Sean Kelly: Existentialism, Nihilism, and the Search for Meaning | Lex Fridman Podcast #227 | Transcription

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Intro (00:00)

The following is a conversation with Sean Kelly, a philosopher at Harvard specializing in existentialism and the philosophy of mind. This is the Lex Friedman podcast to support it. Please check out our sponsors in the description. And now here's my conversation with Sean Kelly. Your interests are in post-content European philosophy, especially phenomenology and existentialism. So let me ask, what to you is existentialism? So it's a hard question. I'm teaching a course on existentialism right now. You are. I am. Yeah, existentialism in literature and film, which is fun. I mean, the traditional thing to say about what existentialism is, is that it's a movement in mid 20th century, mostly French, some German philosophy. And some of the major figures associated with it are people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, maybe Martin Heidegger. But that's a weird thing to say about it because most of those people denied that they were existentialists. And in fact, I think of it as a movement that has a much longer history. So when I try to describe what the core idea of existentialism is, it's an idea that you find a history. What's kind expressed in different ways in a bunch of these people, one of the ways that it's expressed is that Sartre will say that existentialism is the view that there is no God and at least his form of existentialism. He calls it atheistic existentialism. There is no God. And since there is no God, there must be some other being around who does something like what God does. Otherwise, there wouldn't be any possibility for significance in a life. And that being is us and the feature of us, according to Sartre and the other existentialists, that puts us in the position to be able to play that role is that we're the beings for whom as Sartre says it, existence precedes essence.

Understanding Sartre'S Existentialism

What does Sartres existentialism mean? (02:16)

That's the catchphrase for existentialism. And then you have to try to figure out what it means. What is existence? What is presence? And what does precedes mean? Yeah, exactly. What is existence? What is essence and what is precedes? And in fact, precedes is Sartre's way of talking about it and other people will talk about it differently. But here's a way of here's the way Sartre thinks about it. This is not, I think, the most interesting way to think about it, but I get you started. Sartre says, there's nothing true about what it is to be you until you start existing and still you to be. Until you start living. And for Sartre, the core feature of what it is to be existing, the way we do, is to be making decisions, to be making choices in your life, to be sort of taking a stand on what it is to be you by deciding to do this or that. And the key feature of how to do that right for Sartre is to do it in the full recognition of the fact that when you make that choice, nobody is responsible. For it other than you. So you don't make the choice because God tells you to. You don't make the choice because some utilitarian calculus about what what it's right to do tells you to do. You don't make the choice because some other philosophical theory tells you to do it. There's literally nothing on the basis of which you make the choice other than the fact that in that moment, you are the one making it. You are conscious thinking being that made a decision. So all of the questions about physics and free will are out the window. Yeah, that's right. If you were a determinist about the mind, if you were a physicalist about the mind, if you thought there was nothing to your choices other than the activity of the brain that's governed by physical laws, then there's some sense in which it would seem at any rate. Like you're not the ground of that choice. The ground of that choice was the physical universe and the laws that govern it. And then you have no responsibility. And so Sartre's view is that the thing that's special about us used to be special about God is that we're responsible for becoming the being that makes the choices that we do. And Sartre thinks that that simultaneously empowering. I mean, it practically puts us in the place of God and also terrifying. Because what responsibility? How can you possibly take on that responsibility? And he thinks it's worse than that. He thinks that it's always happening. Everything that you do is the result of some choice that you've made, the posture that you sit in the way you hold someone's gaze when you're having a conversation with them or not. The choice to make a note. When someone says something or not make a note. Everything that you do presents you as a being who makes decisions and you're responsible for all of them. So it's constantly happening. And furthermore, there's no fact about you. Independent of the choices and actions you've performed. So you don't get to say Sartre's example. I really am a great writer. Just haven't written my great book yet. If you haven't written your great book, you're not a great writer. And so it's terrifying. It puts a huge burden on us. And that's why Sartre says on his view of existentialism, human beings are the beings that are condemned to be free. Our freedom consists in our ability and our responsibility to make these choices and to become someone through making them. And we can't get away from that. But to him it's terrifying not liberating in the positive meaning of the word liberating. Well, so he thinks it should be liberating. But he thinks that it takes a very courageous individual to be liberated by it. Nietzsche, I think, thought something similar. I think Sartre's really coming out of a Nietzschean sort of tradition. But what's liberating about it, if it is, is also terrifying because it means in a certain way you're the ground of your own being. You become what you do through existing. So that's one form of existentialism. That's a stark atheistic version of it. There's lots of other versions. But it's somehow organized around the idea that it's through living your life that you become who you are. It's not facts that are sort of true about you independent of your living your life. But then there's no God in that view. Does any of the decisions matter? So how does existentialism differ from nihilism? Good.

Or is there any way that you can criticize someone for living the way they do if youre an existentialist? (07:14)

Okay. Great question. There was two different ways that you're asking it. Let me leave nihilism to the side for just a second and think about mattering. Or is there any way that you can criticize someone for living the way they do if you're an existential? Including yourself. Including yourself. Yeah. Sart addresses that and he says, yes, he says there is a criticism that you can make of yourself or of others. And it's the criticism of living in such a way as to fail to take responsibility for your choices. He gives these two sort of amazing examples. One doesn't, I don't know if it reads as well as for us as it does as it did in sort of mid 20th century Paris. But it's about a waiter. He gives this in his big book, Being in Nothingness. And he says, so waiters played still do I think in a certain way in Paris. A big role in Parisian society to be a waiter involved having a certain kind of identity being a certain way. Taking control of and charge of the experience of the people that you're you're waiting on, but also, you know, really being the authority like knowing that this is the way it's supposed to go. And so Sart imagines a waiter who does everything that a waiter is supposed to do. The perfect form of the waiter except that you can somehow see in the way he's doing it. That he's doing it because he believes that's the way a waiter should act. So there's some sense in which he's passing off the responsibility for his actions onto some idea of what those actions should be. He's not taking responsibility for it. He's sort of playing a role and the contours of the role are predetermined by someone other than him. So he starts as acting in bad faith and that's criticizing because it's acting in such a way as to fail to take responsibility for the kind of being Sart thinks you are. So you're not taking responsibility. So that's one example. And I think, you know, are there any teenager, if you've ever met a teenager, you've known someone who who does that teenager's try on roles. They think, if I dressed like this, I would be cool. So I'll dress like this. Or if I spoke like this or acted like this. And it's natural for a teenager who's trying to figure out what their identity is to go through a phase like that. But if you continue to do that, then you're really passing. So that's one example. The other example he gives is an example, not of passing off responsibility by pretending that someone else is the ground of your choice. But passing off responsibility by pretending that you might be able to get away with not making a choice at all. So he says, you're always everything you do is a result of your choices. And so he gives this other example. There you are on the first date. First date. And the date, the evening reaches moments when might be appropriate for one person to hold the hand of the other. That's the moment in the date where you are. And so you make a choice, you decide. I think it's that time and you hold the hand. And what should happen is that the other person also makes a choice on SART's view. Either they reject the hand, not that time. And I'm taking responsibility for that. Or they grasp the hand back. That's a choice. But there's a thing that sometimes happens, which is that the other person leaves the hand there cold, dead and clammy. Neither rejecting it, nor embracing it. And SART says, that's also bad faith. That's also acting as if we're a kind of being that we're not. Because it pretends that it's possible not to make a choice. And we're the beings who are always making choices. That was a choice. And you're pretending as if it's the kind of thing that you don't have to take responsibility for. So both of the examples you've given, there's some sense in which the social interactions between humans is the kind of moving away from the full responsibility that you as a human in the view of existentialism should take on. So like, isn't the basic conversation, a delegation of responsibility just holding a hand there? You're putting some of the responsibility into the court of the other person. And for the waiter, if you exist in a society, you are generally trying on a role. I mean, all of us are trying on a role. Me wearing clothes is me trying on a role that I was told to try as opposed to walking around naked all the time. Like there's like standards of how you operate. And that's not, that's a decision that's not my own. That's me seeing what everyone else is doing and copying them. Yeah, exactly. So SART thinks that in the ideal, you should try to resist that. Other existentialists think that that's actually a clue to how you should live well. Yeah. So SART says somewhere else, hell is other people. Why is hell other people for SART? Well, because other people are making choices also. And when other people make choices, they put some pressure on me to think that the choice they made is one that I should copy, or one that I should sort of promote. But if I do it because they did it, then I'm in bad faith for SART. So it is as if SART's view is like we would be better if we were all alone. I mean, this is really simplifying SART's position, and this is really just mostly SART in a certain period of his formation. But anyhow, we can imagine that view, and I think there's something to the idea that SART is attracted to it, at least in the mid-40s. Can you dig into hell as other people? Is there some, obviously it's kind of almost like a literary, like you push the point strongly to really explore that point. But is there some sense in that other people ruin the experience of what it means to be human? I think for SART, the phenomenon is this.

You have to make the choice. (14:05)

Like, it's not just that you wear clothes because people wear clothes in our society. Like you have a particular style. You wear a particular kind of clothes. And for SART, like to have that style authentically in good faith rather than in bad faith, it has to come from you. You have to make the choice. But other people are making choices also. And like you're looking at their choices and you're thinking, that guy looks good. Maybe I could try that one on. And if you try it on because you were influenced by the fact that you thought that guy was doing it well, then there's some important sense in which all of that's a resource for a choice for you. It's also acting in bad faith. So, and God wouldn't do that. God wouldn't be influenced by other decisions. And if that's the model, then I think that's the sense in which he thinks how is other people. What do you think parenting is then? It's like what? Because God doesn't have a parent. Yeah. So, aren't we significantly influenced, first of all, in the first few years of life? Absolutely.

Describing Nietzsschean Nihilism (15:11)

And even the teenager is resisting learning through resistance. Absolutely. I mean, I think what you're pushing on is the intuition that the ideal that starts aiming at is a kind of inhuman ideal. I mean, there's many ways in which we're not like the traditional view of what God was. One is that we're not self-generating. We have parents. We're raised into traditions and social norms, and we're raised into an understanding of what's appropriate and inappropriate to do. And I think that's a deep intuition. I think that's exactly right. Martin Heidegger, who's the philosopher that's art thinks he's sort of taking this from, but I think it's a kind of brilliant French misinterpretation of Heidegger's German phenomenological view. Heidegger says, "A crucial aspect of what it is to be us is our throne-ness. We're thrown into a situation. We're thrown into history. We're thrown into our parental lineage. And we don't choose it. That's stuff that we don't choose. We couldn't choose. If we were God and we existed outside of time, maybe, but we're not. We're finite in the sense that we have a beginning that we never chose. We have an end that we're often trying to resist or put off or something. And in between, there's a whole bunch of stuff that organizes us without our ever having made the choice. And without our being, the kind of being that could make the choice to allow it to organize us. We have a complicated relationship to that stuff. I think we should talk about that at a certain point, but the first move is to say, "So, I've just got a sort of descriptive problem. He's missed this basic fact that there's an awful... There has to be an awful lot about us that's settled without our having made the choice to settle it that way." Right. The throne-ness of life. Yeah. That's a fundamental part of life. You can't just escape it. Exactly. You can't escape it altogether. All together. Yeah, exactly. You can't escape it altogether. But nevertheless, you are writing a wave and you make a decision in the writing of the way. You can't control the wave, but you should be... As you write it, you should be making certain kinds of decisions and take responsibility for it. So, why does this matter at all, the chain of decisions you make?

Describing Radical Freedom (17:59)

Good. Well, because they constitute you, they make you the person that you are. So, what's the opposite view? What's this view against? This view is against most of philosophy from Plato forward. Plato says in the Republic, it's a kind of myth, but he says, people will understand their condition well. If we tell them this myth, he says, "Look, when you're born, there's just a fact about you. Your soul is either gold, silver, or bronze." Those are the three kinds of people there are, and you're born that way. And if your soul is gold, then we should identify that and make you a philosopher king. And if your soul is silver, well, you're not going to be a philosopher king. You're not capable of it, but you could be a good warrior and we should make you that. And if your soul is bronze, then you should be a farmer, a laborer, something like that. And that's a fact about you that identifies you forever and for always, independent of anything you do about it. And so that's the alternative view. And you could have modern versions of it. You could say the thing that identifies you is your IQ, or your genetic makeup, or the percentage of fast-witched muscle fibers you've got, or whatever. It could be something totally independent of any choice that you've made, independent of the kind of thing about which you could make a choice. And it categorizes you. It makes you the person that you are. That's the thing that's started and the existentialists are against. So this idea that something about you is forever limiting the space of possible decisions you can make. Sartre says, "No, the space is unlimited." Sartre is the philosopher of radical freedom. Radical freedom. Radical freedom. And then you could have other existentialists who say, "Look, we are free, but we've got to understand the way in which our freedom is limited by certain aspects of the kind of being that we are. If we were radically free, we really would be like God in the traditional medieval sense. And these folks start with the idea that whatever we are, that's a kind of limit point that we're not going to reach. So what are the ways in which we're constrained that that being the way the medieval's understood him wasn't constrained? So can you maybe comment on what is nihilism and is it at all a useful other group of ideas that you resist against in defining existentialism? Yes, good. Excellent. So nihilism, the philosopher who made the term popular, although it was used before him is Nietzsche. Nietzsche is writing in the end of the 19th century in various places where he published things, but largely in his unpublished works, he identifies the condition of the modern world as nihilistic. And that's a descriptive claim. He's looking around him, trying to figure out what it's like to be us now. And he says it's a lot different from what it was like to be human in 1300 or in the 5th century BCE. In 1300, what people believed, the way they lived their lives was in the understanding that to be human was to be created in the image and likeness of God. That's the way they understood themselves. And also to be created sinful because of Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden. And to have the project of trying to understand how as a sinful being, you could nevertheless live a life of virtuous life. How could you do that? And it had to do with for them getting in the right relation to God. Nietzsche says, "That doesn't make sense to us anymore in the end of the 19th century. God is dead," says Nietzsche, famously. And what does that mean? Well, it means something like the role that God used to play in our understanding of ourselves as a culture is in a role that God can play anymore. And so Nietzsche says, "The role that God used to play was the role of grounding our existence." He was what it is in virtue of which we are who we are. And Nietzsche says, "The idea that there is a being that makes us what we are doesn't make sense anymore." And that's like Sartre's atheism. Sartre's taking that from Nietzsche. And so the question is, what does ground our existence? And the answer is, "Nehil, nothing." And so nihilism is the idea that there's nothing outside of us that grounds our existence. And then Nietzsche asks the question, "Well, what are we supposed to do about that? How do we live?"

