The Diffused Power of Characters in Literature, Composing, 30/09/2013

I’ve thought many times over the years about what in a novel makes a good film. I dislike the old stereotype that the book is always better than the film for two reasons. One is that it’s false. Two is that it ignores that actual complexity of adapting a book to a film, particularly the complete alienness of techniques in literature to techniques in film. This latter point is so obvious that it seriously annoys me when people just reveal their basic ignorance in how cinema works.

In the interview I linked below, Frank Herbert
says he conceives of the first three Dune books
as a single novel. Science-fiction is really the
only place where an author can get away with
telling a story of that scope and length anymore.
Reading Dune put me in mind of this thinking because of the incredible efficiency of one particular technique, as well as Frank Herbert’s noteworthy artfulness in execution. He literally writes the thoughts of the characters at key moments in various scenes. The plot of Dune, if you aren’t familiar, is about a variety of highly creative science-fictional technologies, political movements, worlds, and objects. You can see how important these details are to my current post by noting the detail with which I describe them. What’s more important for my point is that Dune is a book about intense political intrigue, Machiavellian machinations around royal and regal families and houses, monarchist associations and how the ordinary folk are manipulated to fight their battles over fiefdoms and money.

Here’s the most striking to me of Herbert’s literary techniques. He writes people’s thoughts. He doesn’t write their thoughts all the time, as in the first waves of experimental modernist literature; I’m thinking particularly of James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. He just writes their thoughts at pivotal moments, as silent reactions of a character to some event. 

A spoken phrase is written as “You may see one today,” Kynes said. “Wherever there is spice, there are worms.”

A thought phrase is written as And Kynes thought as he watched the group approach: They’ll learn soon enough who is master on Arrakis

The key is that this lets the reader know secrets about character motivation and history that the characters don’t. But it’s not the infodump of a narrator, which can lean dangerously into artlessness or clunky exposition. Reading it in a book, the technique is smooth, and works to build one kind of suspense, while preventing another. The plot of Dune is, in an important part, driven by the betrayal of the protagonists by particular characters, and their fear of betrayal. This technique broadcasts from the beginning, but only to the reader, precisely who are the actual traitors among the cast. So the technique deflates the suspense of mystery (Who’s going to do it?) while building another (When are they going to do it?). In addition, the protagonists are stuck dealing with the first mystery, because they can’t read the book. So the investment the reader develops in the protagonists becomes integrated with suspense, wishing for the protagonist to catch up to the knowledge of the reader.

David Lynch meditates on the thousands of hidden
insecurities that slowly erode our personality into the bliss
of senility, while simultaneously figuring out how the fuck
to raise another million dollars to produce this film.
It’s kind of ridiculous translating this technique into cinema. You don’t read a film, you watch and listen to it. You can’t film one piece of dialogue in italics. What I’m saying sounds stupid and obvious, but a lot of the ordinary talk about adapting films from novels acts as if whatever happens in the book can go in the film. Revealing a character’s thought in cinema has to occur very carefully. The only time I’ve seen this kind of italic moment is soliloquies. I’ve seen films and television shows where characters turn to the camera and reveal their thoughts with a heavily stylized delivery. And it’s very easy to make this look incredibly stupid. Shakespearean adaptations don’t really do soliloquies too well, in my view, because of the problems of translating Elizabethan theatre to cinema, which is a topic for another entry. They’re too long, where the cinema soliloquy works best if it’s a brief aside, a quick moment where the fourth wall is broken, and we get back to the story. The production of a film makes an implied whole world for the camera. The theatre stage is clearly a stage in the middle of an audience. There isn’t really a fourth wall to break because there’s no attempt in Elizabethan theatre to resemble literally the world that the story depicts.

The cinematographer and the actor have to work together perfectly, as the camera has to create a special perspective, visual palette, and tone of shot for each person with the power to give soliloquies. I mean power literally, because cinema ranks its characters in terms of their power to manipulate the camera’s depiction of the world itself. Herbert gives almost every major and minor character in Dune one of these brief italic moments.  A film condenses the sprawl of a novel into a tight narrative with a relatively small cast. If every character has these aside moments, then they make themselves all major: even background characters have the power to act as if the verisimilitude of the cinema doesn’t apply to them. 

Bart knows his audience, knows that he has an audience,
and likes to keep them riveted and laughing.
I’ve seen this done well once, at least in my memory of films and television I’ve recently watched. One is Blazing Saddles, the Mel Brooks film where the narrative is a duel between the only characters who can break the fourth wall. Harvey Korman’s corrupt attorney general Hedley Lamarr and Bart the black Sheriff of Rock Ridge. Hedley is a self-aware villain in a Western movie who wants to control the non-self-conscious stereotypes of Western movies for his own benefit. Bart is literally a modern twentieth-century urban black man who has wandered into this Western movie. He reacts to events by making jokes to the camera that make light of the film tropes. He defeats different villains that are invincible in a Western by acting like characters from different genres of film. These characters operate with a powerful grasp of the narrative, which only a couple of characters can have without throwing the film into chaos. 

I found an illuminating interview with David Lynch and Frank Herbert recorded in the run-up of the release of Lynch’s film. In the second video, Herbert describes translating a book into a film as like translating English into Swahili. I don’t think this goes far enough. Think instead of translating a written story into mime and interpretive dance. It’s popularly thought that because literature and cinema are two narrative media which involves depictions of dramatic events, characterization, and dialogue, you can adapt a story from one medium to the other without problem. But as you can see from just the examples above, the abilities are very difficult to articulate. So while Lynch is something of a genius, he could have made some very dangerous decisions in the adaptation.

Of course, I wouldn’t know to what degree he succeeded. As I mentioned last week, I only just started reading Dune for the first time then, and it was my first exposure to the franchise at all. I’m not going to watch the film until I finish reading the book. Then I’ll see how successful Lynch turned out to be. Not in terms of how well he adapted the book, which as we know is a red herring and silly to keep track of. Instead, what matters is how good his film was.

Assignment Earth: Pilot DVD Commentary, Composing, 29/09/2013

You can probably figure out by now that my imagined Assignment: Earth essays are essentially fanfic. The fact that I’ve labelled them such, I would say, gives the game away. So you might wonder why, on a blog that so often discusses philosophical reading, writing, and interpretation, a bunch of fanfic started showing up.

Well, even though I don’t write about it very much, my other career is as a fiction writer. It’s just an accident of timing that I don’t write about my fiction work as much as my philosophical work right now. Here are the main causes: I’m in the middle of tenure-track job application season, which focusses a lot of my energy on planning philosophical projects; related to this, a post-doctoral opportunity in philosophy of biology appeared at the last minute, and I had to adapt some of the research I had done on evolutionary theory during my dissertation work to this proposal; I’m also brainstorming ideas for articles to send to professional journals to catch up on the year I spent falling behind on my output working ten hours per day at an answering service; and my fiction work is between projects, having a novella with my editors and waiting to hear back on whether an older novel manuscript will be published from a company in Newfoundland.

