:: Article

Philosophy’s madhatter

Roy Sorensen interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Roy Sorensen is the hyper hip coolster of paradoxical mind-melt. He finds Wittgenstein far too pessimistic and jumps through the looking glass to think about riddles of the mirror, why learning philosophy is like learning hygiene, why thought experiments are groovy, why blindspots show that we are overoptimistic about our access to facts, why history matters, why vagueness is absolute unknowability, why Mary Tyler Moore and Farah Fawcett are significant, what shadows are, why lying is neither always immoral nor an intention to deceive and why philosophy is prejudiced towards discursive thinkers and needs to lighten up and let in the pictorialists. He is the madhatter at the philosophical tea-paty, the grooviest jive of them all. Sizzlin’!

3:AM: You’re the sort of philosopher that conforms to what folk think a philosopher should be thinking about. You have an endless stream of cool arguments and examples to make your case, taken from wide reading of philosophical literature but also from film and novels. Reading your books is like reading lost chapters of Alice Through the Looking Glass. It’s a bizarre world; everything is strange, exciting, even funny, your work nevertheless is about very serious issues of both metaphysical and ethical matters. So to begin, were you always someone interested in philosophical puzzles? Did you always want to be a philosopher? And was a subtle iconoclasm always your preferred mode?

Roy Sorensen: Soren Kierkegaard once said: Take away paradox from the thinker and you have a professor. I am a counterexample. In graduate school I thought about philosophy in the standard way. I worked hard. But there was no reason why I should get one of the few jobs available at the time. After I learned how to view philosophy through the prism of paradox, I was publishing articles (while still failing comprehensives). My career track echoes G. E. Moore’s. His early essays are the average work of a late nineteenth century philosopher. He was trying on hats: Hegel, Kant, and so forth. None of these hats helped him think well.

Then Moore took a cue from Hans Christian Anderson’s tale ‘The Emperor has No Clothes’. Moore adopted the persona of a somewhat naïve but careful scholar whose only interest in philosophy was due to the strange things philosophers said. He knew that their surprising arguments must be unsound. For their conclusions were contrary to common sense. Common sense is more certain than philosophy. So Moore had the Answer Book. All he had to do was show the work. Part of the work was negative – diagnosing a flaw in an argument known to be somehow wrong. (As illustrated by Zeno’s paradoxes, this diagnostic project is a great value.) Part of the work was positive – reverse engineering common sense.

Others saw that you do not need to be genius to follow Moore’s recipe. Analytic philosophy accreted into existence as pearls accrete from irritating grains of sand. This makes analytic philosophy dependent on a supply of irritants. Artificial pearls can be cultivated by slipping paradoxes into otherwise contented oysters.

3:AM: You describe yourself as a language philosopher. But in Blindspots you also call yourself an anti-Wittgensteinian Wittgensteinian? Can you say something to our readers about your general approach to philosophy? Language philosophy used to be a dominant position in philosophy mid-last century but now is just one of many approaches. So what’s the importance of language when studying philosophical issues, such as whether there’s something rather than nothing? To the lay thinker, that kind of question seems to have little to do with language.

RS: Part of my difference with Wittgenstein is temperamental. He was a pessimist deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer. I am an optimist influenced by statistically oriented, scientific historians. For Wittgenstein, philosophy is a mental illness. For me, it is an expression of mental health. But let me focus on our zone of agreement. Consider the riddle `Why do mirrors reverse left and right but not up and down?’ Although this seems to be a riddle about perception, it really turns on how we use words such as `reverse’. Under several of the disambiguations, it just isn’t true that the mirror reverses left and right. Under others, there is a benign sort of reversal. The details are spelled out in a wonderful article by Ned Block (whose title is the riddle written in mirror reversed writing).

