What Makes Humans Human?

Little, today, is as it was.

Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but only since the end of the eighteenth century has artificial lighting been widely used. Gas lamps were introduced in European cities about that time, and electric lights came into use only in the twentieth century.

In other words, for most of human history, when night fell, it fell hard. Things got really, really dark,

and people gathered under the stars, which they could actually see, in those days before nighttime light pollution,

and under those stars, they told stories.

In EVERY culture around the globe, storytelling, in the form of narrative poetry, existed LONG before the invention of writing. We know this because the earliest manuscripts that we have from every culture record stories that were already ancient when they were finally written down. One of the earliest texts in English is that of the poem Beowulf. It reworks and retells, in a much distorted manner, much, much older stories—ones that predate the emergence of English as a distinct language. Stith Thompson, the great folklorist, did the literary world an enormous favor by compiling a massive index, today known as the Arne-Thompson Index, of motifs of ancient folktales worldwide. Name a story motif—three wishes, talking animals, the grateful dead, cruel stepsisters, golden apples, dragons, the fairy or demon lover, the instrument that plays itself –and you will find that the motif has an ancient pedigree and was already spread about the world long before historical times.

English is a Germanic language. All ancient Germanic societies had official storytellers whose job it was to entertain people in those days before modern entertainments like television and movies and the Internet and drones with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. In ancient Denmark, the storyteller was called a skaald. In Anglo-Saxon England, the storyteller was a scop (pronounced like MnE “shop”). The scop accompanied his stories on the Anglo-Saxon harp, a kind of lyre.

Of course, the telling of stories wasn’t the only entertainment around campfires. In most cultures, people danced and chanted and sang as well, and sometimes stories were told by the dancers or singers or chanters. All this was part of acting out the stories. (Want to know where the Christian devil, with his red body and horns, comes from? Well, in ancient Europe, people worshiped an Earth Mother and her consort, a Lord of the Forest, and they told stories of the hunt. When they acted these out around campfires, they held up to their heads animal horns, or branches in the shape of horns, and that’s how they pictured their Lord of the Forest, as a therianthrope, red from the campfire, with horns. When the Christians spread North across Europe, they made the god of the Old Religion into The Adversary. Grendel’s mother, the monster from the bog in Beowulf, is a demonized version, in a Christian story, of the ancient Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Nerthus, to whom sacrifices were made by binding people, cutting their throats, and throwing them into a bog. You can see an ancient bas relief of the Lord of the Forest, btw, on the Gundestrup cauldron dating from 150 to 1 BCE. See the accompanying illustration.)

But where does this storytelling urge among humans come from, and why is it universal? Storytelling takes energy. And it doesn’t produce tangible results. It doesn’t mend bones or build houses or plant crops. So, why would it survive and be found among every people on Earth from the earliest times onward?

Contemporary cognitive scientists have learned that storytelling is an essential, built-in part of the human psyche, involved in every aspect of our lives, including our dreams, memories, and beliefs about ourselves and the world. Storytelling turns out to be one of the fundamental ways in which our brains are organized to make sense of our experience. Only in very recent years have we come to understand this. We are ESSENTIALLY storytelling creatures, in the Aristotelian sense of essentially. That is, it’s our storytelling that defines us. If that sounds like an overstatement, attend to what I am about to tell you. It’s amazing, and it may make you rethink a LOT of what you think you know.

At the back of each of your eyes are retinas containing rods and cones. These take in visual information from your environment. In each retina, there is a place where the optic nerve breaks through it. This is the nerve that carries visual signals to your brain. Because of this interruption of the retinas, there is a blind spot in each where NO INFORMATION AT ALL IS AVAILABLE. If what you saw was based on what signals actually hit your retina at a given moment, you would have two big black spots in your field of vision. Instead, you see a continuous visual field. Why? Because your brain automatically fills in the missing information for you, based on what was there when your eye saccaded over it a bit earlier. In other words, your brain makes up a story about what’s there. Spend some time studying optical illusions, and you will learn that this is only one example of many ways in which you don’t see the world as it is but, rather, as the story concocted by your brain says it is.

This sort of filling in of missing pieces also happens with our memories. Scientists have discovered that at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment. There’s a well-known limitation of short-term memory to about seven items, give or take two, and that’s why telephone numbers are seven digits long. So, at any given moment, you are attending to only about seven items from, potentially, billions in your environment. When you remember an event, your brain FILLS IN WHAT YOU WERE NOT ATTENDING TO AT THE TIME based on general information you’ve gathered, on its predispositions, and on general beliefs that you have about the world. In short, based on very partial information, your brain makes up and tells you a STORY about that past time, and that is what you “see” in memory in your “mind’s eye.”

