Neil Sinhababu is quite possibly the world’s coolest philosopher. His first paper, Possible Girls, uses modal realism to argue that everybody has a soulmate in an alternative world. Though his specialty focus is metaethics, Nietzsche, and Nietzschean metaethics, he also publishes in many weirdly unrelated fields like metaphysics and epistemology. He is perhaps most known for being a travelling professor, having given more talks than any philosopher under the age of 40, including over a hundred in the last year alone.
Besides being a professor in a tweed jacket, Neil is in many other ways the epitome of a liberal cosmopolitan globalist. An American who lives and works in Singapore, Neil is a globetrotter who nonetheless finds the time to participate in American politics. After a long day’s work, you can often find him in parties, a glass of wine in one hand and gesticulating madly with the other, corrupting the youth with utilitarian ideals and some pretty weird ideas.
I sat down with him to talk about possible girls, the uses (or lack thereof) of philosophy in today’s world, and his new book, Humean Nature.
Linch: Say I’m a typical HuffPost reader. Philosophy sounds vaguely interesting in an abstract way, but so does horoscopes and fortune cookies. Why should I care about philosophy?
Neil: Maybe the best answer is to just explain what philosophy is. When you’re trying to investigate something, but you don’t know yet what counts as evidence or how the basic stuff works, what you do to figure out that foundational stuff is philosophy. This is why Newton called his book “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” and Dalton called the book where he proposed atomic theory “A New System of Chemical Philosophy”. They were figuring out the foundations of what we now call physics and chemistry. People back then called them “natural philosophers”.
I see myself in that tradition. Mostly I work in ethics and psychology, and I think help with foundational issues is needed in both areas. In psychology we have departments full of people doing research, but it seems to me that there was still room for a philosopher to help out with a precise account of what desire is and how to fit it into larger psychological explanations. If I’m doing philosophy right, I can help us get closer to the truth in ethics and psychology. That would be good!
Linch: Let’s start with your most popular paper, Possible Girls.Tell me about Possible Girls.
Neil: Possible Girls was a paper I wrote when I was single, lonely, and reading David Lewis’ book about what makes counterfactual claims true or false. Take the counterfactual sentence “If there were no gravity, there would be no solar system”. That seems true. It’s hard to say what makes it true, though – usually sentences are true because they describe stuff, and that sentence is describing stuff that didn’t actually happen! What kind of stuff is that?
Lewis says that the stuff we’re describing is alternate universes, which he calls “possible worlds”. There’s one possible world for each of the uncountably infinite possible ways things could’ve been. In the worlds most like ours but without gravity, there’s no solar system. So it’s true. Hardly anyone accepts Lewis’ theory, but explaining how counterfactual claims can be true is one of the hardest problems in philosophy. So a lot of people who disagree with his theory are still impressed with it.
I realized that with all these worlds, there would have to be lovely and lonely women in other world who believed Lewis’ theory. They believed in my world, they believed in me, and they had trans-world crushes on me. I could never actually meet them, but it meant so much to me that someone out there loved me that I kind of started to believe Lewis’ theory through wishful thinking and wrote a paper about how to set up one-to-one trans-world romantic relationships. It became my first publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Linch: Your Possible Girls paper was written with implied monogamy, eg. this quote: “There is one more issue to consider. With luck, at some point I’ll find an actual girlfriend. Since I don’t want to be unfaithful, I’ll have to break up with my possible girlfriend if I want to enter into an actual relationship.” What about readers who are more interested in polyamorous relationships? In particular, can readers who want relationships with arbitrarily large but finite (to avoid polysaturation) numbers of possible girlfriends still be satisfied? Is this a reasonable goal for modal realism? (Asking for a friend)
Neil: If you’re into poly stuff with infinite numbers of people, it’s actually easier – my paper invents a lot of special tools for making one-to-one relationships and you can dispense with those. You need the tools for large finite numbers, but I think those will probably still work. The key thing here is that there are a whole bunch of worlds – one for each possibility. Some versions of Buffy in other worlds won’t be up for a three-way relationship with you and Principal Flutie. But some will! So if that’s what you want, you can specify the right Buffy and Principal Flutie and everything works out. I’ve become more poly myself since writing that paper, so maybe that’s a better option for me now.
