Ye Olde Curiosity Shop: a philosophical ghost story

On the waterfront of Eliot Bay, tucked beneath the “Alaskan Highway”, and a block before the beginning of Seattle’s famous Pikes Place Market lies a wayside boutique called “Ye Ol’ Curiosity Shop”. The shop is undeniably a tourist trap, tacky to the extreme, it is the type of place where a wandering tourist on the wharf might find a plastic snow globe of the city skyline or press a penny into a copper plate with the words “Seattle” on it. True to form, the shop specializes in pirate and mermaid-themed merchandise, even though, to my knowledge, no pirate has ever set sail on the sound and I am yet unaware of any local mermaid sightings, or even legends for the that matter. But “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” itself has roots that go deeper than its exterior might imply, and it remains, to this date, a touchstone to my memories of the city that I now call home.

Ye Olde Curiosity shop does have a history, or at least as much of a history as an American West Coast city will allow. Founded by an Ohioan pioneer at the end of the Klondike gold rush, one J.E. “Daddy” Standely, the shop originally served as a clearing house for memorabilia, artifacts, and forgeries. Standely, himself a notorious indian trader (in both sense of the word), made a practice of obtaining, and often times manufacturing, relics that might be passed off on prospectors and tourists. In addition to his wheeling and dealing, the man was also an avid collector of rare items and made a po4-ye-old-curiosity-exterior-web1.jpgint of buying any number of oddities (fake or not) that passed through the Puget Sound region in the first half of the 20th century. To this day, many of these items still remain in the shop. No longer for sale, the objects serve chiefly as windows into the strange fare on offer by a snake-oil salesmen in early Seattle. Most prominent in this collection are two human mummies. Called “Sylvester” and “Sylvia” by the shopkeepers, the bodies were procured (and possibly mummified) sometime in the mid-1800s when such traveling oddities were at a premium and poaching bodies was not out of the question. No longer identifiable, the human remains now stand on display behind glass, serving as unofficial mascots of the establishment.

I remember encountering this macabre pair, while on a childhood vacation to the city decades before I lived there as an adult. Then – being about 12 at the time – I was keenly interested in collectible trinkets and oddities, and after completing a rather underwhelming tour of the neighboring wharf, I took a detour into the shop found my way  to “the main exhibit”, where Sylvia and Sylvester stood book-ending a 19th century harmonium and a section of a pacific-style totem pole.

Having never seenWASEAcuriosity10.jpg a “mummy”, I initially found the exhibit rather anti-climactic. These mummies, and indeed most mummies, do not look authentic. Regardless of how “well-preserved” they are in an archaeological sense, they seem less like dead people, and more like the stain of human likeness after all remnants of bodily and spiritual life have been blasted beyond recognition. I remember, there, trying to search for the humanity in the pair. Perhaps, I could piece together what the mummies must have looked like in life, adding on hair, muscle, and flesh in my imagination and until the figures looked like recently deceased corpses. The effort  proved to be futile, but as I lethargically ambled towards the exit, a visceral sensation seized my mind. I now find it hard to explain, but at that moment an image of the larger mummy, Sylvester, became immediately visible; not as a desiccated husk, or even as a recently deceased corpse, but as the man that he must have been once in life. And then it seemed as if there was an essence, as alive as any of the shop patrons, trapped within his dried and mangled form. An uneasy feeling took me as I exited the shop.

This vision persisted long into the evening tWoJmH.jpghat day, returning later as a nightmare. Though I only have a vague recollection of this, I remember that in the dream I had taken the place of Sylvester behind in the glass display, paralyzed, with a frozen gaze peering out across the shop. However, this time, something was very different. The image I saw before me was hardly the lively boutique I had experienced in my waking state. Instead, the patrons were frozen in place with glassy-eyed stares, and it was as if the entire outside world had been coated in a thick waxy pollution that robbed even the woodwork, earth, and outside sky of life. In the true nature of role reversals, just as my life had was now inside the mummy, the lifeless process of mummification had seized the rest of reality and drained it of its essence.

Even after this dream left me, my mind lingered on the fearful notion that what I had seen was prophetic and that this sort of living death in which all of reality is frozen in eternal lifelessness might  be what waits for all sentient creatures at the moment of their demise.

