Saturday, May 21, 2022

What happens when Plato mixes with playtime? Philosopher Scott Hershovitz answers the questions that confound children and adults alike


Children are constantly wrestling with questions about metaphysics and morality. But most adults in their lives don’t notice or, even worse, discourage them when they do. I’m a philosopher and a father. I’ve got two boys, Rex and Hank. They have been asking philosophical questions since they were little, and they try to answer them too. They’ve recreated ancient arguments and advanced entirely new ones.

People are skeptical when I say that. “Sure, your kids are philosophical,” they respond, “but you’re a philosopher. Most kids aren’t like that.” They are wrong, though. Every child is a natural philosopher. They’re puzzled by the world, and they try to puzzle it out. And they’re good at it, too. Kids are clever and courageous thinkers. In fact, adults can learn a lot from listening to them – and thinking with them.

If God created everything, who created God? Leyha, 7: Leyha, that is a good question. I think the biggest mystery about the world is the reason it exists at all. Some people think the answer is: God created it. But that doesn’t get us very far, since it raises a new question: why does God exist?

Most religious people don’t think God was created by anyone. They think that God simply exists. In fact, some think that God has to exist. A long time ago, Saint Anselm tried to prove that God has to exist. He said that God is the greatest guy we could possibly imagine. Since actually existing would make a great guy even greater, God has to exist, otherwise, we could imagine an even greater guy. (This is called the ontological argument, because philosophers like to give things fancy names.)

I don’t think that works, and neither did a monk named Guanilo. He imagined the greatest island possible – as beautiful as could be. If Saint Anselm’s argument was right, he said, that island must actually exist somewhere. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be the greatest. But that’s just silly! The fact that we can think of something doesn’t make it real.

Does God exist? I don’t know, but I’m skeptical. And your question points to one of the reasons why. Imagining that there’s a God doesn’t help us explain anything. It just raises new questions, which are at least as mysterious as the old ones.

I sometimes feel like I’m the only real person and everyone else is a robot. How can I know if that’s true? Ursula, 8: Have you checked your family and friends for circuit boards and fuse boxes? I’d give them a good look if they’re acting like robots. I’m kidding. If they were really good robots, you wouldn’t be able to tell, at least not without cutting them open. And let’s not do that, since they would get hurt if your hypothesis was wrong.

And it probably is! I can’t say for sure. Because it’s hard to say anything for sure. A philosopher named Descartes once tried to imagine that everything he believed was wrong. He didn’t suppose the people around him were robots, since they hadn’t been invented. Instead, he imagined that an evil demon was filling his head with falsehoods – that none of the people or things he thought he knew actually existed.

But even if a demon was trying to trick him, Descartes thought there was one thing he could know for sure: he existed. After all, he was thinking about the possibility that a demon was trying to trick him. And to think, you have to exist – or as Descartes put it: “I think, therefore I am.”

You’re in the same position. You know you’re real. But what about everyone else? When I worry about this, I remind myself that there’s no reason to think I’m special. I’m just some guy who was born outside Atlanta in 1976. Why should I be the only person in the entire world who’s real? Why would someone make all those robots just to trick me?

Ask yourself the same question, Ursula. Is there any reason to think that you, and you alone, are real? Probably not. Unless you’re the main character in a movie and I’m just another robot trying to trick you …

Why are there numbers? Sahil, 5: Philosophers argue about this, Sahil. Some think we made numbers up – that people created them to help us solve problems. (The fancy word for this is fictionalism, since the idea is that we’re telling stories about numbers.) If we did invent numbers, that was a really good idea. Numbers are amazing; we can do so many cool things with them. We use them to play games and bake cakes and make sure our spaceships get to the right destination.

Other philosophers think we discovered numbers, just like we discovered gravity and electricity. (This is called Platonism, after the philosopher Plato.) They think that numbers would exist even if we didn’t. I think that’s probably right. There are mathematical patterns all over nature. Lots of flowers have either three, five, eight, or 13 petals.

