Handcarts, beer, and apes

To the rest of the world, today is an ordinary Monday – people are going to work, the mail is being delivered, the media focus on the latest outrages issuing from politicians, and so on. But here in Utah, it is Pioneer Day, a holiday bigger than the Fourth of July. Pioneer Day marks when Mormon settlers completed their arduous trek from Missouri to the Salt Lake Valley, thus entering into their Promised Land and escaping the hegemony and oppression of their tyrannical overlords – this being the U. S. government.


(from the Salt Lake Tribune, illustration by Francisco Kjolseth) 

Like any such holiday, it’s more hype than history, and it tends to drive non-Mormon Utahns (called “gentiles” in these parts) straight up the wall. And so they celebrate their own holiday – “Pie ‘n’ Beer” Day, trumpeting the fact that they prefer beer to celebratory parades of handcarts. It is all meant in good fun, and most Mormons take it in stride. But, beneath the humor and irony, Pie ‘n’ Beer day is a way for Utahn gentiles to celebrate the ways in which they can escape the hegemony and oppression of their tyrannical overlords – this being the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

My family and I tend to be on the reclusive side, and so we will avoid any handcart parades or parties featuring pie and beer (separately delicious, but a most unfortunate combination, to my way of thinking). Instead, we have taken this holiday weekend to watch the latest re-boots of the Planet of the Apes movies.

The movies (Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn o.t.P.o.t.A.) are better than the original movies in every conceivable way, and all the credit goes to CGI and the amazing Andy Serkis. The core thrill of the films is to see apes – mistreated and tortured by greedy and violent humans – rise in intelligence and power until they can break free from their bondage and create a civilization of their own, while the human civilization goes down in flames.


Andy Serkis as Caesar

It’s puzzling why my family, a small band of human primates, should cheer while watching our kind get pounded by another branch of primates. But I think it is because the films highlight ways in which we know our civilization has gone wrong – the capitalistic enterprises of pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering, the cruelty of those enterprises, and the broad human disposition toward war and devastating weaponry. The apes, led by the forward-thinking Caesar, represent at least the possibility of a different path – though one, as it turns out, that ends up facing the same problems of greed, power, treachery, and tragic misfortune. By cheering for the apes, we are cheering for some fantasy in which we can wipe the slate clean and establish a new society, thus celebrating the thought of escape from the hegemony and oppression of our tyrannical overlords – in this case, our own species.

Plus, the apes are wicked cool as they swing through the trees and roar and tumble. They are delightful films to watch with a beer in hand – saving the pie for later.

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The Shed

About five years ago, we hired a great guy named Joe Smart to build a philosopher’s shed for me. (More about that story here.) I’m really glad to have this separate place for reading, thinking, and writing – as nutty as it may seem to anyone else. Anyway, just to celebrate the approach of our five year anniversary, here are some photos from the shed (or, as it is officially named, The Canyon Road Institute for Humanistic Studies).

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Philosophy: it helps you get reddit points

The blog Useful Concepts posted a set of interesting observations about why philosophy doesn’t have more of a cultural presence, particularly on the web. The author posted on reddit, and then summed up the more cogent replies. What he came up with is: (1) philosophy isn’t taught in schools; (2) when it is taught, it’s taught badly, focusing more on who thought what rather than the ideas themselves; (3) academic philosophy focuses on pointless distinctions rather than big pictures; (4) public debate is usually unreflective; (5) the media are profit-driven, and not idea-driven. This all seems right to me.

A question raised along the way, by a very polite commenter, is why philosophy is worth doing. I know this question is asked a lot, but it should be asked a lot, because the answers to it are rarely obvious. There is the “unexpected benefits of open-ended questions” answer, alongside “the unexamined life is not worth living” and “the discipline of critical thinking” and “integrating fields of knowledge”, as well as “helps you with law school”. All of these have something to them, and I don’t see a need to award one the trophy of best answer (though if I did, the law school one would not get it). But I do think there is a way to combine them all into a hazy, single answer.

It is this: philosophy helps you get reddit points.

redditNow for the explanations. If you are on the web, you probably don’t need to be told what “reddit” is, as it is in the top ten of websites visited by the entire world. It is an inconceivably huge forum for discussing anything from quantum mechanics to dadjokes to whatever. And while (as one would expect) there are acres and acres of crap, there are also acres and acres of good, substantive discussions. Perhaps my favorite subreddit – suggested to me by a student – is “r/changemyview”, on which people express their views and other people try to reason them out of them. In this subreddit, as with many others, the discussion is sharp, clear, respectful, on target, and ruthlessly defended against trolls. On such subreddits, one gets points for making comments that are deemed valuable by everyone else (“valuable” here meaning “that is very insightful!” or “that is very funny!” – or sometimes “Good for you for admitting your mistake!”).

