Everyone’s A Critic (Or, 10 Good Reasons To Hate Philosophy)

I remember when I was a kid, Mr. Blackwell would put out a list of the year’s best and worst dressed celebrities.

Although the more positive thing to do would have been to talk about the best dressed list, the media seemed to anticipate the announcement of Mr. Blackwell’s worst dressed list. They treated Mr. Blackwell’s announcement like a little kid flips his lid opening up his presents on Christmas.

You’d think that Santa Claus had delivered the list.

I don’t remember too much about Mr. Blackwell’s critiques other than his proclamations  were announced in rhyming couplets.

This is Mr. Blackwell

mr blackwell

 

Mr. Blackwell is dead now.

That was Mr. Blackwell.

I guess Joan Rivers does his job these days. I don’t think she uses rhyming couplets, though.

It’d be pretty cool if Kelly Osbourne did.

 

Whether it’s cars, movies, electronic equipment, summer reads, fashion icons, or reality television shows, everyone from the editors of Entertainment Weekly to any guy or gal with a blog has got a top ten list of something. If you spend any significant amount of time doing  or paying attention to anything, you’re bound to think up a list of things about that thing you do or don’t like. You don’t have to read very many lists to see that for some things, the lists are pretty much the same.

I’ve read more than twenty  top ten lists that name Breaking Bad as the best TV show.

Nearly every list of the best music groups say that The Beatles are the greatest band ever*.

If you’re wondering who the greatest president of the United States was, eleven out of ten political scientists will tell you that America’s greatest president was Abraham Lincoln even before he was a vampire hunter.

 

But, just as everyone has a list of music groups, books, or movies, that you love, everyone also has a list of everything and anyone we just cannot stand. Everybody has a list. A THAT list. Although I have yet to hear anyone say it, I know that every philosopher, philosophy fan, and philosophy student has that list of philosophers that they feel less than a positive affinity towards. A philosophy shit list.

Although one might assume that finding a list of hate-inducing philosophers would be a challenging task, picking the list is actually quite easy. After all, it’s easy to come up with a list of philosophers we’re supposed to like: Socrates, Descartes, Hume, Kant… But let’s be honest, some philosophers practically scream out to be hated. For every great philosopher, for every great philosophical idea like the problem of induction, Gettier examples, the naturalistic fallacy, or correspondence theory of truth, there’s a Pascal’s wager or transcendental idealism. Or the homunculus.

That bad idea, by the way, was peddled by Aristotle.

 

Some philosophers were not good people. Other philosophers were/are a-holes. And some philosophers invent theories that are so wacky that you have no other reasonable choice but to hate that philosopher and everything they’ve ever written.

I promise I won’t say a thing about logical positivism or Wittgenstein.

Still, sometimes you come to hate other philosophers merely by looking at them.

I mean, it’s easy to hate a guy that looks like this:

 

ischope001p1

 

Really, the more one reads philosophy, the more one finds philosophers (and theories) worthy of a “worst of” list.

So without further ado, I present my top ten worst philosophers (aka 10 good reasons to hate philosophy):

 

1. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

no you kant
Perhaps best known for his works Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Critique of Pure Reason (1781), and the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), the German Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is considered the greatest philosopher since Aristotle. Kant taught at the University at Konigsberg  (East Prussia) where he was a popular and well-regarded professor. Satisfied with neither the rationalist nor the empiricist theories of knowledge, Kant called for a “Copernican revolution” in philosophy an attempt to provide a satisfactory account for knowledge.

This all makes Kant sound like a swell guy but there’s plenty of reasons to hate him and his philosophy.

For starters, philosophers, until Immanuel Kant, weren’t exclusively academics.

Kant was.

Second, not only are Kant’s Transcendental Idealism and synthetic a priori knowledge incredibly (and annoyingly) confusing concepts, but Kant’s ethical opus, the CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE, is damned-near impossible to carry out in real life.

In Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, Kant instructs that we may never violate any moral rule, no matter what good may come about as a result of violating the rule. So, if your friend comes to your house and says to you that he’s being followed by an axe murderer and he wants to hide in your closet, according to Kant, you’re supposed to tell the axe murderer that your friend is hiding in the closet if the murderer asks you where your friend is hiding.

The reason why you gotta fink out your friend, Kant says, is because it is morally wrong to lie. Kant writes:

Whoever then tells a lie, however good his intentions may be, must answer for the consequences of it… because truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties founded on contract, the laws of which would be rendered uncertain and useless if even the least exception to the were admitted.

 

The act of lying undermines our pursuit of truth, Kant says.

You see, Kant says we have an inviolable duty to the axe murderer to tell the truth because if we lie, we are endorsing the act of lying, not just to save lives, but in any situation where the circumstances may work out nicely for ourselves (or anyone else for that matter). What if the axe murderer knows you’re lying, Kant asks. And because he knows you’re lying he sneaks around to the back of your house where your fried is also sneaking out the back way. The murderer kills your friend. Kant says that you’re not only morally on the hook for the lie but for the murder as well.

If you didn’t lie the murderer wouldn’t have doubted you. And if he hadn’t doubted you, he wouldn’t have sneaked around to the back door. If you had pointed to your closet and said “He’s right in there”, sure, you’re violating your friend’s trust and handing him over to a deranged killer, but, at least according to Kant, you did so with a clear moral conscience.

It doesn’t take much contemplation to figure out that this line of thinking is kind of…. wrong.

 

2. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

old fred

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is undoubtedly one of the most influential (if not most popular) philosophers ever. Besides Socrates, Friedrich Nietzsche has probably contributed more ideas and catchphrases to the popular culture than any other philosopher (eternal recurrence, the ubermensch, master/slave morality, “God is dead”, “What does not kill me makes me stronger”, “there are no facts, only interpretations”…) Nietzsche is considered one of the forerunners of existentialism and credited with founding the philosophy of nihilism.

And is the patron philosopher saint of goth kids everywhere.

That’s pretty much where the problem with Nietzsche starts.

The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche is the sole genesis of more philosophical misinterpretation and wrongheaded-ness than any other philosopher in history.  Nietzsche’s misogyny, anti-Semitism, and fervent German nationalism not only inspired the malevolent philosophy of National Socialism, but we can find Nietzsche’s philosophical influence in the Satanic religious teachings of  the late Anton LaVey  to  the mass murderers at Columbine High School.

 

 

3. Gottlob Frege (1848-1925)

Gottlob_Frege

Gottlob Frege is credited with revolutionizing the study of logic, which, until Frege, was dominated by Aristotelian logic. His work, Begriffsschrift (1879) set forward a system of formal logic that overthrew Aristotle’s logic. Frege, (along with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein) is credited with creating the groundwork of modern philosophy of language. Frege argued that logic, mathematics, and language have continuity, and that we should view language more logically for clarity and to remove confusion (in language).

Anyone who hated symbolic logic or encountered the phrases Venus is Hesperus or Venus is phosphorus has Frege to blame.

And as many philosophy students has complained, Frege’s formal logic operates too much like mathematics which is precisely the subject that many mathophobic philosophy students aim to avoid.

 

4. Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

aristotle bust

Called “The Philosopher”, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote on subjects as diverse as politics, economics, psychology, biology, physics, ethics, logic, and auto repair. Scholasticism, the school of theological thought based in part on the philosophy of Aristotle, was the official doctrine of the early Catholic church, and  Aristotle’s logic was the standard logic until Frege. Aristotle’s philosophy (which includes ideas such as the golden mean, eudemonia, and virtue ethics) is still a foundation of philosophical and political thought. Aristotle’s philosophical works are so extensive and he remains one of the world’s most influential philosophers, it’s amazing to think that it’s possible to dislike the man they called “The Philosopher”.

It is possible.

Aristotle proves that the quantity of one’s writing doesn’t necessarily correlate to the fact that everything that someone writes is correct.

A few examples:

On the subject of slavery Aristotle wrote:

… from birth certain things diverge, some towards being ruled, other towards ruling… Accordingly, those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast and they are in the state if their work is the use of the body, and if this is the best that can come from them are slaves by nature. For them its is better to be ruled with this sort of rule…

 

No, you didn’t read it wrong. Aristotle believed some people are natural slaves.

 

And On the subject of women Aristotle wrote:

Woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears. At the same time, she is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful than man, more devoid of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive and of more retentive memory.

 

Pretty much speaks for itself.

 

Aristotle also believed:

  • Deformed children should be put to death.
  • If people married young their children would be weak and female (Aristotle probably believed that was redundant).
  • Animals are mere tools to be used however people see fit.
  • Democracy is bad.
  • The Earth is the center of the universe.
  • Heavenly bodies float on eternal invisible spheres.
  • Some people have no souls (and therefore are fit to be used as slaves)
  • And, of course, Aristotle believed a man’s semen contains fully-developed, miniature people.

 

We expect that even the greatest philosopher may miss the mark, but when Aristotle was wrong, he wasn’t just slightly incorrect or a wee bit off track; the guy was wrong.

WRONG.

 

allistair gets slimed

 

Centuries of Aristotle’s wrong-headed philosophy dominating church doctrine not only held back the progress of science (as it was not in one’s best interest to oppose church doctrine), but Aristotle’s  truly messed up notions involving the intellectual aptitude of women and the (in)ability of average citizens to manage government are still prevalent.

If that isn’t enough, Aristotle’s political philosophy influenced neo-conservatism.

‘Nuff said.

 

5. John Rawls (1921-2002)

rawls

Veil of ignorance. Period.

6. Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

ayn rand

Best known as the author of objectivist masterpieces The Fountainhead (1943), Anthem (1938), and Atlas Shrugged (1957), Ayn Rand is only slightly less regarded by philosophers as a philosopher worth taking seriously. Rand is the founder of Objectivism, the philosophical school of thought grounded on the principle of rational self interest. Rand’s rational self interest is defined as follows:

Man every man is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.

 

At first glance Rand’s philosophy makes sense. It’s difficult to argue that we shouldn’t place the achievement of our own happiness first and foremost among our life goals.

And we should wan to be happy.

