The Dan Schneider Interview 14: Mark Rowlands (first posted 8/16/08)



DS: This DSI is with a philosopher. The last time I interviewed a philosopher, Daniel Dennett, he was remarkably short on ideas, and not really willing to cogitate nor elucidate his readers. Hopefully, this time will be a little bit more interesting. I state this because the philosopher, Mark Rowlands, whose book, The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe, I reviewed, one of a number of books published, shows no penchant for shyness. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. There’s so much good stuff to plumb that much will have to be left out. Nonetheless, I want to delve into your opinions on a plenum of subjects- the philosophic, naturally, but also religious, political and pop cultural. For those readers to whom your book and your name are unfamiliar, could you please give a précis for the uninitiated, on who Mark Rowlands is: what you do, what your aims in your career are, major achievements, and your general philosophy, etc.


MR: I’m Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami. I’m also a writer. Or maybe the other way around: the two overlap – a lot. Most of my time is spent writing. I have D.Phil. in philosophy from Oxford U. back in the late ‘80s. (a D.Phil. is what Oxford calls a Ph.D.) And I’ve been putting food on the table teaching and writing philosophy since then, in a variety of countries including the US (twice), Ireland, England, and France.

  I’ve always had what we might call an Eleusinian attitude towards my career, a variant on the message Silenus gave to Midas. The best thing is to be fortunate enough never to have to work. The next best thing is to retire young. So, my aim in my career, almost since its inception, has been to retire. Then, so the fantasy goes, I could spend all my time thinking and writing. Two realizations have prevented my achieving this goal. The first is the realization that I don’t have money to keep myself, and perhaps more significantly my wife, in the style to which we/she have become accustomed. The second is that I probably wouldn’t notice any difference anyway.   

  As for my major achievements, that is for others to judge. I have written a lot of books, probably more than any other philosopher of my age in the world. Some people seem to think they’re quite good. In the ivory tower, I’m a well known name in philosophy of mind and also in ethical issues pertaining to animals. But, I think you’re lost if you agonize about what you’ve achieved and how others regard you. So I don’t. Basically, I like to think about things. When I want to know what it is I’m thinking, I write things down. And when I don’t want to think about those things any more, I make them into a book. 

  General philosophy? It depends what you mean by ‘philosophy’. Here are a few claims culled from my professional writings. These things I believe:

  Obviously, I believe lots of other things too. But these are the views my professional colleagues tend to associate with me.

  But, perhaps by ‘general philosophy’ you mean the something like my views on ‘the meaning of life’. This is the sort of thing the general public think philosophers do; the sort of thing that, by a strange twist of fate, is precisely what professional philosophers tend not to do (Later on I’ll talk a little about why this might be so). So, if I may be unprofessional for a moment, here it is, my ‘philosophy of life’:

  Time will take everything from us in the end. Everything we have acquired through talent, industry and luck will be taken from us. It will take our strength, our desires, our goals, our projects, our future, our happiness, and even our hope. Anything we can have, anything we can possess: time will take it from us. But what time can never take from us is who we were in our best moments. It’s all luck, all of it, and everyone’s luck is going to run out. What is most important is this: who is it that is left behind when your luck has left you for dead. Here we find our best moments. And in the end it is only our defiance that redeems us.

  This is a paraphrase of one of the principal conclusions of my soon to be published autobiography, The Philosopher and the Wolf, which I shall no doubt shamelessly plug on several occasions during the course of this interview. This is a memoir of a decade or so of my life I spent wandering the earth with a 150 lb. timber wolf. Most of the valuable things I’ve learned in life came, in one way or another, from him. It comes out in November 2008 in the UK and spring 2009 in the US.


DS: What exactly does a philosopher, in the 21st Century, do? Your job title at the University of Miami is Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, so you are paid to teach. But what ideas have you wrought, and what things do you instill in your students?


MR: The title is from Wiki, and isn’t quite correct. I’m Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami. Before that, I was Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire. Some helpful soul must have noticed that the Wiki entry was out of date, and amended it – a little inaccurately. I must do something about my Wiki page.

  What does a philosopher in the twenty-first century do? Depends on where he or she is. It’s not quite accurate that I’m paid to teach. That is one of the things that I’m paid to do. But I’m also paid to write and, more importantly, publish: thus enhancing the glory of whatever institution I happen to be working for – at least, that’s the theory. So, I teach five hours a week, for 30 weeks a year. This sounds ridiculously little. (Actually, to me it sounds a lot. In my previous job I was teaching around an hour and a half a week.) But, old ham that I am, I always thought of teaching as a performance, and I spend quite some time getting myself up for each class. I hope my students notice. Then there’s the preparation, and the grading; and the occasional Department meeting. Also, there’s supervision of Ph.D. students. But apart from that, it’s mostly research and writing. That is what the University of Miami brought me in to do – which suits me fine. But it varies between universities: there are universities that do research, and ones that focus on teaching.

  For the ideas I have wrought, see the answer to the first question. Basically: certain theories about the nature of cognition and consciousness; and a certain theory of the moral status of animals. That’s so far: but I’m just warming up.

  What do I try to instill in my students? Simply this: the ability to work out how to answer, and more importantly ask, questions for themselves. In short: I try to teach them how to think. It doesn’t always work.


DS: What exactly is philosophy? Is seeking deeper or ultimate answers tenable in a cosmos where shallow and partial reasons and answers abound?


MR: Any answer to the question ‘What is philosophy?’ would be a philosophical one. You would have to know a lot of philosophy in order to make sense of the answer. (It’s the Douglas Adams, ‘The meaning of life is 42’ problem). Short of that, I could only give platitudes. One point worth noting is that the idea that all activities can be defined by stating necessary and sufficient conditions is a philosophical assumption that is questionable. What, as Wittgenstein, once asked, is a game? It is extraordinarily difficult to supply criteria necessary and sufficient for something to count as a game (try it). You keep either ruling out some things that are games, or including things that are not games. So, why should philosophy be any different?

  Probably the best way to explain something is not by giving a definition, but by providing some examples. So, here are some examples of philosophical questions:

What is consciousness? And what is its relation to the brain?

What is the nature of right and wrong?

What can I really know (as opposed to merely believe)?

Do I have free will?

What would an ideal society look like?

  These are some of the bigger questions. But there are lots of others too. In answering them, philosophers are supposed to think clearly, rationally, and logically. That is, unless they’re the sort of philosopher who thinks that clarity, rationality and logic are simply expressions of Western Male Phallogocentrism, or some crap like that. I’m not one of those philosophers. They’re bad philosophers.

  With regard to your second question: it depends what you mean by ‘tenable’? Is it worthwhile to seek deeper or ultimate answers when there are so many shallow ones available? I would have thought that the presence of so many shallow and partial answers would up the value of deeper ones.

  Or do you mean, is there any point in seeking deeper answers since no one gives a shit anyway? Even if that’s right – and I’m not saying it is – once you start doing or not doing things on the basis of what you think people do or do not give a shit about, you’re totally screwed.


DS: Did you have any heroes in philosophy as you grew up? Or were you attracted to the discipline of ideas?


MR: No heroes. Not then, not now. Heroes are for pussies. Anyway, I couldn’t really have had any philosophical heroes when I was growing up since I didn’t even discover philosophy until I was 19. Not that I was grown up then (or possibly even now), I suppose.

  I’m in it for the ideas. I love ideas: ideas and relations between ideas. I mean really love them. If there was a lap dancing club for ideas, I would spend all my time and money there. I love the way ideas hang together, supporting each other, undercutting each other.

  Rather than doing philosophy, I used to play a lot of pool and snooker when I was a kid. And there are days – increasingly few – in those games when you approach the table, and you just know you can’t be beaten. You feel invincible; almost godlike. You can see all the angles. Really knowing ideas – really knowing an area of philosophy – it’s a feeling like being able to see all the angles on a snooker table. Instead of seeing spatial angles – perceptual angles – you see conceptual angles. You know your way around a philosophical position like you know your way around a snooker table. You start reading a journal article, say, and you stop after the first page or two: because you can already predict what they are going to say. You see all the options, and there is no need to have them presented to you any further. Or, you’re giving a paper, and when you’re fielding questions afterwards, and there are people who are trying to make themselves look good by making you look bad. But you’ve anticipated all their questions. You know your way around better than anyone else. And, because of that, no one can hurt you.

  The feeling, as I said, is almost godlike, or, at least, demi-godlike. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that philosophical interests and preoccupations became thoroughly infected with the imago dei: the idea that we are created in the image of God. I’ll talk more about this later.


DS: All words simply denote things that other words can or cannot, therefore all definitions are dependent; so language is ultimately a circular exercise. Thus, is the penetration into real meaning something more mystical? Is it irresolvable? Is what you consider the color red really what I am seeing as red, etc.?


MR: The second clause of your first sentence doesn’t follow from the first. The first clause describes a view of language associated (rightly or wrongly) with Augustine. The view is associated with Augustine largely through the work of the Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein attacked this conception of language with great efficacy. But, for the purposes of your question, if all words simply denote things, then the meaning of the word is the thing, and definitions are redundant. But with regard to your more general question: meaning is, I think, genuinely spooky. In fact, one of the legacies of Wittgenstein was a good understanding of what meaning is not, coupled with an inadequate understanding of what meaning is. Attempts to explain in terms of intentions and other mental states simply push back the problem a stage – now we have to explain the content of these states, and that is the same problem as explaining the meaning of the sentences they cause us to utter. I don’t think anyone really understands what meaning is, and I’m not sure it is the sort of thing that we can understand.


DS: Philosophy is ideas, but art is ideas in motion, put to some purpose. I posit this makes it a higher and more difficult pursuit. Agree or not?


MR: I think this question is a little too vague for me to answer it without further clarification. What does ‘in motion’ mean? And in what sense is it true that art is, while philosophy is not, ideas in motion. Anyway, as I said in my answer to the previous question, philosophy is not primarily ideas. Rather, to do philosophy is to have and exercise the ability to navigate your way around a conceptual space of a certain sort: a space made up of ideas that have certain contents. What sense of ‘motion’ would you have to presuppose in order to say, therefore, that art is but philosophy is not ‘in motion’

  The issue of purpose is an interesting one. What use is philosophy? (or, for that matter, art?) The implicit assumption seems to that something is valuable only if it is done for some purpose. But suppose you do A for the purpose of getting B. Then, it seems B is more valuable to you than A, since the only reason you are doing A is to get B. And if you do B only for the purposes of getting C then it seems C is more valuable to you than B, since the only reason you are doing B is to get C, and so on. So, A is what is known as instrumentally valuable – its value derives from its contribution in getting you B. B is, in turn, instrumentally valuable – its value derives from getting you C, and so on. But suppose there is somewhere that this chain of instrumental value stops – say Z. You don’t pursue Z because of anything it can get you. You pursue it because it is valuable in itself. Then Z has no purpose, and that is precisely why it is more valuable than A, B, C and everything else before it. So, having no purpose is a necessary – but not sufficient – of something being truly, in the sense of ultimately, valuable. If philosophy has no purpose – and note I say ‘if’ – I suspect that might be something in its favor rather than a strike against it.


DS: A nice twist on the meaning ‘invaluable,’ I’d think. Before we delve into The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe, let me start from the beginning, and talk about Mark Rowlands, the man. Are you married? What does your wife do? And how did you meet?


MR: I’m married, and have been for a few years, although we have been together a lot longer than that. Emma and I met when I lived in Ireland. We have a thirteen month old son (not to mention a thirteen week old puppy) – and that, I suppose, is pretty much the answer to what my wife does at the moment.


DS: When and where were you born? You are British, and an immigrant to America. Were you born during the Mod Era or after? What were some of the major, or defining, issues in Great Britain during your youth, insofar as they affected your career path?


MR: I was born in Wales in 1962 in a city called Newport – which has sprung to prominence recently, though not in the US, as being the home of some very good bands – for example, Goldie Lookin’ Chain, and the great Feeder.

   I grew up a few miles away in a town called Cwmbrân – it means ‘Valley of the Crow’ – a so called ‘new town’ and, more significantly, cultureless armpit of a place at the arse end of the eastern valley: the first of the Welsh coal/iron valleys.

   I’m not entirely sure when the Mod Era was. Before my tine, I’m sure. I hit my gusty teens during the first metal era. When I was a kid, the most influential bands were Led Zep, Deep Purple, and Uriah Heep. I’m talking about influential for the cool kids, of course. If you had the misfortune of not being cool, you were probably listening to the Bay City Rollers or, worse, Abba.

  Then when I was fourteen or so, along came the Sex Pistols, followed quickly by The Stranglers, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, and Magazine.

  The social issues that affected my career path mostly seemed to center around Margaret Thatcher, the conservative Prime Minister from 1979 onwards. First, when I was an undergraduate, she devastated the mining communities of my birth. The year I was born there were 250 working coal mines in Wales. By the time Maggie finished with it there was one. My father, by then Chief Superintendent in the Gwent police took early retirement because, in large part, he was disgusted by the increasingly political purposes for which the police were being used.

  Then, by the time I was finishing my Ph.D. and looking for a job, Maggie had turned her attention to the universities in general and philosophy departments in particular – on the grounds that all those liberal, commie, bed-wetting academics had been criticizing her for, among other things, her habit of destroying close knit industrial communities. So, philosophy departments were either being closed hand over fist or had iron clad hiring freezes. So, I had to go to the US for my first job – which was no bad thing, of course.


DS: What were some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or people who graced your existence with those ‘I remember exactly where I was’ moments?


MR: It didn’t exactly grace my existence, but 9/11 obviously stands out in my mind. I was in New York on 9/10, ostensibly on a speaking tour of some Eastern US universities. But, Emma and I decided to head down to Orlando for a couple of days to go to Disneyworld (Yes, I’m a big kid). We flew out of Newark. As you drive up the ramp on the approach to Newark airport, there is a great view of lower Manhattan. And I remember pointing out the Twin Towers to Emma. The next morning, I’m in a hotel gym in Orlando, watching the TV while I’m working out, and seeing the first plane crash into the tower.

  Here’s another one, very different. I’m 14, and hanging out with another kid called Mark. His older brother had got us into a barn dance in a farming town called Usk, about fifteen miles away. We are both there for a very specific purpose. Mark’s older brother Tom, 19 and a future career criminal, and all his friends, like fighting. But no one will fight them, because they’re big, scary bastards. So, we two Marks are there to start the fights. So, I get sent up to a guy who’s dancing with a girl. I butt in and start dancing with the girl. The guy, eyeing the snot-nosed kid who had interjected, is supposed to take a swing at me, and then Tom and his friends jump in and all hell breaks loose. That was the theory, and that was indeed the way it usually worked, until one night the bastards decided to hang me out to dry. I do my thing, the guy swings at me. And then … nothing. They’re there at the side of the barn, pissing themselves laughing. Luckily, it all worked out in the end, at least for me. I was a big fourteen – I had grown to what turned out to be my full height by then – and I was a pretty good boxer. So I had no real troubles with the guy. After that I felt strangely ‘grown up’.

  It’s probably worth mentioning that I have an uneasy relationship with my memories at the best of times. That I am in them at all – that they are my memories – often strikes me as a fortuitous bonus: something to be discovered rather than immediately given. This underlies a certain feeling of amazement to which I am sometimes subject, when I think, ‘Wow! Did I do that? Was that me? Is this really my life? That I am the same person in the fight at the barn dance and gazing at the Twin Towers the day before they were destroyed strikes me as faintly surreal.


DS: What did you want to be when you grew up- a soccer player, a scientist, a general? Who were your childhood heroes and why? Where did you go to high school, and to what college?


MR: My high school was Croesyceiliog Comprehensive School, in Cwmbrân. After that I went to the University of Manchester to study engineering. Got kicked out after a year, but managed to talk my way into philosophy. This makes no sense to someone from the US. But in the British university system, at least back in those days, you have to pick one subject when you go in, and you study nothing else for the three years that you are there. If you fail any classes, you are out. Nor was it easy getting into university in those days. Only about five percent of the population went, and I was there by the skin of my teeth. The upside was that if you did get in then you generally got all your fees paid, plus a maintenance grant that was enough to survive on. Philosophy went well – I was a natural – and after I graduated from Manchester, I went to Oxford University to do my Ph.D. (or D.Phil. as they call it there). This, if I might add modestly, I did in the record time of eighteen months from start to submission. So, I think I was 24 when I started my first job in academia.

  No heroes – for reasons mentioned earlier. I was, however, very fond of Muhammad Ali. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then, when I got to be a teenager, I thought professional boxer might be the career for me but eventually had to abandon that idea on the grounds that, when push came to shove, I was a bit of a pussy really (I didn’t like getting hit). So, as luck would have it, I managed to save a few brain cells for the academic career that eventually followed.


DS: What sort of child were you- a loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mama’s boy, a nerd, or a rebel?


MR: I was a jock through most of my childhood, and through most of that time I was also gregarious and outgoing. In high school, I would have rugby training on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and a game on Saturday morning against some other school. Sometimes, in my later teens, I would also play for the local club team on Saturday afternoons. Monday and Wednesday would be boxing training, with a fight every other Friday night. 

  In the summer, both would be replaced with cricket, for which I probably had the most aptitude but the least enthusiasm.

  When I got to 18, my final year of high school, I gave up all the sport (and where I came from, you just didn’t give up rugby). And after getting very good grades all my school life, they all fell apart too in my final year of high school – which is why I only got into university by the skin of my teeth. I’m not sure why all this happened during my final year of high school. Either I was getting an unusually early start on a mid-life crisis or I was just very, very tired.


DS: Any siblings? What paths in life have they followed?


MR: I have one brother, younger than me by four years. He is a chef.


DS: Any children? What paths have they followed in life? What are their interests and careers? Are any of them writers?


MR: My son is thirteen months old. I have tried to convince him of the wonders of writing. But he just eats the crayons.


DS: What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your pursuit of philosophy?


MR: My father was a police officer, and my mother a kindergarten teacher. They both strongly ‘encouraged’ me to go to university. I wasn’t the first in my family to have gone; but there weren’t many before me. So, as long as I got in and came away with a degree – which during my final year of high school didn’t look like it was going to happen – they were sufficiently relieved to encourage me to do whatever I liked. Even philosophy.

  I suspect that final year of high school scarred them more than it did me. For years afterwards, they were convinced I couldn’t be any good at philosophy and should get a sensible job. Parenthood f***s you up, apparently. And I have it all to look forward to.


DS: What was your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?


MR: During my early years, around 4-10, I just remember a never ending summer of cowboys and Indians, or some or other version of War, down at the Bluebell Woods down the bottom of Chapel Lane. There would be about twenty of us or so. In the summer, the ferns would grow six feet long, and the stalks made great spears. So, the summer months would be devoted to re-enacting Homer’s Illiad; of which we were all great fans. Alternatively, there would be informal soccer matches down at the sports fields on The Highway; or go-kart races down Edlogan way, the steepest and longest hill we could find in my part of Cwmbrân (and that was pretty steep and long).

  I was, as Dylan Thomas put it, as happy as the day was long.

  After I reached 11, formal team sports – especially rugby and cricket – took over. I was good at both, and exceptionally good at cricket (I played for my country at age group level). So, I was a popular jock in high school.

  The days of my mid-teens onwards would see us feral children going down to Newport on Friday and Saturday nights, and getting really drunk, and then a fight around closing time. Unemployment was high (see the Maggie Thatcher response), and busloads of the boys would come down from the valleys looking to blow off steam. But it was all clean stuff. Now it looks positively quaint. Fists only: no feet, no bottles, and no knives. It all started changing around the mid-eighties. But by then I was too old and scared anyway, and had moved on to Oxford, where I didn’t get into any barroom brawls at all.


DS: Do you consider yourself a social or cultural critic, now, having penned The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe, and some other pop cultural works?


