Archive

Philosophy

There is an idea called “The Unprecedented Era” that I consider very important to understanding our present world. I once tried to explain it, but looking at that post now, what I wrote was a little too elaborate. So this is a restatement in plainer language.

We live in a period of time characterized by its ever-changing and unprecedented nature. Although obviously, every time is unprecedented in its own way, the gap between the past two hundred years (approximately) and the rest of human history is so great that it cannot be crossed. We are different. We must acknowledge this difference.

For the first time in human history, the majority of the population is not dedicated to agriculture. For the first time in human history, we understand the workings of the human body and the cause of disease. For the first time in human history, we have real knowledge of the structure of the world and the universe. No one born previous to our time could understand us; we cannot understand them.

In the centuries leading up to the Unprecedented Era, the process of science began to discover real, usable information about the universe. When this information began to be put in use in technology, the Era began. Change begat change, rolling waves of change, change in every aspect of our lives, moving across the globe, reaching and connecting all humanity—whether or not they wanted that change.

Due to the unprecedented nature of the Unprecedented Era, all earlier examples of human history are no longer useful. For example, we see folks, worrying about the fate of the United States, compare the situation to the fall of the Roman Empire. But this is useless. We are so far detached from the context of Late Antiquity—in life spans, in technology, in knowledge—that there can be no comparison. Invoking the “Fall of Rome” can have no use other than the purely rhetorical.

The Unprecedented Era can be characterized as Protean and Adolescent, a time when everything is being continually originated and formed. Due to this, it can be difficult to be an “adult” in the Unprecedented Era, because the social context learned as a child is being constantly undermined by change. Gaps open between generations, each new age cohort thinking they understand better than the last, only to find themselves overthrown in turn.

New identities become possible. Identity formation has always happened, but not at the dramatic rate allowed by the permutations of ideas, facilitated by communication, on a scale of billions. There are more ways to be a human being now than ever before, far more, and they keep generating themselves.

In such upheaval, humanity is in a continual process of experimentation and discovery. Every day we live, we are effectively asking “Does this work?”, testing our ideas, our livelihoods, our societies. Not all the experiments turn out well, and some have ended horribly: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China. We must be careful. Yet the change will necessarily continue, so there is no way not to try something new. We can at least try to make change humane—and often have.

How shall we react to the fact of the Unprecedented Era? Well, we’re humans, which means we will have the full range of reactions. Some will be thrilled to embrace the new, some will find the constant earthquake to be hellish. If I were going to give advice, I would say: don’t get too used to anything, things you like as well as things you don’t like. Either may disappear or be transformed into something unrecognizable.

How will this all end? We can’t know. I would not be surprised if humanity doesn’t realize the Unprecedented Era has ended until the even is well into hindsight. For the moment, though, the earthquake continues.

Today, exactly 25 years after my arriving in Boston to begin my adult life, I made my annual pilgrimage to Frank Speare Hall, a dorm of Northeastern University on Huntington Avenue, where it all began.

Except this year Frank Speare Hall is empty. Has been empty, for more than two months. Northeastern University is empty. Down the street, the Museum of Fine Arts is empty. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is empty. Simmons College, where I took my master’s degree, is empty. Fenway Park, across the way, is empty.

I did not expect any of that, back on that May day in 1995.

Except I didn’t expect much. When I arrived here, I had no plans. No job. No career trajectory. I had a dream of becoming a rich and famous writer, but I had no idea what that consisted of or how to go about doing it, so really I didn’t even have that.

If you had told me, on 5/28/1995, that all would be empty in 25 years years, I would not have been quite surprised. Not pleased, certainly. But it would have matched the darker suspicions I had always harbored about the American future. I was open to a wide range of possibility. If you expect what you don’t expect, you’ll never be taken by surprise.

Not having a plan, the last 25 years have not produced much in way of accomplishment for me, not as the world sees it. I am a part-time church office manager. I have no awards or titles. Could things have turned out differently?

I could have gone into academia. A lot of people would say that was my natural bent. But I’ve seen academia chew up and vomit forth better folks than me—and that was before the effect of Covid-19 on the Higher Education sector.

Dad always thought I should join the Foreign Service. That would have been a neat experience. But when I hit the crux point of my career, the point where you go big or fade, I would have collided with the Trump State Department, like a swallow hitting a skyscraper window pane.

