Monday, September 27, 2010

football field of life

Reason is the slave of the passions.

Our passions motivate us, determine what is worthwhile and what is not in our lives.

We generate purpose in our lives by committing to goals that we find worthwhile and meaningful. The degree to which one is successful in
achieving these goals will often determine one's general state of satisfaction and contentment with life.

Imagine a large field of grass. The empty field represents our existence. Now imagine that someone has imprinted a football field using chalk on this field of grass. The football field represents one particular framework of meaning, let's take religion for example. Religion generates the rules and milestones that one follows and lives by in this field of "life". Through this framework of meaning, one is given the purpose for our existence--to get to the end-zone and make a touchdown--and if you apply it to our religion example, to become saved, live a religious life, and go to the heaven in the end. Now, imagine that it started to rain and the chalk was washed away and now we're left with a field of empty grass again. The rain represents modernity--our realization that this particular framework of meaning that worked so well for so long now has become weakened as a result of competing frameworks of meaning brought on by science, globalization, and capitalism. We humans cannot be truly content without a framework of meaning that gives our lives direction, value, and purpose. We need to imprint another "football field" on this field of grass so we can start playing the game of life again.

The modern age is unique in that we don't have to accept the framework of meaning that we get when we're born into a certain family, religion, and culture. We can find and accept new frameworks of meaning, each with their own particular set of goals, values, and status hierarchies. I think in the end, it's a reflexive process where we guide and are guided by, to a framework of meaning that we end up accepting.

The football field is imprinted with chalk because these frameworks of meaning are ultimately based on faith. There are by no means permanent, unchanging, and most importantly, true. Faith makes it us, but not to everyone. Nevertheless, faith is essential. Without faith, meaning is not possible. The idea that reason is superior to faith is nonsense. Faith is the master of reason--because faith determines what we consider valuable and true. Reason only after, gives us the rationale for what faith has already decided.

Why then you ask, do most of us desire and want the same things: money, power, status, success, love...if we all have different systems of meaning? Each family, nation, religion, and culture has a different system of meaning, however small or large the differences between them. The reason why most of us want the same things is because we humans, all share the same biology. Our biology in my opinion determines most of what we desire in life, that is: pleasure, power, status, success, love. But we have the power to override our biological urges. We have consciousness and culture. That's where things start to get complicated.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Modern composers such as Schonberg threw out the whole idea of expectation. The scales they used deprive us of the notion of a resolution, a root to the scale, or a musical "home," thus creating the illusion of no home, a music adrift, perhaps as a metaphor for a twentieth-century existentialist existence. We still hear these scales used in movies to accompany dream sequences to convey a lack of grounding, or in underwater or outer space scenes to convey weightlessness.

tension : resolution --> contentment
tension : no resolution --> meaninglessness?

narrative : collage
construct : reality
linear : simultaneous

oldest profession

The prostitutes had to make it their business to be students of men. They said that after most men passed their virile twenties, they went to bed mainly to satisfy their egos, and because most women do not understand sex this way, they damage and wreck a man’s ego. No matter how little virility a man has to offer, prostitutes make him feel for a time that he is the greatest man in the world. That’s why prostitutes never run out of business. More wives could keep their husbands if they realized their greatest urge is to be men.

- Malcolm X


Cocaine produces, for those who sniff its powdery white crystals, an illusion of supreme well-being, and a soaring overconfidence in both physical and mental ability. You think you could whip the heavyweight champion, and that you are smarter than anybody. There was also that feeling of timelessness. And there were intervals of ability to recall and review things that had happened years back with an astonishing clarity.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

perspectives, not truth

There are no facts. Only interpretations.

-Friedrich Nietzsche

dream job / dream wife

To have a dream job is to have a job that you consider is meaningful within the greater context of your life.

Is it better to find your dream job? Or is it better to get the highest-paying job you can put up with and then in your free time, work on the stuff that coincides with your purpose in life.

18th century model:
Work: Hobby
Wife: Mistress

20th century model:
Love what you do (work).
Love who you marry.

How have we fared? Most people are dissatisfied with their jobs and dissatisfied with those who they married (divorce rate is over fifty percent). Instead of going around feeling sorry for ourselves that we failed in the game of life by not finding the perfect person to marry or finding the dream job that we should have, maybe we just have the wrong attitude or perspective. Who said that we were going to get that dream job or dream girl?