Those numbers appear in the Fibonacci sequence – a special set of numbers named after an Italian mathematician. Fibonacci wasn’t the first to notice that set of numbers, though; mathematicians in India described it long before he did. But flowers seem to have got there first. So I think that numbers are a part of the world that we discovered, even though we can’t see them, smell them, taste them or touch them.

Where was I before I was born and before I was in your belly? Melia, 4: Melia, bad news: you were never in my belly. But you have good company in wondering where you were before you were born …

Where was I before I was here? Josh, 3: Nowhere! The universe has been around for billions of years, but you weren’t part of it until very recently. I wasn’t either, though I’ve been here a bit longer than you. Have you ever made something new – like a picture? It wasn’t anywhere until you made it. And you’re just the same. You weren’t anywhere until your parents made you.

Where do you go when you die? Homer, 7: It’s hard to say for sure, since nobody who is dead can tell us. Some people believe in an afterlife – they think we might go to heaven if we’re lucky. But I think we simply cease to exist – that we aren’t anywhere. That makes some people sad. The universe will be around for billions or trillions of years after we have gone. We only get to hang out here for a little while. But I think it’s amazing that we get to be here at all – to explore the world and have fun. So enjoy it, Homer, and don’t worry too much about death.

What is it like to be dead? Arthur, 8: Same deal, Arthur. We don’t know for sure. But I think the answer is: it’s not like anything at all. Before you were born, there was nothing like the experience of being you, since you didn’t exist. And the same will be true when you’re dead. It won’t be like anything, since you won’t exist anymore. And that’s OK – in fact, it’s good news. Being dead won’t bother you. You won’t even know that you’re dead.

What are our lives for? Caspar, 5: They are for us, Caspar! Lots of people want to know what the meaning of life is. They’re searching for something that will help it make sense that we’re here, and maybe tell us how to live. But I think they’re making a mistake. The universe doesn’t care about us. It’s billions and billions of light years wide, filled with billions and billions of stars, and probably billions and billions of planets. There is not much special about where we are, or maybe even who we are, if there’s life on other planets. And I don’t think anybody put us here for any purpose at all.

But we are here, and we should care about each other, even if the universe doesn’t care about us. There may be no meaning to our lives. But we can find meaning in our lives by filling them with family and friends and fun – and projects that make the world a better place. You get to decide what your life is for, Caspar, so try to make it something cool.

When there is a mummy and a daddy, but their baby dies, are they still a mummy and a daddy? Zahra, 5: Zahra, this is a really tough question. I’ve thought a lot about it because I had twin babies that died just before they were born. It was the saddest day ever. And for a long time after, I was confused because I didn’t know whether I was a daddy or not. When people asked if I had kids, I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to make them sad, so I usually said no. But that felt sad for me, because it felt like I was forgetting the twins.

Here’s what I think now. I was the twins’ daddy, and I always will be. That’s my relationship with them. But because they died, I didn’t get to be their daddy in a different sense. I didn’t get to play the role of daddy. I didn’t get to tuck them in at night or tell them silly jokes. And I’m still sad about that, even though the twins now have brothers, Rex and Hank, who I get to tuck in every night. Zahra, if you know someone whose baby died, maybe give them a hug? Hugs help a lot.

Why is it bad to have everything I want? Abraham, 4: I don’t know if it is, Abraham – it depends on what you want. If all you wanted was peace on Earth, then it would be amazing for you to get everything that you wanted. But I suspect you want lots and lots of treats and toys. That’s OK – I do too. But there are problems with getting all the treats and toys that we want. Sometimes, the things we want are bad for us. If I ate all the chocolate I wanted, I’d get a tummy ache. It’s better to just have a little bit.

Another problem is that other people sometimes want the same things we want. If there’s not enough for everyone, it’s nice to share. Last, there’s a song by the Rolling Stones called You Can’t Always Get What You Want. That’s true. And you have to learn how to be disappointed without making yourself – and everyone else – miserable.

