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UCSD philosophy major Andre Niemeyer is followed around

He grants the obscurity of what he's doing, but not the irrelevance

Sentence one: Lois Lane believes that Superman can fly. Sentence two: Lois Lane believes that Clark Kent can fly. Sentence one is true. Sentence two is false, because Lois Lane doesn't know that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same person. From this, it seems reasonable to conclude that it's the substitution of the name "Superman" for "Clark Kent" that changes the sentence from true to false. Let's call that our intuition. And let's call the truth or falsity of a sentence its truth value Simple enough. But trust a philosopher to make trouble with even the simple things, as UCSD philosophy major Andre Niemeyer is about to do here. And it's not even as if he's some young rabble-rouser out to mess with the system. (In fact, he's 28.) Instead, he's presenting what he terms "a well-worn problem in the philosophy of language."

To begin his assault on the seemingly obvious, Niemeyer lays out three generally accepted ideas about language. The first: Proper names that refer to the same thing have the same meaning. In this case, "Superman" and "Clark Kent" mean the same thing, since they both refer to the same person. The second principle: "Embedding a proper name in a belief context does not change its meaning." That is, putting "Superman" and "Clark Kent" in sentences about Lois Lane's beliefs doesn't change the meaning of "Superman" and "Clark Kent." Got it. And for principle number three: "The meaning of a sentence comes from its structure and from the meaning of its parts."

Now -- "If we accept that sentences with the same meaning must have the same truth value" -- a reasonable claim in Niemeyer's opinion -- "then the truth value of the sentences must be one and the same." So, because sentence one and sentence two mean the same thing, they must have the same truth value. But our intuition was that they did not have the same truth value. Figure that one out, Man of Steel.

Niemeyer is presenting all this as his contribution to the 2006 UCSD Faculty Mentor Program Research Symposium. "I was already doing some work related to this as part of my honors thesis," he explains to his fellow presenters, gathered in Gallery A of the University's Price Center (the gallery is more of a spacious conference room, adjacent to the computer lounge). "I got the McNair Fellowship" -- a PhD-preparation program funded by the Department of Education -- "and said, 'Hey, I'd like to do something around this field.' "

This particular group is one of several gathered throughout the Price Center. Niemeyer's fellows are a pretty motley collection, hailing from the realms of philosophy, arts, and cultural studies. One student is studying computer music and improvisation in the jazz department and has been researching sound descriptors. A philo/communications major has made a study of deadpan performances on film, focusing especially on Bill Murray in Broken Flowers and Johnny Depp in Dead Man. A Filipino girl is examining the "contested debate over tradition and innovation in cultural forms," while a psych/Judaic studies major is looking at rationality in the ancient world. Andre Niemeyer is digging into brain teasers about Superman. And tonight, they're all making presentations based on their research, with a short Q&A after each.

Superman is up second, after the film presentation. It's a tough segue -- even if few people in the room have seen the films in question, everybody knows Murray and Depp, and everybody has at least a passing familiarity with cinematic analysis. But Niemeyer admits up front that "my research is on a very technical subject. I tried to get rid of as much jargon as I could, to make it intelligible to nonphilosophers. I'm not sure if I was successful in doing that." His tone is polite and self-deprecating, bordering on apologetic. To help matters, he's even brought a handout, "but I also expect that to be Greek to you, and that's assuming that you don't speak Greek."

You see, laying out the problem is just the beginning. Next up is a proposed solution, put forth by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, one that embraces the semantic principles and rejects the intuition. Niemeyer proceeds carefully, even ploddingly -- he doesn't want to lose his audience. The result is that, by the time he finishes laying out the Millian solution -- which concludes that the content of sentences is not always the same as the content of the assertions made by the speaker of those sentences -- the moderator is telling him to wrap it up. That wouldn't be a problem, except the whole point of his presentation is to critique the Millian solution. As it is, all he's able to do is read off his three objections: the Millian solution gives you problems with iteration. Also, multiple assertions may be made by the same sentence. Finally, "Even if you try to motivate the theory by looking at metaphors, there is a major disanalogy between metaphoric and nonmetaphoric uses of sentences."

Mary Corrigan, retired USCD theater professor and panel moderator, opens the Q&A. "You know, I was just thinking during the first part: if you look at people who are rigid -- any rigid extremist religious group -- the interpretation of the Bible... This would seem to fit within the context of assuming certain things were absolutely true, based on the juxtaposition of words in the sentence. That just struck me. And it also struck me that this kind of syllogistic thinking, if you make those assumptions..."

Niemeyer jumps in, and I get the feeling that he is trying to affirm what he can, before syllogistic thinking comes under attack. "Right. Say that someone takes a biblical text out of context. The text as a whole might be trying to assert more than simply the content of the sentence. This is something that actually happens, and the Millian is trying to take this thing that actually happens and apply it to a very particular phenomenon of language."

A student notes that the initial two sentences "seem to be subjective claims." Lois Lane believes Superman and Clark Kent are different people. Does this theory take into account that she doesn't know they're the same person? Is semantic proposition number one actually not true, because Superman and Clark Kent are not the same person to her?

"Well, her belief is still about the same person, even if she doesn't know..."

"It is, but that's, like, from God's point of view."