Instead, I think the better more reliable way is to go back to the18th century model. First, get a job that pays the highest that you're willing to put up with. Investment bankers make a lot of money but it's a hard field to get into first of all, and the hours, stress, and competition is the price you have to pay to make millions of dollars a year. Doctor, lawyer, and other similar professional jobs require years of training and study. There is no free lunch. So deciding which high-paying job depends on one's ability to delay gratification. In any case, find the job that pays the most that you can put up with, and in your free time, work on the stuff that provides meaning and flow for you, whatever that may be. This way you'll be both financially stable but also feel content and balanced.

Second thing, find a marriage partner that is chill. Someone you can deal with for at least ten years. Someone who is emotionally stable, frugal, reasonable, intelligent, etc etc. Passionate love, like any drug, can never last forever. Love is ultimately a verb, not a noun. You don't fall into love, you practice and build love day by day, year by year. Rather than a diamond that keeps on glowing from day one, love is like a plant that needs to be taken care of and nurtured and slowly it grows to be a thriving tree/flower/whatever.

I heard somewhere that ideally one should have three partners in life. One for passionate love/sex, one for raising children, and one for retirement, a companion that shares your interests. Now if you found a person that can be all these things, than that's great for you, but often I find that people who end up getting divorced got married for one reason and things start falling apart when they move on into another phase in life.

And for men. Most men just biologically desire sexual variety, even men who have perfect-looking model wifes....Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, etc etc. But I think men that they take the time to truly invest in a marriage and discover agape love don't have this problem. I think for most men, the reason they have mistresses is to satisfy their occasional desire for sexual novelty and diversity.

The top dream jobs people want, I noticed, usually have to do with: food, wine, film, art, photography, literature, journalism, sports, and helping people. The words that come to my head when I think about these things are: art, pleasure, creativity, love. The sense that we want to create something beautiful that we can enjoy and perhaps more importantly that we can share so other people can enjoy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

why you should do well in school

when is something meaningful?

An experience is meaningful when it is related positively to a person's goals. Life has meaning when we have a purpose that justifies our strivings, and when experience is ordered.

the proximate reason for life

The chicken is only an egg's way for making another egg.

- Richard Dawkins

relativism in mad men

For Nietzsche, creativity is only possible within nihilism. It is out of the absence of all and any value that the Nietzschian Uhermensch creates new value. Unlike the "herd," who believe that values are universal, objective, and real, the Nietzschian overman sees the values against the background of nihilism and knows them to he human inventions. For Nietzsche, the role of creating value in society was in the hands of what he called the Uberrneflsch, the "overman," aka the "superman," who out of a tragic and nihilistic consciousness affirmed life and human existence by creating values where none had existed before. These values eventually are experienced by culture as integral and necessary to its existence, defining what it means to be human, setting the standards for what is morally good, aesthetically beautiful, and epistemically true. Don Draper asks Rachel Menken, the wealthy Fifth Avenue department store proprietor, why she is not married. Her reply is that she has never been in love. Draper retorts, "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons" ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,¡" episode 101). If what Draper says is true, love, which many regard as the deepest and most real of human emotions, turns out to be a construct invented by the advertising industry to sell clothing. Rachel maintains that love is not just a slogan. She means that it is not just a word, but that there is a thing, an objective reality, to which the word corresponds. Rachel believes that if there were no word love, the thing, love, would nevertheless be something that people would feel; it would still exist without the word. Draper, though, says that the reason she has not felt it is because it does not exist.

The common belief is that love unites people, creates community, and binds together lovers, families, and marriages. Instead, Draper says that we are "born alone and die alone." The rules of society, that is, its customs, taboos, and values, are designed, according to Draper, to make us forget our solitary existence. He, on the other hand, "never forgets it," and lives as if there is no tomorrow . . . since," as he claims, "there is not one."

Draper believes love is a social construct. It is not a social construct. Love and affection are biological and psychological needs inherent in human beings. It is not a cultural construct but first, a biological construct on which culture builds upon and validates. Love may not exist objectively, but the need for love and affection exists in the physical wiring of humans. Ultimately if you're human, you need love, so we need to aspire for love even if it doesn't objectively exist.

Anti-foundationalism is the position that there is no unchanging and universal basis of value. Draper's life embodies anti-foundationalism, in which stable social institutions like marriage and family are fleeting and evanescent.

Marriage is a social construct and ultimately its value is relative. It is not an end, be all. But, marriage is a social construct developed over thousands of years and it has persisted in all cultures around the world, regardless the level of economic development, because usually the benefits of being in marriage outweigh the benefits of alternative lifestyles. Now, does one always need marriage? No. It is a social construct.

