This video of a talk by Thomas Metzinger called “Spiritualität und intellektuelle Redlichkeit” (in German, with English captions) has attracted some attention on the Internet; Metzinger has translated his title into English (“Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty”) written an essay (available in PDF form here) summarizing the main ideas of the talk. (In this post I’ll be responding to the written essay.)
His main theses are:
- Intellectual honesty (or integrity) is a special case of moral integrity.
- Spirituality is a specific epistemic stance, that involves the desire for a specific type of knowledge.
- The spiritual stance is a form of intellectual integrity, and (some) spiritual practices are aids to intellectual integrity.
- At the present time, thoroughly embracing the spiritual stance, in a form that reflects intellectual integrity, necessitates abandoning some but not all of the traditional goals of spiritual knowledge. (Metzinger doesn’t explicitly say this, but it’s implicit in his “three critiques” – of of God, immortality, and enlightenment – in the latter portion of the essay.)
He makes all this work, first, by defining spirituality in the right way: Spirituality is an epistemic stance that involves the desire for a specific type of knowledge. Spiritual knowledge involves inner attention, bodily experience, and altered states of consciousness, in which the subject-object distinction is dissolved and the individual first-person perspective is transcended. The goals of spiritual knowledge partially overlap with those of religion and traditional metaphysics, and frequently involve an ideal of salvation, liberation, or enlightenment.
While all of these are characteristic of some forms of spirituality, I very much doubt that they are all consistent with each other (and Metzinger may not intend them to be, since ultimately he wants to jettison a lot of the traditional goals of spiritual knowledge). Moreover, his conception of spirituality as an epistemic stance is a pretty narrow one, and excludes a great deal of what a lot of people would regard as falling under the concept.
His conception of intellectual integrity is an admirable ideal: I think, though, that he makes several unwarranted leaps in spelling out what it entails. His unexamined and undefended assumption is that the will to avoid self-deception (a crucial part of intellectual integrity) requires us adopt the canons of evidence of the natural sciences and the concept of rationality in contemporary analytic philosophy.
I’ll illustrate what I mean with regard to what he says about God. Considering first logical arguments for the existence of God, Metzinger tells us,
Conceptually, there is not a single convincing argument for God’s existence in 2500 years of the history of Western philosophy.
He then backtracks in a footnote:
Of course, there are first-class philosophers who would hold a completely different view. What does not exist, however, is a consensus among experts in the field that would point in the direction many still hope for.
I’m with the latter claim, provided that “experts in the field” refers solely to people whose professional field of expertise is the major arguments for God’s existence in Western philosophy. I’d point out that there’s no consensus among the public at large, nor among those who might in one sense or another be counted as “experts on religion,” that that narrow sort of expertise is particularly relevant to the main issue. Moreover, I question whether reliance up expert consensus is consistent with the kind of intellectual integrity that Metzinger urges upon us.
Second, he considers arguments based upon religious experience:
Empirically (and this is a trivial point) there are no proofs for the existence of God. Obviously, mystical experiences or altered states of consciousness as such cannot provide empirical evidence in any strict sense of the word.
Well, it depends on what you take “the strict sense of the word” to be. While Metzinger’s aware that there are alternative views with regard to logical arguments, on this subject he shows no awareness of other points of view. His discussion of intellectual integrity relies heavily on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on “The Ethics of Belief” and “Integrity” (both of which he refers the reader to). Had he explored in equal depth the articles on “ The Epistemology of Religion,” “Religious Experience,” and “Mysticism,” (to pick a few examples) he’d have been led to confront the current robust debates on the epistemology of religious experience. (For a sample, see William Alston’s Perceiving God, and critiques thereof by Keith Augustine and Jonathan Kvanvig.
In this brief response, I have not come close to doing justice to Metzinger’s wide-ranging and thought-provoking essay. Most egregiously, I’ve left out his report on recent accounts of the evolution of belief and how it may make us prone to systematic error. Give the whole thing a read or a listen. It’s worth it.
Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence is a book that imagines how we should go about dealing with a super-AI, should it come about. The thesis of the book seems to be this: if a superintelligence were to be constructed, there would be certain dangers we’d want to apprise ourselves of and prepare ourselves for, and the book is a precis, essentially, for dealing with some of those risks. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the thesis of the book is correct, what is of interest to me is how a superintelligence could be constructed. If someone wanted to construct a superintelligence, it seems to me they’d have to understand human intelligence at a deep level, but I doubt we’ll ever come to understand how intelligence works.
Bostrom defines a superintelligence as “any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest.” He believes that a superintelligence is on the way, writing that it’ll probably arrive within this century. He also thinks that the different forms that superintelligence could take are practically equivalent, and they follow into these general categories: speed superintelligence, collective superintelligence, and quality superintelligence. Speed superintelligence is a “system that can do all that a human intellect can do, but much faster.” Collective superintelligence is a “system composed of a large number of smaller intellects such that the system’s overall performance across many very general domains vastly outstrips that of any current cognitive system.” Quality superintelligence is a “system that is at least as fast as a human mind and vastly qualitatively smarter.” In other words, a superintelligence could either be very intelligent across the domains we care about because it’s really fast or because it works really well with the subsystems that compose it, or because it could just works better within those domains than we do. On Bostrom’s formulation, superintelligence is a general concept, to be amended later, and Bostrom assumes right now we don’t have to spell it out too much because we’ll know a superintelligence when we see it. But what of intelligence?
There’s no currently universally accepted understanding for what constitutes intelligence, but it seems to be something like knowing how to do something relative to some domain. Even a concept like general intelligence as measured by an intelligence assessment can be broken down to checking for knowledge in specific domains, often assessing some combination of (1) logical and mathematical knowledge, (2) linguistic knowledge, and (3) visual and spatial knowledge. We might also add other domains of interest, those domains approximating what Howard Gardner means when he writes of intelligences, plural, or Steven Pinker when he refers to mental modules. These domains of interest might include knowledge of (4) self and others, (5) music and rhythm, (6) motion, (7) morality, (8) how the world works. These domains would bear a few qualities: (a) they could be found universally across human beings and (b) abilities with respect to these domains could vary widely from individual to individual, but (c) these abilities would ultimately follow the law of distribution—that is, most people will be average with respect to use of such knowledge and few will be exceptionally low or high in ability. If these were to be the domains of interest and they’d have these sorts of features, then anything that outperforms in all these domains would constitute a superintelligence.
