1. Soul Dust: A Well Supported Stab At The “Why” Of Consciousness.


    Nicholas Humphrey, professor of psychology at The London School Of Economics, is a leading investigator of  what philosopher David Chalmers dubbed the “hard problem” of consciousness.   His Recent book Soul Dust approaches the second part of the Hard Problem: why human beings have consciousness, and why consciousness should have evolved at all. It is an excellent read for anyone interested in philosophy of mind and the evolution of the brain.

    While there have been many attempts to get at what consciousness is (or what consciousness is like, see PEL episode 21), the goal of  Soul Dust is describing why consciousness is evolutionarily advantageous–or, more exactly, why natural selection has led to creatures with the remarkable quality of being phenomenally conscious.  It is an interesting question given that being conscious (not to be confused with being intelligent) does not seem to grant any survival skills. As Jerry Fodor famously asked “What mental processes can be performed only because the mind is conscious, and what does consciousness contribute to their performance?  Why then did God bother to make consciousness?”

    Humphrey’s solution is not terribly complex. Consciousness, he claims, does not add or enhance some survival ability (as, say, wings allow birds to fly).  Consciousness improves the chance of survival because it makes life worth living.  Being phenomenally conscious grants import, meaning, and ego, essentially fooling us into striving towards fulfillment. Humphrey makes this point by quoting several artists, writers, and theologians, such as Oscar Wilde: “The aim of life is self development. To realize one’s nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for. To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”  Quoting Thomas Nagel, Humphrey points out the strange fact that “There are elements which, if added to one’s experience, make life better; there are other elements which, if added to one’s experience make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. . . The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its contents.”  To put it  simply, “we accept that nature made sex pleasurable to encourage us to have more sex. Then why not make living magically delightful in order to encourage us to engage in life?”

    Humphrey further argues that the desire to “experience life” has “increased our fear of death.”  To quote Philip Roth, “I’m afraid of dying. . . I’m 72. What am I afraid of? . . . Oblivion. Of not being alive, quite simply, of not feeling life, not smelling it.” Consciousness fools us into believing that we are somehow individually unique and makes the experience of life, on balance, emphatically positive.  It also allows us to extrapolate from the deaths of others that we are going to die and that death is the loss of all experience.  This knowledge, something that nonconscious and less acutely conscious animals seem to lack,  makes being alive precious and something that needs to be actively defended and improved upon, even in the absence of immediate threats.

    Humphrey asserts that it is this love of being alive and omnipresent fear of death that motivates us to fight for our “honor,” “legacy” and other abstract goals that just so happen to involve a lot of resource gathering, competition, and constructive activity that will positively affect our progeny.  As per Humphrey,  the more beautiful and meaningful life becomes, the harder the conscious creature will fight to improve and extend its own existence. And, the harder it will work to improve the likelihood of the success of it’s offspring.  Thus, being conscious is a huge evolutionary advantage and is explainable in a standard Darwinian framework.

    Elsewhere in the book, Humphrey attempts to explain the how as well as the why–how consciousness developed and how it works. Much of this material is drawn from his previous work Seeing Red. But Humphrey stresses that this is the least of his goals with Soul Dust. His focus and attention is on the why. Humphrey confirms that he is on the side of Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, and other antidualistic thinkers who feel that neuroscience will probably answer the how in due time and that consciousness is entirely physical. His theory on the what and how is included mostly to avoid the criticism that he has totally ignored it, going so far as to say at the onset of the chapter on math and brain function that the reader can feel free to skip it entirely.


    All in all, Soul Dust is a great read.  It is a comparatively easy to understand text and is a convincing argument (if you are willing to be convinced that you are an animal and that there is no “soul”).  For my own part, I have to say it makes a lot of sense.  There are parts of life that make me want more life, and it seems this is also true for people much less fortunate than myself.  If my love of say, very early mornings on Lake Mendota is a survival mechanism, it’s working.

    You can find a lecture by Nicholas Humphrey summarizing the ideas of Soul Dust here:

  2. Ricoeur on the “Second Naïveté”


    If you were curious and confused as I was when Law started talking about the “second naïveté” on our Ricoeur episode, check out this page for a quick explanation. We start out (with the “first naïveté”) taking all these religious fairy stories at face value. We then grow up and acquire critical distance, which not only involves applying what we’ve learned by actually dealing with the world (e.g. you wouldn’t believe your spouse was cheating on you without adequate evidence, so why would you believe in this stuff?) and from science, but also applying the insights of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud to look at your beliefs from these different points of view. But the agnosticism (at best) that typically results from this isn’t the end of the story.

    Fundamental to authentic religion (for any religious existentialist) is spiritual, i.e. emotional engagement, which when it comes to Christianity at least has to do with “being called.” While the hermeneutic strategies to “open up the text” that Ricoeur presents are not simple or childlike, they’re only the first step in engaging with the ideas. If you understand “the meek shall inherit the earth” as a radical idea, what do you do with that? How do you apply it? How do you let it change you? Following Gadamer, we’re supposed to put ourselves at risk, allowing the possibility that the text could be life-changing.

    I got to try this in preparing for episode 113 on Jesus’s Parables: Could I, by learning about the original circumstances (so far as they can be reconstructing) of their delivery and then their recording, really listen to them? Well, you’ll have to wait for that episode to see whether you think I got the message. For the most part, I’ll confess that I’m not sure how one is really supposed to institute such a “naïveté.” As Gadamer said, the only handle we have on a text is our own foreunderstandings, and though we can try to improve these by learning more about history, and literary tropes, and other topics, the end result of this is not in any sense a dropping one’s guard. Surely this can’t be referring simply to the very first necessary step of not writing off the text out of hand, of admitting that there is some value in listening to the text at all.

    According to the summary of Ricoeur linked to above, the naïveté involves being able to approach the symbols in the appropriate manner, keeping in mind (as per the Jaspers bonus discussion), that they don’t point actually point to any specific thing. This is what the summary refers to as the “mystic stage,” so it sounds like it’s a matter of being open to a certain kind of religious/mystical experience: putting your mind at peace, clearing it of thoughts, focusing on your senses, your breathing, all that jazz, as one would have to do perhaps to enjoy certain types of jazz or other music that doesn’t obtrusively jump out and grab you (“catchy” music). But doing this only works if you’ve already done the prior work to understand (whether or not you can articulate it) the musical language involved (see our Goodman episode). The system of symbols for a given religion is still conventional, and not merely a matter of seeing the infinite another person or nature as Buber describes. But what system of religious symbols am I equipped to understand? I went to church throughout my youth, waving palms and lighting candles and singing in front of a massive, room-filling organ, eating the croutons and drinking the grape juice, listening to the stories and the homilies and the calls to be closer to God and follow in the example of Jesus. That’s the language I learned, and its symbols are simple and to my adult eyes basically unhelpful; they’ve long since been replaced by music and love and certain movies in putting me in touch with that feeling that I used to call religious by seems well enough described nowadays as ASMR.

    It’s easy to accuse anyone defending a mature version of religion as still just trying to covertly defend a set of much less mature, less admirable sentiments; the suspicion that Ricoeur brings to bear is more than welcome. When I hear the call to put one’s presuppositions at risk in reading the Bible, I hear “suspend your disbelief.” I hear “well, how do you know that miracles don’t really occur? Scientific laws are just generalizations of the observed, and can’t disprove divine exceptions.” I hear “lower your arrogant countenance in the presence of the divine!” These are the fore-understandings with which I approach such apparently enlightened approaches to Christianity, and the call for me to become impossibly naïve does not allay my suspicions. Will nothing short of a full seminary education, or a Ph.D. in religion, actually qualify me to read the symbols and so allow me to get the desired result out of my open heart?

    Image credit: Ratna Sari

  3. Intellectual Character and the so called Hot Hand Fallacy


    11_14 Steph 3Quassim Cassam wants you to know that conspiracy theorists have bad character. In other words, bad thinking is not just bad thinking; it’s also a vice. Maybe Cassam is right. Intellectual character or the lack thereof is often overlooked, at least in general conversation. It’s not that we have an overabundance of trust and tolerance in our public discourse, which is obvious to anyone, it’s just that we tend to see people who hold a multitude of unjustified beliefs as ill-informed, dim-witted, or maybe even insane. And while we easily find the nerve to accuse our ideological opponents of bad faith or insincerity, that’s mostly a purely moral accusation. Cassam’s idea is more interesting than that. The real problem with people who believe fervently in climate change denialism or 9-11 “trutherism,” is not that they’re dumb, crazy, or motivated by greed or power. Rather, it’s that they lack the intellectual character needed to form sound beliefs.

    Think of an accountant who embezzles from their clients, a journalist who can’t find the courage to report the truth, or the employee who coasts on the job. These people are dishonest, cowardly, lazy. It may even be that these morally malformed creatures just can’t help themselves, such is the nature of their bad character. It’s the same with intellectual character. The belief formation process doesn’t go wrong on account of low intelligence or a merely cognitive failure of rationality, rather, what’s to blame is a bad intellectual quality in the person. It’s not clear whether this approach takes the terms psychologists and philosophers already use to name rational shortcomings and simply recasts them as character terms, or, whether it proposes alternative (morally-laden) terms and concepts with allegedly more fundamental causal power, but never mind. I actually don’t doubt that a non-trivially large portion of conspiracy theorists have at least temperamental characteristics that lead them astray – characteristics that can’t be reduced to or equated with bad faith, mental illness, or purely cognitive failings.

    My worry is instead over how poisonous this approach could be to our discourse: How about this for a possibility: suppose, every once in a while, our views turn out to be wrong (heaven forbid), but instead of merely expressing our disagreement we accuse our interlocutors of possessing deep character flaws for disagreeing with us? Let’s take one example that’s particularly frustrating to me, the so-called “Hot Hand Fallacy” basketball players, coaches, and fans are said to employ (that this is a topic I would cite as frustrating as opposed to something important like, say, climate change, may reveal something about my character, but that’s a topic for another day).

    In basketball, a player who hits many shots in a row is often said to have “the hot hand.” But statisticians have painstakingly pointed out that there’s no such thing. People just have a tendency to see patterns in randomness. Basketball coaches who, in the face of this evidence, still cling to their belief in the Hot Hand are accused by Cassam of having bad intellectual character; it’s not only that they hold a mistaken view about their sport. As for the Hot Hand Fallacy itself, there really is something compelling in the research of psychologists like Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky, (hereafter GVT) who first identified the belief as a fallacy in the 1985 paper “The Hot Hand in Basketball – On the Misperception of Random Sequences.”

