Monday, January 26, 2009

Bad knees

I’ve been thinking more about Sextus Empiricus M 9.162–7. Here is an interestingly similar set of concerns which I have mentioned before.
My knee hurts, and I am aware of the fact. If a perfect physiologist examined my knee he would know it too. But there is a difference between my awareness and his. What kind of difference? I do not know anything which he does not know. On the contrary, he knows much more about my pain than I do–'I only know it hurts'. I do not even want to say that I know it better than he does. And, provided he is giving me his full attention, I do not want to say either that I am better aware of my pain than he is. But there is still a difference between me and him: we know what we know in completely different ways. We might say: we know the same thing from different points of view. The question then is: is it enough for God to be the perfect physiologist, or must he somehow 'feel my pain'? I think he must, because if not, then there is something which I know and he does not, viz. not my pain, but my view of my pain. Of course, God 'knows just how I feel', but that phrase is no more comfort here than elsewhere: his knowledge remains theoretical, derived, whereas mine is perceptual, immediate. Mine is not therefore better, but it is different. If God's knowledge of my pain is only that of the perfect physiologist, then I have an awareness, a perspective, which God lacks. And that contradicts the spirit of the first requirement. [1]
Franck’s reaction to the argument is that god’s omniscience can be preserved by god’s immanent omnipresence: god does have my perspective on my pain because he is ‘in me’ and therefore can know it as I can, ‘from the inside’ as it were.

I have no idea whether that is a satisfying response since I share none of the relevant starting points. I don’t even think this worry about pain is one that needs to be shown to be compatible with a certain notion of God. But looking again at this passage I think there are various other interesting things about this stretch of Francks' argument. I think there are a number of points that are worth questioning. Here is the first. Francks claims:

1. The sufferer knows nothing that the perfect physiologist does not know about the sufferer’s hurt knee.

Rather than the sufferer having some knowledge that the physiologist lacks, Francks insists instead that the two know the same thing but in different ways and from different points of view and if this is true it is enough to throw doubt on god’s omniscience since there will be a view or perspective on the hurt knee that god lacks.

I am not sure I find 1. very plausible [2]. I think I would want to say that there is a difference: the sufferer know what it is like to have a knee hurt like this which the physiologist qua physiologist does not. (He may have hurt his own knee in exactly the same way, I suppose, which might muddy the waters, but if he has then the knowledge he thus gains he has not qua perfect physiologist but qua sufferer.)

Does anyone think 1. is a plausible thing to say? (I wonder how 'perfect' physiology is imagined to be.)

[1] Francks, R. 1979. ‘Omniscience, omnipotence, and pantheism’, Philosophy 54: 395–9, at 396.

[2] Certainly the following is clearly false (unless the sufferer is a perfect physiologist too):

2. The perfect physiologist knows nothing that the sufferer does not know about the sufferer’s hurt knee.

Monday, January 19, 2009

TV like it used to be

I don't think telly is dumber than it used to be. There's a lot more telly out there, so there is a lot more dumb telly too. But I'm not sure nowadays anyone would make a programme like Bryan Magee's The Great Philosophers. They don't need to, perhaps, because you can still watch it via the glory of YouTube. The episodes are chopped into 10 minute bites, but that is perhaps a good thing too.

Here are Magee and Burnyeat on a beige sofa talking about Plato. (This is the first bit. You have to click around afterwards for part II) :

And here are Magee and Nussbaum talking about Aristotle:

Saturday, January 17, 2009


I promise to get back to ancient philosophy soon but for the moment I'm drowning in college admin. But all is not lost because Morrissey's new album is out in February and here is the single. One of its virtues is that is is barely two minutes long. This may be because Moz can't be bothered to sing much but pop songs hardly ever need to be longer than three minutes at most.

It's called 'Throwing my arms around Paris' and is not, alas, a new piece of Homeric reception. But I like it all the same.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Who ya gonna call?

Anomometrics! Not catchy, I grant, and the current website is not yet in its final bells and whistles state but this latest brainchild of a colleague in college will probably find a market. I reckon it needs a big shiny box, perhaps on a backpack, and lots of flashing lights. And a big gun thing that contains all the sensors. Then we can wave it at Derek Acorah and see what happens.

