Former philosophy undergraduate, Harisan Nasir, and current philosophy undergraduate, Shalom Chalson, recently had the opportunity to speak with Australian philosopher, Professor Frank Jackson. This is their email interview.
NYPR: How did you come to study, work in, and teach philosophy?
Professor Frank Jackson: My parents were both philosophers, that was certainly a factor. Nevertheless, I started out in science and mathematics, but found out that I enjoyed philosophy more. Part of enjoying it more was having some very fine teachers and some very interesting fellow students.
NYPR: What was the inspiration behind Mary, the Colour Scientist thought experiment?
Jackson: I was asked to give a lunch-time talk to the psychology department at Monash University. They knew I was a dualist and wanted to hear from someone who dissented from the materialist orthodoxy of the day. Well, it is still orthodoxy I guess, but back then (around 35 years ago) it was very much orthodoxy. The talk went well (though how much they believed of what I said I cannot now remember), so I decided to write it up and send it to PQ.
The paper – ‘Epiphenomenal qualia’ – has the example of Fred, who can see one more hue that we can. I have always thought that that thought experiment was more interesting than the Mary one, but obviously many disagree. I believe that the case of Fred was suggested to me by reading H. G. Wells’s short story, The Country of the Blind (which is mentioned in the paper). Of course, the knowledge argument – the argument I based on the cases of Mary and Fred – has a long history. Some of the history is mentioned in ‘Epiphenomenal qualia’. What I did not know then was how long a history it has. It goes back at least to C. D. Broad’s The Mind and its Place in Nature, which was published in 1925.
NYPR: Were there particular works you were reading at the time which guided your intuitions about the problem?
Jackson: There’s the story by H. G. Wells I’ve already mentioned – though I think that was something I read while I was still at school – and obviously reading Tom Nagel’s ‘What is it like to be a bat’ played a role. And there’s Paul E. Meehl’s paper ‘The compleat autocerebroscopist ‘, cited in ‘Epiphenomenal qualia’. I was in part expressing my dissent from his rejection of the knowledge argument. Maybe Keith Campbell’s version of the zombie objection to materialism played a role – he calls it the imitation man argument. I liked his book Body and Mind. I have always been a fan of simple examples in philosophy.
Often a simple example can achieve more than lots of words. What I sought to do when I wrote ‘Epiphenomenal qualia’ was to find simple, compelling examples to make the case for dualism. Although I now reject the knowledge argument, I still think the Mary and Fred examples are good examples, and one’s physicalists should not dismiss out of hand. It is not at all obvious how to reply to the case they make against physicalism.
NYPR: Do you think that there is further room for interaction between philosophers of mind and science and their counterparts who deal with empirical research? How do you think they can help one another?
Jackson: There is always room for more interaction between philosophers and science. Here’s a particular area where more work is needed. I think it is obvious that mental states are representational states that play causal roles. Neuroscience can help us understand better how this works. Here’s another. There has to be an evolutionary account of how we came to have moral beliefs. What are the implications for ethics?
NYPR: To work together, scientists and philosophers must have some common ground. However, some notable scientists have dismissed today’s Philosophical enterprise.
Jackson: How do causal explanations in economics relate to causal explanations in physics? Does causation have a role in physics, and if it does, what is it? Does the special theory of relativity make trouble for presentism – the view that only the present exists? These are important questions and it is not possible to answer them without doing philosophy; science by itself is not enough. If you doubt me, try! But maybe some of these scientists are really rejecting some aspects of the current philosophical scene, and that’s another question altogether. Is there any major discipline with the following remarkable feature: everything going on it right now is good? Only a Pollyanna would say yes to that question.
NYPR: You also mentioned that some scientists are not receptive to the arguments and ideas made within Philosophy. Is there any truth to what they say about Philosophy?
Jackson: I think some philosophers pay too little attention to what the physical and social sciences have to tell us. At the same time, some scientists haven’t taken the time needed to understand what philosophers are doing.
NYPR: What do you think are the biggest challenges that are being faced by philosophy, as a field, today?