Jazz and Freedom (23:01)

And I think Nietzsche has a different story than Sartre about that. Nietzsche doesn't emphasize this notion of radical freedom. Nietzsche emphasizes something else. He says, "We're artists of life." And artists are interesting because the natural way of thinking about artists is that they're responding to something. They find themselves in a situation and they say, "This is what's going to make sense of the situation. This is what I have to write. This is the way I have to dance. This is the way I've got to play the music." And Nietzsche says, "We should live like that." There are constraints, but understanding what they are is complicated aspect of living itself. And there's a great story, I think, from music that maybe helps to understand this. I think Nietzsche, of course, jazz didn't exist when Nietzsche was writing, but I think Nietzsche really is thinking of something like jazz improvisation. I mean, he talks about improvisation. There's classical improvisation. Nietzsche was, by the way, a musician. I mean, he was a composer and a pianist. Not a great one, really, to be fair, but he loved music. And Herbie Hancock, who's a pianist, a jazz pianist, who played with Miles Davis for quite a while in the 60s, tells this kind of incredible story that I think exemplifies Nietzsche's view about the way in which we bear some responsibility for being creative and that gives us a certain kind of freedom. But we don't have the radical freedom, the radical freedom that's art thinks. So what's the story? Herbie Hancock says, "I think they were in Stuttgart," he says, "playing a show and things were great," he says. He's a young pianist and Miles Davis is the master. And he says, "I'm back in the solo and I'm playing these chords." And he says, "I played this chord and it was the wrong chord." He's like, "That's what you've got to say. It didn't work right there." And I thought, "Holy mackerel, I screwed up." You know, I screwed up. We were tight. Everything was working. And I blew it for Miles, who's doing his solo. And he said, "Miles paused for a moment." And then all of a sudden, he went on in a way that made my chord right. And I think that idea that you could be an artist who responds to what's thrown at you in such a way as to make it right.

Theres Still Meaning to Life Under Nihilism (25:51)

By what measure? Everyone could hear it, is all you can say. Everyone knew, "Wow, that really works." And I think that's not like there are constraints. Not anything would have worked there. He couldn't have just played anything. Most of what anyone would have played would have sounded terrible. But the constraints aren't like pre-existing. They're sort of what's happening now in the moment for these listeners and these performers.

What God, Nietzsche? (26:32)

And I think that's what Nietzsche thinks the right response to nihilism is. We're involved, but we're not radically free to make any choice and just stand behind it the way it starts things. Our choices have to be responsive to our situation. And they have to make the situation work. They have to make it right. And there's something about music to see basically have to make music of all the moments of life. And there is something about music, why is music so compelling? And when you listen to it, something about certain kinds of music, it connects with you. It doesn't make any sense. But in that same way, for Nietzsche, you should be a creative force that creates a musical masterpiece. Exactly. And I think what's interesting is the question, what does it mean to be a creative force there? There's a traditional notion of creation that we associate with God. God creates ex-nealo out of nothing. And you might think that nihilism thinks that we should do that. Create ex-nealo because it's about how there's nothing at our ground. But I think the right way to read Nietzsche is to recognize that we don't create out of nothing. Miles Davis wasn't nothing. That situation pre-existed him. It was given to him. Maybe by accident, maybe it was a mistake, whatever. But he was responding to that situation in a way that made it right. He wasn't just creating out of nothing. He was creating out of what was already there. So that makes that first date with the climbing hand even more complicated. Because you're giving a climbing hand, you're going to have to make art and music out of that. Exactly. And that's the responsibility for both of them. Wow, that's a lot of responsibility for a first date because you have to create. The emphasis isn't just on making decisions. It's on creating. And but also on listening, right? I mean, Miles Davis was listening. He heard that. He knew it was wrong. And the question was, what do I play that makes it right? So let me ask about Nietzsche. Is God dead? What does he mean by that statement? What's in your sense the truth behind the question and the possible set of answers that our world today provides? Good. So I mean, I think that there's something super perceptive about Nietzsche's diagnosis of the condition at the end of the 19th century. So not so far from the condition that I think we're currently in. And I think there's an interesting question what we're supposed to respond, what we're supposed to do in response. But what is the condition that we're currently in? When Nietzsche says God is dead, I think like I was saying before, he means something like the role of the world. And I think the role that God used to play in grounding our existence is not a role that works for us anymore as a culture. And when people talk about a view like that nowadays, they use a different terminology, but I think it's roughly what Nietzsche was aiming at. They say we live in a secular age. Our age is a secular age.

Living in Age Secularism (29:41)

And so what do people mean when they say that? I think, first of all, it's a descriptive claim. It could be wrong. The question is does this really describe the way we experience ourselves as a culture or as a culture in the West or wherever it is that we are? So what does it mean to say that we live in a secular age, an age in which God is dead? Well, the first thing is it doesn't mean there are no religious believers because there are plenty. There are lots of people who go to church or synagogue or mosque every week or more. And there are people who really find that to be an important aspect of the way they live their lives. But it does mean that for those people, the role of their religious, their religious belief plays in their life isn't the same as it used to be in previous ages. So what's that role? We'll go back to the High Middle Ages. That was clearly not a secular age. That was a religious age. And so there we are in 1300. Dante is writing the Divine Comedy or something. And what did it mean then to live in a sacred age? Well, it meant not just that the default was that you were a Christian in the West, but that your Christianity, your religious belief, your religious affiliation justified certain assumptions about people who didn't share that religion. You didn't share that religious belief. So you're a Christian in the West in 1300 and you meet someone who's a Muslim. And the fact that they don't share your religious belief justifies the conclusion that they're less than human. And that was the ground of the Crusades. That was the religious wars of the High Middle Ages. To say that we live in a secular age is to say that not that we don't have, there aren't a lot of people who have religious belief, there are. But it's to say that their religious belief doesn't justify that conclusion. If you're a religious believer and you meet me and suppose I'm not a religious believer, learning that about me doesn't justify your concluding that I'm less than human. And that's the kind of liberalism of the modern age. Most of the time we think that's a good thing. We let a thousand flowers bloom. There are lots of ways to live a good life. And there's some way in which that is a nice progressive kind of liberal thought. But it's also true that it's an undermining thought because it means if you're a religious believer now, your belief can't ground your understanding of what you are. You can't say that you can't conclude as a religious believer. I know it's right to do this because you also know that if you meet someone who doesn't share that religious belief and so doesn't think it's right to do that necessarily or does but for different reasons, you can't conclude that they've got it wrong. So there's this sort of unsettling aspect to it. Well, isn't it true that you can't conclude as a public statement to others? But within your own mind, it's almost like an existentialist version of belief, which is like you create the world around you. Like it doesn't matter what others believe. It's actually almost like empowering thought. So as opposed to the more traditional view of religion where it's like a tribal idea, like where you share that idea together. Here you have the full, back to Sartre, full responsibility of your beliefs as well. Good, good. But what you're describing is not a religious believer. You're describing someone who's found in themselves the ground of their existence rather than in something outside of themselves. So the religious belief, I mean, if you go full Sartrean, then well, you're not in a position to criticize others for the choices that they make, but you are in a position to criticize them for the way in which they make them. Either taking responsibility or not taking responsibility. But the religious believer used to be able to say, "Look, the choices that I make are right because God demands that I make them." And nowadays, like, and so it would be wrong to make any others. And nowadays, to say that we live in a secular age, just say, "Well, you can't quite do that and be a religious believer. Your religious belief can't justify that move, and so it can't ground your life in the way it does." So it's sort of unsettling. I think that's one of the interpretations of what Nietzsche might have meant when he said God is dead. God can't play the role for religious believers in our world that he used to. But we nevertheless find meaning. I mean, you don't see nihilism as a prevalent set of ideas that are overtaken modern culture. So a secular world is still full of meaning. Good. Well, I think that's the interesting question. I think it's certainly possible for a secular world to be a world in which we live meaningful lives, worthwhile lives, lives that are sort of worthy of respect and that we can be proud of aiming to live. But I think it is a hard question, what we're doing when we do that. And that is the question of existence. So what does it mean to exist in a way that brings us out at our best as the beings that we are? That's the question for existentialism. So besides Sartre, who to you is the most important existentialist to understand for others what ideas in particular of theirs do you like?

Existentialism: Sjocome, Champion of the Husband of Struggle (35:51)

Maybe other existentialists, not just one. Yeah. So Sartre is the grounding strong atheistic existentialism statement. Who else is there? So I'm teaching an existentialism course now, and I think the tradition goes back at least to the 17th century. And I'll just tell you some of the figures that I'm teaching there. We could talk about any of them that you like. The figure I start with is Pascal, Pascal, French mathematician from the 17th century. He died terrible with dates, but I think 1661 or something like that, middle of the 17th century. Brilliant polymath, sort of we have computer languages named after him. He built the first mechanical calculating machine. But he was also deeply invested in his understanding of what Christianity was. And he thought that everyone before him had really misunderstood what Christianity was. That they'd really attempted to think about it, not as a way of living a life, but as a set of beliefs that you can have, and which you can justify. And I think that's the first move that's really pretty interesting. And then figures like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky develop that move. And all of those take themselves to be defending an interpretation of a certain kind of Christianity, an existential interpretation of Christianity. And then I think there are other figures, other theistic figures, figures like Camus and Fanon, who are mid 20th century figures. And then I'll just mention the figure who I think is the most interesting is Martin Heidegger. He's a complicated figure. By the way, when you said, sorry to interrupt, when you said Camus, you meant atheistic. I think that Camus was an atheistic existentialist. Yeah, I'm happy to talk about that. So, okay, so we got, it's like sports cards. We have the different existential. So maybe let's go to, you know what, let's go to Dostoevsky. All right, okay, let's do it. My favorite novel of his is The Idiot. First of all, I see myself as the idiot and an idiot. And I love the optimism and the love the main character has for the world. So that just deeply connects with me as a novel. Notes from Underground as well. But what ideas of Dostoevsky's do you think are existentialist? What ideas are formative to the whole existentialist movement? Excellent. So let me talk about the Brothers Caramats off. Yes. Partly because that's the last novel that Dostoevsky wrote. I think it's certainly one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Maybe the best. And I'm about to teach it in a few weeks. So I'm super excited about it.

Is responsibility real? Like from Dostoevsky. (38:51)

But what is the Brothers Caramats off about? I mean, without, you know, without spoiling the ending for anyone. Spoiler alert. Yeah, I mean, look, it's a murder mystery, right? I mean, the father gets murdered. And the question is, who did it? Who's responsible for it? So there's a notion of responsibility here, like in Sartre. But it's responsibility for a murder. That's what we're talking about. And there's a bunch of brothers, each of whom has pretty good motivation for having murdered the father. The father's a jerk. I mean, he's, you know, if anybody is worthy of being murdered, he's the guy. He's, he's, he's a force of chaos and he's nasty in all sorts of ways. But still, it's not, not good to murder people. So, so what's the, what's the view of Dostoevsky? I mean, it's this intense exploration of what it means to be involved in various ways with an activity that everyone can recognize as atrocious. And what the right way is to take responsibility for that? What the right way is to relate to others in the face of it? And how even through this kind of action, you can achieve some kind of salvation. That's Dostoevsky's word for it. You can, and, but salvation here and now, not like you live some afterlife where you're, you know, paradise for eternity. Who cares about that, says one of the characters? That doesn't make my life now any good. And it doesn't justify any of the bad things that happen in my life now. What matters is, can we live well in the face of these things that we do and have to take responsibility for? So it's this intense exploration of notions and gradations of guilt and responsibility and the possibility of love and salvation in the face of those. It is incredibly human work. And I think Dostoevsky is the opposite of Sartre. And let me just, I think it's so fascinating. I don't know anybody else who notices this, but Sartre, Sartre actually quotes a passage from Dostoevsky when he's developing his view.

