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.


Posted in Books, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, Stacks of Books | Leave a comment


(Some reflections on Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back.)

Daniel Dennett loves to explain. In route to explain one thing, he’ll explain three intermediate things, taking time out to explore four or five tangential things. We might call this mania “dansplaining.” Indeed, this is his vision of what philosophy can and should do: utilize all natural knowledge to provide natural explanations for the phenomena philosophers find puzzling, like consciousness, freedom, moral responsibility, and the order in the universe. In this way he is very much like John Locke, who tried in the 17th century to provide a general account of the full range of human knowledge, from sensory data through mental operations to the natures of substances, persons, property, and God. The fact that Locke’s philosophy didn’t quite hang together – that it was rife with inconsistencies, gaps, and assumptions all too confident – did nothing to diminish its sales and influence: it captured the right view for the times, warts and all. Similarly, Dennett tells the right sort of story, given Darwinism and cognitive science and AI. He gives us the general story we should be telling ourselves, given the particular things we know. He is our John Locke.

But, like Locke, he confidently breezes his way past what others see as profound difficulties. Dennett shows very little concern for what’s known as the “sociology of scientific knowledge,” or criticisms from the direction of the social sciences about the way science does its business. He’s not interested in how scientific explanations might be tainted, twisted, and skewed by the interests of powers they serve. He doesn’t have any patience for any of the puzzles, paradoxes, and contradictions of the existential sort that can’t be solved readily enough through empirical inquiry. (He’ll quote Nietzsche, but only when he is providing a good Darwinian soundbite.) Some would say it’s not clear how far into meaningfulness we will be carried by taking delight in explanations. To all this, DD might sensibly reply that science is still the best thing we have going, that its successes are far more evident that the soundness of criticisms raised against it, and who wants to wallow around in existential murk and gloom anyway? Or, if you do, go right ahead and wallow away; Dennett isn’t going to stop you.

I can’t deny that’s a sensible view. And I do take great delight in his dansplanations. But the fact that he’d like to steer discussion away from things like the relativity of knowledge, the power structures of a society, and the problem of meaning (by which I mean: the Problem of Meaning), and toward things like algorithms, memes, and design space, tells us a lot about Dennett’s vision of what philosophy is. It’s more of a science thing than a humanities thing. Humanists (like literary types and historians) regularly immerse themselves in pools of books and texts, establishing links among them and raising questions about traditions of interpretations. Dennett belongs to a long philosophical tradition of standing apart from these people: Plato distrusted the poets, Descartes found history no more illuminating than travelogues, and many others simply talked past the lively conversations among the humanists of their own day. (The great exception was David Hume, who eventually gave up pure philosophy in the interest of writing histories and essays that engaged with his own textual traditions.) Philosophers in this tradition believe they can learn more from science, whether it is their own science or something they have gleaned from books and articles. In this philosophy, Newton and Darwin and Einstein are huge; Ranke and Melville and Collingwood, not so much.

Ideally, of course, one could be well-read, keeping up with large movements in both science and humanities. But it is impossible to do this, not only because there is so much to learn, but also because the two foci cannot be resolved into a single one. You can take up an interest in how traditions do their work upon what we think and say; or you can plunge ahead and think and say without caring where it all comes from; but you can’t do both at once. The first effort means taking what people say as data, as a symptom of something, while the second means trying to get work done by talking or writing. The same person can engage in both efforts, but never at the same time.

But, happily, there is room for both kinds of endeavors. We need not define philosophy’s essence, as it doesn’t have one. Let the dansplanations roll; and let us also encourage some perspicacious analyses of what such dansplanations might mean in the broad currents of our textual traditions.

