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The best books on Philosophical Wonder

recommended by Eric Schwitzgebel

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures by Eric Schwitzgebel

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures
by Eric Schwitzgebel


We think of philosophy as a discipline that interrogates complex dilemmas—the nature of will, right and wrong, human freedom—with logic, reasoned thought and argument. But what do the moments in philosophy that make us stop and look outside ourselves have to teach us? According to Eric Schwitzgebel, philosopher at the University of California Riverside, they can open up worlds of fresh possibility. Here he recommends five books of philosophical wonder.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures by Eric Schwitzgebel

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures
by Eric Schwitzgebel

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Before we discuss your books, let’s start with the topic, philosophical wonder. What do you mean by that?

I was just wondering what I meant by that this morning. I don’t have an analytical philosopher’s definition of ‘wonder’ yet. Here’s what I have so far: We go through life with all kinds of presuppositions, which are usually implicit, about how things are and how they must be. Philosophical wonder occurs when we’re jostled out of that and we start to see new, interesting possibilities.

The idea that did it for me when studying philosophy, that certainly changed my outlook on the world, even though I wasn’t convinced by the arguments, was reading Descartes’ First Meditation, and suddenly having that idea, ‘could I be dreaming?’ This was in the early 80s when we hadn’t had so many movies that addressed just that question. If you take it seriously, it gets you into a position where you have to think quite hard and change your attitude to things you had previously taken for granted.

Right. We normally assume that we’re awake. But when I engage with Descartes or with Zhuangzi [or Chuang Tzu], the author of the first of the five books I’m going to talk about—then I start to wonder, is it possible that I could be dreaming right now?

“There’s a lot of scholarly dispute about exactly how much can be traced back to the historical figure of Zhuangzi”

Probably the most famous passage in the Zhuangzi is this. One night Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering around, doing whatever he liked, and giving no thought to humans. Then he woke up and suddenly there he was, a human! So he wondered, is he a human who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming that he’s a human? How could he tell the difference? That’s one of the earliest historical statements of dream doubt, in ancient China around 300 BCE, long before Descartes’ Meditations.

Before we get on to Zhuangzi as a book choice, what part does this kind of philosophical wonder play in your life and your writing as a philosopher?

I’ve always liked when philosophy pulls the rug out from under me. People come to philosophy with different aims and preferences. Maybe what I value most is when I’m reading a philosopher and suddenly something that I took for granted is exposed to me as merely contingent, or possibly untrue, or something I might not be 100% justified in believing. When that happens, the universe seems to expand. There’s this sense of more possibilities than I had assumed to exist before. The world gets bigger.

That sounds very like the language that people who’ve taken psychedelic drugs use.

I guess so! I have never actually tried psychedelic drugs, although my father was a collaborator with Timothy Leary on one of his classic papers.

That’s amazing. Did your father take drugs to do that?

Not for that paper. He was an observer during that experiment rather than a participant. But, yes, he took some psychedelic drugs in his life. Not a lot.

So, you’re getting a natural high from philosophy.

That’s one way of thinking of it!

I took some LSD when I was a student. I would say that, in my experience, it wasn’t different from doing philosophy. It was continuous with it in some senses and it informed it. You don’t have to do it more than once or twice to discover that. It’s just that there are different ways of organizing experience. That’s for sure.

Right. My father was also a licensed hypnotist. So I got to see how hypnosis worked. Dreaming is another kind of altered state of consciousness too, and it’s quite normal. There are lots of different ways that the human mind can encounter the world.

In your blog, The Splintered Mind, which is huge, and which you’ve been writing since 2006, and in the recent book that was spun off it which is named after one of the pieces, A Theory of Jerks, you often revel in a sense of philosophical wonder. In your writing you are excited by other possible ways of understanding the world. Is that fair? To me, that seems to be what gets you going.

Yes, I think so. That’s more than fair, maybe it even borders on flattery.

Here’s the flattery. I think you’ve got an incredibly fertile mind and you see possible philosophical angles where other people don’t notice there’s anything interesting going on. It’s great to see that in action. And there’s a kind of joy in it that feels like wonder. It’s not as if you’re doing it as a means to an end. It seems that you’re absolutely revelling in that engagement with ideas, stimulated by something being not quite what you expected it to be.