The only way to know how intelligence works is to know how the subsystems work. And although there’s progress in these domains, we don’t have anything like a rich explanatory framework for these subsystems such that we could recreate them—apart from having a child (and even then we don’t know how their subsystems work, otherwise it might be much easier raising a child). Bostrom acknlowledges that programming an entity with an intelligence is a seriously difficult feat on the engineering side of things:
[A]ccomplishing even the simplest visual task—finding the pepper jar in the kitchen—requires a tremendous amount of computational work. From a noisy time series of two-dimensional pattenrs of nerve firings, originating in the retina and conveyed to the brain via the optic nerve, the visual cortex must work backwards to reconstruct an interpreted three-dimensional representation of external space. A sizeable portion of our precious one square meter of cortical real estate is zones for processing visual information, and as you are reading this book, billions of neurons are working ceaseless to accomplish this task (like so many seamstresses, bent over their sewing machines in a sweatshop, sewing and re-sewing a giant quilt many times a second).
Besides showing what a great science writer Bostrom is, this passage also suggests the immense difficulty of visual programming. He writes, “The main reason why progress has been slower than expected is that the technical difficulties of constructing intelligent machines have proved greater than the pioneers foresaw.” But he’s optimistic, continuing: “But this leave open just how great those difficulties are and how far we now are from overcoming them. Sometimes a problem that looks hopelessly complicated turns out to have a surprisingly simple solution (though the reverse is probably more common).”
Let’s assume that it’s correct, that we have those eight subsystems I listed above, and probably more. If we’re also to assume that the subsystems operate computationally, we’d have to try to go about figuring out how the algorithms are carried out in the physical plumbing of the brain, assuming also we think these operations are taking place at least mainly in the brain. Some headway has been made on linguistic knowledge through the likes of Noam Chomsky et al., as well as progress with vision through the likes of David Marr. Certain forms of symbolic logic and axiomatic systems have been created to account for logical-mathematical knowledge, just to name a few examples. But to build an artificial intelligence proper, if the goal is to mirror something like the way human beings think and behave, you’d have to program it with principles or algorithms that approximate to those that human beings use when they think and behave. Nothing has been developed yet, however, that could be deemed to be anything like that in terms of a rich computational understanding. Nobody has been able to reduce Psychology, for instance, to a handful of principles such that we could program them into a computer nor has there been any deep investigation of the principles that govern our moral knowledge apart from the creation of a taxonomy of what moral concepts are activated in certain ecologies.
My own view is not that I think there couldn’t be such covering laws or principles, but that human inquiry is inherently limited such that we can’t even investigate some domains properly. Some things we can conceive of but have no way of knowing what they would look like. For instance, we’re pretty good at imagining three spatial dimensions—forward-backward, up-down, left-right—and we could even imagine a fourth: clockwise-counterclockwise. But try to imagine a fifth spatial dimension. Of course, it’s just my hedge that we might be near the end of human inquiry in some of these domains. Smart people like Bostrom, on the other hand, are hopeful. And maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s not the end of inquiry. Maybe the task just requires people who are more intelligent in one of those domains. But as for me, I definitely don’t foresee progress in those domains to the point we could imagine how they would integrate and we’d be able to program an AI with them.
On 1/18/15, our regular foursome discussed a particularly tough book, The Concept of Nature (1920). We chose this one over his more famous Process and Reality (1929) based on Owen Flanagan‘s recommendation that this older work was more accessible.
And part of it is. The first couple of chapters clearly set out Whitehead’s approach, which is to dodge both metaphysics (talking about the world-in-itself or about how minds create it a la the post-Kantian framework that dominated the philosophic landscape) and phenomenalism, i.e. talking about the apparent world as opposed to the world science investigates. These to Whitehead are one and the same, and though he doesn’t address such obvious issues in light of such a view as perceptual illusions until right near the end of the book (in a chapter called “Summary” that’s actually a separate lecture from the rest of the series; I’d advise reading the first two chapters then skipping straight to that), he gives a nice scolding to those that would deny experience by insisting on, e.g. Aristotle’s view of substance or Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities.
But if he’s going to say that molecules and atoms, and space-time as used in scientific work are not the hidden reality behind experience, but instead are part of experience, abstracted from it, then he has to lay out how this “abstraction” works, and that’s what most of the book becomes, creating a system of 4-dimensional geometry that eventually lets us talk about all of what science talks about but which starts with the phenomenological insight that the world of our experience of a duration. If this sounds like Bergson to you (Bergson wrote about 20 years earlier), you’re right; he credits Bergson in the text. And if (as we did) you were confused given Bergson’s fundamental insight what exactly we were supposed to then DO with that philosophically, Whitehead gives you an answer.
We should note that the presentation of Whitehead’s system of relative space-time, motion, and objects is supposed to be his non-mathematical presentation of a version laden with actual proofs in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Nonetheless, the chapters about the system itself are a hard slog, with definitions building on definitions, and it’s hard to get excited about the effort given that apparently it was not particularly influential (though not totally forgotten), unlike Whitehead’s previous edifice, Principia Mathematica (which we described some of the findings from in a previous episode). From what I’ve read, Einstein himself was aware of Whitehead’s alternate interpretation of General Relativity (which the system outlined in this book is supposed to provide, though we, including our resident physicist Dylan, really couldn’t put the whole story together well enough to have any opinion of its plausibility) and didn’t buy it.
For other connections to PEL episodes beyond Bergson and Russell, try our episodes on Husserl (who was working at the same time as Whitehead and came to similar conclusions independently), Merleau-Ponty (who was influenced by both Husserl and Whitehead and had his own take on the primacy of perception over scientific abstraction), Deleuze (who was very influenced by both Bergson and Whitehead, though you’ll hear more about this in our Not School discussion on Deleuze than in the PEL episode), and the granddaddy of all process philosophy, Heraclitus.
