Category Archives: Philosophy

A Wee Little Post

I love this quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

I think this is a good guidepost for living life, so I am going to work it into my own daily living.

An Update, and some more philosophical musings

First of all, I’m sad to report that I’ve been laid off from my job of fifteen years. It was a good job, and I know the decision was hard for management to make, I got a good severance package from the University, and all in all it was… Well, it was painful, but I would say it was amicable. The department and I met up a couple of weeks after the event for a farewell get-together, and I feel like I got some good closure to that chapter in my life. I’m still sad, though.

What’s next? I’m not sure. Definitely looking for a new job (and if you check out my resume, you’ll get a good idea of my skill set). Waiting to see what happens next.


It’s Halloween time, of course, which is my favorite time of year. I like scary stories, Jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, all that silly stuff. And it means there’s a lot more scary stuff to consume. Specifically, lots of scary content on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Last night, in particular, I watched a few episodes of an original Netflix show called Haunted. Basically, it has people sitting with friends and family and recounting horrifying events from their pasts. For example, the first episode, entitled “The Woman in White”, was about a man’s life-long experience with the ghost of a woman from an apartment he and his family had lived in when he was a child. His telling is interspersed with reenactments of the events. The makeup on the ghost was well-done, and the way she simply appeared in the kid’s closet were really spooky. Well done as far as that goes.

It was the episode on alien abduction that really struck me, though. I’ve been fascinated by the concept of alien abductions for many years; not because I believe in aliens that abduct people in the night and perform ghastly experiments on them, but because the story of the abduction is so similar to fairy abduction stories of yore, including missing time, bright lights, similar-looking creatures, and even the occasional sexual encounter.

So I began to wonder, back in the late 90s, about these similarities, and I wrote a story called “LTM” (for Long-Term Memory) in which I tried to create a “third mythology” that would explain the two experience archetypes and unite them into a single story. It was a bad story, full of passive voice and vague characters with no agency, and I don’t intend to share it with you (and it definitely hasn’t aged well; the men in black and UFO stories are straight out of the time it was written in and all hearken back to The X-Files).

Then I began to wonder about ghosts, demons, and other paranormal entities, and about the human brain’s ability to misinterpret what’s happening around it and tell a story to itself about what it experiences when it doesn’t quite understand what it’s experiencing. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but this is a personal blog so I don’t have to. But maybe there’s something going on or something that the brain sees that it doesn’t understand so it pulls into its cultural background and assigns a story to that input. If one person sees, say, a strange face lurking above them in the dark, they may say “Ghost!” because that’s what they’re used to thinking about when it comes to such things, while another may say “Demon!”. Furthermore, even among the people who say “Ghost!” there might be those who believe the ghost they see has malevolent intention, and some will believe it’s benign.

So maybe there is some sort of external event going on that we can’t interpret, so we assign cultural archetypes to it. Perhaps there something that causes us to see flashing lights, feel like we’re floating, and like we’re seeing bizarre creatures doing awful things to us. In pre-movie times, when we had no cultural story about aliens, we would interpret such events as fairy abductions. In our modern era, where we don’t think about fairies as existing but we have aliens built into our cultural milieu at all levels, we think of alien abductions. Personally, I’m inclined to think that such events are purely phenomenological in nature: entirely within the mind. I’m open to the possibility that something external is going on, but I haven’t seen any evidence that there is.

Anyway. This is the sort of thing that my brain thinks of at this time of year (well, at any time of year, but Halloween season brings it out more fully.

What goes on in your mind during Halloween season?

A Thought for the Ontologically Inclined

The other day I was watching Mighty Mouse (one of our foster kittens) playing with a little felt ball in the kitten room. She’d pick up the toy in her mouth, run around with it for a bit, drop it, bap at it, run after it, pick it up again, then run around like mad with it in her mouth again. It was incredibly silly, and very cute.

So I got to thinking about the toy itself and what it represented in Mouse’s brain. Cats are primarily predators (except possibly for Nutmeg, our 16-pound “potato cat”), so many of their play behaviors would be hunting behaviors in the wild. So what, to Mouse, did that little felt toy represent? A bug? A bird? A mouse? Some other small mammal? I mean, she clearly knew it wasn’t food, since she wasn’t eating it, but something about that toy was definitely triggering her latent hunting behavior.