Jackson: The biggest challenge facing young philosophers these days is getting a job but I guess you mean intellectual challenges. The philosophy of mind was transformed in the 1950s and 60s by the realisation that it had to take account of what science, and especially neuroscience, says. In my view, the transformation was very much for the better. I think this process needs to be extended beyond the philosophy of mind – and this is happening but we are still on a learning curve.
NYPR: Which current topic of discussion in the field excites you the most, and why?
Jackson: What makes it the case that some action is the right thing to do.
NYPR: The last we read, you argued that moral properties are natural properties. Do you still think that there are objective moral values and that they can be reduced to natural properties?
NYPR: It seems that for consciousness, the intuition is that it can, and eventually will be, explained by some scientific facts that neuroscientists will discover.
Jackson: The neuroscience will be important. But there will always be the question of how to connect what the science says with consciousness. At some point a transition needs to be made from an account framed in the terms of neuroscience, behavioural psychology etc, and one framed in terms of consciousness, pain, belief and all the rest; the location problem as I (and others) have called it.
NYPR: Do you have a similar intuition that moral facts can be eventually reduced and discovered?
Jackson: Yes, but with the proviso about the location problem.
NYPR: Could you name the top five books which have influenced you the most as a philosopher?
Jackson: I think I have always been more influenced by philosophers than by philosophy books. Early on, I read a great deal of Moore, Ayer and Russell. Later, I read a great deal of Quine, Smart, Armstrong, Kripke and Lewis. But it was the way these philosophers tackled questions and their work as a whole that influenced me more than any particular book or article.
NYPR: What advice would you give to philosophy undergraduates who are aspiring to pursue a path in academia?
Jackson: It’s a wonderful subject, both to teach and to research. That’s the good news. The not so good news is the job market.
And since their email interview, Harisan and Shalom have had the opportunity to visit Professor Jackson at his office in NUS. This is a transcript of their in-person interview.
Professor Frank Jackson: (In response to our email interview) When you asked me, “what was in your mind thirty or forty years ago” (in the period that lead up to writing “Epiphenomenal qualia”), once upon a time I would have spoken confidently. Since then I’ve read about the fallibility of memory and know that it’s a mistake to think that things are just as you remember them, especially when you are talking about what happened decades ago. So when I talk about that time, I try to distinguish what I’m certain of from what is, to one extent or another, speculative. I am certain about the lunch-time talk that lead to writing “Epiphenomenal qualia”. I am certain about the influence of the papers cited in “Epiphenomenal qualia”. The rest is to one extent or another speculative.
There is really very interesting stuff on the fallibility of memory. I recommend reading it. It should make us all nervous about placing too much confidence in what seems to be a very clear memory of what happened many years ago. I’ve now got one of these electronic calendars on my computer. If someone says to me, which year did you visit such and such a university or first give so and so a paper, I may consult this thing [points to head] to start with, but I also consult this thing [points to computer]. Sometimes I find I’m right, and sometimes I find I’m wrong.
Harisan: Following up from the last question, you mentioned that there’s not many jobs around for philosophers…
Jackson: There’s some really good young people who are having a lot of trouble getting a job. They’ve got excellent references, they’ve got degrees from excellent universities and excellent departments, and often they’ve got a number of publications in excellent journals, but they’re still having a lot of trouble getting a job.
Harisan: Do you think this is a reflection of how society views the philosophical enterprise?
Jackson: Part of the reason there aren’t enough jobs in philosophy is that governments, universities, companies, philanthropists, foundations, and research councils tend to favour areas like medicine, engineering, IT and economics. So when universities are being cut back, as they are in Australia, Britain and the United States (I don’t know the situation in Asia), the cuts are more likely to fall on philosophy along with areas like history, pure maths, literature, and sociology. Does this reflect a negative attitude towards philosophy? Maybe in some cases, but sometimes I think it is simply that when funds are tight, it is easier to make a case for supporting teaching and research in economics on how to get the unemployed back into the workforce or in medicine on how to protect from skin cancer than it is to make a case for supporting teaching and research into, say, the semantics of indicative conditionals (to mention an area in which I have worked).
Harisan: Do you think that philosophy departments should take it upon themselves to market philosophy?
