Archive for the Science Category

In the Face of Armageddon: Watchmen and the Problem of Nihilism

Posted in Alan Moore, Apocalypse, armageddon, comic books, cosmicism, DC Comics, Ernest Becker, Existentialism, fiction, graphic literature, graphic novels, Kierkegaard, Literature, Love, mortality anxiety, Myth, Mythology, Nietzsche, nihilism, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Science, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2014 by Uroboros

SPOILER WARNING

Deconstructed Superheroes

Deconstructed Superheroes

Mythic heroes are supersized embodiments of a society’s highest values, and their struggles represent its deepest fears. One way or another those fears revolve around our anxieties about death and the problem of nihilism, the belief that life is devoid of intrinsic meaning and ultimately pointless. In The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker said hero narratives are a kind of ‘psychological armor’ that generate:

  • [A] feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning…’an immunity bath’ from the greatest evil: death and the dread of it…Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal.

The emergence of multi-billion dollar superhero franchises over the last fifteen years, therefore, raises some interesting sociological and philosophical questions: what do these particular narratives say about Western culture’s most cherished beliefs? How do they reflect our fears and frustrations? This is what Alan Moore and David Gibbons explored nearly thirty years ago in their groundbreaking superhero comic Watchmen. Philosopher Iain Thomson says Watchmen deconstructs “the very idea of the hero, overloading and thereby shattering this idealized reflection of humanity and so encouraging us to reflect upon its significance from the many different angles of the shards left lying on the ground.”

Smiley FaceWatchmen is set in an alternate 1980s where the existence of superheroes, especially the Superman-like Dr. Manhattan, has resulted in an American victory in Vietnam, more terms in office for Nixon, and a clear strategic advantage in the Cold War. That is until Dr. Manhattan, fed up with humanity, decides to leave earth and live on Mars, thus escalating the threat of nuclear annihilation. The future of the human race looks pretty bleak. This set-up allows Moore to dramatize various reactions to death-anxiety and nihilism. Thomson says that, with Moore’s ironic heroes, “nihilism is a natural fall-back position. It is as if…since our values are not absolute, they must be relative—their absolutism having led them falsely to assume these alternatives to be exhaustive.”

Variations on an all-or-nothing, extremist approach to nihilism are clearly expressed in The Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozzymandias. The Comedian believes life’s lack of intrinsic meaning renders the world absurd, a cosmic joke he chooses to parody with a cynical life-style ironically symbolized by his smiley face button. The Comedian pursues the American Dream by brutalizing, abusing, and killing—enjoying the carnage with a sense of glee, unconcerned with the impact it has on others—because, if the world is doomed to atomic conflagration, why worry? Be happy.

RorschachRorschach agrees that the world is meaningless, but decides to double-down on the need for moral absolutes by taking it upon himself to impose them—vigilantly, violently, if necessary—on a street level, one criminal at a time. He is an extreme deontologist: immoral acts are never tolerable even if their long term consequences are desirable. He says evil “must be punished, in the face of Armageddon I will not compromise in this.” His harsh ethical code is symbolized by his mask: “Black and white. Moving. Changing shape…But not mixing. No gray.” Thomson says Rorschach embodies the modern world’s “deep fear that we are powerless to live up to our own ideals” as well as the “even deeper fear that these ideals themselves are mere projections with which we cover over and so conceal from ourselves ‘the real horror’” i.e. the universe’s utter indifference to our efforts to make it a purposeful place.

 

Ozzymandias

Ozzymandias

Ozzymandias is the most distorted version of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch solution to modern humanity’s existential crisis. He is willing to sacrifices millions of lives in order to save humanity. He has raised himself up to a level of such megalomaniacal self-importance that he no longer feels bound by any moral principle, save the cold utilitarian calculations he thinks necessary to humanity’s long term survival. In the end, Ozzymandias has become the most despicable character in a story full of monsters masquerading as heroes. He’s a genocidal fascist.

Dr. Manhattan represents the opposite strategy. Instead of ironic engagement, he chooses apathy and detachment. His superhuman status gives him a perspective on time and space that makes humanity’s problems seem so small and petty. He reduces the universe to a clock without a maker, an accidental enterprise with no end goal in mind. “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles,” he says. “Structurally, there is no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?” Thomson argues that Dr. Manhattan embodies the scientific disenchantment of the world, “a world science takes to be intrinsically value-free, and so ultimately meaningless.”

Dr. Manhattan

Dr. Manhattan

And yet it is this very detachment and withdrawal that allows Dr. Manhattan to revise his nihilism and create new meanings. By helping Laurie re-evaluate her own existence, he comes to see each human as a “thermodynamic miracle.” The unique causal chain that culminated in the emergence of ‘Laurie,’ and every individual for that matter, is an event “with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible.” Doc’s change of heart may reflect Moore’s underlying optimism about the scientific method: by dispelling the objective existence of divinities and spirits, science by definition disenchants the world, but, by relocating the supernatural in the imagination itself, a scientific worldview also opens up the possibility for new kinds of re-enchantment. We can still find miracles in the observable cosmos, especially in the most precious thing of all: the emergence of life itself. In this way, Dr. Manhattan represents a transhumanist perspective: once humans unravel the mysteries of how our own minds and bodies work, and thus transcend the very physiological limitations that shaped us, the challenge then lies in discovering a new life-affirming sense of wonder. Or what is the point?