    GVT cleverly got a bunch of survey participants to agree that after a player hits a shot or two, the player’s next shot has a higher percentage than normal of going in, and this belief in rising probability was debunked by their research. Further, it’s demonstrable that random sequences of numbers are indistinguishable from what appear to us to be hot streaks. In other words, random numbers sometimes streak as well – 10101111111111 might look like a pattern, but random sequences also behave this way at times. You could even call each term H or M (for hit or miss) rather than 1 or 0 for sake of maximizing the sense of similarity to shooting. Basketball fans have a hard time accepting all this. It’s not an exaggeration to say that conversations on the Hot Hand are often contentious. Tversky says “I’ve been in a thousand arguments over this topic… and I’ve convinced no one.”

    The topic even found its way into our pop culture when former Clinton Treasury Secretary, Harvard President, and Winklevii naysayer Larry Summers paid a visit to the Harvard Crimson basketball team for a pep talk. Summers asked the players if they believed in the hot hand. The players all nodded. Summers then informed them that they were wrong, firmly explaining the fallacy, the content of which must imply that years of practice are incapable of building the muscle memory capable of getting a player in the kind of groove that can lead to a genuine hot streak – how inspiring.

    Lo and behold, it turns out there’s new data. It purportedly shows that there really is such a thing as a groove, (and therefore the Hot Hand) and that the phenomena can be teased out empirically. The data are apparently persuasive enough that even Summers has given a nod, “Better data plus better statistical techniques means we’re going to understand the world much better.” Openness to new data is certainly the kind of virtue we should all aspire to, but before we brake our arms patting ourselves on the back, new data doesn’t resolve the problem of ambiguity that’s lingered all along.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us to pay close attention to the way words are used. GVT got people to agree that a player with the Hot Hand who hits a shot would display a rising probability of success on subsequent shots, but again it turned out this phenomena couldn’t be justified statistically, so, fair enough. But to this rabid basketball fan of over 30 years, that definition sounds, while not altogether incorrect, still a bit tortured when presented as exhaustive, perhaps to say something the torturers needed to get on record in order to proceed. But again, never mind, I don’t want to quibble with what some portion of people out there think the hot hand is.

    What no fan worth his vintage jersey would believe is that GVT’s definition represents the only common way the concept is used, and, indeed, if the researchers had been as curious about the subtleties in the way people use words as they were about statistical implications, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation, as thoroughly clarified theses that narrow their headline claims tend to get less attention than sweeping ones. To be fair, GVT did allow that all the things people mean by “hot streak” might not be captured by their analysis. But over the years, the general notion of a hot hand has been said to be dis-proven by clever statistical techniques, and in any case GVT then pivoted back to their exhaustive definition, asserting without authority that however the terms “Hot Hand,” and “hot streak” are employed, the common ways all imply that “the probability of a hit should be greater following a hit than following a miss,” and that “the number of streaks of successive hits or misses should exceed the number produced by a chance process.” In other words, the common notion as defined by GVT happened to line up perfectly with what their research claimed to disprove. But in the end, the researchers are psychologists, not ethnographers, linguists, or Wittgensteinian philosophers, so maybe we can give them a pass.

    It’s just that the way the issue has been presented over the years has produced a messy conversation. So per Cassam’s accusation of bad intellectual character, we have little idea what the coaches have in mind when they dismiss the assertion that a fallacy is at play, because too little time has been spent clarifying the issue, too little attention paid to sifting through what might be meant by the key terms allegedly being debunked. Let’s be clear that it won’t do to simply retreat back to GVT’s exclusive definition of the hot hand, because the issue gains its popular traction from the incredulous reactions from basketball fans (and apparently now, coaches) who are all entitled to their untutored uses of the concept, but whose views on the sport they love are dismissed by the statistical cognoscenti. Sure, the data tell us that admonitions from fans such as “Give it to Toney, he’s got the Hot Hand!” turn out to be bits of advice that aren’t any more reliable than following random chance, even if Toney appeared to be on a hot streak.

    Everyone should admit that this is an interesting result, and certainly the average fan isn’t entitled to just any belief. But the claim is sweeping in that, in order to demonstrate that the Hot Hand doesn’t exist, we would need to show not only that we do a poor job of spotting hot streaks taking place in real time, or that our odds of predicting whether the next shot will go in aren’t better than random chance. No, we’d also have to show that our retrospective looks at, say, Jamal Crawford’s 16 consecutive made shots in a 2007 NBA game are not memories of a hot-streak in the relevant sense, and in fact each shot was either random or was due to skill only on a case by case basis – that Crawford was in no groove. That, no study has done, and it’s indeed hard to imagine how any could. That might sound like an unreasonable standard to have to meet, but after all, that would be the implication of showing that the Hot Hand doesn’t exist.

    If I show you the results of a player’s shots over time (H’s and M’s), say, a string of shots like Crawford’s cited above, and you show me a randomly generated sequence (also call each term in the sequence H or M, for effect) you do not win the argument by simply showing me that random sequences also sometimes cluster in streaks, not without begging the question. The most you’ve done is to raise a case of underdetermination. In other words, one activity is admittedly random (the number generator) and the other, basketball, is at least allegedly influenced by human practice and skill, in a way that allegedly sometimes leads to grooves or “in the zone” experiences. That randomly generated sequences can look just like streaks doesn’t mean “in the zone” experiences aren’t occurring in one of the data sets. Just from the sequences the researchers laid out before us, (the shots and the random sequence) we simply can’t tell if both sets are random or if one contains genuine hot streaks – the data can bear both interpretations.

    But before we get too enamored with data, maybe we can just think about it like normal people, which is an avenue that’s been open all along. Have you ever swung a hammer all day? If so, did you get better as the day progressed? Were there parts of the day when you somehow managed to hit the nail right on the head, rather than hitting your thumb, for a long period of time? The question is whether each swing was independent or if the swings at least some of the time bore a relationship to one another. That is, if the swings were related by virtue of being in the pattern of movement you somehow achieved via all those swings. To be fair, the researchers were focused on basketball, not hammering, but both are physical activities, and the Hot Hand skeptics would have us believe that physical grooves cannot exist in shooting a basketball – that the influence of an “in the zone” experience could not be felt throughout successive shooting attempts.

    After all, grooves are what Hot Hands are often made of. It’s not necessarily that basketball fans believe that some mystical quality has befallen an athlete or that somehow this power is such that we must throw the athlete the ball and that the next shot will go in. That may be what some fans mean some of the time, but that’s not an exhaustive list of the concept’s uses. A retrospective look at a practiced athlete with muscle memory operating in a groove will do, so far as fair use of the concept goes (notice that this look-back doesn’t necessitate the general belief that each time a player hits a shot or two, that the probability of subsequent shots going in rise). No one needs to consult statisticians or philosophers to confirm how obvious this is, just talk to some folks at a sports bar or ballgame and see if that use passes (“wow, Crawford really had the Hot Hand that night”). Our own reports of our naive experience shouldn’t be a trump card, but to doubt the most obvious forms of our experience in the face of ill-fitting data is to be constitutionally fickle.

    So what should I say about Cassam’s mention of the hot hand fallacy when employing his suggested method of assessing intellectual character rather than just sticking to evaluating reasons? Given the irony that the so called fallacy was dragged out by Cassam to demonstrate the bad character of coaches who believe in the Hot Hand, not to mention that the data are now divided on the topic? If there are any character assessments that apply, I’ll leave them to others, and we can imagine the back and forth that could ensue from there. In the wake of that thought, I wonder if our public discourse has the capacity for many negative assessments of one another’s intellectual character – how long we can go before our conversations become fit for cable news rather than reasoned discussion.

  4. Phenomenology is Wrong



    We should distinguish between two traditions within phenomenology: realist phenomenology and idealist phenomenology (fathered by Heidegger and Husserl respectively). The distinguishing feature is how they treat their ‘pre-bracketed’ and ‘post-bracketed’ states: in the realist case when we interpret (describe) the world we can bracket the truth of the claims epistemologically: we can say ‘there is a table there’ regardless of whether there is really. In the idealist case we can metaphysically bracket claims: we say the description ‘there is a table’ has no commitments at all about what is real or not, and indeed we can come up with a system of such ‘impoverished descriptions’ with no metaphysical commitments – and in Husserl’s case, use these statements as a foundation for science.

    So the realist phenomenologist says ‘there is a table there’ is a useful interpretation, it does certain things (coordinates our behaviour, engagement with the world, etc.) and it can do this while being true or false – but it nevertheless is about the world – it says that a table exists. The idealist phenomenologist says, rather, that it cannot be false because it has no metaphysical content, is a mysterious kind of description that does not posit the existence of anything.

    How does idealist phenomenology accomplish this? In The Idea of Phenomenology , Husserl outlines the key idealist move:

    “Every intellectual experience, indeed every experience ever, can be made into an object of pure seeing and apprehension while it is occurring… [therefore,] it would make no sense at all to doubt its being.” (Lecture II).

    The metaphysical trick here is to assert that the world we encounter is just a series of partial objects within consciousness (ie. pure phenomena) rather than aspects of total objects which consciousness encounters. Thus, our global picture is this: consciousness is a container of objects of a special kind – phenomenal objects – when we believe we have seen a bent stick (cf. refraction) we are “really” just encountering a series of bent-sticky phenomena within consciousness, and hence make no mistake at all.

    Phenomenology thus transposes the problem of failed judgement (“there is a bent stick before me”) into metaphysical theatre: it isn’t a failure of judgement, it’s that you’re only in contact with phenomenal objects, not real ones – so you are certain, correct and not failing in anyway when you say “I saw a bent stick” if we interpret this as phenomenological puppetry on the stage of The Mind.

    Idealist phenomenology thus believes there is a privileged class of descriptions (interpretations of the world) which are immune from failures of judgement, which are true in virtue of being about phenomenal objects. I cannot myself, even granting idealist metaphysics, think of any description of the world which doesn’t, in its particular ontological carving-up, make itself immune from a hermeneutic critique: that, at least, there is no “privileged” way to carve up the world and many terrible ones (such as those immediate ones which come to mind sat in an arm chair).

