The Philosophy Museum

Most of you, I'm sure, are familiar with the Ivory Tower, though you may or may not like the architecture and the current decor. But did you know about the museum next door? It's quite a nice little collection of figures and thought-experiments, if you're interested in the history of philosophy. Allow me. It's right this way...

The Greek Wing

This old fellow is Zeno's Tortoise. Yes, you can pet him; he doesn't bite. A Greek species. Old specimen, from the 5th century BC, Elea. Used to win races with Achilles, given the slightest head start. Of course, Achilles hasn't been around lately, not since the Trojan War, in fact. I understand now that those easy victories were based on a misunderstanding about limit theory. But then, you can't expect a toroise to understand limit theory, or a bronze-age warrior either, for that matter. Here, give him a grape; he likes grapes.

This is a bit of an anomaly for our collection. It's historical. This is the cup from which Socrates (470?-399 BC) drank the hemlock after being condemned to death by the people of Athens. His student Plato never really forgave the democratic process for that, and turned to the ideal of the philosopher king.

This little alcove was presented to us by the Academy. Genuine Greek limestone and marble. What? No, the Academy, the original one founded by Plato (427?-347 BC) in Athens. See the shadows cast on the wall by the firelight? Men and women and animals and chariots and things. All very Attic. No, you can't see the actors themselves, or the fire casting the shadows, either. Only the shadows on the wall of the cave. The cave, you see, is the material, phenomenal world; the shadows are the ectypes, the transient, particular examples of things like men and chariots and such. The real things themselves, according to Plato, are perfect, immutable Forms, the archetypes, their shadows cast on matter by the creative fire of the Demiurge. No, don't try to turn around. You simply can't here. Just back out the way you came in.

This exhibit is devoted to Heraclitus's River. We've got satelite photos, topographic maps, water samples, the works. See the way they keep changing? The topographic map is rubber, with a system of motors pushing on cork spheres under it. The water samples and satelite photos keep changing too. Heraclitus (5th century BC) maintained that the fundamental reality was Change, and coined the phrase about not being able to step in the same river twice. And this is the river, you see. If you don't mind, let's move on. I suffer from motion sickness.

This is Aristotle's Ship, a standard Greek trireme. Yes, it is in remarkably good shape. Well, not "remarkably," since no piece of wood in it is older than fifty years. That's the trick, you see. Aristotle (384-322 BC) was discussing identity, and asked if a ship was the same ship if all the wood in it was replaced, one timber at a time. There's a similar riddle concerning Davy Crockett's hatchet, which has been through three heads and eight handles. But of course we don't keep the hatchet in the Greek Wing. What? Yes, we do sail it from time to time ... down Heraclitus's River.

The Medieval Wing

This little donkey is Buridan's Ass. We're lucky it's feeding time. We always feed him that way, one bale on either side of the stall. Buridan brought him in as a contribution to etiology and decision theory. He was refuting the contention that all acts must have a sufficient cause. Here you have a hungry donkey exactly midway between two identically attractive bales of hay. There is no reason for it to prefer one bale to the others, so on the determinist theory it would starve, dithering in indecision. In reality, the donkey chooses, without any strain. Watch it; he's quite unpredictable; he might kick.

This is Occam's Razor, forged by William of Occam (1300?-1349?). We keep it in a glass case because it is dangerously sharp. You could easily slice off large chunks of your ontology without meaning to. Nice, clean lines, aren't they? It should be elegant; it's used to whittle away unnecessary complexity. Scientists sometimes swear by it. We're thinking of having a scabbard made for it, for additional safety; Einstein made the raw material for it: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."

This is only secondarily a piece of sculture; it's really a cross between an oracle and a computer. Roger Bacon (1214-1294) invented it. He is famous for being ahead of his time and for not being Francis Bacon, who is famous for not having written Shakespeare's plays. Anyway, this brass head speaks nothing but the truth. The natural result of this is that it speaks nothing but tautologies. Bacon's little contribution to epistemology.

This is our most impressive exhibit in the Medieval wing. It's the Great Chain of Being. It's a group project, really. No one inventor. The lower links go through the hole in the floor, past the potted plants and the rock layers, down into Prime Matter. The upper links get lost in a glare of light. There are several models. This one dates from the late Middle Ages. Around the Renaissance, people stopped stringing them vertically and began running them temporally, from past to future. Which brings up to the French Wing.

No, I'm afraid we don't have any angels dancing on pinheads. That's not medieval – it's a Renaissance joke against medievals.

