Book Review: Lost In Math by S. Hossenfelder

Another in my book review series, this is philosophy of science in the capable hands of a physicist. As usual, I have a commentary in which I offer something of an alternative that could break the philosophical logjam that is Dr. Hossenfelder’s primary concern. It is presented here in this separate essay.

In my book review (below) I mention Dr. Hossenfelder’s “secondary concern”, that being the politics and economics of doing physics in a university research environment. I made only cursory reference to this part of her book, but it deserves a little more attention as it is, in part, the result of the lack of break-through empirical discoveries on which university physicists could hang their hats. The doctor spends a good chapter on this subject and hits on all the players. Too many post docs chasing university jobs, too many tenured professors in major physics department not making room for new players, too much emphasis on volume publishing and citation in a limited number of journals.

It is thanks in great part to this publish-and-be-cited cycle, and the money being chased by it, that novel approaches to existing problems are not more prevalent. In the absence of data, new approaches are mostly ignored until (thanks to success if it comes) they cannot be ignored any longer. But that can take years, even decades. Meanwhile, their proponents are left out in the cold. Speaking of cold, Dr. Hossenfelder briefly addresses the dark matter mystery and mentions Fritz Zwicky (who passed away in 1974). Zwicky proposed dark matter as a solution to the galactic gravitational mystery back in the 1930s. A crack pot idea then, but no more.

Lost In Math by Sabine Hossenfelder 2018

Sabine Hossenfelder is a physicist with a social media following, a much beloved blog, an attitude, and now a book to go along with it all. This is not a physics book, it is a philosophy book. Its subject matter falls squarely into “philosophy of science”. It is not a book about philosophy of science, but a book that does philosophy of science. Specifically, She mounts a strong critique of present attitudes and assumptions underlying approaches to today’s work in theoretical physics and cosmology. Particle physics, string theory, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics and field theory, black holes, and the origins of the universe all come within her scope. In Dr. Hossenfelder’s view all of them suffer from a similar bias towards the idea that mathematical consistency alone is a truth criterion. Nowhere is this made more plain than in her delightful demonstration that the present predilections of every single one of the above fields can be turned into a multiverse hypothesis!

Hossenfelder knows that data is important. She also knows that modern experimentation in the physical and cosmological sciences is expensive and sometimes takes years to produce data and sometimes not even then. The physicists know this too. It used to be that theories explained existing data and then made new predictions subsequently confirmed or ruled out by further experiments. But the easy experiments have been done. The problem is that there are too many physicists, too many people chasing the next grant, the next tenured position, and not enough money, or new data, to go around. This is a part of the problem, the economics, sociology, and politics of the field. She addresses these, but they are a secondary concern. Her primary concern is squarely philosophical.

At the present level of exploration of physical foundations there are darned few predictions to be confirmed or denied either because doing so is too expensive, experiments have resulted negative outcomes, or the predicted phenomena lie beyond any conceivable experiment. What then are the legions of theoreticians to do? Noticing that many of the successful physical theories of the past have a certain elegance and simplicity about them, intrepid physicists turn to beauty and the notion of naturalness. Neither of these ideas is bad, but they are not, by themselves, good arbiters of truth and this is exactly Dr. Hossenfelder’s point and the primary subject of the book.

Of the twin notions, naturalness is the easier to quantify as it comes down to there being no, or few, “arbitrary numbers” needed to make the theory match the data. The number “1” (or numbers very close to it) is “natural” because it doesn’t change what it multiplies. Un-natural parameters (outside of science known as “fudge factors”) detract from a theory unless they can be satisfactorily explained. The demand for explanation of the fudge factors drives further theory building and she notes that as one is explained, others seem inevitably to appear. Beauty is a more vague idea still as are associated ideas of simplicity (related to naturalness) and elegance. Beauty is, after all, in they eye of the beholder and this is no less characteristic of physicists and their foundational theories as it is in art.

Dr. Hossenfelder traveled from Stockholm to Hawaii and points in between interviewing famous physicists to garner their opinions on this subject. These interviews form a goodly part of the book. Some of her interviewees work firmly in the mainstream of modern physics. Others occupy peripheral positions but have enough street credit to be read by their peers, at least for a while. Her interviews are brilliant and funny. She asks good questions, philosophical questions, and all her interviewees agree with her! The present tendency in physics she so well illuminates is a problem! But there is also consternation. “What else can we do?” is an oft repeated refrain.