The problem with Rand is that following her philosophy will turn you into a complete dick.

Anyone who has endured a soon-to-be-former-friend’s Rand-soaked rants about “moochers”, “the virtue of selfishness” or “going Galt”, knows that the mere sight of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged on a friend or prospective mate’s bookshelf spells certain doom for any relationship. The trouble with Ayn Rand is that fans of Rand often espouse Rand’s anti-helping-one’s-fellow-man sentiments, while also failing to realize, like Rand, that helping the less fortunate actually benefits society.  You see, Rand’s fans often fail to see that she wrote fiction.

That’s probably why if you ask any philosopher if he takes Ayn Rand seriously, you’ll be laughed out of the room.

Rand not only calls philosophical god Immanuel Kant “evil”, but Rand proclaimed that the Christian ethic of altruism is dangerous and harmful to society.

Which is pretty odd considering some of Rand’s biggest fans are Christian politicians.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is such a bag of mixed-up ideas that Rand’s influence can be found behind the personal philosophies of former Republican 2012 Vice-Presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, who insisted all his staffers read Atlas Shrugged, and Anton LaVey, the late founder of the Church of Satan.

Rand herself decried social assistance to the poor (because it takes from the rich, who, according to Rand had all earned their money, so no poor person has a right to be helped by it) while receiving social security a social assistance program.

That’s not only mixed up. That’s being a total Dick.

 

7. Ayn Rand

Rand proves that it is possible to so despise a philosopher she’s worth mentioning twice.

 

8. Sir Bertrand Russell (1873-1970)

bertrand russell

 

Regarded by many as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century and (perhaps) the greatest philosopher ever, Sir Bertrand Russell (along with Gottlob Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein) played a major role in the development of analytic philosophy. Russell’s works includes writings on logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, epistemology, metaphysics, moral philosophy, politics, economics, religion, and Russell, with Alfred North Whitehead, wrote Principia Mathematica (1910-13), which established the logical foundations of mathematics.

Ok. I know, I know, Bertrand Russell is the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, quite possibly the greatest philosopher ever. Blah blah blah.

It’s absolutely correct that every philosophy student should know the philosophical importance of Bertrand Russell. But here’s my problem:

First: Russell’s Paradox.

Second: Unlike Leo Strauss, whose approach to writing was to be intentionally obscure, Bertrand Russell is damn-near un-understandable. I have no clue what Russell is writing about.  Read this:

The unity of the sentence is particularly obvious in the case of asymmetrical relations: ‘x precedes y’ and ‘y precedes x’ consist of the same words, arranged by the same relation of temporal succession; there is nothing whatever in their ingredients to distinguish the one from the other. The sentences differ as wholes, but not in their parts, it is this that I mean when I speak of a sentence as a unity.

 

Now, either Bertrand Russell is that brilliant or I’m that dumb.

Because I have no idea what that meant.

That’s why I hate Bertrand Russell.

9. Leo Strauss (1899-1973)

leo strauss

Known as the father of neo-conservatism, the political philosophy of  the late German-American philosopher, Leo Strauss, has created more animus between liberals and conservatives than the epic “tastes great/less filling” debate. In fact, Leo Strauss is probably the most influential modern philosopher no one has ever heard of.

Have you ever heard the name Paul Wolfowitz?

If you haven’t, I’m guessing you’re not an American.

If you are an American and you haven‘t, God help you.

What’s important to know about Paul Wolfowitz is that he was a student of Leo Strauss.  AND he was a Deputy Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. That means Paul Wolfowitz had the ear of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

No big deal, right?

Well, that would be no big deal if Leo Strauss hadn’t spent his entire philosophical career lamenting modern political theory and what he saw as modernity’s liberal, relativistic values, and “the corroding effects of mass culture.” Strauss writes:

Many people today hold the view that the standard in question is in the best case nothing but the ideal adopted by our society or our “civilization” and embodied in its way of life or its institutions. But, according to the same view, all societies have their ideals, cannibal societies no less than civilized ones. If principles are sufficiently justified by the fact that they are accepted by a society, the principles of cannibalism are as defensible or sound as those of civilized life.

 

Strauss explains that moral relativism and “the uninhibited cultivation of individuality” is “bound to lead to disastrous consequences” and nihilism.

It would be no big deal if Strauss hadn’t taught at the University of Chicago from 1949 to 1968,  allowing Strauss to influence a generation of students (they’re called “Straussians”). And it wouldn’t be a big deal that Leo Strauss taught guys like Paul Wolfowitz and influenced a generation of Straussians if Strauss hadn’t believed and taught his students that philosophy should be esoteric, and not understood by everybody, and that knowledge is something that is hidden to most people and only understood by a few individuals (namely Strauss and his students).

It wouldn’t be a problem that Strauss taught guys like Paul Wolfowitz if Strauss hadn’t taught his students that society should be structured so that the wisest should rise to the top (mind you, Strauss believed that he and his students were the wisest) and that it’s perfectly within a government’s power to lie to and ignore the will of the people.

It wouldn’t be a big deal if Straussians hadn’t been affecting American domestic and foreign policy for the last 12 years*.

It wouldn’t be a problem if Strauss’ followers didn’t go into politics and influence and entire administration to follow Strauss’ wacked-out ideas.

 

10. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

ischope001p1
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (of course he was German!) is best known for his work The World As Will (1818). Schopenhauer, along with (fellow Germans) Georg Hegel and Nietzsche introduced the concept of the will as a force in the world that makes things happen. The world, according to Schopenhauer (and later Nietzsche) is an expression of the will.

Schopenhauer believed that the Eastern philosophical tradition was better at dealing with our philosophical crises than the established European philosophy. Schopenhauer also believed that animals should be treated humanely. He even objected to animals being used for scientific research.

That makes Schopenhauer seem like a pretty cool guy, right?

Well, if you thought that you’d be wrong.

You could say Schopenhauer was the Debbie Downer of philosophy.

Schopenhauer believed that there is no such thing as friendship or happiness and since the will wants its way, we will always be subject to suffering caused by our unfulfilled desires. According to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, even if we get what we want we can never be truly satisfied. Schopenhauer says that ultimately nothing we do matters because death will eventually claim us, thus rendering all of our efforts at anything futile. Schopenhauer writes:

we blow out a soap bubble as long and as large as possible, although we know perfectly well that it will burst.

 

You don’t have to be a philosopher to know it’s kind of hard to like people like this.

Ok, you say, pessimism is forgivable. Many philosophers display more than an inkling of the dourness. But if Schopenhauer’s sunny attitude isn’t enough to turn you off, Arthur Schopenhauer was also a pretty rotten guy.

For starters, his attitude towards women sucked.

Schopenhauer’s attitude towards relationships with women was no different from his view on friendship and happiness. Schopenhauer had many romantic relationships but no permanent.   Worse yet, not only did Schopenhauer write that women are “mental myopic” with “weaker reasoning powers”, he pushed an elderly neighbor down a flight of stairs. When the woman died, Schopenhauer rejoiced that the woman’s death relieved him of his obligation to pay compensation for the injuries she sustained in the fall.

That alone places Schopenhauer second only to Ayn Rand on the dickness scale.

 

philosophy is magic

 

Alright. I know that my list sounds like I’m just bitching about philosophers without any real, substantive criticism of any philosopher of his or her philosophy. If that’s what you’re thinking, that would be an entirely correct assumption. Just as one my dislike The Beatles because of John Lennon’s nasally vocals, our reasons for disliking (or even hating) a particular philosopher, philosophical theory, or philosophical school of thought, may come down to something as trivial as the fact that that particular philosopher invented symbolic logic.

It may be un-philosophical to say so, but it’s ok if you don’t like everything. It’s even ok to really despise a philosopher or two.

As any philosopher will tell you, everybody’s got an opinion, and

haters-gonna-hate-2

 

* Although the critics are nearly unanimous in their praise of The Beatles, I think that it’s highly unlikely that the Beatles would appear at the number on spot on every best musical artists lists. To my knowledge, The Beatles have never occupied the top spot on a list of the 10 greatest hip hop artists. But then, I haven’t seen every top ten hip hop artists list, either.

 

* It’s clear that the Bush Administration’s policies have continued into the Obama Administration. The U.S. is still involved in Iraq, and U.S. troops are still active in Afghanistan. Bush era economic policies, government surveillance, and rendition of “enemy combatants” have also continued into the Obama Administration.

 

 

 

 

Sources:

1) Aristotle. The Politics. 1984. Trans. Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 40-1.

2) Aristotle. “The Inequality of Women”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.  p. 525.

3) Bertrand Russell. “Sentence, Syntax, and Parts of Speech”. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. 1961. Eds. Robert Egner and Lester E. Denonn. NY: Touchstone. p. 122.

4) “Reader’s Guide to the Writings and Philosophy of Ayn Rand”. From The Fountainhead. 1952 [orig. published 1943]. NY: Signet.

5) Immanuel Kant. “On A Supposed Right to Lie From Benevolent Motives”. 1797. http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php?title=360&chap

6) Leo Strauss. Liberalism Ancient and Modern. 1968. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.5

7) Leo Strauss. Natural Right and History. 1950, 1953. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  pp.3, 5.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Any Major Dude Will Tell You Socrates Digs Your Taste In Music

The great Ludwig Van Beethoven said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”

I’m guessing most people would applaud this notion.

Beethoven wasn’t a philosopher. He was a musician.

His opinion was biased.

Lots of people’s opinions are. Even a philosopher’s opinions are.

If you haven’t noticed, philosophers have lots of opinions about lots of things life, death, morality, good, evil, God all the “important” stuff. Name any issue and a philosopher has got something to say about it. Anything.

I guess it would surprise absolutely no one that philosophers have something to say about the not-so-important stuff, too. Like movies and sports; even music. This is what a couple of philosophers had to say about music:

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

The French writer and philosopher Voltaire wrote “Anything too stupid to be said is sung.”

Their opinions were biased, too.

Both men are absolutely right.

As a matter of fact, so is Beethoven.

A few weeks ago, I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. There’s a character in the movie named Chop Top. Chop Top is Leatherface’s brother.

