Spill-over Thoughts on Death, Camp Kesem, and Cancer

Dear friends,

I’ve just finished an essay for my Illness module, and I chose to write about death. Specifically, I tried to answer the question, “Is death tyrannical?”

This question was inspired by a short fable written by Nick Bostrom, called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, where Bostrom writes mainly about how he views ageing to be the fictional dragon-tyrant of his story. I took the metaphor a little further and asked myself if death itself could be tyrannical. I thought I would have enough space within the word limit to work in most of my thoughts, however I was surprised as to how little space I ended up having. Hence, I had some spill-over thoughts that didn’t make it into my essay, but I thought were worth sharing.

I won’t bore you with what I ended up writing on for the actual essay, but there was one topic I wanted to write about for which I couldn’t find a good spot, and that is my time with Camp Kesem. I have written about camp in an older post, but I don’t think I devoted too much time to explaining the matter. In short, so you don’t have to go back to that post, Camp Kesem is a student-run organisation that provides a week-long summer camp for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. The kids go free to camp, and the counselors raise the money necessary to put on a fun-filled week of camp. We use this time to let the kids get away from their lives at home, to be the centre of attention, and to give them a second family to turn to in good times and in bad. A fun little quirk about this camp is the fact that we all go by fake names – my name’s Spice, and there are names ranging from Gumbo, to Private Hurley, to High Ballistic Squid, to Snoopy, and Bud… We just like to have fun, I guess.

Naturally with a camp hosting kids who have all had to experience cancer in their lives, it’s not uncommon for a camper to have lost one or both of her parents to this malady. These kids have to deal with death at an age when they have absolutely no reason nor necessity to think about what death means to them. This forced encounter with mortality is but a nightmare for some kids, especially when they’re old enough to have been able to fully, autonomously loved their parents, yet young enough to not know why they only come home to one parent after school. Perhaps it may be that all they can feel is sadness, and when that sadness is not justified in any way, but only hurts so deeply as what a lost loved one can cause, this child may feel total agony.

In Bostrom’s fable, there comes a time when a little boy shows up at a town hall meeting, where the meeting is in place to discuss what the society should do with the dragon-tyrant who keeps killing people daily. Some say that the dragon should stay, because having the dragon (ageing) in this society is an unfortunate yet necessary, defining part of humanity. But the boy has a different opinion, as shown in this excerpt:


“I want my granny back,” said the boy.

“Did the dragon take your granny away?”

“Yes,” the boy said, tears welling up in his large frightened eyes. “Granny promised that she would teach me how to bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She said that we would make a little house out of gingerbread and little gingerbread men that would live in it. Then those people in white clothes came and took Granny away to the dragon… The dragon is bad and it eats people… I want my Granny back!”


Oftentimes, we may feel angry at death because it may be so cruelly ripping away our loved ones from our lives, when we mean to make plans with them, when we hope for a future together. This is so utterly painful, especially when those who death takes from us have not completed what we believe to be the proper ‘shape’ of a life (e.g. when a child outlives her parents).

As is the state of biomedicine, we don’t have yet the technology that can stave off death forever. Hence we have to come up with some way to console ourselves in learning how to cope with this inevitability. Some turn to religion, others to philosophy, some simply turn to a community such as Camp Kesem.

In the middle of the week at camp, we have a day that’s called “Empowerment,” where the campers and counselors alike get to share their experiences with cancer. This day tends to lead to a lot of self-reflection, bonding, and shed tears. Of course, if a family member dies, we are totally justified in missing them, in crying over them, in being angry or emotional as to why they may have had to leave our lives early. Death of a family member terribly, utterly sucks. (There’s no place for an elegant word in the former sentence.)

I was trying to figure out, then, how to find some sort of good in death, or some sort of way to lift anyone up who has lost a parent, grandparent, or other loved one to cancer. Where is the good in death? Perhaps, I thought, when death is inevitable, it allows us to cherish who we’re with for the time we’re with them. But when they leave us, we feel a giant void in our lives that should be filled by one person only, who cannot ever come back to fill that void.

When mourning the loss of a loved one, we look for them, and they are nowhere to be (physically) found. However, we forget to look in one of the most important places we could look, which is inside ourselves. Genetically speaking, we are literally half of each of our parents, but moreover, we forget that we are, in some aspect, a representation and embodiment of what came before us. Our parents are as much a part of us as we are a part of them (as hard as that may be for some readers to realise or believe). So at Empowerment, I felt compelled to remind my fellow campers and counselors alike – that no matter how much we miss our parents, they’re still with us, within ourselves.