Through the process of relating all of this to us, Dr. Hossenfelder expresses her own insecurities about her choice of specialty, and even physics altogether! Has she wasted her time she wonders? Perhaps. But if I had the power I would hire this woman instantly; not in physics, but in philosophy! This theoretical physicist has a lot to contribute to the philosophy of science. Not that the physicists will care much of course. As is often the case in philosophy, insights go unrecognized until after problems that might have been avoided have fully broken upon us.

Dr. Hossenfelder is not absolutely alone crying in the wilderness here. There are a few of her peers in the physics community who see the same problems and have written about them; Lee Smolin comes immediately to mind and there are, perhaps, a few others. She should not despair however. Her credentials are impeccable. She has a lot more to contribute, if not to physics directly, then to philosophy of science. She should embrace her new community!

Review: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

By sheer coincidence I published the essay, “What is Time”, shortly before reading Carlo Rovelli’s book. Rather than writing additional commentary here, I put a pointer to that essay. While it does not address Rovelli directly (I hadn’t read him yet) it covers the points made in the review included below. But I do not want to discourage people from reading this excellent book. It is always good to understand the arguments of authors with which you (in this case I) happen to disagree. One cannot claim to be a well rounded philosopher without understanding what it is that those you disagree with are saying.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (2018) Amazon review

Like consciousness, time is a subject that no philosopher or physicist has ever managed to nail down completely. Thanks to their slippery character, being so close to us (the first one IS us) they are endless sources for fountains of speculation. In this book, Rovelli’s subject is time, but consciousness comes into this narrative as well.

Rovelli is a “time denier”. OK, that’s being a little unfair but not by much. What he denies is that there exists an independent, fundamental property or quality of the universe that is time. Of course the universe is full of movement and change, events unfolding into other events. His basic position is that time emerges into our perspective, our viewpoint, from these phenomena, but it is merely an illusion. The movement is real, the changing is real, but the time in which all of this seems to occur is nothing more than a manifestation of human (possibly animal) mind and the illusion, in turn, is supported by the entropy generated in the functioning of our brains.

The book (not long read) is divided into three parts. In the first Rovelli covers the various sub-disciplines of physics and their temporal implications (or lack thereof). He begins with classical physics (the equations work backwards in time), and moves on to General and Special Relativity, and quantum mechanics. Here he demonstrates that our simple intuition of a universal time flowing from past to future is untenable. Time, mind-independent time, if it exists at all, cannot be like that. In part two he further demolishes time. Not only is it not what we think, in and for physics, it doesn’t really exist at all; even the present is an illusion! In part three, he puts time back together for and in the perspective of an subjective viewpoint.

He argues it is the fact that we view the world from a perspective, that when we perceive the world we inevitably blur the details into a sort of summary or gestalt for our perspective, that causes time to appear to mind, The physics supporting that appearance comes down to thermodynamics. Human time, brain time, is “thermal time”. Certainly Rovelli thinks thermodynamics (in particular the 2nd law) is real, but while responsible for what consciousness perceives of time and so a real enough subjective experience, from the 3rd party perspective of physics, change is real, but time is a mirage.

This book is written for a lay audience. There is almost no math in it (what there is appears in footnotes), and it defends a view common to much of the physics and philosophy community. To be sure Rovelli differs a bit from some of his peers. He argues that relativistic “block time” is no more a “true portrait of objective time” than any other theory. In Rovelli’s view remember there is no such thing as “objective time”.

In 2015 a philosopher (Roberto Unger) and a physicist (Lee Smolin) wrote “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time”. This book (reviewed by me on Amazon) makes precisely the opposite case from that of Rovelli. Of course they recognize what Relativity and quantum mechanics imply about time, but they maintain, nevertheless, that a notion (and reality) of objective, “universal time”, is more fundamental than any other phenomena of the universe, even more than space! Rovelli mentions this book in a footnote and admits that Unger and Smolin’s view “is defensible”, but he leaves it there and never addresses what is defensible about it.

The Unger/Smolin book goes against the grain of 95% of today’s physicists. Personally I agree with Smolin and Unger. The fact (thanks to limiting effect of the speed of light) that we cannot map our present to any present in a remote galaxy, or even the nearest star does not mean there is no present there, in fact everywhere. Something is happening, NOW, everywhere in the universe. We do not know what it is, but that does not mean the present isn’t real as Rovelli believes. Had Rovelli directly addressed Unger and Smolin I would have given this book another star. Had he not mentioned them at all, I would have taken another away.

In summary this is a decent and well written book advocating for a particular view of time (or no time) that I happen to think is wrong, but what do I know? It happens to be the dominant view in physics today. Rovelli is a well respected physicist and a good writer. Those of you interested in the subject will find this book valuable whether you agree with the author or not.

