Sunday, September 26, 2010

Screw the Tea Party, Join the New Peronistas

I was listening to some old Rage Against the Machine songs, and thinking back to my more naive younger days when I dismissed them as moronic radicals without noticing how awesome their songs were. I went through a rebellious conservative phase as a teenager.

But I’ve actually been thinking about conservative revolutions, because I’ve been paying attention to politics in the United States lately. I’ve also been studying the political and social ideas of Martin Heidegger and the conservative intellectual scene in Germany in the 1920s. And I saw an Argentine movie a while ago called El Secrete de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), which took place under the Isabel Peron presidency, and dealt with the devastating effects the Peronista death squads had on that society. And I saw a movie at the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s film festival called Politist (Police, Adjective) with a very chilling subtext about a policeman’s duty to follow the law without reference to his conscience or moral sensibilities. And I’ve been thinking about the popular support throughout Iran of the Ahmedinejad regime.

I think Canadians, and Westerners in general, have associated radical thinking and emotionally driven politics with the left, as if conservative politicians were about preserving status quo, too rational, out of touch with their own moral sensibilities. But a conservative revolution can inspire the same powerful feelings as a leftist one. When I started listening to Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics again, I realized how little political content was actually there. You know their sensibilities because they’re famous, but most of their lyrics are poetic exhortations. So I thought that a good exercise in political philosophy was to make a Rage song pro-fascist, changing as few lines as possible.

Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack...ughh!
Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack...yeah!
It goes a-1, 2, 3...

Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack
And suckas be thinkin' that they can fade this
But I'm gonna drop it at a higher level
'Cause I'm inclined to stoop down
Hand out some beat-downs
Cold runna train on punk ho's that
Think they run the game

But I learned to burn that bridge and delete
Those who a level that's obsolete
Instead I warm my hands upon the flames of their flag (was “the flag”)
As I recall their downfall (was “our downfall”)
And the business that burned us all
See through the news and the views that twist reality

I call the bluff
Fuck moral humility! (was “Fuck Manifest Destiny”)

Drug lords and media whores (was “Landlords and power whores”)
On my people they took turns
Dispute the suits I ignite
And then watch 'em burn

With the thoughts from a militant mind
Hardline, hardline after hardline

Drug lords and media whores (was “Landlords and power whores”)
On my people they took turns
Dispute the suits I ignite
And then watch 'em burn

Burn, burn, yes ya gonna burn (ad infinitum)

It goes a-1, 2, 3
Another funky radical bombtrack
Started as a sketch in my notebook
And now dope hooks make punks take another look
My thoughts ya hear and ya begin to fear
That ya card will get pulled if ya interfere

With the thoughts from a militant mind
Hardline, hardline after hardline

Drug lords and media whores (was “Landlords and power whores”)
On my people they took turns
Dispute the suits I ignite
And then watch 'em burn

Burn, burn, yes ya gonna burn (ad infinitum)

And it would still be just as good a song. So now, students, you understand the moral indifference of art and emotion.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Freedom Is Doing What You Never Even Knew You Could Have Done

I had one of those minor philosophical epiphanies that I probably won’t do anything with professionally, at least not directly. In order to produce publishable (in academic journals) material around this epiphany, I’d have to read at least the last twenty years of evolutionary philosophy and psychology, and the freedom vs determinism debate going back at least twice as far, and then well into the seventeenth century. I really don’t have time for an extra project that long, so I’m going to blog about it. There’s a few steps in this, so it’ll take a few paragraphs to spell out.

Why are the opponents of evolution so frightened by the prospect? It has to do with what exactly that prospect is. The more theatrical anti-evolutionists have made rhetoric of jokes about an orangutan being their uncles or aunts. But the weirdness of existing on a continuum with other species is only evoked to disgust people. Conceptually, a deeper meaning underlies it.

The way humans have understood themselves morally is as free agents. Human morality and the complex societies that produce these moral systems are typically seen as exceptions to the natural order. We humans are artificial. That which is natural is governed by deterministic linear causality, the most advanced form of which is instinct. But humans are not purely instinctual: we are moral. Morality is an exception to instinct, animal behaviour not subject to linear causality.

But evolution is a natural process. If humans are the product of a natural process, then our moral systems do not constitute an exception to the deterministic natural order. This produces a contradiction in which morality loses, in those people who think of the deterministic natural order in a particular (but very popular) way. Actions which are not freely chosen cannot require the moral responsibility of their actors. If morality is a natural process, then it is a complex evolution of instinct, an entire determined process. So we have moral concepts by which we attribute responsibility, but no actual responsibility because we are not an exception to the deterministic natural order.

