Emotional Robots

Picture Data from Star Trek.  The quintessential robot: all reason and logic, no emotion.  Not that he’s heartless, but rather, he just doesn’t understand this side of human behaviour, no matter how hard he tries.  (Except when it makes for a better plot point otherwise.)

But what are emotions, other than our own preprogramming?  Those who are at the mercy of the passions are the ones blindly following their hardwiring.  Those who can’t take a step back and look at why they really are doing what they do, those who are wounded by the suggestion that we are organic machines with modules shaped by our biological and sociological histories, are those who end up being the most robotic.  Machines running on chemicals masked as “spirituality” and “humanity.”  It is at our most irrational that we are most programmed.

Even the cold logic of economists and engineers follows the same route: a search for logical efficiency and consistency, but stuck in the rut of an initial question that is not itself questioned.  The precision of gears, working toward an initial impulse to categorize, simplify, and control.  The dominance of their evolutionary firmware is less apparent, but ultimately the same.

Being human is neither revelling in feeling for its own sake, nor in mere logical analysis (which is much the same); rather, it consists in the ability to look behind the curtain at who we are and where we come from, to understand, to make decisions based on this; it is to be able to make sense of our own owner’s manuals and fiddle, reprogram, rewire, and, in the end, simply accept what sort of beings we are.

Because we are, after all, organic machines.  Our emotional operating systems are part of us, and must be taken as such; just as a computer cannot run without some sort of system to boot it up and manage resources, so too must we rely on our own frameworks, imperfect as they may be.

But we don’t worship Windows because we have to use it. Valorization of the emotions as distinctly “human” or as some royal road into reality is similarly misplaced.


Fiction and Fact

Currently in the middle of watching a Korean martial arts flick (Legend of the Shadowless Sword), and enjoying it.  But while watching people flying and fighting off entire armies, I started thinking about what sort of truth fantasy might be telling.  (Yep, welcome to my brain.  But honestly, do you expect to believe that talking about football and the weather is more interesting than epistemology?)

The genre is purposefully fantastic, not even trying to make the feats look realistic.  And yet, there is something lacking in a purely realistic film.  I’ve punched someone in martial arts, only to have them suddenly not be there.  It’s not that I registered them moving, so much as they were no longer in the way of my fist.  And suddenly, there was something striking my solar plexus, or hitting a pressure point and making my arm go numb.  I’ve watched someone dodge a sword strike – the assailant was attacking from behind, with no warning, and without letting the person know the specific strike they were going to use.  I’ve felt the force of a true martial artist merely looking at me with serious intent.

If I were to depict all of this in purely physical terms, to make it “realistic,” it would fall short of the actual experience.  By exaggerations, I can accurately portray what “really” happened.

Of course, at the same time, this only works because it’s on the level of human emotion.  It’s not reality by itself; it’s how human beings reconstruct events.  So maybe one sort of distortion is necessary to transcribe another sort of distortion.

Just some random thoughts.  Now, back to watching this confident, poised warrior chick kiss some a$$.

One Eye Too Many

Der König Ödipus hat ein Auge zuviel vielleicht.
King Oedipus has perhaps one eye too many.

– Hölderlin, In lieblicher Bläue blühet

When do we know too much?  Oedipus was a figure who was insistent on finding out the truth, despite being warned repeatedly by the seer Tiresias that it would bring misery.  He had to know what was causing the plague on his kingdom; and upon finding out that it was himself, who had killed his father and married his mother, Oedipus blinded himself and ran off.  He went from having two eyes which searched too much, to having none.

And seeking understanding can bring suffering.  There is a wisdom that is woe.  But, at the same time, there was already a plague on Oedipus’ kingdom.  The objective consequences of his actions were already there; by refusing to confront the matter, he could have put off his own suffering at the expense of the world around him.  And in the play Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles tells of how Oedipus dies a blessed death after all because of this, despite his being the lightning rod of the gods’ wrath earlier.

Seeking the truth is not always rewarding. Dispelling delusions can rob us of comfort and alienate us from others.  But if those really are delusions, then they are already at work twisting us, warping us.  There is something natural about keeping that one eye closed; something tragic and heroic about the excess of light followed by darkness.  And who can say whether the natural or the heroic is the better path?


I’m going to split time between this blog, and the (rather similarly named) http://blog.dutempstrouve.com.  I might get rid of this one entirely, or merge the two.  I might put more personal and controversial stuff here, and stuff that I’m more willing to give to a broader audience there.  But anyhow, the other blog is up now, and I have some entries already planned out for next week.  (So the 30 Day blog challenge is going to transmute somewhat into a 5-day a week regular blog on different topics.)

But today, Hölderlin (full text here: http://300daysinberlin.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/lebenslaufthe-course-of-life-holderlin/; see Lebenslauf II toward the bottom of the page):

More you also desired, but every one of us
Love draws earthward, and grief bends with still greater power;
Yet our arc not for nothing
Brings us back to our starting place.

Whether upward or down – does not in holy night
Where mute Nature thinks out days that are still to come,
Though in crookedest Orcus,
Yet a straightness, a law prevail?

This I learned. For not once, as mortal masters do,
Did you heavenly ones, wise preservers of all,
To my knowledge, with foresight
Lead me on by a level path.

All a man shall try out, thus say the heavenly,
So that strongly sustained he shall give thanks for all,
Learn to grasp his own freedom
To be gone where he’s moved to go

I’m thinking about getting a line from this poem as my next tattoo, curving both randomly yet gracefully up my upper right arm.  It describes my life pretty well – I keep having plans, things I intend to do, and they almost never seem to work out.  Things change, in one way or another, sometimes in ways I like, sometimes in ways I dislike.  But somehow, through the twists and turns, something seems to come out of it all, year after year.  Beyond that, I’ll just let the poem speak for itself.