Review: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

Another diversion here into pop culture, this time the more strictly political. We live in dangerous times and there is no better symbol of them than this book. I did note in the review a single philosophical issue I had with the book. I will spend my time here in these comments elaborating a bit on it. As usual, the original Amazon review is included in full following these comments.

The matter concerns the accuracy of the portrait Wolff paints of both President Trump and the Whitehouse West Wing organization with particular focus on Steve Bannon, and the duo Bannon began to call Jarvanka, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared. In a way, the story is told from their viewpoint while pulling together observations and comments of other parties both a direct part of the Trump organization (however temporarily) and those on the wider periphery.

According to the story various cabals formed and evaporated over the course of Trump’s pre-inaugural period and in the first 200 days or so of the administration. It seems like the only constant was the antipathy between Bannon (painted as an essentially driven fanatic with the old fashioned instincts of a bomb throwing anarchist), and Jarvanka a pair of rich and spoiled children whose politics were liberal leaning but who hadn’t the slightest idea of how to really accomplish anything (or what could be accomplished) aside from protecting their riches and their relation to Trump. Nobody had the slightest real political experience.

Wolff gives us no reason to believe that in talking to any of these people (both the narrow and wider set of players) he was getting an unvarnished truth uncolored by their desire to use Wolff himself to “get at” any of the opposing cabals. If what he tells us is true, it would have been almost impossible for these players to relate to Wolff with the unbiased truth. Wolff became (or it was hoped he would become) one of the arrows in each cabal’s quiver. It is therefore impossible to tell if the emerging picture is a caricature or faithful photographic image. That question, I believe, will remain unanswered until further journalistic accounts of Trump’s first year (or tenure however long it goes) are written.

But all the same, and this is the scary part, the answer to the question doesn’t much matter here as concerns the relation between the Trump administration and the world (including ourselves in the U.S.). Whether caricature or photograph, the image is that of a very disturbed and dangerous situation, an American administration that not only does not know what it is doing broadly speaking, but whose ostensible leader appears pathologically unfit to serve in this office. Worse, he is surrounded by other pathologies of various kinds all of which overlap with at least two of his; great wealth taken for granted, and an unswerving belief in their judgments about matters with which their lives have prepared them in not the slightest way.

That, my friends, is frightening to me. But it gets even worse. Not only do they not understand the consequences of their actions as concerns the world at large, they do not really care so long as their wealth is preserved. That is only a little unfair because Wolff does paint Jarvanka as caring, they just don’t know what or how to do anything about it so their focus remains, as with the others, on their wealth, power, and even (especially in Bannon’s case as he was not rich) in the appearance of power.

The story continues to take bizarre twists. Today, January 16 2018, results of the President’s medical examination, including investigation of degenerative cognitive decline, were effusively described. The doctor, a military man with rows of campaign ribbons on his breast told us that this 71 year old (and obviously overweight) man was in perfect health physically and mentally. One wants to believe the doctor and perhaps it is so that there is no disease process detectable in the President’s brain. But perfect health is a bit hard to believe and would be of anyone who looked like Donald Trump does today. The doctor attributed it to “good genes”. Based on what Michael Wolff has told us, this could only be a signal that the news conference was a put on, a show. Or am I being paranoid?

That’s all I’ll say for now. Happy to discuss in comments.

Fire and Fury Michael Wolff

This must have been a difficult book to write. There is so much story to be told and the principle threads so entangled that it must have been very difficult to tie them together in a coherent story. Wolff mostly succeeds, but not entirely. Then again that is an important part of the very story Wolff is trying to tell, the story itself is about an incoherent presidential administration.

Told in broadly chronological order of the presidential election of 2016 and the roughly first 200 days of the administration up to the middle of August 2017. At the end an epilogue focused on Steve Bannon, who has a claim to being the book’s main character, brings the story up to roughly October 2017, but the pace of news has hardly stopped there. As I write this in January 2018 I can only be sure that much more will happen. Within its chronology, there are frequent steps backwards as Wolff brings in the various characters and their varying alliances coloring-in their relation to the then forward moving part of the story. Of all the characters brought to the fore, at least among the dozen or more who are in direct proximity to the president by living or working in the West Wing, only a single pair (Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner) keep the same relationship relative to one another throughout. Every other person or cabal-like group changes relationships often multiple times as most of the individuals involved come into the story and then go out!

