Archive for October, 2010


October 19, 2010

My new favorite almost-centenarian, Ms. Tuttle, stretches and walks every morning. “That seems to be the secret.”

That, and her daily cocktail. “Moderation is a wonderful thing,” she says. “You’ve got to work, be cheerful and look for something fun to do. It’s a whole attitude.”

And I would add: sleep past dawn once in a while. At least during Fall Break.

a pessimist’s guide to the future

October 18, 2010

I don’t usually enjoy listening to self-avowed pessimists, but this came on the radio yesterday on our way home from a Fall Break bikeride. It made Older Daughter and me both smile. (She particularly liked the *IKEA prediction.) I  agree most with **this observation, which is neither pessimistic nor optimistic but just a fact. A true one.

I think way back, the ’20s or the ’30s, when Kodak came out with the Brownie and they put a list of instructions on the box, like how to use this thing, I think someone arbitrarily said, make sure the person in the photograph is smiling. And we went from that one sort of set of industrial instructions to this whole culture of perkiness.

In the future, it’s going to worse: no silver linings, no lemonade. The elevator only goes down, and the bright note is that the elevator will, at some point, stop.

No matter how bad things are, you have to be, like, oh, there’s always a silver lining, or, oh, we can still be friends, or we can be happy. And I’m not quite sure if that’s a smart thing to be doing in 2010.

In the future, you’ll spend a lot of time feeling like a dog leashed to a pole outside a grocery store. Separation anxiety will become our permanent state. The middle class is over; it’s not coming back.

Remember travel agents? Remember how they just kind of vanished one day? Well, that’s where all the other jobs that once made us middle class are going, to that same magical, class-killing, job-sucking wormhole into which travel agency jobs vanished, never to return.

**We are all experiencing the same things. We’re in it together. We have these new technologies we don’t even have words for that are making us feel things we can’t describe.

In the future, we’ll try to live near a subway entrance. In a world of crazy-expensive oil, it’s the only real estate that’s going to hold its value, if not increase.

In the same way, you can never go backward to a slower computer. You can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness. Enjoy lettuce while you still can, anything else that arrives in your life from a truck, for that matter. For vegetables, get used to whatever it was they served in railway hotels back in the 1890s: jams, preserves, pickled everything.

We really have to define a set of questions we have to ask. And I think the comfort to be found in a pessimistic world view is that you actually get a sense of community. People are in this together. The future is just happening so quickly. Acceleration is accelerating.

Money isn’t money anymore. Time doesn’t feel like time anymore. Your sense of community, it’s evaporated, too, or it’s turned into something you visit at 2 a.m. on a website.

In the future, dreams will get better. Being alone will become easier. Stupid people will continue to be in charge, only to be replaced by even stupider people.

You will live in a world without kings, only princes in whom our faith is shattered.

In the future, knowing everything is going to become dull. And we’re not going to make progress by, you know, just being cheerful and putting a smile on it and hoping it works for the best. We have to ask tough questions and make some tough assertions.

*In the future, IKEA will become an ever more spiritual sanctuary. In the future, your dream life will increasingly look like Google’s street view. Everyone will be feeling the same way as you, and there’s some comfort to be found there.

In the future, we will accept the obvious truth that we brought this upon ourselves.  DOUGLAS COUPLAND


Fall Break

October 16, 2010

Take a hike, peep at some leaves, walk around, don’t worry, get some sleep.


October 14, 2010

Are words powerful enough to carry us from verbal definitions to ultimate realities? Or are there ineffabilities beyond their reach, but within that of unreasoning faith? What is the sound of one hand clapping, and why do you ask? A few of the questions addressed in these slides:

William James once complained that it would be an awful universe if everything could be converted to “words words words…” He was frequently talked out but rarely at a loss for words. He’d have happily picked up the POV gun and replaced his “conceptual shotgun” with it. But like most of us, while he lived and breathed he never did stop talking.

We were talking about radiotelepathy in FoL class yesterday, wondering if Wittgenstein’s notion that language limits our worlds has implications for the possibility of inter/intra-species nonverbal/nonvisual communication (with or without a microwave boost). We can talk about that today too.

