The Wax Argument & Other Thought Experiments, Stephen Payne
HappenStance Press, 2022 £6.00
Poetic mind games
This pamphlet comprises nineteen poems that are each based on a specific philosophical idea or thought experiment. The opening poem, for example, considers recurring email in-box pile-ups in light of Zeno’s fifth-century BC account of the tortoise’s race challenge to the young Achilles; and another poem muses on Lucretius’s first-century BC ‘javelin argument’ to show that the universe has neither a boundary nor an ‘edge’ but rather ‘stretches for ever’.
Classical ideas also frame other poems, and two medieval philosophers are included — Jean Buridan and Avicenna — but the chapbook is dominated by modern philosophy, particularly twentieth-century philosophical ideas.
‘The Chinese Room’, based on John Searle’s argument that a digital computer executing a program cannot be said to have anything like a human ‘mind’, is to be sung to the tune of Frank Loesser’s ‘On a Slow Boat to China’:
It’s no fun working
as a programmed computer,
stepping through lines of code.
that don’t make any sense.
Hanging on hoping
nobody will spot the pretence.
This light touch is evident in many poems, but never used in a way that might undermine key philosophical points. ‘The Infinite Monkey Theorem’, regarding Émile Borel’s well-known suggestion that infinite random typing by a monkey would eventually include Shakespeare’s works, states plainly:
And please, don’t agonise about the monkey.
It simply signifies a random process
that won’t grow old and won’t get stuck in ruts.
Thomas Nagel’s thought experiment concerning the experience of being a bat also appears:
Do vampire bats feel blessed or cursed
to wake up nightly with a raging thirst?
And when those teeth get bared above
a sleeping man, what are bats thinking of?
That longing — is it anything like love?
Some poems borrow stanza forms (from poems by Donne, Keats, Pound, and Frost) and, as in the examples given here, rhyme is a central device throughout.
Overall, this highly recommended pamphlet constitutes a successful marriage of the rational-analytical and the creative-poetic. The poems stimulate and assist philosophical reflection while retaining a poetic clarity and directness. A stimulating and enjoyable treat for poets and philosophers alike.