Leatherface is the guy with the chainsaw.

Chop Top was in Vietnam when the first movie happened.

That’s why you didn’t see him until the second movie.

Chop Top tells a late-night radio disc jockey, right before he attempts to bludgeon her with a hammer, “music is my life.”

I think he was paraphrasing Nietzsche.

This is Chop Top. It's pretty obvious from looking at him that music is his life.

This is Chop Top. It’s pretty obvious from looking at him that music is his life.

 

As thinks turn out, philosophers tend to think that music is our life, too.

A long time ago, way before Nietzsche said it, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said that music is important to our lives. Socrates’ reason had something to do with the idea that music possesses a unique quality to influence the way that we think and act. Socrates argues music can stimulate the wrong kind of emotions in some people. If we listen to the wrong music, Socrates says, the wrong kind of music teaches us to prefer a life of frivolity instead of appreciating the serious philosophical pursuit of wisdom. We can become intemperate, cowardly, learn bad habits like drinking, and develop a taste for merriment.

The PMRC weren’t the first people to believe music can make you do bad things. That Kind of thinking goes back quite a long way. Socrates wrote:

“rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul… they make a man graceful if he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite.”

The purpose for music, Socrates says, is to encourage the development of a good soul. According to Socrates, “…good speech, good harmony… and good rhythm accompany a good disposition.” The right kind of music, Socrates says, enables a man to develop the “right kind of dislikes” and an appreciation for the fine things. Through listening to the right kind of music a man becomes a gentleman …a philosopher.

Socrates declares that all bad music should be banned. The only music people should be allowed to listen to is music that encourages good emotions and virtuous behavior; music that teaches people to be courageous and temperate; to develop a warlike disposition and to encourage people love the gods and act for the good of the state.

This is why Socrates says music is important.

If one’s behavior is any indication of what kind of music one listens to, it’s clear that Chop Top was listening to the wrong kind of music.

Probably music like this:

 

Socrates probably would not approve of the song “Me So Horny”…. I think.

Now, I know that there are things (like music) that not only influence who we are, but may be indicative of the kind of person we are. In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell writes that we can tell a lot about a person from a “blink” or first impression. We don’t even have to meet an individual to tell what a person is like. All we have to do to figure out a person, says Gladwell, is to take a glance at what’s on their walls, their bookshelf or in their music collection.

Take a look at my bookshelf.

This is what my bookshelf looks like:

bookshelf 2

 

 

I have a lot of philosophy books on my bookshelf.

At first glance, you might assume that I like to read philosophy books and thinking about things philosophically. If you made that assumption you’d be right.

Socrates would be pleased.

Although an assumption about an individual’s disposition based on one’s reading material may seem like a sure shot, using one’s musical preferences as an indication of one’s personality may not be as cut and dry. Unless you’re an Emo or a metalhead it may be difficult to tell how the music one listens to influences us. There are plenty of closeted Metallica and My Chemical Romance fans; people whose musical tastes and disposition appear to be incongruent. Still, we’d be wrong to say that music bears no affect on who we are and what we do. After all, the way a song or musical artist makes us feel is what draws us to listen to a particular song or artist.

Now, knowing what philosophers have to say about the effect of music on the kind of person we are, what exactly does the kind of music we listen to have to say about us philosophically? If Socrates is correct, and music does have the power to shape one’s character, can a person’s philosophical outlook be identified by simply glancing at what kind of music a person listens to?

If we glanced at a person’s music collection could we differentiate a Socrates from a Chop Top?

More importantly, what does the music I listen to have to say about my philosophical disposition?

Can you tell just by looking at my music collection?

First off, I would say that, if you met me face to face and I had to define my personal philosophical beliefs, I would define them as follows: I would say that I’m an existentialist. I would describe my ethics as ethical egoist with a slight tinge of Kantian ethics (I call it Kantian Egoism). I would add that am an empiricist (which means I’m also a materialist). And  as for what I think about God, well, let’s say that my religious disposition as apatheist.

Having said all that, this is my music library:

 

this is my music collection

 

I know it’s a little bit difficult to see it from here, but there’s quite a bit of Steely Dan loaded up in there.

Yeah I said it. I admit, without any fear of seeming pretentious, I am a fan of The Dan.

Ok, I know. When (or rather if) one thinks of Steely Dan and you’re not a fan of William Burroughs, one will almost assuredly and immediately conjure up visions of over-educated, faded hipster, college-types (who spent too much time in college or at least too much time chasing co-eds) who quote Sartre, paraphrase Nietzsche, drink brands of hard liquor no one has ever heard of, and carry around a dog-eared copy of Camus’ The Stranger in the pocket of a well-worn, cigarette or marijuana (or both) aroma-soaked, vintage leather jacket.

Thinking about it, that’s not a wholly incorrect stereotype of the average Steely Dan fan.

What else would one expect of a fan of a band named after a dildo?

 

This is Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. They are collectively known as Steely Dan.

This is Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. They are collectively known as Steely Dan.

 

If you know a fan of The Dan, you’re probably already well aware that Steely Dan’s fans have a habit of pontificating.

About everything.

There is a legit reason why Steely Dan is often associated with overthinking. And no, it really has nothing to do with pretentiousness. It’s because Steely Dan songs are philosophical.

To the point: Steely Dan songs are very existentialist.

Don’t roll your eyes. And stop laughing. They are. Really.

For those of you who have no idea what an existentialist is, an existentialist is a person who adheres to the philosophical theory of Existentialism. Existentialism is:

… the name given to the branch of philosophy which is concerned with the meaning of human existence its aims, its significance and overall purpose and the freedom and creative response to life made by individuals.

If you listen to a Steely Dan album or two (really, you should listen to all of them), it becomes pretty clear that Steely Dan songs like “Hey, Nineteen”, “Deacon Blues”, and “Home At Last” include lyrics about common existentialist themes such as life, relationships, sex, self-reflection, drugs, getting old, and death.

Actually, “Home At Last” is supposed to be about Homer’s The Odyssey.

The Odyssey.

See, I told you there was some thinking in there.

In the song “Deacon Blues” from the Steely Dan album Aja (1977), Donald Fagen sings:

I’ll learn to work the saxophone

I play just what I feel

Drink Scotch whiskey all night long

And die behind the wheel

They got a name for the winners in the world

I want a name when I lose

They call Alabama the Crimson Tide

Call me Deacon Blues

Besides discovering one’s life achievements pale by comparison to the famed University of Alabama football team (nicknamed the Crimson Tide), “Deacon Blues”, with its lyrics about finding and defining one’s self, embodies the existentialist principle “Existence precedes essence”. According to existentialist philosophy our selves are not determined by God, nature, society, or our parents; we choose who we want to be (i.e. we determine who we are our essence). We are born as physical entities (i.e. exist) then we define what meaning our purpose our lives will have. The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), says:

Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.

 

Walter Becker (of Steely Dan) says:

The protagonist is not a musician. He just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire and um, you know, whose to say that he’s not right in a thing like that?

Indeed, if we look at the lyrics of “Deacon Blues”, we should think of the existentialist idea that we make choices in our lives, and that we are accountable for the consequences of  our actions.

Who we are, our identity, is the product of our own creation .

The song says Call me Deacon Blues.

I’m sure that many music experts will say that “Deacon Blues” isn’t about existentialism at all, but when I hear the song I think of Sartre’s declaration that “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Especially when I hear the line “This brother is free. I’ll be what I want to be”. 

Aja-(album)-wallpaper

Listen to this album immediately. Track 3.

The thing is I wasn’t always a fan of Steely Dan. When I was in high school, I was a pretty mopey kid.

Actually, I was downright pessimistic.

Fatalistic, actually.

I could have been the subject of an Emily Dickenson poem.

Back when I was in high school (This was the early 1990s, mind you. Ugh! That makes me feel positively geriatric!), if you moped about and wore black as much as I did, it was pretty obvious what kind of music you were likely to listen to.

Goth music.

goth chick with instructions

This is not me. I never wore pigtails.

 

To be honest, I still wear black these days… because it’s slimming.

Back then, the particular subgenre of goth music every kid who moped around like me listened to could be identified by its raven-haired lead singer. Some kids listened to The Cure. They looked like a Robert Smith.

 

robertsmithnoirpage

This is Robert Smith

 

This is what The Cure’s fans look like:

 

This guy actually doesn't look all that unhappy.... maybe he's really emo.

This guy actually doesn’t look all that unhappy…. maybe he’s really emo.

 

Other kids listened to Siouxie and the Banshees. Some kids listened to Ministry, The Cramps, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire or Alien Sex Fiend. Some kids went old school and listened to eighties old-school synthpop artists like Soft Cell and Gary Numan.

My raven-haired lead-singered band of choice was nine inch nails.

Or NIN, if you like.

Ok, I know. First Steely Dan, now nine inch nails (and yes, I’m using the appropriate small-case letters). I know what you’re thinking. Stop thinking that. My musical preferences do not suggest that I’m a pretentious person.

However, the fact that I write a blog does.

But I digress.

This is Trent Reznor. He is collectively known as nine inch nails.

This is Trent Reznor. He is collectively known as nine inch nails.

 

If anyone was around and watching MTV in the mid-nineties, you couldn’t watch MTV for more than a half hour without seeing some angst-ridden, heroin chic-looking, alternative band front man whining his way through 4 minutes and 38 seconds of music video.

That would explain why nine inch nails was in fairly heavy rotation.

Wait, I know. Nine inch nails isn’t goth.

And I know it’s not industrial, either.

Philosophers know these things.

A quasi-industrial, somewhat goth rock band (or is it artist because it’s just one guy?) like nine inch nails may be difficult to categorize musically but it’s easier than a goth girl at Lollapalooza 1991 to figure which philosophical school of thought nine inch nails belongs to.

Everybody say it together. 1…2…3…

NIHLILISM!

