“Shining Star,” a goodbye to a dear colleague

Yesterday, we celebrated the upcoming retirement of a colleague I work with.  Today was supposed to be his last day of work, but the man of the hour never showed up to his own retirement party.  Then we were informed late last night that he had been found dead in his apartment.  He had been suffering from some strange and unexpected health issues over the last few weeks but was unwilling to seek medical help, and just wanted to ride it out and see if he could get through it on his own.  Regretfully, he could not, and I can’t help but think about how we were all eating and celebrating while he was lying dead in his apartment.  I also can’t help but think about how he worked until he died, never able to cash in the rewards of retirement, nor to cash in on a lifetime of frugality which he likely did in order to retire before he turned 60. I find this to be a painful reminder of how short life can be, and that we shouldn’t live-to-work but rather should work-to-live, with the few and precious years we’re given.

I decided to write a poem honoring some of the memories we had of him, trying to incorporate some of what I’d learned about him over the years.  He will be missed.

“Shining Star”

I knew a man who loved to laugh
A sense of humor quite his own
Sharing stories with all the staff
Bright’ning days, the light he shone

A brilliant man, who knew a lot
You want a beer? He knew the spot!
A lager, pilsner, ale or stout
He brewed his own, you’d never doubt

The man loved cars, and trucks, and all
And loved to watch the horses race
Impressed by power, big or small
It put a smile on his face

Fond of nature, the trails and lakes
Of all the beauty that she makes
He’d kayak, bike, and take some pics
And loved to tinker, loved to fix

He studied industrial arts
Though many a trade he had learned
And replacing so many parts
With all of the wrenches he turned

A kind and gentle man he was
For this and that, or just because
With love for all the dogs and cats
He’d seek them out, their habitats

A star that twinkled in our sky
Has flickered out, so we reflect
He was indeed a special guy
Who earned his place and our respect

– May he rest in peace. –

“Whispering of the Gods”

Here’s a poem I wrote expressing some of my more recent views as a self-ascribed religious atheist.

“Whispering of the Gods”

Does God exist? Well, that depends
If God be but the transcendent
An ideal mode of dasein
Futures gained through inhibition
Sacrificing now for later
That which we aspire to be
Selves not yet realized, held up high
If so, then yes, God does exist

Ever since we ate from the tree
Gaining knowledge of right and wrong
A sense of self that suffers true
Knowing that others feel it too
Grief and joy for one and for all
What hurts me can hurt another
So now we act accordingly
Behold our sense, morality

Good and evil, forces that be
Aiding our goals or hind’ring them
Powers of awe, of life and death
An impetus until the end
Love and hate, powerful pathos
Possessed by what’s beyond oneself
The gods of old encompass minds
Fractured selves and multiple drives

And what is the soul exactly?
Phenomenological truth!
Identity transcending time
Continuity of the self
Personified as if divine
The powers of the conscious mind
And feeling that free will is mine
Internal struggles unified

Karma is as real as can be
The positive building bridges
The negative burning them down
A self fulfilling prophecy
Circles of friends who lend a hand
Because you were benevolent
Circles of foes who cut you off
Because you were malevolent

Many religions and their myths
Have accumulated wisdom
Far from perfect, yet impressive
Nevertheless, containing truths
We ought to respect what has worked
And yet overcome what has not
We mustn’t throw the baby out
Despite with impure waters bathed

Heaven and hell, they do exist
Within our minds and in our lives
Existential predicament
The life you lead is infinite
Imagining a better world
And striving just to make it so
Integrate the psyche’s shadow
To slay the dragons, out and in

“Time is a Butterfly”

This is a poem I wrote with a meaning that is particularly personal, and so means a lot to me as it relates to my life, both past and present. Behold the “butterfly effect” (based on a previous blog post, no less!).

“Time is a Butterfly”

Time is a butterfly flapping her wings
Bringing forth a ripple of the unknown
Structural breach, disrupting the mortar
Echoing through an established order

What led me to be the person I am?
How well can I trace causality’s chain?
Did I choose this path? Was it mine to find?
Have I chosen the thoughts that’ve entered my mind?

Most of life’s twists and turns are not chosen
Unpredictable sequences flowing
A chance encounter, effects of a breeze
Irrelevant seeds that sprout into trees

A remote site, a curious delight
Led to a lover, from the nest took flight
Five years had passed and it came to an end
Thrown into chaos, the heart had to mend

During that journey new paths were taken
New alma mater, knowledge created
Gaining some competence, new life in sight
A life partner found, our love burning bright

Set on a course with new aspirations
A newfound lust for life and for wisdom
Two souls meld into one, transformation
World views are tweaked, a new combination

Out of two souls, there arises a third
A child is born, a dream to behold
Yea the new chapter depends on the last
Inextricably linked, the present and past

Personality metamorphosis
Plausibly stemming from those stars aligned
Disparate events from so long ago
Have fashioned new values, helped me to grow

They’ve made me want to be a better man
A desire to learn, lending a hand
One never knows what the future will bring
Time is a butterfly flapping her wings

The Norse Gods as an Anthropomorphism

Although I’m fascinated with much of mythology, Scandinavian myths interest me in particular since they’re the only ones I’ve studied with any kind of depth.  Scandinavian mythology, like many other mythologies, is abound with a plethora of gods, each having their own share of attributes often encompassing both the lighter and darker sides of our human nature.  The Scandinavian (or Norse) gods are clearly motivated to behave in ways that are expedient for themselves, and in that sense, they could even be seen as inherently selfish or self-centered.  But in general, they should not be mistakenly characterized as moral or immoral, good or bad, or in any way possessing authentic human qualities or moral systems, as such a characterization would be overly simplistic and ignores their overarching modus operandi of expedience.

