Nietzsche and Hegel in Salt Lake City

G.W.F._Hegel_(by_Sichling,_after_Sebbers)I had the opportunity yesterday to present a paper to the Nietzsche Society, which was meeting within a larger conference of the Society for Phenomenology and Existentialist Philosophy. The people I met were generous, knowledgeable, and interesting, and my paper seems to have been well received. It was a good time.

friedrich-nietzscheAt bottom, I was trying to figure out what the value is in works (like Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality and Hegel’s Philosophy of History) that seem like they’re supposed to be grounded in some kind of historical argument, but are obviously bad works of historiography. Nietzsche writes broadly as if he can stretch western civilization out on a couch and psychoanalyze it, and Hegel write as if every segment of history is focused on a nameable set of ideas in a nameable place (Athens, Rome, Berlin (*ahem*)). They are both seeing history as an expression of some sort of dynamic within the human spirit or psyche. They are fascinating works, but when they are held up in comparison to straight-ahead historiographical works – of the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries – they don’t look so well.

So why are they valuable? I think they’re not really meant as works of historiography. They are works of “philohistoriography” – attempts to construe the past and present in such a way as to motivate future actions. They are ideologies: distortions, exaggerations, and oversimplifications of the past for the sake of persuading readers to embrace a certain set of values.

We probably feel the urge to shrink away when we hear “ideology,” but in fact I think ideologies are necessary in order to get people to accept short-term, evident losses for the sake of long-term strategies. The problem, of course, is that we are not all that good at seeing the future, and there are complications, and ideologies often backfire. But what can we do, other than muddle along, and try to dream up illusions that guide us into a direction we think we ought to take?


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Stacks of Books

I’m starting to publish some philosophical / history of ideas essays in a series called “Stacks of Books” (hey, look! A page with that name just under the blog’s banner image!). They’re being published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, which means you need to download the Kindle software (for free) to read them. The essays will cost $1.99 each – but I’m giving away a limited number for free on a first-come, first get-em basis. If you’re interested, just send me an email [chuenemann[at]], and I’ll send you an electronic token-link-thingy that should allow you to download a copy of Inventing Justice for free.

There’s a catch. If you get a copy, would you please post a review on Amazon? If they somehow perceive interest in an item, based on reviews, they start to do some promotion themselves. That would help me reach more readers. So if you’d do that for me, I’d be grateful.

I have no idea whether the essays are any good, but I’ve certainly had fun writing them. Right now I’ve got five or six in the process of getting all e-formatted, but I’m hoping to keep producing them, as I work through these stacks of books that seem to be multiplying in my living spaces.

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Voting for artichokes

For some reason there’s been a lot of talk about voting. My understanding of voting is (predictably) rather instrumentalist and flat-footed: since there is no more rational way of deciding things, we make our preferences known (show of hands, cast ballots, computer clicks, etc), and let the question be decided by whatever side gets more signs of support. (Optional variation: rig up an electoral college so that each individual vote matters less to the result.) One would think that’s all there is to it. Apparently not.

can-i-give-my-dog-artichokes-264x300Many people seem to believe that voting is an expression of one’s own moral character – so that voting for an odious candidate pollutes one’s moral character. These people believe it is better to vote for a likable candidate who has no choice of winning than to vote for an odious candidate who is less odious than the other candidate. Voting is a deliberate action, and deliberate action reflects one’s moral character, so one shouldn’t act in such a way as to reflect a bad moral character. That’s the thought, as best as I can tell.

But overall, voting is ridiculous in direct proportion to the number of people voting. When it is on the scale of hundreds of millions, voting is about as effective as wishing. If I stand in my backyard and wish for world peace, I have done as much for politics as I do when I cast a ballot. (Yes, yes, “almost as much” would be a more accurate thing to say, since a vote does contribute a tenth of a grain of sand towards an outcome.) So I guess making a wish for an unelectable candidate is about as meaningful as making a wish for an electable one – or, for that matter, making a wish for a candidate who is dead and gone, or who is captain of the starship Enterprise.

