The Big Idea: Peadar Ó Guilín

A number of years ago I interviewed two survivors of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which in 1973 crashed in the Andes and then remained lost for 72 days, forcing the survivors of the crash to eat the bodies of the dead to survive. They made a movie out of the story called Alive, which some of you may recall. You might think that having to do that would change something in a person, but the two men I interviewed were, as it happened, pretty much completely normal. They just happened to have made a particular survival decision at a critical time.

Now, you may ask, what does the above have to do with The Deserter, the new novel by Peadar Ó Guilín? As it happens, rather a lot. I’ll let him give you the details.

PEADAR Ó GUILÍN:

My big idea is not mine at all. I stole it from a Frenchman, four hundred years dead and 350 out of copyright. There’s evidence of the theft, right there on the very first page of my first book, The Inferior:

In that people the most natural and honest of virtues and abilities are alive and vigorous; those same virtues that we have warped and adapted to our own twisted tastes.

Michel de Montaigne: On Cannibals

He’s talking about cannibals. He’s comparing them to civilized folk and wondering whether the fact that a savage’s dinner can talk back to him makes him any less noble than we are. I wanted to find out, and so, I set about creating a laboratory. I’ll provide instructions so you can try it for yourselves:

1) Take one primitive human tribe. Deprive them of all edible plants and animals.

2) Surround them with hundreds of equally primitive, equally hungry groups of perfectly sentient aliens.

After that, the whole experiment pretty much runs itself. You can watch alliances forming; see groups hunting each other for the pot or bartering older members of the family who can’t work any more. It’s fascinating for a while, really it is, but that’s only half the story, isn’t it? Savages acting like savages doesn’t surprise anybody, not even their mothers.

No, just as happened in Montaigne’s famous essay, I needed a high human civilization to come along to get all judgy and sneery and interventiony.

These days, I eat like a vegan and in my laboratory universe, the future is vegetarian too. Centuries of environmental collapse have put people like me in the driver’s seat. An age from now, billions of Peadars will regard the chewing of little animals as an abomination. So just imagine the stern looks for those who shove intelligent aliens or fellow humans down their gullets, no matter how tasty or tender.

In the interests of science, I brought the two groups together, forcing civilized humans to live in amongst their primitive cousins. It was a bit like one of those reality TV shows where they send celebrities into the jungle to eat centipedes or Kangaroo penis, except that my victims had no way out of the difficult decisions. That’s the difference between science and art: a lot of real authors would have intervened and saved them, but that would have negated my findings.

And what were they? Those precious results?

The majority of test subjects chose carnivorism over death. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: cannibalism is rife in human history. I’m not just talking about missionary-munching tribes in the Amazon or about the bones of cavemen that have been found covered in little cuts where the meat was scraped away by their two-footed relatives. Cannibalism is the dirty secret of every famine and every war in human history; of disasters big and small; of lost expeditions.

My belief, is that we are all descendants of people who did such things in order to survive. These actions are rightly upsetting in civilised surroundings and hopefully, if we can escape Peak Oil, rogue asteroids, sneezing chickens and so on, most of us will never find ourselves in that position.

But we shouldn’t pour scorn on those who do. That’s my reading of Montaigne, anyway, and that’s why, when stealing this big idea of his, my aim was always to make my cannibal protagonist as sympathetic as possible without ever compromising on his survival- and tradition-driven behaviours.

Did I succeed? Well, to quote that dear old Frenchman one more time, “Que sçais-je?” — “What do I know?”

—-

The Deserter: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the book widget to expand it). Visit the author’s LiveJournal.

33 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Peadar Ó Guilín

  1. I am making no claims of normalcy, but introspected and observed others during New York City blackout of 1977 was an electricity blackout that affected most of New York City from July 13, 1977 to July 14, 1977; the explosion of Mount. St. Helens on 18 May 1980; the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 which caused $5 to $7 billion in property damage; the 1992 Los Angeles Riots or South Central Riots, also known as the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest which were sparked on 29 April 1992, when a jury acquitted three white and one Hispanic Los Angeles Police Department officers accused in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King following a high-speed pursuit. Thousands of people in the Los Angeles area rioted over the six days following the verdict. Widespread looting, assault, arson and murder occurred, and property damages topped roughly $1 billion. In all, 53 people died during the riots and thousands more were injured; and the Station Fire (26 August – 16 October 16, 160,577 acres (251 sq mi; 650 km2), 209 structures destroyed, including 89 homes) started in the Angeles National Forest near the U.S. Forest Service ranger station on the Angeles Crest Highway (State Highway 2); Two firefighters were killed on August 30 while attempting to escape the flames when their fire truck plunged off a cliff; The blaze threatened 12,000 structures in the National Forest and the nearby communities of La Cañada Flintridge, Glendale, Acton, La Crescenta, Littlerock and Altadena, as well as the Sunland and Tujunga neighborhoods of the City of Los Angeles. These events inform some of my Science Fiction.