Nevertheless, we can plausibly recognize a number of human-like personality traits throughout the Eddas, i.e. The Poems of the Elder Edda (hereafter referred to as “PE”) and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (hereafter referred to as “Prose”), where the gods at least appear to possess some human qualities including bravery, cowardice, wisdom, stupidity, kindness, cruelty, jealousy, lust, and in some ways even possessing love or care for one another. I’d like to highlight some of these anthropomorphic characteristics as they appear to the reader by examining the interplay between the gods from a modern perspective (in terms of how they appear to behave) and also by examining the explicit claims of the gods themselves (how the gods describe one another using these human attributes and their respective nomenclature).  If you haven’t yet read the Eddas, then I recommend doing so before reading this post, as I’m going to be referencing these texts quite a bit.  On the other hand, if you have a general understanding of these myths, even without having read these texts in their entirety, then hopefully this post is up your alley.

The gods seem to have a somewhat dynamic relationship history (though actual timelines are generally incoherent in Scandinavian mythology) where they have experienced states of cooperation and opposition either within or between the two groups of gods (i.e. the Vanir and the Aesir). We mustn’t forget how the Aesir and the Vanir were once at war with one another, due to the fact that the Vanir wanted to secure for themselves equal rights of worship, which eventually resulted in a peaceful truce in order to avoid further losses from the power of Vanir magic (Prose, p. 100; PE, p. 2). This is a good example of the gods fighting one another, perhaps motivated by a form of jealousy over who is to be praised, but then is subsequently followed by reconciliation and cooperation which seems to hold true from that point forward (with a few exceptions to occur during Ragnarok).

Throughout Locasenna (PE, pp. 72-85), there are a number of instances of cruelty with an occasional instance of kindness between some of the gods. In particular, we have Loki, one of the Aesir, who insults fellow members of his tribe of gods, namely Eldir, Bragi, Idun, Gefjon, Odin, Frigg, Tyr, Byggvir, Heimdall, Skadi, Sif, Beyla, and Thor, and who also insults the Vanir gods, namely Freyja, Njord, and Frey. Throughout this “game of dozens”, as mutually insolent as it was, there were nevertheless a couple examples of apparent kindness and allusions to kind gestures of times past, for instance Loki reminding Odin that he once promised not to have any ale poured unless it was brought for both he and Loki (PE, p. 74). Shortly after this reference, Idun is insulted by Loki but rather than stooping to Loki’s level with a return of insults like that which most of the other gods take part in, she remains kind toward Loki and says that she will not speak spiteful words to him (PE, p. 75). Frigg also tries to keep the peace during this altercation by asking them both to forgive and forget (PE, p. 76). Lastly, we have Byggvir who said he was proud and happy to be where all of Hropt’s (Odin’s) sons all drink ale together – a final example in this story of perceived fellowship and mutual kindness between many of the gods during these feasts (PE, p. 79).

There are also a couple of other apparent acts of kindness in Thrymskvitha, where we hear about Thor trying to get his hammer (Mjollnir) back from the giant Thrym. One such example, indeed a quite simple gesture of kindness, is when Thor asks Freyja if she would lend her feather coat to Loki, so he could fly to help him find his hammer and she said she would gladly give it to him even if it were made of gold or silver (PE, p. 85). Then of course, throughout this adventure, Loki – however out of character he may seem – helps Thor in a number of ways so that he can achieve his goal, and he does this despite our knowing that he is certainly capable of refusing such a gesture given all of his previous shenanigans (PE, pp. 85-88).

Though relatively rare in these stories, there are also a couple of references to loving and caring for one another. For example, when the goddess Freyja is described as being married to Oth, it is also mentioned that she weeped for him when he went on his long journeys, implying that she must have loved and cared for her husband very much (Prose, p. 59). Another form of love stemming from the gods is that of their effects on others, for example the goddess Sjofn is described as being concerned with turning the minds of people towards love, and the goddess Lofn who serves to overrule otherwise prohibited marriages between men and women (Prose, p. 59). On the surface at least, these latter examples would appear to rely on both Sjofn and Lofn having a loving nature of their own.

A far better example, and perhaps the best example of love and caring can be found within the story concerning the death of Balder (Prose, pp. 81-82; PE, pp. 4 and 242). In this story we hear about Balder’s prophetic dream that he would be killed by some future threat, whereupon the gods assembled to find out more about Balder’s life threatening dreams and then Odin eventually goes to Hel to try and learn about this in more detail from a psychic sibyl. The gods appear to be worrying over this and thus display more than a mere semblance of care and love for Balder.

This is further confirmed when we read about the Aesir deciding to seek protection for Balder from any form of harm that they could imagine. Frigg is directly involved with this care for Balder, by exacting oaths from all manner of things that she thought could be used as potential weapons, such that they couldn’t be used to harm Balder. To amuse themselves, the Aesir tested Balder’s invulnerability by throwing all kinds of objects at him, with no harm coming to Balder as expected. Loki became annoyed that Balder was able to withstand being beaten, stoned, and shot at (which could be interpreted as an instance of jealousy), and so he disguised himself as a woman and found out from Frigg that she hadn’t exacted an oath from mistletoe (and therefore found a loophole in Balder’s protection). Then Loki gave the mistletoe to Hod and told him to join the others in the fun, and Balder was struck dead instantly (Prose, p. 81). The reaction from the Aesir was clearly one of dread and grief as they weeped for him, and likewise during Balder’s funeral, when his wife the goddess Nanna saw his dead body being carried onto the funeral ship and then died of a broken heart right there on the spot (Prose, p. 82).