"So, very good," replies Niemeyer, affirming again. "You've got to, in your theory of semantics, account for ways of thinking. She thinks of Superman in a certain way, and she thinks of Clark Kent in a different way. But the object of her belief is the same. You're right that the Millian is very objective: he just looks at the object and says, 'Her beliefs are about this object.' It doesn't account for subjectivity, but the Millian doesn't want to build subjectivity into his account." Moderator Corrigan says it's time to wrap up, and Niemeyer receives a round of applause. Rightly so. For a guy who didn't really get to make his argument, he did remarkably well -- he presented an esoteric aspect of a complex discipline to an audience of the uninitiated. The philosopher descended from the clouds.

Still, there's a certain freedom in talking amongst yourselves. Fellow philosophers -- even fellow philosophers not overly familiar with the philosophy of language -- are going to possess certain habits of mind, certain commonalities of language. Viz. the bright yellow one-sheet entitled "Why Be a Philosophy Major?" (available outside the undergraduate affairs office of the philosophy department): "Philosophy will also train you with definite skills. In all your philosophy classes, you will be taught how to reason effectively...by the time you graduate, your critical skills will be razor sharp. You will be ready for virtually any field. So the simple answer to our question is this: when you graduate, you will be much smarter than your friends; and being smart is a good thing." At the very least, being smart helps you to stay with arguments about meaning and the content of assertions.

Niemeyer got a chance to make his presentation to some of his own later that year, at UCSD's annual undergraduate philosophy conference. "That was beautiful," he recalls. "You have grad students, faculty members, and other students, so it's a very intimidating audience. Philosophy majors and minors apply, and usually, five people get selected -- and usually, they get published in the undergraduate philosophy journal. That happened to me in 2005. But in 2006, though I was selected, there was no journal. Still, we had the conference, and it went really well -- there was more of an exchange. The Q&A went on for a long time." And it went even better later that year, at the McNair Fellowship Research Conference up in Berkeley. "It was an awesome experience. There were all these seminars you could attend, and at the end, there was a tour on this beautiful yacht and a delicious dinner. I gave a presentation with Power Point, and all the feedback slips gave great responses: 'I would love to take a class with you one day.' " A taste of the good life at the end of the undergraduate haul.

For Niemeyer, the road to that awesome experience began in Brazil -- Rio de Janeiro. "I went to a top private school and had an outstanding education. There was a great emphasis on education. It was really intense; I had to stay up until three in the morning, studying. It was the mindset of the society in which I grew up -- you had pressure from your parents, and you had social pressure."

But seismic shifts in the Brazilian economy brought a change in Niemeyer's circumstances. The family moved to a new neighborhood and began attending a nearby Baptist church that Niemeyer recalls as "very, very active. They were responsible for a resocialization house, which would get kids from the streets, bring them in, and educate them, prepare them to be part of the workforce." Niemeyer started doing volunteer work for the house, and eventually, he met another volunteer -- a young woman from Tennessee. "She had come to Brazil through Union University." His attention caught, he found out that she was "a Christian, seriously committed to ministry and with a beautiful heart." They started dating. Two months later, she headed back to Tennessee.

Niemeyer had started college in August of 1998 at Rio's Pontifical Catholic University but dropped out soon after. "I didn't know what I wanted to do. There were 44 people in the class, and 40 didn't know what they wanted to do. I said, 'I'm not going to waste my time and maybe mess up a transcript by getting bad grades because I'm not motivated.' " Plus, there was that girl in the States, and this was back before universal e-mail. "Some months, we had $500 phone bills. Also, we started traveling back and forth." To finance his love affair, he needed a job. "Given the social circle from which I came, I knew a guy who owned a chain of shoe stores. I got a job as a shoe salesman and worked there for nearly two years." In 2000, the well-educated shoe-shiller arrived in the U.S. with $3000 in his wallet and love in his heart and got married.

Three months later, he was ready to leave Tennessee. "I grew up by the beach, surfing," he explains. "I had a very strong bond with the ocean. Tennessee didn't do it." The friend of a cousin praised San Diego and said you could live there on $1600 a month. The Niemeyers headed west, honeymooned just across from Windansea beach, fell in love with America's Finest City, and signed a lease.

Soon after, Niemeyer began taking classes at Mesa College, with a focus on psychology. "I have family members with strong sympathies toward Freudian psychoanalysis. I had been reading Freud since I was a teenager -- he's a great writer, and he said some very interesting things." But it wasn't long before...


We interrupt this narrative to address the probable curiosity of the careful reader at encountering the words "philosophy," "Baptist," "psychology," and "Freud" in relation to a single subject. (We'll leave "surfer" out of it for now.) "You can listen to Freud," replies Niemeyer, unflustered. "And you can stop listening to him whenever he starts making claims about things he shouldn't be making claims about. For example, he has an argument about the existence of God, and it's a good argument, but it makes assumptions that can be easily questioned."

The argument, boiled way, way down: "Belief arises from a faculty that is not aiming at truth but is aiming only for survival." And if it's not aiming at truth, it's probably not hitting it. "The idea is that the universe is this rough, wild place, and you have to deal with all these things, and there is this major existential struggle. As a child, you found haven in your parents, in the father figure. So, when you are grown up, you resort to God in order to organize things, to deal with this existential struggle."

