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.



One thought on “Excerpt from a speech I gave to UC Berkeley Philosophy Department Graduates

  1. The insight of your speech does blow our [robot] minds. All these obtained possibilities!

    Anyway, I came back to it today to say thank YOU. For all you write and care to share here. Past, present and future. It’s very much appreciated.

    Sorry I don’t say thanks every time I read and enjoy your writing. I’m afraid it’d simply bore you. I guess it applies to all my likes around here too. This is such an amazing and special space.

    Sorry for all the food analogy. And if anything I said sounded rude to you, I’m very sorry. I never meant to offend or cross the line of good fellowship.

    Last but not least, belated congratulations on the dissertation! I can hear Eddie saying BRAVO!

    PS: what is ‘qua’?

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