The French Wing

This is Descartes's Oven, donated by the Royal Family of Sweden. (He died in Sweden, while serving as tutor to a princess.) Descartes (1596-1650) made the oven back in his student days. It owes a lot, architecturally, to Plato's Cave, though it's much smaller. It's really a sensory deprivation chamber for epistemological exercises. You start in a state of complete skepticism and begin looking for indubitables.

Now stand back while I open the oven door. You may well look dizzy. This formidable storm of images is Descartes's Demon. He invoked it to generate the skepticism that heats the oven. It's capable of any illusion at all. Don't poke it, little boy! Oh, you're an empiricist are you? Well, that will cut very little ice with the demon. Wait until we get to the Turing Machine; you'll like that (or him). You can poke that all you want, but not the demon. Why not? Because it would snatch you into the oven and I can't promise you that you'd ever know you got out again. No, not that you wouldn't get out, that you wouldn't know.

Let's move on to Condillac's Statue, shall we? It's magical, too, but not so alarming. Hear the sniff? It's sentient. Just now, all it can sense is odors. Its other senses will turn on one by one, ending with touch, and then it will start moving. Condillac made it in the 18th century, to demonstrate the principles of sensationist psychology. That is, all ideas were supposed to be imported to the mind by sensations; it is the complete opposite of Platonic psychology. Odor alone gives the ideas of similarity, difference, change, and preference. Even ego. Ah, the statue's blinking now. Oddly enough, it doesn't get the idea of space until it can move. Then its memory kicks in and it goes to the staff lounge and has coffee. Petrifies again around 1:00 AM.

If you look closely into this big crystal ball, you'll see a cloudy face looking back out. That's Laplace's Genie. It isn't as bad as Descartes's Demon. It's even useful. It tells fortunes. Laplace (1749-1827) invoked it to champion the mechanical determinism of his day. Given the position and momentum of every particle in the universe, together with the forces acting on them, this thing can calculate the entire course of cosmic history. It leads a frustrated life, really, since no one ever has given it all that data. Still, it's rather good at weather forecasts, up to about two weeks.

It's odd, how thaumaturgical the French Wing is. This, for instance, is Maxwell's Demon. Yes, I know Maxwell wasn't French, but we thought his demon belonged here with the others, and anyway the French and the Scottish do have a lot in common. The way they feel about the English, for instance. What's he doing with the stick? Sorting air molecules. All the fast ones to the right, all the slow ones to the left. You can feel the air is much warmer there and much cooler here. Very useful; we run the whole electrical plant off thermoelectric couplings embedded in the sides of the pentacle. Just shows you can violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics ... if you know where the molecules are. The demon does, of course. This door? It's not properly an exhibit wing. It's a store room. Still, you might find it interesting.

The Science Warehouse

This is the science warehouse. What's it doing here? Well, science is a division of philosophy, after all. Up until the 19th century, they called it "natural philosophy." Then William Whewell changed the name to "science" and they gradually moved into their own quarters. There were some hard feelings about that. Still are.

Anyway, there's a lot of old hypothese left stored here. Those big glass balls are celestial spheres. (The little ones are epicycles.) Pythagoras was able to play beautifully on them.

This box of what looks like ball bearings is left over from Democritus. He invented the atom, you know. Here's another box with atoms in the shapes of Platonic solids – fire, water, earth, air, and ether.

Yes, quite a number of tubs and barrels. These are assorted fluids. Very popular at one time, but they all got dumped here during the 19th century. We've got electric fluids (positive, negative, and general purpose), magnetic fluids, caloric (that's liquid heat), gravitic fluids, and phlogiston. Phlogiston's really a gas, a sort of anti-oxygen.

These metal bars and horseshoes are charged with animal magnetism. Donated by M. Mesmer. We have to clean them regularly; rats and mice keep getting stuck on them, along with the occasional occultist.

These batteries contain animal electricity. Invented by a Senor Volta, but donated by Mary Shelley. Stop! Don't touch it, kid, or you'll get a nasty shock ... and so will we. Why? Every hear of Boris Karloff?

This thing is similar. It's a capacitor of life force. It was willed to the biologists by M. Henri Bergson, but they didn't seem to want it so it wound up here.

These balloons are full of ether. No little girl, you can't have one I'm afraid. Yes, it is pretty stuff. Lots of us were sad when they had to put it away. These things next to them are some old absolute reference frames. This clock gives the absolute time. Or it did. Hasn't worked since 1903.

This lamp gives off light made of particles. And the one beside it gives off light made of waves. We were very surprised when they brought it back and didn't take the particulate one away.

