Why was Trevor Cruel to Richard the Guy With the Broken Foot?

A few years back there was a fire in our neighborhood and Richard saved a bunch of people from their second floor buildings but in the process fell off a ladder and broke his foot.  The foot never healed correctly and Richard needs a cane and it is difficult for him to get in and out of houses especially in the winter when the streets are slippery.

Recently, Trevor whose father owns the liquor store and makes a lot of money started making fun of Richard.  “Nobody asked him to try to rescue people.  It’s his fault that his foot is messed up.  The rest of should not have to worry about making things easy for Richard.”  And he even imitated Richard’s ungainly walk.

I asked Carmela De Sousa why Trevor was so cruel to Richard.  “It’s not that much trouble to slow down and let Richard keep up with us.” I said “Why is Trevor making such a big deal?  Is Trevor right?  Is slowing down for Richard keeping our neighborhood from getting in timely fashion to where it wants to go?”

Carmela said “Trevor feels whenever anybody says “you should be kind to Richard” that it is a personal attack.  He hears that as “You Trevor are not what you should be.”  He is counter-attacking in his own minds — defending himself.   He feels bad about himself in some way and the fact that Richard got hurt by doing something good makes him feel worse.   It makes him popular with his friends who feel the same way.”

“So we should feel sorry for Trevor?” I asked Carmela.


“But that does mean that Trevor is not a bad guy?”

“No” said Carmela.  “Being so weak that other people’s goodness makes you specifically angry — that’s what being a bad guy is.”


When Do You Save Things from the Past?

Things meaning physical items but also ways of thought, friendships, habits, idea.  When do you need to preserve them and when should you discard them?

Two ways of thinking of progress through life: building a self and achieving freedom.

If you think you are building a self then you want the early blueprints.  Also your take on your past is a dimension of your self.  So if you what you have done with your life is construct a self, curate your past.

But if you think you are escaping from something and achieving freedom all that old stuff is just broken prison bars.  Who you are is not dependent upon the particular path you had to take (the hooks and crooks and stratagems you effectuated) to achieve freedom.

A person who escaped from a blue prison and a person who escaped from a green prison are not blue and green respectively.



Conversation with a New York City Cab Driver

Him: Do you know what my dream is?

Me: What.

Him: To play strip chess with a girl and when I win I fuck her.

Me: What if she wins?

Him: What?  I win.

Me: No but what if she wins?  She should get to do something like kill you or punch you in the face.

Him: It’s a fantasy.

Me: I know it’s a fantasy — I’m not expecting you to drop me off at the airport and then do that.  But a fantasy can still have logic.

Him: Okay.  If I win I fuck her if she wins she fucks me.


Nietzsche in Flatbush

We thought about Nietzsche differently in Flatbush

Than they did in the dritte Reich — I think

For us he was about the freedom to be weirdos

while for the members of the national social workers party

It was more about the collective will.  They really liked the will.

And the aesthetics of grabbing glory in the face of death

For us it was less about that, more an individual thing

Wandering through subway stations late at night

Forging our meaning for ourselves from the cold night

But who knows?  Maybe if we had had the opportunity

To stage parades and spectacles and conquer France

Some of us would have and who knows if some of those Nazis

Had been frozen by Hitler and then defrosted on Rugby road

In February, all alone, without a date, and somehow thrilled by panic

They wouldn’t have found the taste of amor fati

In lonely walks through Flatbush just like me.


a mother mouse

A mother mouse – her puppies nurse her
Lives in the wall of my old house
the blind kits – mouselings? – didn’t get myrrh
which would boot nothing for a mouse
She eats a piece of macaroni
I can say now the job was phony
My mother did my work for school
Gluing a glitter fleck like a jewel.
All-nibbling days you hold no terror
Turning our work to mothers milk
Better than killing those poor worms for silk!
Thank heaven for the amnesiac’s error
As little backward looking as a shark
Those nurslings hiding in the dark


The Mind-Body-Pilf-Skwel Problem

I used to be a graduate student instructor in a class for undergraduates on the philosophy of mind.  One of the problems we dealt with was whether there was an “inner” aspect of life which went beyond the purely material.  The idea was: imagine you’re talking to somebody who eats food, drinks water, fights, is amorous, talks about philosophy but he’s actually just a cunningly constructed robot who never feels pain or pleasure or joy or sorrow.  Inside he is a blank.  Like a zombie.

From this problem we got into something we called “the mind-body” problem.  The idea here is that there is something a conscious person has — a phenomenal experience — which somebody who acts the same way might lack.  The stuff that the conscious person has — a conscious mind — seems to sit uneasily into our descriptions of the world.  Our understanding is that the world is made of matter — but consciousness seems not to be observable the way matter is.

I knew some philosophers who said that the whole problem makes no sense.  Everything must in principle be observable.  So there could not be a whole realm of conscious experience which we couldn’t know about.

I think these philosophers were being over-optimistic.  Just because I don’t know about something and never will know about doesn’t mean it’s not real.  Julius Caesar never knew about me and never could, fated as he was to die on the Ides of March, 2000 years before my birth.  But I’m real.  So other people could indeed be having conscious experiences, and just because we can’t observe them doesn’t mean they couldn’t be real.