I agree with Wittgenstein: the mere fact that a question does not appear answerable by science is a good reason to suspect that there is some verbal confusion. Optics fails to answer `Why do mirrors reverse left and right but not up and down?’. That scientific failure is good reason to suspect that the real culprit is not a deficiency of empirical data. Learning philosophy of language is like learning hygiene. Just as a physician should not touch a patient until after washing his hands, a philosopher should not touch a philosophical question until after he has clarified it linguistically.Wittgenstein overlearns the hand-washing lesson – treating all philosophical problems as resolvable by grammatical hygiene. This therapeutic model makes Wittgenstein akin to overeager psychologists who want to cure people who are not ill. Wittgenstein wants to cure the oyster by removing the grain of sand!

My second complaint is that Wittgenstein fails to coordinate with linguists. There is a science of language that needs to be focused on philosophical questions. When speculation goes well it becomes assimilated into science. H. P. Grice’s theory of conversation greatly improves on the brilliant amateurism of the ordinary language philosophers. Grice’s work is being assimilated into mainstream linguistics. So the disappearance of some language based philosophy is a sign of success, not failure.

3:AM: To give readers an overview of your work, I’d like to ask you to talk a little about your books. Thought Experiments is a fascinating analysis of the work of thought experiments, which are a crucial part of your philosophical armoury. You argue that thought experiments are not different in kind from scientific experiments with Bunsen burners or Colliders or what have you. So an armchair philosopher is really doing genuine experimentation, and you believe genuine knowledge can be discovered through this method. Some people may find this unlikely. Can you say something about this? Perhaps you could give us one or two of your favourites as examples?

RS: Suppose I cut the handle off your coffee mug leaving two holes. Would the coffee flow out of one hole faster than the other? If we tried to figure this out by experiment, we would need to carefully measure the flow – and we would ruin your mug. We should instead mentally replace the handle with a tube. If the flow of one hole exceeded the other, we would have a perpetual motion machine. Since that is absurd, we can deduce that the holes have the same rate of flow.(Too much coffee! The correct plumbing for the scenario is here!) In Thought Experiments I offer a general theory of how we manage to learn about the empirical world from this armchair method. Building on Ernst Mach’s seminal ideas, I claim thought experiments evolved from experiments. Just planning an experiment illuminates the hypothesis that is to be tested. Noticing this, our ancestors learned how to squeeze more a priori enlightenment from this a posteriori method.

Thought experiments distill inchoate empirical information – which Mach traced to memory and instinct. Each investigator is microcosm, embodying laws that govern the universe. As Mach’s disciple Albert Einstein summarised, “I am a little piece of nature”. Perception differs from theory in that it is cognitively impenetrable. Experiments exploit this independence. So do thought experiments – often in a way that picks up where experiment leaves off. Galileo’s first observed that the pendulum bob recovers its original height when the pendulum swings from one side to the other. He extended this law of equal heights to balls rolling down a \_/-shaped track. He then elongated one side of the U-shaped track: \_________ . . . . Galileo then imagined the track extended infinitely. Since the ball never regains its height, the ball continues on in a straight line forever. This is correct – and a wonderful anticipation of the Newton’s first law of motion. However, Galileo was still enough of Aristotelian to think that the ball must follow a circular path – like any other object in the heavens. He did not believe his mind’s eye. The thought experiment was right. The thought experimenter was wrong.

Although I focus on empirical thought experiments because they are the most anomalous for empiricism, analytical thought experiments are still important. For instance, Ernst Mach carefully distinguishes illegitimate forms of perpetual motion (the sort that generates free work) from the obligatory perpetual motion required by Newton’s first law.

3:AM: In the light of this, what do you think about the experimental philosophers like Josh Knobe who think philosophers should burn their armchairs and test their intuitions? On the one hand they seem to be doubting thought experiments, so I’d expect you to oppose them. But on the other hand, they seem to be doing philosophy in a refreshingly exciting way, with cool experiments and questions, lots of stories and jokes, so they seem to be following in your tracks in some way, keeping philosophy interesting even to non-philosophers.

