Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

Idle dreaming

March 1, 2013

Heard the harp this morning, on the heels of a strange and intricate dream involving a visit with Eric Idle at his English country estate, which was somehow laid out on a pattern based on his Galaxy Song [2012].

I don’t usually place much stock in dreams but this one was fairly vivid. But, a quick search turns up nothing about an English estate. He lives in LA. His auto-biography  is interesting, though.

Not sure that was worth getting up to report. Now for something completely different…

More good midterm reports yesterday, from Evan on Performance Enhancing Drugs in sports, Celecita on happiness, Sean on Batman the fatalist-deontologist, and Andrew on free will. All helped me think more about how to respond to the implied (yet good-natured) misanthropy of Vincent’s report the day before, the one he introduced with this image:

save planet

I’ll bet she’s fun at a party.

It’s true enough that too many people tread the earth too heavily, and that we’d all be better off with a lighter collective footprint. If we’re talking about culling the excess, I have a list of names I’d like to start with. Many live (part-time) and “work” in the District of Columbia.  I don’t think they’ll report voluntarily to Vincent’s euthanasia chamber. (Captain Kirk explained the trouble with those back in the future of my childhood.)

But much as we’re a problem, we humans are also the only likely bearers of a solution in sight. If saving the planet means exterminating the humans, count me out. I love horses and whales but I’m finally still a humanist, maybe even a bit of a speciesist. I think we can do better.

[Einstein was a humanist. But so is Seth MacFarlane, named Harvard's Humanist of the Year in 2011. He's behind Neil Tyson's new Cosmos, too. Guess there's more to him than vulgar bears and stupid boob songs.]

I’ve always assumed that choosing to “do better” implied a robust affirmation of free will, and I still think my own motivational psychology requires something like that. But Andrew gave the best succinct answer I’ve heard to the classic pragmatic question on this interminably insoluble issue: What practical difference does  it make to any of us, whether we possess free will or not?

The difference is one of focus: instead of appealing to each individual to do better, to pull him- or herself up by his or her own moral bootstraps, an enlightened-but-determined society would concentrate its efforts on improving the psycho-social-material environment. With better “inputs,” Andrew said, we’ll all do better.

I agree. Let’s not “throw the moral business overboard,” in William James’s memorable phrase. Let’s not give up on one another.

Freud & friends

December 2, 2010

Frege’s linguistic turn still holds many of my peers captive to the quest for reductive, analytic clarity. Some of my best friends are analysts, though not of the Freudian kind.

From their point of view, of course, we pragmatists (among others) are the ones behind bars: in the prison-house not of language, but of fuzzy imprecision.

Russell was an atomist, though not quite like Democritus: he was trying to link atomic bits in language precisely and isomorphically to their corresponding bits in the world. That would be the ultimate analytic reduction, and its the larger project Russell and Whitehead were trying to serve by anchoring arithmetic in logic. Hegelians like Bradley, as usual, saw everything as much too interdependent to permit so decontextualized an analysis.

Edmund Husserl tried to understand consciousness from the inside, phenomenologically.  I still don’t understand how to “bracket” phenomena so as to isolate their real essences. It sounds easy enough, but then again: it sounds easy to eliminate cancer by finding a cure, too. But how to do it, exactly?

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus says sentences picture facts, and implies in its conclusion that there is meaningful experience to be had (but not described) beyond the bounds of philosophy, language, and reason.

Later, he turned therapeutic and talked about “language games” instead of sentences and propositions as the currency of thought and action. We don’t just map the world with our words, we shape it. And, we envision new worlds altogether. On this reading, Wittgenstein II is the most expansive and possibility-enlarging of philosophers.

But it was the narrow positivism his early readers thought they found in him that may be Wittgenstein’s largest and least pleasing legacy. The heirs of Alfred Jules Ayer (Language, Truth, and Logic) are still with us.