That’s a lot of causes. But they leave unanswered why I’m writing weekend fanfic. A couple of years ago, I never would have thought of putting these kinds of ideas in a public forum, even one as modest as a blog. I’d write a few comments about “What might have been” on a few of my friends’ far more technically impressive science-fiction blogs. But I’d never really explore the ideas in detail in a forum specifically dedicated to me. Then I learned a few things about how fanfic operates that can actually be useful as a writer.

Most of the stereotypes of fanfic writers is that they’re clinically insane. A couple of recent Shortpacked! comics give probably the best illustration. But that isn’t how all of it works. When writers whose fiction moves in sci-fi circles are brainstorming ideas or looking to relax, they sometimes play with characters that they already know well from other franchises or worlds. I’ll give you one example: Kate Orman, one of the most acclaimed novelists of the Virgin Publishing line of Doctor Who from the 1990s, writes fan-fiction. This is a form that’s a mark of obsessives, but also works quite well as a practice for storytelling. You take characters that are already established and known, then work out a new story for them. It’s precisely what writers-for-hire do when they work for a series that’s new to them. They get to know the characters, come up with a plot that’s plausible for that world, and get to work. Every brilliant one-off story for a television series is just fanfic until the commission check gets written.

I know I'm not supposed to like Roberto Bolaño because he's
so trendy, and only hipsters like Bolaño, and he was really
an asshole, and kind of misogynist, and he's only cool
because the New York Review of Books said so. Screw you.
His work is intricate, politically astute, hilarious in its satire,
emotionally moving, and after you read it he makes even a
decaying urban pit feel like a place where poetry can happen.
Of course, I’m not writing actual fictional stories or scripts for Assignment: Earth. I’m describing plots and narrative developments. The literary form is different, but it also has a high pedigree: the fake encyclopedia. Some of Jorge Borges (A Universal History of Iniquity) and Roberto Bolaño’s (Nazi Literature in the Americas) best and most influential work was in this style. Each book is a collection of false biographies and fictional histories of imagined people. Bolaño’s has the most political bite, which I’ve always enjoyed in an author: he writes an encyclopedia of a loosely connected movement of fascist or fascism-sympathetic authors from North and South (mostly South) America. 

My Assignment: Earth pastiches will work something like this. The story guide to the production of a television series that never happened. Who knows? Maybe I’ll spin it out into a fictional television reference guide, spinning fictional characters and adaptations of real people from the American television industry in the early 1970s into a bizarre kind of novel that depicts that strange period in that society through the lens of a television show that almost, but never was.

Assignment Earth II: Story Generator, Jamming, 28/09/2013

I decided, in the light of my reduced viewing numbers running alternate-timeline versions of never-produced 1970s American adventure television on Tuesday, to move my Assignment: Earth posts to Saturdays, when I get a traffic reduction anyway. Those of you who want to read it always can. Those of you who don't, won't.
• • •
The status of headcanon or fanfic is a tricky thing. I don’t expect anything to come of this exercise in alternate-universe television writing that I started last week except some entertainment for myself and my readers, and perhaps some stimulation of the philosophical sense organs through reading my elaborate reconstruction of a television show that never existed. I’ll never get any rights to contribute to actual Assignment: Earth official fiction, which does exist and is read by some humans. But I like the exercise. I’m an academic researcher, but I’m also a fiction writer. And I can play on some days if I want to.

The first problem with Assignment: Earth as a concept was Gene Roddenberry. If you want more detailed information on why Gene Roddenberry deserves pretty much none of the praise he’s gotten over the last five decades, just read the blog Vaka Rangi, linked on the right, to find out what a sexist, socially conservative pig he really was. The second problem with Assignment: Earth in real life was that both the lead actors refused to do a full series. Robert Lansing didn’t want to work on a regular television series, and Roddenberry treated Teri Garr so disrespectfully on set that she refused to have anything to do with him again. 

So my imagined Assignment: Earth begins with a radical recasting. Without the stars of the actual episode, I can recast the part with whoever I want, but I want to keep it realistic-ish to the time period. Only actors who would have been the appropriate age in 1970 could join the cast. That actually doesn’t limit me very much.

Gary Seven as a character sits at a fascinating place in the Assignment: Earth story. If you remember from last week, Gary is human, but was raised on a faraway world by the Aegis organization, the extra-terrestrial group that has been secretly intervening in the geopolitics of Earth over thousands of years to keep humanity on a strict path of historical development. The details and purpose of that path are known only to the Aegis aliens themselves. Their human charges are no more than servants keeping the plan on track. 

Imagine the comedic possibilities of Leonard Nimoy playing
an alien who self-consciously tries to blend into the fashion
of the United States in the early 1970s.
Here is a character who is human, and feels great attachment to humanity and Earth. Earth is his ancestral home, and humanity is the species he’s responsible for guiding to enlightenment (or so the Aegis would have him believe). Yet he also feels separate from Earth and humanity, because he wasn’t raised among them, but in the sterile environment for the children marked to become Aegis officers. He is officially paired with Isis, a shapeshifter whose consciousness is twinned and simultaneously operating as a computer in his apartment. Gary Seven is raised in a world of logical clarity, and his life’s purpose is to shepherd humanity secretly through the steps of a rational plan of historical development. Gene Roddenberry already had an actor in his stable of regulars who would be perfectly suitable for this role. His name was Leonard Nimoy.

Roberta Lincoln, Gary’s human secretary, could become so much more than the one-note ditz Roddenberry designed and the two-note comedy ditz Teri Garr turned her into to save her on-set sanity. Roberta becomes Gary’s anchor in the human world, an imperfect person with a tangled personal life and complicated family history who, through her individual-scale dramas outside the office invading the main plots every three or four episodes during the first season, would gradually involve Gary in normal human relationships.

Watching Get Smart as a child made me realize
that no man ever succeeds without a woman
who actually knows what she's doing.
The question of her casting is important, though. She’d need a comic sensibility, which would work equally well for dramatic moments, because all good comic actors can do drama. She’d also need some practice in action, and have the charisma to hold her own against such an eccentric performance as Nimoy’s. Her arc over the first and second seasons would involve her moving from a comic relief position and occasional logistical support to actively helping Gary with his historico-dialectical spy games. She’d be the voice of the ordinary person in the philosophical/historical dialogue that is Gary’s life. The only person I can think of for that role is also the best: formerly Get Smart’s Agent 99, Barbara Feldon.

Isis would be pretty much a blank slate. I’d have her appear human more often than I’d have her appear cat. The cat disguise was pretty much inexplicable in the episode, so I’d have Isis be a cat for espionage purposes, and a human for daily interactions. Though some comic moments would come from the interaction of Roberta and Isis’ cat form. She’d be the representative of Aegis’ serious game of manipulating human history.  Yet she’d also be able, slowly and with a great deal of hesitation and trepidation, to express genuine affection for her charge Gary, and sometimes even Roberta. Isis may also have secrets from Gary, as she’s part of the computer network that calculates what his interventions should be, so has some knowledge of the Aegis plan for human history. Who could embody that steel trustworthiness in a pinch of trouble, but with a veil hiding possibly sinister secrets? Roddenberry already cast her once, and he would again in the real world of Star Trek: TOS’ third season: Diana Muldaur.

