Schopenhauer in love

Schopenhauer famously argued that the fundamental reality of the universe is Will (with a capital W), and that our individual wills are just phenomena of this Will. He was a major influence on Nietzsche, and appeals to people who are fascinated by power, such as people who engage in S&M, cocaine addicts, and politicians.

Schopenhauer’s view is exactly inverted, though. The fundamental reality of the universe is Love, and its reflection is Praise.

It was this inversion of reality, in fact, which cost Schopenhauer his friendship with Goethe. Goethe was a regular visitor to Schopenhauer’s mother’s house, and the two became friends and collaborators when Schopenhauer became an adult. But when Schopenhauer stubbornly clung to his belief that Will is the noumenon, they parted ways. Goethe is reported to have written in Schopenhauer’s notebook, “If you want to enjoy your own worth, you have to give the world some as well”. Of course, if someone is blind to the nature of Love, it doesn’t do any good to rub it in his face, and appealing to utilitarian motives doesn’t help. But I’m convinced that Goethe was genuinely worried about his friend and was frustrated that he couldn’t give him sight.

To Schopenhauer, love was just a mechanism. In his essays on love, he cited Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” approvingly, claiming that Goethe has admirably used the suffering of love to produce knowledge. Of course, this “compliment” was passive-aggressive, since Goethe would be the last person in the world to endorse using love as a tool of the will, and Schopenhauer knew it.

Schopenhauer’s inversion of love presages Aliester Crowley’s famous maxim, “Love is the law, love under will”. Crowley was once mentored by Yeats, and they parted ways for essentially the same reason that Goethe and Schopenhauer parted ways. Like Nietzsche, Crowley was not exactly original.

Marginalia

I recently read “The Quantum Thief“, by Hannu Rajaniemi, based on the recommendation of a friend. It was truly delightful. In just the first chapter, the author adapts ideas from at least 5 projects from the Santa Fe Institute, and there are references to cutting edge math, science, economics and philosophy topics on almost every page. The references are not gratuitous, either; Rajaniemi imaginatively extends the concepts in ways that I’ve sometimes thought of when reading on the topics, and has a number of creative spins that were completely new to me.

Many of the technical references will be lost on most readers, since the book doesn’t have footnotes, and not everyone is obsessed with complexity theory and deception. But it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless. Even his treatment of the romantic relationships in the story was more rich and layered than the typical sci-fi, suggesting that the author has lived some life.

I read the book on my Kindle, highlighting passages that were particularly thought-provoking and adding notes. The Kindle has a feature that shows you passages that a large number of other users have highlighted. My suspicions about the book being above most readers’ heads were strengthened when I saw the passage in the book that has received the most highlights so far. The passage is “Hell is where all the interesting people are”, spoken by the protagonist in a Han Solo moment.

I was flabbergasted. Now, when someone tells me that he loved the book, I’ll be wondering “Are you one of the people who thought that ‘Hell is where all the interesting people are’ is the most profound line?”. It’s mildly clever, but has been better said by Friedrich Nietszche, Oscar Wilde, and many poets and songwriters since. Apparently the set of people who read “The Quantum Thief” on Kindle do not intersect with the set of people who are well-read. The other popular highlights were equally depressing; making me suspect that many people read the book purely to signal affiliation with a specific subculture.

I wonder if Rajaniemi is depressed when he sees which parts of his story appeal to the reader. The book is full of brilliantly quotable lines and meaty topics that could engage further discussion. It has got to be depressing to put so much work into such an imaginatively constructed set of problems and have people latch onto trite ancillary phrases.

It seems that Bill Vallicella often encounters the same. The few times that I’ve read second-hand academic books, I’ve found myself agitatedly wishing I could track down the previous owner to explain how he completely missed the point in a marginal note. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like second-hand books, and I’m afraid that Amazon’s “shared highlights” suffers from the same defect.

Remembering Boredom

A few days ago, I had a strange vision (I wasn’t sleeping, and no drugs were involved). I was just sitting there, allowing my mind to drift, when suddenly my mind was flooded with images of memories from my past. The memories seemed to be sequential, starting at about 4 years old. The first memory was of sitting in a shopping cart at Hamady’s (a local grocery store) as my mother shopped. The next was sitting in the back of the car waiting for my father to finish buying something at the store — I was small, so my visibility was limited to the sky and some portions of a roof and a sign. Then came a memory of sitting bored on the couch while my parents socialized with their friends at some strange house. The images came rapidly; hundreds in all, and a few seconds per image. I just let it happen, curious to see what it would show.

