The Tractatus Comico-Philosophicus: Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

STractatus-1003-Kierkegaardøren Kierkegaard Takes a Leap of Faith

  1. Being a human being is weird. We’re not predetermined. Because we are free, nothing is required of us.
  2. All that we have, then, are our absurd commitments.
  3. Real commitment is shown when we do something difficult.
  4. The most difficult thing we could do is to believe in something completely absurd. That takes real commitment!
  5. Religious belief is completely absurd.
  6. Therefore, we should believe because it is absurd to do so. By this means we realize ourselves; we become, by our commitment, authentic.

Who said philosophy was difficult?

The tractatus comico-philosophicus. Dedicated to bring the wisdom of the ages to all, for why shouldn’t you be as confused as they were?

Copyright 2014 by Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Philosophy | Leave a comment

Philosophical Zombies with Chairs in Philosophy of Mind, or Confessions of a Neo-Dualist


For Rebecca Goldstein

Daniel Dennett called one of his books Consciousness Explained. He should have called it Why, Even with My Gifts, I Cannot Explain Consciousness Away. Dennett gives a compelling account of how various unconscious events occur in our brains and how some of these come to our attention, and he makes jolly good fun of what he calls the “Cartesian theatre” with its “homunculus” inside, “watching the show,” but he stops just short of explaining away consciousness, and there is a reason for this: It cannot be done. I shall argue, below, that some of the pretheoretical intuitions that nonphilosophers have about the reality of consciousness are surprisingly robust, clear, and distinct, while the dismissal of those intuitions by orthodox contemporary professional Anglo-American philosophers (who, by and large, accept some version of physicalism or functionalism) is an article of “faith” strong enough to cause them to dismiss that which is not only the clearest, most distinct of our understandings but also prerequisite to any clarity or distinctness. For the physicalists and functionalists, believing is seeing. Theirs is a kind of theology, and, as Wallace Stevens says, “theology before breakfast/sticks to the eye.”

There are many, many binary oppositions that seem to entail a default dualism on the part of those who employ them: mind/body, immaterial/material, universal/particular, proposition/sentence in a language, use/mention, a priori/a posteriori, sentience/nonsentience, being-for-itself/being-in-itself, thought/action, nominal/real, rule-creating/rule-following, subjective/objective, first-person/third-person, free/determined, teleological/nonteleological, experiencer/experienced. Contemporary reductionists who would exorcise mind from our vocabulary as though it were necessarily a ghost in the machine aren’t taking, I think, a scientific attitude with regard to the mind/body problem. George Santayana wrote in Reason in Religion that it’s easy enough for a worm-eaten old satirist to poke fun at the scientific inaccuracies of religion, but it’s much more difficult to account for it. The same is true of the default dualism that informed the development of those binaries. The burden is upon us, as philosophers, to account for the fact of the overwhelming tendency, throughout the centuries, of philosophers and nonphilosophers alike to carve up nature in that way. That most people, some pretheoretically and some theoretically, have considered it given that such binaries carve nature at its joints, to use an unpleasant but apt analogy, is itself a fact of nature that it is the job of our science to observe and explain. That these binaries are perfectly intelligible and that each is well-attested in our experience of the world means something, as I hope to show, below, and it means more than simply that we’ve always been confused, as when we thought that the sun rose and night fell. The inescapable fact is that intelligibility itself requires an ontological entity to which a concept can be said to be intelligible—that spooky experiencing mind that reductionists so anxiously wish to rid us of.

Let’s deal with the last of challenges to reductionism first. It’s simple enough to create physical processes that instantiate functional analogues of concepts, such as the sum of an addition, but there’s a difference between such a set of processes and an entity such as ourselves that experiences the having of concepts. That’s the point, of course, of Searle’s Chinese Room Gedankenexperiment, which has never been adequately refuted. People who identify the two are making a category mistake as surely as do those who confuse, say, use and mention. What is true of concepts and other ideas such as beliefs is true, as well, of qualia. One can say that my experience of pain entails that I have these C-fiber impulses (such an experience does except in a few bizarre, wildly pathological states), but one cannot say that the experience IS those. C-fiber impulses and experienced pains are ontologically distinct entities. A feeling is not the neural impulses that give rise to it. A mind is not a brain. Entailment or supervenience is not identity. One cannot make the mind-body problem go away, as, say, Richard Rorty attempts to do in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, by claiming that it’s just a matter of using the language wrong, of hypostetizing a predicate and making it a subject, in which case “This pain is terrible” is, like “Redness is yummy,” a loose use of language. (Rorty’s argument is a little more complicated, but that’s what it boils down to.) The mind-body problem and the universals-particulars problem are no more the same than a proposition is the same as the English (or Swahili) sentence that states it. Only a highly trained analytic philosopher could come to the Rorty’s conclusion, and it’s conclusions that preposterous that give philosophy a bad reputation among people who think that philosophers are supposed to be MORE careful in their thinking than the rest of us are. (Though, of course, there are highly trained analytic philosophers, Saul Kripke, for example, who don’t speak so outlandishly on this subject. See his discussion of pains and brains in Naming and Necessity.)