One more note: I’ve not tried to give a summary of Whitehead’s whole argument here, as I just did that on the the precog (the transcript of which is available for Citizens). In this case, as with Jaspers, I wrote the precog after we did the group discussion, so it’s likely more cogent, and certainly more organized, than anything you’ll hear us say as a group. That’s the current status of precogs now: Though we’d wanted to do these in advance for all episodes to help orient our discussions, we weren’t able to get them done consistently, and they only get downloaded about half as much as a normal episode, so it didn’t seem worth it. However, we’ve had a few episodes since deciding to stop where we felt that we didn’t give a very organized introduction to the text, such that most of the audience would likely be confused about what the reading was actually about. In this discussion, I was one sentence into the overview when we started debating Whitehead’s relation to Kant and Faraday. So in cases like that, if I or one of the other guys has the energy, we’ll try to record a precog after the fact (to post before the episode gets edited) to help orient listeners. You can take a listen to these last two precogs and let us know how you like this approach!
What’s the relationship between science and philosophy? What about religion? Jaspers thinks that science gives you facts, but for an overarching world-view, you need philosophy. Living such a world-view requires Existenz, or a leap towards transcendence, which is of course religion’s stock and trade, though Jaspers is not a fan of dogmatism (or of giving definitions for his basic terms).
Seth got to go hang at the Provenza mansion and hooked up with Mark, Wes, and Dylan for an especially lively session covering the different flavors of existentialism, freedom, Jaspers vs. Heidegger, philosophical comedy, how existentialism just ripped off Buddhism, and Seth’s visit to not-a-strip-club.
End song: “Another Way to Fall,” New People, from The Easy Thing (2009), written by Matt Ackerman.
Also visit our our sponsor at squarespace.com and to checkout the new Squarespace 7 and enter checkout code “PEL” to get 10% off.
The Jaspers picture is by Sterling Bartlett.
Mark Linsenmayer outlines Alfred North Whitehead’s book The Concept of Nature (1920) on the relation between experience and science, and how to think about space, time, and objects. Watch for the full discussion to be released in a couple of weeks.
PEL Citizens can download the transcript from the Free Stuff for Citizens page.
Our Philosophy and Theater discussion group has just spent two months studying a series of readings on the work of Jerzy Grotowski, the famous Polish director whose productions first stunned audiences in the 1960s with their distinctive physicality. We wrapped up with our usual recorded Skype call, which featured Carlos Franke, Philip Cherny and myself. Members can download it from the Free Stuff for Citizens page (under Not School Discussion Audio). Not a member yet? Sign up here.
Studying philosophy in theater primarily through texts is obviously somewhat indelicate. Plays are meant to be experienced firsthand, in a live setting. Grotowski’s work is especially resistant to this approach, because much of his career was spent in a deliberate attempt to reach beyond (or before) both text and theater. Even during his early work directing text-based plays, the textual montages he created rendered them almost unrecognizable. In The Grotowski Sourcebook, Richard Schechner says:
Underlying Grotowski’s work during this period was a conviction regarding the capacities of performance to catalyze inner transformational processes, a function he linked to achaic performative forms, historically prior (in western culture, at any rate) to the division between the sacred and aesthetic aspects of art.
In our discussion, we found it preferable to try to understand Grotowski’s work on its own terms rather than to try to establish its relationship to theater proper. Grotowski considered the actors and the audience to be the only essential elements of theater, but as time went on, the effect of the performance upon the actor became his primary interest. Having only the length of a performance to work with an audience, their inclusion became increasingly burdensome as his focus shifted. Fairly early in his career, Grotowski left the theater altogether. He traveled extensively, collecting fragments from the rituals of a wide variety of cultures, then working with small groups of actors to try to strip away elements in order to find commonalities.
Grotowski wasn’t just an essentialist about the theatre, but also about acting. Rather than collecting a toolbox of expressions, his actors underwent a demanding process of elimination in which they would learn to drop their “social masks.” The influence of Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes looms large here, but Grotowski saw his methods as distinct. Philosophically, our group had difficulty digesting this essentialism as applied to human beings, and so one of our primary questions was: what validity can there be to Grotowski’s eliminative approach to training actors if human beings lack such an essence?
We will be continuing through January, this time looking into the Grotowski directed Akropolis, as well as a corresponding reading that members can find on our page. We’ll have another call toward the end of the month, so jump in with us if you’re interested.
- Daniel Cole
You may have noticed that the number of posts to this blog has petered out somewhat over the last year. We’ve got a strong readership, and the podcast makes us a real destination for people interested in philosophy, but with all of our preparation for episodes (and our lives outside of PEL), it’s hard for us to post a lot and/or bug people to do so.
So we’re looking for someone to help us solicit posts from good philosophy writers to build this thing into a real online magazine. Ideally this should be someone (A grad student or other aspiring academic?) with some connections in the academic community, and/or maybe someone who’s been trying to launch such a blog on his or her own, but if you have an interest, drop us a line and express your enthusiasm. No, we don’t have much cash (you would be paid something, as are the writers), but we’ve got a great community and a great platform for you to help us build something bigger in 2015.
Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested. Please include: a brief statement of qualifications, resume, and writing samples (especially links to what’s available).
Just grant the hypothetical that machine intelligence advances will eventually produce a machine capable of further improving itself, and becoming much smarter than we are. Put aside the question of whether such a being could in principle be conscious or self-conscious or have a soul or whatever. None of those are necessary for it to be capable, say, of developing and manufacturing a trillion nanobots which it could then use to remake the earth.
Bostrom thinks that we can make some predictions about the motivations of such a being, whatever goals it’s programmed to achieve, e.g. its goals will entail that it won’t want those goals changed by us. This sets up challenges for us in advance to figure out ways to frame and implement motivational programming an A.I. before it’s smart enough to resist future changes. Can we in effect tell the A.I. to figure out and do whatever we would ask it to do if we were better informed and wiser? Can we offload philosophical thought to such a superior intelligence in this way? Bostrom thinks that philosophers are in a great position for well-informed speculation on topics like this.