From there, my brain, as it is wont to do, spun on to the same question but about human brains. What high-level behaviors of ours are actually representative of something else? I don’t mean simple symbology, such as looking at the Washington Memorial and thinking of — Well, you know. I mean those higher-level “noble” pursuits that we make so much of. Let’s say science, for example. We as a civilization1 pursue science pretty doggedly (cattedly?), and we’ve made great strides in our understanding of the cosmos and how it works.

So, my question to you is: are there yet higher-level orders of consciousness that could look down on us, view those ideals which we strive for, and wonder what they represent for us? We humans watch the cat play with a felt ball, and figure that the felt ball represents a bug; what would the aliens of Trafalmadore think we’re pursuing when we think we’re pursuing science?

Watching cats frequently makes me ponder the nature of human intelligence and the limits of our consciousness.

I know, this question is an easy one, one that should go up on Facebook or Twitter. I just want to save it here on my own blog.

Our Tiny Rock

Sometimes I have Deep Thoughts and have to find a way to express them. This is one of those times.

Sometimes I marvel about Earth and its inhabitants. In the grand, grand scheme of things, against the backdrop of the Cosmos, we’re barely a mote of dust. Smaller, even. We, and everyone we know and love, now and in the past and future, are just tiny biological organisms clinging to a small planet in a relatively small solar system in a mid-range galaxy in a universe the size of which beggars the imagination. Carl Sagan, in his famous “Pale Blue Dot” monologue, above, said it far better than I could ever hope to.

Sigh. I miss Carl Sagan.

Our downfall as a species is likely to be our hubris. We like to think that our daily struggles with each other and our morality plays have cosmic consequences. They don’t, of course, but our egos need to be fed; and when we elevate our human struggles to cosmic ones, we only cause harm to each other and often to the planet itself. We’re only sentient goo that thinks it’s better than it is.

Even as an Espicopalian, I’m aware of this.

The thing that baffles me about this is the number of people who think they’re “winning” at life when in reality we’re all going to end up in the same place. Accumulating wealth, power, and prestige is not going to let you win at life. You’re still going to die. And to acknowledge that fact and still play a game of “winning” is selfish; that vast aggregation of wealth will do you no good at the end. The best thing to do, I think, is to use whatever power and wealth you have to improve the lives of others. Part of this belief is fueled by my Episcopal faith, but I think part of it is just common sense, informed partially by a certain element of existentialism that I learned in college. We’re all going to die; why not make life pleasant for others of us who share the road?

 

Things I’m Putting Into My Head

I miss college. For the few who don’t know, I went to UC Davis, where I studied Philosophy. Now, to get your degree in Philosophy, you need to get — at least at the time that I graduated — 80 units total of Philosophy courses. You needed a minimum of 124 units to graduate from the University. And the University sort of forced you to graduate if you accumulated more than 225 units.

I graduated with 96 units in Philosophy, and 224.5 units altogether. This means that the majority of the classes I took in college were all over the board: religious studies, sociology, psychology, oceanography, botany, chemistry, and so on. Really, I had no idea what I was doing. I would just go through the catalog each quarter and sign up for any course that looked interesting with no rhyme or reason, just curiosity. I had no plan, just overall curiosity. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know, but I think that curiosity, in general, is a good quality to have.

But I do miss learning in some sort of structured environment. So I’ve signed up for some online courses. The courses I’m taking now are:

  1. Getting and Cleaning Data, course three of the Data Science Specialization at Coursera. Why am I taking a Data Science specialization at Coursera? I’m not entirely sure. I’m enjoying it, but I’m finding it a bit overwhelming. The last course focused on the R programming language, which is used to analyze data and statistical information. Statistics was a hard course for me in college.
  2. Question Reality! Science, Philosophy and the Search for Meaning. This is a fascinating class. A lot of the material is stuff that I already know, having taken classes in it in college or just through reading widely in a bunch of different areas, but I’m still learning. I’m enjoying this class. I’m a week behind, so this week I’m trying to catch up, but other than that I’m having fun. I will say, though, that the interface at EdX is clunky and not very easy to use.
  3. Finally, I’m brushing up my Spanish skills using Duolingo. I took Spanish for three years during high school with a great teacher, but since I didn’t use it very much, I got rusty. I would try to use my Spanish from time to time, but never with much luck (one Spanish speaker I was trying to talk to asked me, in English, “What are you trying to say?”). But Duolingo is making me feel a bit more confident in my skill.

