Excerpt from a speech I gave to UC Berkeley Philosophy Department Graduates

Here’s the situation. People have actually figured out the brain perfectly. That is they know what the different parts of it do, and they know how to do stuff to them. All the buttons you want. So you press one button on a brain you make it smarter. Another one you make it focus. Another one you make it fall in love. You turn a dial and it become really, really interested in sports, another and it doesn’t care why the New York Knicks suck. Just doesn’t care at all.


So what was the problem. They put a guy in there, they put the dial on his head and turned smart up to the maximum. And he was all like ‘All kneel before Zoltar!” That’s if his name was Zoltar, if it was Eddie he said “Kneel before Eddie! I’m super intelligent and I’ve figured out that the right thing is for you all to be my slaves.” I don’t know why he talked like that, but he did.


Basically he’s treating us the way we treat animals. So it’s important to figure out is Eddie the next stage in human evolution? Or is he just a nut?


And by the way if this does happen and the super-intelligent supermen look up my speech on the internet I mean no disrespect by raising this question.


But in any case in my story – or philosophical example — they catch Eddie and put him a net and everybody is freaked out and they don’t know what to do.

Maybe we should have all knelt before Eddie. After all he was smarter. On the other hand, maybe that smarter button really was a smarter plus crazy button! It’s a very important question. Should we just throw it away, kill the guys who invented it and get back to watching t.v. and buying deodorant? That’s no fun. Because now that we’ve figured out ourselves we want to know what to do with ourselves. We can do anything! It’s very exciting. But people are split. What to do?

Now who are they going to call? Not a scientist, because they’ve already done their job – they told us what all the parts of the brain do and how to change them around. They’re collecting well-earned NObels. Lawyers? Well we try that. A bunch of really great lawyers said of course we should let Eddie out of his net and be his slaves and we were all ready to do that and they had these really great arguments it turned out he had paid them! Shocking. And the politicians were no help because they were obsessed with getting Eddie to help them defeat a hostile theocratic state bent on our destruction. Texas.


So they call you. Qua philosophy major. They may not even know what “qua” means – you have to tell them. And now I think your Mom and Dad are pretty stoked and all their friends are wishing their kids had studied philosophy. Because you know about these issues.


What does it fundamentally mean to be a human? What’s important for us to do and to be?


You’re like “I wrote a paper on that!”


So they bring you in there. What do you do? I think what you do is you attach all these buttons and dials to your own brain. And you decide you will change yourself and keep a record of how the world looks to you with these different brains. These different brain states. Because remember this machine can let you do anything. You could experience total pleasure. Or be extremely good at solving the SAT analogy section. Or totally focused on one thing – you could focus like a laser beam on appreciating Chinese pottery glazes.


Or you could be just very receptive – you could respond intensely to whatever happens to blow through your brain. Or you cold not care at all. Or care intensely – dedicate your whole life to wetland preservation.


Now there’s clearly a problem. You press a button, let’s say they’ve hooked up your brain to some kind of keyboard and you say – put all my brain power into wetlands preservation, or make me obsessed with war, or put me in a state of total intellectual rapture. Once you’re in it, you won’t get out. So we won’t know whether it really is the next stage in human evolution, or worthwhile or dangerous. Because when you’re in those states that’s how the world seems to you. So it’s not clear what we’re getting from you that we didn’t get from Eddie.


But here’s what I think is the solution. You just make back-ups.


You make the change in your brain but you keep a back up of what your brain was like before you started monkeying with it. then you monkey with it, you keep records of how the world seems to you, but you keep restoring it. So as I imagine it you have a bit of a test procedure.


You see if any of these brain states, any of these settings make you really miserable. You see if any of them make you so happy that you totally zone out – you’re not helping the rest of the human race, or you’re actually dangerous like Eddie. You don’t use those settings. And you watch out to while you’re making sure you don’t turn yourself into a monster that you’re not too hidebound. That you keep a sense of adventure.


So each day you’ll take a look at the record of the day before. And you’ll have a lot of brilliant, conflicting reports of different ways to be a human being, by different brilliant possible selves.

You know this like the back of your hand because all these years studying philosophy you’ve been studying is the record of those back-ups of possible states that the human brain or soul can get into .


And you understand it’s not a question of picking which one of them is right. Paradoxically they’re all right.


In science fiction when a robot comes across a paradox his head immediately explodes. But that has never actually happened at Berkeley, at least while I was there.. Instead you live with the paradox and it makes your mind more expansive. You contain more possibilities. And that’s what you’ve been doing also – you’ve learned to live more than one life as much as that’s possible. The life of somebody who thinks the world is determined and the life of somebody who thinks everybody is free.


You’ve been looking at these seemingly impossible to resolve questions, and arguments by the smartest people of the last two thousand, twenty-five hundred years. So now I think you’re in a position to experiment freely and find out what the human mind is capable of. And this is a way of finding out not just where the human mind can go but where it should go.

Now the only thing I would say you’re missing out on is something those of you who took Kierkegaard will be thinking of. You’re missing out on the experience of what it would be like to change yourself into something where there was no back-up, no chance of reverting to your former state. Passion or ultimate commitment. And it could be that you ultimately fall in love, perhaps with the brain-changingphilosophy major in the lab down the hall and run away together.