End song: “Volcano,” by Mark Linsenmayer, recorded in 1992 and released on the album Spanish Armada: Songs of Love and Related Neuroses.
The Bostrom picture is by Genevieve Arnold.
Paul was master of ceremonies at the 2012 Reason Rally (i.e. he’s sort of a new atheist activist), and previously appeared on Danny Lobell’s Modern Day Philosophers Podcast, where he kept mentioning existentialism, so I thought it only fitting to get him to read an existentialist who, while not a member of a religious sect, thought that science alone was inadequate to provide a foundational world view for living.
Science, according to Jaspers, who you’ll want to keep in mind started as a scientist himself, investigates particular domains with practical purposes in mind. As psychologist, he studied mental illness in order to treat it. But when studying people, i.e. turning a self into an object for study, there’s always some part of the self that escapes objectification, something we can’t get ahold of. An obvious aspect of this is your own freedom: by looking at yourself as biology or psychology or part of physics or chemistry or sociology, you’re not going to discover your own experience of freedom. Yet to live fully and effectively, you have to see yourself as free. Doing otherwise would make you a slug; it would undermine your potential. Embracing your possibilities, throwing yourself into committed action (and taking a philosophical position is included in “action” here), is what Jaspers calls Existenz. Though he later, when Sartre popularized the term, denied being an “existentialist,” it’s clear that he was one of the founders of the movement, an older contemporary of Heidegger’s who influenced the latter’s thought, who in turn influenced Sartre.
So science is a collection of facts, and doesn’t amount to a “world view,” which is something that as human beings we need. Even the scientist has such a world view, i.e. one that requires only believing propositions supported by empirical evidence, rejecting superstition, etc. Jaspers would agree with the rigor involved with this approach, but would point out that the approach itself is not given as a conclusion of scientific investigation. It’s something that we inherit from a historical tradition, founded of course in part on its success in fostering scientific progress, but as an ethos it goes beyond the limited, hypothetical character of specific scientific findings. By “hypothetical” here I mean that any given scientific investigation has to provisionally assume a whole body of prior knowledge, e.g. that the instruments in question work, that the physical world is real, or within chemistry, that molecules and atoms exist, etc. etc. etc. So while you may not have any reason to doubt these assumptions, you have to keep in mind that what you’ve really proven is that if all those assumptions hold, and these observations were correctly made, then the scientific finding in question holds.
For Existenz, this is pretty thin gruel. So what’s the alternative? Well, religious folks nowadays like to make a similar argument against science cheerleaders and say that belief in science itself requires faith. Jaspers puts this argument in a new light. What’s wrong with the argument as it’s put forward now is that the world “faith” has been tainted, or perhaps misunderstood, as necessarily referring to the uncritical embrace of certain propositions. But that doesn’t sound like what I just described, which is the provisional acceptance of what seem uncontroversial or unproblematic basic assumptions. If the data were to cast doubt on one of those (see our Kuhn episode re. potential problems with how this happens in practice), then presumably we would question it, as all material of science is supposed to be in principle falsifiable were contravening evidence to come along, unlike a religious person’s bedrock beliefs in God, which remain untouched by any attempt to point out how awful and chaotic the world sometimes appears.
The kind of faith that Jaspers thinks is involved in Existenz is what he calls “philosophical faith,” which is the kind of thing that Socrates died for. It would be unseemly, Jaspers says (in a different essay, “What Is Philosophical Faith?”), for someone like Galileo to die for a proposition that is subject to scientific proof, but philosophy is not about that. The kinds of conclusions that philosophers jump to are the result of efforts to reason at the limits of thought, and Jaspers distinguishes between “understanding,” which is what science and ordinary thinking use to make sense of our experience, and “Reason,” which has a broader scope, trying to encompass everything, even beyond possible experience. If you’re familiar with Kant’s epistemology (and if you’re not, it’s really essential that you go purchase our full episode on this), this will sound familiar: the “Critique of Pure Reason” is all about telling this runaway faculty of Reason that it shouldn’t be so careless in, e.g. ascribing causality to the world-in-itself and so jumping to the metaphysical conclusion (following every Medieval theologian) that God must exist as first cause. But recall, also, that Kant immediately tried to get around his own restriction and had plenty to say about the role of “practical reason” in justifying our beliefs in morality, God, and teleology in the world. Jaspers simply wants to make Kant simpler and more consistent and so wants to legitimize in a way Reason’s urges, not to make unfounded claims about reality itself and pretend that these are scientifically justified, but to engage in metaphysics, in philosophy, as a vital part of human life.
Following Kiekegaard (another old episode of ours you should really purchase to understand this), Jaspers thinks that philosophizing as an encounter with the transcendent is necessary for establishing a self; this is what Existenz is all about. Jaspers thinks that Nietzsche was urging the same think in instructing us to “become ourselves,” that even though Nietzsche disavowed anything transcendent in the sense of otherworldly, he was urging the very same course of action, only using different imagery and conceptual apparatus.
And that’s key for understanding what philosophy is about, and why Jaspers would want to call it “philosophical faith.” When a scientist proves something via experiment, that scientific result is supposed to be replicable, and portable across different cultures. But philosophy goes further out on a limb, creating conceptual scaffolding (recall our Deleuze discussion in this context) that is much more dependent on shades of meaning that vary with culture and even between individuals. Per Wittgenstein, when we do philosophy we’re talking about things that strictly speaking can’t be talked about at all, so it’s no wonder that it’s so easy for us to misunderstand each other.
You may also recall that Hegel (whom Jaspers also found an endlessly fruitful read) emphasized that developing a self requires recognition by other people, and this came up as a question in our Kierkegaard discussion, as K. seemed to think that you didn’t need another person, that your (admittedly one-sided) relationship with God could do the trick, that you could essentially see yourself through the eyes of God and that would be enough to give you a self. Jaspers is more in line with Buber here in saying that encountering transcendence can only really be done through another person. For Jaspers, you need deep immersion philosophical history to help you rediscover–from your own, inner source–ancient truths. And you need conversation with real, living people to really get a handle on these philosophical truths. They don’t have to agree with you, but you need their perspective in order for this whole self-development-through-philosophy to be real and substantial.
