1.18.2007

Pascal's Wager and the Electric Monk

I've mentioned the hilarity and cunning of Douglas Adams before on this blog, but I neglected to mention an even more delightful combination of comedy and enlightenment: Adams and Dawkins.

While reading Richard Dawkins' recently published book, The God Delusion, I came across a passage which I simply must share.

In his book, Dawkins very patiently takes the time to consider and dismiss every argument for god that has even a glimmer of credibility (I'm using the word "glimmer" quite generously here). A few god-argument-dismissals into the chapter, he comes to Pascal's Wager. Of course, as is obvious from the denotation itself, it is not an argument at all, but instead it is merely a bet, a wager. Up to the task to gently guide all ghost-believers on their journeys toward sanity, Dawkin's takes a moment to explain Pascal's Wager. I will do so as well.

Pascal's Wager:

You should believe in God because if you do, you statistically have a better plight after death. To illustrate this, consider the following: Either (1) God exists, or (2) God does not exist. If you believe in God and (1) is true, you go to heaven. If you believe in God and (1) is false, no problems arise. If you do not believe in God and (2) is true, again, no problems arise; however, (and here is the kicker) if you do not believe in God, and (1) is true, you go to hell and rot forever! So, you should believe in God!

The countless ways that Pascal's Wager is erroneous is not the point. Perhaps it is the case that (3) Zeus exists, and he is angry that you believed in a god other than him. Perhaps (4) God rewards skepticism, is true, and all skeptics go to heaven after death! Woo-hoo, etc. Fill in the blank with your preferred possibility. Perhaps the most preposterous thing about Pascal's Wager is that he seems to assume that you can simply choose whether or not to believe in something. As Dawkins points out, we can go to Church, we can read the bible day and night, and do other mildly amusing religious activities, but that will not force ourselves to believe in an all-powerful being or an unmoved mover (from Aquinas' proof of God's existence, which Dawkin's also cordially thwarts). We can perhaps feign belief, but an omnipotent God should probably be able to pick up on that fairly quickly. To be fair to Pascal, it is very possible that the Wager was just a bit of comedic relief from all of his work in mathematics.

Dawkins goes on to cite the work of a satirist worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence with Jonathan Swift himself, Douglas Adams. I will let Dawkins take it from here.

From The God Delusion:

"The ludicrous idea that believing is something you can decide to do is deliciously mocked by Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, where we meet the robotic Electric Monk, a labour-saving device that you buy 'to do your believing for you'. The de luxe model is advertised as 'Capable of believing things they wouldn't believe in Salt Lake City'."


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11.17.2005

the end of the world and other newtonian discoveries

I offer this brief and humorous tidbit to tide over you guys until we busy students are able to prepare something more substantial. Hail, friends, hail Sir Isaac Newton!

While still a baby boy, before the ripe age of 25, Newton had already mastered the art of falling apples and discovered calculus. The philosopher-astronomer-physicist-and-then-some went on to set the foundation for classical mechanics. He established revolutionary laws of motion. And this is only the beginning of his list of accomplishments! However, I find one very mysterious discovery of his even more awesome than the rest.

After breaking nearly all scientific barriers possible, Newton made his most amazing proclamation! According to Newton, in 2060 the sky will fall! Yes you heard it here first, the world is going to end in the year 2060, so make sure to conquer your fears and climb your mountains before then.

This strange prediction from Newton represents a very different side of this genius that most of us have probably not seen before. Perhaps Newton was not the cold logic-driven machine that he is often made out to be. A passionate irrational man was hidden underneath his calculating exterior. What is more, it is always entertaining to poke fun at the most intelligent among us humans whenever possible.


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11.03.2005

Free will?

Free thought. The very name of this blog seems to assume something which may not be true. Should the name be changed to “causally determined cognition”?
Imagine this hypothetical situation. An alien kidnaps you and puts you on his spaceship. He shows you a giant computer, and tells you that the computer has collected every bit of physical information about the universe at the moment you entered the ship. Then he takes you into a room with two boxes. He explains a game. He will have no further contact with the boxes. In box 1, he has placed either $1,000,000 or nothing. In box 2 he has placed $1000. He tells you that you can choose to take either box…or both of them. You look at him confusedly. He explains the catch. He has looked at his computer data and made a guess what you would choose. If he guessed you would take only box 1, he put $1,000,000 in it. If he guessed you would take both, he put nothing in it. What do you do? (the particular money amounts shouldn’t matter). This question involves an issue which is very important. Think about it, make a decision, and see if you can support it, especially as it relates to the rest of this article.



The question of free will is often ignored even in the discipline of philosophy. The question is far from being fully resolved, and indeed, should be scrutinized even more closely. The assumption of free will is so deeply ingrained in our thought that attempts to question it are dismissed out of hand, despite the tremendous implications for many theories in all areas of thought. It may be sufficient for the ignorant man to go about life without a thought in that direction, but if one is to make any credible argument in any discussion of human action, one must seriously consider the possibilities of determinism. The questions that arise include: What is “free will”? Do human beings have free will? What practical implications does free will or lack thereof have in daily life and morality?
There are two overlapping pairs of possible stances involving free will. The first pair is the argument of determinism and indeterminism. Determinism is the stance that all events, including human actions, can be entirely explained through causal relationships, and therefore, an infinitely intelligent being with complete information could reliably predict the entire future of the universe from any single set of circumstances. Indeterminism holds that this cannot be done, that some events are not determined by preexisting circumstances.
This is not yet a complete account to the possibilities of free will. There is also an argument between compatibilitists and incompatibilists, who may themselves belong to either of the above groups. Incompatibilists claim that determinism and free will are mutually exclusive. If the world is determined, there can be no free will. Compatibilists, sometimes called soft determinists, argue that free will can exist in a deterministic universe.
The reason we should be so concerned especially in this age about free will is that increasingly, science, as it has gotten more advanced, seems to provide indismissable evidence for determinism. Free will may have seemed intuitive, but experiments have shown that even when people think they are making a fully free choice, they are guided by complex, fully physical interactions in the brain. For example, an experiment was conducted where a patient was asked to choose randomly between an object on the left and right. Left handed people tended to choose left, and right handed people tended to choose right. However, if a certain part of the brain was stimulated, the odds became massively affected in the opposite direction, so that over 80% of right-handers would choose left. When asked, the patient insisted their action was fully free. Clearly the appeal to intuition is no longer sufficient. Beyond that, is there really any evidence in favor of free will?
What is free will? Is an unfree will possible? It is said by most that for an action to be free, the agent COULD have done otherwise. Some would add the provision: IF they had wanted to, to the end. This is important to the compatibilist argument. This IF clause, however, seems to necessitate the removal of “free” from free will, and thus they argue from a different definition.
Quantum physics, which has shown events on a tiny scale to be random, may replace determinism with a sort of probabilistic variant, but doesn’t remove the question of free will.
Free will seems to have many implications in our lives and view of the world. How do we view our own making of decisions? Especially, what effect would a deterministic worldview have on moral responsibility? Can we blame anyone for their actions if they were fully caused by circumstances before their birth? Does this affect our theory of punishment?
Is determinism a hopeless viewpoint? Useless? Some would disagree.
I will leave these questions mostly sans answers (although I myself may have them). Talk amongst yourselves, and feel free to ask questions or propose solutions. I implore that you consider very carefully. If you call yourself a free thinker, and you really think that you are free, make sure you can support that belief, and be sure you can articulate it to others. Ultimately, if one wants to lead an examined life, one cannot run from this question forever.