The Sartres conditional statement, God (41:13)

It's close to a passage. It doesn't appear quite in this way. But the passage that Sartre quotes is this, it's in the form of an argument. Sartre puts it in the form of an argument. He says, look, there's a conditional statement is true. If there is no God, then everything is permitted. And then there's a second premise. There is no God. That's Sartre's view. I mean, he's an atheist. There is no God. Conclusion? Everything is permitted. And that Sartre's radical freedom. And if you think about the structure of the Brothers Karamatsov, I think Dostoevsky, though he never says it this way, would run the argument differently. It's a modus tolens instead of a modus bonans. The argument for Dostoevsky would go like this. A conditional statement, if there is no God, then everything is permitted. But look at your life. Not everything is permitted. You do horrible atrocious things, like be involved in the death of your father. And there is a price to pay. That's not a livable moment to have to take responsibility, to have to recognize that you're at fault, or you're somehow guilty for having been involved in whatever way you were and letting that happen or bringing it about that it does happen. It's to pay a price. So we're not beings that are constituted in such a way that everything is permitted. Look at the facts of your existence. So not everything is permitted. Therefore, there is a God. And the presence of a God for Dostoevsky, I think, is just found in this fact that when we do bad things, we feel guilty for them. That we find ourselves to be responsible for things even when we didn't intend to do them. But we just allowed ourselves to be involved in that. And the nature of God for Dostoevsky is unclear. It's a very complex exploration in itself. And basically, God speaks through several of his characters in complicated ways. So it's not like a trivial version of God. It's totally not trivial. And it's not a being that exists outside of time. None of that is sort of relevant for Dostoevsky. For him, it's a question about how we live our lives. Do we live our lives in the mood that Christianity says it makes available to us, which is the mood of joy? Maybe this is a bit of a tangent, but so I'm a Russian speaker. And one of the... I kind of listened to my heart. And what my heart says is I need to take on this project.

Exploring Existential Ideas And Translations

Sometimes its best to explore ideas in different languages (43:55)

So there's a couple of famous translators of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy that live in Paris currently. So I'm going to take the journey. We agreed to have a full conversation about Dostoevsky, about Tolstoy and a series of conversations. And the reason I fell in love with this idea is I just realized, in translating from Russian to English, how deep philosophical... how much deep philosophical thinking is required. Just to get like single sentences, they spent like weeks debating single sentences. So, and all of that is part of a journey to Russia for several reasons, but I just... I want to explore something in me that longs to understand and to connect with the roots where I come from. So, maybe can you comment whether it's on the Russian side or the German side or other French side? Is there something in your own explorations of these philosophies that you find that you miss because you don't deeply know the language? Or like how important is it to understand the language? Good. I think it's super important and I'm always embarrassed that I don't know more languages and don't know the languages I know as well as I would like to. But there's a way in... so I do think different languages allow you to think in different ways. And that there's a sort of a mode of existence, a way of being that's captured by a language that it makes certain ways of thinking about yourself or others more natural. And it closes off other ways of thinking about yourself and others. And so I think languages are fascinating in that way. The Heidegger who is this philosopher that I'm interested in says at one point, "language is the house of being." And I think that means something like it's by living in a language that you come to understand or that possibilities for understanding what it is to be you and others and anything are opened up. And different languages open up different possibilities. And we had that discussion offline about James Joyce, how I took a course in James Joyce, and how I don't think I understood anything besides the dead and the short stories. And you suggested that it might be helpful to actually visit Ireland, visit Dublin to truly help you understand maybe fall in love with the words. And so that presumably is not purely about the understanding of the actual words of the language. It's understanding something much deeper. The music of the language or something. Music of the ideas. Absolutely. Something like that. It's very hard to say exactly what that is. But when you hear an Irish person who really understands Joyce read some sentences, they have a different cadence, they have a different tonality, they have different music. To use your word. And all of a sudden you think about them differently. And the sentences sort of draw different thoughts out of you when they're read in certain ways. That's what great actors can do. But I think language is rich like that. And the idea which philosophers tend to have, that we're really studying the crucial aspects of language when we think about its logical form. When we think about the sort of claims of philosophical logic that you can make or how do you translate this proposition into some symbolic form. I think that's part of what goes on in language. But I think that when language affects us in the deep way that it can, when great poets or great writers or great thinkers use it to great effect, it's way more than that. And that's the interesting form of language that I'm interested in. It's kind of a challenge I'm hoping to take on is I feel like some of the ideas that are conveyed through language are actually can be put outside of language. So one of the challenges I have to do is to have a conversation with people in Russian, but for an English audience and not rely purely on translators. There would of course be translators there that help me dance through this mess of language, but also like my goal, my hope is to dance from Russian to English back and forth for an English speaking audience and for a Russian speaking audience. So not this pure, this is Russian, it's going to be translated to English, or this is English is going to be translated to Russian, but dance back and forth and try to share with people who don't speak one of the languages, the music that they're missing. And sort of almost hear that music because if you're sitting in another room and you hear the music through the wall, I get a sense of it. I think that would be a waste if I don't try to pursue this being a bilingual human being. And I wonder whether it's possible to capture some of the magic of the ideas in a way that can be conveyed to people who don't speak that particular language.

The importance of translations (49:18)

I think it's a super exciting project. I look forward to following it. I'll tell you one thing that does happen. So we read Dostoevsky in translation. Occasionally I do have Russian speakers in the room, which is super helpful. But I also encourage my students to, you know, to some of them will have different translations than others. And that can be really helpful for the non native speaker because by paying attention to the places where translators diverge in their translations of a given word or a phrase or something like that. You can start to get the idea that somehow the words that we have in English, they don't have the same contours as the word in Russian that's being translated. And then you can start to ask about what those differences are. And I think there's a kind of magic to it. I mean, it's astonishing how rich and affecting these languages can be for people who really, who grew up in them, especially, who speak them as native speakers. And that's a really powerful thing that actually doesn't exist enough of is, for example, for Dostoevsky, most novels have been translated by two or three famous translators. And there's a lot of discussions about who did it better and so on. But I would love to this. I'm a computer science person. I would love to do a diff where you automatically detect all the differences in the translation just as you're saying and use that. Like somebody needs to publish literally just books describing the differences. In fact, I'll probably do a little bit of this. I heard the individual translators and interviewed in blog posts and articles discuss particular phrases that they differ on, but like to do that for an entire book. That's a fascinating exploration as an English speaker. Just read the differences in the translations. You probably can get to some deep understanding of ideas in those books by seeing the struggle of the translators to capture that idea. That's a really interesting idea. Absolutely. And you can do that for other projects and other languages too. I mean, one of the, I don't know, I have this weird, huge range of interests. Some days I'll find myself reading about something. At one point I was interested in 14th century German mysticism. Okay. Turns out there's somebody who's written volumes and volumes about this. He's fantastic.

Meister Eckhart (51:51)

And I was interested in reading Meister Eckhart. I wanted to know what was interesting about him. And the sort of move that this guy, Bernard McGinn, who's the great scholar of this period made, was to say what Eckhart did in the book. Well Eckhart did, and everybody knows this, he translated Christianity into the vernacular. He started giving sermons in German to the peasant. Sermons used to be in Latin and nobody could speak Latin. Can you imagine sitting there for two hour sermon in a language that you don't know? So he translated it into German. But in doing it, the resources of the German language are different from the resources of the Latin language. And there's a word in Middle High German, "krund", which is like, we translate it as ground. And it's got this earthy feel to it. It sort of invokes the notion of soil and what you stand on and what things grow out of. And sort of what you could run your fingers through that would have a kind of honesty to it. And there's no Latin word for that. But in Eckhart's interpretation of Christianity, that's like the fundamental thing. You don't understand God until you understand the way in which he is our ground. And all of a sudden this mysticism gets a kind of German cant that makes sense to the people who speak German and that reveals something totally different about what you could think that form of existence was. That was covered over by the fact that it had always been done in Latin. Yeah, that's fascinating. So, okay, we talked about Dostoevsky and the use of murder to explore human nature. Let's go to Camus, who is maybe less concerned with murder and more concerned with suicide as a way to explore human nature. So he is probably my favorite, existentialist. He is probably one of the more accessible existentialists. And like you said, one of the people who didn't like to call himself an existentialist. So what are your thoughts about Camus? What role does he play in the story of existentialism? So I find Camus totally fascinating. I really do. And for years, I didn't teach Camus because the famous thing that you're referring to, the myth of Sisyphus, which is a sort of essay published as a book, super accessible, really fascinating, great writer, really engaging. The opening line is something like, there is but one truly significant philosophical question. And that is the question of suicide. And I thought I can't teach my 18-year-olds of, you know, like how... Yeah. I just thought that's terrible. Like how can I... I mean, it's not wrong. Like that's a... But do I want to bring that into the classroom? And so I read it... I read the essay. I avoided it for a long time because just because of that line. And I thought I'm not going to be able to make sense of this in a way that will be helpful for anyone.

Human Existence (Sisyphus) (54:59)

But finally one year, maybe seven or eight years ago, I sat down to read it. I thought I've got to really confront it. And I read it and it's incredibly engaging. I mean, it's really, really beautiful. And Kemu was against suicide, which just turns out to be good. I was happy about that. But he has a bit of a bleak understanding of what human existence amounts to. And so in the end, he thinks that human existence is absurd. And it's being absurd as a kind of technical term for him. And it means that the episodes in your life and your life as a whole presents itself to you as if it's got a meaning. But really it doesn't. So there's this tension between the way things seem to be on their surface and what really turns out to be true. And he gives these great examples. You probably remember these. He says, "There you are. You're walking along the street and there's a plate glass window in a building and through the window. You see somebody talking on a telephone." I mean, I imagine it as a cell phone, but Kemu didn't. But you see somebody talking on a cell phone and he's animated. He's talking a lot as if things really meant something. And yet, Kemu says, "It's a dumb show." And it's not dumb in the sense, just in the sense that it's stupid. It's dumb in the sense that it's silent. It presents itself as if it's got some significance and yet it's significance is withheld from you. And he says, "That's what our lives are like. Everything in our lives presents themselves to us as if it's got a significance, but it doesn't. It's absurd." And then he says, "Really what our lives are like? They're like the lives of Cisophas." Just day after day, you do the same thing. You wake up at a certain time. You get on the bus. You go to work. You take your lunch break. You get off. I have a colleague who once said to me something like this. It was about October or so in the fall semester. I said, "How's it going, Dick?" He said, "Well, you know how it is? I got on the conveyor belt at the beginning of the semester and I'm just going through." And that's the way my life is. And Camus thinks that experience, which you can sometimes have, reveals something true about what human lives are like. Our lives really just are like the life of Cisophas, who rolls this boulder up the hill from morning until night. And then at night he gets to the top and it rolls back down to the bottom. Over the course of the night he walks back down and then he starts it all over again. And he says, "Cisophas is condemned to this life like we're condemned to our lives, but we do have one bit of freedom." And it's the only thing that we can hang on to. It's the freedom to stick it to the gods who put us in this position by embracing this existence rather than giving up and committing suicide. And I thought, "Well, it's kind of a happy ending."

Campus and Embrace versus Death (58:26)

But I also thought it's a dim view of what our existence amounts to. So I think there's something fascinating about that. But what I came to believe, and I tried to write about this once, I know you read the thing about a live-ness that I published once, that's secretly a criticism of Camus. I don't think I mentioned Camus in there. But I think Camus got the phenomenon wrong, or he's missed some important aspect of it. Because in Camus' view, when you experience your day as sort of going on in this deadening way and you're just doing the things that you always do, the way you always do them, for Camus, that reveals the truth about what our lives are. But I think there's some aspect, at least for me, and maybe he just didn't feel this or didn't have access to it. Maybe others don't. But for me, there's an extra part to it, which is somehow that, yes, that's the way things are, and it's inadequate. And there's something that's missing from that aspect of our existence that could be there. And it feels like our lives are not about just putting up with that and sticking it to the gods by embracing it, but seeking that absent part of it, the part that's recognizable in its absence in your experience of that. And that's what I think, I think we do have the experience of the presence of that in moments when you feel truly alive. And that's what you mean by the word "aliveness," which is a fascinating and a powerful word. Yeah, that's what I mean by it. I mean, I think most people can recognize moments in their lives when they really felt alive. And it could happen in a moment when, you know, I don't know, maybe Miles Davis felt it in that moment when he was responding to Herbie Hancock's chord. Or maybe you feel it in that moment where you grab for the hand on the first date and the gesture is reciprocated. Or maybe you feel it in some moment when you are doing a kind of peak athletic thing or watching somebody else do a peak athletic thing. But I think there are moments when it feels like it's not like the way Camus is describing things. And it's better because of that. So I think one really powerful way for me to understand aliveness is to think about, go into a darker territory, is to think about suicide. And I've known people in my life who suffer from clinical depression. Yeah.

The anger or absurdity of depression (01:01:11)

And, you know, whatever the chemistry is in our brain, there is a certain kind of feeling that is to be depressed. Where you look in the mirror and ask, do I want to kill myself today? This is the question that Camus asks this question, this philosophical question. And there is people who, when they're depressed, say, not only do they say, I want to kill myself or I don't, they say it doesn't matter. And that's chemistry. That's whatever that is, that's chemistry in our mind. And then on the flip side of that, for me, I've had some low points, but I've been very fortunate to not suffer from that kind of depression. I am the opposite, which is not only moments of peak performance in athletics or great music or any of that. I'm just deeply joyful often by mundane things.