This is one of the trickier topics in my discipline, which does indeed live in words. If something’s ineffable, shouldn’t we really shut up about it? But try telling (or tele-telling) that to a philosopher. They’ll listen; but unlike the best  kabbalahists (not sure the guy in this video is one of the best) and sufis they’ll probably also respond.

Following up last class’s discussion of Aquinas‘s “Fifth Way” Design Argument: a good book-length critique is offered by Michael Shermer in Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.

In his classic Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion David Hume has a character he calls Philo say:

The world plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable than it does a watch or knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation.

The Dialogues express several objections to I.D., most prominently a rejection of the analogy in the first place.

Hume does not think that the universe resembles a complex machine at all. While the regularity of the laws of nature may superficially inspire the analogy, human artifacts are always clearly designed for a function. It often takes quite a bit of imagination to see what the purpose of some aspects of the universe really is. Biologist J.B.S. Haldane once answered a reporter who asked what his study of genetics told him about God: “He must have an inordinate fondness for beetles,” referring to the hundreds of thousands of species of these insects existing for no apparent purpose other than their own reproduction. M. Piggliucci

They’re colorful and abundant, and well accounted for by random variation and natural selection. But now, this would be interesting:


October 13, 2010

Another smorgasbord of bite-sized speculations on the amazing world of tomorrow, in FoL…

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers said talent is mainly the residue of hard work, preparation, circumstance, and “the contributions of lots of different people.”

Howard Gardner (Five Minds for the Future, Multiple Intelligences) says let’s look into that, in a multidisciplinary way, and see if we can’t get to the bottom of what makes creative people tick. But do we really want to know? I’d love to understand more about the psychology of motivation, especially my own. But how much close inspection of genetic profiles and neural signatures can we indulge, without damping the spark of our own spontaneity and killing the magic? Are we too fragile to gaze into that mirror?

Still thinking about radiotelepathy: what if Wittgenstein was right, and we literally can’t think what we can’t say? Can we, must we, “draw a limit to thought”? (Tractatus) Maybe we’d better keep things strictly verbal, lest we lose our facility for stringing sequential thoughts entirely.

And doesn’t the language-thought equation also subvert the possibility of significant cross-species telepathy? Conversely, would that possibility subvert Wittgensteinian linguistics?

Radiotelepathy: too weird. Bring back “good old-fashioned nanotech,” like it was back when Eric Drexler (“The Incredible Shrinking Man“) was cool. I want my replicator, so I can order up my tea (“Earl Grey, hot”) and my replacement parts for whatever breaks. Let the “magical molecular assemblers” work their wonders. Would they really leave us with nothing to do but stagnate? That didn’t seem to be a problem on the Enterprise.

And if that’s not weird enough: “honey, I shrank the planet.” Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s pulling our legs, right?

Marc Hauser’s in hot water over questionable research practices, and we’d all be in it if we really answered his invitation to “let your imagination run wild” and went crazy with genetic manipulation experiments. Einstein plus Bach? What?

Same for Lewis Wolpert’s proposal to program fertilized human eggs “to develop into any shape we desire.”

Juan Enriquez seems excited about our new ability to store everything digitally, but much of everything is highly forgettable. We don’t need to archive everything. Why do some of us want to? I’m still not interested in tweeting my breakfast menu.

Stuart Kauffman says the world’s wide open and we don’t know what can happen. “We do not know the space of possibilities.” Has he read his Pluralistic Universe?

Gregory Benford notes those 5,000 year old Bristlecone pines, so symbolic to the Long Now crowd but whose decline was lately noted. Hope that’s not a harbinger.

Is it just me, or are Marcelo Gleiser‘s thoughts on cloning and storage strange even from an edge perspective? Anyway, don’t we already know how to “migrate to a new copy of ourselves when the current one gets old and rusty”? The self-help shelves are full of instructions on how to do it.

Less out there, but no less unsettling: Smith & Calvin on climate change. Strange how we got to the point of really needing to make contingency plans in case the world– the world— gets flooded.