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10.17.2005

hiatus and return

The astute observer would have realized by now that this blog has been on hiatus for some time. I do not doubt for a minute that there has been a vast amount of tears shed over this very issue, but fear not my friends, good news is on the way! The return of freecog is soon to come, and as our beloved Eriatlov has said, keep your metaphysical beards trimmed and prepare for some more free cognition.


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6.14.2005

one pawn to the rule them all

We appreciate the positive feedback for last week's chess competition. Seeing as there is enough demand to host weekly tournaments, this is precisely what we will do. This week the tournament will be held on Thursday, June 16 at 7:00 PM EST. This time around the brackets will be single elimination to speed things along. Sign up under this thread! Congratulations to Mike Quagliato, Russ Watson, and Eriatlov for great play in last week's tournament.



Seeded players & Competitors (Seeds based on past performance in freecog competitions)

1. M Quagliato
2. R Watson
3. Eriatlov
4. J Bakshi
- A Berriz
- mandytex
- Vexorith
- J Calvin


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6.06.2005

the existence of privilege

Privilege is defined (by your average dictionary) as a special advantage, immunity or benefit not enjoyed by all or a prerogative: a right reserved exclusively by a particular person or group (especially a hereditary or official right). There are many who believe that privilege does not exist in our society. There are even more who claim ‘we are all equal’. Then there are those few who believe that our differences do not matter. Some of the main reasons for these beliefs have been shoved down our throats since we entered kindergarten. As children during the holidays we all made Christmas trees with construction paper and glue or sang Christmas carols to show our holiday spirit. During Thanksgiving we dressed up as Indians and Puritans to show how well everyone liked each other while giving thanks for our many blessings. These examples are normal and non controversial in many classrooms across the nation. As we got older we leaned about history, where Christopher Columbus is a hero and slavery is non existent therefore racism does not exist anymore. We also learned about the constitution and the Bill of Rights. These are more examples of how equal and fair the United States is to everyone.

In every example I’ve given you there is some form of exclusion and portrayal of privilege, therefore I would like to argue that our differences do matter. Within the United States we are not all equal because privilege does exist. Peggy McIntosh, an author and researcher for Wellesley College has described privilege as: “…an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious.” Privileges are unearned assets that are given to you because of the category you fit in. Those who receive privileges are most commonly those who dominate our society. The most obvious categories that receive privileges are individuals who are white, male, Christian, heterosexual, middle/upper class, first world nationality (i.e. American), young age, and the physically and mentally able. The more categories you fit in the more privileges you receive. Do not misunderstand me; receiving privileges does not make you a bad person or even a hateful person. You are merely a component within our society of privileges and underprivileged. It is important to see how and where you fit within this society, regardless if you wish to receive anything. The nature of privilege is to be given without consent or awareness which makes it invisible. Privilege and oppression go hand in hand. In order for someone to receive a privilege someone has to be oppressed. Peggy explains this with race: "They take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant group’s one is taught not to see. In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth."

Some examples of privilege are:

• I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
• When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
• I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
• I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
• My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
• I have never had to worry about going hungry or finding a place to sleep at night
• I can or my parents can afford daily living expenses (food, water, electricity, clothes, personal hygiene, shelter, transportation, etc.)
• I can or my parents can afford health insurance
• I can or my parents can afford to send me to a private school, charter school, and/or a university.
• I can access buildings without delays, help, or being handicap accessible
• I can move around freely and perform daily tasks without problems or preventions or help (shower, eat, restroom, etc.)
• I can hold hands in public with the person I care about without stares, remarks, or feeling unsafe
• Religious holidays which I identify with are widely accepted and celebrated as a national holiday (i.e. Christmas)
• Schools and institutions can accommodate me for my religious practices and/or traditions without trouble or hesitation
• I can practice my beliefs without being judged, criticized or continuous attempts to be converted
• I can walk alone at night without fearing for my safety
• I can expect to be paid more then a women who holds the same position as I do
• I can expect my voice to be heard and respected without being called moody, PMSing, or a bitch.
It seems that the existence of advantage is kept strongly silenced in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. This keeps most people unaware that freedom of choice and confident action is there for just specific groups of people. Through discussion and exposure it is possible to identify and understand privilege and oppression. In order to understand the system that produces the disadvantaged, oppressed, and underprivileged, it is important to also know how and who is benefiting from the same system.

Additional information by Peggy McIntosh
http://seamonkey.ed.asu.edu/~mcisaac/emc598ge/Unpacking.html


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6.02.2005

art showcase: The Wall

Music is the form of expression that, to me at least, has suffered most from the commercialization of today’s art. Good films still appear periodically, being a form only a century old, and books in general are so unpopular that writing hasn’t been turned into a grinding machine quite yet (Stephen King and John Grisham aside). But while books can exist on their own, rotting in dust in a library, read only by professors and intellectuals, and still be respected, music begs to be heard, to be experienced, and the mass media has capitalized on this with a monopoly on “popular” music, targeted towards the bulk of the herd, which, to put it mildly, has been less than impressive in their tastes. Of course, my purpose here is not to whine about the present, so I will simply say that in the brief but powerful creative spark that occurred in the 60s and 70s, bands like the Beatles and conditions inherent in the times made possible a wave of music that was actually quite good. Here I hope to talk about what I feel is one of the greatest albums of all time, by a band all of you should take a second look at.

First, there are a few things I should go over. The band in question, Pink Floyd, may be known to a few of you. It is probable you have heard at least one song from “The Wall” (probably “Another Brick in the Wall, part II”). You may be more familiar with their other massively successful (and also very good) album, “Dark Side of the Moon” (it was so popular that at one point there was a large factory in Germany that did nothing but churn out copies of Dark Side). Besides being popular, however, their music is layered and complex, much like the later works by the Beatles. Their work is extremely musically interesting, but as a literary man, I will deal primarily with the lyrical aspects of the album. Incidentally, the band had three stages of existence, the first of which is not our concern here, and the last of which continues today but lacks the main creative forces behind their earlier success. The movie based on the album, sharing its name, is also excellent. It is essentially a two hour long music video which some might find somewhat confusing, but I think adds a great deal to one’s comprehension of the themes involved. Anyway, on to “The Wall”.

While most music, especially of today’s variety, is broken up into three minute individual ditties, which one can easily separate from the whole album without any loss in continuity. “The Wall” does not work this way. It is two hours of musical narrative, following an indefinite protagonist through childhood, life, and insanity. There are musical and literary themes carried throughout, and it truly should be listened to in its entirety, and without distraction. It does not classify as “background music”.