Sigmund Freud spans both pro- and anti-Enlightenment camps, as a champion of the idea of mind as brain, “analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and physics,” AND as a welter of irrational drives and instincts.

Our discontent is caused by civilization? That’s not encouraging.

[Hecht on Freud]

Max Weber said capitalism comes from Calvinism: predestination is so stressful that it drives Protestants into a frenzy of work, “working feverishly and living ascetically” to prove their cosmic worth.

I don’t actually know many frenzied Protestants myself, but I think my grandparents did.

We’ve already met Russell’s early collaborator Whitehead; his French counterpart was Henri Bergson.  They pioneered “process philosophy,” [IEP] which rejected static metaphors of eternity and timelessness and emphasized the primacy of events instead of objects.

We noted Whitehead’s affinity for James, “that adorable genius.” James, in turn, admired Bergson. It was he who led James

to renounce the intellectualist method and the current notion that logic is an adequate measure of what can or cannot be… to give up logic, squarely and irrevocably… reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows, and surrounds it. A Pluralistic Universe (1909)

Which reminds me of the time Captain Picard gave a copy of that very book to Ensign Crusher, with some terrific advice for his future studies.

The young man protests: “William James won’t be on my Starfleet exams.” Picard answers, “Nothing really important will be. Open yourself to the past, history, art, philosophy, and all of this might mean something.”

A Pluralistic Universe contains what may be the single most important statement in James’s entire corpus of published works:

I am tiring myself and you, I know, by vainly seeking to describe by concepts and words what . . . exceeds either conceptualization or verbalization. As long as one continues talking, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the field. The return to life can’t come about by talking. It is an act; to make you return to life, I must set an example for your imitation, I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk. . . . Or I must point, point to the mere that of life, and you by inner sympathy must fill out the what for yourselves.

This is a perplexing, disconcerting thing to read in the flat middle of a book, and might incline some readers to put it down in tired exasperation. But a footnote anticipates and defuses the mood, with a little help from James’s friend Bergson.

In using concepts of his own to discredit the theoretic claims of concepts generally, Bergson… shows us to what quarter we must practically turn if we wish to gain that completer insight into reality which he denies that they can give.

James is with Bergson on this. Fight bad concepts with better ones– the ones that admit their own limitations and point to what they cannot say, and move us past contemplation for its own sake. Another Woody Allen quote is to the point: “the brain is the most highly over-rated organ.”  The final message, then:

Don’t just sit there, Wesley. Think. Then, do something. And don’t just tweet about it, Wil.

avoid boring people

November 10, 2010

That was the ambiguous title of Double Helix co-discoverer Jim Watson’s book, and it’s also Jaron Lanier’s caution in today’s section of reading in FoL. If we allow ourselves to be assimilated by our software designs and the computing culture they’re locking in, that’s exactly what we’ll be. But the good news is, we’ll also be too flattened and objectified to notice.

As he promised early on, his manifesto is getting a bit cheerier near the end. He now admits that cybernetic totalism is useful for some purposes of understanding. He still wants to keep it out of our actual engineering designs.

He’d rather think of us as meaning-makers, and of our gadgets as mere tools; but he also sees the utility of computationalism, not as a culturally-pervasive  ideology but as a realistic model of the brain (more precisely, of brain-based personhood). It, and we, have been product-tested and honed by “a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.” That’s Lanier’s creation story, maybe the one naturalistic account of birdsong and Shakespeare worth considering.

But first he has to get in another swipe at narrow computationalism, akin to the  “Logical Positivism” we thought was moribund. Apparently it’s hot again, in  Silicon Valley (and at MIT and Tufts). With tons of data hovering in the Cloud, just waiting to verify our sentences, the neo-Positivists say, human subjectivity is unnecessary.

Lanier, we already saw, wants to pin a big scarlet  “Z” (for Zombie) on Dan Dennett and his old collaborator Douglas “Strange Loop” Hofstadter for such thinking. Thing is, if they’re right we’re all zombies. It’d be the end of consciousness as we thought we knew it, and we’d feel fine. We’d be as thoughtful and creative and un-blood-lustful as we ever were.

