Wittgenstein on the difficulty of speaking

I read the following entry in one of Wittgenstein's diaries today:

I speak far too easily. --- Through a question or an objection one can seduce me to produce a stream of words. While I talk I sometimes see that I am on an ugly track: that I say more than I mean, talk to amuse the other, draw in irrelevancies in order to impressionate and so forth. I then strive to correct the conversation, to steer it back onto a more decent course. But only turn it a little and not enough out of fear --- lack of courage --- & retain a bad taste.

This happens to me easily especially in England since the difficulty of communication (because of character, not because of the language) are enormous from the start. So that one must perform one's exercises on a swaying raft rather than on solid ground. For one never knows whether the other has entirely understood one; & the other has never understood oneentirely.

This entry is particularly interesting to me because the very same words can be used to express my own experience. Indeed, I find that the difficulty of communication makes me speak far too easily. This is not paradoxical, for the word "easily" does not mean without difficulty, but means likely to happen.

I speak faster in English than in Chinese even though English is my second language, and even though my spoken English is far from good. When I speak English, I am "on a swaying raft rather than on solid ground", so I have to move a lot to make sure that I am heading in the right direction.


Absence of evidence and evidence of absence

Is it true that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence? The best answer is: It depends on the case. Let us consider three cases:

I. There is no evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, but the absence of evidence is not evidence that there is no extraterrestrial life. This is because we may have reason to believe that it is improbable for life not to exist somewhere other than Earth.

II. You are investigating a murder case and there are only two persons, A and B, who might have motivation for murdering the victim. A and B are the only suspects; you have some (but not overwhelming) evidence that A committed the crime, but you do not have any evidence that B did it. The absence of evidence that B did it is not evidence that he didn't do it --- he is still a suspect. However, if later on there is more and more evidence that it was A who committed the crime, this will allow you to give more weight to the fact that there is no evidence that B did it, and you can accordingly say that the absence of evidence is now evidence that he didn't do it.

III. Suppose Jennifer believes that there are unicorns. You point out that unicorns are mythical creatures and there is no evidence that they exist. She responds by insisting that the absence of evidence for the existence of unicorns is not evidence that they don't exist. Is this a reasonable response? No, for we have very good reasons for believing that there are no unicorns and there is no need for having any evidence for the truth of the belief.

There can be a more systematic treatment of "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"; the point I want to make here is just that we should not accept it as a general principle.


How was Jesus sacrificed when he did not really die?

Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins, but they also believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that is, Jesus did not die after all. If Jesus did not really die, then he wasn’t really sacrificed, was he? Cf. If you slaughtered an animal in order to sacrifice it to your god(s), but it came back to life immediately, was the animal sacrificed?

Indeed, if you believe that Jesus is God, and that God cannot die, then you have to believe that Jesus cannot die either. You can at most believe that that human organism which was Jesus' body ceased to function and then was revived by God. (This was, by the way, no big deal for God. Remember, God is omnipotent!) But then this would be compatible with Jesus the person not being dead at any time. If Jesus is God, then there was no point of time at which the person Jesus --- who is God --- was dead.

So, strictly speaking, Jesus was not sacrificed; it was Jesus' body that was sacrificed (even this, as I pointed out in the first paragraph, is questionable since his body was revived). But there is no reason to believe that that particular human body was so special that the sacrifice of it was sufficient for redeeming us, for God could easily have taken on another human body.

It may be objected that if, as Christians believe, humans have an immaterial soul, then in the sense in which Jesus did not die, humans whose bodies ceased to function did not die either, nor, for that reason,could any of them be sacrificed. True, but that only strengthens my point. If not even humans can be sacrificed, then how could Jesus be sacrificed? (There is, however, an important difference between normal humans and Jesus: even if humans have an immaterial soul, a human soul can be destroyed by God, while Jesus cannot cease to exist.)


Love at first sight

Is there such a thing as love at first sight? I think it depends on how literally we take the word 'love' here. If 'love' here means no more than a feeling of romantic attraction, then there is certainly love at first sight. However, if 'love' here means, well, love, then it is not clear that most of the cases that people would describe as 'love at first sight' are really love.

When someone describes his first encounter with his beloved as 'love at first sight', it is usually a retrospective description. It is in the light of his love for her now that he sees the first encounter that way. If after the first encounter their relationship had not developed further, that would not have changed that experience, but he probably would not have described it as 'love at first sight'. So it is more reasonable to think that the first encounter was not love at first sight; it is just that it is seen as love at first sight retrospectively.


The largest class ever

It is unusual for a philosophy book written by a famous professional philosopher to be a New York Times bestseller, but here is one: Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?. It is based on Sandel's "Justice" course at Harvard, which has been one of the most popular courses at Harvard since it was first offered about twenty years ago. The class is usually very large, and in Fall 2007, it had 1.115 students, making it the largest class ever at Harvard. I can't imagine what it is like to be teaching such a huge class. I am teaching a 120-student class this semester, and it is already too large for me. My teaching has been improving though. This is the fifth week of the semester and I think I have learnt a few tricks to teach the class more effectively. But it is still not easy. Over a thousand students? No way!

By the way, I have skimmed through Sandel's book and got the impression that it is a very interesting introduction to moral philosophy.



Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.

So true. But who says this? Surprise, surprise: it's Nietzsche!


Is everyone a philosopher?

