No Weird Counter Examples

The Philosopher Liam Kofi Bright, remarks on twitter that utilitarianism is right if we just exclude “galaxy brain” takes. Utilitarianism is the philosophical view that what is right is what procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number; what Bright is calling to exclude, I believe, are examples like those provided by Robert Nozick of a utility monster, a being who is able to experience a googolplex units of pleasure when he eats us. Utilitarianism plus the utility monster seems to yield the result says Nozick, that we should all jump into his mouth.

Bright’s “no galaxy brain” proviso calls to mind Bernard Williams’ responses to a similar objection against a theory of human rights. On this theory rights are trumps. We proceed making our utilitarian calculations, but in certain cases if some course of action would conduce to the greatest felicity of the most number of people we prohibit it because it infringes on rights. So for example, it would make everybody happy if so-and-so would shut up, but we don’t allow ourselves to make him hold his peace because he has a right to free speech. The objector to this account of rights (or perhaps to rights at all) asks us to imagine that once the man opens his mouth the vapors issuing forth will, Thanos-like, destroy half the universe. Surely in that case we could button his lips? the interlocutor asks. Williams’ response: “Rights are trumps IN BRIDGE not in whatever bizarre space game you’re playing.”

The “no weird counter examples” proviso is attractive. In action theory we define an action as an event caused by a desire. If Brutus stabs Caesar the motion of his hand and the knife in his hand are caused by his desire to kill Caesar and hence it is an act, and a blameworthy one as Caesar was his father, whilst if a breath of his, like the butterfly’s wings in China, causes a hurricane in California, Brutus did not act. To which the clever philosopher asks — what if it in order to express his fiery yearning for liberty Brutus etched “Liberty” in a stone tablet, and a pebble dislodged by his chisel startled an ox that trampled Maria in the marketplace. Did Brutus act to kill Maria? We say no, but if we essay to say why we may find ourselves confounded, generating ever more subtle theories, festooned with epicycles. The no weird counter-examples proviso comes to the rescue. To paraphrase Williams we respond to the over-ingenious theorist — action is a game we are playing in which desires cause motions in normal ways, not in some weird ox game you are playing.

And in epistemology we might say — we know the world through our senses, and Descartes, and authors of the Yoga Vasistha, and Wachowski sisters and other noisy skeptics, Be Dumb. Because in the normal world we know what is the case by looking with our eyes and hearing with our ears. We are not in a jar. Shush Galaxy Brain. No weird counter examples.

And yet we would be rash to do so. Because if we know anything we know there is a pressure not to believe weird ideas, and yet weird ideas have proven true. Slavery is wrong, although almost nobody thought so. The world spins, although the complacent boggle. Dig a well deep enough and you hit infinite space — literally — weird as that idea is.

Do we, amphibian that we are, have a way out of our impasse, forced to live out our lives on the dry land of the normal, but to lay our eggs for the future in the wet pond of the weird? Could we argue weird counter-examples are okay for the brainy among us, or the young, or those under conditions of urgency? In addition to the obvious snobbery of such a course of action, a regress beckons, and not a good one, as when the candy store’s boasts a back room with even more delightful dainties. The rule for how to decide when to be strange and when not — shall it be strange or no? The reader can see why this won’t cut it.

And yet as the events of this week in America show us, too tender allowances for weird ideas lead to atrocities. The fantasy that there are secrets barred to us by the sour fathers of the status quo, which we can see through with enough callous red-pilling, is an adolescent’s wet dream and video game of unlimited innocent freedom to murder.

Maybe we can look at the fruits of our ideas and thereby know them, following the recommendations of the favorite philosopher of George W. Bush, Jesus. Weird is okay if it makes us care about the stranger, his food and his ideas, not if it gives us an unassailable conceptual pillbox from which to snipe our narcissistic rage. Normality is to be embraced if it means we are humble to our earthly routines, but shunned if those walks take us the long way around and we avoid the shantytown by the river.