Are these sour grapes? Am I finding rationalization to dismiss my failures? Of course. Yet look at the emptiness around Huntington Avenue. Many people who pursued their dreams, pursued them successfully, found the results crushed in recent months. We live in wreckage. Vanity, all is vanity, a chasing after the wind, says the Teacher.

What, decades into my adulthood, I am trying to do is understand the balance between dreams and disasters. What is the point of any human action in a universe 13.8 billion years old and on a planet 4.5 billion years old? How do we find a course in life when society is burning with evil and shivering in uncertainty? Where do we make our dwelling aboard this tiny island, physical and chronological, that alone is amenable to human life?

I’m actually not trying to answer those questions. I’m a little skeptical than any person can answer them for any other person. But I’m trying to refine them. I’m trying to formulate the Question at a high caliber.

In the meantime, I have the treasures that 25 years have brought me, the people I have known, the joys of being with them. I am grateful.

Frank Speare Hall is empty.

Go ahead — eat your food and be happy; drink your wine and be cheerful. It’s all right with God. Always look happy and cheerful. Enjoy life with the woman you love, as long as you live the useless life that God has given you in this world. Enjoy every useless day of it, because that is all you will get for all your trouble.
-Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 (Good News translation)

Then the woman left her water jar, went back to the town, and said to the people there, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done.”

-John 4:28-29

When he was passing through Samaria, Jesus met a woman by a well. Now this was at noon, a time when no decent woman would have been at a well. She was regarded as a whore. This woman also was a Samaritan, of a group considered outcasts by the Jewish people. So in Jesus’s context, she was outcast twice over, because she was a Samaritan and because she was a whore.

But Jesus did not treat her as an outcast. He spoke with her, face to face. He treated her questions with respect. And when she returned to the Samaritan village, the woman spoke in amazement of how this man who claimed to be the Messiah had come to her in friendship.

Jesus knew the Samaritan woman. He knew Zacchaeus, the tax collector, and invited himself to dinner. He knew the apostle Nathanael, telling him “I saw you under the fig tree.” He knew the children, and spoke with them in openess. Jesus met no one as a stranger. Each person he encountered, he knew.

The ideas expressed in the work “Reality Rises Like the Mist” are in no way connected with Christian doctrine. They stand on their own and can be accepted or rejected by anyone, regardless of religious belief. But I say to you that the Christian religion has always been a powerful witness to me that every human being matters. The idea that each person is important and that God knows each person are not, for me, related in any logical sense. I do not think people are important because God knows them; I do not think God knows people because they are important. But for me the two ideas walk beside each other, they hold each other up, they encourage each other.

Because God does know each of us. From our mother’s womb, God knows us. God knows us, right down to the jugular vein, right down to our enteric nervous system. Every thing we’ve done, every thought we’ve had, our deep secrets we cannot tell another human, all these things are plain to God. We cannot surprise God. We cannot offend God, we cannot disgust God, because those things are human emotions and depend on surprise. God sees us coming, everything we do. And God loves us anyway.

God knows the homeless. God knows the sex offender. God knows the terrified. God knows all, even unto the Eleanor Rigbys of the world, those individuals ignored by all their fellow humans. Every one is valuable to God. The hairs of our heads are all numbered, and each number is known to God.

So even as God knows and loves each of us, let us seek to know and love each other, as God loves us. None of us are truly strangers, for we all share a mutual acquaintance.

As Marvin Gaye once sang:

God is my friend
Jesus is my friend
And when we call in Him for mercy,
He’ll be merciful, my friend
All he asks of us, I know
Is we give each other love

Amen

I’ve been working on this piece for months, long before the current pandemic began. But, looking on the work in light of current events, I must say

…that these circumstances prove I was right all along. This must be obvious now to any thinking person. All must admit that my insight has proven laserlike, and roundly salute me for my perspicacity.

Um, no.

Oftimes intellectuals do act like that in crisis situations, centering themselves. But it’s not a temptation to which I’m prone. At least I hope not.

It’s not that I can’t see connections between the ideas I talked about in the work and Our Current Predicament. I could write a hundred thousand words on the subject. But I don’t particularly want to do that.

What I think needs saying the most is that the events of these times will leave a mark in every single human being alive, in a way nothing else has up until now. This is a global natural disaster, in real time. In this disaster, no one is trivial. Each person is living their own story.

