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  • The Syndrome of the Thermometer:Two Machines for Reading Thoughts
  • Pierre Cassou-Noguès (bio)

My uncle is obsessed with thermometers. I have seen him, in the street, stop in front of a chemist to check whether there would not be a thermometer in the window. Then he would carefully read the temperature. In his house, every room has its own thermometer (electronic, usually, as these are more precise). There are thermometers hidden in various places in the garden, too. When he is visiting, he often leaves a thermometer somewhere in the house. He may pity his hosts, living without a thermometer at hand. But, more likely, he just wants to make sure that he will be able to read the room temperature next time he comes. He is afraid to be too hot. He thinks that you are more likely to catch viruses when you are hot and sweaty. Apparently that is not true, but it is quite a common belief. However, the peculiar thing about my uncle is that he does not seem to know whether he is hot before he has checked the outside temperature. He is not a zombie, or a robot. He is my uncle. He does seem to have an inner life. It is just that he trusts his thermometers more than himself. I will call it “the thermometer syndrome.”

It is not exactly that my uncle is making a grammatical mistake, confusing “I am hot” with “it is hot.” It is true that the two sentences have become equivalent for him. He is hot when, and only when, it is hot. Or, more precisely, he is hot when and only when the thermometer tells him that it is hot. I am sure he would say that he is hot (he may even start sweating) if the thermometer showed a high temperature when it is only mild. However, this equivalence between “I am hot” and “it is hot” (or “the thermometer shows a high temperature”) is not a grammatical mistake but rather a form of life that my uncle, and other supra-rational technophiles (I am sure you know one) have designed for themselves. Could not we be hot when, and only when, it is hot? It seems that life would be simpler in fact, more rational. What would we lose? The feeling of being hot, which would no longer count for anything, which might disappear altogether? But what do we need it for? It is unpleasant anyway to feel hot.

My first point is that our fascination for neuroscience resembles the thermometer syndrome: we may come to rely on machines for reading our mind, in order to know what is in our mind, more than we rely on [End Page 39] ourselves. Just like my uncle relies on the thermometer (showing the room temperature) to tell him whether or not he is hot, rather than on his own feeling. My second point is that this trust in mindreading machines amounts to a change in our form of life (in Wittgenstein’s sense), which does not result from technical progress only. I do not say that we are free to adopt or not this new mode of being. It may not be a decision on our part but rather the result of a vague set of beliefs, an ideology, if you will. However, as I said, my uncle’s thermometers do not need to work perfectly, they do not need to show accurately the outside temperature, and there does not need to be an exact correlation between the outside temperature and the feeling of being hot. Certainly, my uncle’s syndrome would not exist if thermometers really did not work. Such a life would just not be sustainable. The man would always be sick. But as long as thermometers work reasonably well, pragmatically, so that my uncle does not catch a cold too often, the rest is a matter of choice, or an ideological affair, at least something outside technology itself.

I will come back on these two points while discussing two fictitious machines for reading thoughts in French literature: one which does not work but which we could easily adopt, and the other...


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pp. 39-60
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