Is everyone a philosopher? For me the answer is clearly 'No'. Some may think we can define 'philosopher' so loosely that anyone who thinks about how to live and answers the question --- who thereby has her own 'philosophy of life' --- is a philosopher. But the fact is, not everyone thinks about how to live. Some people are incurably unreflective; they should not be considered philosophers even on the above extremely loose definition of the term.

There are, however, people who think that even if they are not philosophers, they will understand philosophy if they try to. They believe that if they pick up a philosophy book and read it, they will understand it; they also believe that if two philosophers are discussing a philosophical problem, they can easily chime in and contribute to the discussion. They have no idea that some philosophical ideas/problems/arguments/theories are impossible to understand without some training and background knowledge.

How do I know there are such people? From the following experience: I was reading a rather difficult philosophy book; a friend saw that and asked me what I was reading. I told him the title, and he went on to ask me what the book was about. I tried my best to explain the problem discussed in the book in terms that he might understand. His response was, "How interesting! That will be the next book on my reading list." And I said, certainly unwisely, "I think this book is a bit too advanced for you." He seemed offended.

It is hard to imagine that this would have happened if I were a physicist and the book I read were on quantum mechanics.


Living and understanding life

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." This famous saying of Kierkegaard may seem obviously true: the future is indeterminate, so 'my life in the future' is not something definite that I can understand now; by contrast, my life in the past is fixed, but it is gone now and I can only live in the present, moving forwards into the future.

However, I can have a plan for my future and understand what my life should be like according to the plan. This is, in a sense, understanding life forwards. On the other hand, I cannot live without being affected by my memories of the past. If my memories are so powerful that they dictate how I live my life now, then I am in a sense living in the past, living my life backwards.

There is indeed an entry in Kierkegaard's journal in which he remarks that "life must be understood backwards", but what he says next is a qualification of the remark:

And if one thinks over the proposition it becomes more and more evident that life can never really be understood in time simply because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting-place from which to understand it --- backwards.

There is no resting-place because my life changes constantly for as long as I live. How I understand my life so far depends on how I see things and how I live my life now, but both of these can change (and usually not as a result of my own decision), and my understanding of my life will change accordingly. My understanding of my life is thus always tentative.


Ignore, ignorant, and ignorance

Is "ignore" the root of "ignorant" and "ignorance"? I suppose etymologically the three words must be related, maybe having the same Latin root, but in English "ignore" forms an interesting contrast in meaning with "ignorant" and "ignorance". Ignorance of X is lack of knowledge of X, but to ignore X one has to know of X in the first place, that is, one cannot ignore something that one is ignorant of.

However, if one ignores X, one will not be able to know X further than one already does. So, in a way, ignoring X does lead to ignorance of X. On this understanding, knowledge is a matter of degree, and so is ignorance.


Philosophy and masturbation

There are two things Karl Marx says about philosophy that I think every philosopher should give some thought to:

(1) Philosophy is to the real world as masturbation is to sex.
(2) The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

I don't think (1) is true of all philosophy, but it is easy to philosophize in such a way that all we are doing is no more than finding our way out of a conceptual maze we have created, a maze that does not tell us anything beyond itself. It would be fun, intellectually, if we got out of the maze, and in a sense this would be solving the problem. But we should also ask: Why does it matter?

As for (2), I am not sure philosophers should always try to change the world. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to think that some philosophy (such as social and political philosophy, normative ethics, and even some philosophy of mind) has the potential to change the world, though it may take a long time.

(1) and (2) are, of course, related. If one's philosophy is nothing but conceptual masturbation, it should be not expected to be able to change the world.


What's wrong with the unexamined life?

According to Socrates, an unexamined life is not worth living. Call this the Socratic view. Some would disagree with the Socratic view, insisting that an unexamined life can be flourishing, fulfilling, satisfying, happy, valuable, meaningful, and hence worth living. Call this the other view. I think the other view is correct, but there is a way of understanding the Socratic view so that it is compatible with the other view.

The Socratic view should be understood against the background of the question "How should I live my life?". Call this the Socratic question. Anyone can ask the Socratic question, but not everyone does ask it. But for a person who has asked the Socratic question, the only way to answer it is to examine her life so far and see how she should move on (or whether she should move on at all). To put it another way, a person who has asked the Socratic question is already self-reflective, and her attempt to answer it consists in having further self-reflection. If she finds an answer to the question and knows how she should live her life, that must also be a life that she thinks is worth living.

The Socratic view is thus true for a person who has asked the Socratic question, for it means no more than that a person cannot answer the question "How should I live my life?" and say, earnestly and firmly, "Yes, my life is worth living!" without having examined her own life.

On this understanding, the Socratic view is thoroughly first-personal. The other view, by contrast, is third-personal. It is possible for a person's life to be considered worth living by others while he himself does not have the belief that his life is worth living because he has not asked the Socratic question.


Two views of philosophy

The following is David Lewis's characterization of philosophy:

One comes to philosophy already endowed with a stock of opinions. It is not the business of philosophy either to undermine or to justify these preexisting opinions, to any great extent, but only to try to discover ways of expanding them into an orderly system. [...] There is some give-and-take, but not too much: some of us sometimes change our minds on some points of common opinion, if they conflict irremediably with a doctrine that commands our belief by its systematic beauty and its agreement with more important common opinions. (Counterfactuals, p.88)

I am not sure what to make of it. On the one hand, this goes against my conviction that philosophy is by nature self-critical; on the other hand, I have to admit that what Lewis says is true of many philosophers, including himself.