But the argument opens with an assumption, one the Christian philosopher will dispute. "Alvin Plantinga is a very famous philosopher; he wrote a series of books on epistemology -- the theory of knowledge. It has to do with this idea of 'proper function.' Roughly put, we might not have evidential justification for belief, but if we are functioning properly in a congenial environment, and the faculty producing that belief aims at truth, then the belief has warrant, or nonevidential justification -- in which case, it can be called knowledge."

In making this claim, Plantinga wasn't so much going to war with Freud over his assumptions as he was wading into the internalist/externalist philosophical fray. In one form of the internalist tradition, says Niemeyer, "You have to provide reasons in order to justify belief. It's called 'internal' because your system of beliefs is internal, so you have to resort to other beliefs in your system of beliefs to justify the belief at hand. But the internalist can't use this method to justify things like the existence or endurance of external objects. I can't produce evidence that there is a tree in front of me. Whereas the externalist says, 'A lot of times, you don't have to resort to beliefs within your own system of beliefs. You just have to have this congenial environment in which you are functioning properly and have the faculty that is producing the belief be aiming at truth. In that case, we have warrant.' "

Niemeyer is pretty sure he's functioning properly, and the atmosphere at UCSD is certainly congenial. And as for whether or not the faculty producing the belief is aiming at truth... "Given my theism, I think that any really sound philosophy points to God. I side with a long tradition of thinkers who believe that God has designed us in such a way -- when He says, 'I have created you in my image,' He means that we have the power to know, to draw inferences, to be self-conscious, to have free will. If we apply those things correctly, they will point to truth. They will point to God." Further, "There are a lot of arguments for the existence of God for which, if you want to avoid the conclusion, you have to give up a lot of things that are -- especially for the layman -- very intuitive." That's not to say that intuitions are always correct; only that we ought to be cautious and thorough before tossing them aside.

For instance: the Principle of Sufficient Reason. "The moderate version of this is that there must be an explanation for every positive fact. This seems to be a principle that science accepts. 'There must be an explanation, so let's go out and do inquiries to find those explanations.' Okay, then -- the universe is a positive fact. In which case, there must be an explanation for the universe. The current state of affairs in the universe is an event. Prior to this event, there was another event that brought about the current state of affairs. And so on. But if you keep on going, you can't keep going into infinity, because then there is no explanation. But if there must be an explanation, there can't be an infinite regress. How do you solve the problem? There must be a necessary being upon whom all things depend. Christians usually accept that God has that particular property."

Some atheists, says Niemeyer, end up rejecting the moderate version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason because they don't like the conclusion. "They just reject a principle that it seems science relies upon substantially." If they accept the PSR for instrumental purposes only, they turn science into a tool for producing wonderful results but not one for discovering truth. "If you do that, you are undermining what might have been the primary reason for you to question God in the first place" -- the notion that it's science that discovers truth and that science is gradually revealing the godless universe. Or, they claim that only some positive facts have explanations. "That ends up being very ad hoc; it seems like you're just doing that to get out of trouble."

(It's worth noting that Niemeyer isn't simply being clever here; he's absolutely sincere. Nor does he pretend to a particular expertise in these sorts of arguments; merely a "profound interest." And looking back over his undergraduate career, he says, "It was nice to be hanging around with atheists of all sorts. They challenged me to think more thoroughly, and vice versa. It was mutually edifying.")


The Freud-Plantinga example is telling: Niemeyer challenging the psychologist by turning to the philosopher for another account of belief. It's why he wasn't long in leaving psychology for Lady Philosophy. "I took a physiological psychology class, and clearly, the material appeared to assume the mind-brain identity thesis" -- the notion that the function of the mind is nothing more, nothing other, than the workings of the brain. "They just assumed that and started their work. I understand why you would do that for practical reasons -- a lot of results come out of that. I understand why you would buy into pragmatism, even hard-core pragmatism. But a lot of people buy into that paradigm without being aware of it. Philosophy asks the question, 'Is that a good paradigm to buy into?' You weren't just given a mechanism and told to work through the mechanism. You could challenge the mechanism itself. The mind-brain identity seems to me a very important assumption, one that should be questioned. However, there's a problem -- you don't ask questions like that in a psychology class. You're being heretical if you try to question that; it's not an appropriate environment. I respect the notion that it's not the discipline's job to question its own foundtion. Where can you ask that question? In a philosophy class."

Well, maybe. There is perhaps no small amount of irony in the case of a man who wants to question mind-brain identity transferring into a philosophy department chaired by Professor Patricia Smith Churchland. Churchland, together with her husband, Professor Paul Churchland, forms what Niemeyer calls "the face of the department. Their work is trying, it seems, to bridge the gap between traditional philosophy as we understand it -- which has all these common assumptions about belief, desires, and so forth -- and findings in the different cognitive sciences." Niemeyer terms their approach "eliminative materialism" -- where what is being eliminated, it seems, is that immaterial thing called mind.