Because of the concomitance of physical and mental states, there is, of course, a sense in which talk about mental entities/experiences/states is adjectival, and it’s philosophically interesting that that’s so, but one can’t say, as Rorty does, that making that observation “dissolves” the mind-body problem. Neither is there anything scientific about trying to do so. A scientist does not ignore some facts, in this case the experience of entertaining a thought or of feeling a pain, just because they are inconvenient. Instead, a real scientist says about unexplained phenomena, “There are some things that I don’t yet understand.” There is no shame in that. Quite the contrary. That’s just being honest about the current state of knowledge and understanding. Dennett dismissively calls those who think that there is a hard problem of consciousness mysterians. But isn’t the proper response to a mystery to say, “That’s mysterious”? What other response is possible except silence?

One must sit down before the facts like a little child, Huxley said. That statement is in the true spirit of science and of philosophy, and it is in this spirit that we must reject the reductionist program that runs from Laplace, through the Vienna Circle misinterpreters of the younger Wittgenstein, to Ayer and Carnap and Ryle, to the twentieth-century behaviorists and the contemporary physicalists, functionalists, and hetereophenomenologists, a program that simply ignores much of what requires explanation. As Einstein is reputed to have said but did not, to our knowledge, actually say in precisely these words, our job is to seek answers that are as simple as possible, BUT NOT SIMPLER. Qualia (perceptions, bodily sensations, imagery, emotions) and other mental experiences (representations, beliefs, concepts, goals, intuitions) are not the physical processes on which they supervene. The world we experience has this dual aspect. As David Chalmers put it, that I have toes and thoughts are very different things. That’s simply the way things are. The universe contains us and other sentient entities with these spooky things called experiences, and professional philosophers need to accept that if they are to stop talking what is clearly arrant, errant nonsense.

Imagine a grandfather and his grandchild watching a PBS production of Romeo and Juliet on television. Romeo finds Juliet in the crypt, seemingly dead, and kills himself. The grandchild exlaims, “Why did he do that?!” The grandfather explains that a television camera recorded some actors in a studio, that the analogue recording was edited and sampled and digitized and stored as orientations of metal filaments on disc drives, that the recordings were played back by means of a mechanism that translated those orientations of metal filaments into streams of photons sent down fiber optic cables to a set-top box that transduced them into streams of electrons shot by a gun onto a fluorescent screen at one end of a cathode ray tube. An explanation like the grandfather’s (much elaborated) might be close to complete (though it cannot, our science tells us, be complete), but IT IS NOT AN ANSWER TO THE DAUGHTER’S QUESTION, which is asked AT A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT DESIGN LEVEL about phenomena at a completely different design level.

