On Variety

I am astonished at how many different sorts of thing there are in the world. It’s lucky that they all evolved naturally without my having to invent them, because if it had been reliant on my imaginative powers, I don’t think there would be more than about six.

The first time I ever noticed variety was back in 1990, when I was in the process of buying my first car. Prior to that, I had never been interested in cars at all. If a friend picked me up in a car and we were driving somewhere and they asked me ‘what sort of car is this‘ I would have murmured something like ‘I can’t remember. Um, is it blue?

But buying a car brought a whole new dimension to my relationship with cars. It was, at the time, by far the biggest purchase I had ever made, so I thought I had better take it seriously. I set out to learn about the different sorts of cars. Within a few weeks, I could identify all the different hatchbacks by shape alone: the Toyota Corolla, Mitsubishi Colt, Holden Barina, Nissan Pulsar, Ford Laser, Mazda 323 and Honda Civic. The Korean brands had not yet appeared in the Australian market at that time, and I don’t think the European brands had started mass-marketing small cars in Australia at that time (not that I would have been interested in that price range).

I was quite pleased with myself at being able to identify seven different brands of car, all of a similar size and configuration, just by subtleties of shape. The approximate shapes were all the same. The differences were just slight variations in the curvature along this or that edge, or the rear hatch window being a little deeper. For the first time in my life, I marvelled at how small variations can arise in machines that are all designed to perform exactly the same task, and that those variations can be recognised by enthusiastic observers. My male friends, who unlike me had been interested in cars all along, had always mystified me at their ability to tell from a distance what sort of car something was. Now I too had acquired that seemingly magical ability.

Once I had bought my car – a humble second-hand Ford Laser – I lost interest in this taxonomical feat. That loss of interest, together with the designers enthusiastically changing the curves and slopes every year, led me to soon revert to my previous state of ‘is it blue?’ ignorance.

But this revelation of the wonder of variety was a seed that had been planted in me by the exercise. It took root, grew, and has never left me. It spread to encompass everything in my experience.

  • How do there come to be so many different colours?
  • How do clothes designers constantly come up with new shapes?
  • How many different possible human faces are there, and how is it that I can distinguish between the faces of many hundreds of people that I know when, if I tried to draw or describe them, they’d all look or sound the same?
  • Why are there so many chemical elements?
  • Why are there so many different branches of mathematics?
  • Why are there so many topics about which I feel moved to write essays?

This morning at work I responded to a request from the IT people who are preparing a new document management system for implementation. They wanted us to give them lists of topics that could be used as subject tags for documents to help the search and retrieval process. I typed away for about fifteen minutes and sent it off without thinking. A little later I looked back at the list and was amazed. The list of went for more than two pages and was almost shocking in its intricacy. ‘Do I really know about all those different things?’ I wondered. ‘Is my work really so delightfully varied that it can involve so many different activities?

If I had had to invent a world from scratch and write a list of the things that people do in it, I feel there’s no way I could ever invent so many different things. Yet the small, narrow world of my workplace has managed to evolve such a rich variety, and I have, over twelve years, learned about all the nooks and crannies of all those varieties, without even noticing it was happening.

I’m not boasting. I think that, in all of our lives, however mundane they may seem, we are surrounded by, and have detailed knowledge of, seemingly endless variety.

Take Jupiter for example. I wonder about Jupiter sometimes. They say the patterns on it constantly change, because it is all gas, after all. Yet in the middle of all that change, the big eye remains, albeit varying somewhat in shape and size. Incredible windstorms swirl the coloured gases around, always into new shapes and patterns. Wouldn’t you think that there would be just two or three states and the Jupiterian atmosphere would cycle regularly between those states? But no, there’s always something new.

Or consider the average day around an average house. How many different activities does one have to do – some highly skilled (like tying shoelaces) and some not so much (like rolling over in bed)? There’s getting up, opening and closing one’s eyes, reading, watching telly, opening and closing books, turning the telly on and off, talking, listening, doing sit-ups, opening doors, putting toilet seats back down (out of respect for the women in the house, take note Keita!), scratching itches, taking off socks, singing, writing essays, shaving, thinking, trying not to think, taking out the rubbish, washing up, sleeping, etc etc etc – and that’s all before one has even left the house. How could anybody ever manage to invent so many different things to do?

Then there’s languages. I currently have a passion for languages. I can finally read fluent French (although I can barely understand a single spoken word) and am just starting on German. Ideally, being an Indianophile, I’d like to learn Hindi or Bengali but I was put off when I discovered that they seem to have about fifteen different varieties of the English sound ‘Ah’, and I doubted my ability to ever learn to distinguish between them. Stymied by too much variety! I spent a while trying to memorise the Hindi alphabet. But how did they ever invent so many characters? Variety again!

And then how on Earth did we manage to end up with so many different languages? Wouldn’t two or three have sufficed? How did people find time to make them all up, and how did they manage to end up being similar enough to still all be considered languages, yet different enough to not just be dialects of one another, and for the speaker of one to have no idea what the speaker of another was saying?

Then there’s tunes, stories, games, occupations and textile patterns. And, you know, other stuff as well.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, January 2016

Too many words!

Books are too long. People talk for too long. Academic papers are too long. Almost everything is too long.

Why? Partly, because to be concise is very difficult. Urban legend has it that Blaise Pascal once wrote at the end of a letter to a friend: ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a short one’.

I struggle with conciseness. Part of the problem is that, when I am trying to explain something, I worry about whether what I have said is clear enough, so I keep on saying it over, in a slightly different way each time, in the vague hope that one of the attempts will make the connection.

I think a better strategy might be to make one brief attempt at an explanation and then wait for a response. If more is needed, I imagine my interlocutor will tell me. If they do, the particular nature of their response will better enable me to tailor my next statement to fill in the information that was missing in my first.

But that requires discipline, and nerves of steel. It is like being silent in an interview after giving a short reply to a question – forcing the interviewer (or interrogator) to make the next move. Few people can carry that off, and I suspect I am not one of them.

Academic papers can be particularly irritating, droning on about all the references and who has written what, so that by the time one gets to the bit about what the authors have done that’s actually new, one is exhausted and wants to retire for a tea break. It’s not clear to me whether this is a stylistic practice, imposed by the producers and reviewers of journals, or whether it reflects insecurity on the part of the authors, who may feel that they need to mention some minimum number of other papers in order to be taken seriously.

Arthur Schopenhauer railed against this sort of writing in a series of essays collected under the title ‘The Art of Literature’. He opens with an unrestrained broadside ‘There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake.‘ Schopenhauer loved the first (and of course considered himself to be one of them) and loathed the second.

If someone really has something important to say, it usually doesn’t take very long. When Neville Chamberlain announced the grim news to the British people in 1939 that Britain had declared war on Germany, the message had been delivered by the end of the 67th word. I did a test reading just now and it took about 26 seconds, including pauses for effect.

Einstein’s legendary 1905 paper that presented his special theory of relativity to the world, ending decades of confusion amongst physicists, is only 24 pages, and the key part that resolves the paradoxes by which physics was previously beset is complete by the end of page 12! John Bell’s paper that turned the world of Quantum Mechanics upside down in 1964 is only six pages. Bell cited only five references. Einstein cited none.

In general communication, most people use too many words. I do too, but I am trying to correct that. I feel that, where possible, I would like to conduct a post-mortem on every sentence I utter and work out whether that sentence has added any new information. If it hasn’t, then it was probably a waste of everybody’s time.

Politicians exploit this deliberately. They are trained to, when asked a difficult question by a journalist, give a long-winded, emphatic speech about something only tangentially related, thereby avoiding the issue and (they hope) making the journalist despair of persisting with the question because of the pressure of time. Even better, if the politician sounds confident in their ‘answer’, the less analytic watchers will form the impression that the politician is competent and frank. The more analytic types just shrug their shoulders in disgust and turn the telly off.

A sentence can be very long and yet not reveal what information it contains until late in the sentence. Sometimes there is a key word that makes it all fall into place, The words before that one stack up like the numbers in a long calculation on a Reverse Polish calculator, impotent while they wait for release. Then the key word comes and it all falls into place. It attains a meaning. The wait for that word can sometimes be prolonged, like in this:

Though they all came from different social strata, sub-cultures and occupations, crammed together against their will in the prison cell from which they wondered if there would ever be any release, though none of them had known each other – or even known of each other – in their previous lives, though they squabbled and quarrelled over the tiniest of things, the one thing that bound them together despite the rivalries and petty jealousies, the perceived slights and reconciliations, the development, disintegration and reformation of cliques, was a single shared emotion, an emotion so powerful that they could feel it oozing out of one anothers’ pores, smell it on their breath and discern it in the tones of voice – the emotion of fear.

In some cases, the key word never comes. Perhaps the writer or speaker confuses themselves by their excessive verbiage and ends the sentence with an admission of defeat.

Books are too long as well! Novels are generally OK, as it takes time to get to know and care about the characters. But I have a strong sense that non-fiction books are often padded to reach whatever is considered a minimum page count for a book – usually at least 200. There isn’t really a strong market for writings that are halfway between essay and book length. In many cases a book really only has one idea, which could make a decent essay, but doesn’t justify a book. But essays don’t get to be put on a prominent shelf that catches your eye as you enter the bookshop, nor do they get listed on the New York Times best sellers’ list.

Nassim Taleb’s famous book ‘The Black Swan’ is like that. It really only contains one idea, which is that investors, bankers and other financiers have for decades been making crucial financial decisions based on theories in which they assume that the future will be like the past, and that all occurrences of randomness must follow the Normal Distribution (the nice friendly old ‘Bell Curve’). Decisions based on that erroneous, oversimplified assumption have repeatedly led to disasters, because events tend to be more extreme than is predicted by the Bell Curve. Taleb’s is a good insight, and definitely worth saying, but probably not worth stringing out to book length.