I did get hold of the Science of pleasure book as promised and it's quite fun. I'm just in the early chapters on sex, drugs, and chocolate so far and there's less science and more anecdote. But I did discover that Wisbech 'Capital of the Fens', where I grew up (and attended the excellent Elm Road Primary School), was for some time a hotbed (if that's the right term) of opium eating. There's some serious academic stuff on it here. And here I found this anecdote from a visitor to Wisbech in 1871:
Went into a chemist's shop, laid a penny on the counter. The chemist said - `The best?' I nodded. He gave me a pill-box and took up the penny, and so the purchase was completed without my having uttered a syllable. You offer money, and get opium as a matter of course. This may show how familiar the custom is.
Wisbech isn't so interesting now, it seems, although Wikipedia tells me it was the site for the trials of the Tesco loyalty card.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The vanity and suffering of life

January is perhaps not the best month to be thinking such thoughts, but I am preparing a talk for the Cambridge undergraduate Classics society, the Herodoteans and for some reason I decided that I would talk about ‘The evil of being born’. The topic is related to my work on the fear of death and also to something on Cicero Tusculans 1 in which A. begins with the thought that death is bad and therefore it makes the living wretched since they have to die.

Anyway, I have been reading a bit of Schopenhauer, specifically his essay ‘On the vanity and suffering of life’ (ch. 56, supplement to book 4 of The world as will and representation). He’s a cheery soul, isn’t he? Still, he knew his classical sources well and concludes the essay by noting that in many ways they too were, as he puts it ‘deeply affected by the wretchedness of existence’. (He goes on to cite Homer, Plutarch, Theognis, Sophocles, Pliny and so on.) But earlier in the essay I noticed that he came up with this rather interesting observation:

If life itself were a precious blessing, and decidedly preferable to non-existence, the exit from it would not need to be guarded by such fearful watchmen as death and its terrors. But who would go on living life as it is, if death were less terrible? And who could bear even the mere thought of death if life were a pleasure? But the former still always has the good point of being the end of life and we console ourselves with death in regard to the sufferings of life, and with the sufferings of life in regard to death. The truth is that the two belong to each other inseparably, since they constitute a deviation from the right path, and a return to this is as difficult as it is desirable.

So the harm of death makes continuing to live bearable and the sufferings of life make the prospect of death bearable. There’s something satisfying about Schopenhauer’s paradox and it seems to me to be a smart antidote to the Epicurean claim, for example, that death is not harmful and it is possible to live a life which is somehow both satisfied such that we should not worry that it can be prematurely curtailed but also is such that it can provide sufficient reasons for us to wish to continue living.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

New pleasure book

Too late for my Christmas list, unfortunately, comes a new book on the 'science of pleasure' by Paul Martin, author of Making Happy People (not, interestingly, Making People Happy... because as the subtitle shows Martin is interested first of all in childhood development). Anyway, I'll be getting hold of it as soon as I can. The review in the Grauniad is not very helpful and hints that the direct philosophical interest in the book may not be very high. (The review suggests that the 'interesting' distinction between pleasure, desire, happiness and satisfaction is left aside for some more straightforward talk that a little bit of what you like is probably good for you.) Bu there do seem to be some bits on the neurology of pleasure that even an idiot like me might be able to comprehend.

What's interesting is that there is rather a good seam of sophisticated and scientifically-informed discussion of the philosophy of pain (I'm thinking in particular of work by Hardcastle and Aydede, most recently) but much less when it comes to pleasure. Of course, philosophers like talking about pleasure alright. But there's not such an impulse to turn to our natural philosopher friends and ask what pleasure is or what its physical basis might be. I wonder if this is because pleasure is less homogeneous than pain; there seem to be so many (very) different kinds of pleasure that the impulse to find any common physiological basis is that much weaker. And Martin's book perhaps points that way too -- the title at least points to certain kinds of pleasure, physical ones linked to generally agreed pleasant physical stimuli. Now these might well have some common basis. But it wouldn't be so tempting to title a book: Sex, a nice conversation, and a new idea... even though I reckon these three too might all be said to be common causes of pleasure.

I'll let you know what the book is like once I read it. I like the cover though.