Posted in Books, Items of the academy / learning | Leave a comment

The ban on navel contemplation

I have been busy re-reading Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy, working up to a longer reflection on it, but in the meanwhile thought I’d offer up this passages from Bubbles (Spheres I):

The navel is located on the human’s front like a monument to the unthinkable; it reminds people of the thing no one remembers. It is the pure sign of that which lies on the other side of the consciously knowable – which is why, if one thinks about it, those who are unwilling to speak about the navel should also keep quiet about the unconscious. It signifies the knowledge of an event that concerns me more than any other, even though I am not eligible as the current subject of this knowledge. For his entire life, the navel owner looks past this memorial at the center of his body, like someone who walks past an equestrian monument every day without ever wondering whom it represents. This disinterest in one’s own pre-history has cultural method, for Europeans have always been raised under a ban on navel contemplation: they are supposed to feel shame for even thinking it possible to refer to themselves at this point. Attached to the discreet recess in the middle of our body is the commandment to refer always and without exception to other things: the navel is the symbol of our obligation to extroversion. It fundamentally points forward into the panorama of things and subjects that exist for us and with us. The world is meant to become everything that is the case opposite the navel. (447)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Robots and responsibility

[Another excerpt from Reality (a primer)]

What worries many people about being told that the mind isn’t distinct from the body is what that might mean for human freedom and responsibility. If I create a robot that comes over and stomps through your garden, no one holds the robot responsible. It is just doing what it was programmed to do, and could not have done otherwise. But if the mind isn’t distinct from the body, and if our bodies are “programmed” by genetics, laws of nature, and biology to do what they do, then we are the same as robots. Out the window goes any freedom to do otherwise, and with it any tolerable notion of moral responsibility.

That would be terrible. But it’s being terrible doesn’t mean it isn’t so. Maybe we are totally determined, and what we do is determined by physical laws – just like everything else in the universe. Maybe our notions of freedom and moral responsibility are mere illusions, holdovers from times when we didn’t know as much about the world and ourselves as we do now. Maybe even one might say we need to hold on to these illusions, since so much of our lives are based upon them. But that being so would not make them any less illusory. This is a hard-line stance to take, and so it’s been called “hard determinism.”

Alternatively, one might wonder if “freedom” is really something other than being able to do otherwise than we what we actually do. The concept of freedom, like any important concept, is complicated. Part of it has to do with “wiggle room,” or a capacity to do this or that. But another part of it has to do with being in control of one’s actions. To see this, imagine driving a car that has a built-in capacity to drive itself. Suppose I decide to drive to the store to buy groceries….


Nibroc-Rock’s Project 17 unknown Death Egg Robot (from

You know what? That’s boring. Let’s ramp it up a bit. Suppose you and I create a giant death robot. I’m planning to get in the driver’s seat and take it over to crush a nearby city. You’re worried that I might chicken out at the last minute and take pity on the helpless, screaming citizens, so you program the robot to take control of itself and do the job if I start showing any signs of mercy. As it happens, you were wrong about me, and I gleefully drive the robot over to the city and smash it to smithereens, laughing like a maniac all the while. All of us would hold me responsible for such an incredibly evil (though admittedly spectacular) course of action. I wanted to do it, and I did it. But at the same time: I could not have done otherwise. Had I faltered, the robot would have taken control of its actions, and the same thing would have happened. Again: I am responsible for what I did, even though I could not have done otherwise. My actions were in this sense free.

It is an outrageous example, but it highlights a different aspect of freedom. Freedom is not just being able to do otherwise, but the capacity to act on our own desires. If I want to do something, and I have the power to do it and nothing stops me, and I do it – then I do it freely. Note that nothing need be said about being able to do otherwise.

This component of freedom is compatible with determinism (and so this view of freedom is called “compatibilism,” or sometimes “soft determinism”). If we go back to the garden-stomping robot, one change would make us consider the robot responsible for what it does: the addition of the robot’s own desires. If the robot desires to go around stomping through gardens, and does so, then we would hold it responsible for what it does. I suppose we might have to stipulate that the robots desires are its own desires, and not ones that have merely been programmed into it. Otherwise, it would once again be the programmer who is to blame.