And then, if the book sells well, they write it again, ever so slightly differently, and pretend it’s a new book, with new ideas. Taleb did that. Self-help authors do it all the time – which raises the question ‘If your first book about how to live a better life was so incomplete that it needs to be supplemented by a second, why did I waste my time reading it?‘ I suspect Richard Dawkins may do it too. As far as I can tell he has written at least four popular explanations of evolution. I read The Blind Watchmaker and thought it was great (but too long, of course!). But I didn’t read The Selfish Gene, The Ancestors’ Tale or The Greatest Show on Earth because I couldn’t see any indicators that they would contain much substance that hadn’t already been covered in the one I had read. I imagine there is some new material in each of them, but I would guess it’s more likely to be a dozen pages’ worth rather than 200+.

Fiction authors and other creative artists do this too. Stravinsky acidly observed that Vivaldi wrote the same marvellous concerto five hundred times. Bach shamelessly reused his work (goodness knows he was paid little enough for it!) and Enid Blyton invented maybe a dozen adventure and fantasy stories, which she recycled into what seems like hundreds of similar tales (surely I’m not the only one that’s noticed the remarkable similarity between Dame Slap’s School for Bad Pixies and Mr Grim’s School for Mischievous Brownies?). And let’s not even mention Mills and Boon. But somehow I don’t mind that so much. We humans are story-telling animals, and telling the same story repeatedly, changing it just a little every time, is what we have always done. I find myself able to smile indulgently on the prolixity of Enid and Antonio and Mills (?), but alas not on that of Nassim or Richard, or Deepak Chopra.

I think I’ve ranted for long enough now about how We All (including me) need to work on being more concise with our communication. It’s time to relent a little.

Not all language is just about conveying information, so the efficiency with which the information is conveyed is not always the best test. In comforting a frightened child, information communication is not the purpose of our speech. I will restrain myself from objecting that the second half of the soothing phrase ‘There, there‘ is informationally redundant. In fact, I think I could even stretch to approving of its repetition, if its first invocation was insufficient to assuage the poor mite’s distress.

Declarations of love, expressions of support, telling jokes, goodbyes, hellos and well-wishes are all ‘speech acts’ that have important non-informational components. It seems appropriate to apply different expectations to those speech acts from those we apply to informational speech. Even there, there are limits though. Many’s the operatic love aria I’ve sat through where after a while I just feel like screaming ‘OK, you love him, we get it, can we move on with the plot now please?’ And waiting for Mimi to die in La Boheme (of consumption, what else?) in between faint protestations of her love for Rodolfo, can become a little trying on one’s patience after the first ten minutes of the death scene.

But communication of information is the purpose of much of the language we use, especially in our work lives. It is a pity that so much of it is ill-considered.

Hmmm. 1,742 words. I wonder if I could turn this into a book.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, November 2015

On Language and Meaning

So many philosophical discussions seem to end up in confusion over words, that I wonder whether that is all that such discussions are: fancy piles of words, with no meaning, that we continually rearrange to see whether they look better when lined up this way than that. Yet many philosophical discussions, particularly some of those those about ethics, politics, religions, logic and science, are very valuable, and can help people live more successful, fulfilling, happier lives. So it seems worth trying to find a way to decide which discussions are meaningful and which are not. This essay sets out the results of my attempts to do that.

Finding meaning via a tree of definitions

My first observation is that we cannot find the meaning of a statement by looking up all the words of the statement in a dictionary. A dictionary defines every word in terms of other words. If we look up each of those other words, and so on, it won’t be long at all before we find ourselves going round in circles, looking up words that we have already looked up.

Digression: here’s a fun parlour game. Everybody picks a word. You look it up in the dictionary, choose the seventh word in the definition (or the last word if there are less than seven words), look that up, and so on until you are sent back to a word you have already looked up. The person that has to look up the most words before closing a loop wins. Or you can reverse the game and make the winner the one that closes a loop in the fewest lookups.

Now think about what happens if we look up all the words in each definition, rather than just the seventh one. Then we will have created a branching tree of definitions. We start with one word, then have to look up maybe twelve different words used in its definition. For each of those words we need to look up each of the different words used in their definition, and so on. The trunk of the tree is the first word. Every definition we look up is a place where the tree splits into several branches.

What we need, to terminate this process and arrive at a final understanding, are leaves. Because the leaf is where the recursive branching process of a tree finally stops.

We are not going to find leaves in a dictionary (yeah I know, pages are also called leaves, ha ha), nor yet in Google or Wikipedia, which are just different forms of dictionary. So where could we find them? The most natural way to find them is to look at the methods employed by a group of people that learn language without the aid of dictionaries – toddlers. A toddler learns a new word by observing others use the word in connection with a certain phenomenon. They learn ‘jump’ by observing people say sentences containing the word ‘jump’ when there is jumping going on. They learn ‘dog’ by observing people say sentences containing the word ‘dog’ in the presence of dogs, maybe accompanied by the speaker helpfully pointing to the dog, or a picture of a dog. They learn blue by being shown blue things while being told ‘blue!’ They learn ‘above’ by hearing that word while attention is drawn to one thing that is above another.

Ludwig Wittgenstein called this method of learning language ‘ostension’, and regarded an ‘ostensive definition’ as a naming of a phenomenon while pointing to it. Ostensive learning is most obvious with toddlers, but it is not confined to them. Most people tend to pick up new words by ostension throughout their life. Things like local slang, or the latest buzzword or jargon used within a specific trade are mostly learned ostensively. That is how I learned, in the early 2000s, that we can say ‘my team is going to verse Little Boggling High School in rugby‘ rather than ‘we are going to play Little Boggling High School in rugby‘. When explorers encounter people speaking languages they do not know, they learn to communicate by ostension. That is less common now, but one imagines it was a frequent occurrence in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Even ostension is not enough to completely terminate the search for meaning though. As Wittgenstein observed, when somebody points at something and names it, we still need the mental equipment necessary to associate the sound of the name with the thing. It appears that that equipment is built-in (‘hard-wired’) rather than learned, as are a range of other mental processes we instinctively perform, such as learning from experience (the ‘principle of induction’) and our ability to interpret our sensations in terms of a continuum with three spatial dimensions and one time dimension (an innate ability that Immanuel Kant calls ‘the Transcendental Aesthetic’). We evolved to have those abilities hard-wired, because ancestors that did not have them quickly perished.

Although we have those learning capabilities built-in, I do not think we have any actual words built in to our brains at birth. So far as I know, there is no word that is universal across all Earthly languages – No, not even ‘No!’ or a shake of the head. Hence, I can only think of two ways that we learn words, or other parts of language: by definitions that we invent (eg for new words or new uses of words we invent) or that are provided to us, that use only words we already know; and by ostension. My theory is that every part of language we learn is acquired by one of those two methods. If somebody can identify another way humans can learn language, I will have to revise my theory, but for the remainder of this essay I will assume it to be accurate.

A consequence of this theory is that, if there is any word that I cannot trace through a tree of definitions, without circularity, to a full set of ostensive leaves, then I do not know what that word means! Even a single non-terminating branch in the tree is enough to make the word meaningless.

One can think of the ‘depth‘ of the tree as the maximum number of definitions one has to pass through to get to the farthest leaf, and the ‘breadth‘ of the tree as the number of leaves. For ostensively defined words, like the above examples of ‘dog’, ‘blue’ and ‘jump’, both breadth and depth are only 1. We know what they mean without having to think of other words. Some words, while not ostensively defined themselves, will be explicable solely in terms of ostensively defined words, and have a tree depth of 2. ‘Panther’ might be an example, defined as ‘black leopard’, if we have access to pictures of leopards but no pictures of panthers.

For abstract words such as ‘evaluate’ or ‘pretend’, the tree of definitions will be quite deep and it can be daunting to trace back to the ostensive leaves from which the meaning is ultimately derived. Yet it seems that it must be possible, because we have come to understand those words and, according to my theory, we could not have done that unless we had traversed such a tree in the course of our learning our language.

It’s worth noting here that for many words we will have more than one tree of definitions available to us. As long as they ultimately convey the same meaning, that is no problem. Indeed, it is to be expected, given the rambling, nonlinear way in which we learn language. Some observers feel that there are so many intersecting trees of definition that a person’s vocabulary is more like a web than a set of trees (I think Quine’s view, from his essay ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ is something like that). But that doesn’t change the fact that ultimately that web must terminate in – be surrounded or supported by a frame of – leaves of words that we have learned by ostension.

Some occasionally meaningless words

That’s enough theory. Let’s get down to case studies of word uses that I think are meaningless. Here are some of the main culprits: ‘be’, ‘true’, ‘possible’, ‘random’ and ’cause’.

Now I don’t mean to say that any sentence containing any of those words is meaningless. Otherwise most of this essay would be meaningless, given that it contains some of those words. Indeed, the verb ‘to be’ is present in almost every piece of English ever written. I am referring only to cases where one of those words is used as if it were fundamentally understood and, like a word that is learned ostensively, needs no definition – an activity that takes place most often in philosophical discussions, especially in the field of Ontology (the study of ‘what there is‘) or Metaphysics more broadly.

There is an easy test for whether a use of a word is meaningless. Let us call a word whose meaning I am calling into question a ‘challenged word‘. A word whose meaning, as used in the sentence, can be indicated by ostension cannot be a challenged word (note that none of the four words listed above can be taught by ostension). For other words, if a sentence containing the challenged word can be translated to a sentence, or sequence of sentences, that does not contain that word, or any synonym thereof, without any loss of meaning, then the use of the word in that sentence may be able to be considered meaningful. Otherwise it cannot. I say ‘may’ rather than ‘can’ because it is possible that the translation will throw the burden of definition onto a related but not synonymous word, and that challenging that word leads, possibly after a small number of additional challenges, back to the word we started with. So this ‘translation test’ for meaninglessness can give false negatives (ie fail to identify meaningless uses of words), but it will not give false negatives (accusations of meaninglessness when there is meaning there).

The translation test, applied to ‘to be’

Here’s how this ‘translation test’ works, applied to several different uses of the verb ‘to be’. There are a number of different ways in which this verb can be used. For each case I label the type of use (bold text), show the archetypal grammatical form of its use (plain text. The word ‘copula’ denotes an instance of ‘to be’), then provide a sample sentence and a translation that avoids use of the challenged word.