This big, black, bulgy, glittery thing is the Steady State cosmology. Fred Hoyle used to come in once in a while to dust it off. The throbbing thing next to it is the pulsating universe. People keep coming in and kicking the tires but no one has taken it away yet.

The thing over there that looks like a demented armillary sphere is a Bohr atom. It was still quite new when they left it here.

Here are some recent acquisitions – N-ray tubes, some barrels of polywater, some free quarks. Our monopoles are out on loan to a Dr. Guth just now. No, the cold fusion generator is still under court arbitration.

The part over here, without the dust and cobwebs, is still in active use. Massless string, perfectly rigid bodies, ideal gases, frictionless pulleys and surfaces, all in high demand. But the scientists don't like to keep them with their actual hypotheses, so they leave them here except for pedagogy.

Ah, you've found our little stable. Impressive, aren't they? Hot and cold running dinosaurs. Yes, running. They've been getting a lot of exercise lately, both sets – in one day, out the next, trot, trot, trot. They're about the only business we get from the biologists.

The Modern Wing

Now this exhibit– Drat, where is it? Ah, there it is, tunneling through the walls of its cage. (That cage is a complete waste of chickenwire.) This is Schrödinger's Cat. It's a hybrid, part witch's familiar and part Cheshire. Schrödinger (1887-1961) bred it to demonstrate some peculiar consequences of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. No, it isn't a long-hair. It's short-haired, but it tends to blur. Half the time, it's plain dead. That slows it down some.

Oh there you are! I thought it was your job to keep this animal in order. May I introduce Wigner's Friend. He takes care of Schrödinger's cat. You'll notice he's a bit vague, too. He propagates the mixed state of the cat.

Now, where's that kid who wanted to play with Descartes's Demon? Here's Turing's Machine, which I said he could play with. Two terminals. One leads to a computer. The other leads to a human being. No fair saying which is which. Although, after hours, the human goes home, so it's easy to tell then. The machine writes quite sensibly and insists that, since it acts conscious and intelligent, one should conclude it is conscious and intelligent. It's a little eccentric on one point: it insists that its software was written ten years from now. And it's been insisting that for forty years now.

This ornate chamber is Searle's Chinese Room. There's a fellow inside – Mr. Searles, in fact – answering correspondence in Chinese. The interesting thing is that Searles knows no Chinese; he's following directions in a series of books. This has the effect of generating an intelligible correspondence in Chinese. Yes, it is rather like a Turing Machine done by hand. It's a counterexample. Searles says that, since he can converse in Chinese without understanding it, the Turing Machine may be conversing in English without understanding it, either. I'd like to see them argue it out, but they don't speak the same language.

This translucent gentleman is Russel's Barber. He shaves all and only those men in his town who do not shave themselves. As you see, he's rather blurry, like the quantum creatures, in addition to being translucent. In particular, you can't tell if he's bearded or not. Yes, it does seem harsh to keep him shut in a glass case that way, but I assure you it's necessary. He once got loose with Occam's Razor and they're still checking for the damage. He comes of very good family, though, and is related to the Present King of France.

The Hall of Anthropology

This is one of our earlier exhibits, Descartes's Man. Beautiful specimen of 17th-century clockwork. If you look at it against the dark backdrop, you may see a pale, misty flickering. That's the ghost in the machine. Right next to it, for contrast, we have a clockwork dog. It is not haunted; Descartes was certain animals had no souls and is said to have kicked cats on the strength of that conviction. That explains the torn upholstery on the two figures. You see, Schrödinger's cat sometimes quantum-jumps in here and takes vengance.

This is LaMettrie's Man. Slightly more modern clockwork, but very similar to Descartes's. Only there's no ghost in it.

This handsome fellow is Rousseau's Noble Savage. He is the ancestor of Tarzan and Conan, and descended from the Biblical Adam, the men of the Classical Golden Age, and the first impressions of Amerinds and Polynesians. Totally uncorrupted by civilization.

Opposite him here, we have Hobbes's Ignoble Savage. Hobbes (1588-1679) and Rousseau (1712-1788) had contrasting ideas of raw human nature. While the Noble Savage is a very nice fellow, if a bit naïve, Hobbes's version is, as you observe, nasty, brutish, and short. Unfortunately, no one has ever encountered purely raw human nature with no culture, so it is impossible to decide between the two experimentally.

