I recently read James Gleick’s book Information: a history, a theory, a flood. It’s a fascinating account of our varying relationships to information. For a long time, we were only set on getting as much of it as we could; then a theory of information developed in the 20th century (principally by Claude Shannon); and now we are drowning in the stuff. But the question that has been bothering me is : what is it?
It’s not that Gleick ignores the question. It’s just that he’s a journalist, and so his aim is to tell a string of interesting stories. Along the way he mentions the physicist John Wheeler’s view that, ultimately, information is the stuff of the universe – in a slogan, “It from Bit.” But what could it possibly mean to say that everything is composed of information? I can understand a hunk of matter or energy or a field somehow having information. Stuff can have a structure which allows us to extract information from it. But what could it possibly mean for the stuff to be information?
So what is information? I’ve gone from reading Gleick’s book to reading Greene’s The Hidden Reality, which also discusses the idea, and supports Gleick’s account that Wheeler thought information may be everything. There’s a lot more studying I need to do, but right now it seems to me that there are two ways of understanding information. The first is purely objective, having to do with being able to quantify and summarize a thing’s structure, regardless of its usefulness for human beings. On this account, the harder it is to exactly summarize an entity’s features, and transmit it exactly to someone else, the less information it contains. So an unending sequence of “01234567890123456789…” doesn’t contain a lot of information, since even though the sequence is infinite, it can be fully summarized as “0123456789, repeat without end.” On the other hand, a random sequence like “73885629199…” is packed with information, since you can’t adequately summarize its exact features without actually giving it. But this view seems counter-intuitive. Consider this message:
“It is a truth that the group identified as the enemy will in the future do something that can be accurately described as attacking at a time that can be described in complete accuracy as dawn.”
That, according to this first view, contains a lot more information than “The enemy will attack at dawn,” since you would have to transmit a longer sequence in order for another person to reproduce it accurately. Wrong.
The second way of looking at information requires humans to enter the picture and sort out what’s useful and relevant or interesting from what isn’t. In this case, the sequence “314159265…” has a lot more information than our earlier “73885629199…”, since it describes pi, while the second sequence isn’t useful for anything. But bringing in subjective human evaluations sort of makes the science of information less sciency.
Also entering into this mess is the notion of entropy, or lack of order, which also seems to me to draw upon both objective and subjective measures. But I’ve read enough now to believe that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. I need to read more, and some other books are on their way to me.
OK, now that I’ve admitted I don’t really know what information is, what could it mean to say that everything is made of it? Here’s the best stab I have at it, courtesy of Greene’s book. Imagine making a computer simulation of the universe. This simulation would have to include a representation of you doing what you are doing now. That virtual you, in the program, and the virtual everything surrounding that virtual you, exists in the computer program. That is to say that the virtual you and the virtual everything are ultimately bits of information – perhaps being processed by some physical, colossal supercomputer, but that isn’t relevant, since information isn’t tied to particular structures, and nothing would be different in the virtual world if it were running on some other kind of system. It’s the data, and the processing of the data that counts. Now if you really are the virtual you, and everything around you is the virtual everything, then indeed everything is composed of information.
Sounds loopy, but apparently that is one of the ideas being bandied about by those crazy physicists. It is impossible for me to think about any of this without going back to Aristotle, and his account of form. He didn’t go so far as to say that everything is form, but he knew it was what we need to focus on when we want to understand things; the underlying stuff or matter doesn’t really matter much, except as a carrier of form. I’m surprised, sort of, that neither Gleick nor Greene make anything of this. But only “sort of” surprised, since they’re anxious to point out how new all of this is.
I just finished E. L. Doctorow’s novel, Homer & Langley. It’s a retelling of the true story of Homer & Langley Collyer, who, by the time they died in the late 1940s, lived in a place that looked like this:
The Collyer brothers were born in the 1880s and lived until 1947 in their parents’ brownstone in Harlem. They both were educated at Columbia, Homer in law and Langley in engineering. They began to hoard objects after their parents died in the 1920s. After the brothers died (more anon), the police excavated their home and removed about 130 tons of — well, you name it. According to Wikipedia,
Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a child’s chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of the old Model T with which Langley had been tinkering, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old. Near the spot where Homer died, police also found 34 bank account passbooks, with a total of $3,007.18 (about $40,000 in 2008 dollars).