Now this raises another set of questions. Are we responsible for the desires we end up with? Do we choose them? Do we choose them freely? Or are our desires programmed into us through society, genetics, and psychology? When do we say, “That desire is yours; you own it; you are responsible for it” instead of saying, “You were brainwashed”? My desire to help my neighbor, or to stomp through her garden, seems different from a drug-addict’s desire for more drugs, or a kleptomaniac’s desire to shoplift. The desires are mine, as opposed to ones I am somehow stuck with. Is there some way to make sense of this difference?

Some philosophers have argued that the difference depends on how sensitive these desires are to the circumstances. My desire to help my neighbor is very sensitive to who my neighbor is, our history, what she likes or would like, what my other plans are, and so on. Altering these circumstances would change whether I act on my desire, or even whether I have the desire at all. But an addict’s desires aren’t that sensitive to changes in the environment. It doesn’t matter who owns the drugs, or what I have to do to get them, or what my other plans are; I am still compelled to act on that desire. I am at the mercy of it. But does this simply take us back to – I can’t do otherwise than act on it? If so, then we are left wondering once again whether anyone can do otherwise in a deterministic universe.

Posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games, Metaphysical musings | Leave a comment

Knowledge, that human practice

Ordinarily, we think knowledge is having in one’s head some kind of story or an explanation that matches how Things Really Are. This ordinary conception has at least two problems. First, it assumes that there is a way Things Really Are – that some particular story or explanation is successful at capturing that way, and there can’t be multiple stories or accounts which are all successful, in their own ways and for different reasons. Second, it presumes that knowledge is simply a kind of match-up between what’s in one’s head and what’s in the world, and so it ignores all of the signals and indicators we use in determining whether someone has knowledge. Arguably, it is these signals and indicators that really are what knowledge is, rather than some sort of spiritual sympathy between mind and world.


Frank Bacon, 1561-1626

Francis Bacon was being much more realistic when he insisted that knowledge is power. Some sorts of knowledge allow us to get things done, and it really doesn’t matter what chattering noises we produce in the doing. If a sailor can cross an ocean and end up where he wants to go, then he has knowledge, regardless of whether he’s been using a GPS or Sacro Bosco’s Spheres. This is practical knowledge. Other sorts of knowledge aren’t so immediately practical, and here it gets tricky. Sometimes what needs to get done is something social, political, or cultural, and it’s not so much a matter of “getting it done” so much as providing a useful overall perspective. What makes the perspective useful is that it assembles together all or most of what some particular audience deems as important. If four of us are talking at a party, and three of us have points we’re insisting on, and the fourth manages to put together an account that does tolerable justice to those three points, then that fourth person is regarded as having knowledge. This sort of “talking at a party” knowledge is academic or theoretical knowledge.

Both practical and theoretical knowledge are instances of power: the practical is power over things, and the theoretical is power over conversations. In domains of knowledge that purport to be scientific, the theoretical parts are tethered to the practical parts, in varying degrees of snugness (natural science) or looseness (social science). But smeared over both the practical and theoretical domains is a mixed variety of social pressures. For it is a society that needs to get things done, and recognizes only some achievements as worth doing. It is a society that prizes some conversations over others, and sets values on what needs to be integrated and what does not. The upshot of all this is that knowledge is what gets you ahead, gives you an advantage, wins you accolades, or otherwise (that’s right, Frank) gives you power. And it is easy to see how this upshot is soaked through and through with social, political, and cultural circumstances.

One might object that no amount of brute power can make an untruth true, even if it can manage to force many people to act as if they believe it. But this objection suffers from an understanding of “power” that is too limited. Power can be overt, physical, and brutal, involving “truth” commissions and the gulag and the whole nightmare. But that’s just stupid power – the power of school bullies. Power is also exerted over social circles and institutions and scientific academies. These more sophisticated exertions of power reach in and affect who we want to be, how we want to think, and words we would like to use. We voluntarily put ourselves forward for memberships in these societies, asking to be trained and coached into the right sorts of things to say (“graduate school”). And, yes, in the best cases evidence and experiments and archival research all play significant roles: but the questions that are asked, the ways in which data is recorded and interpreted, the judgments about whether the line of research is worthwhile – all these important factors are determined through exertions of social power, whether explicitly or implicitly. And note well: in the end, anyone who doesn’t meet the group’s expectations is typically regarded as not having knowledge.