I do have one philosophical matter to bring up. Let’s grant that Wolff reported accurately on everything he was told by everybody. He presents a fair picture of that to which he was a party either first, or at most second (and occasionally third) hand. At the same time that which he is reporting is, he points out, the back stabbing testimony of each cabal out to paint the others in the worst light possible. Even if those to whom he spoke were not outright lying to him, at the least they were telling highly selective truths almost surely leaving much out. Our only hope in this mess is that from the back stabbing of all sides towards one another and the occasional more neutral voice (though nobody was entirely neutral) from the periphery, Wolff has put together if not a true portrait, then at least a portrait true to the Kafka-esque nature of the administration! If that is a horrible thought, it is what makes this an important book.

This is high class journalism first and foremost, but it reads at the same time like an Elmore Leonard novel! As Sean Spicer began to say “you can’t make this shit up!”. Frankly this book would be hysterically funny if it was not so downright dangerous and disturbing.

Book Review: Assholes A Theory

My only additional comment here is that Amazon rejected my review (below) because it contains the word ‘asshole’. This is political correctness gone crazy. They asked me to delete the word or perhaps change it to something like ‘A******’ but I refused. Considering that the title of the book appears at the top of every review I cannot comprehend how Amazon algorithms would permit the publication of any review of this book. Be that as it may, I am not politically correct and I publish my review of this excellent book here on the blog for your edification.

Assholes, A Theory

Bravo for a brilliant book. Dr. James takes what appears at first to be a trivial notion, “the asshole” as a metaphor for a particular sort of human
behavior and uses it to illustrate how philosophy is done, what it must consider, and the directions in which it can be applied.

He begins by defining the term and then comparing it to other “terms of derision” like ‘jerk’ exploring various examples both hypothetical and drawn from the headlines so that after the first few chapters we are comfortable understanding what an asshole is as compared to other kinds of behavior worthy of opprobrium. Following this set up he moves on to social philosophy; why this behavior exists, how it comes about, various possibilities concerning its root cause (or causes) and why most (but not all) assholes are men. He next discusses what people who are not assholes can do about those who are, both on the individual level and in small or large social systems. In the closing chapters he moves further into the realm of the political and economic. He argues for a refreshing view of what might be called “the problems of capitalism”. Far from the Marxist idea that capitalism is inherently and necessarily unstable, James argues that modern (State regulated) capitalism can be perfectly stable and what makes it unstable are the presence of, you guessed it, assholes, whose behavior distorts the system rendering it less and less stable over time.

Does James make his case here for this final claim? I think he does, and it puts a nice capstone on an all around excellent book in the philosophical arena of ethics. An easy read. If you are looking for an example of good philosophical technique applied to a trivial notion that turns out to have world shattering consequences, this would be a good read.

Where Jacob Needleman Goes Wrong in “Why Can’t we be Good”

Jacob Needleman wrote “Why Can’t we be Good?” in 2007. I read it in 2017. He was a professor of mine at San Francisco State in the late 1970s. The only philosopher of religion at SFSU I took a few classes of his. Only a few. Despite a shared belief in the existence of God we disagreed about almost everything else. I see that this has not changed between then and 2007. Some of this disagreement figures in my formal review (for Amazon) of the book included below. Here in my philosophical commentary, I want to say more about it, and in particular some of that which stems from my personal experience with Jacob Needleman.

First to set some context. Needleman believes God exists. So far so good. In “Why Can’t we be Good?” he is a little vague about his concept of God vascilating between the transcent “Abrahamic God” of the world’s three major monotheisms, and something else, a “God in us”, a thread present in many religions (including the monotheisms) and emphasized in more recent movements characterized as “New Age”. I think Needleman believes that both views of God can be real at the same time which is fine by me, but in this book he is very unclear about distinguishing between the two concepts.

As is true of virtually all of today’s philosophers of religion and theologians terms like ‘person’, ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, and [less often] ‘mind’ can be used interchangeably. I am not concerned with these indistinctions here except to mention them because their blurring together does happen in this book. I am concerned rather with a problem specific to Needleman’s thought, something I came up against almost from the moment I met him and is very clearly stated in this book. One could even say it was the central point of the book. At root, the first and fundamental problem for me is that Needleman believes a genuine relationship with God (and recall he is vague about what or more precisely with whom such a relationship occurs) is a difficult achievement demanding, among other things, much study, perhaps years, and more than this, it requires the competent help of a guide, a genuinely enlightened person who can guide you through your studies. Needleman is quite clear that whatever else is necessary to successful achievement of that genuine connection, a guide, is also necessary.