I feel like when I’m at my philosophical best I achieve that. That’s part of my aim as a philosopher and part of what I hope to bring to readers. I don’t know if I always do that, hopefully sometimes. I love it when other philosophers can do that to me. They can take observations of ordinary things, or of extraordinary things, and use them to knock us out of our usual modes of thinking.

I think it’s true that all your book choices here have potential to do that. So, let’s get on to those. Your first choice is Zhuangzi. Do you have any Chinese ancestry or other connections with China? I was interested, as you are a philosopher in the analytic tradition, and yet you do very frequently refer to Chinese philosophy and I was just intrigued by how you came to have such an interest in it.

Well, I took a class with P J Ivanhoe when I was an undergraduate at Stanford, and it was an amazing class and I fell in love with some of the Chinese authors, especially Zhuangzi, but not only Zhuangzi. And then I went to Berkeley and Kwong-Loi Shun was there, another amazing scholar of ancient Chinese philosophy. He was excited to find that rare PhD student who actually knew some Chinese philosophy. I started working with him right away and he is wonderful. So, my excitement about Chinese philosophy was nurtured and I’ve just continued to be in love with it.

So, the book you’ve chosen was written in 300 BCE.

About then, but it didn’t get its current form until several centuries later. There’s a lot of scholarly dispute about exactly how much can be traced back to the historical figure of Zhuangzi.

Like anything written about Socrates. It’s not unusual for ancient philosophers to be hidden behind their commentators’ views of them.


Could you characterize why you’ve chosen this book in terms of philosophical wonder? What is the book about?

The butterfly dream passage is a wonderful example of dream-doubt. Another wonderful doubt Zhuangzi has is about life after death. He says, how do I know that in loving life and in hating death I’m not like someone who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back? He tells the story of Lady Li, the daughter of a border guard. Lady Li was captured and taken far away from her home. She wept and wailed at her plight. But instead of being taken to a terrible place, she was taken to a palace. She enjoyed the fine meats and all the luxuries, and eventually she wondered why she had wept so much for home. Zhuangzi says maybe the dead wonder why they ever longed for life. Maybe we’ll wake up to something even more wonderful than our lives as they are now.

I guess that’s possible. Though I’m not expecting to wake up after death. Is this book quite fragmentary?

It is. It’s lots of fragments. The Inner Chapters, which is probably the most ancient core, is conventionally divided into seven chapters, but really, they are seven bunches of fragments, some very short, others more extended.

“He’s got an egalitarian spirit, in a way that’s almost anachronistic.”

One of the things I also really love about Zhuangzi is how his heroes have such a humane vision. His heroes are usually people you wouldn’t normally think of as heroes. He’s got an egalitarian spirit, in a way that’s almost anachronistic. One of the most famous passages is this lovely passage about the skill and artistry of a butcher. Butchery is traditionally seen as a lowly occupation and an ugly thing to do, gory, messy, not something anyone with literary skills would normally admire. But Zhuangzi’s butcher turns carving up oxen into a dance of fluid beauty. There’s this moment at the end where he does the subtle little turn of the knife and the ox comes falling to the ground in pieces, hitting the ground like clods of earth.

That’s a beautiful description of artistry. But what does it demonstrate?

A lot of scholars interpret this passage as expressing the idea that you should react to the world with a kind of spontaneous skilfulness like that of a skilled artisan or athlete. One common interpretation of Zhuangzi is that his central idea is to move past words and conceptual thinking to spontaneous skilful almost unthinking responsiveness.

I actually don’t take that message from the passage. The passage concludes with the king saying, “I’ve heard the words of a butcher and learned the secret of caring for life.” One of the things I haven’t mentioned about this passage so far is that the butcher talks about how he never needs to sharpen his knife. He says, “ordinary people hack away and they need to sharpen their knife every month. A skilled butcher might have to sharpen his knife once a year. But I’ve been carving oxen now for 19 years and my knife is still as sharp as when it came off the whetstone. That’s because inside an ox there are huge empty spaces, and the knife follows through the empty spaces, and it doesn’t even need to touch anything really.” That’s such an interesting and weird way of thinking about an ox. In a way it is true that an ox is mostly empty spaces. I mean from a contemporary physical point of view, there’s a lot of space between those elementary particles.