The greatest fear underlying opposition to evolution is the fear that there is no genuine moral responsibility.

I laid out this chain of reasoning, but I don’t believe in it, because I think several of the premises according to which this makes sense are not actually the case about the universe. It hinges on a metaphysical point. I used the term deterministic linear causality above, and I did that on purpose. Causality in general is an underdetermined process: an event can have a huge number of conditions and causes, and very complex relations among them. The image of one snooker ball hitting another snooker ball is an example that oversimplifies an amazingly complex universe. Determinism is similarly underdetermined: an event can have a huge number of different effects, can change a system in a wide variety of highly complex ways, and each of these effects interfere with each other apart from the event that was their genesis.

Here’s where the word ‘linear’ comes in. Precisely because of these underdeterminations in how events actually interact and cause each other, very few relations of causality are actually linear, like the snooker balls. The world we live in is enormously complex, and even though the mathematics that describe these complex systems that are our world are deterministic, there are enormous possibilities within the deterministic development of a system. One event does not cause a single set of effect events. One event sets off an enormous chain of interrelated events with millions of possibilities that its constituent bodies can choose from. That choice among possibilities is especially open to creatures with highly complex perceptual and reasoning skills who can analyze situations with an eye towards all that can be, not simply what there is.

Instinct is a reactive response to stimulus, a pattern that an organism follows according to what is there. The ability to conceive of possibility, either through colloquial reasoning, or highly complex phase space chaos mathematics, is a step far beyond instinct. This way of thinking about the metaphysics of the universe and causality takes us out of the trap by which moral responsibility disappears. Freedom, the capacity to understand and act on what can be rather than simply on what there is, is an evolved trait.

The natural order itself constitutes creatures that are more free than any creature before, so free that they can imagine themselves to be unnatural, and believe their dreams.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Future of Television - Lost. In Space

I thought of an excellent idea for a new science fiction television show that would follow a similar pattern of Battlestar Galactica, at least as far as revamping seriously a laughably camp old sci-fi hit from the 1970s. I’m thinking about Lost in Space. Consider the basic premise of the show: An exploration ship is sabotaged and crash-lands on an unknown world, the crew being forced to work with the very saboteur who caused the mess in the first place. Of course, apart from the first and last episodes, the original series executed this premise as if it was Gilligan’s Island in space (with a comparable budget). But with a few tropes lifted from recent critically acclaimed hit sci-fi programs, and a few ideas of my own, I think I have a pretty good pitch. It could be worth developing further, at least.

The Ship and Its Crew.

The setup of the original show was too simple: The Robinson family of scientists and their best friend are the crew of the ship, and the only foreign entity in the crew is the villain-turned-walking-joke Dr Smith. What we’ve learned from shows like Lost and Stargate: Universe is that a larger, more diverse cast can constitute more complex storylines simply by their being stuck together. A large ensemble cast of singular characters with diverse histories and many different reasons for being on the ship provides a comparatively large potential for different character arcs as individual stories are developed, and different people come into different kinds of conflict as they try to survive on an alien world.

How to Travel in Space.

I only thought of the idea this afternoon walking back from the market, so I haven’t yet considered all the details of how this technology would work. I’m imagining some kind of wormhole creation and manipulation technology. This is partly why they’re stranded so hopelessly for quite some time into the series. Only ships carrying a wormhole generator can travel faster than light; signals can’t. So they can’t send a decent distress signal at all, because they’re too far away from human worlds, and can only signal them at light speed.

Key to the narrative is that humanity didn’t invent the wormhole technology - they discovered and reverse-engineered it on a sublight expedition several centuries ago. So a major narrative arc of the series would be that the cast slowly discovers evidence that they are wrecked on the homeworld of the beings who invented the wormhole technology.

The Villain.

I’m a pretty big Doctor Who fan, as regular readers will have discovered by now. And one of the Doctor’s favourite aliases, especially when he was stuck on Earth working for a planetary defence task force, was Dr John Smith. So I thought of making the central villain, the saboteur, a remixed version of our favourite Time Lord. The Dr Smith of the regenerated Lost in Space would be a manipulator of the rest of the characters, with his own nefarious ends regarding the planet's mysteries.