Furthermore, when Hermod rode to Hel to try and give ransom for Balder’s return to Asgard, he talks about how much the gods were weeping over his death. Hel responded by requesting a sort of test, requiring that everyone and everything would weep for Balder, in order to see if Balder was really loved as much as people said he was. The only one who did not weep for Balder was the giantess Thokk (presumably Loki in disguise), thus illustrating just how ubiquitous love and care for Balder was (Prose, pp. 82-84). What could be a better example of love and care for another than weeping over another’s death let alone dying from such overwhelming grief (as in the case of Balder’s widow, Nanna)?

Although love and care are rare attributes to find described in these texts, we do see a few more instances of lust and infatuation (being “in love”) which is nevertheless another human quality. Odin himself, chief among the gods, tells us about his attempted exploits with “Billing’s daughter”, a giantess. Odin talks about how he sat around waiting for this fair woman that he loved beyond soul and body, and yet couldn’t have her (PE, p. 23). He watched her in bed, and felt joyless unless he could sleep with this woman he longed for (PE, p. 24). This giantess ended up deceiving Odin and his wish never came to fruition, and so it is worth mentioning that beyond the reference of love and infatuation, this appears to be an instance of stupidity as well. Not only was Odin deceived here, but he failed to consider using his powerful magic to overcome the barriers that were hindering him from achieving his goal (those guarding the giantess’s bed). It should come as no surprise however that his love-drunk infatuated state clouded his judgement for even Odin himself mentions that wise men are made into fools by the “lures of love” and that despite this, no sickness is worse for the wise man than nothing left to love (PE, p. 23).

Shortly after this tale, we hear about Odin sleeping with the giant Suttung’s daughter Gunnlod for three nights, where Odin mentions that if it weren’t for Gunnlod who laid in his arms for love, how he likely couldn’t have come back from the giant’s court (PE, p. 25; Prose, p. 102). Lastly, Odin makes several mentions of his exploits with women to Thor while disguised as the ferryman named Harbard, where he brags about his having made love to maidens in the land called All-Green, where he specifically mentions having slept with seven sisters (PE, p. 60).

There are mentions of the other gods having various sexual affairs as well, though the bulk of them are only mentioned through Loki’s long stream of insults in Lokasenna. Idun is first described as being the most lustful for men, having locked her “arms in love” around the one who killed her brother (PE, p. 75). Then Frigg is accused of being lustful for men, having slept with both of Odin’s brothers, Ve and Vili (PE, p. 76). Njord and Freyja are both accused of sleeping with their own siblings, and then Freyja is accused of sleeping with all of the elves and the Aesir present at the feast (PE, pp. 77-78). To top it all off, Loki mentions how he himself slept with Tyr’s wife, with the goddess Skadi, and even Thor’s wife Sif (PE, p. 79-81), with this latter affair also referenced by Odin in the Lay of Harbard (PE, p. 64). We also have a brief reference here to Frey’s relations with Gymir’s daughter, the giantess Gerd, which is described in much more detail in Skirnir’s Journey (PE, p. 50). Frey becomes love-sick over Gerd, says nobody has loved a maiden so much as he, and so sends Skirnir in his stead to woo her, eventually culminating in success with Gerd saying that she never believed she could be so fond of Frey (PE, pp. 51 and 56). These sexual affairs as well as the aforementioned exploits of Odin definitely serve to exemplify some of the more primal human attributes of lust and sexual dominance, and can be seen to be even more realistically human with the controversy and shame associated with their being referenced in the context of Loki’s spout of insults.

Another human attribute that is far more apparent in these texts is that of bravery. Although Tyr is mentioned by Snorri as being the boldest of the gods, and the one with the most courage (Prose, p. 53), not least because he was brave enough to put his hand in the mouth of the wolf, Fenrir, knowing it would be bitten off, Tyr himself says that Frey is the bravest as well as the best among the Aesir during the insolent exchange with Loki. In the same exchange, we also hear Frigg refer to Balder as brave (PE, pp. 77-78). Then we have the god Ali (a.k.a. Vali) who is described as being bold in battle (Prose, p. 55). In the Lay of Harbard, Odin (disguised as Harbard) tells Thor that he fought battles and performed many brave deeds while in the land called All-Green (PE, p. 60). When allusions are made to Ragnarok, we also hear that despite the fact that nothing on earth or in heaven will be free from fear (an example of universal cowardice, including that of the gods), the Aesir and all of Odin’s warriors in Valhalla (the “Einherjar”) will nevertheless arm themselves and fight to the death (Prose, p. 87). Likewise, Odin and his son Vidar are destined to go forth to fight Fenrir (with Odin dying in the process), and Frey to go on to battle Surt, the Lord of the fire-giants, all clear acts of bravery (PE, p.6).

It seems clear that, by far the most mentions of bravery are attributed to the supreme killer of giants, the one and only, Thor. Beyond the various mentions of his might and strength (Prose, p. 37, 73, 78; PE, p.69), Thor is mentioned in a number of feats of bravery. Snorri describes how Thor had cracked the skulls of many giants (Prose, p. 50), how he had gone to the east to fight trolls (Prose, p. 67), how he shivered the giant builder’s skull into fragments after the giant flew into a fit of rage (Prose, p. 68), and how Thor fought and killed the strongest of all the giants, Hrungnir (Prose, pp. 104-105; PE, p.82). In the Lay of Harbard, we hear of Thor’s defeating the courageous giant Thjazi, his fighting giant female Berserks, and his waging war with a large throng of giants; a throng so large that they would have killed all the men in Midgard had he not defeated them (PE, p. 60-62).