So philosophical faith involves speech, and so philosophy does involve actual propositions, whose justification you can reflect on; it’s not purely a matter of religious experience of the inexpressible. However, its subject matter is the transcendent, the inexpressible, so this kind of speech is very tricky. Certainly if you write it down and teach it by rote to people, and especially if you then demand that they believe it and that your formulation is the only route to transcendence, then something is going very, very wrong, and so Jaspers is very critical of established religions. Though the kinds of propositions philosophy is concerned with are of necessity not the kind of thing that science can provide full justification for, that doesn’t get us off the hook in being as rigorous as the subject matter allows in believing only sensible stuff and in constantly questioning and re-questioning our conclusions. A scientific education (which should involve actually doing some science) is essential, Jaspers thinks, for really giving you a respect for rigorous inquiry. Philosophy is not against science in this respect, but merely stretches beyond science’s scope; it should use science as a tool, but it also needs religion to inspire its primary subject matter.
It’s characteristic of existentialism in I think all of its varieties that Man’s destiny is to walk a razor’s edge. For Camus, we’re always tempted to settle on some false comfort and not properly face up to the fact of the absurd. For Sartre, it was about forgetting our own freedom and settling into bad faith. Heidegger had his own warnings about getting sucked into practical activity and the point of view of the They and losing sight of the question of Being. For Jaspers, the temptation is two-fold: if we let a philosophical conclusion solidify into a doctrine and pretend that this is certain and universalizable and take comfort in it, we’re violating the dictates of our intellectual conscience, but on the other side if we stop leaping for the transcendent, give up the search for Truth with a capital “T,” then we’re also forfeiting our essential humanity. So keep the faith, but don’t codify it!
If you want to purchase the reading, I recommend Walter Kaufmann’s anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, which also contains some really good excerpts from Jaspsers’s Reason and Existenz, a lecture series from 1955 that more explicitly defines terms like “Existenz,” “Reason,” and “the Encompassing.”
I also refer at the beginning of the podcast to The Heidegger-Jaspers Correspondence (1920-1963), which would likely help to clarify the the relationship between the ideas of these two fathers of German existentialism, and which also contains the only (sort of) apology that Heidegger seems to have issued for joining the Nazi party.
I also read The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, whose first lecture is “What Is Philosophical Faith?” and which goes into a lot more detail about the relationship between philosophy and religion.
I’m told that there’s another lecture series that might prove to be a more comprehensive (in terms of the topics discussed above) while more readable than the material in the Kaufmann, Philosophy of Existence. It seems like he kept coming back to these same topics, trying to help people appreciate his approach.
Mark Linsenmayer introduces Jaspers’s essay, “On My Philosophy” (1941) on Existenz and the difference between philosophy, science, and religion. After you listen to this, get the full PEL discussion.
PEL Citizens can download the transcript from the Free Stuff for Citizens page.
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq was our novel up for conversation this December, and you can hear Nathan, Dan and Kimberly discuss the story in Philosophical Fiction from PEL’s Not School, on the Free Stuff for Citizens page (under “Not School Discussion Group Audio”). We sum up the plot, quote key passages, and discuss the story of Jed Martin; a man at the “at the beginning of the third millenium” whose successful life as an artist pales against his lonely life as a human.
“You can work alone for years, it’s actually the only way to work, truth be told; but there always comes a moment when you feel the need to show your work to the world, less to receive its judgement than to reassure yourself about the existence of this work, or even of your own existence, for in a social species individuality is little more than a short piece of fiction.” (77, Knopf 2012)
Usually sad, often brilliant and occasionally hilarious, there was a lot to discuss in The Map and the Territory.
“Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning, as this 1/150,000 scale Michelin map. The essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was here combined with the essence of animal life. The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colors. But in each of the hamlets and villages… you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens of hundreds of souls- some destined for damnation, others for eternal life.” (28)
We also collected other thoughts on Michel Houellebecq from:
Slavoj Zizek ‘No Sex, Please, We’re Post-Human‘
and, Sam Lipsyte ‘The Mooing of the Ruminant‘.
Have you resolved to become a PEL Citizen in 2015? What’s this, you ask? It’s an easy and affordable way to get access to all kinds of bonus content on the site. Plus, you get the chance to do some first hand philosophizing in one of our Not School study groups. We have two groups running this month so far, and you can still propose a new one if you hurry. Come join up!
We have a new group this month who will be reading How to Read Lacan, by Slavoj Zizek. It looks like the PEL episode on Lacan will also be part of the discussion. They plan to finish up with a Google Hangout towards the end of January. Check with them if you’re interested in joining.
That’s all for now, but check back next month to see what’s new.
- Daniel Cole
For our episode on the sublime, since the 12 Days of Xmas was going to be way too long, I opted to complete a song that I’d been wanting to finish for a while about my dog Stoobie, who hit the high trail in the summer of 2011 after 16.5 cute but irascible years on this earth. I wrote this a month or two afterwards, and it seemed a fitting conversation piece in light of our discussion here about grief, which I found to be perhaps the unraveling of Burke’s attempt to found pleasure and pain as two distinct realms, each with its own aesthetic phenomena.
However, the way in which I completed the recording over the course of December may have undermined my intended point. So, my original singing/acoustic guitar, recorded at the time in 2011, was ragged, and intentionally so, a la Alex Chilton’s ragged adventures here and here. I think of this style as “drunken,” even though for my part, no drinking is typically involved in producing the effect (I would likely simply go to sleep instead of recording if it were). So my singing was a little out of tune, my strumming a little out of time, and I was ready for some big, stupid, dissonant lead guitar. The point being that plenty of the music I like does NOT aim at beauty exactly, but at a fractured, human imperfection. This song is about grief, but its expression, while not exactly ironic, is supposed to channel some punk spirit, and certainly humor. (Witness by comparison one of my inspirations: They Might Be Giants doing songs about loss here and here.) Though not sublime in the sense of big and scary (a la Opeth or Peter Gabriel’s “Intruder”), I think the drunken, swearing path provides an alternative aesthetic point of view that I suspect was lurking in one form or another back into history (so long as there have been drunken, bawdy, poignantly broken minstrals), which cannot be dismissed as Burke might want as simply rude and so aesthetically worthless.
