Thursday, May 31, 2012
Thursday, May 24, 2012
In any event, this isn’t one of those books. I’m not going to try to teach you something about what philosopher said what, or here are all the problems with some obscure philosophical puzzle. Not that that stuff isn’t worth knowing – I’m a bit of a purist about knowledge, and tend to think it’s all inherently worth something. But it’s not what I’m trying to do here.
What I am trying to do is prove some things to you. First and foremost, I want to prove to you that philosophy, at least once you pry it out of the grasping hands of academics, is one of the most useful activities anyone can engage in. It’s interesting, it’s fun, and it’s productive in ways that are often surprising. Second, and secondarily, I’ll try to prove some points in a host of complicated philosophical debates that academics have managed to futz up fairly spectacularly. Third and finally, I’ll be showing how silly the academy has become. I was on my way to becoming an academic, once upon a time; I didn’t see the light soon enough to get away without a doctorate, but I have managed to avoid sort of stultifying intellectual dullness that infects most academics in the fullness of time.
I do, however, like to use lots of big words. You can’t blame academics for that; the stuff I used to write way back in high school was just as bad, if not worse. So, you just have to bear with it.
I think the only way I can really show you that philosophy is useful by actually doing some philosophy. So, in this book, I’m going to address some of the central topics of philosophical concern, dating back to folks like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, scampering around ancient Greece and pontificating at each other. I’m going to start with issues in logic and language, and then move through the mind and consciousness, science and knowledge, the world and its objects, human behaviour and action, ethics and value, and finish up with some things about society, state and community.
Really, this is going to be the sort of book that academics will hate. Not just because of the gratuitous potshots, like the one in the previous sentence. Nor because of my total failure to carefully review all the relevant literature. I’ll be talking about some relevant scholarly, and non-scholarly, stuff; I can’t take seriously the idea that one person can concoct every good idea on his or her own. There’s a lot of good ideas already out there, and I may as well help myself to some.
No, the real reason academics will hate this book is that it’s an example of what is technically referred to as “systematic philosophy”, which means an attempt to bring many different topics together under some basic guiding principles. Academic philosophy rejects this sort of approach almost entirely. A few very senior, very distinguished members – Charles Taylor comes to mind – are allowed to indulge their taste for systematic philosophy, but it’s rarely taken as seriously as carefully-articulated and myopically-focused articles in impenetrable jargon that only a handful of people can begin to understand, let alone care about.
The funny thing is, actual philosophy – real philosophy, the kind practiced by Plato, and Rene Descartes, and David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, and even Ludwig Wittgenstein, that academics are allegedly the heirs to – is all about building systems. Philosophy, as I take it, is the search not for knowledge – if you want to know things, be a scientist – nor for wisdom – which smacks of arrogance – but instead for understanding. And understanding requires tracing the systematic connections that exist between different ideas, in order to illuminate and explain as much as one possibly can.
Ambitious? I sure am. But, look at it this way. If this book succeeds, then reading it will help you understand a whole heck of a lot of things. And if it fails, won’t it be fun, after all this hype, to watch me fall flat on my face?
Rayner sat and stared into the space above the desk – what her subordinates called her desk, at any rate. She hadn’t had, or used, an actual desk for decades. She really didn’t need to; most of the day to day operations of the company were handled by supervisors, managers, directors, vice-presidents, the whole massive bureaucratic hierarchy that spidered out around her, guided but not instructed by her intentions. This thing in the boardroom was too massive to be a desk, anyway. Even with the howling gale whipping by the open window space, it hadn’t shifted so much as a centimeter. Neither had Rayner’s chair, but that was tethered to the floor. The desk – the not-desk, the thing-that-looked-like-a-desk – wasn’t tethered to anything.
The thing-that-looked-like-a-desk wasn’t furniture at all. It was a tool – or had started out as one, until R&D had gone a little overboard a few years back and achieved something that, theoretically, was supposed to be impossible. And it was alive. Or close to, Rayner not being enough of a philosopher to locate the precise point at which an intelligence, albeit an artificial one, slid from machine to lifeform. It was certainly bright, its processing systems only marginally slower than those of a human brain, its capacity for retaining information substantially greater. It could also talk to her, although it didn’t actually speak, as such, having no way to manipulate either gases or liquids in order to transmit sound. Instead, it directly affected the speech-processing centres of her brain – and only her brain – creating the effect as if she had been spoken to. She had, however, avoided giving it a name, reasoning with some justification that naming a thing would make it more like a person, and thus harder to exploit for her purposes.
She just thought of it as the Machine. And the Machine was talking to her right now, had been all the while Mary had been restlessly pacing around the room, looking out the windows, and generally failing to grasp why she had been summoned to spend her New Year’s Eve in the company of her ultimate employer. Rayner had, years ago, forced herself to learn the unusual, but useful, art of doing one thing obviously while doing another surreptitiously; and allowing herself to talk about this and that, while conducting a mental conversation with the Machine, had been – compared to some of the simultaneous activities she had been forced to conduct – fairly straightforward. The Machine had been asking her direction, acting on her orders, working with the automatic systems that governed all the vital processes of the tower, making sure that all plans would come to fruition. Vital processes like air circulation, elevator control, power distribution – even the automatic repair systems which could, if necessary, extrude, retrieve and replace one of the tower’s thousands of windows.
It had been a fairly simple matter to disengage the associated safety processes, and release the window when Mary foolishly leaned her head against it.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Mary turned away from the window. She didn't care about the excuses, nor did she really care about the riot. She was just bored, and looking for something to occupy her attention. She'd been forced to come in to work on New Year's Eve, here in the tower – and it was always "the tower”, even though it did have a name emblazoned in neon on all sides – in the heart of the city, and for what?
Her boss was just sitting there. Dead centre in the room sat the desk and behind it sat Rayner – Ms. Rayner, officially, but everyone called her "Rayner”. This wasn't even her office, which was, at least, a comfortable place, with lots of seating for visitors and subordinates; it was the boardroom, and there hadn't been a board to sit in it for decades. So, except for the desk – a monstrous thing of black plastic – and Rayner in her chair, there was nothing here. Not even a stool for Mary to perch on, while she waited for her boss to finish talking. So, Mary had been loitering by the windows, leaning on the pillars between the panes, occasionally walking over to the desk and standing, with an expression of deliberate vapidity on her face.
Rayner had started talking as soon as Mary got there, hours ago – how long had it been? There wasn't even a clock in this room! The topics had, at the beginning, been vaguely relevant. Profits. Losses. New product lines. Research and development. By now, though, she'd wandered off into – well, Mary wasn't entirely sure what. Something about religion, it sounded like. Did anyone still believe in that? She wasn't asking questions or looking for insight or even acknowledging Mary was still there. Rayner just kept on talking.
Mary turned back to the window. What else was there to do? She leaned towards the glass, meaning to rest her head yet again on the sloped pane and look back down below once more, hoping against hope that this night would soon be over. She was astonished, then, that the glass completely gave way under her weight, sliding free from its frame as if it had never truly been held there.
And Mary and the glass fell to the seething masses below, tumbling hundreds of metres down, end over end over end, the wind screaming past her ears. Or, was that her voice? Was she screaming? She wasn't sure; she didn't even know how to tell. All she knew was that the crowd below was getting larger, the boardroom window approaching behind her. She wondered if she'd hit the ground or another person. And whether it would make any difference.