Perhaps the epitome of Thor’s bravery is that told in the Sayings of Hymir, where he goes fishing with the giant Hymir, and wanted to row farther out to sea, despite Hymir’s warnings of their possible encounter with the World Serpent (Prose, p. 79; PE, p. 68). Far out at sea, Thor managed to set the hook and pull up the World Serpent right on to the skiff and stared into its eyes, with Hymir turning pale with fear during this face-off and eventually cutting the line to release the Serpent (Prose, p. 79; PE, p. 69). This face-off also served as a beautiful foreshadowing of the final encounter between Thor and the Jormungand during Ragnarok, with Thor bravely defeating the Midgard Serpent before dying himself from the Serpent’s poisonous breath (Prose, p. 88; PE, p.6). Odin also exemplified a far more implicit form of bravery, beyond the mere explicit mentions of his brave deeds in the Lay of Harbard, or his battling during Ragnarok as mentioned earlier. For Odin had another human attribute, namely wisdom (which I’ll expand on in a moment), with this wisdom serving to remind him of his inevitable fate and the fate of the gods as a whole during Ragnarok. Aside from the feats of bravery accompanying any actual battles he fought in, it seems reasonable to suspect that quite a bit of courage was required for him to remain functional and motivated despite the frightening fore-knowledge he obtained from the sibyls pertaining to Ragnarok (PE, pp. xii, xviii, xxii, 38, and 44).

The importance of bravery as an element in these texts is also illustrated by its explicit negation, where a few gods are accused or shown to be cowardly in some way. In the story of the giant builder, we hear that Loki foolishly advised the giant to ask to marry Freyja in return for his building the gods a stronghold within a certain time frame, with this stronghold providing them protection from cliff giants and frost ogres. When it became apparent that the giant was going to complete the project on time, the gods became furious at Loki for his advice to the builder and so they began to torture him. Loki finally succumbed to this form of punishment and out of fear he pleaded for mercy, offering to find them a way out of this predicament no matter the cost (Prose, pp. 66-67). Loki’s involvement in the death of Balder and in preventing Balder’s return from Hel also angered the gods substantially and once again out of fear, we hear about Loki running away and hiding on a mountain in a place called the waterfall of Franang, where he took on the shape of salmon (Prose, p. 84).

In Locasenna, Loki turns the tables (so to speak) and ends up pointing the finger at a few gods for their own cowardice. He mentions how Bragi is the least brave of the gods (PE, p. 74), how Byggvir is a coward (PE, p. 80), and finally reminds Thor of an embarrassing incident when he had travelled eastward to Giantland and hid in the “thumb of a glove” (PE, p. 82). During this journey, also alluded to by Odin in the Lay of Harbard (PE, p. 61), Thor and his companions had felt a great earthquake and Thor had hid himself in a small room in the middle of what he believed to be a great hall. This room turned out to be the thumb of a giant mitten, belonging to a giant named Skrymir. In Thor’s defense, it should be mentioned that while Thor hid here, despite the fact that his companions had ventured further in ahead of him due to their being terrified, Thor sat in the doorway gripping Mollnir ready to defend himself. So one could perhaps defend Thor from Loki’s accusation of cowardice here, however there is more to the story that Loki doesn’t mention in Locasenna. Within the actual story we hear that the earthquake was really a result of the giant Skrymir’s snoring, and when the giant woke up, Thor was, for the first and perhaps the only time ever, too startled to throw his hammer (Prose, pp. 70-71). This latter incident seems to be far less defensible and is quite significant in the sense that it may be the only true example of Thor acting cowardly within the entirety of the Eddas.

The last attribute I’d like to discuss is that of wisdom, which I mentioned earlier while arguing that Odin was brave in his tolerating the foreknowledge of his own destruction and that of the gods. Wisdom is mentioned all over the Eddas in a number of different contexts. Snorri describes Odin standing on his high seat seeing over the whole world and understanding what he saw (Prose, p. 37), with Tyr described as being well-informed and Bragi and Vor described as being famous for wisdom (Prose, pp. 52 and 60). Odin is referred to as the god of knowledge, knowing the past, present and future, and sacrificing one of his eyes to gain such wisdom. Upon sacrificing himself to himself, hanging on a tree for nine days, Odin took up runes, gaining the secret lore and a wealth of wisdom in the process (PE, pp. xviii, xxii, and 31). Even the gods as a whole are ascribed as treasuring wisdom for wisdom’s sake (PE, p. xxii).

While wisdom is ascribed to these gods quite explicitly, there are also several long, drawn-out displays of wisdom in the Poems of the Elder Edda. The first and foremost is that seen in the Sayings of the High One, where Odin gives a plethora of aphorisms about trust, friendship, love, wisdom itself, and much more (PE, pp. 11-34). Next, we have the Lay of Vafthrudnir, where Odin has a battle of wits with the giant Vafthrudnir, displaying his vast knowledge of the world and Norse cosmogony (PE, pp. 37-44). The last extended display of wisdom, found in the Lay of Alvis, is perhaps the most surprising of them all. In this we hear of a dwarf named Alvis who is trying to marry Thor’s daughter, but Thor says he will only permit this if Alvis can correctly answer every question he is asked. Alvis proceeds to answer his questions, effectively amounting to an exhaustive list of the names given by giants, gods, elves, and dwarves, to describe the land, the sky, the moon, the sun, the clouds, the wind, the calm, the sea, the fire, the forests, the night, and the ale. At the end of this exchange, Thor outwits Alvis by having the clock run out (so to speak), for as soon as Thor asks his last question, the sun begins to rise and the sunlight kills the dwarf by turning him into stone (PE, pp. 90-95). This is quite strange because Thor is almost never described as being wise or clever in any way, but rather uses his strength and might to overcome whatever stands in his way. Never have we seen Thor so out of character, but wise he is implied to be nevertheless.

Although the gods in general shouldn’t be seen as having human qualities such as wisdom, kindness, bravery, cowardice, jealousy, and other moral virtues or vices, since expediency is ultimately their motivation, a superficial reading of the text nevertheless makes it apparent (most especially within a modern interpretation) that the gods do in fact display some of these qualities. While the examples I gave in this analysis are hardly exhaustive in terms of all apparent human attributes, I believe that they provide a fair representation of the breadth of these apparent qualities seen throughout the entirety of the Eddas. Moreover, I found it fascinating to survey the Eddas from this perspective, as it seemed to reduce the epistemic barriers and somewhat esoteric nature otherwise associated with these Scandinavian myths.

