The Man of Many Worlds, Part 2

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S1: I am from slightly

S2: the middle of winter in New Jersey is the middle of summer in Australia. It’s also when U.S. graduate programs make admissions decisions. Allan Hajek was waiting for one in 1987.

S3: I’d applied to Princeton, but I was then living in Melbourne and I was on tenterhooks just waiting to hear whether I got in or not.

S2: The other thing about Melbourne is that it’s 14 hours ahead of us Eastern Time

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S3: on a Saturday morning at nine a.m.

S2: seven p.m. Friday in Princeton.

S3: The phone rang in my shed house. I was in the middle of a dream and I wasn’t going to answer the phone. My housemate said, Alan, it’s for you. And I said, Oh, tell him to go away. Now, apparently it’s important, Alan, you better come. So very grumpily, you know, still finishing off my dream, I went down. I picked up the phone. Yeah, what? And this voice came. This is David Lewis of Princeton University’s philosophy department calling to tell you that you’ve been admitted to our graduate program. Do you have any questions I have to convey to you? Just what an overwhelming moment this was in my life and I was still half asleep and finishing my dream. And here was my hero David Lewis telling me I’d got in. It was just a life changing moment. And I was thinking quick think of a question.

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S2: It was Alan’s first choice. If he got into Princeton, he was going to go. He knew the program inside and out. There were no questions. But then again, how do you just hang up on

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S3: David Lewis in the heat of the moment? I said, Yeah, how many Australians are in the department? And then there was just silence. At first, I thought it’s just the time delay because it was an international phone call. And so I was just hanging there, suspense, in fact, I was thinking, Oh my God, the great David Lewis is wondering, what have they just led into the graduate program? Anyway, finally, the answer came as it always did. Depends how you count Australians, and then came this beautiful taxonomy of if you counted Australians this way, you’d get this number, and if you count this other way, you’d get a different number. And it was like that with David from Slate.

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S4: This is high five nation philosophy in story form recording from Vassar College. Here’s Barry Lam

S2: David Kellogg Lewis was a philosopher, an influential and prolific one who was one of the most important figures in 20th century thought that few outside of academia know about him. I hope to change that in this, our second episode of The Man of Many Worlds, David Lewis learns about love and language, and we look at one of his most cited papers, which likens human conversations to a game of baseball. And.

S1: David was fairly tall. Slightly overweight. Very awkward socially and physically.

S2: Lisa Menn is from the Swarthmore class of 1962 David Lewis class here.

S1: I mean, everybody knew that his social and physical awkwardness were simply outweighed, at least at Swarthmore by his good heart and and his brilliant

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S2: Lisa’s college friend group had its origins at the 1958 Westinghouse Science Talent Search. Westinghouse was the sponsor of the National Science Fair Competition for 57 years. It’s sponsored by Regeneron today. That 1958 competition turned out to be very important for 20th century intellectual history. Listen through to the end to find out why. In any case, to Swarthmore students and previous finalists at the competition, Robert Swarthmore and John Goodman went to that competition to recruit students for Swarthmore. Lisa Menn was one of many who ended up choosing Swarthmore, and that group freshman year ended up being David Lewis this college circle.

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S1: We were very much what would now be called a nerd group math majors, physics majors, philosophy majors for fun. We talked, we talked and talked and talked, and we went on outing club trips. One other thing that held this bunch together, all of us have been science fiction fans and we got together. We had a science fiction library or my science fiction books ended up staying in that library. And so I think did many other peoples. We donated them and shared them. His physical awkwardness wasn’t terribly obvious when he was walking, but if he had to hurry, he had a strange walk like that.

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S2: A bit of a waddle.

S1: Yes, it was a walk. He had slightly odd hand gestures. He tended to gesture with his fingers together, where most of us would gesture with a relaxed, open hand. It was pale. Like the rest of us, he had acne. As far as I know, he didn’t date anybody. I’ve forgotten how we ended up having a date my senior year. But I remember that we went out for one evening with the lilacs were blooming.

S2: When David Lewis returned from Oxford for his junior and senior year, he was far and away the most philosophically sophisticated person in his friend group. We know from the historical record that Lewis was already developing views he would later publish on causation and possible worlds. The friend group always shared some classes together, and in the senior philosophy seminars, there was a practice where students would write on some topic for the week and then pass around a ditto copy of their writing to everyone else so they could respond to each other. Lisa remembers having written something without doing too much of her homework

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S1: the next week. David wrote a rebuttal to my paper. We wrote formally, but he wrote, really formally referring to me as philosophers did among themselves in those days as Miss Waldman, and pointed out that my considerations were totally superficial and that I had really not thought very carefully about the problem. And he was absolutely right. And it made very clear to me that in case I’d ever thought philosophy could possibly be my calling, it couldn’t. That was not where I belonged.