Here’s where I believe the tyranny of death doesn’t reach: after death, humans tend to show up in other things around them (this sounds creepy but it shouldn’t), whether it be a piece of music they composed, something they wrote, or, most importantly, their kin and their friends. The beautifully innate social nature of humans tends to be exemplified in death, and I believe that this is at least some sort of good, some sort of freedom, that we can find through experiencing death in our lives.


Why El Salvador?

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all enjoying this holiday season – I’ve made it to the States and will be here, spending time with family until I come back to London for New Year’s Eve. My time in the US was first spent with a couple days in Ann Arbor, with a necessary trip back to my old coffee shop to see old friends and co-workers.

I’ve been back in the States for a week and a few days so far, and it’s definitely an odd feeling returning to the US after making the UK feel like home. I love seeing my family, especially being able to hold the new baby in the family (Uncle x2 with baby Amelia!). As you might have been able to quite obviously tell, I’ve been a bit behind on the posts – we’re given our essay assignments for after classes end and before the next term starts. Alas, I should have started earlier, but I’ve managed to stay on track with four essays due soon. Two down, two to go!

What I do want to address, though, is a piece of news that came to know a day after I had come back to the US. I was spending a bit of time at the old parish I used to go to, St. Mary Student Parish, speaking to some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while. To give some back story, one of my main pieces of involvement at this church was participating in what SMSP called their alternative spring break (ASB) program. This program consisted of about eleven trips that (probably obviously) occurred over our spring break, all of which involved some type of service. These trips were seen as “alternative,” to, say, going home for the week or spending time abroad or down south basking in the warmth and sunlight that Michigan (really) lacks in the wintertime.

One of the sites that SMSP usually has people go to is in El Salvador, with an organisation called CRISPAZ. This organisation was set up mainly to establish a relationship between the United States and El Salvador in the name of solidarity. Without delving too much into Salvadoran history, it’s worth saying that the US-backed Salvadoran military managed to kill, maim, and massacre many innocent people in El Salvador in the 1980s. Hence, the mission of CRISPAZ is to tell the story of El Salvador to those not from the country by teaching about recent Salvadoran history, then to basically have foreigners meet various groups in El Salvador who work towards furthering human rights and solidarity within and outside of the country.

The trip to El Salvador was cut for this year. I’ve asked around and have received various reasons regarding why the trip was cut, ranging from “there weren’t enough people” to “the country is too dangerous.” (Side note: if you hear the “danger” excuse about any Latin American country, I would questions these sorts of claims. Perhaps another post can be devoted as to why I may use this sort of caution.)

Regardless of the answer, I think this decision was a deep mistake. I’ve been lucky enough to go on a couple different international volunteering trips in the past – I’ve been to the Dominican Republic (DR) and El Salvador on these trips, and have spent about ten weeks outside of this working with various internships in the DR and Haiti. All of the international trips that SMSP has have their individual merits, and I wouldn’t be in the place and mind-set that I am had I not been to the DR and El Salvador. However, I do think that, if one trip should remain while the others go, is should be El Salvador. Why? Because in El Salvador, we look more into why (largely) white Americans like to go down to Latin America to do “God’s work” and “help those less fortunate.” From my personal experience, both the trips to Nicaragua and the DR are dangerous in the fact that they don’t really address the dangers of voluntourism (as it’s affectionately called) and the massively detrimental effects this practice can have on the people involved in this matter.

I don’t want to slander the other trips that SMSP holds, but I do want to show that El Salvador’s effect has been utterly essential to my understanding of international relations between the US and Latin American countries. Without my time in El Salvador, the experiences that I had in the DR and Haiti would not have carried as much weight with me as they do today.

Here’s the difficulty with El Salvador: when you come back from the trip, the conversations go like this:

Interested family friend who is mildly interested in what you’re up to: “What’d you do in El Salvador? Were you helping the poor? Did you see a lot of poverty there?”

Me: “I mean, sure, I saw poverty, but more clearly, I learned about the storied past of El Salvador. I was also really surprised to learn about US involvement in this country, something I surely didn’t learn about in my history classes in school…”

Family friend: “Oh, okay.. so.. what did you do? Did you build a house, or..?”

