Category: 2013

A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time by Adrian Bardon

Someone thought it would be a good idea to call this book A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time, no doubt as an allusion to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The book’s focus isn’t historical, however. It’s a brief introduction to the philosophy of time, with chapters devoted to the nature of time, its direction, its passage, and a few other standard topics. Professor Bardon’s explanations of the issues are almost always clear and the book is relatively easy to read.

The most interesting aspect of the book is Bardon’s strong preference for the “static theory of time”. That’s the counter-intuitive view that the apparent passage of time is an illusion, or, more precisely, that it’s merely the result of our human perspective. The static theory isn’t new. The Greek philosopher Parmenides argued for it 2,500 years ago. J. M. E. McTaggart unhelpfully gave the name “B-series” to this conception of time, distinguishing it from the more familiar “A-series” or “dynamic theory of time” that most people accept, according to which time passes as events move from the future to the past:

The static theorist believes in change, but only understood in a way that doesn’t commit one to the passage of time: Change, on the static theory, is to be understood as merely referring to the world being timelessly one way and timelessly another way at a subsequent moment.  

The B-series places every event in the history of the universe on an unchanging timeline. On this view, it‘s appropriate to describe every event as either earlier than, later than or simultaneous with every other event. But there is no special significance to the present moment (the “now”). It’s no more descriptive to say that an event is happening “now” than to say that a location is “here” or a direction is “up”. The idea that some events are in the past or future compared to the present moment is an illusion. So far as our “block universe” is concerned, all moments in time are equally real, not just the present one.

The static view of time isn’t universally accepted, but it’s popular among physicists and philosophers. One reason Bardon accepts it is that he thinks McTaggart’s arguments for the static theory and against the passage of time are “devastating”.

I think they’re confused. For example, McTaggart and Bardon hold that it’s self-contradictory to say that an event like the 1960 World Series used to be in the future and is now in the past, since by doing so we are attributing contradictory properties (being past and being future) to the same thing (a particular event). But being past or future are relational properties that vary with time. Saying an event was future and is now past is akin to saying a person was married and is now divorced, hardly a contradiction.

Bardon also presents Einstein’s theory of special relativity as a reason for doubting that time passes. Physicists have confirmed that two observers moving at great speed relative to each other will perceive time differently. For this reason, there is no place in physics for saying that two events are truly simultaneous, or which of two events happened first, except from a particular point of view: 

If there is no privileged vantage point from which to determine the “truth” of the matter – and the whole point of relativity is that there is not – then temporal properties like past, present and future cannot possibly be aspects of reality as it is in itself. They must be subjective and perspectival in nature.

Yet the theory of relativity pertains to how events can be observed or measured, given the constant speed of light. It doesn’t tell us how reality is “in itself”; it tells us how reality is perceived. Just because we can’t always know when two events occurred doesn’t mean there is no truth to the matter. A truth can be unknowable.

Furthermore, if relativity implies that there is no objective A-series past or future, it also implies that there is no objective B-series “earlier” or “later”. Bardon tries to draw a distinction between relativity’s implications for the dynamic and static theories of time, but it isn’t convincing. Perhaps the book would have been better if Bardon hadn’t so clearly taken sides.

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell

Paul Fussell’s best-known book is The Great War and Modern Memory. In that book, he wrote about the effect of World War I, especially trench warfare, on British writers. Wartime is Fussell’s similar book about World War II. This one isn’t mainly concerned with the war’s effect on writers, however. It has a much broader scope. There are discussions, for example, of the myth of “precision” bombing; the frequency of military foul-ups; rumors; rationing; stereotypes; accentuating the positive; casualty rates; popular songs; swearing; hunger; and sexual frustration. There is even a whole chapter devoted to “chickenshit” – the petty crap that superiors inflict on subordinates.

Fussell wrote from experience. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart as an infantry officer in France. His goal in Wartime was to capture the reality of World War II as it was endured by American and British soldiers, sailors and airmen, especially those who actually saw combat (a small minority of those who served). He often does this by contrasting military reality with the sanitized version presented to the people back home. If you were in the service but not in combat, your main emotions were boredom and anger. If you were in combat, it was fear and horror.