The brothers shunned the outside world, which of course led to many wild rumors about “what they were doing in there,” hidden riches, etc. Children threw stones at the windows and there were several break-in attempts. By the early 1930s, Homer was crippled by rheumatism and had gone blind. Langley foraged for food throughout the city at night and brought it home for Homer. Their story, as you should expect, ends badly. Police entered the house on a tip that there was a dead body in the house. Well, they tried to enter. They ended up having to excavate their way into the house, working through various windows, throwing tons of materials into the streets so they could make their way into the place, until finally an officer found Homer sitting in a chair, slumped over, starved to death. Langley was nowhere to be found. Rumors circulated about how Langley had done his brother in and there was an attempt at a national manhunt, but after a few more days of searching in the house, Langley’s body was found under a mountain of garbage and treasures. Apparently, Langley had constructed various tunnels through the house, rigged with booby traps to ward against intruders, and he accidentally tripped a wire while trying to bring food to Homer. Langley died first, and helpless Homer died days later.
Doctorow’s novel is loosely rooted in the real story, but follows its own path. In the novel, the brothers are born a little later and survive into the 1970s, witnessing the transformations of the century: automobiles, gramophones, wars, beatniks, hippies, and so on. Homer goes blind early on, and then in later years goes deaf as well. Langley fights in WWI and is scarred by mustard gas and becomes embittered toward humanity. His life’s project is an eternal newspaper: convinced that nothing ever really changes except names and dates, he thinks he can assemble the perfect newspaper that captures each and every every day’s events throughout the rest of human time. In a sense, Homer is the reclusive brother – losing sight and then hearing, retreating ever inward into his own mind – and Langley is certainly the hoarder, gathering up all of the changing news and technology of the century into a single place where it can be somehow transformed into an unchanging present. It’s a haunting tale – both the novel and the fact.
I’m just about finished with this book, and I’ve found it very interesting. Laudan approaches the legal process with strictly epistemological interests, asking whether it’s a good system if what we’re after is convicting bad guys and not convicting good guys. On the whole the answer is “no,” so he engages in some speculation about how we might make the process better at tracking the truth.
He knows, of course, that no system will be perfect. So one interesting question he raises is this: what degree of imperfection are we willing to tolerate? Clearly most of us would rather see some guilty people go free than see innocent people convicted — but how many? What’s the ratio? How many murderers or rapists are we willing to see go unpunished for every innocent person wrongly convicted? Let n represent this number. Previous legal theorists have suggested that n equals 5, 10, 100, and 1,000. Laudan seems to settle on 10, though probably just for the sake of making ensuing discussions a bit clearer and more definite. (I suppose experimental philosophy could try to settle this question.)
Laudan also explores what anyone could possibly mean by “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is an important matter, as judges have to say something to jurors about what this means, and if they get it wrong, a case can be overturned. So what does it mean? Laudan claims that it’s usually understood subjectively: it’s when you feel very, very strongly that that defendant is guilty. But he rightly notes that this is not the sort of standard we’d accept anywhere else. Do we tell our scientists to regard a theory as proven when they feel really very sure about it, or disproven when they don’t? Instead, Laudan writes,
The principal question is not whether the jurors, individually and collecively, are convinced by the prosecution. The issue is whether the evidence they have seen and heard should be convincing in terms of the level of support it offers to the prosecutor’s hypothesis that the defendant is guilty.
So it looks like jurors ought to have some schooling in philosophy of science. That’s the only objection I have to Laudan’s recommendation: if only a jury of my peers could be relied upon to make that assessment!
The second half of Laudan’s book argues that the rules of what evidence can be presented slant courts too steeply in favor of defendants. That is, defendants already begin with some sort of presumption that they are innocent (lengthy and intriguing discussion about what this could mean, too), and it’s up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. Laudan basically thinks this is enough of a presumption of innocence. But the rules of evidence preclude the prosecution from bringing in a lot of relevant evidence, relevant for finding the truth of the case, if there is any reasonable doubt (there it is again) about how the evidence has been obtained. Laudan thinks this grotesquely exaggerates the presumption of innocence and makes for far too many false acquittals (i.e., letting the guilty go free). Of course, he wouldn’t argue that the prosecution should be allowed to present anything, however gathered; his claim is only that the existent rules make it too hard to present evidence that really would help the courts to track truth better.
I’m certainly unlearned about all of this, but my first reaction is that I’m leery of relaxing rules of evidence, if only because I don’t see any reason to believe that the police and prosecutors have any interest in getting to the truth as opposed to getting a conviction. There’s no incentive for them to get to the truth. In that context, a defendant needs very strong protection indeed against a very capable and sometimes ruthless team working very hard to put him in jail. Hey, I just want a fair fight.
In any case, I’m finding this a very interesting read.
So suppose you stumble across a packet of four index cards. They read as follows:
#1: “At E there is evidence of M, L, F, and D”
#2: “At M there is evidence of D and F”
#3: “At G there is evidence of D, E, L, and M”
#4: “At T there is evidence of G, L, and F”
If you are a little bit of a puzzle nerd, and you have some urge to interpret these cards as representing moments of time, you can eventually deduce their sequence:
2 -> 1-> 3 -> 4
But this sequence is something you have deduced from the information on each of the cards, and the cards themselves of course exist simultaneously. The temporal sequence is an interpretation of the available evidence.
