This is me on human exceptionalism for Areo, a rather good up and coming digital magazine.
I point out the irony of using super-advanced scientific tools to do studies on crows to prove that they can use tools and that therefore humans are no different to animals. This mirrors the irony of the Anthropocene: it’s supposed to get us to recognise our humility yet it ratifies the fact that our effect on the planet — if nothing else — is exceptional.
I reckon we should accept that as a matter of historical fact we are currently an exceptional species (we used to be less exceptional when closer relatives like Neanderthals were around) and use this to spur environmental action.
Typo: they changed hominin to hominid — what can you do?
I think skyhook is a good name for a particular kind of bad explanation. Namely, one that doesn’t attempt to ground the phenomena it describes in things that we already think exist, having them free-floating instead. Hence the opposite of a skyhook is a crane.
Allegedly I “condemn all skyhooks” (#64) and have a “fear” or “hatred” of them (#62). But all I said about them was that they “are a bad bet” (#63). I think you have a fear of my non-fear of skyhooks. It’s true that I think they’re a waste of time, but I don’t think they’re certainly wrong. Normally they’re just dearly held beliefs. The ones we’re talking about (creativity out of nothing and spooky consciousness) are the traditional, incumbent theories that have been around for as long as writing. They’re not bold new conjectures that free us from the trammels of the orthodoxy; they are the orthodoxy. Continue reading #65 On the orthodoxy
First off, we’re accusing one another of “essentialism” and “foundationalism”. I think we’re both against those things and think that science should be done accordingly. Truce? More importantly, I feel we’ve lost sight of what these skyhooks are, the ones for which I have a “hatred”. I don’t think we’re talking about discredited skyhooks from the past like creationism or vitalism. Personally, I’m thinking of spooky theories of consciousness — which Popper was into and Deutsch refuses to dismiss — and a kind of magical version of knowledge creation “ex nihilo” as in Deutsch’s idea of creativity. These remaining skyhooks are, tellingly, all about the knower, not the known.
With that in mind, here’s something interesting about magic tricks: every bit of stage magic has three audiences. Continue reading #63 On magic tricks
I’m pondering my reasons for adopting a no skyhooks policy. I’d be genuinely interested in what you think the political agenda is behind my stance. This rambling letter is me trying to figure it out and maybe you’ll spot some clues.
First, I genuinely don’t think it’s political in the way you hint at in letter #60. I’ve just written the final chapter of a PhD about popular science. Ensconced in my ivory tower, I’ve spent the last three years reading the thoughts of philosophers of science, historians of science and — most of all — scientists themselves. I can genuinely attest that the Dennettian anti-skyhook view is highly unorthodox. Indeed Dennett’s long list of skyhook merhcants are professional philosophers and scientists — people nominally committed to naturalism. Continue reading #61 On cranes and skyhooks
Interesting letter. It was a rollercoaster from my POV because the first few paragraphs appeared to be a dastardly warping of what I was saying, yet by the end of the letter I was nodding my head, utterly in agreement. How can this be?
This might seem lame but I think it’s easiest if I just respond to the relevant points inline. This is you:
I was saying adaptations reflect truths, which is to say they somehow represent (I was saying “encode”) some truth. Instead you say it’s more a “hack”, something that exploits the world without awareness certainly but also even without reflecting any truth. This is most obvious if you manipulate the environment so that the hack fails.
I never said “hack”. Bad start. Continue reading #59 On how the question changes the answer
This is a long letter but I feel we’ve alighted on a fundamental, multifaceted philosophical difference and it’s what I’ve been researching full time for several years so I’ve got too much to say.
OK. The brain is an organ situated in a body (including a gut) and a world (including a culture). The modern brain is in the same kind of body as before, but in a very different world. And the world is where most of a brain’s knowledge is. Insert mind-blowing sound effect. Continue reading #57 On the key (and lock) to knowledge
Apologies for the lateness but I was on my own European jaunt and was equally if not more appalled by the moribund ivory tower I encountered at an academic conference.
One somewhat snide response to your call for giving people real problems, would of course be that it’s something someone without serious real problems would say: i.e. a rich, educated, Western male. So on an historical scale we are tower-kept princes, not Grimeses — and we wouldn’t want it any other way, surely?
But instead — having nonetheless said the snide thing — I’ll respond to your mention of the gut. Continue reading #55 On the unconscious
One of my favourite formulations of literature — as opposed to myth — is Kenneth Burke’s claim that it is equipment for living. Literature provides us with new perspectives and unusual ideas, it gives us discussions of moral quandaries, it brings new people into our lives, it defamiliarises the familiar and pushes the limits of language and thinking.
I agree with your four categories for why a work might have currency, but I want to focus on the second: survival value. Are literary works also equipment for survival? Perhaps not. For that, maybe consult a dating guide, a medical textbook, or a flyer from the sperm bank. I suggest that living isn’t surviving. Not anymore anyway. Continue reading #53 On equipment for living