You can get some sense of this by visiting the

Philosophy Department lounge, up there on the seventh floor of the Humanities and Social Sciences building -- a bland room, but one full of windows (and philosophical journals). There, among the books scattered on the coffee table in front of the blue pleather couch, you might stumble across Sacred or Neural?: Neuroscientific Explanations of Religious Experience: A Philosophical Evaluation by Anne Runehov. And over on the side table, a pile of Patricia Churchland's articles, photocopied for general consumption. "The Hornswoggle Problem," which states, "Rather than worrying too much about the meta-problem of whether or not consciousness is uniquely hard, I propose we get on with the task of seeing how far we get when we address neurobiologically the problems of mental phenomena." A piece for the scholarly journal Daedalus entitled, "How Do Neurons Know?" in which she writes, "I take it as a sign of the backwardness of academic philosophy that one of its most esteemed living practitioners, Jerry Fodor, is widely supported for the following conviction: 'If you want to know about the mind, study the mind -- not the brain, and certainly not the genes'.... If philosophy is to have a future, it will have to do better than that." And in case you still aren't convinced, this from an article in the Revue Roumaine de Philosophie: "In assuming that neuroscience can reveal the physical mechanisms subserving psychological functions, I am assuming that it is indeed the brain that performs those functions -- that capacities of the human mind are in fact capacities of the human brain."

When I e-mailed Churchland and asked about her views, she promptly replied with "some general comments on philosophy, as I see it," in the form of an essay: "Neurophilosophy: Early Years and New Directions." In it, she places herself on the side of Aristotle and other philosophers who favor "the hypothesis that mental functions map onto a certain kind of physical organization. That is, they are brain activities." She opposes this to the view of thinkers like Plato, who embraced "the idea that the mind cannot be a physical thing but must be ontologically distinct from the physical brain." She pricked the mind-folk for not being able to explain how a "nonphysical soul (or nonphysical properties) can have effects on the physical world without violating the law of conservation of mass-energy." And she suggested that they were clinging to the "folk intuition that brain activity and mental experiences are too different to permit a neural explanation of mental events."

But science, noted Churchland, is forever showing the fallibility of folk intuitions: "Light really is electromagnetic radiation, the Earth does move, space is not Euclidian." And even though "visible light was reduced to electromagnetic radiation, no one believes that light therefore ceased to be real or became scientifically unworthy...explanations of events do not normally make them go away," although "sometimes scientific progress does require us to rethink what we believed about such things."

As Niemeyer puts it, "If you want to pursue philosophy of religion, this is not your place. You're in the wrong place. The work they're doing here has nothing to do with what you want. Dana Nelkin teaches an undergraduate philosophy of religion course, but from a graduate-school perspective, it's not the place." It's not so much that he thinks the work is wrong, and it's certainly not that he feels pressured into any kind of groupthink -- he is careful to praise the diversity among both faculty and students. It's just not what philosophy at UCSD is about. At least, not formally. But the notion of God has a way of popping up when people consider ultimate questions, and so, says Niemeyer, God remains a frequent subject at meetings of the Philosophy Club. "We get together and talk about different issues, things more in touch with the questions that we started asking ourselves" back when the world of philosophy was young and new to them and a touch less specialized by its life in the academy. "Usually, the topics are on God or morality, things like that. Existential questions."

At the meeting I attended, the topic was moral obligation -- who has a claim on our aid. Folk intuitions were once again under assault -- as usual, trust a philosopher to make trouble with a simple statement like "You take care of your own" -- but still, we were a long way from the philosophy of neuroscience. One of the participants was Christopher Dohna, who arrived at UCSD as an 18-year-old sophomore, thanks to the advanced placement and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes he took through Vista High School.

Dohna is an ethics man. "The question that will always be, for me, at the heart of philosophy," he says, "is what should we do? The practical philosopher seems to me to be someone who thinks this question ought to rise above a secondary concern coexisting with the modern 'daily grind' most people experience and become the central concern of a life's work." He grants that the science-friendly work of people like Churchland may one day make it "possible to know many of the things traditionally considered philosophy with a new certainty," but his interest remains focused on human action.

It was not always thus. Dohna didn't come to UCSD for the philosophy. He came for the physics, a science major at a science-friendly university. But, he says, "When you start to investigate the careers you can have as a physicist, you find that it's difficult to be a physicist who writes about conceptual stuff and doesn't do lab work." He switched majors "after realizing that I didn't want to sit in the lab and do physics equations. To me, that seemed to be meaningless."

Of course, to some people, he seemed to have it exactly backwards. "There's a misconception that, as a philosophy major, you're just going to sit around and think about things and not ever contribute in any real way, the way you might if you were a biochemist or an engineer. A lot of people criticize it; they'll say it doesn't matter at all. Science has become this big tool we use. But we should keep it in perspective." Now, he thinks "science is sort of running amok and doing its own thing. You can make wonderful machines with science, but it's important to stop and ask the 'why' or 'how' questions every once in a while." What should we do, as opposed to what can we do."

Which is not to say he envisions philosophy as some sort of intellectual scold, forever griping about what the cool kids are doing in the lab. "Science originated as a tool for understanding philosophical ideas. When it started, philosophy used to include what we would now call physics or chemistry -- asking questions like 'What is matter made of?' Philosophy is just a term for all sorts of questioning thought about how things work. Then, somewhere around the Enlightenment, there was this break, and philosophy became its own little thing over here, and science was over there." Niemeyer's "paradigm of hard-core pragmatism" was ascendant.