Me: “No, there are plenty of Salvadorans who can build a house, or do any other sort of labour that may be needed in El Salvador. But have you heard of liberation theology?”

Perhaps a piece of my writing from soon after I arrived back from the trip could help explain. This is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to family and friends who helped me out with funding to go to El Salvador, and exhibits what I felt about the worth of this trip upon returning.


I am attempting to describe an idea, a motive, a truth that can’t be done justice with only words. An experience in El Salvador happened to me last week, and I really do think this trip has been pivotal but I just don’t know to where I’m pivoting at the moment. I’ve learned so much, being among a people so shaken and torn by a past so devastating that even their youth are experiencing PTSD from a war they did not experience first-hand.

This impact has left me feeling in a state of numbness, something like the feeling adrenaline gives after one has broken a bone. I know something is broken, that it should be hurting so incredibly badly but all I feel is a blanket of numbness in place of the pain. What’s broken is my heart, part of my soul. I’m waiting for the moment when the adrenaline ceases, when I can really encounter the pain of a broken heart – I happily await this moment.

The time taken to break my heart was filled with meeting Salvadorans of storied backgrounds. We met a representative from Cofamide, an organization that works for finding those who have “been lost” on the way to the United States from El Salvador (“been lost” refers now to the act of someone “being lost,” a.k.a. being displaced by the Mexican or Salvadoran government and killed or sent to jail). We met artisans who described their story by what they make with their hands, filling blank canvases with hope, which many times manifests itself via the face of Monseñor Oscar Romero, the substances integral to Salvadoran agriculture, like corn stalks, or flowers of the Salvadoran backcountry. We lived with families in a rural community, Guarjila, working to share our lives in solidarity and learn of the torment they had to endure in the compo (countryside), in which too many atrocities were committed against these people. We took the time to see that among the many innocent lives lost, thirteen of those belonged to six Jesuits, four American nuns, a mother and her daughter who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the assassination of Oscar Romero.

I want to describe more of what we did and experienced, but your time is most valuable, and my descriptions would be more meaningful in conversation than through prose. We were, however, exposed to a truth so disastrous to our minds that we will be forever broken by what we’ve heard – Rosa holding her near-dying sister in her arms amidst a massacre of her people in the Sumpul River, children being tossed up in the air and more abruptly being taken out of that air by gunshots ensuing from a military soldier’s gun, a perfectly planted exploding bullet hitting the heart of Oscar Romero directly after he finishes proclaiming the truth that was so hard to hear for the haves but was gospel for the have-nots, religious sisters being raped, killed and left by the roadside by the Salvadoran military – embedded in all of these occurrences is a hard truth we all must face, the truth of a broken world that lies right under our noses.

This point I’ve reached upon returning to this trip is very much worth your contribution, and I do appreciate what you’ve done for me. The money you’ve donated to this trip is an act of love, care, peace, and solidarity. I know it’s hard to read what I’ve written, but these few events that I’ve chosen to slightly describe to you (also knowing that they are not exhaustive – surely there are more atrocities worth being told) are only for you to fell how much my heart has been broken.

Something is stirring in my soul and I can’t name it at this moment. Looking to a brighter side of my trip, I felt such a strong connection to Oscar Romero, a man elected as archbishop of San Salvador (the capital city of El Salvador), who was elected to this position because he was seen as easily persuadable. However, after one of his close friends, Rutilio Grande (a Jesuit priest), and two Salvadorans were assassinated on their way back from the compo, Oscar Romero was instilled with a drive to fight for the people of El Salvador, against the oppression and injustice that was being doled out by the Salvadoran government. Oscar Romero fought for his people with the peace, justice, and love – he was given the power to speak a truth that nobody wanted to hear, willing enough to give his life for this truth. I hope to pray more about this and delve deeper into why I felt such a strong connection to this man, soon to be saint.

I want to leave you with a story, given by Sister Peggy on our last full day in El Salvador. Sister Peggy came to El Salvador during their war to be with the people of the countryside in a town called Suchitoto. This town was well-organized (by the Salvadoran women, mind you), and had gained knowledge that the Salvadoran military was on their way to conduct, presumably, another massacre of The People. All those in Suchitoto dropped whatever was at hand and gathered in the bed of a sand truck to haul out of town and run away from the military. The driver of the sand truck ended up taking a wrong turn, causing the sand truck to topple over.