Diana Muldaur: Always so serious.
The overall character arc of the first two seasons would be Gary Seven torn between his growing affection and compassion for humanity and his loyalty to the political-historical program of Aegis. To keep the major plan on track, he would sometimes have to sacrifice individual lives. But his friendship with Roberta would influence him to care as much, and sometimes even more, for ordinary folk than for the master plan. 

I picture one episode, perhaps late in the first season. There have been mostly plots of adventure and danger as Gary and Isis, with a little help from the hapless Roberta, have played their spy games with the geopolitics of the human race. A sabotaged nuclear device here, a seed planted in the thoughts of a groundbreaking genetic researcher there. Each episode would have comic moments of Roberta trying to help Gary adjust to life as a human in the early 1970s. But every four episodes or so is an overall comic vehicle where the stakes aren’t that high. I imagine one episode where Roberta is distracted from her tasks at the office with family troubles. Maybe she has an older sister whose husband is beginning to abuse her, and Roberta asks Gary for help protecting her. Stories like this would teach Gary about aspects of human life that escape the structure of the Aegis plan for history, and put him in territory where his character is uncomfortable, where the eccentric super-spy has to adjust himself to function well. Isis would advise Gary with perfect logic that this is an inconsequential act that is utterly unimportant to his mission on Earth, so there is no need for him to interfere in a petty domestic squabble.

Picture a young Nimoy as Gary saying, “It is true that my interference in Roberta’s life would have no important effects on the global scale of human history. Her sister will never intersect a critical moment, nor will she have any serious indirect effects on critical moments. Her life is inconsequential. Therefore, just as there is no reason for me to interfere, no harm will be done by my interference! Meanwhile, I will have the chance to do some good, just as I do in a major interference. Except it will be small, virtually unnoticeable but for the few people it immediately affects. A useless good is nonetheless a good. I’ll be back this evening, Isis.” And he’s out the door. 

I Don’t Like Adjectives But I Won’t Mind If You Call Me Bourdieu-ian, A History Boy, 27/09/2013

I got some books in the mail Thursday, and one of them was Pascalian Meditations by Pierre Bourdieu. I’ve slowly been drifting into Bourdieu’s orbit since I read his essay collection on cultural production and the production of culture (two quite different processes) in the last weeks of 2011. It was called, appropriately, The Field of Cultural Production. When I was assembling the preliminary research for my aborted project on the historiography of the history of analytic philosophy, my doctoral supervisor recommended him to me as someone with whom my thinking had a lot in common.

As usual, he was right. After picking up my books from the McMaster philosophy department office, where they’re good enough people to help me out by serving as a mailbox for research-related packages, I went to one of the coffee shops in Westdale to get a late lunch and read a little of the Bourdieu.

You could ask whether Bourdieu should
be called a philosopher or a sociologist. I
prefer to think of him as both. There is no
rule saying he can't be, and if you try to
make one, I'll tear it up.
Pascalian Meditations turned out to be one of his last books. Published in 1997, translated into English in 2000, Bourdieu died in 2002 when he was 71. I only had time to read the introduction today, but this is a book that I think I’ll love. The introduction talks about his approach to philosophy, something sociologists don’t talk about that much, which I think is to philosophy’s detriment. I’ve spoken many times on the blog that I think philosophy as a discipline, on the whole, suffers from its insularity from other professions of knowledge. 

The introduction describes Pascalian Meditations as a critique of philosophy’s tendencies in practice. Essentially, Bourdieu offers a critique of philosophy based on its lack of worldliness. I have some words dropping next week on the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective about the same issue, that I think it’s a mistake to keep philosophical thought in a context of abstraction, striving for total generality of reference and universality of scope. At issue for Bourdieu and myself is the desire for philosophical thought to maintain a standard of purity. There is a tendency, which I’ve seen in some rather unfortunate practitioners and students of philosophy, to hold the material world in disdain, as if it pollutes the purity of philosophical reflection. Less pretentiously, I’ve heard people dismiss the relevance of social science disciplines for philosophical thinking because they don’t have their eye on the universal. Thankfully, there are not very many of those people. One of them even broke his friendship with me over my preference for thinking in the material world. Plato’s ghost still haunts some of us. Meanwhile, I’m in an apartment in Hamilton, Ontario, trying to build a proton pack from scratch

As for Bourdieu, he states the problem more eloquently than I can right now. That’s the difference between a blog that updates daily and a book that’s the product of years of research, writing, and revision. Citing Blaise Pascal, he considers philosophy to be a discipline that has taken itself too seriously for too long, that has lost its sense of play in messy materiality. Maybe we’ve striven after universality for so long, that it’s become too easy, when lost in philosophical meditation, to keep our eye on the rocky joys of the world.

I’ll let him make the point.

“In the order of thought, there is, as Nietzsche pointed out, no immaculate conception; but nor is there any original sin — and the discovery that someone who has discovered the truth had an interest in doing so in no way diminishes his discovery. Those who like to believe in the miracle of ‘pure’ thought must bring themselves to accept that the love of truth or virtue, like any other kind of disposition, necessarily owes something to the conditions in which it was formed, in other words a social position and trajectory.”

You can consider this blog an exercise in following through on that idea. I labelled this as a History Boy post because knowing my history — what I’ve read, when I’ve read it, its affects on me, and how my wider life and personal influences shape how I think — is part of the conditions of the knowledge I produce. This fact makes people uncomfortable sometimes, because it takes thought out of that realm of universality, or objectivity, as it’s sometimes called. I've been told that this makes thinking merely relative, a matter of mere opinion, not genuinely knowledge. Worthless. What pettiness is the appeal to the universal.

We, not just philosophers but conscientious members of communities, have to take the singular lives of people into account if we’re to understand the world. The ivory tower is obsolete because it falls so short of the full breadth and depth of human experience. The best philosopher never turns away from difference. A different kind of life is a new kind of knowledge, and we should welcome those surprises.

If that sounds like I’m trivializing philosophy, then yes, I am, after a fashion. However, if keeping my focus completely on pretensions to pure universality keeps me from perceiving those differences, then I’d prefer my thought to be as trivial as the daily life of that huge variety of people.

Free Will: Leaving the Tradition Behind, A History Boy, 26/09/2013

Introductory philosophy classes face a pretty hard sell for the discipline. Because of the usual way universities allocate budgets, philosophy programs have to attract enough majors to keep a reasonable share of their university’s money.* My old department is facing the short end of this stick right now. In the face of a trimming overall budget for the university, the philosophy department at McMaster is staring down some cuts, which is a damn shame, because it’s a quality department that’s being kept from firing on all its cylinders. 

* I happen to think that the most productive way to develop an undergraduate philosophy curriculum is through more service courses that integrate philosophical perspectives and techniques with other disciplines. In an era where immediate practical application of their education is foremost on students’ minds (as it would be, given what most people sacrifice for their degrees), philosophy sometimes has to reach out of its more abstract comfort zone and provide people with diverse critical thinking skills. Learning how to be of service to multiple other disciplines would also, I think, be a great asset for creative philosophical research.