So, people tend to have a LOT of false memories because the brain CONFABULATES—it makes up a complete, whole story about what was PROBABLY the case and presents that whole memory to you, with the gaps filled in, for your conscious inspection. In short, memory is very, very, very faulty and is based upon the storytelling functions of the brain!!!! (And what are we except our memories? I am that boy in the Dr. Dentons, in my memory, sitting before the TV with the rabbit ears; I am that teenager in the car at the Drive-in with the girl whom I never thought in a million years would actually go out with me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

You can also see this storytelling function of the brain at work in dreaming. Years ago, I had a dream that I was flying into the island of Cuba on a little prop plane. Through the window, I could see the island below the plane. It looked like a big, white sheet cake, floating in an emerald sea. Next to me on the airplane sat a big, red orangutan smoking a cigar.

Weird, huh? So why did I have that dream? Well, in the days preceding the dream I had read a newspaper story about the Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, being ill; I had flown on a small prop plane; I had attended a wedding where there was a big, white sheet cake; I had been to the zoo with my grandson, where we saw an orangutan; and I had played golf with some friends, and we had smoked cigars.

The neural circuits in my brain that had recorded these bits and pieces were firing randomly in my sleeping brain, and the part of the brain that does storytelling was working hard, trying to piece these random fragments together into a coherent, unified story. That’s the most plausible current explanation of why most dreams occur. The storytelling parts of the brain are responding to random inputs and tying them together—making sense of this random input by making a plausible story of them. This is akin to the process, pareidolia, that leads people see angels in cloud formations and pictures of Jesus on their toast.

So, those are three important reasons why the brain is set up as a storytelling device. Storytelling allows us to see a complete visual field; creates for us, from incomplete data, coherent memories; and ties together random neural firings in our brains to into the wholes that we call dreams.
But that’s not all that storytelling does for us. Storytelling about the future allows us to look ahead—for example, to determine what another creature is going to do. We often play scenarios in our minds that involve possible futures. What will she say if I ask her to the prom? What will the boss say if I ask for a raise? How will that go down? In other words, storytelling provides us with a THEORY OF MIND for predicting others’ behavior.

Stories also help people to connect to one another. When we tell others a story, we literally attune to them. We actually get “on the same wavelengths.” Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, recorded the brainwaves of people during rest and while listening to a story. During rest, their waves were all over the place. While listening to the same story, even at different times and places, those people had brainwaves that were in synch.

Storytelling also provides a mechanism for exploring and attempting to understand others generally. Our basic situation in life is that your mind is over there and mine is over here. We’re different, and we have to try to figure each other out—to have a theory of other people’s minds. By telling myself a story about you, I can attempt to bridge that ontological gap. Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves about others tend to be fairly unidimensional. You are simply this or that. I, on the other hand, am an international man of mystery. This is a tendency we need to guard against.

We also tell stories in order to influence others’ behavior–to get them to adopt the story we’re telling as their own. This is how advertising works, for example. The advertiser gets you to believe a story about how you will be sexier or smarter or prettier or more successful or of higher status if you just buy the product with the new, fresh lemony scent. And it’s not just advertisers who do this. Donald Trump sold working class Americans a fiction about how he could strike deals that would make America great again because he was such a great businessman, one who started with nothing and made billions. The coach tells a story in which her team envisions itself as the winners of the Big Game. The woo-er tells the woo-ee the story of the great life they will have together (“Come live with me and be my love/And we shall all the pleasures prove”). And so on. Successful cult leaders, coaches, lovers, entrepreneurs, attorneys, politicians, religious leaders, marketers, etc., all share this is common: they know that persuasion is storytelling. The best of them also understand that the most successful stories, in the long run, are ones that are true, even if they are fictional.

When we tell stories, we spin possible futures—we try things on, hypothetically. And that helps us to develop ideas about who we want to be and what we want to do. Gee, if I travel down that road, I may end up in this better place.

And that observation leads to one final, supremely important function of storytelling: Who you are—your very SELF—is a story that you tell yourself about yourself and your history and your relations to others—a story with you as the main character. The stories you tell yourself about yourself become the person you are. The word person, by the way, comes from the Latin persona, for a mask worn by an actor in the Roman theatre.

So, our very idea of ourselves, of our own personal identity, is dependent upon this storytelling capacity of the human brain, which takes place, for the most part, automatically. There is even a new form of psychotherapy called cognitive narrative therapy that is all about teaching people to tell themselves more life-enhancing, affirmative stories about themselves, about who they are.

Telling yourself the right kinds of stories about yourself and others can unlock your creative potential, improve your relationships, and help you to self create—to be the person you want to be.

