All posts filed under: Philosophy

Splendid Triviality: Philosophy, Art, and Sport in a Time of Crisis

One of my philosophy professors in college remarked that philosophy flourishes in a time of decline or crisis. No, that doesn’t mean that philosophers all secretly pray for catastrophes. But it is true that darker times call for philosophical reflection and that philosophy, like the arts, might have something to offer the human spirit when things cease to make sense. A crisis certainly seems to bring out the worst in us, and it’s hard not to wonder if Hobbes was right about human nature. Certainly many of the headlines from the current crisis document the endless depths of human selfishness. The man in Tennessee who stockpiled 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and sold them at exorbitant prices comes to mind. But we have also seen stories of courageous selflessness in the service of others, from healthcare workers risking their own lives to young people delivering food to the sequestered elderly. If you read the introduction to the Decameron, set in Italy during the 14th-century plague, it’s clear that, in Boccaccio’s estimation, the bad outweighed the …

The Transhumanist Case for Liberty

Circa 441 BCE, Sophocles set down on papyrus (most likely) his famous “Ode To Man,” a countdown of human masteries: He navigates. He cultivates. He domesticates. He preys on all but is prey to none. He crafts words for thoughts, constructs shelters, and forms states. “He has made himself secure from all but one; in the late wind of death, he cannot stand.” That last line resonates across time and circumstance, faith and culture, the rise and fall of civilizations. What joins us to homo sapiens, past and present, is not merely the fact, but the recognition, that our days are numbered, that our expiration date is real, that we’re careening headlong toward the end of the line. What if it were not so? As I write these lines, scientists, theorists, technicians, entrepreneurs, and even a few kooks are laboring independently toward radical life extension, with an eye on the ultimate prize: the eradication of death. Their approaches vary wildly. From gene-editing, to growing organs for transplant, to 3D-printing nonvascularized tissue, to implanting brain-computer interfaces, …

Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life—A Review

A review of Beyond Order: 12 More Rule for Life by Jordan B. Peterson. Penguin Books, 402 pages. (March 2021) “Any sensible person would be taken aback by all this,” writes Jordan Peterson in Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. He is trying to make sense of the astounding impact of his previous book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Why had the book’s message resonated so profoundly with so many? And what is the significance of its stratospheric success? What is to be learnt from his videos clocking tens of millions of views? And what motivated thousands to attend his sold-out world lecture tour? In one town after another, they applauded when he appeared on stage and hung on his every word. After the show, they sought not an autograph, but a handshake with the man they credit with breathing meaning into their lives. “My work,” he reflects, “must be addressing something that is missing.” Careful observation of his audiences revealed an answer—“the mention of one topic in particular,” he remarks, “brought …

Against Dilettantes

“Welcome to the country of amateurs,” a good friend said when I first arrived in England. That was 20 years ago and, now that I’ve had time to think about it, my friend stands corrected. He should have said, “Welcome to the country of dilettantes.” Because there is a difference, you see. While both species belong to the verminous family of the overambitious and the under-qualified, an amateur poses a lower environmental threat. Aware of his limitations, he keeps a certain distance from his subject and treats it with respect. A dilettante, regrettably, does no such thing. Instead, a dilettante dabbles. In anything, everything, trying his hand at things he is not remotely qualified to do. A fellow with no linguistic training writes a book on the English language. Another fellow with no literary training writes a book of literary criticism. Hacks of every genre, from lifestyle to cookery, opine on politics and economics. I meet a lot of publishers. Where I come from, an average publisher has a postgraduate degree in philology and a …

Does Suffering Provide Meaning and Purpose in Life?—A Reply to Freya India

A recent article in Quillette by Freya India raises the age-old problem of how to understand the connection between suffering and meaning in one’s life. India’s argument is that some suffering is unavoidable, but more suffering may be beneficial if one is able to understand its advantages. Generation Z—those born since 1997—are historically unique insofar as they arrived in the Internet and social media age. But is suffering experienced differently according to a person’s circumstances? And are today’s under-25s that much different from earlier generations in the way they respond to stressors? A key characteristic of the social climate in which today’s under-25s live is that they cannot afford to ignore the pressures of creating and maintaining an identity on social media, and of trying to avoid the many hazards presented by aggressive activism and what has become known as “cancel culture.” This environment brings its own anxieties, because what is done on the Internet is very difficult to undo. Arousing serious and/or widespread antipathy from others may ruin one’s life-chances with no means of …

