The Divergence of Meaning

“If a neuroscientist asked me why I do philosophy, I might say something like, ‘certain neural pathways were sculpted in my developing brain, such that cingulate, prefrontal and parietal activity easily trigger my hedonic dopamine system.’ When my friend asks me why I do philosophy, I’m likely to say something like, ‘solving conceptual puzzles and reflecting on weird stuff is deeply satisfying for me.’ When the Dean of my college asks me the same question I’m likely to trot out something like, ‘philosophy improves critical thinking and shapes students into better citizens of our democracy, and I want to be a part of that mission.’” (From “Teleology Rises from the Grave,” by Stephen T. Asma.)

Manifold Illusion

Here are three for today, in blank verse, with a long view, and happier than might seem at first.

Civilisation is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
By manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality:
Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye Rome!
Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest,
Caverned in night under the drifted snow,
Or where that snow and winter’s dreadful blast
Beat down upon their naked bodies, know
That day brings round the night, that before dawn
His glory and his monuments are gone.

—William Butler Yeats, “Meru”

The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

Christmas Consumers, Done Right

“The Grocers’! oh, the Grocers’! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint, and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh, that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave Three.

People and Power

“The East Roman holy man, as we observe him in both the fourth and fifth centuries, and in the age of Gregory [of Tours] and John [of Ephesus], preserved his reputation, therefore, by an exacting ritual of de-solidarization and even of social inversion. He wielded his ‘idealized’ power in society by adopting stances that were the exact inverse of those connected with the exercise of real power. Where the patron was inaccessible, the holy man was open to all comers: of Habib it was said, ‘he did not, as a man of high reputation, refuse to go out, but, in order to satisfy him, would go with him at once without delay.’ Where the patron flaunted his status and his immunity, the holy man was ‘an afflicted one’, and often carried chains, associated  in the Near East not with physical discomfort so much as with the status of a political prisoner fallen from his high estate. Thus, in few societies outside the sanyasi culture of Hindu India, has ‘reputation of power’ within a society been exercised on so strict a tacit understanding that those who exercised it should be seen to stand outside this society.” [1]

“Anthropologists refer to the intensifiers of agricultural production as ‘big men.’ In their purest, most egalitarian phase, known best from studies of numerous groups in Melanesia and New Guinea, ‘big men’ play the role of hard-working, ambitious, public-spirited individuals who inveigle their relatives and neighbors to work for them by promising to hold a huge feast with the extra food they produce. When the feast takes place, the ‘big man,’ surrounded by his proud helpers, ostentatiously redistributes—parcels out—piles of food and other gifts but keeps nothing for himself. Under certain ecological conditions, and in the presence of warfare, these food managers could have gradually set themselves above their followers and become the original nucleus of the ruling classes of the first states.” [2]

“Reputation of power, is Power; because it draweth with it the adhaerance of those that need protection.” [3]

[1] Peter Brown, “Eastern and Western Christendom in Late Antiquity: A Parting of the Ways,” in Society and the Holy (University of California Press 1982) p.182.

[2] Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures (Random House 1977) pp. 70–71.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter X (Project Gutenberg).

The New Religion

Where can we find widely-shared but irrational beliefs,  a hierarchy of “experts” that are obsessed with secrecy, a set of mostly useless public and private rituals, a system of demarcating spaces where certain activities are prohibited, and a venerated abstract concept that does not actually exist?

If you answered “the security state,” good on you. Now let’s rev up the security atheism and the security anti-clericalism.

I Have Been and Always Shall Be

In 2009, J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman sacrificed the old Star Trek on an altar of reincarnation. Earlier this year, they took the carcass of the old Star Trek, butchered it, cooked it into a mélange, and served it up to the new Star Trek.

For the last four years, I have tried, with uneven success, to articulate precisely what so puts me off about the new Star Trek. Now a few months after seeing Into Darkness, and having had some time to contemplate, I still lack a grand unified theory to explain the colossal terribleness of Abrams-Orci-Kurtzman Star Trek, but I do have a decent emblem of unease: the reverse rehash of the beautiful death scene from The Wrath of Khan. (And I am not alone in that sentiment.)