RS: I support the use of student thought experiments in physics as a pedagogical tool – just as I support student experiments. But only the experiments and thought experiments conducted by professional physicists count as significant evidence. All of the student experiments I did in physics and chemistry and biology and psychology – were ignored. Ditto for all the student thought experiments. As a meta-philosophical gradualist, I think philosophy differs from science in degree, not kind. So my expectation is that student thought experiments will also be ignored. The first wave of experimental philosophy compared the results of experts with novices. Meta-philosophical gradualism predicts conflict and also predicts that the conflict will decrease as the students learn more philosophy. Both predictions are confirmed. Experimenters have learned hundreds of lessons about how to avoid errors. There are analogous lessons learned by philosophers conducting thought experiments. For instance, H. P. Grice’s theory of conversation allows them to distinguish semantic from pragmatic phenomena. Philosophers are far more motivated to get good results. And they use social networks that foster effective conduct of thought experiment.

3:AM: Just as a supplementary to thoughts about thought experiments, you’ve often used examples taken from films and stories to help you figure out a philosophical problem. Is there a sense that the study of literature and film could also be on the same continuum as philosophy and science, differing in degree rather than kind? In this way, might thought experiments be a way of unifying the whole field of human enquiry and stop the divisive science/humanities discourse that seems to be very pervasive at the moment?

RS: There is a discontinuity in that films and stories are rarely didactic.
In contrast, philosophers and scientists are each trying to prove a point. Philosophy is just at the speculative end of the continuum. The novelist has a wide portfolio of concerns – entertainment being dominant. This prevents him from fully developing insights. Consequently, novels have plenty of half-baked ideas. Since novelists, and especially filmmakers, have special skill at presentation, their half-baked ideas are “sticky”. The trick for the philosopher is to complete the cooking process without making the ideas as dry as typical fare offered by journal articles.

3:AM: ‘Blindspots’ is a term you invented which analyses the philosophical puzzles such as vagueness, prisoners dilemma-like games and so on, situations where we are unable to have knowledge even when it appears that we should be able to enquire further and acquire it. Vagueness is an example, but leaving that to one side for a moment, given that one of your later books is a solution to that very hard philosophical puzzle where you change your mind to the analysis given in your ‘Blindspots‘ book, can you give examples of the kind of puzzles you talk about here, why they count as blindspots and what approach you took to analyse them?

RS: Blindspots are consistent but inaccessible propositions. For instance, you believe you presently have some false beliefs. But you cannot give me any examples.
Sometimes these blindspots are morally significant. A modest person cannot correctly assess himself. So this virtue, contrary to Aristotle, is not a matter of knowledge. It is a matter of ignorance. In Blindspots I offered solutions to defective mathematical inductions such as the surprise test paradox, the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, and the sorites paradox.

I still think about blindspots. Four months ago, I learned about the mother of all blindspots. In A Universe from Nothing, the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss describes how we discovered the Big Bang – and how it will become an undiscoverable truth. The universe is expanding so rapidly that in a trillion years, each galaxy will be isolated from every other galaxy. A signal sent at the speed light will be too slow to reach any other galaxy. The Big Bang will eventually erase all evidence of itself. Every 10000000000th century astronomer will take himself to be in the same sort of universe as the Nineteenth Century astronomers took themselves to be – a galaxy surrounded by empty space. Thus the Big Bang hypothesis is unknowable to them but knowable to us. The Big Bang is a counterexample to principle that science always progresses. It is a counterexample to Charles Peirce’s idea that truth is what scientists will agree on the long run. In the long run, astronomers who believe the truth will be extinct. Their far better endowed successors will revert to the false theory of the Nineteenth Century.

3:AM: Do the existence of blindspots suggest that epistemic humility should be a default of our enquiries, that we shouldn’t be over-opinionated about our ability to know everything? Tim Williamson, Brian McGuinn and others have argued that we couldn’t ever know everything, and this seems to be something that your work illustrates abundantly. Fitch had a puzzle proving this and it seems your work is a corpus of work proving him right.

