Saturday, May 10, 2014

Have Theory, Will Travel

In his peripatetic scamper through the capitals of world philosophy, in a valiant search for something illuminating to say about, literally, Nothing (“Why is there something rather than nothing,” is the topic of the book), the philosophically-trained science journalist Jim Holt arranges to go interview Derek Parfit.  Yet, though the reporter must travel all the way to England to do this, Parfit imposes a restriction on the interview  which no newsman should be subjected to, and which even Ben Ladin did not have the chutzpah to demand:

He added that, since he was very slow in formulating his thoughts, he would prefer not to be quoted verbatim.  Instead, he would try to answer any questions I had about his written work  with a “yes” or “no” or some other brief response.
-- Jim Holt, Why does the World Exist? (2012), p. 223

(Sounds like a Turing Test.)   And this, note, for an interview broadcast live, where indeed the pressure of maintaining a snappy airtime  often trivializes discussion, and where the subject is his own work, which he has had a lifetime to think about, and approached by a deferential amateur in an attitude of near-reverence.

Accordingly, nothing of interest stems from the empty exercise of the interview itself;  undaunted, our author tricks out his report with quotations from Parfit’s previously published writings (something he could have done from home).   We are reminded of Edmund Morris’s desperate expedient, in his abortion of a biography of Ronald Reagan, where, confronted by the blank mind and depthless shallows of his subject, he filled things in with the imaginings of fiction.

For more on the old fraud, click here:

      Derek Parfit, Man of Mystery

 For the inspiration of the title:

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