Life And Existentialism In Various Mediums

Questioning aliveness with dopamine (01:02:18)

Like, as you were saying it, I was drinking this thing and it's cold. And for some reason, the coldness of that was like, oh, great, like refrigeration. I don't know. There was a joy in that. Like, I can't put it into words, but I just felt great. And then just so many things. You look out in nature. There's a nice breeze and just like, it's amazing. So that doesn't feel like I'm embracing the absurd. That seems like I'm getting some nice, like dopamine hits in whatever the chemistry is from just the basics of life. And that is the source of aliveness. However my brain is built, it's gotten a natural sort of mechanism for aliveness. And so one nice way to see the absence of aliveness is to look at the chemical, the clinical depression. And so that Camus doesn't seem to contend with that at all and asking the question of suicide. Because when you look in the mirror and ask, like, if I ask myself, do I want to kill myself today, I ask that question in a different way, more like a stoic way often. Like basically every day is, you know, what if I die today? It's more like contemplating your mortality every single day. You know, that excites me. The possibility that this is my last day. That, you know, it just reminds me how amazing life is. And that's chemistry. I don't know what that is, but that's certainly not some kind of philosophical decision I made. I am a little bit riding a wave of the chemistry of the genetics I've been given, of the dopamine. So that question of suicide, by the way, do you find that formulation of the question of existentialism? I know you didn't want to teach it because obviously, "su" says a very difficult word, especially for young minds. But do you think that's a useful formulation of the question of existentialism?

The focus on ones lifeiness by considering suicides. (01:04:24)

Like him saying, "This is the most important question of suicide." I think there is something to it. If you read the question as the question, what is it in virtue of which it ought to be desirable to live the lives that we're capable of living? That's a deep question. Yeah. That's a question that gets focused when someone asks themselves whether they ought to continue to live that life. The famous line, "Nothing focuses the mind more than one's impending execution." I think there's something important about that, that recognizing the riskiness and the vulnerability of one's existence is super important. And I think that if we didn't have that, our lives wouldn't be capable of being meaningful. If they weren't risky and vulnerable, there would be nothing to lose. And it's only because they're things to lose that they can come to have the significance that they do. So yeah, I think not against the idea that that's a deep way of approaching the questions at the core of existentialism. But as you said, I was worried for a while about how I was going to teach it. Well, I think there's a difference between suicide and not living because suicide is an action. So it feels like to me, like, suicide doesn't make sense because, you know, imagine you're in like a hotel and you're saying, "The room on me sucks." But like, there's other rooms, so like maybe explore those other rooms. Maybe you'll find meaning in those other rooms. Like basically embracing the fact that you don't know everything. And there's, you need time to explore everything. It's like once you've explored everything, then maybe you can make a full decision. But it's unfair to make a decision, I would say unethical to make a decision until you've explored all the rooms in the hotel. Yeah. And this gets focused in the Brothers Karamatsov, of course. There's one brother who is really asking that question, is asking the question of suicide. He's asking the question whether the world that we live in is a world that's worth living in. And I think that character, as you say, very ill. And it's possible, and often because, as you say, of brain chemistry, physiology, there's certainly a physical ground to that situation, to that condition. But I think it is possible for someone to be in that situation. I think that Ivan Karamatsov, who's the character who's asking this question, is chemically depressed or something like that. But I think there's more to it too. And I think that Dostoevsky's real view is that the brain chemistry doesn't exist on its own. The way we interact with one another, the way we care about or isolate ourselves from others, the way we care for the lives that we lead, affects the chemistry of our brain, which goes on and changes the mood that we're in. So I think Dostoevsky does think that Ivan's salvation, if he's capable of being saved, is going to come through the love of his brother Aliyosha. Let me bring maybe a bit of a tangent on you. Do you ever, one of my other favorite authors is Carmen Hesse? Do you ever include him in our deck of sport cards that represent existentialism? I haven't. Maybe I should. What should I read? What should I think about including? There's some kind of embrace of absurdism. There's an existentialist ideal pervading most of his work. But there's more of, like with Siddhartha, there's more, almost like a Buddhist, sort of like watch the river and become the river.

Humor from Siddhartha to Naz, (01:08:53)

Like this kind of idea that what it means to truly experience the moment. So there is an experiential part of existentialism where you want to, it's not just about, we've been talking about kind of decisions and actions, but also what it means to listen, like you said from Nietzsche. Like what it means to really take in the world and experience the moment. He's very good at writing about what it means to experience the moment and experience the full absurdity of the moment. And for him, I'm starting to forget, Steppenwolf, I think, is humor. It's part of the absurdity, which I think modern day Internet explores very well with memes and so on. Humor is a fundamental part of the existentialist ethic that's able to deal with absurdity. You've got to like laugh at it. I think there is something, let me just say something about humor, because I think you're absolutely right. Kierkegaard, who is Danish and most people think deeply depressed and then so on, is actually an incredibly funny writer. And someone who was a classmate of mine in graduate school, who left philosophy to become a Hollywood comedy writer, a very successful guy. And then he came back 25 years later and wrote "Finished Dissertation" and I was the reader on the dissertation. There may be a conflict of interest, I'm not quite sure. But his dissertation was about, he called it Kierkegaard and the funny, which is kind of a funny title. Yeah, but Kierkegaard, according to Eric Kaplan's reading, Kierkegaard does have this idea that there's something destabilizing about humor. That's crucial to the important possibilities for us. And so there's the idea that there's a moment when a joke is being set up, when you're sort of proceeding as if you're on stable ground. And then the punchline comes and the rug is pulled out from under you. And for a moment, it's like you're falling, you don't, there's nothing supporting you, until you're captured by your totally new understanding of what was going on. And that humor necessarily has that kind of destabilizing feature to it. And that's like the riskiness. That's like the riskiness that you were pointing to. If there aren't risks in your life, if your life is totally safe, then there's no possibility. And so I think on Eric's reading, Kierkegaard sort of wants to line up the importance of the riskiness and vulnerability in your life to its having meaning.

Notable Appearance of Existentialism in Film (01:11:45)

With the experience of destabilization that you get in jokes and comedy, which then becomes significant. Right? When you remember having heard a joke for the first time, it's got a kind of salience for you. Speaking of jokes and speaking of, you mentioned film and literature. So existentialism in film and literature. I think for a lot of people, especially nihilism, was experienced in the great work of our modern work of our called Big Lebowski. I don't know if you've ever seen that film, but there's a group of nihilists in that film. They're just like, they don't care about anything. I think they happen to be German, at least they have German accents. So maybe can you talk about notable appearances of existentialism in film? And if you at all ever bring up Big Lebowski, if that ever comes into play. So I know that people think about the Big Lebowski in this context. And I did actually re-watch it not so long ago. We have kids. I thought maybe it's time. It wasn't really time for the 11-year-old. So somewhat inappropriate. But I have never taught that film. So I'd have to think more. We could talk about it. I'd be having to try to think on the fly about it. Okay, so I would love to because there feels like there's a philosophical depth to that film. So there's a person that just, the main character. The Jeff Bridges character. Jeff Bridges character, yeah. He kind of, he drinks like these white Russians. And he just kind of walks around in a very relaxed way. And irradiates both a love for life. But also just an acceptance of like, it is what it is kind of philosophy. And then there's a bunch of characters that have very busy lives trying to do some big projects. That are dramatic in some way, make some huge amounts of money. So it kind of actually reminds me of the idea by the St. Eski in a certain kind of sense. And then there's these players, I mean they're phrased as nihilists. But they kind of don't care to enjoy life. They want to mess with life in some kind of way. And of course there's interesting personalities that, what is it, Jesus? The bowler. And then there's like Donnie, who is a bit clueless. And then there's the John Goodman character that's talking about, if you're a nom, and just takes life way too seriously, too intensely and so on. So it just paints a full sort of spectrum of characters that are operating in this world. And perhaps most importantly for existentialism are thrown into absurdity. And hence the humor. Okay. All right, good. Well, that's helpful. Thank you for reminding me of all that. And I think, so one thing to say is that the nihilist, the group of nihilists who call themselves nihilists, I think they've got a bad misinterpretation of what nihilism is supposed to be. And this happened actually in the 20s, there was a famous case of a couple of German students, Leopold and Loeb, who read a lot of Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a kind of hero for the Nazis even. I think based on a pretty bad misunderstanding of what he was up to. But Leopold and Loeb had the bad understanding first, and they were students. They read a lot of Nietzsche and they thought, okay, nothing means anything. The only way that there's any significance in life is through our will to sort of powerfully bring something about. And if we're going to do that in a way that reflects the fact that nothing means anything, then what we should do is take these actions that people always thought were bad and do them and show that there's nothing wrong with doing. And so they decided they would murder someone, not because they were angry at them, just someone they'd never met. It was important that it was someone they'd never met. It was totally unmotivated act. And they thought, we'll embrace nihilism by showing that we can act in such a way as to do something that morality thinks is bad and through our will bring it about that we desire to do it. For no reason that has anything to do with it's potentially being interpretable as good. And I think that's a terrible misreading of what Nietzsche thinks the response to nihilism is. I mean, I think read that against the Miles Davis thing. Miles Davis aim is to creatively bring it about that something works well in a situation where he is kind of constrained. So they thought two things. One, there are no constraints at all, not even the constraints of the situation that we find ourselves in. And two, we only become the beings that we really are when we act against what you might have thought the constraints were. And I just think that's a bad misreading of what that kind of nihilism is up to.

Nihilism/Apathy (01:17:13)

And I think maybe that group in the big Lebowski has got that kind of bad misreading. But then the major characters are much more interesting. Go ahead and say something. So there's some kind of apathy to that particular nihilism. Could you comment on whether you see sort of apathy as a philosophy part of that nihilism? From an existentialist perspective, how important is it to care about stuff? Like really take on life. What does existentialism have to say about just sitting back and just not caring? Excellent. So apathy is like a really important word. The Greek word is apathy. It means without passions. And the Stoics, who you mentioned earlier, really thought that passions are what get in the way of your living well. Because to live well, you have to think clearly about what you should do. And you shouldn't let your resentments and your angers and your petty animosities direct your behavior. You should release yourself from those kinds of passions. So Stoicism, you know, again, huge caricature, but you know, it's an aim not to care because caring is bad. And there's certain forms of existentialism, certainly in Pascal and Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky and Heidegger, and Sart in his own way. So it's not just a theistic or atheistic thing. Where what's crucial about us is that we do care. Heidegger says, "Care is the being of Dazin. Dazin is his name for us." That's what it is to be us. It's to be the being that already cares. And you can't not do that. You can pretend you're not doing it. But you're just caring in a different way. It's like Sart saying you can pretend you're not taking responsibility. You can pretend that you don't have to make a decision. That is making a decision. Not caring is a way of caring. And so I think the existentialists that I'm interested in think that we do care. That's constitutive of what it is to be us. And so they'll think that the Stoics got it wrong. But that leaves open a huge range of moves about how we inhabit that existence well.

Ayn Rand (01:19:49)

Let me ask about Ayn Rand. Okay. So it just so happens that she's entered a few conversations in this podcast. And just looking at academic philosophy or philosophers in general, they seem to ignore Ayn Rand. Do you have a sense of why that is that she ever come into play her ideas of objectivism, come into play of discussions of a good life from the perspective of existentialism, and how you teach it, and how you think about it. Is she somebody who you find it all interesting? So no, I don't think she is. But it's been a long time since I've read her stuff. I read it in high school. I read the Fountainhead in high school in Atlas Shrugged. But that's at this point a very long time ago. I think I read something about objective epistemology or something too. So, you know, my view about her could be based on a total misunderstanding of what she's up to. But sort of my caricature of her and tell me if I've got it wrong, is that she's sort of motivated by a kind of, I think maybe sometimes you call it libertarianism, but maybe let's, in the context of our discussion, tie it back to SART, a kind of view, according to which we're the being who has to contend with the fact that we're radically free to do stuff. And we're just not being courageous or brave enough when we don't do that. And the people to admire are the people who make stuff out of nothing. So maybe that's a bad caricature. I think, no, I think that's pretty accurate. I'm not again very knowledgeable about the full depth of her philosophy, but I think she takes a view of the world that's similar to Sartre in the conclusions, but it makes stronger statements about epistemology, that first of all, everything is knowable. And there's some, you should always operate through reason. Like a reason is very important. Like, it's like you start with a few axioms and you build on top of that, and the axioms that everybody should operate on are the same. Again, reality is objective. It's not subjective. So from that, you can derive the entirety of how humans should behave at the individual level and at the societal level. And there's a few conclusions. She would talk about virtue of selfishness. And sort of a lot of people use that to dismiss her look. She's very selfish and so on. She actually meant something very different. It's more like the Sartre thing. Take responsibility for yourself. Understand what forces you're operating under and make the best of this life. And that's how you can be the best member of societies by making the best life you can. And just focusing yourself, like fix your own problems first. And that will make you the best member of society, of your family, of loved ones, of friends and so on. I think the reason she's disliked, obviously on the philosophy side, she's disliked because a little bit like Nietzsche, she's like, she's literary. I think the reason she's publicly disliked in sort of public conversations is because of how sure she is of herself. So that which is some of the philosophers been known to do, like make very strong statements, like how is other people. But she was making very strong statements about basically everything. And but the reason I bring her up is, you know, she is an influential thinker that is not for some reason often brought up as such. It's not acknowledged how influential she is. You know, I was recently looking at like a list of the most important women of the 20th century in terms of thought, not science or like thought. And she wasn't in that list. And I just, I see this time and time again. And it doesn't make sense to me why she's so kind of dismissed. Because clearly she's an author of some of the most read books like ever. And she clearly had very strong ideas that should be contented with, you know. And that's why it kind of didn't make sense to me. Because she's also a creature of her time and an important one.

