August 10, 2014
I ran into a character named Philip Low this week at a conference organized by Carla Molento, who runs an important research group on animal welfare in Brazil. It was the kind of week that makes the otherwise humdrum life of the peripatetic academic interesting. Philip is a brilliant neuroscientist who is currently trying to make a go with a start-up called NeuroVigil, Inc. He also has sociopathic tendencies. Of course we could say that about a lot of us—sociopathic tendencies, I mean, not the “brilliant neuroscientist” part. There was, for example, a strange exchange with Adroaldo Zanella (formerly at MSU) in which the two wound up virtually shouting at each other despite the fact that they were in total agreement about the point under discussion.
You run into a lot of scientists in my line of work who have an inflated sense of their own importance, but it is rarer to encounter one who thinks that they can change the world. Philip is in that category, bless him. Aside from his own research and his inventions for non-invasive brain research, he is keen on “declarations”—statements signed by lots of people with an inflated sense of their own importance. He was instrumental in engineering one called “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness”. You might find it interesting to Google that, though don’t confuse it with the one calling on evangelicals to renew their commitment to confessional Christianity.
At any rate, Philip gets a bee in his bonnet about having the illustrious figures at this conference (this would include yours truly, recall) to produce yet another declaration. So long story short, he, Carla and Daniel Braga Lourenço (another illustrious attendee) stay up until about about 1:00am on Thursday morning drafting a statement that says, in effect, “Animals are not objects and we should not treat them that way.” The actual text of the declaration was in Portuguese so I was not entirely sure of what it said, but a) I trust Carla and b) I could make out enough of it to be satisfied with it. So I signed it, along with a bunch of other speakers. Now just to be clear, despite what I’m about to say, I have no regrets about that. At least not until someone tells me that the Portuguese bits I couldn’t understand said something like “There were absolutely no sexual innuendos in the lyrics of Louie, Louie” or something else that I couldn’t possibly abide.
So we get down to the end of the conference after a very long day on Thursday and the declaration is read aloud, which gets a standing ovation. After which I beat it back to the bus with John Webster where we proceed to have a fascinating conversation about episodic memory (I told you it’s normally hum drum). Carla shows up on the bus looking for Philip and showing some agitation. Neither John nor I pick up on this too much, so we both congratulate her on a fine conference and continue our conversation. But then at dinner we get the details from Françoise Wemelsfelder. It seems that while the conference officials were congratulating one another, Philip has disappeared with the signed copy of the declaration.
He was eventually tracked down and he agreed to allow a Xerox copy. However, when Carla asked for the original (thinking quite reasonably by my lights that it should stay with the conference’s official sponsors), Philip says, “No. It’s mine.” And he walks off.
Françoise reports that Carla is deeply offended and shocked by this, and asks what can we do about it? Françoise has confronted Philip in the elevator at our hotel and he has blown her off, too. It makes us wonder a bit about what Philip intends to do with this signed piece of paper, though again John and I agree that it seems unlikely that he could parlay it into something untoward. I guess John wasn’t too worried about that Louie, Louie thing, either. So I say that it’s the kind of thing that someone should write a blog about, just to let Carla know that we support her and also to get something into a somewhat public record, just in case.
So excuse my departure from the usual mid-summer foolishness, but that’s just what I’m doing.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University