So, the knife has lasted 19 years by basically just following through the empty spaces and doing nothing.

So how is that different from the idea of a spontaneous intuitive understanding of how to achieve what you’re aiming to achieve without strain?

Well, here’s the issue. Most people celebrate the butcher and think the butcher is the ideal. And he’s certainly being celebrated in the passage, but I’m inclined to think that it’s the knife that’s really the ideal. The knife doesn’t do anything. The knife has no skills.

So, what’s that supposed to correspond to?

Well, one thing Zhuangzi recommends is dozing beneath trees and taking naps.

I’m up for that.

There’s a phrase in ancient Chinese that scholars often give heavy interpretation, “wu wei”. It literally means “doing nothing”.

And there are these interpretations of wu wei or doing nothing that treat it as spontaneous skillful responsiveness. Maybe the ideal here would be the super skilled basketball player who just responds instantly to whatever is going on in the court and does all those amazing no-look passes and slam dunks all without any explicit thought. This is the idea of wu wei, doing nothing, as spontaneous skill.

And that kind of skill is maybe what the butcher has. But there’s another, more straightforward way of thinking about doing nothing, which is more like what the knife does or what you do when you take a nap under a tree, a more common sense understanding of doing nothing. That’s the understanding I prefer and that I think is closer to what Zhuangzi favors in the Inner Chapters.

So, you’re taking the gaps in the ox to be the down time in life as it were?

Right. One thing Zhuangzi does is challenge the main value sets and dogmas of his day. The Confucians were into ritual and benevolence and propriety, and Zhuangzi challenged that. The Mohists were into the value of productive labor. He criticizes that. The Yangists were into extending your life as much as possible. Zhuangzi has all these passages where he suggests that sages should celebrate their own deaths or not be so worried about death.

So I think part of what Zhuangzi wants is for us to relax about all of these things that we might care about so much, and take it a little easier.

That’s an interesting interpretation.

So, my interpretation of this famous phrase, wu wei, is more literal, doing nothing in, shall we say, the lazy sense. Like the knife. But I also like the celebration of the butcher, that it’s a butcher being put forward as a hero. If the knife is you, then the butcher is the Dao or the Maker of Changes, turning and twisting you through the empty spaces while you ride along.

And another thing I really love about Zhuangzi is that he’s constantly undermining himself. He puts his words in the voices of all kinds of people, including amputee criminals and others in the lowest parts of society. Sometimes he puts his words in the mouth of Confucius, although Confucius would definitely not agree with any of this stuff, and then in other passages he has Confucius say things like, “Oh, I’m so stupid.”

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Zhuangzi asserts things and then he raises doubts about what he just asserted, and then he doesn’t resolve those doubts. He contradicts himself. He says things that are plainly absurd that he knows the reader is not going to take at face value, and it’s sometimes hard to tell where the absurdity begins or ends and where he’s starting to get serious. He works hard to frustrate the reader’s normal reaction to a philosophical text. Normally when we read a philosophical text we want to be able to say, “Okay, here’s the author’s view.” He’s a genius at frustrating that impulse and preventing the reader from saying, “Here’s Zhuangzi’s theory about what’s right and what’s wrong and here’s how he defends it.”

With a view to making you think for yourself? Is that the idea?

Probably. He’s constantly undermining his own authority. He is, in a way, the ultimate anti-authoritarian philosopher.

And in a poetic mode as well.

Yes. His writing is beautiful, and that shines through in the English translations. This is one of the reasons I like Watson’s translation. I love Watson’s voice, although there are more recent translations, too, that have some advantages over Watson in other respects. But then, of course, if you go back to the original Chinese, it can be even more beautiful.

Okay, we should probably move on to the next book or we’ll be stuck on this one. I can hear the sense of wonder in your voice as you’re talking about it. I’m very sympathetic to the idea that there are many ways of doing philosophy. And this isn’t the only one of your book choices that is unconventional in the way it approaches philosophical thinking. Your second book is Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. He created his own way of doing things as well, although it was slightly more obvious what he was talking about.