Existentialism Through Prominent Figures

Simone Beaupert (01:24:40)

She's a creation of the Soviet Union. Somebody who left because of that. And some of her, the strength of her ideas has to do with how much she dislikes that particular philosophy and way of life. But also she's a creature of like Sartre and like that's whole like Nietzsche and so on. Now, one of the other criticisms is she doesn't integrate herself into this history. She keeps basically kind of implying that she's purely original in our thoughts, even though she's kind of citing a lot of other people. But again, many philosophers do this kind of thing as if they are truly original and they're not. It is interesting. And also what's interesting about her is she is a woman. She is a strong feminist. And it feels like with Simone de Bevard, you know, like it seems like she's a very important person in this moment of history that shouldn't be fully forgotten. Interesting. Yeah. Well, so I mean, I don't have a lot to add. I will just say this. I mean, the way she and Bevard seemed to me from your description of her and remembering what I remember from 35 years ago, they seem pretty opposite from one another. Like one of the things I find interesting about Bevard is that she takes seriously the thing that Sartre didn't, which is our throneness, which is the sense in which we're born into a situation that's already got a significance for her. I think it was easier for her to recognize that than Sartre because she was a woman. And Sartre seems to act as if there are no constraints or at least there shouldn't be. We're pretty close as privileged white males. Yeah, exactly. If we could just get rid of the last bits of them, we would be God like we're supposed to be. And I think Bevard sort of sees things differently. I think she recognized one's not born but becomes a woman, she says. So how does that happen? Well, you're thrown into your culture and your culture starts treating you in a certain way because of your gender. And that starts to form your understanding and your experience of things. And by the time you're grown up, well, you're pretty well formed by that. That seems a fact. It's a fact about Sartre too though. It was harder for him to notice it because he was formed into his privilege. But the world reminds us of our throneness for some more than others. Yes, absolutely. And for people who have to contend on a daily basis with the fact that the Sartre's the social position they're thrown into is one that negates them or one that oppresses them or one that sort of pushes them to the side in some way or another. I mean, the Black experience is interesting in this respect too. Franz Fanon, who's a contemporary of Sartre and Beaufort-Rars, writes about it. And it's very familiar with the things that he's saying now. But he writes back in the 50s about being a Black man in Paris and getting on an elevator with a woman alone. And how her reaction to him, not knowing him, not having any views about any reason to have any views about him, sort of puts him in a particular social position with respect to her. And if you don't have that experience, it's much harder to recognize the way in which what we're thrown into is something we might not have chosen. So the idea that that's not an aspect of our existence, which as you describe Ayn Rand's views, she sounds more like Sartre. It's more like either it's not an aspect of our existence or at least we ought to sort of aim at it's not being. Yeah, almost act as if it's not.

Thingness-ness (01:28:50)

Yeah, exactly. And so I think from my point of view, I don't pretend that I'm explaining the public reception of her. I'm just sort of trying to say how I understand her in this intellectual context. From my point of view, that's something big to miss and the ambition to think that really what's happening is that we're all the same. We're all rational beings. We're all beings who, if we just got the axioms of our existence right and made good judgments and reasoned in an appropriate way, would optimize ourselves. That feels to me like a kind of natural end point of the philosophical tradition. I mean, sort of Plato starts off with a view that helps us in that direction and the enlightenment moves us further in that direction. But from my point of view, that movement has led us astray because it's missed something really important that's crucial to the kind of being that we are. Yeah, and this is the music. This is the music. Let's talk about throneness. And I think you mentioned that in the context of Heidegger. Yeah. So can we talk about Heidegger? Who is this philosopher? What are some fascinating ideas that he brought to the world? Okay. So Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher. I do know when he was born 1889 by, I'll know that only by accident. It's because it's the same year that Wittgenstein and Austrian philosopher was born and the same year that Hitler was born. So if I've remembered my dates right and someone will call in and correct me otherwise. But that's the way it sort of sits in my memory bank. And it's interesting that the three of them were born at the same time. Wittgenstein and Heidegger share some similarities. But then it's also interesting that Heidegger was a Nazi. I mean, this is a very disturbing fact about his personal political background. And so it's something that anyone who thinks that things that he said might be interesting has got to contend with. Heidegger was born in Germany, Hitler, and Austria. Wittgenstein is Austria also. But so you have to, when you call Heidegger a Nazi, you have to remember, I mean, there's millions of Nazis too. So like there are parts of their, that's the history of the world. That's a lot of communists, Marxists, and Nazis in that part of history. Absolutely. And you know, one of the discussion points is, well, was he just a kind of social Nazi?

Social Nazis & Shades of Evil (01:31:32)

You know, I mean, you know, he went to parties with them and stuff? Or was he like, did he really believe in the ideology? And that's a choice point. And, you know, we could talk about it if you want, he held a political position. That's one of the relevant parts. In 1933, he was made rector of the University of Freiburg. That's like the president of the university. And that was in Germany, all the universities are state universities. And so that's a political appointment. Can we just pause on this point? Yeah. From an existentialist perspective, what's the role for standing up to evil? So, I mean, I think Camus probably had something to say about these things because he was a bit of a political figure. Like, do you have a responsibility not just for your decisions? But, you know, if the world you see around you is going against what you believe somewhere deep inside is ethical. Do you have a responsibility to stand up to that even if it costs you your life or your well-being? You ask from an existential perspective and there's lots of different positions that you could have. So let me tell you something in the area of what I think I might believe, which comes out of this tradition. And it's this, if you live in a community where people are being dragged down by the norms of the community rather than elevated, then there's two things that you have to recognize. One is that you bear some responsibility for that, not necessarily because you chose it. Maybe you reviled it. Maybe you were against it. But there's some way in which we all act in accordance with the norms of our culture. We all give in to them in some way or another. And if those norms are broken, then there's some way in which we've allowed ourselves to be responsible for broken norms. We've become responsible for broken norms. And I do think you have to face up to that. I think that let's just take gender norms. Maybe the gender norms are broken. Maybe the way men and women treat one another or the way men treat women is broken. Maybe there's, maybe it is. I'm not making a substantive claim. I'm just saying, lots of people say it is. And if you're in a culture where those norms take root, you don't get to just isolate yourself and pull yourself out of the culture and think I don't have any responsibility. You're already a part of the culture. Even if you're isolating yourself from it, that's a way of rejecting the sort of part you play in the culture. But it's not a way of getting behind it. Now you're playing that role differently. You're saying, "I don't want to take responsibility for what's going on around me." And that's a way of taking responsibility by refusing to do it. So I think we're implicated in whatever's going on around us. And if we're going to do anything in our lives, we ought to recognize that even in situations where you maybe didn't decide to do it, you could be part of bringing other people down. And then devote yourself to trying to figure out how to act differently so that the norms update themselves. And I think this is not a criticism of people. Al-Yosha, who we mentioned in the Brothers Karamatsov, he's a character. He's a kind of saintly character in the Brothers Karamatsov. But that one crucial moment in that story is when he realizes how awful he's been being to someone without ever even intending to do that. It's Grushenko, who's this sort of fascinating woman. And she's a very erotic woman. She's sort of sexual. And Al-Yosha, in my reading of it, is kind of attracted to her. But he's a young kid. He's 20 or whatever. And he's kind of embarrassed about it. And he lives in the monastery. And he's thinking maybe he wants to be a priest. And he's kind of embarrassed by it. So what does he do? Every time they run across one another in the street, he averts his gaze. And why is he doing that? Because he's kind of embarrassed. But how does Grushenko experience it? Well, she knows she's a fallen woman. And she knows that Al-Yosha has this other position in society. So her read on it is he's passing judgment on me. He can see that he doesn't want to be associated with me. He can see that I'm a fallen woman. He knows that in order to maintain his purity, he's got to avoid me. That's not what Al-Yosha intended to do. But that's the way it's experienced. And so there's this way he comes to recognize, oh my God. Like what I'm supposed to do is love people in Dostoevsky's few of things. And what I'm doing instead is dragging this poor woman down. I'm making her life worse. I'm making her feel terrible about herself. And if I actually came to know her, I'd recognize her condition is difficult. She's living a difficult life. She's making hard choices. And why don't I see that in her face instead of this other thing that's making me want to avoid her? And that's a huge moment. But the idea is that we're implicated in bringing other people down, whether we want to be or not. And that's our condition. So I... The requirement to understand that is to be almost to a radical degree, be empathetic and to listen to the world. And I mean, you brought up sort of gender roles.

Who we are (01:37:33)

It's not so simple. All of this is messy. For example, this is me talking. It's clear to me that, for example, the woke culture has bullying built into it. It has some elements of the same kind of evil built into it. And when you're part of the wave of wokeness standing out for social rights, you also have to listen and think, "Are we going too far? Are we hurting people? Are we doing the same things that others... That we're fighting against, that others were doing in the past?" So it's not simple once you see that there's evil being done, that it's easy to fix. No, in our society, it's something about our human nature that just too easily stops listening to the world, to empathizing with the world. And we label things as evil. This is through human history. This is evil. You mentioned tribes. This religious belief is evil. And so we have to fight it and we become certain and dogmatic about it. And then in so doing, commit evil onto the world. It seems like a life that accepts responsibility for the norms we're in has to constantly be sort of questioning yourself and questioning, like listening to the world fully and richly. Without being weighed down by anyone sort of realization. You just always constantly have to be thinking about the world. Am I wrong and seeing the world this way? I mean, the very last thing you said, you've constantly got to be thinking about the world, you've constantly got to be listening, you've constantly got to be attending, and it's not simple. All that sounds exactly right to me. The phrase that rings through my head is another one from the Brothers Karamatsov, Demetri. This passionate sort of sometimes violent brother who is also sort of deeply cares. I mean, he's because he's passionate, he's sort of got care through and through, but it's breaking him apart. He says at one point, God and the devil are fighting in the battlefield is the heart of man. And I just think, yeah, it's not simple. And the idea that there might be a purely good way of doing things is just not our condition. That where everything we do is going to be sort of undermined by some aspect of it. There's not going to be a kind of pure good in human existence. And so it's sort of required that we're going to have to be empathetic, that we're going to have to recognize that others are dealing with that just as we are. So I apologize for distracting us. We were talking about Heidegger. Okay. And the reason we were distracted is he happened to also be a Nazi, but he nevertheless has a lot of powerful ideas. What are the ideas he's brought to the world?

Evalaicity, Suffering, and Authentic Lives (01:40:46)

Okay. So that's a big, huge question. So let me see how much of it I can get on the face. I mean, the big picture is that Heidegger thinks, and he's not really wrong to think this, that the whole history of philosophy from Plato forward, maybe even from the Pre-Secratics forward from like the 6th century B.C. to now has been motivated by a certain kind or has been grounded on a certain kind of assumption that it didn't have the right to make and that it's led us astray and that until we understand the way in which it's led us astray, we're not going to be able to get to grips with the condition we now find ourselves in. So let me start with what he thinks the condition we now find ourselves in is lots of periods to Heidegger's views. I'm not going to, I'm just going to sort of mush it all together for the purposes of today. Heidegger thinks that one of the crucial things that we need to contend with when we think about what it is to be us now is that the right name for our age is a technological age. And what does it mean for our age to be a technological age? Well, it means that we have an understanding of what it is for anything at all to be at all, that we never really chose, that sort of animating the way we live our lives, that's animating our understanding of ourselves and everything else, that is quite limited. And it's organized around the idea that to be something is to be what's sitting there as an infinitely flexible reserve to be optimized and made efficient. And Heidegger thinks that that's not just the way we think of silicon circuits or the river when we put a hydroelectric power plant on it, we're optimizing the flow of the river so that it makes energy which is infinitely flexible and we can use in any way at all. It's the way we understand ourselves too. We think of ourselves as this reserve of potential that needs to be made efficient and optimized. And when I talk with my students about it, I ask them, you know, like, what's your calendar look like? What's the goal of your day? Is it to get as many things into it as possible? Is it to feel like I've failed unless I've made my life so efficient that I'm doing this and this and this and this and this that I can't let things go by? The feeling that I think we all have that there's some pressure to do that to relate to ourselves that way is a clue to what Heidegger thinks the technological age is about. And he thinks that's different from every other age in history. We used to think of ourselves in the 17th century, the beginning of the Enlightenment as subjects who represent objects take heart, thought that a subject is something, some mental sort of realm that represents the world in a certain way. And we're closed in on ourselves in the sense that we have a special relation to our representations. And that's what the realm of the subject. But others, you know, in the Middle Ages, we were created in the image and likeness of God in the pre-Socratic age to be what washes up and lingers for a while and fades away the paradigm of what is where thunderstorms and the anger of the gods that kill these battle fury and it overtakes everything and stays for a while and then leaves the flowers blooming in spring.

Heidegger for PK (01:44:51)

And that's very different from the way we experience ourselves. And so the question is, what are we supposed to do in the face of that? And Heidegger thinks that the pre supposition that's motivated everything from the pre-Socratic's forward is that there is some entity that's the ground of the way we understand everything to be for the Middle Ages, it was God. That was the entity that made things be the things that they are. For the Enlightenment, it was us, maybe first heart, it's us. And Heidegger thinks whatever it is that stands at the ground of what we are, it's not another thing. It's not another entity. And we're relating to it in the wrong way if we think of it like that. There's some way, and this is partly why I was interested in Meister Eckhart. He says, what there is is there's giving going on in the world. And we're the grateful recipient of it. And the giving is like, whatever it is, it's the social norms that we're thrown into. We didn't choose them, they were given to us. And that's the ground. That is what makes it possible for anything to be intelligible at all. If we lived outside of communities, if we lived in a world where there were no social norms at all, nothing would mean anything. Nothing would have any significance. Nothing would be regular in the way that things need to be regular in order for there to be departures or manifestations of that regularity. So, community norms are crucial, but they're also always updating. We have some responsibility for what they are and the way in which they're updating themselves. And yet we didn't never choose it to be that way. So those norms are somehow giving significance to us in a way that we're implicated in. We have some relation to, and all that gets covered over if you think of us as efficient resources to be optimized. Is that a conflicting view that we are resources to be optimized? Is that somehow deeply conflicting with the fact that there's a ground that we stand on?