  2. “But we shouldn’t pour scorn on those who do. … my aim was always to make my cannibal protagonist as sympathetic as possible without ever compromising on his survival- and tradition-driven behaviours.”

    I’m not sure I understand. If we were trapped in a scenario with nothing but each other to eat, murder no longer deserves scorn?

  3. The survival instinct is pretty hard wired. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the lengths we go to to stay alive regardless of what that life means, regardless of what societal mores we might have to violate. My first encounter with this thought was reading about the Donner Party while I was still in jr. high. It stayed with me learning about things like the discovery of prions and how the disease Kuru was instrumental in that discovery. Kuru fascinated me in that the cannibalism in the Fore tribe was ritualistic, a sign of high respect, rather than a mode of survival. I had been able to wrap my mind around cannibalism to survive, but this? It was one in a series of challenges to my views of inflicting my values on others. While the Fore didn’t murder the people they consumed, there was still a high ick factor on my morality scale. And yet… This is a fascinating big idea. I think I will be picking up a copy of it. To further my ‘research.’

  4. 1) Take one primitive human tribe. Deprive them of all edible plants and animals.

    2) Surround them with hundreds of equally primitive, equally hungry groups of perfectly sentient aliens.

    Unless the aliens can eat the local plants and/or eat the local animals that can eat the local plants, this is a situation that cannot long persist for basic thermodynamic reasons.

  5. Unless the aliens can eat the local plants and/or eat the local animals that can eat the local plants, this is a situation that cannot long persist for basic thermodynamic reasons.

    I have it on good authority the author took that into account :)

  6. Greg: “But we shouldn’t pour scorn on those who do. … my aim was always to make my cannibal protagonist as sympathetic as possible without ever compromising on his survival- and tradition-driven behaviours.”

    I’m not sure I understand. If we were trapped in a scenario with nothing but each other to eat, murder no longer deserves scorn?

    Cannibalism does not necessarily imply murder, whether or not it’s treated as such in this book. John’s intro implies the people eaten by his interviewees were already dead of other causes; this may have been the case with the Donner party as well, though it’s been years since I read about them. On the lighter (?) side, Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment referred to the “leg rota” where starving soldiers swapped legs because “it’s not quite on to eat your own leg, is it?” Each soldier survived, albeit with fewer limbs.

  7. Robin: “I’m not sure I understand. If we were trapped in a scenario with nothing but each other to eat, murder no longer deserves scorn?”

    Where does scorn get us, though? Do people refrain from acts of murder because they’re worried about someone else’s opinion? That might affect the way they commit murder, but not (I suspect) whether they do.

    Can we sympathize with someone who, in an environment that’s radically different from ours, acts in accordance with principles that are radically different from our own? That’s another important question, and not just for this novel.

  8. I can’t recall which or where, but I remember seeing a documentary about a tribe, in a jungle with few protein sources, that practiced infrequent ritual cannibalism as a dietary supplement. Originally they would kill and eat captives obtained through warfare with neighboring tribes. But when the wars dried up, they turned to periodically choosing someone from their own tribe. At least once a year, an elder would go into a drug induced trance and “the gods” would direct him which member was to be sacrificed, supposedly the most “deserving” individual who, I would guess, was either guilty of breaking the tribes laws or simply really unpopular. The black sheep would receive some warning and allowed a head start before the others hunted him or her down.

    Members of the tribe were interviewed and asked what eating a human was like. They seemed less than enthusiastic about the experience. Apparently health and digestive problems stemming from the cannibalism are rampant, which is not all that surprising given the risk of eating human flesh cooked on an open fire. As many will already be aware, tissue propinquity means more diseases can be transmitted by imperfectly cooked meat, which is why it’s so important to thoroughly cook pig meat and why organ cloning experiments focus on pigs as incubators since H. sap is, morphological differences aside, rather biochemically close cousins of pigs and rodents. ETs, assuming they had biochemistry based on the same amino acids as terrestrial life, should be different enough to avoid that problem.