How necessary is nihilism for the creativity required to advance culture-transforming technologies? Nietzsche, in “The Metamorphoses of the Spirit,” a chapter from Thus Spake Zarathustra, describes the genesis of the creative spirit in three stages: the camel, the lion, and the child. The first (the camel) is the load-bearing spirit that bears the weight of the taboos of society. The lion represents the power that kills the dragon of the sacred Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots—the permission and prohibition of society. The third stage of the spirit is the child, which Nietzsche calls “a new beginning” and a “self-propelled wheel,” where human consciousness is no longer burdened by the norms of society. It is able to create out of forgetting, innocence, and spontaneity. Creation and destruction are never far apart.

While developing the ad campaign for a cigarette company threatened by reports that smoking causes cancer, Don. falls asleep. Describing the essence of the creative process, Draper once advised Peggy, “Just think about it deeply, and forget it, and an idea will jump in your face”. He comes to the meeting with the Lucky Strike executives empty-handed. After an embarrassing silence, the executives begin to leave. Suddenly Draper, appearing inspired, comes up with the slogan “It’s toasted.” He does not challenge or debate the report that cigarettes are poisonous, which he earlier drops in the trash and calls “perverse.” He diverts attention toward what sounds completely affirmative. His slogan addresses the subliminal associations that surround the connotations of words. Advertising is designed, he claims, to make people feel good about themselves. It gives them the reassurance that “Whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay”. This is not deception, not lying, but the power of words to create reality. For Draper it is a reality without a past and without a future.

The report that cigarette-smoking causes cancer is only relevant if one cares about one’s health. But if you care more about feeling good, then that’s all that matters for you, with or without the cancer report. There is no Truth, only interpretations.

Cigarettes kill. So what? They’re nice and toasted.

The absence of values, other than the ones that we create, is the nihilism of Nietzsche. This is, of course, hard to accept for those who believe in truth. Roy again critiques Don: “You make the lie. . . you invent want.” Roy is assuming that there is a difference between truth and “the lie,” between natural wants and those that are artificial. Don responds by saying, “There is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent” (“The Hobo Code,” episode 108).

In Don’s life, this indifference negates a myriad of values such as loyalty, honesty, reliability; and, in this case, truth. There is nothing in the nature of things that would serve as a way of differentiating true from false, right from wrong, honest from dishonest. Don does not show the slightest qualm in telling Betty that he is leaving for work when he is on his way to spend the night with his daughter’s elementary school teacher. He lies to Betty without the apparent sense that he is violating her trust. He tells her, “Betts, I have no choice,” to which she replies dutifully, “I see how hard you’re working” (“The Color Blue”). Betty is assuming the role of the supportive wife, and clearly Don often does not have values beyond the utility of the moment.

The supreme and absolute value in technological culture is efficiency. Efficiency as an end in itself. Means trump ends. An exclusively instrumental system of values does not ask what is it all for, what end or ultimate goal is being served. Without something that has intrinsic value (that is, something valuable in itself and not as a means to an end), there is no foundation to provide a lasting support for value judgments. As Joan says to Peggy, “If you are even thinking of passing judgment, you are in the wrong business” (“5G,” episode 105). This is the ethical mantra of exclusively technological consciousness.

Don’s responsibility is to create an advertising campaign that will sell cigarettes. To consider consequences is, in Don’s words, “perverse” (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”). The concern for final ends and foundations is ignored, provided that a means is found to solve the problem at hand. Roger Sterling praises Don for his moment of inspiration. Peter Campbell says, “I was telling them how amazing you were. I am still tingling” (“Shoot,” episode 109). Neither middle nor upper management at Sterling Cooper ever considers the morality of their actions. Why should they? The universe is indifferent and you are part of the universe.

When Peter tells Bert Cooper that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman and accuses Draper of being a “fraud, a liar, and a criminal even,” Cooper replies, like someone speaking to the moral innocence of a child, “Who cares?” Cooper draws attention back to the immediacy of the moment, telling Campbell, “A man is whatever room he is in,” adding “At this moment, Donald Draper is in this room” (“Nixon vs. Kennedy,” episode 112). So Donald Draper is no other than Donald Draper at this point in time and space. He may have been Dick Whitman in the past, and he may become someone else in the future, but he is Donald Draper here and now. Appearance is reality. Saying so makes it so. There are no meanings other than the ones we construct. This is the positive side of the claim “the universe is indifferent.” It gives us the freedom to create our own identities.

- George Teschner

freedom or community?

Don has chosen freedom, and continues to do so with abandon. This is why he objects so vehemently to signing a contract with Sterling Cooper, even after Conrad Hilton makes it a condition of further business dealings. If Don keeps his future open, he can always re-create himself again. Freedom from the past is Don's blessing as well as well as his curse.