I suspect that there are two aspects of the hard problem of consciousness that make it particularly hard. One is that we have limited access to the way things are. We are like a child, confined to a room throughout her life, looking through a particular window at a particular courtyard and taking that courtyard for the world. Many years ago, the semiotician Jakob van Uexkull asked us to consider the lowly tick. A tick has four senses: she can sense light on her back; she can smell butyric acid, given off by the sebaceous (sweat) glands of mammals; she can sense temperatures in a narrow range around 35 degrees centigrade (the temperature of mammalian blood); she can feel with her feet. That’s it. That’s the entire access to the universe of a tick. Now, imagine that it is raining. For the tick, it’s welling up. The point is that we are ticks, too. There are explanations for phenomena experienced by the tick to which the tick has no access whatsoever. Clearly, the same is true for us, as the examples of other creatures with different kinds of access and the changing of our access through the building of prostheses, such as spectroscopes and electron microscopes and superconducting supercolliders demonstrates, but at any given time, there is much that we simply cannot know because we haven’t the perceptual or other cognitive tools, and in fact there are truths about the world that we are pretty sure that we shall never know, such as whether Socrates felt rain on his forehead on a particular day in his 23nd year. There’s no reason to think that we great apes have the conceptual machinery to understand why we have experiences as well as toes or how we can have real agency, that is neither determined nor random. Yet it is impossible for us to dispense with these very real aspects of our lives. That’s problem one. The second problem is that many complexly interacting systems evince characteristics at the design level of the system that do not exist in the substrate of the system’s components. In other words, they give rise to emergent phenomena. We are existence proofs that certain complexly interacting physical systems give rise to the phenomena of qualia, mattering, agency, purpose, freedom, what Sartre referred to as nonpositional reflective being, contents of consciousness, situatedness, thrownness, fallenness, orientation to Others, mind. We haven’t a clue how that can be so. But it is.

Some reductionists have fallen back on an epiphenomenal account of consciousness. Yes, experiences are quite real, but they ride on top of and are entirely accounted for by bottom-up systems (whether or not these are conceived of as deterministic). However, it should be obvious enough to those with scientific dispositions that nature is rarely so frivolous, so lacking in economy, as to create something complex that serves no purpose whatsoever. It’s a violation of the economy, the parsimony, so evident, everywhere, in nature to believe that experiencing does not, itself, play an causative role, top down. It’s difficult to understand why the same sorts of people who would accept as wholly reasonable the heuristic of, say, cladistic parsimony (motivated by repeatedly confirmed economy in nature), would think of experiencing as an inconsequential, non-causative free rider.

It would be the ULTIMATE irony, wouldn’t it, if that were so? That that to which things matter is the one thing that doesn’t matter?

The stubborn persistence of Anglo-American academic philosophers in their denial of mind is almost enough to make one think that David Chalmers’s philosophical zombies actually exist. Maybe there are such entities, and they all hold chairs of philosophy, and for THEM, pains are just C-fiber impulses because they don’t have a clue (or a functional physical process resulting in an output interpretable by a sentient consciousness as a clue) about what it means when people talk about “the experience of a pain.” Maybe one of those was named Richard Rorty. Maybe another is named Daniel Dennett. Maybe these zombie philosophers are marvelous to behold–philosophy machines of enormous sophistication–but just don’t have any there there, to borrow Gertrude Stein’s marvelous phrase. Maybe Kripke and Nagel and Chalmers have qualia and Dennett and the Churchlands, say, don’t. That would explain a lot.

Dennett points out that people are default dualists. As an evolutionist, he should have taken pause at that. It’s like saying that we’re default eaters or default procreators. We’re that way because it is possible for stuff to have experiences, because having experiences itself confers survival value to reproduction, enables us in this minimal sense to fare well, and evolution is a machine for faring well in the world. There’s nothing supernatural about any of this, of course, for whatever is, is the natural. But there’s nothing to suggest that experiencing is necessarily explainable by creatures such as us or by any creature living in a universe constructed like ours. Perhaps in the mind/body problem we are bumping up against our current cognitive limits or against more fundamental limits to any understanding that we might ever develop. There is much in nature that remains mysterious, much that our science tells us MUST remain mysterious, much that many think is not knowable, in principle (such as the precise simultaneous position and momentum of an elementary particle).

Some of the Gnostics said that first there was Sophia, and she gave rise to Eros, but they had it backward. First, there was the raw fact that some entities fared well and others didn’t. Blind processes (perhaps–we have scant evidence to the contrary) gave rise, in time, to a spectacularly successful means for faring well, to sentience and to an essential characteristic of sentient entities, the ability to reason, which is deeper than and considerably antecedent to the ability to create symbolic representations. I suspect, as Ginsburg and Jablonka have argued, that sentience is very, very ancient, that the first life forms with some version of sentience arose at the end of the PreCambrian and that that event in the history of life accounts, in part, for the Cambrian Explosion because, of course, even rudimentary sentience has enormous survival value. Perhaps inexplicable experiencing and making of choices acts upon the substrate that first gave rise to it, making it different in ways that confer survival value; perhaps reasons are fundamentally different from reactions, as the naively unphilosophical are inclined to think when they contrast a twitch with a grasp. Certainly, the choices that we make at the wholly different design level of the experiencing mind affect our wiring. Philosophy, if it is to be, in fact, fundamental, needs to go back to its source, its spring. It should conceive itself as the art of applying reason to the goal of faring well, which is why reason evolved in the first place.

