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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


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 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.

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?

Fatal Curiosity: Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the Terror of the Known

Posted in Consciousness, Existentialism, Gothic, Horror, irrational, Literature, Lovecraft, Lovecraftian, Metaphor, Metaphysics, Myth, Nietzsche, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Prometheus, Psychology, rationalizing animal, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, short story, Speculative fiction, terror, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2013 by Uroboros

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history,’ but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

If you’re a fan, you might think this an excerpt from an H.P. Lovecraft story, one of his twisted tales about erudite, curious men who learn too much about the nature of reality and are either destroyed or deeply damaged by what they discover. But this is actually the opening to Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense” (1873), a biting critique of the epistemological pretentiousness he finds running rampant through Western philosophy. Nietzsche is an iconoclastic philosopher, hammering away at venerated ideas, slashing through sacred assumptions. He gleefully turns traditional theories on their heads, challenging our beliefs, disturbing our values—an intellectual calling that has much in common with H.P. Lovecraft’s literary mission. His favorite theme is what he calls cosmic indifferentism. If Lovecraft has a philosophy, it is this: the universe was not created by a divine intelligence who infused it with an inherent purpose that is compatible with humanity’s most cherished existential desires. The cosmos is utterly indifferent to the human condition, and all of his horrific monsters are metaphors for this indifference.

Nietzsche and Lovecraft are both preoccupied with the crises this conundrum generates.

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

“What does man actually know about himself?” Nietzsche asks, “Does nature not conceal most things from him?” With an ironic tone meant to provoke his readers, he waxes prophetic: “And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness.” In Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (1934) this ‘fatal curiosity’ is personified in the scientist Crawford Tillinghast. “What do we know of the world and the universe about us?” Tillinghast asks his friend, the story’s unnamed narrator. “Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature.” His Promethean quest is to build a machine that lets humans transcend the inherent limitations of our innate perceptual apparatus, see beyond the veil of appearances, and experience reality in the raw. From a Nietzschean perspective, Tillinghast wants to undo the effect of a primitive but deceptively potent technology: language.

In “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense,” Nietzsche says symbolic communication is the means by which we transform vivid, moment-to-moment impressions of reality into “less colorful, cooler concepts” that feel “solid, more universal, better known, and more human than the immediately perceived world.” We believe in universal, objective truths because, once filtered through our linguistic schema, the anomalies, exceptions, and border-cases have been marginalized, ignored, and repressed. What is left are generic conceptual properties through which we perceive and describe our experiences. “Truths are illusions,” Nietzsche argues, “which we have forgotten are illusions.” We use concepts to determine whether or not our perceptions, our beliefs, are true, but all concepts, all words, are “metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” [For more analysis of this theory of language, read my essay on the subject.]

Furthermore, this process happens unconsciously: the way our nervous system instinctually works guarantees that what we perceive consciously is a filtered picture, not reality in the raw. As a result, we overlook our own creative input and act as if some natural or supernatural authority ‘out there’ puts these words in our heads and compels us to believe in them. Lovecraft has a similar assessment. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), his essay on the nature and merits of Gothic and weird storytelling, he says the kind of metaphoric thinking that leads to supernatural beliefs is “virtually permanent so far as the subconscious mind and inner instincts are concerned…there is an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue,” hence our innate propensity to perceive superhuman and supernatural causes when confronting the unknown. Nietzsche puts it like this: “All that we actually know about these laws of nature is what we ourselves bring to them…we produce these representations in and from ourselves with the same necessity with which the spider spins.” This, of course, applies to religious dogmas and theological speculations, too.

From Beyond (1986 film adaptation)

From Beyond (1986 film adaptation)

In “From Beyond,” Crawford Tillinghast wants to see “things which no breathing creature has yet seen…overleap time, space, and dimensions, and…peer to the bottom of creation.” The terror is in what slips through the rift and runs amok in this dimension. His scientific triumph quickly becomes a horrific nightmare, one that echoes Nietzsche’s caveat about attaining transgressive knowledge: “If but for an instant [humans] could escape from the prison walls” of belief, our “‘self consciousness’ would be immediately destroyed.”

