philosophy, Uncategorized

The Unity of Consciousness

A good friend of mine woke me up in the middle of the night with a text.  I had left my phone near my nightstand to wake up in the morning and the text buzzed me — I was worried that somebody back home had died.  My friend’s text was, at least on first glance, not so urgent.

“I can not be a physical thing because I am unified and physical things are all made of parts.”

I got together with him in person at Jinky’s, a popular breakfast spot in my neighborhood.   His hands were shaking but he drank cup after cup of espresso.

“My brain is made of cells and my cells are made of atoms but I — what I actually am — is not made of pieces.”

“Sure it is.” I said.  “It is made of thoughts and feelings and beliefs and desires and memories.”

“No” he said “There is something linking all of those things — it is the I.  I think. I feel.  I believe.  I desire.  I remember.  That is a single thing.  And it is single in a way no atom or cell or physical item can ever be.”

“You are 1 you say and not 2 or 3 or 1/2?”


“How do you know that the I that thinks “I remember the text I sent last night” and the I that goes with “I taste espresso” are the same I?  Maybe you are two or more?”

“I don’t think that’s even possible. Everything I know or think or do is all part of my world.”

“How do you know you have one world?  The world has trees and planets and atoms and cells as you said yourself.”

“Because I know everything in the world. I bind it into one world.”

“But we don’t know that your I is one thing.”

“But I do.  I know that because…” he faltered “Everything I know I know.”

“I’m not sure you are clarifying anything.  All you are saying is that there are things and thoughts. You haven’t yet proved that they are one.”

“But the very fact that I am talking and experiencing this shows that it is all one.  If it were two then there would be things that I don’t know or think.”

“But there are.” I said.

“Yes but I don’t know them!” he said.  “So the actual world I experience and the actual I who is me is unified.”

“Do you mean to say, perhaps” I suggested “That you treat yourself as one? That you treat the world as one?  Because certainly it is up to you whether to treat a deck of cards as 52 things or one thing.  Perhaps your expression “unify” meaning after all in English “make one” is closer to your idea.  There are a bunch of thoughts and feelings and you make them into one.  And similarly the world has a bunch of plants and animals and rocks and stuff but you make them one by thinking about them.”

“Yes!” said my friend “Exactly right. I make them one.”

“How and more importantly why would you do that?” I asked.

Our conversation ended as such conversations often do with a barely perceptible slide into mutual embarrassment, which ocurring as it did below the surface of consciousness slid immediately into the occasion for mutual distraction from our embarrassment, and we talked about less important things — who we knew who lived and who we knew who died, who had sex and fell in love and had children and made money, and we left talk of the “I” and unity far behind.

But for  a moment there during breakfast I think we almost had something!

fiction, philosophy, Uncategorized

Four People Who Don’t Know How to or Have Difficulty Talking

My own difficulty talking is stuttering.  What it is, is an arhythmia.  Why is arhythmia a problem?  Rhythm synchs us up with our listener.  We both enter into a pulsation that carries us both out of ourselves, and out of the present.  BUM bum bum bum BUM bum bum bum BUM bum bum bum BUM bum–even if I died while writing that, if I were capable of rhythm — i.e. facile at it — not a stutterer — you would know what would come next, after my death — bum bum.

My friend Avis is so nice she is nothing but engaging, appealing rhythms which she assimilated unconsciously in childhood.  When I hear her talk I can always tell who actually said what she said, and she appears something like a human being muted by an enormous puppet costume, unable to express herself in language at all, though from deep within her suit I can hear the animal expressions of emotion — sadness, anger and ecstasy.

David was so traumatized that all he hears when he talks is the scolding voices of his parents threatening to destroy him.  He can’t get a word out, he is so choked with terror so instead he produces sentence after sentence which conceal him from his own fear, or I should say attempt to, like someone with chattering teeth saying that he is quite, quite fine.  If he could ever stop being afraid of what he was about to say he would find what he was saying was different than what he thought or feared or imagined he was saying.  Much simpler, more beautiful, as clear as a bell.

My friend Richie is deeply, deeply silent, like a thousand-year old stone on a forest floor.  What does he have to say?  What do we want him to say?  Does he know?  Do we know?  If he could ever gather himself together and give speech to himself I am sure it would strike me with the force of a command that I had been waiting for my whole life, like a sentinel on duty who finally received his orders.   Sometimes I look him in the eyes wondering if that moment will come and if it comes if the order will be “STAY AT YOUR POST!” or “MARCH!” or something I can’t imagine yet because it has yet to be communicated to me, or perhaps a message for someone else entirely.

The four of us together miscommunicate in exactly twelve different unsuccessful ways.

