At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

The book’s full title is At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Strike the “apricot cocktails” and that pretty well sums it up.

Sarah Bakewell found some fame and fortune with her previous book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I read and enjoyed that one. As usually happens, it made me want to read some of the subject’s writings: the 16th century essays of Michel de Montaigne. 

At the Existentialist Café made me curious about the writings of some of its subjects, but less optimistic about enjoying or even making sense of what they had to say. Reading Bakewell’s descriptions, explanations and quotations of works by Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Sartre left me relatively clueless about what reading hundreds of pages of phenomenology or existentialism would be like.

In addition, except for Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, I didn’t find the life stories or idiosyncrasies of these thinkers especially interesting, certainly not as interesting as Bakewell does.

The Metaphysics and Ethics of Relativism by Carol Rovane

I would have to read this book at least one more time in order to feel confident about summarizing the conclusions the author reaches. However, here’s my impression after reading it once. As I understand her aims, Carol Rovane wants to clearly explain what relativism is with respect to science and ethics, and then determine whether we should endorse relativism with respect to either of those domains.

She begins by criticizing what she calls “the prevailing, consensus view” of relativism, which she says relies on the idea of disagreement. This is the idea that relativism arises “with a certain kind of disagreement that is said to be, first of all, ‘irresoluble’ [i.e. unsolvable], but also, second, ‘irresoluble’ for the specific reason that both parties are right” [15-16]. Rovane prefers defining relativism in terms of alternatives, which may or may not involve disagreement, and which are themselves explainable in terms of “normative insularity”.

According to Rovane, relativists believe that some alternative views in science or ethics are cut off from other scientific or ethical views. Logic neither “mandates, licenses or prohibits” inferences between them, so two people can hold alternative views about science or ethics and logic has nothing to say about the alternatives [94]. It’s as if, metaphorically speaking, people can occupy different scientific or ethical worlds. Non-relativists, on the other hand, believe that all truth bearers are logically related, either directly or indirectly. My scientific views aren’t insulated from your scientific views, and your ethical views aren’t insulated from mine. We all occupy the same scientific world and the same ethical world.

Rovane goes so far as to label the non-relativist and relativist positions in terms of how many “worlds” they mandate. What she calls “unimundialism” is the non-relativistic view that there is only one world (in which there is no “normative insularity” between propositions in science or ethics). “Multimundialism” is the relativistic view that there are many worlds (in which there is “normative insularity” between some scientific or ethical propositions). 

I think the conclusion she reaches is that scientific theories apply to a single world, so it’s best not to think of science in unimundial or non-relativistic terms. Reality is one, so alternative scientific theories can’t be equally correct. But unlike scientists, who all study the same world, people grow up and live their daily lives in various social conditions. These social conditions help determine which behavior is morally correct for them. Rovane thinks it’s fair to say, therefore, metaphorically speaking, that people inhabit different ethical worlds depending on their particular social conditions. Hence, multimundialism or relativism is an acceptable view with respect to ethics.

To help justify her relativistic conclusion regarding ethics, Rovane asks us to imagine two women. One woman was brought up in Europe or America and accepts the ethical importance of autonomy, i.e. every individual’s right to make their way in the world according to their own needs and desires while respecting the needs and desires of other people. The other woman was brought up in a village in India and sincerely believes she has an ethical obligation to obey her parents, even if it means giving up her right to pursue her own needs and desires.  Rovane argues that these two women live in very different ethical worlds. Their societies are so different when it comes to ethical issues that each woman is acting ethically, even though they are following very different paths and choosing to obey very different ethical principles.

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.

Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin

The theoretical physicist Lee Smolin has written 4 books. I’ve read 3 1/2 of them.

His first book, The Life of the Cosmos, applied the theory of evolution to cosmology. Smolin suggested that our universe might be a good home for life because universes breed new universes, which differ somewhat from their parents. Over time, a universe with lots of black holes will generate a number of new universes with lots of black holes, and universes with lots of black holes tend to be hospitable for life, since their fundamental constants (like the strength of their subatomic forces) have values that permit life to evolve.

