It is a commonplace of university and college high table gossip that scientific researchers responsible for great intellectual advances in one area are not unlikely to be dull or inadequate in other fields of life. This is to be expected. When acting as part of their intellectual network scientists perform well, and contribute to the success of the collective enterprise, but when working alone, as individuals, are only average in their ability to complete a task with adequacy. One may further comment that: There is some reason for thinking that most scientists today are never required to complete a project, or even to design it. The problems they face professionally are pre-specified by the stage reached in an enterprise distributed geographically and temporally, involving several continents and many generations. The group often, as it happens, gives the impression of having direction, and this may on occasion arise from the exceptional contribution of a single person, one capable of synthesizing the field before them, redirecting it, but perhaps more often the aggregate endeavour only appears purposive because we trace its progress retrospectively by mapping intellectuo-technological successes, ignoring the dead ends and mediocre outcomes fading into the mists on either side.

Taking science, for the most part, as a group  activity whose achievements are not to be attributed to any one of its component parts enables us to approach and solve the puzzle presented by those such as John Eccles and Roger Sperry. Combined with their notable achievements as neurophysiological researchers there is an apparently contradictory and, at least to me, extremely unconvincing assertion of dualism. This combination gave them, quite understandably, a certain celebrity amongst other would-be dualists, who reasoned that if someone working within the materialist scheme at a high level cannot find an adequate account of consciousness, then surely there is none. But that reasoning may poorly founded. Perhaps the striking combination of views held by Eccles and Sperry is to be explained by reference to the dichotomy of competence familiar in other cases. Their work in physiology was supported by the research network in which they functioned, and with that context to guide and hold them up, they rarely stumbled. On the other hand, when they spoke as mystics they spoke for themselves, and were governed by fears and anxieties common to many men and likely to warp judgment.

Perhaps it is awareness of this precipitous intellectual cliff edge that makes so many scientists aggressively collectivist in their politics.

It is a commonplace that the initial framing of an inquiry determines the form of the conclusions, and may even determine the conclusions themselves. When contemplating death this is as true as it is elsewhere, and given the importance of confusion on this point we may need to clear the matter of obstacles. – To be concerned with the unknowable afterlife is a failure of objectivity; it results from pressing the question in the form “How will feel when I am dead?” which cannot be answered; as if to say “What colour will this yellow flower be when it is blue?” The question is superfluous and its manifest redundancy is self-answering. Similarly, in answer to the former question we could say You won’t feel, you will be dead. Such a response will fail to satisfy, of course, since the question was posed in such a manner as to impart a sense of mystery that forbids clear resolution. By approaching death from the viewpoint of your own subjectivity and its demise, we seem to see death as a barrier to knowledge. Death becomes a veil, and we become confused.

But let us triangulate upon this position: – How will the difference between me living and me dead be perceived by a third person? On this view life and death are both visible. Here is JC living (his body maintains its net aggregate complexity and prosecutes its interests); here is the body which we termed JC (this body no longer maintains its net aggregate complexity or prosecutes its interests), it is dying or already dead.

Thus, the puzzle of death is the result of carelessly framing the investigation from the point of view of an individual wondering about his own death, a framing which prevents an answer and creates a vacuous mystery. On this view, the veil of death is a logical artefact which we can sweep aside by thinking in terms of other’s deaths or of their view of your death. Life and death are both equally ascertainable for a third party. Living is this set of activities. Death is the cessation of those activities. In the midst of life we are in death. Yes, indeed, and the more so when we consider that death in this view is not so much a sudden change, but rather the culmination of a process which started some time earlier. The organism is in a sense dying as soon as it is born, only at that time and for most of its adult life it is living as much and a little bit more than it is dying.

It is an error to suppose that song is simply a set of words with music added. A written text is already a musical notation for a spoken one, and if an example of speech must be in some sense musical, and if it is not then it must be classified as silence. All utterance, therefore, is song, though we should point out that the written notation can be very vague, leaving almost everything to the reader.

Music composed as an accompaniment to a set of words transforms the existing music of the words, however varied that may be, while that which we conventionally call singing is an unusual rhythmic and tonal version of the words, and this can be provided by a voice alone, without the guidance of music proper. Thus, the correct definition of song is:

Utterance in which the musical pattern of speech is transformed by being diverted and marshalled by another, non-linguistic, or unusual linguistic pattern.

From this it is necessary to conclude that song is nothing very special.