That’s a lot to deal with, especially considering that I’m working full-time and also writing regularly. I’m keeping track of it all and also what I’m doing with a combination of Remember the Milk and Habitica. The former keeps me organized, the latter keeps me on track. I am by no means a power user of either tool, but I’m getting the hang of them. Slowly but surely.

Slowly. But. Surely.

On another note, I’ve set myself a schedule of posting to this blog at least once a week. I know I’ve said that before, but this time I really mean it. I’ve even put it down on my Remember the Milk task manager.

Ia! Ftaghn! Cosmic Nihilism and the Cuteification of Cthulhu

Cthulhu

Time was, Cthulhu, the monstrous entity pictured to the left, was the most frightening thing imaginable. Not only was he a giant creature at least a mile in height, who lay dead yet somehow still dreaming in his sunken city of R’yleh, somewhere in the Atlantic… Not only could his dreams affect people in the waking world and control cults and sects throughout millennia… Not only could he rise up at any time and scour the Earth and lay it to waste… No, he’s just a harbinger of even worse things to come! He’s a priest of the old gods, entities that make Cthulhu himself look like a child’s plaything.

Yes, Cthulhu was, at one time, the most frightening thing imaginable for certain groups of people.

On Sunday at WesterCon I attended a panel entitled “Cosmic Horror in the Mainstream Media”. It was an interesting panel which, as is pretty much always the case when the term “cosmic horror” comes up, focused primarily H. P. Lovecraft and his influence not just on the horror genre but on culture at large. There was some debate about what the term “cosmic horror” means, and the panel agreed that it had to do with giant monsters, sanity-blasting, ancient magics, hidden knowledge, and so on.

I disagree.

To me, “cosmic horror” means a genre of horror entertainment which emphasizes the fact that nothing benevolent exists out there. It’s about nihilism, about the nothingness in the universe that doesn’t care a single whit about human beings. Sure, Cthulhu might incite a few cultists with his dead/not-dead dream state, but, really, Cthulhu probably doesn’t give a damn about human beings at all, aside from how tasty we might be.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Cosmic horror, to me, also implies “deepness”: Lovecraft’s horrors (and Lovecraft is still, for all his flaws, the undisputed master of cosmic horror) exist in deep space, in deep time, and in deep consciousness. It’s the intentional seeking out of these entities and cosmic nothingness and universal indifference that drives the poor Lovecraftian characters mad. What happens when you see Hastur and Azathoth palling around with each other at the chaotic miasma which is at the center of the cosmos? You lose all your sanity, that’s what.

But I think this sort of horror goes beyond just the Lovecraftian. While one might be hard-pressed to find examples in popular, mainstream culture, it’s definitely out there. I offered up AMC’s The Walking Dead as an example of this sort of nihilistic horror; and while even I have to admit this is a bit of a stretch, the cosmic nothingness, the idea that nothing benevolent exists, is still part of that show’s milieu.

This cosmic nihilism, I think, has always been with us. Some of the Greek philosophers expounded on it, but I think the ball really got rolling with Nietzsche in the 19th century. It began to pick up speed during the First World War, picked up some more momentum with the Second, and, during the Cold War, it ran rampant all over everything. I grew up in the 80s, and I remember the existential horror of knowing that Reagan or Khruschev could at any moment decide that they’d had enough and would press that red button.

So what do you do when you’re faced with this kind of horror? You can embrace it and write more Lovecraftian-style horror, or even apply some of that nihilism to your own horror or science fiction (Alien is cosmic horror whether you like it or not). You can also ignore it.

But you can also “cuteify” it. Indeed, a whole industry has grown up around making plush Cthulhu toys, silly songs about the Mythos, and so on. This is aplushcthulhu way of coping with Cthulhu and the empty, uncaring cosmos that he represents.