So, to recapitulate, storytelling . . .

helps us to fill in the gaps so that we have coherent memories,

ties together random firings in the brain into coherent dreams,

enables us to sort and make sense of past experience,

gives us theories of what others think and how they will behave,

enables us to influence others’ behavior,

enables us to try on various futures, and

helps us to form a personal identity, a sense of who were are.

Kinda important, all that!

Storytelling, in fact, is key to being human. It’s our defining characteristic. It’s deeply embedded in our brains. It runs through every aspect of our lives. It makes us who we are.

It’s no wonder then, that people throughout history have told stories. People are made to construct stories—plausible and engaging accounts of things—the way a stapler is made to staple and a hammer is made to hammer. We are Homo relator, man the storyteller.

(BTW, the root *man, meaning “human being” in general, without a specific gender reference, is ancient. It goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, but there’s still good reason, today, to seek out gender-neutral alternatives, when possible, of course.)

Copyright 2015. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron. Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]


For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/

Posted in Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

It’s about Time (a Catena)



A brief tour of fascinating (and lunatic) notions that philosophers (and a few poets) have had about time. 

The Mystery of Time

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.”

–St. Augustine (345–430 CE), Confessions

PART 1: What Is Time? Types of Time

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Absolute or Scientific Newtonian Time

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration.”

–Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)

The Specious (Nonexistent) Present

“The relation of experience to time has not been profoundly studied. Its objects are given as being of the present, but the part of time referred to by the datum is a very different thing from the conterminous of the past and future which philosophy denotes by the name Present. The present to which the datum refers is really a part of the past — a recent past — delusively given as being a time that intervenes between the past and the future. Let it be named the specious present, and let the past, that is given as being the past, be known as the obvious past. [Each of] all the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the [specious] present. [Each of] all the changes of place of a meteor seem to the beholder to be contained in the [specious] present. At the instant of the termination of [each element in] such series, no part of the time measured by them seems to be [an obvious] past. Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three . . . nonentities — the [obvious] past, which does not [really] exist, the future, which does not [yet] exist, and their conterminous, the [specious] present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.”

–E. Robert Kelley, from The Alternative, a Study in Psychology (1882). Kelley’s concept of the specious present has been extremely influential in both Continental and Anglo-American philosophy despite the fact that Kelley was not a professional philosopher.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childSubjective Time

“Oh, yeah. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I never finished it, though I did spent about a year with it one evening.”

Experienced Time: The “Wide” Present

“In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation or succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and forming the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.”

–William James, “The Perception of Time,” from The Principles of Psychology, Book I

459px-Einstein_patentofficeA, B, and C Series Time (Three Ways of Looking at Time)

  • The A Series: Time as Past, Present, and Future
  • The B Series: Time as Earlier, Simultaneous, and Later
  • The C Series: Time as an Ordered Relation of Events (with the direction being irrelevant)

Influential distinctions made by John Ellis McTaggart in “The Unreality of Time.” Mind 17 (1908): 456-476. The three types are much discussed by philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition.

See also The Unreality of Time 2: Block Time, below

PART 2: Does Time Exist?

No, It Doesn’t: Change Is a Self-Contradictory Idea

“For this view can never predominate, that that which IS NOT exists. You must debar your thought from this way of search. . . .There is only one other description of the way remaining, namely, that what IS, is. To this way there are very many signposts: that Being has no coming-into-being . . . . Nor shall I allow you to speak or think of it as springing from not-being; for it is neither expressive nor thinkable that what-is-not is. . . . How could Being perish? How could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; and so too if it is about-to-be at some future time. . . .For nothing else either is or shall be except Being, since Fate has tied it down to be a whole and motionless; therefore all things that mortals have established, believing in their truth, are just a name: Becoming and Perishing, Being and Not-Being, and Change of position, and alteration of bright color.”

–Parmenides of Elea (c. 475 BCE), fragment from The Way of Truth, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)“Does the arrow move when the archer shoots it at the target? If there is a reality of space, the arrow must at all times occupy a particular position in space on its way to the target. But for an arrow to occupy a position in space that is equal to its length is precisely what is meant when one says that the arrow is at rest. Since the arrow must always occupy such a position on its trajectory which is equal to its length, the arrow must be always at rest. Therefore, motion is an illusion.”

–Zeno of Elea (c. 450 BCE), fragment from Epicheriemata (Attacks), in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

“One part of time has been [the past] and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet [the future]. Yet time, both infinite time and any time you care to take, is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.”

–Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Physics, IV, 10–14. 217b-244a.

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35Yes, It Does: Change Is the Fundamental Reality of Our Lives

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river.”