Dan and Laurie a.k.a. Nite Owl and Silk Specter II

Dan and Laurie a.k.a. Nite Owl and Silk Specter II

For Dan and Laurie, the point is intimacy. While the other characters are on a Nietzschean quest to create superhuman values, Dan and Laurie turn to each other and take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith into the comfort of romantic love. The horrific aftermath of Ozzymandias’ genocidal plan makes Laurie find value not only in human life itself, as Dr. Manhattan helped her see, but in the beauty of the relationships those individuals can create. “Being alive is so damn sweet,” she tells Dan. “I want you to love me because we’re not dead.” Laurie and Dan’s new truth, their new purpose, is grounded in their commitment to each other, a self-sustaining source of order and meaning.

Now, lest one think he’s selling out his ironic ethos by embracing some lovey-dovey, hippified solution to the problem of nihlism, Moore undercuts the Kierkegaardian leap when Laurie says their love smells like “Nostalgia,” a reference to a perfume ad, so Moore is perhaps suggesting that the concept of romantic love is one more commodified myth we are persuaded to buy into, one more fiction we consume in hopes of filling the existential gaps before our time on this planet is up. But if Moore is as thoroughly postmodern as he appears to be, he’ll also acknowledge that ‘commidified myths’ and ‘consumable fictions’ are all we have, so why not buy into ‘love’?

Watchmen‘s deconstruction of superhero tropes twists the function of the text by interrogating its own readers. It asks: what are you really looking for in these panels? What patterns do you see in its words and images? Which ideas and values still resonate long after you’ve closed the book? This is how great art addresses the problem of nihilism, not by teaching us what life means, but by creatively representing the complexity of the issue and giving people the space to think and draw their own conclusions. Watchmen does what all good myths do: they tell stories that help us make sense of the world.

Re-imagining Dragons: Gojira, Kami, and the Kaiju of Unintended Consequences

Posted in anxiety, Apocalypse, archetypes, armageddon, collective unconscious, emotion, Film, filmmaking, Horror, Monster, Monsters, Myth, Mythology, Pop culture, Religion, Science, Science fiction, social psychology, Speculative fiction, Technology, terror, war with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2014 by Uroboros
Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)

It must have been an eerie moment when, half an hour after the sky lit up over Bikini Atoll, the flakes began to fall. The crew of a Japanese fishing boat called the Lucky Dragon had no idea the ashes swirling down around them were from Castle Bravo. The 15 megaton hydrogen bomb dropped on March 1, 1954 was the most powerful weapon ever tested by the US military. The blast exceeded its expected radius, and the dust the crew brushed off their heads and shoulders that day was contaminated. Upon returning to Japan, the whole crew was sick, and, seven months later, Aikichi Kuboyama, the boat’s chief radioman, died from the radiation. Less than a decade after the end of WWII, the Lucky Dragon incident reignited the post-Hiroshima traumatic stress still festering in the Japanese psyche, sparking an idea in the mind of filmmaker Ishiro Honda, an iconic character he described as “the A-bomb made flesh:” Gojira (a mash-up of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale), which in English, of course, became ‘Godzilla.’

Operation Bravo: H-Bomb Test

Operation Bravo: H-Bomb Test

In its groundbreaking 1954 cinematic debut, this scaly leviathan, roused and swollen by nuclear contamination, emerges from the sea and smashes its way through Tokyo, whipping its gargantuan tail and spitting radioative fire. The original black and white movie alternates between scenes of fatalistic dread and apocalyptic devastation that are so downbeat and dire one wonders why it was such a hit, spawning, not only an ever-growing brood of sequels, but a whole new film genre. What does it say that, so soon after WWII, Japanese moviegoers paid to witness the simulated destruction of Tokyo again and again? One wonders if it was just a mindless diversion—an escapist fantasy where, in a state of titilation and sublime awe, they could feast their eyes on images of mass destruction—or if something deeper, more cathartic was happening. Were audiences subconsciously cleansing the psychic stain of national traumas and tragedies?

Gojira (1954)

Gojira (1954)

During the postwar occupation, the United States prohibited Japanese filmmakers from depicting anything overtly militaristic, so the Kaiju (“strange creature”) genre became an indirect way for Japanese culture to cope with its collective A-bomb PTSD and critique the accelerating Cold War arms race. Behemoths like Gojira, Mothra, and King Ghidorah were perfect symbols not only for contemporary anxieties but also a repressed, pre-industrial past that must have still haunted Japan. Kaiju can be seen as cinematic incarnations of kami, powerful spirits who often represent natural forces. According to Shinto beliefs, countless kami permeate reality, emerging from a hidden, parallel dimension to intervene in human affairs when our polluting ways upset the natural order and flow of energy. The central concern in Shintoism is purity. Ritual cleanliness pleases the kami and thus increases the chances of a successful, fruitful life, hence Japanese culture’s preoccupation with cleanliness. Pollution, impurity, and contamination, however, incur the wrath of the kami.

Ryujin

Ryujin

From this perspective, Gojira is reminiscent of powerful sea kami like Ryūjin (or Ryōjin a.k.a. Ōwatatsumi), a wingless dragon with massive claws who symbolizes the power of the Pacific Ocean. Fishermen performed cleansing rituals to Ryūjin in hopes of bolstering their catch. In East Asian mythologies, dragons tend to represent the vitality and potency of nature, so here we see a clear psychosocial link between radioactive pollution and a scaly, fire-breathing beast bent on utter destruction. Gojira symbolizes natural forces that, once contaminated by modern humanity’s technological hubris and careless disregard for the environment, return in misanthropic forms to lay waste to the source of the pollution. The King of All Monsters represents modernization run amok—the law of unintended consequences writ large.