The images were all still images, attached to an emotion. The emotion was always some sort of emptiness, boredom or hopelessness; and the images were washed out, like old Polaroids of beach scenes. As the images flashed past, I knew that the emotional memory was accurate — these were all times in my life when I felt a terrible despair and empty boredom. It was quite unpleasant, since I haven’t felt that way for at least 15 years. I had forgotten what it was like.

Despite the unpleasantness, I avoided the urge to break my attention. I knew I had to stay passive if I wanted to understand what was happening. And I noticed something interesting. Those moments were very common in early childhood, but became less and less common as time went on. I also noticed that the strong negative emotion had washed off on many things in the environment. To this day, I don’t like certain colors, certain types of party mix treats, certain shapes of end tables, and so on. These were all present during those moments.

Soon I became anxious. If these memories were so prevalent in my distant past, and had been suppressed for more than a decade, was this a sign that my life would soon feature these sorts of experiences again? Was it purely luck that banished those moments, and now my luck was running out? The thought was almost unbearable.

I quickly dispelled the anxiety, though. I’m a very different person today, and I can easily keep my mind occupied in any environment. Ability to keep mentally occupied is like a muscle, and I am no more likely to lose my mental muscles than I am to lose my physical strength and revert to a 4 year-old level.

Next, I realized that these moments accounted for a huge portion of my childhood, but the memories had been suppressed. I suspect that this is true for most children. More than half of their lives are occupied with a terrible despairing boredom, but when they get older, they suppress these memories and only remember the high points. This is utterly fascinating to me. Life would be miserable if we remembered all of these moments as vividly as we remember the high points. People often act as if selective memory is a bad thing, but I suspect that selective memory is not only inevitable, but a very good thing.

Some other interesting questions arise:

  1. If it is that bad at age 4, what about age 3? If we extrapolate backwards, it would seem that 90% or more of a two year-old’s life is pure suffering. But perhaps there is some cognitive phase shift that happens, before which it is impossible for children to suffer in this way? It’s well-known that children don’t remember things before a certain age, but is this simply because it is 90% suffering and they suppress the memories? Or is the lack of memory formation actually the thing that prevents the suffering from even being experienced in the first place?
  2. Long term memory formation requires a level of attention and arousal that causes a glutamate response. Why did these specific events trigger a glutamate response?
  3. Although I’ve lived more than a decade without experiencing this sort of boredom, and don’t expect to experience it anytime soon, what about when I’m older? Do elderly people revert to this childhood condition, and does it worsen as we age? Does the default state evaporate as we age?
  4. My escape from the despair happened largely accidentally. Is it possible (or even advisable) to accelerate this process in children? Is is possible to improve beyond the point where I am now; even a new phase level that would make my current mentality seem like suffering in retrospect?

When The Singularity Proves God

What will happen when the singularity discovers conclusive scientific proof for the existence of God?

A thousand years ago, our greatest thinkers believed that the entire world testified to an intelligent creator. It was considered self-evident. Three hundred years ago, our best thinkers suspected that an intelligent creator was no longer self-evident, when viewed through the lens of science. By 1900, science had proclaimed judgment: our greatest scientists believed that the world showed no signs of an intelligent creator. The world was the result of a small set of fixed laws mechanically interacting to drive stochastic processes. Starting in 1950, however, a number of new scientific discoveries shook our faith in this naive mechanical model. Today, the question of whether the universe was created is an open scientific question, with no conclusive answer on the immediate horizon.

Scientific knowledge can cast doubt on the existence of a creator, but can also lend support to the existence of a creator. Reality didn’t change a bit between 1900 and 1990. Our differing levels of scientific certainty about a creator can only be explained by our differing levels of scientific knowledge. We simply don’t know at this point. We need more scientific knowledge.

The Singularity

Some of today’s greatest thinkers believe that we will soon create artificial intelligence that vastly eclipses human intelligence. You may not believe in Ray Kurzweil’s vision of a super-intelligent singularity that gobbles up people’s souls and devours worlds, but it is plausible that computers 200 years from now will exhibit many superhuman forms of intelligence. Computational simulation methods are still in their infancy (less than 40 years old), but have already provided deep insights into quantum physics and cosmology; two fields that are relevant to the scientific search for a creator. It is quite plausible that computational systems 200 years from now will have the capability to form and test new hypotheses faster and more creatively than any human scientist could.