Me talking to Avis

Me talking to David

Me talking to Richie.

Richie talking to Avis, Richie talking to me, Richie talking to David.

David talking to Avis, David, talking to me, David talking to Richard.

Richard, me, David, Avis each talking to ourself

Each way of communicating a failure in its own entirely distinct, unique, wonderful way.

Those 12 ways together are like a single word that hovers on the tip of God’s tongue, frustratingly close to expression, tantalizing and yet far.

freedom, philosophy, religion, Uncategorized

Four Sons: Four Responses to Problems

Tonight Jews celebrate the Passover holiday by having an ancient Greek drinking party.  The ancient Greek drinking party, as we know from Plato’s “Symposium” (from the ancient Greek word “symposium” which means drinking party from drink plus together)  required a topic of conversation that each participant would address in turn.  In Plato’s symposium the topic was “What is love?” which is an excellent topic if you are drinking with your friends and some of you are in love with others of you.  For the seder the topic is “What is freedom?” which is an excellent topic for a party with parents and children, since children are unfree in relation to their parents but we are all hoping are on a journey to freedom.

The children are more-or-less unfree and their parents are asking them to discuss freedom.  This will naturally result in a mixed range of reactions — ambivalence and sarcasm (are you kidding me?) spring to mind.  The Haggadah (the guidebook to the seder) singles out four, assigning each one to a “son” — although today it would include daughters (pictured above).

The four responses enumerated in the hagadah are:

1)Asking for an explanation

2)Asking “What does this have to do with you?”

3)Asking “What is this?”


The author of the haggadah has (or claims to have in order to be provoking) strong feelings about these responses, labeling the first “wise” and the second “wicked” and saying the older generation should be happy about response (1) and hurt and angry about response (2).  But if we think a little more deeply we can think about situations in which each of the four responses is appropriate.

A water crisis in Syria leads to a civil war and we are having a feast while the refugees from the crisis starve.


Why did this happen?  A water crisis.  Why are there water crises?  How can they be prevented?


What does this have to do with you?  How can you sit there and lecture me on freedom when people are not free?  Are you doing all that you can?  If you’re not doing all that you can, how can you expect me to do so?


What is this?  People are killing each other in a civil war.  What is a war?  What is a “civil war”?  What is a nation anyway?  What is this life of ours where this happens?



Maybe freedom means the freedom to ask the hard, intellectually challenging questions, to ask the questions that challenge the authority and integrity of those in charge, to ask questions which are so hard because they seem so easy, and to be silent — with shock or awe or joy, or wonder.







literary theory, philosophy, Uncategorized

On Kafka’s “On Parables”

Kafka has a parable entitled “On Parables” that goes something like this:

A: You people who talk in parables say stuff that’s not useful in real life.  You’re always talking about a mountain, a river, a happy place, a danger but they’re never about REAL mountains, rivers, happy places, or dangers. Your parables are useless for those of us who live in the real world.

B:You’ve won.

A:Right, but only in parable.

B:No, in real life. In parable you have lost.


It is hard to summarize the point of this because part of the point of it is that we cannot simply summarize the point of things like parables.  That is when we ask to translate a parable into something easier to digest we are just evading the point of the parable.  But it is not impossible to summarize the point of it either, because another part of the point of it (which is odd I know as a point by definition is that which “hath no part”) is that by reading them we either win or lose, and that the attempt to evade the winning or losing by translating them into a “special” language, used in special circumstances by special people — refined people, or literary critics, or religious people — is also an evasion as terrible as the first one.

I would attempt to convey the point of the parable by offering up the following dialogue and noting some of the structural features it bears with Kafka’s:

A:When you say “I love you and I will give you everything” you don’t really mean you will give me everything.  You don’t have that much money and if I got cancer you could not give me health.  All you mean is that you will give me love.

B: Fine.   I will give you everything I can.

A: Great.  I finally got you to love me for real.

B:No.  You finally got me to pretend.


Colors and the Inverted Spectrum

Some worry about whether colors might be ineffable qualia and argue that there could be human beings who experience an inverted spectrum — their green is your red, their red is your green — but who use “red” to apply to green and “green” to apply to red.  Others argue that it is a mistake to think there is anything subjective about red and that the concept of “experience” is itself incoherent.  To use “red” competently is simply to respond to things everybody agrees are red with the word “red”.  We can call the first group “phenomenalists” and the second “behaviorists” for want of a better pair of labels.

What both of them — phenomenalists and behaviorists — miss is that red things are alarming and cause us to draw back in alarm, while blue and green things calm us and welcome us in.  An experience is neither just an observable response to an objective stimulus nor a featureless internal presentation that can just as easily be swapped with a different internal quale.  So the notion of an inverted spectrum makes no sense.   The color red could not look green or the color green look red, without a whole lot of other parts of our life being different.