Here in lies the source of our conundrum, the existential absurdity, the Scylla and Charybdis created by our inherent curiosity: we need to attain knowledge to better ensure our chances of fitting our ecological conditions and passing our genes along to the next generation, and yet, this very drive can bring about our own destruction. It’s not simply that we can unwittingly discover fatal forces. It’s when the pursuit of knowledge moves beyond seeking the information needed to survive and gets recast in terms of discovering values and laws that supposedly pertain to the nature of the cosmos itself. Nietzsche and Lovercraft agree this inevitably leads to existential despair because either we continue to confuse our anthropomorphic projections with the structure of reality itself, and keep wallowing in delusion and ignorance as a result, or we swallow the nihilistic pill and accept that we live in an indifferent cosmos that always manages to wriggle out of even our most clear-headed attempts to grasp and control it. So it’s a question of what’s worse: the terror of the unknown or the terror of the known?

Nietzsche is optimistic about the existential implications of this dilemma. There is a third option worth pursuing: in a godless, meaningless universe, we have poetic license to become superhuman creatures capable of creating the values and meanings we need and want. I don’t know if Lovecraft is confident enough in human potential to endorse Nietzsche’s remedy, though. If the words of Francis Thurston, the protagonist from his most influential story, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), are any indication of his beliefs, then Lovecraft doesn’t think our epistemological quest will turn out well:

“[S]ome day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality…we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

"Cthulhu Rising" by_Somniturne

“Cthulhu Rising” by_Somniturne

What is language? What can we do with it, and what does it do to us?

Posted in 1984, 99%, anxiety, barriers to critical thinking, Big Brother, Brain Science, Consciousness, critical thinking, Dystopia, Dystopian, emotion, freedom, George Orwell, humanities, irrational, Jason Reynolds, limbic system, Moraine Valley Community College, Neurology, Newspeak, Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell, paranoia, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, politics, Politics and Media, rational animal, Rationalization, rationalizing animal, reason, resistance to critical thinking, theory, theory of mind, thoughtcrime, Two Minutes Hate, Uncategorized, Uroboros, Zombies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2013 by Uroboros

In Orwell’s 1984, INGSOC’s totalitarian control of Oceania ultimately depends on Newspeak, the language the Party is working hard to develop and implement. Once in common use, Newspeak will eliminate the possibility of thoughtcrime, i.e. any idea that contradicts or questions absolute love for and devotion to Big Brother. Newspeak systematically scrubs away all those messy, gray areas from the English language, replacing them with a formal, logically-rigid system. For example, instead of having to decide whether to use ‘awesome,’ ‘fabulous,’ or ‘mind-blowingly stupendous’ to describe a situation, you would algorithmically deploy the Newspeak formula, which reduces the plethora of synonyms you could use to ‘good,’ ‘plusgood,’ or ‘doubleplusgood.’ Furthermore, all antonyms are reduced to ‘ungood,’ ‘plusungood,’ or ‘doubleplusungood.’Newspeak

Syme, a Party linguist, tells Winston, the novel’s rebellious protagonist, that the ultimate goal is to eliminate conscious thought from the speaking process altogether. The Newspeak term for it is ‘duckspeak‘—a more mechanical form of communication that doesn’t require higher-level cognitive functions, like having to pick the word that best expresses your feelings or creating a new one. That sense of freedom and creativity will simply cease to exist once Newspeak has finally displaced ‘Oldspeak.’ “The Revolution will be complete,” Syme tells Winston, “when the language is perfect.” The Proles and the Outer Party (95% of Oceania’s population) will become a mass of mindless duckspeakers, the linguistic equivalent of ‘philosophical zombies’.

Newspeak implies that cognition depends on language—that symbolic communication isn’t merely a neutral means for sending and receiving thoughts. Instead, the words and sentences we use actually influence the way we think about and perceive the world. While Orwell was obviously inspired by the propaganda techniques used by the dictators of his day, perhaps he was also familiar with Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” or the work of anthropologists like Boas and Sapir, all of whom embraced some form of what is now called linguistic relativism, a theory which argues for the reality of what Orwell proposed in fiction: we experience the world according to how our language lets us experience it.