His next book, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, was too technical for me, but I did finish his 3rd book, The Trouble With Physics. In that one, he argued that string theory is much too popular among physicists, since it isn’t a proper scientific theory. It’s too speculative and might never generate testable predictions.

Now there is Time Reborn. This is a kind of sequel to Smolin’s earlier books. He still subscribes to the evolutionary views presented in The Life of the Cosmos, but his principal thesis now is that time is real. In fact, time is more real than space. This contradicts the common view among physicists and philosophers that space and time are the four dimensions that make up “spacetime”. The standard view among physicists is that all events, whether past, present or future, are equally real. There is nothing special about the present moment. In fact, our perception that time passes is an illusion.

Smolin argues that this consensus view of the universe as a “block universe”, in which all moments are the same, is a mistake. He agrees that the laws of physics and the equations that express them can run forwards or backwards, but only on scales smaller than the universe as a whole. The planets could revolve the other way around the sun, just like clocks can run in reverse. But the universe as a whole has a history that is real and a future that isn’t determined. Smolin thinks that treating time as real might help resolve certain issues in physics, such as the “arrow of time”, i.e., the fact that certain processes always go in one direction (entropy tends to increase in isolated systems).

Professor Smolin tries to explain how his view of time fits with Einstein’s special theory of relativity (in which temporal properties are relative to an observer) and how something can act like a particle and a wave at the same time (as shown by the famous “double-slit” experiment). I don’t know if those explanations or some of his other technical explanations make sense. But it was reassuring to read a book by a reputable physicist who believes that time is real, physicists have overemphasized the importance of mathematics in understanding the universe, and there is a reality beyond what we can observe. Smolin also believes that there are probably more fundamental, deterministic laws that underlie quantum mechanics. I believe that’s what Einstein thought too.

Time Reborn veers into philosophy at times. There is much discussion of the Principles of Sufficient Reason and the Identity of Indiscernibles. The book concludes with some comments on subjects that aren’t physics, like the nature of consciousness. Smolin’s philosophical remarks are relatively unsophisticated. I assume his physics is better.

Even if he’s wrong about the reality of time, however, I enjoyed the book. For one thing, I can now see how two particles at opposite ends of the universe could be “entangled”, such that a change to one would automatically result in an immediate change to the other. Space might have more dimensions than we recognize. In another spatial dimension, the two entangled particles might be very close neighbors, making what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” (“spukhafte Fernwirkung“) less mysterious. That makes me feel a lot better.

Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics by D. M. Armstrong

D. M. Armstrong is one of the leading philosophers of the past 50 years. He is an Australian mostly known for his writings on metaphysics. This is a short, well-written, relatively easy to understand summary of his metaphysical system.

Armstrong is a materialist or physicalist, who believes that nothing exists except space-time and its contents. He further holds that the world is made up of contingent states of affairs (or facts) and that states of affairs are made up of particulars and universals (e.g. protons and their mass). Laws of nature concern relations between types of states of affairs. 

Universals are only identifiable through empirical means. They only exist if they are exemplified or instantiated. This means that a given number exists if and only if there is a group of particulars that instantiates that number. The number 2 exists, for example, since Mars has 2 moons. Numbers that are not exemplified in this way are mere possibilia. On this basis, however, all but the very largest numbers exist, since any particulars may comprise a group, for example, the group consisting of my desk and the planet Mars instantiates the number 2 (this is called a “mereological sum”).

Armstrong discusses the existence of mind in his final chapter. He endorses an identity theory of mind — mental events and processes are identical to physical events and processes in the brain. He also endorses an identity theory of perception, but wasn’t quite clear to me what he meant by this. Armstrong admits that his theory of the mind faces three particular problems: the existence of consciousness (by which he means “our unmediated access to (some) of our own mental processes”), qualia (secondary qualities like color and taste) and intentionality (how thought and language are “about” something that might not exist). 