    However the foundational problem here is that consciousness is not a container for objects; this assertion mostly derives from another: that the world itself seems to be one way but is another, thus in its initial state of “seeming to be” it cannot be itself real (that illusion is metaphysical). The world, however, never seems to be other than it is. When there’s a “bent stick” in some water, The World isn’t in a state of “seeming” where it has changed its nature – the world is exactly as it should be: light is being refracted through water. Our judgement that this effect is not refraction but a bending of the stick is the error. “Perception” (and seeming, illusion) is a property of judgement, not the world: the world only seems to seem. We perceive only in the sense that our encountering objects is not epistemologically determinative: we don’t always know what it is we’re encountering that does not imply, whatsoever, that the world is thus itself “seeming to be” and so, in effect, is “really” inside consciousness.

    Husserl’s reply to the metaphysical sceptic is thus to assert that we can have non-metaphysical interpretations of the world, by asserting that what we are interpreting isn’t the world but an ideal theatre – and thus just either eliminates reality or turns it into ideality, and in either case, neither bypasses metaphysics nor successfully replies to the sceptic.

    So, what guarantees knowledge? Given that the response to this question in the idealist-phenomenal tradition has been to perform metametaphysical acrobatics (transforming consciousness into a container; objects into phenomenal spectres there in, and encountering objects as a constitutive of them) – can we do better? What exactly is the comparison here however, scepticism about knowledge lead idealists to do what exactly? Merely, to assert that knowledge was certain. Rather than say our judgements about the world could be foundationally in error we assert that judgement is foundationally certain, and that the world thus bends to its abilities – so we bring the world under the umbrella of knowledge, within consciousness, and say “there is no problem of scepticism, because knowing makes things the case!”.

    The idealist tradition has, in each stage of its developmental reply to scepticism just asserted new things about the power of judgement, which incidentally only ever prompted a reformulation of scepticism in higher-order terms – rather than “that stick might not be bent!”, the sceptic says “there’s no way of deciding whether your knowledge is determined by your judgement or of the world itself or of some corrosive mixture!”, and here too we might just offer Nietzsche’s rebuttal to Kant:

    ‘How are synthetic a priori judgements possible?’ Kant asks himself – and what is really his answer? ‘By means of a means’ – but unfortunately not in five words.”

    The problem to those who take knowledge to require higher-order justification is that there’s always a higher-order the sceptic can go to: idealist epistemology says that you can only claim “I know there is a table there” if you can also explain how you’ve come to know that, so the idealist builds up a metaphysical picture which guarantees the how, but then the sceptic replies: and how do we know your metaphysics is true? The realist however will simply say: go ahead claim to know things, knowledge only collapses in toto if the radical sceptic is right, in all other cases it doesn’t – and since we’ve no reason to believe the radical sceptic, we’ve no reason to throw away knowledge claims.

    Thus the realist phenomenologist says only that the world is, in the general case, itself, and only itself. If it “seems” to be a delusion, the world isn’t changing, our judgements are. The world is not “external”, as though it could ever have been “internal”: the mind is not a container, but a process (of encountering). We are embedded in the world, as water runs through soil, the light of bent-sticks runs through us. We don’t have any “absolute, creative, ideal freedom” to run it a different way. The stick isn’t made by our heads, the light isn’t a spectre of our mind – it’s running through us. The mind, insofar as it does anything, casts its own shadow on the world – a shadow which aids our judgement but is neither identical to it or the world.

    Thus knowledge is provided contingently: whether we are actually correctly describing the world is determined by how things are, not as a necessary property, artificially guaranteed by judgement. If a person looks out over a desert and sees a mirage then his judgement is wrong about the world, and if another person looks out and sees an oasis, then his judgement is right. Neither person can alone and a priori give any certainty to their knowledge. There is “certainty” but it’s a property of states of affairs (of my body, the world, our relationship), not of the mental. The mirage-man does not have certainty, but the oasis-man does – as a feature of their relationship to the world, not as a feature of their knowledge: oasis-light is flowing through the oasis-man, but there is no mirage-light flowing through the mirage-man.

    There can be no reply to the encircling sceptic, other than to turn his scenarios around on him, and ask, “but what would have to be the case for your alternative possibility to be true?”. And we always find a great mess which cannot be justified. In a field of alternatives where none can win out against the others on certain grounds, we’re compelled to the one which invents the least. And as far as metaphysical gymnastics goes, the least assertive is that which says, “my hand here, is my hand, in the world in which I am in, and I know this if, and only if, it is the case”.

    The observation on which all scepticism rests is that judgement never comes with a judgement of itself, that to know a thing is not to know that you are knowing it or how you are knowing it. And scepticism only forces us to concede this minor point, and none other: not that their Rube Goldberg metaphysics is worth consideration, and especially not that we have to become Goldbergs ourselves.

  5. Science, Technology and Society V: Imre Lakatos


    This post in the fifth in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post in the series is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.

    “Einstein’s results again turned the tables and now very few philosophers or scientists still think that scientific knowledge is, or can be, proven knowledge.”

    Imre Lakatos (1922 – 1974) was a Jewish-Hungarian philosopher of science and mathematics, and a long-time colleague of Karl Popper at the London School of Economics. For most of the war Hungary was ruled by the nationalist Horthy regime, which cooperated militarily with the Nazis but refused to cooperate in the Holocaust. When the Horthy regime was forced from power in 1944, Hungary’s Jews were exposed. Imre Lipschitz changed his last name to Molnar and joined a unit of Marxist guerrillas; his mother and grandmother were murdered at Auschwitz. After the war he changed his last name again (to Lakatos) and accepted a university position in the Soviet-backed Rakosi regime. He was jailed for several years, but released on Stalin’s death in 1953. He participated in the 1956 uprising, and had to flee the country when it was suppressed by the Red Army. He finally settled in Great Britain, where he earned his doctorate and spent the rest of his career.

    Like Feyerabend, he worked to reconcile traditional, proscriptive approach (Popperian philosophy of science) with the comparatively recent descriptive approach (Kuhnian history of science.) Unlike Feyerabend, he thought an orderly process of discovery survived the merger – namely, the Methodology of Scientific Research Programs. According to Lakatos, these programs are composed of a “hard core” of assumptions which are not normally open to questioning, and a “protective belt” of claims that can be modified as needed in order to suit new and potentially problematic observations. When observations do not match predictions, the usual assumption is that the fault lies in the peripheral and not the core elements – however, if enough of these mismatches pile up, eventually the core itself could be threatened, and the Research Program jeopardized.

    Unlike Kuhn, who held that a single Paradigm dominates all science at once, Lakatos argued that multiple Programs compete within or across fields simultaneously. The value of an individual Program might then be assessed by comparing the results it generates with those of its competitors. A progressive Program modifies its protective belt in a way that incorporates new information and generates new predictions; a stagnant Program incorporates new information but does not generate new predictions. The validity of a Program is a matter of its short term history of (and thus prospects for) generating useful information. However, a stagnating program is not necessarily a dead one – just as progressive theories can break down, worn out theories can be revitalized. Put another way, it is the dynamics, rather than the statics, of a program that determine its validity.

    To take an example from the history of science, it was known in the 19th century that light had certain wave-like properties. Because a wave is a disturbance in a medium, and light clearly traveled through space, it was reasonable to suppose that space contained such a medium, which the physicists called “luminiferous ether.” Lakatos would say that the protective belt of the theory were modified in order to reconcile the hard core assumptions with observations. However, as problems began to pile up for the Newtonian view of particle physics, and repeated experiments failed to discover any trace of the supposed ether, the core itself was jeopardized. This (among other things) led to what Kuhn would describe as a period of “revolutionary science” in the first decades of the 20th century, in which the new programs of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics displaced the old Newtonian program.

    In the 1930’s, however, physicists was realized that the predicted behavior of galaxies under Einstein’s model of gravity did not square with observations. Reasoning that the observations (not the theory) were in some way faulty, physicists decided that a significant portion of these galaxies must be composed of a non-luminous (and hence invisible, or “dark”) matter. In the 1990’s physicists also realized that galaxies were not slowing down (as one would expect if gravity is acting as a drag on their momentum) but speeding up. A new (and also invisible, or “dark”) form of energy was hypothesized in order to account for this. In both cases, the hard core of the program was preserved by modifying the protective belt. According to Lakatos, there is nothing wrong with this, because the validity of a program is a question of its momentum, not its internal consistency. However, because the confidence which scientists place in a theory is ultimately dependent on the success of its predictions, dark matter and dark energy cannot stay invisible forever. Eventually they will either be observed, or Relativity will be discarded in favor of some new explanatory model. In other words, the protective belt can only be arranged so many times. The intense interest of physicists in the questions of dark energy and dark matter are propelled by this sense of suspense, for it is clearly a question of fundamental importance for their work, whether Relativity will be confirmed by the discovery of dark matter and dark energy, replaced by some new Program, or perhaps challenged by a revived Newtonian Program (MOND).

    Imre Lakatos died unexpectedly in 1974, of a brain hemorrhage. His papers, which had previously been scattered throughout various scholarly journals, were published posthumously in 1978, under the title Philosophical Papers. His discussion of Research Programs appears in Volume One. Perhaps also of interest is his philosophy of mathematics, published in Proofs and Refutations (1976), which held that mathematical proofs are fallible(!), and advocated an experiment-driven approach to their verification.

    Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society in nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.

  6. Should the social sciences be like the natural sciences?


    Should the social sciences be like the natural sciences? Wilhelm Dilthey didn’t think so. This early 19th and 20th century figure who went on to influence Martin Heidegger, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur contended that the concept of Verstehen is crucial in our interpretation of human thought and behavior. Verstehen literally means “understanding,” and Dilthey believed that whereas we look for explanations of phenomena in the natural sciences, Understanding or Verstehen in Dilthey’s technical use as applied to the social sciences means interpreting human behavior in view of generalizations made from descriptions of past or ongoing behavior and whatever judgments or practical rules we can derive from such behavior. Dilthey fundamentally believed that human beings were both historical creatures and creatures with complex agency, and both these assumptions make us track what count as empirical data much differently in the social sciences than in the natural sciences.

