Is Consciousness an Illusion?? Five Experts in Science, Religion & Technology Explain

Even among non-neu­ro­sci­en­tists, deter­min­ing the ori­gin and pur­pose of con­scious­ness is wide­ly known as “the hard prob­lem.” Since its coinage by philoso­pher David Chalmers thir­ty years ago, that label has worked its way into a vari­ety of con­texts; about a decade ago, Tom Stop­pard even used it for the title of a play. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it’s also ref­er­enced in the episode of Big Think’s Dis­patch­es from the Well above, which presents dis­cus­sions of the nature of con­scious­ness with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Christof Koch, Vedan­ta Soci­ety of New York min­is­ter Swa­mi Sar­vapriyanan­da, tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neur Reid Hoff­man, San­ta Fe Insti­tute Davis Pro­fes­sor of Com­plex­i­ty Melanie Mitchell, and math­e­mat­i­cal physi­cist Roger Pen­rose.

Koch describes con­scious­ness as “what you see, it’s what you hear, it’s the pains you have, the love you have, the fear, the pas­sion.” It is, in oth­er words, “the expe­ri­ence of any­thing,” and for all their sophis­ti­ca­tion, our mod­ern inquiries into it descend from René Descartes’ propo­si­tion, “Cog­i­to, ergo sum.” Sar­vapriyanan­da, too, makes ref­er­ence to Descartes in explain­ing his own con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness as “the light of lights,” by which “every­thing here is lit up.”

Mitchell con­ceives of it as a con­tin­u­um: “I’m more con­scious when I’m awake,” for exam­ple, and “cer­tain species are more con­scious than oth­er species.” And per­haps it could devel­op even in non-bio­log­i­cal enti­ties: “I don’t think that we have any machines that are con­scious in any inter­est­ing sense yet,” Mitchell says, but “if we ever do, they’ll be part of that spec­trum.”

The ques­tion of whether a machine can attain con­scious­ness nat­u­ral­ly aris­es in host Kmele Fos­ter’s con­ver­sa­tion with Hoff­man, who’s made seri­ous invest­ments in arti­fi­cial-intel­li­gence research. As impres­sive as AI chat­bots have late­ly become, few among us would be will­ing to deem them con­scious; nev­er­the­less, attempt­ing to cre­ate not just intel­li­gence but con­scious­ness in machines may prove a fruit­ful way to learn about the work­ings of the “gen­uine arti­cles” with­in us. Pen­rose’s the­o­ry holds that con­scious­ness aris­es from as-yet-unpre­dictable quan­tum process­es occur­ring in the micro­tubules of the brain. Per­haps, as Koch has sug­gest­ed, it actu­al­ly exists to one degree or anoth­er in all forms of mat­ter. Or maybe — to quote from a song in heavy rota­tion on my child­hood Walk­man — it’s just what you make of your­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Neu­ronal Basis of Con­scious­ness Course: A Free Online Course from Cal­tech

John Sear­le Makes A Force­ful Case for Study­ing Con­scious­ness, Where Every­thing Else Begins

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

What Is High­er Con­scious­ness?: How We Can Tran­scend Our Pet­ty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deep­er Wis­dom

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Plato’s Dialogue Gorgias Gets Adapted into a Short Avant-Garde Film

The word sophis­ti­cat­ed may sound like praise today, but it orig­i­nat­ed as more of an accu­sa­tion. Trace its ety­mol­o­gy back far enough and you’ll encounter the sophists, itin­er­ant lec­tur­ers in ancient Greece who taught sub­jects like phi­los­o­phy, math­e­mat­ics, music, and rhetoric — the last of which they mas­tered no mat­ter their osten­si­ble sub­ject area. Their rep­u­ta­tion has passed down to us our cur­rent under­stand­ing of the word sophistry as “sub­tly decep­tive rea­son­ing or argu­men­ta­tion.” A sophist may or may not have known what he was talk­ing about, but he knew how to talk about it in the way his audi­ence want­ed to hear.

It is in the com­pa­ny of sophists that Pla­to places Socrates in the dia­logue Gor­gias, a sec­tion of which has been adapt­ed into the short film above. An “exper­i­men­tal video essay from Epoché mag­a­zine,” as Aeon describes it, it “com­bines some­what cryp­tic archival visu­als, a haunt­ing, dis­so­nant score, and text from an exchange between Socrates and the tit­u­lar Gor­gias on the nature of ora­to­ry.” The lat­ter describes ora­to­ry as his “art,” which serves “to pro­duce the kind of con­vic­tion need­ed in courts of law and oth­er large mass­es of peo­ple” on the sub­ject of “right and wrong.” Socrates, in his ques­tion­ing way, leads Gor­gias to hear his objec­tion that ora­to­ry pro­duces con­vic­tion with­out knowl­edge, mak­ing it a mere pseu­do-art or form of “flat­tery” akin to bak­ing pas­tries or beau­ti­ful­ly adorn­ing one’s own body.