Medievals & scholastics

October 12, 2010

The Arabic philosophers of the early middle ages, anticipating the Catholic scholastics in their attempt to have their religion and their logic too, were looking to preserve a neoplatonic hybrid that would be more than the sum of its respective parts.

Avicenna, reputdely the greatest “Faylasuf,” seems to have been confused about the distinct identities of Plato and Aristotle. Or maybe he just wanted to humanize the impersonal Aristotelian Unmoved Mover and conjoin to it a less sterile, more alluring conception of an afterlife than could be squeezed out of “The Philosopher” and his metaphysically austere world of principles and causes. JMH

Averroes, “The Commentator,” got clearer on the Plato-Aristotle distinction and upheld the interpretive value of allegory (but not for “the masses”), while attempting to reconcile philosophy and Islam.

Maimonides was a believer, but preferred to meditate on impenetrable divine “unknowability.”

Anselm’s ontological argument doesn’t exactly make the case he intended, by this account.

Abelard, with the wince-inducing romantic misfortune, wasn’t a doubter either but a “rationalist in service of faith.”

Aquinas of course was no doubter, but did come up with “this little beauty” of a straw-man. [3 minutes]

“How much can reason know faith?” William of Occam’s simple answer: “not at all.” Are things really quite so simple? Is simplicity self-evidently superior, as an intellectual and existential virtue? We should talk about that.

Simon Critchley took a lighthearted look at the Medievals & scholastics in his Book of Dead Philosophers. Check it out, while I attempt to finish grading. (It should go quickly now, since the Giants wrapped up their series in Atlanta. Go Rays!)

NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: I need to know by next time if you’re planning to do an essay or a presentation for your midterm project, what your topic will be, what sources you’ll use, and (very generally and briefly) what you expect to say/write. The presentation sign-up sheet will be available today if you’d like to go ahead and sign up, presentations will begin right after next week’s Fall Break.


October 11, 2010

Sam Harris may be onto something that will change the moral landscape more profoundly than anything. “Imagine how our world would change if, when the truth really mattered, it became impossible to lie.” Would “zones of obligatory candor” put us all on candid camera?

And would compelled candor be a prime example of what a critic called treating one another as packets of information? (I saw “Social Network” over the weekend, it was terrific and disturbing cinema. A generation gap of response has been noted. Is that also an indication that we’re well down the Information rabbit-hole already?)   Q-&-A

Wonder if Sam’s seen that Ricky Gervais film [man in sky]:

Thereafter, civilized people would share a common presumption: that wherever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored. Well-intentioned people would happily pass between zones of obligatory candor, and these transitions will cease to be remarkable. Just as we’ve come to expect that many public spaces will be free of nudity, sex, loud swearing, and cigarette smoke—and now think nothing of the behavioral changes demanded of us whenever we leave the privacy of our homes—we may come to expect that certain places and occasions will require scrupulous truth-telling. Most of us will no more feel deprived of the freedom lie during a press conference or a job interview than we currently feel deprived of the freedom to remove our pants in a restaurant.

So keep your pants on, tea partiers.  You’ve got no freedom to lose in this future. Still, there’s a difference  between wanting to remove your pants but deferring to conventional propriety, and not wanting to at all. Would we lose that distinction, in the world of ubiquitious and reliable lie detection?

Also worth noting in today’s reading:

Alison Gopnik on perpetual childhood, asking “Who will be the grown-ups?”- a question that came to me in the movie theater, watching the world’s youngest billionaire behaving badly and barely flinching at a $65 million dollar time out.

Kevin Slavin’s overconfidence in the perfectability (compared to biological memory) of data storage. Memory is slipping away, isn’t it, behind vaults of personal cloud data?

Susan Blackmore‘s apparent complacency regarding the rise of technological memes: “Temes are now turning us into teme machines.” (Stone nyt, Third Replicator)

Charles Seife‘s moment of sanity, after evoking a “Borgesian nightmare”: “Our knowledge is now being limited not only by our ability to gather information and to remember it, but also by our wisdom about when to ignore information—and when to forget.” Or as William James said, wisdom is knowing what to overlook.

