Revision of Lecter Notes

I’ve just finished my 11th Lecture on Mechanics and Special Relativity. The Tuesday lecture is in a 5pm to 6pm slot which means quite a few students need to leave early in order to get buses home. I try therefore to design it in such a way that the last 10 minutes or so is optional, so those that depart before the end don’t miss anything vital. Today I ended with a sort of philosophical aside about the nature of things versus how they interact with other things. I wrote about such thoughts already on this blog but that was almost a decade ago so I reckon enough time has elapsed for me to reiterate it here in a slightly modified form.

The text for this dissertation is a short speech by Hannibal Lecter from the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991), specifically the “quotation” from the Meditations of Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher>Marcus Aurelius.

The quotation by Lecter reads

First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

I always felt this would make a good preface to a book on particle physics, playing on the word “particular”, but of course one has to worry about using part of a film script without paying the necessary copyright fee, and there’s also the small matter of writing the book in the first place.

Anyway, I keep the Penguin Popular Classics paperback English translation of the Meditations with me when I go travelling; I can’t read Greek, the language it was originally written in. It is one the greatest works of classical philosophy, but it’s also a collection of very personal thoughts by someone who managed to be an uncompromisingly authoritarian Emperor of Rome at the same time as being a humble and introspective person. Not that I have ever in practice managed to obey his exhortations to self-denial!

Anyway, the first point I wanted to make is that Lecter’s quote is not a direct quote from the Meditations, at least not in any English translation I have found. The nearest I could find in the version I own is Book 8, Meditation X:

This, what is it in itself, and by itself, according to its proper constitution? What is the substance of it? What is the matter, or proper use? What is the form, or efficient cause? What is it for in this world, and how long will it abide? Thus must thou examine all things that present themselves unto thee.

Or possibly, later on in the same Book, Meditation XII:

As every fancy and imagination presents itself to unto thee, consider (if it be possible) the true nature, and the proper qualities of it, and reason with thyself about it.

There are other translated versions to be found on the net (e.g. here), all similar. Thus Lecter’s reference is a paraphrase, but by no means a misleading one.

A more interesting comment, perhaps, relates to the logical structure of Lecter’s quote. He starts by asking about a thing “in itself”, which recalls the ding an sich of Immanuel Kant. The point is that Kant argued that the “thing in itself” is ultimately unknowable. Lecter continues by asking not what the thing (in this case a man) is in itself but what it (he) does, which is not the same question at all.

It has long struck me that this is similar to the way we work in physics. For example, we might think we understand a bit about what an electron is, but actually what we learn about is how it interacts with other things, which of its properties change and which remain the same, i.e. what it does. From such behaviour we learn about what attributes we can assign to it, such as charge, mass and spin, but we know these only through their interactions with other entities. The electron-in-itself remains a mystery.

This is true of mathematical objects too. Objects are defined to do certain things under certain operations. That is the extent of their definition. Physicists tend to think there is a reality beyond the mathematics used to represent it, but can we ever really know anything about that reality?

If the reference to mathematical physics all sounds a bit nerdy, then I’ll make the obvious point that it also works with people. Do we ever really know what another person is in himself or herself? It’s only through interacting with people that we discover anything. They may say kind or nasty things and perform good or evil deeds, or act in some other way that leads us to draw conclusions about their inner nature. But we never really know for sure. They might be lying, or have ulterior motives. We have to trust our judgement to some extent otherwise we’re forced to live in a world in which we don’t trust anyone, and that’s not a world that most of us are prepared to countenance.

Even that is similar to physics (or any other science) because we have to believe that, say, electrons (or rather the experiments we carry out to probe their properties) don’t lie. This takes us to an axiom upon which all science depends, that nature doesn’t play tricks on us, that the world runs according to rules which it never breaks.

One Response to “Revision of Lecter Notes”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    it also works with people. Do we ever really know what another person is in himself or herself? It’s only through interacting with people that we discover anything.

    We also know ourselves through having consciousness, and we assume that other people have something in common with us which helps us to predict what they will do, because we can figure out what we would do in that circumstance. Prediction of this sort may be advantageous to survival and may have promoted the evolution of consciousness – whatever it be.

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