Linguist Lera Boroditsky

Linguist Lera Boroditsky

Linguistic relativism is on the rise in the contemporary study of language. The work of, for example, Lera Boroditsky and Daniel Everett provide strong empirical data that supports (at least the weak version of) linguistic relativism, challenging the Chomskian paradigm, which posits a universalist account of how language is acquired, functions, and, by extension, relates to cognition and perception.

In my previous essay on the Uroboric model of mind, I asked about the connection between neuronal processes and symbolic systems: how can an abstract representation impact or determine the outcome of tangible physical processes? How can ionic thresholds in axons and the transmission of hormones across synaptic gaps depend upon the meaning of a symbol? Furthermore, how can we account for this in a naturalistic way that neither ignores the phenomena by defining them out of existence nor distorts the situation by positing physics-defying stuff? In short, how do we give an emergent account of the process?

StopFirst, we ask: what is language? Most linguists will say it means symbolic communication: in other words, information exchanges that utilize symbols. But what is a symbol? As you may recall from your grade school days, symbols are things that stand for, refer to, or evoke other things—for example, the red hexagonal shapes on street corners provokes your foot to press against the brake, or the letters s, t, o, and p each refer to particular sounds, which, when pronounced together, mean ‘put your foot on the brake.’ Simple enough, right? But the facility with which we use language, and with which we reflexively perceive that usage, belies both the complexity of the process and the powerful effects it has on our thinking.

Cognitive linguists and brain scientists have shown that much of our verbal processing happens unconsciously. Generally speaking, when we use language, words just seem to ‘come to mind’ or ‘show up’ in consciousness. We neither need to consciously think about the meaning of each and every word we use, nor do we have to analyze every variation of tone and inflection to understand things like sarcasm and irony. These complex appraisals and determinations are made subconsciously because certain sub-cortical and cortical systems have already processed the nonverbal signals, the formal symbols, and decoded their meaning. That’s what learning a language equips a brain to do, and we can even identify parts that make major contributions. Broca’s area, for example, is a region in the left frontal lobe that is integral to both language production and comprehension. If a stroke damages Broca’s area, the sufferer may lose the ability not only to produce speech, but to comprehend it as well.

Left-brain language regions

Left-brain language regions

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

One of the most publicized cases of sudden ‘language-less-ness’ is that of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard brain scientist who, in 1996, happened to have a stroke in her left hemisphere, which impacted both the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of her brain. She couldn’t remember who she was. She couldn’t use language. Taylor compares it to dying and being reborn, to being an infant in a grown woman’s body. Her insights into a language-less reality shed light on how words and sentences impact cognition. She says she lost her inner voice, that chatter that goes on ‘in’ the head. She no longer organized her experiences in a categorical, analytic way. Reality no longer showed up to her with the same fine-grained detail: it wasn’t divided and subdivided, classified and prejudged in terms of past associations or future expectations, in terms of self and other, us vs. them, and so on. She no longer had an ‘I’ at the center of her experience. Once the left-brain’s anxious, anal-retentive chatter went offline, right-brain processes took over, and, Taylor claims, the world showed up as waves of energy in an interconnected web of reality. She says that, for her at least, it was actually quite pleasant. The world was present in a way that language had simply dialed down and filtered out. [Any of you who are familiar with monotheistic mysticism and/or mindfulness meditation are probably seeing connections to various religious rituals and the oceanic experiences she describes.]

This has profound implications for the study of consciousness. It illustrates how brain anatomy and neural function—purely physical mechanisms—are necessary to consciousness. Necessary, but not sufficient. While we need brain scientists to continue digging deep, locating and mapping the neuronal correlates of consciousness, we also need to factor in the other necessary part of the ‘mystery of consciousness.’ What linguistic relativism and the Bolte Taylor case suggest is that languages themselves, specific symbolic systems, also determine what consciousness is and how it works. It means not only do we need to identify the neuronal correlates of consciousness but the socio-cultural correlates as well. This means embracing an emergent model that can countenance complex systems and self-referential feedback dynamics.