Armstrong is more troubled about qualia and intentionality than consciousness. I’m more troubled by qualia than consciousness or intentionality. If the redness of an apple isn’t actually part of the apple, and there’s nothing red inside our heads either, where is the redness at anyway? Armstrong considers his blue mouse pad: “Perception presents us with the blueness as an objective property of something in the world and I think we should accept this, accept that the blue colour is in the world qualifying the pad… I want to identify the colour surface with what the physicists tell us is going on there”. Maybe that’s true, but I’m not convinced.  (3/30/13)

History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood by Fred Inglis

History Man is the biography of R. G. Collingwood, a 20th century English philosopher best known for his work on the philosophy of history and aesthetics. Collingwood has been called “the best known neglected thinker of our time”. Although he was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, he stood apart from the main flow of 20th century Anglo-American philosophy. For example, he criticized some academic philosophers for engaging in philosophical parlor games instead of dealing with real-world issues, such as the rise of fascism in Europe. 

In addition to teaching philosophy for many years, Collingwood did historical and archaeological research, especially on the history of Roman Britain. He emphasized the importance of a contextual approach to philosophy in which earlier thinkers are understood to be answering questions of their own time, not necessarily the same questions that current philosophers are interested in. 

Collingwood deserves to have his biography written, since he lead a more active life than most academic philosophers. Unfortunately, he died after a series of strokes at the age of 53. History Man does a decent job of telling Collingwood’s story, but is relatively weak as an explanation of his philosophy. The author is a professor of cultural studies, not a philosopher. The book is marred by some idiosyncratic syntax that requires occasional re-reading, but enlivened by the author’s cultural and political observations.  (3/26/13)

Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry by Bernard Williams

In Descartes, the greatly respected English philosopher Bernard Williams explains and evaluates Rene Descartes’s epistemological project: his attempt to identify what he can know for certain.

As is well-known, Descartes begins by doubting as much as possible. He cannot doubt his own existence, however, since he is certain that he is thinking about the problem at hand (cogito, ergo sum). What is less well-known is that Descartes makes crucial use of much more questionable propositions in his pursuit of certainty. In particular, he relies on the propositions that God exists and that God would not allow him to be mistaken or deceived about “clear and distinct” ideas.

It is hard to read this book without concluding that modern philosophy would have been better served if someone other than Descartes had been its “father”. Certainty was not a reasonable goal. Invoking God’s benevolence was illogical. And starting with “I think” seems to have made modern philosophy too solipsistic. Perhaps “we live” would have been a more helpful starting point.  (11/20/12)

Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Science, Philosophy and Their Histories by Wallace Matson

Professor Matson (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley) doesn’t just describe the histories of science and philosophy in this book. He also describes the history of life on earth, all in terms of the evolution of belief. Simple organisms react to their environment in genetically-determined ways. Complex organisms form beliefs, new ways of coping with their environments. The most complex organisms, living in groups, create languages, allowing them to form beliefs about the past, present and future, and about what does not exist. 

Matson argues that all beliefs are ways of coping with the world. He divides beliefs into the low and the high. Low beliefs are those that have “rubbed up against the world”. They can be put to an empirical test and found to be accurate or not. Arithmetic and logic are made up of low beliefs, as are cooking and carpentry. Once we possess language, we can use our imagination to form high beliefs. They concern matters that cannot be tested or that we do not have the tools to test. Religion and morality tend to be high beliefs. They cannot be tested, although they have their purpose (edification). People living in groups need morality in order to live together. They don’t need religion, however, which came later in our evolution.

According to Matson, Thales shouldn’t be known for claiming that everything is made of water. Thales of Miletus (on the coast of Ionia, now Turkey) invented science by propounding three central ideas:

 “1. Monism, Unity, Reductionism: ‘The All is One’, that is, at bottom there is only one kind of reality, in terms of which everything can be (ideally) explained.

2. Naturalism, Immanence: No basic distinction between what a thing is and what it does. Processes manifest the essential internal energies of things.

3. Rationalism, Logos, Necessitarianism, Sufficient Reason: There are no “brute” facts; everything is either self-explanatory or explainable in terms of other things; and explanation has as its ultimate aim the showing of how and why things ‘couldn’t be otherwise’.”