Compare this with the following passage by Foucault:

After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower's straying afield of himself? There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all. [...] what is philosophy today --- philosophical activity, I mean --- if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known? (The Use of Pleasure, p.8)

I find myself agreeing with Foucault, though I am not sure to what extent philosophical reflection can change one's fundamental world view. Yes, "to the extent possible", but what is that extent? So, this is inspirational, but I am not sure how true it is of actual philosophers.

I am torn between these two views of philosophy.


How to read Foucault

I had read a few introductory books on Foucault and did not find any of them very helpful. Yesterday I picked up this one by Jonanna Oksala, entitled How to Read Foucault. and liked it immediately after reading just the first two chapters. It is one of the books in the "How to Read" series published by WW Norton & Company, all of which are fairly short (just around 100 pages).

The book is very clearly written and informative, but what I was most impressed with so far is how quickly it succeeds in presenting Foucault as an intriguing and important thinker. Some of the things it highlights are instructive as to how one should read Foucault's writings. Here is an example:

Foucault once noted in an interview that, while there were truth books and demonstration books, his books were experience books. By this he meant that the experience of reading potentially changed the reader and prevented him from 'always being the same or from having the same relation with things and with others'. (p.24)

This is actually Foucault's own advice, and I am glad that I saw this in Oksala's book before I start to read Foucault's writings.


Kundera's definition of novel

Here is how Kundera defines "novel" in his The Art of Novel :

The great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence.

I like this definition, particularly the idea that characters in a novel are the author's experimental selves.


The paradox of tolerance

It is a truism that anyone who is tolerant is against intolerance. This truism will, however, turn into an apparent paradox if it is put this way: anyone who is tolerant is intolerant of intolerance. It seems that a tolerant person is necessarily intolerant in some respect, and this is supposed to be paradoxical.

I am not sure I understand why this is paradoxical. First of all, it is not clear that a tolerant person has to be tolerant of everything. Tolerance is a matter of degree. Perhaps we have to say that a tolerant person who is intolerant of intolerance is not completely or perfectly tolerant, but it is not paradoxical to say so. Secondly, we may distinguish between reasonable tolerance and unreasonable tolerance, and hold that tolerance of intolerance is unreasonable, and hence that it is all right for a tolerant person to be intolerant of intolerance.

In any case, I doubt that the truism that anyone who is tolerant is against intolerance is equivalent to the apparently paradoxical claim that anyone who is tolerant is intolerant of intolerance. To be tolerant of a view, a value, or an action, one does not have to accept it or agree with it; one only has to refrain from trying to suppress it or interfere with it. So it is possible for one to be against something and still be tolerant of it. I am, for example, against religion, but I am certainly tolerant of it.

The truism is thus not paradoxical, and the apparently paradoxical claim does not seem true. So, where is the paradox?


Hume's best remark on religion and philosophy

Yesterday I had to reread the conclusion of Book I of Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature and saw this wonderful remark on religion and philosophy:

Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.

I certainly had read this remark before and liked it, but I didn't remember it. So when I was rereading it, it was as if I was reading it the first time and I was able to experience anew the feeling of being deeply impressed. It was a wonderful feeling.


Berkeley's reminder

Lately I have been thinking a lot about Berkeley's famous remark on philosophy:

We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.

I have become more and more convinced that most published philosophy nowadays, probably including my own writings, fits this description.

I am suffering from intellectual self-doubt; what I doubt is not my intellectual abilities, but my intellectual activities and their products. I am feeling a bit lost; I need a new direction.


Polygamy and infidelity

Adam Phillips again. Here is what he says about monogamy that I find quite interesting:

Like a magnet that collects our virtues and vices, monogamy makes the larger abstractions real, as religion once did. Faith, hope, trust, morality; these are domestic matters now. Indeed, we contrast monogamy not with bigamy or polygamy but with infidelity, because it is our secular religion. God may be dead, but the faithful couple won't lie down. (Monogamy, p.10)

There are indeed people whose understanding of monogamy comes from their religion, but Phillips are not talking about them. What he suggests is that people, including (or particularly) those who do not have a religion, need monogamy the way they need religion.

This sounds to me an exaggeration. I do think, however, he is right that we contrast monogamy with infidelity. This raises a question: How is infidelity in polygamy different from infidelity in monogamy? In polygamy, when the husband (or the wife if it is polyandry) is unfaithful, he is unfaithful to more than one person. Is it worse than, or not as bad as, being unfaithful to just one person as in the case of infidelity in monogamy? Conversely, when one of the wives is unfaithful, can we say that she is unfaithful only to part of the husband because she shares him with his other wives? If we can say that, should we also say that her infidelity is not as bad as that in monogamy?


John Cage and literal meaning

I read the following story in Adam Phillips's Darwin's Worms:

John Cage tells the story somewhere of going to a concert of music composed by a friend of his. The composer had also written the programme notes for the music in which he said, among other things, that he hoped his music might go some way to diminishing the suffering in the world. After the concert his friend asked him what he thought of the event and Cage answered, "I love the music but I hated the programme notes." "But don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?" the friend asked, obviously put out. "No," Cage replied, "I think there's just the right amount."

Perhaps Cage really thought there is just the right amount of suffering in the world; perhaps he was one of those who think the amount of suffering in the world is just the amount that God allows. But suppose he did not think that. In that case he did not literally mean what he said, but he sill managed to express what he wanted to express. And it is this reading of what he said that makes the story interesting.

So what did Cage express? Well, we can understand what he expressed differently. I think what he meant to express was that it is not the job of music to diminish the suffering in the world. However, if he had said, "It's not the job of music to diminish the suffering in the world,", he would not have expressed what he wanted to express in the way he wanted to express it, and the effect of his words would have been different.