“For some­one with no knowl­edge of the objects involved,” writes Epoché’s co-edi­tor John C. Brady, “the arts and the pseu­do-arts appear per­haps indis­tin­guish­able. But, inso­far as the pseu­do-arts focus on gen­er­at­ing belief first and fore­most (as opposed to ratio­nal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion) they have an advan­tage. In front of an audi­ence of chil­dren, the chef will beat the doc­tor when it comes to demon­strat­ing prowess in prepar­ing ‘whole­some’ foods.” To that extent, Socrates’ basic obser­va­tion holds up still today, more than 2,400 years after Gor­gias. The sit­u­a­tion may even have wors­ened in that time: “far from us mod­erns hav­ing a more ‘sci­en­tif­ic’ (i.e. ‘art­ful’) approach to our action,” haven’t the pseu­do-arts just “added to their reper­toire the lan­guage of ‘knowl­edge’?”

Such enlight­ened twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry men and women “clip on a Fit­bit to track the minu­ti­ae of move­ments, down­load a ‘Pomodoro’ sys­tem app to record the when and the what of their work through the day,” use “calo­rie-count­ed food diaries, bud­get apps, online track­ers that tell them how much time they are spend­ing on Twit­ter vs. e‑mail.” Their eyes are on the prize of a bal­cony, a work-life bal­ance; there’s often a carafe of wine air­ing in there some­where too.” We believe that, in order to real­ize this dream, “we need to be sci­en­tif­ic, ratio­nal, col­lect the data, work smarter not hard­er etc., etc. But haven’t we just here fall­en into the ora­tors’ trap?” All this “bet­ter liv­ing through data” starts to look like sim­ple per­pet­u­a­tion of “the ease and plea­sure of being ‘con­vinced’ by the many pseu­do-arts, rather than grap­pling with the real objects that con­sti­tute the con­crete­ness of our lives.” Want­i­ng is fun; know­ing exact­ly what we want and why we want it is phi­los­o­phy.

via Aeon

Relat­ed con­tent:

Lit­er­ary The­o­rist Stan­ley Fish Offers a Free Course on Rhetoric, or the Pow­er of Argu­ments

Jon Hamm Nar­rates a Mod­ern­ized Ver­sion of Plato’s Alle­go­ry of the Cave, Help­ing to Diag­nose Our Social Media-Induced Nar­cis­sism

The Drink­ing Par­ty (1965 Film) Adapts Plato’s Sym­po­sium to Mod­ern Times

Why Socrates Hat­ed Democ­ra­cies: An Ani­mat­ed Case for Why Self-Gov­ern­ment Requires Wis­dom & Edu­ca­tion

How to Speak: Watch the Lec­ture on Effec­tive Com­mu­ni­ca­tion That Became an MIT Tra­di­tion for Over 40 Years

How Pulp Fic­tion Uses the Socrat­ic Method, the Philo­soph­i­cal Method from Ancient Greece

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Bertrand Russell: The Everyday Benefit of Philosophy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncertainty

On the strength of a few quo­ta­tions and the pop­u­lar lec­ture Why I am Not a Chris­t­ian, philoso­pher Bertrand Rus­sell has been char­ac­ter­ized as a so-called “pos­i­tive athe­ist,” a phrase that implies a high degree of cer­tain­ty. While it is true that Rus­sell saw “no rea­son to believe any of the dog­mas of tra­di­tion­al the­ol­o­gy” — he saw them, in fact, as pos­i­tive­ly harm­ful — it would be mis­lead­ing to sug­gest that he reject­ed all forms of meta­physics, mys­ti­cism, and imag­i­na­tive, even poet­ic, spec­u­la­tion.

Rus­sell saw a way to great­ness in the search for ulti­mate truth, by means of both hard sci­ence and pure spec­u­la­tion. In an essay enti­tled “Mys­ti­cism and Log­ic,” for exam­ple, Rus­sell con­trasts two “great men,” Enlight­en­ment philoso­pher David Hume, whose “sci­en­tif­ic impulse reigns quite unchecked,” and poet William Blake, in whom “a strong hos­til­i­ty to sci­ence co-exists with pro­found mys­tic insight.”