RS: Yes, we have a tendency to overestimate our access to facts. It relates to our tendency to over-attribute intentionality. We err on the side of believing that there are adversaries out there monitoring our doings. Even a squirrel presumes a branch was thrown rather than that it merely fell. A squirrel that more realistically presumes that the branch fell by coincidence is easier prey. But we should not binge on humble pie. Common sense and science give us plenty of knowledge. Agnostics about whether the U. S. moon landings are real are irrationally circumspect. Agnostics tend to assume they know what can be known. For instance, the talk show host Bill Maher, who did the movie Religulous, dogmatically assumes that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved. Epistemic humility needs to be extended to the higher order question of what can be known. I’d call myself a meta-agnostic – except you would then push me to meta-meta-agnosticism, and then meta-meta-meta-agnosticism. . . and I’d get lost in the dots.

3:AM: Your Brief History of the Paradox is a wonderful history but has a serious purpose which is to show how knowledge grows, how philosophy and science are roommates, and how epistemic humility is not a matter of giving up on enquiry but rather a matter of working out constraints on knowing through working out features of knowing. Is this right? Could you say something about this brilliant book and perhaps give us a few of your favourite puzzles?

RS: The basic idea of the book was to combine the two approaches to philosophy that I have found most useful: history and the formulation of issues and positions in terms of paradoxes. As illustration of paradox analysis, consider the issue of determinism. The paradox can be formulated as multiple-choice question: Which of the following is false?

1) All acts are determined.
2) If an act is determined, then one could not have done otherwise.
3) If one could not have done otherwise, then one is not responsible.
4) Some of us are responsible for some of our actions.

The propositions in this set are individually plausible and yet jointly inconsistent. Since we do not like the pain of contradiction, we are motivated to give up a previously held belief. We also have some ready-made arguments. Taking any three members of the quarter as premises allows us to deduce the negation of the remaining member.

We can classify solutions to the problem of determinism in terms of which proposition they eliminate:
Libertarianism: no, yes, yes, yes
Self-determinism: yes, no, yes, yes
Soft determinism: yes, yes, no, yes
Hard determinism: yes, yes, yes, no

We can also classify cagier positions:
Compatibilism: maybe, maybe, no, maybe
Indeterminism: no, maybe, maybe, maybe

This illustrates how paradoxes can clarify. This might be enough for a logical thinker. But most of us think in terms of narratives. Returning to history gives us the story-telling element. It also corrects excessive regimentation and restores nuances.

3:AM: Vagueness and Contradiction is a hugely controversial and original enquiry into vagueness. You follow Tim Williamson in analysing the puzzle in terms of ignorance, but you argue that his is the wrong sort of vagueness and that genuine, absolute vagueness is absolutely unknowable, even by God or a super alien. In Blindspots you didn’t think this, so what pressured you into changing your mind? This book and your solution to vagueness, then, is a great example of a limit to knowability and the power of thought-experiment. You started out as from a kind of semantic minimalism position but used the truth maker gap move to compensate for the situation as you saw it then which seemed to be moving away from minimalism. I notice however that there’s a revival in semantic minimalism, as in the work of Emma Borg in Reading, so I wondered if this made a difference to your position now? Can you say something about your approach and why you hold to a solution that even you admit seems too bizarre to be true?