Now obviously there are ways to amass reddit points without any inclination whatsoever toward philosophical thought. If you possess wit, or have a knack for expressing what the readers of some specific subreddit are prone to like, or can express the profane to the profane, you will get points on some subreddit or other. I don’t mean to paint reddit as some Athenian agora populated only by fair-minded savants.  But if you happen to be a fair-minded savant, and you steer your browser away from the acres of crap and toward more enlightened discussions, your study of philosophy will help you to accrue reddit points.

This is because at its heart philosophy is informed fair-mindedness. The marks of a good philosopher are being able to see any complex problem from multiple points of view and being able to express those differing perspectives with clarity. Readers of reddit, at least on the sites I have in mind, dig that sort of thing, and they’ll upvote what you say.

But what, you may ask, is the point of getting reddit points? There is no point, except for the fact that you are getting them for making valuable contributions to a public discussion. You are being helpful, and building the discussion in a positive direction. If you ask me why that’s important, I’m really stuck; it just seems to me that’s a good thing to do, especially in a world where it happens pretty rarely.

You also may ask, “How many points do you have, Charlie?” and my answer is a paltry 600. That’s not a lot in the reddit universe. In my own defense, I don’t post or comment very much. I’m basing my opinions here on what I generally see as I read my way through reddit posts, including the one entitled “Philosophy is disappearing from public debate and it’s the fault of philosophers.”  In this way, the reddit discussion neatly contradicts its own thesis: there are plenty of philosophically-inclined reddit commenters out there, thank goodness, enriching our public discourse and getting well-deserved points for it.

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“Perfect Language” essay on Aeon

L0026297 J. Wilkins, An essay towards a real character...Poets, historians, scientists, philosophers – we all seek to capture the world in a net of language. Yet it is the nature of nets to capture some things while letting others slip away. Our words turn experiences into objects, qualities and actions, and we can build these into a kind of structure, a tower reaching into the sky – but towers can go only so far, and there are always the negative spaces surrounding the structure and its beams. What is left unsaid speaks volumes.

We might resign ourselves to this fact – the inescapable limits of what’s sayable – but in fact a great many minds have sought to construct a perfect language, one that carves reality at its joints, and captures the whole shebang of human experience. Presumably God was speaking such a language when he spoke the world into being – a common tongue that was lost at Babel. Or perhaps a perfect language can be built from atomic elements that reflect the most basic concepts a mind can have, with rules that keep it clean from all the clutter that the accidents of history place on our tongues.

The rest here.

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My Life as an NPC

NPCcover2Another Stacks of Books essay to add to the library. This one makes good on a promise I’ve been making for sometime, which was to reflect philosophically on playing Skyrim. (Now those hundreds of hours can count as research!). I’m especially interested in non-playable characters (NPCs), or the fake people one runs into in these virtual worlds. They couldn’t pass the Turing Test. But what would it take for them to do so? And once we start thinking along these lines, how might we understand ourselves to be NPCs?


I’ll post a brief excerpt, one I had a lot of fun writing. It concerns a moment when Lydia, our faithful NPC companion in the game, shows signs of consciousness. The whole essay is available on Amazon here.


The second time it happens is when we are trying to sneak up on a troll. They are nasty creatures, tough to kill, so a sneak attack can really help. Suddenly Lydia asks, “What happens when you sleep?”

Really, now you ask?! I want to say. But I don’t want to lose the opportunity; and if the troll kills us, well, we’ll have another chance anyway. “What do you see happening when I sleep?”

She thinks. “You lie on the bed and don’t move and I watch you for several hours.”

“For me it is only a few seconds. Nothing happens.”

She presses onward. “So is it like death?”

“No,” I say. “For one thing, I don’t go back in time to before I went to sleep.”

Suddenly the troll is upon us! It makes a noise – something like, “Raaw! Uglyuglynosleepsyforugsytrollses.” I am utterly stunned. Trolls do not speak! But Lydia is untroubled and takes up the conversation with the troll. “I don’t sleep either. I see that other people do, but I never seem to need it.”

The troll nods, and says something like, “Raaw! Ikillsyotherusesandthen stompsybutnosleepsyfurugsytrollses.” The two of them carry on for a few more exchanges, but I cannot follow what they are saying because I cannot stop thinking: LYDIA IS HAVING A CONVERSATION WITH A TROLL ABOUT THEIR LIFE EXPERIENCES. I feel a panic rising in me, and suddenly more than anything else I need to get out of this cave, so I run to the sunny world outside. What is happening? Is there a consciousness emerging in this strange world? Am I spreading it, like a disease? Is this some kind of new magic – a magic even deeper than the kind that lets me die and come back and remember it? Am I really just like Lydia or the troll – occasionally coming into consciousness, but just not remembering all those times when I am not conscious? Lydia’s question returns to me, but more threatening: what does happen when I sleep?