Okay, this idea is basically what Julian Barbour is proposing in his book The End of Time. Instead of index cards, he begins with a huge quantity of temporal slices of the universe (“Nows”), many of which (“Time Capsules”) contain structures which can be interpreted as implying facts about a temporal sequence. Any structure in which you and I exist, with the active and functioning meat in our heads, is a Time Capsule because of whatever it is about us that encodes our memory. So we end up believing there is a flow of time, since each Now we inhabit is filled, from our point of view, with all sorts of implications about what has happened and will happen. So at every moment, it seems to us there is time. But there isn’t any. Not really.
It is a trippy idea, but Barbour is led to it by reasons most sober. I skimmed most of the details, but the gist is that nothing known by physics today explains why there should be any flow of time. That is, physics talks about different events existing in time, and talks about what happens over time, but why time should be moving in one direction rather than another is unexplained. Moreover, as is widely deplored, the two big camps of physics today, QM and GenRel, do not seem to have ever met one another. Barbour proposes a solution to both of these puzzles: just get rid of time. (Note: in this sense, Barbour is just finding new reasons to agree with McTaggart, in his 1908 essay.)
The idea is exciting to me because of how closely it approaches an idea I’ve been flirting with, balls-to-the-wall skepticism. According to B2WSk, it is perfectly possible that the universe is nothing but random noises, except for a few little islands in which there appears something like WHAT YOU ARE EXPERIENCING RIGHT NOW with your ordered perceptions and memories and feelings of temporal continuity and anticipations of the future. But every seemingly ordered moment is only an island. There is no past, and no future, and precious little present. It only seems like there is, right here, right now; but don’t worry, it will pass.
B2WSk, in my mind, is solipsistic (now that’s a nice phrase!), but Barbour thinks each well-ordered Now is a state of the whole universe. Actually, Barbour goes even broader, and includes the Nows of possible states of the universe — all Nows of all possible worlds — and then arranges some sort of probability distribution over them which makes some of the Nows more likely to exist than others (in accordance with QM).
Does this all mean we should start ignoring our beliefs in the past and our memories. No, according to Barbour. His book concludes:
[Ernst] Mach once commented that ‘In wishing to preserve our personal memories beyond death, we are behaving like the astute Eskimo, who refused with thanks the gift of immortality without his seals and walruses.’ I am not going without them, either. I cannot even if I wanted to: they are part of me. Like you, I am nothing and yet everything. I am nothing because there is no personal canvas on which I am painted. I am everything because I am the universe seen from the point, unforeseeable because it is unique, that is me now. C’est moi. I am bound to stay. We all watch – and participate in – the great spectacle. Immortality is here. Our task is to recognize it. Some Nows are thrilling and beautiful beyond description. Being in them is the supreme gift.
Except for the little bit at the end there, I think Barbour has managed to come up with the only metaphysics that could compete with Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence as a means of affirming the value of the here and now. It’s not the thrill or the beauty that makes a Now valuable. It is, I would suggest, it’s uniqueness, the sheer improbability of something like this ever cropping up in existence, no matter what beauty, ugliness, thrills, or banality it includes. And it is no gift, if ‘gift’ implies a giver. It comes from nowhere, and then goes back home.
Close, A Very Short Introduction to Nothing – a neat and fascinating summary of contemporary thought about vacua. Turns out we can’t find nothing anywhere – there’s always something going on.
Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas – an intelligent summary of the history general education in American universities, including thoughtful suggestions and some incisive criticisms of professorial complacency.
Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop – or, “I am a Self-Involved Mathematician.”
Stephenson, Anathem – wow. An adventure in a parallel universe where philosopher/scientists live in monasteries, walled off from a world of consumerism and fanatic religions, and are visited by a huge spaceship piloted by denizens of four other possible worlds. Really interesting and creative … but 900 pages?!
Barbour, The End of Time – “After 35 years of thinking about it, I now believe that time and motion are illusions.”
What exactly are the boundaries around the things we are likely to call physical? Do all material things have mass? But some of the elements of theoretical physics might not have mass. Do they have to take up space, or have determinate spatial location? Again, some theoretical entities lack these as well. Galen Strawson doesn’t provide guidelines for what to regard as being physical or material, but he’s willing to enlarge the boundaries so that consciousness counts as a physical entity.
It’s a bold and somewhat bewildering claim. One of the ways we’re likely to demarcate the physical is by excluding ideas or concepts from it. Ideas and concepts aren’t the same as consciousness, but they seem closely related — you need consciousness to experience ideas and concepts. Thinking of consciousness as physical runs against that line of thought, but why not? My own metaphor for understanding GS’s view is to think of consciousness as the heat generated by an electric blanket. It’s not a very good metaphor, since heat hasn’t seemed unphysical in the way that consciousness has to some, but the metaphor captures the idea that consciousness is something like a physical field generated by active components when they’re functioning in a certain way.