One view is that our pasts and our identities including our cultures, traditions, religion and relationships are what make our choices significant and meaningful to us. They give us the measuring stick to determine the value of each particular choice we make. They determine whether our accomplishments are genuine or not. Without this connection to the past, Don is on his path toward nihilism. Successful in our eyes, but without his own internal measuring stick, Don doesn't know whether his life is valuable or not. In a crucial point in Don't story, when he chooses not to travel with the wealthy, cosmopolitan "nomads" he meets in California and instead he returns to his first wife, Anna, he is reestablishing himself through his past. Don doesn't want more freedom. He wants integration, meaning. He needs the validation that only his past can give him. Only by bringing his past and present together into some new whole can Don begin to approach happiness.

The central question here is: are we going through life, creating values as we choose and act, making meaning for ourselves, or are our values primarily as a product of a history, background, culture, and community?

art and advertising

Art can be any object that has been reclassified and reinterpreted so that they have been imbued with additional value besides usefulness.

A BMW is not just a car. It is a driving experience. It is intelligence. It is status.

A diamond is not just a stone. It is a signal and commitment of one's love.

Human values are commodified into objects, and then bought and sold on a market. Advertising is the process in which this commodification occurs.

Advertisers are artists.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

memory is constructed like plot

Human memory, driven by emotional self-interest, goes to extraordinary lengths to provide evidence to back up whatever understanding of the world we have our hearts set on--however removed that may be from reality.

Anything processed by memory is fiction. Consciously or unconsciously, we manipulate our memories to include or omit certain aspects. Are our memories therefore fictions?

collage as reality, not narrative

Resolution and conclusion are inherent in a plot-driven narrative.

Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though—standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night at us—flies at us in bright splinters.

Life does not have a “plot”. It is a collage.

Story/narrative seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No, it doesnt.

I’m not interested in collage as the refuge of the compositionally disabled. I’m interested in collage as an evolution beyond narrative.

I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.

If you grow up not with toys bought in the shop but things that are found around the farm, you do a sort of bricolage. Bits of string and wood. Making all sorts of things, like webs across the legs of a chair. And then you sit there, like the spider.

The main question collage artists face: you’ve found some interesting material—how do you go about arranging it?

appropriate and remix

Elaine Sturtevant, an American artist born in 1930 in Lakewood, OH, has achieved recognition for works that consist entirely of copies of other artists’ works. Warhol, Stella, Gonzalez-Torres, etc. In each case, her decision to start copying an artist happened well before the artist achieved wide recognition. Nearly all of the artists she has chosen to copy are now considered major artists.

A literary equivalent would be along the lines of "creative translation" such as Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius, in which Pound picked through the elegies of Propertius, translated them, cut them up, and reassembled them in a fashion he deemed entertaining and relevant. Examples from other forms: Thelonius Monk Plays Duke Ellington, in which Monk takes great liberties with Ellington’s songbook. Lichtenstein’s appropriation of comic book art. Picasso’s use of newsprint, among other media, in, say, Composition with Fruit, Guitar, and Glass. Paul’s Boutique: The Beastie Boys, Dust Brothers, and Mario Caldato, Jr., sample from more than 100 sources, including Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, James Brown, and Sly & the Family Stone. Steve Reich’s "Different Trains," which incorporates audio recordings about train travel by Holocaust survivors and a Pullmanporter. Musique concrete instance, John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape No. 4," written for 12 radios, each played by 2 people (one to tune the channel and one to control volume and timbre). A conductor controls the tempo; the audience hears whatever is on the radio in that city on that day. Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertium,” which mutates themes from Bach’s “Musical Offering” until they’re beyond recognition. In “Three Variations on the Canon in D Major” by Johann Pachelbel, Brian Eno bends and twists Pachelbel.

In hip-hop, the mimetic function has been eclipsed to a large extent by manipulation of the original (the “real thing”): theft without apology self-conscious, conspicuous appropriation.

Graffiti artists use the stuff of everyday life as their canvas walls, dumpsters, buses. A stylized representation is placed on an everyday object. In visual art, as in other media, artists take unfiltered pieces of their surroundings and use them for their own means.


You don't make art, you find it.

"realism" = perception

In Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf describes the dilemma of Charles Steele, who’s painting a still-life portrait: a cloud drifts into view, Mrs. Flanders’s sons run around the beach, she grows upset about the letter she’s writing, and she won’t stop moving. If Charles instructs Mrs. Flanders to stop moving, he’s altering the world in order for it to match what he wants to paint, rather than shaping his painting to reflect what’s actually occurring in the world.

