Monthly Archives: June 2013

Chaos Theory and Schrodinger’s Cat: The Duggers Problem

Duggers in David Lodge’s Thinks… is associated with both chaos theory and quantum mechanics. These are difficult scientific theories which can be made easier to understand through narrativization, often by means of thought experiments. These links may help get the basics of the theories, which may help clarify what role Duggers plays in the novel.

Schrodinger’s Cat, explained in New Scientist’s “One-Minute Physics” video; and a brief introduction to Chaos Theory (about 4:30 long). For Chaos, Michael Crichton includes a very succinct and clear explanation in Jurassic Park; here is the relevant excerpt. Note that though Ian Malcolm in the novel (and movie) analyzes the events in Jurassic Park in terms of chaos, there is just a loose analogy between the physics of chaos and the disastrous failures of oversight that occur on the island.

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Objectivity, Epistemic and Ontological

So, after some blank stares yesterday, I figured a bit more clarity could be brought to the distinction between the two kinds of objectivity discussed by John Searle in his argument that qualia are, in fact, accessible to scientific enquiry.

First, some basics: epistemic relates to epistemology, the study or a theory of knowledge; ontological relates to ontology, pertaining to being. Applied to the problem of qualia, these two modes are differently oriented–one towards what we can know about qualia, the other towards the essential being or nature of qualia.

Objectivity and subjectivity make an easier pair, at least at first glance. A fact is said to be objective if its validity (or invalidity) can be established independently of any given subject’s (i.e., person, sentient animal) reactions and feelings, etc. A “fact” is subjective if its validity (or otherwise) is dependent on reactions, feelings, etc: it is a matter of taste, opinion, prejudice, etc. So the fact that Barrack Obama is president of the United States is an objective fact, because the validity of this claim is independent of my opinions about it (regardless of what the Birthers say); the fact that Katherine Mansfield is a better writer than Ernest Hemingway is a subjective fact , and it is meaningless outside the context of the perceiving, feeling, biased subject: it’s a “fact” for me.

Now let’s mix the two pairs of concepts: objectivity/subjectivity and epistemology/ontology.

The “facts” I’ve just discussed are objective and subjective in an epistemic sense: they are epistemically objective and subjective, respectively. They have to do with what kinds of knowledge we have about the presidency and about the relative merits of two modernist writers. But this kind of objectivity and subjectivity should not be confused with ontological objectivity and subjectivity. Unless we are hard-core idealists (i.e., unless we believe that reality is only a projection of our minds, and that there’s nothing “out there” independent of our projections), there are things whose existence (remember, we’re talking about ontology) is objectively true: say, the fact that there is such a thing as hydrogen. But there are other things whose existence is only subjectively true: the way lavender smells to me, the precise feeling of my headache at this moment.

Now I’ll hand off to John Searle for the conclusion:

My pains have a subjective mode of existence in that they only exist as experienced by me, the subject. But mountains and molecules have an objective mode of existence because they exist whether or not they are experienced by any subject. It can be an epistemically objective matter of fact that I have a pain even though the mode of existence of the pain is ontologically subjective. (Searle. Philosophy in a New Century. New York: Cambridge, 2008.167)

Now Searle’s point in relating these distinctions to qualia is that science is concerned with epistemic objectivity–with what we can know objectivelyWe can know objectively about something whose existence is only experienced by a subject. If this is right–something Daniel Dennett would deny, I think–then qualia, which are by definition things that exist only for a subject, can still be legitimately studied by science as facts whose validity does not depend on taste or opinion. Although science will not be able to confirm the nature of the pain I feel (because this is an issue of ontological subjectivity), it can confirm that I have a pain (because the pain itself, which I experience in a certain undescribable way, is an issue of epistemic objectivity, and can be confirmed independently of my testimony).

Here’s a concrete example that might clarify things: consider the issue of motive in a murder case. For the prosecution, proving there is a motive for the murder assumes that we can have objective knowledge of the suspect’s state of mind and desires (i.e., the court uses scientific procedures based on an epistemically objective mode) EVEN THOUGH the suspect’s actual thoughts and desires, the states of mind themselves, are ontologically subjective.

For Searle, making sure we don’t confuse these two types of objectivity and subjectivity is an important first step towards a clear scientific and philosophic analysis of consciousness. He thinks too much enquiry has been crippled by the fact that scientists and philosophers have failed to appreciate that there are two kinds of objectivity, only one of which (epistemic) is a necessary feature of scientific knowledge.