    Whereas the natural sciences look for laws that govern phenomena, Dilthey did not think that we could be so lucky in understanding human beings. Think of laws in terms of counterfactuals. In Physics, say, if you know a particles’ position and velocity, you can determine the particles’ behavior. You can even account for changes in the behavior. Not so with humans, beyond whatever general principles it’s possible to derive. You can wonder why Sam went to the company picnic and give some reasons why he decided on going instead of staying home but you can’t know, apart from taking in a whole host of other countless factors, if he’s going to go if he gets a stomachache. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. Part of what we think about whether Sam will go under different conditions has to do with what we think is appropriate or inappropriate in the circumstance, and these conditions of appropriateness range from the most local possible to the most global. As Dilthey explained in his book, Introduction to the Human Sciences, this tells us that our understanding of human behavior, as opposed to other kinds of behavior, is inherently normative, about what people ought to do in such-and-such a circumstance.

    Yet we need not conclude from Dilthey’s characterization of Understanding that it is something fundamentally anathema to naturalistic explanation, and he himself did not seem to believe as much. Pace the way in which the concept of Understanding may have been taken up post-Dilthey, it is possible to construe his treatise on the social sciences as continuous with the rest of naturalistic inquiry. The biologist-turned-philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, probably unknowingly, is in agreement with Dilthey. He has argued that the way we interpret human behavior is fundamentally irreducible to the way in which we investigate the natural sciences because, in addition to making use of normativity in the social sciences, we more particularly believe that there’s such a thing as agency, that is, that people and other animals (and maybe robots too) act from thoughts and values. Pigliucci writes in his book, Nonsense on Stilts, “Suffice to say that free will is a way to label the complex decision-making processes in which the human brain engages, consciously as well as probably subconsciously,” and Pigliucci suggests that this is as much a naturalistic way to do rational inquiry as anything else.

    Another consideration worth remembering, lest we make too big a deal of the possible discontinuity between explanation and Understanding, is that what makes the social sciences real and reasonable endeavors just like the natural sciences is that people within particular fields generate hypotheses and check them against empirical data, which Pigliucci reminds does not only require experiments, since science “can be done with an intelligent use of observational evidence.”

    The common thread in all science is the ability to produce and test hypotheses based on systematically collected empirical data (via experiments or observations). How these hypotheses are generated, how exactly scientists go about testing them, and the degree of success we can expect from different sciences varies from science to science and from problem to problem.

    Dilthey argues regarding the social sciences in general that the two considerations of paramount importance when thinking of human beings is their historical conditions and also the degree to which human agency confounds our potential understanding. Pigliucci, however, pushes further, arguing that when considering the sciences in general, we can easily see that historical considerations permeate several scientific fields and that the issue of human agency is one instance of the more general problem of complexity. Pigliucci informs us that what count as empirical data have a lot to do with the kinds of problems people are interested in solving within a field and the degree to which a field is both historical and complex.

    [O]n the one hand, we have a continuum from completely historical (paleontology, astronomy) to partially historical (evolutionary biology, geology) to essentially ahistorical sciences (physics, chemistry)… On the other hand, we have a second continuum, from sciences that deal with simple, highly tractable systems where one can apply strong inferential methods (physics, chemistry) to sciences dealing with extremely complex objects, where statistical treatment is necessary and where the ability to explain and predict phenomena is much reduced (evolutionary biology, psychology).

    This point of the Two Continua generalizes beyond fields that are generally accepted as social sciences, fields such as Psychology, Economics, Political Science, and Sociology, and into fields which have sometimes been considered separate from the social sciences and regarded as the Humanities, fields such as Literary Studies or Religious Studies. If what has preceded is true, then the extent to which these fields make use of empirical data and test hypotheses, they are sciences. Once we bear in mind a couple of the common features of the sciences, and how the Two Continua bear on the kind of empirical data the fields can collect, we have less worry to think that the social sciences are radically discontinuous from the natural sciences, and neither for that matter the Humanities. Human beings are both historical and rational creatures, and our empirical data follow from those bedrock assumptions, but then that’s not any different from any other science, from which the research programs are built on their respective assumptions and on the basis of which questions constitute interesting problems in particular fields.

  7. What is Satire for?


    When we recorded the Jaspers episode with Paul Provenza I had the good fortune to be in his home of Los Angeles. I was able to meet up with him and his assistant for the recording and along with my wife we met for a meal several days later. I had been re-reading his book ¡Satiristas! and he and I got into a spirited discussion of whether comics, specifically the satirist, have any kind of obligation to their audience or their art. I had trouble formulating an argument in favor of my vague intuition that they do and we parted before I articulated anything to my satisfaction. This is an attempt to do so.

    ¡Satiristas! is a series of interviews with comic performers and writers with some degree of satirical bent. The main question Paul poses in the book is whether satirical comedy is meant to simply entertain (get a laugh) or to change people’s minds (or more broadly change the world). Typically he puts the question at first positively to the particular individual – ‘Do you try to change minds or entertain?’ and follows with a broader normative version – ‘Should satirical comedy try and change minds or just entertain?’  Surprising to me, a majority of the comics profess to solely be interested in getting a laugh. Something about that just doesn’t sit well with me.

    The entry on satire reads:

    See irony. burlesque, caricature, parody, travesty. Satire, lampoon refer to literary forms in which vices or follies are ridiculed. Satire, the general term, often emphasizes the weakness more than the weak person, and usually implies moral judgment and corrective purpose

    This dictionary of literary devices posits a more explicitly normative structure:

    Satire is a technique employed by writers to expose and criticize foolishness and corruption of an individual or a society by using humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule. It intends to improve humanity by criticizing its follies and foibles. A writer in a satire uses fictional characters, which stand for real people, to expose and condemn their corruption.

    A writer may point a satire toward a person, a country or even the entire world. Usually, a satire is a comical piece of writing which makes fun of an individual or a society to expose its stupidity and shortcomings. In addition, he hopes that those he criticizes will improve their characters by overcoming their weaknesses. [emphasis mine]

    Perhaps a more credible and I think more useful source is A Glossary of Literary Terms, 9th Edition. Ed. M.H. Abrams. Thomson Wadsworth. There are two entries of interest: the first is under “Comedy” and the second is the entry on “Satire” itself.

    (2) Satiric comedy ridicules political policies or philosophical doctrines, or else attacks deviations from the social order by making ridiculous the violators of its standards of morals or manners. (See satire.)

    Satire can be described as the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation. It differs from the comic in that comedy evokes laughter mainly as an end in itself, while satire derides; that is, it uses laughter as a weapon, and against a butt that exists outside the work itself. That butt may be an individual (in “personal satire”), or a type of person, a class, an institution, a nation, or even…the entire human race.

    The role of satire is to ridicule or criticize those vices in the society, which the writer considers a threat to civilization. The writer considers it his obligation to expose these vices for the betterment of humanity. Therefore, the function of satire is not to make others laugh at persons or ideas they make fun of. It intends to warn the public and to change their opinions about the prevailing corruption/conditions in society.  [emphasis mine]

    There is a lot of interesting stuff in here to unpack. Let’s begin with the notion that laughter can be an end-in-itself or be used as a weapon. The presumption is that laughter used as a weapon – satiric derision – intends to cause harm to the target. How would that harm be caused exactly? In the case of an individual it would be shame or embarrassment that causes emotional or mental anguish. In the case of a class, institution, society or race – what? How would any of those things be harmed? I contend that they would only be harmed insofar as the individuals who constitute those groups were harmed; that is, only to the extent that the relevant individuals were embarrassed or shamed. Which of course becomes problematic when individual(s) don’t feel either in the face of satire.

    At another level satire can be intended to produce change for the better or improvement. A prerequisite for this to function properly is that a) the subject of the satire can change and b) the subject itself is (at least by the standards of the group or society) immoral, corrupt, depraved, etc. or minimally foolish or absurd. Something that cannot be changed is structurally incapable of moral value and to make fun of it is simply cruelty. Consider the difference between satirizing a person’s attitude and their physical handicap. The mechanism for betterment of the individual or the society is in pointing out the thing that is considered ‘bad’ by the standards of the group and motivating personal behavioral change through shame/embarrassment or social change through opinion that impacts legislation, policy or behavior. This again is problematic if the target or audience for the satire doesn’t see the subject as bad or change as possible.

    These address the structure and target of satire. The other side of the equation involves the satirist. First, there is the question of authorial (comedic) intention. It seems to me that there are a number of possible levels of intention, none exclusive of any other.

    • Egocentric – desire to get a laugh to fulfill a personal need such as validation
    • Altruistic – desire to make others laugh for relief, amusement or entertainment
    • Critical – desire to use satire to make an intellectual or conceptual point about the status quo
    • Moral – desire to use laughter to change other’s opinions and by extension the society or world

    The latter two are related though I see a difference between the last two in that the moral motivation adds an emotional component to the critical motivation to inspire action, whereas the critical by itself could stand as social commentary without the suggestion of change. I’m not so firm on this that I would disagree with the view that they are really two aspects of the same thing.

    In ¡Satiristas! the fallback response for the comedians who claim not to be motivated by critical or moral concerns is the altruistic motivation. Some explicitly acknowledge the egocentric motivation and based on the vast body of interviews of comedians I’ve read and heard I’m sure most have it. The question in my mind is whether someone who claims to be doing satire can meaningfully hold the line at altruism. There is a value decision in the comic’s decision of both subject and approach which I think implies at least the critical motivation and, in my view, the moral.

    On numerous occasions I have heard smart, thoughtful comics complain about hack comics that aren’t invested in their material making lame points about banal subjects. Their attitude towards the hackery I heard most elegantly stated by Patton Oswalt (though I’m sure others have said the same) as ‘Really? That’s what you’re angry about?’ The implication is that a comic who is serious about her craft and invested in the art form makes conscious choices in material and is motivated emotionally or intellectually. It is this type of choice that I claim has a normative component that entails – necessarily – the critical and moral motivation.

    This is perhaps a bit strong. There are plenty of smart, thoughtful comics who are not obviously motivated by anger (or similar feeling). Think Jim Gaffigan or Brian Regan. Those comics, however, are not satirists. Satire is something one engages in when one is at least vexed and more likely angry about a subject. So motivated the satirist takes at least a critical and, I claim, a moral stance towards her subject. To claim otherwise is a form of false consciousness in the most genuinely existential, philosophical sense.

    Another aspect of satire that highlights the moral component is the necessity of an unequal power relation between the satirist and her subject. This is rarely explicit but always present. Satire is a tool of the weak against the strong. When the powerful satirize the weak it is cruelty. I think it is this more than anything that contributes to the false consciousness I mentioned above. Aristophanes may have been the first satirical comic but the paradigm for modern satire is the court jester. The jester was the definition of powerless – the lowest ranking member of the court permitted to speak. Derided, scorned and existing outside of the political and social hierarchy, the jester could have no meaningful impact on the functioning of the court. It was precisely this position that empowered the jester to be the only public critic of the monarch. He was powerless ergo he was permitted to be critical of the monarch – but only satirically.