I remember toying with this masochistic idea over the course of the years to come. Perhaps some this persistence owes to a certain amount of self-inflicted psychological morbidity common to teenagers, but aside from this, I found the scenario altogether plausible. I even found the motif repeated in the popular movie “American Beauty”, albeit their notion of this frozen existence was far more euphoric than mine. Gradually, my speculation evolved from a state of eternal living death to the even more terrifying notion that the mind, after cessation, would descend into complete sensory deprivation in full possession of all of its rational faculties. Lost in an abyss of meaningless, measureless tifear-buried-alive-a-and-e-tv-series-live-event-six-feet-under-strange-900x440.jpgme, that would consume the consciousness with madness. It was chilling to think that all humans, by virtue of their life, stood on the shores on an endless abyss that was destined to consume them entirely.

And even years later, I have found myself returning to these scenarios as a point of reference for the examination of the human condition. The reduction of the human brain to an eternal state of sensory deprivation, despite its terror, creates a platonic state pliable for philosophical questions. Certainly scientists have done sensory deprivation exercises for a few hours (resulting in euphoria) and for several days (resulting in depression, hallucination, and memory loss), but what would occur when such an experience stretched out to an indefinite time horizon. Might a mind reach some absolute state where its last memory was dismissed as delusion? And even after the mind re-emerged from madness would rationality be preserved?  Would even the self? These questions seemed altogether inscrutable and so I shifted to easier ones. If not FULL sensory deprivation, what about near sensory deprivation? A mind with access to a gentle binary input  but still in possession of its rationality. What might a brain without experience or memory do with such a simple but consistent input. And with this thought, my mind returned to the image of Sylvia and Sylvester encased in glass at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and I was brought, rather impulsively, to produce a new philosophical extension to my story.yeoldecuriosityshop_04.jpg

Suppose through some bizarre circumstance, Sylvia and Sylvester are not totally deceased but instead live in a state of rationality separated both from their memories of life  and any stimulus of the outside world. However, we might imagine that their darkness is periodically broken as each mummy experiences a mild electrical sensation whenever a human makes eye contact with their exterior form. Due to the age of the establishment and its popularity, the mummies’ eternal silence will be frequently punctuated by these tiny shocks. We could even imagine that the pair would welcome the sensations as miraculous wards against the emptiness that would otherwise consume their minds. In fact, in recognition of this centrality, the pair would likely deploy their rationality to the task of modeling the phenomenon. Of course, due to its regularity and repetition this task would quite tractable. The inputs could be fit with normalized statistics; paired with a cyclical model to account for daily variation, and a regression model to account for the changes in the shops popularity. With this such a model  the sensations themselves would become explainable, predictable, and even expected.  The mummies would have developed a complete and satisfactory explanation of their universe. One from which their mind never needs to be roused. And to this end, the sudden sensations of contact would seem less miraculous and more like expected happenings pouring forth from a fully specified set of equations. So, even though predictability has been achieved, a certain placidity of existence will have set in.

But then, apropos of nothing, an extraordinary event occurs. And just like my own experience 18-odd years ago, one of the mummies, Sylvester, is  beset by a sensory explosion, his mind is displaced and thrown jarringly into the universe of human observation. For a brief moment he is no longer in darkness and instead sees the lively bustling reality of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Human communication, sensory perception, the sights and smells, all become immediately apparent to him. And for a moment he realizes the nature of his previous position and the confines of his former existence. But, these sensations are fleeting, and after a few brief moments, Sylvester is once more lowered into the darkness of his previous state. The revelation has departed, never to return again.

But what can Sylvester glimpse from this experience? One might think it might upset his reality, and upend the way he had formed his explanations earlier. Perhaps he might recast his limited sensations as something grander then he originally thought. He might realize that his incredible experience was a window to a much larger existence beyond anything he could have thought possible and that his mundane sensations were but a shadow of this larger life that he could only catch a the briefest view. But of course, in all likelihood, he might just as easily dismiss all of this. All previous thoughts, all his previous understanding of the universe, indeed his very model of existence was predicated on an observation occurring with consistency and repetition. The extraordinary experience that beset his senses in that one moment will not conform to that standard and its very singular nature would precludes its incorporation into Sylvester’s original model. As grand as the revelation , it cannot be recast as a data-point. And in fact will not even possess predictive power when it comes to the task of describing the mundane system of sensations that make up his ordinary existence. And so, as powerful and as important as it seems to us, this brief glimpse into a wider universe might be easily dismissed and cast into the dust bin of delusional mistakes that might beset a mind encased in eternal darkness.75569-004-3B260631.jpg

