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The Train They Call The City of New Orleans

-I’ve been on this train for five hundred miles and I haven’t gotten to New Orleans!

-This train doesn’t go to New Orleans, sir.  It goes to Akron, Ohio.

-But isn’t it “The train they call the city of New Orleans”

-That it is sir.  But the train is the Akron Express.

-Why do they call it “the train they call the city of New Orleans”.

-You’d have to ask them, sir.

-So it’s the city of new orleans train and I’ve spent a day on it and it’s taking me to ohio.

-Oh mercy no sir. It’s not “The City of New Orleans” train.  It’s “The Train They Call the city of New Orleans” sir. It’s like “A Tribe Called Quest”. That’s a very different musical entertainment from the band “Quest” I hope you’ll agree.

-So should I get on the “City of New Orleans” train?

-You could sir, you certainly could.

ONE DAY LATER, ABOARD THE “CITY OF NEW ORLEANS TRAIN”

-I guess in five hundred miles before the day is done I’ll be in New Orleans!

-I don’t see why you would think that.  This train’s going to Duluth!

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Tracy on “Monotheism Versus Atheism”

The problem with bloggers is the same as the problem with a lot of philosophers.  They are writing to scratch some private itch but have never had any real power, so the things they say have a weird, unreal quality.  You don’t know a)what it would mean if anybody put them into practice and b)if the person writing the words even knows what it means to “put something into practice.”  You feel like if somebody showed up at the door of the philosopher (or blogger) and said “Okay! We’re the rest of the human race and we read your blog or your book and guess what — we all think you’re right!  What do we do?” they would burst into tears.

That’s why I like talking to my friend Tracy who was the head of comedy development for a big television studio, and then later went on to run a small television production company quite successfully.  This is what she said to me on the whole issue of atheism versus monotheism.

  1. Human beings are pre-programmed to worship something.  That’s a good thing because if you don’t believe in something higher than humanity you’re barely human yourself.
  2. Monotheism and atheism are basically the same. They’re both attempts to keep people from worshiping the wrong thing.  Most people will end up worshiping whatever is the most powerful person or group of people in their environment, or themselves.
  3. Needless to say both monotheism and atheism share the trait of having been almost completely unsuccessful.
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Answer to Carl Sagan: Why Would G-d Create a Universe With Gazillions of Galaxies and Only Intelligent Life on one or Two Small Planets?

A fair question!

The basic answer is to be found in Pascal: “God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will.”

God has created you and the world you are in so as to give you the perfect environment for becoming perfect — i.e. as much like God as it is possible for a created, finite being. Part of the recipe for that seems to be to give us the desire to understand but put us in a world that both tempts understanding and then resists it.

A world in which intelligence were scattered around according to an understandable plan would be very clear and easy to understand.  It would help the mind, but harm the will.

In other words it is better for us to exist in a mysterious, hard-to-fathom universe than a clear universe because it is better for our will.

Existing in a mysterious universe (of which the rareness and out out-of-the-wayness of human intelligence on a cosmic scale is but one symptom of many many) mean we have to be able to decide how to live our lives against a background of mystery.  This is a cooler ability than the ability to decide how to live your life against the background of a world that makes perfect sense.

You could say G-d acts to maximize the coolness of our existential situation.  (I think this may be a LITTLE like maximizing the profundity of a story of which we are the star, but I’m not sure.)

Hovering behind Sagan’s question is the view that it is sort of wasteful for God to create all those gazillions of galaxies just to create a mysterious universe for us.  This is wrong.  It’s not wasteful of anything because G-d creates everything from nothing by a simple act of will.  It doesn’t take any more effort for God to create 100 billion galaxies than it would take him to create a grain of sand or a fly’s anus. God creates the way a dreamer or a writer creates — in a single stroke. He doesn’t have to personally haul all the atoms to make those galaxies like he’s on a construction site.

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I Felt Ashamed for Making a Bad Joke

Once I met two successful people from a comedy team.  It was my first day of work and I really respected them.  I made a joke to one of them along the lines of “When are you going to ditch that other guy?”  And he said pretty much that this was the go-to joke that every unfunny interviewer ever made to them.

I felt ashamed.

I wonder what is the idea behind my shame at making a bad joke.

Was it that it was untruthful?  That I didn’t really think it was correct that people can’t be friends, and the premise of my joke was that everybody is out for number one, so I had said something I didn’t really believe?  So I felt ashamed that I wasn’t true to myself and my truth?

A little.  But that can’t be the whole story.  When we are joking we are often trying out what we believe or might believe, looking at different sides of an issue.  I don’t think comedy writing partners can’t be friends, but I think there is also a side of the story in which each member of the partnership chafes at the bit, and would like to be the sole star.

Was it just that I tried to do something — come up with an original joke — and failed?   Sure, although even the funniest among us probably has a batting average no more than .300.  Why be ashamed at a joke that fails, rather than just try again?

I think it may be because I thought to myself it was a courageous joke but it was actually a cowardly one.  I thought — this is a bold move, touching on the idea that these two guys might secretly be jealous of each other — but in fact it was an easy joke to make.  It was not courageous at all.