  1. identity, of the form “noun copula definite-noun”:
    1. This is Freya;
    2. Translation: People call this person Freya.
  2. class membership, of the form “noun copula noun”:
    1. The cat is an animal;
    2. Translation: The class of animals includes this cat.
  3. predication, of the form “noun copula adjective”:
    1. The cat is furry;
    2. Translation: Fur covers most of the cat’s body.
  4. auxiliary active, of the form “noun copula verb”:
    1. The cat is sleeping;
    2. Translation: The cat sleeps.
  5. auxiliary passive, of the form “noun copula verb”:
    1. The cat is bitten by the dog;
    2. Translation: The dog bites the cat.
  6. existence, of the form “there copula noun”:
    1. There is a cat
    2. Translation: not always possible – see below.
  7. location, of the form “noun copula place-phrase”:
    1. The cat is on the mat;
    2. Translation: The mat has a cat on it.

All of these have satisfactory translations except possibly 6 – existence. Whether 6 can be translated depends on context. If I were pointing at the cat, a suitable translation would be ‘Look! do you see that cat?‘ Alternatively, I might be telling you about a house you are going to visit, whose occupant has a house cat. Then it could translate as ‘You may come across the occupant’s cat when you visit‘. Even if the statement were a bare assertion of existence, such as a claim that, contrary to rumours of extinction, there is still at least one live cat in the world, we could still translate it. In that case an acceptable translation would be: ‘If you could line up all the animals in the world today and inspect them one by one, you would find that at least one of them belonged to the cat species‘.

Notice that most of these translations remove the challenged word by introducing references to experienced observations. That is the easiest way of planning a tree of definitions that can be traced to ostensive leaves. Since all ostensive leaves come from observed experiences, using words that connect to experiences – whether past, future or hypothetical – makes the tree of definition easier to imagine.

It is only when the speaker tries to divorce their meaning from experience that the translation test is failed, and meaning consequently evaporates. Examples of this are:

  1. I think, therefore I am
  2. The consecrated host is the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, even though it doesn’t look, feel, smell or taste like it
  3. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost are three separate persons but they are one essence, substance and nature
  4. Electrons are there all the time, even when we are not observing them
  5. If Captain Kirk’s body were duplicated atom for atom by a malfunction of the Star Trek teleporter, one of those duplicates would be him, and one would not.
  6. The future already exists [note that ‘exist’ is just a synonym for ‘be’]
  7. Notions in physics like ‘spacetime’ and the ‘quantum wave function’ are not just mathematical abstractions. They really exist.

These sentences, each of them the subject of endless philosophical debates over the ages, are incapable of being translated into sentences that do not contain the challenged word (in bold), because they are shut off from any possible connection with actual or potential experience. According to my theory, they are thus meaningless, and the associated philosophical debates amount to no more than shovelling piles of words around and arranging them in pretty ways.

That may seem like a big claim, and on little evidence. But if the claim is wrong, it should be easy enough to demonstrate that. All that is needed is to explain what those statements mean in non-circular terms. Nobody has managed to do that in the history of philosophy, and it’s not for want of asking.

It’s worth noting that all of those untranslatable examples are cases of either the ‘identity’ or the ‘existence’ use of ‘to be’, that we identified in the above list of different uses. Items 8, 11, 13 and 14 are ‘existence’, and items 9, 10 and 12 are ‘identity’. In my experience all untranslatable, and hence meaningless, uses of ‘to be’ fall into those categories. Not all uses in those categories are meaningless though. Above I described some cases of the ‘Existence’ use that were translatable. Some cases if the ‘Identity’ use are also translatable. I will deal with one that is a famous example that is often used in philosophy, known as ‘Frege’s Puzzle‘ because it was created in the 1890s by the German logician Gottlob Frege. It is as follows:

The early Ancient Greeks thought that Hesperus, the Evening Star, and Phosphorus, the Morning Star were distinct celestial bodies. Later in Ancient Greek civilisation they came to the conclusion that they were the same celestial body – the planet we now call Venus. Frege says that no reasonable person would deny the truth of the sentence ‘Hesperus is Hesperus‘, but somebody that didn’t know that the Morning and Evening Stars were sights of the same physical object at different times could reasonably reject the suggestion that ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus‘. This spurred the creation of a whole genre of philosophical literature discussing the meanings of the phrases ‘Hesperus is Hesperus‘ and ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus‘.

Here is my translation of ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus‘.

The sight of a light in the sky just after sunset, which people call Hesperus, and the sight of a light in the sky just before dawn, which people call Phosphorus, both arise from light waves from the Sun reflected off a single large rocky object that orbits the Sun‘.

Nothing mystical and metaphysical happens in this sentence. Here the ‘identity’ use of ‘is’ just serves to tell us that two different things we see at different times come from a common physical object.

On the other hand the sentence ‘Hesperus is Hesperus‘ cannot be translated, because it is meaningless. It is a sentence that we are well rid of.

Not all sentences of the form ‘X is X‘ are meaningless though. Some of them are capable of being translated. Recently an Australian politician known to be a loose cannon, let’s call him Bruce, made an outrageous public statement about something or other. The leader of Bruce’s party was asked by journalists what he thought of Bruce’s statement. That put the leader in a tricky position, caught between being seen to condone an outrageous opinion on the one hand or being seen as disloyal to a colleague on the other. The leader’s reply was ‘Oh well, you know, Bruce is Bruce.‘ The meaning of this statement was clear to all those that heard it. It was as follows:

As you all know, the politician Bruce that made that statement has displayed a habit of saying silly, offensive things from time to time in the past, although he acts acceptably most of the time. When he says obviously silly things like that, we don’t take them seriously and neither should you.

That’s a whole lot of meaning to pack into three little words. But language can be very expressive, if used with skill.

Other questionable words

Four other words I identified as major trouble-makers are ‘true’, ‘possible’, ‘random’ and ’cause’.

I won’t spend long on them here. I dealt with the problems of making sense of the words ‘true’, ‘random’ and ’cause’ in my essays ‘Replacing Truth with Reason‘ (October 2013), ‘Some random thoughts on whether the world is random‘ (July 2013) and ‘What is a cause – trying to distill clarity from a very muddy concept‘ (June 2013).

Hmmm. Now I look back on it, I see that quite a few of my essays have been about trying to work out what certain words mean. That really accentuates the point of this essay, which is that so many apparent problems in philosophy are really nothing but confusion over words. Once we think hard enough about what the words mean, and whether they even mean anything in the context in which they are used, we see the apparently deep and insoluble problems dissolve into emptiness.

Each of those words have perfectly reasonable, practical meanings that we use every day, and in those essays I try to identify what those meanings are. It is only when people try to claim that the words stand for something much deeper than that that they lose touch with reality (and reason).

Let me say just a few words about ‘possible’ though, as the only word on which I have not yet written a dedicated essay. What do we mean when we say

It is possible that an atom in the lump of uranium in that box will undergo radioactive decay and emit a neutron within the next ten seconds‘?

As with all the other words, I have a practical interpretation that matches how we use the word in everyday life. My translation is:

Neutron emission by an atom in the lump of uranium in that box within the next ten seconds is consistent with my theory of the world and the state of my current knowledge.

Or, slightly more concisely:

I am not convinced that there will be no neutron emission by any atom in the lump of uranium in that box within the next ten seconds‘.

The crucial aspect of this translation is that ‘possibility’ is about my knowledge. Something is ‘possible’ if I know nothing that convinces me it will not happen. It is ‘impossible’ if I am convinced that it cannot happen.

Some types of philosopher – metaphysicians, and most particularly ontologists – are not satisfied with this. They dismiss that interpretation as ‘merely epistemology‘ (epistemology is the philosophy of what we can know) and insist that they are asking about whether it is ‘possible‘ for the atom to decay, irrespective of what I know. The word ‘possible’ is usually heavily emphasised, as if writing it in italics and underlining it somehow made its meaning plain. But when asked what they mean by saying ‘it is possible‘, no coherent answer can be obtained. The most we ever get is the use of a synonym, such as ‘By possible I mean that it can happen‘. But that just shifts the burden of definition to the synonym. What does ‘can’ mean here?

I don’t believe that the word ‘possible’ makes any sense at all if its meaning is not couched in terms of what we know. The absence of any tree of definition for the word is a strong sign that it is meaningless. But beyond that, there is the problem of our simple understanding that either the atom will decay or it will not. When we say it is ‘possible’ we are not saying anything about the world, because the world will unfold in a certain definite way. All we are saying is that we do not yet know how it will unfold (and stronger than that, it is usually impossible for us to know how it will unfold. But that’s the subject of another essay, yet to be written).

That’s enough about ‘possible’. More on that topic can can be found in my essay ‘Some random thoughts on whether the world is random‘, which deals with the very closely related issue of randomness.

There are plenty of other words that are meaningful in the sentences of everyday life yet meaningless in the sentences of metaphysicians. I’ll mention just a few more without discussing them. Often they occur in pairs, where the metaphysician (or theologian) is trying to make some distinction but is unable to articulate it. ‘Subjective’ vs ‘Objective’ and ‘Natural’ (or ‘Physical’) vs ‘Supernatural’ are good examples. Then there is the idea of ‘direct’ vs ‘indirect’ perception of an object. I could go on for pages about how either all perception is direct or all is indirect, but I won’t. In fact ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ are problem words in other situations as well, such as ‘direct’ vs ‘indirect’ cause (I am confident that for any purported ‘direct’ cause and effect pair I can identify a step between the cause and the effect).


The lesson I have learned from all this deliberation is pretty simple: When confusion or misunderstanding arises over meaning, we can restore clarity by insisting on using only words whose meaning can be traced to ostension. The easiest way to test whether that is possible is to try to translate the passage into one that does not contain the challenged words – the ‘translation test’. Many passages written by ontologists, metaphysicians, theologians and others that try hard to be deep, fail this test. If we apply the test to a particularly confusing bit of writing and it fails, we would do best to consign the writing to the bin rather than waste further time on it. To apply the test fairly, we should ask the person who wrote the passage to translate it or, if they are dead, far away or otherwise unavailable, ask somebody that thinks they know what it means. But if they cannot do so, into the bin it goes!

I do not however want to create the impression that we should never talk about things we do not understand, or find impossible to clearly express. That is what the arts are for. When TS Eliot says

while the evening is stretched out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table‘,

we would be silly indeed to try to enumerate the ways in which an evening is really like an anaesthetised patient. The wonder of the phrase is in the emotions and images it conjures up, not the propositional information it conveys.