While I’m dissociating myself from a number of received notions current among reigning philosophic and scientific intelligentsia, I might as well add this: It’s a commonplace of evolutionary theory that evolution is not teleological, and there is a sense, of course, in which that is true. But once the blind process of evolution hit upon the strategy of creating conscious minds, it gave birth to purposeful designers and purposeful design and so became teleological. We choose our mates, and often enough, fortunately, we do so based on the quality of their minds, though we have no notion what those might be.

And finally, in the next step, should we survive, we are in the process of becoming the designers of the designing process itself and may even, in time, use technological means that exploit the supervenience of the mental upon the physical to develop the means to bridge the ontological gap between subjectivities (my mind over here, yours over there), as, perhaps, other entities throughout the universe have long since done. That’s a scary and exciting possibility, fraught with potential dangers and rewards. But it does seem that we are headed in that direction, and again, as was true after the arrival of sentience, everything changes.

BTW, even now we have a rough means for bridging that ontological gap, of course. We call it love.

Copyright 2013, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind | 8 Comments

The Student of Bliss

one-love-bob-shepherdSasha considered the many options, the programs and catalogs of the various schools, those close to home, and those far away, and decided to become a student of bliss.

Bright girl, she could have taken most any course of study. Her parents weren’t happy, of course, that she spent their hard-earned money on something so frivolous.

“There’s no future in it,” they insisted. “Look, you could be studying Christian Denial, Unbridled Acquisitiveness, Blind Obedience to the State, Home Economics.”

But Sasha was headstrong and would not be deterred. “Bliss,” she penciled in, during her sophomore year, on the application to degree programs.

She was incorrigible.

I know what you are thinking, if, that is, you were brought up on American pulpit wisdom: Her story doesn’t end well.

Everyone knows that those who follow bliss end up addicted and overweight, dissipated, derelict, in the gutter or hospital or jail, broke and broken, battered and bitter, all blood and spittle, backaches and bile.

And so it could have been for Sasha had she followed the standard program of the four-year American colleges. You know the routine: the mandatory tailgate parties and X in the clubs, all jackass-do-you-dare and the little black dress.

Of course, various educational reformers, as far back as Guatama and Lao-tze, Al Ghazali and Rumi, Nasreddin and the Baal Shem Tov, argued that students should move quickly through those elementary studies so they can get to the real thing. But it takes millennia for such critiques to bring about changes in the Standard Curriculum, and most students only minor in bliss, anyway, so no harm done, some say. Good enough for government work and government schools.

But Sasha wanted not only the Minor, the Associate Degree, the B.A. in Bliss. She was after the Ph.D.,  and that’s why she transferred, in her junior year, to the Alternative Program, where she finally got what she was looking for—classes in the iridescence of pigeons’ wings; in the smell of hot sidewalks at dusk; in the sensitivities of earlobes, which are so various (who knew?); in whirling, of course; in the languages of birds; in waking dreaming; in stillness at the center; in liquid repose; in the disrobing of fruits; in the monkey dance.

She’s now an acknowledged master, so much so that a great tycoon came to her, one who had EVERYTHING: the hedge fund Senior Partnership AND the prized collection of local, state, and federal legislative and judicial wind-up toys and action figures. He wanted the one thing he didn’t have, to be her student. In truth, he was smitten.

In her presence, who wouldn’t be?

She told him what Yeshua told the rich young man who wanted to become His disciple: Go sell everything and give it to the poor. Then come back to me, for we have work to do.

He was smitten, but stupid. He declined.


Copyright, 2011, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Poetry | 1 Comment



Terroir[1] | Bob Shepherd

            For Scott Fray

Listen. In the gloaming, a dog is barking, a frog croaking.

Ravens gather at the wood’s edge. Light thickens,

And its very thickening invites you to attune your senses,

To empty your mind, to push your fear to the extremities

Of your corporeal being and make of it a weapon.

Your navel is a fulcrum. You wait and watch.

This is the moment for which all else was but preparation.

This is the borderland, the gateway, the door, the crossroad,

The mouth of the cave, of the canal of the second birth,

The entrance to the labyrinth, the liminal interstice you’ve glimpsed

Between daylight and darkness, waking and sleeping.