Nobody worries about the inverted hedonic scale problem — the person who feels what we consider painful to be pleasant and what we consider pleasant to be painful but happens to love pain and fear pleasure.   Nobody worries about inverted aesthetic scale problem: the person who thinks all things we consider beautiful to be ugly and vice versa but loves to experience the ugly and hates to experience the beautiful.   Nobody worries about the inverted truth problem — the person who thinks what we think is false to be true but whose beliefs track the false.

Experiences, beliefs, responses and colors hang together with modes of acting and expressing ourselves.  If you want to change one you can but you have to feel your way into all the other things that need to change.  Imagination is not as easy as it looks — it’s not just a random collection of conjectures, but a bodying forth of a coherent new creation.

fiction, philosophy, religion

Fathers and Sons


I signed up for Google Life Recorder when i was in high school because I was thinking of becoming a writer and I thought it would be useful to be able to go back and review every moment of my life.  It was.  I was able to write much better things about my first heartbreak when I looked back and relived the first time she and I met, kissed, slept together, fought, broke up.  And I was able to write much better things about the formation of my self-consciousness when I was able to go back and re-experience the first time I went back and looked at my first heartbreak.

I never thought my son of eighteen years would stand before me and ask me for my Lifetape.  But why wouldn’t he?  He wanted to write as I had wanted to write.  He wanted to know himself as I wanted to know myself.  He needed to get clear what hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations, sexual fantasies and religious yearnings within him came from him and which came from his old Pa.

We met in the office a month later.  “There’s a lot I have problems with.” he said.

“Tell” said me.

“I don’t like the way you backstabbed people at work in your 20s.”

“Neither do i, but thanks for bringing it to my attention.”

“You eat too much, masturbate too much, and have fantasies about killing and eating Mom way too much.”

“I’m sorry.  But thoughts come unbidden.”

“Fair enough, Dad.  But I did not like, really did not like the way you forced yourself on Mom and fucked her.”

“Well I get that but you see if that had never happened, where would you be?”

“I see but I don’t like it.”


I took my son to the Hall of Documents to read something his great grandfather had written.   Grandpa Eddie had among his other accomplishments (silver medal track star, mafia lawyer, teller of tales in children’s nursery schools) been the discoverer and translator of a lost manuscript by the Norse poet Snorri Sturluson.  Snorri was the poet of the old gods — Thor and Odin and the Fenr Wolf — although he wrote the eddas at a time when Christianity was supplanting the old religion.  (Snorri, as it happens gave JRR Tolkien the names for his dwarves in The Hobbit).

Grandpa Eddie had translated the following


Man: Allfather. I wish to read your book.  The book of your lives and where you came from and what you are about.

Allfather; Read.

Man: (Having read) Why did you make man to suffer?  From plague and earthquake and war?  Why make a being for pain.

Allfather: Good question.  When the giants stormed Valhalla and caused much rapine and suffering and pain they wished for something that would wipe away their gigantic guilt.  The only thing I could do was to create a world where they could suffer.  For their vainglory they learned to be low.  For their brutality they learned fragilty.  For their egotism they learned love.

Man: Okay, but why did you make giants lusty for storming Valhalla

Allfather: What kind of question is that?

Man: What do you mean?

Allfather: Who would even think to make a world without giants?


My son said “I think you wrote that.”

I said “I did not, but you are close.”

My son: Who?

I said: You.

You wrote it without paying attention to it but it is in your handwriting. You are writing so many things that you don’t even understand yet.  Brilliant things. Wonderful things. I’m so proud of you.  I’d do a milion more brutal shameful things to give you something to be ashamed of and something to write about.

My son: But how did I write it?  Why isn’t it in my Google Life Record?

I said: That old thing?  You are rewriting the rules of your language every moment to make your past tell the story you want to tell.

freedom, guilt, philosophy

Kierkegaard on How We Are Responsible for the Whole World

Kierkegaard writes freedom “always has to do only with itself”.  

 “[T]he opposite of freedom is guilt, and it is the greatness of freedom that it always has to do only with itself, that in its possibility it projects guilt and accordingly posits it by itself. And if guilt is posited actually, freedom posits it by itself. If this is not kept in mind, freedom is confused in a clever way with something entirely different, with force.” [Concept of Anxiety, Kindle 1978]

At first glance this seems an unlikely result.   Why doesn’t freedom have to do with numerous factors other than itself: with constraints for example?  Why doesn’t the freedom of the alcoholic have to do with his disease for example, or the freedom of someone who is the victim of propaganda have to do with the government that deludes him?   Kierkegaard however does not pull his punches.  If freedom does not have to do with anything other than itself, then it follows everything we have to do with in our attempt to be free, is nothing other than a fall-out of our freedom.  Kierkegaard embraces this view and says, counter-intuitively that the free individual feels responsible for the whole world.  