But this Stoobis recording I think really marks the turning point in my use of a geographically remote band, in that of the six other people that played on this recording, only the piano player Rei Tangko (whose violin you’ll remember from ep. 100) was in the room with me when we recorded (his part was the last added). I had one of our listeners (Monica Serra, whose material you should hear here) sing backup instead of just blurting a part out myself as I usually do, had her cohort Terry Bacon ONLY play the organ part even though he was fully capable of playing the piano and the bass parts as well, outsourced bass to my old Mark Lint & the Fake bandmate Sam Ray (whom I’ve not played with in any form since leaving Austin in 2000!). The drums were by my Ann Arbor bandmate Steve Petrinko, and the lead guitar by Dave Roof, the first guitarist for my college band with Steve, The MayTricks (he played on our initial demo in 1991). So this is for me is a wealth of excess, and in combination with some other experiences over the last year has gotten me to actually prefer not having a band any more and instead drawing on this extended group of musicians whose week-to-week devotion is not necessary periodic one-off recordings. Yes, I’m a pretty picky producer/arranger when in the same room with someone, but ultimately just typically prefer writing singer-songwriter song frames and having people do whatever interesting things they want over it, and if I don’t like it, I can kill or change it in the mixing stage. So while this certainly isn’t the first time I employed this remote-musician strategy, it’s the first time I did it for almost every single element of the song so as to simulate a virtual band. If you yourself are a quick-learning, recording-ready musician who’d be interested in collaborating with me in this way, please drop me a line and tell me what you do.
So Burke identified grief as in the realm of beauty, not the sublime, because it’s ultimately about the pleasure of thinking about the departed, not about feeling actual pain. While of course there are many beautiful requiem-type songs, I set out to put down something that, yes, still uses major chords and other hallmarks of beauty, but wasn’t aiming at the beautiful, but was instead going for this kind of grief juxtaposed with something at least related to the awareness of one’s own death and being bummed/pissed/bemused/reckless about that, which sounds very much like what Burke should mean when talking about the sublime as related to the fear of death.
However, whatever direction I did (or in most cases didn’t) give to the other musicians, they unfailingly sent me back parts that were really pretty darn beautiful: very melodic, with great, fat tones: dynamic and full. So I put in the time during mixing to straighten out the inconsistent rhythms set in motion by my unsteady foundational guitar and selectively pitch correct my vocal (though not the too-warbly vibrato, which auto-tune makes sound worse), and though the result is still somewhat shambling, the combined effort of all these folks was much more effective to my ears than anything I’d envisioned.
On 12/7/14, Dylan and I had a conversation with Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom about his new book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. We were also joined by former podcaster Luke Muehlhauser (Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot), whose organization often works with Nick and coordinates an ongoing reading group on the book.
Nick’s Future of Humanity Institute studies “existential threats” (a la our past discussion with David Brin), and he presents a model (e.g. in this 1997 paper that we discussed a bit) of philosophical work that is continuous with but with a more general scope than science. We previously discussed (none too charitably) one of his papers on genetically or mechanically enhancing human capacities, and Superintelligence does treat that subject briefly, but the focus is on artificial intelligence and the threat that it poses if engineered improperly.
You can hear (and watch) Nick explain the project here, but here’s the run-down: There are no in-principle reasons preventing us from developing an artificial intelligence that’s as smart as we are (whether or not it really has consciousness or any other uniquely human trait is beside the point; “intelligence” just refers to means-end strategic ability here), and once we do that, whatever its programmed goals, it will have reason to work to enhance its own abilities, meaning that it’s only a matter of time before there’s an AI out there that’s MUCH smarter than we are. Nick doesn’t predict when this will happen, but thinks it more or less inevitable given current research programs.
What motivations will this AI have? Obviously that depends on how it’s programmed, but whatever its goals, it will have an instrumental interest in enhancing itself, and also in maintaining goal integrity, i.e. preventing us whatever its goals are from being changed.
Nick thinks that unless strenuous effort is put into carefully defining these goals BEFORE FULL INTELLIGENCE IS ACHIEVED, then we’re in trouble. Researchers trying to engineer machine intelligence would more likely than not set just any old goal, e.g. coming up with as many digits of pi as possible or building as many paper clips as possible, as their focus would be to get the machine to innovate and learn in coming up with ways to achieve that goal. But if they succeed, then goal integrity means that we’re stuck with a super-intelligence who will now think “outside the box” to take whatever steps it deems necessary to meet its goal, e.g. converting all the matter on earth into paper clip material or computing material to calculate digits of pi. Even if its goal is not infinite, e.g. “manufacture 100 paper clips,” there’s always more action it can try to take to increase the certainty that it has in fact performed this goal, i.e. go ahead and make the universe into paper clips.
So the primary problem to sole here is what Nick calls “the control problem,” which involves measures to either prevent a potential superintelligence from being able to ruin the world (e.g. crippling or containing it) or, more directly, come up with ways to set its motivation in ways that we would find acceptable. This gives rise to many problems more familiar to philosophers: e.g. if you want to tell it to refrain from actions that aren’t in our interest, then you have to both figure out what our interest is and figure out how to state this unambiguously. For example, if we tell it to maximize human happiness, it’s likely to work to rewire us so that only our pleasure centers function and everything else is removed, if this proves the most efficient way to keep us happy, or better yet, kill us all and replace us with creatures that are easier to keep happy.
Moreover, Nick thinks that we can in effect outsource our more thorny philosophical problems to this much greater intelligence if we can tell it to “take whatever actions we would ask you to take if we were better informed and thought about it for long enough.” All this is of course connected with the kind of ethical theorizing that philosophers are familiar with.