Nihilism, according to Webster’s New College Dictionary, Nihilism (from the Latin nihil: nothing) is:

The belief that all existence is senseless and that there is no possibility of an objective basis of truth

 

Nihilism is most associated with this guy

 

This is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

This is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

 

AND HE SAID:

Nihilism is Nihilism: any aim is lacking, any answer to the question “why” is lacking. What does nihilism mean?—that the supreme values devaluate themselves.

 

Nihilism’s themes of self-destruction, self-loathing, loss of values, hopelessness and despair is pretty much the theme of every nine inch nails song.

Seriously, name any song. Nietzsche’s philosophy is there.

“terrible lie”? Yup. Nietzsche. “hurt”? Title pretty much says it all. “happiness in slavery”? Check. “wish”? Yeah. “somewhat damaged”? Uh-huh. “everyday is exactly the same”? Yeah, Nietzsche is there, too.

Well, there is that one song about double rainbows, kittens, and blooming flowers.

I’m kidding. No there isn’t.

For a minute you felt like googling to see if there is, didn’t you?

Trent Reznor even quotes Nietzsche’s infamous (and often misused) quote “God is dead” in the song “heresy” on the 1994 album the downward spiral. Reznor sings (or is it yells?):

“God is dead and no one cares. If there is a hell, I’ll see you there.”

Not quite exactly what Nietzsche said, but you get the idea.*

 

I spent too many teenage nights listening to this album. Alone… in the dark.

I spent too many teenage hours listening to this album. Alone… in the dark.

 

Albert Camus (1913-60) said “Nihilism is not only despair and negation, but above all the desire to despair and to negate.”

Check out these lyrics to the song “piggy” (from the downward spiral):

Nothing can stop me now

I don‘t care anymore.

Nothing can stop me now

I just don’t care.

 

Does that sound like a sentiment that is not only despair and negation but also the desire to despair and negate to you?

Does to me.

Ok, that sounds pretentious.

You know something? Even though Nietzsche is most associated with nihilism he is often considered an existentialist philosopher.

Wow. I guess that confirms what I told you at the beginning of this blog about being an existentialist.

But I guess I really didn’t need to look at my current favorite band or the bands I liked in high school to know that. I could have started with the first band I ever declared was my favorite: The Beatles.

Not only were The Beatles the first boy band (They were! Don’t deny it), John Lennon and Paul McCartney remain one of music’s most successful and influential songwriting duos of all time. But, more importantly yes, you guessed it

Lennon and McCartney might not have realized it, but they were laying down some pretty heavy philosophy.

… Along with a lot of LSD.

I guess philosophy comes easy when you’re tripping balls.

 

This is John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney. They are collectively known as The Beatles.

This is John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney. They are collectively known as The Beatles.

 

In a decade that brought us “Wooly Bully”, “Gitarzan”, and the still-indecipherable “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen, The Beatles’ lyrics not only included themes of about love, peace, not fussing and fighting (and the occasional hidden drug reference), but also existentialism, Eastern philosophy and mysticism. The Beatles, though not as philosophically adept as Kant or Heidegger, not only established the boy band phenomena, they were one of the first pop bands to write lyrics that were not only enjoyable but intended to make the listener think.

Some folks out there think The Beatles are philosophical enough to warrant this book:

 

The-Beatles-The-Beatles-And-P-398487

 

And this book was written by professional philosophers.

Professional philosophers.

Look, if you don’t believe The Beatles are at all philosophical, check out these lyrics:

 

The love you take is equal to the love you make.

 

Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend.

 

Ob-la-di, ob-la-da life goes on brah.

La la how the life goes on.

 

There’s nothing you can made that can’t be made.

No one you can save who can’t be saved.

There’s nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.

It’s easy.

 

If that’s not philosophical enough, get ready for some heavy philosophy:

When you’ve seen beyond yourself
Then you may find peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come when you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you.

Didn’t know The Beatles got that heavy, did you?

You feel enlightened?

Ok, never mind. Do you feel like dropping acid?

Go ahead. Tell everybody you’re searching for philosophical enlightenment.

That one worked for Timothy Leary.

Oh but before you do, take a glance at your music collection.

Ask yourself this one question:

Would Socrates approve?

 

 

 

NOTE:

There is an entire sub-field of philosophy called the philosophy of music. If you’re interested about the exciting world of the philosophy of music, you can read this article:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/music/

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment wherein a group of people were asked to assess the personality of individuals (they hadn’t met) after briefly looking at the individual’s living space. Objects we surround ourselves with often indicates what kind of person owns those objects. Gladwell argues that we can accurately assess personal traits of individuals through snap judgments based on what we see in a person’s living space.

The later (Beatles) songs written by George Harrison were largely influenced by Eastern philosophy, which generally includes philosophical and religious systems from India and the Far East, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jain, and Confucianism.

Read the Bhagavad-Gita and then listen to anything George Harrison wrote. Check here for a few quotes to get you started on the comparison:

http://thinkexist.com/quotes/bhagavad_gita/

* In The Gay Science (Section 125, The Madman), Nietzsche writes:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

 

 

SOURCES:

1. Plato. Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom.  401d-e, 401e – 402a

2. Mel Thompson. Teach Yourself: Philosophy. 1995, 2003. Contemporary Books. 184.

3. “Deacon Blues”.  Lyrics and music by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Copyright 1977 ABC/Dunhill Music, Inc.

4. Classic Albums (DVD). Steely Dan: Aja. 1999. Eagle Rock Entertainment.

5. “piggy”. Lyrics and music by Trent Reznor. Copyright 1994. leaving hope/TVT music, inc.

6. “All You Need Is Love”. Lyrics and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Copyright 1967. Northern Songs Limited.

7. “Within You, Without You”. Lyrics and music by George Harrison. Copyright 1967. Northern Songs Limited.

8. “The End”. Lyrics and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Copyright. 1969. Northern Songs Limited.

9. “Ob La Di, Ob La Da”. Lyrics and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Copyright. 1968. Northern Songs Limited.

 

Kant Totally Allows Shameless Plugs

Some time ago, I wrote a book.

No, I’m not kidding. I wrote a book. With pages…. and words.

I think it’s quite dandy.

Did I forget to mention that it’s called Mindless Philosopher: How Philosophy Taught Me Everything I Needed To Know About Popular Culture, and that it’s available on Amazon?

this is the cover of my book… just in case you feel like buying it.

Like I said, I think it’s pretty dandy.

I wrote my book with all the best intentions; namely, people would read it and become philosophically enlightened. So far, that hasn’t exactly happened.

BUT then again, Nietzsche wasn’t popular until after he was dead.

Of syphilis.

Anyway, in the spirit of shameless self promotion, I’ve decided to post the introduction of my book here.

Enjoy. It’s pretty dandy.

INTRODUCTION:

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.)

I know I shouldn’t say this, but I dislike Aristotle. Honest. I know that philosophers are supposed to get all hyped up and saucer-eyed over the ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Heraclitus, Thales, and whatnot, but given my druthers; I’d rather watch an all-day marathon of season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race or thumb through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly or read the suitable-for-bathroom-reading of Deep Thoughts by Saturday Night Live resident sage, Jack Handey, or even re-read The Secret than to hear another lecture about Plato’s Beard.

I admit it. I am a philosopher.

I hate Aristotle.

Ok, maybe the word hate is a little extreme. When I was a kid, I was told never to use the word hate if I really didn’t mean it. I don’t actually hate Aristotle, as I have never met the guy, it’s just that whenever I’m reading philosophy, I’d rather be reading or looking at or doing something else.

No. It’s not even that I’d rather be reading, looking at, or doing something else. I like philosophy. I do. I’d truly like to believe that the practice of philosophy is the world’s second oldest profession (we know someone had to be around to conjure up some theory about the oldest profession). I’ve always liked philosophy, even before I’d ever heard of Aristotle or Socrates or Saul Kripke. Do you know those old TV shows where the host asks a bunch of little kids what they want to be when they grow up? Remember how some little kids know exactly what they want to do? When these kids grow up, they’ll tell you that they always knew that they’d grow up to be a doctor, a high school phys ed. coach, or an astronaut. Some people like priests and nuns even say that they were called to do the Lord’s work. Folks like that are lucky. When I think about my relationship with philosophy, if someone had asked me when I was eight years old what I wanted to be when I grew up (and I had an inkling of what philosophy is), I would have said that I wanted to spend my time thinking. I might have not have known the word “philosopher” when I was eight years old, but I certainly knew that I liked thinking about stuff. I guess I’m lucky that way.

Now, if I thought about how or why I found myself drawn to the systematic study of knowledge, morality, and existence, looking back, I suppose I’d have to say that it had something to do with jokes about Ludwig Wittgenstein and being a latchkey kid.

*     *     *     *

     I spent a lot of time alone when I was a kid, perhaps too much time alone. My mom worked evenings and my older siblings, who were much older than me, weren’t interested in hanging out with a kid still in elementary school, so instead of coming home to mom and a plate of warm peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, I came home to a cupboard full of Fruit Roll-Ups, an occasional squeeze pack of Capri Sun, and the comfort of a warm, glowing TV set. Now that we’ve grown older, many of my fellow latchkey kids have bemoaned their lonely childhood after school experiences, but from my own childhood experience, spending so much time alone after school meant that I had plenty of time to amuse myself with my own thoughts. In those hours spent alone staring at the television set, I discovered that I enjoyed thinking. I enjoyed thinking about anything and everything. My love of thinking was surpassed only by how much I enjoyed watching TV.

I’m not that old (I’m in my thirties. There. I said it), but I’m old enough to remember when MTV aired music videos 24-hours a day (I could lay down some anti-MTV rant about how the network formerly known as Music Television used to show actual music videos and now MTV is nothing but a reality TV show cesspool, but that rant has been overdone. Honestly, Bully Beatdown is more entertaining than any Adam Ant music video ever was or could ever hope to be), and I remember the big stink among music video fans when MTV added non-music video programming to its weekday line up. Those folks who complained about MTV’s non-music video programming way back when can claim they were soothsayers, and that their hubbub over non-music video TV shows on MTV fell on the same deaf ears like Cassandra warning the Trojans of their impending defeat at the hands of the Spartan army. They would be well within their rights to say so. But as every dark cloud has a silver lining, for me, the end of music television on music television shone one ray of sunshine: my philosophical awakening through watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Thank God for cable television.