There’s no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative.

There is properly no history, no biography.

the appeal of reality shows

We want our art to be life-like, but somehow also, larger than life.

In 2008, more votes were cast for American Idol than for Barack Obama for president: 97 million for American Idol and, on Election Day, 70 million for Obama.

I try not to watch reality TV, but it happens anyway. My aunt and uncle, both of whom are pretty intellectual, live two doors down from me and watch reality TV, so I watch it with them sometimes. My wife (another vety intelligent person) watches America’s Next Top Model, so I’m all too familiar with that show as well. I think different people get sucked into reality shows for different reasons. My aunt and uncle seem to like the competition aspect. It becomes a blurry vision of televised sports (which also has that added sense of immediacy because it’s unfiltered, is "really" happening, and therefore there’s the feeling that in the next minute anything can happen adds to the excitement of a competition). My wife seems to like America’s Next Top Model for the elements you would find in a soap opera: the intrigue and fighting among the contestants. The producers have a way of typecasting and highlighting aspects of each girl’s personality for greater effect (nearly everyone wants to see beautiful young women gossip and argue). There’s also always at least one minor subplot. However scripted the show is, it’s more compellingthan standard soap operas. I like to see how reality shows are put together, especially the way in which the shows are a hybrid mutant of documentaries, game shows, and soaps. The producers have no problem blurring the lines between these three types of shows: they take what works and discard the rest.

My big-picture philosophy is that with shows like this, I don’t think our viewers necessarily differentiate between what’s scripted and what’s not. Our primary goal is to make a show that’s compelling.

Readers thirst for a narrative, any narrative, and will turn to the most compelling one.

Bored with the airbrushed perfection of Friends, we want to watch real people stuck on tropical islands without dental floss. We want our viewing to reflect our complicated, messy, difficult, overloaded, overstimulated lives. Let’s see messy houses getting clean, bratty children caught on hidden cameras, actual arguments between genuine young people being authentically solipsistic.

The bachelorette on the brink of true love with one of several men she has known for seven hours; the cad who manipulates his beloved on cue narratives: false actualization and authentic shame. The success of the genre reflects our lust for emotional meaning.We really do want to feel, even if that means indulging in someone else’s joy or woe. We have a thirst for reality (other people’s reality, edited) even as we suffer a surfeit of reality (our own--boring/painful).

Forms serve the culture; when they die, they die for a good reason: they’re no longer embodying what it’s like to be alive. If reality TV manages to convey something that a more manifestly scripted and plotted show doesn’t, that’s less an affront to writers than a challenge.

everyone's a liar

We all stretch the truth and tell lies by omission. Just getting along with people involves both. Humans are hardwired to deceive. We deceive when we’re competing with other members of the same sex; we deceive when we’re trying to attract the other sex. Deception is more the state of nature than not deceiving. In the animal kingdom, virtually every species deceives all the time. Why don’t we lie even more? It helps our reputation for people to know they can believe us.

we are all plagiarists

When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to "match" a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else's idea. But had we "matched" any of the Times's words, the most banal of phrases, could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence. Trial by Google.

The evolution of copyright law has effectively stunted the development of sampling, thereby protecting the creative property of artists but obstructing the natural evolution of human creativity, which has always possessed cannibalistic tendencies. With copyright laws making the sampling of popular music virtually impossible, a new technique has evolved in which recordings are made that mimic the recordings that the artists would like to sample. These mimic recordings--not nearly as satisfying as sampling the original record--then sampled and looped in the same way that the original would have been. We don't want a mimic of a piece of music, though; we want the actual piece of music presented through a new lens. Replication isn't reproduction. The copy transcends the original. The original is nothing but a collection of previous cultural movements. All of culture is an appropriation game.

A great man quotes bravely and will not draw on his invention when his memory serves him with a word as good. What he quotes, he fills with his own voice and humor, and the whole cyclopedia of his table talk is presently believed to be his own.


We too can make a myth out of our meager circumstances.

appropriation art

copyright quotes

Genius borrows nobly (Emerson)

Good poets borrow; great poets steal (Picasso)

Art is theft (Picasso)

What's appropriation art?
It's when you steal but make a point of stealing, because by changing the context, you change the connotation.

Friday, September 17, 2010


the prestige of art and the magic of the real.

Human memory, driven by emotional self-interest, goes to extraordinary lengths to provide evidence to back up whatever understanding of the world we have our hearts set on--however removed that may be from reality.