So by all means let us celebrate and revel in poetry, music, literature and the other arts. They form a central and essential part of my world, without which life itself would seem unbearable. But we should avoid confusing poetic speech with analytic speech. Poetry evokes imagery and emotion, but does not make logical propositions. If we start to mistake poetry for logic, we will end up in a terrible muddle.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, August 2014


The ideas in this essay are my own, and do not seem to match exactly with those of anybody I know of. However, there have been very strong influences.

I get the impression that the writer to whose ideas this essay approximates most closely is JL Austin, of Oxford University, who is seen as the intellectual father of ‘Ordinary Language Philosophy’. I may be wrong about that however, as my exposure to Austin is only through secondary literature.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings in ‘Philosophical Investigations’ and Bertrand Russell’s essays ‘On Denoting’ and ‘Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description’ are also very influential on these thoughts. I should note that Russell had a lifelong belief in Truth and Material Reality that I do not share. Wittgenstein seemed to share those beliefs when writing the Tractatus, but perhaps discarded them in later life.

Willard van Orman Quine’s essay ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ seems very relevant, but I still don’t know what to make of it. It is a paradoxical essay, in that Quine was a brilliant logician, capable of scintillating clarity, yet that particular essay is written in loose language that makes it hard to understand what he is really saying in some parts.

There is a similarity between some of these ideas and those of the American Pragmatist philosophers Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey.

Especially interesting to me are Alfred Korzybski and David Bourland, who promoted the use of the language ‘E-Prime’, which is English with all instances of the verb ‘to be’ removed. They saw that verb as a never-ending source of confusion, and maybe even socially harmful as well. Bourland wrote a number of books in E-Prime to show how well we could do without that verb. I understand that the author and thinker ‘Robert Anton Wilson’ wrote a number of novels in E-Prime. Most illustrious of all, Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, by far the most effective form of psychological treatment of depression and anxiety (and which I see as modernised Stoicism), favoured E-Prime and saw the use of ‘to be’ as a frequent source of blame and judgement that was psychologically harmful (‘He is wicked’ vs ‘He harmed many people when he did that’). The wikipedia article on E-Prime is a rewarding read.

Excitement about learning complicated things

Do we all have things we look forward to learning? In early 1983 I was very excited about learning the meaning of ‘Direct decomposition of a finitely generated module over a principal ideal domain’. That was the name of the central section of the main text for my second year uni algebra course. The text was ‘Rings, Modules and Linear Algebra’ by Hartley and Hawkes.

I understood from the course summary and the blurb on the textbook that learning how to do the activity described by the above italicised phrase was one of the main goals of this course.

What I found particularly appealing about the goal was that it referred to three different things, none of which I knew what they were. What is direct decomposition? Dunno! What is a finitely generated module? Dunno! What is a principal ideal domain? Dunno!

To add to the titillating obscurity of the subject, each of the three things was qualified by an adjective or adverb. The first two things only had one qualification each: direct decomposition rather than just any old ordinary decomposition, and finitely-generated module rather than just a commonorgarden module. But the third thing actually had two qualifications. This was not just an ideal domain or a principal domain but it was a principal, ideal domain. How exciting is that?

(Mathematicians may wish to object that the comma does not belong, and that the word ‘principal’ actually qualifies the word ‘ideal’ rather than the word ‘domain’, so that ‘a principal ideal is a thing’, whereas a ‘principal domain’ and an ‘ideal domain’ are ‘not a thing’, to borrow the ‘thing’ terminology that seems to be so popular amongst today’s young people. But let’s not allow this minor technical point to spoil a good story).

Why, you might wonder, was I so fascinated by a topic with so much jargon in it? What, you might ask, and perhaps not entirely without reason, is my problem?

The answer, I think, is that I have a fascination with jargon, and more generally with weird, obscure and bizarre things. The jargon has to be justified though. I have no interest in the jargon invented by some professions (merchant bankers and stock brokers in particular come to mind) to describe perfectly ordinary concepts in obscure ways in order to make them appear clever to others and justify their exorbitant fees. No, what excites me is jargon that people have no choice but to invent because the concepts it is describing are so abstract and complex that ordinary words are useless.

The jargon of mathematics and many of the sciences is of this justified type. When a physicist tells you that the steps necessary for predicting the perihelion of Mercury include performing a contraction of the Riemann tensor and another contraction of the Ricci tensor in a Swarzschild spacetime, or that the possible states of a carbon atom form an exterior algebra generated by the Hilbert spaces of electrons, neutrons and protons, she is describing things that cannot be described in plain language. And yet they are real things, not just insubstantial ideas. They are things that enable humans to perform wonders.

More to the point though, when Doctor Who announces that he has ‘Reversed the polarity of the neutron flow’, we learn that as a consequence of this linguistic peculiarity the universe, which was about to have its space time continuum rent asunder (ouch!), has been saved. This is no postmodernist proliferating syllables for the sake of mystery and pomposity, as in:

“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis.” [Felix Guattari]

At heart, I think my fascination with genuine jargon is just part of an insatiable curiosity. The world is so full of intricate patterns and amazing phenomena, yet we will only ever get to see a tiny part of what is there. I want to find out what I can while I have the chance.

I can’t remember much about that 1983 algebra course, but I can picture that topic title going around and around in my brain like an obsession. I particularly remember running around the uni oval in athletics training, thinking as I went that within a few months I would actually be one of the privileged few that understood ‘Direct decomposition of a finitely generated module over a principal ideal domain’, even though at that time I had no idea of what it even meant. It was like counting down the days to Christmas.

I can’t remember the point at which we finally learned how to do it. Perhaps it was a bit of an anti-climax. Perhaps it turned out not to be as exotic as it sounded, or familiarity had bred contempt (or at least dissipated some of the awe) by the time we neared the end of semester.

As well as spoken jargon I also have a taste for unusual symbols. In primary school, when everything we do in maths is a number, the idea of doing algebra in high school, where we would use letters rather than numbers, seemed very grown-up. In junior high school we could look forward to trigonometry with those funny sin, cos and tan words, then logarithms and exponentials with log x and superscripts ex and then, even more alluring, calculus in senior high school with those loopy integral signs ∫.

At uni I couldn’t wait to be able to use the ‘plus’ and ‘times’ signs with circles around them – ⊕ and ⊗, the special curly ‘d’s that are used for partial differentials ∂. And the upside-down triangle ∇. I imagined it would be like learning a secret language, into which only specially selected people would be initiated (Yes I was vain! So sue me. What privileged, talented 20-year old isn’t?) As it turned out I didn’t get to use ∂ much, and didn’t get to learn about ⊗ or ∇ at all, because of my subject choices.

I very much wanted to learn about ‘tensors’. I had heard that they were like matrices (rectangular tables of numbers that all maths students have to study in first year uni) only more complex, and that you needed them to do relativity theory. But again I missed out because of my subject choices. Not that I regret that. If I hadn’t made the choices I did, I’d have missed out on learning about finite-state automata and NP-complete problems, and would never have had the opportunity to design a computer chip that converted binary to decimal or to write parallel-processing computer programs to simulate populations of aliens (that’s beings from other planets, not the human immigrants the Tea Party are so worried about).

Over the last few years I have rectified my lamentable ignorance of tensors, ⊗ and ∇, as a consequence of my mid-life crisis. Some people buy red sports cars and get plastic surgery. I decided I couldn’t live another year without understanding General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. It takes all sorts, I suppose.

An unexpected bonus of this flurry of crisis-induced self-study was two new hieroglyphics 〈x| and |y〉 – complete with funny names: ‘bra’ and ‘ket’ (because when you put them together to make an ‘inner product’, written 〈x|y〉, you make a ‘bra[c]ket’ – get it?).

An unexpected bonus of this flurry of crisis-induced self-study was two new hieroglyphics 〈x| and |y〉 – complete with funny names: ‘bra’ and ‘ket’ (because when you put them together to make an ‘inner product’, written 〈x|y〉, you make a ‘bra[c]ket’ – get it?). That affords me the smug satisfaction of being able to understand – if not necessarily able to follow – most of what is written on the sitting-room white board that’s often in the background in The Big Bang Theory. And yes, it usually is real physics or maths, not just made-up jumbles of unrelated symbols. Sometimes it’s even relevant to the story-line, like when Sheldon had Permutations and Combinations of a set of 52 elements written on the board, because he was trying to figure out a magic card trick one of the others had done (not that they ever referred to the board). That’s in contrast to Doctor Who, where they just sling any old combination of fancy words together (‘Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’ is not a ‘thing’. Or at least, it’s not a ‘thing’ you can do.).

I’m not expecting this essay to resonate with many people. It is a rare perversion to be intrigued by arcane language and symbols. But perhaps it’s not unusual for people to long to learn something or other that is currently far beyond their knowledge or abilities. It might be how to crochet an intricate doily, to speak a foreign language fluently, to recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner from memory or, when a bit younger, yearning to be able to ride a bicycle without training wheels, swim the Australian Crawl or play a piano with both hands at the same time.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2014

On Interrupting

What a difficult skill is conversation! And the hardest aspect of it is interruption. How and when does one interrupt? I have been participating in conversations for about fifty years and I still have not managed to figure this out yet.

As children we are taught that it is impolite to interrupt, and so it is, mostly. Yet in many conversations, especially when the pace and intensity increases, it is very hard not to interrupt. If someone pauses after a sequence of words that can serve as a completed sentence, and I start to respond to what they have said, I often find that all of a sudden we are talking over the top of one another, because what I thought was a full stop at the end of their sentence was actually only a comma – a pause for breath – in the middle of it. That can be awkward. Then one of us needs to stop talking and let the other continue, but how do we know which one it should be? It can become like that awkward dance in a corridor when the South-going and North-going person who have almost collided keep on moving simultaneously to the East, then the West, then East again, to try to let the other through, only to find that they both continue to be blocked.

