett’s treatment of the topic to be found in his 1988 paper Quining Qualia, (QQ) and in Qualia Disqualified, Chapter 12 of his 1991 book Consciousness Explained (CE: with a great effort I refrain from commenting on the title). Now the task is to show that, when it comes to mental things, all that grey matter and its workings is all there is. But this is a problem, because when we look inside people’s skulls we don’t ever find the colour of acer leaves or the smell of burnt toast.

Dennett quotes an introductory book on brain science: ‘”Color” as such does not exist in the world: it exists only in the eye and brain of the beholder.’ But as he rightly points out, however good this book is on science, it has its philosophy very muddled. For one thing, the ‘eye and brain of the beholder’ are themselves part of the world – the world in which colour, we are told, does not exist. And eyes and brains have colours, too. But not like the acer leaves I’m looking at. There’s only one way to get to where Dennett wants to be: he has to strike out the qualia from the equation. They are really not there at all. That acer-colour quale I think I’m experiencing is non-existent. Really?

Argument 1: The beetle in the box

Maybe there is some help available to Dennett from one of the philosophical giants  Wittgenstein. Dennett calls it in, anyway, as support for the position that ‘the very idea of qualia is nonsense’ (CE, p.390). There is a famous passage in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations where he talks of our private sensations in an analogy:

Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box … The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

I don’t see how this does help Dennett. It is part of Wittgenstein’s exposition known as the private language argument. He is seeking to show that language is a necessarily public activity, and that the notion of a private language known only to its one ‘speaker’ is incoherent. I think it’s significant that the example of a sensation he uses is pain, as you’ll see if you follow the link. Elsewhere Wittgenstein considers whether someone might have a private word for one of his own sensations. But, like the pain, this is just a sensation, and there’s no publicly viewable aspect to it.   But consider my acer leaves: my wife might come and join me in admiring them. We have a publicly available referent for our discussion, and if I ask her about the quality of her own sensation of the colour, she will give every appearance of knowing what I am talking about. True, I can never tell if her sensation is the same as mine, or whether it even makes sense to ask that. Nor can I tell for certain whether she really has the sensation, or is simply behaving as if she did. But I’ll leave that to Wittgenstein. His argument doesn’t seek to deny that I am acquainted with my ‘beetle’  only that it ‘has no place in the language game’. In other words, my wife and I can discuss the acer leaves and what we think of them, but we can’t discuss the precise nature of the sensation they give me – my quale. My wife would have nothing to refer to when speaking of it. In Wittgenstein’s terms, we talk about the leaves and their colour, but our intrinsically private sensations drop out of the discussion. Does this mean the qualia don’t exist? Just a moment I’ll have another look… no, mine do, anyway. Sorry, Dan.

Argument 2: Grown-up drinking

Bottled Qualia

Bottled Qualia

Another strategy open to Dennett is to point out how our supposed qualia may seem unstable in certain ways, and subject to change. He notes how beer is an acquired taste, seeming pretty unpleasant to a child, who may well take it up with gusto later in life. Can the adult be having the same qualia as the child, if the response is so different?

This strikes a chord with me. I started to sample whisky when still a teenager because it made me feel mature and sophisticated. Never mind the fact that it was disgusting  much more important to pretend to be the sort of person I wanted to be. The odd thing is  and I have often wondered about this  that I think I can remember the moment of realisation that eventually came: “Hey  I actually like this stuff!”

So what happened? Did something about these particular qualia suddenly change, rather as if I one day licked a bar of soap and found that it tasted of strawberries? Clearly not. So maybe we could say, that, although it tasted the same, it was just that I started to react to it in a different way  some neural pathway opened up in my brain that engendered a different response. There are difficulties with that idea. As Dennett puts it, in QQ:

For if it is admitted that one’s attitudes towards, or reactions to, experiences are in any way and in any degree constitutive of their experiential qualities, so that a change in reactivity amounts to or guarantees a change in the property, then those properties, those “qualitative or phenomenal features,” cease to be “intrinsic” properties, and in fact become paradigmatically extrinsic, relational properties.

He’s saying, and I agree,  that we can’t mix up subjective and objective properties in this way, otherwise the subjective elements – the qualia – are dragged off their pedestal of private ineffability and are rendered into ordinary, objectively viewable, ones. He goes on to argue, with other examples, that the concept of qualia inevitably leads to confusions of this sort, and that we can therefore banish the confusion by banishing the qualia.

