Thursday, June 25, 2009

Some Ado About Nothing

Seinfeld famously billed itself as a show about nothing. But all that meant was that it was about nothing “out of the ordinary”: getting up, having breakfast, going to work. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t so much about nothing as about nearly everything. But it does make the philosopher in me wonder what a show truly about nothing would be like. Would it just consist of 30 minutes (say) of a dark screen? But then what is the difference between, say, a TV that was tuned to nothing and a TV that was turned off altogether?

Nothing is quite as hard to think about as nothing itself, as a matter of fact. In fact it may be impossible to think about nothing, since, like the TV example, thinking about nothing seems equivalent simply to not thinking at all. Sure we can think about the word “nothing,” and that’s perhaps what you were doing when I raised the issue of thinking about nothing; but the word “nothing” is something, a word, and not nothing, so thinking about “nothing” is thinking about something.

Indeed, nothing itself does seem like something. We have that word for it, after all, which is a noun to boot -- and don’t words, especially nouns, have meanings by standing for things? “Nothing” definitely seems meaningful, but if it is, then it stands for nothing -- in which case it isn’t meaningful after all. So nothing must be something.

Nothing also seems to have lots of properties. We can say, for example, how much nothing there is in various places: maybe there’s forty light-years of absolute nothing between adjacent galaxies, for example. We can say how long it lasts: that dead air on the radio, in which nothing happened, or that painful silence following your proposal of marriage, each lasted seven seconds, even if the latter felt like an eternity. We can be moved emotionally by nothing: when the medical report comes back with the news that there’s nothing in our abdomen after all, we are relieved, and when our boss neglects to promote us -- she does nothing instead -- we are distressed. Nothing even has causal powers. The passerby who did nothing, instead of alerting you to the oncoming bicycle, was clearly a cause of the collision, as the posted sentry who did nothing to alert his troops of the oncoming attack was a cause of the consequences. But if nothing can have all these properties-- a size, a duration, even causal powers -- mustn’t it be something?

And there are so many different kinds of nothings! Look in the corner: there’s no lizard there (I hope), but also no plutonium, no Franklin Roosevelt, no Prince Hamlet, no space aliens, and, happily, nothing to fear (but also, sadly, nothing not to fear either). Space is a nothing: it’s the absence of anything. And darkness is a nothing; it’s the absence of light. And coldness is a nothing; it’s the absence of heat. But how could there be all these different kinds of nothing, unless they were each something? That dark cold space over there, in that corner, may look like nothing but in fact it’s awfully crowded!

Admittedly, this is a lot of ado about nothing. But thinking about nothing is a lot more complicated than one might think. And that is not nothing. It is the absence of nothing, which is really something. Or is that everything?

Which, in the end, is what Seinfeld was all about.

Friday, June 19, 2009

I'll See (a Picture of) You in my Dreams

It’s all in your mind, man.

The philosopher in me is used to hearing this, usually expressed with either concern for my well-being or a desire for me to leave the room. My response, typically, is to utter “exactly!” as the door closes behind me. Most people accept that at least some things are just in the mind: subjective sensations such as feelings of warmth and coolness, or how things taste, and even colors. But in fact, I think, it is all in the mind.

Consider a typical dream. You’re on an island, say, in the Caribbean, the sun is shining, the ocean is a gorgeous blue, you’re sipping a cool pina colada, under a coconut tree, with (literally) the man or woman of your dreams, or maybe both … And then you wake up. And you’re in your bed, at night, in winter, in New Jersey, with no sunshine, no ocean, no pina colada, and desperately, desperately alone. We’re all familiar with this phenomenon: how things appear in the dream is just not how things really are. But we’re less familiar with the implications.

In the dream, at one moment, you gazed at the coconut tree. But what, exactly, were you seeing there?

It was not a real -- that is, physical -- tree, because there is no physical coconut tree in your lonely New Jersey room. Indeed it could not have been a physical tree because, while dreaming, your eyes were closed: you weren’t physically seeing anything at all. You must have been seeing something else: a mental image of a tree, a mental tree. The same goes for everything else in a dream. What we see in dreams are mental images.

Could we say, perhaps, that your dream was of some physical tree you have seen, which your memory is now recalling? After all, even if a dream is essentially fictional it is based in reality: you have seen trees, and oceans, and islands, and your mind and memory are capable of storing and reordering all the components in new ways.