    Anyhow, for some reason the above tribe makes me think of the old cable TV movie loosely based on Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron. Specifically, a scene where a news reporter is interviewing a woman on the street about what to do about ongoing traffic violations and she advocates expanding the death penalty from crimes such as shoplifting to crimes such as running a light and jaywalking.

    Cultural mores are not synonymous with personal moral compasses. If a person is committed to adhering consistently to their values, they should apply those values, and the moral reasoning that logically extrapolates from them, uniformly. Their values could take into account whether it’s just to impose those values on others against their will, and/or the circumstances under which actions are taken, but they should still be consistent if they are practicing ethics and not merely herd morality.

    Of course, whether someone would stick to those values when their own survival, or that of their friends and families, is on the line, is another matter. It seems to me that the most anyone can really do which is of consequence is to decide whether they would expect themselves to stick to their values when the chips are down, and hope they’re correct. Judging others is only useful when that judgment has some material consequence, such as deciding how to interact with them. Judgment for judgment’s sake accomplishes nothing.

    @ James Enge

    Can we sympathize with someone who, in an environment that’s radically different from ours, acts in accordance with principles that are radically different from our own?

    Sympathizing and condoning are two distinct acts. I may condone acts I have no sympathy for because I believe I have no right to interfere, and I may sympathize with acts I don’t condone because sticking to one’s guns can become very difficult when the personal cost becomes very high. I may understand and sympathize with someone committing murder to feed their family or tribe, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that I agree their actions are just. Contrawise, I may have no sympathy for a bigot, yet believe uncensored expression is justly theirs.

    There is another question we can ask instead. Would your principles allow you to act differently in circumstances radically different form your own?

  9. Robin: Cannibalism does not necessarily imply murder,

    Well, the subtitle of the book cover says “Hunt or be hunted”. That generally implies something slightly more active than just sitting around waiting for older people to die.

    Maybe the larger question is this: Is it possible to have a sustainable ecology based on cannibalism alone with no other food sources? Just on a mathematical process alone, the numbers don’t add up for me. It sort of reminds me of the Matrix and how the machines used human bodies as batteries, which was an interesting premise for the human race being enslaved by machines, but from the point of view of physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics, it was bullocks.

    If it takes 9 months just to create a human body, and only a day to eat it, doesn’t that sort of mean the numbers can’t add up? The only way it could work would be to eat outside your “tribe” or whatever you call it (which would mean murder is required), at least until all the outside tribes are gone , then its every man/woman for him/herself.

    James: Where does scorn get us, though?

    Most of our morality is first based in emotional responses, secondly in logical understanding. We are not machines. We are not vulcans. Which isn’t to say it’s a perfect system. The sense of shame people often have around sex may have helped prevent people from procreating at every willy nilly over the last few thousand years, but it gave us a bit of rather odd and cumbersome baggage today.

    But I’d be perfectly fine if people still felt scorn about murder.

  10. @ Greg

    It sort of reminds me of the Matrix and how the machines used human bodies as batteries, which was an interesting premise for the human race being enslaved by machines, but from the point of view of physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics, it was bullocks.

    The thermodynamic FAIL in Matrix drove me nuts too.

    Most of our morality is first based in emotional responses, secondly in logical understanding. We are not machines. We are not vulcans.

    Ah, but the Vulcans are supposed to be emotional basket cases. They use their adherence to logic to modify the morality that would otherwise be expressed by their passions. Their main fallacy is in their moral objectivism, their assumption that logic itself holds values. A being that underwent the Kolinahr (purging of all emotion) would have no values from which to extrapolate their ethical framework. At the axiomatic value-selection level, something other than pure logic is necessary to lay a foundation. Emotion, is the broadest sense of thoughts ungoverned by strict reason, would therefore be indispensible, even if all they did was motivate their host to select the value-set of their culture.

    Yet once values are chosen, introspection and an open mind can facilitate one to subject their moral compass to the razor of reason and determine if it’s consistent with the underlying values. The process may never be perfect (certainly it is not in contemporary humans), but that hardly means it will always fail. Assuming that all morality is necessarily based on unexamined emotion is itself a preconception that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

  11. Gulliver: Ah, but the Vulcans are supposed to be emotional basket cases.

    Meh, Roddenberry didn’t invent the race of Vulcans for anything other than to create a single character that was Spock, and portray him as half-human/half-vulcan, and therefore “torn” between Vulcan and Human aspects of his character. I don’t put much stock into whatever the Vulcan’s are supposed to be because its all retconned into the franchise, adn ultimately, it just doesn’t make sense.