Jackson: This philosophy department (NUS) is very aware of how important it is to make its work known to the Singapore community. What philosophy departments often do is point to people who have done philosophy degrees who have become extremely effective public servants, politicians, business leaders or policy advisers. The ANU – where I am most of the time – does that. I know that something similar is true for NUS. I know there’s an impressive list of people who hold or have held senior positions in Singapore who came through the philosophy department here. The department could give you those names. I’m sure the same is true for NTU.
None of this is an accident. Training in philosophy is very good for writing policy-advice papers, thinking clearly about difficult problems, writing clear argumentative prose, speaking effectively at meetings, making the key distinctions that need to be made, etc. No wonder that philosophers make excellent administrators, politicians, advisers, and so on. I only wish in particular that more of our (Australian) politicians had done philosophy.
Having said all that, let’s not forget that philosophy is a great subject in and of itself. Fascinating and challenging. You don’t just do it so you get better at making contributions at committee meetings and all that. If we teach it well, our students should become our best ambassadors when they leave university and enter the work force.
Shalom: Do you think that philosophers have a responsibility to educate the public when it comes to philosophy?
We might think that there’s a divide between academic philosophy and the more accessible philosophy of writers like Alain de Botton. Do you think it’s the responsibility of academic philosophers to bridge that gap?
Jackson: Absolutely. So, to give you a famous example, I’m a big fan of Peter Singer. He writes wonderfully clearly and penetratingly about centrally important topics. He publishes books and papers that are widely accessible; he gives public lectures; he does all those sorts of things and I think that’s terrific. He’s a sort of beacon for us, actually. Now, we can’t all be Peter Singer, but I think the sort of thing he does is very important, and the same goes for the increasing number of philosophers who work in what is sometimes called applied philosophy.
Certainly, in my work, although I’m not in those sorts of areas, I do try and write as much as possible papers that are accessible to people at large. “Epiphenomenal qualia” is a reasonably chatty paper by the standards of academic philosophy. I happen to know this has upset some people. There’s a bit in the paper where I say that if you have a certain view you sound a bit like someone who believes in fairies. But the very same thing could be said about the view I was defending in that paper. All the same I am sorry that people were upset.
Shalom: You mentioned that simple examples tend to be more effective than complex ones. Do you think there is a current problem of philosophers tending to go for the latter?
Jackson: People do sometimes go in for examples which are unduly complex, but what tends to happen is that people forget them as time passes. The famous examples or thought experiments (as they’re often called) are quite short and simple. There’s the Gettier one about knowledge, there’s Putnam’s Twin Earth parable, there’s Ned Block’s example of a ‘person’ who works by looking up tree, there’s Burge’s arthritis example, etc. All those examples can be described in quite a small number of words, or if they do take a few words it is all easy to follow. They’re the ones that have impact and get remembered.
Shalom: Somewhat relatedly, do you think that there is a pressure now to conform to the expectations of publishers? Are philosophers now feeling the pressure to write in ways that might not be the best for the field?
Jackson: I think, perhaps, the following is true: sometimes people feel under pressure to write a big, long, complex paper with lots of footnotes in a slightly defensive style designed to cover every possible objection and to make sure they mention every relevant paper in the literature. They end up writing an excellent paper, but one that can be a bit inaccessible and a bit turgid. In some ways it would have been better if they had put forth the central idea in the paper in a simpler and shorter form. But I think they felt, I have to get this paper in a leading journal to get a job, and the way to get into a leading journal is to write it in a way to make it immune to all sorts of objections.
When I think of the really important papers in analytic philosophy in the past, some of them are quite short and easy to read and put forth a challenging and interesting idea. Some of Quine’s most important papers (“On what there is” and “Two dogmas of empiricism”, for example), some of Lewis’s most important papers, some of Kripke’s most important papers, some of Davidson’s most important papers are quite short and easy to read. Or take Kripke’s book Naming and Necessity. When you take it off a shelf, it’s only about that thick [gestures a width of 2cm]. But it’s enormously important.