At this point, I am sure, my more astute readers will chuckle upon noticing that I have inadvertently traced the steps of one ancient Athenian in a torch lit cave. Nonetheless, for my own purposes, I have found this modern update helpful in its own right; not necessarily for its capacity to illustrate, as Socrates intended, the limitation of the human senses. But rather, and I am want to do, its ability to contextualize the teleology of the human mind.

The confinement to a living death of eternal sensory deprivation, holds a transfixing and terrifying power for a reason. That is that, it forces the function of rationality, and indeed personality, to confront an existence where its own nature is eternally futile. Inside a word free of sensation there is no substance to be grasped or dealt with, no experience that can be raged against or even embraced. And as such, any semblance of personality would be obliterated through contact with that gaping chasm of meaninglessness.

But might not something similar be said, for that mind so confidently in possession of a totalizing model of the universe? A model where everything is either predicted or dismissed as random deviation from that prediction? I used think that there was a massive distinction between this state and that total oblivion, but the thought because it seems this path is as sure an excuse to marry the human mind to an inertia it would have otherwise resisted. In other words, man’s rationality is no less defeated if it is swallowed up by simplicity than if it is swallowed up by darkness. And though we might find simplicity useful for prediction, it can become a jailer the moment it drives out the meaning of that prediction.

At one point in my life, I did think that the development of such a totalizing and simple model of the universe to be the goal of humanity. Of course like most moderns, the complexity and difficulty of obtaining such an end, masked its limitation. And since, I have come to see this project of as not only as impossible but also as foolish.

download.jpgHuman beings define themselves through their contact with raw experience. With surprise, with astonishment, with wonder. The points in time where we are want, or indeed must, toss out our previous modes and replace them with something higher and better. And whether we appreciate these jarring moments of discontinuity that interrupt our existence, they are indeed the key to our humanity. We do not maintain our own existence in anticipation of eternally repeating patterns, or an unchallenged life of stimulus and response. We exist for those moments when reality invades our minds stronger than ever before and tears those petty models asunder. Call them “miracles”, or if you prefer the modern neologism “black swans” ,but whatever we choose to call these moments, they etch the boundaries of our human recollection and personality. And I have long speculated that the true desire of mankind is to stand before this fountainhead of existential wonder, in full possession of our rational personalities.

I will stop myself before this essay diverts into spiritually, but I have to wager that most people, at any some moment of their lives have been taken back  by a strong impression that a person,  or even an object, before them is much more than the material that constitutes its physical existence.  They will then see something in that moment that contains a hint of the eternal, something that cannot so easily be tamed by our pattern-seeking and model-building brains, and something that calls them to a higher type of existence. I am certainly not the first thinker to speculate about how human existence might be much elevated if but we could go through our daily lives with these types of revelations intact in our conscious wills. But due whatever human frailty, they are fleeting. And men and women continue to gloss over these interactions with the transcendent, dismissing them as curiosities, like the human form itself, sitting lifeless among the myriad dross in a wayside city boutique.

The terrible lizards of times past, and those yet to come

Childhood memories are difficult to pin down, but one that still remains vivid was my early love of dinosaurs. Of course a childhood fascination with dinosaurs is not unusual, but the distinct image of “the dinosaur”- depicted universally in dinosaur-themed paraphernalia through the 80s- is difficult to explain to those born after 1991kong9. Long before Jurassic Park introduced realism to cinematic dinosaurs and well before revised scientific images added feathers and contours to make them distinctly animals, depictions of the ancient beasts vivified their Greek name. They were terrible lizards. Ravenous, dimwitted, cold-blooded, and above all primitive, “the dinosaur” existed as a nothing less than a primordial monster. Between the lethargic herbivores and unceasingly ravenous carnivores, there was nothing about the creatures that wasn’t rampant, unconstrained , and dominating. Less some animal that lived a long time ago, more a demon from a chaotic age that might not even exist in our epoch of reason without contaminating it with its own primordial nature.