It’s inter­est­ing that Rus­sell choos­es Blake for an exam­ple. One of his oft-quot­ed apho­risms cribs a line from anoth­er mys­ti­cal poet, William But­ler Yeats, who wrote in “The Sec­ond Com­ing” (1920), “The best lack all con­vic­tion, while the worst / Are full of pas­sion­ate inten­si­ty.” Russell’s ver­sion of this, from his 1933 essay “The Tri­umph of Stu­pid­i­ty,” is a bit clunki­er rhetor­i­cal­ly speak­ing:

“The fun­da­men­tal cause of the trou­ble is that in the mod­ern world the stu­pid are cock­sure while the intel­li­gent are full of doubt.”

The quote has been sig­nif­i­cant­ly altered and stream­lined over time, it seems, yet it still serves as a kind of mot­to for the skep­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy Rus­sell advo­cat­ed, one he would par­tial­ly define in the 1960 inter­view above as a way to “keep us mod­est­ly aware of how much that seems like knowl­edge isn’t knowl­edge.” On the oth­er hand, phi­los­o­phy push­es ret­i­cent intel­lec­tu­als to “enlarge” their “imag­i­na­tive purview of the world into the hypo­thet­i­cal realm,” allow­ing “spec­u­la­tions about mat­ters where exact knowl­edge is not pos­si­ble.”

Where the quo­ta­tion above seems to pose an insol­u­ble problem—similar to the cog­ni­tive bias known as the “Dun­ning-Kruger Effect”—it seems in Russell’s esti­ma­tion a false dilem­ma. At the 9:15 mark, in answer to a direct ques­tion posed by inter­view­er Woodrow Wyatt about the “prac­ti­cal use of your sort of phi­los­o­phy to a man who wants to know how to con­duct him­self,” Rus­sell replies:

I think nobody should be cer­tain of any­thing. If you’re cer­tain, you’re cer­tain­ly wrong because noth­ing deserves cer­tain­ty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a cer­tain ele­ment of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vig­or­ous­ly in spite of the doubt…. One has in prac­ti­cal life to act upon prob­a­bil­i­ties, and what I should look to phi­los­o­phy to do is to encour­age peo­ple to act with vig­or with­out com­plete cer­tain­ty.

Russell’s dis­cus­sion of the uses of phi­los­o­phy puts me in mind of anoth­er con­cept devised by a poet: John Keats’ “neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty,” or what Maria Popo­va calls “the art of remain­ing in doubt…. The will­ing­ness to embrace uncer­tain­ty, live with mys­tery, and make peace with ambi­gu­i­ty.” Per­haps Rus­sell would not char­ac­ter­ize it this way. He was, as you’ll see above, not much giv­en to poet­ic exam­ples. And indeed, Russell’s method relies a great deal more on log­ic and prob­a­bil­i­ty the­o­ry than Keats’. And yet the prin­ci­ple is strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar.

For Rus­sell, cer­tain­ty sti­fles progress, and an inabil­i­ty to take imag­i­na­tive risks con­signs us to inac­tion. A mid­dle way is required to live “vig­or­ous­ly,” that of phi­los­o­phy, which requires both the math­e­mat­ic and the poet­ic. In “Mys­ti­cism and Log­ic,” Rus­sell sums up his posi­tion suc­cinct­ly: “The great­est men who have been philoso­phers have felt the need of sci­ence and of mys­ti­cism: the attempt to har­monise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its ardu­ous uncer­tain­ty, make phi­los­o­phy, to some minds, a greater thing than either sci­ence or reli­gion.”

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

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Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What If We’re Wrong?: An Ani­mat­ed Video Chal­lenges Our Most Deeply Held Beliefs–With the Help of a Lud­wig Wittgen­stein Thought Exper­i­ment

Bertrand Russell’s Mes­sage to Peo­ple Liv­ing in the Year 2959: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish”

Noam Chom­sky Defines The Real Respon­si­bil­i­ty of Intel­lec­tu­als: “To Speak the Truth and to Expose Lies” (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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David Foster Wallace’s Famous Commencement Speech, “This is Water,” Gets Animated on a Whiteboard

Author David Fos­ter Wal­lace titled his famous address to Keny­on Col­lege’s Class of 2005 “This is Water,” a ref­er­ence to its open­ing joke — self-mock­ing­ly framed as a “didac­tic lit­tle para­ble-ish sto­ry” that is “a stan­dard require­ment of US com­mence­ment speech­es:”

There are these two young fish swim­ming along and they hap­pen to meet an old­er fish swim­ming the oth­er way, who nods at them and says “Morn­ing, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then even­tu­al­ly one of them looks over at the oth­er and goes “What the hell is water?”