Perhaps the most devastating consequence of the failure of absolute religion is that the state is no longer able to purify warriors after battle. The priest's loss is the lawyer's gain.

I have at times believed that art, in all its forms, was a means to reach or bring about a state of ataraxia; now it seems more likely that it is only an imitation, a suggestion of this condition, and as frustrating in its way as pornography or an advertisement.

The dogmatic skepticism of literary theory in 1980s and early 1990s is in large part devoted to the discovery of radically novel purposes for texts both ancient and modern. Some of these ends are not readily achieved with the material in hand, which was designed for the satisfaction of quite other needs, and the critic therefore presents a magnetic spectacle that demands our attention and simultaneously excites our contempt. It is as if we had come across someone picking their nose with a corkscrew. – His finger would be better, but should he do it at all?

Written in Sagi-no-mori Jinjya, Kyoto, 22 October 1995.

In such a place it is almost absurd to trouble myself further with the particulars of the history of certain patterned language forms, but the mind works well when at peace.

The distinction between cultural and non-cultural objects is a vexed one. Can we clarify it? Perhaps it is easier than at first appears, and, as so often, the solution comes not from resisting the fashionable levelling philosophies, but from taking their position more seriously than they themselves are willing to do.

Here in the shrine there are numerous objects, trees, stone lanterns, dragonflies, people, and dogs. A common sense distinction between these would be into living and non-living. Oddly, this would coincide with the equally common sense distinction between cultural and non-cultural. My foolish cultural studies philosophe would then object that living and non-living are culturally specific categories, and the distinction between cultural and non-cultural has no sounder basis. One might respond by defending these two fields, invoking the concept of bio-categories, as developed by certain cognitive scientists, and the presence of human agency in the causal histories of certain objects and not others. For many purposes this would seem to be adequate. But certain niggling problems would arise. Dogs are, in a very important sense, the creations of human beings, through artificial selection, and though the stone lantern is a non-living cultural object, how are we to distinguish it from the pebble that rests on its rim, thrown there by a worshipper? Isn’t man, and cultural belief, equally involved in the histories of both.

Sagi-no-mori Jinjya, Kyoto, 2012. Photograph by Kaoru Honda.

No lesser problem awaits the cultural generalist, for if the non-cultural lacks a firm definition so, by implication, must the cultural. It seems that by declaring everything cultural they have overstepped the mark.

The lesson of this tedious stand-off is that these categories are less useful than they appear, and that we need to acknowledge the continuity which the generalists insist upon while at the same time being able to make some sort of remark on the differences that cry out for attention. – The dragonfly and the bronze dragon fountain obviously inhabit different departments in our unreflective thought, and even reflection can do no more than uncertainly bring them together as cultural constructions.

The answer is to abandon the idea of an exclusive cultural-non-cultural polar division, and admit that the only thing we can say with any degree of certainty is that all is physical. The differences between objects are to be accounted for through this basic similarity, and attributed to physical constitution and causal history. It is therefore obviously possible, and it has been obvious all along, for an object to be both partly non-cultural and partly cultural. Dog is an object in which human preferences have played a large part, but, equally, physical causes operating on the common ancestor of dog and man clearly figure in our account as largely as any, perhaps more so.

Let us now turn to the more interesting question of whether the idea of “dog” is a cultural construction. At first it seems that this must be so, but we will take our physicalism seriously and note that an idea of some thing is as physical as any thing, even our idea of physicality, and that thus it must be a “cultural construction” only by virtue of being in part caused by an area of physicality defined as “cultural”. Very well, we have defined some part as cultural. – Does this undermine the physicality of the “dog” or other elements in its history. Hardly, for the definition presumes other areas of physicality.

We should therefore abandon areas of discussion which attempt to turn the physical into the non-physical, and instead grant that cultural is a vague term useful in that it enables us to discuss physical objects in which human brains and their products have played a significant causal role. Equally, let us admit that any perception must in that sense be cultural, though not necessarily flexible. Further, let us recall that an idea of something is physical before it is cultural, and that a causal history, as distinct from the events it describes, consists purely of events in the human brain. Lastly, let us abandon the word “culture” and speak only of objects and their histories.

Why was the early progress of science so slow? For the most part, knowledge is very hardly won, of course; but institutional and societal impediments are also relevant. Until well into the nineteenth century the Church was attracting and sequestering some of the ablest intellects, perhaps most of them. Science was too risky, and offered too few stable positions, and those that it could provide were supported only at low salaries.