Interesting consequences follow. GS is not a dualist; everything, including consciousness, is physical (it’s just that consciousness can’t be reduced to brain states). (Exception: GS might be a dualist about numbers and concepts, but he doesn’t discuss it in these essays.) Each time a “consciousness field” is generated, it’s a new one — so we’re not necessarily the same numerical person after each dreamless sleep or state of unconsciousness. Similarly, each time I turn on my electric blanket, a new heat field is generated, though it’s very similar to the last one. GS also has a couple of essays against the importance of “narrative” for selves — he’s happily “episodic”, meaning that he feels no deep need for his actions to belong to some over-arching theme or story of his life. He does one thing, moves to another, and doesn’t need to see a continuous thread throughout. Moreover, he argues there is no need for such a continuous thread in order to be ethical.
He’s also a hard determinist. He doesn’t see a lot of value in the compatibilist notion of freedom, and he thinks genuine freedom would be the capacity to be the total cause of one’s actions (a causa sui); but we lack this capacity. He doesn’t think there can be such a thing as ultimate moral responsibility.
What I really like about these essays is GS’s style and approach. He is a bit of an outsider to professional philosophy. That might seem incredible, since he is a professor at Reading, and the son of one of the more important philosophers of the second half of the 20th century (Peter Strawson). But he spent many years outside the discipline, working at the TLS and other places, before finally completing his phil degree. He has read very broadly in many areas (literature, science, Buddhism, psychology), and has read the Great Dead (at least the British early modern Great Dead) with considerable care. He’s very straightforward about his own shortcomings and isn’t afraid to show his own personality. Many of his essays are a dialogue with imagined objectors.
Indeed, as I read the essays, I often felt excited in the way that drew me first to philosophy. It’s fun to kick around cool ideas and see where they land, without fretting so much about what imagined critics might say. Why not think of consciousness as a physical force? Why not suppose that each time I wake up I’m a different “field” than I was when I went to bed? Why not accept that, in the end, no one is ultimately responsible for what they do? Fun ideas to mull over.
I recently finished this book, which aims at correcting current ways of doing metaphysics by insisting that metaphysicians take seriously what contemporary physics tells us about the world.
The problem is that “many” (I guess) contemporary metaphysicians suppose that the world, ultimately, is composed of tiny, billiard-ball like particles, which bang in to each other, and somehow generate the macroscopic world we experience. Sure, there are supposed to be some complications coming from the direction of quantum mechanics, but metaphysicians typically suppose that whatever complications there are may be safely ignored.
Not so, say these guys. Lots of claims passing for “apriori” or “intuitively certain” among metaphysicians are just false, if we take physics seriously. The positive campaign of this book is to show what a scientifically-respectable metaphysics would look like. As it turns out, we are wrong to think of thing-like particles as fundamental. What’s fundamental, it seems, are certain structures best described through mathematics, from which we derive claims about so-called “particles” and “waves” and “fields”. So what’s real, ultimately, are structures. Further down the road, we discover that these structures somehow contribute, at some level of analysis, to “patterns,” which we may identify as macroscopic objects (including you and me), and their characteristic behaviors. Structures and patterns; that’s it. Every thing must go!
I skimmed 80% of the book, since I’m not well-educated enough to follow all the science. But I hope I’ve come through with a roughly accurate summary. I like the way it confirms Nz’s view that we are wrong to let our grammar determine our ontology, and Spinoza’s view that individuals aren’t genuinely real, when all is said and done. But I’m wary, since more than once I’ve read something like this and entered into discussion with physicists, only to discover I’ve been sold a bill of goods. It really does frustrate me that there’s no easy way to get a decent synopsis of all this important stuff, and incorporate it into philosophy, without doing all the real work required to have a thorough understanding. What’s a lazy guy like me to do?
Most readers are probably familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis. The basic idea is that the Bible, as an artifact, is best explained by supposing that it is a compilation of several ancient texts, written by different people in different times and cultures. Somebody (“the Redactor,” maybe Ezra) compiled many of the texts by the third century BCE. This explains why not all of the stories fit smoothly together; why there are two accounts of creation, and two accounts of the ten commandments; and why the style varies so much. Moreover, as one delves into the Bible along with archeology and the study of ancient civilizations, one begins to suspect that many of the stories served quite different purposes that the ones uninformed readers project upon the stories nowadays — or, indeed, from the first century CE onward.