Of course, leaving aside critiques of the outdated and unfortunate method of allocating budget shares to university departments by major instead of overall service to the university’s programs, there is the question of attracting majors. An often-used tool is to generate nerdy enthusiasm, getting people excited enough about the discipline’s material to want to learn more. And one of the standard methods of doing this is hooking people with the perennial problems of philosophy, the questions that don’t ever seem to go away. Does God exist? Is there such thing as a soul? Is free will possible?**

** I sometimes see this term written as freewill, a single word. And it annoys the crap out of me.

What amuses me about this well-worn technique is that I was never that interested in these problems, though I specifically want to talk about free will today. As I’ve studied other areas of philosophy, especially scientific principles, the various conceptions of what a law of nature would be, and the nature of causation, free will almost seems like a pseudo-problem. It sounds like a serious problem, but when you actually examine all the ideas involved, it actually isn’t anything worth worrying about. 

I read an article on Slate Wednesday morning that got me thinking about this. The author’s point was basically that whether there could be free will wasn’t really a problem. The problem is usually stated in the discipline of philosophy in terms of causation: if an action is caused, then it isn’t free; because no human action is free from cause, then there is no such thing as free will. This is based on a conception of causality as strongly deterministic. A cause, on this conception, utterly determines its effect. 

The article’s writer, Roy Baumeister, points out how silly this is. His own argument is that as systems grow more complex over time, they develop new ways of acting which essentially constitute human freedom. Yes, everything is made of matter, and elementary particles move according to the laws of physics,*** but these laws describe very simple actions, and the determinations of these simple actions don’t apply to the more complex dynamics of movement that emerge from them. By the time we arrive at the peculiar kind of complexity of humans with their cultural ways of living, the human organism has developed the ability to move in ways that practically amount to everything that the traditional methods of pure metaphysics ask of free will. And if it develops its personality and trades a complex chain of favours for political advancement like a free human, then it’s free.

A funny story involving Daniel Dennett. My friend K used
to work at a marina in Newfoundland where apparently
Dennett used to go sailing with reasonable frequency.
*** Of course, the mathematics describing activity at the fundamental levels of matter and energy are statistical, a matter not of strict determination but of probabilities, likelihoods, and tendencies. This is further evidence that some arguments in philosophy seriously need to catch up with discoveries in other disciplines that have impact for our concerns. I have even met philosophers, actual people with PhDs in the discipline, who believe that the scientific concept of emergence is nonsense. I won't name names, just express my thankfulness that there aren't very many of them, and hope that it won't be long until such people no longer exist.

This is essentially Daniel Dennett’s argument for the evolution of freedom, dressed in language better suited to journalism than giant books of technical philosophy. And perhaps philosophy could learn something from journalistic style; at a minimum, it sells better. Dennett, of course, has many more nuanced concepts involved in his argument. Freedom Evolves is a 400-page book. What I read yesterday morning was a 1000-word article. 

But I’ve never actually read Freedom Evolves in detail. I vaguely remember taking a course that had a short excerpt from it in our readings, but that’s about it. When it comes to Dennett scholarship, I’ve read more of his essays and books on philosophy of mind (I do recommend Consciousness Explained; not strongly, but recommended) when I was working on my MA and during the first year or so of my doctorate. 

I was simply never really that interested in the problem of free will, having suspected from my first encounter with it that it didn’t really add up to much. I had a feeling that freedom as a question was kind of immaterial. I think I always held an attitude basically akin to Dennett’s since before I even discovered philosophy in the first place. And nothing I subsequently discovered in philosophy could convince me otherwise. 

I’m not entirely sure what that says about philosophy. Or about me. Oh well.

Contraries as the Act of Straining Against Language, Research Time, 25/09/2013

Returning to philosophy today, I’ve almost finished the edits on my ecophilosophy manuscript, and have several intriguing ideas not just for updates to my thinking to throw on the blog, but for actual essays that can be published in professional journals. I’ll get to writing about these over the course of this week. 

One passage in my last pre-conclusion chapter is about a particular idea of Michel Serres. He wonders what kind of person could be an exemplar for environmentalist activism and lifestyles in his 1990 book The Natural Contract. This is a strange little book, my first encounter with Serres and my only such encounter so far. I am, however, extremely interested to pursue is more recent work, which concentrates on developing a pluralist vision of philosophy of science. Depending on my what my next university position turns out to be, I’ll read these works sooner or later.

Serres' writing in his original language is
brilliant enough that I'd say the top three
reasons to learn to read French are the books of
Marcel Proust, Albert Camus, and him.
Serres’ vision for philosophy of science is developing methods of mapping and translating the core concepts of various scientific disciplines. Philosophy’s role would be as the messenger of concepts from one scientific world to another. I’m extremely interested in this idea, as it throws away the old notion in philosophy of science (that remains annoyingly persistent in some circles) that philosophy’s purpose is to analyze scientific knowledge or practice and faithfully describe what’s really going on, presuming that the scientists can’t. This is the notion that philosophy is an authority over the essence of science and scientific knowledge. It also moves away from another, equally problematic conception of philosophy of science, that a philosopher can only speak legitimately about a scientific discipline when she has received sufficient training to practice the discipline herself. This is the notion that philosophy can only ever be subservient to the disciplines of science, never offering critique of alternative ideas. 

However, I haven’t read those books of Serres yet, so this post is not about those ideas. Instead, it’s quite a critical post. The detailed argument will be in my manuscript, but the gist of it goes like this. Serres describes a type of person, which he calls Le Tiers-Instruit, who is the most environmentally virtuous figure. The sketch is tremendously interesting, but also tremendously frustrating. I’m not totally sure if he intends to advocate this figure as an actual role model for people, or if it’s a hypothetical construction to see how workable such a person is. Here’s the edited quote describing Le Tiers-Instruit that I use in my manuscript, drawn from the English translation of Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson.

“Knowledge’s troubadour: expert in formal or experimental knowledge, well-versed in the natural sciences of the inanimate and the living . . . lover of rivers, sands, winds, seas, and mountains; walker over the whole Earth . . . thus archaic and contemporary, traditional and futuristic, humanist and scientist, fast and slow, green and seasoned, audacious and prudent.”

The whole description is a collision of contraries. It’s a passage incredibly pregnant with meaning, but that meaningfulness doesn’t come from the image itself. It is meaningful because it provokes the reader to try to figure out what kind of phenomenon could articulate all those contraries, these attributes that appears opposite, yet might be able to fit together. It’s a passage more puzzling than enlightening.

Now, I’m not about to dump on Serres. I found pretty much everything else in The Natural Contract incredibly enlightening, at least when it came to meditating on the perennial problems of environmental moral/political philosophy. Serres covers more territory in a 125-page book than some environmental philosophers do in their entire careers. The problem is that while his perspective on those problems is fascinating and illuminating, he never seems to advance an answer to those problems, or at least a way to move those problems forward. 

I think my ecophilosophy manuscript manages something of progress in these recurring problems. I know how arrogant that may sound: “He thinks his work achieves what one of France’s greatest writers of philosophy couldn’t manage? What does he think he is!?”