Mark Wood­ing, founder of After Skool, a YouTube chan­nel “com­mit­ted to find­ing the most pow­er­ful con­tent and deliv­er­ing it in the most engag­ing way pos­si­ble” gave his white­board ani­ma­tion of the speech a dif­fer­ent title: “Your Mind is an Excel­lent Ser­vant, but a Ter­ri­ble Mas­ter.”

It’s the “old cliche” Wal­lace invoked mid­way through, not­ing that “like many clichés, so lame and unex­cit­ing on the sur­face, (it) actu­al­ly express­es a great and ter­ri­ble truth:”

It is not the least bit coin­ci­den­tal that adults who com­mit sui­cide with firearms almost always shoot them­selves in: the head. They shoot the ter­ri­ble mas­ter. And the truth is that most of these sui­cides are actu­al­ly dead long before they pull the trig­ger.

Wal­lace him­self died by sui­cide a lit­tle more than three years after deliv­er­ing the speech, prompt­ing author Tom Bis­sell to write in an essay for the New York Times that “the ter­ri­ble mas­ter even­tu­al­ly defeat­ed David Fos­ter Wal­lace, which makes it easy to for­get that none of the cloud­less­ly sane and true things he had to say about life in 2005 are any less sane or true today, how­ev­er trag­ic the truth now seems:”

This Is Water does noth­ing to lessen the pain of Wallace’s defeat. What it does is remind us of his strength and good­ness and decen­cy — the parts of him the ter­ri­ble mas­ter could nev­er defeat, and nev­er will.

We braced a bit won­der­ing how Wood­ing would han­dle this por­tion of the speech.

It would have been a good time for one of his more abstract flights of fan­cy.

In truth, some­times Wooding’s dry erase draw­ings clut­tered our head­space unnec­es­sar­i­ly, dis­tract­ing from Wallace’s mes­sage. Isn’t that iron­ic? A large part of the speech deals with choos­ing what to pay atten­tion to, and how to pay atten­tion to it.

In an attempt to fol­low Wallace’s advice and push back against the “basic self-cen­tered­ness …that is our default set­ting, hard-wired into our boards at birth”, we’ll con­cede that Wood­ing’s ani­ma­tion may help the speech land with those who’d give a pass on lis­ten­ing to an audio record­ing or read­ing a tran­script.

As Wood­ing told the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle, “Some peo­ple are visu­al learn­ers, some learn by hear­ing things, some have to do it… what I’ve tried to do with After Skool is com­bine every style of learn­ing to make the ideas as acces­si­ble as pos­si­ble, to take ideas that are kind of com­plex and make it so that an eighth-grad­er can under­stand it.”

The wick­et grows a bit stick­i­er when Wood­ing delves into the long pas­sages where­in Wal­lace unleash­es a tor­rent of grouchy self-serv­ing thoughts born of bore­dom, rou­tine and pet­ty frus­tra­tion… as an “exam­ple of how NOT to think”, he says in an aside.

Wal­lace pre­sent­ed this unvar­nished ugli­ness as a set up, some­thing to throt­tle back from — an illus­tra­tion of how our lizard brains’ snap judg­ments need not get the final word:

… if you’re aware enough to give your­self a choice, you can choose to look dif­fer­ent­ly at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the check­out line. Maybe she’s not usu­al­ly like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights hold­ing the hand of a hus­band who is dying of bone can­cer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehi­cle depart­ment, who just yes­ter­day helped your spouse resolve a hor­rif­ic, infu­ri­at­ing, red-tape prob­lem through some small act of bureau­crat­ic kindness…If you’re auto­mat­i­cal­ly sure that you know what real­i­ty is, and you are oper­at­ing on your default set­ting, then you, like me, prob­a­bly won’t con­sid­er pos­si­bil­i­ties that aren’t annoy­ing and mis­er­able. But if you real­ly learn how to pay atten­tion, then you will know there are oth­er options.

We wish Wood­ing had leaned out rather than in when Wallace’s bad mood makes him view the peo­ple suf­fer­ing through traf­fic jams, crowd­ed aisles, and long check­out lines with him as “repul­sive”, “stu­pid”, “cow-like”, and “dead-eyed”.