Existential Themes In Literature

What technology is and Mastery vs overcome (01:47:23)

Absolutely. So what Heidegger thinks is that this is the, he calls this the supreme danger of the technological age, is that without ever having chosen it, without ever having decided it, this is the way we understand what it is to be us. But He thinks that it's also, He says, quoting Hölderling, the 18th century German poet, He says, "In the supreme danger lies the saving possibility." So what does that mean? It means that this is the understanding that we've been thrown into, that we've been given. It's the gift that was given to us. It's supremely dangerous. If we let ourselves live that way, we'll destroy ourselves. But it's also the saving possibility because if we recognize that we never chose that, that it was given to us, but also we were implicated in its being given, and we could find a way to supersede it, that it's the ground, but it's also updateable. He calls the ground, the groundless ground. It's not like an entity which is there, solid, stable, like God who's eternal and non-changing. It's always updating itself. And we're always involved in it's being updated. But we're only involved in it in the right way if we listen, like Miles Davis. So optimization is not a good way to live life. If you thought that it was obviously clear that that was the relevant value, so obviously clear that it never even occurred to you to ask whether it was right to think that, then you would be in danger. Yeah, got it. So yeah, there is some in this modern technological age in the full meaning of the word technology that's updated to actual modern age with a lot more technology going on. It does feel like colleagues of mine in tech space actually are somehow drawn to that optimization as if that's going to save us, as if the thing that truly weighs us down is the inefficiencies. Exactly. And I think if you think about other contexts, what are the moments when, I mean, we're unique in this respect. This period in history is unlike any previous period. Nobody ever felt that way. But think about, but it's also true that nobody, no previous period in history was nihilistic. So our condition is tied up. That sort of thing is meant to be a response to the felt lack of a ground.

Sophia & Memories (01:50:05)

And so no previous epoch in history felt that way. They didn't have our problem. But think so they, it was much more natural to them to experience moments in ways that feel unachievable for us, what we were calling moments of aliveness before. Think about where the context in which they felt them, they weren't efficient, optimized context. Think about the Greeks. If you ever read Homer, it is a bizarre world back there. But one of the things that's bizarre is that they're so unmotivated by efficiency and optimizing that the only thing that seems to run through all of the different Greek cultures is the idea that if some stranger comes by, you better take care of them. Because Zeus is the God of strangers and Zeus will be angry. That's what they say. But how does it manifest itself? Odysseus. He's trying to get home and he gets shipwrecked on an island. And he's trying to figure out how he's been at sea for 10 days. He's starving. He's been drag old and he sees now Sissa, the princess, who's beautiful. And he's like, boy, I better get some clothes or something. I don't want them to beat me up and kill me. And so she takes him to the palace. They have three days of banquets and festivals before they even ask his name. It's like, here's a stranger. Our job is to celebrate the presence of a stranger because this is where significance lies. Now, we don't have to feel that way. But the idea that that's one of the places where significance could lie is pretty strongly at odds with the idea that our salvation is going to come from optimization and efficiency. Now, maybe something about the way we live our lives will have that integrated into it. But it's at odds with other moments. Let me ask you a question about Hubert, Bert Drifis. He is a friend, a colleague, a mentor of yours, unfortunately no longer with us. You wrote with him the book titled All Things Shining, Reading the Western Classics to find meaning in a secular age. First, can you maybe speak about who that man was, what you learned from him? And then we could maybe ask how do we find through the classics, meaning in a secular age? Okay. So, Bert Drifis was a very important philosopher of the late 20th, early 21st century. He died in 2017, a little over four years ago. He was my teacher. I met him in 1989 when I went away to graduate school in Berkeley. That's where he taught. He plays an interesting and important role in the history of philosophy in America because in a period when most philosophers in America and in the English speaking world were not taking seriously 20th century French and German philosophy, he was. And he was really probably the most important English speaking interpreter of Heidegger, the German philosopher that we're talking about. We've been talking about. He was an incredible teacher. A lot of his influence came through his teaching. And one of the amazing things about him as a teacher was his sort of mix of intellectual humility. With sort of deep insightful authority. And he would stand up in front of a class of 300 students. He taught huge classes because people love to go see him and I taught for him for many years. And say, you know, I've been reading this text for 40 years, but the question you asked is one I've never asked. And it would be true. He would find in what people said things that were surprising and new to him. And that's humility actually. That is listening to the world. Absolutely. Absolutely. He was always ready to be surprised by something that someone said. And there's just something astonishing about that. So his influence was, you know, for people who didn't know him through his interpretations of these texts. He wrote about a huge range of stuff. But for people who didn't know him, it was through his presence. It was through the way he carried himself in his life. And so in any case, that's who he was. We I graduated after many years as a graduate student. I didn't start in philosophy. I started in math, math and computer science actually. And then I did a lot of work in computational neuroscience for a few years. It was just fascinating journey. We'll get to it through our friendly conversation about artificial intelligence. I'm sure. Because you're basically fascinated with the philosophy of mind of the human mind, but rooted in a curiosity of mind through the artificial, through the engineering of mind. Yeah. Yeah, that's right. So, so Bert. I mean, the reason I was attracted to him actually is is because of his to begin with was because of his criticisms of what was called traditional symbolic AI in the 70s and 80s. So I came to Berkeley as a graduate student who'd done a lot of math and a lot of computer science, a lot of computational neuroscience. I noticed that you had you interview a lot of a lot of people in this world. And I had a teacher at Brown as an undergraduate, Jim Anderson, who wrote with Jeff Hinton, a big book on neural networks. So I had I was interested in that. Not so interested in traditional AI, like sort of LISP programming, things that went on in the 80s, because it felt sort of, you know, when you made a system do something, all of a sudden it was an interesting thing to have done. The fact that you'd solve the problem and made it clear that the problem wasn't an interesting one to solve. And I had that experience and Bert had criticisms of symbolic AI, what he called good old fashioned AI and go fi. And, and I was attracted to those criticisms because it felt to me that there was something lacking in in in that project and I didn't know what it was I just felt its absence. And then I learned that all his arguments came from his reading of this phenomenological and existential tradition. And so I had to try to figure out what those folks were saying and it was a long road, let me tell you. It took me a long time but, but it was because of Bert that I was able to do that so I own that, that huge debt of gratitude and eventually we went on to write a book together, which was a great experience. And yes, we published all things shining in 2011. And that was that's a book that I definitely would not have had the hotspot to try to write if it weren't for Bert because it was really about, you know, great literature in the history of the West from Homer and and Dante to Melville there's a huge chapter on Melville, a big chapter on David Foster Wallace who didn't care about it all but I was fascinated by it. And so learning to think that way while writing that book with him was an amazing experience. So I have to admit is one of my failings in life one of many failings is I've never gotten through Moby Dick or are any of Melville's works. So maybe can you comment on before we talk about David Foster Wallace who I have gotten through?

Moby Dick & Melville (01:58:21)

What are some of the sources of meaning in these classics? Good. So Moby Dick I think is the other great novel of the 19th century. So the Brothers Caramel so often Moby Dick and they're diametrically opposed, which is one of the really interesting things. So the Brothers Caramel itself is a kind of existential interpretation of Russian Orthodox Christianity. How do you live that way and find joy in your existence? Moby Dick is not at all about Christianity. It starts with the observation that the form of Christianity that Ishmael is familiar with is broken. It's not going to work in his living his life. He has to leave it. He has to go to see in order to find what needs to happen. And Ishmael is the wailing boat captain. So he's not the captain. That's Ahab. Ahab is the captain. Yeah, right. Let me back up. The famous opening line to the book is Call Me Ishmael. Is the main character in the book? He's a nobody. He's you and me. He's the everyday guy. He's like a nobody on the ship. He's like, you know, not the lowest, but certainly not the highest. He's right in the middle. And he's named Ishmael, which is interesting because Ishmael is the illegitimate son of Abraham in the Old Testament. He is the, I think if I have it right, again, someone will correct me. He's the one that Islam traces its genesis to. And so Islam is an Abrahamic religion like Judaism and Christianity. But Judaism and Christianity trace their lineage through Isaac, the quote unquote legitimate son of Abraham. And Ishmael is the other son of Abraham, who he had with a girlfriend. And so he's clearly outside of Christianity in some way. He's named after the non-Christian sort of son of Abraham. And the book starts out with this, what does he call it? Something like a dark and misty November mood. He's walking along the street and he's overcome by his, I can't remember what the word is, but his hypo's. That's what he calls them. He's in a mood. He's depressed. He's down. Things are not going well. And that's where he starts. And he, he signs up to go on this whaling voyage with this captain, Ahab, who is this incredibly charismatic, deeply disturbing character. Who is a captain who's got lots of history and wants to go whaling, wants to get whales. That's what they do. They harpoon these whales and bring them back and sell the blubber and the oil and so on. So he's kind of rich and he's famous and he's powerful. He's an authority figure. And he is megalomaniically obsessed with getting one particular whale, which is called Moby Dick.

Moby Dick (02:01:44)

And Moby Dick is like the largest, the whitest, the sort of most terrifying of all the whales. And Ahab wants to get him because, because a number of years earlier, he had an encounter with Moby Dick where Moby Dick bit off his leg. And he survived, but he had this deeply religious experience in the wake of it. And he needed to find out what the meaning of that was. Like, what is the meaning of my suffering? Who am I such that the world and Moby Dick, this Leviathan at the center of it should treat me this way? And so his task is not just to go whaling. It's to figure out the meaning of the universe through going whaling and having a confrontation with his tormentor, this whale Moby Dick. And the confrontation is so weird because Melville points out that whales, their faces are so huge. Their foreheads are so huge and their eyes are on the side of them that you can never actually look them in the eye. And it's kind of a metaphor for God. Like, you can't ever look God in the face. That's the sort of traditional thing to say about God. You can't find the ultimate meaning of the universe by looking God in the face. But Ahab wants to. He says he's got a paste-board mask of a face. But I'll strike through the mask and find out what's behind. And so Ishmael is sort of caught up in this thing and he's like going whaling because he's in a bad mood. And maybe this will make things better. And he makes friends with this guy, Quequeg. And Quequeg is a pagan. He's from an island in the South Pacific. And he's got tattoos all over his body, head to toe. He's a party colored, like every different color, says Ishmael, is these tattoos. And they are the writing on his body, he says, of the immutable mysteries of the universe as understood through his culture. And so somehow Quequeg is this character who is like not Christian at all. And he's powerful in a very different way than Ahab is. He's supposed to be the king. He's the son of the king and probably his father's died by now. And if he went home, he'd be the king. But he's off on a voyage to trying to understand who he is before he goes back and leads his people.

Old Man and the Sea (02:04:20)

And he's a harpooner, the bravest of the people on the ship. And he's got the mystery of the universe tattooed on his body, but nobody can understand it. And it's through his relation with Quequeg that Ishmael comes to get a different understanding of what we might be about. So that's Moby Dick. I'm in a nutshell. And connected to a book I have read, which is funny, there's probably echoes that represent the 20th century now in Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway. That also has similar, I guess, themes, but more personal, more focused on the... I mean, I guess it's less about God. So almost more like the existentialist version of Moby Dick. And hence shorter. And a lot shorter. Hemingway was brilliant that way. But do you see echoes in... Do you find Old Man and the Sea interesting? It's been since ninth grade that I've been Old Man and the Sea a even longer ago than the fountainhead. So I didn't know we were going to go there. I mean, I find Hemingway interesting. Hemingway, my general sort of picture of him is that, you know, we have to confront the dangers and the difficulties of our life. We have to develop in ourselves a certain kind of courage and manliness. And I think there's something interesting about that. He's for risk in a certain way. And I think that's important. But I do... Now I don't have any right to say this since it's been so long since I read it. I do feel like there's... I don't remember a sense for the quite the tragedy of it. Maybe there is. Is it a melancholy novel? I don't even remember. No, it's... I mean, it has a sense like the stranger back in the moon. It has a sense of like, this is how life is. And it has more about old age and that you're not quite the man you used to be feeling of like, this is how time passes. And then the passing of time and how you get older, and this is one last fish, it's less about this is the fish. It's more like this is one last fish. Like, and asking who was I... who was I as a man as a human being in this world? And this one fish helps you ask that question fully. Wonderful. But it's one fish which is just sort of all the other fish too. Right? And that is a big difference because for Ahab, no other fish will do than Moby Dick. It's got to be the biggest, the most powerful, the most tormenting. It's got to be the one that you've got history with that has compiled you. And it's a raucous ride Moby Dick.

