Saturday, October 9, 2010

time for thought

'Well, philosophers are more generalists, big picture people. At least they should be. At least I think they should be. Scientists study details, and yes, maybe the context of those details...'
'They do? Was relativity theory a detail? The theory of evolution, that was pretty big picture, I'd say.'
Danny sighed. 'Well, philosophers reflect on what scientists do, and what moralists do. They reflect on the nature of consciousness... '
'Don't you think that scientists studying the brain will keep getting closer to a full understanding of consciousness?  What need do they have of philosophers?'
They both began to chuckle.
'I'm not letting go of this one,' Danny said finally.
'Good, good,' she smiled.
'Scientists do science, philosophers reflect on the nature of science. Amongst other things. A naturalist philosopher might look at how scientific methodologies generate knowledge, and how scientific theories generate research programs. I also think the best scientists are philosophically literate - they're interested in that big picture, how everything fits together, the implications of all that.'
'And obviously you find all this very stimulating.'
'Overstimulating, in fact, as I quickly get in to a level way above my competence.'
'Really? For example.'
'Well take any 'what is' question. Like 'what is air?', 'what is time?', 'what is the universe?'. Scientific questions or philosophical questions?'
'More importantly, what are the answers?'
'Air is a mixture of gases...'
'Colourless, odourless, non-toxic. No wonder it took us so long to work out what it was..'
'People used to think it was just emptiness, or so I suppose. As to time, I wouldn't like to even hazard a guess as to what time is.'
'Isn't it just a measure of change?'
'Well... how can that be? In five years, an eight-year-old girl becomes a thirteen-year-old teenager. In the same five years a rock in her front yard hasn't appreciably changed at all.'
'Uhhh... time is relative?'
'Mmmm... if that were true, why are we so obsessed to measure time accurately, with atomic clocks and such?'
'Well didn't relativity theory change our understanding of time forever? Or at least the understanding of physicists and such.'
'Well we could go into this endlessly, but it would be all speculative. That's what I mean about getting in too deep. We all feel fairly expert about our perception of time, because it's a fundamental part of our experience, but to grasp what it might be objectively, like for example to grasp the idea that time began with space, at the beginning point of the big bang, that's a different matter.'
'Well, the point is not to understand time, but to change it. So that we can live forever.'
Danny smiled at the mock-innocent expression on Annie's face. 'Well I'd be happy to drink to that. Would you like a drink?'
She waved the idea away airily. 'I think one thing we can never get our heads around is non-existence. Of time, of space, of ourselves. As you say, we feel confident about things we've experienced, even if it's a false confidence. We're all at sea about things beyond our experience.'