  1. Snorri, S., & Young, J. I. (1966). The prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Terry, P. (1990). Poems of the Elder Edda. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

“Silent Bridge”

Words are but a bridge between our minds
So let us not burn these bridges down
For they are the only means of knowing
Knowing what’s on the other side
If the bridge is ever lost, surprise awaits
For a seedling may turn into a jungle 
Or a flickering flame into a fiery blaze 
Behold the power of unspoken words

Words are but a bridge between our minds
So let us not burn these bridges down 
For they are the only means of gaining
Gaining new perspectives, a broader lens
The power to diagnose the masses
For an itch may turn into infection
Or an emotion into a reign of tyranny 
Behold the power of unspoken words

Words are but a bridge between our minds 
So let us not burn these bridges down 
For they are the only means of growing 
Growing stronger from the challenge
Words are not violence, so fear not! 
For a fear of words will only weaken us 
Or limit thought and human freedom 
Behold the power of unspoken words

Speak!  Silence!  Shut up and speak!
This contradiction pervades humanity
We’re “free” to profess popular opinion
Free to be deafened by the echo chamber
As honest critique is made to wear the muzzle
We’re free to conform to our social tribes
But so often not free to cross the bridge
The bridge between our minds

“Celestial Dream”

Eyes laid on the stars above, a cosmic web, celestial dream
Chalice of life and death I see, chaos and form, dualities be
I see the One, self-aware, consciousness within a stream
Entropy, masquerading there, to blackness from the beam
Fabric of space, broadening sea, declaring to all it’s feeling free

Imagination manifest, with cooling down, primordial stew
Was, is, the yet to be, amalgamate the temporal me
Transformation, condensation, forces know just what to do
Clouds of gas, the stars are born, matter’s bound with much ado
Animate Being, an intricate tree, diverse au naturel decree

Psyches springing up anew, it simulates, the thoughts of “I”
The sense of self, but how could it be? Because of the power, because of the qi
Magical ocean, twinkling tide, reflecting from below the sky
Creatures abound, predator prey, appreciate before we die
Limited life, though infinite being, an optimistic view is key

“Freedom is Uncertainty”

We are creatures of prediction
Yearning to master an Umwelt
And yet curiosity, like an addiction
Where fixed ways begin to melt
Driven by a fear of the unknown
Seeking novelty within our zone

From whence is freedom born?
Not knowing how the story ends
My own autonomy I have sworn
Sole authorship despite the trends
Thoughts appearing without cause
Predictability should give me pause

The grand illusion of control
When influence is out of sight
Freedom is what defines the soul
No cause relents, try as we might
This decision must be mine
Interconnected, but not divine

From whence is freedom born?
An unconscious realm of ought
Conflicting desires leave us torn
Within a web of neurons caught
Granted by atoms and the void
Causa sui has been destroyed

Choices forged from deep inside
What does the future hold?
Where does this power reside?
To think it’s me is far too bold
I’m free because I cannot see
My freedom lies in uncertainty

Blathering ’bout Some Birds in a Box

bird box picI recently watched Netflix’s Bird Box (directed by Susanne Bier, based on the novel by Josh Malerman), and although I wasn’t overly impressed with this film, I thought there were some interesting conceptual threads lying under the surface.  The story involves the age-old dichotomous narrative of good versus evil, where “the good” must use their strength and wit to persevere and triumph in this fight against evil and against those that perpetuate or propagate it.  In this case, we see humanity at large being attacked by an evil force taking the form of their worst fears, where blindfolding oneself or keeping one’s eyes closed to this mysterious entity is the only means of surviving its presence.  As an interesting caveat, only those that are deemed “insane” are immune to this danger, where they alone can face these entities with no apparent harm coming to them.  To add to the fear and chaos of this situation, these madmen are also intent on forcing everyone else to see what they perceive to be an awe-inspiring force (as if it were a god), and they perform this (often violent) coercion regardless of the fact that forcing others to see what they see is effectively an act of murder.

There’s a number of metaphoric and allegorical threads one could extract from this story-line, including interpreting the entity as some kind of god (Yahweh?), and the blindfolding of the masses as the inability to face this God, whether in the biblical sense where a face-to-face encounter results in death (e.g. Exodus 33:20), or in the figurative/spiritual sense of modern humanity having turned away from God (for better or worse).  Furthermore, this entity taking on the form of one’s biggest fears resonates with the biblical conception of the unequivocal “fear of God”.  If we were to frame the story around such an allegory, then the dystopic chaos that ensues from this “turning away”, and the difficulties that arise, may be entirely expected from a religious perspective.  Even though the atheistic skepticism precipitating from modernity and the Enlightenment has no doubt brought us a number of epistemic, political, and societal benefits, it’s also created its own share of problems that are yet to be resolved.

Religion and belief in a God or gods often fills a void in people’s lives because of the many hardships concomitant with the human condition, and so even if there’s a conscious decision to reject this emotional or spiritual crutch, there’s an unavoidable trade-off that can make life much more psychologically challenging, as exemplified by the burdensome journey undertaken by Malorie and her children.  On the other hand, those that intentionally or inadvertently come face-to-face with this God or God concept may be hypnotically drawn in by it, and thereby end up committing a form of intellectual suicide in the process.