“Guilt is a more concrete conception, which becomes more and more possible in the relation of possibility to freedom. At last it is as if the guilt of the whole world united to make him guilty, and, what is the same, as if in becoming guilty he became guilty of the guilt of the whole world. Guilt has the dialectical character that it does not allow itself to be transferred, but whoever becomes guilty also becomes guilty of that which occasioned the guilt. For guilt never has an external occasion, and whoever yields to temptation is himself guilty of the temptation.” (Concept of Anxiety, Kindle Locations 2002-2006). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

The two views — that freedom only has to do with itself and that whoever is tempted is guilty of his own temptation — are two instances of the same thesis, one put positively, the other put negatively.    To see how this works, supposing I am tempted to gossip about my friend, in order to keep the conversation at a party lively.  I could give into the temptation and do it, or realize I care about him enough, and endure being thought a boring conversationalist.   The thesis that freedom really only has to do with itself means that if I gossip about my friend the real explanation is that I am trying to avoid the vulnerability and pain of the situation.  I am not dealing with an external force or inner fact — a stressful day, a callous office environment, or my gossipy character — but with my own freedom which by its nature includes the possibility of evasion and self-deception.   If I give in to the temptation and gossip what I have given into is a temptation to avoid risk and vulnerability that I could have stood up to.    Freedom and sin expand backwards in time and outwards in my social world, so that the more I think about my life, the more I see facing vulnerability or evading vulnerability everywhere I look.  Although there may be facts about me that are not relevant to my freedom they cease to be irrelevant once I know about them.  Therefore I am responsible for my whole world and never face an opponent other than me.


Looking in the Brain for the Self is Looking in the Wrong Place

Looking into the brain and trying to find “the self” is like looking into the brain and trying to find “the importance”.
Almost nobody’s self is unified but your self becomes unified as you struggle to get clear about what is important to you and what isn’t, and then you make (or allow stuff) to fall into line.  In other words it’s not something you find, it’s something you make happen (if you’re lucky and you want to).   A person who hasn’t decided or experienced what’s important and what isn’t would not have a self — there would just be a bunch of feelings and jingles and social roles and expectations and emotions knocking into each other.
The answer to the question “what is my self” and the answer to the question “what is most important to me” are answers we make together.  Neither answer can be provided by looking into the brain because whatever sort of thing happened in my brain I could still say “Yeah that’s not me, that’s not important, I don’t care about that.”
So f I had a phobia of dogs I could say “dogs give me this panicky sensation but they’re not actually bad — I don’ think they should be destroyed” and I could seek a pill or a therapy that would cure me of this phobia. If I did that I would not think the fearsomeness of dogs was important and I would not view my panicky reaction in the presence of a dog to be part of my self.  I would view it as a problem that my self has to deal with.
On the other hand if whenever I saw a dog I went crazy with hatred, and then when I wasn’t in the presence of a dog I didn’t know what I thought about that, then I would be so dissociated my self would be in trouble.
[photo by Jan Lakota]

Two Philosophies of Failure

Let’s say we are looking at a tree and it looks like it has ten apples growing on it.  I say “That tree has ten apples.” and you say “No, it doesn’t.  Not necessarily.”  I say “What do you mean?” and you say “You can’t know for sure.  Maybe there is an invisible apple on it that won’t be detected until science reaches a more profound understanding of the the nature of light and the nature of apples, and that won’t happen until you and I are dead, many, many thousands of years in the future.”

You are being a skeptic, and a lot of philosophers since Descartes have argued that is no way to be, and have tried to articulate just what mistake you are making.

I remember hearing Hillary Putnam argue once, in a lecture on pragmatism (although I may misremember), that when I say “there are ten apples on the tree” what I mean is “If science continued for the next 10 to the 100 years –an inconceivable time for humans — far longer than the age of the universe from Big Bang to heat death — we would have no reason to believe there were any more or less than ten apples on that tree.”  So if I say that there are ten apples on the tree I’m right.  That’s what apples being on a tree means — that given our understanding of an unimpeded growth of science into an indefinite, but not infinite future, we will have no reason to think otherwise.

That is definitely one way of assuring that I’m right.  Except for the problem that when I say there are ten apples on the tree, I don’t mean that.  I just mean that there are ten apples on the tree.  And I might be wrong.