An example. After Moses and the Jews have left Egypt, they get into a battle with the Amelekites (Exodus 17). Moses’s plan is to have Joshua command the Israelites while Moses stands atop a nearby hill and holds up his hands. So long as Moses’s hands are outstretched, the Israelites do well; but if he lets them drop, they begin to fail. Moses’s arms get tired, so his helpers give him a rock to sit on and help prop up his arms, and the Israelites eventually prevail.
Weird story. What does it mean? Jewish commentators say something along the lines of, “So long as we turn up our hands in supplication to the Lord, we have his favor.” Christian readers suggest that Moses, in stretching out his arms, foreshadowed the crucifixion, and the victory over death. But compare these readings to a more ordinary hypothesis. The name of the place where the battle takes place, Rephidim, resembles a Hebrew phrase meaning “spread out” or “prop up.” When you say the name aloud, it sounds sort of like you are saying “the hands grew weak.” So maybe, in the area, there was a prominent hill with a couple of rocks on top of it, called “Rephidim,” and the Moses story was invented to explain how the hill got its name. My family when I was growing up similarly made up all sorts of stories about how “Sheboygan” got its name, all of them invoking an ancient Indian who was disappointed at his wife’s inability to give birth to a daughter (“She boy again!” Har har).
Kugel, in this book, provides many similar etiological hypotheses (explaining weird stories as attempts to explain how a place got its name, or why we have some expression, or why two groups don’t get along, and so on). The overall effect is twofold. On the one hand, the Bible becomes a very interesting and complicated text from which you might be able to learn a lot about how ancient people saw their world, as well as how they tried to explain it. On the other hand, a lot of divine significance is drained from the work. Many allegedly inspired and inspiring stories turn out to be just about as rich as my old “Sheboygan” stories.
What’s fascinating is that Kugel is an Orthodox Jew, and so he really wants to revere the text, though his reverence is challenged by his considerable expertise and knowledge. He ends up with the following view. Yes, there are humdrum natural explanations for everything in this old, complicated text. But what makes it sacred are the layers and layers of interpretations that commentators have shellacked over it for centuries. The text has managed to hold the fascination of brilliant scholars for all that time, and the interpretations are wondrous, and somewhere in all that lies the sanctity of the work.
I’m glad this works for Kugel, and I’m hesitant to ask whether he’d also revere any work that supported wild misinterpretations over several generations. (He does give a groovy religious reading of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes,” so I’m guessing this possibility has already occurred to him.) This seems to me to be clearly a case of denying what he knows to be true, and hiding behind a thin veil of hermeneutics.
This is a fascinating book, though — highly readable and well-informed (I guess, but what do I know?). I really think it needs to be read by anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously, or by anyone who wants to get a clearer picture of how this book — the most influential one in the western world, by far — came to be written.
I’ve been reading a weird variety of books lately, two of which are The Cambridge Companion to Charles Darwin and Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (actually, re-reading this one).
Several of the essays in the Darwin book concern Darwinism and ethics. I think a reasonable view of the connection between the two is as follows. There is, no doubt, some evolutionary account to be given of why human beings have ended up with a certain range of moral emotions, including fear, anger, surprise, happiness, sadness, disgust, and contempt. Having these emotions, and sharing roughly the same responses to the same things, helps foster coordination and cooperation, which seem to be a good thing for the survival of individuals.
Some people might raise Moore’s objection: but so what if caring about other people has evolutionary advantages? What is the link between such advantages and morality? What makes it good? I’m not much interested in this objection, since it makes sense only if you assume there is some pure form of morality. Seems unlikely to me.
But here’s a more interesting objection: are we beholden in any way to continue caring about others, or to continue to foster coordination and cooperation? Well, no, I would say — except for the fact that all or most of us actually do have an interest in living in a stable society, counting on sympathy from others, etc. It’s only our actual interests that give us any reason to further promote the “virtues” that evolution has coached us toward promoting. And if our interests change, so too will our virtues. But it’s hard, at least right now, to see the advantages of coordination and cooperation fading away. (Unless I get that Iron Man suit.)
This general approach ties in well with what I’ve been reading about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Menand’s book. The Civil War taught Holmes that certainty leads to violence, and so he became skeptical of ideologies, moral certainties, and all isms — except, I guess, for his own certainty that war is unspeakably horrible. You might see connections to Vonnegut here; but actually Holmes ends up far colder. He must have seen the job of gov’t, and law, as trying to stave off violence that inevitably comes about, since people can’t help feeling certain. It’s sort of the job of a herd manager: these animals will end up wanting to kill each other, so try to sort things out ahead of time to keep carnage to a minimum. What the animals believe is almost beside the point; they’ll all end up adopting the beliefs of the less-losing side anyway, eventually. His opinions on social issues brought before the Supreme Court weren’t determined by any high ideals, but from a colder, distant, managerial perspective. He famously agreed with a state claiming the right to sterilize mentally-deficient adults, saying that three generations of idiots were enough.