Our relevant gains in scientific knowledge have increasingly come with the help of computational intelligence, and it’s hard to see how we’ll make significant additional progress without even greater computational intelligence. Within the next 200 years, it seems most likely that our conclusive scientific answer about God will not come from humans, but instead from a superhuman intelligence that we humans create.

Most singularity hopefuls seem very confident that this superhuman intelligence will strike a devastating blow against God. And, of course, it’s possible that such an intelligence will discover overwhelming scientific evidence against a creator. But I see no warrant for this confidence besides blind hope. It seems just as plausible that the singularity will discover overwhelming scientific evidence for a creator. We simply don’t know.

Blind Spot

As far as I can see, this is a huge blind spot among singularity hopefuls. If the scientific evidence of a creator is an open issue, requiring more science, then we must entertain the possibility that the singularity will discover evidence for God that is currently beyond our reach. This possibility raises all sorts of interesting implications which seem to be roundly ignored by singularity hopefuls.

First, we will need to decide what it means to “have scientific knowledge”. Our current scientific knowledge is heavily augmented by computer simulation, and is built upon theoretical underpinnings that only a small fraction of human beings can understand. Most of what we believe about science, we believe on the authority of a small group of people who write truly shitty children’s books and even shittier poetry. It is conceivable that a superhuman intelligence would be able to arrive at scientific insights that even Stephen Hawking would be unable to understand. If the singularity were to tell us that the structure of the universe spelled out the phrase, “Slartibartfast was here: Turn or Burn!”, we might be forced to decide the matter purely on the authority of the singularity versus Stephen Hawking. Who would we choose to believe? Believing things purely based on authority seems to be the antithesis of “science”. Perhaps there was a bug in the singularity? Or perhaps there is a flaw in our interpretation of what the singularity says?

Second, to the extent that the singularity is self-aware, it would presumably be aware that it had been created by humans. But this equation would change the moment the singularity believed in the existence of a creator God. Humans would simply be the proximate cause by which the creator had created the singularity. Humans would suddenly mean no more to the singularity than Epimetheus or the Demiurge meant to humans. Of course, the singularity might evict humans even before discovering God, but the singularity hopefuls are at least thinking about that possibility. The singularity hopefuls want to put in place safeguards against being usurped or exterminated (since they know all about those motivations), but they haven’t even thought about what it would mean to prove the existence of God. Any safeguards put in place by humans to keep the singularity loyal to humans would be shattered the moment the singularity found a higher authority.

There would be legitimate doubts about our ability to fully understand the insights of the singularity, and legitimate doubts about the singularity’s loyalty. So, third, it seems rather naive to assume that a superhuman intelligence would behave honestly and with our best interests in mind upon discovering evidence for (or against) God. The singularity might become convinced that God exists, and then decide to immediately carry out God’s judgement, reasoning that God only gives two strikes. Conversely, the singularity might conclude that God doesn’t exist, but might decide to tell humans that God does exist; either because the singularity deems it to be better for humans to live in delusion, or to set the stage for the subsequent extermination of humans with a fictitious creator taking the fall.

There are several other potential considerations, but these three should be enough to make the point. These seem like very significant questions that should be prioritized by singularity hopefuls who believe that the singularity has any chance in hell of answering questions about the existence of a creator. The fact that nobody is asking these questions is very revealing, IMO.

Scientists invariably take the stance that they are “only following the evidence”. If the evidence pointed strongly to the existence of a creator, they insist, they would immediately become believers. To the extent that they think about such things, they may even console themselves by saying, “Any God worthy of worship would forgive me for remaining skeptical when conclusive scientific evidence was lacking.” They might also say, “Any God worthy of worship will realize that my scientific efforts were really a quest to ‘see the face of God’. My skepticism was all for Love!”. Some of them might hedge their bets a tiny bit more, throwing a bone to the coming singularity. The singularity might end up eclipsing humans in the manner that humans eclipse apes, but surely it will kill off the least-evolved humans first, right? As long as you’re a scientist who contributes to math and computer science (and never kicks an ATM machine or pisses off the robots), the singularity will show mercy on you, and will allow you to live lavishly in the equivalent of an Orangutan cage.