–Heraclitus, (c. 475 BCE), fragment from unnamed book, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

[Heraclitus seems to have held this fact to be one of many indications of the essential unworthiness/irredeemability of this life; the other fragments of his writings that have survived suggest that Heraclitus was a kind of 5th century fundamentalist preacher, upset about the moral decay around him, who viewed the world as synonymous with decay, and who wanted to point his readers, instead, toward the eternal Logos. Plato inherited this view; the Christian church inherited Plato’s. Such contemptu mundi (contempt for the world) is often, in that tradition, expressed as contempt for that which exists “in time” and is not eternal.]

“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.”

–Woody Allen (1935–      )


No, It Doesn’t: Time is an Illusion Due to Vantage Point in an Eternal Space Time (the “Block Time” Hypothesis):

“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing, for we physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

–Albert Einstein (1879­–1955), in a letter written to the family of Michele Besso, on Besso’s death

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922–2007), who is in heaven now, Slaughterhouse Five

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

–T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), “Burt Norton,” from Four Quartets

No, It Doesn’t: The Now as Consequence of the Blindness of the Brain to Its Own Processing of Temporal Data (the “Blind Brain” Hypothesis)

“Nothing, I think, illustrates this forced magic quite like the experiential present, the Now. Recall what we discussed earlier regarding the visual field. Although it’s true that you can never explicitly ‘see the limits of seeing’–no matter how fast you move your head–those limits are nonetheless a central structural feature of seeing. The way your visual field simply ‘runs out’ without edge or demarcation is implicit in all seeing–and, I suspect, without the benefit of any ‘visual run off’ circuits. Your field of vision simply hangs in a kind of blindness you cannot see.

“This, the Blind Brain Hypothesis suggests, is what the now is: a temporal analogue to the edgelessness of vision, an implicit structural artifact of the way our ‘temporal field’–what James called the ‘specious present’–hangs in a kind temporal hyper-blindness. Time passes in experience, sure, but thanks to the information horizon of the thalamocortical system, experience itself stands still, and with nary a neural circuit to send a Christmas card to. There is time in experience, but no time of experience. The same way seeing relies on secondary systems to stitch our keyhole glimpses into a visual world, timing relies on things like narrative and long term memory to situate our present within a greater temporal context.

“Given the Blind Brain Hypothesis, you would expect the thalamocortical system to track time against a background of temporal oblivion. You would expect something like the Now. Perhaps this is why, no matter where we find ourselves on the line of history, we always stand at the beginning. Thus the paradoxical structure of sayings like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’re not simply running on hamster wheels, we are hamster wheels, traveling lifetimes without moving at all.

“Which is to say that the Blind Brain Hypothesis offers possible theoretical purchase on the apparent absurdity of conscious existence, the way a life of differences can be crammed into a singular moment.”

–Scott Bakker, “The End of the World As We Knew It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse”

PART 3: What Contemplation of Time Teaches Us about Living

Carpe Diem

“Such,” he said, “O King, seems to me the present life of men on Earth, in comparison with that time which to us is uncertain, as if when on a winter’s night, you sit feasting . . . and a simple sparrow should fly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly fly out through another. In that time in which it is indoors it is indeed not touched by the fury of winter; but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to our eyes.

“Something like this appears the life of man, but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.”

–The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735), Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II


“Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”

–Horace (65–8 BCE), Odes 1.11

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), “Rubiyat,” trans. Edward FitzGerald

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

–Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “To the Virgins, to Make Use of Time”

459px-Einstein_patentofficeBut at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.
Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
My ecchoing Song: then Worms shall try
That long preserv’d Virginity:
And your quaint Honour turn to durst;
And into ashes all my Lust.
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our Time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the Iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

–Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), “To His Coy Mistress”

“Get it while you can.
Don’t you turn your back on love.”

–The American philosopher Janis Joplin (1943–1970)

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childGive Up/It’s All Futile Anyway

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of nonexistence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.

“Of every event in our life we can say only for one moment that it is; for ever after, that it was. Every evening we are poorer by a day. It might, perhaps, make us mad to see how rapidly our short span of time ebbs away; if it were not that in the furthest depths of our being we are secretly conscious of our share in the exhaustible spring of eternity, so that we can always hope to find life in it again.

“Consideration of the kind, touched on above, might, indeed, lead us to embrace the belief that the greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present the supreme object of life; because that is the only reality, all else being merely the play of thought. On the other hand, such a course might just as well be called the greatest folly: for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.”

–The ever-cheerful Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), “The Vanity of Existence,” from Studies in Pessimism

Three Phenomenologist/Existentialist Views of Time

NB: the following are NOT quotations. I’ve summarized material that appears in much longer works. You’re welcome. I have included Husserl in this section, even though his work is just an attempted explanation of time, because the other two philosophers treated here are reacting to Husserl’s ideas.