The Consolation of Eternity

I was looking at a picture of a dog who passed away in February and feeling sad, and I tried to console myself in an interesting way, that for a while, it seemed, almost worked. I said to myself — what if you knew, or a sufficiently advanced intelligence — a computer, an alien, God — knew every molecule of that dog. Then in the mind of that being for a fraction of an instant everything that was that dog would exist. Because the dog is made of molecules and those are at bottom data, and if this pattern of data was reborn then the dog would be reborn. Just as when I write the letter “J” it is there again when I write “J” a second time.

But that is just the dog at a moment? Well that’s viewing the dog as a number. But in reality the dog is not just a number it is a function. When food appears eat it, when tired of running, sleep. It is a very complicated series of functions leading from one state of molecules to another. And then I thought, well if the dog is an algorithm, albeit a fantastically complicated one, then he is still here. Because algorithms and numbers never come into being or pass out of it. They are eternal. So my dog is eternal. Therefore I never lost him.

The problem with the consolation is that it preserves everything EXCEPT…everything. Because if the dog and my Mom and Dad (they’re gone too) and even me are all abstract structures then it doesn’t matter that we ever lived. We just always were and always will be. What does it matter then that we lived? It doesn’t.

Or perhaps more frighteningly we never did live. You can try to dance around this fact — that the viewpoint from eternity leaves out the actual life we all live — by saying as Stephen Hawking did that somehow there are the equations and then life gets breathed into the equations, or that the numbers somehow get instantiated in time and space. But what’s that? How? The thing that the consolatory viewpoint of eternity leaves out is very hard to say. But it’s the important thing or maybe the only important thing.

But what is it? If we knew that we’d know something! We’d know what it is we don’t want to surrender when we refuse to be consoled. And by knowing the secret of sorrow — what it is we lose when we lose — we would perforce know the secret of joy as well. What it is that we get when we get. Gain when we gain.

Not a number!

So what would it mean to know it? What would the answer to the question look like?

Part of me wants to say — it wouldn’t look like an answer at all, because an answer is always trying to put things in general, repeatable terms — the terms that make the lost dog into an ever-present equation. And if that’s what an answer is, then there is no answer.

But of course that’s probably not what an answer is, right? Because an answer is the response to a question, and if you look at a question’s ID card for place of birth it is a certain place and a certain time.

Eternity has no questions for us.

Though we may have one or two for it!



I have always wanted to express my thoughts simply, and for them to be simple as well.

For example, I’d like to be able to write like this, from the prophet Micah:

And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

I believe this is true. I think whatever the Lord might be, all It or He requires of us is to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. So why can’t I just say it? If I want to — and I look within my heart and I can report back that I do want to.

Part of my bashfulness I think is the worry that if there are simple things to be thought, other people will already have thought them. So it is lacking in humility to say them. It’s like saying ‘remember you will die! Make the most of life!” There is something arrogant in saying that to my neighbor. He or she knows that. And if she wants to think about, she is free to. It’s not my job to tell her what to think.

Justice and mercy are intertwined and hard to get a handle on. These words (what the Lord requires) have a tradition and not a great one. People have used these ideas and the book they are from to conquer Peru and Mexico and put children in Asia and Africa in missionary schools. My simple ideas may be alien and unwanted to other people and it may violate justice to speak them. Mercy is some sort of tenderness towards another person’s vulnerability, an unwillingness to force, or cause pain. Maybe simple words even if they are waking someone up to something she could think about but isn’t ready to, or at least not yet, feel less than merciful.

I feel that bashfulness calls me to express myself in a joke, or a dialogue, or a story that doesn’t lend its meaning on its sleeve. I’m much more likely to tell a story about a puppet who realizes he is a puppet and isn’t sure how to treat his puppeteer, one which let’s the reader co-operate and participate in telling the story, than I am to let the Lord ventriloquize me, and use me or my conception of It or Him, to tell my neighbors what is required of them.

I’d like to express myself simply.

Although sometimes I wonder whether if I’m worried that simple is too simple, if that means that my simplicity will have to be a little complicated. Because there are two sides at least to me, the side that wants to say all the Lord requires, and the part that wants to say — it’s a little more complicated. Is there a Lord? If there is a Lord do I know what He requires? Is He the sort of thing that requires things? Is the Lord of the first sentence the same as the God of the last one? And if there are two sides to me, then the simplest thing is to acknowledge that complexity. Because pretending to be simple is much more devious than just acknowledging my own lack of simplicity.