Looking around, thinking about triviality and lack thereof, what comes to mind is the unknowable way this is working. How it’s going to be a factor shaping my children, and all their peers, and all of us. In some ways it’s going to a positive, granting resolution and purpose. In other ways, it’s going to brand with fear and destroy opportunity. Ultimately, at worst, it will end lives, and leave holes in survivors that will never really heal.

No one is trivial. The dead matter, each of them, no matter how lowly. Each deserves to be remembered by someone. By God, if no one else can.

Reality Rises Like the Mist
-DW Twiddy

Part 1: Nothing Is Trivia

This work is composed of two parts, and each part is composed of paragraphs, and each paragraph is composed of sentences, and each sentence is composed of words, and each word is composed of letters, and each letter is composed of pixels, and each pixel is composed of liquid crystal, and each liquid crystal is composed of hydrocarbon molecules, and each hydrocarbon molecule contains, among others, atoms of carbon, and each atom of carbon contains a nucleus of six protons, and each proton is composed of two up quarks and one down quark, and each quark is, assuming contemporary theories of physics are accurate, a vibrating string.

Here we are, down among the strings. Welcome! Take a seat, grab your choice of hot beverage. While I have you here, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you: what did you think about the latest issue of Lubes and Greases magazine?

Read More

Jesus pooped.

Jesus pooped and peed. All his life. Every day. He was fully God and fully human, and humans poop.

Muhammad pooped. Moses pooped. Gautama Buddha pooped. Mahavira pooped. Baha’ullah pooped. Guru Nanak pooped.

Augustus Caesar pooped, and that poop wasn’t purple. Queen Victoria pooped. Napoleon pooped. Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin all pooped.

Mao did not poop, or at least not as often as he should have. Mao suffered from chronic constipation. Perhaps this contributed toward certain tendencies of his.

Barack Obama poops. When he was in office, his staff had to carefully allocate segments of his 24-hour workday for him to poop. Even the President of the United States poops.

Jeff Bezos poops. Warren Buffett poops. Mike Bloomberg poops. No amount of money can buy off the need to poop.

Fictional characters rarely poop, relative to real life. The distance between our regular need to poop and pee and their paucity in fiction is telling. We would grow bored with stories if characters really had to poop and pee as repetitiously as we ourselves do. We look to narrative to screen out the need to poop, to offer things besides pooping, so we can pretend people don’t poop.

We all poop, with individual degrees of difficulty. We may end up with colostomy bags, but that’s just pooping in a lateral direction. If we can’t poop, we die. When our bowels call, we must stop and poop. Pooping bring us all to the same level.

Any good idea is worth having more than once.

If Philosopher A realizes a Great Truth and Philosopher B realizes the same Great Truth, it doesn’t mean Philosopher B copied Philosopher A. It means that if something is objectively True, different people will realize it at different times, each with their own angle.

In the same vein, if something is truly True, any given realizer of that truth should not be adored too much for doing so. What is great is the truth, not the person who realizes it.

Tonight the city is full of morgues
And all the toilets are overflowing
There’s shopping malls coming out of the walls
As we walk out among the manure
That’s why
I pay no mind

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I and a group of my friends remained on campus in Western Pennsylvania. It was a pleasant time, the summer before our senior year, the last season of freedom before the world was forced upon us.

Beck’s first album, Mellow Gold, was popular that summer. I played it often in our sweltering little apartment. Besides “Loser,” the hit single, two songs really stuck out: “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” and “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997

Rattlesnake on the ceiling
Gunpowder on my sleeve
I will live here forever
With the ocean and the bees
Lay it on to the dawn
Everything we’ve done is wrong
I’ll be lonesome when I’m gone
Lay it on to the dawn

My summer job was shelving in the library. It was not demanding. I had plenty of time to peruse the stacks.

City of Quartz.” What a great title! What’s it about? It’s about Los Angeles and its fate.

My interest in Southern California had already been primed by a few things, such as Bruce Wagner’s miniseries Wild Palms (in which the themes of Southern California become the natural end of the entire country) and the essay collection Sex, Death, and God in L.A.—not to mention a longtime interest in the Manson Family (more on that next week). But Mike Davis’s neo-Marxist jeremiad reframed things. Davis had been lucky enough to sync with the ’92 riots, making him hailed as a prophet. His vision of Los Angeles, a rivalry between sunshine and noir on the brink of implosion, vibrated within my college-junior skull.