    The legacy that only the truly powerless are permitted to satirize power informs the modern view that satirists have no real power and so are just in it for a laugh. The view that ‘I’m just a comic’ is a call back to the function of the jester. This view is undermined, however, when one realizes that the social and political structure that made the jester-monarch relationship possible no longer exists. Choosing satire as a medium and choosing powerful individuals, organizations or structures as targets entails responsibility for that choice.

    The comedian as satirist can simultaneously claim a moral position and the desire for change while entertaining. Denial – false consciousness – is a defense mechanism against the extreme difficulty of holding that position. It is hard to remain funny and poignant while being outraged. Holding the line between satire and indignant criticism or political activism is a balancing act with real consequences for failure. One might cease to be a comic and become a part of the power structure (Al Franken, Dennis Miller). One might be pilloried and marginalized (Janeane Garofalo). One can be driven to extreme behavior, drugs or mental illness (Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce). Few survive and excel (Chris Rock, Lewis Black).

    I’ll leave the topic here though I think there is something to be said about the special and exceptional case of satire as performance exemplified by Stephen Colbert. Perhaps another post. My argument can be summarized as follows: satire by design has a normative component. Satirists highlight things that they believe should be different. That ‘should’ entails a desire for change or action that goes beyond simple entertainment or self-gratification. Any satirist who denies this is denying something essential about  her work.

    Let me close by talking about the need and purpose of satire in the world today. In Friedrich Hölderlin’s elegy Bread and Wine he asks ‘What are poets for in destitute times?’ (“Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?”). Dürftig indicates a scarcity or a lack – in a harvest metaphor one might say ‘lean’ or ‘meager’ years. In Bread and Wine, the scarcity is holiness which poets must recover and to which they must testify. Our time is scarce in informed criticism, shame, openness to changing beliefs, gratitude and compassion. It has an overabundance of fear, anger, meanness, inequity and selfishness. It is the job of the satirist to testify to this dire state of affairs.

    In making the connection between the comic as satirist and Hölderlin’s poet as divine messenger I also recall our episode on Lynda Walsh’s Scientists as Prophets. Walsh makes a convincing case that a key if not the key function of prophets is to call the community back to shared covenant values and bring about social or political consensus in times of crises. Her focus is on scientists as political advisers and I think some part of her analysis is valid for satirists as well. Humor is a rhetorical device that can make difficult or painful subjects palatable for contemplation. The satirist is using humor to create a form of consensus through the experience of laughter to remind us of shared, human values that are not exemplified by the target of the satire – but should be.


  8. And now for something completely serious


    Humor seems to be the Flavor of the Month here at PEL. We’ve had a couple of excellent posts about comedy recently (here and here), and another one is coming very soon. But in the midst of this, we shouldn’t entirely lose sight of the inherent seriousness of philosophy; with that goal, I want to call attention in this post to a neglected classic, one of the foundational texts of Pre-Pythonic philosophy:

    In addition to its inherent philosophical interest, this documentary evidence should resolve once and for all the tedious scholarly debate as to whether the Pythonic dialogues are records of conversations that actually took place. (I hardly need to remind our readers that all doubts about the adequacy of the label “pre-Pythonic” for this school of philosophers are put to rest here.)

    Close attention to this dialogue will, I believe, yield rich philosophical fruit, not least in richening our understanding both of some of the dialogues of classical Pythonism and of certain strands in the contemporary neo-Pythonic revival.

  9. Listen to the Gadamer Aftershow


    The Aftershow to Ep. 111 on Gadamer was happenin’, sporting not only Stephen West and Seth Paskin, but returning Aftershower Amogh Sahu (did you know he has his own podcast?), Michael Burgess, Erik Weissengruber, Everett Reed, Peter Forbes, and (joining later in the call) Not-School-Regular Cezary. There was a vigorous discussion of what “interpretation” amounts to for Gadamer that spent quite a bit of time on art, going into areas that we did not on the podcast.

    PEL Citizens can chug over to the Free Stuff page to download it. (Click on the “Aftershow and Not School Discussions” tab. Note that Aftershow files are now configured to be easier to stream on mobile devices.) You can also watch the raw feed as it was recorded on March 8 on Stephen West’s YouTube Channel.

    Today is the Ricoeur (ep. 112) Aftershow; tune into that same channel to watch it as it happens (or after the fact).

    Get in on the action! Sign up to be a Citizen and watch for the announcement of our Aftershow on Jesus’s Parables (ep. 113), which I KNOW a lot of you will have opinions on.

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  10. Historical File 12-1


    “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” – Romans 12:1

    It’s not news that The Matrix is littered with biblical references.  It’s also not news that the second and third movies are terrible. But, there is a Matrix supplement that is the best human apocalypse story in existence (robot or otherwise).  It also addresses a number of relevant philosophical topics.

    “The Second Renaissance,” episodes two and three of The Animatrix, is brilliant. (Episode two is downloadable here, and episode three is here; both are viewable on Youtube.  It is the story of the rise of AI from repressed servitude to the domination and near-destruction of humanity.  It begins with B1-66-ER (a reference to Bigger Thomas), a housekeeping robot who killed his owners to avoid his own termination. He is not given a fair trial and states that he “simply did not want to die.” This sets off a chain of events beginning with a failed, violently put down, robot civil rights movement, leading to the creation of an independent machine nation “Zero-One.”  After an attempt by humans to destroy 0-1 and block out the sun, the machines take over the earth and turn us into batteries.  It’s not pretty.

    The brilliance of these short episodes (together, they total twenty minutes) is in their complex visual questioning of the idea that we are the only intelligence, or that we own intelligence itself. Science fiction has created a lot of AI apocalypses. “The Second Revolution” is kind of a synopsis of them all. With commentary. It delves into the ethics of servitude, the cost of war, and the idea of what it means to be a conscious being. Its greatest quality is its ability to be referential.  From the obvious pyramid structures being built by robot servants to the Billy Graham wannabe displayed in front of a human army, the film constantly critiques ideas that are important to human history and modern society. For example, this should look familiar:

    , much of what is alluded to is religious in nature, dealing with the idea of human superiority and faith vs. reason issues. But, what’s most interesting is the realization that the thing that all those people are worshiping and fruitlessly looking to for salvation in “reality” is suddenly functionally real once humanity is subjugated. In humanity’s new reality, all they can know or understand, there is a creator outside of comprehension. A higher intelligence that is omnipotent and can hear your prayers.  In The “Second Renaissance,” humanity created god, and they are it’s slaves. It is a brilliant and jarring re-framing of the classic philosophical “brain in a jar.”

    The bottom line is that The Second Renaissance is a must watch for Sci-fi and philosophy nerds alike. It’s the perfect gateway drug for discussions of human intelligence, ego, historic recurrence, phenomenology, and a dozen other philosophical topics that are, in this writer’s opinion, not hurt by their inclusion in a robot war.  It’s brilliant. It is gorgeous.  It’ on youtube for free.


    Bless all forms of intelligence.


    P.S. in searching for the images above, I was lucky enough to come across what might be the funniest, and my new favorite, image on the internet.

  11. Philosophy and Comedy


    William James as 19th century hipster.“Philosophy, beginning in wonder, as Plato and Aristotle said, is able to fancy everything different from what it is. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices.” ― William James, Some Problems of Philosophy

    If the Stanford Encyclopedia‘s article on humor is right, most philosophers have been very unkind to comedians. If a Martian anthropologist landed on earth to study our philosophies, Stanford says, they “might well conclude that humor could be left out of human life without much loss”. Ancient philosophers such as Plato considered laughter to be hostile and malicious, as if derisive laughter were the only kind. Maybe that was true 25 centuries ago. I don’t know. If there had been a stand-up comedian in the Christian middle ages, he probably wouldn’t have lived long enough to finish his second joke. Can you imagine what the Inquisitors would do if they were to watch Sarah Silverman’s stand-up special, Jesus is Magic? I imagine their heads would explode. Most of the Stanford article paints a sad and thin picture of the relations between philosophy and comedy. Their dismissive contempt was followed by a series a bad theories and but the final paragraphs offer some hopeful signs.

    “If philosophers wanted to undo the traditional prejudice against humor,” the author suggests, “they might consider the affinities between one contemporary genre of comedy – standup comedy – and philosophy itself.” It’s quite an overstatement to say that standup comedians are the new philosophers but the Stanford article makes a case that some kinds of comedians operate like some kinds of philosophers in some respects. And it just so happens that the affinities between them line up quite nicely for a person with tastes like mine. If the seven similarities identified by the author had to be boiled down to just one word, I think “subversive” is that word. Let me explain.

    Comedy/Tragedy masksBefore listing the seven (at least) affinities, the author spills some ink explaining the differences between comedy and tragedy, which were already well established in the 6th century BCE. In both cases life is depicted as a struggle against failure, foolishness, sickness and death but they differ in their response to the struggles of life. Tragedy is earnest and sincere. It’s about heroes who are willing to fight for their ideals. Tragedy valorizes the, “Warrior Virtues – blind obedience, the willingness to kill or die on command, unquestioning loyalty, single-mindedness, resoluteness of purpose, and pride.” This is approximately the opposite of Comedy, with it’s tricksters, bumblers and anti-heroes. “Comedy has mocked the irrationality of militarism and blind respect for authority” since the time of Aristophanes and it still does today. The Comedic Virtues are “critical thinking, cleverness, adaptability, and an appreciation of physical pleasures like eating, drinking, and sex.” Unlike Tragedy, which tends to be idealistic and elitist, the protagonists in comedy are not kings or superheros but ordinary, relatively powerless people.

    These differences are most applicable to the story-telling we find in theater and cinema but it’s easy to see that standup comedians did not evolve out of tragedy. Where the protagonists in a comedy will mock authority, a good standup comedian knows it’s right and proper to “punch up” but very uncool to “punch down”. In other words, mocking those with more power than you is fine and good but mocking those with less power just means that you’re a bully. (This is why Dennis Miller, Andrew Dice Clay, and Nick DiPaolo are among my least favorite comedians.) This refusal to defer to authority, as well as the other comedic virtues, shows up on the list of seven affinities between philosophy and stand-up comedy. For both this subversive attitude is not just a display of rebelliousness for its own sake, or course, but rather a matter of prioritizing critical examination of authority. Loyalty and deference are incompatible with critical thinking about power and they’re not compatible with telling a truthful joke about power.