Freeman Dyson‘s radio-telepathic inter-species empathy, again reminding me of “Avatar” and its natural wisdom.

experience directly the joy of a bird flying or a wolf-pack hunting, the pain of a deer hunted or an elephant starved. We will feel in our own flesh the community of life to which we belong.

But I’m not so sure person-to-person, brain-to-brain telepathy is such a great idea. Quiet public spaces are nice, but may not be worth swapping your privacy for.

Barry Smith wonders “why be alone?” Indeed, we seem in this age to place little value on solitude. We may soon no longer value quiet, either.

Peter Schwartz spells out what this is all about: “computer mediated reality in every sense.” Is it real enough?

NOTE to FoL students, and other futurists: the excellent Public Radio International program “To the Best of Our Knowledge” featured the Long Now Foundation and its mountain clock on a program called “Facing Time” yesterday. Hear it here.

Don’t forget to post your questions & comments, and to try & decide by Wednesday if you plan to do a midterm essay or a presentation.

Go Giants!

October 9, 2010


occupation: fools

October 8, 2010

“I hope God f*cks up your life so bad…”

That, according to a student in one of my Intro classes yesterday, was a congregant’s expression of solicitude for the fate of his soul during his visit to a church in White House, Tennessee.

“God is cursing America. Every death is in God’s hands, and he’s just getting warmed up.”

That was Margie Phelps, attorney and daughter of Topeka, Kansas minister Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church,  speaking to reporters outside the Supreme Court after arguing her father’s right to crash the funerals of soldiers and villify them in God’s name.

And: “Your destruction is imminent. [sic] Don’t say the servants of God didn’t warn you.”

The Westboro Baptists think the God who created homosexuals is punishing them, and the rest of us for tolerating them.

Hearing these words on the very day when I’d made my standard classroom pitch for pragmatic pluralism in matters of faith and reason, measuring the value of belief by its fruits, etc., was a good reality check for me. Should faith “give way” to reason, as we were discussing in class? Yes, when the fruits are as rotten as those lately on display in Washington (and Tennessee).

As Muhammad al-Warraq said: “He who orders his slave to do things that he knows him to be incapable of doing, then punishes him, is a fool.”

The late George Carlin, having heard enough about “God’s will” accounting for plagues and the deaths of innocent children in tornadoes and the like, asked “Who does this guy God think he is?!” George’s routine probably will offend even many of those who find his act funny, with its relentless, scatalogical profanity. I don’t happen to share his view that all religion is bullshit.

But unlike the Phelps’s, I’ll always defend his humanity.

Christians and Muslims

October 7, 2010

Jesus  was a doubter (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”) who seemed to have been “expecting something that did not seem to be happening.” JMH

Hence the crucial role, that fell to Paul, of turning the story in a different direction. “In Paul’s hands, Jesus’ death and resurrection became the center of a new religion.” Faith triumphed over reason, belief became the currency of individual salvation.

What was God doing, for all eternity, before these storied events in the desert two millennia ago? Preparing hell? Really?

That’s not the best, most comforting or “Christian” answer, as Augustine– influenced by Plotinus, fearful of a punitive afterlife (and thus unable to become an Epicure), famously reluctant to embrace the chastity of his Christian re-birth, but all too eager to believe– knew perfectly well.

Augustine gave Christians the stock “free will” solution to the problem of evil they’ve rested in ever since, and their dependence on undeserved divine grace that made the world safe for Calvinist predestination: more “difficult” doctrines to complement Paul’s on the redemptive resurrection.

His contemporary Hypatia would have found it difficult, indeed, to accept the Augustinian denial of evil as something no more substantively pernicious than mere “privation.”

[Sagan’s Hypatia]

A couple centuries on, Muhammad arrived with his own personal transformative vision. Again, a new religion was born.

Isn’t it remarkable, how frequently history finds individuals– Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Muhammad, Joe Smith…–  whose improbable visions become the blind destiny of generations to come?


1. I’ll need your midterm project summaries a week from today.

2. If you wish to suggest quiz questions for possible inclusion on future exams, post them in the comments space.

3. Daily questioners are also encouraged to post their questions each day, and everyone else is encouraged to share your responses in the comments space as well.