It will be interesting to see how Japanese audiences respond to post-Fukushima versions of Godzilla. How do you think Gareth Edwards’ reboot will do in Japan three years removed from another nuclear disaster? Will moviegoers turn out in droves to see the latest incarnation of this wrathful kami? Will Hollywood be able to help cleanse the psychic stain of this national tragedy?

Japanese Godzilla (2014) poster

Japanese Godzilla (2014) poster

For more discussion see:

http://web.archive.org/web/20050203181104/http://www.pennyblood.com/godzilla2.html

http://www.wnyc.org/story/the-making-of-godzilla-japans-favorite-mon-star/

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/02/308955584/the-making-of-godzilla-japans-favorite-mon-star

The Marvel Dilemma: Genetic Enhancement and the Ethics of Supersizing

Posted in anxiety, archetypes, Avengers, comic books, Dystopia, emotion, graphic literature, Morality, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, reason, Science, Science fiction, Technology, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2014 by Uroboros
Cap: Supersized

Cap: Supersized

Some recent superhero movies have looked at the subject of genetic research and the implications of transhumanism. Thanks to the science behind Operation Rebirth’s serum, Steve Rogers is a super-soldier with physical strength and skills far beyond ordinary human capacities. Peter Parker’s superhuman powers are the result of a genetically-engineered spider’s bite, and his many of his nemeses, Lizard, Carrion, Jackal, Kaine, for example, are all products of bad genetic science. Hell, at OSCORP, it’s standard operating procedure. And, as mutants, the X-Men are transhuman outcasts whose powers put them in a precarious position in terms of how they view and relate to ‘normal’ humans.

These stories can be seen as Frankenstein-like morality tales meant to warn us about the dangers lurking up head if we lunge blindly into the brave new world of liberal eugenics. Setting aside the use of genetic technologies for the repair of injuries and treating diseases, which is of course less controversial, these stories raise an interesting ethical issue, the Marvel Dilemma: is it morally permissible to improve an otherwise healthy human body so one could run as fast as Cap or react as quickly as Peter Parker?

Among the moral philosophers weighing in on the ethics of biotech, Peter Singer represents one side of the Marvel Dilemma. He believes that, while we should be concerned with possible negative side-effects of enhancement, we must accept it’s inevitability and find ways of minimizing the downside while maximizing the ways improved bodies and minds can benefit society overall. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, questions not only the inevitability of a genetically-enhanced human race, but more importantly, the motives behind the desire to improve, a drive he finds morally suspect. Sandel’s argument praises the X-Men factor, the virtue of valuing life’s unexpected gifts.

Welcome to OSCORP

Welcome to OSCORP

In “Shopping at the Genetic Supermarket,” Singer considers whether a genetically-enhanced life could be happier, more pleasurable as well as the kinds of policies governments could adopt in order to ensure the positive effects outweigh the negative ones. As a utilitarian philosopher, he dismisses arguments based on prohibitions against ‘playing God’ or duties to moral law, focusing instead on measuring and evaluating likely consequences. “I do not think we have grounds for concluding,” he says, “that a genetic supermarket would harm either those who choose to shop there, or those who are created from the materials they purchase.”

Where many are repulsed and even terrified of the idea of designer babies, we must not forget that parents are constantly trying to design their children through what they feed them, teach them, what and who they allow their kids to play with and so on. It is a parent’s job to design his or her kid. The difference is pushing the techniques deeper into the prenatal phase, all the way to the genetic level, which we are becoming better and better at manipulating. Who wouldn’t want a child who is more likely to become a fit, smart, and emotionally-stable person? If you think it is wrong to tinker with ‘Mother Nature’ and decide to leave things to chance, wouldn’t you be doing your kid a disservice? After all, they will one day have to compete in the classroom, on the playing-field, in the boardroom with people whose parents chose to enhance. In deciding not to, you would be putting your child at a considerable disadvantage. Couldn’t that be seen as, to some degree, a form of abuse?

Singer doesn’t see anything intrinsically wrong with buying and selling gametes. A society of genetically-enhanced children could be a happier, healthier one, if properly regulated in terms of safety and equal access. The big fear, of course, is of the 1% who can afford the enhancements becoming a super-race who will lord it over the 99%, thus ensuring a dystopic nightmare for the rest of us. Singer’s solution is this:

“Assuming that the objective is to avoid a society divided in two along genetic lines, genetic enhancement services could be subsidized…the state should run a lottery in which the prize is the same package of genetic services that the rich commonly buy for themselves. Tickets in the lottery would not be sold; instead every adult citizen would be given one. The number of prizes would relate to how many of these packages society could afford to pay for, and thus would vary with the costs of the genetic services, as well as with the resources available to provide them. To avoid placing a financial burden on the state..the state should be directly involved in promoting genetic enhancement. The justification for this conclusion is simply that it is preferable to the most probable alternative – leaving genetic enhancement to the marketplace.”

Cap gets enhanced

Cap gets enhanced

So while Singer believes in a kind of genetic affirmative action, Michael Sandel takes a step back from the issue and asks a more fundamental question: why enhance at all? In “The Case Against Perfection,” Sandel explores what is at the heart of our ambivalence towards these technologies. “The question is,” he says, “whether we are right to be troubled, and if so, on what grounds.” He concludes that:

“[T]he main problem with enhancement and genetic engineering is…that they represent a kind of hyperagency—a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires…what the drive to mastery misses and may even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements.”

As a virtue ethicist, Sandel judges the permissibility of an act, first and foremost, in terms of the desire motivating it, and what Sandel sees here is hubris and anxiety—terror masked as transhumanist optimism—a “one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.” What we fear, what we want to master, is the unknown, the unbidden, the contingent. We once called this aspect of life ‘Fate’ or ‘God’s plan,’ the mysterious unfolding of events whose causes are so complex we can’t learn how to anticipate them and fear having to endure them. So why anticipate and endure them at all? Why be open to randomness? Why not master and eliminate the unbidden? Why not deny nature’s strange ‘gifts’ and order what we want ahead of time, so there are no surprises, no unfathomable errors?