OrwellOrwell understood this. He understood that rhetorical manipulation is a highly effective form of mind control and, therefore, reality construction. Orwell also knew that, if authoritarian regimes could use language to oppress people [20th century dictators actually used these tactics], then freedom and creativity also depend on language. If, that is, we use it self-consciously and critically, and the language itself has freedom and creativity built into it, and its users are vigilant in preserving that quality and refuse to become duckspeakers.

The Rational Animal? Really?

Posted in Aristotle, barriers to critical thinking, Carol Tavris, cognitive dissonance, critical thinking, Elliot Aronson, emotion, gadfly, irrational, Leon Festinger, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Psychology, rational animal, rationalizing animal, reason, resistance to critical thinking, social psychology, Socrates, UFO Cults, Uncategorized, When prophecy fails with tags , on August 29, 2013 by Uroboros
Socrates: the Gadfly, Godfather of Critical Thinking

Socrates: the Gadfly, Godfather of Critical Thinking

Last week I began teaching a philosophy course at Moraine Valley Community College on the Southside of Chicago. The course is PHIL 111: Critical Thinking, a topic that never ceases to amaze and, at times, perplex and challenge my assumptions about what it means to be human.

As a philosophy student, I was always struck by Aristotle’s description of human nature: we are the rational animal. But the more we analyze ourselves, the more we explore our capacities and limitations as a species, the more we discover that rational thinking is the exception, and not the norm…Far, far from it apparently. Neurologists, anthropologists, and evolutionary psychologists have all made convincing arguments that the human brain, and the thought patterns it tends to produce, evolved not to pursue logical explanations and objective evidence, but to concoct self-serving, self-justifying theories about how the world works. Why let objective facts and explanations ruin a good, wish-fulfilling story, right?

This is because the deluded, biased explanations serve a more fundamental purpose: survival. There’s an adaptive advantage to spinning yarns and fabricating facts that, though divorced from the realm of reason and objectivity, nevertheless reduce stress and anxiety, making the world a seemingly more sensible, human-friendly place and building our confidence.

When Prophecy Fails: classic study of cognitive dissonance

When Prophecy Fails: classic study of cognitive dissonance

For over fifty years, social psychologists have been exploring this capacity for mendacity. The theory of Cognitive Dissonance accounts for our need to justify core beliefs and behaviors. To justify them at almost any cost. Cognitive Dissonance is the uneasy, sometimes terrified, sometimes enraged, feeling you get when an event or a person challenges or threatens your beliefs. It was first proposed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, the product of research into a doomsday UFO cult. Chronicled in the book When Prophecy Fails, Festinger and his colleagues wondered what cult members would do when the mothership didn’t come and whisk them away to another planet. How would these so-called rational animals behave then? So, did the cult members adjust their beliefs? Did they discard their delusions and wake up to reality? What Festinger found was that cult members actually doubled-down on their beliefs and tended to become more invested in the cult’s bizarre mythology. Instead of critically analyzing why they were so deluded, they used their powers of reason to recalculate the arrival of the mothership. They kept on believing. They were just too committed to back out and admit the truth.

Now you might say: that sounds about right. After all, they were UFO cult members. Shouldn’t we expect them to act that way? But Festinger and his student Elliot Aronson found cognitive dissonance to be a universal human trait. When confronted with contradictory and disturbing information, ideas and facts that threaten our core beliefs, we all put our creative mental powers to work defending those beliefs. And what is the most essential idea we are dying to protect? The most fragile one of all: the idea we have of ourselves as intelligent, well-meaning, competent people. Whether it’s smokers, music downloaders, cheaters, whatever the sin or vice, it’s so easy to come up with a story that makes your sin or vice or moment of incompetence sound like the most reasonable, ethical thing in the world. In other words, self-justification and esteem needs trump the desire for transcendent truth.