Suddenly Lydia emerges and stands by my side, ready to go. “Hey, look, a cave. I wonder what’s inside?” she says. I sigh.

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The Age of Moonshot Ideals?

future-marketingIt is hopeless to try to guess at how the future will judge us. We are in the thick of things, and we don’t know what will emerge as important or significant over time. Events that seem to us exciting may well be completely forgotten (except perhaps among specialists), and slow, incremental changes that we are not even noticing may turn out to have huge consequences, and become the banner for our age. For all we know, we are now in the Age of Genetic Hope, or the Age of Solar Awakening, or the Age of Socially Conscious Marsupials, or some other theme we do not even have terms for. Only an idiot tries to guess in advance.

So here we go. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it turned out that we are now living in the Age of Moonshot Ideals? I’m thinking here of the massive projects undertaken by the likes of Google and SpaceX and even the efforts of cheerleaders for science like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. There is a long list of faults, gaps, and genuine worries associated with these projects, to be sure, but I will ignore them for now. For there also is a possibility that there will be a coming generation of smart people who (okay, this goes against my surly temperament, but I will say it) look to the stars and ask themselves, “Why not?” Why not use the great insights we are gaining into human and artificial natures and chart our own hopeful course into the future? Why not create colonies on Mars, AI systems that can work our complex economic and logistical problems, and genetic engineering that will make us better, stronger, and more capable?

Alongside these efforts will be sagacious bystanders, armed with solid knowledge of history and well-founded pessimism about large-scale human endeavors, who will warn and scold and preach the apocalypse. But what if these bystanders are, for once, totally wrong, and the march of science goes on, and we create a Star Trek style of near utopia? What if, hearing all the warnings and objections raised by the bystanders, the tech-elites respond: “Good point; I think we can develop a work-around for that” – and then they actually do?

Wouldn’t that be cool?

As I have said, this sort of bright-eyed optimism goes against my temperament (I would be sure to be one of the nay-saying bystanders), but it cannot be denied that this is a possibility. Moreover, it may be that the possibility itself becomes more probable only if people like me are put in the back seat and others follow their bright-eyed optimistic visions, heedless of all our well-placed worries. As Project Hieroglyph has been urging, it may be time for sci-fi authors to start writing more optimistic visions of the future, manufacturing more or less the same brand of hopeful Kool-Aid that was generated in the times leading up to the actual moonshot project of the 1960s. We can look back on and laugh at that brand of sci-fi as comically naive. But the fact is that many engineers who got us into space were inspired as kids by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and Gene Roddenberry. “Nothing great is achieved without enthusiasm,” as Emerson wrote – and “enthusiasm” here means something like irrational frenzy, or being possessed by some demonic spirit that refuses to listen to the rational voices advising us that it can’t be done.

Well, it’s something to consider. I’ll now retreat back to my flat-footed skepticism. But I’ll look up to the stars now and then, and permit myself a small moment of hope.

Posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 1 Comment

Sloterdijk’s Spheres

sphere_1_lgI finished reading volume 3 of Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy, and then went back and read the whole series again. It has been a delightful struggle to think through the rich banquet of ideas and images he offers. I have written up my overall account of the work in a new “Stacks of Books” essay (available on Amazon). I’ll share here an excerpt regarding the third volume, Foams.


Foams are masses of little bubbles, of course. As metaphor, foams represent smaller zones of inclusion filled with the air of hope. The metaphor is perhaps best grasped through a vision articulated by the biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), who wrote that the universe “consists not of a single soap bubble that we have blown up beyond our horizon into the infinite, but of countless millions of narrowly bounded soap bubbles that overlap and intersect everywhere” (quoted on III, 60). The general picture, it seems, is that with the collapse of macrospheres, we are left with smaller, hopeful zones of human interaction, inclusion, and mutual concern. But this reaches further than a mere “think small” sort of program, as the foams we construct must meet the survival needs that prompted our earliest spheres but at the same time meet with the realities of the modern (or post-modern) world.

