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::: center home >> being here >> last donut? >> 24 january 2008

A Visit to the O

The week before our causation workshop, the causation buzz in the hallways was growing. We already had two papers for the workshop available in the the workshop section of philsci-archive. They were Matthias Frisch's and my response. A few of us also had received Sheldon Smith's manuscript in email. It just seemed automatic these should be our readings in the Fellows' Thursday afternoon reading group.

We couldn't decide which of these papers to read. So somehow a decision was taken by no one in particular in the spaces between emails and chance conversations. We should read all of them. I grumbled repeatedly that three papers flagrantly violated the "12 pages maximum reading" rule. No one else seemed to mind. However, when we assembled to discuss the papers, I did notice that that not everyone had read everything. Each of us had seemed to focus on something a little different. With a mounting sense of virtue, I resisted the temptation to say "Ha--I told you so!" (until now).

These papers from the morning session of the workshop formed a natural unity. Here was a mix of skepticism and belief about causation in physics. I had read and enjoyed Sheldon's Smith's paper. So I led the discussion, starting with a short synopsis of his core example of harmonic oscillators. It filled our whiteboard with pictures of springs and masses and equations. (On the weekend, they supplied a suitable wall decoration for the coffee breaks held in our lounge at the causation workshop.)

Then we turned to Matthias Frisch's paper; or more precisely, to my critique of it. Since I was the author in the room, the clear sense was that it was only appropriate to descend upon me. Matthias would be grilled on Saturday. In the many polite ways that philosophers learn, I was asked repeatedly if I really meant what I said and whether I could possibly mean what I had said. I can still see Delphine, with her head cocked to one side, wondering aloud how I could possibly say that the causal language of fundamental physics is merely honorific--just labeling. "Well," I retorted, following the choreography of a dance I have now led many times,"what is added when you add the causal talk?" But Delphine had seen this dance before and she knew just which steps not to take. She artfully avoided mention of a principle of causality or the attempt to connect this particular process with others that also attract causal talk.

The dance continued 45 minutes past the two hour mark. Somehow all the steps we did not take as the performance continued proved helpful. That at least seemed to be established by Mehmet's gratifying concluding proclamation,"That was good. Now I know what he is up to!"

It was time to eat. This time, I proposed, we should go to the "Original O." "It is," I assured their innocent faces, "something every visitor to the Center must do..." I paused to see if they would walk into the baited trap. "...once."

The "Original" or the "O" or the "Original O" is a venerable hot dog shop. It is set up to feed students everything that they might need. There are grilled hot dogs, bursting to release meaty payloads through slits in their blackened cases; hamburgers that need two hands if they are to be lifted from their paper plates; more sandwiches, formulated with no thought of food pyramids; and plentiful beer. Mehmet was skeptical until that last little fact arrived. "They have," I assured him, "a legendary selection of beers." But then the pressure of honesty forced me to add: "I'm not sure of the range. Perhaps every variety of Miller Lite?"

When we arrived at the O, our little group drifted past the various counters at which hot dogs, hamburgers and drinks could be ordered. They seemed somewhat bewildered, as if they had arrived in a new land whose customs were unknown to them. Scrutiny of the selection of bottled beers assured me that all was well. They had Stone's IPA, one of my favorites and one I was sure Mehmet would like as well. We queued at the various counters, ordered drinks and sandwiches and then settled into the long table we'd commandeered.

For its dramatic effect, I ordered a serving of french fries. The serving is so enormous--a full fry basket--that old hands sometimes mischievously suggest that new visitors pick up a hot dog "with a serving of fries." The fries that came were every bit as large as I'd remembered. Yet somehow in the sizzle, clutter and grease of the O they seemed unremarkable. I went back to the counter to get some more ketchup.

John D. Norton

Fellows Reading Group
January 24 2008

Revised 2/21/08 - Copyright 2006