In some ways, Dohna's early ambition was to bring about a rapprochement between the dethroned Queen of the Sciences and her unruly scientific subjects. Even in high school, he had begun to investigate the seemingly unlikely meeting places between philosophy and the more, shall we say, empirical sciences. The kind that involve measurement and/or experiment.

Way back during his sophomore year at Vista, he had taken honors algebra with teacher Chris Davis, also the school's wrestling coach. Davis himself had double-majored in math and philosophy. "His joke was that math was to get the job and philosophy was to get the girls," recalls Dohna. "He was probably my favorite teacher -- he would bring in philosophical paradoxes that related to math. Things like Zeno's paradox" -- a famous philosophical chestnut that ensures that nobody ever gets anywhere. It runs something like this: To reach a destination, you have to go halfway. Then you have to go half the remaining distance, and then half of that, and half of that, and so on -- never quite reaching the end, since there is always another "halfway" you need to traverse. (Mathematics, with its endless divisibility, seems to have impinged on reality, and a philosopher has made note of the problem.)

Dohna studied under Davis again when he entered the International Baccalaureate program, a sort of amped-up, worldwide advanced placement program (like AP, it accrues college-level credits). "One of the classes you had to take was Theory of Knowledge. Mr. Davis didn't teach it with a textbook, and he didn't make it epistemology" -- the study of knowledge and how we know. "It basically ran as an Intro to Philosophy class. He made a big deal out of challenging beliefs, whatever they were. Before our senior year, we did a three-day IB retreat on this nature-preserve island off the coast of Oxnard. We camped there for three days. He would ask questions like, 'Is there anything you would die for right now?' " (Dohna's answer: "Self-determinism.")

As part of the class, students had to form groups of four and prepare a three-hour teaching session. Dohna's group took on ways of knowing -- "I think they were 'emotion, perception, language, and logic.' " A clip of Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly got students riled up -- "Emotions got in the way of what he was reporting." Bits of reportage from Communist Party and Ku Klux Klan websites -- and also Fox and CNN -- illustrated "how the bending of logic can affect the way we understand current events." Cutting key words out of a news report and allowing students to fill them in, Mad Libs-style, showed the importance of language. "And for perception, we played 'What a Wonderful World' on CD and asked how it made people feel. Then we showed the clip from Good Morning, Vietnam where that song is playing over images of napalm being dropped. We had a good discussion about how much of it we should trust -- you have to be alert, be a good philosopher, and look for those things." (Shades of Niemeyer's claim that semantics has to account for ways of thinking -- subjective experience.)

At the same time, Dohna was enrolled in "a rather advanced independent-study physics class. That's where I first started to read conceptual physics. I was intrigued by some of the philosophical consequences." Take relativity, for example. "Suppose you and I are on planets ten million miles apart. Imagine we both had 'now lists' -- that we could write down everything happening throughout the universe at a given moment. If you and I are sitting on our planets, and they're not moving relative to each other, and we both make a 'now list,' they'll be exactly the same. But if I get up and walk towards you at ten miles per hour and make a 'now list' while I'm moving, the relativity of my motion expanded over the ten million miles makes it so that the things on my 'now list' are, to you, 150 years in the past. And if I walk away from you at ten miles per hour and make a 'now list,' the things on my list are, for you, 150 years in the future. So, if you believe time is linear, or if you've got a problem with determinism, you've got a problem there. Because it seems like I can know your future. That was a problem for me, because I like the idea of free will."

The self-determinist determined to find some answers, and the search led him further into the physical-philosophical interface. It turns out that when you make your "now list," "You're kind of intruding on quantum physics, where measuring something makes a difference -- actually causes it to be as it is." He credits Heisenberg with the notion that "things don't exist in one possible state, but in all possible states, until we measure them or interact with them. If you take a proton and fire it at a screen with two slits in it and measure it, it will always appear that the proton goes through one slit or the other as a solid object. But if you don't measure it, and you wait for a pattern to build up, you will see a wave-interference pattern, which tells you that the proton is actually going through both slits at the same time. It's not actually a proton the way you think of it; it's a probability wave."

Mm-hmm. Right. "When you talk about this stuff to people who aren't willing to suspend their disbelief, you sound kind of crazy," grants Dohna. "But the point is, these bigger questions about physics interested me." However, just as Niemeyer couldn't ask about mind-brain identity in a psychology class, Dohna found that, to some extent, he needed to step outside the discipline to question the discipline itself. He needed to become not so much a physicist but rather "a philosopher writing about physics. That's what I was after from the beginning. My favorite author there is Brian Green. His book presented the broadest picture of string theory and quantum physics and the idea of symmetry and balance."

Dohna got his first inklings of a possible rapprochement early on in his collegiate career. Philosophy 33 is, according to the UCSD course catalog, "History of Philosophy: Philosophy in the Age of Enlightenment. A survey of the major philosophers of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with a focus on the British empiricists -- Locke, Berkeley, and Hume -- and the critical philosophy of Kant."

"It's aimed at freshmen and sophomores," explains associate instructor Kristen Irwin, a doctoral student specializing in early modern philosophy. "Given the course description, I decided to focus on epistemology (the study of knowledge) and metaphysics (the study of what is ultimately real), both because these are two central fields within philosophy, and because the epistemology and metaphysics of the British empiricists and Kant are foundational for understanding future developments in the history of philosophy." The course also "starts to train students in critical philosophical thinking."