The natural way to try to avoid such conversational difficulties is to wait longer before responding, to make sure that it really was a full stop and not a comma, or perhaps a semi-colon, hyphen or ellipsis. But how long should one wait? One second? Two? Three? If I wait long enough to be sure, I usually find that, yes it was a full stop, and now my friend has started a new sentence, and is perhaps a little disappointed that I offered no reply to their last sentence, which perhaps they felt was particularly insightful and worthy of comment. In fact, you can only ever be sure that a spoken sentence is finished once a new sentence has begun. But then, of course, it is too late. Trying to spot the end of a spoken sentence is like trying to spot the ‘bottom’ of a stock market slide.

This becomes even more difficult when the conversation involves more than two people. In a two-way conversation, one’s friend will often wait quite long for a reply if they expect one. But in a multi-way discussion, somebody will almost certainly plunge in if the pause exceeds a couple of seconds. That’s as it should be, most of the time. But if I consistently over-estimate the appropriate length of pause, I may end up having nothing to say all night, and people may wonder why I am so sullen.

The degree of difficulty rises yet again when the conversation involves some element of challenge. Perhaps the two parties are trying to persuade one another to change their view, or are at least challenging or questioning the opinions offered by the other. I might for instance ask whether my friend agrees with the principle the Labor party was trying to apply in the 2008-9 financial crisis – that rapidly increasing government expenditure (‘fiscal expansion’) would prevent a recession arising from the contraction of private credit. If my friend replies by explaining their view that the fiscal expansion was implemented poorly, citing numerous cases, my question has not been answered, because I am not wondering about the effectiveness of the implementation but rather about whether the expansion should have been attempted at all. Three minutes later my friend may be still waxing eloquent about how poorly he thinks the policy was implemented, without having said anything about the in-principle merits of the policy itself. As they launch into yet another compelling example of poor implementation, should I interrupt, to let them know that I have no opinion on, and have not asked about, the quality of the implementation?

Sometimes I do interrupt in such cases. But it’s a risky strategy. Some people don’t mind being interrupted, but some react ferociously. A meeker approach is to try to hold in my mind the question I originally asked and patiently wait for my friend to finish his diversion before reminding him of what I actually asked. In practice this can be difficult, because unless I look away and try to close my mind to what is being said, I usually find that the flow of rhetoric has driven my previous thoughts completely out of my head and I no longer have any idea of what I wanted to know, or what we were even talking about before the conversation shot off on a tangent.

We see this sort of thing all the time in political interviews, when a journalist asks a probing question and the politician answers a completely different one with great length and passion. In those cases the diversion is deliberate, which is not usually the case in discussion amongst friends. But despite the different motivation, the dilemma is the same – do we interrupt and bring the discussion back on track, or do we silently and patiently wait for the (often unintentional) filibuster to end, to avoid being rude.

Even where there is no dispute, difficulties can arise in long answers, if somebody uses a term we do not understand, and that renders most of what they subsequently say meaningless to us because of its reliance on that term. Is it permissible for me to interrupt a five minute discourse on the iniquities of schwerms, in order to ask what a schwerm is?

If only there were a universally recognised time limit we could apply! It would be great if if Mrs Cartland included in her etiquette guide, advice about the length of time into an answer after which it is acceptable to interrupt to indicate that the answer is off-topic, or incomprehensible. 30 seconds? 60 seconds perhaps? Sadly, there is no such guide, so I am left guessing, and mostly getting it wrong.

There are some conventions we could introduce that would ease the difficulty. One is the ‘hand up’. I would like to be able to raise my hand, like in a schoolroom, when something is said that I don’t understand or that sends the reply off topic. Ideally the friend would, like a patient school teacher, pause and say in a kindly tone ‘yes Andrew, what was it that you wanted to know?’. I have not been able to bring myself to do this though. I fear others might laugh at me.

Another Really Useful Convention would be if we agreed that nobody should ever talk for more than say one minute without seeking permission to continue. A standard form of words such as ‘there’s more to come, but first are there any questions? shall I continue?’ could be adopted to make this work. That would provide an opportunity to query unexplained terms or point out that the answer had veered off topic. We would of course need time-keepers, or perhaps clocks with big push-buttons like they use in chess. Such a convention is unlikely to get off the ground at the suggestion of a nonentity such as me though. I am hoping that George Clooney or Ryan Gosling will pick up the idea and promote it.

Some people are professional interrupters. Political journalists, mentioned above, are an obvious case, but by no means the most interesting. They operate in an atmosphere of conflict, so the interruption seems to fit. A more intriguing example is a radio announcer talking to a caller as the hour for the news bulletin approaches. They need to manage the caller’s comments so that ideally they finish exactly 20 seconds before the hour. Too early and the announcer is left with ‘dead air’. Too late and they have to cut them off. What often happens is that they exhort their caller to ‘be quick, because we only have 30 seconds before the news’, upon which the poor caller then panics and either gets stuck on an ‘er’ or ‘um’, or else descends into a flood of breathless verbal diaorrhea.

Even highly cultured and revered broadcasts, conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and academic impartiality, suffer from this problem. I enjoy listening to ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4. Melvyn Bragg discusses abstruse topics in history, science, philosophy and culture with three or four experts from prestigious universities. All very nice, but Bragg – though tremendously erudite – is an incorrigible interrupter. He constantly interrupts his experts, in the nicest possible way, to tell them that they are talking too long or that they are off topic. Sometimes it turns out that they weren’t off topic at all and that Lord Bragg had just misunderstood. This gets increasingly frenetic towards the end of the show, presumably because the dreaded News on the Hour is looming. I understand that his job is a difficult balancing act, and that what he does is necessary but it still sounds strange to hear esteemed experts being cut off and bossed about like that.

It feels as though there is such a thing as an appropriate amount of interrupting, and an appropriate time at which it is acceptable to interrupt. Melvyn Bragg perhaps interrupts too much (although we can forgive him for that because he picks such lovely topics, and usually coaxes his guests to give interesting explanations). Rookie political interviewers probably interrupt too little. As for me, I still feel like I am just guessing in the dark.

I’m still learning this conversation business. The process is very difficult. I think I am getting better, just very, very slowly. Perhaps by the time I’m 80 I will have mastered it.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, September 2013

What is a cause? Trying to distil clarity from a very muddy concept


Scene 1: So! – shrieked the evil monocled Gestapo officer. Eef you do not tell me ze name off ze leader off your resistance group, I vill shoot zis prisoner. Make your choice keffully! Do you vish to be ze cause off ze death off zis poor eenocent civilian?

Fade to scene 2: And now m’lud, intoned the imposing barrister, as you have just heard, if the defendant had correctly diagnosed the plaintiff’s stomach pain as a torsion of the testicle rather than prescribing antacid tablets, the testicle could have been saved by a simple operation that would have enabled the plaintiff to live the happy, fulfilled sexual life that he so richly deserves. I ask the court to award damages of five million dollars against the defendant for causing this poor man’s loss of sexual function.

Fade to scene 3: Have you found out why my car won’t start asked Jedediah. Well, I’m not sure, mister, said the mechanic, with a sarcastic look on her face, but it might have something to do with this snake that’s gotten its tail wedged in your starter motor. Mind your hands there, it looks a bit annoyed. Well golly, said Jedediah, who’d’ve thought that a little ol’ critter like that could cause so much trouble?

Three stories, three problems, three causes. Or are they?

If our heroine refuses to name the resistance leader to the Gestapo, will she have caused the civilian’s death? Or will the Gestapo officer have caused it? Or both? Or something else?

Did the doctor really cause the loss of the plaintiff’s testicle, or was it the fact that it managed to twist so as to strangulate the blood supply, or perhaps it was the plaintiff’s genes that gave them a particular anatomy that made them vulnerable to such an occurrence? If the latter then were the plaintiff’s parents the cause of the loss, or should we perhaps blame the person that introduced the parents to one another?

And was the snake really the cause of Jedediah’s car problems, or was it that he’d parked his car in the bush while camping overnight, providing an enticing warm place for any passing snakes to nestle in the warm engine?

Defining a ’cause’

The idea of cause and effect is an ingrained part of our language. We all feel that we know what the terms mean. But do we really? The above examples show how it’s not usually possible to point to one thing and say that is the cause of this. We might feel however that, with more care and thought, we will be able to precisely describe what really caused any given event.

The amazing answer is that No, actually we can’t. There is no such thing as a single cause of an event in the way it is traditionally thought of. The purpose of this essay is to examine the idea of cause (and effect) and work out what, if any, meaning we can give to this vague and rubbery, yet ubiquitous concept.

Is a cause necessary? Is it sufficient?

A natural place to start looking for a meaning seems to be to ask whether a cause is a necessary or sufficient condition, or both, for its effect to occur.

None of the suggested causes in the preface are necessary conditions. There are plenty of other ways the civilian could have died, the testicle been lost or the car failed to start. So we can dismiss necessity as a feature of causes straight away.

What about sufficiency? Neither of the suggested causes in the first two stories in the preface are sufficient conditions. The prisoner could have refused to snitch but the Gestapo officer relented and didn’t shoot the civilian. The undiagnosed twisted testicle could have untwisted by itself, or another doctor passing five minutes after the defendant misdiagnosed it could have had a look and diagnosed it correctly. The snake is another story though. Having a snake’s tail wedged in your starter motor effectively guarantees that your car will not start. So perhaps some causes are sufficient conditions for their claimed effects. We’ll come back to that later.

Cause as a difference between alternative prior scenarios

If I go to the dentist and ask why my lower right incisor aches, she may find decay in it and say “the cause of your ache is decay in the tooth”. The decay is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the ache. The ache could be psychosomatic with no decay, or there could be decay but a dead nerve, in which case I’d feel no ache.

Yet I know what she means. So what is it that I, and any other dental patient, understands from the dentist’s statement?

I think it is that the situation I am experiencing while sitting in the dentist’s chair, call it situation S1, may be compared with another situation S2, that is identical to S1 in every respect except that there is no decay in the tooth. In neither case do I suffer psychosomatic hallucinations, nor is the tooth’s nerve dead. The only physical differences between the two situations is the decay. If a message takes a nanosecond to travel along a nerve from the tooth to my brain then in the situations one nanosecond later than S1 and S2, call them S1a and S2a, S1a will have me experiencing toothache and S2a will not.

Now the dentist has not explicitly mentioned an alternative situation, but that’s because it’s implied. I naturally interpret her statement as meaning “According to my observations and the biology they taught me at dental school, the key difference, in the toothy-brainy part of your body, between you and somebody very like you that does not have a toothache is that you have decay and they do not”.