The wall in “The Wall” is, of course, a metaphor. As the character and the audience progress through the work, we see experiences in childhood and adulthood begin to add up as bricks in this “wall”, a construct built around the “self”. This introduces a second layer of the story, as a perfect example of Freudian psychology. Sigmund, as well as behavioral psychology, can be seen everywhere on the early tracks of childhood (“Mother”), reappearing later (‘When I was a child…’ in “Comfortably Numb”). One of these childhood experiences (autobiographical of Roger Waters, the lead writer) involves war, seen in several tracks, but perhaps best shown in the film, which adds a later Pink Floyd song (from “The Final Cut”), adding yet another layer to the work as an anti-war parable. Included are bizarre fantasies of fascist-style totalitarianism, images of school (in the film) as a meat factory, and copious amounts of drug use, developing the story further as both a satire on modern society and an anti-establishment tale.

As we listen to the character’s descent into madness, we see how the ultimate psychological defense mechanism, the wall, gradually traps Pink in a self-created prison, rendering him incapable of connecting to the world outside. This culminates in the penultimate track, in which he undergoes a bizarre trial, essentially convicted of humanity after witnesses from his past testify against him. His sentence is the destruction of the wall, leaving him “exposed”, insane, with the “bleeding hearts and artists”. It is not all hopeless, however, as the final track indicates some sort of rebirth, or perhaps just the emptiness of lunacy.

Ultimately, we are left with many questions. Is it better to suffer the cold confinement of the wall, or live in free insanity in a mad world? What walls do we put up around our own selves, and when will those bricks of our past return to haunt us? Next time you are a passenger during a long car trip, put in “The Wall” a couple of times and play close attention. If you are driving and listening, you’re not giving the music the attention it deserves.






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5.30.2005

a thinking man's war

Garry Kasparov once famously said that chess is mental torture. And it is. Chess is one of the most intellectually challenging and grueling activities one can engage in, aside from a rousing debate with our friend Eriatlov. The value of chess, however, stems beyond its value as a mere game. Many of the qualities that are necessary for any great chess player to have are also often essential to maintaining a happy and healthy lifestyle in general. As Fischer said, a strong memory, concentration, imagination, and strong will are the most potent weapons in a chess player’s arsenal. In the spirit of competition and mental strength, free cognition introduces its first Amateur Open Chess Tournament. Entry is free and all are welcome to join. You may signup by emailing us or by responding to this thread under the comments section. The tournament will be held on Friday, June 3, at 8:00 PM EST (5:00 PM PST). Be on AIM or MSN ten minutes prior to this time. Click read more for tournament details.


Tournament Details:

The tournament will take place at Yahoo Chess, so make sure you register an account at Yahoo, if you have not done so already. Your Yahoo ID does not have to match the name you are using in the tournament bracket. Each round is a best of three series. Each player plays white once and black once. If the series goes to a third match, you must report to the tournament administrator to determine who play as white (via coin flip). If you are able to come to agreement amongst yourselves, without admin intervention, more power to you. The final round is best of five.

Additionally, each game should be set so that the timer starts at an initial time of two minutes and an increment time of thirty seconds. This means that you begin the match with two minutes each, and thirty seconds is added to your clock with each move that you make. This allows more than enough time to think carefully, while maintaining reasonable time constraints.


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5.27.2005

agnosticism versus atheism

I have heard many staunch atheists call agnostics nothing more than 'weak atheists.' Essentially, an atheist may think himself to be more assertive and bold than an agnostic, and therefore intellectually superior. I wish to call this claim into question. Agnosticism deserves a second, and sincere, look.

What is the difference between atheists and agnostics? The former hold that no godly being, such as the Judeo-Christian god, exists. The latter suspend judgement. Agnostics refuse to declare with certainty that no god exists; however, they may admit the extreme improbability. They may even consider the possibility that a godlike being exists so minute that it is hardly worth considering. In effect, an agnostic is indeed a practical atheist, while remaining a theoretical agnostic.

This suspension of judgment that agnostics adhere to may be looked upon as feeble indecisiveness or a lack of courage to scoot all the way over to the atheist camp. However, before we label agnostics as cowards, it is interesting to make a quick comparison between atheists and Christians.

Atheists claim that they are completely sure that god does not exist. On the reverse, Christians are absolutely certain that god does exist. These are equally dogmatic worldviews. When looked at objectively, there is no conclusive evidence that god does or does not exist. In this sense, an atheist is exactly the same as a Christian!—willing to make irrefutable judgment about something which can not be conclusively proven (at least, at the present time). That being said, a rational man should certainly adhere to the atheistic camp until sufficient evidence provides reason to think otherwise. Practical atheism is the default position. However, a rational man should also be willing to change his views if sufficient evidence for a godlike being's existence is somehow provided. This is where agnosticism becomes rationally useful. Agnostics are practical atheists, but they bring more to the table than just this. They are happy to point out that evidence lends us to the conclusion that no god exists. But, they are also willing to say that theoretically, it is possible, though improbable, that a godlike being does exist. This is a freethinker's stance—the readiness to admit the possibility that one’s views may be wrong.

Bertrand Russell, a practical atheist and theoretical agnostic, knew the value of doubt. Inflexible and rigid belief in any philosophy is to be avoided. Atheism and Christianity are instances of such rigidity. Theoretical agnosticism is a flexible and skeptical approach to this issue, which is anything but weak.

"I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine." Bertrand Russell


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5.20.2005

moral obligation or a lack thereof

Peter Singer is your quintessential utilitarian philosopher. His theories are tightly strung and often controversial. He is willing to defend damn near anything if the net result is an increased amount of happiness for all parties involved—a chip right off the old block, the block being none other than J.S. Mill. Singer makes a very interesting and perhaps radical claim regarding moral responsibility. He asserts that it is our moral duty to help others whenever we are able to do so without significant harm to ourselves. It is not necessarily this exact claim that I wish to address here, instead I would rather get to the root of the issue. Is there such thing as moral obligation? In other words, should certain actions be morally obligatory? We must walk this road, as always, with intense skepticism.

There is an important distinction we must make before we continue, between morally obligatory actions and morally supererogatory actions. The former are actions which are absolutely necessary to maintain moral goodness, and the latter is an action that we consider morally good, but not necessary. For example, we may consider somebody running into a burning building and rescuing a kitten a supererogatory action, because we would certainly think it a benevolent act; however, if the person did not save the kitten, we would not have faulted him for it.

This investigation regards obligatory actions—those which are supposedly necessary—such as those which Singer imposes.

Let us look at the following example.

I am watching television and one of those heartfelt ‘Save a Child’ commercial comes on. Apparently I can support a child for just twenty cents a day, or some comparable figure. Essentially, I can save a life with absolutely no harm to myself. All I have to do is call the number and give my credit card (assume the organization is not full of con artists).

I think we can be quite certain that donating the money is a supererogatory act; however, am I morally obliged to do so? Must I call this number in order to maintain moral goodness? I must honor Pyrrho, and suggest that the answer is no.

While I fervently advocate charity of all types (see On Philanthropy, by Veronika Green), I have a hard time considering charity, or any other action, morally obligatory. I find it difficult to assert that any action is morally necessary or necessary in any way. This seems far too restrictive and arbitrary. We can not impose one man’s moral compass on another man’s.

Subjectivity reigns on high, when objectivity hides its face.