I think I’m a damn good philosopher, that’s what.

Assignment Earth I: Story Generator, Jamming, 24/09/2013

I worked on a few more tenure-track applications today, and did some more edits on the last chapter of the ecophilosophy project. But I had a conversation on the internet that stimulated my creativity very much, and thought it was worth sharing. It amounts to a kind of fanfic, but it’s worth the creative exercise. I’m going to publish a different installment of this project every Tuesday until I finish it. It may last three or four entries. Some context first.

One of the blogs linked at right is Vaka Rangi, a long-running project to articulate a complex and innovative reading of the Star Trek franchise, affiliating it with the religion/philosophy of ancient Polynesian ocean wayfarers. Yes, it gets complicated. I’ve counted at least seven meta-textual elements to his criticism already, and we haven't even left the 1960s yet. He’s also pointed out the positively retrograde contributions of Gene Roddenberry to Star Trek: TOS, who despite creating the franchise in the first place, was utterly terrible at writing or philosophizing for it. His most recent essay was on the second-season finale, “Assignment: Earth.” This was a backdoor pilot for the show Roddenberry hoped to develop after Star Trek’s ignominious cancellation after two years. With his quirky space navy show set to be forgotten in the dustbins of television history, he thought he’d try his hand at spy-fi, the science-fiction-influenced techno-thriller genre that was becoming popular thanks to imports of British programs like The Avengers.

This was Robert Lansing's expression in almost every part
he ever played, whether or not Gene Roddenberry wrote it.
“Assignment: Earth” was about a secret agent named Gary Seven, who lived in Apartment 12B at 811 East 68th Street in New York. He worked for an extra-terrestrial organization named Aegis, who as of 1968 had been surreptitiously guiding human history for thousands of years, keeping humanity set to a specific arc of historical development. Their agents, descended from humans kidnapped 4,000 years ago, were inserted into Earth cultures to intervene at specific critical points in geo-political development to keep humanity on the track Aegis set for us. 

A brilliant premise already. With our protagonist, we have fascinating themes and character possibilities. Gary Seven is separate from humanity because he was raised separately from Earth cultures, yet his purpose was to preserve humanity and aid its development. He would feel kinship with humanity and care for it, while also being separate from it thanks to his alien origin. 

With his mysterious employers Aegis, we deal with the themes of what makes proper history? What is the purpose of this arc of history Aegis aims to enforce through its subterfuge interventions? What right do they have to control human history from the outside? What right does humanity have to control its future when we’re clearly a short-sighted, violent species that more often causes widespread destruction than the genuine improvement of human life and Earth more generally? What exactly is an arc of history anyway? And does Aegis have perfect knowledge and control, or can it make mistakes?

These questions, which would animate my imagined television show, are just the kind of philosophical matters that are important to the utopias project. This evening, I was editing the section of the ecophilosophy manuscript that discussed this problem as well. I define, for the project, utopian thinking as imagining a perfect ideal for a society to function, and the utopian revolutionary as moving society toward articulating this perfection. The problem is that abstract visions of perfection never work in reality: the world is always more complicated than human moral reasoning can imagine. Therefore, utopian thinking that seeks to implement an actual utopia that would usher a history-ending paradise is inherently oppressive. It oppresses not only people, but the world itself. Utopia, in this context, is the forced conformity of people to an abstract idea. 

Teri Garr was allowed more dignity rolling in the hay with
Gene Wilder than working for Gene Roddenberry. I'd pick
Wilder any day myself as well.
The other regulars of the program would have been Roberta Lincoln, Gary’s human secretary who was an ordinary Mod youth in 1968 New York; and Isis, Gary’s cat who was also a beautiful woman, and possibly also his computer that calculated his necessary interventions. The backdoor pilot episode didn’t explain much of anything about Isis’ character, nature, or motivations. But presumably the show would have.

The problem is, as Vaka Rangi points out, that Gene Roddenberry was actually pretty bad at producing quality television. The best Star Trek scripts were the ones that received as little creative input from him as possible. Roddenberry’s story ideas tended to straight and humourless adventure that reinforced and validated patriarchal and imperial Western values. He was also fantastically sexist. In the Star Trek episode “Assignment: Earth,” Roberta Lincoln is played by Teri Garr, one of Hollywood’s best comic actresses in its 1970s renaissance. Garr refuses to discuss or even watch Star Trek today because of the disgusting and degrading treatment she received from Roddenberry on set. He essentially treated her as a set of legs to parade across the screen. Her performance of a role written essentially as a blonde ditz elevated it to a wonderful comedy. But she’d never play the role of Roberta Lincoln again.

Similarly went the actor who played Gary Seven, Robert Lansing, who said from the beginning that he never wanted to take part in a regular television series, and preferred to concentrate on his film career. Roddenberry was such a relative incompetent at producing television pilots that he cast a lead who had already promised that he would never take part in a television show. In any case, the backdoor pilot was a failure. Instead of a mediocre geopolitical techno-thriller sci-fi hour, we ended up with a history-making letter-writing campaign and a third season of Star Trek: TOS.

But in my head, at least, there was more to come.

The Sting of a Philosopher’s Rejection, Research Time, 23/09/2013

In the last couple of years, I’ve learned a lot about Bergson’s philosophy, its fascinating creative insights and the saddening ingenuity even of its blind alleys. I think his work is among the most interesting for philosophers to study, if only because he seems to stand outside all the major trends and -isms of the last two hundred years of philosophy. He came of age in a century that, in our official histories of philosophy at least, never escaped the shadow of Hegel. Yet Bergson developed his first major philosophical work, Time and Free Will, in the shadow of Zeno and Bishop Berkeley of all people.

I have many issues with Bergson's philosophy,
most obviously my problems with his accounts
of evolutionary biology. But his theories and
concepts do not deserve the blanket dismissal
they received for so long.
That turn in Bergson’s career I discussed last week is equally fascinating to me, how he could turn so quickly from an internationally famous public intellectual to a laughable pariah, little more than someone to laugh at. In the early 1900s, Bergson stoked a friendship with American psychologist/philosopher William James that has become a minor legend in some circles of philosophy. A few decades later, Bertrand Russell led the intellectual world in mocking Bergson as a deluded old mystic whose books were barely worth storing in a library. His Nobel Prize was awarded for literature, even though he never wrote a word of fiction. Bergson considered all his books parts of an argument that sought a universally objective truth, the continuing success of pure reason. Yet in the address of the Nobel committee praising his work, they say:
As stylist and as poet, he yields place to none of his contemporaries; in their strictly objective search for truth, all his aspirations are animated by a spirit of freedom which, breaking the servitude that matter imposes, makes room for idealism.”
His arguments are not about truth, but about poetry and inspiration. What happened?

I think it was the dispute with Einstein. It was a public embarrassment for him, simply because so many other influential intellectuals heard about this and turned against him. It would take me too long to go into the full story by myself, and someone has already done it for me. In particular, I mean Jimena Canales, in her 2006 article “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed: Intellectual Cooperation at the League of Nations.” You can read the whole article at this link, and I strongly recommend its artful blend of historical scholarship and philosophical reflection. 