    Microphone on fire

    Another item on the list of affinities is very well described by William James, although he wasn’t thinking of standup comedians when he wrote it. “It sees the familiar as if it were strange,” James said about philosophy, “and the strange as if it were familiar.” The comedian and the philosopher can both take a reflective attitude toward the familiar. The comedian will evoke laughter by making the familiar seem strange but the philosopher’s way of unsettling us is often pleasurable in a similar way. This is related to the critical thinking and lack of deference and to another item on the list of affinities, namely the emotional disengagement that it takes to stand back and ponder a thing. Criticism and mockery both demand a certain distance from the subject of examination.

    The similarities listed so far reflect their shared attitudes but the remaining affinities describe the methods and styles they share in common. Both are conversational and interactive, Stanford says, and they both pose questions. And, finally, both activities demand a careful and precise use of language. These affinities might seem a bit trivial but maybe these last three items make the whole thing add up to something larger than the sum.

    Bill Hicks biography - Agent of EvolutionI’d like to suggest that this list of affinities can be taken to mean that philosophers and comedians are both artists and language is their chosen medium. Nobody is a very good comedian or a very good philosopher right from the start, not even those with loads of talent and intelligence. They both know the way to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Both of them pose challenges to their respective audiences by raising questions, painting alternative visions, or by altering the light in way that let’s us see old things in new ways. This is almost literally what a painter does, but a philosophic vision or the absurd portraits of a comedian are more than just analogous; they all preform a similar function and evoke similar responses in their audiences. They refresh and unsettle us, provoke thought, put things in perspective, and tickle us in countless ways – most of which are difficult to describe. There are philosophers and comedians (not to mention painters) that fail to do any such tickling or provoking, of course, but some of them “find their voice” and thereby raise their craft to the level of an art form.

    -David Buchanan

  12. Topic for #113: Jesus’s Parables (Plus a Not School Group on Historical Jesus)


    On 3/18, Wes, Mark, and Lawrence Ware discussed Jesus’s Parables. To read the versions we read, follow the links from the Wikipedia entry on the Parables. These entries generally give the traditional interpretations for each parable and include historic depictions of them in artworks, so that’s pretty cool.

    If you’re not familiar with the Parables, they were Jesus’s main teaching tool: instead of just giving a sermon, tell a story, and especially if the intended interpretation of the story is not clear, then you can smuggle in points that might otherwise be politically controversial. These stories present a feast for hermeneutics, and this episode would best be listened to after #111 and #112, and our recent episode and bonus discussion on Jaspers would be helpful here too. How can we best read these stories? …Given that we are not the original intended audience, we don’t know (in most cases at least) what interpretation Jesus intended, and moreover, the text is a third-hand account that went through a few layers of oral tradition and redaction before it found its way into the Synoptic Gospels. So we’re likely looking at a collaborative work, where the text as originally spoken is combined with the interpretations of various 1st century communities and given to us by writers whose identities we do not know (the names “Matthew,” “Mark,” etc. were added after the fact).

    We assigned ourselves the task of reading all 41 (or so) parables, but ended up covering in our conversation The Sower, Hidden Treasure/Pearl, Two Debtors, Good Samaritan, Tenants (aka Wicked Husbandmen), Mustard Seed, Talents, 10 Virgins (aka Wise & Foolish Virgins), and Lost Sheep. We got too tired before we could get to the Prodigal Son, so you’ll have to learn about that one through the many many other places that one’s been talked about.

    Speaking of sources, we tried to enrich our reading of these by looking at some secondary sources; our excellent Facebook group provided me with a very long list, most of which I tried to glance at. Here are the main ones that came into the conversation, including some that were recommended and some I stumbled across online.

    The Power of Parable, chiefly chapter 3, but also drawing a bit on chapters 1 and 5 (2012). You can buy it here, or get much of ch. 3 online through the Amazon preview. Crossan is entertaining, you can hear him on many podcasts (like this one) and might make a fun guest for us for a future episode. He wrote the fairly impenetrable but widely purchased The Historical Jesus (1992) and worked with The Jesus Seminar, a group of historians that looked into this topic.

    In the first half of The Power of Parable, he gives us a categorization of potential parable types: First, riddle parables are ones where the whole point is to figure out the answer, i.e. what the parable is representing. Second, exemplar parables just use the story to given a dramatic example of following some moral precept to inspire us to do the same. Third, challenge parables are designed to get us to question something about the social/religious/ethical status quo. Crossan argues that virtually all the authentic parables are challenge parables.

    A significant digression before I explain Crossan’s point: “Authentic” as used above includes most of them; the Jesus Seminar scholars generally consider the Parables to have been in some form from Jesus himself and not added later… scroll down to p. 102 in the Amazon preview of this book by Robert Walter Funk and you’ll see a table reporting the results of Jesus Seminar voting re. each parable, e.g. the Good Samaritan (from Luke) has 89% of participants voting that it’s almost definitely or probably authentic, while only 11% voted that it’s unlikely or definitely not a later addition, and most of the other parables we discussed come out over 50% positive votes. Of course, even if they’re later additions, they’re still part of the text and still present intrinsic and historical interest, but Crossan, at least, finds it helpful to be able to separate out what were most likely the stories actually circulating around from Jesus and what commentary and such were added later: it’s his hypothesis (shared by many in the Jesus Seminar), that early believers only had collections of sayings (e.g. in “Q,” a hypothesized source document for some of the Gospels and in Thomas, a document discovered buried in Egypt in 1945). So we’re really in much the same position as we are with Heraclitus, where we’ve got a bunch of disconnected sayings and want to reconstruct an overall philosophy (likely using the help of the Gospel writers, but understanding that those are secondary sources), which may or may not be there in a particularly developed form given that Jesus was not a scholar and was only preaching for a couple of years before he was executed, unlike Socrates.

    If the above is surprising or disturbing to you, I’d like to invite you to join the Not School group I’ve proposed for April covering Stanford’s “Historical Jesus” lectures by Thomas Sheehan. Here’s the group (if you’re not a Citizen and want in, just pay the damn $5 already!) and here’s the lecture series. Alright, enough said about that here.

    Back to Crossan on parables: For instance, the writer of the Gospel of Mark presents The Sowerintentional, and screw those guys! (I’m paraphrasing here.)

    Crossan argues that this is not the single correct interpretation of the Parable, and that its most overt message is more like “sometimes the seeds you throw out will sprout, and sometimes they won’t, so keep trying” (which is a theme found in other parables such as “Friend at Night,” which we didn’t discuss).

    Re. the Good Samaritan, Crossan presents Augustine’s famously allegorical interpretation (where every single element of the parable is given a meaning, including, e.g. the innkeeper who the near-dead guy is brought to is St. Paul, which would be a funny meaning for Jesus to have had in mind) as the riddle take on that parable, and points out that in another work, Augustine presents the same parable as moral exemplar: act like the Samaritan did. But for Crossan, the important point is that the Samaritan who helped the near-dead guy was a Samaritan, i.e. was of an ethnic group that his immediate audience would regard as vile, like if in a current story we had a Nazi or terrorist performing a good deed that ones we would expect to be virtuous did not. Jesus, according to Crossan, was trying to subvert the social order through his gentile art of storytelling, trying to shake up some the strict observances (such as the purity laws that would keep a priest from wanting to risk touching the dead, a possible reason why in the Samaritan story the other guys didn’t help out) and also the influence of Rome in favor of something else: a new way of being and organizing ourselves based on radical generosity, removal of social divisions, forgiveness, and compassion.

    We also read “Listening to the Parables of Jesus,” by Paul Ricoeur (1973). Read it online or buy it as part of this collection. This essay was supposed to help us flesh out how Ricoeur actually wants us to hemeneutically approach the Bible through by reading it as symbolic, but his directives are still very brief and confusing. For example, he analyzes the Hidden Treasure parable (guy finds a treasure in a field… presumably one he’s working on, that doesn’t belong to him… and then sells all that he has to buy it) as representing our experience of time: we have the Encounter (finding), which is the big Event, which could be any big thing that happens in our lives, and then the it changes us, i.e. the Reversal stage, where our whole life turns around (selling everything in the story), and only then, after that Conversion process, is there the Decision or Action (buying the land). My excessive capitalization here should indicate how unhelpful in a typically Continental way I find this, but the other guys were more sympathetic, and I encourage you to read the essay, particularly given how short it is.

    We also looked at The New Being, chapter 1: “To Whom Much Is Forgiven…” (1955), by Paul Tillich, which you can read online or buy the whole book here. Tillich considered the topic of forgiveness, largely through the Two Debtors parable: One will me more grateful when one is forgiven more. Tillich maintains that “No one can accept himself who does not feel that he is accepted by the power of acceptance which is greater than he, greater than his friends and counselors and psychological helpers.” This is supposed to be a phenomenological/psychological claim, and is pretty astute the way he presents it, but does acknowledging it necessarily entail accepting a theological interpretation of this? It adds an interesting dimension to an ethical system to both insist both that the virtuous/sinner distinction is real, but yet that forgiveness trumps it in an important way, that the sinner’s experience in fact provides a richness, with the capacity to love, that a more virtuous person is not driven to develop.

    Two other online sources that Wes and I looked at as general introductions on how to read the Parables, including the schools of parable interpreation, are “Introduction to the Parables” from Brian Purfield’s Mount Street Jesuit Adult Faith Formation class, and “Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus’ Parables“, Mark L. Bailey (1988).

    Finally, for some comedy, go search “Jesus’s Parables” on YouTube for horrific dramatic reenactments (and cartoons!) of the parables. My favorite is this one where “surfer Jesus” (as one YouTube commenter refers to him) tells the story of the talents, which is one of the weirdest ones, not just for the number of times that the funny word “talents” is uttered, but for the fact that it seems to to depict God (if God represents the master, which Crossan for one denies) as a self-admitted bastard who insists on the taking of interest contra Jewish law. And the audience is show just rapt, not questioning this weird story at all, where Crossan explains (and I think Ricoeur agrees, though he doesn’t use this term) that the whole point is participatory pedagogy, that they’re supposed to make the audience think, and respond, and argue, and change, not just sit there like reverent lumps:

    Watch on YouTube.