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5.15.2005

art showcase: 2001: A Space Odyssey

"It is through art, and through art only, that we can realise our perfection." Oscar Wilde

Art is the ultimate expression of the will to life and the greatest triumph of human consciousness, and every once in awhile I hope to showcase a work, to inspire some to take a look at it, and to discuss it with the rest. Through art we can see articulation of ideas, revelation of truth, and the individual transcendence of reality itself. Today I will discuss one of my favorite works, the greatest science fiction film of all time. No, not the Matrix. No, not Star Wars. It is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I should make a few things clear. If you have not yet seen the film, what follows will probably not make a whole lot of sense, and you should go to your nearest video-rental outlet this very second and rent the movie (widescreen only, of course). If possible, see it on a theatre screen or a very large television. Be warned, audiences as well as critics were widely put off by the films pace, which is akin to that of grass growing, paint drying, or man floating through endless space. Movie stars at an early screening of the film walked out in anger, complaining about the film’s confusing narrative. Rock Hudson stormed out, yelling “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” This was back in 1968, before Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars changed the pace of film forever to require a constant barrage of action and image. Nonetheless, as a film, 2001 is nearly flawless. The cinematography is astounding, letting a responsive audience bask for a long time in each of its beautifully symmetrical compositions. The score is one of the most memorable in movie history, using to perfection the works of two Strausses. The special effects were revolutionary in their time, and some of them are impressive even today. There is very little dialogue, and what there is has been criticized as being dull and meaningless, though I would argue strongly that it was largely Kubrick (and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke)’s satirical intention. But perhaps the most interesting part of the film is the elusive meanings and implications behind it. Kubrick made a public statement leaving to the audience the task of deciphering the allegorical and symbolic meaning of the film. Those of you who have not watched it, stop here.

The movie is divided into several parts. The first, called the Dawn of Man, takes place countless ages B.C. Pre-man lives in a rocky wasteland, devoid of order, full of rough edges and uneven landscapes, making the appearance of the monolith doubly astounding. We see a symbolic sun in perfect symmetry over the edge of the towering black prism. Heightened by the haunting music, one can feel the painful consolidation of pre-man’s mind as he tries to comprehend this marvelously incongruous, perfect obelisk from pure instinct to something resembling consciousness. Fear, curiosity, agitation. The reaction to this higher order is emblematic of man’s condition. We then cut to the newly inspired, newly born intelligence of man as it begins to create. The first invention, the first tool, we see the connections forming in the creature’s brain as the bones crash together. We see physics born in the arc of the rib through the air, propelled by an accidental lever. We see the creature begin to comprehend possibility. It is no accident that the first of man’s inventions is a weapon, whose purpose is to kill efficiently. What follows is man’s first murder, as he achieves superiority over the beast he once was.

The next few seconds are worthy of a paragraph in themselves. As he tosses the bone up into the air, I order the audience not to blink, in case they miss what is the single greatest match cut in all of film. FOUR MILLION years pass in a second, and man’s first invention is transmuted into his most advanced, a space station in orbit. One falling in early man’s limited parameters of existence, the other falling perpetually in orbit.

We have a beautiful, slow sequence of pretty spaceships with Strauss in the background, orderly, mathematical, a far cry from the disorganized landscape of the earlier scene. From space, what was so uneven becomes a perfect sphere. The following scenes are a satire on human evolution and society, which I won’t go into, but keep an eye out for advertising labels and the infantile characteristics of man who now eats “baby food” and needs instructions on how to use the restroom. The mission to the moon is interesting in that we see man’s first encounter with that higher consciousness that spawned his own. From the results, it is evident he is not ready.

Now we come to the “story” portion of the film, the “Discovery” (aptly named) mission to Jupiter. We are introduced to HAL9000. Enjoy the sublime irony of man using his ultimate tool, the consciousness he created (Incidentally, one that may have surpassed him) on his quest for the consciousness that created him. HAL is one of the greatest movie antagonists ever. He is almost human even as he epitomizes calculating detachment, and his evident pride belies his almost comic false modesty at times. There is a website that recreates his chess game with Dave, of which we see only the ending, though I don’t remember it. His red eye has unparalleled creepiness, furthered by the scenes we see through his own perspective. Through HAL’s eyes, humankind is obsolete, weak, requiring food, sleep, constantly making mistakes. He cannot be allowed to compromise the mission…

An impossibility occurs. HAL malfunctions. We feel his cold power as he watches the humans seal their doom, reading their lips through his eye. What follows is a series of the coldest, quietest, most horrendously, terribly humane murders one could imagine. It is difficult to keep ones’ heart steady as one realizes that each fading little bar of monitored vital signs is another life taken. We see a long sequence of Dave going out to retrieve the body of his fellow, floating eternally through endless space, as man floats through his meaningless existence. HAL’s conversations with Dave have an almost childish quality, even as they show the results of such a perfect(?) logic. Physical impossibilities aside, Dave re-enters, and we hear HAL’s helpless pleas. Our minds are confused as to what to think of HAL, as in his completely passionless voice he pleads for his life. Self-preservation is such a characteristic quality of life, it gives HAL an even more anthropomorphic dimension. His own logic fails him, we see his insufficiency. Is Dave committing murder? It is a slow and wrenching demise. Piece by piece, we see a consciousness dissected, by one of man’s simplest tools, an ordinary wrench. Can man be so methodically assembled? Is he merely a sum of those little events, those minute experiences and programmings? It is a death scene worthy of the history books.

The final scenes are the most elusive of the bunch, as Dave, doomed without his tools, approaches the obelisk. I have a theory or two about the meaning behind them, and the brief montage beyond the psychedelic light show. However, this I will leave to the rest of you to digest yourselves.

2001: A Space Odyssey has many more layers than the relatively simple outline I provided here, and deserves a second, third, fourth, etc. viewing. Kubrick was one of the greatest directors of all time, and I consider this to be his greatest work.It attracted the youth of those excellent decades in the 60s and 70s, and for many, it became an almost spiritual experience. One man was reported, perhaps under the influence of some illegal substances, running madly through the aisles at the closing shot of the film, screaming “It’s God!!! It’s God!!!”




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5.13.2005

mother, father—what is sex?

Sex is mysterious, doubly so for children. We teach our children to read, we teach them to write. We answer their many, many questions about how the world works; however, when it comes to sex, we leave our children in the dark. Questions go unanswered, ultimately leading to an increased curiosity and yearning to reveal the puzzling nature of sex. It is this lack of knowledge that our youngsters are left with regarding sex that causes an infatuation with it. If we were to refuse to answer questions youths have about trains, they would become increasingly fascinated with trains. This is the nature of curiosity. For sex this phenomenon is even more pronounced, because while trains are quite boring, sex is nothing short of intriguing.

There is absolutely no excuse for deceiving children, no matter the topic. We must answer their questions regarding sex openly and honestly. There is no need for any sort of peculiar overtone when speaking with a child about these matters. Speak frankly and thoroughly. A child has not yet been exposed to the notion that sex is somehow “off limits.” If we explain the purpose of the penis and the vagina, as we explain the purpose of books and calculators, neither will be more mysterious than the other. A healthy sex life will arise out of children with this type of clear understanding.