Melville optimizes the hyper-real (02:07:27)

What about David Foster Wallace? So why is he important to you in the search of meaning in a secular age? Good. So I'll just, I'll just, to finish the Moby Dick thing I think was interesting about Melville is that he thinks our salvation comes not if we get in the right relation to monotheism or Christianity, but if we get in the right relation to polytheism, to the idea that there's not a unity to our existence, but there are lots of little meanings and they don't cohere. Sometimes, you know, like in Homer, sometimes you're in love, Helen's in love with Paris, and they do crazy things. They go off and run away and the Trojan War begins. And sometimes you're in a battle fury, that's where the love is Aphrodite's realm and the battle fury, that's Aries realm and that's a totally different world. And they're not even, I mean, they're related. There's a kind of family resemblance, but not much. Mostly, you're just in different sort of local meaningful worlds. And Melville seems to think that that's a thing that we could aim to bring back. He says, we have to lure back the merry Mayday gods of old and lovingly enthron them in the now egotistical sky, the now unhaunted hill. That's what we live in this world where hills aren't haunted with significance anymore. And the sky is just a bunch of stuff that we're studying with physics and astrophysics and stuff. But they used to be awe inspiring, and we have to figure out how to get in that relation to them, but not by trying to give a unity to our existence through developing habits and practices that get written on our body. And so his is about the end of Judeo Christianity and the sort of Roman appropriation of it. In Wallace, one of the things I think is so interesting about him is that I think he's a great observer of the contemporary world. And he's a very funny writer. He's really funny. But he's a great observer of the contemporary world. And what he thought was at the core of the contemporary world was this constant temptation to diversion through entertainment. That's a different story than Heidegger's story about efficiency and optimization. But it's the other side of it. What is this temptation sort of diverting us from? The ability to be more efficient. So you're tempted to go watch some stupid film or television show or something that's dumb and not really very interesting, but you read that temptation as a temptation precisely in virtue of it's taking you away from your optimizing your existence. And so I think there are two sides of the same coin. I think he's brilliant at describing it. I think he thought it was a desperate position to be in that it was something that we needed to confront and find a way out of. And his characters are trying to do that. And I think there's two different David Foster Wallace's. One, I mean David Foster Wallace committed suicide. And when I, and it's very sad and he clearly did have, you know, sort of, there was a physiological basis to his condition. He knew it. He was treating it from decades with medication.

Personal Responsibility And Salvation

Salvation (02:10:53)

He had electroshock therapy a number of times. It's just very, very sad story. When I decided that we were going to write about David Foster Wallace. The first thing I was worried about is what can you, can you, like obviously a motivating factor, maybe the motivating factor in his committing suicide was his physiological condition. But there was, there's, there was a question. Could you think, I mean he's obsessed with the condition with what we need to do to achieve our salvation to live well, to make our lives worth living. And he clearly in the end felt like he couldn't do that. So in addition to the physiological thing, which probably most of it, the question for me was, could you find in his writing what his, what he was identifying as the thing we needed to be doing that he nevertheless felt we couldn't be doing. And he talks as if that's, that's the difficulty for him. So, so that that's one side of him. And I did want to find that. I think there's another side of him that's very different, but you were going to ask. No, please. What's the other side? I mean, what I write about in the, in the chapter mostly is what I think he's got as our, as, as our saving possibility. He thinks our saving possibility. He says this in a graduation speech that he gave to Kenyan. Is that we have the freedom to interpret situations, however we like. So what's the problem case for him? He says, look, you know, the problem case, we have, we have it all the time. You get pissed off into the world, you know, some, some big SUV cuts you off on the highway. And you're pissed off and you might express your anger with one finger or another, right? Directed at that person. And he says, but actually, you know, you're being pissed off as the result of you're having made an assumption. And the assumption is that that action was directed at you. Like the assumption is that you're the center of the universe. And you shouldn't assume that. And the way to talk yourself out of it, he says, is to recognize the possibility. Maybe that wasn't an action directed at you. Like maybe that guy is racing to the hospital, you know, to take care of his dying spouse who's been there suffering, you know, from cancer, or maybe he's, you know, on the way to pick up a sick child, or maybe he's, and it's not an action directed.

I Cant Spin Out A Story (02:13:43)

That was your assumption, not something that was inherent in the situation. And I think there's something interesting about that. I think there's something right about that. At the same time, I don't think he speaks as if we can just spin out these stories and whether they're true or not doesn't matter. What matters is that they free us from this assumption. And I think they only free us from this assumption if they're true. Like sometimes the guy really did direct it at you. And that's part of the situation. And like you can pretend that it's not part of the situation. You have to find the right way of dealing with that situation. So you have to listen to what's actually happening. And then you have to figure out how to make it right. And I think he's, he thinks that we have too much freedom. He thinks that you don't have to listen to the situation. You could just tell whatever story you like about it. And I think that's actually too tough. I don't think we have that kind of freedom. And he writes these sort of incredibly moving letters when he's trying to write the Pale King, which is the end of, which is the unfinished novel that really sort of drove him to distraction. At the center of the novel is this character who, one of the characters at the center of the novel is a guy who's doing the most boring thing you could possibly imagine. He is an IRS tax examiner. He's going, oh, the other people's tax returns trying to figure out whether they followed the rules or not.

Significance in the Sublime soon right? Very much true very much true (02:15:20)

And like just the idea of doing that for eight hours a day is just terrifying. And he puts this guy in an enormous warehouse that extends for miles where a person after person after person is in rows of desks, sort of nameless, each of them doing this task. So he's in nowhere doing nothing and it's got to be intensely boring. And now the main character is trying to teach himself to do that. And the question is, how do you put up with the boredom? How do you put up with this onslaught of meaninglessness? And the main character is able to confront that condition with such bliss that he literally levitates from happiness while he's going over other people's tax returns. And that's my metaphor for what I think Wallace must have imagined we have to try to aspire to. And I think that's unlivable. I think that's not an ambition that we could achieve. I think there's something else we could achieve. And the other thing that we can achieve that I think is something that he also is on to but doesn't write about as often is something more like achieving peak moments of significance in a situation when something great happens. And he writes about this in an article about Roger Federer. He loved tennis. Are you a tennis lover? I'm not a lover of tennis, but I played tennis for 15 years and so on. I don't love it the way people love baseball. For example, I see the beauty in it, the artistry. I just liked it as a sport. I didn't play tennis, but I hit a ball around every once in a while as a kid. I always thought it was boring to watch. But reading David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer, he was like, "Wow, I've been missing something."

David Foster Wallace Timechanige? It is really important to us (02:17:23)

And the article which appeared in the New York Times magazine was called Roger Federer as religious experience. There you go. And he says, "Look, there's something astonishing about watching someone who's got a body like us. And having a body is a limitation. It's like the sight of sores and pains and agony and exhaustion. And it's the thing that dies in the end. And so it's what we have to confront.

Looking forward to posting the Vido Core As Promised Its A Great Talk. Thank You Guys. Okay Goodnight Somebody Bye Six Flickering Butter (02:17:53)

There's also joys that go along with having a body. If you didn't have a body, there'd be no sex. If you didn't have a body, there'd be no physical excitement." But somehow having a body is essentially a limitation that when you watch someone who's got one and is extraordinary at the way they use it, you can recognize how that limitation can be to some degree transcended. And that's what we can get when we watch Federer or some other great athlete sort of doing these things that transcend the limitations of their bodies. And that's the kind of peak experience that we're capable of that could be a kind of salvation. That's a very different story. And I think that's a livable story. And I don't know if it would have saved him. But I feel like I wish he developed that side of the story more. Can we talk about, and first of all, let me just comment that I deeply appreciate that you said you were going to say something.

The importance of personal responsibility (02:18:58)

The fact that you're listening to me is amazing. You care about other humans. I really appreciate that. We should be in this way listening to the world. That's a meta-comment about many of the things we're talking about. But you mentioned something about levitating an attask that is infinitely boring and contrasting that with essentially levitating on a task that is great, the highest achievement of this physical limiting body in playing tennis. Now I often say this. I don't know where I heard David Foster Wallace say this, but he said that the key to life is to be unborable. That is the embodiment of this philosophy. And when people ask me for advice, young students, I don't find this interesting. I don't find this interesting. How do I find the thing I'm passionate for? This would be very interesting to explore because you kind of say that that may not be a realizable thing to do, which is to be unborable. But my advice usually is life is amazing. Like you should be able to, you should strive to discover the joy, the levitation in everything. And the thing you get stuck on for a longer period of time, that might be the thing you should stick to, but everything should be full of joy. So that kind of cynicism of saying life is boring is a thing that will prevent you from discovering the thing that will give you deep meaning and joy. But you're saying being unborable is not actionable for human being. So, okay, excellent question, deep question. And you might think because of the title of the book that Bert and I wrote, All Things Shining, that I think all things are shining. But actually, I think it's an unachievable goal to be unborable. I do believe that you're right that a lot of times when people are bored with something, it's because they haven't tried hard enough. And I do think quite a lot of what makes people bored with something is that they haven't paid attention well enough, and that they haven't listened, as you were saying. So I do think there's something to that. I think that's a deep insight. On the other hand, the perfection of that insight is that nothing is ever anything less than joyful. And I actually think that Dostoevsky and Melville both agree, but in very different ways, that life involves a wide range of moods, and that all of them are important. It involves grief. When someone dies, it's appropriate to grief. And it's not in the first instance, joyful. It's related to joy because it makes the joys you feel when you feel them more intense. But it makes them more intense by putting you in the position of experiencing the opposite. And it's only because we're capable of a wide range of passionate responses to situations that I think the significance can be as meaningful as they are. So Melville, again, has this sort of interest. I mean, let's just say the guilt and the grief in the brothers Caramatsov. Alliosha loses his mentor, Father's Osma. He's grieving. It's super important that he's grieving. He has a religious conversion on the basis of grieving, where he sees the sort of deep sort of beauty of everything that is. But it comes through the grief, not by avoiding the grief. And Melville says something like Ishmael says something like, he says, "I'm like a Catskill mountain eagle, the Catskills mountains nearby." He says, "Who's sort of flying high above the earth going over the peaks and down into the valleys? I have these ups and these downs." But they're all invested with a kind of significance. They all happen at an enormously high height, because it's through the mountains that I'm flying. And even when I'm down, it's a way of being up. But it's really down. It's just that it's a way of being up because it makes the ups even up her. Well, I guess then the perfectionism of that can be destructive. I mean, I tend to see, for example, grief, a loss of love as part of love in that it's a celebration of the richness of feelings you had when you had the love. So it's all part of the same experience. But if you turn it into an optimization problem where everything can be unbearable, then that can itself be destructive. Yeah. Yeah. I heard this interview with David Foster Wallace on the internet where it's a video of him and there is like a foreign sounding reporter asking him questions. I think there's an accident of some sort of German, I think, something like that. And I don't know, it just painted a picture of such a human person. We were talking about listening. The interviewer, if I may say, wasn't a very good one in the beginning. So she kind of walked into the usual, journalistic things of just kind of generic questions and just kind of asking very basic questions. But he brought out something in her over time. And he was so sensitive and so sensitive to her and also sensitive to being a thinking and acting human in this world. There's just painted such a beautiful picture that people should go definitely check out. They made me really sad that we don't get this kind of picture of other thinkers, all of the ones we've been talking about. Just that almost this little accidental view of this human being. I don't know. There was a beautiful one and I guess there's not many like that, even of him. Yeah. Yeah. No, I think he was more than his writing ability, which was extraordinary. He had developed a style that was, I think, unlike anyone else's style. It was his sensitivity to other people and to sort of what he was there to pay attention to. He wants in one of his essays, I think it's the one called an incredibly fun thing I'll never do again. I do know that one about cruise ships. I think he describes himself as this sort of roving eyeball that just sort of walks around the ship noticing things. And he's incredibly good at that. But I also do, but I also worry that that reflects something that you find an Ivan in the Brothers Karamatsov. Ivan, I don't know if you remember this part, when he's away at school as a young college, as a young boy, he makes money by going around town to where tragic events have occurred.

Art, Artificial Intelligence And Creativity

Being deeply witness to the world (02:26:28)

Someone just got run over by a carriage or someone, something just happened. And being the first one there, he always knows somehow where these things are going to happen and writing about it, giving this really good description and then signing it eyewitness. And it's as if Ivan's understanding of his life is that he was supposed to be a witness to it. He was supposed to see others but not get involved. He never is interested in trying to keep the bad things from happening. He just wants to report on them when he sees them. And I think that he's an incredibly isolated person, character, and it's his isolation from others, from the love of others, and his inability, his desire not to love others, because that attaches him to someone that I think is really at the ground of his condition. And I think that aim to be isolated, which many people have nowadays. I mean, you see it in the Underground Man too, just sort of taking yourself out of the world because you don't want to have to take responsibility for being involved with others. I think that's a bad move. And I do worry that maybe I never knew David Foster Wallace. I have no right to comment on his life. But he portrays himself in that one episode as a person who does that. And I think that's dangerous. Yeah, there's some sense in which being sensitive to the world. Like I find myself, the source of joy for me is just being really sensitive to the world to experience. There's some way, it's quite brilliant what you're saying, that could be isolating. It's like Darwin studying a new kind of species on an island. You don't want to interfere with it. You find it so beautiful that you don't want to interfere with his beauty. So there is some sense in which that isolates you. And then you find yourself deeply alone, away from the experiences that bring you joy. And that could be destructive. That's fascinating how that works. And in his case, of course, some of it is just chemicals in his brain. But some of it is the path, his philosophy of life, let him down. And that's the danger. We need you to, in gazing into the abyss. Your job is a difficult one, because doing philosophy changes you. Yeah. And you may not know how it changes you until you're changed. And you look in the mirror. You wrote a piece in MIT Tech Review saying that AI can't be an artist. Creativity is and always will be a human endeavor. You mentioned Bert and criticism of symbolic AI. Can you explain your view of criticizing the possible, the capacity for artistry and creativity in our robot friends? Yeah, I can try. So to make the argument, you have to have in mind what counts as art, what counts as a creative artistic act. I take it that just doing something new isn't sufficient. I mean, we say that good art is original, but not everything that's never been done before is good art. So there has to be more than just doing something new. It has to be somehow doing something new in a way that speaks to the audience or speaks to some portion of the audience at least. It has to be doing something new in such a way that some people who see or interact with it can see themselves anew in it. So I think that art is inherently a creative act, sorry, a kind of communicative act that it involves a relation with other people.

