Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ category

What are the Chances?

June 8, 2007


And those bizarre, one-in-a-million coincidences that seem impossible to explain are going to happen somewhere, to someone. Occasionally they’ll happen to you.

Derren Brown, Tricks of the Mind

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

I’m not just talking about my wife, I’m talking about my life! I can’t seem to get that through to you! I’m not just talking about one person, I’m talking about everybody! I’m talking about form, I’m talking about content, I’m talking about inter-relationships! I’m talking about God, the devil, hell, heaven! Do you understand, Finally?

Harding, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


I anticipate that this post may be slightly longer than the average, so please bear with me. I’m not sure whether a point will become apparent as I write. At present, the point seems to hang slightly beyond the reach of my fumbling articulation. However, if it all ends up in a chaotic mess, then, well, maybe that’s important in itself.

Recently, I’ve been reading Tricks of the Mind by bearded mentalist Derren Brown. I’ve just finished it. It’s a fascinating, not to mention challenging, read. I was reading it on the bus home from work on Monday, and he was talking about the nature of coincidence. His thesis, essentially, is that coincidences are really just those chance events which stick in the memory and are ascribed greater significance than other chance events.

 This struck a chord with me: earlier that day, two (and only two) new patients had been referred to me, from separate sources. A quick perusal of their respective addresses revealed that they were next-door neighbours. This sort of thing tends to make one look twice. On one level, it seems remarkable. But of course, it isn’t any less likely than any other two addresses appearing on the respective referral forms. It’s just that the latter scenario would never make it into a blog post.

You see, stuff is happening all the time. Most of it is unremarkable. That which happens to be remarkable is remembered at the expense of that which isn’t. Therefore, we over-estimate the frequency of the remarkable, forgetting that nothing, like something, happens everywhere. As I sat there on the bus, I started thinking about whether Derren Brown had the right idea.

As I write, I seem to recall putting together a post on this very subject. What caused me to put finger to keyboard in that instance? The fact that every single one of my patients turned up that day, the first ‘full house’ in over a year. It hasn’t happened again since, until today. What a coincidence.

Anyway, I hopped off the bus at Lothian Road and made my way down to the Exchange to catch the next one. And as I was on my way, a cursory pat of my various pockets revealed that I was walletless. After a repeated check of all possible pockets, pouches and orifices, I realised that it might still be on the bus from which I had recently alighted.

I took a moment to set my face into the expression of steely determination which seems to benefit the sprinter, and took off. I eventually caught up with it at the Mound. I was very pleased with myself. I staggered on board, taking a moment to explain my predicament to the driver via the medium of flailing hand gestures and assorted panting. Truth be told, I rather expected that having managed to catch the bus again, the wallet would still be on it. It’s quite hard to explain, but I almost felt like having negotiated half the length of Princes Street, it was only right that it should be there. That I was somehow entitled to find it, and that this was the way it would all work out. Naturally, it wasn’t there.

It is an extremely long walk from the Lothian Road to where I live. You’ll remember the day I lost my bus card, and the consternation it caused? This time, I didn’t have the luxury of paying with money instead. All my cards, money and a little bit of my soul were in the wallet, see? 

Anyway, I began to trudge home. Knowing how long it was going to take, and imagining the usurper of my wallet was already making extravagant purchases on Amazon with my debit card, I thought: ‘wouldn’t it be excellent to find a pound on the ground, with which I could get a bus home?’. I prayed that I would find one, but find one I did not. It seems you just can’t get a coincidence when you really need one.

An hour-and-a-half later, I was home. Once I cancelled all my cards (enlisting the help of Mrs H whenever I was told I ‘didn’t have the authority’), I made a mental list of everything that would need to be sorted out if the wallet didn’t materialise. While I was doing so, Mrs H told me that she’d received a text from Arnold Clark (our mechanic of choice) reminding her that the car was due a service. Apparently, the text arrived as she was driving past that very branch of Arnold Clark on the way home from work.

Anyway, the next day, I got an email from the bank. Someone had handed the wallet in. I phoned the receptionist at the bank, who said that I could pop in to collect it at my convenience. So I did. And when I got there, I was greeted by a familiar face. The receptionist and I, it turned out, share the same bus back from work every day.

Now, all this is very strange. At the same time as I am pondering the nature of ‘coincidences’, they seem to be happening all the time. Is it just because I’m looking out for and remembering them? And if there really has been an increase in ‘coincidences’ (conjunctions of events that seem meaningful to me) what does that mean? Of all the people thinking these sort of thoughts, at least one of us is likely to perceive an increase in these ‘coincidences’ at the same time. Perhaps that’s what’s happened to me.