Why do people end up doing things that they don’t want to do? Sarang, 4: There are so many reasons, Sarang. Sometimes, we do things because we feel like we should, even if we don’t want to. I feel that way about flossing my teeth. I don’t want to do it, but I think I should, since I know it’s good for me. Sometimes, we do things so we won’t hurt other people’s feelings. I don’t like cherries. But once a friend baked me a cherry pie, and I ate it with her, since she’d worked really hard at it. I didn’t want her to feel bad.

Other times, we do things we don’t want to do because someone forces us to do them. Has anyone ever forced you to do anything? That’s not fun, especially when the person is being mean. But sometimes the person making you do something is helping you by getting you to do something you should do, like go to bed or go to the doctor and get an injection. Parents have to do that a lot, since kids don’t always know what’s good for them.

There’s another reason, which is a little more complicated. I want to eat sweets. But I also don’t want to eat too many sweets, since I know that’s not good for me. Sometimes, I eat too many anyway because they’re so tasty. Philosophers call that weakness of will. Everyone’s will is weak sometimes. We want to do the right thing, but we also want to do the fun or tasty thing, and sometimes that want wins out, even though we wish it wouldn’t. The good news is that you can work on making good decisions; you’ll get better at it if you practice.

Do the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, or do the needs of the few outweigh those of the many? Arthur, 7: Arthur, did you get help with your homework? Or did some grownup put you up to asking this question? I’m a little suspicious, but I’ll answer anyway. It depends what the needs are – and whether they are really needs, rather than just wants. Sometimes the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, and sometimes it’s the other way round.

But it’s important to say: needs and wants aren’t all that matter when we’re deciding what to do. Rights are important too. Consider the following story (which philosophers call Transplant). You work at a hospital, and there are five patients there who will die if they don’t get organ transplants. Each patient needs a different organ, but there aren’t any donors. Just then, a man walks into the hospital with a broken arm. He’s not in any danger of dying, but it occurs to you: if you kill him, you could give his organs to the patients that are dying. That way, five people will live and only one person will die. Would you kill the man? I wouldn’t. I think we have to respect his right to life, even if it means others will die. The rights of just one person can trump the needs of many people.

Is your imagination made of atoms? Josie, 7: Josie, this is one of the hardest questions that philosophers think about – so hard that I had to go to my son Hank for help. (He’s nine and a pretty good guy to ask about stuff like this.) Hank says that the thing that makes your imagination (your brain) is made of atoms, but your imagination isn’t. Is he right? It depends what you mean by your imagination. If you mean the mechanism in your brain that lets you imagine things, then, yes, that’s made of atoms, just like Hank said. But if you mean the things that you imagine, such as dragons or fairies, then it’s actually up to you whether they are made of atoms. You can imagine anything you want – even dragons made of fairy dust.

A trickier question is whether the idea of those dragons in your mind is made of atoms. Some philosophers think our minds are just our brains. (This is called materialism, since the idea is that the mind is made of material.) If that’s true, then everything in your mind is made of atoms – including your ideas. But other philosophers doubt that everything in our minds can be explained by the arrangement of atoms in our brains. (This is called dualism, since the idea is that the mind and brain are two different kinds of things.) I’m not sure what to think. It’s really complicated, and philosophers and scientists are working together to figure it out. Maybe you’ll help someday.

The Guardian 

Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with Kids by Scott Hershovitz is published by Allen Lane at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Monday, May 16, 2022

"I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school" -Kurt Vonnegut


November 16, 1973
Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of rat like people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes— but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books— books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Memory of Clay by Bruce Ballenger

Yesterday, hidden behind two circular-saw cases on a deep shelf under my workbench, I found my father’s bench plane, the tool he used for smoothing and straightening wood. It was in sorry shape. The blade was gouged, the wooden handle hopelessly loose, and, worst of all, the metal body of the plane was cracked. Though it was beyond repair, I briefly entertained the idea of sharpening it anyway. Marcel Proust famously wrote about how the taste of a madeleine soaked in lime blossom triggered childhood memories of his aunt’s room, which “rose up like a stage set.”