But lately I have become worried by another problem.  If another person’s body can hide a single dimension — conscious experience — or mind — what if it hides innumerable other dimensions too?  Heck, let’s not worry about innumerable.  What if the other person has not just a mind and a body, but also two other things: Pilf and Skwel.

What are Pilf and Skwel?  Pilf and Skwel are as different from mind and body as mind and body are from each other.    Some other people have Pilf and Skwel, some have one, and some have another.

If the mind-body problem is a real problem why isn’t the mind-body-pilf-skwel problem a real problem?

Maybe it is!


The Garden of Eden was a Turing Test

Many are puzzled by the story in the Bible (see, Bible) that God created human beings, gave them a rule, and then created another being to tempt them to break the rule.  Why create beings and then trick them?   Obviously if you know everything you know that if you create a sufficiently simple human, a sufficiently unclear rule, and a sufficiently wiley serpent, the human will break the rule and listen to the serpent.  What exactly are you trying to prove?  And to whom?

Alan Turing’s Turing test helps clear things up.  Yes,  6000 years after initial publication, but good things come to those who wait.

A scientist creates an intelligent being.  The scientist is not sure if the being is a human or not.  He sets up a test.  The intelligent being must trick a human into thinking he is a human.  He is up against another human.

The two stories are both have four characters.  God, Adam, Eve, Snake in the Bible story, Scientist, Robot, Real Human, Real Human Judge in the Turing test.

God and the Scientist are obviously the same in the two stories.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out the other identifications.

For discussion after class: Is God hoping to learn that Adam and Eve are like him or different from him?


Soulful Robots

Some fear we will be enslaved and killed by our robots.  The tricky word in this sentence of course is “we.”  You could say that we will create robots who will kill us or you could say we will evolve into robots.  You could say that when we first developed rational thought and language we took the first step.  The hominid who could speak was an animal running a computer program — language — and thus  cyborg, so when he defeated or assimilated his animal peers (by killing them or teaching them language) those hominids were conquered by robots.  Or they became robots.

Recently my former colleague Eric Schwitzgebel reacted to the philosopher Susan Schneider who worries we will be conquered by conscious-less robots from outer space.  It could happen!   Some asshole group of Martians could create an even more ass-a-holic group of robots that entirely without awareness spread across the galaxy mining planets and killing folk.  It would be something like astronomical cancer.  I hope they didn’t and if if they did I hope we win the war, or go down looking good.

Many horrible things could lurk beyond the stars — fungus men or evil orange dictators of gold thirty light years high or crazy rape seals who flood our world and violate us all.  However the paper is not just science fiction horror-gathering.  It stems from, first of all, a philosophical confusion, which is that consciousness is something weird, metaphysical, and undetectable.

This is, I believe, a philosophical confusion.  If consciousness is an immaterial undetectable substrate, there is no reason to believe that rampaging robots from beyond the stars are not conscious.  If it is an undetectable metaphysical substrate there is no reason for me to believe I am conscious.  Of to believe that everybody but French people are conscious, or only French people are conscious.  If consciousness is undetectable then it doesn’t matter.

So this leads me to believe the worry comes from something deeper.  The worry is that what we find most deeply human will not hack it — it doesn’t matter.  Consciousness is a stand-in for what we most deeply care about.  The pessimistic fear is that that doesn’t matter — we will be squelched out by something newer, better, and more successful  and lacking humanity.

I don’t know.   SETI has not spoken.  But judging from the data handy it’s worth reflecting on what the one planetary apex predator we know about is like — us.   We conquered the planet and we have humanity which makes us capable of compassion and also atrocity.   We have, and I do not mean this metaphysically, or religiously, soul    We have soul in the way that a piece of music, despite being entirely physical, has soul.

Why is soul physical?  Because it lets us do entirely physical, entirely detectable things.  Like care about meaning, respond to beauty, love, hate, be jealous and envious or giving or spotaneously kicky, wonder about what it all means, and respond to the paradoxes and ambiguities of life.

We are soulful robots.

The future evolution of humanity may be soulful too, or we may replace ourselves with horrendous soulless robot monsters.  I hope we don’t.  And our first alien contact may well be with soulful aliens, soulful alien robots, or perhaps soulless bureaucrats, spiritually dead, just trying to optimize their bloodless alien goals.

If that’s the case we should fight them or wake up their souls.



Unspeakable Cults

The mandrake and the womandrake both said:

We are plants but we resemble, the alpha predator of another kingdom.

Called Animal.   And they kissed, not as plants do, stamen-in-pistil.

Can such things be?  The wings of the  moth

Have eyes that look like cat’s eyes or bird’s eyes but not

Moth eyes.  They’re compound.  Our bodies resemble

Forms of other phyla, yet to be evolved.  What is the sense of beauty

But the sense organ of a being

Yet to be created,

Utterly different, as cell to atom, zither to explosion, dream to king

a horse riding full speed

Down a turn-off we passed by blindly?