MR: I never really think about what I am or what I should consider myself to be. I guess, since I have a book called ‘Fame’ coming out later this year, where I talk about everybody from Paris Hilton to Osama bin Laden, that I could probably be counted as a cultural critic of sorts. But my rule has always been to do what interests me, and let anyone else who can be bothered decide what I am.


DS: On my list of most influential books in my life, I would include Alex Haley’s The Autobiography Of Malcolm X; Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass; Loren Eiseley’s autobiography All The Strange Hours; Leonard Shlain’s Art And Physics, and the Betty Smith novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Had I read this book earlier in my life, in my teens, perhaps I may have included it on my list, for it is brimming with great examples of philosophic concepts as presented via pop culture. But, what books would you put on such a list as mine above?


MR: Thank you. I’m honored to think that, but for my misfortune in being born too late, I might have been a contender for a list like this.

  If we exclude philosophy (which I hadn’t discovered in my teens anyway), my list is made up largely of novels, and looks something like this:

  Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I love almost all his stuff. He is a brilliant examiner of the tensions and contradictions involved in the modern self(although I didn’t know what when I was first reading him). The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is also among my favorites – if only for the opening page summary of the book’s theme: the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. Quite simply the best political novelist who ever lived. I share his suspicion of utopianism. The Secret Agent is also a masterpiece.

  F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night. Don’t ask me why – I guess I like stories about hidden weakness.

  And from my early teens:

  Alexander Cordell, Rape of the Fair Country (largely because it is about the valley where I grew up, but a hundred and forty years before me).

  Also, there’s a poem, not a book: Dylan Thomas, ‘Lament’. All of his truly great poems are about time. But I just live the way the vehicle (i.e. the sound) and the content are interwoven in this one; so much so that the vehicle is part of the content. Philosophers of mind could learn a lot from this.

  Finally, too late to be a formative influence on me – it only came out in 2004 and I antecedently agreed with him anyway – but still a fantastic book: John Gray, Straw Dogs.


DS: What are your views on religion? Do you believe in gods or not? Are you an atheist or agnostic? What links do you see between philosophy and religion? Is myth merely expired religion, and religion myth alive? Do you see religion spawning from the same human wellspring as art?


MR: It would surprise me – it would surprise me a lot – if God existed. Then again, I’ve been surprised before. One thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of thinking about things is that I really don’t know very much at all. In fact, if the history of thought has taught me anything it is that, once we go beyond mundane beliefs that I need to get around in the world, most of what I believe is probably wrong. Therefore, while I find most religious views ridiculous, I am also deeply suspicious of the sort of anti-religious proselytizing certainty you find, in for example, Dawkins or Dennett. I think John Gray is probably right when he describes them as a late Christian movement.

  The links between philosophy and religion are multifarious. There are obvious ones. For example, St Augustine used Plato’s metaphysics to introduce into Christianity the apparatus of souls and a non-physical heaven. Thomas Aquinas got most of his ideas from Aristotle; and so on.

  Fundamentalist versions of religion are, of course, anathema to philosophy. Fundamentalists believe in the sort of objectivity of values first defended by people like Socrates and Plato. But they think they can dispense with all those pesky, and hard-won, arguments you need to find out what those values are. Fundamentalism is philosophy without the arguments – which means it’s basically ‘anti-philosophy’

  There is an idea I want to explore further, since I’ve only recently had it. But it will crop up several times as this interview proceeds: the idea that philosophy, and religion, are basic forms of human conceit. Philosophy is a lot more subtle than religion in this regard. But, nevertheless, it has been thoroughly infected with religious assumptions. And many of the standard problems of philosophy do not make sense without those assumptions. I’ll mention a few of them later.


DS: Since God concepts are obviated by simply asking ‘Who made God?’, because the answer could always be, ‘He always was;’ which is the same answer one can ask re: ‘What made the cosmos?’; thereby making God a superfluity, why does such a belief persist?


MR: Presumably: shelter from the storm. Understanding the inevitability of your own death is a deeply unpleasant thing. That is why most of us tend not to think about it too often or too deeply. The essence of religion is hope – though the religious tend to call it faith. This they understand as their primary virtue. But hope is the used car salesman of human existence; so friendly, so plausible, but you can’t rely on him. The most important existential task anyone faces is to realize that there is no hope and to live your life in the face of this realization.

  My autobiography explores this idea in its various facets. This is what I call the religion of the wolf. A life lived in the warm and rosy glow of hope is, obviously, the pleasant option, the one that any remotely sane person would choose if given the option. But we are not given the option, and, consequently, pleasant is not what it’s all about.


DS: Have you ever read Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained? A pal of mine recommended the book to me, but it was not well written and its ideas were dubious. Basically, Boyer’s explanation boils down to the fear and the bush analogy. If there are two people, and there is a mysterious rustling behind the bush, the person who is fearful and immediately runs away is likely to pass on more of his genes to the next generation because, while the brave person may be braver, if there was a saber-toothed tiger behind the bush, the brave person is dead, and bravery is weeded out. Similarly, religious people and beliefs dominate because fear is good for spreading one’s genes, and beliefs in the supernatural are fear-based. While fear is no doubt a part of religion- i.e.- the fear of death, Boyer’s is too simplistic an approach. Thoughts on the idea, and on religion’s provenance?


MR: I’ve not read the book, and from your description I probably won’t. From what you say – although, I repeat, I’ve not read it, and I hate to criticize something secondhand – there seems to be a crucial flaw in the argument. There is no such thing as a genetic advantage per se. There is always only differential selective advantage: that is, advantage relative to some other creature or possibility. Therefore, engaging in a certain sort of behavior – like religious observance – will confer a differential selective on you only if it is a comparatively rare phenomenon. If everyone does it, there is no differential selective advantage. So, if religious observance is widespread, it can confer no differential selective advantage.


DS: Correct, the ‘genetic advantage’ description was mine; I don’t believe it’s in the book; it is just my paraphrase of Boyer’s conceit. Are there any major areas of philosophy that you think have been wrongheaded since the earliest times they were proposed? What are they and why?


MR:  I have a suspicion. It’s a fairly recent suspicion, and so not in any way worked out. But I think others have had related suspicions. The suspicion is that philosophy, in general, is vitiated by an assumption that we can’t quite seem to shake. We could never quite bring ourselves to believe that we are nothing but mammals. On the contrary, we think we are created in the image of God. The assumption is not, at least not today, made explicit – it can’t be because it is laughable. But it is there in tacit form, permeating and prolonging some of the most stubborn and sterile debates in philosophy.

  Take knowledge, both its nature and limits. Since Plato, we have worried about what knowledge is, and how much of it we can have. But where did this idea of knowledge come from? We can believe various things, and some of our beliefs are more reliable than others. I suspect the idea that knowledge is the sort of thing which we can have or to which we can aspire, is the extrapolation of this general observation that some of our beliefs are more reliable than others. And forming the limit of this extrapolation: the idea of God as the embodiment of perfect knowledge.

  I always ask myself: would a philosophical question even make sense when we ask it of my dog? So, if I were to ask things like: What, if anything, can my dog know as opposed to merely believe? In order to know something, does my dog need to know that he knows it? These questions are just silly. For my dog, there are just various beliefs; some true, some false; some having better grounding in available evidence than others. Why suppose it is any different for us? Why don’t we just make do with beliefs? Because God doesn’t believe things – mere belief is compatible with error. And if we are created in the image of God, we must be able to know things too. And so we arrive at the philosophical problem of knowledge.

  I suspect similar stories can be told for a variety of philosophical problems – maybe all of them. Take the problem of free will. What a strange idea that is. There is clearly no such thing as free will. It’s pretty obvious that we cannot act freely. But much of human ingenuity for centuries has been, and still is, devoted to working out how we can be free. The manifest fact that we are not is denied by the vast majority, even today. Very few, armed with what we are continually discovering about the world are prepared to say: so much the worse for human freedom. Even an anti-religious proselytizer like Dennett has written a book showing the sense in which we can be free. We can’t bring ourselves to think: so much the worse for human freedom. That would be to deny that we are the little gods we tacitly take ourselves to be. If you think that’s far fetched, Leibniz actually described humans as ‘little gods’. The idea was prevalent in the 17th century. And I suspect it still is, tacitly, today.

  So, philosophy, perhaps since its inception, has been complicit in a certain sort of crime, a crime of conceit: we think we are God.

  Of course, to point this out is also philosophy …


DS: Do you belong to any political party, and what are your views on such current politicized matters as euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research? How about the U.S. Presidential election? Are you a citizen, and can you vote?


MR: I belong to no political party and never have. Margaret Thatcher instilled in me a lifelong hatred of politicians. I don’t trust them. And I think the most you can hope for from a politician is that they don’t make things any worse than they already are. That doesn’t happen very often.

  Consequently, I have no distinct party line on the issues you describe. Anyway, morality is not exactly rocket science. Most of the time, all you have to do is ask yourself: how would I like it if that happened to me? So, based on this fairly obvious version of the ‘golden rule’, my views pan out something like this:

  Euthanasia: For it. The least you can do for someone is allow them to die with a little dignity. I have done this for my dogs when it has been required. And I would want someone to do it for me if circumstances warranted. (Note that I am talking about matters of principle here; and not about the often tricky issue of whether the circumstances do, in a particular situation, warrant the euthanasia).

  Abortion: my views have changed. I used to think: it’s just a clump of cells until around 20 weeks. But I was clearly wrong. I’m still cautiously in favor of allowing abortions in the first trimester. By the third trimester, it’s pretty much morally equivalent to infanticide. That’s not to say that infanticide is necessarily wrong: some decent philosophers have defended it. But it is to say that if you have an abortion in the third trimester, you are, in effect, killing an infant. In the second, it’s tricky. I think the most we can say is that the wrongness of the abortion increases as the trimester goes on. Some people like their morality cut and dried: something is either right or wrong. I think life is often too slippery for this.

  Gay marriage? Yes. I think people should be able to do whatever they want as long as they are not hurting anyone else. And, in case there are any religious zealots reading this (an unlikely occurrence, perhaps): offending someone’s sensibilities is not the same as hurting them.

Stem cell research? I have reservations about research involving animals, since they are conscious, can suffer, and have not in any way consented to the experiments. But stem cells are not conscious, can not suffer, and are not the sort of thing which could give or withhold consent. (Some philosophers, and maybe non-philosophers too, are stupid enough to believe that animals can’t give or withhold consent either. They should try giving my puppy a bath some time). So, if the stem cell research does not involve animals I am strongly in favor of it. If it does, I am against, except in exceptional circumstances.


DS: Your abortion answer surprises me. Lemme just follow up: within a decade or two all fertilized human ova will be able to, from conception to birth, be bred outside the human womb. Thus, questions of the fetus’s being part of the mother, etc., will be pointless arguments. I’ve always felt the greater issues were not the autonomy of the fetus, but the ‘genetic sovereignty’ of the parent (till now, solely the mother). If technology eclipses the question of can all fetuses be brought to term?, then is not the right of the individual to say yea or nay the primary right? And, if there is a disagreement between the parents, does not society (an overpopulated one like China, India, or some other) have the right to say, ‘Enough already!’? In short, let’s say I’m single, and a hot chick comes on to me. We take precautions, and I fuck her brains out, with condom. But, a month later she says it didn’t work, and she’s prego. She doesn’t want the kid, but decides to put it in a ‘fetal incubator’ that’s been developed. Now, the choice is solely mine. Since the fetus can be brought to term from any point after conception, the trimester dilemma has no bearing. So, then, don’t I get a say in whether or not I want the kid to be born? After all, I may not want my genes spread this early in my life.


MR: The issue of where the fetus is located is irrelevant. Location is not a determinant of whether you have a right to life. So, whether the fetus is in utero or in an incubator doesn’t matter. The possibility of independent existence is a red herring. Nor, I think, does potential matter – not as a determinant of the rights you possess. Potential to be something only gives you potential rights. You have the potential to be President. But that doesn’t give you the actual rights of the President. We all have the potential to be corpses. But that doesn’t mean we should be treated like them. What counts, from the point of view of the moral rights or entitlements you possess is not where you are, or what you can be, but what you now are, and what you can now do. My point about the third trimester – especially the further into that trimester you are – is that the fetus is pretty much the same sort of thing, and can pretty much do the same sorts of things, as the neonate. There is no difference between the two. Therefore if you think killing neonates is a bad thing to do, you logically have to think the same sort of thing about killing third trimester fetuses.

  With regard to your example, I just have a couple of comments. First: way to go! Second, unlucky dude! What is crucial is when you decide to pull the plug. A few days in, and you’ve done nothing wrong. Wait until the 28th week and you’ve pretty much committed infanticide. And in between, what you do ranges from morally inconsiderable to the morally unconscionable. This assessment has nothing to do with where the fetus is but in what it is and what it can do.

  Finally, sometimes shit happens. And one’s understandable, and indeed justifiable, rage at the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune does not alter the fact that what one wants sometimes has to play second fiddle to more important considerations.


DS: Ok, but I still think you’re dodging the thing that most Right Wingers want- the ability to save every and all ‘potential’ life- as my example grants. Again, putting the fetus aside (because I simply don’t buy the idea of there being magic points in utero when an abortion beomes infanticide), my concern is more the rights of the individual to further his/her lineage or not, vs. the will of society to say no, or, conversely, say, you must! Anyway, excelsior! How political is philosophy, internally, in Academia? And what role does external politics play in internal politics? I.e.- do Left Wingers get favored treatment?


MR: I don’t know many right wing philosophers. My impression, although it’s not something I’ve really thought about or empirically investigated so I may be way off base, is that the Academy treats those of a right wing persuasion with utter fairness and impartiality – as long as they don’t actually say or do anything right wing (or anything that might conceivably be construed as right wing). If they do, then all bets are off. Larry Summers, anyone?


DS: Do you have a philosophic bete noir? Who is he or she, and what is the source of your dispute?


MR: Not really. Philosophy, as I think I’ve already mentioned, is kind of like snooker. If you worried about who you were playing, because you thought they were better than you, you would get the yips (you would ‘choke’ as I think you say over here). So, you bracket the opponent, and play the balls. I also try to do the same in philosophy. I play the arguments, not the person who came up with them. Half the time, I struggle to remember who came up with the arguments.

  There are a few philosophers – I’ve never met them – who are, in my view, clearly deranged. But, in general, when I meet someone with whom I vehemently disagree, I come to realize that, like me, they are just people trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got.

  And the rest? Well they’re just douche bags.


DS: Can you give the readers a one or two paragraph précis of the content of The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe; its overall argument, and its major conclusions?


MR: First of all, my publishers would be extremely annoyed off with me if I didn’t mention that The Philosopher at the End of the Universe is now out of print. What is in print is the second edition of this magnificent volume, entitled Sci-Phi: Philosophy from Socrates to Schwarzenegger. It’s exactly the same, just with a different title and cover.

  The book was my attempt to talk about various philosophical issues through an atypical medium: recent, blockbuster, but sometimes dire, science fiction movies. Blockbuster and recent were required desiderata, since the publishers wanted the book to sell (as did I, obviously). So, the movies I focused on were: Frankenstein, The Matrix, Terminator, Total Recall, Minority Report, Hollow Man, Alien(s), Independence Day, Star Wars, and Blade Runner. Some of these are great movies, some not so much (you can probably work out which is which).

  I used each movie to introduce and talk about some central area of, or problem in, philosophy.

  I used Frankenstein to talk about the idea of philosophy in general and, in particular, to introduce a distinction between that was going to provide a guiding theme in the chapters to come. The distinction was between two ways of understanding ourselves: from the inside and from the outside. Most philosophical problems derive from our inability to get these two pictures to mesh.

  The Matrix I used to talk about the area of philosophy known as epistemology or theory of knowledge. The guiding question was: how much can we know?

   I used the Terminator films to talk about the mind-body problem: the problem of understanding the relation between consciousness and the brain.

  Total Recall was used as a way of understanding the problem of personal identity: what makes me the person I am, and what makes you the person you are, etc.

  Minority Report was used to talk about the problem of free will: is it ever possible for us to act freely.

  I used Hollow Man to talk about the fundamental question of morality: why bother being moral?

  Alien(s) and Independence Day were used to talk about the scope of morality: to what sorts of things should I be moral?

  Star Wars was used to talk about the relation between good and evil (and as a thinly veiled excuse for talking about one of my favorites: Nietzsche)

  Blade Runner was used to talk about death and to revisit one of the themes of the opening chapter: the meaning of life.

  The book wasn’t really about conclusions, but about questions; and explaining why they were really very good questions. Most importantly, it was about trying to get the reader to think like a philosopher.


DS: Ok, on to some specific and general queries regarding the book and your views. I’ll try to go in a roughly chronological order. The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe basically deals with several sci fi films you like, and you try to explicate their philosophic underpinnings, rather than critique the films- some of which you admit are not too good. In the first chapter, which deals with the Frankenstein mythos, you speak of meaning and absurdity, and use the life cycle of the cicada as an example of meaninglessness. Why?


MR: This is the point where, as an interviewee, I start to become a little awkward. Since I wrote Philosopher, I’ve completely changed my view of the meaning of life, thus undercutting your entirely sensible questions a little. I’ll try to answer them as well I can, but they might not be the answers you were expecting.

  The cicada stuff still works. Let’s suppose you spend almost all your life – 17 years - burrowing your way through shit. Then, you are let out for a day, shag someone, and then drop dead. The person you have shagged produces offspring, who then spend 17 years burrowing through shit; are let out for a day, shag, and drop dead, and so on. Where’s the meaning? What gives this life its significance?

  If you think there isn’t any, then the problem is explaining exactly how we differ from the cicada. We spend much of our lives immersed in various forms of shit. We do this, because we have a family to raise and support; a family that will grow up to spend most of their lives immersed in shit, for pretty much the same sorts of reasons.

  A more familiar, and no doubt respectable way, of making this point appeals to the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus pissed off the gods. So they got him to roll a rock up a hill. When he reached the top, it rolled back down, and he had to begin again. And that was it, for all eternity. Sisyphus is an allegory for human life. Each journey to the top is like your life, and each step on this journey is like a day in that life. But where Sisyphus returns down the hill to start over again, we leave that to our children. Where is the meaning there?

  But we can be happy, you might say. So what? Sisyphus is not happy, but suppose he was. Suppose the gods inculcate in him an irrational but intense desire to roll rocks up hills. Again, so what? You still won’t find meaning in this existence. So meaning can’t be identified with happiness.

  Nor can we find meaning in purpose. But I’ll postpone the reasons for this to my answer to your next question.


DS: But, is not the fault your point of view, not the essential meaninglessness of the life cycle? After all, the larval part of the cicada’s life could very well be the most important or meaningful part? After all, those believers in an afterlife, religiously based or not, often invoke the idea of larvae to describe our current existences vis-à-vis the ‘real’ eternal life they think awaits us after death. And, is meaninglessness the ultimate horror?


MR: Suppose Sisyphus doesn’t roll one rock up a hill; he rolls many. And they don’t roll back down; they stay put. After many years of toil, he succeeds in building a temple. Then, the question is: what now? An afterlife of staring at something he has now completed and is unable to change or augment in any way. The thing about purpose is that if they give your life meaning, you’d better make sure you don’t achieve them. If you do, your life no longer has meaning.

  Appealing to an afterlife doesn’t solve the problem of meaning, but merely pushes it back a step. Now we have the problems of explaining exactly what makes the afterlife meaningful – and this is not a different problem but the same one pushed back a few years in time.

  Is meaninglessness the ultimate horror? No.  I can think of a lot worse.


DS: We’ve spoken of meaninglessness, but that is, as you chide in your book, a negative definition. What then is meaning? Do we simply graft it from the ether? Do we all determine it? Is that then not solipsism? Am I entitled to say that Albert Einstein or Abraham Lincoln led lives of more meaning than Nancy Slowowicz, a pole dancer from Newark, New Jersey? And more importantly, am I correct to say it?