Know­ing that Wal­lace was wind­ing up to reveal these knee jerk assess­ments as the fab­ri­ca­tions of a testy, self-absorbed mind oper­at­ing on autopi­lot, the illus­tra­tions might have bet­ter served the mes­sage had they been a step or two ahead of the mes­sen­ger. Doo­dles depict­ing these peo­ple as far more neu­tral look­ing than the delib­er­ate­ly vit­ri­olic por­trait Wal­lace was paint­ing could have added some dimen­sion.

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that these visu­als aren’t ani­mat­ed in the tra­di­tion­al sense. They’re manip­u­lat­ed time lapse draw­ings. Unless Wood­ing breaks out the eras­er and dou­bles back to make mod­i­fi­ca­tions, they’re fixed on the white­board and in our minds.

This may explain in part why the fed up mom in the check out line appears to get a fair­er shake in The Glos­sary’s live action adap­ta­tion of excerpts from the same speech, below.

If you’d rather not gild the lily with white­board ani­ma­tion, you can lis­ten to Wallace’s speech and read the tran­script here.

Relat­ed Con­tent

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Noam Chomsky Explains Why Nobody Is Really a Moral Relativist, Even Michel Foucault

Noam Chom­sky made his name as a lin­guist, which is easy to for­get amid the wide range of sub­jects he has addressed, and con­tin­ues to address, in his long career as a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al. But on a deep­er lev­el, his com­men­tary on pol­i­tics, soci­ety, media, and a host of oth­er broad fields sounds not unlike a nat­ur­al out­growth of his spe­cial­ized lin­guis­tic the­o­ries. Through­out the past five or six decades, he’s occa­sion­al­ly made the con­nec­tion explic­it, or near­ly so, by draw­ing analo­gies between lan­guage and oth­er domains of human activ­i­ty. Take the pan­el-dis­cus­sion clip above, in which Chom­sky faces the ques­tion of why he does­n’t accept the notion of cul­tur­al rel­a­tivism, which holds moral norms as not absolute but cre­at­ed whol­ly with­in par­tic­u­lar cul­tur­al con­texts.

“There are no skep­tics,” Chom­sky says. “You can dis­cuss it in a phi­los­o­phy sem­i­nar, but no human being can, in fact, be a skep­tic. They would­n’t sur­vive for two min­utes if they were. I think pret­ty much the same is true of moral rel­a­tivism. There are no moral rel­a­tivists: there are peo­ple who pro­fess it, you can dis­cuss it abstract­ly, but it does­n’t exist in ordi­nary life.” He iden­ti­fies “a ten­den­cy to move from the uncon­tro­ver­sial con­cept of moral rel­a­tivism” — that, say, cer­tain cul­tures at cer­tain times hold cer­tain moral val­ues, and oth­er cul­tures at oth­er times hold oth­er ones — “to a con­cept that is, in fact, inco­her­ent, and that is to say that moral val­ues can range indef­i­nite­ly,” teth­ered to no objec­tive basis.

If moral­i­ty is trans­mit­ted through cul­ture, “how does a per­son acquire his or her cul­ture? You don’t get it by tak­ing a pill. You acquire your cul­ture by observ­ing a rather lim­it­ed num­ber of behav­iors and actions, and from those, con­struct­ing, some­how, in your mind, the set of atti­tudes and beliefs that con­sti­tutes cul­ture.” He draws a nat­ur­al com­par­i­son between this process and that of lan­guage acqui­si­tion, which also depends on “hav­ing a rich built-in array of con­straints that allow the leap from scat­tered data to what­ev­er it is that you acquire. That’s vir­tu­al­ly log­ic.” And so, “even if you’re the most extreme cul­tur­al rel­a­tivist, you are pre­sup­pos­ing uni­ver­sal moral val­ues. Those can be dis­cov­ered.” When he spoke of “the most extreme cul­tur­al rel­a­tivist,” he was think­ing of Michel Fou­cault?