Well, holding my father’s broken bench plane suddenly brought back his basement workshop. Dad had power tools of every kind: a band saw, a table saw, a lathe, a drill press. It was a woodworker’s shop, and it smelled of old dogs and aged sawdust. On metal shelves next to his workbench Dad kept all kinds of wires, shims, hooks, and screws in brown cigar boxes, and behind a box of large nuts and bolts he hid his booze. He would often disappear down there, a sober man with a job to do, and come back drunk, leaving behind unfinished projects in his crooked wake.

I inherited my father’s tools after he died. I recognize them still, not only by their age but by the red slash of fingernail polish that still shows through the rust and dirt. Dad began marking all his tools this way after a neighbor borrowed one and failed to return it. Seeing these marks of ownership, seventy years after Dad made them, brings back images of him in the basement workshop, brushing sawdust off a fresh rip cut and looking sideways at a half-made drawer, his mind at work calculating his next move — where to measure, where to cut, and what tool to use.

It’s an old story that a boy grows up to measure himself against his father. It’s unavoidable, really, and made more complicated when that father is deeply flawed. For all dad’s skill with wood and tools, his life was sloppily built. Some sorrow whose origins I can’t name led him to consistently misread the ruler. What does a son do with the wreckage of his father’s life forty-six years after his death? Mostly I avoid thinking about it, except for those inescapable moments when a slash of red nail polish brings him back, or a gap opens in my own miscut wood joint and I’m reminded that I can misread a ruler, too.

My daughter Julia, a ceramicist, was telling me the other day about her struggles to make clay pieces in the image of an upright figure with outstretched arms. She calls these “ritual keepers,” and they are designed to hold incense sticks. After being fired in the kiln, her figures would often come out leaning forward instead of standing up straight, as if they were gazing at the ground. Julia says that clay, especially fine clay like porcelain, has a memory, and making her ritual keepers stand up straight is “intrinsically against their nature.”

Raw, unformed clay wants to be round like the earth and yields only reluctantly to the potter’s will. When it does, she says, it typically remembers the first shape it was forced to assume. In the case of Julia’s ritual keepers, which were flattened with a slab roller, they remember the press of the roller and stubbornly insist on retaining its curve. These memories of my father are stubbornly pressed, too, no matter how hard I have tried to straighten them. To be clear, I’ve tilled this field before.

I’ve sat opposite therapists in well-lit rooms talking about my father’s alcoholism, and this has been good work. I quickly understood the futility of my adolescent attempts to manage his drinking: confronting him with the bottle hidden behind the nuts and bolts; marking the level of booze in the bottles in the cabinet above the stove; and insisting on the logic no active alcoholic accepts — that if he really loved me, he would stop. I came to terms with my own vulnerability to the disease and used the fear of it to measure and remeasure my relationship to alcohol. For children of alcoholics these are never-ending calculations that have no satisfactory outcome.

My mother often told me that drunks can live forever, so my father’s death at fifty-seven came as both a surprise and a relief. But it created a vacancy in my heart that I didn’t know how to fill, and in seeped anger, which colored my memory of the man in ways I’ve found difficult to undo. The anger was warranted, but it was also reductive. It erased his complexity and turned him into a cardboard cutout, a prop that I barely noticed because its meaning seemed settled. Until something unsettled it. 

What I did with the wreckage of my father’s life was anchor it to an old theme: the story of the wronged son. It’s a narrative designed to assign blame, and I thought my father deserved it. For years this allowed me to keep the memories of him at a safe distance. The problem is that he wouldn’t stay in exile. I should have known this would happen, but I’ve always had a writer’s naive faith in the power of story to find a proper place for things.

As I age, I notice how richly populated my memories are. I find myself lying in bed at night, trying to sleep, watching a parade of old friends, lovers, and family members march by, each hauling along a theatrical set for the place they inhabited in my life. I see Jan, a high-school girlfriend, with a cloth daisy pinned to her dark hair, looking eagerly into my eyes while we sit on the bed in the small third-floor bedroom of my house in Highland Park. I see my college friend Billy, his straight blond hair heading toward his waist. He’s eating a carton of ice cream with a wooden spoon while we sit on the concrete basketball court outside our dorm.