MR: As I said, I’ve completely changed my view of the meaning of life. In Philosopher, I was running a fairly standard line on the nature of the meaning of life, and its relation to death. Now I think that line cannot work. It can’t work because it rests on an illicit metaphysical picture – the conception of time as an arrow.

  I deal with these issues at some length in my autobiography The Philosopher and the Wolf, which I seem to find myself plugging yet again.

  First the view I was working with in The Philosopher at the End of the Universe.

We are, as Heidegger once put it, death-bound creatures: we understand ourselves in terms of our relation to time, which we think of as stretching into the future towards our uttermost possibility, death. We fill in the line of our lives by telling stories about ourselves – or, as academics like to call them, narratives. These narratives define us, and provide our life with meaning or significance. No other creature can do this, we tell ourselves, and this is why we think we are better than everything else.

  What I now realize is that there are certain moments in our lives when we can rise above the silly little stories we tell about ourselves, and recognize them for the petty conceits that they are. These moments don’t give our lives meaning, in the way that is usually thought of, but they do have value. If I am in any way worth it – if I am a worthwhile thing for the universe to have produced – it is these moments that make me so.

  These are not happy moments (you won’t find meaning there). Nor do they define us – that isn’t going to happen. But they are the moments when we are at our best. Often they are horrible – because that is what is needed for us to be at our best.

  So, instead of thinking of the meaning or value of life as something towards which we progress – whether in this life or the next – think of it as dotted around your life, grains of barley on a field after the harvest.

  I don’t know Ms Slowowicz. But there could be moments on her life that had real value, and where she could have justified her existence, just as there are, or might be similar moments in the life of Einstein or Lincoln. Because of those moments, the universe would have said, if it were sentient: yes, you were a worthwhile thing for me to have done. And if the universe is not sentient: it doesn’t matter. The value of these moments is not tied to anything bearing witness to them


DS: Except, of course, the doer or the percipient of these actions; who are, part of the cosmos, therefore making it sentient; or so would run a corollary or rebuttal. I ask this question because I have come to the conclusion that 99.99% of people are mere placeholders- i.e.- they are the genetic go-betweens connecting the great people who push human life, society, and culture forward. Think of all the people who claim to want to sacrifice for their children, but for what? So that their children can sacrifice for their children who can repeat the process ad nauseam? No; whether they realize it or not, they are doing it in the hopes of being part of a lineage that will affect something deeper. If there were not this drive, then there would be little to separate us from your cicadas, no?


MR: Maybe. But there’s an alternative explanation: people in general don’t spend much time thinking about why they are doing what they are doing. In particular, the thought that their children are, in Sisyphean fashion, simply going to perpetuate a process that has no meaning: that is not a thought that most people are spend much time thinking. Unless they’ve read Camus, or someone like that. And, after all, most of us most of the time (and all of us some of the time) are bitches of our genes.

  On another note: I would put my wife, son, and for that matter my dog, ahead of any ‘lineage that will affect something deeper’.


DS: I don’t know; even janitors I’ve known have spoken to me of what they hoped to achieve in life- little as it may seem. And, even if not cognizant of it; evolutionarily, we can use an analogy that they are directed toward a semi-self-sacrifice without an awareness of it. As an artist, for example, there are manifest examples of this urge that crop up. Sometimes young wannabe writers email me and ask me why do I write, and I usually say that in ten thousand years, on some starship ten thousand light years away, I want some sentient being, human or not, who may be lonely on some interstellar freighter, to seek to alleviate his tedium by searching the Encyclopedia Galactica, to stumble across my work- read a poem or story or essay, and say to himself, ‘Ah, that ancient earthling- he knew!’ What it was I knew is no matter, but I want that power to awaken another being to something greater, deeper, more lasting. To me, there’s no other reason to write, create art, or pursue any endeavor, save to bring pieces of your life and knowledge to others, so they can benefit intellectually or emotionally. Can there be a deeper or more profound concept of immortality? After all, when we speak of Shakespeare, we do not usually refer to the guy stiff under Avon, but to the ideas and feelings his art ushers forth. Is this why you pursue philosophy?


MR: I strongly disagree. Here’s the way I see it. Am I a worthwhile thing for the universe to have done? Or should it not have bothered? If the universe were sentient, then when, say, Beethoven wrote the final note to the third movement of the Emperor Concerto, then the universe might have said, if it were the sort of thing that could think (which it is not): OK, fair enough, you worked out well. I’m glad I produced you.

  But the value of this is not tied to there being anyone to hear the music, learn from it, or grow from it, or have something deeper in them awakened – or however you want to put it. And the sentient universe is, of course, just a heuristic device: I don’t really think the universe is sentient. Far from there being ‘no other reason’ to create or write, I think the benefit to others – whether intellectual or emotional – your creation might produce is not the primary reason to produce it.

  If both the concerto and Beethoven were destroyed at the moment of completion, it shouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference to our imagined sentient universe’s assessment of Beethoven’s worth. When Beethoven wrote the final note to the third movement, he justified his existence, and everything that happened afterwards doesn’t matter.

  Eventually, everything we do is going to be lost. Even if what we do awakens something in someone else, and in turn in someone else, that too will be eventually all be lost: Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair, etc. Time will take everything. But what it can never take from us is what we were in our best moments – moments like writing the final note to the third movement of the Emperor concerto.

  Just as a matter of interest, I don’t write in the hope of affecting other people. I write so I know what it is I am thinking (until I externalize it, I’m really not sure. And when I want to stop thinking about whatever it is I am thinking – that’s when I turn it into a book.

  I am also skeptical about the extent to which other people can benefit from the work of an artist. I’m willing to allow that it does happen, but not as often as you might think. I suspect the idea that great art inspires is a myth propounded by lovers of art in order to get money. It can inspire, but this is comparatively rare. And it can do so only for people who have already struggled with what the artist is trying to convey.


DS: When I wrote of why I write I was meaning in the larger sense. Of course, all I write gives me pleasure (if good; which most is), and that alone is reason enough to do it (as is masturbation for those with or without artistic talents- pity the spermatozoa!). However, I think that there is a benefit to be gained by thinking long term and beyond the immediate; and I don’t share your Ozymandian pessimism. While our current species is limited, I can conceive of civilizations far greater, to the point of being able to manipulate time and space, even create new habitats- designer universes- to live in. And, even as advanced as they are, I believe they, or a similar sentient crowd, will find good and worthwhile things from a Shakespeare play, a Schneider sonnet, or a Beethoven symphony. To return, I mentioned my placeholder view of life as akin to your cicada posit, but let me see if I can give a proof for it. I feel ‘greatness,’ or the ability to more deeply affect the human condition, is a random thing. When people have tried to make available the sperm or eggs of Nobel Laureates or Mensans, as example, the kids turn out to be rather average. This gibes with the fact that almost all great people, such as Pablo Picasso, Isaac Newton, Einstein, and most famously-Thomas Jefferson, have never had any forebears nor descendents come close to their achievements. And the few famed people who’ve had success run in their families- the Adamses, the Darwins, the Barrymores, have never really had any greats in their clans, or- as in the Darwin case, Erasmus was not in a league with his grandson Charles, a great man by any measure. I call this fact The Infinity Spike, meaning that the idea that a Master Race could be engineered- at least intellectually, is folly. Perhaps physical characteristics, but the chances of two Mensans or Nobel Laureates producing another Michelangelo or Akira Kurosawa are only negligibly greater than such a person coming from a plumber and a teacher. Perhaps a three or four out of fifty million chance versus a one and a half to two chance. In short, greatness spikes toward infinity out of nowhere- there is no predictable bell curve, nor progression toward excellence. What are your thoughts on this posit? And does this increase or decrease the desire for meaning to the individual?


MR: I’m inclined to agree with the idea that there is so much nurture involved in genius that it cannot be genetically engineered. And it’s not always good nurture either. Genius can often be very cruel, both in its genesis and consequences.


DS: You claim, too, that meaning or purpose comes from the quest, not the accomplishment. This is a rephrasing of the old saying that the journey is more important than the destination. However, if the destination- say, Manifest Destiny, or Lebensraum, or a Final Solution, are not worth going, does not even the journey lose meaning? And, as an artist, I also take issue with the idea that fulfillment means that purpose is forever rent. After all, art’s very purpose is its eternal renewal in each percipient, and in each time the percipient engages it. So, I think that claim is wrongheaded. Comments?


MR: I don’t remember saying this. But I’ll take you word for it that I did. I certainly don’t believe it now, for the sorts of reasons outlined in my answers to previous questions. The ideas of meaning and purpose are bound up with our temporality: the fact that we understand our lives a lines stretching from the past into an as yet undetermined future. So, as purpose, meaning is understood as something towards which we aim. Ultimately, I think, we cannot make sense of this notion of meaning.

  I, on the other hand, think that the value of life lies in certain moments when we are at our best – our highest moments, however horrible, terrifying, or hopeless they may be. So, our lives have value when we eschew the narratives we construct to explain ourselves to ourselves, and so manage to step outside the temporal story of our lives for just a moment. It usually takes something extraordinary for us to do this.


DS: The next chapter deals with The Matrix trilogy. You describe Rene Descartes’ view that when dreaming, there is never a way to be certain that the dream is a dream. You then go on to cite the dream within a dream example. Now, I’ve never had that occur, but I have had dreams where time frames from my life were mixed. Say, a woman I dated at 25 is in my high school classroom with classmates from high school and kindergarten. The kindergarteners look like children but act like adults, and they are talking with people I worked with at 35. Thus, I am certain I am dreaming because these folk never met, one or more may be dead, etc. Or, if I dream of flying I know it is a dream. Or, does not lucid dreaming disprove that claim? Or, are you saying that we could be dreamt automata with the delusion of sentience, therefore parts of a dream whose self-consciousness is an illusion? If so, does not Occam’s Razor- the idea that the simplest solution that best fits the known facts is usually the correct solution, however, fall squarely on my side, as your claim would seem far too needlessly complex?


MR: I think the dreaming point is a simple and irrefutable one. Given that there are various sorts of dreams, of various levels of coherence and consistency, then it is not possible to distinguish waking up from switching from one sort of dream to another. So, dreams of the sort you describe – where everything is confused and mixed up – would be one sort of dream. And when you, as you would say, wake up, then you merely switch form this sort of jumbled dream to another sort of dream that hangs together a lot more coherently.

  Note also that you cannot say that you know your high school classroom dream is a dream because ‘these folk never met’ because that they never met could be part of the dream. (Descartes is not refuted so easily). Similarly, the ability to fly might be one that you have in some dreams and not others. So, since it might track the distinction between two sorts of dreams, you can’t use it to distinguish dreaming from waking life.

  Finally, contrary to what you claim, the ‘it’s all a dream’ conjecture is at an advantage on grounds of Occam’s Razor All you need postulate are dreams, not two states, dreams and reality. This sort of point, suitably transformed, was used by George Berkeley in the development of his idealism (the idea that reality is ultimately a collection of ideas).

  Do I believe that everything is a dream? No. Am I justified in this denial? I’m not sure I am.


DS: Let me digress to one of the hallmarks of both modern Political Correctness and Postmodernism, the idea that all is subjective. I argue this is manifest folly, and that anyone even arguing such a point cannot believe it, for if they truly did, there would be no rationale to argue the point. Agree or not?


MR: Yes, the claim that ‘all is subjective’ is a load of crap. But is that what postmodernism is? Postmodernism in the hands of a thinker like, say, Derrida is a far more subtle and nuanced idea: (a) in any text, there are numerous contradictions by way of which the purported principal thesis of the text undermines itself, and just the opposite thesis is asserted, and (b) the world is a collection of signifiers and therefore sufficiently text-like to justify the slogan: there is nothing outside the text.

  This is still, arguably, crap – just not as crap as the position you describe. 


DS: Oftentimes I have argued with other artists who use the ‘art is truth’ canard, or the ‘all art is subjective’ nonsense that, ‘Only bad artists claim all art is subjective.’ Logically, if all is subjective, then there’s no reason doing a damned thing in this life. Yet, just as a single drop of blood would de-purify, say, the Pacific Ocean- were it wholly purely water, so does one objective fact objectify a subjective universe, for anything then can be related or parallaxed to or against it. In writing, as example, clichés are greatly numerically repeated images or groups of words that are placed together in greatly numerically repeated situations. Thus, there is nothing subjective about a manifest cliché like ‘bleeding heart.’ Only if a writer somehow subverts that, out of the context of emotional sorrow, and perhaps uses that phrase in a poem or story about someone literally stabbed or shot in the heart, might that term be annealed or wholly subverted. Do you agree or not?


MR: I agree.


DS: If we realize that objectivity has limits- real, material, or philosophic, is not that as good as no limits because we’ve ‘accepted’ the field of play, so to speak? It’s just that the field has shrunk from infinite to not quite infinite.


MR: I do not understand this question. In particular, I fail to see how ‘limits’ can be as good as ‘no limits’.

  I do, however, think objectivity has its limits. They’re just not the sort of thing we have taken them to be. First of all, how do we understand objectivity? I think the way advocated by Thomas Nagel is entirely representative.

  For Nagel, an ‘objective fact par excellence’ is ‘the kind that can be observed and understood from many points of view’. Objective facts are ones to which there exist many routes of access. It is the existence of such many and varied routes, capable of being adopted by many and varied individuals, that constitutes an item as objective.

  In short, objective items are ones to which access is generalized. Taking the concept of objectivity as primary, we then construct a concept of subjectivity based on the guiding metaphor of a route of access. Subjective phenomena are ones to which our routes of access are reduced to one: they are items to which our access is idiosyncratic.

  To think of subjective phenomena in this way is to think of them as part of a region of reality that in itself is just like any other. It differs from other regions of reality only in that its port of entry – access – is unusually small. Classically objective phenomena are things on a savannah, and can be approached from many different directions. Experiential facts are locked up in a remote canyon whose only mode of access is a narrow tunnel.

  This explanation of subjectivity is, I think, part of the pull of the idea that all reality is objective. The explanation is so ubiquitous that it is sometimes difficult to see the alternative. The alternative is that subjective phenomena are not parts of a region of reality to which our access is idiosyncratic but rather ones that belong only to the access itself. There is no region of reality to which subjective phenomena belong, or in which they find their place. They simply belong to our accessing of regions of reality that are, in themselves, perfectly objective.

  This idea underwrites the view of consciousness I develop in The Nature of Consciousness, and other writings.


DS: Is a thing real only if it is material? Are not desiderata and emotions ‘real’ then?


MR: Why do you think that desiderata and emotions are not material? And what conception of the material must you have presupposed in order to think that?  If you’re a materialist, for example, then you will say that emotions and desiderata (by which I understand you to mean desires, broadly construed?) are structures, states or processes occurring in the brain. So, they’re material because brain processes are material.

  I don’t doubt that emotions are material in at least roughly this sense. I have only one real problem with materialism: no one knows what it is for a thing to be physical. All our knowledge of things is based on tracking their external relations: that is, the relations they bear to other things. These relations will include things like causation, dependence, lawful covariance, and so on. Our problem is that we can never get beyond the relations and identify the natures or essences of things in virtue of they enter into these relations. All we ever find are more relations.

  This was something recognized as long ago as 1927, by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Recent versions of the idea have championed by Noam Chomsky and Galen Strawson, among others. I’m with Chomsky and Strawson on this.

  Some would say: that’s because relations are all there are. Reality is simply relations between things. But what drives this idea is the slide from what we can know or discover – relations – to what there really is. This is a move from what is known as epistemological claim – a claim about what we can know – to an ontological claim – a claim about what is. Scientists make this claim all the time, particularly in the more theoretical branches of science. But I am deeply suspicious of it. Actually, I think it’s manifestly false. Underlying it is something I’ll talk about later on in the interview: the idea that we are created in the image of God.


DS: What is the mind/body problem? Does it suggest that consciousness may be a process forever beyond explication, such as people like your colleague, Colin McGinn, suggest with their New Mysterianism? And what is New Mysterianism, and Old Mysterianism? Or could consciousness merely be an illusion, as philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests with his Multiple Drafts Theory of the mind?


MR: The mind-body problem has meant different things at different times. In the last couple of decades it has typically been taken to mean the problem of consciousness: the problem of understanding how consciousness is produced or constituted by the brain. We know, or strongly suspect, that the brain does it, but we can’t understand how. Those who think there is a problem here – I am one of them – emphasize that it doesn’t stem simply from technical shortcomings: that is, it’s not the sort of thing that could be rectified by upping our knowledge of the brain. Rather, the problem is that the brain simply seems to be the wrong sort of thing to do the explaining. This is reflected in your earlier assumption that emotions are not material – how could the feeling of love be explained as simply electro-chemical activity. Maybe that is what it is, but what we can’t see is how it could be this sort of thing. Seeing how is the mind-body problem (at least in its current incarnation).

  There is no Old Mysterianism. The Mysterians were apparently a band from the 1960s. Before my time – but not before Owen Flanagan’s time: the guy who used their name to describe the view that consciousness is a mystery – a view that Colin McGinn and I both share, although we do so for different reasons. Colin thinks that it is the idiosyncratic nature of our access to consciousness – quite different from our access to the brain and other obviously physical things – that makes the production of consciousness by the brain a mystery. I, on the other hand think that the problem stems from the fact that consciousness is not an object of access at all, but belongs only to the accessing of regions of reality – regions that are, in themselves, perfectly objective.

  Anyway, the label ‘new’ was apparently a way of making sure we were not confused with the 60s band, or something like that. Speaking as a mysterian, I hate the name. But it caught on – apparently philosophers like lame names.

    I disagree strongly with Dennett’s multiple drafts model, and I don’t think he achieved what his major work on this subject, Consciousness Explained, set out to do. I think it was Ned Block who quipped that the book should really have been called Consciousness Ignored. I’m with Block on this.

  As for the more general view that consciousness is an illusion, if you think this then you should follow John Searle’s advice: pinch yourself.


DS: To what do you attribute the lack of introspection in modern society? Is American or Western culture simply as shallow as many of its detractors claim? In the arts, PC and Postmodernism have certainly aided in the ‘dumbing down’ of culture.


MR: Is there a lack of introspection in modern society? I would have thought that, on the contrary, there is far too much. There is a lack of effective introspection, maybe.

  What I mean by suggesting that there is too much introspection is the modern tendency to think of what is important in life as happiness, and then to think of happiness as a feeling. So, if you want to know if your life is going well or badly, you have to turn your attention inwards and work out how you feel about certain things. So the quality of your life is judged on the basis of the feelings you encounter when you introspect.

  Happiness, I suspect, is not a way of feeling, but a way of being: the most important thing in life is not to feel a certain way but to be a certain sort of person. And the idea that happiness is a feeling is a symptom of a peculiar sort of cultural degeneration that we in the West have undergone. This, I think, connects up with your questions on postmodernism in a variety of ways. Another, related, symptom of this degeneration is the confusion of individualism – the idea that a person’s life typically goes best when he or she is allowed to choose how to live it – with subjectivism or relativism: the idea that all ways of life are equally valid. These are very different things, and neither entails the other. This confusion is, I think, almost certainly willful and lies at the core of PC.


DS: Well, I think the term introspection implies a deeper level of inquiry. I think what you seem to term as too much introspection is just gossip and neural static. Let me digress for a moment, since I mentioned Dennett. When I interviewed him, he released a good deal of bile against the late naturalist Stephen Jay Gould, a man who invoked a good deal of antipathy in the evolutionary crowd, some echoed by other interviewees in this series. Yet, Dennett himself is, generally speaking, quite a reviled figure amongst many evolutionists, brain researchers, atheists, and philosophers- people in his own fields. You, yourself, have reflected this antipathy. Is Dennett, like Gould, simply a polarizing figure, a disreputable cad, is the philosophic breach so great, or are there professional reasons (jealousies, grant preferences. etc.) such men are personally reviled by people who would seem to be natural allies?