Sandel says it is because the motivation is a sign of weaknesses, not strength. The desire to completely remake the world and ourselves in an image of our choosing actually closes life off, enframing the human experience in a hall of mirrors. It shows a lack of courage. “[O]penness ,” he says, “is a disposition worth affirming, not only within families but in the wider world as well. It invites us to abide the unexpected, to live with dissonance, to rein in the impulse to control.” Furthermore, Sandel argues, this disposition will promote humility, solidarity, and responsibility—invaluable virtues in protecting the integrity of our moral landscape.

Sandel’s approach sheds light on the psychology behind the escalation dilemma. Enhancement, the added value of a genetic alteration, needs a baseline in order to measure the degree of improvement. We won’t be able to make rationally-based value judgments unless we have a standard against which to measure them. For example, potential parents decide they want to have a girl who will grow up to be ‘tall’ because they read an article claiming that, in a workplace environment, taller women are perceived to be more powerful and competent, and therefore, tend to be more successful. Let’s say, five feet and eight inches is the current standard for being a ‘tall woman,’ so they get the doctor to alter the gametes to code for five feet, nine inches.

Now, how many other parents have read this article, too? How many other parents want to give their little Jenny the best chance for success? How many females will be born with the five feet, nine code? Pretty soon, five feet nine won’t be ‘tall’ anymore. It will be ‘the new normal.’ We’ve shifted the baseline, and the drive to enhance has to up the ante, and, within a few years the new mark is six feet and so on. If the motivation is improvement for the sake of improvement, or out of fear of that, since other parents are enhancing you are putting your child at a disadvantage, then the benchmark that defines enhancement will keep ratcheting up exponentially until the positive feedback loop unhinges and spins out of control.

This isn’t about the fear of meddling in ‘Mother Nature’s business.’ You don’t have to posit an essential ‘human nature’ or appeal to God’s laws in order to make sense of an argument against this kind of enhancement. ‘Human nature’ is and has always been a dynamic product of technological improvement from the mastery of fire right up to Lasik surgery and Google Glasses. Human nature isn’t a thing, a substance with a fixed set of properties to be meddled with. It is a dynamic, evolutionary process of integrating our genetically-based bodies with whatever ecological contingencies history brings to the equation. Culture is the part of our nature we invent in order to better ensure our survival. So we change ‘human nature’ each time we adapt to a new set of factors. The question is, what is pushing us to change the rhythm of the process in such a deep and radical way?

Some say it is already happening and is going to continue to happen. Pandora’s Jar is already open, and you can’t stop the genetic arms race now. Singer says you might as well learn how to manage the process so we maximize happiness and do the greatest good for the greatest number. But where is the autonomy, the free-will, in that forecast? Are genetically-enhanced superhumans as inevitable as entropy and the heat death of the universe? Or can we make choices that impact the future? If so, individuals will collectively have to decide to enhance or not. We will have to take a position and express an attitude that will influence the way these technologies are viewed and used. The virtue ethics approach in Sandel’s argument says we shouldn’t  encourage it. If what motivates the desire for mastery are mere vanity and pure anxiety, we should condemn or strongly discourage the use of genomic technology for personal ‘improvement’ and look down on those who do. The question is, are we willing to confront the lack of courage that often drives our perfectionist fantasies and, thanks to the laws of technological acceleration and unintended consciousness, could possibly become the source of our damnation instead of salvation.

X-Men: Mutant and proud!

X-Men: Mutant and proud!

So the answer to the Marvel Dilemma isn’t to escalate enhancement, like in the world of OSCORP, but to the embrace the X-Men ethic of being more accepting toward the unbidden and biologically-given, learn to tolerate and have faith in each other. Granted that there’s a clear distinction between treatment and enhancement (and there are limit cases where this isn’t cut and dry), we should strive to use genetic technology to prevent disease and suffering, but not to enhance an otherwise healthy human body, especially when the motivation behind the changes isn’t a virtuous one. Perhaps we could prevent the self-fulfilling nightmare of a genetic arms race if we owned up to the negative emotions inspiring it in the first place. This would not lead to human ‘enhancement,’ after all, but a tragic dehumanization cosmetically-masked as ‘progress.’ Why not channel the time and money to genetic solutions to over-population, food and energy shortages, and global warming instead? We often think of using this tech in terms of supersizing ourselves, but, as Singer points out, we could just as well use it to downsize ourselves, lowering the amount of food and energy we need to consume. Wouldn’t that be better for the planet and the future of humankind?