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Husserl (very bright dude, this one): All our ideas about time spring from our conscious experience of the present. That experience is characterized by being intentional, by being toward something. We typically recognize three kinds of time: 1. scientific, objective, Newtonian time, which we think of as being independent of ourselves and as independently verifiable; 2. subjective time, in which events seem to move slower or faster; and 3. phenomenological or intentional time, which is the fundamental experience on which the other concepts of time are based, from which the other concepts derive because the phenomenological present includes not only awareness of present phenomena (the present), but retention (awareness of that which is not present because it no longer is—the past), and protention (awareness of that which is not present because it is about to be). The present is intentionality toward phenomena before us here, now. The past is present intentionality toward phenomena that are not present but are with us and so must be past (that’s where the definition of past comes from). The future is present intentionality toward phenomena that also are present but are not with us (as the past is) and so must be the future, which will be (that’s where the definition of future comes from). Therefore, in their origins in our phenomenological experiences, the future and the past are parts of the present, conceptual phenomena held in the present, alongside actual phenomena, as phenomena no longer present and not yet present.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childHeidegger: Husserl had it all wrong. It’s the future, not the present, that is fundamental. We are future-oriented temporalities by nature, essentially so. Our particular type of being, Dasein, or being-there, is characterized by having care (about its projects, its current conditions, about other beings)—about matters as they relate to those projects. Our being is characterized by understanding, thrownness, and fallenness. Understanding, is the most fundamental of the three. It is projection toward the future, comportment toward the possibilities that present themselves, potentiality for being. Our understanding seizes upon projects, projecting itself on various possibilities. In its thrownness, Dasein always finds itself in a certain spiritual and material, historically conditioned environment that limits the space of those possibilities. As fallenness, Dasein finds itself among other beings, some of which are also Dasein and some of which (e.g., rocks) are not Dasein, and it has, generally respectively, “being-with” them or “being alongside” them, and these help to define what possibilities there are.  “Our sort of being (Dasein) is being for which being is an issue.” Why is it an issue? Well, we are finite. We know that we are going to die. This is the undercurrent that informs our essential being, which is care, concern. We are projections toward the future because undertaking these projects is an attempt, however quixotic, to distract ourselves from or even to cheat death. We care about our projects because, at some level, we care about not dying, having this projection toward the future for which we are living.

459px-Einstein_patentofficeSartre: The world is divided into two kinds of being: being-for-itself (the kind of being that you and I have) and being-in-itself (the kind of being that a rock or a refrigerator has). Let’s think a bit about our kind of being. Take away your perceptions, your body, your thoughts. Strip everything away, and you still have pure being, the being of the being-for-itself, but it is a being that is also nothing. (The Buddha thought this, too). Being-for-itself has intentional objects, but itself is no object (there’s no there there) and so is nothing, a nothingness. Time is like being in that respect. It consists entirely of the past (which doesn’t exist) and the future (which doesn’t exist) and the present (which is infinitesimally small and so doesn’t exist). So time, like being, is a nothingness. This being-for-itself is not just nothingness, however; it has some other bizarre, contradictory characteristics: Its being, though nothing, allows a world to be manifest (how this is so is unclear), a world that includes all this stuff, including others, for example, who want to objectify the being-for-itself, to make it into a something, a thing, a being-in-itself, like a rock. (“Oh, I know you. I’m wise to you. You’re . . . .” whatever.) The being-for-itself also has a present past (in Husserl’s sense) and is subject to certain conditions of material construction (the body) and material conditions (in an environment of things), and all these givens—the body, the environment, one’s own past, and other people seen from the outside in their thinginess—make up the being-for-itself’s facticity. The being-for-itself wants to be SOMETHING, and so lies to itself. It acts in bad faith, playing various roles (playing at being a waiter, for example) and creating for itself an ego (via self-deceptive, magical thinking). But in fact, being in reality nothing, being-for-itself (each of us) knows that that’s all a lie. We transcend our facticity and can be anything whatsoever, act in any way whatsoever. In other words, we are absolutely free and therefore absolutely responsible. This responsibility is absurd, because there is no reason for being/doing any particular thing. “Man is a meaningless passion.” But the absolute freedom that derives from our essential nothingness also allows for action to be truly authentic (as opposed to the play-acting) in addition to being responsible. Only in death does the being-for-itself succeed in becoming a being-in-itself, a completed thing, and then only if and in the manner in which he or she is remembered by others. A person who is not remembered never existed. Death is a time stamp or, if we are not remembered, an expiration date.