That’s why I love teaching critical thinking. That’s why we have to teach it. It doesn’t come naturally. The first step is to overcome cognitive dissonance, put your own ego in check, and really engage in that Socratic call to examine life. Critical thinkers listen to the buzzing inner-gadfly of skepticism and curiosity. Only then can a human being emerge from the muck of deluded, self-serving thoughts, shake off the slime, and become the clear-headed, rational animal Aristotle challenged us to be. Otherwise, we are, as Aronson pointed out, merely rationalizing animals. That’s what comes naturally. Thanks to evolution, I get to make a living teaching others, and myself, how to immunize the mind from the virus of irrationality.

If you’re interested in the topic, too, I suggest checking out Aronson’s and his colleague Carol Tavris’ work on cognitive dissonance. What are your thoughts on rationality? Do you agree or disagree with cognitive dissonance theory? Why? What would Socrates ask?

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Aronson and Tavris

The Dark Knight: Why So Existential?

Posted in Alan More, Batman, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, Christopher Nolan, comic books, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, DC Comics, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Film, Frank Miller, Gotham, graphic literature, graphic novels, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Knight of Faith, Literature, Morality, Nietzsche, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, superheroes, teleological suspension of the ethical, The Dark Knight Returns, The Joker, The Killing Joke, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2012 by Uroboros

Four years after first seeing The Dark Knight, I still marvel at how Christopher Nolan managed to sneak so much thought-provoking material into such an action-packed Hollywood flick—how, amidst all the clever heists, over-the-top chase sequences, and ear-popping explosions, this sleek auteur didn’t shy away from post 9/11 political commentary; he neither neglected the psycho-social dimensions of the characters, nor waved his hand at the existential implications of the film’s wildly suspenseful dilemmas. Like no other filmmaker before him, Nolan and his co-writers, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, respect the literary depth of the comic source material. They see, and unapologetically embrace, the existential potency at the heart of the Batman mythos.

Influenced by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, existentialism focuses on the individual’s struggle to find meaning in the modern world, one increasingly devoid of traditional notions of order and authority and constantly threatened by the specter of post-Darwinian nihilism. Existentialists argue that the cosmos doesn’t have a clear, predetermined plan. There’s not even an essential ‘human nature’ to help guide us through life’s obstacle course. There is only the purpose we create through our choices, and we can’t know with absolute, God-like certainty whether we’ve made the right ones. Rational debate and scientific research can help, but ultimately such truths, being contingent upon the evidence we have at the time, are provisional and may be revised in the future. Free will, an existentialist is likely to argue, is predicated on a state of inescapable doubt.

Kierkegaard, a 19th century Protestant theologian, coped by imagining a kind of philosophical hero tailor made for an uncertain reality. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Knight of Faith.’ Exemplified by the biblical patriarch Abraham, a Knight of Faith doesn’t tremble at life’s uncertainties or delude himself about its fundamental absurdities. He embraces them as a call to adventure, a test of one’s commitment to his or her most cherished beliefs.

Kierkegaard’s paragon of faith resembles the Dark Knight in several key ways. Existential quests begin with absurd events that defy easy explanation and haunt our thoughts long after they’ve passed. For Bruce Wayne, of course, it’s his parents’ senseless murder. At eight years old, the orphaned Bruce inherits a fortune but is robbed of one of life’s true treasures: the sense of security that comes from belonging to a loving family. He spends the rest of his adolescence struggling to overcome grief, terror, and rage–the deafening psychological echo of the gun shots fired in Crime Alley on that fateful night.

Existentialists are quick to point out that we don’t choose to exist (our parents do that for us), but at some point, we do get the chance to take the reins and make decisions that shape our destinies. As Bruce matures, he refuses to become a helpless slave to his emotions. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he says, “We must believe that our private demons can be defeated.” His parents’ murder teaches him that “the world only makes sense when you force it to.” Instead of becoming fatalistic, Bruce takes up the cape and cowl in pursuit of something that will bring meaning back to his life: a sense of justice.

The choice of the bat totem isn’t arbitrary. It symbolizes Bruce’s mastery of the fear and rage that threaten to turn him into the very criminals he’s battling against. In Nolan’s Batman Begins, Alfred, Bruce’s butler, asks him about his preoccupation with bats. “They frighten me,” Bruce replies, “and it’s time my enemies share my dread.” Batman takes on Gotham’s underworld and tries to rectify the forces that victimize people. This is how Bruce atones for the loss of his parents, who used their wealth and power to make Gotham a safer city.