According to Fussell, the authorities eventually realized that engaging in more than 240 days of combat (not consecutive days, but total days) would drive anyone insane. That sums up World War II for the men who did the actual fighting.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Published in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd is the story of the young, independent and beautiful Bathsheba Everdene (what a name!) and three very different men. Gabriel Oak is a thoughtful, competent young shepherd who meets her and quickly proposes marriage. Mr. Boldwood is an older, gentleman farmer who has no experience with women and falls in love with her too. Francis Troy is a semi-aristocratic soldier who has experience with women and is not to be trusted. It wouldn’t be much of a story if Bathsheba chose the right one right away.

The novel is set in the region of southern England that Hardy called “Wessex”. There are many fine descriptions of the countryside and country life. The downside is that there are a few too many discussions between the local rustics, who speak in dialect and serve as a rural Greek chorus.

The title is from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The characters in Hardy’s first popular novel do live far from the crowds, but don’t always avoid madness. They might get under your skin a little bit (it’s remarkable how fictional people can affect us).

One of my favorite passages comes near the end of the novel:

Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — camaraderie — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg

The author is a professor of philosophy at Duke University who usually writes books for other philosophers and people who aspire to be philosophers. This one was written for a general audience. Maybe that’s why the book comes on so strong. Borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase, it’s philosophy with a hammer.

I assume Professor Rosenberg chose the title, but it’s a little misleading. Rosenberg derives his atheism from a more fundamental view called “scientism”. He defines that as the worldview according to which “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”. Unfortunately, there is no word that refers to someone who accepts scientism except “scientist” and you can definitely be a scientist without believing in scientism. Plus, a title like The Guide to Reality for People Who Accept Scientism isn’t exactly catchy. So “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” it is.

One way Rosenberg explains scientism is to say that physics fixes all the facts (except, presumably, for the facts of logic or mathematics). Physics says that all events in the history of the universe, except some at the quantum level, are determined by previous events and the laws of nature. Furthermore, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy ultimately increases in an isolated system) is the “driving force” behind evolution, which is the result of haphazard genetic mutation. Evolution gave us minds, but our minds are nothing more than the activity of our brains.

Rosenberg concludes that we don’t have free will, introspection is generally misleading and thoughts (whether conscious or unconscious) aren’t “about” anything (since what happens in a neuron can’t be “about” anything — it’s just a tiny input/output device). Furthermore, there are no purposes in nature, even in our minds, and there are no ethical facts. Morality is just another evolutionary adaptation. In addition, we can learn nothing from history or economics, since human culture is constantly evolving.

Rosenberg expresses his conclusions with an air of almost absolute certainty, which is odd for someone who believes in science (maybe it’s not so odd for someone who believes in scientism). For example, he says that “what we know about physical and biological science makes the existence of God less probable than the existence of Santa Claus”. Perhaps he’s being facetious in that passage, but many atheist or agnostic philosophers would agree that God’s existence is a metaphysical question beyond the reach of science. Natural processes don’t count for or against the supernatural. Besides which, there is no evidence at all for the existence of Santa Claus.

The Thin Red Line by James Jones

James Jones enlisted in the army in 1939. He witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was the basis for his first novel From Here to Eternity. The Thin Red Line is a kind of sequel to From Here to Eternity, since it’s based on his experiences as an infantryman on Guadalcanal, the Pacific island the Allies invaded nine months after Pearl Harbor.

The novel is 500 pages long, but engrossing and fast-moving. If I were a military recruiter, I would not recommend this book to prospective soldiers. 7,100 members of the Allied forces, mostly Americans, died on Guadalcanal, and 31,000 Japanese. It’s hard to believe that the men who survived lived through it. In addition to the actual fighting, there was heat, exhaustion, lack of food and water (especially water), lack of sleep and malaria.