In the interest of considering a radically different interpretation of this story, what if “the entity” is actually a representation of the intellectual content or philosophical paradigms that have arisen in our modern age?  Modernity has brought with it various instantiations of existentialism, postmodernism, skepticism, atheism, and along with it a transvaluation of our morals and of the meaning and purpose that we ascribe to our own lives.  It is no doubt unsettling (if not outright frightening) to face and contemplate our own existential status, among other things, the fact that we are but an infinitesimally small and insignificant constituent of an unfathomably old and vast cosmos, and the fact that our lives (as individuals and as a species) are relatively short as we inch closer to our inevitable death.

Most people would prefer to blind themselves from these uncomfortable facts even if this is accomplished by being unconsciously driven to adopt any manner of ideologies or belief systems that serve as a means of epistemic isolation and psychological consolation.  For those that earnestly try to confront and navigate this seemingly alien existential space, whether intentionally or as a matter of chance, many are overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, and the like, even leading some to contemplate or go through with committing suicide.  If one’s sense of meaning and purpose is uprooted, it’s not surprising that they may feel lost in this world, even losing their will to live.  In short, many are simply not mentally prepared to handle a number of uncomfortable existential truths nor are we all equally well-equipped to psychologically handle many of the obstacles encountered in our human condition.  Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Marx, and a number of other great thinkers of the modern age knew this fact about “the masses” all too well, even if they each differed in their interpretation of, or response to, this particular problem.

The blindfolding of the masses could be taken to represent a fairly common response to the realizations brought about by modernity, manifesting itself as a kind of reflexive blindness to the present state of affairs, but also resulting in an aimless wandering, where people are in need of some kind of direction, a structure or system to guide them through what has become a very unfamiliar and often disturbing world.

Eventually Malorie and her kids find a guide of sorts, when they make radio contact with a stranger by the name of “Rick” that instructs them to travel through the woods and down a nearby river – an almost 48-hour arduous journey – to reach what appears to be their last hope of refuge.  After encountering a few hurdles along the way, including a violent run-in with a madman, and a near-death experience after cap-sizing their boat, they reach their long sought-after sanctuary.  It turns out that the sanctuary is a school for the blind, and Malorie discovers that the stranger she had spoken with on the radio is himself blind, thus granting him and a number of others at this sanctuary their own reliable means of protection from the entity.

It’s interesting to consider the fact that Malorie and her kids are being guided toward their own form of salvation by a blind person, serving as a good analogy of the role played by religious clergy, where they’re often blind to reason in order to “see” by way of faith.  And Malorie’s use of birds to help signal the level of danger around her as they’re forced to “see with their ears”, is not only a functional analogue to the coal miner’s canary, but also reflects the role that birds play in the biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood, where doves were used to signal when the flood had ended.  Malorie’s use of the birds might also be seen to represent our harnessing and domestication of nature, and how civilization has helped us overcome the brutality and indifference found within the state of nature.  But our use of technology has also created its own set of problems for us, thus paradoxically being both a source of, and solution to, many of the problems precipitating from modern life.

And might we benefit from recognizing the fact that the madmen, who are trying to force others to see what they see, are very reminiscent of religious proselytizers and theocrats – though this can also be extended conceptually to the proselytizing of atheism or postmodernism (depending on one’s interpretation of what “the entity” represents)?  Religious followers (let alone fanatics) can seem like madmen to rational skeptics, just as many atheists, skeptics, existentialists, and postmodernists can seem like madmen to mystics, traditionalists, and to the devoutly religious.  In either case of proselytizing, there’s an inherent problem when the tactics taken are too forceful, and with respect to the unforeseen consequences resulting from a “successful” ideological conversion (such as violent behavior or other forms of moral regression towards oneself or others).  The madmen symbolize quite well the fanaticism, coercion, and lack of mutual understanding that have plagued our history and constrained our cultural evolution for millennia.

Throughout this perilous journey, the trials and tribulations experienced along the way symbolize the challenges and difficulties encountered on any spiritual or transformational journey.  And, to further the religious allegory, it’s not much more of a stretch to see the capsizing of the boat (arguably the climax of this difficult journey), where both Malorie and her children are briefly submerged underwater, as a baptism of sorts – a symbolic death and resurrection – experienced just prior to reaching the final destination on their path to redemption.  Pondering over such a story should always give us pause to ask what our path to redemption, as a society, ought to be.

“Black Mirror” Reflections: U.S.S. Callister (S4, E1)

This Black Mirror reflection will explore season 4, episode 1, which is titled “U.S.S. Callister”.  You can click here to read my last Black Mirror reflection (season 3, episode 2: “Playtest”).  In U.S.S. Callister, we’re pulled into the life of Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the Chief Technical Officer at Callister Inc., a game development company that has produced a multiplayer simulated reality game called Infinity.  Within this game, users control a starship (an obvious homage to Star Trek), although Daly, the brilliant programmer behind this revolutionary game, has his own offline version of the game which has been modded to look like his favorite TV show Space Fleet, where Daly is the Captain of the ship.

We quickly learn that most of the employees at Callister Inc. don’t treat Daly very kindly, including his company’s co-founder James Walton (Jimmy Simpson).  Daly appears to be an overly passive, shy, introvert.  During one of Daly’s offline gaming sessions at home, we come to find out that the Space Fleet characters aboard the starship look just like his fellow employees, and as Captain of his simulated crew, he indulges in berating them all.  Due to the fact that Daly is Captain and effectively controls the game, he is rendered nearly omnipotent, and able to force his crew to perpetually bend to his will, lest they suffer immensely.

It turns out that these characters in the game are actually conscious, created from Daly having surreptitiously acquired his co-workers’ DNA and somehow replicated their consciousness and memories and uploaded them into the game (and any biologists or neurologists out there, let’s just forget for the moment that DNA isn’t complex enough to store this kind of neurological information).  At some point, a wrench is thrown into Daly’s deviant exploits when a new co-worker, programmer Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), is added to his game and manages to turn the crew against him.  Once the crew finds a backdoor means of communicating with the world outside the game, Daly’s world is turned upside down with a relatively satisfying ending chock-full of poetic justice, as his digitized, enslaved crew members manage to escape while he becomes trapped inside his own game as it’s being shutdown and destroyed.