S2: OK, was this before or after you went on two dates? Because that was the foundational

S1: way before, OK?

S2: Because that doesn’t sound very nice. But, you know, David was very serious.

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S1: It was very serious. And it wasn’t a matter of not being nice. It was very it was very polite. I didn’t take it at most because I could see that he was completely right. We worked like crazy. We did compete for grades, but. We did not regard one another as the enemy. Because we had all been weirdos in high school. Finding oneself as Swarthmore was really an entrance to paradise, all of a sudden you didn’t have to hide who you were. You didn’t have to deliberately inhibit your fancy vocabulary that you’d gotten by spending you know your life since you were five years old reading. You could simply be you be interested in what you were interested in. And it was an incredible liberation.

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S2: Besides his wife, Steffi, whom he would meet at Harvard shortly, Lisa Menn, who was Lisa? Joe Waldman, then, is the only person who David Lewis ever went on a date with the only other person he ever indicated that he had some interest in romantically. Whether passing or otherwise. They went out once at Swarthmore senior year, and when they all graduated, Lisa went to Brandeis and David to Harvard, which are both in Boston. Lisa decided to throw a group birthday party on David’s birthday on September 28, 1962, when they were all first year graduate students. David and Lisa went out together once after

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S1: that in October. Around then, because I started dating the man, I married Mike Menn sometime. In October, and I married him in December,

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S2: was David attractive? No. Oh OK.

S1: Poor David. No.

S2: But you saw something in him that you liked his company.

S1: He was thoughtful. He was interesting to talk to and being interesting to talk to, I suppose became one of the things that attracted me to people always. You know what? The kind of people who end up in Swarthmore honors are like there are people who were not popular in high school were the brains when it came to winning some sort of prize. You got in the school paper and otherwise you didn’t exist. Girls hadn’t usually had any dates in high school. I was a lucky exception to that. But what this meant was that by the time I was a senior, God knows I was not sophisticated. Nevertheless, I was vastly more sophisticated than David, who really didn’t know blue from purple when it came to, you know, just it was totally naive. And I never should have bothered the poor boy. I never should have asked him out because I knew he had a bit of a crush on me and I had no intention of reciprocating. I wanted some company. I would say it was almost cruel of me to have asked him out. When I got smarter after him, by the time I had my divorce, the last time I saw David and the only time I saw Steffi in 1974, the Linguistics Society of America, headed by any offloading summer school, David and Steffi also attended this linguistic institute, which ran, I think, for six weeks in admiration.

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S2: Lisa ended up as a linguist after having spent some time having and raising children. She went back to graduate school for her Ph.D. and had a long and distinguished career at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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S1: There was a guest lecture once a week, and after the guest lecturer, there was fear and lemonade, and he and Steffi came to one of these little lemonade. And so I saw him and I pulled myself together, and I apologize to him for not having been very nice to him. And I believe he accepted my apology, and I believe Steffi was there.

S2: I haven’t heard anything that suggests you weren’t nice to him, though.

S1: As I said I was, it was cruel of me to have asked him out, having no interest in him and knowing that he had a crush on me. But 20 year old girls are not known for their insight into human relations.

S2: Maybe this may be a generational thing, though, Lisa, because it doesn’t strike me as cruel, I guess people go out have fun, but maybe that’s a 1961 is a very different time.

S1: We’re actually up to 62 now. He was so helpless. Barry. He had no idea how to interact with a girl, how to flirt, how to know when somebody was serious. How to. He was helpless. And then, you know, then I ran off and got married. I actually. Had called my friends together for a sort of bachelorette supper the night before and announced that I was going to get married the next day, but I had told people to pass the word around and they thoughtfully didn’t pass it to David.

S2: The helplessness that Lisa remembers about a young David Lewis in social contexts was not completely independent of the philosophical work. He went on to produce at Harvard. Despite a professional career shaped by topics like time travel, alternate universes, chance and quantum branching, David Lewis spent a lot of time thinking and writing about how people talk to each other. It may be the closest connection we’ll find between David Lewis, the person and David Lewis the philosopher. If you ask people and trust me, I’ve asked a lot of people what David Lewis was like. There’s one answer that keeps coming up over and over again.