The Philosophy of Decomposition: Poe and the Perversity of the Gothic Mind

Posted in Ancient Greek, anxiety, Aristotle, barriers to critical thinking, Christianity, Consciousness, ecology, emotion, Enlightenment, Ethics, fiction, French Revolution, Freud, God, Goth, Gothic, Horror, horror fiction, irrational, Jesus, Literature, Morality, Philosophy, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, Romanticism, Science, Speculative fiction, terror, tragedy, Uroboros, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2013 by Uroboros

Whether you think Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are expertly-crafted explorations of the dark side of human nature or morbid, overwrought  melodramas, there is no doubt his work has had a tremendous impact on Western culture. Probably his most important contribution, apart from establishing the contemporary short story format and inventing the detective genre, is revitalizing the Gothic genre and pushing horror fiction in a more philosophically interesting direction. His stories are so enduring and influential because of the conceptual depth he added to generic tropes, redefining literature in the process. He accomplished this feat by perverting the Gothic.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

By the time Poe arrived on the scene, Gothic fiction had already fossilized and become fodder for self-parody. What started with the fantastic absurdities of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and culminating in the speculative complexity of Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) had eventually led to Northanger Abbey (1817), Jane Austin’s metafictional send up of what had become pretty stale conventions by then: crumbling castles, tormented heroines, supernatural entities, and family curses. Although the external trappings of Gothic plots may have fallen into ruin, its themes remained relevant. According to Joyce Carol Oates, a master of the genre in her own right, Gothic fiction explores the fragmentation of the alienated mind by inscrutable historical and biological forces that can overwhelm one’s ability to rationally understand the world and make intelligent choices, a critical antidote to naïve utopian visions of the future inspired by the Enlightenment and of particular interest to American culture, the intellectual basis of which is rooted in the rational pursuit of happiness. ‘Gothic’ suggests the fear of something primal and regressive that threatens to undermine mental and social stability. In order to be a culturally relevant again, though, Gothic literature needed a writer who could reanimate its tropes. It needed a morbid, hypersensitive, and arrogant genius named Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s key twist is turning the tropes inward and starting with the macabre landscape within—“the terror of the soul,” he calls it. By the 1830s, Poe is focused on composing short fiction, crafting tightly-constructed tales, rendered in dense, pompous prose, spewing from the cracked psyches of unreliable narrators. This is the dark heart of many of his best stories: “Ligeia” (1838), “William Wilson” (1839),  “The Black Cat” (1843), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), just to name a few (of course, his most accomplished story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), flips this dynamic: an unnamed and relatively reasonable narrator details the psychic disintegration of Roderick Usher). Poe’s disturbed, epistemologically-challenged protagonists aren’t the true innovation. Marlowe and Shakespeare pioneered that literary territory centuries before. The element that Poe adds—the novelty that both revitalizes and Americanizes the Gothic—is, what Poe himself calls, “the spirit of the perverseness.”

-d328znhThe narrator in “The Black Cat” puts forth this concept to explain his violent deeds. He says perversity is “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties…which give direction to the character of Man.” What is its function? It is the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself,” the narrator says, “a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment” to commit a “vile or a silly action” precisely because we believe it to be ‘vile’ or ‘silly.’ In “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845), the narrator claims that perversity is “a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment,” so deep and pervasive, that it is ultimately immune to the prescriptions of the analytical mind. In other words, Poe identified the disruptive and neurotic effects of ‘the Unconscious’ half a century before Freud burst onto the scene.

While these narrators claim that philosophers have ignored man’s irrational inclinations, we shouldn’t assume Poe, himself a well-read scholar, wasn’t influenced by obvious precursors to ‘the spirit of perverseness,’ namely Aristotle and St. Augustine. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle posits his theory of akrasia, the vice of incontinence, i.e. the inability to control oneself and do the virtuous thing even when one knows it is the right choice. This is his corrective to the Socratic-Platonic dictum that to know the good is to do the good: no one willingly does evil. To Aristotle, this is a distorted view of the human condition. We can know theoretically what the virtuous choice is—wisdom Aristotle calls sophiabut that doesn’t automatically compel us to have phronesisor practical wisdom, which is the ability to do the good. In other words, there is a gap between knowledge and action, a notion that surfaces again in Aristotle’s Poetics. In his analysis of drama, Aristotle identifies hamartia as a key characteristic of the tragic hero, referring to the flaws in judgment that lead to a character’s ultimate downfall. An archery metaphor that means “to miss the mark,” hamartia becomes the main word New Testament writers use to translate the Jewish concept of sin into Greek (they weren’t the first to do this: writers of the Septuagint, the 2C BCE Greek translation of Hebrew scripture, had already made this move). By the fifth century CE, St. Augustine, the most influential Christian theologian of late-antiquity, formulates his doctrine of original sin, describing humanity’s lack of self-control as innate, embodied depravity. For Augustine, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they condemned their progeny to bondage, chaining the human spirit to this corrupt, uncontrollable, and ultimately decaying flesh. Only Christ’s sacrifice and God’s loving grace, Augustine assures us, can liberate the spirit from this prison.

This is part of the philosophical lineage behind perverseness, despite his narrators’ claims to the contrary. There is, however, some truth to the critique if seen from a mid-19C perspective. From Descartes right through to Locke, ‘Reason‘ is heralded as humanity’s salvation (of course, Hume and Rousseau poke skeptical holes in 18C Europeans’ over-inflated, self-aggrandizing mythology. Kant manages to salvage some of the optimism, but has to sacrifice key epistemic conceits in the process). But enlightened humanistic confidence looks like hubris to Romantic writers and artists, especially in the wake of the French Revolution and the international traumas it spawned. This is the mindset Poe resonates with: one that is highly skeptical of the ‘Man-is-the-rational-animal’ mythos. Anyone familiar with his biography can see why he gravitates toward a dark worldview. As a critic, he loves savaging fellow writers whose dispositions strike him as too sunny, and as a storyteller, his characters often confront—sometimes ironically, sometimes tragically—the limits of reason, a capacity Poe calls (I think with a tongue-in-cheek ambivalence) ‘ratiocination.’