Back in 1971, Chom­sky engaged the French philoso­pher of pow­er in a debate, broad­cast on Dutch tele­vi­sion, about human nature and the ori­gin of moral­i­ty. There he prac­ti­cal­ly lead with lin­guis­tics: a child learn­ing to talk starts “with the knowl­edge that he’s hear­ing a human lan­guage of a very nar­row and explic­it type that per­mits a very small range of vari­a­tion.” This “high­ly orga­nized and very restric­tive schema­tism” allows him to “make the huge leap from scat­tered and degen­er­ate data to high­ly orga­nized knowl­edge.” This mech­a­nism “is one fun­da­men­tal con­stituent of human nature,” in not just lan­guage but “oth­er domains of human intel­li­gence and oth­er domains of human cog­ni­tion and even behav­ior” as well. Per­haps we do have the free­dom to speak, think, and act how­ev­er we wish — but that very free­dom, if Chom­sky is cor­rect, emerges only with­in strict, absolute, whol­ly un-rel­a­tive nat­ur­al bound­aries.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Michel Fou­cault and Noam Chom­sky Debate Human Nature & Pow­er on Dutch TV (1971)

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Michel Fou­cault, “Philoso­pher of Pow­er”

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Noam Chomsky’s Lin­guis­tic The­o­ry, Nar­rat­ed by The X‑Files‘ Gillian Ander­son

Michel Fou­cault Offers a Clear, Com­pelling Intro­duc­tion to His Philo­soph­i­cal Project (1966)

Noam Chom­sky Explains the Best Way for Ordi­nary Peo­ple to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunt­ing

Moral­i­ties of Every­day Life: A Free Online Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Stoic Wisdom of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius: An Introduction in Six Short Videos

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Though it enjoys a par­tic­u­lar pop­u­lar­i­ty here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, the rig­or­ous­ly equani­mous Sto­ic world­view comes to us through the work of three fig­ures from antiq­ui­ty: Epicte­tus, Seneca, and Mar­cus Aure­lius. Epicte­tus was born and raised a slave. Seneca, the son of rhetori­cian Seneca the Elder, became an advi­sor to Nero (a posi­tion that ulti­mate­ly forced him to take his own life). Mar­cus Aure­lius, the most exalt­ed of the three, actu­al­ly did the top job him­self, rul­ing the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD. He also left behind a text, the Med­i­ta­tions, that stands along­side Epicte­tus’ Enchirid­ion and Seneca’s many essays and let­ters as a pil­lar of the canon of Sto­icism.

It is from the Med­i­ta­tions that this series of six videos from Youtube chan­nel Einzel­gänger draws its wis­dom. Each of them intro­duces dif­fer­ent aspects of Mar­cus Aure­lius’ inter­pre­ta­tion of Sto­icism and applies them to our every­day life here in moder­ni­ty, pre­sent­ing strate­gies for stay­ing calm, not feel­ing harm, accept­ing what comes our way, and not being trou­bled by the actions of oth­ers.

Though the impor­tance of these aims can be illus­trat­ed any num­ber of ways, their achieve­ment depends on accept­ing the notion cen­tral to all Sto­ic thought: “the dichoto­my of con­trol,” which dic­tates that “some things are in our con­trol and oth­ers aren’t.” When life hurts, “it often means that we care about things we have no con­trol over, and by doing so, we let them con­trol us.”

All the Sto­ics under­stood this, but for Mar­cus Aure­lius, “being unper­turbed by things out­side of his con­trol allowed him to cope with the many respon­si­bil­i­ties and chal­lenges he faced as an emper­or, and to focus on the task he believed he was giv­en by the gods.” He knew that “it’s not the out­side world and the events that take place in it, our bod­ies includ­ed, that hurt us, but our thoughts, mem­o­ries, and fan­tasies regard­ing them.” To indulge those fan­tasies means to live in per­pet­u­al con­flict with real­i­ty, and thus in per­pet­u­al, and futile, griev­ance against it. The stronger our judg­ments about what hap­pens, “the more vul­ner­a­ble we become to the whims of For­tu­na, the unpre­dictable god­dess of luck, chance, and fate,” forces that even­tu­al­ly get the bet­ter of us all — even if we hap­pen to have the world’s might­i­est empire at our com­mand.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Sto­icism, the Ancient Greek Phi­los­o­phy That Lets You Lead a Hap­py, Ful­fill­ing Life

Every Roman Emper­or: A Video Time­line Mov­ing from Augus­tus to the Byzan­tine Empire’s Last Ruler, Con­stan­tine XI

How to Be a Sto­ic in Your Every­day Life: Phi­los­o­phy Pro­fes­sor Mas­si­mo Pigli­uc­ci Explains

Three Huge Vol­umes of Sto­ic Writ­ings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Fer­riss

