Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, etc. by Galen Strawson

This is a book of nine essays by the English philosopher Galen Strawson. The essays aren’t technical. Two were originally published in the London Review of Books; two were published in the Times Literary Supplement.  One is a shortened version of a lecture given at Oxford University.

I don’t think death, freedom or the self actually bother Strawson. What bothers him are certain ideas people have expressed on those topics and a few others. The idea that bothers him the most has to do with consciousness.

What is the silliest claim that has ever been made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-is-it-like” of experience. Next to this denial — I’ll call it “the Denial” — every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green [130].

As far as I know, no philosophers have ever denied that people are conscious of things like feelings. What some of them are saying is that consciousness isn’t what we think it is, and therefore, in some sense, it is an illusion or doesn’t exist. Strawson argues that no serious person has ever said anything as silly.

Strawson also argues that we don’t have free will in the most important, meaningful sense; and that, as a result, we are never ultimately responsible for our actions.

Why does the dear old agent-self decide as it does? … The general answer is clear. Whatever it decides, it decides as it does because of the overall way it is. And this necessary truth returns us to where we started: somehow the agent-self is going to have to get to be responsible for being the way it is, in order for its decisions to be a source of ultimate responsibility. But this is impossible: nothing can be causa sui in the required way [i. e. “the cause of itself”]. Whatever the nature of the agent-self, it’s ultimately a matter of luck [105].

Another philosophical position Strawson argues for is that, as far as we know, all of reality may be mental in some sense. That’s because the most compelling evidence we have for what the universe is made of is what we are most aware of, and that is our consciousness. So he thinks rocks and other inert objects might be somewhat conscious too.

I should mention that some of the essays are more personal. Strawson rejects the idea that stories or narratives about ourselves are necessary to live a full life. He doesn’t view his own life as a story at all. He also thinks that the prospect of a painless death, even within the next few minutes, shouldn’t bother us, except for the effect it might have on other people. It’s not as if we lose anything by dying, since we never had a future something to lose (after all, we weren’t guaranteed that we’d live so many years or have certain future experiences). He ends the book explaining what it was like to be a teenager and a young man in the 60s and 70s when he attended Rugby School (the famous one founded 450 years ago) and Oxford. He traveled a lot and loved rock music and sometimes got into trouble. It was apparently good training for his future career as a philosopher.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War isn’t going well at all. His young son, Willie, has died, devastating Lincoln and his wife. At night, alone, the President visits the cemetery, retrieves his son’s body from its crypt and holds it in his arms. 

The President doesn’t know it, but he is surrounded by ghosts or spirits. They are denizens of the bardo:

Used loosely, “bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan [Buddhist] tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena [Wikipedia].

The phenomena the ghosts experience are strange to say the least. Their incorporeal selves take on bizarre shapes, they are merged with other ghostly beings against their will, they enter Lincoln’s body and know his thoughts and memories. They sometimes disappear amid sound and fury, presumably emerging somewhere else. The conversations they have with each other make up most of the novel. 

The more I read Lincoln in the Bardo, the more I enjoyed it. It’s understandable that it won last year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

The Death of Maggie Roche

Oh, hell. Maggie Roche of the folk rock vocal group, the Roches, died of cancer on January 21, 2017. She was 65.

I didn’t see that before. Maybe there was too much other news that day. Actually, there was. It was the day of the big Women’s March and the day after a certain presidential inauguration.

The New York Times printed a nice obituary, which includes remarks from her sister: 

She was … too sensitive and shy for this world, but brimming with life, love, and talent…. She was smart, wickedly funny, and authentic — not a false bone in her body — a brilliant songwriter, with a distinct unique perspective, all heart and soul.

“Speak” is one of her songs. She wrote the words and music:

The time has come for me to speak
Uh oh the time has come
And while the silence picks on me
I pray to not be dumb

So I am hunting for the words
Just wait til I find some
I need some syllables do you
Know where to get them from

When I am in my house alone
My speeches take a week
But from my lips when you are near
A sound will seldom leak.

There’s that feeling when someone younger than you dies and you think, well, after all, she was X years old.

Death is the ultimate form of escapism. The internet has nothing on death.