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

The ‘spirit of perverseness’ implies that neither divine ‘Grace’ nor humanistic ‘Reason’ can save us from a life of terror and suffering, especially when we ignore and repress our essential sinfulness. Whether you view history through a biblical or Darwinian lens, one thing is clear: humans aren’t naturally inclined to seek rational knowledge anymore than we are given to loving and respecting each other universally. Modern cognitive science and psychology have shown us that the mind evolved to assist in feeding, procreation, and, of course, to protect the body from danger—not to seek objective truths. It evolved to help us band together in small tribal circles, fearing and even hating those who exist outside that circle. Over time we’ve been able to grasp how much better life would be if only we could rationally control ourselves and universally respect each other—and yet “in the teeth of our best judgment” we still can’t stop ourselves from committing vile and silly actions. Self-sabotage, Poe seems to argue, is our default setting.

Poe shifts Gothic terror from foggy graveyards and dark abbeys to broken brains and twisted minds. The true threats aren’t really lurking ‘out there.’ They’re stirring and bubbling from within, perturbing and overwhelming the soul, often with horrifying results. A Gothic mind lives in a Gothicized world—personifying its surroundings in terms of its own anxious and alienated disposition. ‘Evil’ only appears to be ‘out there.’ As literary and ecological theorist Timothy Morton points out, evil isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of beholder who frets over the corruption of the world without considering the perverseness generated by his own perceptual apparatus. It’s an Uroboric feedback loop that, left to its own devices, will spin out of control and crumble to pieces. The most disturbing implication of Poe-etic perversity is the sense of helplessness it evokes. Even when his characters are perceptive enough to diagnose their own disorders, they are incapable of stopping the Gothic effect. This is how I interpret the narrator’s ruminations in “The Fall of the House of Usher:”

 What was it…that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression…There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition…served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy…so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued…

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

Reflections on The Walking Dead

Posted in Apocalypse, Brain Science, Consciousness, Descartes, emotion, Ethics, Existentialism, God, Horror, humanities, Metaphor, Metaphysics, Monster, Monsters, Morality, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Psychology, Religion, religious, Science, State of nature, terror, The Walking Dead, theory of mind, Zombies with tags , , , on October 19, 2013 by Uroboros

walking deadWARNING: SPOILERS. The Walking Dead’s violent, post-apocalyptic setting always makes me wonder: what kind of person would I be under circumstances like that? Given what one has to do in order to survive, could I still look at myself in the mirror and recognize the person gazing back at me? Would I even want to?

Critics sometimes complain about the show’s pacing and quieter, more reflective scenarios, but the writers should be applauded for slowing the story down, developing the characters, and exploring the thematic implications of their struggles. The Walking Dead knows how to alternate between terror—the dreaded threat of the unseen, the lurking menace yet to be revealed—and horror, the moment when the monster lunges from the bushes and takes a bite. Utilizing this key dynamic means including lots of slower, quieter scenes. Setting up psychological conflicts and tweaking character arcs enhances the terror because we are more invested in the outcomes—we care about what is lurking around the corner, and, when the horror is finally unleashed, the gore is all the more terrifying because we know more about the victims. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the hyperactivity you get in shows like American Horror Story, a series that flows like a sugar rush—sleek, Gothic concoctions for the Ritalin Generation.

The slow-burn approach also allows viewers to reflect on the shows themes, like the existential and moral status of the Walkers themselves. During Season Two, Herschel didn’t share the kill ’em all approach that Rick and company had pretty much taken for granted—and who could blame them? After what happened in Atlanta in Season One, there was little reason to contemplate the possible personhood of the Walkers chomping at the bit to eat them. But, when farm life slowed things down and gave characters more time to reflect on their situation, the issue slowly but surely lumbered out into the open and became the turning point of the season.

Rick and Herschel's Moral Debate

Rick and Herschel’s Moral Debate

When Rick confronted Herschel about hiding his zombified relatives in the barn, the conviction in Herschel’s moral reasoning was hard to dismiss. From his perspective, a zombie was just a sick human being: behind the blank eyes and pale, rotting skin, Herschel saw a human being waiting to be saved. After all, what if zombiehood could be cured? If that’s your philosophy, then killing a zombie when you don’t have to would be murder. By the end of Season Two, of course, we learn that everybody is infected and thus destined to be a zombie. We’re all the Walking Dead, so to speak. In Season Three, even the duplicitous, devious Governor struggles with the issue. As much as we grow to hate him as a brutal tyrant, he’s also a loving father who can’t let go of his daughter. She’s not just a zombie to him. In the Season Four opener, the issue resurfaced again with Tyreese’s ambivalence about having to kill Walkers all day at the prison fence and then later when Carl rebuked the other kids for naming them. “They’re not people, and they’re not pets,” he tells them. “Don’t name them.” This is after Rick warned him about getting too attached to the pig, which he’d named Violet. To Carl, animals are more like people than Walkers are.

‘Personhood’ is a sticky philosophical issue. We all walk around assuming other people also have a subjective awareness of the world—have feelings and memories and intelligence, can make decisions and be held responsible for them. This assumption, which philosophers call ‘theory of mind,’ frames our experience of reality. But, some philosophers are quick to ask: how do you know others really have feelings and intelligent intentions? Sure, they have the body language and can speak about their inner states, but couldn’t that be mere appearance? After all, that’s just behavior. It could be a simulation of consciousness, a simulacrum of selfhood. You can’t get ‘inside’ somebody’s head and experience the world from their point of view. We don’t have Being John Malkovich portals into the subjectivity of others (yet). Philosophically and scientifically speaking, the only state of consciousness you can be sure of is your own.