It’s hard to follow the battle scenes sometimes, since the geography is confusing, and it’s sometimes hard to remember which character is which, since there are so many of them, but that’s o.k. Combat is said to be confusing. Jones does a great job expressing the inner thoughts of his characters, almost all of whom would rather be anywhere else. Among these recurring thoughts are fear of dying, fear of cowardice, the pleasure and relief that comes from killing instead of being killed, the numbness that results from extended combat, and the love and hatred of one’s fellow soldiers.

One minor complaint: for some reason, 90% of the characters have single-syllable last names. Maybe it was common practice to use shortened last names in the Army, but it’s distracting to see a bunch of characters named Stein, Band, Whyte, Blane, Gore and Culp (the officers); Welsh, Culn, Grove, Keck, Spain, Stack, Storm, Beck, Field, Fox, Potts, Thorne and Wick (sergeants); Fife, Jenks and Queen (corporals); and Bead, Cash, Dale, Doll, Earl, Fronk, Hoff, Land, Marl and Park (privates first class).

Jones describes some relatively pleasant moments for his characters, but they are rare. Much more common are descriptions like these:

“Digging. Their neverending, universal digging. Sweating and panting with exhaustion, digging. Like last night. And almost every night in the world. And sometimes two or three times in the day. A place to lay your head. Three by three by seven, slit trench. Only the very lucky ever inherited another outfit’s holes. Nobody ever dug the round deep foxholes here because there weren’t any tanks. Here the home was the slit trench.”  

“As they crawled, suddenly, for no real reason, he found himself remembering that young, foolish, innocent, gullible Corporal Fife, that total stranger, who once had stood forth in the dawn on Hill 209 and had stretched out his arms willing to be killed for mankind, and the love of mankind. Well, fuck mankind, that bunch of ‘honorable’ animals. Piss and shit on them. That was what they deserved.”

No wonder these guys dreamed about getting wounded, just seriously enough to get the hell off that island.

A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

George Smiley appears again in John le Carré’s second novel. This time he does a favor for an old friend and travels to a private school that sounds like Eton. The wife of a faculty member has written a letter stating that her husband plans to kill her. By the time Smiley arrives, she’s already dead. It’s not an espionage story, just a typical English murder mystery.

A Murder of Quality is worth reading for le Carre’s excellent prose and for his depiction of the mostly upper-class inhabitants of the school. My favorite part, however, was being able to spend time with the wonderful character of George Smiley. Whenever he spoke, I could almost hear the voice of Alec Guinness. 

Karl Marx: His Life and Environment by Isaiah Berlin

Karl Marx was a monumental figure. I knew that he spent years doing research in the library of the British Museum and wrote several dense volumes, as well as the Communist Manifesto. I didn’t realize that he was personally involved in left-wing politics. He was the leading revolutionary of his time, moving from country to country, attending meetings, writing letters, advising other communists and socialists throughout Europe, Russia and even the United States (he was even a regular contributor to a New York newspaper).

This is the 4th edition of Isaiah Berlin’s well-written biography of Marx, first published in 1939. Berlin, the famous British philosopher and historian of ideas, presents Marx as a brilliant thinker but a difficult person who devoted his life to bringing about the downfall of capitalism.

What is especially striking is that Marx strongly believed in gathering mountains of evidence in support of his political and economic theories. In that regard, he was a social scientist and an empiricist. Yet he labored in support of an idealistic vision of a future after capitalism that seems terribly unrealistic.

It was conceivable that the proletariat would rise up against the capitalists and the bourgeoisie, especially if a group of revolutionaries could seize power, as they surprisingly did in Russia (of all places). But it was a tremendous leap to think that the state would eventually wither away and the workers would create a functioning communist society. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” is an ideal that sounds rational and even practical, but Marx doesn’t seem to have given enough thought to how such an ideal would be implemented. At least, Berlin never gives the impression that Marx spent much time thinking about the communist future. He was much too busy trying to overcome the capitalist present.