It seems like the pragmatist impulse is one way of protecting against failure.  It tries to make the goal of statements like “there are ten apples on that tree” more limited and human and humble, so as to avoid the anxiety of total failure.  Another way is to just make the statements and fess up to the fact that they may fail.

Let’s call these two approaches the “pragmatist” and the “fallibilist”.

Which is a better way of coping with the possibility of failure?  They are both attempts to achieve a sort of cognitive humility, and therefore like all attempts at humility, are prone to morphing into their opposite.  The pragmatist endeavors to be humble about the use of his concepts, but if he becomes proud of his humility he seems to make a dubious claim to have an extraordinary insight into what we really mean by ordinary words like “know” and “apple”.  The fallibilist endeavors to be honest about our mistakes but if he becomes proud of his humility he seems to have discovered something amazing: that we don’t know anything.

Is there a way of making sure for once and for all that our humility will not degenerate into false-humility?   There may be somebody out there who knows the way, but if you meet him don’t tell him he does, as this will surely go to his head.

literary theory, philosophy

What’s the Point of Telling Stories? Bad Fiction, Good Fiction, Lies Holy and Unholy

If you tell a story to convince people something is true then the point is to get people to believe whatever you are telling them.  If the story is not true and you know it, then you are lying.  If you don’t care about the truth of the story but are telling it anyway in order to get people to believe it you are engaging in what Harry Frankfort calls “bullsh***” — talk without caring about the truth value of what you are communicating.  If you think it’s true but it’s not you are spreading untruth.  Your moral culpability depends upon how hard you work in general to make sure that what you tell is true.  If you are equally likely to tell false stories that make your political or religious party look bad as ones that make it look good then you seem fine; if it turns out to slant in the direction of your political interests you have something to answer for.

Plato advocated the “pia fraus” or holy lie in order to keep his ideal republic going.  In his set-up, a few morally righteous people — The Guardians — know that their society’s castes are a human invention, but they tell a lie in order to get the lower classes to play along.  Lies that claimed to be pious ran rampant in the ancient world.  Every empire and indeed every city state had a fake tale about how it was founded by divine beings.  The pia fraus might be a good idea but impractical for several reasons.  One is that in our current pluralistic, wired globe people are more likely to be able to see through the noble lies.    This can have the opposite of the intended effect: once the sheep know the shepherd is willing to lie for their own good, they will be less likely to believe their shepherds.  Another problem is that in real life it places a huge temptation in the hands of the lying elite to misuse their power.  For an interesting discussion of a contemporary example of  the pia fraus see “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History”.

This all applies to stories whose point is to convince people to believe things.   What about a story that is not intended to get people to believe things?  When we listen to a story (or watch a movie or play a video game) we engage some of the faculties of our soul that are engaged in real life, but our rational faculties know that they are engaged with something that is not true.  It is a bit like dreaming.  It is a rare person who eats the pillow while dreaming believing it is a marshmallow.  It is a rare person who actually falls in love with Sherlock Holmes and moves to London hoping to marry him.

When it’s working well this kind of dry run can help build up our capabilities.  We can see if we solve the puzzle before Sherlock Holmes does or if we recognize the self-deception of Emma before she does.  We can practice our wisdom or our cleverness or our courage without dealing with the consequences, or rather without feeling the full consequences.  We can actually feel shame if we sympathize with a character’s poor behavior or rationalization for example, but the shame doesn’t hurt as much as the shame we feel for misbehaving or rationalizing in real life.

At its best fiction can challenge our redoubtable capacity for self-deception.  The cunning writer can play to our hopes and fears, teach us how those hopes and fears lead us to selfish behavior, and trick us into identifying with a character who ultimately is flawed. This can teach us to watch ourselves more carefully, and to pay attention to life.  At its best fiction can also enlarge our perspective and teach us that everybody has his story, and that these stories fit together into an intricate web of cause and effect, self-justification and blame, narrowing and expanding of perspective that is beyond anybody’s ability to see in real life, unfolding as quickly as real life does.  At its worst of course it can encourage our wish to dwell in a world of egocentric fantasy, where the little guy always gets the girl, and the moral hero proves he has the right stuff by wasting those who dared disrespect him in a hail of bullets.

There is also a deeper sense in which collections of stories can be part of the founding of a certain mode of experience — call it a culture in the sense in which a code of laws may found a city..  In this sense certain archetypes, and patterns of significance may be set up within which human beings cultivate themselves.  This is rooted in a fundamental aspect of all talk which is that it makes a decision about what is worth paying attention to.  The storyteller in the deepest sense is making it that these sort of things are to be paid attention to and worth caring about.