So is there another way out of the dilemma, which rescues them? As with the acer leaves, my whisky-taste qualia are incontrovertibly there. Consider another type of subjective experience  everyone probably remembers something similar. You have been working, maybe in an office, for an hour or two, and suddenly an air conditioning fan is turned off. It was a fairly innocuous noise, and although it was there you simply weren’t aware of it. But now that it’s gone, you’re aware that it’s gone. As you may know, the objective, scientific term for this is ‘habituation’; your system ceases to respond to a constant stimulus. But this time I am not going to make the mistake of mixing this objective description with the subjective one. A habituated stimulus is simply removed from consciousness  your subjective qualia do change as it fades. And something like this, I would argue, is what was happening with the whisky. To a mature palate, it has a complex flavour, or to put it another way, all sorts of different, pleasurable individual qualia which can be distinguished. These put the first, primary, sharp ‘kick’ in the flavour into a new context. But probably that kick is all that the immature version of myself was experiencing. Gradually, my qualia did change as I habituated sufficiently to that kick to allow it to recede a little and allow in the other elements. There had to come some point at which I made up my mind that the stuff was worth drinking for its own sake, and not just as a means to enhance my social status.

Argument 3: Torn cardboard

Torn cardboard

Matching halves

Not convinced? Let’s look at another argument. This starts with an unexpected – and ingenious  analogy: the Rosenbergs, Soviet spies in the US in the cold war era, had a system to enable to spies to verify one another’s identity: each had a fragment of cardboard packaging, originally torn halves of the same jelly package (US brand name Jell-O). So the jagged tear in each piece would perfectly and uniquely match the other. Dennett is equating our perceptual apparatus with one of the cardboard halves; and the characteristics of the world perceived with the other. The two have co-evolved. Anatomical investigation shows how birds and bees, whose nourishment depends on the recognition of flowers and berries, have colour perception, while primarily carnivorous animals  dogs and cats for example  do not. But at the same time plants have evolved flower and berry colour to enable pollination or seed dispersal by the bees or birds. The two sides evolve, matching each other perfectly, like the cardboard fragments. And of course we are omnivores, and have colour perception too. When hunting was scarce, our ability to recognise the colour of a ripe apple could have been a life-and-death matter. And so it would have been for the apple species too, as we unwittingly propagated its seeds. As he puts it:

Why is the sky blue? Because apples are red and grapes are purple, not the other way around. (CE p378)

A lovely idea, but what’s the relevance? His deeper intention with the torn cardboard analogy is to focus on the fact that, if we look at just one of the halves on its own, we are hard put to see anything but a piece of rubbish without purpose or significance  it is given validity only by its sibling. Dennett seeks to demote colour experiences, considered on their own, to a similarly nullified status. Here’s a crucial passage. ‘Otto’ is Dennett’s imaginary defender of qualia  for present purposes he’s me:

And Otto can’t say anything more about the property he calls pink than “It’s this!” (taking himself to be pointing “inside” at a private, phenomenal property of his experience). All that move accomplishes (at best) is to point to his own idiosyncratic color-discrimination state, a move that is parallel to holding up a piece of Jell-O box and saying that it detects this shape property. Otto points to his discrimination-device, perhaps, but not to any quale that is exuded by it, or worn by it, or rendered by it, when it does its work. There are no such things. (CE p383 – my italics).

I don’t think Dennett earns the right to arrive at his concluding statement. There seem to me to be two elements at work here. One is an appeal to the Wittgensteinian beetle argument we considered (‘…taking himself to be pointing “inside”…’), which I tried to show does not do Dennett’s work for him. The second appears to be simply a circular argument: if we decide to assert that Otto is not referring any private experience but something objective (a ‘color-discrimination state’) then we have only banished his qualia by virtue of this assertion. The fact that we can’t be aware of them for ourselves does not change this. The function of the cardboard fragment is an objective one, inseparable from its identification of its counterpart, just as colour perception as an objective function is inseparable from how it evolved. But there’s nothing about the cardboard that corresponds to subjective qualia  the analogy fails. When I think of my experience of the acer leaves I am not thinking of the ‘color-discrimination state’ of my brain  I don’t know anything about that. In fact it’s only from the science I have been taught that I know that there is any such thing. (This final notion nods to another well-known argument – this time in favour of qualia – Frank Jackson’s ‘knowledge’ argument  I’ll leave you to follow the link if you’re interested.)

But this being just a blog, and this post having already been delayed too long, I’ll content myself with having commented on just three arguments from one physicalist philosopher. And so I am still there with Descartes in his tottering house, resisting its demolition. In the next post I’ll enlarge on why I am so foolhardy and perverse.

We are all Newtonians now – or are we?