Spinoza and Spinozism by Stuart Hampshire

Baruch (aka Benedict, aka Benedictus) Spinoza was a truly great philosopher. Professor Hampshire’s introduction to Spinoza, first published in 1951, has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in the 1970s. So it was disappointing to read this collection of Hampshire’s writings on Spinoza and find it rather tedious, mainly due to the repetitive nature of the book’s three main sections.

Still, if you want to understand Spinoza, Hampshire’s Spinoza: An Introduction to His Philosophical Thought, the 1987 edition of which is included in this book, is an excellent place to start. 

Spinoza famously argued that there can only be one infinite substance. This is Deus sive Natura, God or Nature. There is nothing supernatural about God, since God and Nature are the same. This one substance has two attributes, so far as we know: thought and extension, or mind and matter. Everything that exists or occurs is represented in both of these attributes. When something happens in my body, it also happens in my mind, and vice versa (although sometimes unconsciously). The same rule applies to all other objects in the universe, e.g. both rocks and rabbits.

In addition, everything that happens is fully determined. If we had the mental capacity, we could infer everything about the universe from what happened before. Yet we human beings have moments of freedom, i.e. when we exercise our rationality, either in pursuits like mathematics or in understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Hampshire doesn’t accept everything Spinoza said, of course. But he does generally endorse Spinoza’s view of our “double aspect” and what it means to be free in a deterministic world. Unfortunately, it’s hard to understand what it means for a rock to have a mental aspect. Hampshire tries to explain this idea by suggesting that a rock’s thought-like aspect is its form: “they have a nature and form which can be described or represented. They are not a haphazard collection of atoms. They have their own distinctive unity.”

But I think Spinoza was closer to the truth regarding the “mental” aspect of people and other animals than he was about things like rocks or trees. We have both a form that can be represented and the ability to represent ourselves and other things. We have evolved and become aware (Hampshire doesn’t disagree, of course). Having a form and being able to represent something that has a form are quite different things, although perhaps that’s what Spinoza had in mind. A rock has something that can be represented by an idea. And we have ideas. So maybe we are just a bit higher on the evolutionary scale.

Call For the Dead by John le Carré

Call For the Dead was John le Carré’s first novel. He wrote it while still an employee of MI6, the British version of the CIA. It’s an entertaining mystery story about spies and murder that introduces the character of George Smiley, the “little fat man, rather gloomy,” who is the hero of Le Carre’s later novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

We also meet other characters who will return in later novels: the younger, suave Peter Guillam; the police officer Mendel; and the high-level civil servant Maston, later known as Lacon. Unfortunately, we don’t meet Smiley’s ex-wife Ann, although her words do appear a few times.

It’s a short novel, but quite good. My only problem was wondering how Smiley survived several blows to the head with a lead pipe, and why the police weren’t immediately summoned at a climactic moment. But if Smiley had died, or the police had been called, Call For the Dead would have been even shorter.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I browsed through Lolita when I was much younger, looking for the good parts. I was seriously disappointed. When I was older, I started it a few times but very quickly lost interest. Now I’ve finally read what many consider to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, maybe even the best.

For the most part, I wasn’t that impressed. Most of the novel details Humbert’s obsessive fascination with his young step-daughter. Nabokov engages in lots of entertaining word-play and makes fun of the American cultural scene, but it’s claustrophobic being locked up in Humbert’s fevered brain. Lolita’s body is present, but as a character she is pretty much a cipher.

That’s part of Nabokov’s purpose, of course. At the end of the novel, Humbert admits to himself that he’s stolen her childhood. He hasn’t allowed her to be a person. Lolita (the character) finally emerges when Humbert meets her a few years later, after she’s run away and started her own life. That’s when Lolita (the novel) at last delivers some emotional impact. It’s terribly sad to meet someone you still love who doesn’t love you — and in this case never did, for good reason.

Postscript:  Coincidentally, I just came upon an article about Nabokov, in which the author suggests that Humbert’s expression of guilt regarding Lolita’s stolen childhood is merely a device to gain the reader’s sympathy (Lolita is supposedly written by Humbert as a confession after he’s arrested). That could be, but I found his words convincing as a reaction to the sadness of meeting Lolita again and the memories it evoked.