How Needleman arrived at such a position I can only speculate. Having known him, my speculations might be very close to the mark. But whatever it was that brought him to this position (he does leave hints to it in the book), Needleman grew up into young adulthood and an advanced education in philosophy at a time in which the mystical and New Age ideas that fuel his viewpoint had gained a popularity in the culture of this time, something they still maintain today though far less frenetically. I think Needleman had the good fortune to seek his fortune in somewhat New Age philosophy at a time when this came to be much in demand.

In Needleman’s view, without the guide (and a guide is not the only requirement) we are literally incapable of a “genuine, deep, moral decision and action”. With the possible exception of moments of great crisis (that even this is a problem for the whole idea he just does not see) we have no real free will in the moral domain because we are all asleep, disconnected from the god within (and without). This is why we “cannot be good”. Everything we do (morally) we do out of habit or culture accretion. No moral decision really belongs to us. Needleman simply discounts what it is moral free will really represents. Not some phenomenon that requires study, but opportunity to improve the very connection Needleman asserts we don’t have by what we decide to do! Needleman does point out that one who seeks to strengthen the connection to spirit must be sincere about it, and that sincerity must lead to some action. That is all well and good except that for Needleman, any action we take that seems good is merely the outcome of our life’s moral accretions that do not by themselves get us to where we must be although such action is nevertheless (like sincerety and the guide) a necessary part of the process.

If Needleman discounts free will on the good side, he must also discount it on the bad and he does, declaring unhesitatingly that all evil in the world is the result of our disconnection from spirit. From deliberately sending tourists who ask for help in the wrong direction to ordering the construction of death camps and murdering entire communities, all of this merely a consequence of being unaware of our “true selves”. I find this notion both absurd and obscene. Needleman’s mistake also causes him to blur the distinction between error and evil. If I work in a chemical plant and accidentally open the wrong valve, perhaps I cause an explosion somewhere in the plant, a mistake, error. If on the other hand I freely open that same valve knowing it will cause that explosion, that act is not an error but evil! The difference is plain, but Needleman cannot get to it because he discounts moral free will in all but enlightened persons.

Needleman is correct about sincerity and doing something, that is acting to (freely) do the best good you can (even if it is only a small good) when a situation to do good presents itself and even if much of what you actually do is done out of habit or cultural accretion. Sincerity entails a willingness to try taking action when you can. When you do this, three things happen: (1) you become incrementally more sensitive to such opportunities for action, (2) acting becomes a little easier, and (3) your action becomes incrementally more adroit and fully free. You can call this progressive development “the working of the spirit” or just chalk it up to “practice makes perfect”. Either way, if you persist, eventually the process itself will awaken you. See my “Why Free Will”.

Notice that none of this is particularly intellectual. It is spiritual and not intellectual development. Needleman would be right to assert that the intellectual can support the spiritual. Once you are sincere and acting, study and guidance can reinforce the process, but they cannot be necessary to it.

“Why Can’t we be Good” Jacob Needleman 2007

In the interest of full disclosure, Jacob Needleman was a professor of mine at San Francisco State University where I did my philosophy MA in the late 1970s. I had a few classes from him and found we disagreed about almost everything. I will try not to get into all of that in this review, but some of it cannot, perhaps, be helped. I see the basis of our disagreements in 1979 are very much in evidence here in this book written in 2007.

In “Why Can’t we be Good?” Dr. Needleman takes stock of the evil in the world, much of it obviously the result of human behavior both now and for thousands of years past. He certainly notes that humans do also behave in what passes for goodness in their daily lives. Many of us love our children and do our best to raise them lovingly and there are instances of human action, tens of millions every day all over the world that pass for civil and often “beyond the requirements” of civil behavior. So why he asks are we not doing even better? Why does the world appear steeped in evil?

His argument is that we are not better because we have lost sight of what “real goodness” means because we have forgotten our fundamental connection to the spirit forces (God transcendent, God embodied in “our self” [often blurring these ideas]). He admits that sometimes, in crisis, we act on a “higher, genuine, moral level” but most of the time, the best we can do is merely acting our of reasonably good habits we’ve acquired from our culture, and just as often (perhaps more) we act in downright evil ways. His central claim is that we cannot find (re-discover) this connection by our-self. To re-acquire our consciousness of the fundamental connection demands a teacher, a guide, which always takes the form of some already enlightened person who can both point us to the various holy-literature (be they Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc) traditions where the connection is revealed but also help us to understand and interpret what exactly the traditions are trying to tell us. Without this guidance, we are, Needleman tells us, ultimately helpless. Putting it bluntly, we must study what it means to be good and appropriate these teachings into our inner being to even begin approaching genuine moral action.