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S5: He did not have a command of small talk.

S6: He wasn’t very good at small talk.

S7: A conversation with David. It wasn’t like a conversation with most people.

S6: You sort of ask him. Good to see you again, David. Where have you been so far?

S7: So there’d be a pause while he assembled his thoughts.

S6: It’s just not normal conversation to have such a long pause before you answer.

S2: Philosophers John, Bigelow and Frank Jackson

S5: friends of David my dad. He came to visit us in

S2: L.A. Steffi Louis, David’s wife

S5: and he and David would sit at the dining room table with cups of coffee and not say a word for. Hours at a time. Hours, well, now for how long do you sit over a cup of coffee?

S6: He had another strategy instead of dead silence. He kept the place open by saying very slowly. I don’t see

S2: I. Here’s tape of David Lewis responding to an objection in 1999 in a lecture on causation at Harvard. I think that.

S3: It’s likely. That. There is. A special kind of causation. I’m not sure what to call it

S6: and what you got in reply was all divided into paragraphs,

S7: all very carefully phrased, saying what he thought, marshaling the relevant information, pointing out why it came to this conclusion rather than the

S6: conclusions to much more information. You were really just making conversation. But he didn’t really get just doing conversation in quite that way.

S3: Some famous philosopher was giving a talk.

S2: Alan Hajek, Australian National University at Princeton.

S3: I don’t know who it was and David was in the audience. And then at Q&A, David’s hand went up in it. It’s hard to convey this through the microphone, but

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S2: if your elbow is on an armrest or on a desk, you just rotate your from your elbow exactly as a pivot point and you just say, OK,

S3: that’s it. David then said, I have 11 questions and famously David just asked beautiful questions. And so he asked his series of questions. And then the speaker said something like, Well, ha ha David. That’s a lot of questions. Not sure I can remember them all. And then without missing a beat, David said, That’s OK. I’ll repeat them this time with mnemonic devices. I think social interactions didn’t come so naturally to him, and I actually think you can understand his philosophical work better by knowing these facts about him personally. It was almost as if he was observing, and I should say he was a very shrewd observer of humans. But what are people doing? What are they saying? How does it all fit together?

S2: I have letters Alan Lewis, David sister.

S8: They’re just full of odd and wildly descriptive and detailed reports and descriptions of little corners of the world that that he was so in tune with and so perspicacious about understanding people, places, animals, nature habits, cultural habits, conventions, funny language things, conventions of language.

S3: And I think you can see the influence of that in various classic papers of his where it’s like he’s trying to formulate the rules for social interaction. Think of papers like scorekeeping in a language game.

S2: David Lewis is most cited papers like Google Scholar is about the way that conversation is like a baseball game. So much of what you do when a game depends on very complicated scorelines. It’s the bottom of the ninth with one out. The game is tied. Runners on second and third clean up batters at the plate. He’s four for five for the day, hitting 325 with 26 home runs. The next batter is over five, hitting 236. What do you do as the pitcher? For those who know the game, the answer is easy. Intentional walk if you don’t know the game, you’ll be overwhelmed with a bombardment of numbers that don’t mean anything to you. The innings, the outs, the runs, the count. Runners on base. The line up, the game stats. These are all things a baseball fan keeps track of. To understand the game. If you don’t know what these numbers mean, you have no idea what’s happening in the game. Now, you know what small talk was like for David Lewis,

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S3: when conversation comes easily to you don’t even really know how you’re doing it, how you’re keeping, as Lewis would say, conversational score.

S2: David Lewis argued that conversation, like baseball, requires people to keep a score. A list of stats and moves that have happened in it. Only it’s not innings and runs, it’s eight other things. In reality, it’s probably more than eight things more like 35. And knowing how to converse is the know how the score determines the next move to make in the conversation.

S3: You’re sort of updating on what’s been said, you’re taking into account what’s being presupposed, you’re accommodating what your interlocutors saying. Lewis started to formulate rules for how this works.