Furthermore, once we begin lying to our youths about sex, they lose faith in our informative reliability on the whole. We must not mislead them about one topic, lest we lose their confidence on a host of other topics as well. They will begin to go elsewhere for information regarding sex or whatever else, in order to satisfy their fascination with issues that are left unexplained.

We should also not deceive our children into believing that monogamous relationships are the only ones that exist. There should be no stories about everyone remaining virgins until their marriage night. These are nothing more than fairy tales on the whole. People are often polygamous and often sexually active outside of marriage. These are trivial truths that need not be hidden. Once again, deception can only lead to distrust and mystification.

Knowledge leads to increased understanding and comfort. Misinformation leads to confusion and a frantic search for a new source of knowledge. Why create this latter situation? I am convinced that the only reason we would mislead our youths about the issue of sex is due to our own immaturity. We are uncomfortable talking about sex despite the alleged maturity adults are supposed to magically acquire by the age of thirty. Children are not uncomfortable when talking about sex—they have not yet sunk to that immaturity level. Let us not allow them to sink that low, and let us satisfy their thirst for knowledge on all subjects.


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5.11.2005

on philanthropy

Philanthropy is commonly defined as “the effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind, as by charitable aid or donations.” More simply, philanthropy is a love of human beings in general. Reflecting on this generalized definition, I have come to realize that this very blog is a philanthropic enterprise. Free Cognition was made with the explicit purpose of spreading ideas and thoughts in order to help people become freethinkers. This is a very philanthropic goal. The question that I am pondering is why did we make this blog? Or, by in large, why does anyone feel compelled to be a philanthropist of any sort? It can be argued that we simply do this to make ourselves feel good (helping others tends to have this effect), or for some other egocentric reason. This may indeed be part of our motivation for philanthropy, but maybe there are other motivators as well.

I recently had a slightly disturbing discussion with your quintessential corporate capitalist, for who green is the only color that matters, and I am not referring to trees. I told him that I think people deserve certain fundamental human rights simply based on the fact that they are people, regardless of supposed public value or fiscal standing. He asked me, completely bewildered, “Why would you care about somebody who is ‘useless’ to society?” He argued that if somebody does not pull their respective weight in society, and thus, are “useless”, then we should not be burdened with providing them basic human needs when they are unable to do so themselves. Apparently, says the American Dream, anyone that wants to be successful can be, and anyone who is not successful, deserves the pangs of poverty. This is an outright lie.

When I speak of fundamental human rights, I am referring to basic needs that people require in order to live relatively full lives, such as education, health care, and more basically, sufficient nutrition. As humans we need these rudimentary provisions in order to live healthily and intelligently. This is an opportunity that we all deserve. What you choose to do with your life is irrelevant. These rights should be yours regardless.

As to the American Dream claim, that I aforementioned, even within the wealth of America is often impossible for some people to defeat the poverty cycle. The economic gap between the rich and the poor is gargantuan, and it is continuously becoming larger. People are in genuine need of help, and the current administration is too busy cutting taxes for persons making over $200,000 to worry about the lowest financial class of Americans. For these reasons, I find it imperative that we pick up the slack where the incompetent government has left the situation unhandled.

Why should we care about those who have very little, if we are among those who have an excess of resources and benefits? I do not propose to psychologically analyze human beings to find a reason for selfless behavior. This would lead to far too much ambiguity. Instead, I want to explain my personal reasons for being philanthropic. My hope is that this may help on a broader scale explain why some people have a desire for philanthropy, whether or not this holds true for the majority of people, I have no idea. I provide the following examples to explain why I feel that we should act philanthropically whenever possible in order to help those in need.

(ex.1) I am walking along the sidewalk and I notice a meager looking child lying on the ground. He is starving. I would feel absolutely compelled, for whatever psychological reasons, to provide some sort of nourishment for this starving child. I would bring him home with me and feed him. I am acting philanthropically

(ex.2) I balance my budget, and I realize that I have some excess money that I can use on superfluous expenses. I come across information revealing that there is a starving child in India, who I can support very cheaply and easily through an intermediary organization. I am not as compelled as I was when the starving child was directly in front of me, why is this? I strongly question this lesser state of compassion simply based on distance away form the individual in need. I must conclude that this lesser state of compassion is merely a result of an irrational tendency to pay attention to things that are near, while mindlessly ignoring that which is far. I should act as I acted in (ex.1), as I should not pay heed to an irrational tendency to ignore events that occur far away.

When I am able to aid another person’s existence, I feel compelled to do so. This is especially true when I am able to do so unscathed. I can not think of a reason not to help others when it is of little cost and effort to myself. Even when the cost or the effort becomes greater, I am hardly discouraged.As I said before, Free Cognition is a philanthropic enterprise. This blog is aimed at provoking insightful discussion that will help people think freely and see things in new and interesting ways. Freethinking is a beautiful, beautiful thing. The ability to pleasantly question things you have long taken for granted is something that should not be undervalued. The more freethinkers that arise in society, the more able society will be to help itself advance and improve as a whole. Freethinkers are able to objectively search for the best courses of action and best scenarios. Freethinkers are not limited by party line or religious affiliation or ethnic background. This is not to say that a freethinker will not enlist himself in a specific political party or religion, instead it means that freethinkers are human beings before any other labels or affiliations. You can not label a freethinker as anything besides just that—a freethinker. And so, our philanthropic goal at Free Cognition is to encourage free thought and healthy skepticism, which are very valuable personal and societal assets.


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5.08.2005

devil's advocate

You are all probably familiar with the term ‘Devil’s Advocate’—a person arguing from a point of view which they do not necessarily consider their own. Where does this peculiar term come from? What is the importance of playing Devil’s Advocate?—why would you argue for a position that you do not even believe in yourself? The answers to these questions are vital for any aspiring freethinker.

A fact of funness (no, not a word, sadly), for those of you interested, is that the term ‘Devil’s Advocate’ originated in the Catholic Church in the 16th century. During the canonization process—the process that one goes through to become a Saint—there is a ‘trial’ of sorts to see if the person is up to snuff. The Devil’s Advocate is essentially a ‘lawyer’ that argues against the canonization of the potential saint, in order to ensure that the person is truly Sainthood material. He makes sure there are no skeletons in the soon-to-be Saint’s closet (a service that the United States Government should look into acquiring, if they can spare any money on nonmilitary operations). Incidentally, late Pope John Paul II did away with the Devil’s Advocate position in the 1980’s, which does indeed explain a lot. Such as the canonization of the Opus Dei cult leader, Josemaría Escrivá—where was his Devil’s Advocate?

We must remember that the Devil’s Advocate is most of the time not really against the canonozation of the Saint prospect. He is most likely all for the person becoming a Saint. He is merely arguing against the person for the sake of argument, so that any unforseen factors will surface. And, as you can tell, this brings us to the commonplace usage of the term.