MR: I think ‘reviled’ is a little strong. We academics get ‘het up’ about things, our little disputes that seem so important to us. But we sometimes forget that the sorts of arguments we are having are ones you can have only with people with whom you agree on so much. Often, these are the nastiest little spats, precisely because the amount of common ground makes it possible for them to run and run.

  We’ll talk about this some more when we move on to the subject of evil. I think that, to a considerable extent, the sharing of common ground opens up new vistas for nastiness. I’m not sure why this is so: perhaps because when someone shares a lot of common ground with you, when you can see how similar they are to you, then any disagreement becomes more ‘personal.’ 


DS: I mentioned a certain lack of introspection on the part of the masses, yet in interviewing Dennett he seemed almost a blank slate himself, unwilling to take on philosophic subjects beyond that he’s written of. As example, he had appeared on a tv talk show at the end of the century, as a panelist regarding the most influential folk of the last millennium. You recall how many such lists were made, no doubt. Anyway, I thought it a great way to dovetail with my interest in mass murderers and despots, since I believe Genghis Khan was overlooked on most lists, with the issue of causality and determinism. Thus, I asked this query:

  That puts me in mind of another Charlie Rose show you did, with Steven Pinker and others, at the turn of the century, on the most influential people of last century. What I found a bit galling was some of the sheer stupidity on that panel- most notably by the President of the Carnegie Institute, Maxine Singer. She equated influence with good morality- an asinine position, yet one which no one, not even you, challenged. I similarly recalled Time magazine having a most important people of the last millennium issue, and leaving off, to my mind, easily the most influential person of the last thousand years, Genghis Khan. My reasoning is that influence comes with time, so the most influential person simply could not be in the last couple of hundred years. Then, there would have to be reach over several spheres. Then, there would be the mind experiment of removing that person and seeing if he or she was merely a part of historic forces, or one of the Great Men of History. Khan fits all of these- even if he was the worst mass killer in human history, up until the 20th Century. He was born early on- the 12th Century, and he took a nomadic Gobi people, with a six thousand year history of no territorial expansion, united the Mongol tribes with the Turkic tribes, and built a nation larger in area than the old Soviet Union- all within two decades- and sans guns or any advanced war materiel. His effect on politics, the arts, religion (his was a secular state), and life was profound. Remove him and the Mongols likely go on as nomads. Then there is no check on Chinese expansionism. Khan forced the Chinese to abandon their junk explorations across the Pacific and likely to the Americas. They hibernated xenophobically as a world power for centuries. The Khanates carved out of his empire, by his descendants, helped establish the Ottoman Empire, which acted as a bulwark against Muslim expansionism into Europe. Without the Ottomans, Islam may have displaced the Papacy, forcing its withdrawal to Scandinavia and a reduced status as a regional Arctic cult. China may have expanded across the Subcontinent, Oceania, and into the Andes and the western half of the Americas, while Europe was Islamized. Moorish Spain and Imam Britain may have then settled the Americas from the east. The Cold War of the last century may not have been between Communism and Capitalism, but between Islam and Sino aggression. Yet, none of that happened because one Mongol named Temujin preferred horseback riding and conquest to life as a scavenger. To me, this omission shows the profound lack of vision many so-called leaders and experts have in their respective fields.

  First, would you agree with my ranking of Genghis Khan as numero uno in influence last eon, for despite his genocidal ruthlessness, he was an organizational genius with a mind that wanted to know seemingly everything? He was arguably also the most amazing figure in human history. If you disagree, why? And why do you think he was so ignored on such lists? Was it simple Eurocentrism? Or something more confounding?

  Dennett flippantly replied: ‘I guess I just don’t know enough about Genghis Khan to judge,’ which implied he a) had no clue that his humor was lacking, b) the question was essentially not about the Mongol warlord, c) did not care about giving a good interview nor digging a bit deeper into his mind, or d) all of the above. So, let me first ask you if such lack of intellectual engagement is a problem unique to Dennett, systemic in philosophy- which explains why even fewer people are interested in it than poetry, or simply evidence of the greater intellectual apathy of the times? Secondly, given the points I laid out in the above question, whom would you place in the top spot on such a list, and what are your views of causality and determinism?


MR: Let me address a general version of this question: how did philosophy end up where it is today? Less popular, if you are right, than poetry.

  It’s a long story but one that turns, I think, on the 17th century. This was when the idea that we are made in the image of God really took hold of philosophy. Unfortunately, this is not my idea – Edward Craig got there a long time before me. The idea that caught on in the seventeenth century was that, in some respects, our minds were similar to God’s. So, the sorts of thing God could do, we could also do a little bit. We are, as Leibniz put it, little gods. This led, by a route with which I shall not bore you, to a privileging of a certain sort of knowledge: mathematical and logico-deductive. So, philosophy came to fashion itself on the model of the mathematical sciences. This tendency later became entangled with certain well documented social forces associated with industrialization – in particular, the division of labor and the rise of the professional classes. So, philosophy became a profession rather than a passion, and the blueprint for this new profession was provided by the mathematical sciences. This new profession then devised its own methods, one’s that required a certain amount of training, and these methods eventually decisively shaped the problems philosophers came to understand themselves as dealing with.

  At least that is what I suspect happened.

  The result is that the average intelligent layperson can’t do philosophy any more. They can’t do it any more than the average athletic person who works out a few times a week can compete as a professional.  Well, they can probably get the hang of some ethics or moral philosophy pretty quickly, since that never really lent itself to modeling on the mathematical sciences. But the difficult, technical areas – philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and psychology, metaphysics, and so on – they have been thoroughly excluded from those. And why would you be interested in something from which you have, in effect, been excluded. More than that: everyone still thinks they can do philosophy. So, this makes their exclusion mystifying to them and induces resentment.

  I think you make out a good case for Genghis Khan. I seem to remember reading something recently about the about the number of people today who carry his genes. In terms of genetic success, it seems Mr. Khan is well ahead of the curve. I would have thought the Dan of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea would have appreciated that.

  Determinism is the conjunction of two claims: (i) everything that exists or occurs has a cause, (ii) causes make their effects inevitable. Both claims, when properly understood, are true. The perceived implication of this is that we can never choose, decide or act freely. That also, in my view, is true. But even if our actions, choices and decisions are not caused, they are still not free: an uncaused action, choice or decision would be random or spontaneous. It would not be free because we would have no control over it. So, either way our actions, choices and decisions are not free. This is known as the dilemma of determinism.

  The dilemma hasn’t stopped people trying to find ways in which we can be free. These attempts, in my view, all smack of desperation: the history of the debate about free will is the history of humanity’s desire for something it can’t possibly have. Indeed, in the free will case, we can’t even really understand what it is we desperately want.


DS: If illusion has all the hallmarks of reality, is it not reality? Is the mind the only ‘real’ thing in the cosmos? Is there such a thing as the cosmos beyond the mind?


MR: It depends what you mean by ‘hallmark’. If you mean it in an epistemological sense, as something we can discern, then your claim amounts to this: if we can’t tell the difference between reality and illusion then there is no difference. I strongly disagree.

  But if you mean there literally is no difference, then, of course, they are the same thing. Calling something realty and another thing illusion presupposes that there is some difference somewhere, whether or not we are capable of discovering it.

  Is there such a thing as the cosmos beyond the mind? Probably. Indeed, I’m inclined to think that things we do in and to the world can literally be components of our mental processes. So, the mind is penetrated by the world; it contains worldly entities as its constituents. This view is known as ‘vehicle externalism’ or ‘the extended mind’. I am a well known proponent of this view. We’ll talk about it later.


DS: Re: The Matrix, you speak on of self-invalidating and contradictory claims, such as someone stating that ‘I am a liar,’ or ‘We can never be certain of anything.’ What are your views of such?


MR: ‘I am a liar’ is not contradictory. ‘This sentence is false’ would be. I have no interesting views on claims like this, apart from noting their obvious contradictory character.


DS: What is the principle difference between ontology and epistemology, without simply giving a dictionary definition?


MR: Ontology is concerned with what exists. Epistemology is concerned with what we can know.

  The history of human thought is riddled with determined attempts to ignore the difference between the two. I mentioned this earlier in connection with the idea of materialism. Let’s take an example. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory uncritically slides from ‘we cannot know, simultaneously, the precise velocity and location of a lepton’ to ‘a lepton has no precise simultaneous location and velocity.’ The founding principle of modern physics seems to be: if you can’t in principle know something, then it doesn’t exist. And that’s called ‘verificationism’. Another word for it might be ‘crap’. It is a view that has been thoroughly discredited in philosophy for nearly a century. Scientists still cling to it like its gospel. Here’s another claim you see all the time: we can’t know anything about what happened before the universe began. Therefore, there was nothing before the universe began. Utter crap.


DS: Is experience itself a ‘real’ thing? Or is it the connectedness the experience brings between ‘reality’ and ‘mind,’ even if that experience is the nudging of one atom against another?


MR: Your two disjoined claims do not exclude each other. It is arguable that experiences should be understood as the connectedness between mind and reality. However, even if experiences turn out to be the ‘nudging of one atom against another’ (and what doesn’t turn out to be that in the end), why does that preclude their being real? If the atoms and the nudging are real, and that is what the experience is, then the experience is real too.

  If, in general, you doubt the reality of experience, which is one way of doubting the reality of consciousness, then I would again recommend a little remedy associated with John Searle: pinch yourself.  


DS:  I know you have claimed to not be a fan of ‘art films,’ but let me recognize a truly great film by Woody Allen- his 1988 dramatic masterpiece, Another Woman. It stars Gena Rowlands, Ian Holm, and Gene Hackman in a tale of a woman’s coming to grips with a midlife crisis. It is hauntingly poetic, and the final spoken words of the film are, ‘Is a memory a thing that you have or a thing that you’ve lost?’ In a sense, it’s both, no? But what exactly is a memory, or, even more basically, a thought? By that I mean, we understand bioelectric impulses and chemical reactions, and even some of the patterns. But how exactly does a neuron fired now evoke the scent of Aunt Martha’s apple pie on a windowsill when you were seven, and if fired in two seconds you recall the curve of an ex-girlfriend’s hip as you groped her before the junior prom? Is this another example of the New Mysterianism?


MR: Yes, this is another way of stating the problem of consciousness – because your example turns on the way things seem or feel to you when you consciously entertain a memory of something. The way things seem or feel is what is sometimes called what it is like to have an experience. This what it is like is equivalent to what people mean by consciousness as it applies to the mind-body problem.

  To reiterate: we know that the brain does it (or, I prefer, the brain-world interaction does it). But we don’t know how. More importantly, we can’t see how. Your memory of the sweep of your ex-girlfriends hip, and all the other feelings this provokes – they just seem to be the wrong sort of thing to be produced by electro-chemical activity in the grey gooey mass of the brain. But that is what they are. There’s the problem – maybe even a mystery. 


DS: You next take on The Terminator films, and detail when people give ‘negative explanations’; i.e.- describing something not by what it is but what it is not. You use the example of the mind. Is this because it’s simply easier to define something by its lack? Also, this pattern recurs in fields that deal with parapsychology or supernatural events. Is this technique simply a crutch for the dumb, gullible, or lazy?


MR: Whether it’s a crutch or not, it’s not going to get you very far. To understand anything with any sort of adequacy, you need to know what it is, and not simply what it is not (though the latter can be a useful precursor to real understanding). Part of the problem with certain theories of the mind – and I think classical dualism provides a good example – is that they seem content with simply telling us what the mind is not.


DS: In the book, you contrast dualism and materialism. Are they mutually opposing? And do their belief systems rule out synergies? As example, could consciousness be a epiphenomenal synergy brought on by rote processes in the mind- a de facto accident like the Multiple Drafts Theory suggests?


MR: What tends to happen is that both materialism and dualism can be understood in a variety of ways. So materialism and dualism are not single monolithic positions. Rather, each comprises a spectrum of positions, ranging from the psychotically strong to the distinctly wishy-washy. Once you get to the wishy-washy versions of each view, you’ll find that there’s really not much difference between them. That is, somewhere in the middle you’ll find views where it’s not really clear whether they’re materialist or dualist any more.

  Probably the default view at the moment is the combination of these claims: (i) individual mental events are identical with (i.e. one and the same thing as) physical events, (ii) mental properties supervene on physical properties, and (iii) this supervenience is explained by the fact that mental properties are functional properties (that is, they are defined by what they do). Emergence is one way of understanding supervenience. This is a materialist view, though not sufficiently sanguine for some tastes. The supervenience or emergence of mental properties no more makes them non-physical than the supervenience or emergence of life on more basic properties (respiration, reproduction, etc) makes it non-physical. Or so the argument goes.

  Now, if we could just work out how to understand the intrinsic natures of physical things we would be sitting pretty …


DS: In the next chapter you take on two more Arnold Schwarzenegger films- Total Recall and The Sixth Day. You humorously refer to Arnie and director Paul Verhoeven as philosophical giants, but many of their films are based upon the writings of Philip K. Dick. I read his Selected Stories, and was not impressed with his technical skill; it was quite poor, trite, and predictable. All the tales were basically a good idea, and that was it. The films dramatically improved on the tales Dick wrote. Have you read Dick’s prose, and, if so, do you agree that he is one of the rarities- a writer whose ideas come out better in the film versions than the written tales?


MR: I agree completely. His writing is dire. I struggled through Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the story on which Blade Runner was based), and vowed never to read anything of his again.


DS: Are memories, essentially, the sum of a life? If so, if one deliberately or, by dint of time’s passage, has memories that change, does that change the life? Or, would that be dependent upon whether or not there is free will? If there is free will, then there is no predetermination, and the past is as open to interpretation as the future. If there is predetermination, then all is fixed, and even if someone loses their memories to Alzheimer’s Disease, it does not essentially change their life nor person, correct?


MR: Even if you think memories are the essence of a person – some do – it does not follow from the fact that they change that the person changes – at least not in the sense of becoming a new person. There are two sorts of change – and this distinction goes back to Aristotle – between essential and accidental change. An essential change is one that is serious enough to end the existence of the thing that changes. An accidental change is one that does not.

  So, the memories that make up a person could ‘flow’ through a body or brain, like the water molecules that makes up a river flow through the river. The change in water molecules does not end the existence of the river; quite the contrary. Similarly, the changes of memories in a body need not end the existence of the person who exists in that body.

  Typically, when we talk of a person changing we ignore or slide over the difference between essential and accidental change. We say things like, ‘She’s a completely different person’. Then, sometimes, we fail to understand what it is we mean by this. She is not a different person in the sense that the person she was has died and been replaced. What we mean is that one and the same person has changed in some or other significant way.


DS: I know you’ve written other books about television, but I don’t know how familiar you are with the Star Trek canon. One of the spinoff series was called Deep Space 9, about a space station, which sort of made the Trek portion of the title a bit silly. Nonetheless, it was not as bad a spinoff as often thought, and had a number of interesting characters that could evoke philosophic conundra- local aliens-cum-gods, a shapeshifter species, and a species of humanoids that were hosts for worm-like entities that brought its collective memories, as well as those of previous hosts to the new host. The character on the show was called Jadzia Dax. The Jadzia part was played by a beautiful actress named Terry Farrell, and the Dax part was the immortal worm. My query then is, is one or the other parts of the symbiont creature immortal, or are both, as well as the former dead hosts, since their memories are retained, as well?


MR: This is a question of fusion: does it make sense to suppose that two different people can fuse and become one. According to the memory theory, since memories are retained, both people survive. (I’m assuming the worm has memories?) However, if we suppose that Jadzia Dax is only one person – as opposed to two people in the same body – then one person can’t be identical with two. So, what we have is a case of survival without identity: two people survive, but neither is identical with the resulting fusion. This – it’s a view associated with the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit – strikes me as the correct way of viewing the situation.


DS: If you are familiar with UFO lore, you know that many people who claim to be abductees of extraterrestrial sexual experimenters only recall their traumas long after the fact. This is akin to the now verified False Memory Syndrome that has exculpated false claims of sexual abuse rings, Satanic torture, and a myriad of other bizarre claims. You must know of the work of the late psychiatrist John Mack, and his work with claimed alien abductees. He grew to believe in the mythos. So, if memories can change, is the past in any way mutable? And, is the past safer than the present or the future because we know how it turned out?


MR: I’m familiar neither with UFO lore nor the work of John Mack. But the fact that memories can change does not, to me, in any way suggest that the past is mutable. Why not simply say that memories that were once inaccurate are now accurate? Or memories that were once accurate are now inaccurate? Or memories which were once inaccurate are still inaccurate, just in a different way. This goes back to the distinction between ontological and epistemological issues. The past (ontological) is one thing; our memories of that past (epistemological) are quite another.

  Some people will disagree with that, but I can’t see any reason for not accepting it. It is only if you fail to distinguish ontological and epistemological issues that you will think there is an issue about the mutability of the past here.


DS: You seem to accept the idea that while there is a river of selves, as you call life, it is not the changing of individual parts that matters, but the holding together of the same pattern. But, even that is subject to change because, while the same pattern of me is similar at my future (hopefully) 75 year old self to my 25 year old self, it is different. Thus, the patterns we flesh out, in life or memory, are the essential self, no? Life is then a pattern of changing parts. No?


MR: Yes, that seems right. I suspect you are using ‘pattern’ in a different way than I was. I was using it in a way that subsumed changes of the sort you are talking about.  What is crucial is that the changing patterns – in your sense – are causally connected to each other in the rights sorts of ways.


DS: Your river of selves analogy reminds me of my 86 year old mother. To me, she is a shell of her former self in so many ways, yet my wife has a hard time believing she was anything but the frail, deluded shell she now is. Almost a decade ago she had a major attack, after 61 years of smoking, and she went from being in far better shape than most people her age to basically just waiting for death to call. Is one or the other version of my mother more ‘essential’? Or are all of them the ‘same,’ in the sense that they are all hers?


MR: According to the river of selves idea – an idea associated with Parfit – there is no single person that inhabits our body through our lives. Instead, each one of us is a succession of people, each person a survivor of the one who went before. It is a strange idea, but one for which good reasons can be given. So, even when we are, as we might say, a ‘shell’ of our former selves, we still exist as a person, and that person, if not identical with our former self, is still a survivor of that self. So you, for example, are a survivor of your twenty-year old self, and a much closer survivor of the you that existed yesterday. We have to distinguish the issue of survival, on the one hand, from the issue of the health of the survivor on the other. It is only in some circumstances that their health becomes so bad that the issue of survival is brought into question (this goes back to the distinction between accidental and essential changes we encountered earlier).

  All of these selves are, if Parfit is correct, distinct. Therefore, the question of which is more essential to you becomes moot – there is no persisting you in relation to which the question can even be raised.

  The same applies to the issue of whether the selves can all be ‘hers’. Who is the ‘her’ in relation to which this question is raised?


DS: It seems that a better title for this theory might be the ‘Ecdysis Theory’: i.e.- that the self is constantly molted (like the shells of crustaceans or the skins of snakes) to a newer self. In the Total Recall example, you use the terms numerical and qualitative selves to describe the two aspects of the same character Schwarzenegger portrays. Explain that.


MR: Qualitative identity basically means exact similarity. Two ‘identical’ twins are qualitatively identical. Numerical identity means you are talking about one and the same object. This laptop on which I am composing this answer is one and the same laptop as the one on which I composed the answer to the previous question. It is not just exactly similar to the laptop on which I composed the previous answer; it is one and the same thing.