That was what Rene Descartes, the highly influential 17th century philosopher, meant when he said cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. He was trying to establish a foundation for modern philosophy and science by basing it on the one thing in the world everyone can be absolutely certain of, i.e. one’s own consciousness, which in turn has the rational capacities to understand the clock-like machinations of the physical world. Descartes, therefore, posits a dualistic metaphysics with physical stuff on side of the ontological divide and mental stuff on the other. Minds can use brains and bodies to get around and know a world made up of mindless stuff. Only humans and God have souls and can ‘know’ what is happening, can understand what is going on.  Zombie girl

The problem with Descartes’ cogito is that—unless you assume the same things Descartes did about God and math—you can’t really be sure about the existence of other cogitos or even the world outside your own head. You could be dreaming or in a fake reality conjured up by a Matrix-style evil genius. ‘I think, therefore I am’ opens up a Pandora’s jar of radical skepticism and solipsism. How do you really know that others aren’t ‘philosophical zombies,’ i.e. beings that behave like they’re conscious but are really only organic machines without subjective experiences and free-will? This is what some philosophers call the ‘hard problem:’ how do brain states generated by the synaptic mesh of neurons and the electrochemical flow inside the skull—purely physical processes that can be observed objectively with an fMRI machine—cause or correlate to subjective awareness—to feelings, images, and ideas that can’t be seen in an fMRI?

This theory was dramatized during Season One by Dr. Jenner when he showed an fMRI rendered transformation from human to Walker. He said the brain holds the sum total of the memories and dreams, the hopes and fears that make you who you are—and the death of the brain is the irrevocable end of that identity. What is revived through zombification is not that person—it’s not even human. In other words, you are your brain. The zombie that emerges may resemble you in some uncanny way—but it’s not really you. That’s of course most characters’ default theory until we meet Herschel and get an alternative perspective. He’s not interested in scientifically or philosophically ‘proving’ the personhood of Walkers. They’re family members and neighbors who happen to be sick and might someday be cured. He can’t kill them. What’s intriguing is how his response bypasses the metaphysical problem and goes right to the ethical question. If you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that zombies aren’t conscious—that there isn’t some sliver of humanity swirling around inside those rotting skulls—then isn’t Herschel’s theory a more appropriate moral response, a more humane approach?

What matters most, from this perspective, is how you treat the other, the stranger. It’s no accident that Herschel is a veterinarian and not a ‘human ‘doctor, which would’ve served his initial plot function—saving Carl—just as well, if not better. As a vet, Herschel has to care about the pain and suffering of creatures whose states of mind he can’t know or prove. What matters isn’t testing and determining the degree to which a creature is conscious and then scaling your moral obligations in proportion to that measurement—after all, such a measurement may be in principle impossible—what matters is how you treat others in the absence of such evidence. In short, it depends on a kind of faith, a default assumption that necessitates hospitality, not hostility. The perspective one adopts, the stance one assumes, defines how we relate to animals and the planet as a whole—to other human beings and ultimately oneself.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

I think this is one of the most relevant and potent themes in The Walking Dead, and I was glad to see it re-emerge in the Season Four opener. In future episodes, it will be interesting to see how they explore it, especially through Carl and Tyreese. I’ll be focused on how they react to the Walkers: how they manage their feelings and control themselves in the crises to come. Walkers are like uncanny mirrors in which characters can glimpse otherwise hidden aspects of their own minds. What do Tyreese and Carl see when they look into the seemingly-soulless eyes of a Walker, and what does that say about the state of their souls? Will they lose themselves? If they do, can they come back?

The Promethean Urge

Posted in Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Forbidden Fruit, God, Literature, Morality, Mythology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Technology with tags , , , on June 10, 2012 by Uroboros

When Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man, his punishment is to be bound to a mountaintop for all eternity. Each day, an eagle eats his liver. Each night, the wounds heals, and the next day the torture begins again. The idea of breaking through boundaries is the key to the enduring power of the Promethean myth. Humans can’t help being curious about what’s really ‘out there’ beyond the veil of appearance—can’t help being tempted by the fruit of knowledge that grows there and the power it bestows.

When we part the veil and peer into the other side, though, are we gazing at something we were meant to see, or at a realm that is beyond human capacities and thus dangerous to behold? Quite often, people think ‘God’ is on the other side—that ‘He’ has drawn the line, and it is out of pride that we want to trespass and set up camp in ‘His’ space. As sinful, broken creatures, we simply don’t know when to quit. A human is, by definition, the kind of being who won’t, or possibly can’t, accept limitations on its nature. Since we were made in God’s image, we are invariably tempted to become what we behold that mirror image to be.

A survey of human history reveals that, despite our reservations, we have been playing ‘God’ right from the beginning. Restless creatures that we are, humans have always been asking questions, testing possibilities, and putting answers into practice. If we didn’t continually test the bounds and explore ‘God’s territory,’ we’d still be hunting and gathering—we’d still be following and praying to animals. Because we’ve indulged our Promethean urge, however, most humans don’t worship animals anymore. We keep them as pets. We clone them. With the power of genetics, we’re remaking life itself in our image. Modern civilization has re-framed the boundaries of its looking glass and is both enamored and terrified by what it sees. Undeniably, science and technology have enriched our lives—enhancing our ability to alleviate suffering, to travel previously unthinkable distances, and communicate with each other on a global scale—but we can also annihilate ourselves with the push of a button. We can create tools of mass salvation and destruction. The sci-fi authors and filmmakers I admire most tend to imply that the sin isn’t necessarily in wanting to explore unknown territories. Hubris isn’t an epistemological issue. It’s a moral one. The sin is in running away from the implications of what you find. It’s in disowning what you create in the process. Humanity does have to accept at least one limitation: we can’t have the fruit of forbidden knowledge and eat it too.

More Human Than Human: Blade Runner and the Radical Ethics of A.I.