After these people scattered into the surrounding area, away from the overturned truck, Sister Peggy ended up in a tall grass field with two other Salvadoran women, one of which had a new-born with her and for the sake of breastfeeding her child, had brought along a bag of tortillas for sustenance. That night the woman with the new-born wanted to share her tortillas with Sister Peggy and the other woman, but they both wanted her to keep the tortillas so she could keep breastfeeding her new-born. However, this woman told them no,

“Tonight, we share our food

and tomorrow, we share our hunger.”

This is true solidarity, friends. The head of CRISPAZ, the organization that facilitated our trip to El Salvador, described one of the aims of these immersion trips. These words describe what I feel, what I have experienced and what is surely to come in the future:

“Surely, we hope this trip has done at least three things for you. The first – that your heart

is broken. Second – that you have learned how to fall in love all over again. And third –

that you are ruined for life.”

True, true, and true. Friends, I will have more to tell you in the future, and I really do look forward to where life takes me – I trust that I can find the truth and work to find that truth for others, exposing the truth in the name of justice. I hope this letter finds you in peace and love, but also with an agitation to use the beautiful works this world has to offer in repairing all that is broken in our world.


And with that, I will conclude this post. The main point to take away from this post is that decisions are to be made with proper foresight, enough inquiry into as many possible points of view, and, most importantly, one’s decisions should be justified. I’ve been learning a lot in my philosophy classes lately, and one of the take-home messages from a favourite class of mine is that whatever position we hold, we must be able to justify that position. If we uphold a weak justification, we cannot simply expect to let others believe in our position (and subsequent decision making).

This trip to El Salvador truly kicked my life path in a different direction, and I highly doubt that I would be here today had I not learned about this little country when I did. I am incredibly disappointed in the decision to prevent others from experiencing El Salvador, and I do hope that those in leadership positions at SMSP will thoughtfully reconsider their decision.


I’ll try and get some more writing out to you in the next week. I hope you all are having a wonderful time in this holiday season!

Final Post & Goodbyes

Hi everyone!


This is my final post for the Roger Jones Fellowship.  This year has been a whirlwind and I can’t believe it’s over already.  I’ve seen so many amazing things this year and had such a life-changing time I’m not sure how to write about it.  I’m writing this post from a layover in Providence, RI on my way to Baltimore, and I can’t help but remember posting my first blog last September from the airport in Minneapolis, MN.  I suddenly remember very specific details from that day, but at the same time it feels like it occurred years and years ago.


I remember constantly feeling so busy at LSE with so many readings and papers to keep up with, that it was a strange mix of sad and freeing to push submit on my dissertation – the last document I had to upload.  I’m sure I’ll keep up with philosophy as a hobby throughout my lifetime, though perhaps not at the pace I became accustomed to this year.


I had a strangely surreal experience in the last week.  Though I’ve been frantically finishing my edits on my philosophy dissertation and figuring out how to fit all my shoes into my already stuffed suitcases, I took some time to aimlessly wander London, one of my favorite pass times.  I ended up walking down a lot of streets I remember from last fall, and made a stop at the British museum and the natural history museum, as I did my first week in London last fall.



This is me at the Natural History Museum wearing my favorite pants.


Although I’m sad to be leaving London, I do so with a new destination – Baltimore – in my sights, and with concrete plans to come back to Europe in the future.


I can’t wait to see what the next 5 years in Baltimore bring as I start a chemical engineering Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins!  I never know what to say when people ask me how I think studying philosophy for a year will affect my work as a researcher — I’m not sure it’s a change I’ll notice consciously or will be able to describe well, but I’m absolutely sure that I’m a more thoughtful and skeptical person than I was a year ago, and I hope also better at constructing an argument.


Lastly, I’d like to wish the best of luck to Jeffrey, who’s starting a philosophy program at UCL in just a few weeks!





End of Exams


I finished my exams last week and must say that this was undeniably the most intensive month of studying of my life.  Not that Michigan Engineering was easy by any means, but chemical engineering finals were typically worth 1/3 of my final grade in any course, and because they were math based small mistakes were not hugely detrimental as long as I showed my work.  At LSE, my philosophy exams are 100% of my grade in each course and are all essay based; conceptual mistakes carry much more weight here than math mistakes carried in ChemE.