The one in the grey flannel suit is Economic Man, equally beloved of Marxists and Libertarians. His fundamental motive is possession. Anyone care to talk to him? He gives excellent financial advice ... for a fee. Oh yes, he's reasonably safe. Just, for heaven's sake, don't sign anything.

No, this isn't a Couch Potato, it's a related species, Hedonic Man. Actuated strictly by the Pleasure Principle. Much sought after by Behaviorists and Freudians as a lab animal. We had another one, also popular with Freudians, that had twin motivations – Pleasure Principle and Death Wish. But it, well, got its wish.

Here's Jungian Man. All that neon lighting is its aura. Looks a bit like Wigner's Friend, but it isn't blur; it's more like multiple exposure. Those are the archetypes. How many archetypes are there? How many Jungian Ph.D. theses are there?

Well, there are lots more. This is a large wing. But I expect you want to go back to the snack bar now.

The Glantz Collection

                                                                  Glantz, Goldberg & Glantz
                                                                  1234 Madison Avenue
                                                                  New York, NY 10020
                                                                  Wednesday, 19 September 1990

Mr. Earl Wajenberg, Curator
Philosophy Museum
Digital Equipment Corporation
Merrimack, NH

Dear Mr. Wajenberg:

On behalf of my client, a wealthy philanthropist who wishes to remain anonymous, I would like to donate the following items to the Philosophy Museum. You may display these objects and intangibles in any manner you see fit.

My client would be very grateful if you could also provide a written appraisal of these items, for the purpose of determining their value as a tax deduction. Please submit your fee for this service to the above address.

A list containing a brief description of each item is attached. Please feel free to embellish these descriptions as appropriate for your collection.


Michael Glantz, Senior Partner

Collection of 5,751-year-old fossils:

These fossils of dinosaur footprints, insects, and other plants and animals are believed to be no older than about 5751 years old (as of tomorrow evening). Most are considerably younger than that. They represent the oldest possible objects which conform to the Creationist theory of the origin of living organisms.

Please do not display these objects near your Darwinian exhibits, as any proximity will certainly result in years of fruitless litigation.

I would like to inform you that the Philosophy Museum is particularly fortunate to be receiving this collection, as it was in very high demand in several school districts in the South and Midwestern United States.


This massive comet arrived on Earth some 100 million years ago, give or take a few million. It contains relatively high concentrations of Iridium, which were deposited in thin layers of the Earth's crust. These deposits have been found in samples taken from the ocean floor at several locations, and prove that this comet arrived and contributed to a catastrophic global cooling which led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species.

While we recommend that you display this object with the Darwinian exhibit, and not near the Creationist fossils, it probably should not be located too close to the more conservative Darwinian objects, as the more traditional of your Darwin fans may find it a bit too radical for their taste. You will find, however, that it will attract a large number of young biologists.

Rube Goldberg device:

This extremely dangerous device should probably be left alone, as the slightest stimulus could trigger events of staggering consequences. It's a relatively recent piece of work, from the group which brought us the Theory of Chaotic Systems and Stochastic Processes. It has so far been responsible for all manner of unexpected phenomena, ranging from streams of water becoming turbulent, to hurricanes, to earthquakes, major military defeats, and many other phenomena which were impossible to predict, but ultimately due to trivial events, such as mosquito bites. We believe that, in conjunction with the natural laws developed by Patrick Murphy, this device is likely to develop a visitor's sneeze into World War III. Please exercise extreme caution.

Fractal flowers:

These exquisite objects of marvelous complexity were, in fact, produced by the previously mentioned device. Upon arbitrarily close inspection, you will see that they look much as they did upon casual inspection. They have the peculiar property of having fractional dimensionality, though this feature does not seem to provide a mechanism for any useful purpose. They're mostly just pretty to look at.

Faster-than-light vehicle:

This highly modified DeLorean was acquired by our benefactor from the movie set of "Back to the Future". As currently equipped, it has one forward and one reverse temporal gear. In principle, it could also be driven to distant galaxies in a few hours, stopping only for lunch and a couple of "pit stops".

My client also has, in his private collection, the Starship Enterprise (with Second Generation warp drive), but has chosen not to donate this, as it is certainly much too large for your present facility and, at any rate, will not exist for several hundred years.

Motorcycle and Zen tools:

This is Robert Pirsig's own motorcycle, and the tools he used to maintain it. It has seen a lot of miles through some of the most difficult philosophical and psychological terrain ever journeyed. You'll note that it's been kept in extremely good condition. We hope you will continue to preserve its fine condition, and are including a copy of Pirsig's instruction manual for that purpose, though you may not find it to be sufficiently detailed.