This is my favourite kind of research about the history of philosophy: examining how non-philosophical features influence what we think about philosophies themselves. The widespread uptake of Bergson’s and Einstein’s fights over the 1920s was that Bergson tried to disprove special relativity with reference to his own theory of duration, but understood so little of the new physics involved that he was laughed out of the room. Bergson himself had won national prizes in mathematics as a young man in the nineteenth century. He was certainly not ignorant of the science. He pitched his own theory of time not as an alternative to relativity, but as a supplement. Indeed, in his last major published book, the essay collection published in English as The Creative Mind, he described his philosophy as about the subjective experience of time, and discussed the goal of his most derided book, Duration and Simultaneity, as to reconcile the mathematical understanding of time as space-like with the everyday experience of time’s passage and flow. Yet no one gave Bergson the benefit of the doubt after Einstein stopped giving him the time of day.

And Canales’ research shows that the bulk of their disagreement had nothing to do with their theories at all. Einstein disagreed with Bergson’s wanting to give a place for the subjective intuition of time in an account of reality. But the real source of tension between them was over the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation (CIC). This was the forerunner to UNESCO at the League of Nations, a forum for leading intellectuals from around the world to collaborate and discuss the issues of the day in science, wider human knowledge, and politics. International cooperation between intellectuals was seen as a forerunner to cooperation among states and peoples.

Like most of the approach of the League of Nations, it was flawed. It was too top-down in its organization, for one. The goal was to attract already-established leading intellectual figures — stars of the sciences, humanities, and arts. It was essentially a place for intellectual celebrities. The entire premise of the organization didn’t understand that real peace is built among ordinary people, not among those who have already become exceptional and well-known through growing up in the old system. But one figure who was dedicated to this organization as a means to build peace was Henri Bergson.

And Bergson, along with the other members and organizers of the CIC tried to get Einstein on board, as the other biggest intellectual celebrity of the time. But Einstein continued to keep the CIC at arm’s length, not trusting whether the organization was truly ready to overcome the prejudices still in place since the last war. Einstein doubted that the CIC could become truly international, seeing its steering committees stacked with French figures and officials, and seeing Bergson as tolerating and encouraging the CIC to become more French. Bergson seems to have been so naive as to not even believe it to be a problem that more people in decision-making positions at the CIC were French, and that its headquarters was to be Paris, and that no German other than Einstein was ever approached for a leadership role. 

This conflict over international politics between an already world-weary Einstein and a naive Bergson, not the disagreement over their theories of time, truly sealed the end of any good spirits between them. But when philosophers discuss the history of philosophy as a discipline, we so rarely pay attention to the non-philosophical factors in its development, like this. I had originally planned an entire post-doctoral project on a kind of historiography of the history of philosophy. I would examine several key issues and developments in the history of analytic philosophy and show how political and social factors shaped them just as much as the purely conceptual arguments. And I would look at many histories of analytic philosophy that have already been written, trying to understand why we take the a-worldly perspective in writing philosophical history. 

I never got the funding for this project, I suspect because it was, on paper, too much of a departure from my doctoral work. But this notion that the development of a discipline is shaped by extra-disciplinary matters has never left my concerns, and has come to underlie my approaches to my more conceptually rarefied projects since the idea first came to be in 2010. I hope, slowly, to gain enough knowledge to write that project, and that people can learn from it. Especially philosophers, whose histories sometimes turn away from the ways we’re influenced by the messy world.

Caring About Nonsense, Composing, 22/09/2013

Another short post today, this time a quick update about my fiction development. I wrote a couple of weekends ago about the ideas I developed over the last few months for this piece of epic science-fiction updating Lost in Space's key concept in a serious way. However, one thing I felt I should do in order to figure out the proper approach to writing the story is get to know some epic science-fiction that takes place in strange (yet familiar enough) worlds.

So I finally started reading Dune. Yes, I know it probably ruins my credibility as a science-fiction author to admit that I'm only reading Dune now. My apologies for sticking to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke during my younger years like the fool that I was. But I just never encountered it in a way that sucked me in. And it still doesn't suck me in, because I'm reading it just as much for my research as for pleasure. Because writing fiction involves research. For my novel about Korea, I'm researching recent Korean history and I'll interview people who've visited the country for work. For my novel about an isolated shipwreck in deep space, I'll research work on how to survive in isolated foreign ecosystems, and literature that does a solid job of representing a wildly different world that still hooks readers from the beginning.

Herbert does that very efficiently during his first chapter. Yes there are references to priesthoods, caste systems, and mystically messianic figures straight from the start. But you actually care about them. It isn't through some subtle literary trick either. The protagonist has a creepy prophetic dream about the high-tension scene where a strange priestess holds a poison dart to his neck and administers a disturbing pain tolerance test involving putting his hand in a box. Then that exact scene happens. You're too engrossed in the tension and underlying violence of the scene that the funny words they use like Kwisatz Haderach have emotional weight attached to them, even as their meanings are still mysterious. And that's only the first 20 pages.

Teaser: More Thoughts on Bergson and Einstein, Research Time, 21/09/2013

Just a short post on the weekend, because no one really reads on the weekends. So I thought something reasonably inconsequential to post, but that would still be interesting, is a teaser. An idea that I came across in research, and will probably mull over for a more detailed post later. It lets you see more of the process of research, because when we briefly come across an idea, a writer or philosopher doesn't automatically see its direct and detailed relevance. You have a suspicion that it can serve a more important purpose later on, but for now it's just a thought. Something that makes you go, "Hmm."

I came across an article among my collection of pdfs about the fight between Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein. The typical account of their confrontation, as anecdotally related to me and repeated here earlier this week, is that they disagreed over the notion of simultaneity and the right of a philosopher to interpret a scientific idea.

But there was more to their conflict than this, which was a fascinating thing to discover in this article. Einstein thought Bergson was a perfectly fine person, and while they disagreed, he never had any animosity to him or his work. Until they both got involved in the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation, the League of Nations body whose closest analogue today is UNESCO.

Another example of the intertwining and confusion of a philosophical argument, often taken to be matters of pure thought, with social and political reality. More soon.

Pre-Publication Anxieties, Composing, 20/09/2013

Nothing too high-concept today. I’m in the final stages of editing my ecophilosophy manuscript, making changes and adjustments to the closing chapter, where the entire project comes together with a detailed depiction of the self conceived ecologically. The central idea is that a person is a field of affects, and that field integrates with a person’s environment. In terms of the daily activities of a person, each of us isn’t a discrete object moving through a world that stands separate from us, but is a pattern of constantly active forces swimming through a world that we change with every motion.

As I prepare the manuscript, I face the usual quandaries of a first-time author: working out which publishing label to approach first, unsure of the best way to lay out my formal proposal, a little anxious about what changes my possible editors would ask me to make. I’m more concerned about this latter point right now than any of the others. I roughly know how to go about selecting possible publishers and repairing problems in proposal drafts before approaching companies. I designed my dissertation as a book-length project aiming for broader public consumption from the beginning, and plotted its arc very carefully both before I wrote it and as I was writing. Even though the manuscript passed my dissertation committee and external examiner, I still worry that it will be rejected by the gatekeepers to a more broad audience.