In some respects he’s like Zhuangzi in that he contradicts himself and he undercuts his own authority and he resists the reader’s inclination to say, “Okay, here’s his theory and here’s how he defends it.” He’s not quite as self-undermining as Zhuangzi is, although he definitely is to a substantial extent.

But isn’t he sincere about how he’s thinking at any given moment? Isn’t it just that he doesn’t feel any responsibility to hold on to that position tomorrow or even in half an hour?

Yes. He characterizes himself that way, and I think that probably is true. I suspect it’s also partly a pose, in the sense that these essays were created and revised over a long period of time and he kept adding new passages. They come across as if he just let his pen wander wherever it would. But I think they’re much more intentional and artful than that, even when they seem to be diverging off topic and you’re wondering what this has to do with the title-subject of the essay.

But that’s the sense of wonder at something that’s just occurred to him. That’s what it feels like. He’s like, “Oh, that’s really interesting. Let me follow that chain of thought.” Or, “I’ve seen something interesting. I’ll write about that.”

Yes. He’s chasing down threads of things that are opening up for him as he’s writing. I also think he’s a great empirical philosopher. We now think of empirical work in terms of the sciences and Montaigne lived slightly before the era that we normally think of as being the fully-fledged Scientific Revolution, but he was so interested in hearing from foreign lands and travelling and talking with people who had different kinds of expertise and hearing about wonders and reading about the diversity of human experience in history. He had this sense that the world is full of an amazing variety of ways that human life can be lived. And part of what’s wonderful about him is he presents this diversity of the human condition to the reader.

He passes judgments on it in various ways, but often it’s not clear ultimately what his judgment will be, or whether he really has a stable judgment at all.

Do you have favourite essays?

I love the Apology for Raymond Sebond. It is by far the longest of the essays, it’s over a hundred pages of the edition I have. Most of the others are only a few pages.  In context, the Apology reads like this wild, rambling, diverging, digressive, overgrown monstrosity.

And is there something you particularly like about that essay?

For one thing, it is so strangely structured. Raymond Sebond was this second-rate theologian, who wrote a book defending the existence of God that Montaigne’s father had wanted him to translate into French. So he translated this book as a favor to his father, but he couldn’t help but notice how bad it is.

So, he wrote this apology. One interpretation is that he is saying, “Well look, this is a pretty bad work and the arguments don’t succeed. But this is about as good as the human condition gets, and I’m going to defend him by showing that all of us are as intellectually deficient as Sebond.

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“And we all believe in God,”—he’s living in a very theistic time—“and Sebond offers some reasons, and you can poke holes in those reasons if you want to, but probably your own reasons aren’t really any better. Sebond has done as well as anyone can do.”

That’s the frame of the essay, but he makes all these giant digressions. There’s page after page of fascinating descriptions of the intellectual capacities of animals. Part of what he’s doing is saying, “Look, we think we humans are so great and so much better than animals, but see how dumb we are in so many ways and notice the clever things animals do.” He’s got a wonderful passage where he says he thinks elephants probably have a sense of religion.

Yes, I remember that passage. That’s a really weird one.

It’s an extraordinary passage. He talks about elephants performing morning ablutions and raising their trunks and looking at the sun in a religious, meditative way.

Another essay I love is “Of Cannibals”. One of the things that Montaigne notices over and over again throughout his work is how contingent all our opinions and all of our ways of life are. If you grew up in France, you’re a Christian. If you grew up somewhere else, you’d be Muslim. And if you’d grown up somewhere else, you’d be a cannibal. We French, Montaigne says, hear how other people live and we think, “Boy, that’s barbaric, roasting and eating your enemies. That’s horrible.” But the cannibals think that what we do is strange and horrible. Montaigne loves to show the diversity of the human condition. You get this sense of the breadth of human possibility.

“One of the things that Montaigne notices over and over again throughout his work is how contingent all our opinions and all of our ways of life are”

Montaigne also repeatedly notes the varying attitudes people have towards death. You might think: what do people care about more than anything else? Well, they care about not dying, they care about avoiding pain, they care about their family members. Montaigne finds examples from ancient history and from contemporary reports around the world, where people have radically different attitudes toward death and pain and family than we think of as normal.