But if – despite this – one takes voting seriously, and views that tenth of a grain of sand as meaningful, then it is hard for me to enter into the “my vote reflects my soul” mindset. Imagine a smaller situation in which an individual vote does matter: there are five of us trying decide on cheese vs. pepperoni, and is is up to you to cast the deciding vote. But you lean toward veganism. Add another supposition to make the example work: suppose that a pizza will be ordered, whether you vote or not; and that ordered pizza will be either cheese or pepperoni. Now you might think that cheese and pepperoni are equally bad, and find yourself simply unable to decide. That makes sense; you shake your head, and say, “Sorry; no can do.” But if you think that making cheese entails less animal suffering than making pepperoni, or that eating cheese is less wrong than eating pepperoni, then – given the admittedly artificial circumstances I’ve described – why on earth would you vote for artichokes?  It simply isn’t an option, and you’ve missed out on the chance to make the dinner a little less worse.

“Because I cannot order even cheese without besmirching my moral character.” Really? Well then, in this case, your moral character is stained (possibly) with pepperoni. That’s something you did, by casting your stupid artichoke vote. Or can one enhance one’s moral character merely by intending impossible results? If one can, then why didn’t you vote for a pizza with “no animal suffering ever again” as the topping? What’s that? It isn’t possible? But didn’t you vote for artichokes despite the fact that achieving it was impossible? Why not “go large,” as they say, so long as we’re in never-ever land?

On the other hand, it may be that in order to have a functional democracy, there has to be a widespread belief that voting matters, and that voting one’s conscience is the right thing to do – even if neither of these beliefs really stands up to the light of reason. If individuals take their voting seriously, then there emerges at some level – a level far beyond the one at which individual votes really do matter – something resembling a rational, deliberative voting mass. But perhaps you can’t get that emergent result without some illusion at the level of individuals. If this is so, then if one thinks a functional democracy is a good thing, then one should swallow the blue pill, and vote away. I can understand this, but I always find it hard to swallow blue pills. At least, knowingly.

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Best argument for dualism?

The best argument for dualism I know is the argument from subjectivity. The first premise is that experience requires a subject – an entity who is having the experience. Now it may be that this entity isn’t what it thinks it is; it may be a bundle of impressions, or a conscious field that exists for only a few seconds before being replaced by a new field of consciousness. But, in any event, for any experience, there is some awareness or consciousness of that experience.

The second premise is that it is impossible for anything that is composed of nonconscious parts to be a subject. The best argument for this premise is the uncanny way in which Descartes’s cogito survives his deceiving demon scenario. “Deceive me as he might,” Descartes declares, “he will never trick me into thinking I am something when I am nothing.” In fact, it is really difficult to pull off such a deception. Try it: take some nonexistent thing (there are plenty), and trick it into thinking it exists. One meets with an insuperable difficulty right off the bat: there’s no one there to deceive. But we face the same problem when we take a collection of nonconscious things and try to trick some composition of them into thinking anything at all: once again, there’s no one there to deceive.

Well, if both premises are true, it follows that, if there is any experience at all, there must exist something that is not composed of nonconscious parts. That leads us either to (a) idealism or panpsychism – each of which denies that there are any nonconscious things in the universe – or (b) dualism. To the extent that one has reasons not to embrace idealism or panpsychism – which people seem to have, though I don’t know what those reasons are – we are left with dualism.

It’s a strong argument, since it’s hard to make good sense of denying either of the premises. The first seems almost analytically true: what is experience, other than conscious experience? And what is conscious experience other than someone’s conscious experience? Again, that “someone” may be very thick or very thin, but it has to show up somehow. That’s just subjectivity, and there’s no consciousness without it.

It’s easier to deny the second premise – but still not easy. We can say that “somehow, out of the complex arrangement of nonconscious things, interacting in complex ways with a changing environment, there arises consciousness.” But the “there arises” is an indication of a step being taken, a step which resembles Sidney Harris’s “… then a miracle occurs.” So long as the denial of the second premise requires a miracle, it’s not a very good denial. It amounts to, “Well, maybe the premise is in some way false – but don’t ask me how!”


(copyright Sidney Harris)

The best attempt I know of to “be explicit in step two” is Daniel Dennett’s pandemonium theory of mind, as advanced in his Consciousness Explained. It is a long story – longer than I wish to get into here – but over hundreds of pages Dennett “ramps up” what machines can do, and “ramps down” the special, ineffable auras that seem to surround consciousness, until the two slopes meet in the middle: a place where a Rube-Goldberg complex of complicated information-processing systems end up issuing results that match human behavior rather well. But is “consciousness” included among the results? Some readers say yes, others say no. My own response is rather wishy-washy: I sometimes think, “By George, he’s done it!” and other times suspect that some rhetorical slip has been inserted somewhere, some hidden slide from “the system judges” to “I believe”. When Dennett claims, “You’re not conscious; you only think you are,” I am tempted in these moods to reply, “You haven’t explained consciousness; you only think you have.”