350 Ani­mat­ed Videos That Will Teach You Phi­los­o­phy, from Ancient to Post-Mod­ern

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How to Be a Stoic in Your Everyday Life: Philosophy Professor Massimo Pigliucci Explains

To a view­er on the inter­net, TED Talks and TEDx talks may seem more or less the same. That makes sense, since the main dif­fer­ence between them isn’t of for­mat, but phys­i­cal loca­tion: TED talks take place at offi­cial TED con­fer­ences, and TEDx talks at TED-licensed but inde­pen­dent­ly-orga­nized events. The lat­ter are more numer­ous, and also more geo­graph­i­cal­ly var­ied. Take the talk above from TEDxA­thens, the ide­al place for speak­er Mas­si­mo Pigli­uc­ci to deliv­er his open­ing his­tor­i­cal sketch, which he begins by ask­ing his audi­ence to “imag­ine, if you will, that you’re walk­ing down the streets of Athens 24 cen­turies ago, give or take.”

In such a set­ting, “you might meet this guy: Zeno of Citium.” A once-pros­per­ous mer­chant strand­ed by a ship­wreck, he’d wound up in the Greek metrop­o­lis, where he spent his days hang­ing around book­stores. One day “he read Xenophon’s Mem­o­ra­bil­ia, which is a book about Socrates, and he was so intrigued that he turned to the book­seller and said, ‘Where I can find me one of these peo­ple, one of these philoso­pher folks?’ ” Luck­i­ly for Zeno, the streets of Athens were crawl­ing with philoso­phers at the time, and it was under their tute­lage that he devel­oped his own philo­soph­i­cal acu­men to a lev­el that pre­pared him to found his own school: Sto­icism, so named because its mem­bers met in the stoa, where the mar­kets set up.

The ear­ly Sto­ics were con­cerned with every­day life, and how it can be lived “accord­ing to nature”: the world’s nature, but also our own. Then, as now, a great many peo­ple suf­fered unnec­es­sar­i­ly out of con­fu­sion as to where the world end­ed and they began. They had, in oth­er words, no clear sense of what was under their con­trol and what was­n’t, a con­di­tion that the core teach­ings of Sto­icism are designed to rec­ti­fy. “The idea is that you can do things, you can make deci­sions about your health, your rep­u­ta­tion, et cetera, et cetera, but ulti­mate­ly, you don’t con­trol the out­come,” Pigli­uc­ci explains. In prac­tice, this means that “we should try to walk through life by inter­nal­iz­ing our goals — not wor­ry about the out­comes, because those are out­side our con­trol, but wor­ry about our inten­tions and our efforts, because those are very much under our con­trol.”

“Wor­ry” may not be quite the appro­pri­ate term. It con­notes, in any case, a self-defeat­ing habit that would hard­ly be con­doned by his­to­ry’s best-known pro­po­nents of Sto­icism, like the first cen­tu­ry Roman states­man and man of let­ters Seneca, the sec­ond-cen­tu­ry Roman emper­or Mar­cus Aure­lius, and espe­cial­ly the Greek ex-slave Epicte­tus, whose life bridged those eras. Epicte­tus believed, as Pigli­uc­ci puts it, that “a great part of hap­pi­ness lies in the seren­i­ty,” in “the idea that you always walk through life by know­ing that you’ve done your best, and that noth­ing else could be done on top of that.” We can learn more about how, exact­ly, to do our best from the work these Sto­ics left behind, all of which is free online: Epicte­tus’ Enchirid­ion, Mar­cus Aure­lius’ Med­i­ta­tions, the col­lec­tion of Seneca’s writ­ings pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

Of course, we could also read Pigli­uc­ci’s own book, How to Be A Sto­ic: Using Ancient Phi­los­o­phy to Live a Mod­ern Life, or even watch “Think Like a Sto­ic: Ancient Wis­dom for Today’s World,” his series from The Great Cours­es (which is also avail­able through Audi­ble free to its mem­bers). Pigli­uc­ci is but one of the host of prac­ti­tion­ers will­ing to intro­duce us to the prin­ci­ples of Sto­icism, even these 24 cen­turies — give or take — after its inven­tion. But whether on the streets of ancient Athens or in the dig­i­tal labyrinths of the 21st cen­tu­ry, the best teach­ers of this par­tic­u­lar phi­los­o­phy are the vicis­si­tudes of life itself. Whether we can meet them with virtue and equa­nim­i­ty is up to us — and indeed, to put it Sto­ical­ly, the only thing that’s ever been up to us.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Sto­icism, the Ancient Greek Phi­los­o­phy That Lets You Lead a Hap­py, Ful­fill­ing Life