Your Doctors Might Kill You But Going to the Dentist Will Be a Breeze

Two pieces of medical news caught my eye this past week.

First, according to the New York Times, physicians at the highly-respected University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are going to start putting selected patients to death. Not through improper care, but on purpose.

The idea is that patients who come into the emergency room on the brink of death because of a life-threatening injury will occasionally have all of their blood replaced with freezing salt water. That means their hearts will stop beating and their brains will stop working. They’ll be dead.

This will be done in order to give surgeons more time to do their job. Instead of having a few minutes to address the gunshot wound or other injury, they may have up to an hour to operate before the patient suffers brain damage. The medical staff will then resuscitate the patient by replacing the cold salt water with nice warm blood.

This procedure has been successfully used on animals like pigs and dogs, but never before on a person. The hospital is planning to perform Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation (EPR) about once a month for a couple of years before reaching a decision on its effectiveness.

One might think that killing your patient is a clear violation of the medical maxim: “first, do no harm” (primum non nocere). But since the patients in question will already be in cardiac arrest, and very likely to die anyway, and since the kind of death they’ll suffer is expected to be temporary and should give them a much better chance of surviving their injury, it isn’t clear that the doctors will be harming anyone, at least in the usual sense.

Perhaps a more troubling issue is that patients being subjected to this kind of procedure won’t be in a position to give their consent. They’ll already be unconscious. So the medical center has publicized this new procedure in and around Pittsburgh and given prospective patients the opportunity to opt out if they choose. But the default setting in case you’re ever shot or stabbed in western Pennsylvania and end up in the UPMC emergency room will be to receive EPR (and possibly meet your maker), if you are a suitable candidate.

The other news that caught my eye is that researchers in England claim to have come up with a new treatment for tooth decay. The procedure is called Electrically Accelerated and Enhanced Remineralisation (EAER). Dentists will use a very small electrical current to accelerate “the natural movement of calcium and phosphate minerals into the damaged tooth”. In effect, your tooth will heal itself with some encouragement from your dentist. The procedure wouldn’t require an anesthetic, drilling or a filling (and dentists would become more popular people).

It isn’t clear from the article in the Guardian how long it will take to fix a cavity this way. In an ideal world, your cavities could be repaired through EAER at the same time your gunshot wound was repaired through EPR. But that probably won’t be possible for a few years yet.

Adam Smith on the Death of David Hume

Adam Smith, the economist and philosopher, and David Hume, the philosopher and historian, were very close friends. In 1776, after Hume died, Smith wrote a letter describing his friend’s attitude toward his coming death. It is controversial whether Hume was an atheist, but it is clear that he maintained his skepticism regarding religion until the end.

Below are excerpts from Smith’s letter:

His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying. “I shall tell your friend, Colonel Edmondstone,” said Doctor Dundas to him one day, “that I left you much better, and in a fair way of recovery.” “Doctor,” said he, “as I believe you would not choose to tell any thing but the truth, you had better tell him, that I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.”

When he was reading, a few days before, Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, among all the excuses which are alleged to Charon for not entering readily into his boat, he could not find one that fitted him; he had no house to finish, he had no daughter to provide for, he had no enemies upon whom he wished to revenge himself. “I could not well imagine”, said he, “what excuse I could make to Charon in order to obtain a little delay. I have done every thing of consequence which I ever meant to do; and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am now likely to leave them. I therefore have all reason to die contented.”

He then diverted himself with inventing several jocular excuses, which he supposed he might make to Charon, and with imagining the very surly answers which it might suit the character of Charon to return to them. “Upon further consideration,” said he, “I thought I might say to him, Good Charon, I have been correcting my works for a new edition. Allow me a little time, that I may see how the public receives the alterations.” But Charon would answer, “When you have seen the effect of these, you will be for making other alterations. There will be no end of such excuses; so, honest friend, please step into the boat.”

But I might still urge, “Have a little patience, good Charon; I have been endeavoring to open the eyes of the public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.” But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. “You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue.”

Thus died our most excellent and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion…. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.

I ever am, dear Sir, Most affectionately yours, Adam Smith