She will test you beyond all imaginings of the tellers of tales.

When you face the monsters fashioned of yourself,

Of your every pettiness, failure, betrayal, cowardice,

You will wish it were only your flesh being torn asunder.

She will throw against you the whole phantasmagoria

Of shape shifters and demons, but all her glamour will not prevail.

For you will experience, as at a distance, the serial foes, the tricksters

And riddlers, the press of battle, the penultimate melee and discord,

The final spiraling downward toward the logos.

Even at the threshold, it is done.

That you stand ready is sufficient,

For the end is in the beginning.

In your veins flows the dark blood of the mother.

That Hecate/Phoebe hides her face but reminds you, seek her.

She is eternally present, at the core of being, even when unseen. Most when unseen.

She is the center you seek, the culmination, the goal, of the hero’s journey,

Of the birth into knowledge.

What treasure will you return to your undeserving fellows?

On your return, we shall carry you to the place of honor,

And we shall feast and drink your glory and shine by your borrowed light,

And when night falls, our children will listen, rapt, en-couraged,

Awe full, by the fire, under the maiden moon, to the tales you tell:

Listen. In the gloaming, a dog was barking, a frog croaking.


[1] Terroir. From viticulture, the characteristic geography and climate of a place, which combine to give the grapes grown in a region, and the wine made from these grapes, particular characteristics; in this poem, the characteristic geography and climate of this life, which present us with a kind of essay, or trial–archetypically, the hero’s journey.

Copyright 2009, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

The Vast Unseen and the Vast Unseeable

800px-Lupta_centaurilor_IMG_5998Those who are not philosophically inclined can be divided, roughly, into two groups:

There are the Naïve Realists who think that what is available to the senses or potentially available to the senses is all that there is.

And then there are those who think that alongside or in addition to all that empirically available stuff, there is another world (or other worlds) of the unseen.

Let’s call the first group the nonbelievers and the second the believers.

Centaur_skeletonThe believers come in immense variety. From the time of the origins of the first archaeological remains of human civilizations down to the present day, there have been, literally, many hundreds of thousands of belief systems regarding the ordinarily unseen—belief systems involving spirits that live within things in the natural world, disembodied spirits of ancestors existing alongside us, and a rich phantasmagoria of gods and demigods and demons and other magical beings–Tiamat and Marduk, Isis and Hecate and Bastet, YHWH and the Nephilim, the Aeons and the Rex Mundi, Ananzi and White Buffalo Woman, Cernunnos and Brigid, ogres and trolls and fairies in the garden, the machine elves of Terrence McKenna’s psychonautic excursions on dimethyltriptamine.

John_Atkinson_Grimshaw_-_Spirit_of_the_NightFrom the beginning, people seem to have imagined (?) unseen spirits that inhabited physical things—rivers, mountains, oceans, plants, people, and nonhuman animals, for example. But also, from time immemorial, they imagined (?) unseen worlds that were separate parts of this one world (universe) that we live in. The Anglo-Saxons talked of the middengeard (the “middle Earth”) between heaven above and hell below. Ancient Chinese, and some of the Greek Gnostics, imagined vast numbers of heavens “up there.” Many peoples placed their realms of the gods atop high mountains or in the clouds or across the sea on some island. Many cultures had their chthonian deities, ones who inhabited realms under the ground—the world of the Hindu Nagas, for example, or the realm of Hades, or the cave beneath the bog of Grendel’s mother, who may have been the ancient British goddess Nerthus made demonic in a Christian retelling. These abodes of the gods were unseen but potentially seeable, if only you got there, to that place.

800px-Gustave_Doré-_Dante_et_Vergil_dans_le_neuvième_cercle_de_l'enferIncreasingly, as we have plumbed the whole of the Earth, from the summits to the depths, and have come to understand, better, what is in the heavens above us and under the ground beneath our feet, those who believe in the unseen have retreated to the less physical instantiations of their other worlds. These modern believers are of the “spirit within” camp. Their unseen worlds are invisible universes, spirit worlds, that exist—somewhere else—in parallel to our own or in some other dimension or within things, somehow. The entities who live in that spirit world, they say, might be all around us right now. You might, for example, hold a séance or take a drug or pray and talk to them.

