We are not alone

By Sean Carroll | November 27, 2005 1:14 pm

Brian Leiter points to a short essay by John Perry about his colleagues in philosophy, and excerpts this scene:

[A] thought about this wonderful and interesting group of people, my philosophical colleagues. I have a very distinct memory of arriving at the Eastern Meetings of the American Philosophical Association some years back, when they were held at a hotel in Baltimore. The meetings began just after a National Football League playoff game had been played in that city, and the previous occupants of the hotel seemed to be mainly people connected with this game. Since I was flying from the west coast, and had to attend some meeting or other in the early afternoon of the first day, I arrived the night before most of the other participants. I was able to watch the amazing transformation that took place as the football crowd checked out and the philosophy crowd checked in. The NFL people were large, some very large, most quite good-looking, confident, well-dressed, big-tipping, successful-looking folk; the epitome of what Americans should be, I suppose, according to the dominant ethos. We philosophers were mostly average-sized, mostly clearly identifiable as shabby pedagogues, clutching our luggage to avoid falling into unnecessary tipping situations. We included many bearded men— some elegant, some scruffy— all sorts of interesting intellectual looking women; none of the philosophers, not even the big ones and the beautiful ones, were likely to be mistaken for the football players, cheerleaders, sportscasters and others who were checking out. The looks from the hotel staff members, who clearly sensed that they were in for a few days of less expansive tipping and more modest bar-tabs, were a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. The talk, as philosophers recognized each other and struck up conversations, was unlike anything that ever had been or would be heard in that hotel lobby: whether there are alternative concrete possible worlds; whether there is anything in Heidegger not better said already by Husserl; whether animals should be eaten; not to mention topics that aroused truly deep passions, mostly related to proper names.

What a wonderful group of people, I thought, and how wonderful, and lucky, that the world has managed to find a niche for us. Even if philosophy had no real intellectual content at all — was as silly as astrology or numerology certainly are, or as I suspect, in dark moments, that certain other parts of the university are— it would still be wonderful that it existed, simply to keep these people occupied. Especially me. What would I be doing without this wonderful institution? Helping people in some small town in Nebraska with their taxes and small legal problems, I suppose, and probably not doing it very well.

It would take very little to apply this to physicists (or scientists, or academics more generally) as well as philosophers. We tend not to bring up Heidegger, but we do argue about alternative possible worlds all the time.

More importantly, it’s the second paragraph that hits home. How fortunate we are to live in a time and place where society is sufficiently robust and diverse as to put aside a bit of its resources in order to foster a tiny group of people whose professional duty it is to think deeply about the secrets of the universe. I am reminded of the dedication page in the most poetic general relativity textbook ever written, Gravitation by Misner, Thorne and Wheeler:

We dedicate this book
To our fellow citizens
Who, for love of truth,
Take from their own wants
By taxes and gifts,
And now and then send forth
One of themselves
As dedicated servant,
To forward the search
Into the mysteries and marvelous simplicities
Of this strange and beautiful Universe,
Our home.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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