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)The Eternal Return and the Weight of Being

“341. The Greatest Weight. What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

–Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), The Gay Science

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35The Fleeting One-Offness of Everything and the Resulting Unbearable Lightness of Being

“But Nietzsche’s demon is, of course, wrong. There is no eternal return. Where does that leave us? Isn’t life ALWAYS a matter of I should have’s and I would have’s and if I had only knowns? “[W]hat happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all. . . .

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

–Milan Kundera (1929­–     ), contra Nietzsche, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Albert_Einstein_HeadCopyright 2010, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Time | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

A Theory of Dreaming

The American philosopher Eric Switzgebel has made a name for himself in recent years by challenging a lot of what people think they know, and, in particular, by challenging what people think they alone know—things about their own conscious mental experience. For example, he has challenged the notion that mental images are picture-like, which a lot of people believe. People confidently state that they “had an image in their heads” of this or that and discuss the contents of it (oh, I was looking at an image in my head of Grandma’s house as it appeared back when I was a kid in ’85), but when you press them on this, their image report turns out to be extremely unreliable in a way that pictures–real pictures–aren’t. If I ask someone to visualize a candle, he or she will report having done this. He or she might say something like, “I had a picture of it in my head,” but when you press the person on this: what was the candle sitting on? What was the color of the candle? How far down had it melted? Was any of the candle still liquid or molten at its base? What was in its immediate background? Was the flame flickering? etc., people don’t know the details that they would know if they had seen an actual picture. Switzgebel tells people to “picture a house,” and they report having done this, but then they can’t tell whether the house has a chimney, which they could easily do if they were consulting something actually “picture-like.”

In a similar vein, the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus famously showed that when people remember events, they think they are simply reporting a recording in the brain of what happened when, in fact, their brains actively construct memories from a combination of the few things from that past time that actually got recorded into long-term memory and a lot of general knowledge about the world, including things that they were later falsely told about this past. Memory is not playback, though it seems like that to the person having the memory. It is reconstruction, and extremely unreliable reconstruction at that.

I think that it might be the case that something similar occurs with dreaming. This is a fairly radical proposal, and I haven’t encountered it before in work by others. We tend to think that the events in dreams play out over time, typically in real time, that they have duration. Event A occurs, then Event B, then Event C, and so on. But what if, instead, the same story construction mechanism that occurs in memory occurs when we call upon a memory of a dream? Suppose that an executive conscious portion of the brain

takes random stuff that is currently being processed by the brain and is therefore currently available;

automatically, swiftly, constructs a narrative, with duration and a protagonist and other narrative elements, from that material; and

presents the result to consciousness?

And, furthermore, suppose that throughout REM sleep, this conscious executive part of the brain is checking in, in this way, from time to time, finding slightly changed inputs each time and requesting correspondingly changed narratives that are automatically, swiftly supplied? One might call this the “Multiple Drafts Theory of Dreaming.” The idea bears similarities to Daniel Dennett’s Multiple Drafts Theory of Consciousness presented in his book Consciousness Explained.

If what I am suggesting is true, we don’t actually experience events with duration during our sleep. Instead, we construct, from the random stuff our brain is processing, events with the qualities that events have, including duration and other narrative elements like conflicts and antagonists, and then those events are presented, as recent memory, to conscious memory, and we think that we experienced them in the dream because we are remembering them, just as we think, all the time, that we experienced events in our own pasts that our brains have partially or wholly simply constructed as part of the active making, each time we remember, of the memory.

And if all this is true, what is happening in the morning when we “remember a dream,” is that the conscious part of the brain is calling for a memory of the dream, which in turn tells the unconscious part, “Construct a narrative memory of a dream from the most recent brain state and present it to me as an actual memory” (not as a hypothetical or construction). This shouldn’t be surprising, for this is just what happens in memory of life events. But it is a bit disconcerting because it challenges what we think we know about ourselves and our experiences.

Ofc, this ability to construct narratives, automatically, swiftly, has a readily available evolutionary explanation in that it would enable prediction of the behavior of others–the essential survival skill of playing out into the future of a creature’s theory of other minds. It pays to have an idea what that hippo one has suddenly come upon might do.

NB: One support of the theory is the iffiness of duration in dream reports–in dreams, there are often leaps in time and compressions or extensions of it; so, it’s unreliable and more like duration in stories than in active, waking life.

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Thank You Sonnet | Bob Shepherd

after Edna St. Vincent Millay

Yes, it’s true, as you said, that after good sex
the world is heightened, clearer, a cineplex—
as if a summer shower’s intercession
washed clean the muddied, muddled doors of perception,
but lest there be any misconstruction of these
our wood-note wild responses to thighs and knees
and breasts and buttocks and jumblies jumbled together,
let me hasten my thoughts, disrobed, untethered,
to share as well. First things first, dear one:
nothing can equal this gift of you. I’m stunned
by its deliciousness, stunned and amazed,
and eons would it take your skills to praise,
but let’s be clear, up front, sans ambiguity
that I to myself belong in perpetuity.