One image in particular persists in my mind as an icon of what “the dinosaur” once was in the popular imagination. It is a painting of a late-Jurassic battle between an allosaurus and a brontosaurus. Depicted in a children’s book of dinosaurs, the image was nonetheless more gruesome than anything I had encountered as a young child. Even now, looking at the image as an adult, it is brutal. As the allosaur talons cut into sauropod’s flesh, streams of blood trickle down to the swamp and the gentle giant sways in agonizing throws. There even seems to be a sadistic joy in the countenance of the carnivore.

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The caption originally included beneath the picture only added to the scene’s poignancy. Stuck in quicksand, the sauropod had been overtaken by an allosaur, a predator it could have otherwise fended off with ease. Though unable to escape its doom, in death the brontosaurus had collapsed and crushed its assailant. Thus, the futility of the scenario was further underlined. The agonizingly cruel death of the brontosaurus was mirrored seconds later by the ironically cruel death of the allosaurus. There was nothing that justified the fate, it existed as a product of the futile prehistoric world.

I have found myself reflecting more and more on such futility, not the least when contemplating our country’s current political situation. Sure enough, there might be much in the way of a comparison between the image of two fighting prehistoric beasts and the prospect of a Hillary vs Trump race this Fall. Perhaps, a more apt analogy yet might be the opportunistic and carnivorous Trump sinking his teeth into the immobilized and bloated body of a Republican establishment (probably only to be later crushed under that establishment’s decaying husk). But still, a more disturbing comparison is on my mind.

At this point in 2016, a significant amount of commentary has comprised of “experts” castigating this election’s descent into coarseness and violence as “unprecedented”. More historically-minded pundits have been quick to point out that this might be better characterized as a throwback to a type of politics historically common in 19th century, but long since out fashion. While rare in our modern advanced age, the narrative goes,  2016 is a temporary lapse into a violent populist mode, likely never to be repeated again. But even as I am assured that our politics will momentarily return to their mundane pattern of stale choices and consistent growth, I am troubled once more by a vision of “the dinosaur”.

There was one way that the antediluvian  depictions of “the dinosaur” were accurate. There was a certain insight in the visions of unfeeling titans battling in the shadows of dimly-lit volcanoes. For all their manifest inaccuracies, the old pictures captured a truth neatly hidden away in our modern understanding of living creatures, ancient or otherwise. The truth is nothingimg9006.jpg less than the fact that animals, in their natural element, embody all the cruelty and callousness of the universe that spawned them.

It is easy to forget that when most of our interactions with animals are filtered through the lens of domestication, science, or art. The subtle censorship of the textbook encourages us to think of animals as dissected specimens, just as our experiences with domesticated companions encourages the view that they are anthropomorphic furry humans. But these fictions are paper thin, made obvious in any encounter with a wild animal. The cruelty of animals is one of the truest things about them because their violence is a product of the Darwinian forces that shape every moment of their natural lives.

Nature has a demonic element in its core, and it is a nature that humans share, no matter how our culture tells us otherwise. In modern times perhaps Nietzsche did the most to remind us of this base reality. But it was a fact well known to the ancient Greeks. Even the medieval craftsmen were aware of this chaotic nature in man and beast, and carried it forth in their depictions of animals and wildmen. Could the 20th century popularizers of  dinosaurs have unwittingly rediscovered this oft-forgotten truth?

This brings me back to our present political reality. Although I am not one prone to alarm, there is indeed a reason to be unsettled by auspices hinted at in the rise of Trump, Putin, and ISIS. Regardless of what we might be tempted to think, these actors are not historical anomalies, the persistence of our civilization is. And while it might be true that our present crop of strongmen are passing,

v0033596 (1)so too is the long illusion of continuous progress and ever-increasing economic growth that sustained the previous order. We are in a dying era and everyone, left, right, and center feels the foundations shifting beneath their feet.

It is fashionable to talk of the advancement of human civilization and the spirit of the age. But wise philosophers have long known that Olympian edifices are built upon the bones of the chaotic giants. In fact, the truly wise have known that the giants are not dead, but merely sleeping. When we hear the rumbling of their disquieted slumber, we might be reminded that on any given day the demons of the ancient world may rise in rage against our modern illusions. Because, whatever part of our own lives are folly, their hunger for dominance is real.