Anything processed by memory is fiction. Consciously or unconsciously, we manipulate our memories to include or omit certain aspects. Are our memories therefore fictions?

Nonfiction writers arrange. Fiction writers invent.

narrative-->modernism-->reality show

Reality is messy, it doesn't fit a neat, compelling narrative. As art gets more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, more true to reality, it breaks into fragments. Our lives aren't prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, reality-based art, underprocessed, underproduced, splinters and explodes. An unfiltered documentary is fragmented, its meaning and purpose ambigious, ambivalent.

In contrast, memoir is constructed, because it's based on memory. Narrative is like memory. It is unreliable, constructed to create a certain effect.

How can we enjoy memoirs, believing them to be true, when nothing, as everyone knows, is so unreliable as memory? Many memoirs make a virtue of seeming unadorned, unvarnished, but the first and most unforgettable thing we learn about memory is that it's fallible. Memories, we now know, can be buried, lost, blocked, repressed, even recovered. We remember what suits us, and there's almost no limit to what we can forget. Only those who keep faithful diaries will know what they were doing at this time, on this day, a year ago. The rest of us recall only the most intense moments, and even these tend to have been mythologized by repetition into well-wrought chapters in the story of our lives. To this extent, memoirs really can claim to be modern novels, all the way down to the presence of an unreliable narrator.

Memoir is a construct used by publishers to niche-market a genre between fact and fiction; an attempt to close in on its twin sister, the reality-show.

People in the 19th century started to get sick of narrative with all of its refined literary and plot devices. Modernism was the shift back to simplicity, a turn back toward messy, hard to understand, fragmented reality.

Modernism ran its course, emptying out narrative. Novels became all voice, anchored neither in plot nor circumstance, driving the storytelling impulse underground.

Abstract expressionism in art was a similar attempt to recapture reality through its technique of spontaneous creation on the canvas. Rejected at first, it was accepted by the Establishment in the mid-20th century. Pollack and Rothko are now considered artistic geniuses because they forced artists to rethink the role and purpose of painting.

Then people got sick of abstract, difficult documentary-art. A longing for narration, story, archetype rose up again. But we didn't go right back to poetry with rhyme, novels with plot, art with representation, music with melody and harmony...we got jazz, the reality-show, the memoir, the remix, a hybrid of real and fake, the authentic fake. It had both the spontaneity of life (reality) with the order and appeal of narration and myth.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

true self-esteem

Rand argues that the independent person grounds his self-esteem in his objective estimate of himself, not in others’ estimate of him. Self-esteem is a person’s appraisal of his own moral worth; a positive self-appraisal is the reward for having lived a virtuous life. The independent person is concerned with being good, not with others thinking him good. When the independent person receives praise from others, his estimate of the other person goes up; his estimate of himself does not change. The independent person recognizes that his character is what it is independent of what others think of him.

Is this even possible? The quote, "no man is an island," comes to mind...

How can a person be "selfless egoist"? A selfish egoist is one who seeks to advance his own interests, yet he is nonetheless selfless because others have dictated his interests. He has no real self. One's primary orientation is to other people, not to reality. He seeks greatness in other people's eyes. He does not want to be great. He wants others to think him great.

Aren't our goals ultimately determined by our surroundings? We think they're our goals, but aren't these goals a by-product of our particular environment and background? I think the point here is that we should be intrinsically motivated and not extrinsically motivated.

meaning of life: balance between work, play, love

In the absence of the threat of absurdity and nihilism, issues regarding the meaning of life arise when the three realms of love, work, and play conflict. For example, couples with young children often experience severe conflicts between love and work, when the intense needs of children compete for time and energy with the demands of career development. Young adults need to figure out how to render compatible the delights of playful pastimes such as sports and music with the imperative to get a job and support themselves. One of the few advantages of growing older is that the reduction of family responsibilities and the satisfaction or diminishing of career goals can make conflicts between the realms of love, work, and play much more manageable.

- Paul Thagard

a lot of philosophy is a waste of time

The approach to philosophy that I favor, attempting to answer fundamental questions by relating them to scientific findings, is called naturalism. Many philosophers since Plato have scorned naturalism, arguing that science cannot provide answers to the deepest philosophical questions, especially ones that concern not just how the world is but how it ought to be. They think that philosophy should reach conclusions that are true a priori, which means that they are prior to sensory experiences and can be gained by reason alone. Unfortunately, despite thousands of years of trying, no one has managed to find any undisputed a priori truths. The absence of generally accepted a priori principles shows that the distinguished Platonic philosophical tradition of looking for them has failed. Wisdom must be sought more modestly.

