One of the humbling lessons of modern science is that it is often risky to argue a priori that certain things are impossible. Like as not, some scientist will pop up to tell you that it is not only possible, it is actual. My favorite example is the notion of "contrast dependent terms" that was popular some while ago. Philosophers argued that certain pairs of terms, such as left/right, up/down, and in/out are contrast dependent, so that it is logically impossible for someone to understand one of them without also understanding the other. Then along came the great neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, who reported in one of his books a case of a woman whose brain injury had left her quite capable of understanding and using the concept "left" but completely unable to grasp the idea of "right." Told, for example, that something she was looking for was to her right, she would turn all the way around to her left until it came into view.
Another lovely series of examples comes from the defenders of Intelligent Design, who think they are offering a brilliant and irrefutable objection to the theory of evolution when they ask, rhetorically, what possible survival value there could be to each of the minute mutational changes leading to the formation of a fully functional eye. Surely, they say, the mutation that elongates a nerve and positions it at the edge of an organism's outer surface cannot have any value that will cause the process of natural selection to privilege it. Only a purposeful God, aware that this is the first small step on the way to the eye, can anticipate the end product and thus carry the evolution of the eye to its completion.
So then some brilliant evolutionary biologists do some really classy research and sure enough, they come up with a demonstration that that intermediate stage does, all by itself, confer a differential survival advantage on its organism. The Intelligent Designers go back to the drawing boards and reconstruct their objection. "Maybe so," they reply, "but for that step in the evolution of the eye to take place, there must have been this or that change in the expression of some gene, or in the production of some amino acid, and there is no evolutionary advantage conferred by that mutation." So the scientists go back to their labs, do some more brilliant research, and sure enough come up with a differential survival advantage attached to just that apparently useless mutation. And so on and on. The Creationists never pause even for a moment to experience awe at the brilliance of the scientific research. They just hunker down and back up and dig in their heels at the very edge of whatever point science has managed to advance to.
All of which is merely an introduction to today's guest post, a little essay written by my son, Patrick Gideon Wolff. Before Patrick was the Managing Director of a Hedge Fund located in San Francisco; before he was the husband of Diana Schneider and the father of my two grandchildren, Samuel Emerson Wolff and Athena Emily Wolff; back when he was one of the most famous chess grandmasters in the world, Patrick returned to college to complete his undergraduate degree, doing Philosophy at Harvard with the likes of Jack Rawls, Bob Nozick, and Christine Korsgaard. It appears to have stuck.
Yesterday, Patrick took time off from managing his fund's millions to send me a little essay he wrote in response to Thomas Nagel's famous journal article, "What is it like to be a Bat?" He agreed to allow me to post it here. I think you will be able to see quite easily the connection to my introductory remarks above. By the way, since I am in an avuncular mood, I should note that Tom Nagel was my student back in 1960, way before he became, as it were, Thomas Nagel. He took my course at Harvard on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. [And yes, he did brilliantly.]