What comes across to me is his passionate fascination with the world. Everything’s of interest. You’ve chosen Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat as one of your later book recommendations, and if you hear Oliver Sacks speak or read any of his books, he’s got that same digressive tendency as well, sometimes with the argument going into the footnotes, but also that sort of relentless fascination with everything around him.

Yes, absolutely. That shines through. I love that about his mind. With Montaigne, you definitely get this feeling of a character who was fascinated by the bizarreness of the world, which Oliver Sacks also had, and I think Zhuangzi had it too.

Despite these similarities, Zhuangzi and Montaigne react very differently to the wide-ranging diversity that they notice. Montaigne’s reaction is to say—and it seems paradoxical, but I can see how it makes sense—you should behave according to the customary fashions of your community. He recognizes the radical contingency, but he says, “Stay local. You don’t really have the basis to shift to something else. That would be a kind of arrogance too.” He falls back on the reaction to skepticism suggested by ancient skeptics like Sextus Empiricus, which is to say, “If I don’t know anything, I’ll just go along with local custom.” In contrast, I think Zhuangzi wanted us to build our own weird, unconventional ways of finding meaning, rather than sticking to convention. Sacks is probably more like Zhuangzi in this respect.

Another thing I noticed in your choices, is that Zhuangzi, Montaigne and Sacks are, it seems to me, observers of the world. But your next author, the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is a dreamer. He’s more concerned with the dream than what we would consider to be the reality. In fact, he makes the dream so interesting that he almost  inhabits it.

Yes, that’s true. He inhabits the dream. I like that.

So maybe we could move onto the book Labyrinths, which is a collection of his stories. That’s probably not the right word for them, but they’re fictions.

Labyrinths doesn’t exist in Spanish, unless it’s been shifted back to Spanish. It’s a collection of various short pieces written around the middle of Borges’s career—mostly fictions but not only fictions. It’s a wonderful selection, very philosophical. Borges is more a creator than an observer of worlds…

…inspired by books rather than the direct experience of reality, I think.

Yes, I think so.

He lived in the world of Sherlock Holmes, Immanuel Kant and a host of other writers.  It feels like he’d rather live in a kind of extended thought experiment than in the more mundane place we inhabit.

Yes. He has this fascination with strange heresies from the sixth century and things like that.

He was a librarian and an incredibly scholarly reader of a huge range of literature in different languages. He’s got this immense storehouse of potential material for his stories which tend to set up an imaginary world, play out some of the consequences, and then stop.

Some of his worlds are these elaborate imaginings. One of my favorites is The Library of Babel, which is this world that’s just a giant library that contains every possible book in the sense that every possible configuration of letters and punctuation is represented somewhere exactly once in some book in this library. Virtually all the books read like random nonsense, because you’ve got one book for every possible combination of characters. But there will be rare books that seem to be full of profound meaning! There’ll be the book that explains the library and there will be a book that contains the right interpretation of quantum mechanics. There’ll be a book that tells an alternative version of Don Quixote. Everything that you can imagine will be there somewhere. But are such rare works in the library just randomness that we overinterpret, or are they truly meaningful? How much is what we bring to it?

“Montaigne and Sacks are also imaginative, but Borges is less constrained by empirical reality”

Now imagine every possible language. Then the book you hold in your hand, which looks like nonsense to you, in some possible language is a retelling of Don Quixote, which was another of Borges’ favourites, or whatever you choose. It’s just such a fascinating world to imagine. How would you find meaning in a world like that?

It’s interesting you mentioned Don Quixote because one of my favorite Borges stories, one often used in the context of discussing the difference between an original artwork and a pastiche or forgery, is “Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote”, where someone, by immersing himself in the knowledge of the early 17th century, is able to write verbatim Don Quixote—of course, it’s completely implausible—without consulting the original. And then the twist in the story is that this one’s a different book, even though it’s identical word-for-word. This one makes subtle use of archaisms, where the original was just using the local language of its day. It’s a clever story, and the thought experiment brings out philosophical points about the non-identity of indiscernible objects, something Arthur Danto kept repeating with variations in his philosophy of art.