It is always May, and the Wisconsin spring bursts with birdsong. I see my childhood friend Frank in a puffy green down jacket, grinning at his own joke while we watch the sun set on Lake Michigan. We squint to see the Chicago skyline on the horizon, like tiny, ragged fangs set against the bloody sky. Each of these people knows where they belong in my memories, and they don’t trouble me too much.

Memories of my father are typically drunken scenes. I see the shock on his face when I knock him down in the kitchen after he calls my mother a whore. I see him in a heap at the back door; my mom and I roll him awkwardly onto the landing while he says, “I want some peanuts. Give me some goddamn peanuts.” I see him challenging me to a footrace down the street in front of our house after I contemptuously told him that I’d have no problem beating him. “Let’s just see about that,” he said, clumsily stripping off his jacket and loosening his bow tie. I was on the high-school track team and looked forward to humiliating my father. And I did beat him, of course. What I remember most clearly is the sound of change in his pockets as he ran — ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching — and that for some reason it made me feel ashamed.
But there is always one scene that goes off script: I went to see Dad a month before he died and a few years after my mom divorced him. We sat together in his filthy kitchen, watching football on a tiny TV. He was relatively sober while I was there, and he asked me about graduate school, then offered me a beer. It was the first time we’d ever drank together, and I hesitated to take the can, wondering what it might mean for a child to accept a drink from his alcoholic father.
But I took it, and when I left him that day, I was overcome with pity, which surprised me after all that time. I didn’t know what to do with it. Pity is harder than anger, because it requires that you surrender a part of yourself to sadness, which gnawed away at me for years. It wasn’t that I felt responsible for the tragedy of my father’s life, but I felt there was nothing that could ever successfully bind me to him. Over time he stopped being my father and instead became something unreachable and remote — an abstract lesson about the ways a life can fall apart.

Dad died in that kitchen of a cerebral hemorrhage. My brother took a call from my father’s lifelong friend, who was worried: Dad hadn’t answered the phone for a few days. My brother broke down the locked door of his tiny apartment and found dad in a pool of blood on the floor next to his typewriter. For many years after that I used his typewriter — a beefy Royal office machine — for my own writing. I also kept the beige rolling chair Dad was lying next to. It was spattered with blood that I never cleaned off. I can’t explain why I chose to live with a reminder of the day Dad died. It was morbid and vaguely disrespectful, which perhaps is why I did it.

In the last ten years of my father’s life — his worst — we staged several interventions, and at the final one he agreed to go into rehab at Hazelden, still a premier treatment center. A former newspaper reporter, Dad took extensive notes in two four-by-six notebooks, where he summarized what the experts and counselors told him about projection, repression, regression, depression, and the Twelve Steps. What strikes me, as I read his scribbles now, is that he never wrote about himself.
This was no personal journal but a reporter’s notebook; he was collecting material for an article he proposed to write about group therapy for the Chicago Tribune Magazine. Like most things he started, the article was never finished, but I still have a carbon copy of the manuscript, and a letter he wrote to an editor at the Tribune, in which he talks of making many false starts before he finally “fell back on the old copydesk maxim to tell it straight.” I’m not sure exactly what that means. My guess is that he chose to be a reporter rather than a personal essayist, which conveniently put him at a safe distance from his own reasons for being in the company of addicts. After a month, over the objections of his counselors, Dad pronounced himself cured, left treatment, and soon resumed drinking.
I have his draft next to me as I write this, and for the past few days I have lingered over a passage on the final page: He is walking alone on the center’s leafy campus, reading a book and bundled against the chilly wind, when his path converges with that of another patient, a young woman who is also reading. They walk together in silence for a bit. Then she asks, “Do the trees ever talk to you?” Dad replies that they do not and asks what they say to her. “That I’m not alone.
That they are the voices of the people and places that are just over there. When I get home, I know I’m going to find them, because I’m happy inside. Don’t they tell you that, too?” “No,” he says, “they seem to say that this is my close world and my quiet one.” Hemingway writes in A Moveable Feast about the importance of finding “one true sentence” to restart the work when it stalls. I’m suspicious of the truth of Dad’s sentence, and I puzzle over its meaning. What does he mean by a “close world”? In the footer of this final page Dad writes, “more,” but there is no more. It’s as far as he got.

