Thursday, 5 March 2009

Seeing the earth turn

I took a train down to Warwick today for a one-day AHRC funded conference tomorrow on philosophy of psychiatry organised by Havi Carel and Rachel Cooper. (I'm in the Green Man, pictured, as I type.) I see that it will take place in a lecture room pretty much next door to the office I occupied in my last, not entirely happy, year at Warwick. Based up in the medical school I was semi-detached from the philosophy department but did too little, in retrospect, to develop a wider interest in philosophy of psychiatry / medicine among my new colleagues.

My last week at Warwick was particularly charged. It involved running the week long medical ethics teaching for unwilling second year medical students. Whilst I am no ethicist and cannot claim – unlike my then Warwick colleague Bill Fulford – to have a distinct and rival approach instead, the main role wasn’t so much academic as theatrical. I had to be an impresario coordinating the outside acts (from the BMA, NIMHE, MDU etc) and improvising rousing final remarks at the end of each day and the week. This seemed more stressful because I no longer lived in the area. But on reflection my stress was probably nothing compared to that of my steadier medical school colleagues anxious - and perhaps faintly disbelieving - at my last minute arrivals. I have been back once to Warwick to conduct Jakob Lindgaard’s PhD viva; but that was the main campus. I wonder how it will seem to be back in the medical school.

Sorry, that’s way too biographical (the result, perhaps, of a quick pint of Doddon brewery Ferryman’s Gold whilst waiting for my TNC friends to arrive). The pretext for all of that is merely this. As the train pulls out of Oxenholme station, one has a view over Kendal and towards the first fells in the south east of the Lake District national park. Today Ill Bell was topped with snow, picked out by sun, against looming dark clouds further north. Prompted by a memory of first arriving to live there when I was not sure what I was seeing, I was struck today by a cognitive contrast. I now know what I’m seeing. But the subtler change isn’t merely cognitive but also, somehow, experiential. From the train, I now see Kendal to be in a bowl in the low hills which lead slowly ten miles in the higher fells. I see Scout Scar, the hill on the far side, to be what helps save the Park from industrial Kendal’s light pollution. In seeing the town, I ‘see’ its position relative to the unseen landmarks: the increasingly interesting landscape as one travels north west. But I’ve not before been enough struck by the nature of this experience.

Recall Hanson’s basic discussion of Wittgenstein in Patterns of Discovery and his suggestion that Tycho and Kepler have contrasting experiences at dawn (in a way that threatens a simple minded empiricism). One sees the sun rising and the other the earth turning. But as Churchland argues, in Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind, that claim is not phenomenologically accurate. Really to experience the earth turning one needs to do more than get up early having had a liberal education. One needs to do some work: going to a latitude of 30 degrees, to a smooth sea or ocean, and when there are some visible planets. Then, with one’s neck perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic, one can fix not onto a distracting earthly horizon but the plane of the planets and then, at sunrise, one can experience the earth turn. But what sort of experience is this?

Of course, the obvious way into this is back again – via Hanson, as it were – to Wittgenstein’s idea that, in aspect perception, the kind of expression one is spontaneously inclined to make (“Now it’s a duck”) plays a constitutive role even when one knows that – really! – nothing has changed. But what kind of as if experience is this? ‘Now it’s a duck’ implies it’s not now a rabbit. But ‘now the earth is twisting’ is odd because that is indeed just what is going on. It seems strange to think of an ‘as if’ experience which is also veridical. It’s tempting to think that even in this case there’s something odd, something slightly misfiring, about the utterance. Perhaps I’m struck by this today because of Moyal-Sharrock’s book yesterday.