That may be true -- but still. When you “store” a memory, so to speak, just what are you storing? The real physical tree? But how can any physical object literally be “stored” in a mind? Whatever goes on in your mind must ultimately be grounded in your brain. But the real physical tree surely is not literally stored anywhere in your brain. Similarly, when your mind calls up a memory, just what is it calling up exactly? Again, the real physical tree? But that tree is far far away; it may even by now be long out of existence. It makes more sense to say this: what gets stored in memory, and “recalled,” is not the physical object itself, but some mental image of it. Mental images can be stored in minds, and can exist long after the physical object of which they’re an image is gone.

Now you are awake. If you are lucky, you’re reading this book right now on an island, in the Caribbean, the sun is shining, the ocean is blue, you’re sipping a cool pina colada, under a coconut tree, with the men and women of your dreams … Look at the tree. Your visual experience is in every way exactly like your dreamed visual experience of that tree. But in a dream, what you see are only mental images of objects. So what you see, when, while awake, you look at a tree -- is not a real physical tree.

It is all in your mind, man.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

True Colors

I’m a terrible dresser. But I’m a great blame-shifter, and my dressing problem is not entirely my fault. My pants and shirt today matched perfectly at home, in my walk-in closet; but then in front of my class earlier they didn’t match at all. I could solve the practical problem, of course, by simply holding my class in my walk-in closet. But that wouldn’t solve the philosophical problem.

What color is this shirt hanging in my closet, anyhow? I’ll say blue, which is about the best I can do with my very limited color vocabulary. I’ll still call it blue when I’m standing outside, at noon, on a sunny day, in Connecticut, in spring, even though even I can see that its color looks slightly different here than it did in the closet. And I’ll still call it blue under the fluorescent lights of my classroom, though it now looks nothing like the pants that matched its color in my closet. My limited color vocabulary can’t mask the fact, however, that this damn shirt keeps changing colors on me.

Or does it? Nothing about the shirt has changed, after all; it’s the same shirt. How can it have changed colors, when it hasn’t changed at all? Maybe I should just say that it appears different colors to me, in these different viewing contexts. The shirt isn’t changing, in other words; it only looks like it is.

But now if it looks like the shirt is changing colors, when it isn’t, then some of my perceptions must be wrong. The shirt looked different in three different contexts, above, so at least two of those perceptions must be wrong. And since it would, in fact, look different in many other contexts, maybe all three of those perceptions were wrong. Maybe, in fact, I’ve never even seen the true color of the shirt!

But wait--why believe the shirt even has a true color? To believe that it does is to believe that one of the many viewing contexts is correct while all the others are wrong. But which one is the “true context”? We’re naturally inclined to say that my dimly lit closet is not it, but why, exactly, should we privilege, say, the sunlight over the closet? What about the fact that how the shirt looks at noon, in spring, in Connecticut, on a sunny day, might be very different from how it looks at 4 pm, in the fall, on a hazier day, or in Alaska? Or why not say that fluorescent light is an improvement on sunlight, and that it lets us see the true color?

It seems to me we should give up the idea that my shirt--or other physical objects--have a “true” color. In fact we should give up the idea that objects have any colors at all. Think about it: Bodies are made up of atoms, which in turn are made up of little particles like electrons. But nobody thinks that electrons have any colors! And how can something have a color if everything it is composed of does not?

To the contrary, we should say that colors are not in objects but only in the minds of perceivers. That way we don’t have to decide which single viewing context gives us the “true” color, because there is none. Rather, we can say, in effect, that objects have every color they appear to have, in their different contexts. My shirt does not have a true color--but only true colors.

Now let’s get out of this closet.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Philosopher Within You

There’s the legend of the fish who swam around asking every sea creature he’d meet, “Where is this great ocean I keep hearing about?” A pretty small legend, true—but one with a pretty big message.

We are very much like that fish.

For consider, it’s hard to look at a newborn baby without thinking: what an incredible miracle. But when was the last time you looked at an adult and had the same thought? But why not? Every adult was a little baby; if the latter is a miracle then so is the former. But it never occurs to us to think this way for one simple reason: we’re so used to seeing people that we stop reflecting on them.

Or you drop something, a spoon, and it falls to the floor. But why? Couldn’t it, in theory, have remained floating in air or moved upwards? And how exactly does it fall to the floor, by “gravity”? There are no strings connecting the earth to the spoon. How can the earth pull on something from a distance, that it’s not even attached to? Why don’t we pause every time something drops and say: what an incredible miracle!

The most ordinary things contain a whole lifetime of questions, if only we are reminded to start asking them.

Children already know to ask these questions. Every answer you provide to one of their “Why?” questions just generates the next question. But we were all children once. What we need to do now is to let the child still within us—the philosopher within us—re-emerge. What we need now are a few seconds out of our ordinary conceptual habits. We need to take a cold wet plunge into the great deep ocean of thought.

It’s time to start thinking.