A Buddhist story

Yesterday I came across a Buddhist story that I found strangely moving:

A monk set off on a long pilgrimage to find the Buddha. He devoted many years to his search until he finally reached the land where the Buddha was said to live. While crossing the river to this country, the monk looked around as the boatman rowed. He noticed something floating towards them. As it got closer, he realized that it was the corpse of a person. When it drifted so close that he could almost touch it, he suddenly recognized the dead body --- it was his own! He lost all control and wailed at the sight of himself, still and lifeless, drifting along the river's currents. That moment was the beginning of his liberation.

After reading the story, the image of the man seeing his own dead body got stuck in my head for a long time. I don't know why.


Being predictable and being reliable

I am a fairly predictable person; people who know me, even those who know me not really that well, can quite accurately predict what I will do under different circumstances. For example, everyone can predict correctly that I will try to be the first one to ask the speaker questions after a talk. I am also a fairly reliable person; if I agree to do something, I will usually get it done and get it done on time.

So, can I be described as predictably reliable? Well, that sounds redundant, for my being reliable implies that people can quite accurately predict that I will do what I agree to do. How about being reliably predictable? This is redundant too if it means "can be predicted correctly most of the time". There is another sense in which it is redundant: given that I am predictable, people obviously can rely on their prediction of what I will do.

Being predictable and being reliable, however, are not the same, at least for the reason that a person who is predictable may not be reliable. Indeed, a person can be predictably unreliable. Isn't "predictably unreliable" redundant too? No, for a person who is unreliable is not a person who always does not do what he has agreed to do, but a person who does not always do what he has agreed to do. That is, sometimes he does, sometimes he does not. If this makes such a person unpredictable, then perhaps we can call him "predictably unpredictable"!


It may still work without God

I used to, when I was still a Christian, like Reinhold Niebuhr's so-called Serenity Prayer very much, particularly the following lines:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

When I look at these lines again now, I can't help wondering why I thought I needed God in order to have the attitudes advocated in these lines. Why can't I develop the serenity, courage, and wisdom on my own? It may still work without God.


"I am flattered'

I am always puzzled by the use of the expression "I am flattered". To flatter someone is, in most cases, to praise her insincerely and excessively for gain or advantage; sometimes the praise can be both sincere and true, but the motivation for gain or advantage is still there, which is why flattering is still not a decent thing to do in such cases. Accordingly, if we say of a person A that she flattered another person B, we are giving a negative evaluation of A.

Suppose I was B and A praised me. Now if I responded to A by saying "I am flattered", I would not be giving a negative evaluation of A. But why? Isn't it the same fact that was being expressed when I said "I am flattered" and when a third person said "A flattered B"?

One possible explanation is that when a person says "I am flattered", she is trying to be modest, that is, what she means is "You are praising me too much". This is not, however, a completely satisfying explanation, for "praising someone too much" does not seem to mean the same as "flattering someone".


Missing hours

I am considered by my friends to be efficient and self-disciplined. Like most people, however, I still waste a lot of time. When I try to count the hours I spend on different kinds of things on a typical day, there are at least one or two hours unaccounted for. I have, as it were, some missing hours every day.

A typical teaching day:
Teaching (preparation, lectures, seeing students) --- 5 hours
Reading --- 2 hours
Cooking --- 1 hour
Eating meals --- 1 hour
Internet (email, reading news and blogs, etc) --- 2 hours
Driving (house and campus) --- 0.5 hour
House chores --- 1 hour
Family time (talking and doing stuff with son and wife) --- 1.5 hours
Writing (blogs, papers) --- 1 hour
Physical exercise --- 0.5 hour
Sleeping --- 6.5 hours

* Missing hours --- 2 hours

A typical non-teaching day:
Reading --- 4 hours
Cooking --- 1 hour
Eating meals --- 1 hour
Internet (email, reading news and blogs, etc) --- 3 hours
Driving (house and gym) --- 0.5 hour
House chores --- 1 hour
Family time (talking and doing stuff with son and wife) --- 1.5 hours
Writing (blogs, papers) --- 3 hours
Physical exercise --- 1.5 hours
Sleeping --- 6.5 hours

* Missing hours --- 2 hours.


Time travel and regrets

I have always been fascinated with the possibility of time travel. It seems that this is true of many people too. When I was talking about fatalism in the Metaphysics class and asked the question whether a person who traveled to the past and made predictions about the future (i.e. future from the perspective of the past that he was now in) always made correct predictions (the answer seems to be "Yes" because he was from the future), the whole class jumped in the discussion, but focused entirely on the possibility of time travel, whether the past can be changed, etc. I had to remind them that our topic was fatalism, not time travel (yet).

I think the most fascinating aspect of the possibility of time travel is not the possibility of knowing or seeing the past (or the future), but the possibility of changing the past, and hence changing the future as well. It is so fascinating because most of us would very much like to change at least some parts of our past. We all have regrets. There were actions that we wish we had not taken. There were decisions that we now see as wrong. There were things that we wish we could have stopped from happening...


If fatalism is true...

Fatalism is the view that whatever happens is unavoidable. When people say they believe in fate or destiny, they are not necessarily expressing fatalism. They may apply the concept of fate only to things that are important to them, such as love, career, and health, but not to mundane things like what to eat for breakfast. It is not clear that this selective concept of fate is even coherent.

