The Slow Miracles of Thought

23 July 2021

How can the human mind think about objects outside itself? How is it possible to talk about things that don’t even exist? This week, we’re thinking about reference—specifically, an “opinionated” theory of reference by our dear departed friend, longtime host and Philosophy Talk co-founder, Ken Taylor.

Just hours before he passed away in December 2019, Ken announced on his Facebook page that he’d finally finished a book about reference that he had been working on for many years. He wrote:

It will still take some time to spit and polish it all up into a form suitable for shipping off to the publisher. But god it feels good to get this way too long delayed book project in close to final form. I think I'll pour a glass of wine to mark the occasion, before plunging back into the work that is still to be done.

One of my favorite poems includes the line "the slow miracles of thought take shape through patience into grace."

Amen to that!

Tragically and unexpectedly, he died later that evening. But thanks to the hard work and dedication of some colleagues (including longtime co-host John Perry), Ken's book, Referring to the World: An Opinionated Introduction to the Theory of Reference, has now been published.

One great thing about the book is the way it captures Ken’s sense of wonder, and his ability to find the philosophical interest of even seemingly mundane topics. You might think there’s nothing especially mysterious about our ability to refer to objects outside of our own minds. How hard is it, after all, to point to an object like my coffee cup and say, “Here’s my coffee cup”? That’s all it takes to refer to many ordinary objects.

But our powers of thought and speech extend beyond our immediate environment. By writing about my coffee cup, I give you the ability to refer to it, even if you’ve never seen it or otherwise interacted with it. By harnessing the power of language, you can stretch your thoughts across space and time: to the Mississippian people who built the Cahokia mounds and then died in the 13th and 14th centuries, to the Roman Emperor Gratian who led a campaign across the Rhine around the year 370, and to the prehistoric Tully monster, which swam through estuaries with its hinged jaw at the end of a long proboscis.

Some philosophers have thought that you can refer to distant objects because you’re connected to them by a chain of cause and effect: Gratian’s mother names him Gratian, and teaches the name to his subjects, who pass it on to their descendents, who tell their descendants… until the name reaches you. This seems plausible at first glance. Lots of things have far-reaching effects: my coffee cup can leave a ring on the table that lasts for years, or a tiny noise can cause an avalanche that changes the geography of a mountain. Why shouldn’t names have far-reaching effects too?

Still, our ability to name things can’t only be about cause and effect. You can talk and think about things that you’ll never interact with at all, like the first flower to bloom in the 23rd century. That flower can’t affect you, since you’ll die before it even comes into existence. Yet here you are, thinking about it now. You can even think about things that never existed and never will, like unicorns or the Abominable Snowman.  

Maybe thinking about imaginary things is a completely different process from thinking about real things that you can see and touch and taste. But if the two processes really are different, why do they feel so similar?

Suppose you’re an explorer, wondering whether the shadowy figure you spotted is a real animal, or just a figment of your imagination. You can’t tell which answer is true just by examining your own thoughts. Or suppose you think someone is a magician. If that person is David Copperfield, then your thoughts match up with the real world. But if you’re thinking of Merlin, then your thoughts might match up with a story, but not a true story. Either way, the thought has the same form: “So-and-so is a magician.” 

The upshot is that it’s impossible to tell from the inside whether you’re thinking about something real or something imaginary. This can lead to an unnerving string of worries: how are we supposed to know what’s real? How do we even get the concept of reality? Are we just trapped inside our own heads forever?

Ken had a lot to say about these questions in his book, and I wish that he were still around to talk to us about it. Luckily, we’ll be joined this week by Robin Jeshion, a friend and colleague of Ken’s who was part of the team that got his book ready for publication. Tune in to our conversation with Robin, and don’t miss this week’s very special “Roving Philosophical Report” about who Ken was as a husband, father, and friend. 

Image by Free Photos from Pixabay 

Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, July 25, 2021 -- 10:30 AM

Our wonderful human minds

Our wonderful human minds enable us to think in abstraction as well as appreciating reality---which oftentimes changes with new information and/or better understanding of that we possess. Reference is one term for this affinity.
An example I used in an essay featured a discussion of infinity. Infinity is an abstract concept. You cannot get there because there is no there there. Still, we can talk and think about it, possibly even using the concept to fashion new ideas about realities we can't imagine in any concrete sense. Which defeats the notion of being unable to get something from nothing. The world of information technology was once only theorhetical, if that. It was somewhere in a not-so-distant future. We could say it was off in infinity. But, here is where abstraction changes the game and renders infinity accessible, in spite of the absence of 'thereness'. A bit like Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. This is mostly speculation, of course---except to mathematicians and quantum mechanics.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, August 16, 2021 -- 2:21 PM

I need to read it. And will.

I need to read it. And will. Soon, I hope.

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