    But what annoys me is how many people think Vulcans are a good idea to emulate. That we should throw away our emotional selves, that we *need* to throw away our emotional selves to survive as a race, that we would somehow magically be better as a race if we stopped our emotions.

    We are a much better race because of teh existence of love and caring and empathy and quite a few other emotions.

    And yet when I say “we are not vulcans, nor would we be better off if we were”, there is often someone who rises to the defense of the idea that overall, we’d be better off if we got rid of love cause it would get rid of all those other icky emotions they don’t want to deal with.

  12. @ Greg

    But what annoys me is how many people think Vulcans are a good idea to emulate.

    You encounter this a lot? I, personally, think we as a species could benefit from being better masters of our emotions, but I don’t see any benefit in purging them. Quite the contrary, they’re one our best strengths when we are in charge of them rather than letting them run amok.

    I tend not to care what Roddenberry had in mind. Trek has far outgrown his personal vision. I prefer to regard the universe based on the cannon of shows and movies, vague and contradictory though it be. The main Vulcan characters, while I don’t aspire to be one, have been the most consistently interesting after the doctors because, even though they aren’t truly alien in the real world sense, their culture is one of the few truly inhuman in all SF.

  13. @ James Enge

    I’d make the distinction differently. One can only sympathize with people (or things that feel pain, anyway). One condones (or doesn’t condone) their acts.

    Good point. That is a more accurate distinction.

    There’s also the question of whether and under what circumstances one’s principles permit and/or require interference in actions of others which they don’t condone.

  14. Greg: “But what annoys me is how many people think Vulcans are a good idea to emulate.”

    Gulliver: “You encounter this a lot?”

    Yeah. I might travel in geekier circles…

    “we as a species could benefit from being better masters of our emotions”

    Isn’t that what a human wanting to emulate vulcans would say?

    ;)

    Besides, how do you “master” love?

    If you’re feeling the emotion of love, it won’t pass any logical test, no matter how you try to make it fit. If you’re in a relationship for logical reasons only and feel nothing, then it isn’t love.

    It is possible to get some skill in recognizing the difference between infatuation, lust, and love. There are a number of emotions that can get painted with the same brush as a young teenager that an adult might find distincly different. But its still emotions, we just might get better at recognizing subtlely different flavors.

  15. [sorry for the back to back post, John. just saw this, which may have been the more important point]

    James: “Can we sympathize with someone who, in an environment that’s radically different from ours, acts in accordance with principles that are radically different from our own?”

    No, I don’t think so. Sympathy comes from empathy and empathy comes from identifying ourselves with someone else. If they’re in a “radically” different environment and they have “radically” different principles, then I don’t think we can sympathize with someone on an emotional level.

    We might be able to “understand” them on some intellectual level, but that’s a different level.

    Or, I might be completely misunderstanding what you mean by “sympathize” or what you mean by “radically different”. we can understand hydrogen’s tendancy to burn with oxygen, but we don’t sympathize with it. But maybe that’s way more “radically different” than you were thinking. I read a lot of scifi and fantasy, so my idea of radically different might not be the same as others.

    “That’s another important question, and not just for this novel.”

    Maybe if you had a specific example in mind?

    If you’re talking about the novel, would I sympathize with murdering someone innocent for my own survival? No. Self defense, yes. But self defense comes with the notion of being attacked by someone unprovoked. If I provoke someone to attack me, then its no longer self defense. If the person I attack did nothing to threaten my life, then it isn’t self defense. Extreme circumstances do not change that, though I get the sense this book might be trying to suggest othewise.

  16. James Enge: Greg is the one who originally said “I’m not sure I understand. If we were trapped in a scenario with nothing but each other to eat, murder no longer deserves scorn?”. I was quoting him (hence the italics) in order to respond, not agreeing with it.

    And to further respond to Greg’s pointing out the subtitle of the book, the line of mine you quoted, “Cannibalism does not necessarily imply murder…” was immediately followed by “whether or not it’s treated as such in this book.” I’m not sure how you missed that I was pointing out a logic leap in your statement about the concept of cannibalism unrelated to the book. The real-life example John gave in his introduction says and implies nothing about murder with or without scorn.

  17. @ Greg

    If you’re feeling the emotion of love, it won’t pass any logical test, no matter how you try to make it fit. If you’re in a relationship for logical reasons only and feel nothing, then it isn’t love.