RS: My later stress on absolute unknowability was a reaction to Timothy Williamson interpreting the unknowability as relative to human beings. That is too anthropocentric. If another creature could know the threshold of ‘heap’, then he could tell us – and we would know. That underestimates the depth of our ignorance. To take a proper sounding you need to weigh anchor in the 1970s television series The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The star is the hesitant feminist Mary Richards. Her boss, Lou Grant, expresses concern about growing sexual liberty:

Mary Richards: Well, what’s the cut-off point Mr. Grant? I mean, is… is there some number? You know, I’d really like to know. How many men is a woman allowed to have before she becomes that sort of woman?
Lou Grant: Six

The incredible tenet of epistemicism is that Lou Grant might be right. For epistemicism is the view that there is a threshold for vague terms such as `that sort of woman’. This follows from even a dilute dose of classical logic. The epistemicist’s only criticism of Lou Grant is that he asserting a proposition that he could not possibly know. I go further than Williamson and claim that Lou Grant has a priori warrant in regarding `Six is threshold for promiscuity’ as a contradiction (reading warrant as not truth-entailing). Part of one’s competence in the language is manifested in rejecting any candidate threshold. Yet our linguistic competence also gives us a priori warrant for the generalisation `There is some threshold for promiscuity’.

This clash of the a prioris ensures that we will be deeply inconsistent. For each vague predicate there is a threshold statement made true by the language. Yet we are forced to regard this tautology as a contradiction. Since there are infinitely many true threshold statements, we each believe infinitely many contradictions.

3:AM We reviewed your book on shadows here at 3:AM. It’s a beautiful book, again presenting an important philosophical argument in lucid prose supported by detailed and broad ranging knowledge of the subject. The book set out to show that non-material concrete objects, like shadows and holes, exist. The significance of this is enormous as it seems to provide evidence of a bias in philosophy and science against non-material objects which you find runs through all our thinking. It is a position that presents problems for materialists of all stripes, those people who argue that basic reality can be reducible to physics. Is this right?

RS: Yes, but the core of the bias goes beyond materialism. We are also prejudiced against mental absences such as lexical gaps in language. The prejudice against shadows and holes are particular instances of a general prejudice against absences. As Bertrand Russell noted, human beings have a strong intuition that reality is positive. Positive thinkers claim that they can reduce absences to what is present. They have not delivered. The positive thinkers say that absences cannot be perceived. But look again! We can see holes and shadows. After 911, people went to New York to see the absence of the Twin Towers.

3:AM: You’ve recently discovered a new species of lying. I love your example from Spartacus to show what you’re saying. It seems this is another great example of your approach: witty, an easily graspable example and then clear and sharp lessons to be learned from the example. Can you say something about lying and why you think this is a new type? Again, this seems to be another example of how what we might think is pretty familiar territory – i.e. lying – holds strange and paradoxical features that trace back to the structure of knowledge.

RS: When teaching philosophy of language I noticed that my students performed better when issues were cast in terms of lying. I was reminded of Ted Baxter – the news anchor in the Mary Tyler Moore show. Baxter could not do any mathematics – except if you put a dollar sign in front of the numbers. A similar effect arises in logic when students are asked to evaluate conditionals. Performance improves when the issue is cast in terms of keeping promises. One popular explanation is that we have a cheater detection module. This pedagogical interest became a research interest after I read Ainse Seierstad’s A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal. Her account of Iraq under Saddam Hussein persuaded me that one can lie when there is common knowledge that one is lying. This refutes the natural, simple theory that to lie is to assert with the intention to deceive. The simple theory gave elegant explanations of why people lie and why lying is immoral.

But I now think the theory was a false summit. I have been systematically rethinking the nature of the lying. The purposes of the liar might be better served by attacking propositional attitudes other than belief. Indeed, I suspect that tyrants often do not want all their underlings to be deluded. If they will act only what they know, then they can be paralyzed by doubts that do not affect their beliefs. A knowledge-lie targets knowledge rather than belief. In the case of “I am Spartacus”, we admire the lie. I am not moralistic in my academic study of lies. I approach them with the same detachment as a biologist studying lice.