My impression of how this relates to David Lodge’s project in Thinks… is this: that Lodge seems to be saying that though I can’t ever confirm the reality or the existence of your qualia (because these are ontologically subjective), literature is a medium that allows us to know something objectively about how others experience things (I don’t just mean fiction: memoirs, poetry, even anecdotes you tell about yourself could all make this knowledge objectively accessible to people who haven’t themselves experienced your qualia). Hence Helen’s point about Henry James and The Wings of a Dove.

I hope this makes sense. But now I must go catch a plane.

Have a great, safe long weekend. See you Wednesday.

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IMPORTANT: extension on Report # 2

I have decided to move the due date for Report # 2 to July 15. This is good news, but it does have a cost: it shortens the interval between getting Report # 2 back and writing the Final Report. But this will give everyone more time to consider the comments on Report # 1 (to be handed back next Wednesday) before finalizing Report # 2.

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Report # 2: first practice run

Here are some students’ practice runs for Report #2. There are two tries at Passage # 1, and one at Passage # 2 (for the originals, see the previous post). Kudos to these students for putting their work out there!

Here’s the first translation of Passage # 1:

Nicholas Beck, a silver-haired Professor of Fine Art was paired with Helen when they were asked to sit at the table. Helen seems doubtful when Jasper told her that Nicholas is a celibate homosexual. Helen was also told that Nicholas moved to Gloucester fairly recently from Cambridge, and he used to buy wine for his college. She seems to be amused by Nicholas’ high-table trick of speaking urbanely about any topic without alluding to anything memorable or profound. Jasper kept on asking Nicholas anxiously what he thought of the wine. Nicholas politely approved of Jasper’s offerings, such as Australian reds, and said “Australian reds really have improved out of all recognition.” Nevertheless, his polite comments reveal his implicit contempt for Jasper’s wine offerings.

And here’s the second:

A silver-haired man, Nicholas Beck, the Professor of Fine Art , was the only one who entered the room without a date, and was naturally paired up with Helen for table seating. Jasper informed Helen that he was a celibate homosexual who recently moved to Gloucester from Cambridge. Helen seemed to enjoy Nicholas’ high-table trick of speaking urbanely about any topic without alluding to anything memorable or profound. Jasper anxiously asked Nicholas for his thoughts on the wine. Beck was polite, yet critical of Jasper’s offerings of the Australian red and said “ Australian reds really have improved out of all recognition”

Here is the translation of Passage # 2:

I found myself, once again, discussing consciousness with Ralph Messenger. This time we spoke about subjective experiences (or ‘qualia’ in his sterile, scientific vocabulary). I came equipped with the Henry James quotation, to me, a perfect example of making the subjective objective, of relating ‘qualia’. James, precisely and elegantly, offered a direct view into Kate’s consciousness, into every “slippery and sticky” detail, all from the comfort of third person narrative. Of course, this wasn’t enough for him.  He had me repeat it, took a moment to consider it, only to brush it aside as ‘folksy’. I would like to note that he, perhaps deliberately, forgot Kate Croy’s last name while dismissing Henry James. To him, it was simply the product of James’s mind, nothing more than an invention, not a true relation of ‘qualia’. It seems he won’t accept answers from literature to questions from science.

I’ll keep posting these as I get them, and I’ll communicate my impressions and some pointers directly to the contributors. We’ll take some of them up in class. This exercise will work best if you also read these attempts and take notes to share with the class what works, what might be done otherwise, what opportunities are missed, etc. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it) that responses should be respectful and tactful–sometimes it’s easy to forget this when the writing is anonymous.

A quick note on “What’s It Like to Be a Vampire Bat?” This is the funniest part of the novel, in my opinion. If it’s unreadable to you, consider reading it aloud.

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Practice run for Report #2

Here are two short passages from Thinks…, one in Helen’s first-person narration, the other in 3rd-person Behaviourist narration (though it’s mainly dialogue). If you’d like a practice run on the task for the next assignment, try translating one or both of these into either third-person narrator’s voice (if you choose passage #1) or into either Helen’s or Ralph’s voice (if you choose passage # 2). Remember the constraints of the assignment.

Then, as soon as you can, send me your translation over email. Please indicate whether you’d allow me to post the translation on the blog, and if yes, whether you’d like it to be anonymous or named. Ideally, I’d like to have stuff to discuss by Wednesday this week, but I guess next Wednesday’s more likely.

Passage #1.

Nicholas Beck, silver-haired Professor of Fine Art, had been invited to make a pair with me, but only in the table-planning sense, because Jasper informed me that he is a celibate homosexual, on what authority I don’t know. He moved to Gloucester fairly recently from Cambridge, and has that high-table trick of being able to make urbane conversation about any topic whatsoever without saying anything memorable or profound. Jasper kept asking him anxiously what he thought of the wine—apparently he used to buy the wine for his college. Beck was politely approving but implicitly critical of Jasper’s offerings, e.g. ‘Australian reds really have improved out of all recognition.’” (David Lodge.Thinks…Toronto: Penguin, 2002. 23–24.)