DS: But, are not Hauser (the bad Arnie) and Quaid (the good Arnie) merely aspects of the same person? If not, are you suggesting that schizophrenics and Multiple Personality Disorder sufferers are literally different persons when in their worst ways? I mean, there is not even general consonance that MPDs even truly exist, for psychiatrists are known to be gullible.


MR: Well, first of all, if MPDs don’t exist, you can hardly use them as an objection to my argument.

  But even if they do, they do not count as a counterexample. We have to clearly distinguished personalities from persons. To say that there are different personalities does not entail that there are different persons. In, as far as I know, every case of MPD, there is causal connectedness between the personalities. For example, there is typically one dominant personality that is aware of what is going on in the others. Once you have that this causal connectedness, you are dealing with only one person, not multiple persons – for causal connectedness is precisely how the memory theory understands identity. So, in almost all cases of MPD, the different personalities do not add up to different persons.

  It would only be in extraordinarily rare circumstances of complete isolation of one personality from another that we would have to say there are different persons involved. But in those circumstances I think we would be right to say this.

  In the case of Quaid and Hauser, we have arguably the right sort of causal isolation to justify the claim that they are different persons, and not merely different personalities. The contents of each of their minds are completely closed off from the other person.


DS: Interesting distinction. In The Sixth Day example, you write of there being two Adam Gibsons (the cloned Schwarzenegger character), but they are not the same character since their river of self bifurcated the moment they saw things from differing points of view, literally. No?


MR: That’s right – at least if the memory-based account of persons is correct.


DS: Let me step back and take on a concept from another popular film, Groundhog Day. It’s not sci fi, but I’m sure you’re familiar with its multiple universes idea. Basically, Bill Murray wakes up to the same day until he becomes almost immortal, and does not get out of the Möbius Strip until he grows as a person. However, would any multiple universe/many worlds scenario, such as each conscious decision forever branching off a universe from its predecessor, mean that a concept as fate exists, for Friedrich Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence would hold sway?


MR: As far as I can see, there is no intrinsic connection between the many worlds scenario and eternal recurrence. Eternal recurrence is supposed to be eternal recurrence of the same – which doesn’t fit too well with there being many worlds.

  But anyway, Nietzsche intended the idea of eternal recurrence as a sort of existential test rather than a claim about the nature of the universe.

  As for fate, you would have to reinterpret the concept as a sort of disjunctive summation over all possible worlds. 


DS: Is there a difference between a likely fate, and pure (or real) fate? And what exactly is the difference between destiny and odds that something will occur? In short, is all destiny 100% certain, at least if we even accept such a concept?


MR: Yes, the difference goes back to that between epistemological and ontological concerns. Likely fate is an epistemological idea: it means the situation that, as far as you can see or work out, is most likely to happen. Real fate is the way things actually turn out – and this is an ontological matter.

  Another way of putting this is to say that certainty is not the same thing as inevitability. If you believe determinism – the idea I introduced earlier – then you should also logically believe that whatever the future holds is inevitable. This is not to say that it is certain: that is an epistemological concept that pertains to what we can know of the future, and not an ontological concept pertaining to how the future is actually going to be.


DS: Do you believe that time exists? Or is life/existence, merely a film, a series of 3D holographic movie frames/photos that we (our souls/spirits) sort of roller coaster through? If so, then are we speaking of dualism? My first question may seem silly, but there are physicists who seriously claim time is an illusion.


MR: Yes, I’m really not sure what to think about time. One thing I am pretty sure of is that if time does exist, no one has the faintest idea what it is – or even how to begin thinking about it. When we try, all we ever come up with are spatial metaphors: time is an arrow, a river, a ship sailing from the past into the future, and so on. When scientists sometimes claim that time is increasing entropy they seem blithely unaware of the distinction between an accompaniment to something and what that thing actually is.


DS: If time and existence are somehow preset, and we can only roller coaster through a certain path, that means any life is immutable, and some believe that all things are forever fixed- i.e.- that if at 7:25 pm tonight I will be eating a certain flavor of yogurt from a cup, I have always eaten that same flavor yogurt (in fact the very same yogurt, in all respects), I will always eat it, and am always eating it. Time, if an illusion, means that there is only one superstructure whose passage we traverse gives the illusion of time. Some also believe that different entities/souls/consciousnesses can traverse the same pathways, so that ‘I’ am not really a separate entity, but more a program that limitless souls can experience, or ‘transexperience.’ The now is then, in some fashion, an eternal now- all is forever, infinitely experienced by infinite souls. What is your take on that thesis- a sort of reworking of Eternal Recurrence, held by some extreme New Age beliefs? Personally, I think it’s a pop cultural dumbing down and bastardization of currently known physics.


MR: I agree with you. Sounds like a load of hippie shite to me.


DS: In the next chapter, on Minority Report, you mention the Libet and Kornhuber experiments. What exactly were they, and how do they relate to the film and the idea of free will?


MR: You are attached to a device that measure electrical activity in your finger. You are told to move your finger whenever you feel like it, but to record the time at which you decide to move it. The Libet/Kornhuber experiments seem to show that the electrical activity responsible for your finger moving starts building up before you make the decision. The implication seems to be that your decision plays no role in causing your finger to move. Your decision is, as some people call it, epiphenomenal. This, according to some, casts doubt on the idea that we are free to choose and act.


DS: While no expert on the experiments, as a layman they do not convince me because a) the electrical buildup that occurs in the brain before a seemingly spontaneous action has never been shown to have a direct correlation to the action- i.e.- begging the New Mysterianism of Colin McGinn, and b) there seems to be the acceptance that certain activities can only occur at certain places of the brain and in certain sequences, which utterly rents what is now known about the far greater plasticity of the brain. Comments?


MR: I agree that the experiments are open to a variety of interpretations, and so cannot be regarded as conclusive.

  However, you seem to have misunderstood mysterianism. It does not deny the existence of correlations between brain processes and conscious episodes. On the contrary, it insists on them. Without that there could scarcely be a mystery about how the brain does it, because we would have little reason for thinking that the brain, in fact does do it. A mysterian like McGinn would claim that correlations don’t add up to explanations.

  The brain’s plasticity is not relevant here. That is fundamentally a diachronic phenomenon, pertaining to how the brain can change over time – for example, how, after serious injury, different areas of the brain can take over the functions that used to be performed by the damaged area. What we are concerned with in these experiments is a synchronic phenomenon: how neurons actually do what they do now, at this time, and their relation to states of conscious deliberation.  


DS: And what exactly is free will? It certainly cannot be limitless choices, but the ability to select from more than one choice. After all, I can choose to fly under my own arm power, but that does not make it so. So why do so many people grossly misunderstand the concept?


MR: The ability to choose between available alternatives seems to be a reasonable way of understanding the sort of thing people want when they want free will. But they don’t want their choice of an alternative to be compelled by something over which they have no control. The problem is that your choice of one alternative over another will either have a cause that makes it inevitable, and so is not free; or it will not have a cause, in which case it is random but still not free. Or will have a cause that influences it, but does not make it inevitable – in which case it is partly inevitable and partly random, but still not free.

  Do many people grossly misunderstand the concept?


DS: Read more blogs- especially political, and your last question will induce only a chuckle. On a tangent, why can’t folk think for themselves? Why do they buy into religions and philosophies and -isms?


MR: Who are these ‘folk’ who can’t think for themselves? I think some, not all, folk clearly can think for themselves. But thinking has to be encouraged for one simple reason: it hurts. Thinking is hard. And the harder you have to think, the more deeply unpleasant it is. Personally, I like to do all my thinking in private, where I can keep the pain to myself.

  It is far easier, and so far more pleasant, to abrogate responsibility for working out things for yourself – which presumably is where the ‘isms’ come in.


DS: This chapter also deals with cause and effect. Because one can trace an action back to a cause does not mean its end result is fixed, right? That’s a fallacy. Let me illustrate this. Some years back, my wife and I were vacationing in Duluth, Minnesota, and we were walking along a long metal pier, at the Lake Superior edge, that had rivets bolted against its handrail. After walking to the far end we turned back and on the left hand side we saw this seagull that did not move a muscle. We walked past it, and my wife, Jessica, claimed it was a statue, while I said it was real. We did not even see it blink. About 25 feet past it, our disagreement turned into an argument requiring proof. So, I saw a pebble the size of a quarter, and picked it up. I told her I would roll it down the 25 feet of the railing at the bird, and the sound of the rock on metal would scare the gull into flight. I gave it a half-hearted toss, but the pebble or metal was much more bouncy than I thought. It bounced high a few times, then hit a rivet a few feet before the gull. This changed the trajectory of the pebble. It ricocheted directly into the temple of the gull, who still had not moved a muscle. Now brained, the bird literally fell to its side, and off the pier into the water, dead as a lead weight. We were both shocked that I was proved so dramatically right. The bird was spread-eagled, face down in the water. I had not tossed the pebble hard, not aimed for the bird, but it was dead. If I had thrown the pebble directly at the bird a thousand times I could not have killed it, much less hit it. Within a minute or two, a swarm of gulls gathered overhead, and fearing a Hitchcockian attack, we retreated. Later, at the Duluth Zoo, I paid penance for my accidental kill by contributing to a fund to buy a polar bear a new rubber ball. Nonetheless, the death of the gull was never certain, even after the pebble’s course changed hitting the last rivet. And there was no way, as stated, that I could ever likely repeat such a freak occurrence. Does my anecdote prove the fallacy?


MR: If you buy into the determinism I introduced earlier – and personally I do – then you believe (a) everything that exists has a total cause, and (b) total causes make their effects inevitable. If this is correct, then the unfortunate incident with the poor seagull was inevitable. It was inevitable, given the way the rock was thrown that it would it hit the rivet in the way that it did. It was inevitable that you would throw it in the way that would make it hit the rivet in this way. It was inevitable would make recompense by buying a rubber ball for a polar bear at Duluth Zoo, and so on. Of course, you could probably never repeat this again if you kept trying for the rest of your life. But the impossibility of replication does not in any way undermine inevitability: it just means that the precise pattern of causes needed is almost impossible to reproduce.


DS: But it was a damned dumb seagull, nonetheless. A random cause is not a necessity, is it?


MR: I don’t know what you mean by ‘random cause’. But in the usual sense of the word cause, I don’t think there are random causes. What would that be? A cause that has no cause? That’s how the medieval philosophers used to think of God. But God was a necessary being. So, the only thing that could be a random cause would, in fact, be a necessity, it seems. If you believe in random causes that is …


DS: Does not the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God mandate predestination and the illusion of free will? After all, that God, if all knowing, would know all things at all times forever. So, free will obviates the Christian concept of God, right?


MR: Interesting question. But we must be careful not to confuse pre-destination and determinism. Also, bear in mind the distinction between ontological and epistemological issues that we have encountered several times already.

  First of all, determinism is the idea that everything is caused and causes make their effects inevitable. So, here we have determination running from the past to the future. Given the past is the way it is, things couldn’t turn out any other way than they are right now. But pre-destination is the idea that that the future is inevitable, whatever you do. So, pre-destination is compatible with the idea that there are several courses of action that could freely choose right now – it just so happens that whatever you do the future is going to be the same anyway. Determinism, on the other hand, is not compatible with there being genuinely different alternatives available to you now. Whatever you choose, it was inevitable that you choose it.

  So, this is how to make an omniscient God compatible with free will – if you’re into that sort of thing. Since God knows the future, and God is infallible, then the future is pre-destined. But this is compatible with there being several alternative courses of action open to you now, alternatives that, if God gave you free will, you can freely choose between. It won’t make the slightest difference in the long run, of course. But given the difference between determinism and pre-destination, it makes sense to claim that you can choose freely here. Choosing freely but ultimately ineffectually is different than not choosing freely at all.

  Moreover, the fact that God knows how you are going to choose (epistemological claim) does not preclude the fact that you are free to choose (ontological claim).

  So, I don’t think God’s omniscience and human freedom are logically incompatible. Too bad neither of them exists (probably).


DS: I still don’t buy it. I think the epistemological claim makes the ontological one an illusion. You also differentiate between determinism and predestination. Determinism is a fixed result based on the past, and predestination a fixed result in the future, with no bearing on what you do now or did in the past. But, is not that just a minor cavil? Are not both destroyed by chaos theory? If a random pop of an elemental particle can make me go left or right, are we confusing material cause with immaterial influence? And, does determinism ascribe meaning to actions that lack matter and meaning?


MR: See the previous answer for the difference between determinism and pre-destination. Chaos theory is actually not incompatible with determinism (nor pre-destination for that matter) because – you’ve guessed it – chaos theory has epistemological preoccupations – specifically, the limits of our knowledge with respect to changes in systems that are both extensive and extremely sensitive to perturbations. Both determinism and pre-destination are ontological claims. And you can’t derive ontological conclusions from epistemological premises – not without a lot of further argument.


DS: In the case of succeeding generations of pedophiles having their miscreant actions breed another generation of pedophiles, does not the issue of influence and cause come under logical assault? After all, a pedophile may claim his being abused influenced his becoming an abuser, but that’s not a cause- the conscious decision to abuse still exists, therefore prior abuse does not cause future abuse, it’s merely a possible influence. And, does the lack of recognizing this difference explain why so many view psychiatry with such disdain, as being a vehicle for excusemaking?


MR:  People often appeal to the distinction between cause and influence. But, at least applied to the issue of free will, the distinction doesn’t really help very much.

  First of all, let’s get clear on the distinction between a complete or total cause and a partial cause. Suppose, someone says: the spark caused the explosion. That’s obviously a partial cause: for the explosion to occur there would have to be present flammable gases, oxygen, and so on. So, you add together all these things required for the explosion to occur and you have the complete or total cause.

  Determinism is the claim that (a) everything that occurs has a complete or total cause, and (b) complete cause make their effects inevitable.

  Now, one way of understanding the idea of an influence is as a partial cause. In this sense, the spark influenced the explosion. That’s fair enough. But it won’t help with the issue of free will because in addition to a partial cause there has, if determinism is right to be a total cause. And this makes its effect inevitable. So, I am deeply skeptical when someone insists on distinguishing cause and influence, and thinking that this somehow safeguards our freedom. It doesn’t help at all.

  Do many view psychiatry with disdain? I wouldn’t know.  But it is worth noting that even if there is no free will, this does not in any way undermine our practices of blame and punishment. These would have to continue because they provide crucial additional causes that shape the behavior of people who would otherwise transgress. In other words, if you are a determinist, the primary purpose of punishment is not retribution but deterrence. And don’t give me that crap about punishment not providing a deterrent. It may not do with some people, but it does with most. So, my view on the issue of punishment is basically this: (a) no one can be held responsible for what they do, and (b) this doesn’t matter.


DS: Are we our own ultimate influence? That is to say, is not our free will the ultimate- if not artificer, of our lives, then the ultimate reactor? Is influence a subtler agent on decision-making than prior shared commonalities?


MR: What sort of thing would ‘we’ have to be in order to be our own ultimate influence? This sounds like the view known as agent causation theory, according to which my actions, choices and decisions are free when they are caused by, or otherwise emanate from me. This is a version of the image of God doctrine. I am a sort of unmoved mover; a first cause: something which causes but is not in turn caused. This is an example of the lengths to which supposedly intelligent people in order to underwrite something that only their vanity assures them they must have. The ultimate culprit is the assumption that we are created in the image of God.

  This idea, which we have discussed at the level of the individual, also has an analogue at the level of the species. There, it translates as the idea that humans, alone among all other species, are in control of their own destiny. This idea is responsible for most utopian political thinking. And pretty much all contemporary political thinking – whether neo-liberal or Marxist – is utopian. John Gray is very good on this stuff.


DS: One of the stereotypes of philosophers is that they tend to see things very black and white, while another is the exact opposite; that they get bogged down in filigrees of minutia with no relevance to the real world. Are either correct, both, or neither?


MR: I’m not aware of the first stereotype. But I do think humans in general, not just philosophers, have a pronounced tendency to overestimate what they know. Scientists no less than religious zealots can see the world in black and white terms. It would be surprising if philosophers alone avoided this – though they should know better (unless of course, reality, in fact, is, in this instance, black or white). As for the second, it is difficult to disagree that this happens. Sometimes it is justifiable (reality can be positively slippery). Sometimes it is not.


DS: I once argued with a female philosopher of the Capital F Feminist bent who claimed rape and sex were the same thing. Despite the definitional differences she perdured, even as I argued that akin to equating a spanking with child abuse. Yes, to an alien eye they may be similar, but motive and degree come into play. To what degree do such distinctions often ball up a philosopher’s theory of something?


MR: A notable feature of humans – indeed, perhaps our most notable feature – is that we can get ourselves to believe all sorts of shit no matter what the logical flaws in it or the evidence against it. We find it so easy to get ourselves in the ‘grip’ of a theory, and then massage the evidence to fit.

  Aristotle is supposed to have defined us as ‘rational animals’ (actually, as far as I know, he didn’t say this). I think ‘credulous animals’ would be more accurate. 


DS: What is the difference between a root cause and a fixed cause? An external cause and a material cause? A proximate and essential cause?


MR: I am unfamiliar with this terminology and so cannot answer this question. The oppositions you have described don’t match up to ones with which I am familiar (external is typically opposed to internal; proximal is opposed to distal, etc).

DS: What of multiple causes? Much of your ideas in the book, and often much philosophy, deals with a singular cause rather than multiple and/or dependent ones. As example, homosexual researchers have ruled out, in the last decade, both a gay brain and a gay gene, and seem loath to accept the growing reality that there are likely multiple causes for homosexuality, and that if you were somehow to determine why a thousand gays were gay you’d get, at minimum, a few dozen reasons and/or combinations of causes (be it a weak daddy or a love of nylons). Do you agree with my overarching claim, and the specific claim re: the provenance of homosexuality?


MR: To the extent I focused on single causes in the book this was just for ease of exposition. Precisely the same problems arise no matter how many causes you throw into the mix. So, we can construct vast systems of interacting causes, diverging causal chains, and so on – but precisely the same issue arises in connection with free will: do the causes (single or multiple) make their effects inevitable? If they do, where is the freedom as opposed to the inevitability? And if they don’t, where is the freedom as opposed to the randomness.

  Re. homosexuality, I’m no expert but agree that the causes are often likely to be multiple.


DS: Hollow Man is the central film for the next chapter. It was a really bad remake of The Invisible Man, with Kevin Bacon (he of the Six Degrees game) and the lovely Elisabeth Shue (although even she could not save the film). What did you think of that film? And, of all the films the book mentions, which do you think were the best and worst, if you could rank them in declining order of quality? And, a few comments on why, be they personal, philosophic, or cinematic/artistic reasons.


MR: From best to worst (i.e my favorite to least favorite): The Matrix, Total Recall, Blade Runner, Terminator, Alien(s), Star Wars, Minority Report, Sixth Day, Frankenstein, Independence Day, Hollow Man.

  That is in terms of how enjoyable they were for me to watch, not their philosophical content. If we were going with the latter ranking system, then Total Recall and Sixth Day would join The Matrix at the top. Star Wars would be at the bottom.

  Also, note that Frankenstein is so low because I focused on the dire Kenneth Branagh version.


DS: This chapter’s central query is why be moral? It put me in line of the true ultimate question, and one which is likely impossible to ever answer. I don’t know if you are familiar with the truly great and classic U.K. television show, from 1967, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan? It’s about a spy who resigns his post, and then is kidnapped and existentially tortured through seventeen episodes. In one episode, The General, the Prisoner (McGoohan), called nothing but No. 6, defeats the supercomputer (one of those room-sized behemoths ala Colossus: The Forbin Project) of his captors, called The General, by causing it to overload. He does so by asking it simply, why? Is that truly the ultimate question?