No one, not even the audience, would know he sabotaged the ship, and engineered it to crash on the Mystery Planet. Dr Smith would be a brilliant, eccentric, manipulative asshole. He would, effectively, be the charming rogue scientist at the centre of the show, using his considerably wide-ranging expertise to take at least partial charge of the cast.

There would probably be some other characters who would take charge of the day-to-day problems of survival for the cast on an alien world. And those characters would drive ongoing power struggles with Smith because they’re more obviously helping the cast survive on the planet. The cast also grows more suspicious of Smith over time, as they become conscious of his manipulating them, and his investigations into the planet’s mysterious nature.

One idea I had for the character is that he would be an older man, with some echoes of the Hartnell and Pertwee versions of The Doctor. And a story arc for the first couple of years would involve him discovering technology on the island to build an android body that would eventually resemble a young man, and eventually copy his own personality into it, cloning himself into a practically immortal body. This brings me to my favourite idea for the new Lost in Space.

The Android (or, Danger Will Robinson My Ass!)

At the 24 Hour Art Marathon in St John’s this summer, I wrote a short story about a future society that has invented a race of android servants and companions, whose brains were powerful computers and scanners based on chaos mathematics. Their long lifespans and incredibly fast learning curves make them intellectually and perceptually superior to humans. Because the intellectually successful androids were built as companions, they were basically T800 style robots with flesh that repaired itself by absorbing ultraviolet light, and couldn’t eat or drink, because the light would recharge their power plants as well. Pretty much every power source built to work in terrestrial environments, of course, would be solar or wind based by this point in human civilization, androids included.

By the time of Lost in Space 2.0, the androids will have long ago won their rights to self-determination, integrated into society, and to some degree have been forgotten. The android character from my story, Alice Chesterton, would be on the ship. A major narrative arc for her would be the crew’s eventually discovering that she is an android. Her immensely powerful brain would cast her as a rival to Dr Smith, and his envy and conflict with her would be partially what drives him to create his android replica.

Probably the most important element of Alice that the writers would have to keep in mind throughout the show is that Alice’s intelligence and learning speed is beyond the greatest of human geniuses. All androids are this way. Probably a very fascinating part of the Lost in Space 2.0 mythology is discovering the history of how the prominence of androids in society would have disappeared over the previous centuries. They are intellectually and physically superior to humans in every way. So one of the great mysteries about human history in this universe would be how and why the androids disguised themselves, or hid themselves away. Perhaps there's a secret society of androids somewhere in the human worlds, something like the Freemason conspiracies.

After Dr Smith created his android replica, he would have to be written with the same caveats as Alice. After that point, both Alice and Dr Smith can perceive all the possibilities of every object they see, giving them a fantastically fast learning curve. But Alice, unlike Dr Smith, is already centuries old, and was built by a corporation that became massively successful building high quality android companions. Android Smith, however, would not be built by such experts, and would be hampered by mechanical problems.

One of these would be impotence, because Alice was originally designed as a sexual companion for a professor on Earth, and so the physical processes for sexual activity would be an integral part of her brain. Her sexual relationships with other members of the cast would be excellent narrative fodder as well. Dr Smith's android would be something of a patch job. This would just add to the conflict between them, even as Android Smith begins to sympathize with Alice more than the human crew as he learns to exercise the immense potential of his brain. Alice has always been an android, so comes from a much more enlightened ethical perspective. Smith built his android self for egocentric human reasons, like envy of Alice and yearning for immortality. The breakdowns of his mechanical body would be quite ironic, given his advanced age as a human in the first two seasons of the show.

The Planet.

This is where the direct analogue to Lost comes into my idea. A mandatory feature in the hypothetical show’s bible would be that nothing like the God-ish aspects of Abrams and Lindelof’s island would ever come into play in Lost in Space 2.0. It’s a standard trope that most stories about stranded people take place in some jungle environment, but I’d prefer to set the crash site on a steppe near a mountain range, the kind of environment that would make shooting in British Columbia or California fairly easy.

All the long-range arcs of the story, again riffing from Lost, would have to do with the mysteries of the planet where they’re wrecked. Over the course of the first series, the cast, particularly those more loyal to Alice, would discover that human expeditions have visited the planet before, and evidence of these prior investigations (and perhaps some of their sticky, violent ends).

The steppe-mountain setting departs from the tradition of stranded stories, and would give the writers extra flexibility in setting. Some episodes would take place on the steppe, some at a nearby lake, and some exploring the mountains. Another narrative arc of the show would be a quest by some characters to discover the sea on the other side of the mountains, and that would probably integrate with the reveal of the indigenous species, described a bit later.

