Archive for the ‘consciousness’ Category


November 3, 2010

No, my post title is not about the election results. So far as I can tell, the sky did not fall yesterday. Jon Stewart said recently that “we’ll be fine,” and I’m holding him to that.

Today we have reports from Harrison and Kayla (and ?), and we continue to explore the ways in which we are not gadgets.

But first: Kelley’s report yesterday on Zombies seems relevant here. “Zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but have no conscious experiences.” They’re not evil, they’re misunderstood, like the undead in general. Like us all.

Lanier is sure he’s conscious, and that other authors and artists and creative people are too. He’s not sure present trends favors conscious artistry, though.  If we stop respecting the mental autonomy and independence of our most creative peers, they’ll suffer and we’ll be deprived of their best efforts. Wake up, says Lanier, before it’s too late.

And, he gets off a wicked shot at those philosophers who seem to undervalue the meaning and importance of individual consciousness. “Zombies can only be detected if they happen to be professional philospohers. Daniel Dennett is obviously a zombie.” Ouch. But Dennett and Lanier should find common ground on the point that we don’t really understand our own consciousness very well. All the more reason not to rush into a hasty marriage to our machines.

Jaron Lanier is concerned with the future of money. How will people make a living with their hearts and heads, as the machines continue to evolve? The Open Source culture has become, for many, a “free culture” of downloadable music, online videos, and other cultural commodities increasingly available and on tap for the discerning consumer. What becomes of creativity when people expect you to give it away? Won’t they become detached from their own creations, alienated from their intellectual and artistic labor?  Won’t that have a chilling affect on art and inspiration? Won’t it result in bad art, uninspired and stagnant culture, and species arrest?

Digital Maoists, cybernetic totalists, remashers, and Web 2.0 enthusiasts generally prefer meta-level revisions of old-fashioned culture. “A mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed.” This seems exactly backwards, since creative originality doesn’t just fall from the Cloud but always begins in somebody’s brain – not the hive mind.  But creativity is being marginalized and downgraded in the depleted desert of Information, on Lanier’s view, not properly rewarded. This is bad news for creative people, and for the species.

This is an echo of that Updike-Kelly debate over the future of books we talked about in September. Do artists really want to hawk t-shirts and submit to “meet the author” occasions, to pay the rent, rather than reap a fair and even generous return for their hard solitary labors? Of course not. This is America, and so can you.

This is, as I read it, a pretty *grisly scenario. “Performances, access to the creator, personalization,” whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value? Have not writers, since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution, imagined that they already were, in their written and printed texts, giving an “access to the creator” more pointed, more shapely, more loaded with aesthetic and informational value than an unmediated, unpolished personal conversation? Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity as a summum bonum that an author’s works, be they one volume or 50, serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform, or, since even that is somewhat hierarchical and aloof, a series of one-on-one orgies of personal access?

This does sound like the end of authorship, and the wrong way to go.

We’ve not gone there, yet. Lanier recalls confident predictions from VR skeptics, two decades ago, that “only a tiny minority of people would ever write anything for others to read.” Now, it seems, just about everybody’s blogging and tweeting and status-updating etc.

Granted, a lot of that falls well short of anything we’d want to celebrate as “creative.” But there’s plenty of content coming from all quarters. Lanier’s worried about its future in a “free and open” environment where everyone is encouraged to cadge and copy and cut and paste and remix and remash…

Hence, his “epiphany”:  the human world works, to the extent that it does, because it can depend on an “ocean of good will” backed by civilized formal constraints on greed and aggression. This is somewhere between Hobbes and Rousseau. Guess you could call it Human Nature 2.0. People are just about good enough, cooperative and friendly enough, if given their space and their stuff and a fair return on investment, secured by the full faith and credit of an effective, legitimately sovereign mutual authority: your tax dollars at work.

The message: let creative people be themselves, let ’em  sell their work as they see fit, and don’t “steal this book” or anything else produced by the hearts and brains of conscious, vital, flesh-and-blood human beings.

That would be unconscionable.

NOTE to students: A reporter for the campus newspaper Sidelines is doing a story for Monday’s edition on the upcoming “Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom” course, and wants to include some students’ perspectives.  If you’re interested in sharing, you can contact her directly:

hard problem

May 15, 2010

There are many hard problems in philosophy– in life– but Owen Flanagan is right to identify the problem of meaning in a material world as among the very hardest. (Here it is at amazon. Monetize me!)

He’s right, too, to say that we can meaningfully differ in our respective solutions.

We can adopt different legitimate attitudes toward the truth about our nature and our predicament. I recommend optimistic realism. Joyful optimistic realism. Life can be precious and funny. And one doesn’t need to embrace fantastical stories– unbecoming to historically mature beings– about our nature and prospects to make it so.

I agree, enthusiastically… but you’ll still have a hard time persuading me of the legitimacy of Sorrowful Pessimistic Irrealism. Hit me with your best shot.

In any case, I’m excited that Flanagan is lined up as the keynote speaker for the next annual Tennessee Philosophical Association conference in the Fall, and motivated to prepare a submission on a consciousness-related theme.

And, to trot out again the “Meaning of Life” course I last taught at Vanderbilt in 2005.  Stay tuned.