I personally have nothing against a cute Cthulhu. Heck, we have a plush Cthluhu that we put atop our Christmas tree every year. Plush Cthulhu is fun, goofy, and a neat way of coming to terms with the nihilism existential horror that is our daily existence.

I do know, though, that the cuteification of Cthulhu causes some problems for some people. That’s fine and understandable. They don’t like their cosmic, nihilistic, existential horror messed with.

So, the takeaway here is that cuteifying a horror is one way of coping with it. In my own fiction, I often take a comedic approach to Hastur, Cthulhu, Azathoth, and others. Does this mean that I’m also participating in the cuteification of Cthulhu?

I’ll leave the answer to that as an exercise for the reader.

Singularity

bigbang
Image credit: NASA

The other day, I got to thinking about singularities, as one does. Not the so-called technological or sociological singularity of Ray Kurzweil et al (which I think is just kind of silly), but the singularities that lie at the heart of the Big Bang and black holes. Mind you, the two singularities are not the same — the universe is not a black hole, and black holes are not little Big Bangs — but the basic concept, as I understand it, is essentially the same. A singularity is a construct of mathematics and physics and represents a region where we the laws of physics and mathematics simply break down. We simply can’t describe what happens at the heart of a singularity because our mathematics and our physics aren’t capable of doing so. There’s some philosophical debate as to whether the science has advanced sufficiently to a point where we can know what’s happening or we’ll never know because the mathematics will be forever beyond our ken. The point is, right we just don’t know what happens in a singularity, and we don’t even know if we ever will know.

So, it’s been established (more or less) that there are some questions we may simply never have the answers to. What happens inside a black hole? We don’t know. What happened in the first moment of the Big Bang? We don’t know. Can we determine both the precise location and velocity of a sub-atomic particle? No we can’t.

All this thinking about unanswerable questions made me dizzy while I was studying philosophy at UC Davis, and I loved it. And then I got to thinking about the limits of the human intellectual enterprise as a whole. Could it be that, in addition to questions we can’t answer, are there questions we can’t even ask?

Consider a housecat observing a human reading a book. To the human, reading a book means hallucinating vividly while staring at black marks on the remains of a dead, pulped-up tree. But what does it mean to the cat? Even the smartest of cats — such as our cat Rupert — wouldn’t know what to make of this. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the cat  lacks the capacity to even ask what the human is doing. It doesn’t occur to the cat to question it, because the cat doesn’t understand the first thing about written communication, and the concept doesn’t even exist in the cat’s mind.

So what about the limits of human comprehension? Like the housecat, we’re obviously limited in what we can comprehend and understand. Do these limits mean that we can’t ask certain questions because we’ll never know where to look?

I once asked this question of one of my philosophy professors at UC Davis. Dr. A– simply replied, “What would be the point? Get back to your paper on Descartes.”

And, of course, I can’t provide any examples of questions that can’t be asked, because, by definition, if a question can be asked then it isn’t non-askable.

Finally, if a question is non-askable, does that mean there are vast swaths of knowledge that we simply can’t ever know? I didn’t study much epistemology in college, so I never really came across this question.

So to me, this little bit of questioning suggests a sort of singularity of human thought. Just as we’ll likely never know what happens inside the singularity of a black hole or what happened before the Big Bang, we may never know the limits of our own knowledge, simply because we can’t ask the relevant questions.

That’s all I got for now. My next blog post will be different, likely about our cat Rupert, the wicked smart cat, or Sherman, who attempts to escape our house every time the front door opens. But for now, this philosophical meandering is what you get.

The Matrix and Philosophy

The Matrix and PhilosophyThe Matrix and Philosophy edited by William Irwin

My bachelor’s degree is in Philosophy (UC Davis, 1992), and The Matrix is one of my favorite science fiction films ever; and so this book seems like it would be a perfect match for me, doesn’t it? It’s part of the same Philosophy and Popular Culture series which includes other books such as The Simpsons and Philosophy, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Philosophy (which I have and which is a surprisingly entertaining read, save for the very last essay), and the forthcoming The Undead and Philosophy, which I need to get just because the title sounds so impressive. There’s another book out now called Superheroes and Philosophy which I want to read, even though I have never been much of a fan of the superhero genre.

Continue reading The Matrix and Philosophy