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  13. Not School Report: Grotowski’s ‘Akropolis’


    Our Philosophy and Theatre Group spent most of the winter studying the perplexing work of Jerzy Grotowski. As I’ve mentioned before, Grotowski had many ideas about the nature of theatre, performance, humanity and its essence. At a certain point, we decided that we needed something concrete to get a better grasp on what we’d read, so we turned to Akropolis. Carlos Franke, Philip Cherny and myself discussed the play earlier this month, and PEL Citizens can find it and our other talks here.

    This Akropolis is Grotowski’s adaptation of a modernist drama by Stanisław Wyspianski. In the original work, biblical and cultural myths depicted in a series of artworks come to life and act themselves out, some of which you can hear Philip describe at the beginning of our talk. Among the more formal changes that Grotowski made, his major alteration was to transpose the setting of the play from a Polish castle to Auschwitz, and to have his actors play the camp’s prisoners reenacting their own versions these myths. According to Grotowski (quoted here), his mission was:

    To put two opposite views on the stage, to create brutal confrontation in order to see if these past dreams are concrete and strong, or only abstractions. In otherwords, we wanted to confront our ancestral experiences in a situation where all values were destroyed, and that is why we chose Auschwitz.

    Grotowski recognized how crude it would be to try to represent life in a concentration camp on stage in any realistic way. The issue of representation is salient in this play in several aspects, and it took up a large part of our discussion. For example, many of the objects on stage are reconfigured by the actors throughout the play to create new arrangements and forms. Carlos helped to explain tendency of contemporary theatre to treat the stage self consciously, and Philip was able to help us compare Grotowski’s use of objects on stage to the methods of other artists and artistic movements.

    This month we’re reading selections from Philip Auslander’s From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism. New members are always welcome, and if by chance you’re not a PEL Citizen yet, sign up here.

    - Daniel Cole

  14. Philosophical Crumbs 03/17/2015: Heidegger, Chuang Tzu, Sex and Promises


    This is intended to be the first token of a new type of post at PEL: a roundup of recent philosophical activity on the Internet that may be interest to our readers. The introductions and comments provided here come from much-too-cursory readings of the things they link to; objections, preferably in the form of new blog posts, are invited.

    The title come from Kierkegaard’s Philosophiske Smuler; according to some folks who ought to know, “crumbs” is a better translation of Smuler than the “fragments” we’re all accustomed to.

    There’s no better way to introduce Project Vox than to let it introduce itself:

    Project Vox seeks to recover the lost voices of women who have been ignored in standard narratives of the history of modern philosophy.

    (“Modern philosophy” here is meant in the way that historians of philosophy use it: European philosophy in, roughly, the 17th and 18th centuries.) The site is meant to be a “virtual hub” for scholarship and teaching on the work of four philosophers: Lady Damaris Masham, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, and Émilie Du Châtelet. For each philosopher, there are comprehensive biographical timelines and bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Even more useful for teachers, it contains revised syllabi for several of the courses commonly taught in philosophy departments. Some of these revisions extend beyond the goal of including women’s voices and speak more generally to altering the standard version of philosophical traditions and canons in light of recent scholarship:

    The old idea that early modern philosophy is best understood as involving a grand debate between Continental rationalism and British empiricism is widely regarded as anachronistic, hailing largely from a post-Kantian idea of philosophy’s development. It is more historically accurate to say that early modern thinkers were interested in other questions, for instance, the distinction between what was then called the experimental philosophy . . . and the speculative philosophy. This version of the history . . . it enables the inclusion of . . . . the contributions to experimental philosophy by Cavendish, and to discuss Du Châtelet’s extensive discussion of the importance of, but also fundamental limits to, speculation and hypotheses in philosophy and science.

    At Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella begins a series of posts defending Heidegger against charges of nonsensicality from “analytic Heidegger-bashers.” In this first post, he focuses on the example made notorious by Rudolf Carnap: Das Nichts selbst nichtet (“The nothing itself noths”). The core of Bill’s argument is that sentences such as “There is nothing at all” or “Nothing exists,” while false, and perhaps necessarily false, are nonetheless meaningful. Hence, contra Carnap, there are uses of the term nothing as a substantive that cannot be translated into statements in predicate logic containing a negation operator. He concludes with a quotation from Heidegger, and a challenge:

    “Is there Nothing only because there is the Not and negation? Or is it the other way around? Is there negation and the Not only because there is Nothing?”
    I grant that with questions like these we are at the very limit of intelligibility, at the very boundary of the Sayable. But you are no philosopher if you are not up against these limits and seeking, if possible, to transcend them.

    At the Brains Blog, Dan Zahavi has a series of posts discussing the main themes of his new book, Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame. The book focuses on two different conceptions of the self: the social constructivist view according to which “one cannot be a self on one’s own, but only together with others, and the “experience-based, phenomenological, approach to self,” according to which “selfhood is a built-in feature of experiential life.” Zahavi argues that we don’t have to choose; both are necessary to a full account of lived experience.

    In a post at Philosop-her entitled “Promising Sex,” Hallie Liberto considers how the obligations creating by making promises apply in the case of promising sex.She argues that a promise to grant sexual favors, like any other promise, creates a promissory obligation, but, like all such obligations, is overrideable by numerous other factors:

    I believe that the feature . . . that we find disturbing is that it seems to us that if John has been granted a right, then he may go ahead and have sex with Jane, even if she has changed her mind. However, what John gains is not a right to Jane’s body, but the moral authority to determine an aspect of Jane’s moral “landscape.” John determines whether or not Jane will be wronging him if she fails to have sex with him.

    This does not mean that John can have sex with Jane against her (present) will. . . . If Jane chooses to break her promise . . ., John may not force her to perform the content of her promise. He does not have a moral right to the sex itself.

    At Aeon, Quassim Cassam brings the notion of intellectual virtues and vices, particularly as found in the work of Linda Zagzebski, to bear on conspiracy theorists.

    Eric Schwitzgebel is best known for his work in epistemology and philosophy of mind, and especially for his skepticism about the reliability of intuitions and the possibility of self-knowledge. But he does other things, too; currently, he’s got a series of posts on Chuang Tzu (subject of PEL podcast episode #12). In the most recent post, he argues that Chuang Tzu’s attitude toward death is inconsistent, but that that’s no problem.

  15. Science, Technology and Society III: The Vienna Circle



    This post in the third in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post is here, and the next post is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.

    “The meaning of a method is the method of its verification.” – Moritz Schlick

    “If you cannot predict, you have not explained.” – Carl Hempel

    The Vienna Circle (c. 1920 – 1935) was a group of mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists who sought to reconcile philosophy and science by radically redefining the domain of philosophy. This group (only some of whom actually met in Vienna) included Moritz Schlick, Hans and Olga Hahn, Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel, Carl Hempel, Friedrich Hayek, A.J. Ayer, W.V.O. Quine, and Robert Neumann. It emerged largely as a response to Einstein’s account of gravity, which was philosophically problematic because it flatly contradicted ideas that had long held the status of immutable and universal truths: namely, Newton’s account of gravity and Euclidean geometry. With respect to the first, it demonstrated that gravity can and does effect objects that have no mass(i.e. light rays). With the second, it demonstrated that Riemann’s account of geometry (long suspect as prima facie absurd) was more descriptive than Euclid’s. In other words, the relationship between science and truth seemed, for the first time since the Enlightenment, problematic.

    Contrary to popular belief (then and now) Einstein did not simply expand upon Newton or Euclid – he reversed and contradicted them. If Newtonian gravity and Euclidean geometry were no longer certain, educated people might well (did, and have continued to) wonder if there was any philosophically firm ground to stand on at all.

    According to the Logical Positivists, as the Vienna Circle and their heirs have become known, the proper domain of philosophy is logic and language as applied to observation and scientific theory. In order to remain relevant, philosophy would have to give up its pretensions to settle disputes in aesthetics, ethics, and politics. These were mere opinion, while metaphysics and ontology were simply nonsense. The superiority of empiricist to rationalist, idealist, or other kinds of epistemologies, was sufficiently proven by the explanatory success of empiricist science. The age of the system builders was over – philosophers should accept the reduction of their field to an auxiliary discipline of science. If they did, they would be amply rewarded by renewed relevance, as a helper in the greatest intellectual adventure in history – science. Only a scientifically testable proposition could claim any status as truth, or as falsehood. All other propositions were simply cognitively meaningless.

    Problems in philosophy were thus reconceptualized as problems in language. Scientific theories are often expressed in philosophically messy or imprecise language, which these philosophers saw it as their objective to clarify. In order for a statement to be philosophically meaningful, they held, it must be verifiable, at least in principle. “Do dolphins have rights?,” or “is a sunset beautiful?” fail this test, and so are no part of philosophy. On the other hand, “Does light bend in response to the presence of a gravity field?” is. Just as Einstein required the help of mathematicians and other physicists in order to formulate his theory of Relativity, he could also benefit from the help of philosophers to clarify his meaning. His statements might therefore be reconstructed in terms of logically necessary deductions from certain sets of observations. Because both the observations and the mathematics were accepted as axiomatically true, there was no possibility of conflict between philosophy and science – only between different interpretations of the theory, which could then be handed back to the scientists in order to help them get along with their work.

    How, exactly, to eliminate metaphysics from physics remained another challenge. As David Hume pointed out, we cannot know that the universe behaves in a regular fashion – it is simply useful to suppose that it does. Consider, for instance, a chicken who has learned, from a lifetime of experience, that the farmer always brings food. That chicken might consider it a self-evident truth of the universe that farmers bring food, and it would have no reason to suppose differently. But one day the farmer comes with the axe. Now, if we consider the proposition “copper conducts electricity,” as a property of the universe, how do we know that we do not stand in the same relationship to that copper, as the chicken does to the farmer? Perhaps tomorrow copper will not conduct electricity. What we have, in other words, in the statement “copper conducts electricity” may be considered a metaphysical proposition – an assumption about the ultimate nature of reality, which is not, in principle, testable. What does a logical positivist, who is the sworn enemy of metaphysics, do with this? He cannot logically demonstrate that copper must conduct electricity, but, if he is going to postulate the theory of conductivity as a necessary logical truth, he is going to have to provide some justification. Since this type of justification is not, in principle, capable of derivation from observation, and appeals to rationalism have been disallowed by the Positivists’ insistence on the cognitive emptiness of a priori synthetic truths, some other grounds will have to be sought. It seems, in other words, that Metaphysics still looms in the background.