Most important about the planet’s mythology is that there is an alien race that lives there, the descendents of the inventors of the wormhole technology. And I would have them be as absolutely unlike humanity in every way possible. Perhaps they’d be a species something like amphibious cephalopods. The most important scientific consultant on the show would be the biologists who would brainstorm ways that intelligent amphibious cephalopods could evolve and become the dominant technological species on a planet.

The cephalopod culture would have to be immensely detailed as well, because the major narrative of the show would be the cast discovering their technology, culture, and mysteries, eventually learning to communicate with them. This would probably be the most difficult part of designing Lost in Space 2.0, even more than having one (and later two) major characters who are advanced android geniuses. At least androids and humans share a common history. The cephalopod culture would have nothing at all in common with Earth, but with a history just as detailed, and ethically complex, as humanity's.

There could also be conflicts because some of the humans (probably Smith and his cronies) would catch small cephalopods to eat at the beginning of the series. But because androids can perceive all the possible states of an object as well as its current actual state, Alice would stop the cast from eating them, and provoking the adult intelligent cephalopods. The human-cephalopod misunderstandings and conflicts would be another central story arc of the show.

I think this show sounds like a really cool idea. Let me know if you have any character ideas for anyone other than Alice and Dr Smith, because they’re the only people I’ve thought of so far. I don’t really want to see anyone who is too much like a character from Lost or BSG. If this whole academic career doesn’t work out, or it turns out that I can make more money as a tv producer, I know I at least have a good idea I can attach my name to.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

How to Read Philosophy, and Be a Philosopher

In the course of preparing a presentation I’ve been invited to give at a conference at University of St Gallen in Switzerland later this Fall, an intriguing idea came to me about the history of philosophy. It’s too complex to fit into the space I have for the presentation, but it’s promising enough that I think I can work with it for a while. It’s also connected to a conversation I had Friday evening about how philosophy is taught at the introductory and undergraduate level.

My friend has begun to find it ridiculous that we are teaching undergraduates philosophy by having them argue against or otherwise try to attack the works and ideas of the giants of our fields. If a philosophical work or corpus has survived with a prominent role in the history of ideas for hundreds or thousands of years, it seems absurd that we would teach people by demanding that they refute Aristotle at age 19. It trivializes a work of monumental scope and power. It demeans the concepts that have revolutionized thinking over the millennia. I didn’t recall being taught that way.

My first philosophy instructor was (and still is) an old Cambridge man, who waxed to me this summer about the old way of teaching philosophy, where you truly know your history, can genuinely understand the thoughts and social milieux that shaped the thinkers you’re studying. You can’t start refuting all over the house until you know why every word is just the way it is. This is philosophy as serious scholarship, the meticulous investigation into a way of life that in most cases no longer exists, so that one can understand most deeply how a great piece of work was produced, and how it was meant to affect its own time, its own readers.

However, there is a different way to read philosophy which I consider equally legitimate as serious scholarship, but is easier in some respects, but far more difficult in others. Werner Herzog talks about how the meaning of his films, particularly Aguirre The Wrath of God, changes depending on who is watching them. The work is no less great, even though the people who receive it transform its meaning significantly and radically. In fact, it’s greater because it can have all these different meanings in different contexts of culture and history. Philosophy has such a long tradition that its great works have undergone similar transformations. It is easier than scholarship because it doesn’t require so much historical and contextual work. But inspirational readings are more difficult because the work stands out as even more alien when it is transplanted into a new context.

It’s difficult to read philosophy well, or indeed any great work, when you are part of the community. Every filmmaker, the Hollywood hacks, commercial directors, no-budget indie directors with a stolen digital camera, is in the same community as Kubrick, Murnau, and Herzog. Writers are in the same community as Eliot, Joyce, and Cervantes. Philosophers are in the same community as Plato, Russell, Deleuze, and Kant. The danger of the trivializing attitude of refutation being your only engagement with a work is that you make a mockery of the giants of your field. The scholarly attitude becomes dangerous when it becomes worship, and you sterilize your own creativity in a terrible inferiority complex.

The inspirational attitude is to pick up a work and a philosopher as if you are talking to an old, strange friend. This friend will shock and terrify you, and also mystify you completely. But if you can engage your alien friend in a respectful conversation, a productive dialogue, then you can become a great figure yourself.