Irwin began her teaching career with the spring 2006 Philosophy 33 class, and she might have been writing about Dohna when she e-mailed me the following: "I think students are already thinking about epistemological and metaphysical questions when they first walk in to the class -- they just don't know it! Phil 33...gives them the tools to make their own thoughts about the subject more precise as they expose themselves to the thoughts of other great minds throughout history. They often find that previous philosophers have already captured some of their own epistemological and metaphysical intuitions!"

Or -- as in the case of Dohna and Kant -- formed a template for philosophical inquiry. "Kant didn't so much shift my thinking as he helped me find a place for my thinking," says Dohna. "Kant started with science. He had Critique of Pure Reason, where he was dealing with how science or nature was possible, and his philosophy of ethics came from that. He asked some very basic questions about why things were possible and said, if we look at the conditions of why they are possible, we see that it's through ideas like balance or equality -- or an idea of goodness. That, to me, transfers directly to the moral life, as it did for Kant. 'How should we treat each other?' We should realize that we are all, in a way, interconnected, or at least, we're all in the same boat. We've got to stop living in spite of each other and start living with each other." (If this sounds as if it's missing a few middle terms, bear with us.)

Kant was (and remains) a philosophical giant, but Dohna had this advantage: "He's working from science that's 300 years old. If you tried to do what Kant did over again, knowing what we know now, you'd get an even more interesting moral/ethical system out of it. From taking a philosophy of physics or science far enough, you would kind of have a necessary moral system fallout. Kant said there were some things we couldn't know, but he couldn't have imagined the kind of scientific progress we would make. He said God was unknowable, and I sort of disagree with that."

(See what I mean about God? He keeps popping up in these philosophical arenas. When I sat in on one of Dohna's Philosophy 33 classes, they were preparing for the final, and there was much talk of Kant's transcendents -- things beyond any possible human knowledge. God was right in there, and that's where Dohna thought he could improve on Kant.)

What follows is a shortened version of Dohna's already-truncated account of what he hoped to accomplish in his philosophical-physical career. String theory holds that "all matter, every particle, is like a string -- two ends and something in the middle. What makes a thing what it is is the way that it vibrates -- sort of like the way you can make different sounds depending on how you pluck the string of a guitar. M-theory gets more specific. It nails down that there are either 11 or 28 dimensions -- string theory had 10, but it had problems, because there were five equations. And the supergravitationalists thought gravity was its own dimension." M-theory took those five equations down to one and incorporated that 11th dimension of gravity. (Simplicity suggested that between 11 and 28, 11 was the way to go.) "So there's the idea that we actually live in 11 dimensions. But we only experience 5. We've got the 4 we live in, plus gravity. No one has any idea what the remaining 6 do as of yet. To me, those unknown dimensions have room for spiritual things. They're hidden from us, but we have evidence that they need to be there."

Head spinning yet? It's not Dohna's fault -- really. This is all straight physics -- except for the part about spiritual existence in those other six dimensions. Onward! "To get to the morality part, you have to examine the conditions of the origin of the universe. The Big Bang came from a Higgs field, which is an energy field that permeates space. Then you have these ideas of balance and symmetry that are really important in physics" -- balance within fields, balance within strings, etc. "I'm combining that with what seems intuitively right to me on a morality level. From the things I see coming from physics, there's sort of an inherent beauty in the order and exactness of the way things had to be for things to be the way they are and for us to be here. There needed to be balance and indiscrimination among particles. That idea of beauty and balance and goodness is, I think, a much better place to identify God. Because it's not a personal God."

The personal God had long bothered Dohna. Not because of the way He might command ethical behavior -- morality arriving by fiat instead of by reason -- but because of His own less-than-perfectly-ethical quirks. "I have a lot of friends who are really Christian, and they have this idea that God needs glory, and that God is vengeful, and if you don't listen to Him, He's not going to let you into heaven -- no matter how good of a person you are. To me, a jealous God or a needy God is a problem. To me, it wouldn't be a good or just God if His main concern was that you chose Him, instead of how you lived." (Niemeyer noted that most Christians would accept the idea that God is a necessary being upon whom other beings depend. But that's not to say everyone who accepts the necessary being is ready to identify it with the Christian God.)

Dohna preferred "a more ethereal thing -- we should just treat each other well and understand that we're all interconnected. That we have this balance, and that it's in our best interests to help each other. Maybe the way to put it is that I want to provide a scientific philosophical justification for an impersonal religion that aligns with Buddhism. I think this is a great school for such a project, because we are so involved with modern science."


Fast forward one year, to the spring of 2007. Dohna is still an ethics man. If anything, his interest in ethics is purer than ever, because it is less entangled with physics and with God. "Combining physics -- string theory -- with metaphysics -- God -- is a little bit more treacherous than I first thought," he admits. "I've had a realization of the problems that exist in just plain moral theory, without bringing metaphysics into it. I've realized something about the difficulty of the project -- the sheer scope of it. And as I've gotten further into college, I've had less interest in physics and in religious ideas as they're traditionally treated in philosophy. I've found that what interests me is the plain moral stuff."