    Most of the Vienna Circle philosophers fled Vienna as the Hitler regime became increasingly aggressive. Moritz Schlick, the founder of the group, refused to leave. He was assassinated in 1936 by a former student who had joined the Nazi party.

    The legacy of Logical Positivism has been complex and fruitful. On the one hand, the strongest claims of the Vienna Circle have were mostly discarded by the 1960’s as simply too ambitious. As we shall see, Popper, Quine, and Kuhn would have much to say about this. Although the problem of language, logic, and their relation to scientific theory has proven resistant to sustained analysis, the Logical Positivists seem to have been asking the right questions. Continuations or responses to their original lines of inquiry characterize much discussion within Science, Technology, and Society Studies today.

    Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society in Nineteenth century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.

  16. Philosophy in Mobile Games: Two Great Ways To Waste Time And Still Feel Mentally Engaged


    There are days you sit down on the subway with your copy of Leviathan or [insert current reading here], think “I woke up too late to get coffee; the hell with this,” and turn your off your brain.  Good news; there are video games for your phone that will keep your mind engaged while you solve simple puzzles or kill monsters.

    In all seriousness, this is good stuff.  These two games are engaging and interesting examinations of issues of personhood and ethics. And they can be played on your mobile.

    Thomas Was Alone is a platform puzzler that chronicles the escape of artificial intelligence from cyberspace into physical reality.  The game itself feels lengthy, but is not very difficult. What makes the plot, and humorist Danny Wallace’s narration, so engaging is how driven the AI entities are to reach their unknown goal.  It is an extremely human story: exploration for the sake of discovery, from “What’s that?” to “Let’s go find out.”

    The story follows Thomas and several other colored rectangular shapes with varying jumping abilities. The goal is to use the shapes’ differing skills together to reach the end of each level and

    the long term quest of “reaching the great light” which, it turns out, is the internet.  It is the story of localized artificial intelligences who are clearly self-aware, conscious beings escaping a mainframe.  More serious quotes that provide a retrospective look at the importance of the in game events are scattered between levels. It is an excellent contrast, a lot of fun to play, and a much better AI story than Chappie.

    A Dark Room (Which can also be played in browser ) is a much more morbid experience. It is an examination of who and what is used for personal gain, and how we, as moral actors, relate to our surroundings.  In terms of gameplay, it is a flashback to the dos games of the mid 80’s. With a gradually expanding rogue-like world made of nothing but alpha-numeric characters, ageing nerds will feel right at home. The gameplay alone is highly compelling, but the story that develops is the real meat of the experience.  It is difficult to get into the details of why it is philosophically interesting without divulging significant spoilers. So, if you want to play to whole game, just take my word for it, stop reading, and go play it.

    In game, your “Wanderer” builds a little society with other “wanderers” in a small, seemingly post-apocalyptic world.  As the game progresses, your “villagers” abruptly turn into “slaves”, you realize that your battles are mostly you killing humans and human children who are hopelessly resisting your invasion, that you are a many armed alien, that your goal is to escape the planet where you crash landed after committing de facto genocide stealing all natural resources, and that you are generally an asshole.  The pacing of these revelations is fantastic and consistently jarring as no explanation or useful narration is provided. The experience, while cloudy, gives a window into how the personal drive can supersede established ethics and how ethical systems break down in one-sided conflicts.  More to the point, looking at humans as animals, whose slaughter bears no ethical weight, is an interesting jump.

    Intellectually relevant video games are not new, but they are certainly under-represented  in mainstream discussion (and here on PEL).  These are just two of many examples, but they are excellent and not terribly time consuming.  Next time you feel bad about being mentally lazy, pull out your smartphone.  Thomas Was Alone and A Dark Room will make you feel much less bad about being lazy.

  17. Episode 112: Ricoeur on Interpreting Religion


    Paul Ricoeur by Sterling BartlettOn Paul Ricoeur’s “The Critique of Religion” and “The Language of Faith” (1973).

    Last episode taught us about hermeneutics, but how can this best be applied to the text for which hermeneutics was originally developed, i.e. the Bible? For Ricoeur, it’s a two-way street: We need to change our understanding of the text (i.e. read it historically, recognizing for example that it was common to mythologize heroes in texts at the time), but also “put at risk” our own evaluative presuppositions, which under the tutelage of science have blinded us to symbolism and so left us unable to even sensibly ask the question “what is it to be saved?”

    The regular four are joined by Lawrence Ware to figure out what this “hermeneutics of suspicion” is all about. Read more about the topic and get the essays.

    Support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation.

    End song: A live performance (recorded via camcorder) by Mark Lint and the Fake from Dec. ’98 in Austin, TX of the Elvis tune “Suspicious Minds.”

    Make sure to join us for the Aftershow on March 22 at 4pm central. Go sign up to participate!

    Sponsor: Visit, for massive discounts on great lectures.

    The Ricoeur picture is by Sterling Bartlett.

  18. Topic for #112: Paul Ricoeur on Religious Hermeneutics


    On 3/4/15, we were joined by our former guest Law Ware to discuss two 1973 Paul Ricouer essays on applying hermeneutics to religion: “The Critique of Religion” and “The Language of Faith.”

    “The Critique of Religion” advised religious folks that they need to take the criticisms of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud seriously. He conglomerates them all in a description of “false consciousness”: Granted that you believe what you do because it seems sensible in some sense for you, where does this “sense” come from? What are the psychological and social factors behind your accepting what you do, and are they covering things that you should be aware of, and which would likely change your beliefs if unearthed?

    In “The Language of Faith,” Ricoeur outlines what is need to engage religious texts and ideas after they’ve undergone such a Critique, and the focus is on symbolic language, much as for Jaspers. If the occurrence of a literal, bodily resurrection of Christ is pretty unlikely, then how else can we take this “truth” as a calling for life without putting our critical faculties on hold?

    There’s lots more to say, but given that the episode will be released in just a few days at this point, I’ll leave it there; the readings are short enough that you should read along.

    The Ricoeur essays can be found in the 1978 collection The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, or you can read them online here and here.

    We also refer on the episode to Rudolph Bultmann’s essay “Kerygma and Myth,” by Rudolph Bultmann, which you can read here.

    On 3/15, Law will rejoin most of us to discuss Jesus’s Parables, including a commentary by Ricoeur, “Listening to the Parables of Jesus” from 1974, which is the next essay in the same collection, or you can read it here. We’ll have some additional readings for that episode, but I’ll post those later.

  19. Bonus Discussion: Jaspers’s “Truth & Symbol”


    I was pleased to lead a Not School discussion on Karl Jaspers’s Truth and Symbol (1947). Our recent episode left us a little in the dark on what Jaspers was really proposing re religion and the mystical. Well, Truth & Symbol still left a lot of questions unanswered, but gave us a lot to chew on.

    A lot of the book (which is actually an excerpt from a longer, untranslated work) had to do with outlining Jaspers’s version of the existential balancing act: For Camus, the tricky part was truly acknowledging the absurd. For Sartre, it was embracing your freedom. For Jaspers, the matter is more ineliminably technical: it has to do with maintaining a proper balance in your philosophical outlook between subject and object. Jaspers, inspired by the many phases of consciousness in Hegel’s Phenomenology, thinks that it’s possible to live as if, for instance, the subject (the self) is really nothing, to just emphasize the objective world (e.g. the world of science). Or one could act like Descartes, as if the sphere of the subjective is all we can know with certainty, is all we experience directly, or maybe that it’s all there is. For Jaspers, we need to acknowledge that both subject and object are part of the Encompassing (what Heidegger calls “Being”), that neither of these entities is transparent to us, and that while they are not fundamentally different, they act as different poles of our experience that we need to preserve when we think about what kind of reality is ultimate for us. So we retain the object as object, but through it we see the Encompassing: in this way the object is transparent, is a symbol (or cypher).

    I was joined by Michael Burgess, Marilynn L., Nick Halme, and Heath Adams, and everyone had comparisons to make to try to figure this out. Marilynn saw this as neo-Platonism, Michael brought up Berkeley (by the end Jaspers is actually calling the Encompassing “God”), Heath brought up Pirsig (though I think that the mystical experience of Quality that Pirsig is pushing for in part of ZAMM is Eastern, i.e. the self merges with the world in one way or the other, while the insistence on maintaining duality looks more like Judeo-Christian mysticism to me). We tried to make sense of what “symbol” means to Jaspers, when these symbols are fundamentally not referring to something outside of themselves (the word “horse” or a picture of a horse refers to an animal, while Being is supposed to be within and around (Encompassing) and exemplified by individual beings (taken as symbols or not). Why did he shift to using the word “God” with all that entails at the end?

    I haven’t done one of these in a while, but am very glad I did, and think you’ll enjoy the conversation as much as any of our podcast episodes, as we had a great group of participants and a really interesting book.

    Buy the book, or Citizens can check the group for an e-copy.

    Go download the discussion. Click on “Not School & Aftershow Discussions” and check out the new little HTML5 audio player I configured to play the file (or you can still download as usual). If people it this cool, we’ll move the whole Free Stuff page gradually to use this.

    Not a Citizen yet? Go sign up!

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  20. Philosophical Fiction Reading: Woolf’s To The Lighthouse


    We are going to read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf for our conversation this March in Philosophical Fiction. A few regulars and I chose a book from our List of Suggestions to read before our conversation where we’ll go over the plot, discuss the characters, recall apt passages, and try to get at what everything is all about anyway.

    To The Lighthouse will be my first Virginia Woolf story and while I’m expecting sadness to come through her novel because her own life seems tragic, I know there’s much more to her fiction. The novel was published in 1927 placing it outside of public domain yet, for free, you can see this film adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh.

    We just finished our conversation on the short story by Flannery O’Connor, ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’, which is truly terrific. I likened the Misfit to Chigurh in No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and Arnold Friend in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, because these characters are devilish and real.

    “A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said. “Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”

    Our past conversations on novels like Ulysses by James Joyce, Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, are available to PEL Citizens in ‘Free Stuff’ where you can hear us spoil these stories.

    Please, recommend a book or author, or give us a quote, we’re always looking for guests to join the conversation-just visit Philosophical Fiction in the Partially Examined Life’s Not School. Happy reading.