While I felt confident walking out of my philosophy exams after taking them, because I’ve never taken a final like this, I was super nervous and so studied much more thoroughly than I’ve needed to in the past.  I’ve never pulled a “study until 4am then get up at 9am to keep studying,” and I finally know what that’s like.

My three finals were in Philosophy of Science, Rationality and Choice, and Evidence and Policy:

The Philosophy of Science exam had ten short answer questions from any of the twenty weeks of the course, as well as two essay topics that we could choose from six questions.  I wrote my first essay on neo-classical reduction: how and if different scientific disciplines like biology and chemistry can be ‘reduced’ to more fundamental theories like thermodynamics and physics; and my second essay on Bayesianism: a way of quantifying the level of confirmation that evidence gives a theory using Bayes Law of probability.

The Rationality and Choice exam had six short answer questions on any of the 20 weeks of the course and two essay topics we could choose from eight questions.  I wrote my first essay on justifications for democracy rule (as opposed to other aggregation rules such as a dictatorship), and I mentioned May’s theorem, Condorcet’s Jury theorem, and the Ray-Taylor theorem.  My second essay was in support of Steele’s paper “What can we Rationally Value?” which discusses Allais’ Paradox as an example of when it may be irrational for agents to maximize expected utility.

The Evidence and Policy exam had two essay topics that we could choose from eight questions.  I wrote my first essay on Mackie’s ‘causal cakes’ notion of causality, where to say ‘the short-circuit caused the fire’ is to say that the short-circuit is an Insufficient, Necessary part of a complex condition (made up of the short-circuit, frayed carpeting, and a breeze from the window) that is itself Unnecessary, but Sufficient for a fire.  I critiqued Cartwright and Hardie’s application of this model to decision making in policy applications.  My second essay analyzed Kitcher’s concept of well-ordered science, which defines how science should look and who should decide which theories get funding.


Study Breaks

During my month of studying I took a few breaks.  I went to a cat cafe in east London, went to the Chelsea Flower Show, and I took a weekend to travel to Oslo.


A cat cafe is literally a coffee house that also has cats, and doesn’t need much more explanation, so here are some pictures of the cats there:


The Chelsea Flower Show is held annually by the Royal Horticultural Society to showcase new styles in planting and garden design.  On display was everything from sculptures, to garden furniture, to beautiful flower displays and collections of potato species.  It was crazy and beautiful and over-the-top, and was a wonderful study break for an afternoon.


Oslo was great.  I went hiking and got a great view of the city, saw Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and visited the sculptures in Frogner Park.  Norway is really great in the summer because it is so far north that the sun ‘sets’ at 11pm in June, but the sky remains light enough until around 1am that the parks and city are full of life until very late.  I went to the sculpture park at nearly 10pm and stayed for a couple hours.


The sculpture park was designed by Gustav Vigeland in the early 1900’s.  It consists of hundreds of sculptures depicting generally ‘human’ activities like dancing, fighting, screaming, hugging, etc…


Between now and August 24th I have to write and submit my dissertation.  I’m writing on inductive logic, and criticizing Karl Popper and John Norton’s attempts to solve the problem of induction.  A draft of my dissertation is due June 26th, so for the next week I’ll be finishing that up and submitting it.







In wake of the string of recent terror attacks in London, I feel I should acknowledge the change in tone I’ve seen in the city.  People are undeniably more wary, but at the end of the day life goes on and I refuse to give cowardly attackers the fear or attention they desire, and at times I wish British media would do the same.

Spring in London

Hello Everyone!


This last month without classes has been wonderful.  London has been warming up, so I’ve had some great opportunities to walk around a bit more and find some nice gardens to study in.  Because spring is my favorite season I thought I’d focus this post on nature.


Parks in London

Since I spend a lot of my time walking around London, I’ve seen many of its parks by this point.  Here are some of my favorite pictures from this spring.


Holland Park, situated just west of Kensington Palace, with tulip patches, the Kyoto Garden, and this nice peacock (I took a video of him calling to a female and raising his tail, but I’m not sure how to upload that).


Regents Park, near my residence off Regent’s Canal, situated near Primrose hill and the London Zoo.


Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, established by Henry VIII in 1536 as hunting grounds and opened to the public in the early 1600’s.


The Peace Pagoda at Battersea Park, completed in 1985 by Rev. Gyoro Nagase and 50 volunteers to promote peace and global harmony and to oppose nuclear weapons.