There are many firsts, no matter how much time has passed, that we will always remember: first kiss, first love, first non-all ages concert, first DUI… the first times that shape our lives and who we are. Every Monty Python fan remembers exactly which movie or sketch, where they were, and what they were doing when they experienced their first encounter with Monty Python‘s Flying Circus. When I watched my first episode, I knew that I thought the show was funny, but it was funny in a way unlike any other television show I’d ever seen. Monty Python’s Flying Circus wasn’t just funny, like Full House and Family Matters were funny; it was smart. The show seemed almost tailor-made for people who spent a lot of time entertained by their own thoughts. The day after my first episode I asked my friends of they had seen the incredible television that I had witnessed the day before. None had. When I tried to tell them what I saw, they were disinterested in hearing about what I’d seen. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited by re-enactment of the “Cheese Shop” sketch (my Michael Palin impersonation was spot on). I absolutely could not believe that my friends were unaware of, and worse yet uninterested in Monty Python.

I had discovered this wonderful thing and none of my fellow latchkey kids gave a damn about it.

I knew that my friends, even if they emphatically told me that they “didn’t give a rat’s ass” about Monty Python’s Flying Circus,had to know that they were missing out on something pretty special. They had to have seen that I had experienced the miracle of Python and I needed to share it with others. I was determined that my friends experience Monty Python. I sang “The Lumberjack Song” while hanging out with my friends after school, recite lines from the “Dead Parrot” sketch in the middle of English class, or attempt to explain to my dumbfounded and irritated friends why “Fish Slapping Dance” is so funny during lunch period. I would randomly yell “albatross!” and “my brain hurts” in public places. Nobody understood me. Nobody wanted to understand me. I felt alone. I reluctantly realized that Monty Python was the least popular thing I’ve ever encountered. Sharing it with my friends was hopeless. They would never be converted. Eventually I gave up.

For some time I was convinced that there was something wrong with me. I was completely in love with a TV show that no one else I knew cared about or wanted to see. In their eyes, Monty Python was British humor. They said it wasn’t funny. They told me the only people who were nerdier than Monty Python fans was people who like to think and I was both. So I hid my love of all things Python, stopped thinking so much, and learned to enjoy Jean-Claude van Damme movies just like everyone else. On the outside I appeared to be a perfectly normal person. I even learned to appreciate the Jean-Claude van Damme classics Bloodsport, Hard Target,and of course, Universal Soldier. Here’s the thing: I realize the reason why I became a Monty Python fan all those years ago was because there was something more to the humor than sketches with John Cleese yelling at the top of his lungs and jokes about Spam and naughty bits. I realize that it was then, during those afternoons spent alone after school, munching on Teddy Grahams, sipping on a can of Pepsi Clear that I first heard of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus didn’t just make me laugh, it made me think, and for the first time in my life I started to think about what I was thinking. I wanted to know more about the men whose names I heard as punch lines. I wanted to know more, period. The something more that I wanted to know was philosophy.

*     *     *     *

     I read somewhere that an anonymous sage said, “the only difference between graffiti and philosophy is the word ‘fuck’ ”. I’m not so sure if that’s true. I may be a little slow witted, but I really don’t see the connection between the “187” scrawled in large English Gothic letters on the wall of the liquor store down the street from my house and logical positivism. Everybody has an opinion about philosophy, I guess. Back when I was a very moody, impressionable teenager, the pre-grunge era alternative rock band Edie Brickell & New Bohemians song “What I Am” that suggested that philosophy can be found on a cereal box.

That might be true.

Although not everyone may consider themselves philosophers, everyone has a general attitude on life or a set of rules that we live by; what we might call our “philosophy”. Our individual philosophies not only encompass our values and beliefs about what’s important in our lives, but our philosophies also include questions about the meaning of life, reality, knowledge, and morality. It’s probably safe to assume that most of us haven’t spent hours gazing at our navels or sitting under a bodhi tree to attain enlightenment about life’s big questions, but I doubt there is one person who has never questioned why we are here, what is the meaning of life, or what it means to be moral. The problem with philosophy is when we talk about philosophy (personal or in general), we often mistakenly assume that everyone defines “philosophy” the same way. As any professional philosopher will tell you, a clear and precise definition of the word “philosophy” doesn’t just pop out at you waving its arms and screaming, “Here I am. This is the real me. This is what philosophy is!” If we asked a hundred people what philosophy is we might get a hundred different answers. We know that the general idea of philosophy has to do with asking questions and looking for answers; but still, philosophers can’t exactly define what philosophy is. I think it’s safe to say that a roomful of philosophers will agree that the primary objective of philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, however, a consensus on one answer to one question (that question being “what is philosophy?”). Believe it or not, philosophers are people, too, and like most people, philosophers disagree about everything. Unfortunately for philosophers, who tend to prefer concise terminology, the definition of philosophy is ambiguous at best.

So then, what is philosophy?

Generally speaking, philosophy is divided among three main branches: epistemology, the theory of knowledge, metaphysics, or ontology, and ethics.  Within the three main branches of philosophy we find diverse areas of study such as: philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of education, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, political philosophy, aesthetics, medical and business ethics, philosophy of race, feminist philosophy, and New Age philosophy. The point of philosophy isn’t merely ask questions (although that’s important), nor is philosophy merely descriptive. Philosophy tells us how to act. Philosophy teaches us to think clearly and critically, to think about what we are thinking. Philosophy means never stop looking, always seeking, always examine our lives. Philosophy provides us with the tools we use to answer life’s big questions.

Understanding what philosophy is, however, does not remove the reputation that philosophy has earned over the centuries — it’s too technical and abstract. It’s too academic. It’s a waste of time. The somewhat negative image of philosophy and of philosophers is often well deserved. Philosophy is often extremely technical, even for those who study philosophy. Let’s face it; philosophers are often guilty of missing the forest for the trees (any one who has attempted to engage a philosopher in the simple act of chit chat  may have discovered that philosophers are incapable of answering simple questions, especially if the answer is yes or no). But, as much as we’d like to leave the philosophers to associate amongst themselves in their hallowed halls of academia, their habit of using appallingly technical language and alienating nearly every other human being who engages them in conversation is no reason to throw out the philosopher with the bathwater. At least before we toss Aristotle out of the tub, we should have some idea of what a philosopher is.

*     *     *     *

    

Fight Club, Kelly Clarkson, and a thousand other ways to get Nietzsche totally wrong

Sometimes I hate Chuck Palahniuk. It’s not because of anything personal — I don’t personally know the man. I’m certain that he’s probably a pleasure to be with. I hate Chuck Palahniuk because of these two words: Fight Club.

Yeah, I know. I’m playing with fire here. I know by even daring to utter a remotely negative word about either Chuck Palahniuk or Tyler Durden I’m inviting the wrath of Project Mayhem.

Right now I’m certain that I’ve just booked myself a Raymond K. Hessel moment.

Let me get to brass tacks here. Even though the movie Fight Club is older than most of its current fanbase, every so often the authorities bust up some group of high school kids who, after watching the movie, decide that beating the shit out of each other is a fine way to pass time after school.

This is what every Fight Club fan wants to do for a living

Anyone who has either spent a little bit of time in an intro philosophy class or watched television any knows that the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club is an example of nihilism in literature. Philosophically speaking, Nihilism is defined as:

  • total rejection of social mores: the general rejection of established social conventions and beliefs, especially of morality and religion
  • belief that nothing is worthwhile: a belief that life is pointless and human values are worthless
  • disbelief in objective truth: the belief that there is no objective basis for truth

Although the history of nihilism can be traced back to the ancient Greek skeptics, the philosopher most associated with nihilism is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

A lot of Fight Club fans also claim to like Friedrich Nietzsche.

This is where the trouble begins.

Even if you’ve never personally read a single word Nietzsche wrote, if you have eyes or ears, you’ve certainly been exposed to the words of Friedrich Nietzsche. Our cluture is saturated with Nietzsche’s philosophy. See if any of this sounds familiar to you:

  • There are no facts, only interpretations.
  • What does not kill me makes me stronger (This should ring a bell with Kelly Clarkson fans)
  • Master-slave morality
  • Ubermensch
  • God is dead

All of these ideas appeal to Fight Club fans. They believe that they are the unwanted “middle children of history”, and that God has not only abandoned them, but in all likelihood, he probably hates them. Fight Club fans believe that Fight Club makes them stronger, society needs to be torn down and rebulit with a whole new set of values, and that beating each other to kingdom come will release their inner ubermensches.

If anyone knows how to do that umlaut thing let me know.

His name is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Ok… Uh… there’s really no way to say this delicately… but… well, if any Fight Club-oholic tells you that he’s fulfilling Nietzsche’s nihilistic vision of a transvaluation of values, that Fight Club fan is an idiot. Ok, not an idiot. Calling someone an idiot is a pretty strong accusation. What I will say is this: If you watched (or read) Fight Club and you thought that Tyler Durden and his Project Mayhem are what happens when men realize their inner Nietzschean superman, you’ve got Nietzsche all wrong.

I know, I know, how can I say that Tyler Durden isn’t exactly what Nietzsche was talking about?

Nietzsche wanted society to throw off the old non-life affirming  values that force otherwise strong men into lives of lifeless submission and I know that’s exactly what Tyler Durden was up to. Like Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of Europe’s decadent and nihilistic culture, Tyler Durden wanted his space monkeys to throw off our soul corrupting popular culture; to be not what society tells them to be (Calvin Klein pretty boy-looking, Ikea catalogue browsing consumer drones), but to be who they are supposed to be. Like Nietzsche, Tyler Durden wants a (what Nietzsche would call) a transvaluation of values and to bring back the long lost ancient strongmen like Caesar, Napoleon, and the Sophists. Friedrich Nietzsche envisions a world where the masters rise above the slavish herd morality; a world that Tyler Durden says men will stalk elk in the ruins of Rockefeller Center and climb the vines that circle the Sears Tower.

