Tag: Philosophy

The Freedom of the Surfer

Savvy philosophers distill their core insight into a short phrase. For Adam Smith it was “invisible hand,” for David Hume “confined generosity,” for John Rawls “veil of ignorance.” In James’s book, the fundamental idea is “adaptive attunement.” This is what he takes to be “the essence of surfing.” For someone to be surfing, three conditions must be met: He must be attuned to a shifting phenomenon outside of himself (like a wave); he must be adjusting himself in response to it (adapting), “so as to be carried along by its propulsive forces”; and he must be doing so intentionally and “for its own sake” — that is, because negotiating the world in this manner strikes him as intrinsically valuable. You are surfing if and only if you are adaptively attuned.

By defining surfing in this formal and abstract way, James frees himself to talk not just about surfing waves but also about surfing “in an extended sense”: for example, “surfing” through a cocktail party conversation or down a busy Manhattan sidewalk. Surfers surf when they are in the water, but in other aspects of their lives, too — as can we all, and well we should, James contends. He presents adaptive attunement as a fruitful way to understand how much of the world works, as well as a winning strategy for life.

James regrets that Sartre did not get to think about surfing. If he had, he might have been led to a different and, as James sees it, more convincing theory of freedom. Sartre was an “incompatibilist” about free will: He considered freedom to be at odds with the deterministic universe implied by our best physics. (In what sense are you free if you could not have acted otherwise?) But James is a compatibilist: He thinks there is a meaningful sense of “freedom” consistent with being trapped by the laws of nature — indeed, he thinks the surfer-derived notion of adaptive attunement captures that sense.

As the surfer knows, freedom is not a matter of imposing your will, Sartre-like, on the world. That’s a surefire way to wipe out. Freedom, rather, is a matter of transcending your will, and accepting the “exchange,” or two-way relationship, between what you intend to do and what you are constrained to do by the forces around you. You take what the wave gives you. In a deterministic universe, freedom is the sensation, known to the adaptively attuned, of “efficacy without control.” The surfer is right; Sartre is wrong.

‘Surfing With Sartre’: Does Riding a Wave Help Solve Existential Mysteries?
James Ryerson

Review of:
An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning
By Aaron James

The Way We Interpret the Silence Around Us Reflects the Way We Understand the World

…so he died dry, sober, full of hatred for the old drinking self that had wasted twenty years of his life, and still waging a pitiful last campaign against his smoking self – giving up on his deathbed. It was a chosen death, as a matter of fact, he was offered either a few months lingering helplessly, rasping out short, stabby breaths, or a double or so ration of morphine and an immediate release. It was a decision he made in clear consciousness, to that extent an enviable death, but it was slightly marred, in my view, by his wife’s odd sense of style. As he was slipping from the scene, she pressed into one hand a glass of whisky, and between the fingers of the other, a lighted cigarette, thus turning him in the last moments of his life, when too enfeebled to resist but still conscious enough to be aware, into an advertisement for the two things that had destroyed his life. Though I suppose if he’d been photographed and circulated, he might have served as the ghastliest of warnings – look what I’ve done to myself, and with both hands – she described the doing of it, the getting of the lighted cigarette between his fingers, the curling of his fingers around the glass – she’d poured the whisky in after she’d got the glass firmly settled, she said – I asked her with what tenderness I could muster why she’d done it, well, she said, well, that’s how she remembered him in his heyday, when she first met him (both in their mid-forties, divorced, with children), for her he’d been the most glamorous, flamboyant, chain-smoking, whisky-guzzling – and that’s how she’d go on thinking of him, that’s how he’d like to have gone out, didn’t I think so? `He wouldn’t have been seen dead -‘ I wanted to say, but couldn’t, as actually he had been, pretty well – also she was brimming with grief, exhilarated with it, as people sometimes are when they assist a loved one to cross the line, and she had a theatrical background (her father had been famous in musical comedy) and so what could I say – well, volumes, really, but I didn’t, hoping that a brief silence would also be a deep and eloquent one. `I knew you’d approve,’ she said, confirming Wittgenstein’s remark, which I usually think is nonsensical, that our understanding of the world depends on the way we interpret the silence around us.

The Smoking Diaries
Simon Gray. The Smoking Diaries

Who’s More Real – The Character or the Actor Playing the Character – Pirandello Quote

FATHER …On the contrary, I was inviting you to come out of this game [with a warning look at the LEADING LADY]—of art! Art!—which you play here with your actors; and I ask you once again quite seriously: who are you?

DIRECTOR [turning to the ACTORS, astonished and also irritated]. Well, what a bloody nerve! Someone who claims to be a character comes and asks me who I am!

FATHER [dignified, but not overbearing]. A character, sir, may always ask a man who he is. Because a character really has a life of his own, marked by his own traits, which means that he is always ‘someone’. But a man—I’m not talking about you, but about man in general—a man may well be ‘nobody’.

DIRECTOR Maybe. But you’re asking me, me the Director, the boss! Have you got that?

FATHER [almost under his breath, modestly soft-spoken]. It’s a matter of knowing, sir, whether you, as you are now, really see yourself … in the same way, for example, as you see in retrospect what you once were, with all the illusions you then had; with all those things within and around you, as they then seemed—and indeed truly were for you. Well, sir, when you think back on those illusions which you now no longer have, on everything that no longer ‘seems’ what once for you it ‘was’—don’t you feel, not the boards of this stage, but the earth, the earth itself, give way beneath your feet? For you must conclude that in the same way all ‘this’ that you feel now, all your reality of today, as it is, is destined to seem illusion tomorrow.