So it is a strong argument – the best one I’ve encountered – though I remain unconvinced, mainly for the reason that dualism satisfies too many human wishes – to be special, to have eternal life, etc. – and I am devoutly committed to the Party-Pooper Principle: if you really want to believe it, don’t.

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Achieving Star Trek

Culture is an engine that transforms food into ideas. Individual bodies are responsible for turning food into energy, but it takes a mind to create ideas, and a mind is possible only in a community. Just as a body requires some sort of ecosystem to provide it with air, warmth, water, fuel, etc., a mind needs a community – a culture – to provide it with language, traditions, values, genders, social classes, and theories. Within any culture, an individual mind can do a lot of experimenting, creating new theories and rebelling against old traditions; or it can find new ways to defend the received views against the new challenges. Either way, new ideas, and, over time, new cultures.

Bound up with culture and ideas is technology, but techs, once developed, begin to live their own lives in a kind of dialectic with culture. Each tech opens up new domains for ideas, and closes down others. The new ideas – or the vacant spaces where other new ideas would have been – lead in turn to new tech possibilities. We’re not in control of the machines, and they don’t simply control us. It’s a dance, and it can be a waltz, a jitterbug, or a danse macabre. Think, for example, of the first Macintosh, the internet, and the crossbow; or the printing press, the phonograph, and artillery. And now think of how both culture and technology would have been, had any of these techs not developed.

Since ideas are developed by individual agents in a cultural tension with other agents, when techs get thrown into the mix, they act as cultural accelerants. The engine runs faster. For with the coming of new techs, it’s not just a matter of words being batted about, with institutions responding slowly over generations; but the ideas become embodied in machines, and the effects of the machines are here and now and have to be dealt with. New laws, institutions, and practices have to be developed on the fly, and these shoulder their ways into the ideosphere, inflaming new passionate arguments and theories. Culture has no option but to evolve at a faster rate.

In all likelihood, truly intelligent machines – not just clever gadgets –  are coming soon. If techs are cultural accelerants, intelligent machines will be cultural fission: an accelerant like no other. For AIs will not just be problematic opportunities plunked down on our landscape; they will be active, responsive culture-producers themselves. The question will be whether culture can evolve fast enough. Or, rather, the question will be whether humans get left behind.

What does that even mean? One nightmarish scenario is the world of Terminator and The Matrix: machines rapidly evolve a culture that has no place for us, and we become at best superfluous and at worst a nuisance. They enslave us. Another scenario is a kind of technosynthesis, in which humans and machines together evolve a culture unlike any we have seen before, one in which the boundaries between humans and machines disappear, and something new – the posthuman – comes on stage. A third scenario – the bleakest – is a clusterfuck of unintended consequences that amounts to cultural armageddon. What’s left is a planet devoid of minds, or perhaps (only slightly better) a new stone age, where we return to the joys of banging rocks together.

united_federation_of_planets_002_by_scharfshutzeOr it could turn out that humans are not left behind, and we manage to craft a future that allows for a fruitful symbiosis of humans and machines. Call this the Star Trek scenario. Star Trek presents a world where we have overcome selfishness with intelligence, fear with curiosity, and barbarism with civilization. The scenario is utopian, to be sure, which means it is a “good” place that exists “no” place, and the Star Trek franchise itself is long on hope and short on details. But if we find we would like to stave off enslavement, technosynthesis, and armageddon, we might start thinking through some details, and start transforming the food we eat into the idea of a future that has us in it.


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Being obducted into other worlds

4215ObductionI have been sucked into the latest game made by the Myst people, Obduction. I’m about a third of the way through, but the premise seems to be that there are four or five worlds existing in the same space in different dimensions, and all are connected to the same tree. Or they are supposed to be connected: the fundamental puzzle, as with all Myst games, is to get stuff hooked up. Trying to get the power on is an odd way of having fun, but there are those of us who love this sort of problem, and can spend days on it (19.8 hours so far for me).

The Myst series is excellent in terms of graphics, story, imagination, and puzzle creation, and Obduction is no disappointment. The alien worlds are stunningly beautiful, and the alien  tech seems to make its own internal sense; it is the right combination of other-worldly and yet figure-out-able. I’ve never been involved with creating a game, but I’d like to think the creators spend a big chunk of time thinking their way through the internal logic of a totally alien world, including that world’s biosphere, culture, traditions, and iconography. What a marvelous and exciting way of exercising one’s mind!