So you say, if Tyler and Fred seem to be in complete agreement, how is it that thinking that they are is getting Nietzsche “all wrong”?

The answer is this: Nietzsche wants to transvalue society, but guys like Tyler Durden aren’t the ones who are supposed to do the transvaluating. In the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden says this:

The people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us.

That sentiment is all fine and dandy, and I’m pretty sure that statements like that are what makes Tyler Durden so appealing. The problem with Tyler Durden’s sentiment and why he’s totally off his Nietzsche is because Tyler Durden’s Project Mayhem is exactly the kind of slave morality that Nietzsche is talking about! Tyler’s space monkeys are busboys, cooks, waiters, garage mechanics, garbage men, and office drones — exactly the kind of low hanging fruit that Nietzsche says is filled with resentment and create “slave” moralities (like Christianity) to overthrow and oppress the master class.

You see, even though Tyler Durden feels very much oppressed by a culture that tells him that the ideal man is one who looks like he just stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad, Tyler Durden is precisely where he is supposed to be. Tyler Durden and his fellow low paid, wage earning pals are not the masters who must reclaim the reins of society but the inferior classes who are to be dominated and exploited by the Ubermensch.

This is why Project Mayhem is enevitably doomed to fail.

We know this because Tyler Knows this.

Now how ’bout some Kelly Clarkson?

 

 

I Heard They Play Speed Metal In Hell

It’s been 150 years since Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. There is, I hear, a re-release of Darwin’s classic, including a brand spankin’ new introduction co-written by the star of the switcheroo flick Like Father, Like Son, and Growing Pains, MEGACHRISTIAN Kirk Cameron.

Apparently, Darwin’s book is in the public domain, so anyone can write a version of it if they want. Kirk says that he’s doing a new intro with the intention of presenting a balanced view of Darwin’s work. Apparently a “balanced” view means saying ‘this book is bullshit’ in an introduction.

Ok, so he wouldn’t say “bullshit”.

When I was a bit younger and a church-goin’ person, I fell victim to just about the worst thing that could happen to a God-fearin’ fella. I was sitting in church one sunday morning, thumbing through my Bible (I think the sermon had to do with something in Luke), when I experienced only what I can call a “reverse revelation”.

It was at that moment when I suddenly stopped believing in God.

I can’t explain it any other way than to say that it was sudden, like a bolt of lightening from the heavens. Really, at that moment I felt like it must have felt for Saul on the road to Damascus, except for the fact that I was suddenly an atheist. Sitting in church, no less.

I didn’t feel too bad about it, though. While I was sitting there (beacuse it would have been rude to just get up and leave during a sermon), things became clearer and I finally understood. The heavy load of doubt had been lifted. I no longer felt the gulit of wrestling with my doubt because it had been revealed to me that the thing that I doubted did not exist. It was like God did me a little favor in whispering in my ear, “I’m going to tell you something, but don’t tell anyone else here. I don’t exist”.

I thought that I should have been feeling something about not believing… guilt, worry, a sense that I was doomed to hell… nope. Nothing. I didn’t feel bad about it at all. That morning while I was sitting there, receiving the most amazing news that I could have ever received in my life was the most singular moment of clarity that I had ever felt the entire time that I had even gone to church. All these years later, I still feel the same.

When it first happened, I thought that the problem might have been the church that I was going to. But each time I went to another one, the feeling was the same. I had even tried dabbling into “alternative” religious practices (yes, including Wicca, and no, it had nothing to do with that movie The Craft. But given my size and gender, Wicca would seem a natural choice). As if I were hit by the backhand of God, God said to me, “why are you insisting on doing this to yourself? I don’t exist!!” I finally had to admit to myself what I already knew.

I was an atheist.

The funny thing is, is when you make the discovery of your non-believingness, none but the most millitant atheist wants to admit that that’s what they are. Many of us cling to the badge “agnostic”, believing that it’s better to “keep our options open”, than to say that we flat-out don’t believe that there is a God. It’s better to say that one is non-practicing than to say that one is non-believing. Eventually, however, the charade catches up with us when we realize that we aren’t aganostic at all, that it’s not a matter of not believing that no major religion has got it on what God is, but a matter of the fact that we believe that there is no omnicompetent being that occupies any role in the galaxy (I decided to use a definite description instead of saying that “God does not exist” for some positivist-leaning butthead saying that I’ve made a negative existential claim, which is something that I cannot do). Still, after many years I hadn’t given up the hope of eventually believing in something. The idea of having no belief seemed like being lost, or worse yet, it smacked of disingenuity. The accusation towards many atheists is that we actually do believe in God, we’re just acting out. It’s not wanting to believe in God that the atheist is guilty of, not actually not believing in God.

But I knew what I felt. I felt that He did not exist. I had tried to get back the feeling that he did but failed. I had drifted from Christendom into agnosticism, theism, deism, and finally tried my hand at paganism. It was toolate for Pascal’s wager and I was too disillusioned to take Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”. But something still nagged at my, dare I say, soul. It wasn’t long before I found myself with a copy of the Satanic Bible in my hands. I don’t think that the average misanthropic teen escapes high school without at least one encounter with the late Anton LaVey’s paean to the Dark Prince.

For those who are unfamiliar with LaVey’s tome to the Devil, the Satanic Bible includes the Nine Satanic Statements, the 9th of which reads: “Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years!” LaVey says that, while in his youth, he worked at a carnival, and on Saturday nights he would see the men leering at the young nubile dancers. The same men, who when they returned to the carnival grounds the next morning for the tent services, would stand next to their wives and children singing hymns to God. He saw the hypocrisy of the men who indulged their flesh on Saturday night and then begged for forgiveness on Sunday morning. LaVey says that he saw how the devil was used to manipulate people into believing that all things physical were inherently evil. But as he saw it, wanting physical pleasure comes natural to people, so how can what is natural be sinful?

After reading LaVey’s book, I didn’t come away an atheist (namely because LaVey’s “satanism” is more akin to secular humanism than actual diabolism. So one conceivably, can be a Satanic atheist), but I did see one big point to consider: namely, that LaVey’s Ninth Satanic Statement works in reverse.

It’s easy to say that God has been the atheist’s (humanist, satanist) best friend for all these yers, as he is the one that they’ve been railing about for all this time!

*although I know at this point that the Wiccans would say that since their religion has nothing to do with the Christian God, that he is not their best friend. If you don’t believe this, just cruise on up to your local Wiccan and tell her (because it will almost always be a her) that Wiccans are like devil worshippers. If you don’t know how to spot a Wiccan, just look for the “goddess” sized young lady with the flowing hair (she’ll most likely look like a heavier-set Tori Amos) and the gossamer dress if Wiccans worship the devil. Sit back and get ready to hear about the 3-fold rule and the “burning times”.

After reading Christopher Hitchens’ god is not great, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Julian Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian”, and a handful of stuff by Michael Shermer, I realized that while I may be an atheist, I am a very Christian atheist. I realize that an atheist is only an atheist if he does not believe that there is no god. So far as our culture is concerned, that god that I maintain does not exist, is a Christian one. And like Christopher Hitchens, the god that I believe does not exist is not only Christian, but decidedly Protestant as well. I quote Hitchens, “I know enough about all religions to know that I would always be an infidel at all times and in all places, but my particular atheism is a Protestant atheism”. As a product of the Protestant tradition, my atheistic values tend to echo exactly what I learned in Sunday school. I shouldn’t kill or steal, or bear false witness. I believe that hard work will be rewarded, and that if one has a relationship with god, it is a personal one… And that the Pope is a sham. I cannot escape my Christian values even if I try to leave them behind. I find myself quoting Jesus on the subject of taxes or who we should treat the poor (heck, I even found myself referring to the feeding of the multitude when discussing health care). I still celebrate Christmas and prefer to hear traditional christmas hymns to the contemporary Christmas jingles by Michael Bolton or Boyz to Men (although I do like Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”). I say “bless you” when someone sneezes, and I still write the word God with a capital G. And unlike Richard Dawkins, I wholeheartedly disagree that raising children in a religion is the same as child abuse. I always say that my hypothetical children are Christians. They gotta get their morals from somewhere, right?

We are all influenced, in one way or another, by the dominant culture. And whether I like it or not, I live in a Christian dominated/influenced culture. I can choose whether I accept the fact and move on, or whether I waste time protesting putting up “happy holidays” signs at Target. This is why I am, as I tell my friends, the most Christian atheist I know.

Although I find those who believe in God a little delusional, I understand that I can’t be rid of him. I may say that I know that he doesn’t exist, but there is a world out there full of people who believe that he does. And so far, I’m outnumbered billions to one. Nietzsche may have been correct when he wrote that God is dead, but like Elvis, there are still a whole hell of alot of people out there who go around singing his songs.