I struggle with expressing this sentiment, mostly because I am aware how unoriginal it is. As such,  I hope to close my speculation with words from the poet W.B. Yeats, who said it best of all.

Three By Chesterton

I recently recorded three of my favorite essays by G.K. Chesterton.

First “A Piece of Chalk”, a reflection on the little ironies in creation.

Second, “On Man:Heir of All Ages”, Gilbert’s perspective on the inheritance of history and religion.

Lastly, “The Medical Mistake” where Chesterton famously answers the question”What’s wrong with the world?”

A Lecture on Incompleteness and Truth

Below is a lecture I gave to the Socratic Forum for Thought on the subject of Kurt Godel’s marvelous Incompleteness Theorem and its relevance to philosophy.

I have to admit, I found this to be a hard topic since it cut a fine line between rigorous abstract logic and more loose metaphysics. Most in attendance received the talk well, perhaps I will do another in the future.

The Distributist’s Guide to Community Service

With the holiday volunteering season well underway, several friends have forwarded me an opinion/comedy clip, from the increasingly popular youtube series: Adam Ruins Everything. The video explains the problem of organizing the typical “canned” food drive. It’s short and certainly worth a view.

There is a lot to say about this. First it’s important to point out that the video does make a lot of valid points.  It is categorically better to give money to food banks rather than cans and there is a problem with people donating unusable goods, spoiled and non-nutritious food to aid organizations.  Also, as a frequent volunteer, I can attest to the fact that people oftentimes underestimate the labor needed to transport and sort donations as well as the sheer volume of food that a bank discards due to spoilage.

But good grief, this video is insufferably smug. I mean, take a look at the still frame that closes out Adam’s argument:

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Does this look like two people exploring a better way to serve their community? Of course not. This is a picture of two people who are trying to upstage each other on the scale of social-justice piety. Adam just won and Emily is chewing on the cold gristle of being wrong, a bitter pill indeed.

But this snarky attitude is hardly unique to this video. Increasingly, in the post-John-Stewart era of social commentary, conversations concerning justice are brought forward by people who seem more invested in the rightness of their argument than in encouraging concern for their cause.

But why does a conversation about charity have to be like this? Isn’t everyone trying to help? It’s puzzling, and indeed the problem itself might indicate something deeper about how society conceptualizes virtue and service.

Our modern era is in a transitional period between two overarching ethical systems. On the one hand modern society embraces a broad utilitarianism that reduces good to the delivery of the maximum resources to the maximum number of people. On the other hand, we have a fleeting  commitment to Christian virtue ethics which emphasizes sacrifice and commitment above purely strategic benefits to the individual or society. Although, much of modern culture emphasizes the cohesion between these two belief systems there remains an un-resolvable conflict between the perspectives.

Certainly, it’s not hard to see why the utilitarian perspective is dominant in the modern world. Utilitarianism is comfortable, easy to visualize, and safe. It reduces a complicated questions about obligation to simpler questions about management and strategy. Utilitarianism can easily be integrated into any large corporate or government structure. It fits on a balance sheet and is easy to conceptualize in an economy mostly run from excel sheets.

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John Stuart Mill, circa 1870

But at a basic level, I think people still yearn for the older notion of virtue.  We all feel that service to the community is good in a way that transcends its basic economic benefit. We admire people who dedicate  their lives to the poor even if those same individuals might have generated more utility by getting a job at Goldman-Sachs and cutting a million dollar check to charity at the end of a lucrative career. Virtue is not a question of economic effectiveness, rather it is rooted in a central obligation to a cause greater than oneself. But classical virtue is not a concept that can be easily translated into the utilitarian language of John Stuart Mill. Strictly speaking there is no room for concepts like altruism and nobility in a system designed to describe the provision of benefits.

Given this absence, there is a temptation to recast virtue into a new utilitarian framework. Instead of a virtue defined by service and sacrifice, perhaps actions might be deemed virtuous in so far as they result in quantifiable progress towards solving society’s problems. This is how most modern progressives think of virtue and it certainly sounds logical enough. After all, this is an objective measure of the good we are doing for others, so what could possibly go wrong?