If fatalism is true, then everything that happens is unavoidable. I find fatalism extremely hard to accept; even if there was a forceful argument for fatalism, I am not sure I would be able to accept its conclusion, that is, accept that everything that happens is unavoidable. Accepting fatalism would mean to me the loss of motivations to plan for and strive to achieve anything.

Richard Taylor thinks, however, that fatalism should imply "the attitude of calm acceptance":

And this is a comfort, both in fortune and in adversity. We shall say of him who turns out bad and mean that he was going to; of him who turns out happy and blessed that he was going to: neither praising nor berating fortune, crying over what has been, lamenting what was going to be, or passing moral judgments.

Then he goes on to ask this:

Shall we, then, sit idly by, passively observing the changing scene without participation, never testing our strength and our goodness, having no hand in what happens, or in making things come out as they should?

And his answer is:

This is a question for which each will find his own answer.

This answer can be understood fatalistically: Our attitude towards fatalism is also fated and unavoidable!


Crystallization and confirmation bias

In De L'Amour Stendhal suggests the concept of crystallization, which according to him is part of the process of being in love. Crystallization is, as Stendhal puts it, "a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one". I think Stendhal is right, that is, that everyone who has the experience of being in love has the experience of crystallization.

"Crystallization" seems to me, however, just a fancy term for the kind of confirmation bias that a lover has towards her beloved. A person has confirmation bias towards something that she wants to be the case when she selectively notices or focuses upon evidence that would support it while ignoring evidence that would confute it. A lover wants her beloved to be perfect, which is why she "draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one", and is blind to whatever flaws her beloved has. When you call this confirmation bias, it sounds bad; but when you call it crystallization, it sounds romantic. As it is sometimes said, this is mere semantics.


Stendhal's epitaph

Stendhal wrote his own epitaph: "Errico Beyle, Milanese: visse, scrisse, amò." (Henri Beyle, Milanese: he lived, wrote, loved.) His real name was Marie-Henri Beyle, and he did live, write, and love. If I were him, however, I would reverse the order of the words and write "he loved, wrote, lived". It was because he loved that he was able to write about the things he wrote, and it was because he loved and wrote that he lived his life to the fullest extent.


Fame as a disequilibrium

In The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, Milan Kundera says something very interesting about fame:

A man becomes famous when the number of people who know him is markedly greater than the number he knows. The recognition enjoyed by a great surgeon is not fame: he is admired not by a public but by his patients, by his colleagues. He lives in equilibrium. Fame is a disequilibrium. There are professions that drag it along behind them necessarily, unavoidably: politicians, supermodels, athletes, artists.

Kundera seems to imply that fame as a disequilibrium is a bad thing, that is, bad for the person who is famous. But why is it bad for a person that the number of people who know him greatly exceeds the number of people he knows?

I think in order for fame to be bad for the person who is famous, there has to be another disequilibrium: the number of people who know him is markedly greater than the number of people who have good reasons to know him. Such disequilibrium is bad for the person who is famous because what he gets is no more than others' attention. Such attention is not accompanied by respect or admiration, but may still give the person who receives the attention a false sense of accomplishment and an inflated ego.


How to read Wittgenstein

I always emphasize to my students that philosophy starts with problems rather than answers or solutions: if you have not been troubled by and grappled with a philosophical problem, it would be a waste of time for you to try to understand suggested solutions to the problem. This is, I think, Wittgenstein's view of philosophy too. I cannot agree more with John W. Cook when he writes:

It would go very much against Wittgenstein's spirit to proceed as though one could recognize the solution to a philosophical problem without being oneself in the grip of that problem. Unfortunately, many of Wittgenstein's would-be followers seem to think that one can do philosophy by starting from Wittgenstein's view that philosophical problems are nothing but intellectual muddles. Those who proceed in this manner tend to think that philosophical problems can be dealt with, as it were, from the outside, as if one could plant oneself firmly in some safe, uncontaminated region and hand down solutions in a pontifical manner. The 'solutions' thus arrived at typically fail to engage with the problems they are meant to solve, but they also, because of their glibness, infuriate philosophers who are grappling with those problems. Their glibness, which is merely annoying, is of less moment than the fact that they fail to engage with the targeted problem, which makes it appear that Wittgenstein, too, failed to address those problems. (Wittgenstein, Empiricism, and Language, p.202)

This passage beautifully connects Wittgenstein's view of philosophy to how Wittgenstein's philosophy should be read. Bravo!


State of nature in the snow

Here is an interesting moral question posed in an article in The New Republic:

For those who managed to liberate their cars from the Snowpocalypse of 2010, another tricky moral dilemma can lead to some volatile confrontations: If you dig your car out from its frozen tomb, do you then own that parking spot until the sun melts open the rest of the curbside space?

Some cities have laws that help answer that question. Boston has, for example, a city law that says if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, you can mark that spot as yours for at least two days. Most cities, however, don't have such laws.

If this kind of situation is considered a small-scale state of nature, then we may use Locke's definition of private property in the state of nature to answer the above question: You own something if it is a result of your mixing your labor with freely available materials. The answer is thus "Yes, you own that parking spot." But there must be laws to make sure that people act according to this definition.

Indeed, in those cities in which there are no relevant laws helping determine who owns a parking spot like that, the situation does look like a small-scale state of nature. Here is the closing paragraph of the article:

After the 1996 storm, a man was killed outside New York after a dispute over a shoveled parking spot. In Philadelphia in 2000, it happened again. In South Boston, a handful of assaults, slashed tires and other cases of vandalism end up in District Court each year after drivers are perceived to have broken the code.