MR: I am familiar with the series. But ‘Why?’ is not the ultimate question. Nor, by itself, is it a question at all. It is not a question any more than ‘This’, taken on its own, out of context, and with no accompanying demonstrative gesture, is a sentence

  There is an urban legend I hear from time to time. A philosophy professor puts ‘Why?’ on the exam paper, and the student who gets full marks answers ‘Because!’ Like all good urban legends, the people I hear this from tell me the story as if they vaguely know the person or professor in question; or were even in the class. But it is, of course, bullshit.

  In general, people enjoy lying.


DS: And, if why? is the ultimate query, what is the ultimate answer? Is it why not? Is it because! Or is that just super-simplistic philosophic bullshit that someone is better off simply saying so? to? And is so? the best and/or safest reply to any philosophic query?


MR: Please see above response.


DS: Well, grammatically I agree about ‘why?’ Of course, the unspoken portion of the question is ‘life’ or ‘existence,’ meaning why anything and not nothing? I wrote a sonnet called You Are All Desire, in which I speak of how people conflate needs and desires, and how there are only a few true human needs. Why do so many fall into that error?


MR: I suspect it is because many of us are so materially comfortable, and our basic needs so effortlessly and completely met, that we forget them and what they are.


DS: Good point. The people in Darfur would likely not understand the very basis of my poem’s query. You also claim that morality is consistent while immorality is not. Putting aside the differences between morals and ethics, I think this is demonstrably wrong. Immorality is more consistent- thus why a psychopath can breeze through a polygraph test. Also, I knew and testified against a pedophile and suspected serial killer a couple of decades ago, who had been engaging in his activities from the time he was released from the military after the Korean War. He got away with his misdeeds because he had a brother cop who shielded him. Yet, he was predictable and consistent. Criminology is dependent upon the patterns that evil (and its doers) leaves. On a lesser scale, if you always break your promises, you are consistent. Explain why you differ.


MR: I was expressing Kant’s view (a view with which I don’t actually agree).

  But your objection seems to misunderstand what Kant meant by ‘consistency’. Consistency means being capable of being adopted by everyone. So, it is not the sort of thing that can be applied to a single individual – such as your pedophile.

  So, with regard to breaking promises, Kant’s argument looks something like this: if everyone breaks promises whenever it suits them, then promises become worthless. The rational answer to any promise would be: yeah, right! So, if promises are worthless, there’s no point making them (since no one would believe them). So no promises would be made. But if no promises are made, then no promises can be broken. Therefore, the policy of breaking promises if adopted by everyone would be self-undermining.

  The crucial phrase is ‘if adopted by everyone’. That is what Kant means by consistency, or being consistently adopted. So, your example of the predictable pedophile misses the point.

  I’m not sure what you mean by distinguishing morals from ethics. This distinction is not made in the profession in which I work.


DS: As mentioned, your job title at the University of Miami is Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy. Do you view religious morality (that imposed from without) as different from secular ethics (that immanent), which is based on deeper, common human values? And where do ethics fit on this spectrum? After all, some moralities justify the killing of infidels, but no ethics do.


MR: Ah, so this is what the distinction between morality and ethics amounts to? If so, I don’t accept it, and I don’t think it works.

  In particular, the distinction between immanent and being imposed from without won’t work. In what sense is secular ethics immanent – the secular ethics that is bound up with laws, moral rules, social conventions, and more subtle social mores? All of these are external to the subject as this is normally understood, and not immanent. They are certainly as external as any religious text.

  Re. the killing of infidels, the problem seems to be with the word ‘infidel; which expresses a religious concept, and therefore not the sort of thing generally covered in a secular ethics. But there are, of course, analogues in secular ethics: the Nazis had no problem with the killing Jews, Gypsies, and so on.


DS: By ‘immanent’ I meant as much a part of the fiber of the human mind/consciousness as a big toe is part of the physical structure of the human foot. Let me now give you two examples of ethics, one a recent and mild example, and the other a more distant, but deeper, one. In a recent DSI I did with a writer, I was confronted with the most belligerent and bizarre responses possible. There were clearly issues of self-confidence and personal rage, and possibly deeper psycho-emotional issues, present. I work very hard on these interviews, research my interviewees well, and try to tailor some questions specifically toward things the writers and their works elucidate, and in other questions I ask broader queries to try to build a contrast of viewpoints by different writers on similar subjects because these interviews are, indeed, a series, whose parallax of answers will be invaluable. I try to prod interviewees to think, so that readers will be rewarded and seek out the works referenced within. But, this interviewee clearly had his own agenda. Now, aside from a mix of disappointment and laughing at how silly some of his answers were, I wrestled with the question of whether to post the interview at all. On the one hand, I might be seen as taking advantage of someone who had ‘lost it,’ like someone taking advantage of a retard or midget. On the other hand, I work damned hard, and it’s probably a good thing to show that not all interviewees are nice and gracious people, that talent in one area of life does not mean a person can not be a plain old ‘asshole.’ So, I posted the interview because of the latter reason- and the long term benefit to future readers, and I did have written and verbal consent to do so from the interviewee; but there is a small part of me that wishes that he just had not even wasted my time. Do you think such a decision was ethically ok, or was I just being a worrywart? If someone acts like an ass and wants it made public, fuck’im!


MR: Seems like a no-brainer to me. I agree with your conclusion. He had no problem with the posting, and you decided that, all things considered, it would be a beneficial thing to do. So, I don’t see the problem. It seems to me that you were trying to protect him from himself – which, in my experience, is never an advisable (or ultimately even a possible) thing to do.

  But if you’ll now excuse me, I’m going to go back and check all my earlier responses to make sure I haven’t been an asshole. It happens, you know. 


DS: Now to the more complex ethical issue, and one which, in a year or three I hope to write a play about (part of an Evil Trilogy). I mentioned a pedophile and suspected serial killer I knew some decades ago. In the course of my job I found the man with little boys (details are no matter). Many homeless children, near where I worked and the pedophile lived, had been disappearing for months prior. I turned the pedophile in to the local New York City cops, who turned him over to the pedophilia squad. Released on bail, he attacked an older woman at my place of employment. She pressed charges and we went to trial. But, before we even got started, the pedophile’s New York cop brother, burst into the courtroom with a document from a psychiatrist claiming that the pedophile was not fit to stand trial, and the judge dismissed the case of attacking the woman out of hand. More children disappeared, and the boy I found the pedophile with, when he turned 18, moved in with the pedophile and moved to a different, even poorer neighborhood, where more kids started disappearing. These were, naturally, unaccounted for homeless children. Now, the crux of the matter is that some months before I discovered the pedophile with the kid, and he attacked the woman, I had seen him picking up homeless boys on a street corner. I had, even then, suspected him of the disappearances. But, there was a local drug dealer that I had been following, because he was involved with a girl I cared for (yes, I had a definite and foolish White Knight Syndrome in my youth), and I wanted to prove his drug dealing to her (although, even then, part of me realized she already knew- which she admitted to me later, and nothing would have altered her perception of him then). I had been waiting across the street from this bar he went to before he went to make his scores, hiding behind a dumpster. It was 2 or 3 am in the morning, and, while waiting for the drug dealer, I saw and heard the pedophile on the street corner, under a streetlamp, and saw the pedophile give the kid a key to his apartment, to go and wait for him. That was the last anyone ever saw of the kid. But, right by the dumpster was a four foot or so long 2 x 4 board with a huge rusty nail sticking out of its end. There was no one around, and it was pitch black. I could have, with ease, snuck up behind the ped, whacked him to death, and torn open his carotid artery. He would have been unconscious and bled to death in a minute or two. But, I was so fixed on proving the drug dealer up to no good, to win the affections of the girl, that I said and did nothing. Now, all these years later, I still get twinges of regret. Was I acting morally or ethically in refraining from killing the bastard? Was I chickenshit in not doing it? Was I scared of retribution, justice, or trying to avoid some odd form of guilt? Was I just concerned with my own soap opera involving the girl and the drug dealer? Naturally, I have thought about that kid that night, and the other kids that later disappeared. So, my query is, would that killing (technically murder) have been justified for retributing the killings he likely got away with for decades, and for preventing the future murders I’m certain, but cannot prove, the pedophile committed? So, is murder ever a) justified, and b) the ethical option? Consequently, can acting ‘ethically’ ever be, in a larger context, ‘unethical’? And, finally, if I ever write the play, do you think I could ever get it produced on Broadway? And, why is so little in the arts today directed at dealing with such deep and powerful issues as this?


MR: Interesting. As I understand things, you are worried whether you are justified in not committing a murder – which is certainly an original take on things. So: are you chickenshit for not unlawfully killing someone?

  I really don’t think so. First of all, you are not going to get me to say in a public forum such as this that murder is sometimes OK. The next thing I know, somebody would be using what I, a Professor of Moral Philosophy (sic), said as a defense in court. And if anyone were ever to act on what I said, and commit a murder that they otherwise wouldn’t have committed, I would have blood on my hands. In other words, I would only ever say it if I thought no one would take me seriously, and what is the point in saying something like that?

  In classes on moral philosophy, you sometimes get this old chestnut. Suppose you had the chance to assassinate Hitler before the Second World War. Would you do it? Should you do it? The force of this example, I think, stems from its retrospective character. We now know exactly what Hitler was going to go on and do. In ordinary life, we do not know what is gong to happen. No matter how much we suspect, or think we know, we can’t really be sure. That is why the sort of case you describe is different from a scenario where the guy was about to shoot someone, and the only way of stopping him was by way of a head shot. There, the corridor of uncertainty is significantly reduced. And that’s why we would probably judge this action to be permissible. In the case you describe, however, I think there is too much uncertainty, both in the course of future events and in the possibility of other less ‘prejudicial’ avenues for stopping him.

  I don’t know if I’m getting old, but I suspect that society is a lot less stable than we sometimes think. Therefore, I’m going to have to go with the rule of law in almost all – but not absolutely all – circumstances. Even when the law is an ass – which it often is.

  Sounds like it would make a good play, though …


DS: Have you ever faced any personal ethical issues like the lesser and greater ones I mention? If so, how did you resolve them, and are those resolutions still satisfactory?


MR: I find morality a struggle. In fact, my life is a daily moral struggle to not eat meat. I know eating meat is morally wrong – very wrong in fact (there is, by the standards of argumentation in moral philosophy, a watertight argument for this claim). Indeed, logically, it’s pretty much up there with killing babies. But I really miss meat. Occasionally, very occasionally, I’ll fall off the wagon. I’m not as good a person as I would like to be. But I try.

  Some people – Plato was one of them – thought that once you have correctly identified what is the right thing to do you will automatically want to do it. Not me.


DS: At the end of the chapter you use the term arational. What do you mean by it? And, would not the term you coin better be served by calling it extrarational- outside a rational axis?


MR: By ‘arational’ I meant what you mean by ‘extrarational’. A rose by any other name?


DS: Independence Day and the Alien films are in the next chapter, and the talk is of the valuation of things, and how paying someone a wage alleviates the view of them as merely a means to an end. I don’t buy it. They are still a means, whether you use them by paying, persuasion, trickery, or force, they are still a means, no?


MR: Yes, but again I was talking about Kant. His prohibition, expressed in what he called the ‘practical imperative’ was never to use anyone as a means only – and the last word is the crucial one. You pay someone, then you use them as a means but not only as a means – and that, for Kant, was the crucial point. Trickery and force are different matters, of course.


DS: The chapter also touches upon the idea of rights. But, are not all rights manmade fictions? Useful fictions and beneficial ones, but nonetheless fictions. After all, if they were not fictions, a real alien species would be bound to respect our ‘rights.’ Unlike the Aliens that use humans as gestation pods, or Star Trek’s the Borg race, which see all other beings as fodder for their culture, it’s simply silly to not recognize rights as fictions. I recall the old Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Man, in which aliens ended war and poverty and hunger, only so we could become entrees for their meals.


MR: It depends what you mean by ‘fiction’. There is a clear and coherent sense you can give to the idea of a moral right: A right is (i) a valid claim to a certain commodity, freedom or treatment, (ii) against assignable individuals who are capable of affording you that commodity, freedom, or treatment, and (iii) where a claim is valid if it is entailed by or grounded in a correct moral theory.

  Of course, if you think there is no such thing as a correct moral theory, then you are factionalist about morality and not rights as such.

  Whether we would have a moral case against aliens, I think, depends on the content of their moral principles. If they – like us – based their morality on the idea of equal consideration of interests, a principle grounded in a more basic principle that there can be no moral difference without some relevant other difference, then I think we would actually have a good case against the aliens. What we would have to do is show that, while there are differences between us and them these are not morally relevant differences. That in essence is the argument for animal rights. There are differences between us and them, but none of them are important enough to be regarded as morally relevant ones. There are various ways of showing this.

  Take intelligence – because that’s the one everyone uses. We’re smarter than they are. Therefore, we count, they don’t. Maybe most of us are smarter, but that’s not true of all of us: infants, babies, those with brain damage, advanced senility, and so on. So, do we say they don’t count morally because they are no more intelligent than a cow or sheep? We would be psychos if we did. But if we don’t say this, that means that we can’t really think it is intelligence that is decisive. The same point applies to pretty much every difference you can come up with between us and them.

  Interestingly enough – or not as the case may be – I used your example of aliens in an early book of mine: Animal Rights. The relevant chapter was entitled, ‘Arguing for one’s species’, and it was concerned with precisely the sort of ‘aliens are gonna’ eat us’ scenario you describe. The book is an old one but a belated paperback edition is coming out next year with Macmillan/St Martin’s Press.


DS: Your description of the life cycle of a chicken in a human abattoir is chilling. Are you a vegan, then, or just an animal rights activist? I find a logical inconsistency in many vegans’ philosophies. As we learn more and more it is apparent that many plants, even, have far greater responses to stimuli- including some which may be termed pain responses, than thought. If this trend continues, should humans foreswear on eating any living matter, and starve on principle? Is there anything wrong with my enjoying a steak or drumstick, and if so, why is eating cob corn or a head of lettuce alright?


MR: I strongly disagree. There is no evidence that plants feel anything at all. No response of a plant may in any sense be termed a pain response. Evidence for animals feeling pain breaks down into three sorts: neurological, behavioral, and evolutionary. At the level of neurology, plants don’t have a nervous system. Behaviorally; they exhibit no pain behavior – for example, they don’t avoid sources of pain (noxious stimuli), they don’t inhibit use of a part that has been exposed to noxious stimuli, and so on. And, on evolutionary grounds, evolving the capacity to suffer would make no sense since they are unable to avoid the things that could make them suffer. That, it seems likely, is the whole point of the evolution of suffering: to get you to avoid things that can damage you. It makes no sense that things that can’t engage in avoidance behavior would have evolved this capacity.

  Vegetarianism and veganism are based on the belief that animals do suffer whereas plants do not. And that belief is almost certainly true. Veganism is the only logically consistent position, since there is still a lot of animal suffering implicated in the production of the octo-lavo stuff.

  Am I a vegan? Unfortunately no, I’m not. I used to be one for many years – I was vegan when vegan wasn’t cool – but not any more. I’m not proud of this. But, as I emphasized earlier, I’m not as good a person as I would like to be. My moral failings now make me a vegetarian most of the time, with the occasional lapse into piscetarianism. Best I can do, apparently.


DS: The next chapter, on Star Wars, contains the best explanation of Plato’s Cave I’ve read, even better than Plato’s. Could you boil it down to a paragraph or two?


MR: There are prisoners chained together in a cave. They have spent their entire life there. The only light source in the cave is a fire, and this fire casts shadows on the walls. The prisoners routinely mistake the shadows for reality. At some point, the prisoners escape from the cave. At first the light is too bright for them, and they can see nothing. But eventually they learn to look at things. And ultimately, they are able to gaze upon the sun.

  This is Plato’s allegory for a philosophical education. Most people are like prisoners in the cave, mistaking illusions for reality. A philosophical education allows you to see and understand what is real.


DS: You know, we’ve spoken of your career and other philosophers, but, what, exactly has been your claim to immortality. If no Plato’s cave, is there a Rowlands’ Theorem, or the like?


MR: Not really. But I’d like to think I’ve done some original stuff, and I’d like to think that some of it is interesting stuff too. I’ve defended a novel account of consciousness as existing only in the directing of experience towards the world. So, it exists, so to speak, only in the looking and not as something looked at. So, it’s real but nowhere at all. Therefore reality is not exhausted by what exists in space.

  I’ve also defended the novel idea that the best case for the moral claims of animals is to be made within the framework of so called contractarian or contractualist moral theory. Before my work on this, everyone thought that this sort of approach was inimical to the idea of animal rights.

  I’ve also made useful contributions to the development of a new way of thinking about mental processes: the view that such processes are, in part, made up of things we do in and to the world. This view is known as vehicle externalism or the extended mind, and I’m known as one of its principal philosophical architects (or so Wiki tells me).


DS: Similarly, you give a great explanation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the great man and sublimation. As applied to the arts, Nietzsche understood this better than any other philosopher, and is possibly the best writer of philosophy in print, at least in terms of craft and style. Sublimation is the key to greatness in any field, and it is also why so many bad artists, or failures in other fields, resent the greats that they can never be. Immature and petty envy drives them the way greater forced compel the great man. Thus, the proof that no amount of schooling can make a great man or artist out of a hack. That said, having the raw tools and talent is no guarantee of greatness. It takes talent, learnt skill, and hard work. Plus, as I tell younger writers, one must have quality of excellence, quantity of quality works, and a diversity of styles and forms in that quantity. Do you agree with Nietzsche’s claims for greatness?


MR: Pretty much. Like you, I don’t think it’s the whole story. And I’m not sure whether sublimation is, in the end, a genuinely explanatory concept. But I do agree that greatness involves the ability to draw strength from adversity; to use suffering as a spur to improving, and all that sort of stuff.


DS: I also think an element that separates the great man- artist, leader, scientist, from the lesser one is the knowledge that wisdom and creativity are greater accomplishments than love or happiness, which are merely selfish ideals. And, is altruism a myth? How many people really ever do anything with no expectation of gain?


MR: There are parts of this claim with which I agree and parts with I vehemently disagree. The disagreement turns on the role of selfishness. I think that attaining wisdom or being creative can often involve leading lives that are unimaginably selfish, and consequently becoming a selfish person. I think the life of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein provides a very good example of this. 

  Also, I don’t think that creativity is so much a noble ideal as something in which the truly creative artist has little choice. A great artist is his or her creativity’s bitch. The selfishness of their lives usually follows from this.

  Not – and I can’t emphasize this enough – that I’m placing myself in the category of great artist, but take me as an example. When I get up in the morning, I’m going to write for a few hours. That’s what I have to do. If I’m not allowed to do so, I am a complete son of bitch for the rest of the day. My wife will confirm this. My actions are selfish – there’s a boy to be changed and a dog to be walked – but if I try to be less selfish I turn into even more of a douche bag.

  How many people really ever do anything with no expectation of gain? There is a danger of this question becoming tautological. You do something to make someone happy because the happiness of others makes you happy. Therefore, you gain. Does this make your action selfish? That, I think, would be to misunderstand selfishness. The fact that the happiness of others makes you happy is the clearest indication possible of your unselfishness. If someone can’t see this, it is because, I think, they have lost their grip on the concepts of selfishness and altruism.

  Cue a deluge of Ayn Randians, spouting their childish logical confusions?


DS: That all said, I think Nietzsche make a cardinal error in defining greatness as somehow analogous or consonant with goodness. By any measure of the term meaning, remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness,’ Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo, and Mao Zedong, were great men. No?


MR: Nietzsche was working with a different conception of greatness.

  In this regard, his attitude towards Napoleon is, I think, instructive. He regarded Napoleon as an example of a failed ubermensch: someone who had the capacity for greatness but didn’t quite make it – largely because he wasn’t able to subject his drive for domination into progressively higher (more spiritual) forms. Napoleon had the capacity for greatness, but fell short of it.