Yes. I actually have a similar thought experiment in my book A Theory of Jerks. I’ve written a couple of pieces that riff on Borges. In A Theory of Jerks, there’s a chapter called “Invisible Revisions”. Monday, I write a philosophy essay, version A. Tuesday, I make a number of revisions, creating version B. Wednesday, I examine the revisions in version B, and one by one I decide that each revision was a mistake and I return to my original phrasing. By Wednesday night, I have version C, which is word-for-word identical to version A. But version C is totally different and much better! What was clumsy in Version A is now artfully casual. What I overlooked in Version A is now intentionally omitted.

That’s really interesting  because that’s almost what John Stuart Mill says in On Liberty about the difference between a belief that’s a prejudice and a belief that has survived intensive challenge from people who disagree with you. It looks like the same belief, but they’re not the same.

Definitely. A journal should accept version C and reject version A.

I also wrote a short story inspired by The Library of Babel called THE TURING MACHINES OF BABEL. Instead of having every possible book, the library has every possible computer program, with the books being random computer instructions that are read and executed by read-write heads that look like rabbits.

Okay, and what happens next?

Well, if you accept certain theories of computation, then once you implement a program, consciousness will arise. So while the Library of Babel contains every possible book, THE TURING MACHINES OF BABEL has every possible conscious state instantiated in it somewhere—including of course, the conscious state of imagining that very world itself. This story gets deeply Borgesian and self-referential.

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I love how Borges stretches the imagination. Montaigne and Sacks are also imaginative, but Borges is less constrained by empirical reality.

It’s the opposite, it strikes me. It strikes me that he wants to leave reality behind very quickly. The assumption is we know this is an absurd imaginary situation. We don’t really believe that these people have a map that’s bigger than the place or anything like that.

Right, Borges imagines a perfect map, which ends up being exactly the same size as the place it’s mapping. That reminds me of “Funes the Memorious”, Borges’s story about Ireneo, a teenager who remembers every single detail of everything and of course this turns out to be perfectly useless because it takes him a full day to remember what happened in a day.

At the beginning of this interview, I confessed I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my account of philosophical wonder. I feel that Borges invokes philosophical wonder. He doesn’t do it by showing us possibilities that we can take as real possibilities the way the other authors I’m talking about do—though Zhuangzi has his Borgesian moments.

Interesting. Well, it was nice that he’s there because otherwise it might just seem we’re straightforwardly enjoying writers who perceive things and draw attention to how wonderful they are. With Borges, the wonder is at him in a sense, not at the world.

Somehow, it’s still wonder about the world. It’s not just wonder at Borges. The wonder is at the possibility of impossible possibilities. No, that’s not right either.

I look forward to your essay on that at some point.

Well, I didn’t promise consistency any more than Montaigne did!

Let’s move on to Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. He definitely felt wonder about just about everything about the mind and the brain and human behavior.

I agree. Let me just say that all five of these books were personally important to me in my intellectual development. Each of them transformed my thinking. When I first read Sacks, I was just stunned at the variety of ways the mind could go a little bit loopy and how people could put together meaningful, sometimes even beautiful, lives despite what you might think would be staggering disabilities. Sacks describes all this so beautifully and he conveys such love for the people he describes.

He must have been an amazing man. First, perhaps we should say something about this book for people who don’t know it.

It’s a series of portraits or case studies of people with neurological damage. Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, and he met fascinating people over the course of his career, many who found value and meaning amid quite disconcerting disabilities.

“The Lost Mariner” is a famous one.

Yes. This is a guy who has basically no new long-term memories since World War II. Sacks is interviewing him in the 1970s, I think. Sacks walks into the room and says, “hi” and the guy’s cheerful and he’s able to have superficial conversations, keeping hold of things for maybe 30 seconds, and then it’s gone. He’s living in this superficial world of friendliness. He has no clue how old he is. He looks in the mirror and is shocked and mortified at what he sees and to be told that it’s not 1945.

What would that be like? What would it be like to be unable to lay down any new memories, to think it’s 1945 all the time and everybody you meet is new? It’s fascinating to imagine, and I feel a lot of sympathy for the Mariner even though he doesn’t know how bad he has it.