The character Spock is a token of tension, a hybrid of human and Vulcan, and the proponent of logic against emotion. That has always made things difficult for Star Trek writers. Compelling stories for humans need characters with emotional drives to create conflicts and move a plot forward. And when those characters are embroiled in complex problems with great emotional gravity, a logical solution that keeps the characters engaged in the circumstances of the story is not usually available: people need emotional motivators, like loyalty or friendship.

For example, consider a critical event in another popular space opera. Remember when Han Solo figured he’d been paid, so he might as well abandon the rebels? That was pretty logical, wasn’t it? Why get further embroiled in a dangerous situation if you’ve been compensated for what you’ve already done? When he returns to clear the way for Luke to destroy the Death Star, the audience is thrilled because that surprise evokes Han’s friendship with Luke and Leia, which is an emotional attachment.

Plenty of scenes in the Star Trek universe feature Spock purporting to behave “logically,” when, if you think carefully about the circumstances, he must be exercising some extra-logical principle of decision.   In reality, this was just a problem of writers not quite cutting it. (Julia Galef has covered this well with her concept of “The Straw Vulcan.”) But in The Wrath of Khan, that fault of previous writers becomes fodder not just for a brilliant character development, but for a nice meditation on apparently intractable problems, like the tension between reason and emotion. That’s why the movie opens with Saavik taking the Kobayashi Maru test, which is clearly designed to test the ability of Starfleet officers to take risks. Not until they decide to take a forbidden action are they able to learn that the action will be futile—and then, having “failed” the test, they learn the real lesson, which is, as Kirk puts it, that “how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” And the only way to do that is to really live, with emotion and reason tempering each other, all the way, until death. Aristotle might call it habituation.

The death of Spock in The Wrath of Khan worked so well, and remains so poignant for fans, because it melded the “logical” and “emotional” aspects of the character so successfully. For many years already, Spock had behaved as a friend. One could plausibly still wonder, however, whether Spock’s friendly loyalty was only the result of Starfleet command hierarchy. This is reflected early in the movie, when Spock says to Kirk: “You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours.” In that moment, did Spock really understand friendship to be distinct from, or in addition to, loyalty under a command hierarchy? The structure of the statement is odd—not “am your friend,” but “You are my friend, and I am yours.” He backs into it. For years, Spock had suffered gentle ribbing from his human comrades about his inability to explain friendship “logically,” but only a moment before admitting that Kirk was his friend, he articulated a principle: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Was this utilitarian ideal a burgeoning “logical” defense of friendship? Later in the movie, Spock sacrifices himself. In the moments before his death, he repeats the “needs” principle, with help from Kirk, and then echoes his earlier statement more directly: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.” By a great struggle, after long years of habituation to loyalty within the Starfleet command hierarchy, Spock has resolved a fundamental tension in his character and grown—to the benefit of his comrades.

Contrast that process with the Abrams-Orci-Kurtzman version, in which the stubbornly violent self-sacrifice of Kirk is little more than a persuasive demonstration: This is what friends do Spock! They run off and sacrifice themselves to fix malfunctioning warp cores! Spock, meanwhile, is reduced to a bratty caricature of adolescent rationality, unable to resolve the classic tension of the character on his own steam. Freshly beaten over the head with a demonstration of friendship, Spock heads out for a frenetic fight scene with Khan. Maybe the characters learn something here, but none of them really grow. On the surface, this is just an empty reflection of the earlier story. But it also reveals that Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman fail to understand in general how satisfying stories work and specifically how the old Star Trek worked.

And the old Star Trek worked, when it did work, by using the tensions inherent in and between the characters to prompt thoughtfulness about more serious issues, like the meaning of life, the experience of being human, the malleability of culture, the struggle to remember history in the throes of progress, the roles of reason and emotion, and lots of other things. What does the Abrams-Orci-Kurtzman Star Trek make you think about? Maybe something interesting, but I’m betting it mostly just makes you think about the old Star Trek.