Or is Someone trying to tell me something?


Sunshine in Leith

May 2, 2007


I had a very enjoyable cinematic experience last night. After work, I ambled down to Ocean Terminal in Leith to watch Sunshine, the new Danny Boyle sci-fi (yes, I know).

Warning: Spoilers 

To set the scene, a handful of boffins are blasted into space on a rather curious mission. Our sun, you see, has started to sputter a little bit, and looks to be in danger of going out. The aforementioned boffins need to detonate a bomb within our beloved star in order to get it going again. Quite a big bomb actually, the size of Manhattan. This is one situation in which a wee squirt of lighter fluid just won’t cut the mustard.

Here’s the rub, though. They’re on their way sunward when they pick up a distress signal from another ship charged with a similar mission, but presumed lost some seven years ago. Having never seen Alien, they decide that the best thing to do would be to pop on over in order to offer assistance. Sadly, their diversion means that they are now at a slightly different angle to the sun, and having forgotten to adjust their protective parasol accordingly, things start to get inhospitably warm. Fires start, things blow up.

They reach the other ship eventually, where they meet Captain Pinbacker, the lone survivor. Pinbacker is an object lesson in the perils of neglecting the SPF30, and a nutter to boot. Imagine a nude Freddy Krueger and you’re halfway there. He’s become a bit pro-extinction during his seven-year solitude, and doesn’t entirely agree that the sun should be reignited. He attempts to persuade our heroes to adopt his point of view, by killing them.

I thought this was a cracking film, if a bit barmy (especially towards the end). Lots of good moral conundrums too. When the crew realise that they have insufficient oxygen supplies to reach the sun, should they kill one of their number? The survival of the human race rather depends on the success of the mission, but what if no one volunteers to be martyred for the cause? Should they kill the chap who made the gaffe with the parasol? The predicament is sort of his fault, and he’s a bit suicidal anyway. 

(A very similar issue was raised in an interesting podcast I enjoyed on the way home. During an exchange at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, Richard Dawkins, in debate with Alister McGrath, was wondering (out loud) whether there might be some circumstances in which we might advocate torture. What if an atomic bomb had been set to detonate in one of the world’s major cities, and only the would-be bomber knew where it was? Would we be justified in reaching for the thumbscrews?)

Back to Sunshine. I found myself wondering: if this situation with the sun ever arises (which, we’re told, it eventually will) will people try to do anything about it, or just accept their fate? Would people want to see the continuation of their species above all else? Let’s face it: getting a suitably large bomb organised must be a bit of a palaver.

I accidently found myself on the Wikipedia entry for this film, which had an interesting breakdown of the certifications assigned in different countries. I was particularly taken with Finland, where it got a K13 rating (whatever that is.) This rating was assigned on the basis of the ‘science-fiction setting, peril, zombies and misfortune’. Now there’s a collection of factors liable to warp the purest of innocent minds.

Although, truth be told, I don’t actually remember any zombies…

More Art

April 26, 2007

Sorry about that little break in proceedings. Please consider this a seamless continuation of the last post.

Yesterday, I was pondering exactly what is meant by art. And more specifically, is art a worthwhile pursuit? And when it comes to selling art, who decides what’s good and what isn’t, and how might an art work be assigned a monetary value?

The argument I hoped to convey was that, when considering the value of an art work, there appears to be more to it than just the technical expertise shown in the finished product. That’s why some Johnny-come-lately will never be able to sell a painting for the price of an Old Master, even if it displays all the right technical and aesthetic qualities. But then again, there appears to be more to it than artist pedigree as well. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers might sell for $50 million, but no one is going to pay that much for some scribble he produced as a one-year-old infant.

banksy.jpgConsider the works of the famous graffiti artist Banksy. I don’t know really know what he’s all about, but I enjoy looking at his work. His outdoor works are usually spray-painted in public areas. Of course, some would call this vandalism, and have articulated their views on his website. But then again, houses on which Banksy plies his trade see an enormous upward surge in value.

Consider also his painting of two policemen kissing each other, painted onto a wall in Brighton. The local community loved the iconic image, which became a popular attraction. So much so that, when it was subsequently defaced, the perpetrators were hauled before the courts on charges of criminal damage. But was their act so different from that involved in producing the work in the first place? Why is it a good thing to spray-paint a wall in some instances, but a criminal offence in others?

I recommend a visit to his website. For a flavour of what to expect, the picture shows a Banksy work as witnessed during my (not very) recent trip to Bristol.