Sometimes, however, philosophy gets too modest. The highly influential Austrian/British philosopher Wittgenstein asserted that philosophy is unlike science in that all it should aim for is conceptual clarification. In his early writings, he looked to formal logic to provide the appropriate tools, and in his later work he emphasized attention to ordinary language. He claimed that philosophy "leaves everything as it is." Much of twentieth-century philosophy in English devoted itself to the modest goal of merely clarifying existing concepts. But no one has learned much from analyzing the logic or the ordinary use of the words "wise" and "wisdom." We need a theory of wisdom that can tell us what is important and why it is important. Such theorizing requires introducing new concepts and rejecting or modifying old ones.

- Paul Thagard

how we motivate ourselves

A crucial part of the brain's representation of goals is their association with rewards and punishments. When you accomplish a goal, you experience a pleasurable reward through the activity of neural populations in areas such as the orbitofrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens. Even the anticipation of such accomplishment can produce a reward, as when you imagine yourself completing a major project. Goal accomplishment is thus like other rewarding experiences that offer pleasure in expectation as well as in realization. For example, thinking of the piece of chocolate cake you will have for dessert is not as rewarding as actually having the cake, but it is pleasurable nevertheless. Such anticipation of reward serves to motivate people to perform the actions that are required to accomplish the desired goal.

what is reality?

Skepticism is the view that we have no knowledge at all, so that any talk of the nature of reality is pointless. Some ancient Greek philosophers advocated an extreme form of skepticism according to which neither sensation nor opinion could give us any grounds for separating truth from falsehood. An influential current form of skepticism is found in postmodernist philosophers and literary theorists who view the world as a text open to many kinds of interpretations, none of them demonstrably better than the others. In fields such as history, anthropology, and cultural studies, it has become fashionable to claim that reality is just a social construction, so that the idea of objective knowledge is only a myth.

Empiricism tries to avoid skeptical problems by restricting knowledge to what can be perceived by the senses. From early modern philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume to later thinkers such as Rudolf Carnap and Bas van Fraassen, the restriction of knowledge to sense experience has had strong appeal. I will show, however, that strict empiricism is incompatible both with the neuropsychology of perception and with the practice of science. Our brain processes are, fortunately, capable of reliably taking us well beyond what is presented to us by our senses.

Another approach to understanding knowledge of reality is idealism, which views reality as dependent on or even constituted by minds. This view is more compatible than is empiricism with the constructive nature of perception and inference, but grossly overestimates the contributions that minds make to the world. It leaps from the insight that there is no knowledge of things without construction of mental representations of them to the conclusion that entities are mental constructions. The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that he had accomplished a kind of Copernican revolution by placing mind at the center of knowledge and reality. But idealism is actually attempting a kind of Ptolemaic counterrevolution, as implausible as reactionary attempts to return the earth to the center of the solar system or to deny human evolution.

There is an old baseball story about three umpires calling balls and strikes. One says, "I call them as I see them." The second says, "I call them as they are." The third insists, "They ain't nothing until I call them." These attitudes correspond to the philosophical positions of empiricism, realism, and idealism. For neuroscience to support realism about objects, I need to show that the structures and processes used by the brain enable it to represent things in the world as they are, at least approximately.

How do I know this reality exists?

First, I do not have to rely exclusively on a single sense. I see the color and shape of the loaf of bread, but I can cross-check the shape using my sense of touch, confirming that it feels the same way that it looks. I can also use hearing to investigate the bread by banging the loaf against a pot and hearing the ding. Further, the bread produces pleasurable stimulation of my senses of taste and smell. The brain has different sensory systems but can combine them to form unified perceptions. In contrast to hallucinations and dreams, which are hard to control, systematic experiments are possible: I can generate integrated and coherent sensations of the bread for example, by simultaneously looking at it, scratching it, and eating it. Because I can make the bread cause these experiences, and because there is no evidence to support alternative hypotheses (e.g., I am hallucinating or dreaming), it is reasonable to conclude that the bread exists. Its reality is the best explanation of my diverse experience of it.

Second, evidence for the reality of objects does not have to rely only on my own specific sensory experiences of them, as I can also often rely on the testimony of others. Any doubts I have about the bread’s causing my experiences can be reduced if I share it with other people, who will generally report similar experiences. You may not like this whole-grain bread as much as I do, but I would be very surprised if your reports of its color, shape, texture, smell, and taste turned out to he much different from mine. We can make a party of it and have a bread tasting in which we all compare our sensory experiences. I predict that reports of the sight, feel, taste, smell, and sound of the bread will be remarkably convergent. The best explanation of this convergence across the sensory experiences of multiple people is that there really is a loaf of bread that is causing all of our brains to generate similar experiences. The reports of similar experiences by me and other people all result from a combination of physical mechanisms by which the bread affects our senses and neural mechanisms by which our brains interpret sensory inputs.