And, of course, I hear Nietzsche in the background. The task is to legislate our moral ends, in full cognizance of our evolutionary past and the constraints of the present. But the Darwinian/Holmesian thinking lacks the Nzean end of producing some sort of heroic individual. We have to get not only beyond good and evil, but also Prussian “Big-Man”-ism.
I should have read this book ages ago. I have read a lot about it — you can count on seeing it cited and discussed by any good recent book on Nietzsche. So I have learned from others what Clark says. But this is my first time reading the book, and I am extremely impressed with her scholarly judgment, her philosophical acumen, and her careful study of Nietzsche.
The focus of the book is on Nietzsche’s attitude toward truth, and the effect it has on his view of the role of philosophy. Some of Nz’s most famous quotes come from an unpublished essay, “Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense,” written in 1873. It is there we find this shiny gem:
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
That sure sounds like a denial of truth. But Nz seems to be offering his view of the truth, and criticizing others, throughout every page of every major work. So what gives?
According to Clark — and she provides a close argument for this conclusion — Nz’s view of truth shifted over his career. Fairly early on, when he was still messing with Schopenhauer, he had some belief in an ultimate reality, a noumenal world of things in themselves which exist independently of human experience. He believed at the same time that humans are particularly ill-suited toward having any knowledge of such things. And so the best we can manage is some sort of faulty image, a metaphor, for what is really out there.
But then, as Nz gave up Sch and Wagner, and wrote HAH, he dispensed with the notion of things in themselves. They play no role in explaining anything in our experience, and we cannot even conceive them — so why believe in them? But at the same time, Nz inconsistently held on to the idea that our so-called knowledge is at best a pale, insufficient version of what is really true. But you cannot dis our knowledge without affirming some independently-existing thing whose structure is not getting captured by our thinking.
Eventually — after BGE — Nietzsche gave up the “metaphysical correspondence” theory of truth, and believed truth to be immanent to a perspective. Once we give up things in themselves, we give up the idea of a “God’s eye perspective,” i.e., a perspective from everywhere and nowhere, and affirm only particular perspectives. These perspectives overlap with one another and can be compared with one another — we can see the world through this lens and that lens, and evaluate which lens gives us the better picture, given our own interests and concerns. When we’re concerned with predictive accuracy, for example, Einstein’s lens turns out to be better than Newton’s.
Clark’s account continues. Nz was interested in big philosophical lenses, and (principally in GM) argues that humans have throughout history employed the lens of asceticism: that life is to be lived for the sake of higher, unearthly ideals. The basic human concern this lens was trying to satisfy was our interest in finding something worth living for, and some reason not to fall into suicidal nihilism. Nz argues that asceticism, which was originally religious in nature, gradually evolved into science, and science’s will to truth, which ultimately ends in nihilism. So asceticism has played itself out, and it fails. Nz’s constructive project is to provide a new lens, the affirmation of life, the will to power, and the eternal recurrence, which is a new perspective in competition with the old nihilism. He argues that it has the power to succeed where ascetic religion and science have failed.
I need to read the book again. It is patiently argued, and deserves to be read carefully. Right now it seems to me extremely plausible and significant.
I recently finished the trilogy by Philip Pullman, “His Dark Materials.” It is a set of books aimed at young adults, but when I saw the film of “The Golden Compass,” I found the ideas appealing enough to give the books a try. I was not disappointed.
Most of the action takes place in a parallel universe, in which people’s souls (or daemons) walk around outside them in animal form. The relationship between a human and its daemon is complex: they need to be in close spatial proximity in order for both to survive, and they sense one another’s emotions, but they have separate consciousnesses and have conversations with one another. If the psychic link between the two is severed, the daemon dies and the human becomes listless. We learn later that when a human is killed, its daemon turns evaporates into the cosmos while the human’s own spirit is sent to the land of the dead.
We also learn that some stuff called “Dust” permeates this world, and is somehow linked to consciousness, intelligence, and creativity. Humans produce it when they think, create, and initiate. An organization known as the Church is convinced that Dust is in fact Original Sin, and is reacting against it with fear and rage. Dust dates back to the first fall in Eden, it seems, or the emergence of consciousness in early hominids. Also around that time there was a rebellion of angels against God (or the Authority), and it seems that at least some angels are plotting a second revolution.
The Authority was once an angel, but somehow ascended to greater power and ruled the universe. But he grew old, and delegated most of his authority to a mean angel, known as Metatron. By the time we meet the Authority, he’s a benign, senile old fool, and he dies without much fanfare.
(Side note: I now understand why Zarathustra claims “God is dead” rather than that God doesn’t exist. Look at history: in the early days, if you read the Bible, God is active and effective. Later, he acts only through prophets and angels. By the time of the Reformation, he’s well-nigh invisible. Zarathustra is simply confirming what everybody should have suspected: by now, surely, the old man must be dead. We haven’t heard from him in millennia.)