Copyright 2021, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved
Art: Kádár Tamás Csók, hommage Gustav Klimt című olajfestménye, 2007. Kádár Tamás at the Hungarian language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons.

For more poetry by Bob Shepherd and writing about poetry and poetics, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/poetry/

Posted in Love, Poetry, Sex and Gender | 1 Comment

A Lost Party

People have a fundamental duty of care, especially toward younger people, the elderly, the displaced, the victimized, and the infirm, and toward those whose work it is to carry out that duty of care–healthcare professionals, teachers, firefighters, hospice workers, and police officers sworn to serve and protect. IT IS PRECISELY THE LACK OF ANY SENSE OF THIS DUTY OF CARE THAT CHARACTERIZES THE REPUGNICAN PARTY TODAY. The current party is DEFINED BY this lack, by this void, by what is MISSING in it. A single moment perfectly captures this defining characteristic of the current incarnation of the Repugnican Party: Rand Paul doodling during the footage showing Trump’s insurrectionist brownshirts beating Capitol police with flag poles.

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Geometry: a Love Story | Bob Shepherd

Imagination can . . . arrange for parallel lines to meet in secret.” –Shelley Jackson, on Italo Calvino

Once upon a time, there were two parallel lines, and they couldn’t stop looking at one another.

My lord. Such beauty, each thought. Who would have believed, in all the world, that such perfection existed? If only. . . .

And so they went on, each longing.

So close, and yet so far away.

Perhaps, one said, there is a certain purity in this. Holding the line.
F that, said the other.
Yeah, came the reply. F that.

I know, for I ran across them both. I found one shy and acute, the other bold and obtuse. But they were just right for each other.

It’s good, at least, to have you by my side, said one.
Yes, said the other, and sighed. Perhaps we could meet in secret?
No, damn him.
Damn who?
Euclid, the other expostulated.

You contain infinities within infinities, said the first.
You, too, said the other. You are my horizon. Aside from you lies only the abyss.
That is very beautiful, and very true, said the first.
Yes, said the other. It is.

On and on they went like this until, until,

Their longing warped space itself. Or perhaps it was God, taking pity, crumpling space and time.

And they lived happily ever after.

Copyright 2021. All rights reserved. For more poetry by Bob Shepherd (and writing about poets and poetry), go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/poetry/

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Trump: A Commemoration

Trump, of course, has added a number of new words to our language: unpresidented, covfefe, bigly (his pronunciation of big league). But I don’t think those new terms, rich as they are, sufficiently celebrate the man (I’m using the term loosely) we’ve come to know. So, I’m putting these suggestions for alterations in informal English out there in hopes of seeing them widely adopted going forward:

And wow, she was apetrump mad!
Are you trumping me?
Don’t trump where you eat.
He doesn’t know diddlytrump.
He showed up totally trumpfaced.
He was spouting a trumpload of nonsense.
He’s just trying to stir up some trump.
Holy trump!!!
I practically trumped myself!
I really don’t give a trump. Do you?
I trump you not.
I warn you, don’t get on my trump list.
I’m getting too old for this trump.
I’m telling you: He’s battrump crazy.
Keep this trump up and you’re fired.
Looks like we’re up trump creek without a paddle.
No trump?!
Oh, man, you’ve really trumped the bed.
Oh, you’re going to catch trump now!
Same trump, different day.
Seriously, cut the trump, man!
That’s like pushing trump uphill with a pity stick.
The hollers—that’s trumphole country.
Then the trump hit the fan.
Trump happens.
Two can sling trump, you know.
Well, THAT was a dumbtrump thing to say!
Well, you’re trump out of luck this time.
What a pile (or bunch or crock or piece) of trump (or horsetrump or dogtrump)!
Yeah, he has trump for brains.
Yikes! What a trumpshower!
You are so full of trump.
You won’t believe the trump he’s been up to.
You’re gonna have to eat that trump sandwich yourself.
You’re too chickentrump to try it.
You’re trump outta luck.
And, just for fun,
He was all over me like a fly on pence.

For more on Don the Con (aka IQ45 or Moscow’s Asset Governing America [MAGA]), go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/trump-don-the-con/

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The Most Monstrous Crime in Recent Memory, a Reflection on Holocaust Remebrance Day

In August of 1942, the head of the German administration of the Lodz ghetto (a forced labor camp) ordered the deportation to the Chelmno death camp of all children of Lodz under the age of 10 (the ones too young to work in the factories). The Nazi monsters ripped these children from their parents arms. (Does this remind you of anything recently in the United States?) Then they marched the kids onto a train that carried them to Chelmno, where they were loaded into vans and gassed to death.