I wasn’t sure when I started this topic if it was going to be a philosophical example or a science fiction story. I think it just turned into a science fiction story. But I’m not sure.



I Will Never Meet a Person Better than Me

Or worse than me.   Any sadist or holy renunciant I  encounter is going to be somebody I understand, otherwise they are nothing for me.

Likewise it is fruitless for me to wonder about what the world is like minus the limitations stemming from how I understand it, my prejudices or cognitive limitations,  because the world beyond my limitations is nothing to me — I will never understand it.

If I have a deep shame that means there are realms of goodness and selflessness and dimensions of truth that are forever barred to me, then so be it.  The extent to which I can understand them, and measure myself against those ideals, is exactly the extent that they matter to me and no further.

But it is wrong to say that the world is limited by “me” because my concept of “me” is extremely oversimplified compared to what I actually am.

Every person I will ever meet has a piece of who I am hidden inside them, and until I know them I don’t know myself except crudely and sketchily.  

I need to take you seriously to open up the treasure chest of who I am.  And I am the same for you.



The Soul Mistakes its Adventures and Calls them Moods


I was saying the other day the peace is the kind of war that allows acts of love and creation in its course; it is, then, a more complex and obscure process than war properly so-called, as life is more obscure and more profound than death.



Guy:I didn’t lie to you baby, I deconstructed the truth/falsehood dichotomy.

Girl: SLAP


“Just because something is inside something doesn’t mean it can’t be inside something else.” This is true, in fact everything is inside multiple other things.


MY MIND: Vorticism.  It is all nothing but vortices: tornadoes and whirlpools and such.

MY HEART: But what about tables and chairs and people?

MY MIND: Nothing but very sluggish and slow-moving vortices.


My Adulthood: There can be no unity without unification.

My Childishness: Sometimes there can.

My Adulthood: Yeah.  Sometimes.  But not often.


Q: Why ya so smart, Mr. Smartikins?

A: I am a high-IQ mentally retarded adult, and bring to bear on intellectual pursuits the demonic energy that characterizes my species!


I’m afraid your clarity, sir, only allows you to see confusion more clearly.

It’s all I got, buddy, it’s all I got.


Eternity is in love with the production of time, but they are a slut




A Fragment from a Jacobean Play

the phalli of roast leprechauns

the tender sinews of young pheasant men

the staring eye of Behemoth

Leviathan’s the gaping maw encrust

ed and in syrups preserved

the cheeks of the goddess and the wings

of angels cliped on high from Heaven’s Brawny Clasp

and a sauce of brain of the most learned

and well-trained, and excellency-stuffed




A Revealing Passage from a Political Memoir

“The little animal seemed cute but when I investigated it it bit me in the eye. I couldn’t see anything. Then I got a special octopus in the socket and it’s quivering stimulated my optic nerve causing me to see strange patterns. I think this pattern is significant but I don’t know how. Maybe it predicts my future.” – Former U.S. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor


The Wolf and the Bee

The wolf upon tasting honey and finding it to be delicious decided to inquire of the bee what social structure gave rise to such effective production. The bee invited the wolf to stay in the hive. He stuck his nose in it. “I am the queen.” explained the bee “I am the only fertile female.” “Then who are these other bees working for you?” “These are my daughters whom I have starved to the point that their gonads do not develop, effectively castrating them.” “Yuk.” said the wolf. “I will be going, and before I do I will make you a gift of a haunch of eland that my fellow wolves and I have killed.” “That is really something” quoth the bee “May I come and observe the social structure of the wolves that enabled you to team up and kill such a large and delicious ungulate?” “Most assuredly” replied the wolf and took the bee to observe the next kill of the wolf pack. One wolf, the alpha wolf led the others in bringing down a mighty moose, he ate first, while the others drooled after his scraps. “You see.” said the wolf “Unlike your hymenopteran kindred we enjoy both freedom and license. These wolves are not castrated.” “Then how does the alpha wolf keep them in line?” inquired the bee. “By machismo and brutality” quoth the wolf “Until such point as he becomes weak and injured and his brothers tear him to pieces and a new one becomes alpha wolf in his stead.” The queen bee was thoughtful for a moment. “It is a good system.” she said “But there’s too much barking.”


The Relativity of Ontological Grounding


This has a wordy title but is actually easy to get and I think both neat and, in an abstract way, important.

People sometimes talk about reality as if it has different levels. So for example we have an experience of emotion but it is explained by neurobiology. Or in more grand terms that there are physical laws but they are really explained by events in another universe, and our universe is a simulation being run on a computer in that universe.

The details vary, but all these pictures have the same structure — a level of reality A is grounded by a “deeper” level of reality B.

If we look at the development of the concept of up and down though I think it can help us see these issues more clearly. To pre-scientific peoples “higher than” and “lower than” are primitive relationships, abstracted from their bodily experience. A mountain just is higher than the ground. But now that we have developed a scientific worldview we understand that “up” and “down” are relative concepts. To say that a mountain is higher than the sea just means the sea is closer to a given center of gravity — in this case the Earth. If you took the Earth and put it on the sun, you could say that the sea was higher than the mountain (depending upon the orientation of the whole earth).

China is not higher than America or lower — they are just points on a sphere.

I think the same thing is the case with ontological grounding. If there are multiple universes there is no fact of the matter as to which grounds which. In some contexts one grounds the other, but going from another direction the second grounds the first.