Now, the nonbelievers like to point out that despite the certainties that believers tend to have about their unseen worlds, their views are innumerable and mutually inconsistent and can’t all be right, and it’s not exactly easy to produce EVIDENCE about any of these unseen worlds, and so no compelling reason to believe in any one of them, at least no reason that an impartial observer would have to accept. And the nonbelievers are frankly astonished, by and large, that at this late date in human history, there are still large numbers of people who believe in unseen worlds and unseen entities, who talk to them regularly, for example, and take guidance from them. In short, the nonbelievers think it really peculiar that so many people continue, in a scientific age, to hold fantastic ideas involving the unseen. And they are horrified that folks whom they consider so gullible and superstitious, people who sometimes talk to invisible friends, are nonetheless trusted with positions of power and authority.

I do understand that point of view. I even sympathize with it. But here’s a problem for it, a really big problem, it seems to me:

While it seems reasonable not to accept as true propositions for which there is little or no evidence, it is also entirely unreasonable to imagine that what we have access to via our senses is the whole of the universe. We have a particular set of senses and a particular cognitive apparatus, a particular operating system, if you like. Our sensory and cognitive equipment, our operating system, differs enormously from that of other creatures on the planet. Consider the “lowly” bugs known as ticks. We know that there are vast parts of the universe that we perceive that simply are not available to ticks. Stars do not exist to a tick. Neither do temperatures above or below a narrow range around 37 degrees Centigrade. There is no smell of roses in the universe that the tick perceives; there is no sound of laughter. The tick does not have any perceptual or cognitive access to these things. They are UNSEEN by the tick, but WE know that they exist.

In other words, the tick teaches us that it is inevitable that, given the particular sensory apparatus and cognitive makeup that a creature has, given a particular creature’s operating system, some of what is, of what actually exists, will be available to that creature, and SOME WILL NOT. That bit of the universe that is available to a given creature is the creature’s Umwelt (to use the term popularized by Jakob von Uexküll, whose ideas about ticks I have shared here).

447px-Alicesadventuresinwonderland1898So, how are we any different from ticks in this regard? We’re not some sort of special case. What is true of ticks is doubtless true of us—that we have access to only a small part of what is really going on. This is an inductive conclusion strongly warranted by our knowledge of comparative neural and perceptual physiology, so strongly warranted, in fact, that I think that we are compelled to accept it on purely inductive, empirical, scientific grounds. And it’s a truly mind-blowing conclusion, I think.

It therefore seems highly likely that Hamlet was right when he said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio. Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In other words, the believers are almost certainly right about this much, that there is a VAST UNSEEN. A vast unseeable, in fact. And nonbelievers have to accept that much. I do.

Before I proceed, let me deal with a predictable objection to this line of reasoning: Evolution designs creatures to exploit whatever realities there are, and over time, they exploit them more fully, and so we reach this pinnacle in humans at which we have cognitive and perceptual access to the way things are. Now, here’s where I think that that argument is wrong (Anthropocentric arguments tend to be downright silly; they are kin to the old ideas that the Earth and humans are at the center of the universe): Evolution is nothing if not parsimonious. It reaches for what works in a niche, and it ignores everything else. Exhibit 1 for my rebuttal: cyanobacteria, unchanged for nearly four billion years. Exhibit 2: Beetles that attempt to mate with female-looking beer bottles so persistently that they allow ants to eat them alive. Exhibit 3: humans and their well-documented cognitive limitations more suited to life on the savannah than to life in, say, New York City . Phenotypes tend to be local maxima on the larger fitness landscape.