We can formalise this idea of a cause with a precise definition:


    1. S1 and S2 are descriptions of alternative possible states of a system at time t, and
    2. the difference between S1 and S2 is C, and
    3. theory T requires that event E occurs at time t+dt if the system state at time t is S1, and
    4. theory T requires that event E does not occur at time t+dt if the system state at time t is S2,

then C is the cause of E in system state S1 with respect to system state S2, according to theory T.’

Note that lines 3 and 4 use the concept of sufficiency, raised in the previous section. S1 is sufficient reason for E to occur and S2 is sufficient reason for E to not occur.

People rarely, if ever, refer to two alternative system states when saying something is a cause. Usually, as with the dentist, the natural choice for S2 is evident and need not be stated. But it is useful to remember that there is nearly always an implied comparison state S2 when we talk about causes. Whenever controversial or confusing claims are made about causality, as happens so often in litigation, politics and philosophy in particular, it can help enormously if we analyse the claim by trying to identify what the implied comparison state is.

Do we really need to say ‘according to theory T’?

The appendage to the definition – ‘according to theory T’ – might seem superfluous and annoying to some. After all, people don’t usually quote a theory when they say that pricking the balloon with a needle caused it to burst. Nevertheless, just like the comparison state, a theory is always there. In the case of the balloon, the theory is Physics, as taught at modern universities. Training in Physics up to third-year university would provide all the understanding needed to explain the pop of the balloon.

Looking at the dentist example, we see that our interpretation of her diagnosis does include reference to a theory, viz: ‘according to … the biology they taught me at dental school’.

Now we might imagine that both Physics and Biology are just parts of a Grand Theory of Everything, of which science has so far only discovered a portion. If that were so, then we could leave off the appendage to our description of a cause, and just imply that the theory we mean is the Grand Theory of Everything.

But although some might find the Grand Theory of Everything a nice idea, and wish there really were one out there, we have no reason to suppose there is. I discuss this further in my essay ‘Some random thoughts on whether the world is random’. The conclusion is that, unless we are prepared to regard an enormous list of everything that ever happens in the universe as a theory of everything (which most people wouldn’t) there is no way to decide what sort of a collection of statements could qualify as such a theory. Is there a word limit? Does the collection have to be finite? Does it have to be expressible in English? Does it have to be comprehensible by an intelligent human?

In addition, as I argue in my essay ‘Replacing Truth with Reason’, there may not even be any ultimate description of the universe. Our scientific advances may lead to increasingly more complicated theories that, while intriguing, exciting and pragmatically useful, never converge to a final, stable, ultimate theory. Perhaps the universe is too complicated to be described by any theory.

So we will have to put up with the appendage for the time being. Devout Platonists may wish to assume that there is a Grand Theory of Everything, and omit the appendage, implying that T is that Grand Theory. But that is an act of faith that I do not feel inclined to emulate.

It does however seem reasonable to omit the appendage when conversing in the vernacular, if our implication is understood to be not that T is the Grand Theory of Everything, but that it is “Science as taught at universities, in the year in which we are speaking”. I will call this Science 2013, as that is the year in which I am writing. This ties the use of ‘cause’ to a sense of what the best scientists in the world currently understand about how the world works, and that seems to me to pretty accurately reflect how the person in the street would understand the term ‘cause’.

When discoursing philosophically though, as in this essay, it will be wise to retain the appendage specifying the reference theory, in order to be clear.

Can we define cause without a comparison state?

Some scenarios in which we might like to talk of causes do not naturally suggest comparison states. We might for instance consider the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) that suffuses the sky, which is left over from the ‘last scattering surface’ of the Big Bang. We want to say that the Big Bang caused the CMBR. But we are stymied by the fact that we cannot think of an alternative situation with no CMBR. That situation would have to have no Big Bang, and hence possibly no spacetime, and hence no place in which to observe the lack of CMBR.

Here is an alternative definition of ‘cause’ that solves that problem.

‘If S is a description of a physical system at time t and theory T requires that event E occurs at time t+dt if the system was in state S at time t, then we say that S is the cause of E in system state S, according to theory T.’

In most situations this definition will be useless, because it requires a full description of the system state at the prior time. In order for E to be inevitable, that will have to be something like the location, momentum, type and spin of every particle within radius c.dt of the location of E (c is the speed of light) at time t. That is way too much information for everyday use. It’s a bit like saying ‘everything’ is the cause of E. But it may be useful to have this definition available as an alternative if we want to talk about causality in relation to situations that don’t have natural comparison scenarios.

In order to distinguish our two definitions of cause we’ll call the first one the Comparative Definition and the second one the Singular Definition. If we don’t specify, we’ll mean the Comparative definition because that’s likely to be most often the one we mean.

Looking back at the snake’s tail story, we can see that that meets the definition of a Singular cause of the engine not starting, if the tail is still wedged in the starter motor when the electric current unleashed by the ignition key hits the coils in the motor. If the time the current hits the coils is t, then we can say that the configuration of a spherical region of space with radius 10cm centred at the middle of the starter motor is the cause of the engine not commencing to fire at t+3.3×10-10 seconds, and that region includes the wedged snake’s tail.

A Singular cause is always sufficient for its effect, but the price we pay for that sufficiency is that the cause either has to be a complete description of the state of an enormous volume or, as is the case with the snake’s tail, the effect must occur a very tiny interval of time after the cause (a third of a nanosecond here).

Causes must be prior to their effects

The two definitions I have suggested require a cause to be earlier than its effect, which we call being ‘temporally prior’. Sometimes people talk of causes that are not temporally prior, so we should consider whether that can make sense. There are two common ways people do this.

‘Simultaneous’ causes

Some people give examples of what they think are physical causes that are simultaneous to their physical effects. They all turn out however, to be based on a misunderstanding of physics. There is a very simple reason why one physical event cannot cause another that happens at the same time, and that is the principle of relativity, which states that physical influences cannot travel faster than the speed of light. For event E1 at time t to affect event E2, also at time t, would require the influence of E1 to travel the distance between the two locations in no time at all, that is, at an infinite speed, which would break the speed limit and irritate the Great Cosmic Traffic Cop.

Examples offered of putative simultaneous causes are

  • a ball (cause) sitting on a pillow and causing a depression (effect), or
  • pushing one end of a lever down (cause) so the other end goes up (effect).

It is not the ball’s presence at time t that causes the depression in the pillow at time t, but the ball’s presence at earlier times. We can see this by imagining the ball suddenly magically pouffing out of existence. The pillow would not instantly regain shape. Rather it would start to spring back to its original, undepressed shape. If the ball were present on the pillow up to time t and instantly then disappeared, the shape of the pillow at time t would be exactly the same as if the ball were still there. The depression would gradually disappear as the pillow started to regain its usual shape after time t. In the real, non-Harry Potter world, change takes time.

Similarly, the footpath of a bridge does not stay up because its supporting beams are there, but because those beams were there an instant earlier.

When we push down one end of a lever, the other end does not instantly lift. Rather, a shock wave travels through the lever, deforming it in such a way that, a tiny instant of time later, the other end lifts. The shock wave travels at the speed of sound in the lever, which will be very fast indeed if it is made of a stiff substance like steel, but still much slower than light. Because the wave is so fast, we cannot perceive it without specialised equipment, so the effect seems instantaneous. If we had a fast enough camera, we might even be able to film the deformation of the lever as the shock-wave passes through. But we’d need an enormous enlargement of the frames to see the lever’s deformation in the film, because the shockwave of the initial push has probably reached the other end before the end we are pushing has moved a millimetre.

Readers who are familiar with the Quantum Mechanical phenomenon of entangled particles might hope for a loophole in the cosmic speed limit via the fact that, when one member of a pair of entangled particles is measured, the wave function collapses and the other member attains a definite value of the measured quantity.

This ‘spooky action at a distance’ as Einstein called it, does not however break the speed limit, because no physical influence is being transmitted. The wave function is simply a mathematical abstraction we use in Quantum Mechanics to make predictions and its collapse has no physical significance. In particular, there is no experiment we can do to find out whether the wave function of a particle has already collapsed. It will collapse when we make the measurement in the experiment, but that cannot tell us whether it had already collapsed before that.

So in summary, there is no escape from the cosmic speed limit, and hence there is no such thing as a simultaneous physical cause.

‘Logically prior’ causes

Another way people try to escape the need for temporal priority is to talk of a cause as something ‘non-physical’ that entails its effect via the laws of logic rather than of science. They could for instance say that the rules of arithmetic are the cause of 2+2 equalling 4, or that the fact that all men are mortal and Socrates is a man is the cause of Socrates being mortal.

This could be formalised by saying that if A→B where A and B are propositions and → denotes logical entailment (if the proposition before the arrow is true then the proposition after the arrow must be true) then A is the cause of B. Let’s call it a Logical Cause to distinguish it from the Comparative and Singular definitions of causes that we discussed above. In this context only, we will refer to causes meeting those definitions as ‘physical’ causes. Defining ‘physical’ is usually a controversial mess. But here all we mean by ‘physical cause’ is a cause that satisfies our Comparative or Singular Definitions.

There’s nothing incoherent about defining logical causes this way. No contradictions or ambiguities arise. The trouble is just that it’s a completely different use of the term cause from how it is used in relation to everyday physical things, so one cannot apply any conclusions drawn about physical causes to logical causes, or vice versa.

Further, there is already a perfectly good word in use within the field of symbolic logic for a logical cause. It’s called an antecedent. And the thing coming after the arrow is called a consequent.

So all we achieve by using ‘cause’ in this context is confusion, by applying a word that has a meaning in a different, completely unrelated field (the physical) to a concept that already has a perfectly clear label in this field.

Readers should beware of arguments that try to use logical causes. Such arguments might use words like ‘now consider causes that are logically prior rather than temporally prior to their effects’. The only reason I can think of to use the word ‘cause’ for a logical antecedent is to try to smuggle in some of the properties of physical causes and apply them to logical causes, without the validity of doing that being challenged. As logical and physical causes have no relation to one another, other than in a vague, touchy-feely sort of way, it is invalid to apply any properties of physical causes to logical causes.