I’ve also met people at every level of the academic hierarchy (graduate students at all levels, undergrads, enthusiastic amateurs) who refuse to take criticism on the grounds that “You just don’t understand what I’m doing, man!” Of course, the reason most of these people are not understood is that they express their ideas terribly, or have terrible ideas in the first place. I’m not one of those, and my worry is that I might be mistaken for one of those if, after securing an academic publisher, I get into a miscommunication with an editor or a peer reviewer.

This is actually the second time I’ve faced the usual quandaries of a first-time author. There’s been some push and pull between myself and the editors at Blank Space Publications, who are publishing Under the Trees, Eaten later this year. We were able to sort through those fairly quickly, and completed the second draft of the novella faster than I’d originally thought, which is a sign of a solid working relationship. Still, I’m aware of a difference in scale between a new independent fiction publishing company and a decades-old university press. But I’m optimistic that my publication plans for the ecophilosophy project will work out over 2014.

Arrows, Flows, Passage, Paradoxes, Events, and Unreality, A History Boy, 19/09/2013

McTaggart apparently added the middle
McTaggart to his name as part of a
convoluted set of conditions required to
claim an inheritance. Money makes us do
strange things.
One of the most interesting arguments I’ve come across since I started studying the philosophy of time in 2010 was that time didn’t actually exist. The exquisitely and ridiculously named John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart first argued in 1908 that the conception of time as passing from past to present to future was incompatible with the practice of putting specific dates to events. An event is fixed in all its properties, yet with the passing of time, the properties of an event changes. Take the death of King George VI of England: In the 1800s, this event was in the future, it was a present event as he died, and now it’s a past event. The event didn’t change, but its properties did as it passed through time, so the event must have changed. The passage of time renders the nature of events themselves paradoxical, therefore the passage of time is unreal.

“Whoa,” said Keanu.

Most arguments in the philosophy of time push the boundaries of language to make sense of the world, as McTaggart’s did. Here’s one of the oldest. Actor and internationally-competitive archer Geena Davis fires an arrow at a target. Before the arrow reaches the target, it must traverse halfway there. Before reaching halfway, it must traverse one-quarter of the way. Before reaching the one-quarter mark, it must traverse one-eighth the distance to the target, and so on. The arrow has an infinite number of divisions to reach the target. Therefore, it never arrives. 

“Never arrives my ass,” said Ms Davis.

Since 2011, I’ve been a fan of Henri Bergson’s philosophy. Despite having many issues with the truth of his ideas, I always find them remarkably fecund and inspiring to my own thought. Bergson’s profound philosophy of time was first developed in opposition to the arguments of Zeno, one of which offended my fictional Geena Davis. He argued that Zeno’s paradoxes were fundamentally mistaken because they ignored the flow of time, believing that because you could describe time mathematically, as a space-like set of coordinates, that time came in discrete chunks or quanta. For Bergson, our intuition that time flows smoothly just as the movements it ostensibly measures is fundamentally correct. Intuition in experience, he said, reveals truths of the world which are inaccessible to mathematical science and physics.

“J’espère que je découvre la vérité,” said Henri.

Bergson was a contemporary of McTaggart, though they never had any meaningful interaction. Bergson reached the height of his fame at the same time as McTaggart, and the Frenchman’s fame was much higher. When Bergson delivered a lecture in New York City, the public was so anxious to see him that they drove downtown in such numbers as literally to jam the streets. The public was so engaged with Bergson’s work that he caused the first ever traffic jam. But his disdain for mathematized conceptions of time was his undoing. 

In April 1922, Bergson had a public conversation with Albert Einstein where they utterly spoke past each other. Bergson tried to explain his conception of the flow of time as a continuous present movement, duration in his technical language. Einstein tried to explain how the mathematics of special relativity imply that, contra Bergson’s first arguments against Zeno which he carried forward through all his subsequent work, all events exist without becoming in a literal sense, and our sensory presents passes through these events. Bergson came off as an arrogant philosopher who was unable to understand contemporary physics, yet who still thought he could tell Einstein what was right and wrong. His public career was ruined, and despite continuing to publish essays and books, they fell dead from the press. Bergson died in 1941 after catching a flu standing in the rain at a Nazi-administered breadline for Jews in Occupied Paris.

I tell these stories because I’m a philosopher who is currently researching various conceptions of time for a very complex project. Taking my entire research into account, my work intersects with the principles and concerns of ecology, biology, chaos theory, and now a little bit of fundamental physics. One of the pressures philosophers have faced in a general sense since Bergson, but in an acute sense since Alan Sokal accused all non-scientist intellectuals of being ignorant morons babbling bullshit,* is that we do not have the right to think about scientific issues or use them in our work.

* A slight exaggeration, but only slight.

This isn’t how the whole field of philosophy stands, of course. Steve Fuller and other colleagues I’ve met through the Social Epistemology review collective have all engaged productively with scientific history and ideas. Philosophy of science is still carried out, and consists of a variety of competing schools and strategies. I have always loved and have been an advocate of scientific techniques and knowledge. I find the worlds science describe far more fascinating than those described by religious or mystical traditions. But I chose to enter philosophy instead, simply because I had a talent for it that I seemed not to have in the practice of science. Perhaps if I had better teachers in science and mathematics than in humanities, I’d be a very different person today. Nonetheless, I’m here, and I hope that my contributions will be as valuable to the sciences I study as the ideas and concepts of those sciences have been valuable to me.

The Difficulties and Rewards of Multi-Disciplinary Thinking, Jamming, 18/09/2013

My friend Iain Coleman was good enough yesterday to offer a correction to my account of special relativity’s implications for the nature of time yesterday. The theory’s destabilization of traditional conceptions of past, present, and future have their cause in the concept of interval between events that was a radical change from what was acceptable before. 

Basically, in special relativity, the interval between events never changes with the relative motion of a frame of reference. Because the interval never changes, the actual distance between them in space and time can change. The flexibility of the time coordinate of an event results in changes to what events may be considered past, present or simultaneous, and future as you jump from one frame of reference to another. I de-emphasized this because I wanted to concentrate on the moral concern awakened by the peculiar new brand of determinism that the block conception of time implies. Making the jump in quite that way was a mistake.*

* So far, that counts as my second on the blog so far, which is pretty good for 11 weeks in.

But if I can gain a benefit from that screw-up, at least it indicates the genuine difficulty that a multi-disciplinary research program faces. Almost all my peer-reviewed publications (as of this summer, seven since the start of 2010) are in interdisciplinary journals. One of my specializations is in environmental ethics; I’m preparing a book-length project to shop for publication this year. Not only does this field draw from many different disciplines in the sciences and humanities, but the premier journal of environmental ethics, the eponymous Environmental Ethics, is multi-disciplinary. The majority of its articles come from philosophy, but they also publish sociology, literary and film studies, less formalized ecology, and some history. 