    I perhaps wasn’t clear. I mean master emotions in the sense of being able to examine their root causes and make executive decisions about whether those causes are reasonable under one’s chosen values, and thereby to modify one’s emotions to adhere to our values and extrapolated moral reasoning. I do not mean try to turn emotions into logic; indeed, that never occurred to me because it’s, as you point out, absurd.

    This differs from the Vulcan philosophy in that the Vulcans seek to weed out emotions. I advise harnessing emotions, treating them as a garden rather than weeds.

    No, I don’t think so. Sympathy comes from empathy and empathy comes from identifying ourselves with someone else. If they’re in a “radically” different environment and they have “radically” different principles, then I don’t think we can sympathize with someone on an emotional level.

    Hydrogen isn’t conscious; there’s no there there with which to sympathize. Sympathizing with a mosquito getting squashed is different from sympathizing with a human getting killed, but not impossible. I can readily sympathize with Peadar Ó Guilín’s cannibals as it takes no great leap of imagination to contemplate their experiences, even if I don’t believe the actions they therefore carry out are justified.

    If you’re talking about the novel, would I sympathize with murdering someone innocent for my own survival? No. Self defense, yes. But self defense comes with the notion of being attacked by someone unprovoked. If I provoke someone to attack me, then its no longer self defense. If the person I attack did nothing to threaten my life, then it isn’t self defense. Extreme circumstances do not change that, though I get the sense this book might be trying to suggest othewise.

    I think James Enge made a good point. The actions are what one condones or doesn’t. In this case, you and I would not condone the actions. But the motives are what one does or doesn’t sympathize with. I can certainly sympathize with the desperation that might lead to unprovoked attacks, without condoning the acts. And I can do so even if the circumstances of the desperation are not my own or even circumstances I have experienced before.

    In fact, the very root of this big idea seems to whether one can sympathize with those not like us, in circumstances (the human tribe) and nature (the alien tribes). I certainly think we can, but it takes a greater effort of thought because understanding comes less automatically.

  18. Gulliver: “Hydrogen isn’t conscious; there’s no there there with which to sympathize.”

    well, that was why the next sentence says: “But maybe that’s way more “radically different” than you were thinking.” I mean, what if AI comes about from burning hydrogen? What if it is a purely mechanical process we can completely understand? We have a tendancy, especially in Western culture, to mechanize what it is to be human, to turn it into Vulcanism as it were, cartesian predictability, and to reduce it to teh point that we insist free will is an illusion. (The mechanistas sometimes try to escape the trap of their own construction by clinging to the pure randomness of quantum mechanics, but that’s a silly solution laid on top of a silly problem.)

    Anyways…

    The point of hydrogen is it is a purely mechanical process. Even if we might sometimes attribute thought, drive, will, or consciousness to fire (and we can find this easily in old old myths,and old old science), we now mostly look at it mechanically. Several thousand years ago, fire was a living thing. Today, it’s an exothermic chemical process.

    That’s the problem when someone says “radically different”. How fricken different do you want to go? If you can imagine living several thousand years ago and how you might relate to fire as a living thing (even though today we say its purely mechanical), then could you “sympathize” with fire back then?

    Because the root of sympathy is empathy and the root of empathy is you

    NOT THEM.

    It doesn’t matter if the thing you sympathize with or empathize with is chemical, mechanical, machine, human, or alien. What matters is whether you sympathize or not.

    James asked if we can sympathize with something radically different. I suggested fire as radically different. As a living thing, fire is hungry. It wants to burn anything it touches. It wants to spread. It wants to live. Can I sympathize with that? No.

    Then I asked whether that was way more “radically different” than James was asking. Perhaps he meant only slightly different on my scale, like someone follows Islam and someone else follows christianity and someone altogether different follows an eastern meditative philosophy, and could I sympathize with their different religions? To the extent that they use their religion as an access to the eternal sure. To the extent any of them use it as an excuse to “other” the different religions, no.

    But the whole point of just about every AI type story is that the robot that thinks, is purely mechanical, purely electrical, a purely understood process that was actually made by humans (and maybe add a little spark of unpredictability into the mix, a little coyote, a little trickster, a little lightning bolt a la Number 5 is alive, or Wall-E) and the plot generally boils down to robot wants to be an equal to humans and some humans argue since he is mechanical, since he is understood, that he can’t be an equal. They argue that the mystery of being human is what makes us human, rather than our wants and desires, or hopes and dreams. They argue that the robot has no soul, or the robot doesn’t operate on “quantum mechanics”, so it can’t have free will.