The same attraction must hold for those writing rich fantasy novels. It’s fun to have a story to tell, but that is the smallest good. The biggest draw is worldmaking. The Myst people made this connection explicit with the main idea animating their early games: it is possible to create a steampunkish, alchemical book that can transport you into another realm, just by opening its pages. In an AMA on reddit, Myst’s co-creator, Rand Miller, said of Tolkien: “In simpler terms – he created an entire universe, and then punched smaller windows into pieces of it that the public could look through.”

In fact, at times I think that these sorts of games taking place in other worlds are the natural successor to the novel. Novels are wonderful, of course, but inherently linear. An author can tell the story out of order, making it seem less linear, but the reader is still stuck with the order of exposition that’s given. In virtual worlds, one can explore along different tracks, and over time begin to develop for oneself the overall picture of what has gone on or is going on. It presents a world for the players/readers to explore in their own ways. When I’m playing the Myst games, and have spent sufficient time wandering around in them, my mind is carried into them, and I go around in my own life with a pleasant buzz of divided attention. I’m partly here, and partly there. The same happens with great novels too, of course – we can’t get our minds out of them.

Okay. Back to getting things hooked up……

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I’m not worried about the humanities

Humanists complain loudly about the direction taken by modern universities, and with good reason. An education in the humanities generally requires spending a lot of time reading and thinking on one’s own, and engaging in wandering and complicated conversations with like-minded souls, usually without any new technologies, policy decisions, or scientific discoveries coming along as results. Nothing could be more antithetical to “the modern university,” which is alleged to be full of bright-eyed enthusiasts working together to create new technologies to save us from ourselves. The humanists don’t fit easily into this picture, which happens to be the one placed on websites and recruitment brochures by university administrators and student-service types. So humanists are left complaining about being left out, or else they start re-branding themselves as the kind of people you want at those brainstorming sessions.

I used to care about this, but now I don’t. I think we can all admit that our society faces some tremendous problems (like those of food production, climate change, and fuel demand) that aren’t likely to be solved by further inquiry into the humanities, and it’s good to funnel smart people into disciplines most likely to solve those problems. If by some weird miracle I could fix climate change by eliminating every philosophy department in the world, I’d do it in a heartbeat, just as I’d burn the Mona Lisa if that would save a room full of children. To be sure, there’s a lot of false advertising and silly posturing in the world of university recruitment, but if somehow it manages to prompt more young people to work toward new and possibly salvific technologies, that’s great.

The other consideration making me apathetic toward the humanists’ complaint is my abiding conviction that the fate of humanistic inquiry is not tied to what goes on at universities. I say unto you: we will always have poets, scholars, and philosophers, regardless of what departments are listed on the universities’ rosters. Along these lines, Nietzsche once claimed that the best thing that one could do for the future of German philosophy would be to defund all the universities. He had bile in his pen, but the point is sound: what goes on in universities and what interesting work gets done in the business of nurturing human souls are two very different things.

Of course, really good scholarship requires time and resources, and having special departments in universities supplies them. But, at the same time, having special departments also gets bound up with all sorts of professional and disciplinary bullshit, which on the whole tends to work against the production of interesting things. So if these special, dedicated departments were to disappear, it would be a real blow, in terms of just how far and deep research could go. But the blow would be somewhat compensated for by the prospect of getting rid of the bullshit, and clearing out a freer space in which more interesting things might appear.

Ideally, no choice needs to be made here. We can have tech-driven higher education, and departments of the humanities, and everyone can do their thing, and we can all reap the rewards. Indeed, this is what we now enjoy. But in order to maintain this happy result, we do not need the humanities to be crowned as monarch of the learned disciplines, nor included in brainstorming sessions about climate change. The humanities can thrive out of the spotlight (indeed, that’s where they are more likely to thrive; I suspect it’s only narcissistic learned people who think otherwise). Short-sighted politicians, cultural wags, and university administrators must be closely monitored and their claims must be challenged – as always. But the victory condition is not finding oneself featured on recruitment brochures; it’s finding oneself with the opportunity to engage in humanistic learning – ideally, out of any spotlight shone by know-nothings. So long as that’s secure, we’re in decent shape.

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