About insurmountable simplicities

Some reader might think I’m heading towards a write up about the seemingly insurmountable simplicities of the PhD programme, but I still think that doing a PhD amounts to coping with surmountable difficulties. The ‘insurmountable simplicities’ is part of the title of a popular philosophy book, which has the full title in English, among the eight languages it is translated into: Insurmountable simplicities—thirty-nine philosophical conundrums” by Achille Varzi and Roberto Casati. I just finished reading the 39 short stories and dialogues spread over 129 pages, and I can highly recommend it to anyone. It is written in a way that is easily accessible to the general public, yet the stories cover a wide range of philosophical puzzles that make you both laugh and, moreover, think. Else, if you have no life but occasionally have to socialize and don not know of anything else to talk about than to bore your conversation partner with your thesis topic/work, then any of the 39 stories will do to get a conversation going. I will summarize and comment some of them below; “Zombie Inc.”, “Partial Amnesia”, “Person transplant” and “My ice cream, your ice cream” are available online for free as appetizers.

The dialogue “Person transplant” has a man walking into a transplant clinic asking for a new brain. As donor, he can make his brain available to anyone interested and it costs him $10k but as receiver requesting a new brain he can get $10k from the clinic… or so begins the dialogue. Put differently: brain donor versus body receiver; i.e., is your brain you with a disposable body or your body you and your brain just like any organ that, at least in theory, could be transplanted like you heart, kidneys and so forth? And, by the way, is it really an either-or case? Staying for a bit with dialogues about medicine, there are some complications with the placebo effect, where a customer in a drug store asks for a placebo against his headache. After all, it has been shown that it works, so one might well ask for a little starch pill, which, of course, defeats the purpose. So, how to administer a placebo that is both effective and ethically correct (as the pharmacist cannot give a non-medicine knowing that better is readily available)?

In “The traveler’s pictionary”, a word may be worth a thousand pictures. Instead of going on holiday with a dictionary, the travel agent offers the traveller to Siberia a pictionary, so that she can point to the pictures instead of messing with Russian vocabulary and grammar. The pictionary has only pictures of things that can be depicted, such as for ‘buying’ (not uncontroversial) and a picture for ‘bicycle’, but can things like ‘wisdom’ or ‘inflation’ be drawn, or the negation of doing something? Moreover, and where the recurring personage “the meddler” chimes in, “a picture is itself something that requires an interpretation. And if a picture requires an interpretation, bringing it to mind can hardly help” (with a nudge to Wittgenstein). A practical example that many a biologist/bioinformatician has come across, is the derogatory term “[useless/informal/underspecified] cartoon” that computer scientists and software engineers regularly use for the very clear and explanatory colourful diagrams in biology textbooks; but then, they haven’t gotten the training in how to read such figures…

Prisoner K.J., the director of the penitentiary, the medical officer, and the Smiths are involved in a correspondence about that K.J. can neither recall the crimes he is convicted of nor the date of imprisonment due to irreversible amnesia (“Partial amnesia”). Should he be informed about it? He found out and considers himself responsible for the act he cannot remember. But given that he cannot remember it, does that affect one’s personal identity and if so, is he then really responsible for those crimes? The most interesting bit comes at the end though, with a note from the state legal office. The story does take for granted one knows the main principle of putting people in jail as punishment for having committed a crime (deny the right of free movement, reflect on the crime, learn from it so that recidivism does not occur upon release). This obviously does not include revoking the right to vote, nor for the effect as the George Jung character in the movie Blow said cynically about his first experience serving time in jail: that he went in with a bachelors in marihuana and got out with a PhD in cocaine. To name just a few ‘collateral effects’ of prison systems in several countries; but I’ll leave that for another post sometime because it has little to do with philosophy (or has it?).

Last, there is also a section with entertaining logic, such as “Interesting!”, although, of course, not everything can be interesting, for—in the case of the dialogue in the bookstore about intrinsically interesting books—“if all books are interesting, and if being interesting requires some original feature, then relative to the property of being interesting, all books would appear to be uninteresting. Which is to say: boring.” Casati and Varzi’s book is far from boring and contains many other stories covering, among others, causality, paradoxes of time and space, the notion of choice, and chance, which are narrated in settings ranging from birthdays for entering the museum for free, reducing majority voting to one person, playing lotto in reverse, to useless project proposals.

p.s.: Varzi’s publication page here has the links for all the languages the ‘insurmountable simplicities’ is translated in.


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