If this all sounds a bit new agey “I can’t help the world without first helping myself” it is, but Needleman is more sophisticated than that. Besides a “teacher”, the student seeker must sincerely want this for him or herself. We are not in the realm of magic incantations that make us over in one fell swoop. Of course even the new age teachings also note this. What Needleman adds is his recognition that no matter how lacking we are in genuine morality, we must nevertheless try, that is act, in the world of our daily existence. We must act to do the “best we can” as we travel about our daily lives interacting with others however weak and habitual those actions might be. We must practice, not only in our studies, but in life. Only by these things, sincerity, study, and action, can we re-awaken our consciousness of the connection between ourselves and that relationship to the cosmos that results in genuinely deep, and not superficial, moral behavior.

But while Needleman is correct about the need for action, I do not believe he grasps its overriding significance. Because we (most of us) do not know who we really are our “moral free will” is minimal to non-existent. We are hemmed about by habits and cultural acquisitions, social accretions that render us incapable of genuinely free moral choices (except possibly in times of crisis). For Needleman this applies as much to evil as good. He twice quotes Socrates declaring “No man does evil intentionally”. All evil in the world (he says) stems from our disconnection (culturally induced) from the reality we are meant to know. Socrates (at least as quoted here) and Needleman fail to distinguish between error (the truly inevitable outcome of our limited perspective and cognitive abilities including all that we cannot know lying above our intellectual pay grade) and evil. The latter is precisely “error deliberately (that is freely) chosen”! It might be true that “no man does error intentionally”, but evil is evil because it is intentional!

The same must be true of “the good”. Certainly there is a continuum of moral choice from the trivial to the profound. But even our “good habits” were not always habits, we had to allow them to become habits at some time in our earlier life. The same holds for the accretions of our culture. Some of these are certainly harmful and others good. If, on balance, we have adopted (for ourselves) more good ones than bad, this too must be the result of genuinely moral choices all along the trajectory of our lives. The sincerity of the seeker, something Needleman notes is necessary for any sort of success, must already have been a freely made moral decision or it wouldn’t be “sincere”!

A better choice for a title for this book might have been “Why Can’t we be Better”, but that’s less dramatic and would put Needleman in the position of admitting that, provided we are sincere and we do the good that we are able to do now, we will grow incrementally better — practice makes perfect. A guide, should you be lucky enough to find a real one, can be helpful, but cannot be necessary. My applause here goes to Needleman’s emphasis on action, something he talks about more than either of the other two “necessities”, the guide and the sincerity of the seeker. Forty years ago I don’t remember this much recognition of the importance of acting, but then my memory certainly deceives me. In any case he has it here. Included in early chapters are some nice exercises people can actually do together that simulate “the ethical” in the “theater of the mind” as Needleman puts it. Easy to read, not technical. Will it help you along your “quest to be good”? Well it can’t hurt!

Searle on the Ontology of Social Reality

This is a very natural pair of reviews. Both focus on the same subject, the social world and how such social phenomena come about be they marriages, sporting events, cocktail parties, governments, or money. He is not concerned with the history of these things, but their ontological structure and how that structure is brought into existence. Searle devotes particular attention to how language, a special social phenomena with correspondingly unique properties. It is precisely language, particularly its capacity to make declarations (“I anoint you King”), and that these declarations can be compounded, that bring about both informal (cocktail parties) and formal (governments, money) social institutions. Language is not necessary to social organization as such. Higher animals engage in social behaviors without the benefit of language. But social behaviors are not institutions. Only humans create institutions, and declarative language is both necessary and sufficient. As Searle puts it, once you have language you already have [at least one] a social institution.

Naturally this raises some epistemological issues. Searle doesn’t much address libertarian free will in the earlier book, but in the later he has to address it because he recognizes that the obligations and powers of institutions, even abstract ones like money, ultimately devolve onto individuals. But obligations and powers stemming from the declarative utterances of individuals (many of course codified into such things as laws and constitutions) simply make no sense if their creation and subsequent behavioral acceptance was determined by physics. I would take the successful creation of functioning and persistent institutions to be evidence of the metaphysical genuineness of free will, but Searle refuses to go there, asserting nevertheless that it might be an illusion. He does not note that if illusion, nothing of philosophy makes any sense either.

At the end of the later book Searle addresses the subject of rights. He seems to recognize that there is no such thing as a “natural right” or “absolute right” outside of a social context. The consequences of being unarmed and meeting a hungry lion on the savanna should put paid to the idea of natural or absolute rights, but he wants to give a sensible context to the terms even within a social context. He tries, but I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps this is but a linguistic disagreement between us. Even to communicate the concept of a natural or absolute right requires language, and as Searle points out this puts the notions squarely into a social context from their inception.