I have always found the notion of randomness hard to understand. It is not that I don't understand what people are saying when they use the word "random" in certain everyday contexts, such as when someone says "I was randomly assigned to this team", but that I don't have a clear understanding of how randomness is supposed to be understood as related to probability, chance, and predictability.

Right after the first appearance of the word "random" in his An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic, Ian Hacking remarks, "Randomness is a very hard idea." This really struck a chord with me when I first read it. Although Hacking goes on to give something like a definition of "randomness", he is very careful in formulating it:

Outcomes from a chance setup are random (we think) if outcomes are not influenced by the outcomes of previous trials.

Notice the parenthetical "we think".

I am going to read with some colleagues Hacking's famous book The Emergence of Probability. Hope this will help me understand randomness better.


Murakami's trick

I like to write in the morning, particularly if I am writing something long and difficult, something that requires a very clear mind. However, if I start in the morning but am not able to get much written after several hours, I will feel like I have lost my momentum and for the rest of the day I probably won't be able to write much either. The following trick that Haruki Murakami uses, which he mentions in his book What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, may help solve my problem:

Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day's work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up with the rhythm.


What is metaphysics?

In the very first lecture of my Metaphysics class this semester, I told my students that I have no answer to the question "What is metaphysics?", that I won't give them any definition of "metaphysics" for the simple reason that I don't have one. They seemed surprised. To assure them that I am indeed qualified to teach metaphysics, I told them that I could tell them a lot of things about metaphysics, it's just that I don't think there is a definition of "metaphysics" that would cover all and only views or theories that are considered metaphysics.

My approach in this class is to introduce and discuss some standard metaphysical issues, such as personal identity, free will and determinism, and possibility and necessity, before we talk about what metaphysics is. My hope is that towards the end of the semester they will have a good sense of what metaphysics is without being given a definition of it.


The curse of the silver medal

According to some psychological research, silver medalists in a competition are less happy than bronze medalists; and that is true of even silver medalists in the Olympic Games. If this is a true phenomenon, it cannot be explained simply by the fact that we evaluate ourselves in terms of comparison, for the silver medalist should feel good by comparing himself with the bronze medalist. One plausible explanation is that the silver medalist is influenced by counterfactual thoughts, more specifically, the counterfactual thought that he might have won the gold medal.

But why isn't the counterfactual thought the one that he might have got only the bronze medal? This is, I think, because the silver medalist is compelled by his wish to win the gold medal to focus on it rather than the bronze medal. And wishful thinking may be working here, for the silver medalist may believe that he could easily have won the gold medal ("I was so close", "I was just having bad luck", etc.).

What about the bronze medalist? Why doesn't he feel unhappy because he has not won the silver medal? Unlike the silver medalist, who would still have won a medal, namely, the bronze one, even if he had lost to the bronze medalist, the bronze medalist would have got nothing if he had not performed as well as he did. So, in his case, the most compelling counterfactual thought is the one that he might easily have got nothing.


Aging and dying

If aging is getting older and dying is getting closer to death, then we are aging and dying every day. This is not, however, what people usually mean when they talk about aging and dying as things they fear or worry over. What they mean by "aging" is showing signs of being old. In this sense, you are already old when you are aging; and in the process of aging, you are getting more and more signs of being old, and those signs are getting more and more obvious. What they mean by "dying" is approaching death in such a way that death is imminent and caused by some kind of illness. The final stage of aging overlaps dying, for the end of aging is not just getting very old, but death. (But the final stage of dying does not have to overlap aging, for a person can die young.)

I do not fear death, for I see my death as nothing but the non-existence of me (again). But I fear both aging and dying because I fear physical and mental decline, and fear the pain that is likely to accompany the illness that will be the cause of my death. Because of this fear, I have this irrational inclination to believe that I will not live to an old age. This is, I think, a weak form of wishful thinking.


The philosophical vs the ordinary

If someone points to a wall and asks, "Is this wall really yellow?", a proper answer to such a question would be something like "No, it's not really yellow. Just take off your sunglasses and you'll see" or "Of course, what would you call this color if not yellow?".

The person, however, may be using the exact same words to ask a totally different question, a question to which the above answers would not be acceptable. Suppose you answer, "No, nothing is really yellow, for colors are subjective." He may disagree with you or ask you to clarify what you mean by "subjective", but at least you are giving him the right kind of answer, namely, a philosophical view of the thing in question.

Indeed, if the light is normal, the person is not wearing a pair of sunglasses, the wall is clearly yellow, etc., the question "Is this wall really yellow?" would not make any sense except as a philosophical question. But what does it take for a person to ask such a philosophical question?


Sagan's principle and Hume's insight

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Carl Sagan was not the first who said this, but he was the one who made this principle famous. This is a sensible principle, and it seems that most people follow it most of the time. If, for example, you told someone that you had spent a night at Hotel Palomar San Francisco, she would just believe you. But if you told her that you had spent a night in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom, she would not believe you until you showed her some evidence (probably evidence stronger than just a few pictures, which could easily be fakes).

David Hume seems to be referring to the same principle when he remarks that "we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree". What he says next, however, is truly insightful:

Yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others. ("Of Miracles")

To put Hume's insight in the language of Sagan's principle, many people act as if extra-extraordinary claims require no evidence at all. Let me extend the above example. Yes, if you told someone that you had spent a night in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom, she would not believe you until you showed her some strong evidence. But if you told her that you had spent a night with an angel at the top of a mountain, who demonstrated his power to you to prove that he's really an angel and then revealed some parts of your future to you, she might just believe you (and she might not even have the same religion as yours)!