Our world, and a few other worlds, get caught up in the drama as well, because a boy named Will (from our own world) comes into possession of the Subtle Knife, which allows its wielder to cut passage from one world to another. The problem is that whenever this happens, some Dust (known in our world as “dark matter”) starts spilling out through the cut. So Dust, overall, is declining in quantity, and worlds start falling apart, since somehow they need intelligence, perhaps as a human in Lyra’s world needs a daemon. Lyra and Will become second-generation Adam and Eve, though it is their job to preserve the Dust and frustrate the Church’s objectives.
There is fantastic imagery throughout: iron-clad polar bears, zeppelins, witches, tiny warriors riding dragonflies, and so on. It’s a very compelling story, and I’d love to be in a group exploring its many layers of metaphor.
I recently finished two good books about Darwin. I haven’t known all that much about the man, apart from scattered biographical references and documentaries. I am embarrassed to say I have never read The Origin of the Species, expecting it to be filled with the retelling of facts about bird beaks, snail shells, etc. Nothing like the retelling of facts to spoil a good read … facts put an end to good conversation … facts kill thinking — there! That has the punch I was looking for!
Anyway, the first book is Evolution’s Captain, by Peter Nichols. It focuses on the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, and more particularly on his decision to kidnap three native people from Tierra del Fuego. Originally he kidnapped them to use as barter for some smaller boat the natives had stolen from him. But it turns out the natives liked the boat better, so he was stuck with a preteen girl, a young teenaged boy, and a young man. He and his crew named them Fuegia Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster. The plan then was to acclimate them to England, embue them with civilization, and return them to their people, like living British viruses, spreading the higher virtues of Eurocentrism.
We learn then about FitzRoy’s second voyage of the Beagle, which included Darwin and the Fuegians, and how Darwin eventually came to be himself. FitzRoy’s moral experiment, of course, ended in disaster. Each of the younger kids ended up in a nowhereland between two moral worlds (Fuegia eventually prostituted herself to passing sailors), and the young man simply disappeared from view, after some raping and murder. FitzRoy’s own career, for various other reasons, began to turn downward, just as Darwin became famous and infamous. He eventually took his own life.
The second book is a short picture book by Peter Sís entitled The Tree of Life. We have another of Sís’s books, Tibet through the Red Box, which we keep on display in our home. He is a very detailed and compelling author and illustrator, creating pages that invite you in to stay for a while. You don’t want to pick up his books unless you have a couple of hours with nothing to do, even though there’re only 20 pages long. This book is a biography of Darwin which neatly fits with the picture I gained from Nichols’ book. I recommend it highly.
Maybe I’ll read something by the old man himself next.
On Rob’s recommendation, I found and read this book. I truly admire it: this is a case where an author has taken his own path toward understanding a problem that concerns him deeply. The problem is, basically, the problem of nihilism. He wants to understand how to maintain the more general feelings of religiosity while knowing full well, in our post-Nietzschean, post-Heideggerian age, that all available gods are dead.
After a brilliant introduction, he works through Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Thoreau, and Norman Maclean (whose writings have meant a lot to me, both in content and style) before arriving at his destination. That destination is best described, I think, in a passage he quotes from Maclean’s book, Young Men and Fire. In the book, Maclean, who is now an old man, has finally figured out how the tragedy transpired at the Mann Gulch fire. Maclean has lost his wife, brother, and parents, and is using up his last bit of life force climbing through the Montana hillsides and sleuthing through the deaths of young men who died several decades past:
Looking down on the worlds of the Mann Gulch fire for probably the last time, I said to myself, “Now we know, now we know.” I kept repeating this line until I recognized that, in the wide world anywhere, “Now we know, now we know” is one of its most beautiful poems. For me, for this moment, anyway, the world was changed to this one-line poem. Finding it a poem, I hoped I could next complete it as a tragedy, more exactly still as the tragedy of this whole cockeyed world that probably always makes its own kind of sense and beauty and not always ours.
Edwards’ title is the same as a great poem of Wallace Stevens, which also expresses the sort of bare-boned poetic meaning that Stevens, Maclean, and Edwards find in our experience — no god required, thank you.
I admire Edwards’ effort, though (perhaps needless to say) his path isn’t the one I would have taken. He has a greater sympathy for the more nuanced writings of continental philosophers (a nicer way of saying what I mean, which might more accurately be described as ‘muddle-headed mush’), where I need to keep my shoes on the concrete. Still, my bet is that Edwards and I would have a lot to discuss if we ever met — and that’s just the sort of feeling you want to have after reading a book, as Holden Caufield once said.
I just finished this account of a journalist’s encounter with a “lost tribe” in New Guinea, that is, a group of people who had not encountered Europeans prior to 1993.