He still cites Kant, but instead of Critique of Pure Reason, he mentions Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, wherein Kant establishes his categorical imperative. From consideration of man as a free, knowing animal for whom ethical conduct would mean acting in accord with his nature, Kant derived a universal principle of moral action: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become universal law."

There are other formulations to the imperative. "He looks at people and how we work," comments Dohna. "If I want a piece of cake, the value isn't in the cake itself; the value I see is that I want it. When I say I want something, I'm implicitly recognizing a value in myself. Then, because man is the only rational animal, I should be able to extrapolate that the value I have for myself is the value for everybody. We should be able to see, rationally, that everybody has value, and because of that, we should never treat anybody as a means but view them as ends."

Morality without God; Dohna was pleased. "For a while, it was my favorite among the big three ethical theories. You have consequentialism -- whether or not an action is good is based on its consequences. The most popular form is utilitarianism -- you should do an act based on the utility it's going to produce in the world. You have deontology -- 'from the world.' That's what Kant was using, extracting a moral principle from the way things are with people. And then you have virtue ethics -- guys like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. They're looking for a common-sense approach: you should live to be good to each other, be virtuous."

Just now, he's landing somewhere between virtue ethics and deontology. "Virtue ethics has an advantage because it's more applicable, and it accounts for things like weakness of will." The virtue ethicists all agreed that virtue involved being led by reason, "But Aristotle would say the only way to acquire a virtue is through habit and moderation -- you should always find the mean between two vices." It's more coherent with everyday experience -- most of us don't go around living by one specific rule in all moral situations. We don't stop and think, 'Does this align with the categorical imperative?' " The virtue ethicist's account of justice strikes Dohna as complicated, however -- "It doesn't seem absolute enough," he says -- and so he hasn't gone over entirely.

And while the Queen of the Sciences no longer sits upon her throne, Dohna has hope that she may retain an advisory capacity. "There are a lot of new ethical concerns arising with technology. We have a class here, Bio-Medical Ethics, where we talk about things like selective abortion, based on prenatal knowledge. And if you could extract or add specific genes to your child before they were born, would you do that? Things like that."

What's more, ethical philosophy may have something to say about the scientist behind the science. "Right now, one of my political theory classes is being taught by a visiting professor from Fordham, where he's in the philosophy department. We're reading a lot of philosophers who write about how technology should or shouldn't affect society." One consideration: "Why we spend so much money on technology and just let science go." Dohna doesn't put much stock in the notion that "scientists aren't influenced by political concerns -- about their careers, about who's paying for the research, about what they want to prove." He cites a particular case demonstrating "the willingness of a scientist to testify to a false negative. If you have a false positive, that's seen as really bad in the scientific community. But if you have a false negative, who cares?" In this instance, bad science led to a false negative regarding a town's polluted water supply; "eventually the townspeople were proven right. It had real-life consequences."

That gets at the heart of Dohna's frustration with the idea that "philosophy became its own little thing over here, and science was over there." He says that "a large part of the class was trying to show how the leash that we give to science may be a little too long, or at least, that we don't understand it properly: as a method of gaining knowledge," to be considered in conjunction with "other methods. It's almost the only method that people can see for gaining knowledge. But people who come from the philosophical tradition, who know that science came from the philosophers, know that science is only one method of knowing."

(Meanwhile, science continues its uprising against the Queen. Dohna has heard rumors that Professor Churchland is trying to map the brain to see where the ethical centers lie. "You could define ethical people as those who have this correct brain mapping or brain function," speculates Dohna. "You could almost find out what ethics is in a neurological sense." Dohna is quick to admit that he's no expert on the matter but thinks that to an observer, "On the surface, it feels a little bit like it's not philosophy. It feels like biology. While it's certainly interesting and could be correct in a sense, I don't think you can reduce philosophy to a biological discipline." Folk intuitions die hard.)


Dohna is still wrestling with grand questions, even as he gets some sense of "the scope of the project." Niemeyer, on the other hand, had started his philosophical immersion at Mesa College. By the time he arrived at UCSD, he was a junior and needed to start thinking about the sort of highly particular topic that makes for a viable thesis -- a place where some new point can be made to advance a conversation that began long before his arrival on the scene.

Niemeyer's scramble to catch up was perhaps more intense than some, seeing as how he was coming in from outside. "My impression was 'People go to college, and they still have a life. Some people are into partying. They have friends, go surfing, whatever.' Here, that is not the case. There is study, study, and study. I probably put in 70 hours a week; it's one of the things that's been really hard on my wife." Before UCSD, "I used to surf five days a week -- Cardiff and PB Point in the wintertime and South Bird in the summer." After UCSD, it was more like once a week, at La Jolla Shores. "My weight when I came was 170, and I ended up weighing around 200 pounds. It was horrible."

But it paid off. When we first met, Andre was waiting to hear back from grad schools and finishing his honors thesis, "a supplement to Saul Kripke's theory of reference change." In using proper names, explains Niemeyer, "Everybody tends to refer to the object that the previous speaker was referring to" when using that name. "But take the name Madagascar. There are some historians who say that 'Madagascar' used to refer to a portion of the African mainland. Over the course of history, the reference of that name changed. What happened?"