Kew Gardens (or the Royal Botanic Gardens), a 326 acre site that contains numerous gardens and greenhouses open to the public and is also a botanical research and conservation site home to an internationally recognized seed bank.  Founded in 1759 by Princess Augusta, it is home to the world’s largest and most diverse collection of living plants.  The Dutch House, what remains of the larger complex of Kew Palace, is situated in the back of the gardens and is more aptly described as a pink country home.  It was used on and off through the 18th century to house close relatives of the crown (for example as a schoolhouse for the future George IV).  (www.kew.org)


Tate Britain

I also can’t help mentioning the Tate Britain, the 4th or 5th London museum that I’ve visited, and my favorite by far.  Not only does it have two works by Henry Fuseli, a 19th century Swiss painter I fell in love with after I saw The Nightmare at the Detroit Institute of Art, but there are numerous other works that I could just sit and stare at for hours.


First though, I’ll mention a conundrum I’ve faced: to take photos in museums or not to take photos?  On the one hand I would rather enjoy my experience than spend the whole trip obnoxiously cataloging every moment of it on my phone (or, shudder, taking selfies with the paintings), but on the other hand the immensity of the number of fantastic exhibits I’ve forgotten keeps me up at night.  Given that most museums these days allow non-flash photography, my compromise is to take photos sparingly, but so I might remember my favorite artists and styles for the future.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Henry Fuseli’s Shakespearean depictions of (1) ‘Lady Macbeth and Seizing the Daggers’, and (2) Tatiana and Bottom (from a Midsummer Night’s Dream).  (3)The Nightmare, on exhibit at the DIA, sensualizing the vulnerability of unconsciousness, and perhaps alluding to sleep paralysis (final photo taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nightmare).


Here are a few of my other favorites from the Tate:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(1) The Archers (1769) by Joshua Reynolds depicts two 18th century aristocrats dressed in ‘quasi-historical’ Renaissance costumes posed heroically and on the hunt.  I thought this painting was hilarious and wonderful because it shows that even 250 years ago people were dressing up in cosplay to live out heroic fantasies.

(2) Proserpine (1874) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, depicting Proserpine in the underworld, holding the pomegranate which sealed her fate as the wife of Hades.  In the painting Proserpine’s face is bathed in light from Earth and she looks longingly towards the living world.

(3) The Annunciation (1892) by Arthur Hacker and influenced by Spanish and Moroccan styles of the day, shows Mary receiving The Annunciation from an invisible angel.  It’s harder to see in a photograph, but the lighting on this painting was just phenomenal.

(information for the above three descriptions taken from signs at the Tate Britain)





Nice, and the End of Lent Term

Hello everyone!


Last Friday was my last day of class (wow that went really quickly!!).  It feels like it was just a few days ago that I was writing here about the start of Lent Term, and now it’s over.  From here I have until the end of May to study for my exams, which are the first week of June, and the rest of the summer to complete my dissertation, which is due mid-August.  I’m not going to reflect now on everything I’ve learned being at LSE, because that would make me too sad about how my time in London is almost over, so I’ll make a note to be extra reflective this August.  For the time being I’m content to live in the present and to keep building on what I’ve done.



In mid-February, keeping with my New Year’s Resolution to travel more, I visited Nice, on the southern coast of France, and spent a day in Monaco, which is a short bus ride away.  It was wonderful to see the Sea (I was corrected by a local that in Nice, it is the Sea, not the ocean), which was bluer than any water I’ve seen before.  It was a little too cold for me to swim (though some brave locals were in the water), but quite warm enough to walk along the shore and hike to the top of some hills overlooking the water.  I had some delicious cheese, escargot, and rosé, and saw some super big yachts in Monaco.  I had a nice chat with an old philosopher I met on the beach who took me antique shopping and told me that Nice is one of the most relaxing places to live, especially in the off-tourist season when it’s near empty.