Commuting days until retirement: 495

Browsing in a bookshop the other day I found a small book about Newton by Peter Ackroyd. His biographies are mostly about literary figures, and I didn’t know about this one – the prospect of Ackroyd on Isaac Newton seemed an enticing novelty. It lasted a few train journeys, and didn’t disappoint. I suppose I was familiar with the outline of Newton’s work, and knew something about his difficult personality, but this filled some of the gaps in my knowledge wonderfully.

Isaac Newton(Wikimedia Commons)

Isaac Newton (Wikimedia Commons)

There are perhaps three central achievements of Newton’s – each one groundbreaking in itself: his elucidation of the nature of light and colour; his invention of the calculus (‘Fluxions’ in his day) as a mathematical technique, and, above all, his unification of the movement of all physical bodies, cosmic and terrestrial, in a mathematical framework bound together by his laws of motion and gravitation. It’s true that calculus was, as we know now, independently hit upon by Leibniz, although at the time there was a fierce controversy, with each suspecting the other of plagiarism. Leibniz had published first, using a more elegant notation, but Newton had certainly been working on his Fluxions for some time before. The flames of the dispute were jealously fanned by Newton, who, once crossed or criticised, rarely forgave an opponent.

Robert Hooke

What I hadn’t realised was that the notion of gravitation, and even the inverse square law governing the strength of attraction, had been discussed by others prior to Newton’s synthesis in Principia Mathematica. It was Robert Hooke – a polymath and versatile scientific investigator himself – who had published these ideas in his Micrographia, without claiming to have originated them himself, and who wrote to Newton to draw his attention to them. They had previous quarrelled over Newton’s work on light and colour, Hooke having claimed some precedence in his own work, but Hooke had conceded to Newton, accepting that he had “abilities much inferior to yours.” This was the sort of thing that was music to Newton’s ears, who wrote back in a conciliatory vein, saying, in the famous phrase, that “if I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” There is some uncertainty as to whether this was a deliberate reference to Hooke’s own short and stunted stature.

But relations with Hooke broke down entirely when he pressed his claim to an acknowledgement in the Principia for his own previous work. Newton was furious, and never forgave him. Hooke was for many years secretary of the Royal Society, a body which, to start with, Newton had an awkward relationship, particularly given the presence of Hooke. But after Hooke’s death, Newton became president of the Society, and the relatively modest reputation which Hooke has today is thought to be due to Newton’s attempts to bury it, once he was in a position to do so. No authentic portrait of Hooke remains, and this is probably Newton’s doing.

By contrast, Newton sat for quite a number of portraits – an indication of his vanity. But he was of course held in high regard by most of his contemporaries for his prodigious talents. Those who got on well with him mostly had the skill to negotiate their way carefully around his prickly personality. An example was Edmond Halley (he of Halley’s comet) who had the task of passing Hooke’s claim to Newton, but managed to do so without himself falling into Newton’s disfavour.


Newton was long-lived, dying aged 84 – perhaps due to his ascetic style of life and his unquenchable enthusiasm for whatever was his current preoccupation. The early part of his life was mostly spent in Cambridge where he became a fellow, and then the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. He lived a mostly solitary existence, and when working on some problem would often work through the night, neglect bodily needs and be deaf to distractions. His absent-mindedness was legendary. Hardly surprising, given these tendencies and his awkward personality, that he was not known ever to have had a close relationship with any individual, sexual or otherwise.  Acts of kindness were not unknown, however, and he made many charitable donations in his later, prosperous years. He did strike up one or two friendships, and was fondly protective towards his niece, who kept house for him when he lived in London in later years.

When his mathematical powers waned with age, he found a new talent for administration in his fifties, when offered the post of Warden of the Royal Mint (and later Master). His predecessors had been lazy placemen for whom the post was a sinecure, and it’s thought that, on his appointment, perhaps 95% of the currency was counterfeit. Over succeeding years Newton turned the full force of his concentration to the task, and put the nation’s currency on a sound footing. Forgers were single-mindedly pursued to the gallows, which was where you ended up in those days if convicted of counterfeiting the currency.

So the last part of Newton’s life was spent prosperously, and in the enjoyment of a vast reputation, presiding over his twin fiefdoms of the Royal Mint and the Royal Society, and doing so right up until his death. But I have not mentioned his two other major intellectual enthusiasms, beside the scientific work I have described. One was alchemy – not then distinct from what we now call chemistry. Alchemists of course are remembered mainly for their efforts to create gold, and hence fabulous wealth – but this was not Newton’s aim. The subject was full of occult knowledge and arcane secrets, and for Newton this was one route to a revelation of the universe’s true, unknown nature, and he pursued it assiduously, having a vast library and spending at least as much time on it as his work in what is for us mainstream science. It also had a practical outcome, since he developed from it a thorough knowledge of metallurgy which he put to use in his work in administering the coinage.