I think the length and complexity of some current writing in philosophy is a bit of a pity. If I was editing a journal, which I am not, I would stick my neck out a bit more. That is, I’d be more prepared to publish papers with interesting ideas and not require authors, in response to a series of referees’ reports, to put in extra sections and footnotes discussing all the possible objections people might have. But that would be what I would do as a journal editor.
Shalom: Earlier, you did note that the philosophy of mind was transformed in the 50’s and 60’s. Given what you’ve said about contemporary philosophy, do you envision that topics in the field can still be revolutionised, or is it getting increasingly difficult for that to be the case?
Jackson: I very much hope there’ll be big changes. It would be a bit boring (depressing?) if you thought your subject is going to be exactly the same in ten years time. But what’s interesting and encouraging is that before there’s a big change, it can seem as if things have become somewhat bogged down. I remember having conversations with colleagues shortly before the work of Kripke and Lewis became prominent. Some of them thought that nothing really interesting is going to happen now; we’ve basically explored all the options. And that turned out to be mistaken because Kripke and Lewis (and others, but those two were especially important) reshaped all sorts of issues in dramatic and exciting ways. But of course that couldn’t be predicted in advance.
What about what’s happening right now? There’s a lot of work in the philosophy of biology that’s really interesting, in part because it’s constrained by serious research in evolutionary biology. That research is throwing up all sorts of challenges which philosophers are tackling. And some of the work in bioethics is new and exciting because what’s happening is that advances in medicine are forcing us to confront issues we didn’t have to face beforehand. In a sense, the issues were always there, but it wasn’t until these advances that they became live issues. One example is genetic engineering. Another is how to justify spending large sums of money on small extensions of life expectancy in wealthy countries when smaller amounts of money would achieve a great deal more in poorer countries.
Harisan: I myself am working within Bioethics and Applied Ethics. One of the problems I happen to face is that, at the back mind, I’m thinking that the metaethics has not been solved yet, and there has not been a clear winner as to which normative ethical theory is correct. I do worry if what I’m writing or doing turns out to be all useless if it is the case that hedonism or moral nihilism is true.
Do you think it’s a problem for applied ethicists to be thinking and writing about these things when we haven’t solved the foundations yet?
Jackson: It’s a problem of course only for people are not convinced utilitarians. When utilitarians look at these problems, they look at them through the lens of utilitarianism. In Peter Singer’s books, for instance, he explains early on that the discussions to follow are from a utilitarian perspective. But the issues are rather different for those who aren’t convinced utilitarians. Or think of those who cannot make up their minds as to whether Kant got it right, or Jack Smart got it right, or W.D. Ross got it right, or virtue ethics gets it right. How should they think about an issue like famine relief or genetic engineering? They face a bit of a quandary and I guess you are facing a bit of that yourself.
Sometimes though, the following happy situation arises: on any sane view in normative ethics, the answer will be that A ought to be done. The hard cases are when different defensible positions in normative ethics give different answers. That’s probably what you’re worrying about, and of course this does arise, for example when we debate the moral issues raised by euthanasia and abortion.
I’m broadly sympathetic to what you would call a consequentialist approach. I knew Jack Smart well and many people who knew Jack Smart well were sympathetic to consequentialism [everyone laughs].
Harisan: You’ve mentioned that we should pay more attention to being interdisciplinary. What I think undergraduate programmes fail to do is to merge them together or to look at the same problem from both angles.
Do you think a revamp is required in most areas of university education to look at these hard problems where philosophy and science meet? Are there ways in which university education should be changed to meet the demands of these interdisciplinary questions?
Jackson: Well, let me begin by saying that in my philosophy courses we do talk about science. Just last Wednesday, in my class, we were talking about centres of mass. This is ‘easy’ science, but nevertheless the students needed to know the science to understand the philosophical issue under discussion. Similarly, we were talking about the reduction of the thermodynamic theory of gases to the molecular kinetic theory, and that’s a bit of science. Next Wednesday we will be talking about how to make sense of mental causation in light of the fact that the causal interactions that underpin our bodily responses are basically driven by the neuroscience – the way neurological states respond to inputs from our senses and send messages that cause muscle contractions in our arms and legs and so on.