Friday, August 27, 2010


She looked at him challengingly, ironically, and then stared at the ground. He could see a blurry tracery, blue beneath the pallor of her neck, her cheek.
'Your blood is never blue, you know,' he said, glad then to see the puzzlement in her face. To cause puzzlement. 'I mean, I was looking at your skin, and the veins beneath. They look blue, but somehow they're not. Pale blue-veined child, Joyce wrote. It's all to do with the vessels, and the pallor of the skin. Melanin and all that.'
'My skin's pale, you're saying?' For some reason they had both stopped.
'I was considering the anatomy of beauty perhaps. Of your beauty. There are so many different types of beauty. And that's just human beauty.'
'You are proving to be quite an interesting fellow. Come', she murmured, starting forward.
'So what was this story about your boyfriend who's not a boyfriend, who lives with you but doesn't?'
She laughed. 'Very good, very good. My boyfriend's a musician, he's working with his band in Sydney at present, and I have a feeling he's not going to come back.'
'And how do you feel about that?'
'I miss him, but we're not really compatible. I like him. I'd be delighted if he came back, but I don't think it'll last. I'm not sure if I should end it now. I'm a bit wishy-washy about these things.'
They trudged on in silence for a few moments.
'Well, this is the place. Back there.' They were at the head of a dirt path, leading from the footpath behind a row of poplars to a double cabin at the back of a huge block of land dominated by a weird, ramshackle pile, carbuncled and turreted.
'Well, they should make a movie out of a place like that, but it's all been done before. Who lives there?'
'A family of lawyers, one of whom is my landlady. An old judge lives in the attic. Retired, I believe. The patriarch.'
'It's a cute little abode,' she said, when they had stopped outside his front door.
'A humble abode, and rather spartan, as you'll see.'
'Mmmm. A lot of books. That's not surprising.'
'In fact I've downsized a lot. Not only with books, with everything. Please, take a seat.'
'Opposite corners, eh? It's like a boxing match. I think we should sit closer. It would be more intimate.'
'You're looking for intimacy?' He brought his chair close to hers.
'Always. Amongst other things. It's very pleasant here. The birds, the trees, the intriguing old house.'
'Well I must say, I'm delighted and surprised to have you as a visitor. What surprises me most I think is, the naturalness of it. The fact that I'm not particularly surprised.'
'Let's just both take it in our stride. Philosophy...' she had picked up a book from the table by her chair.
'Yes, speaking of naturalism.'
'Tell me about naturalism.'
'In philosophy it means, or it seems to mean - I'm no philosopher - it means, well, it's a philosophical movement or spirit that takes its cue from science. It's rather in thrall to science, because of the phenomenal success of science.'
'Mmmm. So not much room for religion then?'
'Ha. Not much. Of course the philosophical naturalist will, or might, take an interest in religion from a scientific perspective. Its psychology, its evolutionary role, how it affects the brain, how it works in social groups.'
'Yet philosophy isn't science, is it? Isn't it conceding its role to science? If science provides the best way to understanding the world, what's the point of philosophy? Isn't naturalism doing philosophers out of a job?'
Danny stroked his chin for a moment.
'Of course - I'm no philosopher,' she smiled.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

a short walk

So in the late afternoon, in spring sunshine, they stood together outside the market, Annie hefting a tote bag overflowing with fresh produce from her stall, carrots and celery, as well as cakes and biscuits and coffee beans, the blended aroma lending her the air of a suburban Ceres, while Danny was burdened with his encased laptop, a shoulder bag of books and papers, and a jacket he'd brought against a change of weather. Like many indoor types he expected the worst of the environment, only to be pleasantly surprised and slightly shamed.
'Where will we go?' Annie asked.
'What do you usually do after work?'
'I catch a bus home, or sometimes a taxi. Or I get a lift.'
'I don't have a car, at least not here. I only live a couple of blocks away.'
'Ah, that explains why I see you here so often. Shall we - go to your house?
'Ummm. Sure. I... I live alone. It's just down here.'
She strode off, and for a moment Danny was rooted to the spot. She turned and queried, 'Okay?'
'Sorry, yes, fine,' he beamed, catching her up.
'I suppose this seems a bit strange to you? You think I'm being a bit forward?'
'Well... you're being a bit more forward than most girls. Which is a good thing. I'm generally a bit backward myself.'
She laughed, her head tilted back, her teeth neat and perfect, her auburn hair cropped short to reveal her slender neck. His proximity to all this made his head swim.
'And why are you so backward?'
'I'm shy with women. I love them too much. Well, not all of them.'
'Well...' she said, and hesitated. 'Let's talk about something else. The Catholic Church?'
'I've not had anything to do with it personally, but it aggravates me every time I hear the Vatican - pontificating. I reject everything it stands for. No offence to you, I hope all your experiences were good.'
'I wasn't abused, but I'm probably no more of a supporter of the Catholic Church than you. There were good teachers and bad teachers. I don't know even if they were all Catholic. So what does the Catholic Church stand for, in your view?'
'Well, something known as revealed truth, which equates with Church dogma. Usually spelt with a capital T in papal pronouncements, also known as papal bull.'
'But we're not Catholics, so can't we ignore all that stuff? I mean, it interests me, but it doesn't affect my life.'
'No, well we're living in a relatively secular age. A few hundred years ago - if you look at the documents from, say, the sixteenth century, you'll find them saturated with references to God, or the god called God, as I call him. And if we were talking to each other back then, well - our way of thinking would be so different.'
'We wouldn't be walking down this street. There wouldn't be a street. Or a country called Australia.'
'It's good to look at history. Things that seem permanent and solid now, you come to realize how fleeting they are. Not just these buildings, but political systems, religious beliefs. They form and they fade, and when they're at their height, people fight for them and kill and die for them.'
'Wow. Heavy shit.'
'I live on this street. See that great monstrous mansion thing there?'
'You live in that house?'
'No, I rent a little flat behind it, in the grounds. The old servant's quarters.'
'I'm jealous. I just live in a fairly dull old flat in Ovingham, with my boyfriend. Or my ex-boyfriend, who doesn't live with me.'