Where do we go from this conclusion, for conclusions are beginnings, aren’t they? Clearly, there will be situations in which what can be experienced by a given creature is affected causally by that which the creature cannot experience, and this may be the situation that obtains with regard to many conundrums, great and small–the mind/body question, the question of free will, the irreducibility of simple arithmetic to logic, the incompatibility of relativity and quantum mechanics, the elusive proofs of the Goldbach or Polignac conjectures, the seeming violation by plankton of the competitive exclusion principle, experimental proof of the existence of more than four dimensions, the explanation of nonlocal consequences of entanglement in physics, the appearance and disappearance of virtual particles, the solution to the paradox of disappearance of the present, the violation by certain quantum-mechanical phenomena of the law of the excluded middle, the development of an optimally nonviolent social structure given the conflict between minimal liberalism and Pareto optimality, and, of course, the question of questions, the nature or even the existence of an ultimate reality, or noumenon. Years ago, AI pioneer and Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon argued that many of the problems faced in everyday life admit, as a practical matter, of no optimal solution because of limitations of time and resources, forcing us to rely, instead, upon satisfactory solutions, or heuristics. Similarly, the philosopher Alan Watts argued that while the universe might, at bottom, be deterministic, as a practical matter, we haven’t the resources to do the Laplacian calculations, and so we are stuck with acting as if from free will. (Whether the universe is deterministic is an open question, but most physicists, today, do not believe this to be the case.) And in the same vein, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has argued that combinatorial explosion makes the project of simulating a virtual reality indistinguishable from the universe impossible, for doing so would require computational resources greater than those provided by the universe. (This last claim is highly debatable; a self-computing universe is not impossible under various scenarios.) The point I am making goes further, however, for the claim is that we have every reason to believe that there are aspects of reality that are not only not accessible as a practical matter but that are not accessible AT ALL at present. There’s no reason to think that we apes currently have the cognitive and perceptual apparatus to arrive at complete solutions to such problems because the mechanisms involved may well be beyond our ken.

oxherding picturesBut this realization is in itself a boon. It should give us pause. It should make us humble. As a result of it, we should recognize that our many of our most cherished, most fundamental assumptions might well be misconceptions based on our limitations. We must face squarely the fact that we are like savages, familiar with fire and with chariots, claiming that the nature of the sun is quite obvious: it is a fiery chariot being driven across the sky. Or we are like the square in Abbott’s Flatland who thinks of a cone passing through its world in three dimensional space as an expanding or contracting circle.

Let’s consider one such a cherished assumption, one of the latest in a long, sad series of scientific predictions that proved to be false because unknown unknowns were not taken into account. Richard Dawkins famously argued in The Blind Watchmaker that we can be certain that wherever we might go in the universe, the laws of evolution apply. But certain is a big word. Scientific laws are not tautologies. And it seems not only possible but probable that, in fact, evolution itself is ultimately a self-defeating mechanism, not in the sense that life inevitably consumes all resources until it dies out but in the sense that at some point, sufficiently evolved creatures begin to control their own evolution, at which time there is a decisive break, a disjunction, a stochastic leap, for evolution becomes no longer blind but teleological, at which point, all bets are off. We might well choose the ultimate in self-preservation, substituting the preservation and growth of the phenotype, to which we are each of us committed, for the reproduction of the genotype, for there is a fundamental non-concurrence of interest between selfish genes and selfish phenotype, especially in creatures that reproduce sexually. We are already at a point where, very soon, evolution will be definitively divorced from mate selection and sexual reproduction, its being highly doubtful that future reproduction strategies will depend upon these. And it is altogether possible that resources are not a limiting factor, for many cosmologists now believe that the universe itself is “the ultimate free lunch,” that it arose ex nihilo from the quantum foam, which is, in theory, harvestable. So, is evolution by natural selection a universal law? It’s highly doubtful that this is so. In fact, it is more likely that this is yet another example of a spatio-temporal local maximum. The Earth is a relatively young planet circling a relatively young star. We now know that there are at least billions of other such planets in the universe, most of them far older, and it is altogether reasonable, given the similarity of conditions elsewhere, to assume that life has evolved on these and long since passed through our present infancy, for we know that recursive systems like minds are positive feedback mechanisms leading to exponential change, and we speculate with much warrant that such a process will lead to a singularity. And what happens then? By definition, we do not know. But it is highly probable, to a point approaching certainty, that this has, in fact, happened in the universe already, and we are not the entity or entity to which it has happened. Philosopher and transhumanist Nick Bostrom believes that what we think of as reality is not reality at all but, rather, a simulation being run by such entities.

Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis is an example of warranted speculation, and that such speculation can be highly warranted—one of many possibilities unlike those that we typically entertain—suggests, at the very least, that we should check our hubris. Things may not be at all as they appear to be.
Which brings me back to the question of belief versus nonbelief. Clearly, it is highly improbable that the notions about ultimate realities entertained by stone-age savages bear any relation to actual ultimate realities. However, what is in fact the case is probably equally bizarre and, given our current limitations, beyond imagining. It is quite possible, probable even, given what we currently know, that there are entities in the universe with attributes traditionally ascribed to the gods, including the power to bring universes into being (a potential technology for doing just that and a series of steps toward development of such a technology are outlined in cosmologist Alan Guth’s The Inflationary Universe). For this reason, I call myself an ignostic. I am in no better position to venture an opinion on the nature or existence of God or the gods than was a Neolithic farmer to venture an opinion on the causes of epileptic seizures, though I am happy to play at this game in the spirit of play, of speculation, of creation, of frumsceaft.