My Generation Isn’t Suffering Enough

An age of happiness is quite impossible, because men want only to desire it but not to have it, and every individual who experiences good times learns to downright pray for misery and disquietude. ~Nietzsche1 My generation is miserable. Gen Z, those of us born after 1997, are the saddest, loneliest, and most mentally fragile age group to date, cursed with rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. How can that be? How can a generation with everything feel so desperately unhappy? By almost every metric, human life is dramatically better today than it ever has been. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from around 90 percent in 1820 to just 10 percent in 2015, while rates of illiteracy, mortality, and battle deaths are also in rapid decline. For the most part, Gen Z are heirs to an immense fortune: a utopian world of instant gratification and technological dynamism. In theory, this should be the age of happiness. And yet, misery abounds. In the United States, 54 percent of Gen Z …

The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Conor McGregor

Thou knowest this man’s fall, but thou knowest not his wrassling. ~James Baldwin One of the truest tests of a person’s character is how they respond to failure. Wins and losses come and go and we can’t always count on the desired result. What matters more than results is the process by which we navigate those wins and losses—the spirit of resilience developed under adversity and carried over every obstacle along the way. Accepting the challenges we encounter without fear of failure, no matter the risk or the odds, is one kind of victory, and those who can pull it off with style and grace reveal a bit of what human beings are capable. On January 23rd, on the secluded “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, the most iconic, charismatic, and polarizing mixed martial artist to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), “The Notorious” Conor McGregor, was knocked out in the second round by the Louisiana native Dustin Poirier, thereby avenging the latter’s first-round knockout defeat to McGregor back in 2014. A characterological cross between …

Remembering Karl Popper

It’s the end of the wartime workday at 14a Westenra Terrace in the Port Hills of Christchurch, New Zealand, high above the southern terminus of the city’s streets. The one-bedroom apartment offers commanding views of a region shaped by the heaving of the Earth’s crust and the dry winds that blow in from the north-west and across the southern alpine range. But for the Austrian husband and wife living here, there’s not much time to contemplate these natural elements. This is the 1940s, and their focus remains instead on the heaving of their native European crust and the calamitous trends of intellectual history now bending their homeland out of shape. Inside, the youngish Karl Popper—dark-eyed and slightly stooped—glances at his handwritten notes. His wife, Hennie, waits, a sheet of fresh paper rolled into the typewriter behind which she is seated. Slowly, he begins to dictate his latest thoughts for a work that he privately fears will receive as little enthusiasm from prospective publishers as he has received from many colleagues in his adopted home. “Great …

The Narrative and Its Discontents

Human history in two sentences: in pre-modern times, material goods were hard to come by, but small communities offered kinship and their traditions made the world meaningful and comprehensible. Today, physical comforts are plentiful, but belonging and sense-making are scarce. Belonging and sense-making are made of the same raw material: stories. And shared stories are what bring any group larger than a family together, be it “Brazilians,” “Buddhists,” or “Beliebers.” Stories build a shared reality that in turn frames how we interpret the world in our own minds. A story that illuminates reality and unites people will create both belonging and meaning. And thus, all humans converged collectively on the truest possible story of the world and themselves, and lived happily ever after. Wait, that’s not what happened. So what happened? One of the things that happened to stories was memetics. Stories proliferate or decline based on their own Darwinian logic. They may reproduce if they are funny, or if they flatter the listener, or if they are set to a catchy tune. Consider my …

Scott Alexander, Philosopher King of the Weird People

If you (like me) spend an unhealthy amount of time reading about morality and politics online, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. In the best of all possible worlds, this would be because someone pointed you toward his pun-laden kabbalistic theodicy or his highly accessible musings on psychotropics or his remarkable essay on coordination problems. Alas, Google Trends suggests that search interest in Slate Star Codex spiked dramatically in June of 2020, when its author announced that he was closing the blog to discourage the New York Times from “doxing” him, publicizing his identity in a way that invited negative consequences for his psychiatry career (and his patients). The news media’s response varied—the New Yorker essentially scooped the story, while National Review simply took the Gray Lady to task—but perhaps the most interesting response was the eclectic variety of signatures appearing on an open letter to the Times. Readers of Slate Star Codex may be predominantly childless, educated white men working in the tech industry, but the diversity of …