    Or, as you say, fire isn’t conscious, so you can’t empathize with it. You just had our logical side wipe out your emotional side. Put yourself a few thousand years back in time and ask if you could empathize with fire. Ask if you could see fire as a living thing.

    It might just be that in another thousand years, a hundred years, or even ten years, neuroscientists will finally figure out the brain, and all its “mysteries” will be revealed, all the puppet strings will be visible, and it will be clear that we are a purely electro-mechanical-chemical process, completely explainable from a mechanistic point of view. Does that mean there is no “there” over here anymore?

    Does that mean how I feel is suddenly subsumed by my understanding of my own brain?

    Or does that simply mean I allowed logic to reign over emotion? Does that mean “love” stops meaning anything if we completely understood it?

    I don’t think so. I think ultimately, emotion and logic are two masters in the same house.

  19. @ Greg

    I mean, what if AI comes about from burning hydrogen?

    Then there would be something with which we could potentially sympathize.

    What if it is a purely mechanical process we can completely understand? We have a tendancy, especially in Western culture, to mechanize what it is to be human, to turn it into Vulcanism as it were, cartesian predictability, and to reduce it to teh point that we insist free will is an illusion.

    I don’t. I’m getting ready to write a thesis on quantum algorithms for modeling nonlinear dynamic processes. Suffice it to say, I suspect free will is very much a matter of perspective and has far more to do with knowability than objective reality. But that’s a whole other discussion.

    It doesn’t matter if the thing you sympathize with or empathize with is chemical, mechanical, machine, human, or alien. What matters is whether you sympathize or not.

    Nope. Sorry, but believing in the likeness of a thing doesn’t make it so. Ascribing consciousness to fire doesn’t make fire conscious. One can be wrong about the nature of a thing, but that has to do with ignorance (however understandable that ignorance may be given the available data). Empathy is about both you and them. A person may feel empathy for fire because they misunderstand it to share what they call consciousness (the recursive experience of self-hood), but that is because they are wrong. Accurate information is essential to all interaction with one’s environment. If one’s information is inaccurate, there is the potential for one to learn their error and refine their model.

    They argue that the mystery of being human is what makes us human, rather than our wants and desires, or hopes and dreams. They argue that the robot has no soul, or the robot doesn’t operate on “quantum mechanics”, so it can’t have free will.

    Yeah, that’s called superstition. We oppose using it to dehumanize other humans, why shouldn’t we oppose using it to decognify other sentiences?

    It might just be that in another thousand years, a hundred years, or even ten years, neuroscientists will finally figure out the brain, and all its “mysteries” will be revealed, all the puppet strings will be visible, and it will be clear that we are a purely electro-mechanical-chemical process, completely explainable from a mechanistic point of view.

    Or they might not.

    Does that mean there is no “there” over here anymore?

    Cognitive determinism, if in fact it turns out we can thoroughly understand its functions (which is far from certain), would still not negate that the cognition exists. A lawyer can understand laws, but the laws are still there. A biologist can understand flowers, but the flowers are still there. As long as it’s truly there, there’s a there for consciousness with which to sympathize without being wrong. Mystery is not required for a thing to exist, any more than sympathy is always based on accurate understanding.

    Or does that simply mean I allowed logic to reign over emotion? Does that mean “love” stops meaning anything if we completely understood it?

    Once again, I am not talking about meaning, I am talking about mastery. Understanding the garden simply makes one a more effective gardener; it doesn’t make the flowers go *poof* and disappear.

    I’m not sure why you would think mystery is necessary for empathy. Unless you’re just talking about what you believe most individuals believe, in which case, you may be correct or you may be incorrect, but that doesn’t make most individuals correct or incorrect. When neuroscientists are trying to discover how the brain works, they may sample data from most individuals, but they don’t decide what’s real based on what most individuals believe is real. Consensus is not reality, it’s just the prevailing perception of reality. If the consensus among most individuals is that fire is conscious, their consensus is wrong.

    I don’t think so. I think ultimately, emotion and logic are two masters in the same house.

    I think emotion and logic are a deeply (perhaps inextricably) interwoven web of patterns that the consciousness does best to reign over, understand and leverage to its own ends, whatever it chooses. Understanding how that web affects those choices is a first step to attaining that self-awareness. You can steer the ship where you want it to take you or you can leave it to the winds and currents. I choose to steer while paying keen attention to the winds and currents.