The story told, we’re faced with a number of issues: Is this something that philosophers have any business messing with, or on the contrary is this a real and pressing enough existential threat that it’s much more worth our time than just about anything else? Do we buy the control problem as legitimate, or can we deny that goal integrity would be a central feature of AI motivation? Are we in any position to make the kinds of predictions and analyses Nick makes in this book?
You can hear Nick on a number of other podcasts talking both about this topic and about existential threats more generally. Here are a few from Oxford, or you can just search on his name under podcasts or iTunes U and find plenty of them. We did our best in talking to him this time to engineer an interactive conversation so he’s not simply repeating what he had to say in these plentiful previous media appearances.
On A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), parts I, II, and his later intro essay, “On Taste.”
Are people’s tastes basically the same? Burke says yes: they’re rooted in our common reactions to pain and pleasure, those two are not opposites, but simply quite different properties, each associated with a different set of responses. When we are aesthetically pleased by something big, indistinct, and maybe scary, Burke calls that a judgment that it’s sublime.
There are still copies of the 2015 PEL philosopher wall calendar left! Or you can support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation.
The Burke picture is by Sterling Bartlett.
Mark Lint and the PEL Orchestra present the longest, slowest, biggest, fattest, most surreal Christmas carol ever.
First Mark explains for a minute what this is (you can read it here), then off we go on a long, strange trip, with different verses of the holiday classic arranged in styles from baroque to folk to metal to disco.
Featuring Jonathan Segel (from Camper Van Beethoven; jonathansegel.com), comedian Adam Sank (adamsank.com), Al Baker (www.albaker.co.uk), Timo Carlier (soundcloud.com/carlier), Maxx Bartko (soundcloud.com/dotdot), Daniel Gustafsson, Jason Durso and Shannon Farrell, Kenn Busch and Jenny Green, Kylae Jordan, Rei Tangko, Greg Thornburg, WILSON, and comedian Alex Fossella (@afossella).
Coordinated and sung by Mark Lint (marklint.com).
Get the music-only version (i.e. without Mark’s spoken intro) in audio form here; this is the link you will want to send around to torture and/or enlighten the masses.
Make sure to buy one of our new 2015 wall calendars with Genevieve’s art on it!
December craziness is making it hard for me to get around to writing decent summaries, so this will be a very immanent announcement; the ep should be soon:
On Dec. 2, Seth, Dylan, and I were joined by photographer Amir Zaki to discuss Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, parts I, II, and the 2nd-edition introductory essay, “On Taste.”
Burke published this in 1756, and after this point, for the next hundred years or so, all serious aestheticians had to talk not just about the beautiful, but about the sublime too. While beauty is (as Kant says, who was very influenced by Burke’s ideas on this topic) all about appreciating the form of a sensory object, which means it has to be clearly presented, and small enough to take the form into your grasp, so to speak, sublimity is about the vast, the powerful, the scary. A great waterfall or mountain, a vast chasm or church, a mighty thunderclap or power chord from a Marshall stack: all this is attention-getting, perhaps awe-inspiring, but not what you’d want to call beautiful.
While Burke has a good deal to say about what qualities something that strikes us as sublime might exhibit, the shift (again, influencing Kant) is toward human reactions: it’s not that anything is sublime or beautiful in itself, but that there’s a common human nature and so when struck by certain stimuli we react in predictable ways, such as with a feeling of the sublime. Though he doesn’t use the terms “stimulus” and “response,” he presents an aggressively physiological, psychological account that is meant as a correction to his predecessors, whom he characterizes as focusing purely on artistic works and not on human reactions. This is why, even though he’s of course interested in art, most of his examples are from the natural world: we react to certain things in certain ways, and when we use our imaginations (generally necessary for producing or even appreciating works of art), we’re only “displeased with the images, from the same principle on which the sense is pleased or displeased with the realities…” (intro, stanza 87).
Burke gives us a picture of human psychology based on pleasure and pain, but wants to distinguish himself from his predecessors by not taking them as simply positive and negative values of the same kind of stuff. They are conceptually separable, not simply contradictories, and he denies straightforwardly the old adage that you couldn’t understand one without having experience of the other. In particular, he points out that cessation of pain is not a type of pleasure, and cessation of pleasure is not itself a pain. To give an example of the latter type, he identifies grief as one species of cessation of pleasure, i.e. a permanent severing of ties with a pleasure-giving individual. Though we would hardly consider grief to be a happy experience, he identifies it as within the realm of pleasure: it’s a pleasurable savoring of the memory of the beloved.
So it’s not that pain = bad and pleasure = good, but that pain and pleasure are each psychological foci for a set of emotional experiences, some of which are ones we would want to experience and some of which we wouldn’t. Included within the realm of pleasure is beauty, and included within the realm of pain is the sublime. Since pain is a more powerful force on us than pleasure (we act more keenly to avoid pain than to seek pleasure), the sublime is actually more powerful aesthetically. The key to aesthetic appreciation of the sublime within this realm of pain is distance: I can’t appreciate the magnificence of a raging storm when it’s directly threatening me. It’s only when I’m somehow at a safe distance that I can do this, and so of course a picture (or 3D movie!) of such a storm leaves me dry and safe.
To fill out this picture of our psychological relation to objects of aesthetic appreciation, Burke wrote a new introduction, “On Taste,” to the second edition of the book (two years after the first edition), which tries to explain how, even though he’s given this very physiological account, there can still be bad taste and good taste. We all have the same uncultured tastes, and he actually starts off here talking about gustatory tastes, like alcohol tasting bitter. People who drink alcohol and feel good can come to like the taste, purely through association with this good feeling, not because it’s any less bitter, and this (says Burke) won’t make them like bitter things in general or confuse bitter with sweet.
With more reason-intensive acts of appreciation, there can be even more variation, because to for instance, understand a story, you have to understand the words and syntax, maybe the storytelling conventions, the cultural assumptions the storyteller assumes you have or are familiar with, maybe even the history of the art form in question. The more educated you get about an artform, the less likely you are to be satisfied with rudimentary examples of it, the more demanding your tastes. Burke adds to this that your taste could be not just uneducated but actually displaying poor character, if you take pleasure in the vulgar, i.e. whatever wasn’t considered proper according to the mores of his time.