S2: David Lewis pointed out that just about every single kind of term seems to have its own conversational rule the word the. For example, if there are three cats in the room Abby, Bruce and Carly and someone says the cat, which cat are they referring to? It’s the cat that stands out the most. A conversational scoreboard has to have a list of objects that stand out objects that are salient. Initially, Bruce is the only one darting around, but he’s high on catnip. Bruce goes on the conversational scoreboard as most silly of cat. So now when your mom says the cat needs to go outside, you’re to interpret that she means Bruce, not the other two. Another couple of rules are there to tell you what people mean by the words today and tomorrow. There’s always this moment a little past midnight on a weekend, say, Saturday night, Sunday morning, where you’re talking with your friends and they want to know what you want to do tomorrow. Are they talking about Sunday or Monday? David Lewis thought it depends on whether the scoreboard says you’re in a low position context or a high precision. Most of the time, if you’re hanging out casually with your friends, you keep track of time imprecisely, you can say it’s 8:30 when it’s actually a 28 or 32. So if the scoreboard says it’s a low precision context, 12:01 a.m. Sunday can still count as being Saturday so that the word tomorrow refers to Sunday. Compare that to New Year’s Eve, a day when everyone is highly precise about time and day. Suddenly, the clock strikes midnight, and then it’s 12:01 a.m. It’s a new day and a new year for everyone in the conversation. The scoreboard says it’s a high precision conversation. If you now said today will begin a new year for me. Today refers to New Year’s Day, not New Year’s Eve, even though it’s the exact same time as in the previous example, the level of precision on the scoreboard has changed. So the interpretation of today and tomorrow has changed. But for all of the rules and all of the words they apply to. There is one rule that Lewis thought was central in conversation. If you didn’t know it, you would be completely lost trying to converse. And there’s no analog of it in baseball. In baseball, there’s a rule if a pitcher throws four balls out of the strike zone during an at bat. The batter gets to go to first base a walk. That score always determines that action. But no other score determines that action. But what if there were a baseball game where the pitcher throws three balls and the batter just starts walking to first base? And rather than tell the batter, he’s made a mistake and make him go back? The game counts the batter as having walked. The walk goes on the scoreboard and the game continues as though the batter walked. David Lewis pointed out that conversations are like this. Sometimes wrong moves become the right moves because we changed the score to make the wrong moves the right ones. Imagine we’re back in the high precision New Year’s Day conversation. It’s 12:20 a.m. Everyone’s all partied out. They finished talking about their New Year’s resolutions and your friend says, I’m going home to bed. You want to go to that new falafel place tomorrow? Now, the natural interpretation is that your friend is using tomorrow to mean later today, New Year’s Day. You might be pedantic and correct your friend for her mistake, but instead, most of the time you’ll just say, All right, I’ll see you tomorrow. Do you see what you’ve done? You’ve switched back to a low precision conversation? The scoreboard has changed to accommodate what your friend has said. And this works for all rules to a certain extent, argued David Lewis. If you let Bruce the cat out and now mom says the cat is hungry and Abby is the only cat walking around, then you change the salient cat on the scoreboard to Abby because that’s what you need to do to make sense of your mom’s new statement. David Lewis called this the rule of accommodation in conversation, unlike in baseball. You make it so that whatever someone is saying is true and reasonable and you make the conversational score, whatever you need to make it so that the other person’s words are true and reasonable. They walk with three balls is a walk. That’s a rule of conversation. That’s how you make small talk. For the fields of theoretical linguistics and the philosophy of language, David Lewis was formulating explicit rules that we already know how to follow in everyday life. But for David Lewis, these papers might very well have been his own instruction manuals. But how to engage in a practice everyone else already knew about. That’s Alan Hajek Spear. Tell me what your life was like before you met David.

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S5: Well, I was a college undergraduate.

S2: I was Steffi. Louis was born Stephanie M. Robinson in 1944 and raised in Greenwich Village in New York City. She was the top achieving math student at Bronx High School of Science when she entered Radcliffe College in the class of 1965. It had already merged with Harvard.

S5: It was indistinguishable from Harvard. By the time you got there, it was the same course of instruction. I had aced everything in high school. But when I got to university and discovered that what I was good at was high school and not mathematics, I had to find something else to do.

S2: Steffi. In her early years at Harvard, Radcliffe decided to try your hand at majoring in philosophy. She was dating another David David trillion Harvard undergraduate who was majoring in philosophy. And they made a habit of attending graduate courses to see what the most advanced thinking in the field looked like. One of the courses was taught by a visiting Australian philosopher, Jack or JJ C Smart and one of the graduate students in that course was David Lewis. What first attracted you to David when you first saw him?