    By the way, even though we always get way off topic, I do enjoy these little philosophical discussions of ours. If ever I don’t engage to the depth we have been, it’s for lack of time and not lack of interest. I hang in geeky circles, but I generally avoid topics like what can we learn from Vulcans because my obsessive pedantry usually drives them nuts. It’s always nice to find a kindred debate-addict :-)

  20. Gulliver: “Empathy is about both you and them. ”

    No, it’s mirror circuits firing in the brain. Your brain is trying to put itself in someone else’s shoes. It only requires that your brain have the ability to imagine itself in someone else’s place. And whether that place is “real” or not, is irrelevant.

    If you felt a sigh of relief for Buzz Lightyear while watching Toy Story, then you were empathizing with something that wasn’t there. It’s all an illusion of CGI and myth, no different than the myths told about fire that gave it sentience that wasn’t “there”.

    “Once again, I am not talking about meaning, I am talking about mastery.”

    If you’re talking about empathy, you’re talking about meaning. Empathy is nothing but meaning you generate. Love is nothing but meaning you generate. Every feeling you feel is a subjective meaning. Meaning doesn’t mean anything unless there is a subjective perspective to hold the meaning. Law doesn’t *mean* anything but by humans interpreting it. If every human died tonight, then our laws would be, literally, meaningless. They get meaning because we put meaning to them. Love means something because we put a meaning to it.

    Meaning only exists in the subjective experience. Hydrogen burning has no meaning to itself. But we can give it meaning if we want. We can say it is warm. Or good. Or bad. Or whatever.

    “Consensus is not reality, it’s just the prevailing perception of reality. If the consensus among most individuals is that fire is conscious, their consensus is wrong.”

    Remember when I said “people think Vulcans are a good idea to emulate. That we should throw away our emotional selves” thats what you’re doing there. You’re attempting to objectify the world and remove the subjective experience entirely. And again here:

    “A biologist can understand flowers, but the flowers are still there. As long as it’s truly there, there’s a there for consciousness with which to sympathize without being wrong.”

    The “there” you keep pointing to is an objective “there”, not a subjective one. Love isn’t there or here or anywhere on any objective level. love is a subjective experience.

    What we call a flower is little different than hydrogen burning until we give it the meaning “flower”. A rose has beauty, fragrance, and meanings of love attached to it because we create the meaning of beauty, fragrance, and love.

    existentialism 101, there is no meaning to be found in the world beyond what meaning we give to it. Beyond what meaning we create subjectively. Without the subjective there is no meaning.

  21. @ Greg

    You’re attempting to objectify the world and remove the subjective experience entirely.

    No, you are misunderstanding my point. I am pointing out that subjective experience is not the same as the objective world. The reality your brain models and the reality that actually exists need not be congruent. You can empathize with fire or Buzz all you want, but that empathy is still incorrect. Intentionally so in the case of Buzz and other fictional characters where we willingly suspend disbelief. Superstitiously so in the case of fire where we don’t know the difference between fire and consciousness.

    existentialism 101, there is no meaning to be found in the world beyond what meaning we give to it. Beyond what meaning we create subjectively. Without the subjective there is no meaning.

    Meaning, yes. Reality, no. Reality is not contingent on observation. Understanding can be accurate or inaccurate. Meaning is built on understanding. If we mean something about that which we misunderstand, then the meaning is real, but its relationship to the world beyond the mind is not what we think it is; it is incorrect. Where you aim the paintball gun doesn’t determine where the target is, it only determines where you shoot.

  22. According to webster: Empathy:

    1 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

    That to me is empathy. Webster has a second defintion:

    2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

    It seems you are using the second definition.

    I don’t particular care for that definition because there is no way I can actually experience the thoughts of someone else. it is impossible, even if you tell me you feel “happy” for me to know whether our experiences of “happy” are the same. Sort of like there’s no way to know if your experience of “green” and “red” are the same as my experience because you might be color blind. And there’s no happy-blind test that I know of. Then again, a number of psychological diagnosis might be metaphorical equivalents of happy-blind.

    “You can empathize with fire or Buzz all you want, but that empathy is still incorrect.”

    Well, no. Depending on what definition is being used (Webster:1), it might be quite correct.

    Empathy is an emotion like “happy” or “sad” or “love” or “hate” or “envy” or “pride”. Rewriting the above sentence with any other emotion clarifies the point that it is an internal and a subjective experience.

    you can LOVE fire or Buzz all you want, but that LOVE is still incorrect.