Friday, May 21, 2010


He stayed writing for another hour or so, focusing down into the subject, writing well, with more ideas than he could possibly capture, his clumsy fingers punching the keys, his mind light as thread. A sense of youthful renewal, a fillip to the senses. Occasionally he was aware of her flitting on some errand, a ripple of shoulder and backbone. Perfect posture, a dance of life. When he packed up his laptop she was back behind her counter, serving a brace of customers. Surely each of them was struck by her grace and beauty, struck by longing or a need to worship - or was that just his peculiar weakness?
Waiting for her to be free, he began writing his web address, then crossed it out and wrote 'Just google this.... it will come up first on the list,' and he wrote his name, Daniel. A few minutes later, he handed it to her. 'Thank you,' she said, and he detected a new air of confidence or decision. 'I'm finishing up here shortly, if you'd like to wait.'
'We could go somewhere, and talk'.
'Okay, I'll wait for you. I always have a book to read.'
'I've noticed,' she smiled.


So he sat, trying not to watch her, and often succeeding, focusing on formulating the next sentence and trying to limit and shape the sentences that might flow from it, but what a superb specimen she was, though he recognized that the term 'specimen' was a distancing device, a way of bringing into ironic control the sexual emotional responses he sometimes wished he didn't have and loved having.
For a few moments, longer than usual, he lost himself in what he was writing, until a voice hovering just above his right ear said 'you're interested in the Catholic Church?'
He looked up, already knowing it was her, seeing first the smooth elegant young arm reaching for the small plate and the drained glass before him, her skimpy gingham top, the bone beneath the pale skin, her scapula and shadow. Her face wore a quizzical, tentative, ironic expression, as if she too was trying too hard to play the 'specimen' game.
'Oh - the Catholic Church - it's a blog I write. I'm not religious. I sometimes like to focus on the Catholic Church, it's about knowing your enemy.'
She smiled, a wondering smile, and slowly began to wipe the little table, moving directly in front of him, aware, he knew, that he was no longer staring at his laptop screen, but at the beauty she was modestly flaunting.
She straightened and their eyes met, smiling, a mingle of warmth. 'Well...', she said, and he saw the familiar struggle with words.
'You're not a Catholic are you?' He was surprised at how easily he spoke, but then he was the elder, by far, and he needed to take responsibility - or he felt she wanted that.
'I went to a Catholic school for a while, but I'm not a Catholic.'
'Yes, that seems to be a common experience, or situation.'
'It was a good school, academically, but I was lazy. So, what else do you write about? I notice you're always writing.'
'Whatever takes my fancy. Not much personal stuff though. I write about the world. History, politics. Science.  How things work, how I'd like them to work. To get out of myself. Though of course it's all about myself.
She nodded and lingered, swivelling slightly, balletic. 'I'd like to read your blog. It sounds interesting. Focusing outside yourself's a good idea. Just what I need to do. My name's Annie. I have to get back to work. Let me know the address of your blog before you go. Promise?
'I will.'