Update: this project is done: go listen!
I need collaborators for an evil Xmas prank/art piece to be completed ASAP, so if you know good musicians who record themselves at home, please forward a link to this post on to that person.
You know how “The 12 Days of Xmas” is about the most boring Xmas song ever? So, so long, going on and on. Well, I’ve had a long-standing joke whereby I start to sing that at “Ave Maria” speed, so even just the first verse is multiple minutes long.
I got to thinking that if you sing something slowly enough, then it ceases to be a melody and becomes atmosphere instead. What if I recorded the entirety of the 12 Days of Xmas, with each verse slower than the previous? Horribly boring and unlistenable? Well, yes, of course, but not so fast…
What if I got various musicians to each take just one verse and treat it like an environment, like a self-contained song that they could simply pick a beat for (or not!) pick an atmosphere for (spacey? jazzy? industrial? metal? funk? classical? avant garde atonal? pure noise?), and quickly layer some parts on it so that it’s interesting to listen to?
So I’m trying it, and folks who want to participate should contact me at email@example.com and send me links to some of your work and I’ll send you some guide tracks you can record against very quickly (this is supposed to be spontaneous; laboring over your parts is not going to make them better).
This demo version of verses 1-3 includes verse 3 (and verse 1 accompaniment) contributions by Swedish keyboardist Daniel Gustafsson, who played with me on another tune recently.
As of the eve of 12/14, all of the verses have been assigned (I’m excited to say that this includes one of my musical idols, Jonathan Segel of Camper van Beethoven fame!), but for verse 12 (at 25 minutes long!) is shaping up to be a good old fashion interminable basement jam (with some overlaid spoken word stuff), and needs your contribution to fill up that vast ocean of time with interesting noodling. If you think you’ll have time between now and Wednesday, drop me a line and I’ll get you set up.
The plan includes posting some version to YouTube that people can torture each other with for years and years. I’d like to feature warped Xmas art by PEL fans in the video, so also contact me if you’d like to quickly churn out something that we can use for that.
Hey, look! The 2015 wall calendar is for sale here.
This is no digital mirage, it’s a physical object you can hold in your hands, with lush colors and squares you can write disgusting things in, and if you flip the pages really fast you’ll see a cartoon… if you’re very imaginative and always see a cartoon whenever you flip through the pages of anything. When I last flipped through the pages of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, I saw a toucan swooping down and gobbling up a baby. It was scary.
But re. this calendar here, anything is possible. First of all, we opted to go with 8 1/2″ by 11″ pages (i.e. it unfolds to 17″ by 11″), so you can carry it around like a secret dossier, or hang it on the wall (they will have the nice round nail holes in them, despite that characteristic being missing from this picture). Second, it has 13 months, because of the necessity when you have a printer make this kind of document of having a number of pages divisible by four. What’s with the extra month? What secrets will it hold? Only you can know, and only if you purchase it, as its contents are a SWORN SECRET that only the most precious mouths can utter, and only when the moon stands blood red over the glade of Mormoth and the whippoorwills cry a mournful “co-wah! co-wah!” as they taste the thick night air with their pointy, black tongues.
Third of all, you are always forgetting my birthday, and G.E. Moore’s too, and never again will that happen if you purchase this product, provided that you gaze at it and memorize its nooks and crannies. But do not be surprised if G.E.M. Anscombe also looks back at YOU and finds you wanting. But in a good way. You want this to happen, trust me.
Fourth of all the things, you are always late to things, and dehumanized by technology. You don’t want a newly fangled doo-hickey bleeping and blorping to tell you that Ramadan has begun. You want something physical to be your master, something with thick, silky pages that can fan you when you are too hot, and heat you when the end of 2015 comes and you throw them in the fire. Or will you treasure them? Will you cut out each picture page and frame it individually? I know I will.
Finally of all the things to be listed among the things that are, our calendar is a status symbol. It marks you as a super nerdy philosophy-loving freak, and how can that fail to impress? If you bring it to work, people will gather around your cube and mourn with you about how you all work in cubes, or if you have it on your refrigerator, all the cold food will gather behind it and try to read it from the inside. It will put your children’s artworks to shame, which will be good for their character. You can also buy several copies and staple them to the inside of a trenchcoat and walk around “flashing” people as if to say “Does anybody really know what day it is? Does anybody really care? If so, I can’t imagine why we all have days enough to cry.“
In conclusion, go buy the calendar lest we be saddled with a bunch of debt for mass producing them. Yay, Genevieve’s art! Yay, PEL fans who like to own things! Yay, months and days and 2015!
On Outlines of Pyrrhonism , Book 1, from around 200 CE.
Are our beliefs warranted? Skeptics following in the footsteps of Pyrrho (who lived just after Aristotle, around 300 BCE, but didn’t leave us any writings, so Sextus, centuries later, has to fill us in) think that for any argument someone puts forward (at least about the nature of reality), you can come up with a plausible counter-argument, and that after you’ve done this enough, you achieve a relaxed state where you you’re satisfied in not being able to decide.
Is this really true? And is there a sharp distinction between beliefs you need to accept in order to live (this is food; that is poison) and theoretical ones? Can a philosopher really get beyond philosophizing in this way? Can one be a scientist and still be a skeptic of this sort? Jessica Berry joins Mark, Wes, and Dylan to defend this position. Read more about the topic and get the text.
Please also visit our sponsor, mobile service provider Ting: If you pay an early termination fee (ETF) to come to Ting, they give you credit for 25% of your ETF, up to $75 per device. To put that into perspective, the average bill for one device is only $26, so that’s almost three months of free service! To up their game, they’re increasing that to 50% until January 5 up to a max of $150 in credit. Go to pel.ting.com to see how much you can save on your monthly bill and get the additional $25 in service credit. That’s up to $175 in credit! Sign up with Ting using pel.ting.com and follow the instructions to provide your ETF details at ting.com/ETF.
The Pyrrho picture is by Corey Mohler.