Is this most vile action ever undertaken by humans? I can think of none worse.

Here’s a picture of some of the monsters who worked in the camp, loading the kids, little kids, clutching their toys, onto the train that will carry them to their deaths.

On this Holocaust Remembrance Day and in this time when an ignorant mob of armed insurgents, many of them brandishing Nazi and neo-Nazi slogans and symbols, attacked our Capitol after having been incited to do so by our first overtly fascist President, it is extremely important for us not to look away, to root out the Nazis in our midst, and, via our legal system, to punish the criminals, like Trump, who drummed up or carried out the political violence. NEVER FORGET.

Will our Republican Senators continue to be complicit in Trump’s obvious fascism? Will they vote to convict him for inciting the fascist mob that beat policemen with flagpoles attached to American flags, killed one of those policemen, and clearly stated their intent to kill the VP of the United States and various Senators and Representatives? Are our Republican Senators that venal, that corrupt, that stupid? Are their memories that short? Or are they just fine with such things?

History will remember what they did or didn’t do.

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Remembrance of Things Ass

So, Donald Trump had the mobster’s habit of destroying the evidence–tearing up paperwork he didn’t like or after he didn’t (or couldn’t) read it. Ordinarily, under actual presidents, these papers would have gone into the National Archives. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 made all such papers into public documents, legally owned by the people. However, in keeping with his flouting of every other law and norm, Trump simply ignored this, as he ignored the provision of the law that required presidents to maintain and turn over records of meetings with foreign heads of state (Trump’s infamous private meetings with his handler, Putin, for example).

So, what will go into a Trump Presidential Library and Alternative Fact Adventureland, if one ever gets built? Perhaps his Tweets, but if so, these should be renamed Twits in his honor.

A Trump gift shop with orange tan-in-a-can and Trump-branded plastic straws for swallowing by marine animals? A mini-mall with Trump merch–pens and MAGA hats and Trump steaks and Trump wine and boat-parade flags? Mushroom hats? The 10,000-year supply of hydroxychloroquine bought by Trump’s administration? Eric and Donnie, Jr.’s collections of the cut-off tails of endangered African wildlife? Invitations to an important election security briefing at Four Seasons Total Landscaping? Trump’s draft offer to trade California for Greenland? The collected cheeseburger wrappers and videotaped incitements to insurrection of Donald Trump? Paintings on velvet of Fred Trump and Roy Cohn ascending into heaven? High-flush toilets? Vials of the tears of separated parents and children? Love notes to Kim and Vlad?

P.S. Trump is talking about starting his own political party and perhaps his own cell phone IM service. I have some suggestions, Mr. Trump. Call the former the TWIT Party, for Trump-worshiping idiot team, and the latter TWITTER-B, for Trump-worshiping idiot team talking egregiously reactionary bullshit.

For more on Don the Can, aka Vlad’s Agent Orange, and his maladministration, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/trump-don-the-con/

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A Thank You to the People of Color of These Disunited States

During the Trump era (error?), we’ve gotten used to equating the GOP with profoundly ignorant sorts like Lauren Opal Boebert and the Q-Anonsense Shaman. However, the more thoughtful and intelligent of folks still in the GOP—the ones who are in the game mostly for the grift—can read the handwriting on the wall: Consider these stats from Pew Research:

Percent of 6- 21-year-olds who are nonwhite

Early Boomers (1968): 18
Gen Xers (1986): 30
Millennials (2002): 39
Post-Millennials (2018): 48

So, the demographics of the country are changing. And we’re already seeing the results at the polls. In the recent election, the black vote in swing states like Michigan and Georgia and Pennsylvania, was decisive. Because of this shift, states like Texas and Florida and Georgia have already turned purple, for POC largely vote Democratic. There are more of these to come. North Carolina and South Carolina and Nevada and Arizona–I’m looking at you. LOL.

So, people of color of these Disunited States, I humbly thank you from the depths of my heart and soul.

The white supremacists’ worst fears ARE going to be realized. They are going to be pushed aside by MAJORITIES not like them.

And oh my Lord. THAT is a beautiful thing!

For more on the maldaministration of Don the Con, aka Vlad’s Agent Orange, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/trump-don-the-con/

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 2 Comments

Bernie Sanders and I

The Bern and I, SCUBA diving. Those were the days! Bernie, love you, Bro.

Posted in Humor, Politics | 1 Comment

A Government That Looks like America

My Latina granddaughter, watching Kamala Harris being sworn in as Vice President of the United States.

Posted in Sex and Gender, Trump (Don the Con), Uncategorized | Leave a comment