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,
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
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
General philosophy? It depends what you mean by ‘philosophy’. Here
are a few claims culled from my professional writings. These things I believe:
mind is not entirely in the head: mental processes go on in the world around
us as much as inside our brains.
– what it is like to have or undergo an experience – is real, but
nowhere at all.
have moral rights (at least, they do if humans do).
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
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?
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.?
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?
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?
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?
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,
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’
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
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?
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
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?
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,
Any siblings? What paths in life have
have one brother, younger than me by four years. He is a chef.
Any children? What paths have they followed in life? What are their interests
and careers? Are any of them writers?
son is thirteen months old. I have tried to convince him of the wonders of
writing. But he just eats the crayons.
What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your
pursuit of philosophy?
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.
What was your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other
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
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?
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
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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
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 …
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
Is meaninglessness the
ultimate horror? No. I can think of
a lot worse.
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?
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
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
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
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?
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’.
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?
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
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
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.
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
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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?
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
DS: What is the principle difference between ontology and epistemology, without simply giving a dictionary definition?
Ontology is concerned with what exists. Epistemology is concerned with what we
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?
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?
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
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
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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?
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.
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.
first of all, if MPDs don’t exist, you can hardly use them as an objection to
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?
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?
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
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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
It is far easier, and so far more pleasant, to abrogate responsibility
for working out things for yourself – which presumably is where the ‘isms’
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?
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
DS: But it was a damned dumb seagull, nonetheless. A random cause is not a necessity, is it?
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?
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
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
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
‘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!
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
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?
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
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?
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
‘arational’ I meant what you mean by ‘extrarational’. A rose by any
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
Buffy, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, 24, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Frasier,
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?
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?
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
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?
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
Of course, since I no longer believe my own account of death, this is all
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?
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?
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?
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,
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?
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
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?
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 no ‘will to mean’ on the part of the individual. And that can be chosen or forsaken. Comments, ideas?
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
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
think it was Gore Vidal who said, ‘It isn’t enough to succeed; someone has
to fail.’ He is absolutely right.
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
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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.
value of the art consists largely in its creation, and not what it does
So, I think I’m going to have to disappointment you and go with saving
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?
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
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?
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
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?
I think there are only two truly great philosophers: Aristotle and Kant. The
rest of us are anemic imitators.
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?
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
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?
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
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,
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
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?
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 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
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?
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.
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?
What is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of books and your work?
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
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
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.
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
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