3:AM: And again, what I find neat is that you start by thinking from a film you saw. You do this a lot, so in the Shadows book you talk about Star Wars and in Blindspots Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. In Vagueness and Contradiction you reference a favourite scene from The Simpsons. You discussed anti-hedonism by discussing the death of TV star Farah Fawcett. John Searle recently complained about the unilluminating aspect of much contemporary philosophy, but you seem a counterexample, someone able to connect your philosophical investigations with contemporary culture without downgrading the importance of science or relativising the issues in a trivialising all-out skepticism. If naturalism is the position that claims that knowledge claims should all be consistent with science, and be reached in a scientific manner, then you are a naturalist. Who do you see as your historical peers? And because of your fusion of contemporary culture into your work, you have affinities with philosophers who traditionally might have been placed in the continental tradition (although your style and clarity is certainly of the traditional analytic type). Are you influenced by or a reader of philosophers outside the mainstream analytic tradition (I know that some say this is a kind of bogus distinction these days – I’m using it as a shorthand so I don’t have to write out names)? I guess what I’m intrigued by is where you would place yourself amongst contemporaries: you aren’t experimental (but share their appetite for engaging with science and with their cool, unstuffy, out of the academy approach), you’re linguistic (but anti-Wittgensteinian), you’re naturalistic (but argue for non-material existence and nothingness), etc, etc. You seem to haunt the outer limits (no doubt another of your fave programmes).

RS: I am very optimistic about most academic fields. In A Wonderful Life Stephen Gould provides an instructive statistical demonstration of how baseball has improved over the past century. Fans complain that there has been a decline because the .400 hitter went extinct. But you only get .400 hitting when there were weaker pitchers and fielders. The giants of the past were due to high dispersion. After baseball was professionalised and opened to black players, the weaker players dropped out. By any actuarial measure, philosophy has participated in the same progress. Our .400 hitters are disappearing but that is a good sign.

Philosophy has opened up to more people and is opening up to more media. One of my pet speculations is that philosophy will also become visual in this century. Objective IQ scores have been rising three points a decade in all industrialised nations (when they are not normed by decade). The discoverer of this effect, the philosopher James Flynn, shows that the gains have been greatest for tests that emphasise visual thinking such as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. He traces the rise in IQ to a more visually stimulating environment.

I suspect this is why my students can understand Ned Block’s article about mirror reversal. Block advised me not to use it in class because a large percentage of his colleagues complained that they got lost in the mental rotations. But I found that some of my most inarticulate students started to speak up. Philosophy is prejudiced in favour of the discursive and needs to open to pictorial thinkers.

3:AM: Finally, are you working on a new book and if so can you tell us a little about what it’s going to be about? You’re a prolific and stylish writer – do you enjoy the process? Have you ever thought of writing a novel – maybe some sci-fi or some kind of metaphysical lit?

RS: I am working on A Brief History of Nothing and a book of logic puzzles, Ifs Ands or Buts which is organized by function words (especially the logical constants `not’, `if’, `all’, `is’). I enjoy the delusive stage of beginning a book. Each book seems like it will write itself! I don’t like the middle in which I have to forego tempting projects. Then it is more like a job. I also find the cutting painful. Most of what I write ends up looking like those piles of limbs in Civil War surgery photos. Yuck! Best is the end stage where I am just polishing and polishing.

3:AM: And finally, finally, you’ve always foregrounded the paradoxical, crazy positions of serious philosophy and done so to show that anyone thinking seriously is going to have to grasp the nettle of this strangeness. This isn’t easy in a world where so many serious people seem to have lost their appetite for the playfulness required for deadly serious and important thinking. Are there five writers, films, tv shows or thinkers that you would recommend to our readers here at 3:AM Magazine that seem to embody the kind of mind-expanding smart play that you exemplify in your work?

RS: My five recommendations are Greg Ross’ web site Futility Closet, Dan Harmon’s television series Community, the comedian Demetri Martin, the paintings of the magical realist Rob Gonsalves (see pics above), and Roberto Casati’s future book on art and shadows. To squeeze in a sixth recommendation: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. This is a numeric antidote to the dangerous irrationalities that poison our minds with pessimism and fear. There has been tremendous progress and future generations have better and better odds of enjoying even better lives than us.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 9th, 2012.