And as loopy, musically and otherwise: look at Andrew Bird‘s amazing 1-man band at TED.

But Lanier is sure they can’t be right. He rejects the Turing test criterion of personhood. When we start finding ourselves indistinguishable from our gadgets “we make ourselves dull.” But on the other hand, a master storyteller like Richard Powers can make a Turing scenario very lively indeed. Read Galatea 2.2, a hugely clever updating of the Pygmalion (“My Fair Lady”) story, if you doubt it. (Dennett is a fan.) Modern sculptors beware: even if it walks and talks like a lady it may still be hardware.

It’s a very big deal to Lanier that our scanners can read faces now. Privacy may be out the window for good. Will anyone look up from their screens long enough to notice?

Finally, a couple of positively-tinged  speculations from Lanier:

Swearing is rooted in sniffing, the “old factory” olfactory system. Who knew? Probably not Artoo, “it would take a lot of wires to address all those entries in the mental smell dictionary.” Or the metal one?

And, automatic language translation may get good enough to begin breaking down ancient nationalistic hostilities. The universal translator is not just a pipe dream, we’re getting closer. But if the machines hiccup they could start a major conflagration, too. Remember Douglas Adams’ inter-galactic misunderstanding between the Vl’hurgs and the G’gugvunts triggered by a malfunctioning Babel Fish (but resolved by a miscalculation of scale and swallowed by a canine)? So, maybe you don’t want to stick it in your ear.

Finally, Lanier the humanist computer geek is worried about the future of language and literature as the Cloud expands. But if he was right about the “sexual display” component of good words, we shouldn’t have to worry. Persons seeking mates will never be entirely boring. And Wikipedia is still growing, but it’s nowhere near Borges’ Library of  Babel. Is it?

live long and prosper

February 23, 2010

Jennifer Hecht’s Genesis poem includes a nod to Spinoza– Voltaire’s Enlightenment was nice but Spinoza led the Jews into light a good two centuries prior– and to Trekkies…

There is a flicker poetry to the universe and it had already started when we got here.  Yet we can star in it, standing there like Captain Picard. Our hearts on our sleeves like Commander Troi There are millions of galaxies to change our minds, yet we get our hearts replaced more often. Leonard Nimoy and Bill Shatner are both Jewish; the “live long and prosper” hand gesture rabbinical, a secret sign a young Nimoy spotted in shul when his father told him to close his eyes and he peeked instead. There they are on the bridge, Kirk and Spock, sailing into the universe where no one has ever gone before, exile upon exile, until nothing feels like home as much as further exile, further out, further on, ancient secrets furling secrets like fractals.

And lots more. She really sings the  spiritual side of natural oblivion, and makes it fun. What other kind of universe would you most want to be at home in, than one you had to leave?

Vulcan spirituality isn’t in today’s A&S readings (though it sorta was, in last week’s: Stoics and Buddhists are pretty Vulcan-ish). But it seems like everything else is: Galileo and Copernicus, Calvin and Hobbes, Erasmus, Luther, Rabelais, Montaigne, Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Jefferson… and in for a cameo, all of doubt’s old friends from Raphael’s School of Athens.

Thomas Hobbes didn’t call himself an atheist but his Leviathan state was widely perceived to be a God substitute, an authority to keep us all in awe. Hell, he said, was just a fantasy to control people. Foolish people, “they that make little or no enquiry into the natural causes of things…”

Voltaire, a Deist who found no grounds for believing in a worship-worthy Creator, probably inspired more people to reject their childhood religion than anyone else at that time… “Ecrasez l’infame!”