Linch: So I’ve heard that you’ve given more talks than any other philosopher under the age of 40. Is this still true? How the heck did that happen?
Neil: Yeah, I love giving talks! I’ve given 74 since I started my post-tenure sabbatical in April 2016. I like telling people about fun ideas, having them grill me in Q&A, and then chatting with them all night over dinner and drinks about whatever philosophical issues they’re interested in. I work at the National University of Singapore, which is generous with travel funding and wants to raise its international reputation, so my bosses have been really nice about supporting my adventures. So when I get time off from teaching, I email a bunch of friends and try to set up talks all around the world. It helps that I travel cheap to stretch the grant money out, and that I’m suited for living out of a carry-on bag for months on end.
Linch: May I ask you a somewhat aggressive question? I, like many others in the world, believe that there are many pressing problems in the world. Recently, the sociologist and blogger Nathan Robinson poses this question: Can Philosophy Be Justified in a Time of Crisis? (Spoiler: His answer was no). Do you have a response? How can philosophy, especially really high-level and abstract fields like Nietzsche and metaethics, be justifiable in the world we live in?
Neil: Metaethics is especially important. It’s where you go to answer the fundamental questions that help you figure out what’s right and wrong. What counts as evidence for moral belief? What kinds of things could moral facts be? To make a long story short, trying to answer these questions made me a hedonic utilitarian. That’s the view that pleasure is the good thing, and it’s right to make as much of it as possible for everybody across all of space and time. So this year I donated a quarter of my salary to a bunch of philanthropic and political causes that I think will be useful for raising the total amount of pleasure in the world.
As for Nietzsche, he was one of the first people to recognize some interesting and difficult metaethical questions. Some people like to engage with these questions through reading the great dead philosophers, so doing a little work there might be helpful.
Linch: Do you have a brief argument for hedonic utilitarianism? Or is this the type of thing that somebody essentially has to retrace all of your footsteps to understand?
Neil: We know that pleasure is good through the most reliable means by which we know anything: it's a matter of what our experiences are like, and we know that about our experiences. We have no good evidence for any other moral beliefs of that fundamental kind. So to believe what the evidence supports, we should take pleasure's goodness and build moral theory entirely out of that. On the best-motivated assumptions, that gives you hedonic utilitarianism.
Linch: Of course, you are also an early Giving What We Can member and have contributed large sums of money to Deworm the World and the Against Malaria Foundation. How did you first hear about Giving What We Can?
Neil: Another philosopher, Rachael Brown, knew that I was a utilitarian and suggested that I get in touch with Giving What We Can.
Linch: How do you decide where to donate to?
Neil: I rely pretty heavily on GiveWell recommendations for the standard philanthropic donations to groups like Deworm the World and The Against Malaria Foundation . For my political donations, it’s largely through having been active in politics for a while and having talked to some DC-area journalists who told me about nifty ways to donate money for maximum impact.
Linch: You’ve finished a new book on the role of desire in ethics, Humean Nature, which just came out in March of 2017. What’s the one-paragraph pitch for your book?
Neil: I argue in that book that desire explains all action and all practical reasoning. Desire plays a big role in determining what we pay attention to and how we feel about our options. In most of the book I’m laying out desire-based explanations of things like moral judgment and willpower that explain the psychological data more simply than opposing views. The big message for ethics is that you shouldn’t build theories according to which moral motivation and reasoning has to come from something other than desire. If you do, you’ll end up with a theory on which humans can’t make moral judgments, because desire is what drives our action and reasoning.
Linch: Thanks for the advance copy, by the way. Could I read an excerpt from your book? “[Michael] Smith is no defender of Hume, but a traitor. Humeans don’t allow reason on its own to create and destroy passions. If they did, their view would be irrelevant to central metaethical debates. Smith’s solution to his puzzle reveals him as an enemy of any historically genuine and metaethically interesting Humean theory of motivation. I’ll use “the Humean Theory” to refer only to the formulation at the beginning of this book, since it’s the one that deserves Hume’s name." My question: Do you know Michael Smith personally? Because I imagine parties must be awkward...
Neil: Yeah, Michael and I get on fine socially. We’ve had some real gunfights in Q&A at conferences, but that’s just how business sometimes goes with intense people like us. When that’s all done, we’ve always been on good terms.