Art and Artificial Intelligence (02:31:12)

So think about the conditions for that working. Someone, I talk in that article, I can't remember something about new music. I think I don't talk about Stravinsky, but let's say Stravinsky. Stravinsky performs the right of spring and there's riots. It is new and people hate it. People can't, that sounds like a cacophony. It sounds awful. It's written according to principles that are not like the principles of music composition that people are familiar with. So in some ways it's a failed communicative act. But as Nietzsche says about his own stuff, I mean, we now can recognize that it wasn't a failed communicative act. It just hadn't reached its time yet. And now that way of composing music is like, you know, it's in Disney movies. You know, it's so part of our musical palette that we don't have that responsibility. It changed us. It changed the way we understand what counts as good music. So that's a deep communicative act. It didn't perform its communication in that opening moment, but it did ultimately establish a new understanding for all of us of what counts as good art. And that's the kind of deep communication that I think good art can do. It can change our understanding of ourselves and of what a good manifestation of something of ourselves in a certain domain is. And you use the term socially embedded, that art is fundamentally socially embedded. Yeah. And I really like that term because I see like my love for artificial intelligence and the kind of system that we can bring to the world that we can bring to the world. That could make for an interesting and more lively world and one that enriches human beings is one where the AI systems are deeply socially embedded. Yeah. So that and that actually is in contrast to the way artificial intelligence have been talked about throughout its history. And certainly now, both on the robotics side and the AI side, it's especially on the tech sector where the businesses around AI, they kind of want to create systems that are like servants to humans. And then humans do all the beautiful human messiness of where art will be part. I think that there is no reason why you can't integrate AI systems in the way you integrate new humans to the picture. They're just the full diversity in the flaws, all of that adds to the thing. Some people might say that Alpha Zero is this system from DeepMind that was able to achieve, you know, solve the game, it beat the best people in the world that the game of Go with no supervision from humans. But more interestingly to me on the side of creativity, it was able to surprise a lot of grandmasters with the kind of moves that came up with. Now, to me, that's not the creativity, the magic that's socially embedded that we're talking about. That is merely revealing the limitations of humans to discover. It's like to solve a particular aspect of a math problem. I think creativity is not just even socially embedded, it's the way you're saying it's part of the communicative act, it's the interactive, it's the dance with the culture. It has to be for Alpha Zero to be truly creative, it would have to be integrated in a way where it has a Twitter account and it becomes aware of the impact it has on the other grandmasters with the moves that's coming up.

Creativity and Alpha Go/ (02:35:29)

And one of the fascinating things about Alpha Zero, which I just love so much, is I don't know if you're familiar with chess. So it does certain things that most chess players, even at the highest level, don't do, which is it sacrifices pieces, it gives pieces away, and then waits like 10 moves before it pays you back. So it does, to me, that's beautiful, that's art if only Alpha Zero understood the artistry of that, which is I'm going to mess you psychologically, because I'm going to do two things. One, make you feel overconfident that you're doing well, but actually also once you realize you are playing Alpha Zero, that is much better than you, you're going to feel really nervous about what's on the way. So this is the calm before the storm, and that creates a beautiful psychological masterpiece of this chess game. If only Alpha Zero is then messing with you additionally to that, and it was cognizant of it's doing that, then it becomes art, and then it's integrated into society in that way. And I believe it doesn't have to actually have an understanding of the world in the way that humans have. It can have a different one, it can be like a child is clueless about so many aspects of the world, and it's okay, and that's part of the magic of it, just being flawed, being lacking understanding all interesting kinds of ways, but interacting. And so to me it's possible to create art for AI, but exactly as you're saying in a deeply socially embedded way. Good. Well, I think we agree, but let me just highlight the thing that makes me think that we agree, which is that I think for people, for community, to allow themselves to recognize in a certain kind of creative act. I'm thinking of Stravinsky here, but we could think of a chess thing. To recognize in a certain kind of creative act a new and admirable, worthy way of thinking about what's significant in the situation, you have to believe that it wasn't random. You have to believe that Stravinsky wrote that way because he was receptive to what needed to be said now. And so you said if only Alpha Zero could do all this by virtue of recognizing that this was the thing that needed to be done, then it would be socially embedded in the right way. And I think I agree with that. First of all, it's possible to do in a constrained domain, a game playing domain, go or chess. It goes more complicated than chess, but either one of them, because there really are only a finite range of possibilities if you make the game end at a certain point. It's a combinatorial problem in the end. Now, obviously, Alpha Zero doesn't solve the problem in a combinatorial way. That would take too much energy. You couldn't do it. It's too explode the problem. So it does it in this other way that's interesting, this pattern recognition way roughly. And in that context, it may well be that it can see having had lots and lots of experience in the training stuff against itself or against another version of itself.

The Future of Art (02:39:16)

It can see that the sacrifice here is going to pay dividends down the road. See, I put that in quotation marks, that's to say, it's got a high weight to this move here as a result of experience in the past where that move down the line led to this improvement. So in that finite context, I think the game players can trust it, and they talk that way. It's got a kind of authority. They say, I've read some people who said about Alpha Zero when it played Go, it's like it's playing from the future. It's making these moves that are just outlandish, and there's a kind of brilliance to them that we can't really understand. We'll be catching up to it forever. I think in that context, it's mapped the domain, and the domain is mappable because it's a combinatorial problem roughly. But in something like music or art of a non-finite form, it feels to me like, it's a little harder for me to understand what the analog of our trusting that Stravinsky has recognized something about us, that demands that he write this way.

Language is Finite (02:40:40)

That doesn't seem like a finite thing in quite the same way. Now we could ask the system, why did you do it? We could ask Stravinsky, why did you do it? And maybe it will have answers, but then it's involved in a kind of communicative act. And I think lots of times artists will often say, look, I can't communicate better than what I've done in the base of work. That is the statement. Yeah, yeah, so we humans aren't able to answer the why either. Yeah, but I do think the question here is, well, first of all, language is finite, certainly when expressed through a tweet. So it is also a combinatorial problem. The question is how much more difficult it is than chess. And I think all the same ways that we see the solutions to chess is deeply surprising when it was possible. It's completely surprising when it was first addressed with IBM D blue and then with AlphaGo and AlphaGo Zero, AlphaZero.

Artificial Intelligence Can Be Creative (02:41:46)

I think in that same way, language can be addressed and communication can be addressed. I don't see having done this podcast many reasons why everything I'm doing, especially as a digital being on the internet, can't be done by an AI system eventually. So I think we're being very human centric and thinking more special. I think one of the hardest things is the physical space, actually operating like touch and the magic of body language and the music of all of that because it's so deeply integrated through the long evolutionary process of what it's like to be on earth. What is fundamentally different and AI can catch up on is the way we apply our evolutionary history on the way we act on the internet and the way we act online. And as more and more of the world becomes digital, you're now operating in a space where AI is behind much less so. Like we're both starting at zero. I think that's super interesting. Do you know this author, Brian Christian, is that someone you've ever heard of?

Values In Human Existence

Being Human (02:43:02)

That sounds familiar. He's a guy who competed in the, what is it called, the Lobner Competition? I love the prize, yeah. Yeah, the Turing test thing. So, and I'll just tell you this story, but I think it's directly related to the last thing you said about where we're starting in the same place. He competed in this competition, but not, he didn't enter a program that was supposed to try to pass the Turing test. The Turing test, you know, there's three people. There's the judge, there's the program, and then there's someone who's a human the way they do it. And the judge has got to figure out by asking questions, which is the computer and which is the human. So, little known fact, there's two prizes in that competition. There's the most human computer prize. That's the computer that wins the most. And then there's the most human human prize. And he competed for the most human human prize. And he wanted, he kept winning it. And so, he tried to think about what it is that you have to be able to do in order to convince judges that you're human instead of a computer. And that's an interesting question, I think. And what he came to this, my takeaway from his version of this story is that it is true that computers are winning these contests more and more, you know, as technology progresses. But there's two possible explanations for that. One is that the computers are becoming more human. And the other is that the humans are becoming more like computers. And he says, actually, the more we live our lives in this world where, in this sort of technological world, where we have to moderate our behavior so that it's readable by something that's effectively, you know, a computer, the more we become like that. And he says, it happens even when you're not interacting with a computer. He says, have you ever been to the, you know, on the phone with the call, you know, center? And they're going through their script. And that's what they've got to do. They've got to go through their script because that's how they keep their job. And they ask you this question, you've got to answer it. And it's as if you're no longer interacting with a person, even though it's a person, because they've so given up everything that's involved normally with being able to make judgments and decisions and act in situations and take responsibility. And so I think that's the other side of it. It is true that technology is amazing and can solve huge ranges of problems and do fantastic things. But it's also true that we're changing ourselves in response to it. And the one thing I'm worried about is that we're changing ourselves in such a way that the norms for what we're aiming at are being changed to move in the direction of this sort of efficiently and in an optimized way solving a problem and move away from this other kind of thing that we were calling the "eliveness" or significance. And so that's the other side of the story. And that's the worry, but it's very possible that there is, for you and I, the ancient dinosaurs, we may not see the "eliveness" in TikTok, the "eliveness" in the digital space, that you see it as being dragged into this over optimized world. But that may be, this is, in fact, it is a world that opens up opportunities to truly experience life. And there's interesting to think about all the people growing up now who their early experience of life is always mediated through a digital device, not always, but more and more often mediated through that device. And how we're both evolving, the technologies evolving, the humans are evolving, to them maybe open a door to a whole world where the humans and the technology or AI systems are interacting as equals. So now I'm going to agree with you. You might be surprised that I'm going to agree with you.

Savings Power (02:47:26)

But I think that's exactly right. I don't want to be the person who's saying our job is to resist all of this stuff. I don't want to be a Luddite. That's not my goal. The goal is to point out that in the Supreme Danger lies the saving power. The point is to get in the right relation to that understanding of what we are. That allows us to find the joy in it. And I think that's a hard thing to do. It's hard to understand even what we're supposed to be doing when we do it. I'm maybe I'm more than you. I'm not of the right generation to be able to do that. But I do think that's got to be the move. The move is not to resist it. It's not an astrologic move. It's an attempt to push people to get in the relation to it. That's not the relation of it controlling you and depriving you of stuff. But if you're recognizing some great joy that can be found in it. When I interact with a leg of robots, I see there's magic there. And I just feel like the person who hears the music when others don't. And I don't know what that is. And I'd love to explore that. Because it seems to, it's almost like the future talking. And I'm trying to hear what it's saying. Is this a dangerous world or is this a beautiful world? Well, I can certainly understand your enthusiasm for that. Those used to be things that I found overwhelmingly exciting. And I'm not sort of closed off from that anymore. I mean, I'm not now closed off from that, even though my views are changed. And I don't work in that world. But I do think I think it's interesting to figure out what's at the ground of that response. Yeah. We talked about meaning quite a bit throughout in a secular age. But let me ask you the big ridiculous question. Almost too big. What is the meaning of this thing? We got going on. What is the meaning of life? You're saving the softball for the end. I don't know what the meaning of life is. I think there's something that characterizes us that's not the thing that people normally think characterizes us. The traditional thing to say in the philosophical tradition, even in the AI tradition, which is a kind of manifestation of philosophy from Plato. The traditional thing to say is that what characterizes us is our rationality, that we're intelligent beings, that we're the ones that think. And I think that's certainly part of what characterizes us. But I think there's more to it too. I think we're capable of experiencing simultaneously the complete and utter ungroundedness of everything that's meaningful in our existence. And also the real significance of it. And that sounds like a contradiction. Like how could it really be significant and not be based on anything?

Things that are of value (02:50:41)

But I think that's the contradiction that somehow characterizes us. And I think that we're the being that sort of has to hold that weird mystery before us and live in the light of it. That's the thing that I think is really at our core. And so how do we do that? I will say this one thing. And I learned it from a philosopher from a guy named Albert Borgmann, who's a German philosopher who lived in Montana now, taught in Montana for his whole career. And I say this to my students at Harvard now. He said, "This is the way that I think about my life. And I hope you'll think about your life too."

Living A Meaningful Life

How to Live a Meaningful Life (02:51:22)

He said, "You should think about your life hoping that there will be many moments in it about which you can say. There's no place I'd rather be. There's no thing I'd rather be doing. There's no buddy I'd rather be with. And this I will remember well." And I think if you can aim to fill your life with moments like that, it will be a meaningful one. I don't know if that's the meaning of life. But I think if you can hold that before you, it'll help to clarify this mystery and this sort of bizarre situation in which we find ourselves. Sean, this conversation was incredible and those four requirements have certainly been fulfilled for me. This was a magical moment in that way and I will remember it well. Thank you so much. It's an honor that you spend your valuable time with me. This was great. Thank you. Thank you for having me, Lex. I really, really enjoyed it. Thanks for listening to this conversation with Sean Kelly. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now let me leave you with some words from Alberka Moon. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me, they're lay and invincible summer. Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.

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