I always know when I sit down to write these things that the simple dichotomies — in this case simple vs complex — are going to slip through my fingers, and I will be left playing a game where the one morphs into the other.

And I promise I’m not pretending to do that in order to seem more interesting — it’s honestly how it seems.

But who am I promising this to?

Not you!

Me, I guess.


Saint Hugh and the Compliance Officer

Once during a very long drive I was actually in the middle seat next to Hugh, who you know as Saint Hugh. And I wanted to learn something from him, about how he got to be where he was and got to be who he was. This is more or less what he told me.

Back then in corporate America compliance was a joke. The big companies would just hire compliance officers but their job was to create the illusion of compliance, when in fact, it was all investor-driven, and the board or the CEO and the board just did whatever they wanted. I had been boondocking it and I came to the attention of the good guys and they did the sort of tests they used to do on people back in the old days — to make sure I had fellow-feeling and clear thought. And I did, or well enough for them to think I could be of some use at any rate, and they asked me if I thought I was ready. And I said honestly? No.

Why weren’t you ready I asked Hugh?

Well my training had been focused on clear thought. And I had learned a lot of the clear thought systems — you know the five major ones — (actually I didn’t — I was much less well-trained than Hugh but I didn’t want to slow him down, this was interesting!) and a bunch of scraps from the unofficial systems that I had scraped by myself. I was a bit of an autodidact.

And my fellow-feeling I just got from good enough early parenting. But what I didn’t have was the real time situational awareness that was needed. And I said look, I’m a little shy in RTSA. Not my strong suit. I’m sorry. I don’t think I’m ready.

And my Teacher — she was a girl with freckles named Marjerie — she said sure you are weak on Bicycle/Truck.

Bicycle Truck?

It’s a field metaphor they use. It means that there are some challenges in life that are like a bicycle — you can keep on going through them and overcome them and some of them are like trucks — they will overpower you and you just have to immediately get out of the way.

Makes sense.

It’s a field metaphor. If it didn’t make sense Marjerie wouldn’t have used it.

Saints can get cranky! We had been driving for a long time.

Sorry. Anyway what they said was they would just build up my bicycle/truck discernment skills. They would take advantage of the poor compliance. Because at that time there were a lot of rules about employees but these rules were completely hollowed out by the corps. Some of them had all their work done by free-lancers! They were just a hollowed out shell of an offshore bank, an e-suite and nothing else. So the Team would just get me a job at one of these places where they knew shit was going down and I would hone my skills in real life situations at discerning bicycle from truck.

Saint Hugh looked at my blank expression.

So, for example, I’d come in and every body would claim that I was on drugs. Bicycle or truck?


Bicycle. Nobody cared. I just kept my eye on the bean during performance review and I got to stay. But on the other hand — everybody said I had been talking smack about the boss’s girlfriend? Truck my friend! Get out fast. You know why?

Because you can’t talk smack about the boss’s girlfriend?

Close. Everybody talks smack about the boss’s girlfriend. You just can’t be in a situation where everybody says you do.

OK. Makes sense.

I’ll say.

Time was keeping on.

So what did you do?

Well at that particular firm — I think it was cognitive enhancing drugs and finance — I was in love with the corporate compliance officer. And I knew we had to get out of there and I thought she probably would like to get out too. Because things were getting really bad. So I got a meeting with her late at night and said “OK. This whole thing with the boss and his girlfriend and the gossip, there is no question that that is a massive truck bearing down on us. And I know you don’t trust me, you know I came in from outside and I can be a dodgy guy, but I think you want to trust me, and maybe, that not trusting but wanting to, maybe that hard as it may turn out to be, maybe that’s a bicycle.”

I was amazed. Hugh’s girlfriend the corporate compliance officer was the one who negotiated the peace treaty that ended the war. Little girls know her fight proverbs.

Shit, her face is on the money.

Hugh saw our driver was getting tired so he took over and then he detected morale was sneaking down into the yellow range so he led us in some songs from the Big March. I never saw him again but that was my memory of him and you said you wanted to hear it.

When I heard he died in the Battle of the Two Call Centers I cried.

I think he saw the headlights of the monster truck coming straight at him and just put his foot on the gas.