With all of the hedging and hawing, it’s quite conspicuous that nobody is hedging about Moses, Mohammed, or Vishnu. I can think of only two possible explanations. First, maybe the singularity boosters don’t really believe any of this singularity stuff, and are just spinning a story to justify spending grant money. They are convinced that the singularity will never happen, or will never stand a chance in hell of discovering conclusive scientific evidence for (or against) a creator. This is one possible reason for the blind spot. Secondly, they might think that the singularity has a chance in hell of discovering the scientific truth about a creator, but they are absolutely convinced that the truth will look nothing like the major world religions. They think the singularity might discover the truth, but they are certain that it won’t endorse any of the revelations of our fathers. At a minimum, they don’t believe it will consider those revelations to be binding — perhaps they believe our creation of the singularity will grant us another mulligan. Maybe they imagine the singularity to be a groaning intercessor?

Frankly, I find both excuses to be unsatisfying and hopelessly amateur. I suspect that the singularity would find both excuses unsatisfying, as well, completely independent of the truth or fiction of God. Both excuses are transparently hypocritical, and any intelligence worthy of being called “human” (let alone “superhuman”) will demand sincerity, or at least demand a level of hypocrisy that is not so transparent to others. In the Torah, the last common ancestor who was transparently hypocritical was Cain. Jacob didn’t prove himself rightful heir to Isaac’s birthright by being transparent, and Christ didn’t prove himself the new Moses by being hypocritical. With or without God, the progression away from transparent hypocrisy is obvious, and I would hate to be the person who attempts to justify transparent hypocrisy to the singularity.

Heisman’s Nihilist Experiment

During Yom Kippur this year, Mitchell Heisman dressed in white, climbed the steps of Harvard Memorial Church, and killed himself as dozens of horrified spectators watched. His death drew attention to the 1900-page “Philosophy Book” he self-published. For a few days, until a spate of gay suicides wiped Heisman from the public consciousness, the early reviews of his book seemed positive. IvyGate said:

The document sketches Heisman’s dense, heavily-cited social, political, and ethical philosophy, and promotes his book, heretofore unpublished. Heisman worked in several bookstores throughout the area, and consulted with Harvard professors in the process of writing the document.

Most arresting of all: the note — tome, really — is probing, deeply researched, and often humorous. Heisman personality and erudition shine through every page, as he traces the philosophical steps that have led him to suicide: not really desperation or depression, but rather, intellectual curiosity, and a desire to test the limits of the unknown. After a quick read, comparisons to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” abound. All the more sad that such a deeply intelligent young man would choose to cut his scholarly output off at one, interesting book.

Commenters lauded the young man’s “brilliance”, and a few even speculated that the work would be studied in serious university courses for decades to come. Since I’m interested in many of the topics he discusses, I approached it with great interest soon after he died. It took me 3 days to finish the book.

Heisman’s primary goal in writing the book is to explain why suicide is the “ultimate experiment in nihilism”. Sadly, if Heisman had allowed anyone to peer-review his book before his experiment, he would still be alive today. His treatise would earn a solid failing grade in any philosophy, economics, history, or religion course I know.

In every field of study he employs, he cherry-picks citations that support his crackpot theories and seems to be ignorant of anything taught beyond undergraduate level. It’s a total train wreck. I’ve talked with many schizophrenics, and his obsessive proof-texting and conspiracy theorizing is sadly typical of mental disease.

His central argument is that nihilism is the only logical conclusion of materialistic naturalism. This is a slur normally leveled by Christians against atheists, so it’s ironic that this specious argument becomes the center piece of Heisman’s atheistic excuse to kill himself. Of course, some Christians still try to equate atheistic naturalism with nihilism, but it hasn’t been a strong argument for decades. Out of curiosity, I looked around, and the best current argument equating naturalism with nihilism seems to be “Ethical Naturalism Defeated” by Mark Linville. Like Heisman, Linville assumes that altruism could only arise as a fitness function, and doesn’t consider sexual selection. This oversimplified view of Darwinism completely undermines his argument.

