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I have been musing the past two days on Simon Cricthley’s three-part article on PKD, which has thus far been a summary of Dick’s religious experience (here) and his particular take on Gnosticism (and here). Today, rather than just telling us about PKD, Critchley finally said something. The problem is, its just not that interesting – or at least not as interesting as reading PKD.

This final installment revolves around the idea, common to both Gnosticism and modern sci-fi, that the world as we know it is an illusion. In fact, this idea is rather common in many religious traditions, though in varying degrees of paranoia. Gnosticism represents one of the more extreme forms, but Eastern philosophy also trumpets a similar tune.

These connections also abound in sci-fi films, as Critchley points out. Probably the most famous (at least in my generation) is The Matrix, but he also includes in his list James Cameron’s Avatar and a few Lars von Trier films, Antichrist and Melonchalia (neither of which I have seen). We should also put Inception here, as well. Continue Reading »

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Today finds the second part of Simon Critchley’s essay on Sci-Fi writer (and potential philosopher) Philip K. Dick. I should have noted yesterday that the interest in PKD comes from the recent posthumous publication of Dick’s Exegesis, a 976-page collection of his journals following his experience of 2-3-74.

In this second part, Critchley discusses Dick’s connection to the idea of the Logos, and ancient Greek philosophical term and a central idea in the Gospel of John. In Stoicism, the logos was the principle of creation that guided all things, while in the Gospel of John it is said that this logos “became flesh” in the person of Jesus.*

*Though this is not really relevant to PKD, in the fourth Gospel there is as much if not more connection with the Hebrew story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis than there is with Greek philosophy. In Genesis, YHWH creates by speech, i.e. by the use of a word. In fact, both Genesis and John begin with the phrase “In the beginning,” and both give a theological account of creation in which the “word” is central.

But as Critchley writes:

…the core of Dick’s vision is not quite Christian in the traditional sense; it is Gnostical: it is the mystical intellection, at its highest moment a fusion with a transmundane or alien God who is identified with logos and who can communicate with human beings in the form of a ray of light or, in Dick’s case, hallucinatory visions. Continue Reading »

Philip K. Dick

In preparation for a course this fall on Science Fiction, I have been immersing myself in Philip K. Dick. One of my summer projects is to make it through some of his major novels, beginning with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I also hope to read  Ubik and the VALIS trilogy, among others. For those of you in the dark about who PKD is, his stories were behind the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and Adjustment Bureau. Unfortunately for Dick (but not for his heirs), he did not live to see these movies released and lived most of his life around the poverty line.

PKD is regarded as an extraordinary literary mind, though beyond the realm of fiction his place is a bit less certain. In an effort to address the possible contribution of Dick to philosophy, Simon Critchley, a well-regarded philosopher at the New School in New York, has embarked on a three-part essay in the New York Times philosophy blog The Stone.  He writes:

Dick was a consummate autodidact. He survived for less than one semester at college, at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949, taking and quitting Philosophy 10A in the space of a few weeks. Dick left the class in disgust at the ignorance and intolerance of his instructor when he asked his professor about the plausibility of Plato’s metaphysical theory of the forms — the truth of which was later proven for Dick by the experience of 2-3-74. Dick was evidently not trained as a philosopher or theologian — although I abhor that verb “trained,” which makes academics sound like domestic pets. Dick was an amateur philosopher or, to borrow a phrase from one of the editors of “Exegesis,” Erik Davis, he was that most splendid of things: a garage philosopher.

What Dick lacks in academic and scholarly rigor, he more than makes up for in powers of imagination and rich lateral, cumulative association. If he had known more, it might have led him to produce less interesting chains of ideas. In a later remark in “Exegesis,” Dick writes, “I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist.” He interestingly goes on to add, “The core of my writing is not art but truth.” We seem to be facing an apparent paradox, where the concern with truth, the classical goal of the philosopher, is not judged to be in opposition to fiction, but itself a work a fiction. Dick saw his fiction writing as the creative attempt to describe what he discerned as the true reality. He adds, “I am basically analytical, not creative; my writing is simply a creative way of handling analysis.”

It will be interesting to see where this leads in the next two parts. Most of the first part is devoted to biographical issues, particularly related to Dick’s use of drugs (prescription and otherwise) and his ‘religious’ experience in February of 1974.