Some science is theoretical: high beliefs that are “tethered” to low beliefs as part of a comprehensive theory. The theory of the Big Bang, for example, is tethered to low beliefs, not logically implied by observations, but suggested by the work of radio astronomers. On the other hand, Matson argues that “theories … invoking creative gods, final causes, ‘logical possibility’, and the like, are untethered, free-floating in the heaven of pure imagination”.

Matson credits Parmenides (another Ionian) with inventing philosophy, which Matson describes very generally as talk about what it is to be reasonable. His two favorite early modern philosophers are Hobbes and Spinoza, both of whom Matson believes subscribed to the scientific approach outlined above. Matson holds that Descartes took a wrong turn by focusing on his perceptions or ideas. Not only rationalists like Leibniz but empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume are part of the same misguided tradition, a tradition that gave rise to pseudo-problems dealing with the existence of the external world, other minds and causation.

Matson also argues that the idea of logical possibility is a holdover from medieval philosophy. He believes that it was the idea of an Omnipotent Creator/Legislator who could make anything non-contradictory happen that gave rise to the idea that the world is contingent, that it might have been any other way than it is. In his words: “The contention here is not that the phrase ‘logical possibility’ denotes nothing; it is that what it designates is, non-internally-contradictoriness, is not a species of possibility, any more than a teddy bear is a species of bear”.

I’m having trouble understanding Matson’s point regarding logical possibility not being real possibility. Couldn’t gravity be a more or less powerful force in another world? Adjustments might be needed in other aspects of the world to allow for gravity to be different, but that seems logically possible, even if it isn’t physically possible in our world. It seems as though Matson’s objections to the idea of an Omnipotent Creator/Legislator have colored his opinion of logical possibility. Aside from that, I found very little to argue with in this extremely interesting book.

PS — A review of the book by two philosophers at the University of Colorado:  (11/8/12)

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

Journalist and former philosophy grad student Jim Holt sets out to answer that long-standing philosophical/scientific question: Why is there something rather than nothing? 

His principal method is to interview a number of well-known philosophers (Adolph Grunbaum, Richard Swinburne, John Leslie and Derek Parfit) and scientists (David Deutsch, Andre Linde, Alex Vilenkin, Steven Weinberg and Roger Penrose). He also talks to John Updike, who is surprisingly knowledgeable about both science and philosophy.

Nowadays, when people ask why the world exists they are generally asking why the Big Bang occurred. Unfortunately, nobody knows. The most common answers are that there was some kind of random quantum event that made it happen or that God made it happen. Some people think that our universe is just a small part of reality and that somehow the existence of a vast, possibly infinite, collection of other universes explains why ours is here and/or why ours is the way it is. The philosopher John Leslie thinks that our universe might exist because it’s good.

As soon as a particular cause or reason for our universe to exist is suggested, it is natural to ask why that cause or reason is the explanation, rather than some other cause or reason. Why are the laws of quantum mechanics in effect? Where did God come from? This is why the answer provided by a Buddhist monk at the very end of the book is my personal favorite: “As a Buddhist, he says, he believes that the universe had no beginning….The Buddhist doctrine of a beginning-less universe makes the most metaphysical sense”.

Perhaps the reality that exists (the super-universe, whatever ultimately caused the Big Bang) has always existed and always will. It simply is. It never came into existence, so no cause, reason or explanation is necessary or possible. Perhaps it’s cyclical. Perhaps it’s not. But it’s eternal, with no beginning or end.

This book is worth reading, but not as good as it might have been. Mr. Holt writes well and seems to accurately present the ideas of the thinkers he interviews. But his own thoughts on the subject, and other subjects, such as consciousness and death, aren’t especially interesting or profound. In particular, his attempt to prove the existence of an infinite yet mediocre universe is completely unconvincing. His travel writing — where he stayed, what he ate, his strolls through Oxford and Paris — is also a bit much. He doesn’t just bump into a philosophy professor at a local grocery store; it’s a “gourmet” grocery store. He has excellent taste in food and drink as well.  (9/8/12)