But should we rely on the testimony of other people as part of our inference to the best explanation of sensory reports? After all, they might be lying or joking, rather than actually reporting their experience of the bread. Once again, our assessment of the truth of what people say to us is a matter of inference to the best explanation. You are justified in believing that someone is telling the truth if that is the best available explanation of all the available evidence. People are usually motivated to describe things as they think they are, so you are justified in taking what they say as relevant evidence, as long as there isn’t evidence supporting alternative hypothesis such as deception or hallucination. Testimony justified by inference to the best explanation allows me to reasonably believe many things observed by others. I have never been to Mount Everest myself but do not doubt its existence, because the observational reports of many others are better explained by the hypothesis that the mountain exists than by alternative hypotheses such as mass deception.

But how do we know that the experiences reported by other people are at all the same as ours? Maybe when you say you are experiencing brown, chewy bread, you are really having the same experience I have when I experience white, soggy bread. There are two reasons for doubting that there is sufficient variability in experience to undermine the usefulness of testimony First, the general pattern of experiences that people usually report has a great deal of overall coherence with my pattern of experience, which makes it implausible that we differ in just one kind of experience such as brown or chewy. Second, there is much evidence from anatomy and brainscanning experiments to suggest that people’s brains are very similar for sensory processing. Hence there is good reason to take the testimonial reports of other people at face value, in the absence of evidence that they are lying or demented.

In addition to multisensory coherence and the testimony of other people, there is a third reason for inferring that our perceptions of objects are approximately true: we can often corroborate them with measurements taken by instruments. People don’t usually subject a loaf of bread to instrumental inspection, but a physicist could use calipers to measure its height and width, a spectrometer to measure the color reflectance of the loaf, an artificial odor detector to measure molecules near the loaf, and so on. Such measurements carried out by people or possibly even by robots provide further evidence best explained by the supposition that the loaf of bread exists. Similar arguments support inference to the existence of many other kinds of objects, from lions to mountains. Contrary to empiricism, scientific knowledge does not come just from our senses, but goes beyond them via a multitude of reliable instruments from telescopes and microscopes to Geiger counters (used to measure radiation) and particle colliders (used to detect the behavior of subatomic particles). The efficacy of scientific instruments is incompatible with idealism, because their measurements do not depend on mental activity, but it fits well with constructive realism.

You might think that even if pieces of bread are real, their properties (color, taste, smell, and texture) are not, because these are so heavily dependent on our minds. Many philosophers have thought that nothing in the external world corresponds to people’s experiences of colors, eliminating them as real. Their arguments rely on the fact that there is no simple mapping between the space of colors that people experience and the properties of objects that affect how they reflect light of different wavelengths. Paul Churchland has found, however, a way of construing the physical properties of objects that reveals a correspondence between their reflectance efficiencies and people’s experiences of colors like red, green, and blue. He describes how the human visual system successfully tracks approximations of the reflectance profiles of objects at a low level of resolution, so that colors can be viewed as objectively real properties of objects even if color vision is highly context sensitive.

The correspondence between reflection properties and color experience makes sense given current theories of how the brain processes color information, from stimulation of cells in the retina that code for specific wavelengths of light to interpretations generated in the visual cortex. I like the conclusion that colors are real properties of objects, and it does seem to fit with the best available understanding of how the brain interacts with objects. But realism about objects could be true even if realism about colors is not, as long as we have good reason to believe that objects and at least some of their properties exist independently of mental representations of them.

I have tried to show in this section that the best explanation of the convergence of experiences from the multiple senses of many people and instruments is that there really are physical objects that cause these experiences. Moreover, the observable properties of these objects are much as we perceive them to be. Of course, they have other nonobservable properties, such as their atomic structure, that we can learn about only from scientific theorizing.
In sum, attention to how the brain functions in perception supports constructive realism over empiricism and idealism. The constructive nature of perception with both top-down and bottom-up processing shows the implausibility of a narrow empiricism that ties knowledge too closely to sensory input. On the other hand, the robustness of sensory inputs of different kinds counts by inference to the best explanation against the idealist view that the existence of objects is mind dependent. Our perceptual knowledge is both constructed and about real things. Such constructive realism is also the best approach to theoretical knowledge that uses concepts and hypotheses to go well beyond perception.

- Paul Thagard