    Love seems perfectly correct. one can love fire or Buzz all they want and there isn’t any issue with that. As an emotion, empathy isn’t anymore “incorrect” than love would be. And I look at empathy as an emotional experience.

    Love doesn’t rely on any response from the object of your affection. And that object might be inanimate. Empathy to me is the same thing, an emotion that doesn’t rely on any response or magical connection or whatever from the object you’re empathizing with.

  23. @ Greg

    It seems you are using the second definition.

    Yes.

    I don’t particular care for that definition because there is no way I can actually experience the thoughts of someone else. it is impossible, even if you tell me you feel “happy” for me to know whether our experiences of “happy” are the same.

    Vicariously experiencing is different from directly experiencing. The first will inevitably be less exact. This is known as the Other Minds Problem. Empathy is not telepathy, even under definition #2 Modeling something and divining it are two different things altogether.

    Empathy is an emotion like “happy” or “sad” or “love” or “hate” or “envy” or “pride”. Rewriting the above sentence with any other emotion clarifies the point that it is an internal and a subjective experience.

    In that case I would simply use the word(s) for the relevant emotion(s). Definition #1 is not invalid – the root of the word empathy is the Greek pathos meaning suffering (it also has a more technical meaning in theater) – but it is, in my view, superfluous, since English already has the phrase feel for to cover the same ground. Still, what counts is the meaning, not the word. As long as we understand what’s lost in translation, we can communicate.

    And I look at empathy as an emotional experience.

    Fair enough. I look at empathy as an emotional experience that attempts to model the empirical state of the object, more than simply feeling love and/or other emotions for the object.

    Love doesn’t rely on any response from the object of your affection. And that object might be inanimate. Empathy to me is the same thing, an emotion that doesn’t rely on any response or magical connection or whatever from the object you’re empathizing with.

    What’s magical about trying to model the state of the object of an emotional experience? Scientists try to model objective reality through subjective knowledge all the time; surely hypothesizing is not performing magic. As I’ve said above, the model is not always correct, and often it is only partially correct. But that’s no reason to relegate it to magic.

  24. Gulliver: “What’s magical about trying to model the state of the object of an emotional experience?”

    You turned empathy into a science experiment? You are such a Vulcan….

    ;)

    We should talk after you’ve been married a few years.

  25. @ Greg

    You turned empathy into a science experiment? You are such a Vulcan….

    I’ll take that as a compliment :)

    Although my other fav Trek species are the Deltans, for whom empathy is as much the foundation of their society as logic is for Vulcans.

    I always point out to people that science comes from the Latin scientia meaning knowledge, of which rigorous material science is only the most successful branch. I like to employ empiricism wherever possible.

    We should talk after you’ve been married a few years.

    I’ve been living with the same wonderful person for six months, dating same for a year. We share an insatiable curiosity which is helping us refine our models of each other day-by-day.

  26. it was not meant as an insult. scientific rigor is a difficult skill to learn. But so is emotional awareness, and the two are pretty much orthoganal. What I generally find is that people good with one aspect often collapse the other axis into nothing. Empirical scientists often have little skill with emotions. People with acute emotional intelligence sometimes have a fuzzy grasp of science. It can be funny when the two get together when they have almost no understanding of the other. We should take a look at this thread after you’ve been married ten years. It would be interesting to see if your view changes at all.

  27. @ Greg

    it was not meant as an insult.

    I assumed as much. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you intentionally insult anyone. You always debate in good faith.

    scientific rigor is a difficult skill to learn. But so is emotional awareness, and the two are pretty much orthoganal. What I generally find is that people good with one aspect often collapse the other axis into nothing. Empirical scientists often have little skill with emotions. People with acute emotional intelligence sometimes have a fuzzy grasp of science.

    I find this is generally the case too. But I’ve also found a few exceptions, my partner among them.

    Obviously I think I’m incisive about people, but equally obviously I’m not an objective judge. I do know myself quite well, though, and know I know myself well, and know I don’t know everything about myself. Skepticism is the universal solvent.

    I’m always slightly amazed when intelligent people fail to grasp what’s right in front of them. To me it’s all pattern recognition and having an open mind that doesn’t shy away from knowledge outside my comfort zone. Paraphrasing Ursula Le Guin’s character Shevek in The Dispossessed, most people have walls in their minds they refuse to look past.

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