Daly stuck

This episode is rife with a number of moral issues that build on one another, all deeply coupled with the ability to engineer a simulated reality (perceptual augmentation).  Virtual worlds carry a level of freedom that just isn’t possible in the real world, where one can behave in countless ways with little or no consequence, whether acting with beneficence or utter malice.  One can violate physical laws as well as prescriptive laws, opening up a new world of possibilities that are free to evolve without the feedback of social norms, legal statutes, and law enforcement.

People have long known about various ways of escaping social and legal norms through fiction and game playing, where one can imagine they are somebody else, living in a different time and place, and behave in ways they’d never even think of doing in the real world.

But what happens when they’re finished with the game and go back to the real world with all its consequences, social norms and expectations?  Doesn’t it seem likely that at least some of the behaviors cultivated in the virtual world will begin to rear their ugly heads in the real world?  One can plausibly argue that violent game playing is simply a form of psychological sublimation, where we release many of our irrational and violent impulses in a way that’s more or less socially acceptable.  But there’s also bound to be a difference between playing a very abstract game involving violence or murder, such as the classic board-game Clue, and playing a virtual reality game where your perceptions are as realistic as can be and you choose to murder some other character in cold blood.

Clearly in this episode, Daly was using the simulated reality as a means of releasing his anger and frustration, by taking it out on reproductions of his own co-workers.  And while a simulated experiential alternative could be healthy in some cases, in terms of its therapeutic benefit and better control over the consequences of the simulated interaction, we can see that Daly took advantage of his creative freedom, and wielded it to effectively fashion a parallel universe where he was free to become a psychopath.

It would already be troubling enough if Daly behaved as he did to virtual characters that were not actually conscious, because it would still show Daly pretending that they are conscious; a man who wants them to be conscious.  But the fact that Daly knows they are conscious makes him that much more sadistic.  He is effectively in the position of a god, given his powers over the simulated world and every conscious being trapped within it, and he has used these powers to generate a living hell (thereby also illustrating the technology’s potential to, perhaps one day, generate a living heaven).  But unlike the hell we hear about in myths and religious fables, this is an actual hell, where a person can suffer the worst fates imaginable (it is in fact only limited by the programmer’s imagination) such as experiencing the feeling of suffocation, yet unable to die and thus with no end in sight.  And since time is relative, in this case based on the ratio of real time to simulated time (or the ratio between one simulated time and another), a character consciously suffering in the game could feel as if they’ve been suffering for months, when the god-like player has only felt several seconds pass.  We’ve never had to morally evaluate these kinds of situations before, and we’re getting to a point where it’ll be imperative for us to do so.

Someday, it’s very likely that we’ll be able to create an artificial form of intelligence that is conscious, and it’s up to us to initiate and maintain a public conversation that addresses how our ethical and moral systems will need to accommodate new forms of conscious moral agents.

Jude Law, Haley Joel Osment, Brendan Gleeson, and Brian Turk in Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)

We’ll also need to figure out how to incorporate a potentially superhuman level of consciousness into our moral frameworks, since these frameworks often have an internal hierarchy that is largely based on the degree or level of consciousness that we ascribe to other individuals and to other animals.  If we give moral preference to a dog over a worm, and preference to a human over a dog (for example), then where would a being with superhuman consciousness fit within that framework?  Most people certainly wouldn’t want these beings to be treated as gods, but we shouldn’t want to treat them like slaves either.  If nothing else, they’ll need to be treated like people.

Technologies will almost always have that dual potential, where they can be used for achieving truly admirable goals and to enhance human well being, or used to dominate others and to exacerbate human suffering.  So we need to ask ourselves, given a future world where we have the capacity to make any simulated reality we desire, what kind of world do we want?  What kind of world should we want?  And what kind of person do you want to be in that world?  Answering these questions should say a lot about our moral qualities, serving as a kind of window into the soul of each and every one of us.

“Black Mirror” Reflections: Playtest (S3, E2)

Cooper

Black Mirror, the British science-fiction anthology series created by Charlie Brooker, does a pretty good job experimenting with a number of illuminating concepts that highlight how modern culture is becoming increasingly shaped by (and vulnerable to) various technological advances and changes.  I’ve been interested in a number of these concepts for many years now, not least because of the many important philosophical implications (including a number of moral issues) that they point to.  I’ve decided to start a blog post series that will explore the contents of these episodes.  My intention with this blog post series, which I’m calling “Black Mirror” Reflections, will be to highlight some of my own takeaways from some of my favorite episodes.

I’d like to begin with season 2, episode 3, “Playtest”.  I’m just going to give a brief summary here as you can read the full episode summary in the link provided above.  In this episode, Cooper (Wyatt Russell) decides to travel around the world, presumably as a means of dealing with the recent death of his father, who died from early-onset Alzheimer’s.  After finding his way to London, his last destination before planning to return home to America, he runs into a problem with his credit card and bank account where he can’t access the money he needs to buy his plane ticket.