While Bruce embraces conventional philanthropy, too, his fractured psyche craves a more concrete way of pursuing his goals. Batman turns fear and grief into an existential weapon, stalking the shadowy space between institutional order and criminal chaos, placing himself beyond the law, but not above it. It’s a place of paradox and uncertainty—a place also explored by Kierkeggard’s Knight of Faith. Through what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical,‘ the Knight Faith doesn’t have to limit his passion for moral order to conventional understandings, which are always temporal and flawed. Likewise, Bruce never lets the letter of the law get in the way of preserving its spirit, especially when the institutions charged with protecting us are so corrupt. That’s why he feels compelled to dress up as a bat and “strike fear in the hearts of those who prey upon the fearful.” It’s a leap of faith that, to others, looks irrational and absurd, but, according to Kierkegaard, that’s a risk the Knight of Faith has to be willing to take, and Bruce/Batman does, using all of his physical and mental abilities toward his teleological end.

A superhero’s greatness, however, depends on the nature of the nemeses who stand in his or her way, and arguably there’s no better rogue in any graphic lit gallery than the Joker. His relationship with Batman is a yin-yang of stark existential contrasts. For example, while Batman struggles to create order, Joker revels in disorder. Where Bruce’s world revolves around his parents’ murder, the Joker’s past, prior to the chemical bath that hideously deformed him, is ill-defined. In Alan More’s The Killing Joke, the Clown Prince quips, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, each time the Joker explains how he got his scars, he puts a different spin on the story.

These dichotomous hero-villain origins reflect the diametrically-opposed nature of their subsequent crusades. Born of a singular act of random violence, Bruce channels his passions and focuses on a clear, if ultimately unachievable, goal: a war on crime itself in order to create a safer, more just society. The Joker, on the other hand, lives to create total chaos and debilitating fear. In the spirit of his ‘multiple choice’ origins, he is an advocate for meaninglessness, a champion of the purely arbitrary.

The Joker mocks Batman’s attempt to protect Gotham’s citizenry. In The Killing Joke, he claims the average man is “nature’s mistake.” With an air of dark, Nietzschean glee, he argues that it takes a “deformed set of values” and a “clubfooted social conscience” to pretend that life is anything but “mad, random, and pointless.” This was the point of his ‘social experiment’ in The Dark Knight. The Joker puts seemingly ‘good’ Gothamites in a situation where the corrosive power of fear would erode their consciences and reveal what lies beneath: a horde of primitive, selfish little ids only pretending to be civilized folk governed by high-minded morals. To him, the Dark Knight’s quest is the ultimate absurdity because life itself is just one big cosmic joke: “Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for,” he says in The Killing Joke, “it’s all a monstrous, demented gag.”

This contrast is part of what makes the Batman mythos one of the most profound in all of graphic literature. It speaks to the fundamental things we cherish and fear. The philosopher Heidegger says we are ‘thrown’ into existence, and once we wake up to the reality of our predicament, the rest is up to us. The true challenge is to face one’s fears and be an authentic person. As for the anxiety and dread of being a self-conscious creature, it’s the price of free will, and the suffering that comes with it is what makes the pursuit of happiness worth the effort—it’s the dark background against which moments of illumination stand out in joyous relief, the bitter seasoning that makes little successes along the way taste so sweet.

Batman and Joker represent divergent paths in the struggle. There’s Bruce’s effort to accept his past and prevail, not in spite of his suffering, but because of it. He chooses to make it meaningful. Then there’s The Joker’s quest, which starts with the question: “Why so serious?” and ends in chaos. He embodies the nihilistic suspicions that haunt anyone trying to lead a sensible, purpose-driven life. Batman overcomes these suspicions and commits himself to a worthy cause—even if it requires a seemingly absurd leap of faith in order to sustain it. Nolan brilliantly captured this yin-yang dialectic in The Dark Knight, and I never get tired of watching the interplay of all those wonderful ideas.

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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