SS: Thought experiments

Thought Experiments

William James’ squirrel:

SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? [Stop for discussion] In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”
[“What is pragmatism?” 1904 lecture]

Descartes’ Evil Genius:

I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colors, figures, sound, and all other external things are nothing but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these things; I shall remain obstinately attached to this idea, and if by this means it is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth, I may at least do what is in my power [i.e. suspend my judgment], and with firm purpose avoid giving credence to any false thing, or being imposed upon by this arch deceiver, however powerful and deceptive he may be. But this task is a laborious one, and insensibly a certain lassitude leads me into the course of my ordinary life. And just as a captive who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that his liberty is but a dream fears to awaken, and conspires with these agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged, so insensibly of my own accord I fall back into my former opinions, and I dread awakening from this slumber, lest the laborious wakefulness which would follow the tranquility of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed.

I suppose, then, that all the things that I see are false; I persuade myself that nothing has ever existed of all that my fallacious memory represents to me. I consider that I possess no senses; I imagine that body, figure, extension, movement and place are but the fictions of my mind. What, then, can be esteemed as true? Perhaps nothing at all, unless that there is nothing in the world that is certain.

Bertrand Russell:

There is a village in which all the adult males are clean shaven. In the village is a barber. The barber shaves all and only those adult males who do not shave themselves. So, if Bob shaves himself then the barber does not shave Bob. And, if Bob does not shave himself then the barber does shave Bob.
Question: Does the barber shave himself?

Hypothesis: The world and everything in it was created five minutes ago.

Russell wants to show that the memories of something are logically independent of that something, but the hypothesis has been used to support skepticism.

English: Russell's Teapot Español: Tetera de R...

English: Russell’s Teapot Español: Tetera de Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Russell’s teapot, sometimes called the Celestial Teapot, was an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, to refute the idea that the burden of proof lies somehow upon the sceptic to disprove the unfalsifiable claims of religion. In an article entitled Is There a God?, commissioned (but never published) by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell said the following:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
In his book A Devil’s Chaplain, Richard Dawkins developed the teapot theme a little further:
The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.
Similar concepts to Russell’s teapot are the Invisible Pink Unicorn, and Flying Spaghetti Monster.


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Bob’s OSA acceptance speech from 2008

I want to thank the Academy for this award. [LAUGHTER]

I always wanted to say that.

And thank you to the Board of Governors, the president, those who nominated me, and especially to my son, the dean. [when I got to “my son, the dean” I was swept by emotion; recovered]

I came to Malaspina in 1969 with my wife, Karen and our three children. We were planning on staying for two years. Thirty years later I retired from a much different institution. And now thirty-nine years later I am lucky to stand in front of this graduating class. I am lucky to be with the same wife. [APPLAUSE] And lucky to be able to celebrate the accomplishments of our three healthy and happy children and our four grandsons. I feel deeply about the fact that there are friends in the audience who were in my classes in those early years, students who became and remain friends.

In my allotted minutes I want to talk about evolution. Evolution applies not only to biology, not only to families, but also to cultural institutions. When I came to Malaspina we were housed in an old hospital on Kennedy Street in the center of a town of about 30,000. I have fond memories of those first days and months. On my way to my very first English class I stopped at an as yet unmarked restroom, pushed open the door to a stall and saw a young woman sitting on the throne. Backing away quickly I left to find another location. When I arrived in class there in the front row was the young woman I had interrupted. We looked at each other and both blushed and grinned. I told the class the story and we all laughed. It was a good start to a new class in a new institution.

Now Malaspina is VIU and looks out from its many buildings on top of the hill over a city of about 80,000. We started with a faculty of about forty; now there are 400.

Universities are only about 2,500 years old. As most of you know, Plato was the founder of the first university, the Academy, the Platonic Academy, where Aristotle came to study. Plato was, above all, a teacher. This, in turn, spawned other philosophical schools throughout the Greek world and later, the Roman world. With the demise of Rome these philosophical academies were absorbed into the medieval monasteries. These, in turn, became the basis of the first European universities in places like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford.

These were, in turn, later transplanted to the New World and established in towns like Cambridge, New Haven, Fredericton, and Toronto. We can say today that Vancouver Island University is a direct ancestor of Plato’s Academy. I deeply feel that connection.