“What would it be like to be unable to lay down any new memories, to think it’s 1945 all the time and everybody you meet is new?”

A couple of twists add more depth to the story. One is that World War II was clearly the highlight of the Lost Mariner’s life. After the war he fell into alcoholism and had a terrible life. He developed Korsakoff’s Syndrome, due to severe alcohol abuse damaging his brain. His disability, in some sense, erased that terrible life and put him back permanently into this world that worked better for him. So, he lost what he needed to lose in some sense.

Sacks is a little critical of him and says, “Look, he’s so superficial. It seems like an empty life in a way.” But then he describes the Lost Mariner going to Catholic church and engaging in the rituals there. Of course, these rituals are timeless and it doesn’t matter if it’s 1945 or 1975. He’s able to participate in the ritual and understand the meaning of the ritual. He has a powerful religious sense. That isn’t lost. He’s able to participate in religion because of its constancy. He knows what to do when the sacrament comes.

So how do you evaluate a life like that? There’s no easy answer.

You’ve used the word ‘story’ several times to describe this case study. It feels like a fable almost. And yet, part of its power is you know that it’s based on a real person’s symptoms and the interaction that Oliver Sacks actually had with him.

You could write the exact same story as fiction.

Except you wouldn’t believe it. It would be implausible. It’s too neat, too exaggerated. That’s true of the lives of some of the other people Sacks described in this book too. As a writer, he provoked philosophical wonder about the world and its variety because he exuded it, but he also showed us things that can provoke wonder.

And what about your last choice? I haven’t come across this book before—Greg Egan’s Diaspora.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I had loved science fiction. I’d read lots of Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury especially. For some reason, though, I mostly stopped reading science fiction in college. I suppose that I imagined myself too busy with other, more important things.

Diaspora opened my eyes to the wealth of philosophical thought that has been playing out in science fiction over the past 30 years”

Then in the mid-2000s, someone recommended Diaspora to me, and it set me afire with enthusiasm to devour all the science fiction that I’d been missing. I realized science fiction had potential to explore issues like artificial intelligence in a way that goes far beyond the classic sci-fi I’d read as a teenager. Asimov’s robots, and the android Data from Star Trek, they’re cool and interesting, of course, but if an artificial intelligence can be conscious, Asimov’s robots only scratch the surface of the possibilities.

Diaspora opened my eyes to the wealth of philosophical thought that has been playing out in science fiction over the past 30 years, which we professional philosophers almost entirely ignore, to our great loss and discredit.

In simple terms, what is the plot of Diaspora? What is the inciting incident that gets us going?

The setup is that we’re living in a world in which, for a few centuries, people have been able to destroy their physical bodies to upload themselves into computers. You have to accept certain views of computation and artificial intelligence and consciousness to accept this, but this is the premise of the book.

So let’s accept as a premise that if you were to destroy your body and your brain but record all that information in a computer and have the computer implement it in the right way, you could continue living as a person inside the computer in an artificial environment designed however you want to design the environment. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil now talk about uploading yourself, copying or transferring yourself into computers. David Chalmers and Susan Schneider have given the idea some sympathetic philosophical analysis. In Diaspora, Permutation City, and related works, Egan gives this idea the fullest imagining I’ve seen. What would it really be like if you were a computer program living inside an artificial computer environment?

Well, for one thing you could duplicate yourself. You could back yourself up. Multiple times.

And then have divergent lives, as it were, in parallel but diverging.

Yes, and then there’d be the question, ‘do you want to merge back together with the person you diverged from?’

In Egan’s worlds, people can also control what he calls their exoselves. You can do things like tweak your abilities and personality parameters. One character tweaks herself so that she really, really loves math. She is just going at math theorems all the time. Then a friend of hers says something like, ‘you’re getting pretty deep down in this math. Don’t you think you should adjust your parameters a little, so you can kind of poke your eyes up into the world a bit more?’ She says, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess you’re right.’ She changes herself, and then she looks back on her mathematical self, and she’s like, ‘Wow, that person I used to be really got pretty deep in there.’ So, you could change your values and what you want to value.