Spinoza: No one, not human beings, not God, could have free will. Nature was self-causing. There were no miracles. Supernaturalism did not have to be rationalized– it could simply be dismissed. If all that sounds too austere, he consoles us with a dose of Epicureanism: nothing forbids our pleasure except a savage and sad superstition. He means pleasures like study, wine, good food, the beauty of green things, theater, and sports.

Hume (who loved Cicero): We don’t need religion for morality, religion itself got its morality from everyday morality– based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow–  in the first place. Somebody should tell Stanley Fish. (And tell him too that English deists like John Locke counselled: to improve life, do not ask God for help.)

Jefferson (who did not love Plato): Jesus would reject all Christianity. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried was Jefferson’s attempt, when he took scissors to the Bible. The resulting  Jefferson Bible, he intended, would reflect “the most sublime and benevolent [and humane and natural] code of morals” yet devised by mortal man, and it would nestle safely behind the sacred wall so many of our self-righteous contemporaries have been so eager to tear down. That’s one founder’s “original intent” they consistently ignore.  He was a Deist, but considered that his personal business and none of the state’s. (If you missed it before, check out Maira Kalman’s tribute to the Sage of Monticello.)

And I’ll bet you didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition. You should’ve.

experience

November 19, 2009
Recall Bentham’s claim: pleasure (“happiness”) is the only quantifiable good.
Now, consider Robert Nozick‘s famous thought experiment:
Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? [...] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening [...] Would you plug in?
“What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

Well, real activity (and not the mere simulacrum thereof) matters. The real nature of our existence, how we are, the extent of our actual motility matters. The possibility of transcendence matters.

“Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.)”

It is in the light of thought experiments like this one that we can better appreciate John Stuart Mill’s repairs to Bentham’s utilitarianism. “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure… A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy.” And he requires experience that is real, most of the time.

But then again, it might be fun to get stuck in the holodeck for just a little while.

 

stop talking

August 5, 2009

One of my favorite Star Trek moments melds with one of my favorite James quotes, to produce a simple and even obvious point* that 7 out of 10 working philosophers don’t get. (Actual numbers vary, depending on which subset of philosophers you’re polling.)

I’ve said it before. An open, evolving, personal and pluralistic universe invites and promises adventure (“zest” was James’s preferred word), for those who go to meet it. Pluralism thus becomes a humanism: we (each and all, as individuals and as a species) have the opportunity and the capacity to make a constructive difference in the world. We’re all better off for that, and must “respect one another’s mental freedom.”

picardIt was in just this spirit that an inspired scriptwriter once had Captain Picard of the starship Enterprise giving a copy of A Pluralistic Universe to young Ensign Crusher, who protests: “William James won’t be on my Starfleet exams.” Picard answers, “Nothing really important will be. Open yourself to the past, history, art, philosophy, and all of this might mean something.”

James (like Emerson) would also tell the young man to take from his book what is useful and life-giving to him, and then put it down and go collect fresh experiences. A Pluralistic Universe contains what may be the single most important statement in James’s entire corpus of published works:

“I am tiring myself and you, I know, by vainly seeking to describe by concepts and words what . . . exceeds either pluralistic universeconceptualization or verbalization. As long as one continues talking, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the field. The return to life can’t come about by talking. It is an act; to make you return to life, I must set an example for your imitation, I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk. . . . Or I must point, point to the mere that of life, and you by inner sympathy must fill out the what for yourselves”.

This is a perplexing, disconcerting thing to read in the middle of a book, and might incline some readers to put it down in tired exasperation. But a footnote anticipates and defuses the mood, with a little help from James’s friend Henri Bergson.

“In using concepts of his own to discredit the theoretic claims of concepts generally, Bergson… shows us to what quarter we must practically turn if we wish to gain that completer insight into reality which he denies that they can give.”