God's dice:

My client was able to obtain these on the recommendation of Dr Einstein, who assured him that God never used them. Even so, they are starting to show some wear, as many physicists in the past century have used them to determine the outcome of a number of experiments.

A set of Gödel numbers:

These beautiful figures were fashioned from the skin of a snake which was eating its tail. While they're not useful for adding up a grocery bill or calculating your car's mileage, mathematicians and philosophers have found them useful for creating nonsensical, self-referent statements in formal mathematical languages. For example, you can use them to formally and clearly say things like "I'm a liar" and "This sentence is false". Nobody will be able to prove or disprove any of these statements, and this is a feature which some find useful in court appearances. Our former President Reagan has a set which he plans to use in the event he's called to testify before any Senate committees.

                                                                  Earl Wajenberg, Curator
                                                                  Philosophy Museum
                                                                  Thursday, 20 September 1990

Glantz, Goldberg & Glantz
1234 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10020

Dear Mr. Glantz:

Please extend our thanks to your client. We will have Economic Man prepare an estimate and send it to you as soon as the bursar has negotiated his fee. You may (or may not) wish to pass on to him or her the following information concerning the disposition made of the donations:

Collection of 5,751-Year-Old Fossils

At first, we thought we would shelve this in the science warehouse, but found ourselves threatened by the litigation you mention from both sides. One side maintained these things did not belong in a science warehouse, while the other maintained they were not ready for any warehouse. In the end, we decided to put them in the Fringe Gallery. They are now on display between a specimen of Bathybius haeckelii (primal slime) and some strata of deeply-buried racial traumas excavated by Immanuel Velikovsky.


We stored this in the science warehouse but found the next day that someone had checked it out, along with several warmblooded dinosaurs.

Rube Goldberg device:

In light of the grave cautions you gave concerning this machine, we thought it best to turn it over to the LaPlace genie for analysis. He is still working on it.

Fractal flowers:

While visiting our offices, the curator of the Mathematics Museum expressed her great admiration for these ornate compositions. We have therefore loaned them to her institution; she has them on display next to the catastrophe theories.

Faster-than-light vehicle:
Motorcycle and Zen tools:

These two donations have inspired us to construct a whole new exhibit hall dedicated to transport. Besides your client's gifts, it includes a small boat for one, suitable for sailing strange seas of thought alone; a map of a stream of consciousness; a spear to cast beyond the edge of space, to see what happens; and a sophistry maze for young visitors, where they may practice jumping to conclusions and arguing in circles.

God's dice:

We placed these on exhibit in a glass case in the Modern Wing. Unfortunately, Schrödinger's Cat developed a facination for them. It entered the glass case by tunnel effect, took one die in its mouth, then quantum jumped to the science warehouse, where it played mousie with it until it lost it somewhere among the absolute frames of reference. We have set Wigner's Friend to looking for the missing die, and one of his eigenstates is sure to succeed eventually.

A set of Gödel numbers:

We opened the envelope we supposed to contain the numbers, only to find a self-addressed envelope containing another self-addressed envelope, which in turn contained... Well, we now have a great many envelopes.

Once again, please extend our thanks to your client.

Yours sincerely,

Earl S. Wajenberg

(read but not dictated)

The Liam Boyle Collection

Down in the modern wing, between Turing's terminals and Searle's Chinese room there was a messy little exhibit which looked like human brains suspended in a vat of fluid. I gather that input to and output from the brains is controlled so that they think they are leading an eventful life elsewhere and are not mere 'brains in a vat'.

I also saw one exhibit which looked like a sleeping German professor and which snored rather loudly. I gather that it was Kant in his dogmatic slumbers, before an awareness of Hume's work led him to plot a Copernican revolution in thought. No problem about how to categorise that exhibit, the categories are already implicit in your thoughts.

In the Existentialist wing there were some interesting exhibits, but I thought the one in which Sisyphus spent his time rolling a rock up to the top of a hill over and over again was rather boring and pointless. If we're going to borrow stories from ancient myths surely there are more exciting ones than that!

The Kolker Collection

Please add the Irresistable Force and the Immovable Object to your collection of philosophical curiousities.

I was going to offer the Universal Solvent but I had nothing that I could keep it in.

I was unable to find the First Cause to add to your collection, will the Second Cause do?

Please let me know what you think of my offerings. If you can't reach me at my node try getting me at Ultima Thule. Failing that try me at my Isengard number 1-800-Valkyrie or if no answer GoetterDemerung 999-9999

Return to Introduction to Essays
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop

Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011