My mother died two years ago, and I find that, in her absence, Dad is more present than ever, an unwelcome ghost dragging his rusted chains. I have always trusted my stories about Dad to keep him at a safe distance, a character in a familiar narrative that is sad but sometimes comic. I was not prepared for him suddenly to return and threaten to break character. As you can surely tell by now, I am trying to figure out what I am supposed to do with him after all these years. We all live with unresolved pain that even therapy cannot reach; losses that lodge themselves in our bodies somewhere, connect with our nervous systems, and deliver a mild shock from time to time to remind us they are irrevocable. All it takes is a slash of red fingernail polish for me to feel that loss all over again. Why now? And what am I supposed to do about it? Forgive?

In 1935 my father was fresh out of college and took a ship to Europe with friends. They toured prewar Germany, and an old map I have of his trip traces in heavy black ink his journey from Hamburg to Munich, with a brief detour to Austria. He writes that the “Hitler men” are everywhere, and he took a photograph of a sign outside a German village that read, “Jews are not welcome here.” My father was not a Jew, but we later lived for many years in a Chicago suburb that was predominantly Jewish, and across the street from us lived a kind, beautiful woman named Edith who had a number tattooed on her arm. She would not speak about her experience in the camps. If asked about visiting her homeland, Edith shuddered and said that she could think of no reason anyone would ever want to visit Germany.

When I was a boy, I cut her lawn every Tuesday, and from time to time she would stand in the window and watch as I worked the hand clippers on the long blades of grass sprouting hopefully among the rocks at the edge of the lawn. When I think of Edith, standing alone in her front window, I imagine what it is like to live with horrible things that cannot be forgiven. I think, too, that her ghosts, so much more terrible than mine, may have been easier for her to hold at bay because they could not be forgiven. This is something I cannot know, but I wonder whether there are times when forgiveness is not only difficult but unnecessary.

Among the many photographs of my father’s trip is one I have kept on my desk ever since I discovered it. It is a picture of him standing on a glacier in a dark short-sleeve shirt, hands on his hips. He and his friends are on a hike up Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. He is young and wiry, with a square jaw and an unruly shock of dark-brown hair, and he is somberly looking at the ground in front of him.

Studying old photographs of the people we loved, and who have hurt us, is never simple. This picture of my dad is one of the few I have of him as a young man, full of energy and promise, but what I see mostly is his sadness. I know enough about depression to think that it may have kept him company on the hike up Zugspitze. But I suspect I am reading too much into the photograph, which is silent on the reasons for his somber face that day on a glacier eighty-seven years ago. He might just have been tired from the climb.

It is the quiet work of those who seek to understand our losses to find a story that makes some sense of them, and for years I spun theories about the causes of my father’s drinking. It was often the subject of conversations with my mother before she died. “Your dad’s father expected him to be a doctor like his brother,” she would say, “and your father believed he had disappointed your grandfather, who was a very cold man.”
For years I clung to the idea that my father was a failed writer, and that when his first book contract fell through with Reader’s Digest, he never recovered from the disappointment. Then the other day I found a letter from his editor on that book, who said the project had been dropped because Dad had missed the deadline. The reasons for his drinking are unknowable, of course, and part of the pain of living with a personal tragedy like this is that it will always be a broken story — the ending will always be inconclusive and unsatisfying.

Quite often Julia will spend days throwing and sculpting clay figures only to discover later that the pieces have shattered in the kiln. “I don’t know how you can tolerate that,” I tell her. “All that work destroyed; all that time wasted.” She shrugs and says it’s the bargain ceramicists make with themselves. Kilns are finicky, like clay, and loss is inevitable. A few times, when I witnessed the opening of a kiln and looked in to see shattered heads and broken bodies — a clay massacre whose cause was a mystery — Julia was never angry. She never shook her fist at the gods of clay. “What good would that do?” she says, and I marvel at her patience, her acceptance. Clay remembers, she told me before. It remembers the first shape it is forced to assume and resists all others. But sometimes clay resists taking any shape. It surrenders all its memories to the vagaries of high heat and moisture, and when it does, it is lost for good, and one must begin again.