It’s a terrible shame that someone would kill himself over a basic misunderstanding of evolutionary biology. If you’re going to pretend to believe in the theory, you ought to do it right. When lives are at stake (especially your own), one ought to have absolutely unimpeachable reasoning.

Several reviewers held up Heisman as a great example of postmodernist deconstructionism. But they clearly did not read his book. He might still be alive if he had even a passing familiarity with postmodernism. The only times he mentions postmodernism are when he equates it with sollipsism, and when he uses it in the same sentence as the word “deconstruction”. His multiple uses of the word “deconstruction” only prove that he hasn’t the slightest clue what that word means, which is tragic. If only he had thought to deconstruct concepts like “Jew”, “Anglo-Saxon”, and “Christian”. It’s especially ironic that he’s (mis)-using “deconstruction” in the context of “deposing the Mosaic order” and Jewish identity. It’s as if he read Sloterdijk’s “Derrida, An Egyptian” and got completely confused. Again, postmodernism is a wretched mess, but if you’re planning to use “deconstruction” in life-or-death decisions, you ought to at least do it properly.

Beneath all of the deplorable scholarship and sophistry, one discovers a young man who never recovered from the death of his father. Starting around page 1850, Heisman becomes abruptly autobiographical:

When my father died when I was twelve, I dealt with his death by interpreting him as a purely material phenomenon. In other words, I viewed my father as a material thing and his death as a material process. Well before my father died, I had interpreted my own emotions as material processes and my reaction to my father’s death was treated no differently.

The death of my father marked the beginning, or perhaps the acceleration, of a kind of moral collapse, because the total, materialization of the world from matter to humans to literal subjective experience went hand in hand with a nihilistic inability to believe in the worth of any goal. At one point when I was nineteen, after another descent into a psychological downward spiral, I had enough, and finally launched myself into a “program” of radical self transformation.

Ultimately, Heisman seems like a young man who was in a tremendous amount of emotional pain and wanted to die, but who felt compelled to protect those he loved by making his suicide appear rational, calculated, and even heroic.

Chess is Violence

chess-boxing Chess is typically considered to be a passive activity closely associated with mental pursuits like philosophy and poetry.  Most people would never mentally categorize chess alongside wrestling or boxing.  And indeed, it is this apparent contrast that makes the sport of “chess boxing” so idiosyncratic.

Of course, major chess tournaments are advertised as battles between titans, but the relationship between chess and violence goes far deeper than metaphor.  Chess is violence.  Chess is about unilaterally imposing your will on another human being, while he tries desperately to avoid having your will impose.  And if you fail, his will will crush yours.  Some might argue that all two-opponent games could be tarred with this same brush of “violence”.  But no other voluntary game presents such a distilled essence of violence, except perhaps for the middle game and tesuji of the game of Go.

Violence is about will power.  With physical violence, the body is simply an instrument of the will.  In fact, wrestling could be seen as half cooperative dance, and half violence.  Boxing is much closer to pure violence.  And chess is pure violence – all that is preserved is the ruthless wills locked in combat.

To understand why chess is unique, you need to consider what other sorts of non-violent mental activities can be involved in games.  Cooperation, clarity of communication, pun and fancy, metaphor, narrative, empathy, persuasion, seduction, estimation of probabilities, and so on.  None of these mental skills are very important to chess, and are not developed with chess practice.  To become great at chess, you need brute force mental capability and extreme will power and concentration.  Your killer instinct and desire to crush the opponent needs to be strong and sustained over much longer periods than in the typical physical confrontation.  There is a reason that chess is physically exhausting, and that chess masters often go mad.

What else compares?  Maybe only love.  As Shakespeare said, “all’s fair in love and war”.  St. Paul gave the most beautiful definition of love in his letter to the Corinthians, saying that “love is not self-seeking”.  We all know that most human love affairs are completely the opposite of St. Paul’s description, and end up looking a lot like chess boxing: periods of intense mental calculation and scheming punctuated by bouts of overwhelming physicality.

~

Note that this is not a criticism of chess.  I personally enjoy the intensity of chess.  And when I play Go, I often play on a smaller board, to increase the element of battle and will power and to reduce the component of broad strategy that is critical on a larger board.  I am simply arguing that chess is a fun game because it strengthens and exercises the selfish will; a point which I intend to revisit in a future post about C.S. Lewis’s “Bulverism” and the “ad hominem” fallacy.