James is with Bergson on this. Fight bad concepts with better ones – the ones that admit their own limitations and point to what they cannot say, and move us past contemplation for its own sake. The crucial point, then…

*Don’t just sit there, Wesley. Think. Then, do something. (And don’t just tweet about it, Wil.)

tomorrow

July 20, 2009

A 12-year old boy might have been excused, on July 20, 1969, for picturing the world of 2009 as closer to Captain Kirk’s (or Will Robinson’s, or Stanley Kubrick’s, or George Jetson’s) than this.

The “space race” had been run and won in just a few focused frenetic years, from Sputnik in the year of his birth, to JFK’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech, to “one small step.” We’d slipped the surly bonds of our homeworld with unprecedented energy and elan. Where did we want to go today, and tomorrow? We were surfing space then, not just cyberspace.

And although Neil and Buzz were compelled by their governmet to plant and salute Old Glory, we were the world. “We came in peace for all mankind.” Our collective confidence was higher than the sky. Future visions were bright, even utopian.

Fast-forward forty years.

The man that boy became might be excused again, today, for deriding his own youthful optimism as laughably, pitiably naive. Not only have we failed “to boldly go” to the planets and stars, we actually seem to have gone backwards. We’ve certainly not curtailed the ancient human proclivity to suicidal, homicidal, fratricidal, genocidal violence. We’ve made a greater muddle of our economic and political institutions. Diseases, hatred, and ancient hostilities rage worse than ever.

I excuse them both, the boy and the man. I excuse myself for my continuing ambivalence.

Odds still favor the eventual arrival of some version or other of Tomorrowland, albeit on a timetable no one can foretell, and with environmental complications we were mostly blind to, in ’69. When it comes there will be conflicts and  troubles not now on anyone’s radar. But it likely won’t be Neverland.

Would it be better to lose the futuristic dreams of better living through science and technology, and to lower the expectations of our own children?

I say no, with a dash of Thoreau:

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Some of our castles should be out among the stars. But can we build those foundations faster? Forty years is a long damn time.

“The Great Bird of the Galaxy”

May 9, 2009

VIDEO-STAR-TREKI saw Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in person when he came to Columbia, Missouri one night  in (I think) 1977. I was one of the throng packing Jesse Auditorium on the University of Missouri campus, along with many fellow Mizzou undergrads and Trek geeks (though I don’t believe the term was in fashion yet, for those not quite geeky enough to call themselves Trekkies or Trekkers), but also many townies and others who were excited to encounter “The Great Bird of the Galaxy” in the flesh. We were a loud and encouraging audience, eagerly imbibing his vision of a possible human future so different from the malaise-infested present then recently catalogued by President Carter. He evoked a world lit by the cooperative spirit of mutual respect, celebration of diversity (as in the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC,  “Infinite Diversity from Infinite Combinations”),  untroubled by economic malignities , and utterly unafflicted by sectarianism, superstition, intolerance, or fear of the unknown. It was inspiring to be with him and so many other dreamers then, and to think of him and them now.

And so it was a joy and a nostalgic remembrance to pack another appreciative auditorium last night, at the multiplex, for the new Trek prequel. J.J. Abrams and cast did the franchise proud. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura – especially Uhura – all restored, enhanced, enlarged, humanized.

Roddenberry spoke to The Humanist not long before his death in 1991. If there were any doubt about his own humanist and naturalist credentials, they were dispelled in that interview:

I was born into a supernatural world in which all my people — my family — usually said, “That is because God willed it, “or gave other supernatural explanations for whatever happened. When you confront those statements on their own, they just don’t make sense. They are clearly wrong. You need a certain amount of proof to accept anything, and that proof was not forthcoming to support those statements.

How did he hope to be remembered? As one who looked confidently to the world of  “tomorrow,” and

had great patience with and great affection for the human race… Perhaps, “tomorrow” is 500 years from now. What we humans are is really a remarkable thing. How can you doubt that we will survive and mature? There may be a lot of wisdom in the old statement about looking on the world lovingly. If we can, perhaps the world will have time to resolve itself.

That’s what I needed to hear, again.

spock2


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