What Have I Been Reading


Robert Paul Wolff over at his blog:

I have just finished reading Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by my old friend and one-time student, Thomas Nagel. I am sorry to say that I did not find it an illuminating or persuasive book, for a variety of reasons. In this brief discussion, I should like to focus on just one, which I think has relevance for a certain kind of philosophy in general, and not just for Tom's book.

Let me begin, somewhat implausibly, by quoting a thirty-year old story from my autobiography about the famous biologist and founder of Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson [pp. 537-540]. I have edited it down a bit.

“A Canadian philosopher, Michael Ruse, asked whether I would like to meet E. O. Wilson. I said sure, and Ruse set it up. It was agreed that I would spend an afternoon in his office, which doubled as his laboratory. In advance of therendezvous, we exchanged gifts. I sent him, through Michael, a copy of The Poverty of Liberalism, and he sent back a copy of his latest book, Promethean Fire, co-authored by Wilson and Charles Lumsden. The volume, which sits on my shelves today, is inscribed “For Robert Paul Wolff, with warm regards, Edward O. Wilson, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard U., January 25, 1984.”

We met in Wilson's office in the Museum. After the usual greetings, he showed me the centerpiece of the office, a large table on which, under a Plexiglas dome, was a bustling, complex ant colony. Wilson banged the side of the table, which set the ants scurrying, and as they poured out of the anthill he pointed out the soldier ants, worker ants, and so forth. I didn't have much in the way of conversation. What can you say about an anthill, after all? So, casting about for something to say, I mused aloud, “I wonder how many ants there are in the entire colony.” “Fifteen thousand,” Wilson replied. “How can you be sure?” I asked. “I counted them,” he said.

There are moments in life when the scales fall from your eyes and you suddenly see clearly something that has hitherto been obscured from view. This was one of those moments. I had from time to time reflected on how different the workaday lives are of people in different corners of the Academy, even though we all call ourselves “Professor.” Here was E. O. Wilson, the creator of Sociobiology, who thought nothing at all about counting fifteen thousand ants. Had anyone asked me to figure out the number of ants in an anthill, the farthest I would have gone was watching eight or ten walk by and then guesstimating the rest.

To be sure, philosophers sometimes descend to the level of the particular. But our tendency is to go in somewhat the opposite direction. Confronted with the real world, the reflex reaction of philosophers is to ask about possible worlds. It was clear to me that although we were both professors and authors, Wilson and I led lives so utterly different that no real mutual understanding was likely.