All the time I kept listening to Beck, kept listening to those two tracks on Mellow Gold. The most curious reveries filled my head.

In those songs, I heard a desiccated slow-apocalypse, the logical end of the City of Quartz. A crumbling motel next to empty dusty bungalows, the skeletons of realtors and talent agents left abandoned in empty swimming pools. Faceless cops patrolling the canyons. Luxury cars burning on the freeways. An infinite beach, because the tide kept going out and out and never came back, ’til you could walk to Catalina.

In those moments, I understood Los Angeles. The place that will someday be erased by the earthquake. The place where “the sun gives up and sinks into the black, black ocean.”

(needle scratch)

See what I did there?

I constructed a thought form. Out of various bits of information related to the objective existence of the territory and people termed “Los Angeles” and “Southern California” (used interchangeably), I formed a mental image and interacted with it, creating emotional responses that could lead to action. In this case, a variety of elements came together in my head to form a strongly “noir” picture of the city.

This fashioning didn’t really have any consequences. I was just a college student; I had no power to make them a reality. But it could have if I had gone on to have any power over, say, federal funding to Southern California.

Really, there was never any real threat that this thought form could lead to action, because I was skeptical enough about it even at the time. I did once warn someone against moving to L.A., but not seriously.

I touched on thought forms here. Thinking back to the summer of ’94, it occurred to me that my mental L.A. was a glass-case example. Note this thought form was developed from a poor & entirely theoretical information base—a few books, movies, and miscellaneous media. Most of our thought forms are developed on such poor bases, and, due to the Problem of Information, no one’s forms can encompass a significant amount of the relevant data.

Often our thought forms harden. We form them in youth and then invest ourselves in them. Information that reinforces our favored forms is welcomed; information that undermines them is passed over or rationalized away. We make the world we see and then we see the world we make.

But in the case of my view of L.A., I can report that I was not content to leave things on an last-chapter-of-Less Than Zero note. Steve Martin helped. His L.A. Story and the essay on Los Angeles in Pure Drivel paint the city as a place of ironic joys. There are countervailing voices, if you listen hard enough.

In the end, all our thought forms stand as beetles against the obelisk of reality. The actual thing called “Los Angeles” is the aggregate of every life carried out within its borders. Some end wonderfully, some horribly, all in infinite variety, each one slightly different. There’s no way to grasp it all. Lived experience will always ooze around our expectations.

Since 1994, I’ve actually been to Los Angeles. Just once, on a happy occasion, for a weekend. We drove the length of Santa Monica Boulevard, rode the ferris wheel at the pier, saw the moonlight on the Pacific surf while jets from LAX soared aloft like angels. It was beautiful. We can never comprehend the totality of real life. But every little bit helps.

Part 2: The Unprecedented Era

During the 16th century, and at an accelerating rate, people of the Western Cultural Sphere began to develop actual, accurate facts about the universe, in the face of the wisdom of antiquity. Copernicus challenged Ptolemy. Vesalius challenged Galen. Galileo challenged Aristotle. This was Science. As noted in Part 1, this had never happened before.

Why? Up until that point, the world’s Thinking Classes had been willing to overlook or explain away any discrepancies between those traditions and observed reality. Which only makes sense-the traditions served their social purposes, forming the warp & woof of their worlds. For some reason, people arose who were not willing to remain quiet. Why is an Open Question.

Is there a reason this occurred in the Western Cultural Sphere and not elsewhere? That’s another Open Question. The Western Sphere had made slightly stronger claims about nature than the other spheres, but only relatively. In any case, it only happened once. The other spheres never had time to undergo any similar changes independently.

Perhaps even these new claims, in the abstract, could have been maintained as developments in the Western cultural tradition except for one crucial difference, a difference that resulted in the world as we know it: accurate ideas about reality can be used as the basis for technology. This did not happen quickly. About three centuries passed before the new information being produced was put to work in any significant way. But when it happened, it supercharged everything else.

Let me give one example. In the 18th century, electricity was discovered. This new energy had been completely unsuspected by any of the Interpretive Traditions. In the early 19th century, a device, the telegraph, was invented which put this new information to practical use. Earlier ages could not have developed this technology; they had no idea the basis even existed. This was Unprecedented.

Our age is unprecedented.