Tuesdsays With Maury

If there is any bit of television that makes me think that deja vu is real, it’s the Maury Povich Show. Every time I tune into the show I swear I’m watching something that I’ve seen before: some bird has dragged in a number of equallly morally suspect young men (some of whom are related to each other) to have Maury erveal which fine specimen of erudite gentlemen is the sire of her child. By the time they figure out which one is, Maury has DNA tested half the guys in BFE Kentucky. Although I find the whole matter disgusting (I mean really, if there’s one thing that a woman should be keeping track of, it’s how many guys that she’s balled in one week), I can’t tear my eyes of the spectacle. And I’m so delighted when some dude is on who insists that he’s never even had sex with his cousin’s girlfriend ( he’s usually the one hurling the most insults about her easy virtue) turns out to be the father. Spectacular! Watching the moment of revelation almost beats the fact that I’ve spent an entire afternoon not doing anyting even remotely constructive, like working for an actual paycheck. It’s not that the entire experience is without shame –at least on my part. All the while I’m watching, I keep asking myself “why are you watching this crap?”. When did Maury Povich’s bi-weekly “you are NOT the father” show become something that is acceptable to air on broadcast television? I look at the parade of trash talkin’, baby makin’, semi-illiterates on Maury and I ask, from under which rock did these people crawl?!? Now, I’m not calling these people substandard to be insulting, I’m sure that when they’re at home, some of them are really wonderful people. But what gets me mad is the fact that these people aren’t just cartoons that entertain and then disappear as soon as the show is over. They’re real people, who exist among us. And if that’s the case, I think, then we, as a species, are in a bad way. I think while I’m watching, that there is no such thing as dignity anymore. Or modesty, or decorum, or shame. And I say shame on myself for watching the show in the first place. They wouldn’t be there airing out all of their dirty laundry if there weren’t an audience to watch. In an interview on NPR, Chris Hedges said that our culture has been emptied out and replaced by fantasy. He says that the worse that reality becomes for us, the more we run to distractions; what Hedges calls “pseudoevents” like, gossip, trivia, celebrity breakdowns, and the eroticization of our culture. When I was getting my poly sci degree, I had this professor who would go on rants from time to time about how things like Girls Gone Wild are ruining society by breaking down the barrier between the public and private spheres. He said that when we take our private business into the public arena, we make things that shouldn’t be acceptable to do in public (like showing your boobs and other areas) acceptable. Once we’ve broken down that barrier, he said, there’s nothing that is inappropriate. That’s degrading to the culture, he concluded. I gotta say that I don’t disagree. Everywhere is casual friday. You don’t have to look around too hard to see it, either. Cell phone calls that are way too personal and way too loud, prominently displayed undergarments, people wearing pajama pants everywhere, celebrity sex tapes dominate what we see in the media and on the street. I used to think that eventually things would get back to “normal”, that is, people wouuld see that they’re making fools of themselves in public and start to behave. So far it hasn’t happened. I used to think that acting stupidly on television would be an embarassing enough experience that people wouldn’t do it. Apparently it’s not. Because every week there’s a new batch of ladies on Maury gene testing another batch of suspected fathers. They seem happy as clams up there on the stage. The point it seems, is that the important thing is to be on TV. So long as cameras are on them, they don’t care why — it’s just to be on TV! They can go back home and watch the show when it airs and be local celebrities for awhile, jsut like all the other floks who make their living being professsionally famous. This seems to be the point of the whole thing. It doesn’t matter how you get on the boob tube, so long as you get on. We get so fascinated with ourselves that we don’t see what all of our narcissism is doing to us. In the movie Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle called it “morbid self-attention”. It’s getting so wrapped up in yourself that you fail to see that you’re destroying yourself. Because when we look at ourselves we fail to see the world around us. And if you’re always looking at yourself, then you’re never looking at what’s going on in the world. I remember when the whole President impeachment thing was going down, and Monica Lewinsky was making the rounds on the talk shows. Did it matter to anyone that she got famous for putting the president’s weenie in her mouth? No, it didn’t. Least of all, it didn’t seem to matter to her. She never said “gee, I wish I had gotten famous some other way. This was is something that I should really be ashamed of”. In our fame-based culture, you used to actually have to do something to get famous — invent something, be good at something, cure some disease, act, dance, write, or sing (or all if you’re a quadruple threat, like Justin Timberlake). There was an idea that notoriety had to be earned. Now it seems all you have to do is get on TV. Unfortunately, this is extremely easy. All you have to do is be freaky enough or better yet, have someone post your freakiness on YouTube, and you’re set. You can be famous. So you can give the pres oral, it doesn’t matter. Monica Lewinsky was going to be famous, and we were going to see her being famous no matter whether we objected or not. So is every other freak out there. That makes me think of a character in the movie The Ring, who tells a reporter to ind her own business and stop trying to find out what happened to his daughter. She tells him that she’s trying to help. his response is one that I think applies to the Mauryization of our culture. He tells the reporter that they “take one person’s tragedy and force the world to experience it… spread it like sickness”. I think that shows like Maury Povich’s have the same effect. I would think that Maury, if you asked him, would come up with some reason why having these people on his show benefits the public. He wouldn’t realize that what his show does is spread an infection. It’s a culture destroying infection. One that makes the obscene reasonable and feeds us nothing of any use for our minds or souls. Its’s all bread and circus. And we all know what that did to the Roman Empire. Chris Hedges says that our culture has devolved into a culture of moral nihilism. Funny, that I think that ultimately Hedges and the founder of nihilism (that being Nietzsche) would conclude that our culture is headed on the path of destruction. Nietzsche says that our society is so screwed up because of the “plebian bias of the modern mind”. Nietzsche laments the triumph of the common and the vulgar over the Noble and the Good. For Nietzsche, the ruination of society is in the triumph of the slave over the master. Nietzsche blamed the shift on Christianity, which places compassion among the most desired qualities of man, as the “slave” morality that has weakened the power of the master class over the rabble (that is, over you and me). Christianity elevated the poor, the weak, the meek (you know, all those inferior people who deserve to die), to the status of equals of the rulers. They did this, he says, because they had grown resentful of those who rule. So the slaves had to create a god that would tell the rulers that they must treat the slaves as equals, have compassion for those who cannot do for themselves. For Nietzsche, this is the wrong way to go. Although I don’t connect Christian ethics to the cultural degradation of society as Nietzsche did, I think he is right on one point, that is, that our culture has bee overrun by appealing to the lowest common denominator. When people get famous for blowing the president, there is something wrong with us. If we don’t have something that is the “better” morality to show us what is morally right, we’ll continue to slide down towards the abyss of the Maury P0vich show as a way of life. A little overstated, but it’s true. Back in the 60s, John Lennon famously said that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus”. He was blasted for what he said, but in a way he was exactly spot-on. He was repeating what Nietzsche had said about God. For Nietzsche, we had killed God by replacing him with science. For John Lennon, he noted that his fans were more into the music of the Beatles than they were into gong to church on Sunday morning. Lennon was right in suggesting that celebrity often fills the role of god. When we talk about celebrities, we call them “stars”. Stars, of course, are in the heavens, where God lives. We look t the TV to see the stars — to see our cultural gods. This is the victory that Nietzsche was talking about, and what Chris Hedges meant when he says that our culture has been triumphed by spectacle. The victory (in our case) of the pseudo-famous and the fame wannabees over those who really should be looked at (meaning people of fine moral standing). Unfortunately or fortunately, whichever way you want to see it, I’m no Nietzsche. I’m not terribly eager to throw off all this spirit-destroying slave morality and live according to the will of the masters. I’ve got a feeling the the Ubermensche show wouldn’t be all that entertaining. I mean, there would probably be no chance of a fist fight breaking out on stage between a couple of two-timing lesbians.