While he waits for his bank to fix the problem with his account, Cooper decides to earn some cash using an “Oddjobs” app, which provides him with a number of short-term job listings in the area, eventually leading him to “SaitoGemu,” a video game company looking for game testers to try a new kind of personalized horror game involving a (seemingly) minimally invasive brain implant procedure.  He briefly hesitates but, desperate for money and reasonably confident in its safety, he eventually consents to the procedure whereby the implant is intended to wire itself into the gamer’s brain, resulting in a form of perceptual augmentation and a semi-illusory reality.

cooper-mad

The implant is designed to (among other things) scan your memories and learn what your worst fears are, in order to integrate these into the augmented perceptions, producing a truly individualized, and maximally frightening horror game experience.  Needless to say, at some point Cooper begins to lose track of what’s real and what’s illusory, and due to a malfunction, he’s unable to exit the game and he ends up going mad and eventually dying as a result of the implant unpredictably overtaking (and effectively frying) his brain.

nanobots in brain

There are a lot of interesting conceptual threads in this story, and the idea of perceptual augmentation is a particularly interesting theme that finds it’s way into a number of other Black Mirror episodes.  While holographic and VR-headset gaming technologies can produce their own form of augmented reality, perceptual augmentation carried out on a neurological level isn’t even in the same ballpark, having qualitative features that are far more advanced and which are more akin to those found in the Wachowski’s The Matrix trilogy or James Cameron’s Total Recall.  Once the user is unable to distinguish between the virtual world and the external reality, with the simulator having effectively passed a kind of graphical version of the Turing Test, then one’s previous notion of reality is effectively shattered.  To me, this technological idea is one of the most awe-inspiring (yet sobering) ideas within the Black Mirror series.

The inability to discriminate between the two worlds means that both worlds are, for all practical purposes, equally “real” to the person experiencing them.  And the fact that one simulationcan’t tell the difference between such worlds ought to give a person pause to re-evaluate what it even means for something to be real.  If you doubt this, then just imagine if you were to find out one day that your entire life has really been the result of a computer simulation, created and fabricated by some superior intelligence living in a layer of reality above your own (we might even think of this being as a “god”).  Would this realization suddenly make your remembered experiences imaginary and meaningless?  Or would your experiences remain just as “real” as they’ve always been, even if they now have to be reinterpreted within a context that grounds them in another layer of reality?

To answer this question honestly, we ought to first realize that we’re likely fully confident that what we’re experiencing right now is reality, is real, is authentic, and is meaningful (just as Cooper was at some point in his gaming “adventure”).  And this seems to be at least a partial basis for how we define what is real, and how we differentiate the most vivid and qualitatively rich experiences from those we might call imaginary, illusory, or superficial.  If what we call reality is really just a set of perceptions, encompassing every conscious experience from the merely quotidian to those we deem to be extraordinary, would we really be justified in dismissing all of these experiences and their value to us if we were to discover that there’s a higher layer of reality, residing above the only reality we’ve ever known?

For millennia, humans have pondered over whether or not the world is “really” the way we see it, with perhaps the most rigorous examination of this metaphysical question undertaken by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, with his dichotomy of the phenomenon and the noumenon (i.e. the way we see the world or something in the world versus the way the world or thing “really is” in itself, independent of our perception).  Even if we assume the noumenon exists, we can never know anything about the thing in itself, by our being fundamentally limited by our own perceptual categories and the way we subjectively interpret the world.  Similarly, we can never know for certain whether or not we’re in a simulation.

Looking at the situation through this lens, we can then liken the question of how to (re)define reality within the context of a simulation with the question of how to (re)define reality within the context of a world as it really is in itself, independent of our perception.  Both the possibility of our being in a simulation and the possibility of our perceptions stemming from an unknowable noumenal world could be true (and would likely be unfalsifiable), and yet we still manage to use and maintain a relatively robust conception and understanding of reality.  This leads me to conclude that reality is ultimately defined by pragmatic considerations (mostly those pertaining to our ability to make successful predictions and achieve our goals), and thus the possibility of our one day learning about a new, higher level of reality should merely add to our existing conception of reality, rather than completely negating it, even if it turns out to be incomplete.

Another interesting concept in this episode involves the basic design of the individualized horror game itself, where a computer can read your thoughts and memories, and then surmise what your worst fears are.  This is a technological feat that is possible in principle, and one with far-reaching implications that concern our privacy, safety, and autonomy.  Just imagine if such a power were unleashed by corporations, or mind-readingthe governments owned by those corporations, to acquire whatever information they wanted from your mind, to find out how to most easily manipulate you in terms of what you buy, who you vote for, what you generally care about, or what you do any and every day of your life.  The Orwellian possibilities are endless.

Marketing firms (both corporatocratic and political) have already been making use of discoveries in psychology and neuroscience, finding new ways to more thoroughly exploit our cognitive biases to get us to believe and desire whatever will benefit them most.  Adding to this the future ability to read our thoughts and manipulate our perceptions (even if this is first implemented as a seemingly innocuous video game), this will establish a new means of mass surveillance, where we can each become a potential “camera” watching one another (a theme also highlighted in BM, S4E3: Crocodile), while simultaneously exposing our most private of thoughts, and transmitting them to some centralized database.  Once we reach these technological heights (it’s not a matter of if but when), depending on how it’s employed, we may find ourselves no longer having the freedom to lie or to keep a secret, nor the freedom of having any mental privacy whatsoever.

To be fair, we should realize that there are likely to be undeniable benefits in our acquiring these capacities (perceptual augmentation and mind-reading), such as making virtual paradises with minimal resources, finding new ways of treating phobias, PTSD, brain to cloudand other pathologies; giving us the power of telepathy and superhuman intelligence by connecting our brains to the cloud, giving us the ability to design error-proof lie detectors and other vast enhancements in maximizing personal security and reducing crime.  But there are also likely to be enormous losses in personal autonomy, as our available “choices” are increasingly produced and constrained by automated algorithms; there are likely to be losses in privacy, and increasing difficulties in ascertaining what is true and what isn’t, since our minds will be vulnerable to artificially generated perceptions created by entities and institutions that want to deceive us.

Although we’ll constantly need to be on the lookout for these kinds of potential dangers as they arise, in the end, we may find ourselves inadvertently allowing these technologies to creep into our lives, one consumer product at a time.