The Sun

Saturday, May 14, 2022

"Time, Time, Time [was] on my side. Yes, it [was]" -Jagger & Richards


A crisis in physics

Physics is in crisis. For the past century or so, we have explained the universe with two wildly successful physical theories: general relativity and quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics describes how things work in the incredibly tiny world of particles and particle interactions. General relativity describes the big picture of gravity and how objects move. 

Both theories work extremely well in their own right, but the two are thought to conflict with one another. Though the exact nature of the conflict is controversial, scientists generally agree both theories need to be replaced with a new, more general theory.

Physicists want to produce a theory of “quantum gravity” that replaces general relativity and quantum mechanics, while capturing the extraordinary success of both. Such a theory would explain how gravity’s big picture works at the miniature scale of particles.


Time in quantum gravity

It turns out that producing a theory of quantum gravity is extraordinarily difficult. One attempt to overcome the conflict between the two theories is string theory. String theory replaces particles with strings vibrating in as many as 11 dimensions. However, string theory faces a further difficulty. String theories provide a range of models that describe a universe broadly like our own, and they don’t really make any clear predictions that can be tested by experiments to figure out which model is the right one.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many physicists became dissatisfied with string theory and came up with a range of new mathematical approaches to quantum gravity. One of the most prominent of these is loop quantum gravity, which proposes that the fabric of space and time is made of a network of extremely small discrete chunks, or “loops”.

One of the remarkable aspects of loop quantum gravity is that it appears to eliminate time entirely. Loop quantum gravity is not alone in abolishing time: a number of other approaches also seem to remove time as a fundamental aspect of reality.

Emergent time

So, we know we need a new physical theory to explain the universe, and that this theory might not feature time. Suppose such a theory turns out to be correct. Would it follow that time does not exist? It’s complicated, and it depends on what we mean by exist.

Theories of physics don’t include any tables, chairs, or people, and yet we still accept that tables, chairs and people exist. Why? Because we assume that such things exist at a higher level than the level described by physics. We say that tables, for example, “emerge” from an underlying physics of particles whizzing around the universe.

But while we have a pretty good sense of how a table might be made out of fundamental particles, we have no idea how time might be “made out of” something more fundamental. So, unless we can come up with a good account of how time emerges, it is not clear we can simply assume time exists. Time might not exist at any level.

Time and agency

Saying that time does not exist at any level is like saying that there are no tables at all. Trying to get by in a world without tables might be tough but managing in a world without time seems positively disastrous.

Our entire lives are built around time. We plan for the future, in light of what we know about the past. We hold people morally accountable for their past actions, with an eye to reprimanding them later on. We believe ourselves to be agents (entities that can do things) in part because we can plan to act in a way that will bring about changes in the future. But what’s the point of acting to bring about a change in the future when, in a very real sense, there is no future to act for?

What’s the point of punishing someone for a past action, when there is no past and so, apparently, no such action? The discovery that time does not exist would seem to bring the entire world to a grinding halt. We would have no reason to get out of bed.

Business as usual

There is a way out of the mess. While physics might eliminate time, it seems to leave causation intact: the sense in which one thing can bring about another. Perhaps what physics is telling us, then, is that causation and not time is the basic feature of our universe.

If that’s right, then agency can still survive. For it is possible to reconstruct a sense of agency entirely in causal terms. At least, that’s what Kristie Miller, Jonathan Tallant and I argue in our new book. We suggest the discovery that time does not exist may have no direct impact on our lives, even while it propels physics into a new era. 

Sam Baron, Associate professor, Australian Catholic University, The Conversation

Friday, May 13, 2022

The January 6th Investigation


“…It’s hard to describe the Justice Department’s handling of the insurrection on January 6, 2021, as anything other than appalling. Nearly a year and a half later, despite more than 800 indictments of individuals involved in the assault on the Capitol, no charges have yet been filed against either former President Donald Trump or any of his close allies who helped plan, fund, and execute the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

“Instead, Attorney General Merrick Garland appears to have thrown up his hands in defeat, as if to suggest that the controversy around holding Trump and his associates accountable has simply been more than he can handle.