What Is Sto­icism? A Short Intro­duc­tion to the Ancient Phi­los­o­phy That Can Help You Cope with Our Hard Mod­ern Times

Three Huge Vol­umes of Sto­ic Writ­ings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Fer­riss

350 Ani­mat­ed Videos That Will Teach You Phi­los­o­phy, from Ancient to Post-Mod­ern

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How to Spot Bullshit: A Manual by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt (RIP)

Note: Over the week­end, the Prince­ton philoso­pher Har­ry Frank­furt passed away at the age of 94. After a long career, he became the author of the sur­prise best­selling book, On Bull­shit, which we fea­tured in 2016. Please revis­it our orig­i­nal post below.

We live in an age of truthi­ness. Come­di­an Stephen Col­bert coined the word to describe the Bush administration’s ten­den­cy to fudge the facts in its favor.

Ten years after the Amer­i­can Dialect Soci­ety named it Word of the Year, for­mer pres­i­dent Bush’s cal­en­dar is packed with such leisure activ­i­ties as golf and paint­ing por­traits of world lead­ers, but “truthi­ness” remains on active duty.

It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly ger­mane in this elec­tion year, though politi­cians are far from its only prac­ti­tion­ers.

Take glob­al warm­ing. NASA makes a pret­ty rock sol­id case for both its exis­tence and our role in it:

97 per­cent or more of active­ly pub­lish­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists agree: Cli­mate-warm­ing trends over the past cen­tu­ry are extreme­ly like­ly due to human activ­i­ties. In addi­tion, most of the lead­ing sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tions world­wide have issued pub­lic state­ments endors­ing this posi­tion.

In view of such num­bers, it’s under­stand­able that a sub­ur­ban Joe with a freez­er full of fac­to­ry-farmed beef and mul­ti­ple SUVs in his garage would cling to the posi­tion that glob­al warm­ing is a lie. It’s his last resort, real­ly.

But such self-ratio­nal­iza­tions are not truth. They are truthi­ness.

Or to use the old-fash­ioned word favored by philoso­pher Har­ry Frank­furt, above: bull­shit!

Frank­furt–a philoso­pher at Prince­ton and the author of On Bull­shitallows that bull­shit artists are often charm­ing, or at their very least, col­or­ful. They have to be. Achiev­ing their ends involves engag­ing oth­ers long enough to per­suade them that they know what they’re talk­ing about, when in fact, that’s the oppo­site of the truth.

Speak­ing of oppo­sites, Frank­furt main­tains that bull­shit is a dif­fer­ent beast from an out-and-out lie. The liar makes a spe­cif­ic attempt to con­ceal the truth by swap­ping it out for a lie.

The bull­shit artist’s approach is far more vague. It’s about cre­at­ing a gen­er­al impres­sion.

There are times when I admit to wel­com­ing this sort of manure. As a mak­er of low bud­get the­ater, your hon­est opin­ion of any show I have Lit­tle Red Hen’ed into exis­tence is the last thing I want to hear upon emerg­ing from the cramped dress­ing room, unless you tru­ly loved it.

I’d also encour­age you to choose your words care­ful­ly when dash­ing a child’s dreams.

But when it comes to mat­ters of pub­lic pol­i­cy, and the pub­lic good, yes, trans­paren­cy is best.

It’s inter­est­ing to me that film­mak­ers James Nee and Chris­t­ian Brit­ten trans­formed a por­tion of their learned subject’s thoughts into voiceover nar­ra­tion for a light­ning fast stock footage mon­tage. It’s divert­ing and fun­ny, fea­tur­ing such omi­nous char­ac­ters as Nos­fer­atu, Bill Clin­ton, Char­lie Chaplin’s Great Dic­ta­tor, and Don­ald Trump, but isn’t it also the sort of mis­di­rec­tion sleight of hand at which true bull­shit­ters excel?

Frank­furt expands upon his thoughts on bull­shit in his apt­ly titled best­selling book, On Bull­shit and its fol­lowup On Truth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Schools 9/11 Truther; Explains the Sci­ence of Mak­ing Cred­i­ble Claims

Young T.S. Eliot Writes “The Tri­umph of Bullsh*t” and Gives the Eng­lish Lan­guage a New Exple­tive (1910)

“Call­ing Bull­shit”: See the Syl­labus for a Col­lege Course Designed to Iden­ti­fy & Com­bat Bull­shit

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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