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What would that be like? We ordinary biological humans, our values change somewhat over time, and with work we can sometimes intentionally shift them in certain directions. But what if you could just say, “I want to value X, intensely, passionately, more than I value anything else” and then make it so? What would you choose? What are the risks? If your choice is too narrow, could you get stuck in a hole and keep tweaking yourself deeper into that hole, until you’re just ecstatically counting blades of grass?

Some people choose to stay embodied, not uploading at all, either keeping their traditional human form or accepting various moderate to extreme biological enhancements. Among the people who have uploaded, a wide range of lives and values are possible, from spiritual meditation to space exploration to art colonies with multidimensional enhanced sensoria.

If you’re living within one of these giant mega-computers, there’s really no threat of death, no serious scarcity. So the big question is how do you find meaning in life in those conditions? You’ve got in front of you potentially billions of years of subjective experience and nothing that you’re required to do.

Is this a utopian or dystopian world—without giving too much away about the book?

It’s mixed, but closer to utopia.

Interesting because on the face of it most science fiction scenarios that play on machine consciousness have a tragic element to them.

Yes, that’s often the case. Egan is exploring possibilities. One of the wonderful things about this book is that he explores a broad range of possibilities. Some end better than others. With still others it’s ambiguous how to interpret the ending.

Is this a book of short stories or are they all connected together as a novel?

They’re all connected, but it’s not a plot-driven book. It’s not for everybody because it includes long descriptions of, for example, hypothetical physics. Philosophers of mind might find the beginning fascinating. It’s inspired by Daniel Dennett. It’s a detailed description of how you might seed artificial intelligence inside one of these computers.

Tell us something about wonder and imagination in relation to this book.

Egan’s a fiction writer, and yet the fictions he imagines are, if you accept certain philosophical views about computation, within the realm of possibility. What might the future hold for us, or what are the different ways people—I don’t know if we can call them humans anymore—could or should be? We all have more or less a normal conception of what a person’s life could be. Egan imagines a huge range of alternatives. He knocked loose some of my implicit suppositions about what the future might look like.

One more example: dream apes. They don’t play a big role in the story, but they’re fascinating to me. These are humans who genetically engineer language out of themselves and become closer to apes.

Out of choice?

Yes, out of choice.

Why would they do that?

It’s never really explained, but you can speculate.

Is it like the Happy Pig-Sad Socrates dichotomy?

Yes, maybe. Or maybe that’s what they anticipated. But once they’ve become dream apes, there’s no going back, right?

It’s interesting you describe this as science fiction because it sounds like a work of philosophy to me.

It is a work of philosophy. Borges is also philosophy. I don’t think philosophy has to be written in the form of expository essays.

No, I think that that’s a strange prejudice of a particular moment of philosophy we’re in, that there’s a channel every philosopher has to go down and that’s the channel of exposition and argument rather than presenting a world or imagining a world.


Thank you very much. Anything you could say about wonder to wrap up with? Maybe you could think of a punchline.

Sadly, I didn’t imagine a punchline.

We can fade out with a gasp of philosophical wonder at your choices.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

May 4, 2020

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Eric Schwitzgebel

Eric Schwitzgebel

Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside, where he has worked since receiving his PhD from U.C. Berkeley in 1997.  He has published extensively in philosophy of mind, moral psychology, epistemology, and Chinese philosophy. Since 2006, he has blogged regularly at The Splintered Mind. Since 2013, he has published short fiction in leading science fiction magazines. His most recent book, A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures, is an unruly mix of moral psychology, speculative cosmology, metaphilosophy, philosophy of technology, speculative fiction, and memoir.

Eric Schwitzgebel

Eric Schwitzgebel

Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside, where he has worked since receiving his PhD from U.C. Berkeley in 1997.  He has published extensively in philosophy of mind, moral psychology, epistemology, and Chinese philosophy. Since 2006, he has blogged regularly at The Splintered Mind. Since 2013, he has published short fiction in leading science fiction magazines. His most recent book, A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures, is an unruly mix of moral psychology, speculative cosmology, metaphilosophy, philosophy of technology, speculative fiction, and memoir.