“From law schools, lawyers, and legal theorists have called for the Justice Department to face that threat to democracy and act have only grown louder. In March, for instance, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut urged Garland to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the former president based on evidence already presented in other lawsuits. No such appointment has yet been forthcoming.

“To underscore the mounting evidence in the public record against those former officials, Ryan Goodman, Mari Dugas, and Nicholas Tonckens at Just Security played prosecutor (as Garland hasn’t) and laid out their own timeline of dozens of incriminating acts, beginning a year before the riot, that could collectively justify charges against Trump and crew of incitement to violence.

“In April, according to New York Times reporters Michael Schmidt and Luke Broadwater, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol had ‘concluded that they have enough evidence’ to make a criminal referral about the former president to the Justice Department, though they have yet to vote to do so. Meanwhile, a federal judge in California ruled in a civil suit that Trump ‘likely attempted to obstruct the joint session of Congress’ meant to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory, adding that ‘the illegality of the plan was obvious.’

“Sadly, the Teflon coating on Trump and his associates has been striking. After all, in January, the House Select Committee voted to back contempt charges against former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows for refusing to comply with a subpoena for his testimony. To date, however, Attorney General Garland hasn’t followed up. More recently, the House Select Committee voted to hold in contempt former White House advisers Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino for a similar refusal to comply with subpoenas. The results will likely be the same.

“Even where there has been some willingness to indict, the courts have been remarkably stymied when it comes to forward momentum on cases involving Trump’s crew. In November, for instance, Steve Bannon, one-time senior aide to the president, was indeed indicted on contempt of Congress charges for his refusal to respond to subpoenas from the House Select Committee. Bannon promptly pushed back, arguing that longstanding Justice Department memos held former presidential advisers immune from such congressional subpoenas. In March, a federal judge finally asked to see those memos. And so it goes — and goes and goes. And as time passes, so, too, does the likelihood that justice will ever be done.

“As for the former president’s business affairs involving the Trump Organization, the process has faltered in a remarkably similar fashion. Earlier this year, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg dropped an investigation of the former president. He was reportedly convinced that, in the end, he wouldn’t be able to prove that Trump and his closest employees were motivated by theft when they lied about the value of his businesses.

“Bragg decided not to pursue charges against Trump despite the aggressive efforts of his predecessor, Cyrus Vance, to uncover just such a record and the opinion of a respected lawyer brought in to shepherd the investigation through who, in an outraged letter of resignation, insisted that Trump had indeed committed ‘numerous [financial] felony violations.’  (It had taken Vance years and a Supreme Court decision just to get the company tax records for his case against Trump.)

“In early May, a grand jury that had been convened to consider charges against Trump expired. Now, it seems that New York State Attorney General Letitia James’s efforts to bring charges of fraud could crumble as well. Of course, even a president who tried to mount a coup to cancel the results of an election should be able to avail himself of the American system’s legal protections and defenses.

“That said, in failing to hold Trump accountable for more or less anything, a message is being sent about justice in this century: that accountability is just not in the cards for American officials who commit crimes. (Of course, one can still hope that the special investigative Georgia grand jury just seated to look into Trump’s possible attempts to disrupt the 2020 election in that state might prove more effective, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.)…

“At the moment, we find ourselves at an all-too-dangerous crossroads. Without our courts and the system of law they represent being truly functional, citizens could be left to settle things for themselves in true Trumpian fashion. In the international context, war defies the courts and the rule of law. In the domestic context, unregulated violence plays a similar role. As it stands now, when it comes to our system of justice, its veneer of effectiveness is wearing ever thinner. Merrick Garland and other Americans would do well to consider that it’s not just the cases before our courts that are at issue, but the future viability of the institutions of justice themselves…”

-Karen J. Greenberg,