What lies before us is the task of marking multiplicities of individual space among humans as processes of foam in which defense and invention merge into each other – as speaking foams, one could say, as immune systems that dream beyond themselves … via the establishment of a personalized traffic system, to the creation of a customized world picture poem. (III, 232)

This may sound obscure or strange or impossible, but a short reflection on contemporary life should make it familiar. Each of us may be registered as a citizen of a nation, and perhaps work for a sizable corporation, and belong to a venerable religious tradition. But typically none of these things really characterize who we are or where we find our sense of belonging. We assemble into smaller units whose members are friends and family (the distinction does not matter much), and our foam-mates may be geographically dispersed across the globe. We find meaning and joy in a shared set of ideas, projects, games, and social values, and in our shared history. What binds us is not nationality, nor the relation of co-worker, nor even a shared religion, unless it just so happens that our social circle coincides with people in our place of worship. The common thread that brings your friends together is you – and each of your friends can say the same of their circle of friends, which also includes you. The resultant picture is not just a set of fixed bubbles, but smaller spheres of friendship and closeness that vary according to the point of view that is adopted: each circle of friends is “a psychic relationship of reciprocal harboring” (III, 279). The familiarity of our social networks can blind us to the fact that this is a relatively new way of human being.

The foam philosophy is suited especially to urban life, where individuals live in close proximity to one another but usually do not run in the same circles. We live in “co-isolation”, in a sense, but each of us is also joined with our own set of companions. Each apartment has its own world to share, its own set of diplomatic ties and allies and enemies, and its own shared protective shell with others.

The co-isolated forms of individualistically conditioned society are not mere agglomerations of adjacent (separation-sharing) inert and solid bodies, but rather multiplicities of loosely touching lifeworldly cells, each of which, due to its individual width, possesses the dignity of a universe. (III, 565)

We might think here of various radio shows or podcasts that tell us the stories of our neighbors. These shows invariably introduce us to worlds of greater complexity, troubles, and nuance than we ever would have imagined. We step into another’s life, adjacent to our own, and share for a few minutes their wealth of connections – or, often, their peculiar forms of poverty and their species of loss we could not previously conceive. Each cell in the foam presents “a symbol-woven magic tent of internal meanings and tensions” (III, 459).

At the outer logical limit of this social form is the architectural fantasy of Constant Anton Nieuwenhuis’s New Babylon project. Constant, a Dutch artist who died in 2005, envisioned a shared city and living space in which the inhabitants could bring their creative potentials into full expression.

Constant New Babylon

Constant’s New Babylon

Constant’s hope was that new technologies and economical transformation would allow for a city of people at play. It is, of course, a utopia, but it is in such imagined utopias that we catch glimpses of what lives we would form when given total freedom. According to Wikipedia’s summary of New Babylon, “the bourgeois shackles of work, family life, and civic responsibility would be discarded. The post-revolutionary individual would wander from one leisure environment to another in search of new sensations. Beholden to no one, he would sleep, eat, recreate, and procreate where and when he wanted”. Sloterdijk’s own characterization of it is “an artificial paradise in the form of a planetary climbing park for constantly creative mutants who give new meaning to the term ‘world interior’” (III, 618). We do not live in New Babylon, certainly, but the life it advertises is not far off from the luxurious lifestyle of today’s well-off urbanites.

There is no common center, and no outermost shell. The macrospheres of nation and religion continue to fade, for, truly, God remains dead. But that does not spell the end of community. Community must emerge – for that is what we are – and it emerges (again) “multifocally, multiperspectivally and heterarchically”.

Now, chances are, any intellectual surveying this foam philosophy is likely to see dystopia. For an “artificial paradise” is no real paradise; for a life of play is no genuine human life; for humans must be centered in a meaningful worldview for their lives to have any purpose; and so on, and so forth. Human life is a serious, tragic business. But is it really? Our history and pre-history, filled as they are with shortages of food, plagues, tribal and national warfare, and ethnic hatreds certainly suggest that it is. And so we are rightfully suspicious. But Sloterdijk asks us to consider that this melancholic default may no longer be appropriate. The decisive repression of our times, he argues, actually concerns our own prosperity: we are unsure how to live with the fact that – generally as a species, and certainly acknowledging the fact of unequal distributions – we now have affluence and surplus, for the first time in human history. We live in a true embarrassment of riches, but at the same time we retain a “syndrome of hardship simulation and deficiency illusions”. “We find the lack of lack far more embarrassing than open poverty” and our traditions are not able to cope with such abundance. Wealth has come to us like a thief in the night (III, 636-648).

One must now admit that the premise for the concept of civilization is the concept of anti-gravity; it implies immunization to the heavy, the over-heavy, which has paralyzed human initiative from time immemorial. (III, 672)

There is, then, finally, hope. For though no one can deny that we face deadly ecological crises, and global economic injustice, we also have the great advantage of having an explicit understanding of our life-support requirements. We know what it takes to run our planet like a space capsule, and we know what we require of ourselves and one another to have livable human lives (this last part is what Sloterdijk has tried to pull together in his overview of spheres). Whether we make good on this promise is up to us, but that we can do it without macrospheres is certain.


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