Passage # 2

“Helen repeats the quotation, and says, ‘You see—you have Kate’s consciousness there, her thoughts, her feelings, her impatience, her hesitation about leaving or staying, her perception of her own appearance in the mirror, the nasty texture of the armchair’s upholstery, “at once slippery and sticky”—how’s that for qualia? And yet it’s all narrated in the third person, in precise, elegant, well-formed sentences. It’s subjective and objective.’

‘Well, it’s effectively done, I grant you,’ says Ralph. ‘But it’s literary fiction, not science. James can claim to know what’s going on in Kate Whatshername’s head because he put it there, he invented her. Out of his own experience and folk psychology.”

‘There’s nothing folksy about Henry James.’

He waves this quibble aside.” (Ibid. 43)

The main advice I have is to pay careful attention to what may initially seem like trivial aspects of the text: diction, verb tense, quotation versus paraphrase, point of view, etc. Also, if this seems hard–well, it should!

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Follow up on our discussion of Alice Munro

Last week, I made the rather bizarre claim that the third person narrator in “The Bear Came over the Mountain” is unreliable because his judgments seem impossible to separate from those of Grant (which is why I go against the convention of calling the narrator of a story written by a woman “her”). Not surprisingly, this claim confused some students–not surprisingly, because it is rather counterintuitive. Here is an attempt to explain it using the same cartoon I used to describe third-person subjective narration (also known as “third person limited omniscient” or “reported monologue”). Here is the basic schema:

Image Now, let’s examine the consequences of changing how much discrepancy there is between narrator and focalizer.






Now, if we think of this last narrator as a first-person narrator “putting on” a third person voice, it’s easy to imagine that this narrator can be unreliable–we just need to find evidence that the narrative as a whole gives us reason to suspect or doubt his judgment, interpretation or sanity. Grant seems very sane, but his judgments, biases and analyses are often undermined by other elements in the story–as we saw in class.

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On Likable and Unlikable Characters

David Lodge’s Thinks… is a good opportunity to bring up our personal, moral and aesthetic responses to individual characters. We’ve seen many characters who are too complicated to like or dislike unequivocally. Jackson Jackson in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is charming, endearing and definitely likable, but these characteristics may strike some as uncomfortable because they are qualities of his voice and rhetoric rather than of his actions. For others, this will not seem problematic at all. Grant in “The Bear Came over the Mountain” evokes sympathy, pity and perhaps identification, but he is also selfish, self-pitying and perhaps willfully blind to the reality of other people (especially women). Tony Webster is much the same. 

Flat characters (which we’ve seen extremes of in Atwood’s “Happy Endings”) are usually easier to know how to feel about, and though Ralph Messenger and Helen Reed aren’t exactly flat characters, they are certainly flatter than Grant and Fiona, or the narrator of “Araby.” This isn’t a comment on Lodge’s art: flat characters have their purposes, and they are generally exactly what comedy needs (think of Arrested Development‘s characters–flatter than flat, and yet they get the job done. And how!). Still, Ralph is a polarizing figure: some find him honest, charming, fun, even heroic in his disregard for convention–though no one doubts that he lies to himself. Others find him despicable, calculating and selfish. He is both, of course (who isn’t?), but some readers foreground some features and other readers foreground the others. Helen is nice, but some find that there’s not much else to her. It’s obvious Lodge had more fun writing Ralph than Helen, though his sympathies are rather obviously more with Helen. (William Blake said the same of Paradise Lost: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” This may be the first time someone reads Paradise Lost and Thinks… in parallel, though I haven’t researched this claim.) Is it possible to feel strongly for or about Helen? I wonder what you think…

Anyway, liking or not liking characters is obviously important, but these reactions are not interpretations in themselves. It’s not enough to say that Ralph is a bad guy because he is a womanizer and selfish to boot, as if he were a real person. He is a selfish womanizer whose characteristics serve a purpose in the narrative, and as far as interpretation and criticism goes it’s much more interesting to consider how his traits serve the novel than how they measure up to our moral standards. This is not to say these standards aren’t relevant: they are. But Ralph is not real, and so indignation at his behaviour may cause us to miss the point of that behaviour. Someone I know once told me she hated E.M. Forster’s Howards End because the protagonists made their money from investments instead of hard work. Well! To me, this is like saying one doesn’t Hamlet because the protagonist stalls so much.

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