The book is riveting, almost despite itself. Marriott strikes me as naive, foolish, and often obtuse, but, boy, can he write a story. He decides to march into a thick, deadly jungle, led by some local guides, in search of some barbaric people who are known to be cannibals in order to ask them how things are going. He encounters several drunken, disillusioned westerners along the way, who all chastise him for calling the tribe “lost” out of some bizarrely misplaced concern for political correctness. The New Guinea infrastructure appears pretty much nonexistent, certainly once you leave what passes for a city. If you break an ankle in a New Guinea rainforest, you may as well just lay down and die, or wait for the cannibals to come; no life flight will be on its way. (I know, this is an overly snobbish take on my part; I don’t deal well with societies in which I cannot find a good martini. Utah is a even a bit of a stretch for me.)
As Marriott and his guides tramp, slip, and slide their way through the heart of darkness, they come across a little pig, which the guides gleefully strangle, pack up in leaves, and later toss into a fire so that they can break apart its flesh and bones and savor the fat little strips of undercooked meat in their black teeth, grease dripping into their beards. It’s that kind of place.
They encounter the lost tribe, and guess what? They are destitute and barbaric. But this is what I found most fascinating of all. The tribe is only partly accessible, culturally and emotionally. Meaning: by Marriott’s account, you can’t safely trust any of your assumptions about what people will do or how to interact with them. It’s bewildering and disorienting. In one scene, Marriott is talking with the village men who are psyching themselves up for a hunt (more little piggies), and these guys, who had been somewhat friendly, are now starting to get scary. They brag about their cannibalistic past and start taking on fierce attitudes. Marriott starts to back away, and rightly so: there really is no telling what’s about to happen. The guys are hovering in a kind of waking dream state, where whims are not likely to be overriden by any rational or emotional commitments. Indeed, that’s the whole lost tribe for you — a group of people in a strange, impressionistic swirl of superstitions and quasi-knowledge, fed by raw emotions and desires. You can see why some people ended up calling such native people “childlike,” since children have a similar kind of impetuousness, but this is an impetuousness coupled with very violent adult passions and adapted to a harsh environment.
The first Westerner to encounter these folks gave them a smattering of gifts and appointed one of them as being in charge. This, despite the fact that there already was a chief. Marriott now finds the chief totally disoriented and aloof. He has no sense of his own place, and wanders the village silent and alone. There is also a strange man living among the tribe and trying to impart Christianity to them. He’s self-important and stupid and cruel, though Marriott finds some empathy for him and his bleak situation.
Just before Marriott and his guides are about to leave there is a terrible thunderstorm. Everyone huddles in the makeshift houses as lightning pounds down around them. One house is struck, and five women and children are killed. Marriott and his guides know they had better get out of town fast before the hunters return, since they will surely be blamed for the accident, and certainly killed. So they flee, but in their escape they encounter the tribe’s hunting party, led by a man Marriott has befriended, whose wife and children have just been killed. What do you do? Break the news to your friend that his wife and daughters have been fried by lightning? No, because if you do he and his buddies will kill you and eat you. So you lie, congratulate them on their hunt, shake hands, and off you go. You simply can’t count on reason and heartfelt emotion to carry the day.
Marriott ends up feeling guilty, as if he did indeed bring harm to the tribe. But that’s nonsense. And so far as I can see, there is no “indictment of colonialism and its lingering legacy of cultural annihilation,” as the book jacket suggests. The lost tribe, having had a taste of civilization, wants an airstrip and a hospital and a gold mine to be brought to them. But, bloody hell, they can all march out of that godforsaken place anytime they want, and make use of what little civilized amenities New Guinea has to offer. And I can’t see that anything beautiful would have been lost: these people are living at the margin of existence, shutting up women into huts and trading them for pigs and watching their children die of malaria. Nothing noble about the savagery here.
I know: spoken like a true cultural imperialist. I can’t help but feel that some forms of life are better than others, and the one ridden with superstition, malaria, and cannibalism is pretty low in the rankings.
Composing the Soul, Graham Parkes: this is the book about Nietzsche I wish I could have written. Partly biography, partly philosophical examination, with elegant and erudite connections to Plato, Emerson, Herder, Goethe, and so on. Definitely one of the top Nz books I’ve encountered.
Art of Possibility, Benjamin and Roz Zander: got turned on to it by Ben’s TED talk. It’s self-help, but actually insightful and fun to read, even challenging here and there.
Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria: good book on the general tension between democracy (aka mob rule) and liberty (preservation of human rights, despite mob’s misgivings). Fair and balanced, so far as I can judge, with good perspectives on current political evolutions. Seems in tune with what I’ve been reading in the Economist. I’m looking forward to reading his latest, The Post-American World.