It is possible to infer, therefore, that the progress of scientific knowledge was driven by those who could either afford to take the risk, because of private means, or those unable to prosper in the prevailing order, which was predominantly a status arrangement, for whom the inferior avenues offered by science and by engineering were the best available. These were not just second tier intellects, though one suspects that this was often the case, but also the socially maladroit who are frequently excluded in any status system.

As we all know, the last century changed all that, and growth in the available data and propositions to describe that data, grew at we now think of as the usual exponential rate.

Recently, things don't seem to be quite as rapid. Why is that? For the most part, knowledge is very hardly won, of course; but...

The term social is wildly overused, most frequently when the word “societal” is required. The point the speaker is trying to make, perhaps, is that something is broadly characteristic of a society, or of a large part of it, not that something is held in common or has been created through a communal process. However, close observation tells us that hardly anything is properly speaking held in common, even when the legal or political form claims that it is so, and that almost nothing is created equally by all individuals in a population.

Knowledge-creation may serve as an example since it is sometimes, indeed often, said to be social. However, it is unlikely ever to be true in the strict sense. Of course, the processes of knowledge creation are frequently, indeed nearly always collaborative, but the parties involved in those collaborations are only a selection from the wider population, both over time and at any one time. Knowledge is rarely if ever fully social, that is completely or overwhelmingly collaborative. I cannot think of a plausible candidate for social knowledge creation in the strict sense, not even language, for it is or should be notorious that there is no natural kind of, say, English, a cairn to which all users have contributed, but only numerous overlapping pools of linguistic competence with correspondences and resemblances between them. A language is not an organism.

Social is an extremely strong, indeed universalist term, implying collective interest or participation across or through the entire population, however that population is to be defined, and neglect of this characteristic accounts for most of the errors in its use. Because of this strength it is to be used very sparingly. For example, we might be tempted say that public health, or national independence has a social dimension, one affecting every individual in the population. But even in these cases, where most would agree it has legitimacy, it should be employed with care. Public health issues do not affect all individuals equally, and may not affect some individuals at all. One might regard such instances as outliers that can be safely put to one side in order to gain insight, and I would not disagree. But it is clear that reflection on the details of claims to sociality tends to erode the rigoristic legitimacy of the term.

Consequently, we can now see why the vague, rhetorical or poetic use of the term only achieves its suasive and elusive power by failing to define the population to which it refers, thus implying without actually claiming and thus obliging the claimant to defend universality of creative participation and entitled interest. In truth, it is all too often not a descriptive term, but a normative one, expressing the wish or the demand that all those addressed should accept sociality and adjust their behaviour accordingly. In other words, it is an act of aspirational or coercive rhetoric.

And very vulnerable rhetoric it is. If we define the populational extent carefully, as we always should, then the magic disappears, and the warm glow may turn to a chill. Often enough, we find ourselves no longer included in the alliance, we are the prey not the predator. For this is the dark truth of rhetorical claims of sociality, namely that they prove to be spurious assertions of entitlement to the work of others, and even at their mildest are more or less subtle calls for a share of a dish in the cooking of which they have played no part. Rather than ask for favour, with all the implied promise of thanks and reciprocity that must accompany it, the speaker demands a share of right and without any recompense. The warmth of the term social barely conceals the threat and indeed the fact of robbery with menaces, and it should be avoided as a general rule. While some degree of more or less common interest most certainly occurs, it deserves explicit demonstration with all exceptions noted, not a suspiciously loose insinuation of unbounded community. As ever, praise undeserved is scandal in disguise.

It is notable that intuitions of transcendence resemble intuitions of free will. Both are strong if elusive, and quite unsupported apart from the felt intuition itself. Perhaps the underlying reasons in both cases are the same.

Our sense of free choice is the fully determined sensation of being at the frontier of the unfolding universe. Similarly, an intuition of moral, aesthetic, or epistemological transcendence is simply the experience of having particular kinds of experiences in those categories.

Transcendence on this view, would be an authentic experience and no delusion. But an experience of what precisely? Is it simply a sufficient conviction of adequacy for some purpose? A moral feeling indicates certainty of our probable interests as affected by our own behaviour and that of others; our aesthetic judgment a certainty that, at least provisionally, we approve this sensation; and our epistemological sensation tells us that we know just enough to act or, as importantly, not to act.

In all cases, it seems that our self-interest is engaged; which is no surprise in general, but will not be what some expect in this instance. Far from being selfless, the intuition of transcendence seems to have its roots in the clearly perceived interest of the organism.