  Nietzsche was far more comfortable with the idea of Goethe as an overman. In fact, Goethe was the example he used over and over again. And, in general, artists rather than mass murderers provided his blueprint for thinking about greatness. In terms of generals, world leaders, and so on, the only one he consistently seemed to think of as an ubermensch was Julius Caesar.


DS: The next chapter deals with Bladerunner. Issue time: who are the many people who think this rather plodding and dull film is the greatest sci fi film of all time. All critical polls seem to point to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, while on the subject, why weren’t 2001 or Planet Of The Apes included in the book? Both would seem to be perfect illustrations of a number of concepts these lesser films discuss. What are your views philosophically and filmically on those two films? On a tangent, I’ve often argued with people who claim 2001 lacks a good screenplay. I argue that proof of its excellence (it’s merely a different form of good narrative that rote Hollywood plot-driven crap) comes in the moving scene where Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) pulls the plug on HAL 9000, and the computer loses his mind. I recall crying the first time I saw the film at 12 or 13. Bad screenplays don’t have that effect. Comments?


MR: Too old. Shelf life is an important consideration for the publishing house’s sales people, who generally have a veto on whether the book gets published. All the films had to be of relatively recent vintage. And all had to be commercially successful. Blade Runner is the oldest, and I had a hard time getting the OK for it.


DS: Following up on the last query, since you used such a bad film like Hollow Man, do you ever plan to do a book on bad sci fi or horror B films? I’m serious. Some old Ray Harryhausen monster films have some deep issues, as does the original Godzilla/Gojira, and even schlock classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space, or Robot Monster. In the last film, there’s a classic scene where the villain, Ro-Man is ordered to kill the Earth woman he loves and gives this soliloquy:I cannot. Yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do must and cannot meet? Yet I must! But I cannot.It’s hilarious, but actually deeper than seen at first blush.


MR: Even if I wanted to, do you think anyone would buy it? I’m pretty sure I could never sneak this by the sales department of any publishing house on the planet.

  Must and cannot – that is the essence of any deep philosophical problem. A deep philosophical problem always has this form (or a close variant thereof): things must be a certain way, yet they cannot be that way.


DS: You also did a book called Everything I Know I Learned From TV: Philosophy For The Unrepentant Couch Potato. Was that similar to this book? What tv shows were referenced? I recall, as example, an oddly good live action Saturday morning show about dinosaurs in another dimension, from the early 1970s, called Land Of The Lost, which posited on Eternal Recurrence, predestination, the perils of a closed universe, causality, and many other things.


MR: Buffy, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, 24, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends.

  Again: it was the publisher’s stipulation that the shows had to be successful and recent; preferably iconic. They were very worried about shelf life for this one.


DS: The Bladerunner chapter talks of death, and you mention the views espoused by Epicurus and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Briefly limn the men and their views on the subject. Which, if either, do you gravitate toward?


MR: Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher. He argued that death cannot harm us because while we are alive it hasn’t happened, and so can’t have harmed us yet, and when we are dead we are no longer around for us to be harmed. So either way, death cannot harm us.

  Wittgenstein was a 20th century Austrian philosopher, who spent most of his adult life in England. He didn’t say much about death, but he did say this: my life has no limit in the same way that my visual field has no limit. His point was that the limit of something cannot be part of that thing – otherwise it wouldn’t be a limit of the thing (so, the limit of your visual field cannot be a part of your visual field).

  The views of Epicurus and Wittgenstein are not incompatible. On the contrary, they are mutually supporting: it is precisely because death is not part of life that it can’t harm us – arguably.


DS: I saw someone killed at the age of 5, and seen many deaths since. Thus, I am sort of inured to it, and lack the common human fear of death. I feel I won’t feel a thing when dead, so it’s pointless to worry. I see only 3 possibilities for what death could be, and none of them have any logical bearing on me. 1) it’s everlasting life (or afterlife or afterdeath- technically), thus it’s a neverending adventure- whether hellish or heavenly; 2) it’s an endless sleep and/or dream, and I can handle either; or 3) it’s total nihility, a void of what was me, and there being no me left to even recognize my absence, therefore worry is futile and silly. Do you agree, or do you see other options, and which option would you bet on as being true?


MR: Almost all philosophers think that death harms us. That is, they disagree with Epicurus. The idea is that it is a harm of deprivation: it harms us because of what it takes away: possibilities, a future, and things like that.

  I used to believe this. And when I wrote The Philosopher at the End of the Universe, I was developing an argument along these lines, one that, as I saw it, improved on standard versions of the argument.

  Now, I no longer believe any version of the harm of deprivation argument works.  Therefore, I have, somewhat unwillingly, been pushed in a distinctly more Epicurean position. But you have to go where the arguments take you.


DS: You write of the idea of the future and life as being death directed, or humans as beings-toward-death. This seems a bit extreme. Are there not strong and weak futures (likely and not so likely)? Is death really a harm or loss, especially to one pondering euthanasia for pain?


MR: In the argument I developed in the book, I distinguished clearly between a future in the sense I was using the term, and possibilities. Possibilities are not going to do the work you. There are too many of them, nothing in any possibility that makes it intrinsically mine or yours, and some possibilities I hope never become actualized. Death can’t harm us by depriving us of possibilities in this sense. A future, as I developed the idea, was something that you actually possess now, at the present time. You possess a future in this sense only: you are the subject of future-directed states. That is you are the possessor of states, like desires, goals and projects that, by their nature, direct you beyond the present moment. These are not things you merely possibly have; you actually have them now, at the present time.

  When you say, ‘are there not strong and weak futures (likely and not so likely)’, you are assimilating the future to possibilities. And that is precisely what I denied.

  Also, your point at the end about euthanasia doesn’t touch my argument. I pointed out that to say that death is a loss does not mean that it overrides all other factors. To say that death is a bad thing does not entail that there are no worse things. As I said right at the end of the chapter, there are worse things than death. A life of intense suffering is almost certainly one of those things.

  Of course, since I no longer believe my own account of death, this is all moot …


DS: Is immortality so great? Would not, after a few hundred years, even, an immortal have lost the vast bulk of memories that would tech him a lesson? In effect, while the body would remain static, the mind would go through an endless re-education process because there is only a limited amount of information any one being, even if immortal, could know?


MR: Maybe, but this is all speculation. Why suppose things have to be this way? Also, exactly the same point seems to apply to ordinary mortal lives. But mortal lives can be great.


DS: But, on a purer, more human level, one would constantly watch friends and family die. Whole lifetimes might pass by in, what to the immortal, were just a few weeks recollectively, no? Would not immortality inure one to all and lead to some sort of grand solipsism?


MR: Quite possibly, and please bear this in mind in two questions time.


DS: You open your book with the idea of the inner and outer narrative that percipients experience, yet you close the book with the being-towards-death trope, which would be only an inner experience, not something the rest of the world could embrace, right?


MR: No. Being-towards-death, in the roughly Heideggerian sense in which I was employing it, is a way of being rather than an inner experience. It is a way of comporting yourself to your possibilities, and a way of living your life accordingly. There are different ways of being-towards-death, some authentic, others inauthentic.


DS: I feel life is not death directed, but influence directed. That is, most people want influence beyond their lives; thus the rationale for reproduction, even if the people, as I claim, are merely placeholders. Artists, in the same way, view their art as most do their progeny, as influence beyond the grave. After all, we do not usually speak of the corpse rotting under Stratford when we reference William Shakespeare; rather the works that corpse produced when alive- and let’s not get into that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare elitist nonsense. The purpose of art, after all, is to enlighten and entertain from the point of creation onward. Do you agree?


MR: It would be a mistake to understand being-towards-death to mean ‘death-directed’. Being-towards-death is a way of understanding yourself and your life that is shaped by the realization that death is your own, uttermost, possibility: the possibility of non-being. There are various ways this can happen. Fleeing from death, putting it to be back of your mind, never thinking about it, and refusing to accept that it is a possibility, is no less a way of being-towards-death.

  Do most people want influence beyond their lives? Maybe; though personally, it doesn’t really bother me. Is that the primary motivation for artists? Maybe it is for many – but that is an empirical speculation, and I don’t know what evidence you have for the claim. But I suspect, and again this is an empirical speculation, that the truly great artists create because there is something inside of them that won’t let them do anything else. They are only at peace when they are creating, and when they are not, they feel distinctly uneasy – not at home in the world. They do what they do because they have no choice, and not with the hope of influencing other people after they are gone. As if it was all about what Newbolt described as ‘the selfish hope of a season’s fame’. That, I suspect, produces only shallow art.


DS: As an expert on the arts, and decades in that subculture, I can say with full confidence that all artists, great and small, are ego-driven, first and foremost. The primal scream into the void, ‘I exist. I matter.’ is, indeed, primal, in every sense. The things that separate the great from the lesser are threefold: 1) talent/skill, 2) drive, and 3) the inward bound egocentrism that exists in all artists is surpassed in the great by the outflow of the benefits their artworks give. When you write, They do what they do because they have no choice, and not with the hope of influencing other people after they are gone,I think of the so-called lion expert who’s never been to Africa, and only seen lions behind bars. It’s a cliché and stereotype, at best, to argue, They do what they do because they have no choice.’ But, it’s not arguable, in the least; it drips from every pore of the (especially) wannabe artist’s brow. On page 257, you write that import of an event depends on its placement in life, and without a temporal limit in life there is no temporal position. Yet, you totally whiff on the fact that birth is a temporal limit every bit as much as death. We don’t worry over it because it is long done with before we are capable of worry. However, you never mention birth and speak of a singular temporal limits when, point in fact, all lives have two temporal limits, plural. Thus, when you write,And a life without a temporal limit is, ultimately, not a life at all,’ you clearly are hyperbolizing for effect, or unwittingly undermining your claim as absurd. Comments?


MR: I’m not clear why you think birth is so important. The reason I didn’t talk about it simple: a life with a beginning but no end is still infinitely long. Therefore, the claims I make in this chapter can afford to ignore the rather obvious fact that we are born.

  I was neither hyperbolizing for effect, nor undermining my claim as absurd. I might have been better putting the point as: ‘And a life without temporal limit is, ultimately, not a human life at all.’ I regard that claim as true, and patently not absurd. In fact, you seem to be thinking along the same lines in your ‘grand solipsism’ question a few paragraphs back. Though, in the case of immortality, I think solipsism is the least of your worries.

  So much of what is a human life is bound up with the idea of development, of being or becoming a person, of developing one’s moral and artistic sensibilities. I wish this was my idea, but Martha Nussbaum got there before me. She is very good on this sort of thing. My point, in that chapter, was slightly different from Martha’s however. It was that the significance of an event depends on its temporal position in a life, and, in particular, its relation to one’s oncoming death (just as the significance of an event in a sporting encounter can be quite different depending on where it occurs in that encounter (e.g. near the beginning or as time is running out the end). Now think how much richer and more variegated is life than a sporting event, and you might imagine how much this effect is going be amplified. The significance humans attach to things in their life is tied to, and dependent on, their life being finite. That was my point.

  This is not to say, of course, that I wouldn’t opt for the life of immortal if given a chance. I am not specifically wedded to a human form of life or the significance that attaches to it.


DS: Mmm….A life that never ends will be infinitely long, but, at any given point in time is not infinitely long. A life with no beginning is always infinitely long. It puts me in mind of the geologist James Hutton's quote: No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.’ So, I disagree, and I think that logic is on my side, and not in a merely supercilious nor nitpicky sense. The book ends positing that death is the meaning of life, or at least the agent that lends meaning. But, as I stated earlier, that most people are placeholders, I don’t buy this. Ultimately, since we all die, death can lend no more meaning than a fart, since we are all farters. Meaning must come from something unique to the individual, not something common to the masses, much less essential to them. It is the extraordinary, not the ordinary, that pushes the limits of meaning or purpose. Death does not give life meaning, we do, because we can conceptualize things like meaning and death. Thus, life is meaningless if there is nowill to meanon the part of the individual. And that can be chosen or forsaken. Comments, ideas?


MR: I think my answer to the previous question explained the sense in which death is a precondition of the sort of significance or meaning that humans attach to events within their life: the significance of an event depends on its temporal position within a life. And temporal position within a life, as opposed to within a mere span of time, depends on the temporalizing activity of a subject. And this depends on a life having limits – two limits. Hopefully, I also made it clear why death is very different from farting in this regard.

  With regard to your point about death versus its conceptualization: Yes, of course. But how do you propose we conceptualize something with which we are completely unacquainted?


DS: Earlier I mentioned a Woody Allen film, and he is famously fearful of death. But, as I claim, since death is utter cessation, it’s irrational to fear it, therefore the real fear he and others feel is toward the lack of influence I mentioned, right? Also, Allen has posited that life is basically totally random and utterly indifferent to the desires of any individual. Good people suffer while bad ones prosper. Do you agree, and is not this the truly greatest fear, that life is so heavily endebted to luck, and that human beings are so utterly powerless in comparison?


MR: Yes, it’s all luck, all of it. And sooner or later your luck is going to run out. The most important existential question we all face is not: how do I ride my luck? It is: who is it that is going to be left behind when my luck has left me for dead? To the extent we have power at all, it lies only in shaping the person that is going to be left behind when our luck runs out.

  So, I think that if there is a meaning of life, if life has value at all, then it lies in defiance. Sooner or later you are going to have to say a big ‘F**k you!’ to life, to luck, and to the gods that would have you roll rocks up hills for all eternity. Then, and only then, can we say: ecce homo! Our defiance is ultimately all we have. And in the end, it is only our defiance that redeems us.


DS: Now on to some broader questions regarding philosophy, films, life, and some pet peeves, etc. I started these interviews because so many interviews, online and in print, are atrocious. They are merely vehicles designed to pimp a book or other product- film, CD, etc. One of the things I’ve tried to do with these interviews is avoid the canned sort of responses that most interviews- print or videotaped, indulge in, yet most people find comfort in hearing the expected. Why are the readers and the interviews so banal? Where have all the great interviewers like a Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, or Bill Buckley gone? Only Charlie Rose, on PBS, is left. Is conversation, which an interview is merely a rigorous form of, dying?


MR: I suppose we are in an age defined by attention deficit. The problem is with the culture that embeds us.

  Here’s what I mean. Our two wolf-dogs, Nina and Tess, died recently. They were very old, had been with us for a long time, and died within a couple of weeks of each other. My wife and I used to take them out for a long walk every day, for about an hour or so in the mornings (after I had done my writing!) On these walks, we would be happy, because the girls were frolicking around and that sort of happiness is infectious. And we would have fantastic conversations. Sometimes, it would be an idea that I hadn’t got quite right, and I wanted to externalize it to see how it was going to work. Sometimes it would go the other way, with my wife working out whatever she was thinking about. When the baby came along we just strapped him on my back, and continued doing the same sort of thing. This was my favorite time of day.

  When Nina and Tess died, the walks stopped. And we became far more miserable. It wasn’t like we had any trouble in the marriage. But it was true that there was an hour a day of relaxed, untroubled happiness that was no longer in our lives. People think of happiness as an inner state, a feeling. I prefer to think of it as a field in which we live and through which we walk. Suddenly, there was a lot less happiness in our lives because two very happy members of the pack had gone.

  Happily, we’ve just acquired a German shepherd puppy.

  I have been very lucky in my life in that I have always had time to do this sort of thing. Most people don’t. Most people are on the way to work at 7.30 in the morning, stopping at Starbucks to get breakfast, and don’t return home until after dark, when they are exhausted. A life such as this does not make conversation possible. So, if it is dying, that is no surprise.


DS: I ask this question of almost all my interviewees, but, as a philosopher, let me see if you find any relevance to it. I believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different from the average artists than the average artist is from the non-artist. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold Bloom, the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And aMRo to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3 .’ In the sciences, this dynamic is applicable. When I interviewed Steven Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I don’t think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly ‘outside’ the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense, this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability to see around corners, through steel, etc. In a scientific sense, the Functionary might be represented by your typical person working in the sciences, the Creationary by someone along the lines of a Madame Curie, or Nicolaus Copernicus, who can discover great ideas, but which are logical extensions of prior paradigms. The Visionary, however, might be able to make even greater leaps- such as Hutton reaching far beyond Bishop Ussher, Darwin’s and Wallace’s ability to transcend Lamarckism, Newton’s development of a new mathematics- calculus, etc. What are your thoughts on this? Are their current philosophers who might be considered visionaries in a hundred or more years? Who are they? Is there one discipline of philosophy that lends itself more to creative or visionary thought? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself?


MR: It’s an interesting idea. But how do you go about empirically investigating it? Is it the sort of claim that can be empirically investigated? If not, what is its status?

  One aspect I would question is that all three – functionary, visionary, and creationary – seem to be characterized in purely cognitive terms. So, it is all a matter of being able to see things to a greater or lesser extent (seeing the connections, and therefore being able to make the leaps, etc). So, while I agree with you that creativity is outside the access of IQ, I suspect you have not sufficiently taken it outside that access. We might imagine a suitably expanded notion of IQ capturing your conception of creativity.

  The metaphor of seeing has dominated western thinking, and I think the metaphor can also be traced back to the Image of God doctrine: the idea that we are created in the image of God. God sees everything. To the extent that we can see more things, we become more like God. God doesn’t have to work things out. That’s for plodders like us. So the more we can just see the connections between things, the more we become like God.

  I suspect the nature of genius is to be found, so to speak, in the dark not in the light. It is to be found in the dark subterranean drives that force a person to produce because it leaves them with no other option. These are the forces that, typically, ruin their lives, and make any meaningful relationships with others difficult if not impossible. Genius is not just seeing, it is also obsession and resulting concentration. Finally, another non-cognitive element: will. This is the will not to become caught up in the grip of pictures that have come to dominate the way people customarily think about things.

  In short, I think your account needs to recognize, at the very least, a less cognitive, more visceral, dimension.

  And, yes, of course I’m a genius.


DS: On a philosophic level, do you see any criteria as wholly objective? Or, is it all a philosophic exercise- i.e.- a single drop of objectivity objectifies a whole ocean’s worth of subjectivity, the way a single drop of blood would literally make an ocean of pure water impure?


MR: I do not understand this question. Criteria of what?


DS: Agree or not on this bit of PC: if everyone is special, that means no one is.


MR: I think it was Gore Vidal who said, ‘It isn’t enough to succeed; someone has to fail.’ He is absolutely right.


DS: What of the recent trend, in books and film, to create counter-myths, such as the Mystical Negro (see The Secret Lives Of Bees, or any role acted by Morgan Freeman where he guides the dumb whitey to higher spiritualism)? Is this not just a latter day version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Noble Savage? And, do you consider yourself more of a Rousseauvian or a Hobbesian?


MR: It is, in general, pretty vomit-inducing stuff. I am neither a Hobbesian nor a Rousseauvian. I think humans are fundamentally dishonest animals. And nowhere is this truer than in thinking that society is based on a social contract, of the sort deployed by both Hobbes and Rousseau.

  The contract rewards dishonesty. You say: I’ll watch your back if you watch mine. That is the essence of the social contract.  But it doesn’t really matter whether you watch their back, as long as they believe you are doing so. If you can pull off this trick, without getting caught, then you garner all the benefits of the contract without accruing any of the costs. The contract rewards skilful deception. This is one of its deep structural features – one overlooked by everyone who has written about the idea of the contract.

  So, what sort of animal would think of its precious morality and civilization as grounded in a social contract? The answer would be clear to anyone who isn’t human: a deceiver.


DS: Any broader ideas on Political Correctness and Multiculturalism?


MR: Political Correctness is, in general, a malignant cancer at the core of a society that has other problems more worth worrying about.

  It depends what you mean by ‘multiculturalism’. In the US, and also France, they have adopted the ‘melting pot’ model – which is clearly the sensible way to go. In other parts of Europe, they seem to have adopted the ‘salad bowl’ model, which envisages different cultures, perhaps with very different values, existing side by side.