Work, Rest, & Reward

Recently I took up The Wealth of Nations, the great work of Adam Smith, originally published in 1776, because nothing inspires optimism quite like reminding oneself how much has been forgotten since then by the people in charge. Here is a gem from Book I, Chapter VIII (page 94 of Modern Library edition):

Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire  of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes too of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous, and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, bring on the peculiar infirmity of the trade. If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate, than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately, as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.

And here is another, one page back:

The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utomst. Where the wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than where they are low[.]

And three pages before that:

The common complaint that luxury extends itself even to the lower ranks of the people, and that the labouring poor will not now be contented with the same food, cloathing and lodging which satisfied them in former times, may convince us that it is not the money price of labour only, but its real recompence, which has augmented.

Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society? The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain. Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstnaces of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.

Glad we cleared that up.


Lots of people don’t believe in your all-powerful creator-deity, even if you don’t understand why. They are your colleagues, neighbors, friends, and family. They abide by the laws of the land, care about politics and social problems, strive to be civil and reasonable, vote, pay taxes, care for other people, raise children, and otherwise contribute well to their communities. If that’s not evidence that people can maintain human societies without purporting to base them on all-powerful creator-deities, then I don’t know what is.

But even if you disagree on what the presence of atheists demonstrates, and if you cannot abide their presence in your society, then  you ought to reconsider the robustness of your beliefs. Why must everyone believe as you do in the existence of an all-powerful creator-deity? Aren’t you betraying the fact that your creator-deity is not all-powerful, but only effective when everyone around you agrees on its existence? Doesn’t your desire to drive the atheists from your land reveal the uncomfortable truth that your deity is only a social construction, an artifact of your shared beliefs?

The problem is not that you believe in a socially-constructed fact; everyone does. The problem is not even that you mistake your socially-constructed fact for objective reality, because anyone can fail to think something all the way through. The problem is when your mistake prompts you to drain the value from good people all around you, and you are oblivious to your own inhumanity.

The Limits

“Is then mathematics a collection of diamonds hidden in the depths of the universe and gradually unearthed, or is it a collection of synthetic stones manufactured by man, yet so brilliant nevertheless that they bedazzle those mathematicians who are already partially blinded by pride in their own creations? [¶] Moreover, if there is a world of entities that are supra-sensible and transcendentally absolute, and if our propositions in logic and mathematics are mere registers of observations of these entities, then do not the contradictions and false propositions exist in exactly the same sense as true propositions? The noxious weeds of falsehood and inconsistency may flourish side by side with the good, the true, and the beautiful.” [1]

“It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organisation nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez-faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society can conflict violently with each other. And it is no great way from that to the generalisation that not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind. But somewhere, we shall be told, and in some way, it must be possible for all these values to live together, for unless this is so, the universe is not a cosmos, not a harmony; unless this is so, conflicts of values may be an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life. To admit that the fulfilment of some of our ideals may in principle make the fulfilment of others impossible is to say that the notion of total human fulfilment is a formal contradiction, a metaphysical chimera.” [2]

[1] Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty (Fall River Press 2011) p. 388.

[2] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in The Proper Study of Mankind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998) pp. 238.

Orchestrated Pulsations

“Beethoven is rolling over in his grave at the idea this is real music. This is orchestrated pulsations, nothing more,” says an iTunes customer of a recording of several recent works by Philip Glass. “This is one more example of how Western civilization is in decline.” And I wonder if they’ve ever listened to much of Johann Sebastian Bach. Or Beethoven, for that matter. Either way, I doubt they’ve thought long about whether the music of “Western civilization” ought to sound like anything.

Meanwhile, composer Elliott Carter—whose music could hardly be more different from Glass’s—rejected the regularity of downbeats and apparently “said that such steady pulses reminded him of soldiers marching or horses trotting, sounds no longer heard in the late 20th Century.” Which might be an argument that the orchestration of steady pulses is no longer appropriate for the music of Western civilization, although I disagree. And so, it seems, does Philip Glass. (We contain multitudes, here in “Western civilization.”)

Alas, maybe Glass “would be the admiration of whole nations if he had more amiability, if he did not take away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style, and if he did not darken their beauty by an excess of art.” Except that’s a criticism of J.S. Bach.