Take a seat

[This photo was selected as an “Honourable Mention” for the 3rd Annual Philosophical Photography Contest hosted by the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario.]

Philosophers have long had a fascination with contemplating chairs. They are probably so often used in thought experiments because they’re one of the objects closest to the person formulating his or n her philosophical argument.

For example, do chairs actually exist?

As material objects in space and time — the “real” world — chairs have a certain physical quality to them. They have a physical structure with a continued existence in an external environment independent of our relationship to them. So argue the Realists. But objects are merely concepts, and concepts are ideas that do not exist independent of the mind. Chairs cannot possibly exist independent of the minds used to contemplate them. Perhaps they don’t actually exist after all. So argue the Idealists.

To complicate the situation, each chair in a set of chairs — all chairs that have ever existed or will ever exist, in fact — no matter how alike they seem, are all in some way dissimilar. Each chair is unique and different from the next.

Why, then, do we classify chairs according to their similarities? If they are in fact all different, what warrants them to be called by the same name, “chair”? Do they possess some kind of mysterious force within them or an immaterial Platonic Form that gives them their “chair-ness”? Or is the only thing that binds one chair to the next human consciousness itself?

I don’t have the answers. But I know that if you want to get to the bottom of these questions, you had better take a seat…

Qualia

[This photo was selected as winner of the 2nd Annual Philosophical Photography Contest hosted by the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario.]

Consider your visual experience as you look at a royal blue wall. There is something it is like for you subjectively to undergo that experience, some phenomenological character that this experience has. There is a “blueness” to the royal blue. This experience is very different from what it is like to experience the “redness” of a ruby red window shutter. This ineffable, intrinsic, private, non-physical subjective experience is called qualia. While there is still debate about how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside our minds, the concept remains central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness.

Nature is Enough

The Chirp Heard Across the Universe” (editorial, Feb. 16), about the recent discovery of the gravitational waves that were predicted by Einstein a century ago, asks, “Does science, or knowledge, really need a justification?”

The answer, of course, is no. But in a culture that has become saturated with the idea that only commercial value matters, we’ve become afraid of expressing an impulse as natural and basic as this.

Much like literature, music, philosophy and art, enjoyment of the natural sciences — and of nature itself — has intrinsic value. No further justification is required. Curiosity, wonder and beauty are enough.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.