Nobody likes snobs, but the fact is, most of us are snobbish to some extent. Most of us have the need to feel (or to become) superior in some way, and snobbery is indeed quite effortless. For one thing, it does not take wealth, power, prestige, pedigree, fame, or social status for a person to be snobbish against some other people. No matter what place you occupy, there are people who are "beneath" you. For another, there is the distinction between, as Joseph Epstein puts it, downward-looking snobbery and upward-looking snobbery. If downward-looking snobbery does not work for you, that means upward-looking snobbery is more readily available to you.

Epstein wrote a whole book on snobbery. It's a good read, entertaining and at times insightful. I like the way he defines "snobbery":

For a beginning or working definition, then, I take the snob to be someone out to impress his betters or depress those he takes to be his inferiors, and sometimes both; someone with an exaggerated respect for social position, wealth, and all the accouterments of status; someone who accepts what he reckons to be the world's valuation on people and things, and acts --- sometimes cruelly, sometimes ridiculously --- on that reckoning; someone, finally, whose pride and accomplishment never come from within but always await the approving judgment of others. People not content with their place in the world, not reconciled with themselves, are especially susceptible to snobbery. The problem here is that at one time or another, and in varying degrees, this may well include us all.


Mental reservation

One of the Ten Commandments is "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" (in the Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21 versions). Some Christians take it to mean we should never lie. How do they follow this commandment if they understand it this way? If we define "lying" as "saying or writing something that one believes or knows to be false", then it is indeed hard to see how they can follow the commandment (thus understood) all the time.

Just imagine that a little girl, after being teased by some other children as being ugly, asks you, "Am I really that ugly?", and she is in fact very ugly (or at least you do believe that she is very ugly). What would you say? You may try not to answer the question directly by saying something like "Only shallow people pay so much attention to a person's face". But if the girl insists, "Please tell me the truth. Yes or No?" Would you just say "Yes, you are ugly"?

There is a way out. You can try mental reservation. It was invented in the 13th century and further developed in the 17th century by some Catholic priests. The easiest among the techniques is "strict mental reservation": instead of uttering the whole sentence, you utter only part of it and reserve the rest for "mental utterance" (i.e. utter it internally to yourself). According to the doctrine of mental reservation, if the whole sentence is true, you will not be considered by God to be lying even if the part you utter explicitly is false, provided that the false part is uttered for doing good. Applying this to the above example, you could just say to the girl "You are not ugly" and utter internally "if 'ugly' is redefined to mean beautiful". A perfect solution: the girl is happy and you don't have to lie!


The singular "they" again

Here is an example of a bad English sentence Richard Mitchell gives in his highly readable Less Than Words Can Say (which is out of print now):

A Department of Transportation manual suggests that "If a guest becomes intoxicated," you might "take his or her car keys and send them home in a taxi."

The problem Mitchell has in mind is, I suppose, the use of "them" in the sentence (he doesn't say so explicitly in the text). Given the use of "his or her", a simple correction of the mistake is changing "them" to "him or her".

Since many people nowadays use "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, they may consider the original sentence correct. The structure of the sentence, however, makes it more natural to understand the "them" to refer to "his or her car keys". In that case, even if you accept the singular use of "they", the sentence may still sound funny.


Skipping God

This may be surprising to some of my friends and students, but I have decided to delete the topic "God" from my Metaphysics syllabus, at least for next semester. The reason is simple: I am fed up with talking about God. I will replace the topic with "Personal Identity", which is a very interesting one for most students.


"Confused" and "confusing"

When a student does not understand some reading material (or a lecture), it is likely that she will say that the material is confusing. Of course she would also admit that she is confused, but most likely her point is that it is because the material is confusing that she is confused.

Now if the material is in fact confusing, then there is nothing wrong with her saying so, and it is understandable why she is confused. It is possible, however, for the material to be very clear while the student is still confused. She is confused because, say, she is not reading the material carefully enough or because the material is too advanced for her.

From a third person perspective, we can make this distinction: the material is clear, but she is confused. But from the student's first person perspective, such a distinction seems unavailable. It seems incoherent for her to say, "The material is very clear, but I am confused."

Although the student who is confused cannot judge that the material is clear (when it is in fact clear), she can still entertain the possibility that the material is actually clear. If she takes this possibility seriously, then she may find it more appropriate to say "I am confused" without saying "The material is confusing".


God doesn't give a shit

God always gets the credit and never gets the blame. Thank God for the failure of the Underwear Bomber's attempt, but God was not to blame even though he did not stop the September 11th attack. The truth is, if you look at the world, I mean the world as a whole, not just your comfortable little world, the only reasonable conclusion you can draw is, even if God exists, he doesn't give a shit.


Hidden complexity

We all know that the world, particularly when it involves social and institutional activities rather than just movements of physical or biological objects, is highly complex. Politics, financial systems, scientific research, cultural developments, etc. cannot be easily understood because of their complexity. As a matter of fact, however, most mundane aspects of our lives are also very complex; it's just that the complexity is not right in front of us. It usually takes a thinker to notice the complexity, while most people don't think much about things that appear simple (even though they are in fact complex).

I really like the following words by John Searle in his The Construction of Social Reality, which expresses elegantly the point I have just made:

Consider a simple scene like the following. I go into a cafe in Paris and sit in a chair at a table. The waiter comes and I utter a fragment of a French sentence.... The waiter brings the beer and I drink it. I leave some money on the table and leave. An innocent scene, but its metaphysical complexity is truly staggering, and its complexity would have taken Kant's breath away if he had ever bothered to think about such things. Notice that we cannot capture the features of the description I have just given in the language of physics and chemistry.... Notice, furthermore, that the scene as described has a huge, invisible ontology: the waiter did not actually own the beer he gave me, but he is employed by the restaurant, which owned it. The restaurant is required to post a list of the prices of all the boissons, and even if I never see such a list, I am required to pay only the listed price. The owner of the restaurant is licensed by the French government to operate it. As such, he is subject to a thousand rules and regulations I know nothing about. I am entitled to be there in the first place only because I am a citizen of the United States, the bearer of a valid passport, and I have entered France legally... If, after leaving the restaurant, I then go to listen to a lecture or attend a party, the size of the metaphysical burden I am carrying only increases; and one sometimes wonders how anyone can bear it.


Cryonics and love

Imagine cryonics works. After a person "died", her blood is drained and her body frozen until there is a way of making her body function normally again (curing a disease, fixing an organ, etc.). Here is a thought-provoking situation. Suppose your loved one died young, say at the age of thirty. You decide to have her body cryopreserved. Question: Should you continue to live or have your body cryopreserved too?

If you continue to live, you may live a long life. Say you live up to eight-five and then have your body cryopreserved. One day both you and your loved one are revived, but you are already an old man and she is still a young lady. Can you still love each other?

If you choose to have your body cryopreserved immediately, you will miss a lot of things that you will be able to do only with certain people at certain times. Even if there is a guarantee that you and your loved one will live again together someday, isn't that too big a sacrifice?



I have just learned this really long word, "floccinaucinihilipilification", from Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of. The word means the estimation of something as valueless.

Barnes's book, by the way, is a rather good read, serious and funny at the same time. It is Barnes's reflections on death and dying, with a lot of autobiograhpical elements.


Teaching and showmanship

Whenever I am giving a lecture, I have a strong sense of putting on a show. I don't have to force myself to act; it comes naturally. I naturally talk in an enthusiastic and dramatic way; I naturally have all kinds of expressive facial expressions; and I naturally tell jokes and make students laugh. Indeed, for me all this is part of the fun of teaching. How well I performance usually depends on the reactions of my audience, i.e., my students. If I feel that they like my performance, I will perform even better. And I enjoy meeting the challenge of answering students' unexpected questions offhand. Teaching has to have some improvisation elements to be lively and exciting.


Stumbling on happiness

One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as to fortune or fame.

Willa Cather, "le Lavandou"


Tao Te Ching

I am always skeptical about translating the Tao Te Ching. Classical Chinese is very flexible (much more so than modern Chinese), and when the prose of a text is both dense and poetic, like that of the Tao Te Ching, it is impossible to retain most of the possible meanings of the text in a translation. To see this, just look at the following translations of the first two lines of the Tao Te Ching (name of the translator in brackets):

The Tao that can be told of is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given are not Absolute Names.
(Lin Yutang)

The Way as “way” bespeaks no common lasting Way,
The name as “name” no common lasting name.
(Moss Roberts)

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.
The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
(James Legge)

To guide what can be guided is not constant guiding.
To name what can be named is not constant naming.
(Chad Hansen)

Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways.
Names can be named; they are not fixed names.
(Chad Hansen, a different translation)

The problem is not that these are incorrect translations, but that each of them at best captures only one of the possible meanings of the original.



We all have a self-image, and it is in terms of such a self-image that we evaluate how happy our life is. If my self-image is mainly an academic, then how happy I think I am depends on how successful I am as an academic.

Our self-image can be more or less complex. I can, for example, identify myself just as an academic, but I can also identify myself as an academic, a philosopher, a father, a husband, a poet, a writer, and a cook. According to the psychologist Patricia Linville, the more complex a person's self-image is, the less likely that her happiness in life swings up and down when she does well or poorly at some specific thing. This is easy to understand, for if my self-image has many aspects, then even if one aspect is damaged, my self-image as a whole may still be intact, particularly when I am doing well concerning some of the other aspects.

Of course the matter is not that simple, for it is possible for us to have a false self-image.


A damnable doctrine

There is a passage in Darwin's autobiography (or more precisely, autobiographical sketch) that I particularly like. I still remember how moved I was when I first read it long time ago:

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief; I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeji or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlasting punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.

I like this passage not only because I agree with what Darwin said, but also because my experience was similar to his. I felt like he was speaking for me too.


The second arrow

I like the Buddhist analogy of the second arrow. The first arrow is the bad thing that happens to you, usually unexpectedly. But a second arrow may follow the first one, making you suffer even more; and the pain caused by the second arrow may last much longer than that of the first.

The second arrow is your awareness of your suffering from the first arrow and your bitterness towards the fact that it has happened to you. So the second arrow is actually shot by yourself. In most cases there is not much you can do to avoid the first arrow, but the second arrow is to a large extent within your control.



I began to have a certain kind of experience when I was still a teenager, which I think can be best described as "the experience of detachment". Sometimes I had the experience almost every day; it felt very strange. I could find no better description of such experience than the following passage in James Joyce's short story "A Painful Case" (in Dubliners):

He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense…. Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice…. he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognized as his own.

I still experience this, though less often now. When it first happened to me, I had no control of it; it suddenly took place, and suddenly disappeared. Over the years I have learned how to bring it about at will and how to stop it. I wonder how many people have similar experience.