  Sometimes in US, the word ‘multiculturalism’ is restricted to the salad bowl model. If that is the way you are using the term, then I think it expresses a disastrous social policy and I am relieved that this is finally being recognized in the country I used to call home.

  I have no problem with melting pots, on the other hand.


DS: Let me toss a few smaller (if not easier) questions at you. Whether one is murdered by a serial killer, a hitman, a hateful relative, a spree killer, a pedophile, a mugger, a drug addict looking for cash, a misogynist, or a Klansman wanting to string up a Jew or black man, the dead are still dead, right? So, aren’t ‘hate crimes’ silly? After all, the deed is what is to be punished, not the motive. Your take?


MR: It’s interesting that your position here seems inconsistent with your response to the ‘Capital F Feminist’ in an earlier question. There you were arguing that the moral status of an action depends on its motivation. Here you seem to be denying that.

  In general, I have a deep distrust of motives, whether malign or benign. I suspect they are often masks we use to hide deeper and more important causes of our actions. Consequently, I naturally gravitate towards a consequentialist moral theory, according to which the rightness or wrongness of an action should be judged solely on its consequences. It’s a sort of ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ idea.

  That being said, there are limits on how far you can push this idea. In particular, identifying the deed as a deed of a certain sort depends on the motive behind it. So, it all depends on whether the motive provides a useful way of characterizing the deed. Obviously, the intention to kill is a useful way of distinguishing murder from manslaughter, or a simply an accident. So, your question comes down to whether ‘hate crime’ provides a useful way of characterizing an action – and given my view on determinism, ‘useful’ would have to be understood in terms of its promotion of social stability or some other beneficial social consequences. I’ve not really thought about it in any depth, so could be convinced otherwise, but suspect that it does not.


DS: Inconsistent? I don’t think so. Well, in the case of sex and rape, violent consensual sex has a motive- that the two (or more) folk consent to the sensations. And in the spanking/child abuse case, it’s the degree which is paramount. But, dead is dead- so consent is not an issue for the murdered, nor is degree, since death is the Nth degree, so to speak. Historians often claim that the greatest hate crimes, which become atrocities like genocide, are often inflicted by the most similar groups, rather than polar opposites, like white-black, or European-American Indians. They will cite Serbs and Bosnians, Sunnis and Shia, Irish and English, Japanese and Chinese, etc. Do you think this is so? If not, why not, and does it really matter why one group persecutes another?


MR: As I said in response to an earlier question, on a completely different subject, I think that hate can be facilitated by a substantial body of agreement between the involved parties. When there is such agreement, things just become so much more personal. When you can think: ‘You’re just like me, except you don’t do/believe this!’ then what they don’t do or believe becomes far more like a rejection and, consequently, a condemnation of you than it would be if the other person were utterly alien.


DS: I will soon be interviewing Stanford University’s Dr. Philip Zimbardo re: his latest book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. In that book, he goes into detail about the Abu Ghraib Prison Torture Scandal in Iraq, and his acting as a defense witness for one of the accused American servicemen. Zimbardo uses the ‘Rotten Barrel’ defense vs. the ‘Rotten Apple’ claim that is always purveyed. What relevance do you see in ‘group evil’ approaches, be they for individuals in a mob psychology, or in a systemic sense?


MR: I know the book, and think it is excellent. My view of evil has many points of contact with Philip Zimbardo’s. In particular, I think the motive of the person committing the evil acts has little to do with the essence of evil. Evil has nothing essentially to do with taking delight in the suffering of one’s victims.

  In my view, evil is typically the result of one or another type of failure: ether a moral failure or an epistemic failure. The moral failure is the failure to perform one’s basic moral duties: such as the duty to defend those who are helpless against those want to inflict unjustifiable harm on them. The mother who, terrified of her abusive husband, fails to protect her daughter from being repeatedly raped by him is guilty of this. And whatever terror she feels does not absolve her of responsibility. The epistemic failure is far more prevalent. It is the failure to subject one’s beliefs to the appropriate amount of critical scrutiny: most of the evil that is done is done by people because they have stupid, stupid beliefs. The father who believes that raping his daughter is a perfectly normal aspect of family life is guilty of this sort of failure. And his notable lack of intelligence does not absolve him of responsibility. The terrorist who thinks that committing atrocities will steer him to heaven and the ministrations of seventy-two virgins is similarly guilty.

  But these sorts of failures only work because the victim is helpless. Always, in the background, is the helplessness of the victim. Helplessness is the canvas on which the portrait of human evil is painted. And if the victim is not naturally helpless, then we have to engineer a context in which they are. Another way of understanding humans is this: humans are the animals that engineer the possibility of their own evil.

  Like Hannah Arendt, and J.M. Coetzee, I think evil is largely banal or quotidian. Unlike Arendt, however, I don’t think evil is the result of our inability to empathize with others, but, rather our unwillingness. But one consequence of my view is that evil does not reside at the margins of society – in the medically ill or the socially disadvantaged. It is endemic.


DS: Personally, I think Arendt’s famous quote on evil is wrong. Evil is not banal; it simply appears that way, for an evil act, in a sense, is an act that goes well beyond the bounds of the millions of diurnally banal acts. Therefore, technically, it is exceptional in every sense of the term. That, say, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer looked average, says almost nothing about the bizarreness and extremity of his cruelty. Thus, Arendt’s quote is wrong, shallow, and naïve (I’ll be generous by not calling it flat-out dumb). Ok, this next question is one that Steven Pinker dodged:

  Then there is the old example of, ‘What if a building was burning, and you could only save a person or the last extant manuscript of the works of William Shakespeare (or The Mona Lisa, or some other great work of art). Which would you save?’ Most people say, the person, and likely mean it. Yet, to me, I would have to weigh the person and the works. Even a good person is likely to not have a fraction of the cultural impact of a great work of art, especially over the centuries. Yes, saving Darwin or Galileo or Picasso or Rembrandt, over their works, is easy, for they can recapitulate most of that stuff. But saving Larry MacDougall, of MacDougall’s Plumbing? I’m not gonna lie, Larry would probably die, because nothing he could ever do would likely be as valuable to human culture as that great work of art. And it’s not because I devalue a human life, as much as I truly value human creations over human non-creators. Does that belief make one a cold, calculating proto-Fascist, a Stalinist wannabe, an über-sensitive lover of all things, or simply a mature, rational adult?

  Do you agree or not? And, since you are a well known advocate of animal rights, is this not merely a continuation of the valuation of any human life over other things that are possibly more precious to society at large? And, is not this a version of the lame argument that anti-abortionists use- that you could be flushing away the person who cures cancer, unaware that no single person will ever do such a thing, for scientific discovery always has its Marconis and Edisons and Teslas waiting to step in if one of them fails? Thus, is not a decision to save the more valuable item, regardless of pro human bias, the truly enlightened view? You seem to have inklings of that with your views on Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.


MR: I think you’re dead wrong about Arendt. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals did it for me, with his ‘fragments of corpses that we have bought with money’ passage. Pointing out Dahmer-type cases is irrelevant: it’s what Wittgenstein would have called a one-side diet of examples. Much of what we do is both unspeakable but, at the same time, barely registers on our moral radar.

 But, anyway, on to your next question. First of all, who is the person? Do I like them? Am I married to them? Is he my son?  More generally, I suppose I don’t have your faith that great art can enrich humanity in the way you think. The creation of the Mona Lisa – if you like the painting, personally I was disappointed – enriched one person: Leonardo da Vinci. And what enriched him was the discipline, struggle and suffering that he had to undergo in order to produce it. This is what lifted up his spirit, made him better than he was, and, arguably, made him a good thing for the universe to have done. But this value does not consist in other people seeing it. After all, does its value increase every time someone new sees it and is inspired by it? If so, does this mean that a lesser work can be worth more than a greater one if more people, through accident of history, happen to see it and be inspired by it? I assume not. If so, the value does not depend on what it does for other people.

  But, you might say, its value does depend on its capacity to enrich others, and the capacity to do this is independent of whether it actually does it. So, a work that would have enriched others if they had seen it, but didn’t because it was closeted away in some rich guy’s cellar, has value. I don’t think this will work either. The wider population may simply not be capable of understanding it, and this would not reduce its value one iota.

  We are now touching on the general issue of the objectivity of aesthetic value. And this is not the sort of thing we can resolve out here. But, to lay my cards on the table, I am committed to thinking of aesthetic value as strongly objective – independent of the responses of those who witness it.

  But whatever response it evokes in me is merely a pale reflection of what gave it value. This value is to be found in the process of creation, what was required for it, and what it cost the creator, rather than in anyone bearing witness to the product.

The value of the art consists largely in its creation, and not what it does subsequently.

  So, I think I’m going to have to disappointment you and go with saving Larry MacDougall.


DS: Well, we’ll end with old Hannah stuck between us. But, going one step further there is the old canard about what would happen if everyone in China dropped dead, or just disappeared off the face of the earth. Yes, I’d be sad, but, realistically, my life would go on fairly the same as it did, if a bit warier that such a thing could recur elsewhere in the world. I think people who ply the devastation reaction are simply liars trying to seem PC. After all, one need only look at popular tv talk and court shows to see how utterly indifferent to the feelings of people most folk know truly are. Agree or not?


MR: Of course our lives would go on pretty much the same. After the 2005 Tsunami they went on pretty much the same. And after the first 500,000 dead, I’m sure we could take a billion or so in our stride. It becomes, as Stalin put it, merely a statistic.


DS: Let me continue with this idea of an illogical pro-human bias. I do not necessarily value human life over other forms of life, or even non-life, as stated. As example, a few years ago, a cat I adored ran away. A couple of years ago, another cat I loved died. I still recall when the first cat was lost, how my best friend could not comprehend my devastation. ‘It’s just a cat,’ he said. Then, a few weeks later, when I spoke with him again, he was shocked to hear I was still shaken by the loss. Now, animal lovers will likely know exactly where I’m coming from, but from his perspective, he likely dismissed my grief as mere anthropomorphizing. Yet, it was not. I simply valued a being that gave me nothing but joy and love. Unlike mankind, cats do not steal, lie, cheat, and wantonly murder. Yet, there are some people- and not just wacky anti-abortionists, who value the slightest thing human over all else, as shown. To me, if humans fail to maximize their potential, they are not worth more than some ‘lesser’ animal. Therefore, my cat’s loss meant something, and was especially tough since it was an example of the utter anomic indifference of the cosmos that I mentioned folk like Woody Allen fear. Yet, although my cat’s loss and death meant something to me, in the grand scheme of things it (the loss and death) had no real meaning, which makes it all the more galling. As an animal rights activist, what is your take on such?


MR: I was fortunate enough to spend a decade or so of my life with a wolf, named Brenin. This decade spanned life in the US, Ireland, the UK, and France. That wolf was my friend and educator. I have come to believe, in the years since his death, that he was, in general, superior to humans – including, obviously, this particular human. He wasn’t superior in all respects: we humans are better at scheming than wolves; and we are better at lying. But he was superior in most respects that, I came to realize, mattered. There is certain kind of strength that a wolf possesses – I’m talking about emotional strength rather than physical – and from this there stems a certain kind of beauty that a graceless ape like me can’t begin to emulate. That beauty made Brenin a better thing for the universe to have done than me.

  So, in the burning building scenario of the sort you describe above, then if I had a choice of whom to save, any human stranger would have been shit out of luck.

  In my classes, I often talk about this sort of scenario with my students. It’s usually called a lifeboat scenario for obvious reasons. They always bring it up. I tell them about Brenin, and explain to them that they too would, in fact, have been shit out of luck. Some of them think I’m joking. The rest agree with me.

  Of course, you should be wary drawing moral conclusions from what anyone would or would not do in a given situation. The relevant consideration is, of course, not what you would do but what you should do. So, what you end up with is a clash between justice – as we humans have been taught to understand justice – and loyalty. The older I get, the more I seem to come down on the side of loyalty.


DS: Ah, Lifeboat was one of Hitchcock’s best films. I’d encourage you to watch it again, and pluck some points for your next class from it. A few years back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica. On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant- or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Is the same true in philosophic precedent?


MR: Yes, I think there are only two truly great philosophers: Aristotle and Kant. The rest of us are anemic imitators.


DS: Have you ever watched Michael Apted’s The Up Series documentaries? What are your thoughts on it as a longitudinal study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree with its epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’?


MR: I’ve not seen the documentary. The Jesuit proverb seems to me to be a little overstated, but I don’t have the expertise to adjudicate.


DS: I mentioned the seagull anecdote earlier, so let me pull out another personal tale. Some years ago, my wife and I were in the resort town of Stillwater, Minnesota, and there was some Buddhist monk convention there. It was odd, in this lily-white town, to see a bunch of barefoot bald Oriental men in flaming red and pink robes, walking around. But, as my wife and a friend of hers, who was with us, went off, I sat on a bench in a store, where three monks came in. The youngest was the only one who spoke English, and in the course of our conversation, it became apparent that monkdom was merely a family business he’d given no serious thought to. When we parted I think I left him in an existential quandary; one I’ve often wondered the result of. Is this not a pitfall an insular life- be it based on religion or ethnic apartheid, or even philosophic choice? Do too many people simply go with the flow, in accepting whatever roles others have cast for them? And, how does one go about countering such?


MR: Conformity runs deep in human nature. But it’s not an unalloyed curse. An important theme of twentieth century philosophy of language, a theme developed most fully in Heidegger’s Being and Time and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is that conformity to norms is what makes it possible to mean and understand things using words. Thus, conformity to norms is what makes thought itself ultimately possible. But thinking is a precondition of rejecting or surpassing norms. And you can probably see where I’m going with this …


DS: Keeping Buddhism in mind; Academic white males often become one of two stereotypes started by the Beatniks- old white men with Leftist leanings, who ejaculate over the cultures of minorities, such as black culture’s Jazz music, or Oriental culture’s religions. I’ve always found such people silly, at best, and depressingly representative, at worst, of all that’s wrong with the arts, and the wider culture. What is your take on such stereotypes, the kind which also leads to suburban whiggers who take on hip hop culturata? Are these people who are out of sync with the zeitgeist, or are they fundamentally and philosophically lost?


MR: I did used to worry about becoming a stereotype. When I lived in the UK, I steadfastly refused to read The Guardian – the leftist intellectuals’ national newspaper of choice – because, in my view, it was too clichéd to be a philosophy professor who did so. One day, you’re reading The Guardian, the next thing you know you’re wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and smoking a pipe. The worst crime an academic can commit, I think, is being unoriginal.

  But one shouldn’t make too much of stereotypes – because that’s all they are. Most of the academics I hang out with are hard drinking, swashbuckling, devil-may-care, look-after-today-and-tomorrow-will-look-after-itself types. (You know who I’m talking about – see you at Extended Mind III, guys!)


DS: At this point in your life, have you accomplished the things you wanted to do? If not, what failures gnaw at you the most? Which of those failures do you think you can accomplish yet?


MR: I never began with any set idea of what I wanted to do. So, I have no blueprint in terms of which to make sense of the idea of failure (or success, for that matter). I just enjoy thinking about things. And when I don’t want to think about them any more, I write books about them.


DS: In the June, 2008 issue of Discover magazine they speak of embodiment theory; the idea that it is the body’s ability to sense that helps shape the mind’s ability to cogitate and rationalize. In short, robotics now accepts that the brain follows the body, in terms of helping artificial intelligence mimic natural intelligence? Are you familiar with this, and any thoughts? In short, we will never have the ultimate ‘brain in the pan’ scenario you speak of in the book , similar to the B film camp classic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. The brain could simply never re-orient itself to life without a real body. Agree or not?


MR: Yes, I see that this view has now started seeping out into the popular media. I was one of the philosophical progenitors of this view – or at least of one of its recent incarnations (and, coincidentally, the conference I mentioned two questions back was on this theme –or will be if we ever get around to organizing it. It’s a sequel to the conference The Extended Mind of 2001, and The Extended Mind II: Just When You Thought it was Safe to go Back in the Head held in 2006).

  In a book called The Body in Mind, which came out back in 1999, I developed and defended a radical form of this idea. According to this, some mental processes are, in part, made up of our manipulation, and transformation of structures in the environment – structures that carry information relevant to cognitive the task we are trying to accomplish. So, some mental processes don’t just take place in the brain, they talk place in the world, and are partially made up of bodily action on the world around us.

  I developed the idea further in a book Externalism in 2003, and another called Body Language, which came out in 2006. I’m currently writing another one that takes the idea further. 

  Then, I think I will have had enough. Or maybe not.

  So, yes, I think we can safely say that I agree with the general drift of the view expressed in your question. (The brain in the vat scenario, however, is a tricky one that raises slightly different issues. I’m inclined to think that a brain in the vat is possible in principle, but highly unlikely).


DS: What sorts of ethical issues come up with artificial intelligence? I have an unpublished manuscript that links the issue of human-robot/android love with the current issues over gay marriage rights. I feel that in fifty to a hundred years gay marriage will be widely accepted and even embraced by conservatives, who will then see such techno-issues as the new ‘great evils.’ Any thoughts?


MR: It’s really too early to say. I’m not so optimistic about the development of artificial intelligence. And, anyway, in fifty to a hundred years, the earth could resemble the planet Venus.

  But in principle, assuming androids are persons and, of course, hot, then why not? Of course, if they are persons, the same rules apply as to us: the sex would have to be consensual, etc.


DS: On films themselves, you mention not liking artsy films. Are you simply turned off by the masturbatory approach taken by the New Wave and Cahiers Du Cinema sorts of criticism, wherein everything is claimed genius, even if it’s patently bad and/or trite? What do you think of ‘pop’ critics like Roger Ebert? I think he’s a better actual writer and wordsmith than critic or judge of filmic excellence.


MR: I suppose I could pretend I know what you’re talking about. Masturbatory approach … yeah, that’s it. But I don’t. However, the rant about art house movies at the beginning of The Philosopher at the End of the Universe was strictly tongue in cheek. I am not always, in all things, an entirely serious person.


DS: What films, filmmakers, and critics would make your all time greatest or favorite lists?


MR: No idea.


DS: What is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of books and your work?


MR: My memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf, is coming out in spring 2009 with Pegasus. That’s in the US. It’s coming out in the UK in November 2008 with Granta. It’s the story of a decade or so of my life I spent traveling the world with a 150lb timber wolf called Brenin. I mentioned him earlier. We lived in the US, Ireland, Britain, and, finally, France. I’ve woven in philosophical themes – happiness, love, death, meaning of life, what it is to be human and so on – with the story of our life together.

  I’m really happy with this book. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write, and it took me a long time to finish it. But I do think it’s far and away the best thing I’ve ever written. In fact, I think it was the book I was born to write. It’s already sold in about a dozen languages, so much of the world is going to have me and my wolf inflicted on them in the not too distant future.

  Before that, there is a book on Fame coming out in September, where I try to philosophically diagnose the rise of what I call v-fame (new variant fame, like new variant CJD): the sort of fame that allows you to be famous for nothing much at all. I trace to a certain sort of degeneration that the Enlightenment project can undergo, a form of degeneration that mirrors that responsible for the rise of terrorism.

  As I mentioned, I’m currently finishing up another book on the idea of the embodied/extended mind. I also have about half a dozen articles on the go that some or other journal or book has asked me to write. There’s also a few book reviews.

  Most importantly, I still have lots of new ideas and I want to see how they work out. That’s what keeps me going.


DS: Thanks for doing this interview, Mark Rowlands, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.


MR: After 65 pages – a small book in itself – I think I’ve said everything I’m able to say. I did toy with the idea of plugging my autobiography one more time, but even I, indefatigable self-promoter that I am, recognize that would be overkill. So, I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for your questions, Dan. I enjoyed them.


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