I thought a lot about the “traitor” language, and I’m confident it was the right way to go. People have often interpreted Michael as holding a view like mine, because he gave it the Humean brand name. He thinks desires explain all motivation, but that we can reason our way to new desires from beliefs alone. The standard view in Hume scholarship, which Elizabeth Radcliffe is good at defending, puts me a lot closer to Hume than Michael is. I’ve seen entire dissertations that seem to assume that Michael has the more orthodox Humean view in arguing against him. So I thought it was important to draw the distinction as colorfully as I could. That way people won’t miss it.
When I emailed Michael to tell him that the “traitor” language was going into my book, he was really nice and congratulated me on having the book out. I think “traitor” is such a weird insult between philosophers that he couldn’t take it that personally. Or at least, that’s how I assume he took it! If he’s actually wounded by it, I’m really sorry and I didn’t intend that.
Linch: Humean Nature has many references and injokes about very contemporary/pop culture topics, like Harry Potter, marijuana legislation, pop musicians, etc. I assume this is a conscious decision. Are you worried that your book would not stand the time?
Neil: I hope the examples still are totally comprehensible for people who haven’t read Harry Potter or who don’t follow politics. If they aren’t, that’s a problem. But for people who get my references – well, the book is going to have a lot of examples, and if I can make the examples a little more entertaining for some people, I really should do that! Entertainment value is underrated in philosophy. I think it helps people read more.
Linch: You book is littered with references to political desires in opposing the “Fascists.” What do you have against the poor fascists?
Neil: The Fascists thing all started with one of our PhD students at NUS, Elena Ziliotti. She’s Italian and was not happy with Berlusconi running her country. She was in a reading group on a draft of the book back in 2013, and I thought it would be nice to make her a character in it, which she was fine with. So the way Elena’s desires get her to feel about the Fascists is a recurring motif. I thought that since the vast majority of my audience opposes Fascism, this would make it easier for everybody to get into the example. I didn’t know at the time that Fascism would soon become a more salient topic.
Linch: Your book mentioned the clown Bozenstein, who deeply desired to become a philosopher but in the end chose the life of a clown instead, desiring even more deeply the “the better initial pay, higher social esteem, and greater long-term job security that the circus offers”. Do you ever feel the opposite draw, to enter a career very dissimilar to academic philosophy?
Neil: There are a few jobs that it would be more awesome for me to have than being an often globetrotting philosophy professor -- mostly because they'd offer better expected value for making the world a better place. But those are hard jobs to get, and I'm somehow in this hard to get job which is awesome and for which I have some special talent. But I'm lucky. I'm sure the draw of switching out is bigger for the many smart young PhDs out there who can do really useful work but will never get a chance to, due to a stupid job market. And that's a future that Bozenstein would have to worry about.
Linch: What advice would you give to a bright high-schooler who’s an aspiring philosopher, or a college freshman debating between majoring in philosophy and other fields?
Neil: Philosophy is a great thing to major in if you’re interested in it! The career stuff shouldn’t hold you back. Philosophy majors generally do very well at graduate school exams like the GRE and the LSAT. While their average starting salaries aren’t at the top, they’re tied with math majors for the highest percentage increases from then to their mid-career employment. We don’t know whether this is because of their philosophical training, or just because smart people get into philosophy and smart people rise in salary over their careers.
Linch: One of my other interviewees is Chuck Tingle, the Hugo-Award nominated erotica and metafiction author. If exactly one of your philosophical ideas or papers could be turned into a Chuck Tingle story (Of the form “Pounded in the Butt By…[x]), what idea would you choose to immortalize?
Neil: Chuck Tingle! Awesome.
There’s some discussion of impossible girls in my Possible Girls paper. They’re girls from worlds where contradictions are true. Now it’s true in every world that you can’t causally interact with stuff outside your world. So you can’t actually be pounded in the butt by possible girls.
But in impossible worlds, contradictions can be true! So it can be true in their world that they pounded you in the butt (and that they didn’t). Using paraconsistent logical systems to put together a story about contradictory butt pounding across different universes would be a feat of sexual and logical perversion that I don’t think anyone has ever achieved in the history of human literature.
Neil is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He has given more talks than any other philosophy professor under the age of forty, and his first paper, Possible Girls, is the 7th most downloaded paper on philpapers.org.
Neil’s book, Humean Nature, came out earlier this month. You can purchase it here.