Another example, this time from ethics, is the import of accounts in evolutionary biology of how we became creatures that make ethical judgements for the status of those judgements. That question figures prominently in many ethics courses taught in philosophy departments. So some people that teach philosophy do talk about science a good deal of the time. But I’m sure you’re right that most people teaching physics and neuroscience don’t talk much if at all about philosophy. Or at least they don’t when they are being professional neuroscientists or physicists. But there are a number of cases of very prominent researchers in neuroscience and physics who have written books about the mind and consciousness. Sometimes it’s a good book and sometimes it’s a not so good book. You can be a great scientist without necessarily being a great theorist about the mind.
My general view is that anyone working in philosophy should know about other bodies of knowledge. They don’t have to be experts. That would be unreasonable. Once upon a time, very smart people like Descartes and Leibniz could be on top of much of the science of their day. That is not possible these days. It’s unrealistic to expect a philosopher to be an expert economist, biologist or physicist. However, I do think that it’s reasonable to expect a philosopher to have a working knowledge of other disciplines. I started out in mathematics and science, as did many other philosophers. I think that was a good thing. Some philosophers studied economics as undergraduates. And studying economics gives you a working understanding of explanation in the social sciences, which is important for understanding the nature of explanation in general, an important topic in philosophy.
I think it’s a matter of being reasonably well-educated. I think it’s a mistake to do just philosophy. This doesn’t happen in Australia and Singapore. But in some universities in England, it is possible to do an awful lot of philosophy and nothing much else. I think that is a mistake. I like the Scottish tradition where people do plenty of philosophy but other subjects as well, or take the Oxford PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics) course. That’s been a great success.
Harisan: Is there is anything else that you dislike about the field of Philosophy today? Or how things should be done differently?
Jackson: The only comment I will make is that there’s a bit too much complexity. If people get things really clear, they can usually write them out reasonably simply. My philosophical heroes, Kripke, Quine, Davidson, Lewis, Hume, were able to put across their ideas very simply and forcefully. Some parts of philosophy at the moment are unnecessarily complex. This is partly due to the reasons I mentioned earlier.
Harisan: I have always wanted to ask about Australian Realism (for an explanation of this concept, click here). What is it about a geographical location that gives birth to or motivates a school of philosophy…
Jackson: [laughter] There’s that story about how it’s the harsh sunlight that forces Australian philosophers to be realists.
Do you know anything about Swedish tennis? There were at one time a lot of top tennis players from Sweden. Sweden is a fairly small country, and it’s not somewhere you would naturally think of in connection with tennis because it is so cold. How did this happen? Because of the influence of a small group of players, most famously Borg. That’s what happened with Australian Realism. People like John Anderson, David Armstrong and Jack Smart were very influential and were forceful advocates of realism. (I should add Armstrong and Smart to the list of my philosophical heroes I gave above.)
Smart, for example, took it as obvious that electrons exist. As he argued, to my mind convincingly, the best explanation for what happens in cloud chambers is that the tracks you see are made by various sub-atomic particles including electrons. That’s why he was a scientific realist.
NYPR: On to the more informal questions. Is this your first time in Singapore?
Jackson: This is my first lengthy period of time in Singapore. I was here twice before on committees to review the philosophy department, for a few days each time.
Rather curiously, I was also in Singapore briefly before it was [independent] Singapore. I was travelling to England from Australia in 1958 with my parents. The boat stopped at Singapore on its way to England (or maybe on the way back from England to Australia – remember what I said earlier about the fallibility of memory) and my parents met a good friend who was, I think, running the then University of Singapore library.
NYPR: So far, you’ve taught two undergraduate classes here in Singapore, do you feel that there is a difference between Singaporean philosophy undergraduates and their international counterparts?
Jackson: They are just the same. They ask excellent questions in class, and they are very comparable to the classes I have taught in the past in Princeton and ANU. I’ve been very impressed by the students here.
NYPR: I think that’s all the questions we have for today. Thank you for giving us the time for this interview.
Professor Jackson is currently the Lim Chong Yah Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore. He also holds the appointment of Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. Prior to this, Professor Jackson was a visiting professor of philosophy at Princeton University and the director of the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU.
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