This might sound like a sour complaint, but it isn’t meant to be: I don’t think there is another way for knowledge to exist. Knowledge, as much as pottery or sneakers or trial by jury, is a human phenomenon, governed ultimately by social processes taking place in a natural world that contributes its own set of constraints. Pretending it is otherwise is itself a familiar power play, an attempt to legitimate one’s power by appeal to the natural order: knowledge by divine right.

Posted in Historical episodes, Items of the academy / learning, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 13 Comments

On teaching mediocre books

It’s been a few years now since I realized an obvious truth. The great majority of my students, and even the majority of the philosophy majors I teach, are not going to graduate school in philosophy. This is as it should be. There are already far too many PhDs than there are teaching jobs, and it is certainly true that it’s not the sort of life for everyone, and so on. Furthermore, the world needs philosophically reflective managers, accountants, professionals, parents, and neighbors more desperately than it needs more philosophy grad students.

So, it would seem, our classes should reflect this fact, and they should prepare our students to be philosophically-reflective citizens and professionals. By this I mean people who will go on to non-philosophical careers, but will carry with them a flexibility of mind, a capacity to see larger scales and deeper questions, and an abiding epistemic humility (knowing that, when it comes to absolutes, they really know nothing). There are multiple ways of bringing this about, of course, but one thing is clear: students probably shouldn’t be restricted to a diet of works by contemporary, professional philosophers. Perhaps they need to be engaging with some of this, as well as with some philosophical classics; but they also should be reading in their philosophy classes works of both nonfiction and fiction that are not themselves typically regarded as works of philosophy. For it is through this that they can learn how to apply their philosophical abilities to the stuff they will be encountering with and working on after graduating.

So, for example, I’m teaching “Epistemology” this term. I think a typical class in the subject would base itself on an anthology of selections and articles from Moore, Gettier, Harmon, Chisholm, Goldman, Alston, and so on. (If these names ring no bells, don’t worry; it’s not obvious that anyone apart from philosophy grad students and professors really should know these names.) A better class might include some of these items, along with works by authors whose names really should be known: Plato, Aristotle, Sextus Empiricus, Descartes, Locke, Hume, etc. In my class, we will be reading some fundamental works by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, as I think these works are effective in raising the biggest questions about knowledge. But then we’ll be turning to works by a couple of contemporary non-philosophers: the skeptic Michael Shermer (The Believing Brain) and the biologist Edward Wilson (Consilience).

It’s not that I think these books are all that great. They’re not. They’re both too reductionistic and dismissive. But they are the sorts of books you can expect to be coming up on best-sellers lists and talked about in newspapers and magazines, and this is precisely why students should be reading them. If students are trained only to work with the sorts of problems and distinctions that bedevil professional philosophers, they will have very little to read and talk about in the nonacademic world. But if they have learned some classic stuff, and have also spent time learning how to connect that stuff in insightful ways to popular but mediocre books, they will be prepared for a lifetime of reading, thinking, and responding; for we are always surrounded by mediocre books. They will be the sort of people who perhaps inspire others to think a bit more deeply about what they are reading and thinking, and are able to turn a mediocre book into an interesting discussion. They will be set to live the examined life outside of the academy.

That’s my goal, anyway, and I’m surely only partly successful at best. I’m clumsy at leading discussion, and I need to be more creative in including more fictional works. But I think that the basic observation that begins this post – an awareness of what lives our students will be living – is an extremely fruitful observation for reorienting one’s teaching and one’s course materials.

Posted in Books, Items of the academy / learning | 2 Comments