That seems to me to capture some of the more biting cases of shame.  When we claim to a moral virtue — in this case courage — and realize that not only didn’t we achieve it, but we thought we did and it was clear to everyone we respect that we didn’t.

For example if I think I am saying something kind to someone and I learn that it actually came across as condescending and hurtful.  I say “Hey how is your Mom — is she still sick” and the answer is “She died two weeks ago, and I told you, and you forgot.”  That is a shameful realization.  In an instant I go from seeing myself as kind to seeing myself as a self-obsessed, callous person, helping himself to the story of how kind he is.

Shame is unpleasant but I wouldn’t want to press a button that caused me to lose the capacity to feel it; because I don’t want to be that kind of imposter — it will keep me from ever being the real thing..

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Richard Had Two Ways of Looking at Richard

Richard had two ways of looking at Richard.  In the first way he used the word “I” –there were things he believed and things he wanted and things he felt — and in the second way he didn’t, but simply acknowledged processes, one of which was the occasional use of the word “I” in the first way.  When Richard looked at Richard the second way he responded to a lot of arguments and evidence.  Including:

  • there was no clear boundary, spatially or temporally between what was Richard and what was not Richard
  • when Richard used the word “I” he was often wrong about himself — he was capable of self-ignorance and self-deception
  • Richard had no great control over himself but would often be overwhelmed by fear, anger, anxiety, addiction, procrastination
  • Richard’s “I” was not the source of his desires or his beliefs which permeated into him from various networks of causes: biological, sociological, and historical
  • Richard was entangled on a quantum level with various processes that didn’t have a clear location or state, so it followed that Richard himself didn’t have a clear location or state.  When Richard observed an electron that was a superposition of left and right spin Richard was a superposition of two Richards — one that observed a left spin and one that observed a right spin.

One day though they came and said to Richard “If you don’t say that your co-worker Martha is against the government you will lose your job.” and Richard said “I will not.”

Now he was committed to using the word “I” because he needed it to say what he would do and would not do.  And as a consequence he viewed his self-deception and addiction as threats against himself not as parts of himself.  And he only cared about he causes pouring into him from culture history and psychology if they would cause him to somehow betray Martha.  Which he would not do.  And the quantum entanglement was on too tiny a level to matter, since it did not matter to his loyalty to Martha and his fear that he would betray her.

The puzzle is: where did that “I” come from?

It didn’t come from himself, because before it came on the scene he was just a process.

And once it was there it seemed like it had always been there.  But it hadn’t.

Richard had no answer to the puzzle.

Neither do I!

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People Who Think Animals are Just Machines and People Who Love Them

Are animals just machines? Or do they care and feel and matter?

Some who study animals say they are just machines.  They also learn a lot about them by experimenting on them — for example seeing how well they see if you destroy different pieces of their brains, which helps us understand the brain, and vision, and ultimately cure blindness.

You might think that they view animals as machines and that makes it not a problem to blind them.  After all, it’s not a problem to take a camera apart to see how it works.

But it might be that we want a cure for blindness, so we make some of us cut up the brains of animals, and the only way to live with yourself and get up in the morning and go to work and cut up the brain of a cat say, is to tell yourself that the cat is just a machine.

So on this view, if you love your cat, don’t be angry at the person who thinks the cat is a machine, because he has to, in order to do the work you’ve asked him to do, such as coming up with vaccines to protect your cat.

This insight generalizes.

Don’t hate the soldier who thinks life is all about who wins and loses — you asked him to defend you.  Don’t hate the spy who thinks life is all about tricks and counter-tricks.  You need him to make sure nobody is plotting a sneak attack on you and yours.

Needless to say, don’t hate yourself either.

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My Friend Bozzy, Who Won’t Say if He’s Serious

My friend Bozzy — whom I’ve never met IRL — posts amazing and weird things, which he says he believes, but I’m not sure, he might be joking.

What kinds of things does Bozzy say?  He says he is descended from the Pharaohs of Egypt.  He says he is able to remember the future and taste the past.  He says his orgasms give him second sight, with which he perceives patterns in the no-osphere, rising and falling patterns of power emanating from video games he plays, from political rallies he attends, from manga he reads.  He writes poems about tiny men who live on the inside of a hollow sphere called OMBRADAVIA; Ombradavia is not very advanced when it comes to gender stereotypes, the tiny men keep tiny buxom women prisoner with collars like dogs.

But most important of all these weird things he says, sometimes shocking sometimes funny are that he says you cannot know for sure if he is joking.

So how can I tell if Bozzy is serious?

I think Bozzy is serious about getting me to pay attention to him. I think he is serious about being unhappy.  I think he is serious about wanting me to take his unhappiness seriously.  And I think he is serious about not begging for attention.  If he just said, without apology “I hurt” I think he would feel seriously humiliated.

Plutarch pointed out that though the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest the frogs do not die in jest, they die in earnest.

Bozzy knows that I think.  He wants to smash those frogs and knows they will die in earnest.

Bozzy does not know because he won’t let himself know that he says what he says so he won’t get hurt further.  He doesn’t want to let himself know he is in pain, although of course he does know.

Knowing and not knowing, acknowledging his pain and denying it — this gives the characteristic warbling rhythm to Bozzy’s laughter.

A-ha-ha-HA-ha-HA.

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