If a Rawlsian political thinker was to propose to me his view of what government should be, I might take on the persona of a Nozickian political thinker in order to challenge his ideas and prompt him to defend himself against opposition. I am a far cry from a libertarian, so why would I impersonate one in order to have a conversation with the Rawlsian thinker? If I also suscribe to Rawls’ theories, which I tend to, why not just agree with him on the face of the issue, and move on? The reason is, playing Devil’s Advocate is a very valuable asset to any discussion. If I were to become Nozick, in the metaphorical sense, and argue vehemently against the Rawlsian proponent, I would force him to provide sound support for every claim that he makes. In doing so, not only will I have a more full and comprehensive grasp of his political position, but he will also become either more convinced of his views if he is successful in defending them, or disenchanted with them if I am able to be persuasive enough as the Devil’s Advocate. Furtheremore, while I am arguing from Nozick’s point of view (a point of view that I tend to abhor), I gain a better understanding of an opposing point of view. In other words, I am able to walk a couple miles in the shoes of a libertarian. This bolsters my ability to argue against libertarian ideals in future debates. Or, if the libertarian shoes are sufficiently comfortable and stylish, I may decide to join the libertarian ranks.
Playing Devil’s Advocate is an important exercise for all of us as responsible freethinkers and citizens of the world. It allows us to see arguments in a new light. We are better able to objectively understand situations if we are able to adopt other people’s mindsets. I often will play Devil’s Advocate against a person who has similar views as myself, in order to strengthen my own views. I suggest you all take the time to play Devil’s Advocate in a discussion once in a while, to see what it feels like to be on the other side of the couch. Maybe it wont be as bad as you expected, or perhaps it will make your side all the more comfy.


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5.07.2005

the problem of evil and the impossibility of the Christian god

Though I feel as if I could write continuously on this subject for days on end, I will attempt to limit myself to a brief introduction of the issue. I will contest the logical possibility of the standard conception of the Christian god. This is a theological challenge to Christianity, as opposed to a biblical, practical, or historical challenge. I will leave the latter three—quite persuasive—issues for another time for the sake of brevity and clarity. I believe this discussion is pertinent for people of all worldviews and religious affiliations. Without further ado: the problem of evil.

The Judeo-Christian god is often described as the “3-O god”—omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. In laymen’s terms, the 3-O god is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. With these characteristics in mind, we look to the world around us for evidence of a god of this nature. One surprising fact should jump out at us: evil exists. “Evil” is quite the ambiguous term, so to classify this statement, I mean things such as pain and suffering do undeniably subsist. Things that we consider dreadful are indeed present in this world. If you have not already noticed, there is a logical predicament afoot. Let us look at the stipulated facts thus far.

• god is omniscient—god knows that evil exists
• god is omnipotent—god has the power to remove evil from the world
• god is omnibenevolent—god wants to remove evil from the world
• yet, evil exists

• Logically, a being that has the properties of the 3-O god cannot exist in a world in which evil exists.
• Therefore, the Judeo-Christian does not exist

This, in short, is the logical proof that the Christian god does not exist.

Theologians have attempted several responses to the problem of evil, which have been dismissed one after another quite simply. To mention a few, some make claims such as evil is merely a means to increased goodness or there really is no evil in the world. Instead of spending time dismantling these claims, I would rather take the time to refute the most popular move theologians make in order to refute the problem of evil: an appeal to the notion of free will.

The claim is evil exists because god gave us free will. The idea behind this is god has instilled all humans with free will, and in order for this to work, humans must be able to choose between good and evil. This is the classic tale of heaven versus hell, god versus Lucifer, and so on. Are you compelled by this argument? Let us look back at the characteristics of the 3-O god to help us understand why an appeal to free will actually fails miserably. Recall that the Christian god is supposedly omnipotent. This means that god is able to do anything. (Note that some theologians stipulate that omnipotence merely means the ability to do anything except contradict logic. However, this does not change anything here, I will explain why in a moment.) So, if god is able to do anything, why can he not give us free will and eliminate evil? Indeed this is perplexing. An omnipotent god that is unable to both give humans free will and eliminate evil?—not quite omnipotence, is it? Therefore, the 3-O god certainly should be able to eliminate evil while still providing humans with the lovely and coveted freedom of the will.

At this point, some may fallaciously argue that giving free will and eliminating evil contradicts logic—and therefore, since “omnipotence” for them means “the ability to do anything except contradict logic” god cannot eliminate evil while still giving humans free will. This is absolutely false. The 3-O god could easily create a world in which free will exists, yet it is intrinsic in human nature to always pick good over evil. In this world, evil only theoretically exists, it does not exist practically. This is not a logical contradiction and this is a world where free will exists and evil does not. Therefore, this last objection does not work either.

Admittedly, in order to avoid verbosity, I have not taken the time to refute every possible argument against the problem of evil. If you think that you have an argument that may potentially work, please feel entirely free to post your objection under the comments section, and I will address your concern promptly.


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5.05.2005

Nozick's experience machine

Robert Nozick, famous American philosopher and former Pellegrino professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is famous for many reasons, one of which is his “experience machine” thought experiment. It will probably strike a familiar cord. Imagine a very mature virtual reality machine. Mature in the sense that it is able to fulfill all of your basic needs as well as provide entertaining virtual experiences. One very interesting feature of this experience machine is that it causes you to completely forget that you are hooked up to a machine at all. In effect, you feel quite like you do right now (presumably)—completely normal. While hooked up to this experience machine, you feel as if you are actually living your life as you always have; walking around campus, having lunch with friends, and engaging in riveting philosophical debate with your colleagues. However, in reality you are immobile, hooked up to the experience machine. Putting aside the possibility that we are all already hooked up to such machines at this very moment (ignore the red pill), let us consider the positive and negative affects this may have on human beings.

We must know a little more about Nozick’s postulation first. Given that this machine is able to create a more pleasant atmosphere for human beings, it is able to increase overall happiness of people that plug into it. The obvious question then becomes should we plug in? Should we opt to escape from what we consider to be reality, and enter into a new, happier, virtual reality?

A utilitarian such as Mill or Bentham would be the first to say, “plug in!” Adhering to classical utilitarian principles, whatever action promotes the most amount of happiness is the action that we should follow. In this case it certainly seems that plugging in will yield the most happiness.

Should we object to this utilitarian decision? Why or why not?

If you have read A Brave New World then the question at hand is quite a familiar one. And the fact of the matter is, technology will probably—sooner rather than later—provide us with a chance to actually make this fascinating decision. What would you choose? What will you choose? Continued existence in what we refer to as “reality” or an altered state of virtual bliss?


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5.03.2005

where have all the flowers gone?

I would like to take this time to reflect upon our world of the present, and to question (whine about?) some disturbing trends in the larger picture. The idea behind society is that it is supposed to move forward, to progress to better things, each generation improving on the one before it. Our age, our generation, has seen perhaps the greatest increases in possibility. We have the ability to access the information from a thousand thousand libraries in seconds, the ability to communicate across the globe without moving from our seats. We have millennia of knowledge at our fingertips. To a person living fifty years ago, we have added an entire world, an entire universe. Our age would be unimaginable even as science fiction to someone a century ago. Yet what have we done with all this power? Nothing.