Well everything in fact. Not only is the utilitarian concept of virtue deeply at odds with human psychology, from a practical point of view the perspective is a sure fire recipe for despair and exhaustion when it comes to charitable endeavors.

Sure, we volunteered at a food bank this week, but the same people will come in the next week looking no better, so what good has been accomplished? Sure, we donated 200 dollars to poverty relief this month, but is the problem any closer to getting solved? Our own contribution is in the rounding error of the Gates Foundation’s yearly dispensation, so will our own effort even be noticed?

At a time when our perspective on world problems is so acute and our ability to contribute so limited, a virtue derived from the utility is extremely difficult to appreciate.

However, just as the utilitarian perspective diminishes the perceived value of service and charity, it amplifies the perceived significance of activism.  Since noticeable results develop from large macro-cosmic changes, identifying as an “activist” emphasizes the role an individual plays in globally addressing the problem, an outcome with easy to visualize utility. The impact of raising awareness seems large because it emphasizes the completed goal rather than the work done to get there, by contrast personal service and charity are by their very nature local actions. Therefore, an enormous amount of perceived virtue can be gained simply by being right about an important humanitarian issue.

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Perception of virtue in a utilitarian system

Of course this is all perception. It’s not clear that a part-time activist has more impact than a regular volunteer. But the attraction of being the person who “sets everyone straight” on the issue rather than the person who does the material labor is obvious. Not only is writing e-mails and tweets easier than waking up early and going to a homeless shelter, being a “Hunger Activist” sounds so much cooler than being a “Regular Food Bank Volunteer”. Therefore we will always have more people demanding “an end to homelessness” than show up on a cold Sunday morning to sort donations.

I think this goes to the heart of the endemic smugness in Adam’s video. It may even be at the heart of the unending pretentiousness regarding organic food, carbon-emissions and other pieties discussed endlessly in progressive media. The person who informs other people about the “right” way to do things is virtuous because he is fighting for the ultimate solution and is therefore better than the people working on the problem in the “wrong” way. When you’re on the right side of history, you really don’t need to bother getting your hands dirty over the details.

Now all of this is not to say that we shouldn’t point out new and better ways to serve our community. Insight and activism are valuable. But dare I say that the lack of a robust service ethic might be hurting our motivation to get out and actually help society? We need to join a community before we begin to steer it, and the most important step towards forming an effective solution is caring enough to show up and work on the problem in the first place.

As statistics can attest, volunteering is down. This is a real problem for contemporary society. Even from a utilitarian point of view, a strong community is necessary to develop citizens willing to pay forward service, charity, and activism. Therefore the old-fashioned focus on dedication and service may ultimately be more effective at generating utility, albeit indirectly.

Perhaps we can take a different perspective to service going forward. Why not focus on participating in at least one local volunteer organization to the extent that one recognizes the names and faces of the people who work there. Be a person who can understand, from experience, the specific problems and challenges of a local organization. This starts with participation in service groups even if we are aware that they have flaws. This is the first step to building the kind of community that will make exponentially more progress towards solving problems. In the meantime let’s get to work. Even if there are problems the participation itself make a difference.

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Community means involvement

Does your community meal program not serve fresh organic food? Don’t worry about it. Concerned that the people who visit the foodbank are using it for non-essential supplemental income? That’s not your immediate concern. Are you thinking that you might be better off donating the money rather than judging a high school science fair? Trust me, you probably won’t.

Just show up and volunteer. You are helping more than you might think.

Dismantling The Cult of Confidence, New YouTube Channel

I gave a lecture this last weekend on the application of probability theory to modern epistemology. It outlines a lot of my own thoughts about the mistakes in public discourse when we talk about the  confidence and certainty. This was delivered at the Socratic Forum for Thought in Seattle Washington:

This blog hasn’t been updated recently since I haven’t had time for writing during my Grad program. However, recently I have participated in several debates and delivered some lectures on topics corresponding to this blog’s subject matter. I am starting a new YouTube channel to host these videos although everything I upload will be re-posted here.

The channel:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdHT7KB1gDAXZYpPW71fn0Q

A previous discussion between me and Jersey Flight can be found here: