Hominids and ursids (aka “Not so fast!”)

I’m a bit obsessed with music. Anyone who knows me knows this. Strangely though (at least it’s strange to me), a lot of people seem to think I’m primarily obsessed with just one kind of music. People say things like “I know you’re mostly a classical guy, but…”; “You’re a jazz snob, but…”; “It’s not prog, like what you usually listen to, but…”; “You really only like virtuoso musicians…”; “You just have a prejudice against electronic music…”. Actually, I like all these things (including electronic music) and much else besides. Or, more accurately, there’s a “me” that likes each of them. Like everybody, I experience myriad different states of consciousness – some types of music “match” some of them, other types match others.

One kind of music I really like is “folky singer songwriter stuff”. This isn’t really a genre (what’s a genre?), but in my mind it includes artists like Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, Karen Dalton, Nick Drake, Bill Fay, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, Jack Carty (check him out! https://soundcloud.com/jack-carty/lay-low) and many others. The other day, someone gave me the Boy & Bear album “Harlequin Dream”. Just now, I listened to the track “A Moment’s Grace”. Wow. It blew me away and made me happy to be alive in a world full of so much beauty. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s not the first time I’ve heard Boy & Bear. They’re pretty famous here in Australia. I don’t really keep up with current music (I’m generally too busy exploring the art form’s history), but even I’ve been exposed to them before. The thing is, last time their music didn’t do anything for me. The “me” who heard it then wasn’t the “me” who listened to it today.

I don’t trust my initial reaction to a piece of art unless it’s positive. An artwork is an experience catalyst and any one piece of art has the potential to catalyse a wide range of experiences – different ones in different people, but also different ones in the same person at different moments. All of these experiences have a legitimacy that is absolute, but that doesn’t extend beyond the experience itself. I don’t mean to get all philosophical on you, but what I mean is that if you have a good experience listening to/looking at/reading a piece of art, nothing anyone else says about that piece of art can change the fact that it catalysed a good experience for you. If somebody makes fun of you for liking a piece of music, that just means they haven’t had the same experience as you (or they think they’ve “grown out of it”) and that they think their experience trumps yours. They’re wrong. The legitimacy of your experience is unassailable. Its legitimacy is limited to itself, however. What that means is that if a piece of art fails to catalyse a good experience for you, or catalyses a bad one, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything intrinsic about the artwork itself. It doesn’t mean the art isn’t “good”, it just means it didn’t work for you this time. Try it again at some other time (or don’t, just don’t imagine that you’ve “understood” the work and found it wanting).

The principle of the unassailable, but bounded, legitimacy of experience applies to all of our experiences, not just the art-related ones. Fundamentally, our experiences can’t tell us directly about anything except themselves. This is a disconcerting fact and I’m going to avoid wading off into the philosophical deep end by getting back to the point…

Not so fast! Don’t be so quick to judge – what bores you today might enthral you tomorrow. The incredible diversity of possible experiences available to us is what makes our lives potentially so rich. Don’t be so hasty to give it up.



Does the fact of evolution threaten your beliefs?

In a previous post, I pointed out that evolution is an observable fact, similar to the observable fact (for example) that there are rocks and a dog in my garden (if you don’t trust the photo, come over and I’ll show you). I also differentiated between the fact of biological evolution and modern science’s best explanation of its mechanism – the Theory of Natural Selection.

Towards the end of the (very brief) post, I stated that the fact of evolution and the ability of the Theory of Natural Selection to explain it do not disprove the existence of a creator. I also stated that evolution does not only occur in biological systems and listed a few “other” systems in which it occurs. I misspoke in one of these assertions – it’s certainly true that evolution occurs in non-biological systems, but the examples I gave (language, culture and anthropogenic technologies) were all biological systems….my bad.

Regardless, it seems some critics of the piece didn’t read all the way to the end, because a number of responses on social media (and one here) suggest that people felt that claiming evolution as a fact threatened their beliefs. Does it?

Evolution is (again) “descent with modification”. It occurs in non-biological systems, such as (a better example!) the universe (or multiverse, megaverse, or whatever your preferred flavour of “….verse”). One of the products of this cosmological evolution is biology, but the evolution of the universe as a whole is not a biological process. In this context, what “evolution” means is that the future states of the universe are dependent upon (because descended from) past states. Every time the universe changes, it doesn’t blink out of existence and get rebuilt from scratch in a nanosecond – new states are always “built from” old states. This is the same in biological evolution of course and is one of the reasons there is so much evidence of past evolution present in the world today in the form of shared DNA. This is the evidence that allows Richard Dawkins to say “…when you eat fish and chips you are eating distant cousin fish and even more distant cousin potato.”

Some might say that calling the history of the universe its “evolution” dilutes the meaning of the word beyond recognition, but there are actually some deep similarities between cosmological and biological evolution, including the creation of order from chance variation (there are plenty of great authors to read on this topic, e.g., David Christian, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss and Seth Lloyd). In this way both the evolution of the universe and the evolution of biological systems are fundamentally different from the weathering of rocks in my garden, which it might be a stretch to refer to as their “evolution” from rocks into sand (although we might have an interesting discussion about that sometime – you bring the beer).

In the range of biological systems currently present in our little corner of the universe, a number of forms of evolution are in operation, including but not limited to natural selection. Evolution can proceed according to the selection of a designer or designers, as is the case for the evolution of tools and technologies such as the computer on which you’re reading this, and the evolution of artificially selected “cultivars” such as Australian Shepherd dogs (like Keneally in my garden). It can proceed without the need for a designer, as in standard natural selection. It can proceed through a combined process of designer-driven and designer-less selection, as in the evolution of a language, in which two forms of designer-less selection occur – natural selection (on us, the organisms that use the words) and memetic selection (on the words themselves) – along with the directed selection of words and conventions for their use by designers (e.g., the Académie française). Evolution can even occur in the absence of any selection pressure at all, as in genetic drift.

The principal belief system threatened by acknowledgement of the fact of evolution is Essentialism, which is essentially (hah!) the doctrine that things have an immutable essence from which they cannot change significantly and to which they always return. The most influential proponent of Essentialism in the history of Western Thought was Plato. Needless (hopefully) to say – Plato was not a Christian. Platonic Essentialism was very influential on Christian theology, but Christians are certainly not committed to it. Multiple Popes have acknowledged the fact of evolution (http://time.com/3545844/pope-francis-evolution-creationism/). In 2014, Pope Francis (though he wasn’t the first to say something of the sort) said “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” – even the faith can evolve.

Those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and believe in a creator and those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and see no need for a creator differ in that the latter apply (or apply correctly) a simple logical principle – Occam’s Razor. Those who do not acknowledge the fact of evolution are wrong (sorry!). The principle of Occam’s Razor is often misunderstood as “the simplest explanation is always the best”. This misunderstanding often leads to “arguments” of the “God did it. Boom!” variety. This is silly because an omnipotent and omniscient creator is hardly simple. Regardless, Occam’s Razor is actually the maxim “entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”. In modern scientific terms, this might be translated as “do not postulate additional causes when sufficient causes have already been identified”. Colloquially, this translates as “don’t make stuff up”. Occam’s Razor is a very useful principle but there is no external agent (like a God, for example) that says you must apply it. You can choose not to – you can acknowledge the fact of evolution (and the presence of rocks in my garden) and leave your belief in a creator untouched….if you really want to.

Aramis, Part 1 (A Sessile* story)

This story contains graphic imagery and language.

Late at night in a large office at the top of a sixty storey building labelled “Technopharm” in huge neon letters Aramis Blake sat staring into space, his fingers typing on the bare surface of the desk in front of him. A dozen precisely placed invisible speakers filled the air with Brahms, the dense contrapuntal texture and developing variation of the quintet for piano and strings sharpening Blake’s focus as numbers flew before his eyes. He was balancing the Technopharm accounts. It had taken just two years for his business to go from start-up to billion-dollar enterprise, exceeding even his own expectations. He’d discovered the technology during the final year of his doctorate and saw its potential immediately – the ability to induce chemical brain states purely through electrical stimulation, without the need for “drugs”. The research program had been languishing due to a lack of funding and an excess of red tape stretched across its path by legislative bodies in the back pocket of big pharma. Its developers were looking at several years of expensive clinical trials before the medical application of their invention would be approved. They couldn’t afford it. They would have to shut the project down; another potentially paradigm-shifting medical technology ground into the dust by pharmaceutical companies desperate to keep their share of the drug market. Blake had seen straight away what the technogeek developers, their near-sighted eyes already brimming with tears for their death of their baby, were incapable of imagining – the recreational potential of the tech. It started with electro-psychedelics, -stimulants and -opiates, but it wasn’t long before the military took an interest and NocBlok, a nociception-blocking implant, made Blake an instant billionaire.

Glancing up from the spread sheet Aramis Blake’s eyes came to rest on the bas-relief on the wall opposite his desk; The Exaltation of the Flower, an Ancient Greek sculpture depicting two women exchanging gifts of flowers or mushrooms. Usually this image identifying his path with that of the ancients brought him solace but tonight he felt the need to look on something more dramatic. He considered his options and then chose to replace the relief with Picasso’s Guernica, his field of view filling with the contorted and screaming faces of the horse and humans as soon as he made the selection. Increasing the volume of the music he relaxed in the assault to his senses as the horse, the bull, the broken sword and bodies and Brahms’ exquisitely organised chaos of counterpoint merged for a moment into an intoxicating gesamtkunstwerk. Sighing with abstract emotion Blake jacked into the security feed; the Technopharm offices that occupied the top two floors of the building were empty except for his own and the laboratory down the hall where Bruno Skachkov tinkered with his miniatures at all hours of the night. Fascinated as always by the tireless industry of the tattooed Russian homunculus, Blake watched him at his work, zooming in as Skachkov inserted a tiny handmade microchip into the back of a figurine no more than seven centimetres tall. As soon as the microchip was in place the figurine, an immaculately detailed demon with wings, hoofs and its mouth sewn shut, started to move, turning to face Skachkov and genuflecting before its creator. Chuckling to himself, Blake returned his attention to his company’s finances.

There are no clocks in the Technopharm offices – the rotation of the Earth is precise enough a metronome for Aramis Blake. Shorter periods of time are measured by the duration of favourite pieces of music.

The Brahms had finished and the air was thick with Bruch when the music was suddenly muted by a notification from the security feed flagging an event in the building’s lobby – someone had attempted to gain access to the private elevator servicing the Technopharm offices. Video from security cameras downstairs revealed the marble-floored lobby, decorated in the old style with statues, prints of artworks and projected advertisements for companies that occupied the various floors. Standing by the elevators were two men, an odd couple: one small and wiry with the face of a weasel and the other a muscle-bound behemoth looking like he’d stepped out of Norse legend. Establishing vidphone contact, Aramis addressed them politely.

“How can I be of assistance, gentlemen?”

“Blake?” the little man snapped, his voice reedy and high-pitched.

“This is Dr Aramis Blake, yes. To whom am I speaking?”

“You’ll find it’s in your best interest to let us up there Blake, we have an important message for you,” said the man. A notification appeared in front of Blake’s eyes and he switched feeds, replacing the weasel-faced man with Skachkov’s stony visage. Saying nothing, Blake nodded and the Russian broke the transmission.

Switching back to the lobby feed Aramis addressed the strangers, “Of course gentlemen, come on up,” and entered the eight digit code giving them access to the elevator. Moments later they stood in front of his desk. He hadn’t risen as they entered the room and now the smaller man snapped his fingers,

“Sid,” he grunted, pointing at Blake. The giant shoved the hardwood desk aside, picked Aramis up as if he were a child and deposited him on his feet facing his accomplice. Blake was not a small man, considerably taller and heavier than the leering thug who now slouched against the repositioned desk investigating his crooked yellow teeth with a toothpick, but the man behind towered over them both and seemed almost as wide as he was tall. Blake addressed the little mustelid-featured man,

“Welcome to Technopharm. I’m sure you understand that it’s most unusual for me to accept visitors, particularly at such an hour and without an appointment. How may I help you?”

“Listen, Blake, listen good alright,” the man spat, his toothpick descending to the floor in a shower of spittle. “You’re going to back off from the pharmaceuticals market alright mate? Take whatever money you’ve earned and fuck off back to wherever you came from. Today was Technopharm’s last day of business.”

“Ah,” Blake’s voice was steady, “I’m afraid that’s not possible, gentlemen. Please tell your employers, whoever they may be, that it’s only business, I’m sure they’ll understand. They really shouldn’t get so worked up about it.”

“Right. Well this is only business too mate, I’m sure you understand,” Blake’s arms were pinioned from behind and his hand forced onto the desk. Feeling Sid’s strength Blake relaxed, knowing there was no point fighting. The weasel-faced man reached his hand into a jacket pocket and drew it out brandishing something that looked like an antique soldering iron, its metal end already glowing red. As he burnt a hole in Blake’s hand the CEO of Technopharm impassively maintained eye contact, not flinching even as the hot wand passed clear through his hand and began to burn to desk beneath it. The torturer’s excitement turned to frustration and he raised the wand towards his victim’s unflinching eyes. “I heard you was a tough guy Blake, I love tough guys. I could spend all night burning off little pieces of your body mate, burning your eyes out, burning your fucking balls off, but I’m here for results first and fun second. So tell you what mate. After I’m finished with you how about I head over to fifty one View Street and say hi to your woman and kid eh? How about I go make your little bitch my little bitch? Whadoya reckon, eh tough nuts?”

“That won’t be necessary.”


“I’ll do as you ask.”

“’Course you farken will, mate. ‘Course you will. All you tough guys go soft for your bloody cows. Let him go, big man. All right then, before we go we need to get some of this equipment of yours. The programs you use, the hardware, all your research materials, where’s it at?”

“Everything you need is in the laboratory down the hall.”

“Alright, let’s go then you macho prick.”

Bruno Skachkov crouched barefoot on the floor beside the entrance to the darkened laboratory, listening intently for sounds from Blake’s office down the hall. In his right hand he absent-mindedly shuffled his three-inch knuckle knife from finger to finger. At the sound of footsteps and a sneering voice in the hall every muscle in his body tensed. The twin curves of his weapon’s handle nestled snugly under index and middle fingers; the short blade sticking out from in between was almost as broad as long. Automatic lights came on as the doors next to him slid open soundlessly and a gargantuan slab of muscle topped with hay-blond hair stepped through. Bruno didn’t wait for him to turn – he leapt, grabbing a handful of hair with his left hand and, perching his bare feet on his victim’s hips like a monkey, he drove the little blade in his other hand into the man’s throat again and again, severing the giant jugular with the first thrust but not stopping until the giant was horizontal and lying in a steadily spreading sticky pool of himself. The weasel tried to turn but collided with Blake who wrapped his arm like a python around the wiry little man’s neck. Struggles turned to spasms and then the feet twitched a moment before movement ceased altogether and another body fell limp to the floor. Aramis Blake turned to Bruno Skachkov,

“Clean this mess up. I’m going to get Persephone.”


They’d met in prison. Blake was in on a six-month sentence for distribution of an unlicensed delivery mechanism for a controlled substance on the London campus of PanGlobal University. He’d been eighteen months into his doctorate and had seen an opportunity to make some easy cash. The drug war had been dying a slow death over the previous decade but cops with nothing better to do were still looking for ways to make easy drug-related busts. Blake had been selling a stimulant that improved concentration– a performance enhancing molecular cocktail that was legal but banned for use by students during the examination period. It was also only approved for use in pill or vaporiser form, both of which had a relatively short half-life compared to the skin patches Blake was selling. The transparent delivery patches, undetectable once they’d been applied, slowly released the drug over several hours – perfect for tedious exams. It wasn’t much of a crime and Blake didn’t even need the money thanks to his inheritance, he just liked making money.

After letting slip to a guard that he was a PhD student at PGU he’d found himself sharing a cell with a man that looked like a chimpanzee someone had shaved and then painted all over – another inmate had called Skachkov a “technicolour sock full of walnuts” and lost his two front teeth for his wit. When they’d got to know each other a bit Blake asked about the significance of the huge cobra tattoo on the Russian’s head, its hood spread across the back of his skull. Skachkov had said it was because he was “just like Buddha under the Bodhi tree until some unlucky prick disturbs my meditations”. Blake didn’t point out that Buddha had been under a mucalinda tree when the cobra had sheltered him. Bruno was inside for assault – five years for biting off the ear of a policeman who’d come to arrest him in connection with a crime for which they’d had no evidence against him. The real crime, of which he freely admitted his guilt to his cellmate, was manufacturing miniature robotic assassins for use in remote hits on major corporate figures. He never knew who hired him and the money wasn’t as much as it should have been but he did it for access to the materials and equipment with which to indulge his passions for artificial intelligence, robotics, and miniaturisation. At first Blake didn’t believe the little thug capable of such technical work, but when he saw what Skachkov could do in the prison workshop he was quickly converted into a believer.

They shared a cell for the full six months and became close allies. Their e-brains were disabled as part of prison policy and Blake gradually replaced Skachkov’s collection of smutty pinups with prints of great works of art. The Russian grew to respect the Englishman for his intellect and ambition and agreed to join him in whatever business venture he had going when they were both back on the outside. For a year after his release Blake hadn’t known what use he could put his new comrade to, hadn’t known until he’d come across the technology for electrostimulation of brain chemistry and founded Technopharm – it was Skachkov who’d taken the researcher’s technology and put it into tiny handheld units connected to a comfortable electrode array that could be slipped on and off like a swimming cap; it was Skachkov who provided the necessary muscle to deal with big pharma’s scare tactics.


Blake went down to the basement and got into his late model Porsche 911. A torque addict, he would avoid getting a grid vehicle until they finally outlawed freewheelers completely – he didn’t even use his Porsche’s autodrive function except in zones where manual control was illegal. Putting his foot down and darting between computer-controlled cars he was at the apartment block on View Street within eight minutes of leaving the Technopharm building. It was a nice block but the lobby was big and facelessly modern, advertisements for expensive perfumes and jewellery and exotic holidays flashed at him from every wall. He took the elevator to level five and knocked on the door to number 51. After a minute or so a woman’s voice came over the intercom,

“No way Aramis, it’s late and it’s not your day to see her. You can’t keep messing around with the schedule like this, it upsets her and it upsets me.”

“Open the door, Apollonia, this is important, I need to talk to you.”

“She’s asleep.”

“We both know that’s a lie.”

“Forget it. I’m not going to argue about this. Come back on Sunday. Good night, Aramis.”

Blake sighed deeply and then took an access card out of his wallet and held it against the card reader. When he heard the lock slide he turned the handle and pushed his way into the richly appointed apartment.

“You bastard,” yelled his ex, “this is my apartment!”

“No, Apollonia, this is my apartment,” Blake didn’t raise his voice but his tone was cold, “you just live here with my daughter.”

Your daughter? Our daughter, arsehole.”

Aramis walked into the living room and saw the Technopharm unit sitting on the arm of the comfortable leather chair. “Still using, eh?”

“Your products, dealer. You think I don’t take advantage of my lifetime supply?”

“I know you do. I’m going upstairs.”

“The hell you are!” as she grabbed at him he jabbed her hip with a tiny auto-injector hidden in his palm. The drug was a fast-acting tranquiliser and she immediately slumped into his arms. It would wear off in under a minute so he took her to the chair and slid the electrode cap on over her hair. He loaded an opioid program and set the timer to thirty minutes – he’d be long gone by then. He looked down at her as the program started and she began to squirm lethargically and sigh with pleasure, her eyes open but unseeing. She was in a nightgown of fine black silk; her hair was golden, her skin smooth and tanned, her eyes startling electric blue, she was beautiful and he missed her. They’d been planning to marry but his prison stint had put an end to that – she’d left him when he got arrested and when he got out she wouldn’t talk to him. Their daughter was born while he was inside. Even when he had become rich in the way she and he used to dream about, even when he showered her with gifts and installed her in one of the most expensive apartment blocks in the city, Apollonia wouldn’t consider taking him back. She allowed him to see Persephone because she knew she couldn’t fight his legal team.

He went upstairs and into his daughter’s room. The little girl was dancing on the bed conducting music he couldn’t hear. Twirling in his direction she saw him and her face lit up, her blue eyes sparkling. “Daddy!” she squealed, running along the bed and launching into his arms. He squeezed her tightly then put her down on the ground and crouched next to her,

“How is my munchkin genius?”

“I’m well Daddy, good and well, always good, always well,” she nodded at him sagely before her expression suddenly changed, her eyes full of concern. “Daddy you’re hurt! What happened to your hand? It’s got a black hole in it!”

“It’s nothing baby, I’ll have it patched up as soon as I get a chance.”

“Oh. You should be more careful daddy, nothing escapes from a black hole you know.”

“I know, you better watch out you don’t get sucked in!” He made a mock lunge towards her and she giggled and squirmed away.

“Oh, oh! Look at this daddy,” she grabbed something from the floor and brandished it triumphantly in front of his eyes, “look at this!” It was an antique toy older than Blake himself, which he’d found through an online dealer of esoterica. She pulled the string protruding from the plastic yellow bunny rabbit’s back and little plastic hands moved back and forth in front of little plastic eyes as the tinkly music box played Brahms’ Lullaby. Persephone giggled and swayed to the music.

“It’s lovely isn’t it sweetheart?”

“Yes Daddy but look at this, look at this!” she dropped the bunny and ran over to a small keyboard in the corner and started to pick out Brahms’ melody.

“Wonderful sweetheart, Johannes couldn’t have played it any better himself,” she beamed at him, “but we have to go now OK? Bring your keyboard, bring whatever you like.”

“Where are we going Daddy?”

“We’re going to my place. We’re not coming back here for a while so make sure you pack all your favourite things.”

End of Part 1.

*All Sessile stories contain concepts created by the author in collaboration with Joha Coludar

New article published on The Conversation


Here’s an article of mine that’s just been published by The Conversation, a great webzine devoted to connecting researchers in all fields of academia with the public. Mine is the first in a projected series of “Why I Love: X” articles in a similar format:


King Tide

Henry Jones scrutinised the clipboard in his hand. It was his first day as foreman and he was going to get it right. There might be room for creativity later on but today was going to be by the book. No mucking about. He’d already made a silly mistake this morning when he’d forgotten to wear his new shiny white foreman’s hardhat and had put on the fluorescent yellow hardhat of a worker. Now everyone was on-site and they weren’t treating him with the proper deference. It must be the hat. Oh, they knew he was foreman all right, but you could see it in the way they looked first into his eyes and then glanced at his yellow hat. You could see it in the not so subtle smirks on their faces. They were laughing at him. Oh well, he would earn their respect. First things first: the list.

“Foreman’s checklist:

1. Ensure all workers wearing appropriate PPE (yellow hard hats, hi-vis vests, rubber-soled steel-capped boots, gloves available, etc.)”


“2. Ensure appropriate work schedule signed off.”


“3. Ensure foreman in possession of all lock-out keys required for scheduled work.”

Tick! Henry felt he was getting the hang of this.

“4. Ensure first-aid trained personnel on-site and ambulance access roads clear of debris.”

Tick! Looking up, Henry noticed his (he already considered them his) workers didn’t seem to be doing any work. Indeed they were all standing around, hands on hips, talking amongst themselves, some looking up at the sky, others looking at him quizzically. No matter, as soon as the list was completed he would deal with them. He’d have this site running like a well-oiled machine in no time or his name wasn’t Henry Archibald Jones and, by golly, his name was Henry Archibald Jones.

“5. Ensure no marine mammals caught in overhead powerlines.”

Henry Archibald Jones looked up. Ah…….


(painting by Genevieve Jackson – click to enlarge…I insist that you click to enlarge!)

Apollo’s War


The voyeur thought often of death,

enthralled as Deathless Ones are.


The face that ended a million lives,

deaths senseless and glorious (as all deaths).


Mortals dance teetering on the brink of Tartarus,

a slip from the Underworld.


Why not kill them,

who live only to die?


A gentle shove to watch them fall,

a relief he would never know.


Death blisters the heels of life,

but the God of Death does not run the race.


No light without dark,

no life without death?


He envied the certainty of their fate,

the God of Oracles can not see his own future.

Comments on Nietzsche’s “Man Alone With Himself”, part 1.


If you’ve read my About page, you know that the quasi-namesake of this blog is a collection of aphorisms by Friedrich Nietzsche. I didn’t name the blog after Nietzsche’s collection as such, the phrase just came to me when I was thinking of appropriate titles and it only occurred to me after the fact that it might be construed as a Nietzsche reference. In one of those amusing little twists of circumstance, it has now quite clearly become a retrospective Nietzsche reference, as I’m at this precise moment writing the preamble of an article discussing first the title itself (mine or Nietzsche’s?), and then an aphorism from Friedrich’s collection. Before I begin, I should probably make it clear that I make no claims to being a Nietzsche scholar, or indeed a Nietzsche fanatic. He’s just one among the many philosophers in whose works I find ideas worth thinking about and discussing. My interpretations are my own (as far as can be said of such things) and are, of course, entirely open to disagreement and refutation.

Anyway, what exactly does “man alone with himself” refer to? For me, there are at least two ways of interpreting it. One, perhaps the more obvious of the two, refers to the fact that writing is something one does “alone with oneself”. Basically, right now I’m having a “conversation” in my head and transcribing it1. Seeing that (as far as I know), “I” am the only inhabitant of my head, I must be having this conversation alone with myself. Hopefully, dear reader, you exist and are at this very moment (well, not this moment, which is mine, but that moment, which for you is “this very moment”) taking in the results of this soliloquy. The truth is though, that I don’t write for you. I write to help myself structure the otherwise chaotic stream of ideas careening around in my “teetering bulb of dread and dream”2. I contend that all writing and all creation is like this – composing music, making films and painting pictures are no different. We may hope that others will understand and value our creations, but they can only be interfaced with (read, watched, listened to) after we have created them. Fundamentally, the act of creation is something we do alone with ourselves3.

Another, perhaps more profound, way of thinking about the phrase “man alone with himself” is to think of “man” as “mankind”, which in these more enlightened times we might translate as “humankind”. As a symbolic species investigating the causes and attributes of the reality in which we find ourselves, we humans are profoundly alone. Some of the present gaps in our understanding are undoubtedly the result of the perspective bias that results from our particular size, speed, location, fragility, etc. Of course we use many fancy instruments to extend our perspective way out into the vastness of the cosmos or way down to the level of the ultra-itty-bitty-small, but our perspective bias continues to constrain what we can perceive and how we can think about it. Understandably, we find it especially difficult to be objective about ourselves. We have difficulty treating the elements of our experience as scientific objects. Consciousness, free will and death are notoriously difficult concepts to consider impartially. Perhaps if some other scientific species existed that could investigate us in the way we in turn investigate other species, they’d be able to convince us that there’s nothing mysterious about us being here or about us perceiving the world in the way we do; that we’re just another evolved species struggling to survive and understand, aided by the symbols we have invented…..OK probably not, but it might help.

Anyway, more on both those interpretations in later posts. In this “series” of articles I’m going to select an aphorism or three (or as many as I feel like selecting, OK?) from Nietzsche’s (henceforth FN) Man Alone With Himself (henceforth MAWH) and discuss it. It’s really a wonderful bunch of thoughts on a variety of subjects, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to read and think. MAWH is part of a larger collection called Human, All Too Human, and all the aphorisms are numbered in relation to the larger work. Today’s aphorism (number 635) is one of the longer ones in MAWH, so I’m going to break it up into small groups of sentences and intersperse them with my reactions (FN in italics, me, well, not). The translation of FN’s text is by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann.


All in all, scientific methods are at least as important as any other result of inquiry; for the scientific spirit is based on the insight into methods, and were those methods to be lost, all the results of science could not prevent a renewed triumph of superstition and nonsense. (emphasis added)

Firstly, it seems peculiar to me that the translators chose “result” in the first statement, because here FN is specifically (and crucially) differentiating between the results and the methods of science. I’ve written on this previously (here). It is as critically important today as it was in 1878 (when MAWH was first published) to understand that what differentiates scientific investigation from other modes of inquiry is not the results, not the answers (or indeed the questions), but the methods through which the results are achieved and the answers discovered.

Clever people may learn the results of science as much as they like, one still sees from their conversation, especially their hypotheses in conversation, that they lack the scientific spirit. They do not have that instinctive mistrust of the wrong ways of thinking, a mistrust which, as a consequence of long practice, has put its roots deep into the soul of every scientific man. (emphasis in original)

Depressingly, science is still taught in schools by rewarding the rote learning of facts rather than by encouraging students to develop an understanding of concepts. This may be why so many people seem not to understand what science actually is. It is not a body of knowledge or a collection of facts to be memorised.

Interestingly the “mistrust” goes both ways – mistrust of scientific ideas is as common today as mistrust of unscientific ideas. To me, both forms of mistrust stem from a lack of understanding of the way in which science operates. When Nietzsche says “mistrust” in this context, he means a healthy scepticism and the development of critical thinking faculties. On the other hand, I think “mistrust”, taken literally, might come closer to the contemporary meaning of “cynicism”, which is something like “intrinsic mistrust” – not trusting information on principle, without investigating its qualities any further. This cynicism is evident in both the anti-scientific conspiracy theorists who think anything “mainstream science” has to say is false (because corrupt) by default, and the apologists of science (including some scientists) who think anything outside the mainstream is false (because “woo”) by default. Perhaps if scientific education was a little more rigorous both of these groups could have their membership decreased. Scepticism is good; cynicism is not only not good, it is actually antithetical to science.

For them it is enough to find any one hypothesis about a matter; then they get fired up about it and think that puts an end to it. For them, to have an opinion means to get fanatical about it and cherish it in their hearts henceforth as a conviction. If a matter is unexplained, they become excited at the first notion resembling an explanation that enters their brain; this always has the worst consequences, especially in the realm of politics.

I think this speaks for itself – it’s common to crave certainty, to desire final answers. We want to know the answers to questions so we can put them in little boxes marked “solved” and get on with other things. Part of today’s mistrust of science stems from the mistaken notion that science promises certainty and then consistently fails to deliver on that promise by undermining itself with yet more answers to the same questions – “If that was certain, why do we need this?” When there is conflict in science, for example biologists debating the fine points of evolutionary theory, some people see the disagreements and think, “If even the scientists can’t agree, the whole thing must be wrong!”

Science really isn’t in the business of finalising solutions; it’s in the business of constantly refining them. Religion on the other hand…..

Therefore everyone should have come to know at least one science in its essentials; then he knows what method is, and how necessary is the most extreme circumspection. (emphasis in original)

Absolutely, Friedrich. But actually it seems to me that what we need is better education in philosophy of science – especially for our science educators! If you’re not going to work in a scientific field, you don’t need in depth knowledge about any particular scientific field, but everyone (perhaps especially politicians!) in today’s world needs to understand how science operates in general. It also seems to me that understanding the specifics of any particular field of science doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the epistemological methods/goals/limits of science. This is actually what’s important. So, what we really need is for people have a solid grounding in epistemology (i.e. to learn what knowledge is and how we can gain it).

OK, I’m only halfway through 635, but I think I’ll leave it there for now (the next bit is extremely misogynistic, anyway).


1 When Nietzsche was writing the original Man Alone With Himself, he was doing the same.

2 This charming phrase comes from a poem by Russell Edson, but I pinched it from Douglas Hofstadter’s wonderful book I Am A Strange Loop.

3 Of course in the not entirely unlikely event that no one ever reads this article it will forever remain solely a conversation I had with myself.

Can I just dig it, please?


Recently, a friend of a friend contacted me with an interesting question. She had been entirely baffled when my friend told her that I not only considered the painter Lucian Freud “culturally significant” (her words), but that I actually liked his art. In order to try and understand why an (apparently) otherwise normal human being would enjoy gazing at such things, my friend’s friend asked that I justify my predilections by explaining to her what “ideas” I found in the paintings that attracted me to them. My (slightly edited) reply to her forms the content of this post:

Before I get into my brief (Ha! – ed.) discussion of ideas in Lucian Freud, I’d like to say a few things about the way I view art in general. Our mutual friend will no doubt be happy to confirm that I tend not to answer certain questions directly, because I think they admit of no direct answers. These are the best kinds of questions in my opinion – questions that require thought, questions that require context. In thinking of a way to answer your question, I have specifically resisted looking at the interpretations of Lucian Freud that are no doubt abundantly available – those published by art critics or by the artist himself. It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that the opinions of those people (including that of the artist) are just as arbitrary as mine when it comes to a discussion of the appreciation of the art “on its own terms”.

For me, the most important property art (any art) possesses is its “aesthetic quality”. This can be taken at face value – if I like the look/sound/way it makes me feel, I like it. I have very strong reactions to art of all kinds at a level “below” the intellect. However, just because this reaction takes place on such a potentially diaphanous level, somewhere in my mysterious “aesthetic sense”, doesn’t mean that it can’t be analysed in considerable detail. Such analysis is certainly of interest to me, but it needs to be clear that it’s as much analysis of me (the appreciator), as it is analysis of the art (the appreciated). The best art, in my opinion, is (in the New Age jargon) “holistic”; it has properties that are (in the scientific jargon) “emergent” – more than the sum of their parts. This means that, even though these properties are produced by the form and content of the artwork, they cannot be reduced to that level, cannot be understood by separate analysis of form and content. That is because the form and the content are not separate properties – the form is the content, the content the form.

Quotes are fun:

“It may seem deconstructed, but that’s the structure.” – David Lynch

What exactly are “ideas” in art? I’m not trying to be difficult or evasive, this is a serious question. At what level of analysis do these ideas emerge? Let’s imagine for a moment we’re talking about music. One might ask what ideas I find in the performance of Hath-Arob that opens this concert by John Zorn’s Acoustic Masada (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGbUxtdLpFY). I might say something like “it’s just so full of ideas, man!”, and that would certainly be true. Or maybe I could describe some of the ideas in technical terms – changes of tempo, rhythmic groupings, modes employed during solos etc. I could start talking nonsense about extra-musical ideas, saying something like “the violence in this music is the expression of souls in existential torment…”, but then I’d definitely be talking about my reaction and not about the art (“…music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” – Igor Stravinsky). At which “idea level” does the art itself actually exist? Sartre says that art exists in the imagination – that our imagination literally brings into being the “aesthetic object”, which does not exist out there in the world of ideas (be they technical, metaphorical or whatever). So according to him any discussion of the ideas I find in a work of art would be a discussion of the ideas I find in my imagination and connect with the object (the piece of art) in front of me. I’d really be talking about myself, not about the artwork at all. Maybe our reactions really are the only thing we can talk about with any legitimacy when we talk about why we like a piece of art?

Sure, I could provide a list of ideas I find “worthwhile” in that performance of Hath-Arob…but that would really be an a posteriori attempt to explain to you (or to myself) the basic fact that I just dig it. Or rather, a certain “I” (a certain “me”), a certain virtual machine that runs on my wetware CPU (my brain), digs it. Yes, I have to be “in the mood”, for this sort of thing. But when I am, I am, when I am I love it, and no amount of explaining why I love it can do justice to the experiencing of it. In fact, this “why” wouldn’t even be a “why” in any meaningful sense. To attribute a “why” is to attribute a causal antecedent. Trying to describe why one enjoys a piece of art in terms of ideas fails to achieve this goal. Rather than establishing a causal antecedent, such a description is merely the act of smearing an interpretive gloss on an experience after the fact.

Anyway, you get the idea. Let’s talk about Lucian Freud. I’m still not quite ready to answer the question directly, but almost. Firstly, a little bit more about how I (unconsciously – as usual the analysis occurs after the fact) think about art. In my head, as I imagine is the case for almost everyone, artists group together automatically – I associate certain artists with one another. This makes it easier for us to both think about art and (crucially) to communicate about art. This is why we have “genres” and “movements” (whether they are defined by critics or by the artists themselves). “Isms”, like “Expressionism”, and the adjectives derived from them (as in “expressionist painters”), which morph back into nouns (as in “Expressionists”), are useful points of reference for discussing art. As long as we understand their role and its limitations, they are not dangerous. Genres are like criticism is like language in general – words are not things, they are symbols linked to concepts. Symbols are useful, we need them, but they must be decoded.

Incidentally, it’s our reliance on symbols for communication that gets us into to trouble when we’re discussing art. We assume art requires interpretation, like the symbols we’re using to discuss it. On the contrary, however, I contend that part of the immense value of art comes from the fact that it transcends interpretation. What a wonderful respite it is from interpretation to simply stand in front of a painting, to simply listen to a piece of music, and be awed by its holistic, irreducible, non-semantic qualities! Susan Sontag had a particularly eloquent way of putting this – “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

What I’m trying to be clear about is that when I say what I’m about to say: that I think of Freud as an artist amongst artists, as in a “group” with the “Expressionists” Kokoschka and Schiele, this is a harmless statement describing the automatic grouping process that goes on in my head when I think about Lucian Freud. Freud may not have considered himself an Expressionist as such (I think he liked “expressive realist”), but that doesn’t matter. So, some pictures:

Kokoschka, self-portrait.


Schiele, self-portrait.


Freud, self-portraits.



Not only do I think of these three as somehow “similar”, they are three of my favourite portrait painters. What “ideas” do they express? I’m not as militantly anti-interpretation as some (e.g., Lynch and Sontag), actually I do, like you, find it interesting (a bit like gazing at my navel), to interpret certain works of art……I just wanted to make sure it was clear that I don’t consider interpretation critical to appreciation.

It is almost certainly central to my grouping of these three artists together that their paintings express similar things to me. It’s no coincidence that they all painted many self-portraits, because what their portraiture expresses above all (to me) is vulnerability. Freud is clearly more literally representational than the other two, but there is an element of “hyper-realism” in all these paintings. No attempt is made by these painters to flatter. These are not like the over-exposed (or airbrushed) portraits we are constantly exposed to by the dominant portrait artists of today (professional photographers). Rather than smooth out the flaws of their subjects, these painters accentuate them. What do the paintings say? Perhaps they say something like “I am a human, a flesh monster, I am flawed and fragile, I eat and shit and I think about sex and death and decay and so do you.” The paintings are nothing if not honest. Maybe that’s why they are hard to like for some people. For me they are real, visceral, and enthralling.

Phew, that was tiring. Maybe instead of writing all that I should have just answered your question with a question of my own – “Can I just dig it, please?”

In praise of doing.


In art, as in life, the doing is everything. Well maybe not everything, but why sacrifice the strength of an aphorism for mere accuracy? Besides, without the doing there is nothing to hear, watch, look at or read, and certainly nothing to criticise.

Before the doing comes the dreaming. Dreaming is vitally important – it’s hard to imagine an artist that doesn’t dream and fantasise about making art! Dreams are not only important; they are real. Crucially, however, they are only real to the dreamer. In the jargon of metaphysics, dreams only have “first person ontology”. Now, as anyone who’s ever tried it knows, making one’s dreams real for other people, giving them a third person ontology, can be really hard work. Sometimes it’s impossible. Giving artistic fantasies third person ontology requires not only technical skill; it requires willpower. Willpower is actually far more important than technical skill. The world is full of talented people with incredible artistic fantasies and the world is full of people with great technical skill. What distinguishes the “real” artists from all the rest is willpower – the willpower to take something that begins as a dream, as a mere idea, through the stages of conceptualisation, planning and execution required to give it a life in the big wide third person world.

Everyone’s a critic. There’s a truism for you, and it is true. We all love to criticise. It’s common to hear people say “I could have done that” when considering a piece of art (be it visual, musical etc.). Of course the full sentence should be “I could have done that if I’d been willing to put in the time and effort required.”….but no one bothers with the second half. It’s a mistake to compare our first person fantasies with someone else’s completed artworks. It’s apples and oranges.

Criticism is the act of drawing comparison, of comparing one work to another. Art is not a competition (the truisms are flying thick and fast now); so do we really need criticism? Ideally, each piece of art we encounter should be considered in isolation; judged on its own terms. In practice, however, this can be tricky. Works of art are always in competition for our time – why listen to this, when I could be listening to that? Unfortunately the industrialisation of art has created an additional kind of competition – for our money. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the music industry, but it’s the same for books and films and also visual art to a lesser extent. There are even entire art forms that seem to have lost out in the competition for our dollars – for example it’s almost impossible to make a living these days as a poet.

In some senses criticism is a misguided process from the get go, but it might be a necessary evil. In a world in which we are constantly bombarded by art, criticism plays a role in giving us an idea about where to spend our limited amounts of time and money. This is important, but it is a tool that must be used appropriately. The role of a critic should not be to tell us what to like, rather it should be to tell us where to look for things we might like. We can make up our own minds about the rest.

If we concede that critics are necessary, who should be one and how should they operate? Firstly, as already noted, everyone is a critic. This is not entirely illegitimate because the first thing to note is that criticism is just a matter of opinion. It’s a form of “word of mouth”; so “everyone is entitled to an opinion” (truism number three). It’s obvious (if slightly controversial), however, that not all opinions are created equal. There are any number of variables that can affect the value of a critic’s opinion to us, including the knowledge base of the critic about the art form in question and the critic’s level of awareness of our own tastes (our friends probably know more about what we might like than some professional critic who doesn’t know us from Adam). Perhaps the single most important criterion for effective criticism is receptivity. This is to do with how the would-be critic approaches the artwork in question. This is where things get really tricky, because to be truly receptive one has to banish all thoughts of criticism from one’s mind. “Honest” art is created for “ideal audiences” (I just made that truism up on the spot). Ideal audiences give a work their full attention and consider it on its own merits. Contextualisation can occur after the fact, but if you’re composing your critical analysis in your head during your initial exposure to an artwork then you’re not being receptive. Obviously this is tough. It’s a “big ask”. It’s not easy to be an ideal audience member. It’s not easy to “really” listen, watch or contemplate. You have to make yourself open, vulnerable – it’s a form of meditation. This may seem harsh, but if you haven’t tried to be an ideal audience member then your opinion isn’t going to be worth much as a critic.


(Igor Stravinsky on the subject of listening – “To hear has no merit. A duck hears also.”)

One might imagine that artists, “doers” themselves, would make the best critics. In practice this often seems not to be the case. Artists often (subconsciously perhaps) make the cardinal error of seeing other artists as competitors and this severely compromises their ability to be an ideal audience member. Stravinsky apparently didn’t take his own advice about listening (admittedly he never said to listen impartially, but I’m not sure there’s any other kind of listening) and a book could be filled with the silly things he said about other composers. It’s telling that he rescinded many of these statements in his later years, often after the other composers had died (cf. statements about Arnold Schoenberg and Bela Bartok) and there was no longer any question of “competition”. Great artists have a unique insight into the artistic process of course, and so their opinions do have a certain validity. If an artist you respect praises the work of another artist then it’s probably worth checking it out. Just because an artist you respect denigrates the work of another artist, however, doesn’t mean you should expect it to be devoid of value.

Is it possible to be an ideal audience member all the time? Probably not. At any rate it’s exceedingly difficult. What this means is that we shouldn’t be in such a rush to form an opinion about a work of art. Sometimes we need to give it time to sink in. We need to be sure we are making the requisite effort to appreciate the work on its own terms and we need to be ready to fault our own appreciation before faulting the work. All this may seem like a waste of time and effort. With so much art available, many of us demand art that doesn’t make us work to understand it. We often seem to want art that grabs us immediately and forces us to appreciate it, not art that makes counter-demands of its audience. This is our prerogative. In my own experience, however, the rewards of learning to appreciate demanding artworks often dramatically outweigh the effort required in doing so.

The truth is that everyone is qualified to be a critic but no one is really qualified to be a critic. The point of this article is that we should generally criticise less and celebrate more. Sure, we have our opinions, we like some things and we don’t like others, but before we make decisions and shout our verdicts from the rooftops we should always pause to first celebrate the achievement that giving a dream third person ontology represents. We should have respect for that act of will. We should try to see the work for what it is; there will be plenty of time for contextualisation after-the-fact. I myself am a naturally critical person, but my first impressions have been wrong so many times in the past; often because I failed to live up to my “responsibilities” as an audience member. These days I’m trying to be less critical and more celebratory and I believe we can all benefit from taking that approach.

I think it would be appropriate to finish this article by celebrating a couple of doers:

The first is my wife, Genevieve – the untitled painting in the article above is by her and (perhaps – the interpretation is mine) depicts the struggle of giving a dream a third person existence…..a process a little bit like dissecting one’s own soul. Gen is a serious artist and a real inspiration to me; she has an exhibition of her paintings (“lighter” works like the one that features in my header) in a gallery in Brisbane, Australia next month.

The second is a friend of mine – Jack Carty. Jack is a singer-songwriter and has just released his third album, Esk. It is a collection of wonderful songs and it’s not at all “demanding” – it’s just damn good. Jack is an independent artist and works without the backing of a label, so the amount of willpower he exhibits in churning out album after album of quality music is truly inspiring. Here’s a link to his website so you can check him out: http://www.jackcarty.com/

The science of consciousness, “why” questions, and philosopher David Chalmers (Part 1)


Consciousness is something we are all intimately familiar with – we not only possess it, we inhabit it. Unfortunately, deep familiarity and deep understanding do not always go hand in hand and the vast majority of us know very little about consciousness – how it arises, how it evolved or what its function is. Indeed even at the cutting edge of science many questions about consciousness remain unanswered. The study of consciousness is one of those branches of science (theoretical physics is another), increasingly rare in the 21st-century1, in which philosophical and experimental science stand side-by-side on almost equal footing. Attend a conference of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC), as I did earlier this year, and you will find the papers almost evenly divided between the philosophical and theoretical or experimental approaches.

Not only are many questions about consciousness yet to be answered, many scientists and philosophers are unable to agree as to the very nature of the questions themselves. One particularly contentious question is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness research. The hard problem, as elucidated by philosopher David Chalmers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhRhtFFhNzQ), the man who coined the term, is the “why?” of consciousness – why do certain types of brain activity give rise to the experience of subjectivity? Chalmers says that identifying the brain activity associated with the various subsets of conscious experience constitutes the “easy problem(s)”. He maintains that even when “neural correlates” for all conscious experiences have been identified the hard problem will remain unsolved.

A founding member of the ASSC, Chalmers believes that the hard problem is a scientific question for which a scientific answer is possible. In his 1994 paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, he states that pessimism regarding the possibility of a scientific theory that explains consciousness is premature despite the fact that reductionist explanations of consciousness have, in his view, failed. Chalmers believes that a non-reductionist explanation is required and therefore that the hard problem may be answerable via panpsychism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panpsychism) – by treating subjectivity as a fundamental property of matter, rather than something that arises secondarily through functional evolutionary pathways. Essentially, Chalmers is suggesting that what is generally considered a question for biology (in which there are both properties and functions) should be treated as a question for physics (in which there are only properties). Although this seems like a category error, in itself it is not an intrinsically “unscientific” approach. However, leaving aside his claim that reductionist theories of consciousness have failed to account for subjectivity, let’s consider whether or not the hard problem is indeed a scientific question.

I propose that we can divide why? questions roughly into two discrete categories: “mechanistic why?” and “metaphysical why?”. An example of a mechanistic why? is the kind of question evolutionary biologists routinely investigate, e.g., “why is the venom of some Australian snakes so toxic to lab mice?” Such a mechanistic why? can be further divided into two subcategories – it is either a question about property or a question about function. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has referred to these as “how come?” (property) and “what for?” (function) questions. Rephrased, we can derive either “what are the specific biochemical properties of the venom that make it so toxic?” (property); or “what are the evolutionary selection pressures that have resulted in the venom being so toxic to lab mice?” (function), from this one mechanistic why? A mechanistic why? is therefore a question that can be easily and effectively rephrased as one or other of the two kinds of what? A metaphysical why?, on the other hand, concerns the “ultimate reason” for things being as they are. A classic metaphysical why?, derived from the Anthropic Principle, is: “why are the physics of our universe such that on this planet the conditions are precisely right for life to arise and humans to eventually evolve?” Questions such as these have been amusingly termed “vertiginous questions” by Scott Aaronson (http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1799).

Science is not fond of metaphysical why? because they do not function as standard hypotheses – they generate no predictions and are thus fundamentally untestable. Although there is no universally accepted definition of the scientific method, it is often considered that a major pathway2 through which science advances is the generation of testable hypotheses. Scientific hypotheses generate predictions about observable reality in the format “if A (the hypothesis) is true, then B will be observable.” It is not strictly speaking necessary that a hypothesis be immediately testable with current technology, but it must generate predictions that are testable “in theory”. Questions about “ultimate reasons” generate no predictions.

Like experimental science, the field of metaphysics concerns itself with what? and largely eschews why? Here is a modern definition of metaphysics (emphasis mine):

“Metaphysics is about what could be and what must be. Except incidentally, metaphysics is not about explanatorily ultimate aspects of reality that are actual.” (Conee and Snyder, 2005)

So, a metaphysical what? asks “what is actual or possible?”; whilst a metaphysical why? question asks “why are things actual or possible?” An example of the former is “are there atoms?” An example of the latter is “why are there atoms?” If science eschews metaphysical why? because they are fundamentally untestable, why should metaphysics eschew them? After all, metaphysics is concerned with the possible as well as the actual and the testability or predictive power of metaphysical questions is not relevant. One reason may be that answers to metaphysical why? only beget more metaphysical why? – to ask a metaphysical why? is to set in motion a never-ending chain of questions that beget questions that beget questions. Perhaps another reason is that answering a metaphysical why? (i.e. postulating an “ultimate reason” ) would seem to require the existence of what Daniel Dennett has termed an “invisible intentional system”. There is a major branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the asking of metaphysical why? – theology.

So what about the hard problem of consciousness? We’ve established that it’s a why? – but what sort of why? Let’s begin by examining the question in more detail, first as it was posed in Chalmers’ 1994 paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, and then in his more recent elucidation of it in the previously linked TED talk. In the 1994 paper, Chalmers initially defines the hard problem in the following passage (emphasis mine):

Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”

Although it contains the word “why” four times, there’s nothing in this passage that makes it explicitly clear what kind of why? Chalmers is asking – taken out of context, he could be asking a question about the mechanisms from which subjectivity arises or about the selection pressures that have favoured the evolution of subjectivity. As we’ve seen, however, Chalmers defines the hard problem in relation to the easy problems. In the same paper, he tells us that the “…easy problems of consciousness include those of explaining the following phenomena:

  • the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
  • the integration of information by a cognitive system;
  • the reportability of mental states;
  • the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
  • the focus of attention;
  • the deliberate control of behavior;
  • the difference between wakefulness and sleep.”

In the TED talk, he tells us explicitly that identifying the neural correlates of consciousness will not answer the hard problem. During the talk, he phrases his why? in the following way:

“We know that these brain areas go along with certain kinds of conscious experience, but we don’t know why they do.”

And tells us that the “real mystery” is “why is it that all that physical processing in the brain should be accompanied by consciousness at all?”

Chalmers thereby makes it clear that one avenue of interpreting the hard problem as a mechanistic why question is closed to us – he explicitly tells us that the mystery is not what kinds of brain activity subjectivity arises from, but why it arises from this brain activity. So, despite his desire to frame the hard problem as a question for physics, for Chalmers the “hard question” is not a “how come?” (property) question about the brain. Nor, apparently, is it a “what for?” (function) question – at no point in his discussion, in either the paper from 1994 or his TED talk, does Chalmers mention evolution. In fact, he tells us that unlike Daniel Dennett he finds a functional explanation of consciousness to be unsatisfactory. It is therefore clear that his why? can not be interpreted in terms of selection pressures favouring the evolution of subjectivity.

It seems we can be reasonably confident in ruling out the hard problem as a mechanistic why? altogether. Chalmers says that he is “a scientific materialist at heart” and that the panpsychist approach he advocates “opens up the way to do science” with consciousness, but then he explicitly disavows both possible scientific interpretations of his why?, including the one “opened up” by reframing it as a question for physics (i.e. a question about properties). It appears Chalmers’ hard problem is a metaphysical why? – a search for the “ultimate reason” that subjectivity exists.

In Part 2 of this article, I’ll be considering why (ha!) we feel so compelled to ask why?



1 A compelling case can be made for the point that the generalised “separation” of science and philosophy (including philosophy of science) is to the detriment of scientific thought.

2 There are others, but they are less relevant to the asking of specific questions (i.e., the generation of hypotheses).