Posted in A.I., artificial intelligence, Blade Runner, Brain Science, Christianity, Consciousness, Descartes, Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Jesus, Morality, Neurology, Phillip K Dick, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Psychology, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 27, 2012 by Uroboros

Blade Runner: What makes us human?

Self-consciousness is a secret, or at least its existence is predicated upon one. The privacy of subjective experience has mystified philosophers for centuries and dogged neuroscientists for decades. Science can, in principle, unravel every enigma in the universe, except perhaps for the one that’s happening in your head right now as you see and understand these words. Neurologists can give rich accounts of the visual processing happening in your occipital lobes and locate the cortical regions responsible for parsing the grammar and grasping the concepts. But they can’t objectively identify the ‘you’ part. There’s no neuron for ‘the self.’ No specific neural network which is essentially causing ‘you’ –with all your unique memories, interpretive quirks, and behavioral habits—to read these words have the particular experience you are having.

This problem is illustrated in debates about artificial intelligence. The goal is to create non-biological sentience with a subjective point-of-view, personal memories, and the ability to make choices. The Turing Test is a method for determining whether a machine is truly intelligent, as opposed to just blindly following a program and reacting algorithmically to stimuli. Basically, if a computer or a robot can convince enough people in a blind test that it is intelligent, then it is. That’s the test. The question is, what kind of behaviors and signs would a machine have to have in order to convince you that it’s self-aware?

Voight-Kampf Test

The 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, has a version of this called the Voight-Kampf test. The androids in the story, Nexus-6 Replicants, are so close to humans in appearance and behavior that it takes an intense psychological questionnaire coupled with a scan of retinal and other involuntary responses to determine the difference. A anomalous emotional reaction is symptomatic of artificial, as opposed to natural, intelligence. Rachel, the Tyrell corporation’s most state-of-the-art Replicant, can’t even tell she’s artificial. “How can it not know what it is?” asks Deckard, the bounty hunter charged with ‘retiring’ rogue Replicants. Tyrell says memory implants have given her a sense of self, a personal narrative context through which she views the world. The line between real and artificial humans, therefore, is far from clear. Rachel asks Deckard if he’s ever ‘retired’ a human by mistake. He says he hasn’t, but the fact that Rachel had to ask is telling. Would you want to take this test?

If you think about it, what makes you’re own inner subjectivity provable to others—and their subjectivity provable to you—are the weird kind of quirks, the idiosyncrasies which are unique to you and would be exceedingly difficult for a program to imitate convincingly. This is what philosophers call the problem of other minds. Self-consciousness is the kind of thing which, by its very nature, cannot be turned inside out and objectively verified. This is what Descartes meant by ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Your own mental experience is the only thing in the world you can be sure of. You could, in principle, be deluded about the appearance of the outer world. You think you’re looking at this computer screen, but who do you know you’re not dreaming or hallucinating or are part of Matrix-like simulation? According to Descartes’ premise, even the consciousness of others could be faked, but you cannot doubt the fact that you are thinking right now, because to doubt this proposition is to actually prove it. All we’re left with is our sense of self. We are thinking things.

Fembot Fatale

The Turing Test, however, rips the rug away from this certainty. If the only proof for intelligence is behavior which implies a mindful agent as its  source, are you sure you could prove you’re a mindful, intelligent being to others? Can you really prove it to yourself? Who’s testing who? Who’s fooling who?

The uncanny proposition hinted at in Blade Runner is that you, the protagonist of your own inner narrative, may actually be artificial, too. Like Rachel and the not-so-human-after-all Deckard, you may be an android and not know it. Your neural circuitry may not have evolved by pure accident. The physical substrate supporting your ‘sense of self’ may be the random by-product of natural selection, something that just blooms from the brain, like an oak grows out of an acorn—but ‘the you part’ has to be programmed in. The circuitry is hijacked by a cultural virus called language, and the hardware is transformed in order to house a being that maybe from this planet, but now lives in its own world. Seen this way, the thick walls of the Cartesian self thin out and become permeable—perforated by motivations and powers not your own, but ‘Society’s.’ Seen in this light, it’s not as hard to view yourself as a kind of robot programmed to behave in particular ways in order to serve purposes which are systematically hidden.

This perspective has interesting moral implications. The typical question prompted by A.I. debates is, if we can make a machine that feel and thinks, does it deserve to be treated with the same dignity as flesh and blood human beings? Can a Replicant have rights? I ask my students this question when we read Frankenstein, the first science fiction story. Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley was already pondering the moral dilemma posed by A.I. Victor Frankenstein’s artificially-intelligent creation becomes a serial-killing monster precisely because his arrogant and myopic creator (the literary critic Harold Bloom famously called Victor a ‘moral idiot’) refuses to treat him with any dignity and respect. He sees his artificial son as a demon, a fiend, a wretch—never as a human being. That’s the tragedy of Shelley’s novel.

Robot, but doesn’t know it

In Blade Runner,the ‘real’ characters come off as cold and loveless, while the artificial ones turn out to be the most passionate and sympathetic. It’s an interesting inversion which suggests that what really makes us human isn’t something that’s reducible to neural wiring or a genetic coding—it isn’t something that can be measured or tested through retinal scans. Maybe the secret to ‘human nature’ is that it can produce the kind of self-awareness which empowers one to make moral decisions and treat other creatures, human and non-human, with dignity and respect. The radical uncertainty which surrounds selfhood, neurologically speaking, only heightens the ethical imperative. You don’t know the degree of consciousness in others, so why not assume other creatures are as sensitive as you are, and do unto others as you would have them do to you.

In other words, how would Jesus treat a Replicant?

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