The Construction of Social Reality (1997)

In an earlier review of a later book (“Seeing Things as they Are” 2015) I said Searle’s argument for “direct realism” was a bit circular. In this earlier book, he addresses that very circularity.

This book is about the physical and conceptual structure of social reality, such things as money, marriage, government, corporations, and cocktail parties. Searle points out that many animals live and cooperate in packs and so exhibit a “social reality”. All it takes to be social is for two people, or animals, to do something together. If you and I decide to go for a walk together, that, our walk, is a social fact. If we agree that a screwdriver is useful for driving screws, our agreement takes place in a social and linguistic framework in that we both know what screwdrivers and screws are for. But neither the walk, nor the screwdriver are institutional. Walking is something that humans are able to do by their physical constitution and the same goes for the screwdriver’s ability to drive screws. But other objects (coins) can also drive screws and if they can do that it is also thanks to their physical constitution.

Institutions are different. Money is not valuable intrinsically because of the properties of colored paper. It is valuable because it is embedded in an institution that applies symbols to physical things (like printed money) granting them powers they do not have merely as a product of their physics. These symbolic applications can be compounded endlessly yielding more and more complex institutions into which subsequent generations are born and raised against a background of these already symbolized and so constructed social realities. Language, that which we use to assign these symbols, is itself a socially constructed phenomenon and special because it is the institution that originates in a pre-linguistic but already social (in the animal way) context. Apart from the bodies that utter them, words work because they are symbols from the beginning. Paper colored and printed in a certain way by a certain institution (a mint) is, after all, physical. The government itself rests, ultimately, on something physical, a constitution, which is recorded in one form or another. Records (whether in language on paper, pictures, bits encoded in a computer, or uniforms conveying certain assigned powers to their wearer) are often the “at bottom” physical manifestations of our symbolic institutions. Every dollar bill is a record. Here (as I suspected) Searle and M. Ferraris (“Documentality”) come together. All of these are physical RECORDS that constitute the foundations of “from that point on” persisting social institutions. We connect the raw physical thing to the constructed institution by language.

If all of this seems too quick and over simplified, it is here in this review, but not in the book. Searle takes us through the argument that social institutions are, step by step, constructed by such symbolic assignments. “X has power to Y in context C” being the fundamental form of all institutional facts. This structure can be infinitely recursed. “Y’s” can become “X’s” and “C’s” can become “Y’s” generating symbolic constructs (social facts) recursively and Searle takes us through numerous examples demonstrating how it is that our complex social reality can be generated from the same structure which, when fully unpacked, and except for language, always finds its bottom in some physical X. Thus society grows out of the physical foundations of the world and is continuous with it.

In the book’s last three chapters, Searle connects all of this to the ontological reality of the physical world and our shared experience. Physical reality must exist in order that any statements about it are intelligible, and specific forms of physical reality (like Mt. Everest or the screwdriver) must exist and be shareable, part of our “public reality”, or we could not be sure, when we communicate (a social phenomenon) that our meanings are ever understood. If I say “the cat is on the mat” we take for granted that we know what we mean by ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, not to mention an enormous background of experience in physical and social reality such that we understand and agree on a reasonable range of contexts for cats, mats, and so on. Searle essentially argues that it is our capacity to communicate and construct social realities out of physical realities, that demonstrate the independent correspondence between our epistemic categories and the external world. None of this would work if not for mind-independent things structured much as (if not always exactly) we take them to be. Our capacity to communicate rests on the correspondence between language-reflected concept and mind-independent fact.

I would give this book six stars if I could. Searle is exceptionally good at getting at what he means in plain English. Anglo-analytic philosophy at its best, and about a meaningful subject!

Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010)

This book written in 2010 amounts to a reprise of Searle’s earlier “The Construction of Social Reality” (1997) which I have also reviewed. In the introduction to this book Searle says there were a few issues not sufficiently clarified and his aim is to clarify them.

The two books are about the same length, but Searle manages to say much more in this one about language, free will, and the sensibility of “human rights” outside formal institutional contexts. How does he manage this feat? In the earlier book he very carefully constructs his primary insight into the structure of social institutions and carefully demonstrates its application to a wide range of social phenomena like cocktail parties, sports, money, and government. In this book, he is able to state that fundamental argument more succinctly (he’s had a lot of time to work with it after all), embedding it more firmly into a clarified examination of the nature of human language as it relates to the development of social phenomena. As a result, there is nothing in the first book that isn’t also in this second one, but for some readers the main argument, the structure of all social contexts, might be stated a little too quickly here. I had no problem with it, but then I had already read the earlier book.