Christ Pantocrator

Christ Pantocrator with “Ho On” Title in Halo

There is also the issue of Dick’s mental health. In his journals that followed the experiences of 1974, Dick describes a relationship with a clay pot that he named “Ho On.” In Western religion this is the title given to God (and in the Christian tradition, to Christ as seen in the halo to the right), and can be translation as “the One Who Is,” clearly a play on the name of God in Exodus 3:14. So like Moses, Dick seems to have met God in a meager form, and one that involves some connection to plant life.

However, as Critchley notes, those closest to Dick’s work, like  Jonathan Lethem, felt that “Dick wasn’t a legend and he wasn’t mad. He lived among us and was a genius.” As Dick himself wrote, “the schizophrenic is a leap ahead that failed,” suggesting that the line between madness and brilliance (geniusness?) has often been blurred – especially in figures like PKD.

What year off?

This is not a blog reboot, I have simply found the time to get write again (and more importantly, I have found the need to say some things, even if they are only to myself). Welcome back!

 

The great popularizer of modern physics Stephen Hawking sits down for a nice interview with the New York Times. Hawking is best known as the author of A Brief History of Time,  but he has also written a number of other popular books. He also happens to be a real scientist, once the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, a position occupied by Isaac Freaking Newton himself. Hawking has been instrumental in the development of theory surrounding black holes, has a type of radiation named after him, and is also one of the longest living survivors of A.L.S. By sheer fact of what he has accomplished with such a debilitating condition, Hawking deserves an enormous amount of respect.

From the interview:

Like Einstein, he is as famous for his story as for his science.

At the age of 21, the British physicist Stephen Hawking was found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. While A.L.S. is usually fatal within five years, Dr. Hawking lived on and flourished, producing some of the most important cosmological research of his time.

In the 1960s, with Sir Roger Penrose, he used mathematics to explicate the properties of black holes. In 1973, he applied Einstein’s general theory of relativity to the principles of quantum mechanics. And he showed that black holes were not completely black but could leak radiation and eventually explode and disappear, a finding that is still reverberating through physics and cosmology.

Dr. Hawking, in 1988, tried to explain what he knew about the boundaries of the universe to the lay public in “A Brief History of Time: From Big Bang to Black Holes.” The book sold more than 10 million copies and was on best-seller lists for more than two years.

Today, at 69, Dr. Hawking is one of the longest-living survivors of A.L.S., and perhaps the most inspirational. Mostly paralyzed, he can speak only through a computerized voice simulator.

From the New York Times:

At an abstract level, people seem to be what philosophers call incompatibilists: those who believe free will is incompatible with determinism. If everything that happens is determined by what happened before, it can seem only logical to conclude you can’t be morally responsible for your next action.

But there is also a school of philosophers — in fact, perhaps the majority school — who consider free will compatible with their definition of determinism. These compatibilists believe that we do make choices, even though these choices are determined by previous events and influences. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

Does that sound confusing — or ridiculously illogical? Compatibilism isn’t easy to explain. But it seems to jibe with our gut instinct that Bill is morally responsible even though he’s living in a deterministic universe. Dr. Nichols suggests that his experiment with Mark and Bill shows that in our abstract brains we’re incompatibilists, but in our hearts we’re compatibilists.

“This would help explain the persistence of the philosophical dispute over free will and moral responsibility,” Dr. Nichols writes in Science. “Part of the reason that the problem of free will is so resilient is that each philosophical position has a set of psychological mechanisms rooting for it.”

Some scientists like to dismiss the intuitive belief in free will as an exercise in self-delusion — a simple-minded bit of “confabulation,” as Crick put it. But these supposed experts are deluding themselves if they think the question has been resolved. Free will hasn’t been disproved scientifically or philosophically. The more that researchers investigate free will, the more good reasons there are to believe in it.

An interesting discussion on why social morality and performance depend upon our having a notion of freedom of will.

My recent silence is due to two factors: rampant illness and a longish post that I am now working on.

From my post on puzzle solving, I identified my nemesis and mortal enemy as the Rubik’s Cube. I have since been told that it is because I am too stubborn to learn basic strategy. This is no doubt correct, since I refuse to see a game (like chess, for example) as memorizing moves and strategy. Isn’t it more fun to engage in the process of discovery? I mean, what is the point of learning how to solve a Rubik’s Cube and then applying those rules rigidly in order to solve the puzzle? Is it even solving it if beforehand you have a method that removes discovery and imagination in the process?

I mean, look at this kid. Is he having fun?

OK, so maybe a little. Punk.

Continue Reading »