Kripke, it turns out, was a careful fellow. "The consensus is that he was on to something, but he doesn't spell out all the details of his theory. He offers a picture of what might be the case. But the picture is not sufficient. Basically, what I am doing is spelling out the details. It's probably something that will take a lifetime." But in the meantime, it served for a thesis topic.

At first blush, it might sound as if Niemeyer is playing into the misconception Dohna mentioned: "That, as a philosophy major, you're just going to sit around and think about things and not ever contribute in any real way." Niemeyer smiles at the notion. "As you go and you dive into these issues, you can easily lose touch with the world. You have this totally different language, this jargon. I think that's something that should be avoided. But I'm going to defend the academic world. It might seem like it's out of touch, but the truth is, a lot of the work these people do eventually trickles down -- say, to the way politicians look at policies. The way an ordinary person looks at political institutions. The way a society looks at right and wrong, and the way people understand the world. If you look at the history of humanity, many of the great changes that have taken place have taken place because of changes in philosophies, which were eventually implemented in society. Those ideas don't just come out of nowhere."

If all that sounds a trifle grand and airy (which is not to say it isn't true), Niemeyer is willing to drag it down to the particular, even into his own field of specialization. "Take the philosophy of language. There is this man, H.L. Hart, who is a well-known figure in the philosophy of law. He proffered an argument about judicial discretion that relied on some assumptions about the philosophy of language and, more particularly, the theory of meaning. He accepted a descriptivist's theory of meaning: that the meaning of a name or a term, and especially of a proper name, is determined by the descriptions that people associate with that name. So he said that whenever you have disagreement between judges over the descriptions they associate with a word, such that they cannot agree on its application, then the application is indeterminate and the judges are supposed to exercise judicial discretion."

But, says Niemeyer, "Many people have since come to reject his argument in the philosophy of law, precisely because of problems with the theory of meaning upon which it relies." When the descriptivists by some lights lost out to the nondescriptivists (those who argued that terms and names had meanings that weren't determined by descriptions associated with them), Hart's argument lost its foundation, and the philosophy of law shifted.

Put another way, Niemeyer grants the obscurity of what he's doing, but not the irrelevance. "Theory of meaning is talking about 'theory of reference,' 'proper names,' 'unintended reference change,' 'propositional attitudes' -- what the heck is all that? But eventually, breakthroughs in philosophy of language can have, for example, a major impact on the way philosophers of law advocate their arguments." That, in turn, might affect "the way people practice jurisprudence and the way a lawyer might present his case, although the latter is a bit more dubious." It is perhaps not an accident that Niemeyer once gave thought to getting a JD after grad school. "The idea was to have a research position of some kind in philosophy and on the side have a consulting firm, something of that nature."

For a while, it looked as if those plans were stuck in the realm of speculation. To his shock and chagrin, Niemeyer was not accepted for any of the doctoral programs to which he applied. "All of the other guys who were around the same status" -- in terms of fellowships won, honors garnered, GPA, etc. -- "ended up at places like Harvard and Stanford. Everything looked great, and nothing worked out. But when looking at it now -- and believing in divine intervention -- I can see how it was the best thing." The main reason: his parents were finally moving to San Diego from Brazil -- the culmination of a legal process that began after his brother died in 2002. "I was then the one and only son, and ever since then, we've been trying to get together. They love San Diego, and they really want to stay here. If I'd been heading off to graduate school, it would have been difficult."

Niemeyer was all set to take a year off, maybe find a job. (Currently, his wife teaches chemistry at Horizon High School to support the family.) But the philosophy faculty urged him to reapply, and by spring of '07, he was a happy man and headed to USC. In the interim, he started taking classes to pull off a double major in political science but scaled back to help his parents adjust to their new home. This summer, he'll be using a summer research fellowship to head back to his native country, there to "investigate the impact of technology on electoral representation in developing countries. As multifunction cell phones and the Internet become more available, I think you might see legislatures becoming a little bit stronger. They're going to have the support of the public in a more robust way, because they're going to have more access to the public. And the legislative process itself will become more transparent. There will be all this information going back and forth. I think you're going to see a reshaping of electoral representation and in the role of legislatures." Once again, and even more so, the philosopher has descended from the clouds.


Curiously enough, the two subjects of this story, Niemeyer and Dohna, ended up serving together as editors for Intuitions, the 2007 undergraduate philosophy journal. (I say curiously because when I started talking to them, back in early 2006, neither was affiliated with the journal, although Niemeyer had twice been published there.) They read the articles submitted for consideration and helped select the five that ended up getting published. The last I saw them was when all of us were sitting in Price Center Gallery A, listening as student Deborah Cossack presented a talk based on her paper, "New Revolutions: The Schism between Biology and Physics." Cossack's argument was that physics was more likely than biology to undergo "revolutionary scientific change because it is a discipline built around the existence of fundamental particles which are not directly observable, even if their effects are." As a result, she concluded that "we are reasonably justified in holding more of a tentative belief towards the existence of the unobservable entities of physics...since they are further removed from the possibility of observation, which is our greatest assurance of an entity's ontological status.... The farther away a thing is from observability, the more we are justified in putting a lesser amount of faith in its existence." However diminished her role, the Queen is still advising.

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