S5: He seemed attracted to me, which? Made a big difference, and I was then getting interested in philosophy and being committed to philosophy. Here was somebody who is a very good philosopher already and a star in the making. And if I wanted to do philosophy, I had to be like David. I had to understand how he worked. If there was any pursuing done, it was made pursuing him.

S2: How does his attraction to you manifest being a guy who was introverted and didn’t make small talk much?

S5: I have known a lot of fairly strange people and articulate people in high school, so I was used to that when I saw him a lot. I was around the philosophy department a lot. He, of course, being a visible graduate student was around the philosophy department a lot so we could spend time together. She seemed interested in me. He seemed interested in talking to me and listening to me, and kind of nature took over from there. I think he must have been thinking of me as a potential wife quite early, although he never said anything about it.

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S2: Steffi broke it off with the other David in favor of our David, and she had decided to study philosophy for a living as well. So by the time it was her senior year, there was only one thing keeping them from getting married. David Lewis philosophical prodigy was close to failing out of the program.

S5: He David had had trouble passing his metaphysics prelim exam at Harvard. You had to take prelims in metaphysics, ethics and philosophy of science. It sailed through ethics and philosophy of science, but for some reason he hung up on the Metaphysics exam.

S2: Every graduate student got three tries to pass. Each prelim David Lewis had failed the Metaphysics exam twice.

S5: He was not good at exam taking, and she would get a question with something interesting on it, and he’d get stuck on that question and not to the rest of them and wound up not passing the exams. If you hadn’t passed by your third try, you were removed from the graduate program. It scared everybody.

S2: David’s friends rallied around him. His graduate school friends got exam questions from all the exams. Undergraduates at Harvard, his old friends from Swarthmore, many of whom were doing PhDs of their own, tried to train David on leaving a question unfinished and moving on to the next question. Regardless of how much you wanted to think and write about it. He drilled practice exams many times. It was Steffi senior year in college. David third year of graduate school. His career and it turned out their life together depended on him passing, so

S5: David went and took his motor physics exam for the third time, and as soon as he got word from Hilary Putnam, who administered the exam that he’d passed it, David asked me to marry him and I breathlessly accepted. My mother was interested in my life and my friends. She was a bit nosey, my mother, she like, know who is around her and what was going on. But she’d not met anybody as a combination of charming and inarticulate that David was. He didn’t respond to my mother’s efforts to bring him out or charm him. But it was clear that he was very smart and it was clear that he was fond of me and that kind of sealed the deal with my mother.

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S2: Meanwhile, Jack Smart, the Australian philosopher who taught the seminar where Steffi met David, returned to Australia with stories of a philosophical prodigy. He met at Harvard. An intimate academic scene that it was smart was preparing Australia for first contact with David and Steffi Lewis in what would be the other great character in their relationship and a prominent setting for the revival of metaphysics in the second half of the 20th century.

S7: David came to Australia for over 20 years. Every winter, the

S5: philosophy scene was very lively and David Lewis was much in evidence as a star philosopher.

S2: Next time on High Fine Nations miniseries, The Man of Many Worlds, David Lewis becomes known as the man of many worlds.

S3: We strive to understand possible worlds as giant universes, and our world is just one among many of these worlds.

S2: And he crosses paths with someone known to his friends from Swarthmore, a teenager they all saw in Washington, DC, where they met and became the Swarthmore crew. Even then, it was clear to his peers that this kid was the foremost intellect amongst American teenagers in the late 50s.

S1: But mention that I was a science talent search winner and 58

S2: Lise Menn David friend from college

S1: that the other person in the same category is so creepy that everybody knew that soul was obviously way above the rest of us. I first heard of David Lewis through Peter Ungar, who was a contemporary of his at Swarthmore College.

S2: Coming up next time, the prime of David Lewis philosophical career and how it was made up of collaboration and clashes with Saul Crypton, the other person at that point in intellectual history, thinking seriously about alternate possible worlds.

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S4: Hi Fi Nation is written, produced and edited by Barry Lam, associate professor and chair of philosophy at Vassar College. Executive producer of Slate Podcast is Alicia Montgomery, editorial director for Slate Podcast is Gabriel Roth, senior managing producer for Slate Podcast. Is June Thomas, managing producer for Slate Podcast is Asha Saluja, editor of Slate Pleases Me channel to production assistants this season provided by Jake Johnson. Visit Hyphenation. Org for complete transcript show notes and reading list for every episode that HIPAA Nation Talk Follow, Follow Fi Nation on Facebook and Twitter, and at the website for updates on stories and ideas.