DIRECTOR [not understanding much and stunned by the specious argument]. So what? What are you trying to prove?

FATHER. Oh, nothing, sir. Only to make you see that if we [indicating himself and the other CHARACTERS] have no reality beyond the illusion, then maybe you also shouldn’t count too much on your own reality, this reality which you breathe and touch in yourself today, because—like yesterday’s—inevitably, it must reveal itself as illusion tomorrow.

Six Characters in Search of an Author
Luigi Pirandello

3 Ways to Manipulate Ideas – John Locke

The acts of the mind, wherein it exerts its power over simple ideas, are chiefly these three:

1. Combining several simple ideas into one compound one, and thus all complex ideas are made.

2. The second is bringing two ideas, whether simple or complex, together, and setting them by one another so as to take a view of them at once, without uniting them into one, by which it gets all its ideas of relations.

3. The third is separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence: this is called abstraction, and thus all its general ideas are made.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
John Locke (1690)
(Found in epigraph to the book Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs )

In Book II of the Essay, Locke gives his positive account of how we acquire the materials of knowledge. Locke distinguishes a variety of different kinds of ideas in Book II. Locke holds that the mind is a tabula rasa or blank sheet until experience in the form of sensation and reflection provide the basic materials—simple ideas—out of which most of our more complex knowledge is constructed. While the mind may be a blank slate in regard to content, it is plain that Locke thinks we are born with a variety of faculties to receive and abilities to manipulate or process the content once we acquire it. Thus, for example, the mind can engage in three different types of action in putting simple ideas together. The first of these kinds of action is to combine them into complex ideas. Complex ideas are of two kinds, ideas of substances and ideas of modes. Substances are independent existences. Beings that count as substances include God, angels, humans, animals, plants and a variety of constructed things. Modes are dependent existences. These include mathematical and moral ideas, and all the conventional language of religion, politics and culture. The second action which the mind performs is the bringing of two ideas, whether simple or complex, by one another so as to take a view of them at once, without uniting them. This gives us our ideas of relations (II.12.1, N: 163). The third act of the mind is the production of our general ideas by abstraction from particulars, leaving out the particular circumstances of time and place, which would limit the application of an idea to a particular individual. In addition to these abilities, there are such faculties as memory which allow for the storing of ideas.


April 13 – Some Thoughts – Tolstoy

We understand the divine, spiritual beginning of our life both with our intellect and with our love.

A man is wise who does three things: first, he does by himself those things which he advises others to do; secondly, he does not do anything that contravenes the truth; and thirdly, he is patient with the weaknesses of those who surround him.

Great thoughts come directly from the heart.

A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul
Leo Tolstoy

Many spirits are really stupid.

Many spirits are really stupid. To a Christian it seems quite obvious that you cannot fool God, but in many places, fooling superhuman agents is possible and in fact even necessary. In Siberia, for instance, people are careful to use metaphorical language when talking about important matters. This is because nasty spirits often eavesdrop on humans and try to foil their plans. Now spirits, despite their superhuman powers, just cannot understand metaphors. They are powerful but stupid. In many places in Africa it is quite polite when visiting friends or relatives to express one’s sympathy with them for having such “ugly” or “unpleasant” children. The idea is that witches, always on the lookout for nice children to “eat,” will be fooled by this naive stratagem. It is also common in such places to give children names that suggest disgrace or misfortune, for the same reason. In Haiti one of the worries of people who have just lost a relative is that the corpse might be stolen by a witch. To avoid this, people sometimes buried their dead with a length of thread and an eyeless needle. The idea was that witches would find the needle and try to thread it, which would keep them busy for centuries so that they would forget all about the corpse. People can think that supernatural agents have extraordinary powers and yet are rather easily fooled.

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought
Pascal Boyer

Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play. – Kant Quote

Kant’s treatment of the transcendental logic in the First Critique contains a portion, of which this quote may be an ambiguously worded paraphrase. Kant, claiming that both reason and the senses are essential to the formation of our understanding of the world, writes: “Without sensibility no object would be given to us, and without understanding none would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”.

Related Quotes
“Experience arises together with theoretical assumptions not before them, and an experience without theory is just as incomprehensible as is (allegedly) a theory without experience.”
Paul Karl Feyerabend, Against Method pg 151. Against Method (1975)

“Experience by itself teaches nothing…Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence without theory there is no learning.”
W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (1993)


“The thoughts of pure mathematics are true, not approximate or doubtful; they may not be the most interesting or important of God’s thoughts, but they are the only ones that we know exactly.” – Hilda Hudson

Her 1925 essay, “Mathematics and Eternity,” is a remarkable document of an intellectual world in which faith and science each felt some need to justify themselves to the other. “We can practice the presence of God in an algebra class,” she writes, “better than in Brother Lawrence’s Kitchen; and in the utter loneliness of an unfashionable corner of research work, better than on a mountain top.” Every mathematician, religious or not, will understand what she means in this should-be-famous epigram:

[T]he thoughts of pure mathematics are true, not approximate or doubtful; they may not be the most interesting or important of God’s thoughts, but they are the only ones that we know exactly.

Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else
Jordan Ellberg