Yet at times, I have been told that interdisciplinary journals are not a truly prestigious publication, not something where the best work is to be found.** This would include Environmental Ethics, the leading journal in that field, and a journal that truly deserves all the praise it can get. This journal has published my work, they’re considering another of my essays, and I’m proud to call myself (I hope, if this peer-review goes well) a regular contributor. Though in the spirit of friendly critique, I will venture to say that their website is a little Geocities. 

** Now, this isn’t the only advice I’ve received about reading philosophy. But it does remind one that not all advice is of equal quality.

Of course, if you remember my post from the end of August about the growing problem of philosophy’s institutional insularity, you’ll understand that I can’t really put much stock in this kind of advice. It grates against so many of my ideals of what makes exemplary philosophy, the kind of books and essays that aim to be remembered when historians write the history of the discipline. We should all aim to write this way, but too often we all-too-dutifully follow the advice to stick to the mainstream of our field. Robert Frodeman has written a short essay criticizing the unfortunate insularity of my discipline at the open-access review section of Social Epistemology, another publication of which I’m proud to be a regular contributor. It’s a wonderful and punchy essay, discussing the problem the discipline of philosophy faces when we turn away from the problems of other disciplines and the wider public to concentrate on our own prestige and traditions. Are we keeping a tradition truly alive when we only write books to ourselves? 
Did he wonder if, one day, his work
would inspire drunk Russians to shoot
each other?

What made the news today was a report of an argument between two Russian men at a bar. The discussion eventually became so passionate that one of the men shot the other with rubber bullets. They were arguing about Immanuel Kant. I doubt these people are seeking tenure.

So maybe start small. I'm just one person, after all, and can't change an entire discipline from this chair. When I’m presenting my work at conferences (some of which have been interdisciplinary), I’m regarded as a peer whose research is worth considering on the same level as everyone else on the program. And my approach, drawing material for philosophical argument from a variety of different disciplines, gets the greatest approval possible from an audience of philosophers. They tell me my work and my ideas are very interesting, that I’ve given people a lot to think about. And if a philosopher can’t provoke interesting thoughts, he should really think about a career change. 

Blocked From Freedom, Research Time, 17/09/2013

I haven’t had much of a chance to get things done Monday; that day was rougher and more hectic than I thought it would be. But I did get some more physics reading done.

That piece of physics, or rather philosophy of physics, relates to yesterday’s post about how people’s conceptions of reality can affect their moral beliefs. Consider the block time interpretation of temporality in relativity physics. Here’s basically how it works. Intuitively, people tend to think of time as a continuously becoming present that is calcified into a past as it progresses into a yet-to-be-determined future. The present is all that really exists; the future isn’t here yet and the past is gone.

Whenever relativity theory is discussed, Albert
Einstein is the most obvious choice for a picture.
But I went with Arthur Eddington because he was so
important in advocating special and general
relativity theory to the world. Plus, David Tennant
played him in the movie.
This is all reduced to bollocks in the context of special relativity. When position in time depends on relative motion of one reference frame compared to another, along with position in space, events that are simultaneous in one frame of reference occur at different times in another. A moment in the future of one person can occur in the past of another. Event E occurs in the past of person A, the future of person B, and the present of person C, solely because of how A, B, and C are moving relative to each other and the event E. In order to map these relations properly, we have to represent time mathematically in the same way as space. All points in the dimension of time, all events, all planes of relative simultaneity, can be laid out as a spatial dimension. There is no distinguishing an absolute past from present from future. There is no now, no gone, and no not-yet. There are only the relative order of events and the catalogue of possible relations among those events. The events themselves all exist in their particular order, and frames of references move through this order at varying paces relative to other frames of reference. The universe is a set, four-dimensional block where no divergence from any given path is possible. That’s the ontological element of this perspective.

I sometimes wonder why philosophers continue to think of the naturalistic fallacy as an unquestionable truth when this whole problem speaks to the complex relationship of our ontological and moral philosophies. Because this is just the modern version of the old problem of freedom and causal determinism. The problem used to be phrased in terms of clockwork determination of the mechanisms of the universe. Given that all movements have a cause, there are no uncaused movements. A free action must have no cause but the action itself. Given that a person can only be responsible for actions without external causes, the only free movements must be cause-less. But all movements have causes, therefore there are no free actions. So no one is truly morally responsible for their actions. Mark Chapman and John Lennon carry no reason for blame or praise; they simply move according to the causes that determine them. 

The problem is, of course, more complicated and detailed in its philosophical history than this paragraph, as a problem will when it’s centuries old. But relativity theory’s block time concept changes where the determination of all movement lies. The old clockwork image discussed causation. The new block image discusses the structure of events in spacetime itself. But they amount to the same: all movement is pre-determined. Chapman and Lennon move through their paths in spacetime, divergence from those paths are impossible, and so praise and blame are equally illegitimately applied to both. Moral judgment itself is meaningless in a fully determined universe.

There have been many attempts to solve this problem. I myself don’t think it’s a real problem for several very complex reasons I don’t have time to go into right now, mostly my theories of what are the genuine implications of the fundamental laws of the universe being statistical and probabilistic in nature. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that the problem of freedom and determinism is an ontological issue with clear implications for moral reasoning. Whenever someone cavalierly whips out the naturalistic fallacy as a knock-down argument against someone linking ontological and moral domains of thinking, that person should consider the freedom-determinism problem and what it means for a conception of reality to be morally meaningful.

The Inevitable Clash of Domains, Research Time, 16/09/2013

I was reading a little more into straight theories of time derived from contemporary physics this weekend, and came across a couple of interesting examples from the history of science that I might use as anchors for one of the core arguments of the utopias project. It is going to be a little difficult to make the major argument. Violent political change for an ideology devalues the present, so implies an underlying conception of time. So scouring different conceptions of time will let us figure out different ways to understand our current life, our relationships with people around us, before us, and what might come after us.

It’s a difficult idea to wrap your head around, I think. And one of my concerns about the project is that I’ll never get people to take it seriously. One of the central dogmas in the discipline of philosophy is that propositions about the way the world is (The world is X) can never be used to derive a proposition about the way the world should be (The world should be like Y). I think that’s right in terms of propositions. But I think there’s some leeway when we think more broadly about people’s self-definition. 

I think of culture as one example. Propositions about cultural frameworks and the relations among people (People of culture A tend to believe strongly in Z) I think are morally relevant. That is, they should count as a moral proposition. At the same time, it doesn’t have an imperative form, like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ sentences. Actions you take in the course of your life depend on how you understand the world. In a discipline where there has always been a sub-set of people disputing the existence of God, I sometimes think we should be better aware of how subtle this relationship between one’s conception of reality and one’s moral beliefs.

Really, there’s a slight difference between the way I see reality’s relation with morality and how it’s been traditionally conceived in philosophy. Sentences like “The world is X” are taken to be statements of actual fact. Where I’m thinking of this side of the equation rather along the lines of mapping people’s beliefs about the world, and people’s beliefs about what is morally right. When you move to this more abstracted level, I think you can consider relations of morality and reality more flexibly. The conceptions of time in the utopias project will play this role.