And on a day like today we can try to look into the future and plan for the shape of our academy in the next decades of its short life. We here must work to keep a connection between the Malaspina of the past and the VIU of the future. Malaspina emerged from the planning, the needs, and the desires of a mid-Island community of citizens who worked tirelessly to urge politicians and educational leaders to found a community college in their midst. Malaspina emerged. And it has evolved. And it will continue to evolve. And as it does let us never forget that it came from the community, from the citizens of our area.

Let me quote here from another old-timer, my colleague Ian Johnston, who wrote “there was a time, corny or not, when what some people most cared about was Malaspina College itself (rather than their own little corner of it) and when they were prepared to work to make the whole place as fine as it could possibly be” – that spirit is the heritage that must never be lost.

And to you (turning toward the graduating class), the graduating classes, I say, remember the academy, help it to evolve intelligently, and whatever you choose to do as you go into the future, do it to the best of your ability.

(The speech given upon receipt of the VIU Outstanding Service Award. Also available here as a scratchy video. And a VIU report.)

Looking back

An exchange of ideas and talent between The Nanaimo Theater Group and the College’s Theater Department has over the years proved beneficial for all members of the community with improved productions, sharing of facilities, and joint efforts throughout the years.

One of the first performances on record is a reading theater production of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano on Sunday afternoon, December 14, 1969, in old room 108 at the old hospital. The cast for the modified reading theater production was:

Jerry Maedel Mr. Martin

Peggy Mathias Mrs. Martin

John Wardel the Fire Chief

Ron Mumford Mr. Smith

Sharyn Pilotte Mrs. Smith

Suzanne Van den Heuvel Mary the Maid
[Any of you still around??]

The Sun (Vancouver, December 18, 1969) reviewed the production:

All of the readers did a good job. Their timing, volume, vocal quality, and ability to project were excellent, allowing for a smooth and polished performance…. John Wardill, as The Fire Chief, and Peggy Mathias, as Mrs. Martin, delivered standout performances. Each is blessed with an excellent voice (Peggy’s is more feminine) and each used his voice to portray the parts of those two Ionesco characters.

A young Steve Lane was the lighting technician for the performance which was seen by just over fifty people.

It was a long way from those humble beginnings in a classroom, with a floor lamp providing all of the lighting , to the opening of the College Theater with a lavish production of Jean Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon on Friday, October 29, 1976, at 8:00 p.m. in the 298 seat, fully lighted, professional and instructional theater.

Sunday’s Sermon: New Journal

Book XI is a journal dedicated to publishing personal essays, memoir, fiction, science fiction, humor, and poetry with philosophical themes. The journal is on-line, and will appear twice a year. Book XI is housed at Hamilton College’s Arthur Levitt Center for Public Affairs.

Hamilton College is home to Book XI, a new literary/philosophical journal. It is edited by Marianne Janack, John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy and director of the Levitt Center, with the help of students Honor Allen ’21, Dorothy Poucher ’21, and Liam Rogers ’21.


We will consider only previously unpublished and philosophically informed creative work (though our understanding of “philosophically informed” is capacious). Please submit only one prose manuscript for each issue (you may submit up to 5 poems for each issue; please submit them as one document). All submissions should be made through Submittable. There is no submission fee. 

We will pay $200 for each piece that we publish (or $50 for each poem we publish). 

We are generally looking for pieces that are between 2,000 and 7,000 words, though we will happily consider submissions that are shorter or longer than this. However, please do not submit any work that is more than 10,000 words.

We realize that you might also want to submit the same manuscript to other literary journals. If you do, please notify us immediately if the piece(s) you sent to us is(are) accepted for publication by another magazine or journal.

We are presently looking for submissions for our third and fourth issues

Our third issue will focus on fiction/short stories and our fourth issue will be dedicated to philosophical/creative work that focuses on a material object (eg. a piece of wax, a chair). Submission deadlines for our third and fourth issues are:

Fiction/Short Story: please submit by September 1, 2019.

Meditation/reflection on a material object: please submit by December 31, 2019. Submission.

If you have questions about the journal, you can contact:

Marianne Janack

John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy

Director, Arthur Levitt Center for Public Affairs

198 College Hill Rd. Hamilton College Clinton, NY 13323

Short Story Ends on September 2, 2019 Submission