Where are the Shakespeares of our age? Real art has barely flickered in the past twenty, even thirty years. There are more people today in single cities than in the whole of Europe at the time the Bard was alive. There are many times more people in the United States alone than there were in the entire world during the age of Greece, but where is our Socrates, our Plato, our Aristotle? Our literacy rate is twenty times that of our ancestors, and what have we written that would be read a hundred years from now? Beethoven and Goethe collaborated in Vienna, Wagner and Nietzsche discussed Schopenhauer in the streets of Germany a century ago. What do we have today? Britney Spears and Stephen King? Eminem and John Grisham?

Has creativity burned itself out? Have we turned our greatest opportunity into our greatest failure? At the click of a key I can find every word in the English language that rhymes with "grow", I can find every four-syllable word that begins with the letter "t". I could type an epic without quill or ink or scribbled-out errors, print it up a thousand times, and have it sent around the world in a single day. Yet where are the 12,000 line Iliads and Odysseys? Have we stopped caring? Of course, thousands of lines are far too long for us. Our minds are set for the seven minute span between commercial breaks.

Has our technology betrayed us, destroyed us? Perhaps we do not need to wait until the matrix-world of machine domination to see where we lost the path. Is it right to live in a world where students spark-note Nabokov? Where people fall asleep during a two-hour film which has been adapted from a five hundred page book? It truly is a world of "fast food and slow digestion".

Perhaps our geniuses are there, somewhere, and we simply cannot find them. Perhaps Mozart has been reborn, but if he was, could we truly say we could find him? Would he find his place in the world of MTV and Pepsi commercials?

We must remember that the power lies within each individual. We must overcome the mentality of Democracy, and realize that it does not take a majority to create a Da Vinci. With the power in our hands, we can learn anything, but we must first seek to understand something. We have the potential to become the greatest, to be Shakespeare without limitations, Socrates without ignorance, Beethoven without deafness, Homer with full sight. We must free ourselves from the yoke of our pill-popping, zombie birthing times and realize that somewhere there lies a great genius wasting away in conformity, waiting to be freed so he can turn these dullest of times, this neon Dark-Age, into a Renaissance of infinite possibility.


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5.02.2005

mentality (part ii): but pain hurts!

There is an old philosopher’s joke that goes something like this. There are two men who are tied up as captives of a third man. The third man, let us call him the torturer, needs information from these two renowned philosophers, and he decides the best way to get the information out of them is by repeatedly hitting them with a large bag of oranges until one of them finally relents. The torturer starts with the smaller of the two men, thinking that he will be easier to break. As you might expect—and if you have ever been beaten repeatedly with a bag of oranges then you know first hand—this hurts! The small man screams and begs for the torturer to stop, but he gives no information away, being well trained in the philosopher’s code of unyielding secrecy to rogue torturers. So, becoming bored with the small man, the torturer turns to the larger man and begins hitting him with the bag of oranges. The small man, being the keen philosopher he is—even in the face of torment—begins to think upon this. “Well,” he thinks aloud, “I am quite certain that the pain you are now feeling, larger man, is very different from the pain that I was feeling moments ago.” The torturer thinks this is amusing, as he is trouncing the larger man just as hard as he trounced the smaller man. “Why would you say such a foolish thing little philosopher?” the torturer asks. The small man answers, “Because, my pain hurts; his pain is funny!” I should have warned you that most philosophy jokes are not really all that funny, unless you are a philosopher, in which case they still are not funny, but you laugh anyways.

The philosophical point that this joke brings to the forefront is that of the subjectivity of pain. How can we know when somebody else is in pain? To answer this, we must first know the answer to the question, what is pain?, and it is this question that we will now explore.

It is difficult to define pain. Pain is, well, painful. Pain hurts. Pain is a sensation that normally causes us to have some aversive reaction. But are these descriptions definitive of pain? In other words, what characteristic is central to what pain is? When most people touch an extremely potent pepper to their tongues, they instantly remove the pepper and proceed to grab a drink. The sensation is “painful”. However, there are some people that genuinely enjoy this same sensation. In this case at least, it seems that the sensation is not what is definitive of pain. Additionally, consider all the different types of pain that we conveniently group together under one term. To take just two of the many types, compare pain from extreme coldness and pain from being cut by a knife. I do not think that anyone who has experienced both of these sensations can in any way assert that these feel similar. But, we label each of these disparate sensational experiences as pain—why? It must be something other than the sensational qualities of these experiences. That is where functionalism comes in.

Functionalists classify pain by examining the functional role that it plays, as opposed to the qualitative aspect of pain, qualia. Basically, pain is that state caused by certain physical inputs, and leads to certain behavioral outputs, such as screaming, or other avoidance techniques and forms of displeasure. This is significant because it entirely removes the qualitative aspect of pain from the definition! This is somewhat counterintuitive.

Philosophers such as David Chalmers are not satisfied with this reductive definition of pain. It is the ouchiness or hurtfulness of pain that makes pain what it is, they adamantly claim. If we are to define pain functionally, then we are in danger of classifying things which are clearly not pain, as pain. For example, if you were to leave the room immediately in a screaming fit every time a certain person comes near you, is this pain? A functionalist definition of pain may indeed consider that it is. This may be difficult to accept.

What is your position on what constitutes pain? Is it the adverse behavioral output that defines pain or is it the sensational experience? Your decision on this matter will become crucial when examining the controversial issue of Artificial Intelligence that we will address in mentality (part iii), so consider your options thoroughly.


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5.01.2005

absurdity & the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy

Just yesterday The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was released in theaters. As you probably know—if not you are hopelessly missing out—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a satirical science fiction novel by the witty, and now late, Douglas Adams. Actually, the novel is the first of a five part trilogy. He credits this strange occurrence (a trilogy in five parts) to a “poor grasp of arithmetic.” I went into the film with much anticipation and expectation, but, sadly, I left unimpressed and hardly amused. To understate, the book was far better than the movie. However, the experience was not all bad, because it got me thinking about Douglas Adams and his tendency to exploit the absurd.

“It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems with just potatoes,” Adams said, and I think this is probably a fair statement. Perhaps a few minor problems can be solved with only potatoes, such as, well, I need not extrapolate. However, I think we can agree with near certainty that major problems need more than just a potato arsenal to be reckoned with. Thanks to Mr. Adams, we are able to understand this elusive truth, and many more like it.

A major theme that runs through the works of Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series, as well as his Dirk Gently series is that of absurdity. He sheds light on the ridiculousness and silliness of things we generally regard as normal. In this sense, Adams is very close to a philosopher—one who takes the seemingly ordinary and explores it in new ways.

Adams loved to use his incredible imagination to fill in gaps of science, and he loved to do so in a humorous way—what could be better? In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the entertaining and often foolish characters are on a quest to find the meaning of life. Adams was always making fun of people in search of an ‘objective meaning’ in life that ends up conveniently circling around themselves. He would say that these people need a serious dose of perspective. “There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” The worlds Adams creates in his books are undoubtedly bizarre—but, he might argue, no more bizarre than the world in which we live.

Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy, finds himself in a compromising situation, and so searches for some way out. “I’m gonna pray, man!” Beeblebrox exclaims, “Know any good religions?” Religion is often a target of Adams’ satire. Issues such as the creation of the universe take center stage as an area of ridicule. “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”

Politics does not escape Douglas’ watchful eye. “To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.”