But despite the extensions and clarifications here, Searle still leaves a few things not clarified. He distinguishes between negative and positive rights. “Free speech” is a negative right because it requires nothing else of others besides letting me speak my mind. By contrast, a right to clean water (a UN declaration says this is a right) is a positive right because it puts an obligation on everyone else in the world to contribute to providing such a right. Searle rightly points out that positive rights are thus more problematic than negative rights, but he does not note that the UN declaration of such positive rights puts the onus of obligation on governments rather than mere individuals. He also uses a strange example, the right (in the context of the social institution of marriage) of a spouse to be consulted by their spouse before the latter commits to some life changing course of action. This is not a negative right as he seems to cast it, but a positive right, the corresponding obligation being on the spouse contemplating the act.

Finally, Searle tries to make sense of the notions of “natural” and “absolute” rights, those that exist by virtue of our being human beings outside any social context. I do not think he clarifies these ideas fully. An unarmed man encountering a hungry lion on the savanna will be eaten by the lion ninety nine times out of a hundred and that puts paid to any such thing as “natural rights” outside social contexts.

Despite getting a little loose with the notion of “human rights” at the end of the book, this is a superb portrait of the ontological structure of social reality. In a last section, Searle points out that most social scientists do not think that a grasp of social ontology really helps them with their work but they are mostly wrong about this. Most social science (for example) begins by assuming language and then asks how social reality is constructed with it. By contrast Searle notes that once you have a language, you already have a significant social context.

Book Review: Mind: A Brief Introduction by J. Searle

Below is the text of my Amazon review of John Searle’s “Mind”, an introduction to the philosophy of mind published in 2004. In this book Searle does a superb job of analyzing the structure of our mental processes, but he runs into problems trying to get a handle on free will and personal agency. Rather than comment on these two issues as a part of this review I have written an article on the subject located here.

“Mind: A Brief Introduction” by John Searle 2004

Another good book from a good philosopher, Searle’s review and proposals concerning the philosophy of mind. He sets out reviewing the dominant threads in the development of philosophy of mind noting and striking at their particular weaknesses. Searle dismisses property and substance dualism but also strikes at the weaknesses of various branches of materialist thinking on the subject. He then proposes his own theory, one that is fundamentally materialistic (physics being for Searle the ultimate basis of all things), but different in that it takes mental properties seriously but rests them firmly on what amounts to “the power and functional purpose of brains”.

Searle is an honest philosopher. He states his assumptions, makes clear his reasoning, and knows when his approach to the subject hits a wall that he has not (perhaps yet) found a way round. In this book, like everyone else, he cannot reduce-away the gap between the objective ontology of brains and the subjective ontology of experience. He points out that while every other phenomena in the physical universe can be both logically and physically reduced to some more fundamental phenomena, subjective experience cannot be logically reduced precisely because it is subjective while everything else is objective, public. Of course he assumes that there is some underlying, solely physical, foundation which will become known in time.

The book covers consciousness taken as a whole, a gestalt, and also intentionality (the “about-ness” of our thinking), the aspectral nature of all consciousness, emotions, desires, beliefs, and with these also acts: decisions and volitional control of the body. There is also a chapter on the unconscious, and that too fits perfectly well into his view of what mind is.

Searle runs into two other barriers not normally acknowledged by other philosophers. In a chapter on [libertarian] free will, he says that from a psychological point of view, free will must be real, but from his own view that consciousness is just what the brain does in the same sense that kidneys filter blood, he admits that he cannot figure out how free will could work. He alludes to a popular view that quantum mechanics might have something to do with this, but is honest enough to admit that this idea still does not really answer the question.

The other barrier is that of personal identity, the conviction that although my body and character change I remain, to myself subjectively, the same person today as I was a month or a decade back and that I can plan for the future when, presumably, this same person will still be around to enjoy the fruits of present labor. Here he addresses the “continuity of memory” theory to personal identity and accepts that this is important but is insufficient to explain the phenomenon. That these are MY memories still presupposes some “I” whose memories they are. He denies the “I” is substantive, but merely a functional hypothesis that we must have to make experience intelligible. He admits that he does not know how to get deeper into it than that.

The book is well written (could Searle do otherwise?) with little formality. His assumptions and arguments are clearly made in plain English. It isn’t an encyclopedic introduction to the philosophy of mind, but it does touch briefly on the main threads of the field as explored by Western philosophers for the past 300 or so years. His own theory, well expounded, illustrates how subtle and problematic some of the questions in the field can be. A good read. Highly recommended.