Sorting out which event is the cause and which is the effect

Another problem of not requiring causes to be temporally prior is that it creates ambiguity as to which of the two events is the cause and which is the effect. In the physical case, this is clearly resolved by requiring a cause to be earlier than its effect. We lose that capacity if we don’t require temporal priority.

In the logical case, if we have A→B but not B→A then we can say, if we wish, that A is a Logical Cause and B is its logical effect. But if we have both A→B and B→A then there is no basis for saying one of A and B is the cause and the other is the effect. We will see in the next section how this can lead to grief.

Examples of the use of our definitions

Let’s try out our two definitions – Comparative Cause and Singular Cause – in a few situations where the word ‘cause’ is key to the thinking processes, to see how they fare.

Causation in philosophy

More than 2000 years ago Aristotle thought and wrote about causation, in a way that has been adopted by many philosophers since then. He listed four types of cause, of which only one, the Efficient Cause, is close to the way the term is typically used now. Unfortunately, even the notion of an Efficient Cause is bound up with Aristotle’s ideas about physics which, being pre-Newtonian, are incompatible with the way we now understand the world to work.

Nevertheless, philosophers still blithely make arguments using the word ‘cause’, only rarely pausing to consider what if anything the word actually means, and whether it really belongs in their arguments. A notable exception is Bertrand Russell in his marvellous 1912 essay ‘On the notion of cause’.

Here are a couple of examples of how ‘cause’ is used in philosophical arguments, and how we can use the considerations above to understand them better.

First Cause arguments for the existence of God

There is a very old and venerable argument that there must be a being (God) that is the cause of the universe’s existence. There are a number of versions, including a popular one that has been revived recently, based on a medieval Islamic argument from the Kalam school. All versions of the argument rely on God being a Cause for the universe. An obstacle to all these arguments is that there can be no ‘before’ the universe, as time is itself a feature of the universe, not something that applies outside it. So there cannot be a cause that temporally precedes the universe. Devotees of the First Cause argument sometimes respond that God is logically prior, rather than temporally prior to the universe. That is, God→Universe.

There are two problems with this argument.

Firstly it relies on a premise that every object of a certain type must have a cause. It tries to generate support for that premise by appealing to our experience, and all the examples used are of physical causes. Hence the premise is restricted to physical causes and tells us nothing about non-physical causes, which is what the argument wishes to argue God is. This is a smuggling attempt, of the kind discussed above.

Secondly, what the argument actually does is to reason from the existence of the universe to the existence of God. That is, Universe→God.

But now we have a situation that is logically symmetrical between God and the Universe, which a logician would denote as God↔Universe. Each implies the other, so we cannot say that one is logically prior. One might be tempted to say that there was a time, before the creation of the universe, when there was only God and no Universe, which makes God prior, and hence the cause. But that route is forbidden because it relies on the existence of time, which is part of the Universe.

So the philosopher that pursues this route is committed to saying that, if there is a God, then it is caused by the Universe as much as it causes the Universe.

Such a conclusion is likely to satisfy neither theist nor atheist, and demonstrates quite nicely the futility of trying to reason about causes that do not temporally precede their effects.

The Epiphenomenal hypothesis of consciousness

Epiphenomenalism is a hypothesis that says mental events (consciousness) are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events. In other words, brain activity causes consciousness, but consciousness does not cause any brain activity.

For this to be the case, given our definition of cause, a mental event must occur after the physical (presumably brain) event to which it relates. Hence the brain event can be a cause of the mental event, but not vice versa.

Importantly, if the mental event occurs simultaneously with the related brain event then we cannot say that either causes the other, because neither precedes the other. This is a crucial observation because sometimes people talk about Epiphenomenalism as if it is a simultaneous occurrence caused by the contemporary brain activity. However, as we have seen above, for simultaneous events there is no way to identify which is cause and which is effect. So a mind-body model that involves simultaneous processes is not Epiphenomenalism.

Causation in Science

Does all science rest on the assumption that everything has a cause? It might seem so, and this claim is often made, but it’s wrong. Science doesn’t need everything to have a cause, to be useful. Science rests on the observation that there are patterns in nature, such that systems appear to evolve in regular, repeatable ways that can be described by natural laws. If we can discover such a law, by inventing theories based on experimentation, and then testing the theory’s predictions using further experiments, then we may be able to predict future events, and shape the course of those events.

So science is best described not as a search for causes, but as a search for laws that describe how physical systems evolve.

We don’t even need to believe that everything is governed by natural laws. For instance, some interpretations of Quantum Mechanics hold that there is no law determining the precise time at which a radioactive particle will decay. The apparent absence of a cause for that particular aspect of reality does not however prevent us from making very precise predictions about the behaviour of physical systems using Quantum Mechanics.

In science we don’t need to have causes for everything, or even to believe they exist. At most we need causes for the important features of the system we are evaluating.

Causation in Physics

Light cones

An important concept in physics is that of the light cone. For a given point P in spacetime, the past light cone is the set of all spacetime points from which a particle could have travelled prior to passing through P. There is also a future light cone, which is the set of all spacetime points that can be reached by a particle that first passes through P. The particles in question may be photons, which travel at the speed of light, or slower particles with mass, like electrons or cricket balls.

Physicists talk about two spacetime points as being ‘causally connected’ if one is in the other’s past light cone. This means that the later point can be affected by something that happens at the earlier point. Events at points that are not causally connected cannot affect one another. That is, changing what happens at one point will have no impact on the other. Such points are called space-like separated points.

For point P, the future light cone marks out the limits of the points P can causally influence, and the past light cone marks out the limits of what points can causally influence P. Hence the light cones are regarding as showing the limits of causality.

This usage harmonises with both our Comparative and Singular definitions. In the Singular definition, the cause (according to Science 2013) of an event E at spacetime point P, with time coordinate t, is the state of the set R of all points in P’s past light cone that have time coordinate t-h for some positive h. In the Comparative definition, if S1 and S2 are alternative possible states of R, such that E happens at P if R has state S1 but not if R has state S2, then the difference C between S1 and S2 is the cause of E in S1 with respect to S2, according to Science 2013.

It might seem that the light cone perspective adds an additional constraint to causality above the constraint in our definitions that causes must precede effects. For not only must the cause precede the effect, but it must also lie in the effect’s past light cone.

It turns out that, because of the theory of relativity, this is not an additional constraint at all. We can only say unambiguously that C precedes E if C is in E’s past light cone, because then the time of C will be earlier than that of E in every possible reference frame. If C is in E’s future light cone we can say unambiguously that E precedes C, so C cannot be a cause of E. That much is obvious. But if C is in neither the future nor the past light cone of E, it will be later than E in some reference frames and earlier than E in others. Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that no reference frame is any more valid than any other, so C cannot be a cause of E if there is even just one reference frame in which it occurs after E (in fact if there is one such frame then there will be infinitely many).

This last consideration tells us that, if we ever discovered particles or other influences that could travel faster than light, it would destroy our notion of causality entirely. Because then we would have pairs of events that we thought were cause and effect, for instance the beginning and end of a path followed by one of these particles, but for which in some perfectly valid reference frames the effect preceded the cause. We would have to either jettison the notion of causality entirely, or develop a completely new one, that may only have very slight similarities to the existing one.

It is fortunate for us then that the superluminal neutrino speeds observed in experiments in 2011-12 turned out to be experimental errors.

Quantum indeterminacy

In both our definitions of Cause we say theory T ‘requires that’ the effect occurs after the cause. However quantum mechanics tells us that nothing is certain to happen. Things we think of as inevitable are really only very, very likely. How then can we meaningfully talk of an effect being required to occur after its cause?

One solution is to replace statements of certainty by probability statements. We could replace ‘theory T requires that’ by ‘under theory T there is a greater than 99.9% probability that’. Here T is of course Quantum Mechanics. If we make this substitution in the Comparative Definition (twice, for the two instances of ‘theory T requires’) and the Singular Definition (once) then these definitions are ship-shape and ready to be used in the Quantum Mechanical world.

We might wish to go further and call C a cause if the probability of E occurring after S1 is lower than 99.9%, say 50%, and the probability of E not occurring after S2 is still 99.9%. In that case C is a sort of enabling condition for E to occur, but it does not guarantee it. If we wanted to go down that route it would be better to give this type of relationship a slightly different name like ‘probabilistic cause’, to avoid confusion with the cases where C makes E almost certain to occur.

Correlation does not imply causation

A famous dictum that is often used in both science and social studies is ‘correlation does not imply causation’. Let’s put our Comparative Definition to the test to see if it supports this uncontroversial dictum. But because medical and social sciences are quite complex, we’ll use an example involving something simple instead – bowling alleys.

Imagine that a bowling alley has an easily depressed light switch placed in the middle of the alley, 20cm away from the central lead skittle. When depressed, the switch closes an electric circuit that illuminates a light above the skittles. After watching a few matches we notice that the light goes on for a fraction of a second and then off, immediately prior to every strike (knocking down all ten skittles). We have observed a correlation between illumination and strikes, and we wonder whether the light causes a strike.

First we compare two situations, describing the region R around the bowling alley, at the time a ball that has been bowled passes the switch. The situations S1 and S2 are identical except that in S1 the ball is on the switch and illuminating the light, while in S2 the ball is to the left of the switch, too far left for a strike to occur, and the light is not illuminated. The region R is large enough that nothing that is outside R when the ball passes the switch can change whether a strike occurs.

In S1, Science 2013 requires that a strike will shortly occur and in S2 it requires that a strike will not occur. So our definition of cause is satisfied. We can say that the difference between S1 and S2 caused the strike after S1. But what is the cause we have identified? It is everything in S1 that is different from S2.

That includes the light being on but it also includes the ball being in the middle of the lane. We could if we wish say that B caused the strike where B is ‘the light being on and the ball being in the middle of the lane’. The latter is consistent with what a lay person would think of as being the cause, so that’s a good start. It is reasonable to describe B as the cause. The bit about the light seems superfluous though. Can we get rid of it?