Technology and the internet interested Adams greatly in his later years of life. He liked to parody both the technology industry and people who use, or misuse, it. Adams put forth a set of rules that “describe our reactions to technologies:”

1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.


Remember the infamous Y2K scare that many of the most highly respected technology gurus most feared? You had to expect that Adams would take advantage of this nonsensicality. “There are two things in particular that [the computer industry] failed to foresee: one was the coming of the Internet; the other was the fact that the century would end.”

Adams’s writings resemble famous societal observers such as Jonathon Swift and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Their combination of humor and reasonable critique makes their work both enjoyable and significant at the same time. Adams, like Swift and Clemens, is able to use his mastery of language and keen sense of rationality to exploit the irrationality of people. Not only is language a tool of exploitation for Adams, but it is also another point of critique. “Anything that happens, happens. Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happened. Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again. It doesn’t necessarily do it in chronological order, though.” Absurdity runs rampant in language.

Humor aside, or humor included, what importance does this theme of absurdity have? Does it have any importance outside of its mere entertainment value? Insofar that it enables us to look at ordinary things in a new light, it is very important, just like philosophy. Moreover, many of Adams’ seemingly absurd claims are only made more hilarious by their possible truth. The fallibility and limited amount of knowledge enable this type of critique.

Do we live in an absurd world? If so, what does this mean?


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4.30.2005

Nietzsche

One of the most admired and the most hated philosophers of all time, perhaps no man in history as sharply divides common opinion as Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Like James Joyce in literature and Citizen Kane in film, Nietzsche is the name of choice thrown around by pseudo-intellectuals seeking to show off their sophistication, but few have read anything of substance concerning him, and fewer still truly understand his philosophy. His legacy is forever in darkness due to the worldwide influences of a man who misinterpreted Nietzsche's teachings to a tragic degree, a man called Adolf Hitler. Nonetheless, if there is one philosopher I would recommend everyone take another look at, he supplants all the rest.

I will begin with a short biography. I find it’s useful to know a philosopher’s life story in order to better understand their work and what may lie behind it, but I realize that not everyone agrees. If you really don’t care, feel free to skip this paragraph.
Born in 1844 in Germany, Nietzsche was the son of a prominent and devout Christian minister. When he was four, his father died suddenly of a brain disease, and his two-year old brother joined him in oblivion six months later, the first of a long line of misfortunes and disappointments that would solidify his dark outlook on humanity. He studied theology to become a priest like his father, but he soon became almost fanatically disillusioned of Christianity. He was drafted, and when he was 23, he was seriously injured after being thrown off his horse. A brilliant philologist, he was made a professor at age 24, and soon began an acquaintance with the famous composer Wagner. As he reached his thirties, his world began to fall apart. His health worsened, and in 1876, a marriage proposal to a Dutch piano student was rejected. Around this time, he became disillusioned with his former friend Wagner (he hated a work that Wagner declared a masterpiece), most of his other acquaintances, and with Germany in general. His health worsened, and he resigned from his professorship. He gave up German citizenship and began traveling around Europe, never staying in the same place for long. He fell in love with another girl in Rome, Lou Salome, but once again, he was refused. Salome would later become a disciple of Sigmund Freud, who would be influenced greatly by Nietzsche’s philosophy and psychology. Nietzsche’s physical and mental condition worsened, but at this time he wrote his most famous works. Then, in 1889, he suffered a complete mental breakdown. In a scene oddly reminiscent of one in Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment, Nietzsche was walking through the streets when he saw a man whipping a horse. He threw his arms around the horse’s neck in protest and lapsed into complete insanity. He lived with his mother for seven years until she died, then was taken care of by his sister Elisabeth until his death. This sister was an important character in her own right, for she had married a Nazi (against Nietzsche’s requests), and sought to establish an anti-Semitic colony. She would later attempt to complete a few of his later works, and would be instrumental in introducing Nietzsche’s words to the purposes of Hitler’s Nazi Party.


Now to the substance of the issue. Many philosophers criticize Nietzsche for several reasons. One is the style of his philosophizing. A writer by nature, his ideas are often put forth as statements. Unlike the more analytical philosophers, he does not spend much time proving points, and often they are in the form of little anecdotes or concealed by literary devices. This makes him more interesting to read, and very quotable, but leads to some going so far as to say that he isn’t even a philosopher. Many of his ideas can be supported, even if he does not do it himself, and if one clears ones’ mind enough, even the rest seem to make a great deal of sense and are difficult to argue against. At the very least, he makes no more assumptions than the rest of us, and even those opposed to his claims must decide what it is that makes their own beliefs any better than his. Another problem is that his writing is often laced with personal vendettas and obsessions that occasionally obscure the more universal points. Barbs against contemporary figures that he dislikes (such as Wagner) are fairly common. The greatest of these, however, is his rabid anti-Christianity. He sometimes saw himself as the Antichrist, and his books are largely directed towards criticizing Christianity and its ideals. He is also fairly humorous in his rather sexist view of women, but it is unclear just how sincere his comments against them are.

Of course, many of you are wondering when I will actually get to his ideas. As I have said before, he is a fantastic writer, and no way better could I describe his ideas than in his own words. I had better begin by giving you an idea of his main points to put his own statements into context. He saw human characteristics split into two main groups, Apollonian (intellectual, logical, etc.) and Dionysian (emotional, full of desires, etc.) and insisted a balance of both was important. An overriding idea in his work deals with the idea of a “superman”. This superman is unaffected by the Christian-propagated morality that keeps great men from achieving. He emphasized that there was no absolute morality, but that the strong man creates his own. He was an Egoist, and a staunch supporter of the artistic enterprise. He focused on the enjoyment of this life, and fought against conviction, particularly of the religious variety. Since quoting Nietzsche is such a staple of intellectual culture, here is a stockpile of philosophical ammunition for you to impress your colleagues with.



The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.

Man is something to be overcome.


The masses seem to me worthy of notice in only three respects: first as blurred copies of great men, produced on bad paper with worn plates, further as a resistance to the great, and finally as the tools of the great; beyond that, may the devil and statistics take them.

Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, but degenerated into a vice.

The last Christian died on the cross.

The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.

Insanity is the exception in individuals. In groups, parties, people, and times, it is the rule.

There are no facts, only interpretations.

In heaven all the interesting people are missing.

Faith: not wanting to know what is true.

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.

Although the most acute judges of the witches and even the witches themselves, were convinced of the guilt of witchery, the guilt nevertheless was non-existent. It is thus with all guilt.

And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest.

At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.

Egoism is the very essence of a noble soul.

Fanatics are picturesque, mankind would rather see gestures than listen to reasons.

He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.

In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.

Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves?

It is always consoling to think of suicide: in that way one gets through many a bad night.

It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!

Morality is the herd-instinct in the individual.

Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

There cannot be a God because if there were one, I could not believe that I was not He.

There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.

When one has not had a good father, one must create one.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.

What is done out of love takes place beyond good and evil





(And of course, The Big One, the three words that Woody Allen claims as the beginning of the era of modern man.)

God is dead. (full quote below)




Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!" As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. "Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto." Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves." It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: "what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?"


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