Life Changes

I’ve mainly been writing philosophical nuggets, etc. on here as of late.  Which is something that I want to do more of.

And now I might have that chance, beyond the 30 day challenge (which, admittedly, I’ve become poor at keeping up with)!

Background: I was in a doctoral program for philosophy.  I love education.  I love thinking.  I don’t love academics or the emphasis on institutional learning.  So I want to promote self-education and lifelong questioning simply for the heck of it.  We have libraries and the internet; learning is readily available, and now we just need to form communities to engage in it.

The problem is lack of time.  Most jobs require long hours.  Which works fine if you really want to buy stuff.  But I don’t care about stuff.  I’ve wanted time to play mandolin, to learn quantum mechanics, to question and get others to question, and to cook tasty food.  Most of this can be done for cheap to free; I just needed a job to give me breathing space. 

The goal?  Become a professional tutor, set my own hours making decent money doing something I actually like.  Then in my free time I could study what I want and write what I want without worrying about either tenure and grants or mindless office dronemanship.

Well, last week I got a message about a tutoring gig at a local high school who wanted someone to come in and supplement their math and science classes.  It was just enough to let me quit my old job taking telephone calls, to let me focus on building up my tutoring business.

The long-term goal is to use this position, where I set my hours and engage in educational activities already, to write more, to talk more, to gather people together more to understand this crazy world of ours – without worrying about taking out loans to do so, without undue focus on mere job skills which leave the rest of life untouched.

So let’s see how this next phase goes!

I’m going to start posting blog posts on my new blog which I’m setting up for these purposes; I’ll put info out when I feel like it’s in workable condition.

Not So Common (Sense)

You interview a bunch of successful businessmen.  They all tell you that you need to take big risks in order to succeed.  And it worked for them – so this is a sure-fire strategy for success, right?

You look at fighter jets which survived the war.  They all have bullet holes down the centre of their fuselage.  In order to protect the next batch and increase survivors, you should put extra plating on those places you see the holes, right?

You had a dream.  A friend boarded a train, which then derailed.  The next morning, said friend was late for a trip on said train – which then derailed.  Premonition, right?

Actually, the human mind is really, really poor at tracing causes.  You never hear the stories of the businessmen who failed – and there have to be some, if the risks are actually risky.  If there were 100 failures to every success, especially bankruptcy-causing failures which leave families in ruin, would you still follow the “risk-taking” advice?  Those fighter jets were the ones which survived – the last place you should place plating is where they were struck, since evidently they can handle it just fine.  And if you dream several dreams every night, the probability that at least once you’ll have a scary accurate premonition is rather high – even more so since you knew your friend was travelling, and so were more likely to dream about them doing so.

Probability is one area where we fail spectacularly.  But not the only one.  The idea that sickness is caused by little tiny critters, and something like hand-washing could drastically increase survival in a hospital ward?  That took some convincing, and the reason why you or I find it obvious is because we have been brought up hearing it our entire lives.  That the earth rotates around the sun, and that the stars “above” move rather than staying fixed?  Species can slowly evolve into completely new species?  Time and length are relative to frames of reference, and light has a defined speed?  The stuff that makes everything up gets *really wonky* the more you look at its pieces?  Some aspects of our mind are completely unconscious?  There are physical clumps of neurons for any thought we might have?  Spacetime is curved?  All these things and more are counter-intuitive; if not for us now, then at least for most of humanity throughout time. 

Our brains process reality in a way to keep us alive more or less, not to find truth.  We catch it playing tricks on us regularly.  Common sense is a great way of working with the people around us; we’re all human, so at least our human brains are playing the same tricks on all of us.  If I share a weird premonition with you, you’ll feel the force of it and ask with me, “What are the odds?” But when we sit down and actually calculate the odds, it turns out I’m not so special after all.

So yes, our minds do shape the world and structure our experience.  But they don’t always do so in a rational way.  Just because something “feels true,” just because I “can’t see it any other way,” does not mean that I have any evidence whatsoever as to how reality is constructed.

Transcendental, My Dear Watson

Last time, I arguing that it’s all in our heads.  There’s nothing behind or beyond our experiences, and in particular, our sensations.

But something’s not quite right about that.  If I count five minutes on a boring phone call, than other seven minutes on another call, but a look at the clock tells me that only ten minutes in total have passed, then I don’t simply say that all experiences involved were valid.  The truth that 5+7=12 trumps the straightforward reading of this experience.  Either a clock is slow, or I misjudged how long a call was, or some measurement in some fashion was wrong.  But there is a reality which is separate from those experiences.

Look at this optical illusion.  Is the one red circle bigger than the other?  It looks like it is – and if looks are all there are, then it must be so.  But measure them, and you’ll see that the two are the same shape.  If I match each one up with the same couple marks on a piece of paper, then I reason that two things which are equal to a third thing are themselves equal.  Reason trumps the senses.

Where do these rational principles come from, though?  Kant would say that they are they way in which our minds process the senses.  We have to think in these categories, we have to think that 5+7=12 and that two things equal to a third are themselves equal, because that’s how our minds makes experience possible.  Without that order imposed by these concepts and judgements, there would be nothing to hold experience together; it would all be a bloomin’ buzz and confusion. 

But we do experience things as somewhat unified.  Even if everything doesn’t make sense, the feel of my fingers on the keyboard, the slight pain in my fingertip from playing mandolin too much, the sound of the air conditioning, the appearing of words on my screen, these all constitute a world for me right now.  And once they all are forced onto the same playground to play, not all experiences will be treated as equal.

So, transcendental idealism in a nutshell – the way we experience the world as a world is because our minds are making it up, putting order into the chaos of sensation.

But careful with those minds!  Next, I’ll talk about the pitfalls of believing things just because they make sense.