It is unprecedented in Movement: Prior to the modern era, the fastest any human ever traveled was about 30 miles an hour, for short distances, aboard a galloping horse. We now routinely tool down the highway at over twice that. A clipper ship, the product of centuries of development of the sailing vessel, managed to travel between New York City and San Francisco in 89 days; airliners now traverse the distance in a little under seven hours.

In Power: Up until the Unprecedented Era, the vast majority of energy was provided by wood and mammalian muscle. Humans found some clever ways to harness wind and water power, there was marginal use of coal and peat. The total amount could not easily be increased.

In the Unprecedented Era, we have have harnessed the potential of the atom and the sun. Hundreds of millions of years worth of fossil fuels move, light, and heat us. The winds and tides fill in when they can. The total amount of energy available for human purposes has mushroomed, and increases steadily year by year.

In Creation: In the Unprecedented Era, we have a notion of ‘economic growth.’ We take it for granted that the amount of goods and services will tend to increase. This is a strange thing, one that implies change, takes change for granted as part of the landscape. The question we ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is bizarre. For the vast majority of human history, life was about what you had to do, and what came before you. Only now, with constant change, can we assume a child will be able to embrace and benefit from it.

In Destruction: In the Unprecedented Era, explosions have replaced warriors. The immense firepower of the modern battalion, backed by long-range air and sea support, has reduced war to arranging the enemy to be under your shells and bombs, preferably far from your own soldiers. Death comes from above, like thunder. Indeed, line warfare has grown so expensive and so destructive that it has almost been rendered obsolete, replaced by asymmetrical conflict between groups of lightly-armed insurgents. Every exchange of fire must take place in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. In the ultimate unprecedentedness, we can now destroy all humanity.

In Birth: Our ability to end Homo sapiens is even more flabbergasting in view of the vast increase in our numbers. In the forty-five years of my life, the population of the world has increased by three billion human beings—or as many as it took from the origin of our species through 1960 to accumulate. In that same time, the population of the United States has increased by one hundred and twenty-five million people, over a third.

Birth is now in our hands. For the vast majority of human history, the question “Should I have kids?” was nonsensical. Birth control was difficult and full of holes. We can now effectively control reproduction, the impetus behind evolution, one of the most basic forces of material reality.

In Death: In the Unprecedented Era, we rarely die from that which previous generations did. In fact, we rarely die—relatively speaking. In 1900 the world death rather was 17.2 deaths per 1000 population; it is now less than half that. Average global life expectancy was 34 a century ago; it is about 70 now. We take for granted such things as antibiotics, which freed us from ancient horrors. Doctors have access to diagnostic and therapeutic methods that were wishful thinking even fifty years ago. Modern health care is not distributed evenly, but even what there is in poorer nations, from international vaccine programs to insecticide-infused anti-malarial mosquito nets, has had immense effect—evidenced by massive increases in population.

In all these things and more, we are cut off from all previous humans who have ever lived. We cannot understand them. We have too much control, too much safety, too much knowledge, too much stuff. We can compare our situations with theirs all we want, but we’re fooling ourselves. Things have changed. At some point, a crisis point was reached. The gulf is unbridgeable.

But without any examples from the past, how can we have some idea of what to expect from the future? We can’t. No one has any idea what will happen. At no point in the last 200 years could any rational person have correctly surmised the course of oncoming events. There was no reason to see the mostly peaceful demise of the Soviet Union. There was no reason to see the redistribution of world manufacturing. There was no reason to see the decolonization of the Third World. There was no reason to see the revaluation of gender and sexual orientation. The shocks keep coming. It can be reasonably assumed they will continue to do—although if the constant flow of change stopped, that would also be unprecedented.

(There were those few who predicted what seemed impossible, but turned out to be correct. They were all crackpots. In the Unprecedented Era, the crackpots of one decade turns out to be the prophets of the next—but they exist alongside dozens of their fellow crackpots who were wrong.)

While we can’t know what the change will be, we can know the context in which that change will happen. Science and technology have made the stakes and our abilities higher than they ever have been. We have been placed at the wheel of a tractor-trailer truck, going 90 miles an hour, with no brakes. All we can do is hope no obstacle appears in front of us. So far, none has.

We want the past to have influence on the present, to be able to learn from the past. It seems wasteful to think there is no real connection between the two. But that’s an element of story, not reality. Sometimes things are indeed random and unconnected. Such is the case here.

My purpose here is not to recommend a course of action. The Unprecedented Era militates against the recommending of anything. I seek only to recognize what is happening around me, to understand and describe.