Strange_compositionThe phrase current limitations, above, was chosen with care. Creatures with technologies, however rudimentary, have already crossed a Rubicon, for technologies are prostheses that give access to further aspects of reality. The long-standing question of whether there is a noumenal reality separable from perceptual reality has long been answered (though, oddly, some professional philosophers seem not to have gotten the memo), for as we have built new technologies to extend our access—mathematics, thought experiments, Galileo’s telescope, spectrometers, superconducting supercolliders, FMRI machines, and so on—more and more of the universe has been revealed, as surely as the contents of a gift-wrapped package are revealed when we remove the packaging, but with a couple of important caveats: 1. the packaging of reality appears to be so many Matryoshka dolls, how many, we do not know. Perhaps it is turtles all the way down. And 2. those prostheses simply become part of a new, extended, but also limited perceptual and conceptual repertoire. As we continue, at an exponential rate, to develop prostheses for extending our access to the universe, we shall doubtless encounter many surprises, many of which will be as disjunctive as was, say, the atomic hypothesis. We have already learned, or think we have learned, that the macroscopic world of solid objects with which we are familiar on a quotidian basis is illusory, that it is, on a deeper plane, a whir of elementary particles and, on a deeper plane yet, interacting fields. Such conceptions would have seemed utterly preposterous to most of our ancestors. (The atomic hypothesis was still highly controversial at the turn of the twentieth century.) Given this history, assuming that we have reached the bottom of the rabbit hole (or that it is even a hole to begin with) is ludicrous, and there is nothing in our current knowledge that precludes quite fantastic possibilities, including the possibility that the current physical reductionists have it exactly backward and that

  1. perception is an interface that bears relations to but does not show reality, as the icons on your computer screen bear relations to but do not show the underlying reality of the mechanism within your computer.
  2. the functional structures of the mind are, in part, an operating system enabling the creation of that interface based upon incoming data; are, in part, processors of data; and are, in part, storage systems for temporal states of that data. (NB: These are probably not so easily separable, for brains are not constructed like computers.)
  3. the perceived world is simply a collection of icons that constitute an interface to a reality that lies behind it.
  4. consciousness might well be fundamental and matter derivative, not vice versa.

Numbers 1 and 2 and 3 are, I think, as incontrovertible as the best of our scientific inferences. Number 4 is another matter. It’s a highly speculative proposition but one that is not inconsistent with anything that we think we know via scientific inference and is weakly warranted by speculations such as Bostrom’s involving highly developed nonhuman intelligence or intelligences in the universe. Together, these propositions, advanced by cognitive psychologist and expert on perception Donald Hoffman, show a marked similarity to what Aldous Huxley refers to as “the perennial philosophy,” arrived at via convergent cultural evolution in various religious traditions worldwide—in the thought of persons as diverse as the authors of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Chandogya Upanishad, the Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, Chuang Tzu, Meister Eckhart, Black Elk, and Terence McKenna. (Note: I had independently arrived at conclusions 1, 2, and 3 before having encountered Hoffman. I am intrigued by his reasons for embracing conclusion 4.)

creation-web-versionLet me repeat, again, what I said earlier. Ancient accounts of ultimate realities are not to be trusted, but neither are our limited current perceptions and models of reality. One cannot make the leap from speculation to knowledge, for knowledge is by definition dependent upon the prosthesis that discloses. The mystics claim to have developed such prostheses, but it is more likely that they have simply encountered the currently inexplicable and have rushed to explanation in the inadequate terms available to them. However, I do not know this to be true, and even if it were, that fact should give physical reductionists no comfort, for theirs is a metaphysics as incoherent and unsupportable as any witch doctor’s tale of his own understanding and control of all that is in the heavens and the earth, as I hope I have made abundantly clear above.

Copyright 2012. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This note may be distributed freely as long as this copyright notice is retained and the text is unchanged.

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind | 2 Comments

It’s about Time



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

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