Let’s look at another of my favourite artists, David Shrigley. He very much falls into the ‘a three-year-old could do that’ category of modern art. Technically, his works appear crudely and hastily thrown together. They rarely ‘make sense’. Sometimes they are just scribbles. So why is a trawl through his website such a treat? I don’t really know.


As I write, I am looking forward to watching The Apprentice tonight (obviously). The candidates will be faced with the task of buying and selling artworks in order to garner the approval of one A. Sugar. I’m looking forward to how the best business minds might grapple with these philosophical quandaries…

But is it Art?

April 25, 2007

sunflowers.jpgRemember that book I was talking about a few weeks ago? It was called The Pig That Wants to be Eaten. I wonder whether you’d permit me to draw upon it for inspiration once again, since one of its conundrums is relevant to what I want to talk about today. I don’t remember the detail, but the gist will suffice.

Let’s imagine that I want to make some money. A way of doing so occurs to me: I could forge a painting, and sell it. I do some market research, and discover that an original painting by Vincent Van Gogh could change hands for about 20 million pounds. I therefore decide to paint a picture and pass it off as one of Vincent’s.

Naturally, I am not immediately in a position to do so. I need to spend quite a few years researching his techniques and influences, and perfecting the physical materials necessary for the task. All this turns out to be quite an undertaking, but nonetheless I am eventually ready to create my masterpiece.

Once it’s done, I decide that it looks fairly good. I pop Vincent’s signature at the bottom, and contact an art dealer, who, after inspecting the goods, agrees to buy my painting for a cool 20 million.

Now, there would be those who say that my actions are morally offensive, since I am knowingly deceiving people. I am claiming that the picture was painted by Vincent Van Gogh when I know it was not.

But let’s leave my deception aside for now. If the painting is technically and aesthetically as good as anything Van Gogh ever produced himself (which it would be) why is it unreasonable to expect to receive a price comparable to that obtained for a genuine Van Gogh?

On the other hand, if we accept that the dealer is ‘just paying for the name’, that’s surely his lookout. If he’s willing to pay much more for a picture with a certain name at the bottom, even when a technically similar painting would fetch much less, he’s welcome.

OK. What was intended as a prologue is starting to look like a post in itself. Muse on it awhile, I shall return.

Frozen Out

April 12, 2007

embryos.jpgHave you been keeping an eye on the news recently? If so, you won’t have failed to come across the tale of one Natallie Evans. This is a terrible story. It seems that, in the throes of ovarian cancer in 2001, she and then-partner Howard Johnston decided to fertilise and store a selection of her ova, with the presumed intention of implanting them at a later stage. Now that her ovaries have been removed, she is very keen to use these embryos to bear children. But here’s the rub: her relationship with Johnston has since ended, and he’s gone and put the kybosh on the whole thing.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot since I read it. Obviously, the situation is very difficult for those involved, particularly Evans. But it also illustrates an interesting moral quandary.

On the surface of it, it looks like a no brainer. It certainly appears at first glance as if Johnston is being callous and vindictive in denying his erstwhile partner her only chance of being a natural mother. Evans’s supporters claim that Johnston’s agreement to fertilise the eggs represents his giving consent that they could be implanted at any point in the future, regardless of circumstances.

Also, the pro-life crowd will say that it is morally indefensible for the embryos not to be implanted, since they are already fertilised and ready to become children (if they aren’t already). Therefore, Johnston ought to allow them to realise their potential (actual?) humanity despite not wanting anything to do with them himself.

The ‘not wanting anything to do with them’ is problematic, though. Evans might argue that her offspring would never have anything to do with their natural father, i.e. that Johnston would not be affected by the decision to use the embryos. Sadly, as I understand it, children have the right to know who their natural parents are, and to contact them.

Johnston might argue that his consent to use the embryos was given on the understanding that his relationship with Evans would continue. He put it quite well himself: if he wanted to father children with another woman but found he was infertile, he would hardly expect Evans to agree to him using her fertilised eggs to have children with this new partner. But it seems that Evans is suggesting she be allowed to do something which is morally similar, if not identical.

Anyway, the upshot is that she’s lost her appeal at the European Court of Human rights, and the embryos will be destroyed. This is very sad, although I’m not sure that Johnston’s decision is entirely as unreasonable as the news stories would have us believe.

Science is a wonderful thing, but it opens up all sorts of moral minefields. Oh, for the days when we never had to think about this sort of thing.

Bit of a heavy post today. An interesting case, though.