Manipulationist Account of Causation

We talked about a few types of causation in my philosophy of science course, and I thought I’d mention here the one I found to be the most convincing: the manipulationist account.  Essentially, X is a cause of Y if intervention on X produces a change in Y, i.e. X must have manipulative control over Y in order for X to be a cause of Y.  An intervention is defined as a change in Y that can occur only as a result of a change in X.  For example, a strong wind can be said to cause me to have dropped my ice cream if changes in the wind’s velocity result in me dropping the ice cream differently or not at all.  Although of course I could not actually change the wind to determine how it affects my ability to hold on to things, I can imagine changes to its speed and direction and the resulting effects.  Stated more simply, X is said to intervene on Y if all of the following are true:

(1) An intervention on X changes the value of Y (but not all changes to X must do so)

(2) All changes in Y must result from the intervention and not another source

(3) The intervention, I, must travel to Y through X and not through another source

(I → X →Y), not (I →Z →Y and I →X) or (I →Y and I →X)

An important part of defining causation is its effect on how we perceive science.  According to the above model (summarized from James Woodward’s manipulationist account), one can differentiate explanatory knowledge from descriptive knowledge (and explanatory sciences from descriptive sciences).  Explanatory knowledge provides control by defining causal relationships, while descriptive knowledge is merely a systematization of observations.  Woodward gives the history of biology as an example.  Biology was a descriptive science until the invention of new instruments and experimental techniques in the early 20th century (such as the microscope) allowed for interventions, and the development of the explanatory field of molecular biology.  I like this account of causation for two reasons that Woodward mentions: (1) it defines causation in a way that applies both to everyday life and to scientific study, and (2) it provides an account of causation that represents the way that scientists themselves think of causality.

A problem for the account is the so called ‘common cause’ dilemma – where one might be fooled into thinking X is a cause of Y because a change in X resulted in a change in Y, when in reality both X and Y are caused by Z.  For example, one could observe that just before thunderstorms appear, barometers show a drop in pressure and all the cows in the field lie down.  The Manipulationist account could lead one to all sorts of strange conclusions, such as ‘when the barometer does not show a drop in pressure, the cows do not lie down; therefore, a low barometer reading causes cows to lie down.’  Likewise, once could conclude ‘because storms only occur after the cows have lied down, cows lying down is a cause of thunderstorms.’

In reality, it is a low pressure system that (1) draws the storm clouds in, (2) results in the barometer showing a drop in pressure, and (3) causes the cows to sense a change in weather is coming and to lie down.  However, all of the above statements of causality are logically sound given the manipulationist account, meaning one must be careful in assigning causal relationships.


As I’m done with classes I’m going to try to see more of the British countryside in the coming weeks (and I hope to study while I’m there), so I’ll try to upload some pictures from those trips as I go.






Woodward, J. (2003) Making Things Happen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Ch. 1.


Cumberland Lodge

Hi Everyone!

A couple weeks ago I got the chance to attend the LSE philosophy retreat at Cumberland Lodge, so I thought I’d tell you all about it. The retreat was interesting, there were about 40 philosophy students there, and we spent the weekend attending lectures, drinking around an exceptionally cozy fireplace, and exploring Windsor Great Park (the Lodge is located a few miles south of Windsor Castle, the royal residence).


First, it was really great to get out of the city and see more of the English countryside. I’ve been so busy with school that I hadn’t gotten the chance to really enjoy fall (there aren’t many trees in London, besides in a few groomed parks, and those don’t count), so it was nice to go somewhere and see the leaves change.  I unfortunately signed up for the conference pretty late and so was unable to stay in the Lodge itself.  Instead I stayed in the adjacent building, The Mews.  ‘Mews’, I learned, means a stable that has been adapted for residential purposes.  Luckily there haven’t been horses in the building since the 1700s and it was very nice inside.


The Lodge itself was beautiful; we received a short history lesson upon our arrival and learned that it was built by army captain John Byfield in the 1650’s after he was sold the land by Oliver Cromwell, whose intention was to pay off debts incurred during the recent civil war. After the captain’s death and the Restoration, King Charles II reclaimed the land.  For hundreds of years following, the Lodge was used to house the Ranger of the Great Park, who tended to be a close friend of the King or Queen.  Then, in 1947, King George VI granted the Lodge to the St Katharine’s Foundation for use as an educational establishment.  Its purpose since has been to gather together students to discuss scientific, social, and ethical issues in order to avoid another catastrophe of the scale of WWII.  The Foundation’s founder, Amy Buller, believed that a large contributing factor to the rise of Nazism was the lack of such open discussion in the German education system of the 1920s and 30s.



I took a walk with some other students on Saturday through the park and saw a group of cows in a green, misty field – which felt like a decidedly English moment so I’m happy I got a picture.  There was also a lovely stuffed bird in the Lodge – I got a picture of that too.