Rage With the Machines

First off, even though I’m a fan of the band (Rage Against the Machine), I still don’t quite get what the name means. I know that there’s “THE MAN” out there, and that I’m supposed to fight against him and his endeavor to bring on the New World Order, but …. wait, is that it? Anyway… I, being the fan of truly hideous entertainment, purchased season 1 of Knight Rider some weeks ago. It sat on my shelf looking at me looking at it, until I finally had some time to take it down and watch. Now, I used to really dig that show when I was a kid, but somehow all of my childhood memories paint things as being so much better than they really were. This show sucks ass! It’s not for the fact that the whole show is built around some dude who drives a talking car– it’s not for the fact that watching David Hasselfoff’s acting is something like getting kneed to the groin or having to eat your dog’s feces. It’s the wardrobe! Really, so far as the 80s went, clothes-wise, well… you know how when you’re talking to someone and they have this totally huge zit on their forehead and no matter how hard you try to pay attention to what they’re saying, you know it just won’t happen? Well, the clothes are like that. Big pimples. Especially “The Hoff”s” eighties poodle -doo. I was so distracted, unfortunately, that I almost missed the point — that is, a major philosophical point — in the show. Which brings me to the whole idea of machines. Former cop, Michael Knight, oops, Michael Long, is transformed into Michael Knight after being shot and left for dead by some shady underworld types. Because Long took a shot to the kisser, he is given a new face (it seems that the didn’t make sure that the original owner of that face was dead, but then, if they did it wouldn’t have allowed Hasselhoff to play his evil doppleganger Garth Knight), and is persuaded by the Knight Foundation to serve their purposes, which is, good for Long, fighting injustice. And more importantly, he’s given the keys to the sweetest, kick-ass black Trans-Am this side of My Mother the Car , the Knight Industries 2000, better known as KITT. The bitchin’ thing about KITT is the fact that he speaks! Yes, Michael Knight’s new “partner” is a talking car. But KITT is no ordinary car, mind you. He’s super fast, he’s a super computer, and he can jump without even so much as making the slightest skid mark upon landing. He’s a super car. KITT (with the voice of William “Mr. Feeney” Daniels), spares no opportunity to remind Michael that, despite his human-like qualities (his ability to converse rationally, his accidental sense of humor, the fact that he’s a smart-ass), that he’s not human. KITT is a car and he knows it. We know that he is a car. Yet, Michael and we, the audience, care for KITT. We worry when he is in danger, and we enjoy his company. To us and to Michael as well, KITT is more than a mere machine. He’s a trusted friend, a part of the family. But, this attitude seems a little odd. Sure, we have no problem including non-humans into our moral sphere — we do it with our pets and our so-workers and classmates, but we often draw a line when it comes to things that are really not human, like machines. But, we still feel a sense of moral attachment to things like KITT. KITT is no ordinary machine. He interacts with us, he seems to care about us, and in turn, we care about him. On more than one occasion, Michael endangers his own life to save his car. Let me repeat that he endangers his own life to save his car. To some viewers, Michael’s act seems a little, well, strange. Afterall, KITT is a car. If he is destroyed, he can be rebuilt. Michael Knight, however, is not rebuildable. If He dies, he stays dead forever. Which begs (in the colloquial, not philosophic sense) us to ask, is treating a machine like KITT, that is is the inclusion of a machine into our moral sphere (to the extent that we are willing to lay our lives on the line for a machine), extending to inclusion of non-humans into our moral sphere too far? Would we be including machines to our own peril? For most of the history of western philosophy, humans sat squarely at the top of all creation. From the Bible to Aristotle’s hierarchy, mankind’s (and more specifically males) natural place was that of ruler. According to Aristotle, animals were mere tools to serve man’s needs. A donkey was there to pull carts, a dog to keep watch over property, and so on. Man was to administer over the lower animals, and animals were to serve man’s will. According to Aristotle, this was because man (and he did mean man) was endowed with a rational mind. Man’s rational mind enabled him to control his lower, animal inpulses and desires (this is also why Aristotle thought that women were not naturally superior to men. Apparently, women have some sort of wandering uterus problem that makes them all crazy-like and unable in any way to control themselves or anything else. Anyone else have the feeling that Aristotle didn’t date much?). Anyway, where was I? Was I anywhere? Oh, yes, modern philospophy (and I mean modern as in 20th century) challenged the old notions of human superiority and brought in the animals. Starting with Darwin and his tehory of natural selection, modern thinkers rethought the idea that the natural order included mankind at its top. Philosophers such as Peter Singer suggested that we expand our moral sphere to include animals, due to the fact that animals, like humans, possess the capacity for suffering. So, my dog may be a mere machine, in the eyes of Descartes, but it is a machine that has the capacity to suffer. So, according to Singer and all the other animal rights loonies, he’s in. But, that’s it. Descartes saw animals such as dogs and cats as mere machines. They serve us just as any artifact that a man creates with his own hands serves his needs. According to Aristotle, artifacts such as art and technology fall outside of nature and are mere tools meant to serve man’s needs. We can see why modern philosophers include animals — they fear, they feel pain, they bleed and suffer as any human. But, KITT is a machine. He knows that he is a machine. But, we see that KITT has something that other machines do not — an ability to interact with humans on a human level. I was watching an episode of Star Trek: TNG not too long ago. The episode had to do with whether Data was a person. In the episode, Captain Picard argued that the argument that Data was not a person because he is a mere machine falls apart in light of the fact that humans, if you look at ourselves from the biological level, are also mere machines. We are machines, just of a different type, Picard says. Instead of wires, we have veins and arteries. Instead of oil and lubricant, we have blood. But if you lay out the systems side by side, they are more the same than different. What made Data human, Picard argued, was not hois physicality, but his psychology. Data was self aware, intelligent, and (perhaps) possessed consciousness. According to Picard, Data was a sentient being who, despite being a machine, had what we would, in any other circumstance, humanity. I think that, if we look at KITT, we might say the same. KITT, like Data, is self aware. He refers to himself as “I”, and is aware of his place in the environment. He is intelligent (more so than any human). As the show progressed, KITT’s character became even more human-like, expressing complex emotions such as anger, sorrow and compassion. KITT, in some instances, is more human than some humans. It is worth noting here that this is also a point expressed by Singer and others. The idea that animals should not be included in our moral sphere because they lack human qualities such as complex human emotions, includes some animals such as chimpanzees (and some dogs and cats), and excludes some people, such as the mentally handicapped persons. This gets us to a very nagging and really hard question: what makes humans unique? The essence of the question is what makes us human? Back in the day, computers were just mere computing machines. They did exactly as their programmers wanted them to do. Unfortunately for us, many modern computers already perform functions that human brains can do. Computers can solve complex problems, and learn, as when in May 1997, the computer Big Blue formulated a winning chess strategy to beat champion chess player, Gary Kasparov. Anyone who has played a video game knows that the computer can be a formidable enemy — especially when you are aware of the fact that, as you play, the computer is learning from your playing style ( and figuring out how to defeat you). The fear that underlies this fact is what Captain Picard asked Dr. Maddox to consider in that episode of Star Trek, which is the possibility that a computer may become conscious of its own existence. Nevermind mere Datas of even a C-3PO, our fear is Wargames‘ “Joshua” or The Terminator’s Skynet — the computer that becomes self aware, figures out what the problem is (read:us), and immediately sets out a plan for total and permanent human destruction. Ok, let’s not go quite that far, but let’s consider the computer that becomes conscious. If it does, then what is it? I think that we can no longer call it a “mere” machine. We often think of ourselves as evolving, namely because we gain knowledge and wisdom as we grow. This idea is often connected to the idea that our conscious minds possess more than our mere physicality. Our minds, being self-aware, possess something transcendent — a soul. Is it possible for a computer to gain a soul? Still, let’s not go there. We can’t even figure out if humans, let alone any car or android has a soul. Think of this as food for thought. Or at worst, a warning of a grim future. But let’s get back to KITT. KITT, although he insists that he does not, has emotions. And for many, the ability to possess and exhibit emotions is enough for inclusion into our moral sphere ( this is why we often give human qualities to our pets). The ability to express even rudimentary emotions is enough for inclusion. But still, for many people, even those who support animal rights, animals are just that — animals. Not human. Although we don’t want animals to suffer, they aren’t us. That is, they aren’t humans. Many humans feel that there is something unique about humans that (still) place us apart (if even only slightly) from other animals. Perhaps what lurks behind our need to separate ourselves from animals (and I’m assuming talking cars) is some sort of Nietzschean fear of losing ourselves morally. It goes, I think, like this: Nietzsche spoke of the degradation of Man by the overtaking of master morality by slave morality. This takeover upsets the natural order and plunges humanity into the abyss (culturally, morally, etc.). Naturally, man lords over animals and machines ( master morality). Our machines are our slaves. The fear is that, if we elevate machines to our level, we lose our place — our place becomes meaningless. If all is equal, then all loses its value! Men are no more than machines. Lowly, crappy machines to be discarded when they lose their usefulness. Worse to come is the venerated machine that gets to dictate the fates of men. It’s like being bossed around by your dog or wife. Totally unnatural! Which reminds me of a scene in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There’s the scene where C-3PO is in the droid factory. He sees the machines making other machines and is disgusted by what he sees. He calls the whole scene “perverse”. 3PO’s attitude reflects the classic philosophical view of the roles of man and machines. Machines are mere tools to be used by me to create, not as devices of creation themselves. A machine who creates, according to this view, would be considered unnatural. If we enter a day when machines have evolved to the point that they are indistinguishable from people, we would have something to worry about — the ursurpation of man’s role. I’m not exactly talking about armies of T-2000s walking around, but there is a fear that, if a machine can do the work faster and more efficiently than any human, then it may be the human who becomes obsolete. As of now, a machine need a human for its creation. Cars may be built by robots in a factory, but if you trace back the line of creation, you’ll run into a human in there somewhere. Many people say that our ability to create is what sets us apart from other animals. A monkey can draw on a canvas or a robot can put a Toyota together at the factory, but real creativity is born in the mind of a human. That’s true right now, but if a machine gains consciousness, we may very well see feeling, creative machines, who create art, not because they downloaded a pattern or calculated what would be aesthetically pleasing, but created a truly inspired piece of art as any human would create. If machines can do everything people do, the real question is what purpose will we serve? This makes me think about that movie Maximum Overdrive. If you haven’t seen this movie, consider yourself lucky. But, long story short, the story involves a machine takeover. The machines literally rise up and turn on their masters. Theres a scene in the movie when this woman is screaming at the big rigs parked outside of a diner “We made You!”. She, I think, expresses the sentiment than many humans would feel towards even the smartest, most human machine. A machine is a product of man. Anything beyond the world of man as creator disturbs the natural order of things. It may “feel” or “create”, it may speak in the very erudite voice of William Daniels, and look like Cherry 2000, but all in all, it’s a machine. It is a tool and should remain so. And this may be fine so long as the most advanced computer still needs a human creator or operator, or if Data or KITT remain anomalies. Throughout the run of Knight Rider, the only other talking car was KARR, the other car that was built by Knight Industries that belonged to that Garth guy that I mentioned earlier. And throughout the run of Star Trek :TNG, there was only Data, his “brother” Lore, his “daughter” Lal (who malfunctioned and had to be dismantled), and Dr. Soong’s ladyfriend who had no idea that she was an android. I forgot her name. Anyway, as Captain Picard said to Maddox, our real problem comes when the smart machine stops being the anomaly. Picard asks Maddox, what if there are a thousand Datas? a million? A million KITTs could be as easily a curse as a blessing. If machines can create, humans may not only end up fighting obsolescence, but also searching for justification. So, in the future, the big question may be answering why we are here. And this may not be too far off. But, perhaps what we should fear isn’t replacement with machines or even searching for justification for the human race. The future may not be one of moral inclusion as merging with machines. Futurist Ray Kurzweil says that there may come a day when computers will surpass us in intelligence and “irrevocably alter what it means to be human” (Rolling Stone issue 1072, “When Man and Machine Merge” by David Kushner). Kurzweil says that superintelligent nanotechnology will eventually merge with people, getting rid of diseases, making us smarter, and storing our memories as well. Kurzweil says that it totally possible that humanity will become obsolete, as people interact and become dependent more and more on machines. If you don’t think we’ve already started, some futurists say, think look at your cell phone, your ipod, pace makers and your dog’s implant meant to identify him if he gets lost. According to some, the merge between man and machine, what they call “The Singularity”, has already begun. However, Kurzweil says that we need not worry about becoming obsolete (although he says it’s not beyond the realm of possibility). Kurzweil says that the future will be ” a human-machine civilization… we’re not obsolescing ourselves — we’re extending ourselves”. There are detractors, however, who believe that “The Singularity” is more science fiction as science probability. Biologist Thomas Ray says that it is unlikely that computers will advance enough to meet the point of “The Singularity”. Philosopher John Searle says (and I love this), “I think the Singularity is demonstrably bullshit… but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s very thrilling”. So what do we think? What does thnking about KITT or Data or my cell phone’s ring tones mean for us morally? What it means it that we, humans will face a future that will call us to alter the way that we think about life and what it means for something to count as a fellow living being, entitled to all the rights that we feel that we and other beings are entitled to. As the human race evolves, so to does our moral sphere. To many of us, KITT is considerable for inclusion, at the very least. For a few more, he is not only considerable, but fully included as we would include any being that we care about or for whom we feel lorally obligated. The Singularity may be a festering pile of bullshit, but then, when has that ever stopped a thought experiment? Possible worlds, anyone?