The Importance of Being John Malkovich 

March 30, 2007

poster.jpgI decided to satiate my recent hankering, and watch Being John Malkovich. Mrs H agreed to watch it too, on the understanding that she would be allowed to read the Tesco catalogue for the duration. A shaky compromise was thus forged.

Let us be clear: this is an amazing film. If you’ve not seen it, do so immediately. I mean it. Don’t even read the rest of this post. We’ll wait for you to come back.

OK. That’s them gone. Let’s not wait for them. 

To start out, this film is fairly light-hearted and whimsical in tone. It is peppered with throwaway gags like those found in the Naked Gun. But it also explores a whole load of interesting philosophical issues too.

The film explores the notion of dualism, as set out by Descartes. Dualism is the view that there is a non-physical entity (e.g. the mind) that can control the physical body, whilst being separate from it. Think of it as a ‘ghost in the machine’, or a little (non-physical) person who sits inside you making all your decisions and piloting your body. It’s a bit of an odd notion, but lots of people subscribe to it. As an example, we all talk about ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ illnesses and have a good idea of what we mean by these, but are also implying that the mind and body are separate.

BJM raises the possibility that a mind could somehow be disconnected from its own body, and could inhabit someone else’s. Craig Schwartz, a struggling puppeteer, finds himself catapaulted into the body of John Malkovich, played by John Malkovich (inspired casting, that). Once inside, he can experience the world through Malkovich’s senses. Essentially, he has discovered a way for his mind to ‘ride’ in the body of another person. Later, he is able to draw upon his experience as a puppeteer to actually control Malkovich’s physical movements as well. Does this mean that he is truly Being John Malkovich?

Naturally, Malkovich has an inkling that he is not quite himself, and tracks down the doorway into his own body, located in Craig’s place of work. When he discovers that Craig and Maxine (Catherine Keener) are selling tickets for the ‘Malkovich ride’, he is understandably embittered and demands that they stop. But the door is not his property, nor is it on his property. Does he have any rights to say who can and can’t crawl through it?

What does it mean to have a mind? And can we be sure that others have one similar to ours, and that they experience things in a similar way to us? Or, as the film suggests, do we just have to ‘take their word’? And what of animals? A quick look around the menagerie in the Schwartz household reveals birds that talk. Do they have minds? Craig tells a chimp that ‘consciousness is a terrible curse’, but perhaps the chimp knows this only too well. He’s in therapy, after all.

I can only scratch the surface here,  but must heartily recommend that you watch this film as soon as possible. In fact, I think I mentioned this at the beginning. Why are you still here?

The Pig Within

March 28, 2007

pig.jpgI’m reading an excellent book at the moment. Although having read it, I am forced to wonder whether there can be any such thing as an excellent book. Or whether I have read it at all. It’s called The Pig that Wants to be Eaten.

Essentially, it’s broken up into 100 chapters, each of which is a brief ‘thought experiment’. These imagined scenarios are set out in such a way as to highlight a philosophical point, and to prompt further ponderance thereupon.

The whole book provides a thought-provoking overview of the many different branches of philosophy, drawing on the works of noted philosophers from history whilst demonstrating the relevance of philosophy to the modern age. But it still manages to be sufficiently light and compartmentalised, such that those with the most limited of intellects need not feel excluded.

This really is the book that could launch a thousand posts, but might I lay this one on you?

Imagine a scenario in which every molecule of your body could be scanned by some hypothetical supercomputer. This computer could then transmit the information about the nature and location of every particle in your body to another computer at a remote location. Provided the raw materials were present at the other end, is it possible that an exact replica of you could be constructed miles from where you started out?

As the book sets it out, this system would provide a means of teleporting yourself. You step into the scanner at one end, and then as far as you are concerned, you step away from the constructor at the other end and go on your merry way. If the physical reconstruction was flawless, would you be the same person as you were moments before? Or just a good replica? Would there be something missing from the new ‘you’, that couldn’t be defined in purely physical terms? It’s hard to know, really.

Another potential fly in the ointment is that the original ‘you’ is still left in the scanner. Now that the new ‘you’ is present and correct at the desired desination, how should the old one be disposed of? Might they object to being killed off? As I recall, this very scenario arose in The Prestige. Perhaps the original ‘you’ should just be allowed to go home. But I imagine there would be no end of problems when the new ‘you’ also arrived home and found the original ‘you’ happily ensconsed by the fire with a cup of tea.

Having conveyed 1/100th of the book, you will understand why I’m finding it extremely involving. And all this metaphysical mumbo-jumbo has reignited a certain hankering to watch Being John Malkovich again.