His third passion was his research into the history of Christianity and the church. Newton was a deeply pious man, more in a private than a public way. This was partly because Newton’s particular faith was a heretical one, and would have been dangerously so in the earlier part of his life, when England was ruled by the Catholic James II. Newton was obsessed with the now largely forgotten controversy concerning the opposed church fathers Arius and Athanasius. Arian doctrine (not to be confused with the ‘Aryan’ 19th and 20th century racial dogma) held that Christ was a subordinate entity to God, and denied the Holy Trinity taught by Athanasius, and adopted by the mainstream church. For Newton, Arianism was the true faith, whose origins, he believed, could be traced back beyond the Christian era, and was the only way to approach the reality of God.

It almost goes without saying that these three obsessions were not independent of one another in Newton’s mind. For him they all served the same purpose – to uncover the mysteries of the universe and the nature of God. Gravitation was a controversial topic at the time, in virtue of its assertion that one body could act upon another without physical contact. (Perhaps a sort of parallel with the issues we have today with the phenomenon of quantum entanglement.) For Newton, the concept was all of a piece with the mysterious action of God – a window into the nature of reality.

Of course Newton’s scientific conception of the universe has now been radically modified by the twentieth century developments of relativity and quantum theory. But there’s a more fundamental sense in which we are still Newtonians: his towering achievement was the scheme of the universe as an integrated whole, governed by mathematically described laws (with some honours also going to his predecessor Galileo). This is the framework within which all our modern scientific endeavours take place.


The brothers as they appear in the book (faces obscured)

The brothers as they appear in the book (faces obscured)

So why the note of uncertainty in my title? To explain this I want to digress by describing an image which came into my mind while thinking about it. A few years back, the local people where I live produced a book about our village’s history. An appeal went out for any period photographs that might be borrowed to illustrate the book, and there was a big response. The organiser gave me the task of scanning in all these photos for the book’s publishers, and one them sticks in my mind. It showed two brothers who were local characters during the 1930s standing in a garden, and a closer examination showed that it had been taken at a wedding. They are wearing their best suits, and are sporting buttonholes. Why is the setting not so immediately obvious? Because the photo had been crudely ripped in two down the middle, with both the brothers in the left half. We can see that one of them is the groom, and that the missing right half contained his bride – only her hand is visible, nestling in the crook of his arm.

I found this mute evidence of some anguished estrangement from the past rather moving. What had seemed like a happy union at the time now had the feminine half of it expunged by someone who was determined that she no longer deserved any place in their thoughts. Yes – you get my drift. The enterprise of science now prefers to go it alone along its own, masculine, analytical path, with any attendant mystery ripped out of the picture, leaving only the barest hint. (See my thoughts on atheism in the previous post.)

It’s worth returning to Newton’s own imagery and repeating the often-quoted passage he wrote towards the end of his life:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Although he was an arrogant man in his personal dealings (and the opening phrase here hints at how conscious he is of his reputation), I don’t believe this to be mock-modesty. He also was genuinely pious, and all too aware of the mystery surrounding what he had learned of the universe. Today, we look forward to finishing the task of enumerating the pebbles and shells, and are happy to ignore the ocean. In this sense we are more arrogant than he was, and that’s the source of my doubt as to whether we are really Newtonians now.

Ackroyd, Peter: Newton. Vintage Books, 2007

Gardening Leave

Commuting days until retirement: 499

A cold, windy garden, seen from a warm study

A cold, windy garden seen from a warm study

A day off, supposedly to do some gardening, but the sub-zero wind is keeping me indoors. Delicate plants, we office workers.

A chance, at any rate, to reflect on that back and forth journey that the rest of my fellow commuters have resumed for the week. When you look at all those other blank faces on the train, you do wonder about what’s behind them. When they look around at their fellow passengers (carefully, so as not to catch anyone’s eye), what are they thinking about this repetitive enterprise that we are all involved in? Why does it take place – beyond, that is, our individual needs to make a living? Backwards and forwards – reciprocal motion, like the pistons in a car engine. The pistons keep the car moving, irrespective of where it’s going, and of course we commuters, busy driving the engine of society, have no more idea than do the pistons where our vehicle is headed.