Yes we can, as follows. We add a new situation, S3, which is the same as S2 except that someone stands on the lane, avoiding the ball, and briefly depresses the light switch as the ball passes, if the ball does not itself roll over the switch. Now let’s compare S2 and S3. In both cases there is no strike. They are identical except for the man standing on the lane and the light being on. So it appears that the light being on is not a cause of a strike. The light illumination is correlated with, but not causative of, strikes.

This confirms that the Comparative Definition can, at least in this case, reproduce results that accord with our intuitions about causation.


We have developed a definition of cause – the Comparative Definition – that captures the everyday meaning of the term while removing ambiguity. The price of the additional accuracy was having to specify a comparison scenario S2 and a reference theory T.

For cases where a comparison scenario is not readily imaginable, we have an alternative definition – the Singular Definition – that still captures the commonly understood meaning. The price of this additional power is having to specify the prior scenario – the ‘cause’ – either over an enormous volume of space or a tiny period of time prior to the effect.

We have seen that an essential feature of any useful, unambiguous notion of cause is that it requires causes to precede effects in time. We observe that invocation of simultaneous causes or logical causes is usually a symptom of a flawed argument.

We have identified a way to generalise the notion of cause to handle the uncertainty that comes from Quantum Mechanics, by including probabilities in the description of a cause.

We have observed how these definitions of cause can be used in practice in a variety of fields of inquiry.

Finally, if we can take any ‘moral’ from this rather prolonged meditation, it is that in any argument that relies on notions of cause we should examine closely how the term ‘cause’ is used and what properties are ascribed to it in the argument. If this is not clearly set out, the argument may well have hidden flaws or, in some cases, be incoherent, no matter how plausible it may sound.

Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 8 June 2013

What do you mean by that?

I find that in the majority of cases when someone poses a philosophical question that appears deep and difficult, my first response is to zoom in on a key term in the question and wonder ‘what do you mean by that?’. An uncharitable observer might suggest that is just a stalling tactic to mask my confusion. But I suspect it is not. It seems to me that most of the paradoxes, dilemmas and confusions we find ourselves in are really a consequence of being insufficiently clear about meaning. Equivocation is a classic example – where a single word is used in different parts of the argument with different meanings, and then the meanings are implicitly equated under the cover of the fact that they are denoted by the same word. A folksy example of this is:

Premise 1: Dry bread to eat is better than nothing

Premise 2: Nothing is better than chocolate cake

Conclusion: Dry bread is better than chocolate cake

Here ‘nothing’ in Premise 1 means ‘not having anything to eat’ but in Premise 2 it means ‘There is no other food that…’. These are different meanings so they cannot be equated to reach the conclusion.

A more philosophical example is the old classic ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ (ex nihilo, nihilo fit). It seems plausible, because the same word occurs twice, so it just seems to say that you get out what you put in. But the two nothings are very different. The first one means ‘It is not the case that any thing…’. The second one means ‘a state in which no thing exists, including no vacuum, no time and no space’. The first of these is completely understandable, and makes perfect sense when attached to a remainder of the sentence such as ‘..heavier than 1kg remains in a cereal box from which all the cereal has just been removed’. But the second one is inconceivable to most humans, and subject to considerable debate about whether the words mean anything at all. So the sentence as a whole, despite its superficial plausibility, has an unclear, and quite possibly nonexistent, meaning.

‘Free will’ is another good one. Questions about whether free will exists seem impenetrable until one starts to seriously question whether we really understand what we mean by ‘free’. David Hume’s resolution, to say that ‘free will’ is the ability to do what you want to do, is dismissed by free will libertarians as being too weak because it supposes no control over what it is that you want, but they are unable to propose a stronger formulation that is clear and understandable. What they are searching for is a concept of not just choosing what you do but also choosing what you want to do, but attempts to express that clearly seem to me to always end up in a confusion of circularity (Can you choose to want to want to want to do what you want to want to want to want to do? How many ‘wants’ do we have to put in here to describe true Libertarian Free Will? No matter how many we put in, we always seem to need one more!).

The absolute, objective existence of unobserved things is a concept that raises particular ire. Scientific Materialistsi argue passionately that the cup they just put in the cupboard is still there even though the door is closed and we cannot see it. I say I agree, in the sense that, yes my mental model of the universe includes a cup object in the cupboard too, and if we were to open the door we would experience seeing the cup. They then peevishly retort that they are not just talking about a mental model, or what would happen if we looked, but the fact that the cup really exists, all the time, whether being observed or not. My reply is that I don’t know what such a statement means, unless interpreted in terms of a mental model, or potential observations. I can neither affirm nor deny that the cup exists when unobserved, because I can make no sense of either claim other than in relation to components of a mental model. I don’t know what ‘exist’ means when my two clear interpretations (component of a mental model; potential or actual observation) have been thus disallowed.

Now sometimes when we ask ‘what do you mean by that?’, it is possible to arrive at a shared understanding via further discussion. Even if the first definition leads to a request for further definitions (of words used in that definition), it may be that, after the fourth or fifth round of definitions, we arrive at concepts for which we have a shared understanding. If so, everybody is happy and we can proceed with discussion, and in learning from one another. That is always my hope when I ask ‘what do you mean’, and I think it is fulfilled more often than it is thwarted.

But there are some concepts that elude definition, and things like free will and unobserved existence are paramount examples of that. An attempted definition of one elusive term rests crucially on another equally elusive one, then another, and so on. We never get to a point where the meaning is clear. At worst, a discussion of those topics can end with the accusation ‘You know perfectly well what I mean! You’re just pretending that you don’t’, or the old classic ‘You’re just playing with words!’.

If a Scientific Materialist was so annoyed with my failure to understand her that she wanted to derail my thinking at any cost, she could take the tactic of saying ‘You say you don’t know what I mean by “exist”. Well what do you mean by “experience”?’ I could try to explain ‘experience’ but she could then pick another word in my explanation and say ‘but what do you mean by that?’. And so on. The game of ‘what do you mean by that?’ can be played interminably and, if you play it long enough, you will end up in a circle of definitions.

So is it just a silly game, or ‘playing with words’ to object that I don’t know what somebody means by something?

I was perplexed by this for quite a long time. I felt that my objections about the lack of clarity of concepts like ‘free will’, ‘a state of nothing’ or ‘absolute, unobserved existence’ were valid, but I felt that I would be unable to defend myself if those with whom I was discussing turned to me with a question about what I meant by one of my key terms, which usually revolve around concepts like ‘experience’, ‘observation’, ‘meaning’, ‘understanding’ or ‘feeling’, and then met all my attempted explanations with requests for further definitions.

This seemed such an obvious avenue for fruitful counter-attack that I found it strange that nobody used it. Now I think I know why they don’t. I think it’s because those terms are meaningful to them. Most people have a firm understanding of terms that are directly connected to first-person experience, perhaps because that’s where we all start in learning to speak. We see, we point, we name, we imitate.

If somebody did ask me what I meant by ‘experience’ for instance, I would try to describe what an experience was to me. I have a strong feeling that they would understand what I meant. Of course we can never know what it is like to be somebody else. But we make the working assumption that it is pretty similar for them to what it is for us. And that assumption seems to work, in the sense that communication is frequently effective, that we often get along, cooperate and achieve things together. It’s like how I assume that red looks the same to you as it does to me. It may not, but that doesn’t seem to matter. When we talk about red together, say buying a red cardigan, we seem to agree that the outcome of the discussions is what we expected.

What would I do then, if somebody claimed not to know what experience means, and met all attempted definitions with requests for further definitions? The only time someone ever did this to me it was not an annoyed Scientific Materialist but one of my children, who spotted an opportunity to confound their father and exploited it for all it was worth, for the sheer joy of it. Bless them! My patriarchal heart swells with pride at their ingenuity.

I have come to the realisation that the best response to such a line is simply to point out that we seem to have insufficient common vocabulary for a constructive discussion. That is neither a declaration of victory nor an admission of defeat. It is just an acknowledgement that for discussion and argument to achieve anything, there must be a certain minimum amount of shared language, and if that is not present there is no point.

Does it seem a little asymmetrical and unfair for me to demand a definition of ‘existence’ but not offer one for ‘experience’? The asymmetry comes from the fact that my interlocutor has not asked for a definition of ‘experience’, so it’s fair in the sense that I have attempted to provide definitions wherever requested. But in any case, this is not a poker game, where the winner takes all. For me, scientific, mathematical or philosophical discussion is a collaborative enterprise, the fruits of which are an improved understanding and acceptance of the world for both parties. Discussions where we start with opposing views can be especially useful, because they exposes one’s own views to critical analysis, both at the hands of the interlocutor, and in one’s own attempts to explain them clearly. My views have often changed as a result of such discussions, I hope usually in the direction of increased sophistication.

Discussions with a fervent advocate of Scientific Materialism or Libertarian Free Will usually end up with a realisation that we simply cannot reach a common understanding of what the key term – say ‘absolute, unobserved existence’ – means. In the first several such discussions I probably left with a somewhat smug feeling that the concept they were upholding had no meaning, but they were unable to realise that. Now I’m not so sure though. It is certainly possible that they are just mistaken, muddling themselves up with words that they think mean something but in fact don’t. But it is also possible that there is some real idea, feeling or concept of which they have an elusive sense, but which they are simply unable to put into words. After all, the ability to express something in words is a hopeless arbiter of what is real and meaningful to us. I cannot express Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the colour of a sunset in words, but those are both powerful experiences.

So perhaps the best way to resolve a frustrating discussion of this sort is for the party that has asked for an explanation of a key term to say to the party that is unable to supply one:

“It sounds like you feel very strongly that there is an important, real concept of x (say ‘absolute, unobserved existence’). Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any way to express the concept in words clear enough to allow us to consider it logically. Although I feel as though there may be no such concept, you may be right that there is one, just hiding beyond the limits of our language’s ability to describe it adequately. It’s also possible that you may have fruitful discussions about it with others that share your sense of the existence of such a concept. Unfortunately, you and I don’t appear to have any such shared sense, so we will have to discuss something else. So tell me, what do you think is the future of Capitalism?”

Andrew Kirk
Bondi Junction, January 2013

iScientific Materialism is a philosophical position in ontology that has absolutely no relation to how much one understands, believes or relies on science. So please don’t conclude from the fact that I am not a Scientific Materialist that I am anti-science. That would be the complete opposite of my real view.