No doubt that is unfair to some, who have occupations with a very explicit social purpose. But I’d guess that the majority of us work for private companies, and are driven by the profit motive – a force as amoral as the torque of the car engine, which may be propelling the car towards sunlit uplands of some sort – or over a cliff edge. The difference in our case, of course, is that there’s no driver, no consciously directed intention, no steering wheel.

Or is there? Here we could head into either politics or religion, those two traditionally taboo topics of polite conversation. But it’s religion I’m thinking of. A few posts ago I referred to a Bible-reading passenger sitting right next to me on the train. I see such people regularly, and no doubt they are quite clear about the purpose question. But the rest of us?

Winning the argument

It seems as if the atheists are currently winning the argument. Once rather less focused, nowadays they have some strident and articulate standard-bearers. This has perhaps lent some conviction to the waverers among us. There was a time when religion, for most, was more of a social badge. My father, for instance, would unhesitatingly write “C of E” (Church of England) on any form that asked for religion, but would never be seen in a church, other than for weddings or funerals. And this wasn’t hypocrisy: he was quite up-front about his beliefs, or lack of them. More recently, most people would mutter something vague to the effect of “Well, I think there must be something…” if asked the religion question.

But now, surveys and censuses show that there are a many more who will happily call themselves atheists, or at least agnostics. The New Atheists, as they now tend to be called, have got across the message that we don’t need a purpose imposed on us from above – we can formulate our own. We don’t, furthermore, require a God or a scriptural set of rules in order to tell right from wrong. And our sense of wonder has its needs catered for by the impressive discoveries of science.

So I think, on the face of it, I have pretty good credentials as an atheist. I more or less agree with the above statements; I don’t believe in an old man in the sky, or some more diffuse entity of which he is a personification; and creationism seems to me a ragbag of prejudice, ignorance and wishful thinking, as opposed to the coherent and justified body of theory which evolutionary biology gives us. Large, received bodies of doctrine from organised religion I am unable to swallow. So why is it, that if I see, for a example, a TV debate between an atheist and an apologist of religion, I feel myself instinctively sympathising with the religious point of view? (That’s assuming the religious side doesn’t represent creationism, or some swivel-eyed variety of fundamentalism.)

Stop worrying

Could it be the unbearable smugness which seems to hang like a cloud around the atheist programme? Individually, the most vocal atheists seem to be perfectly decent people, and some – for example Dawkins and Hitchens – are (or were) brilliant writers in their different ways. But somehow the public face of the movement seems to patronise us, with its inverted holier-than-thou expression.

That ghastly bus advertising campaign didn’t help: for those who don’t know it, there was an atheist-sponsored poster campaign on London buses a few years back, with the slogan ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. SO STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.’  Of the many reasons why this is objectionable, it’s difficult to pick out the worst. I would go for the fact that many people are worried a lot of the time, and not enjoying their lives, and for whom the existence of god is the last thing on their minds. So to be be dogged by fatuous slogans such as this does not make things any easier for them.

At least the campaign provided us with a bit if fun, when a religious group complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The advertising code of practice lays down that ads must be “Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful’. Well, we can probably get away with the first three here, so that leaves the issue of truthfulness. Which leaves the hapless ASA with the task of ruling on the probability of the existence of God. I have heard of no outcome to this, so perhaps they are still deliberating. Or maybe they judged the probability of the existence of God to be the same as that of Carlsberg being the best lager in the world.

Stuff and experience

No – for me, what is most importantly wrong with the atheist agenda is what it leaves out, what its vision simply doesn’t encompass. There are many aspects to this, so let’s start with the moral one. Of course, we can agree, our morals don’t come direct from the ten commandments. or any other body of doctrine. They come from the fact that we are sentient, conscious beings, who know what it is to suffer, and understand the importance of not inflicting such suffering on other beings – and of promoting their happiness and wellbeing.

That of course, I know, is a massive oversimplification, culturally, historically and emotionally – but it still has at its heart this question of consciousness, of private experience. No scientific theory yet has come anywhere near providing an account of this which can assimilate it into our account of the physical world. There’s ‘stuff’, and there’s ‘experience’. Science deals with the first; morality has more to do with the second. I’d maintain that the question of how, or whether, we can unify our knowledge of the two lies at present outside science, and will remain so unless science becomes a very different kind of enterprise.

These mysteries are, I would maintain, part of what religion is a response to – they are its stock-in-trade, what it is most comfortable with. But for the atheist/materialist agenda it’s necessary to assert that science has either explained them already, or will have them under its belt after some more investigation. I would respectfully disagree – and hope to expand on this in future posts.