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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Life Narratives of The Nones: LOST or Found?


by Steve Neumann

In the drama of real life we not only want to be ourselves, we want both our character and the larger plot to be genuinely meaningful, not simply the result of a good plot and good performance. Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul

This blog devotes a lot of time to discussing moral philosophy. Now it seems almost axiomatic to me that morality and meaning are two sides of the same coin, and thus inseparable. And the most common metaphor for the manifestation of meaning is the idea of life as a narrative story. As literary critic Daniel Mendhelson puts it, echoing Flanagan:

People want real life to be amazing. We’re creatures of narrative. That’s how we make sense of the world. And stories are aesthetic, from the start. We want our experience to be a story, to have a beginning, a middle and an end.


So I want to focus on how those without a strong religious belief, or even no religious belief at all, pursue the project of achieving meaning in an ambiguous, intractable world. I want to focus on the so-called “Nones”; and I want to use the recent TV drama LOST as a vehicle for exploring how they might navigate the vagaries of existence, as well as considering two divergent views on the life-as-narrative metaphor itself.

But first, who are the Nones? As The Pew Forum recently reported: “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated today.” Of course, it’s been pointed out that this doesn’t mean they’re all atheists; nor does it mean that they don’t utilize or draw upon religious or other spiritual traditions to some extent in their search for meaning. But I think it’s safe to say that they don’t abide bromides like “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.” And, they most likely experience more doubt in their individual quests.

All of the main characters of LOST seem to be Nones. None of them (no pun intended) exhibit anything close to a traditional Evangelical Christian mentality, for instance, or a Prosperity Gospel outlook like Joel Osteen. Yet each of them moves within a cloud of quasi-religious feeling, and their backstories all include some religious reference or motif, however subtle or generic it may be. Out of an unusually large ensemble cast, there eventually emerge seven main characters. For brevity’s sake I’ll only be considering one of them: Desmond Hume. Desmond is a forlorn romantic who, despite his best intentions and efforts, seems to be his own worst enemy, allowing his life to be largely defined by cowardice and failure. 

As a little background for those unfamiliar with the show, the characters of LOST have all been guided to a mysterious island by an even more mysterious figure known as Jacob. The character of Jacob can be considered a god-like, quasi-supernatural being who was born on the island. This island possesses some very strange and special properties, most likely due to an unusual and fortuitous concentration of electromagnetic energy and exotic matter. It turns out Jacob’s own special powers are a result of living so close to the Island’s “Source,” along with his mother and fraternal twin brother. This source, the archetypal mother tells us, is a beautiful light in a cave at the center of the island and is the origin of “life, death, rebirth”, and

...a little bit of this very same light is inside of every man. And if the light goes out here, it goes out everywhere. And so I’ve protected this place. But I can’t protect it forever.

And so Jacob guides our characters to the island in the hope that one of them will be his replacement since, like his mother before him, he cannot protect it forever either. But in addition to trying to find a replacement, Jacob is also interested in proving his brother wrong. His brother is the nameless “evil” antagonist of the show, known to fans as the “man in black,” and he harbors a less than favorable view of humanity. A memorable flashback scene involving the two brothers’ opposing views is distilled nicely in a bit of dialogue as they sit on the beach in the year 1867, watching a tall ship approach the island:

JACOB: I take it you’re here ‘cause of the ship.

MAN IN BLACK: I am. How did they find the Island?

JACOB: You’ll have to ask ‘em when they get here.

MAN IN BLACK: I don’t have to ask. You brought them here. Still trying to prove me wrong, aren’t you?

JACOB: You are wrong.

MAN IN BLACK: Am I? They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.

JACOB: It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress.

Throughout the six seasons of the show, we follow each character’s pre-island, on-island and post-island life, as they negotiate various arduous environmental and social situations, as well as the covert machinations of Jacob and his brother. Each week we watch with bated breath as they strive, achieve, fail — and strive again. We get inextricably caught up in each one’s narrative, as well as the overarching narrative of the show, its “mythology,” as the show’s writers call it. And the title of the drama itself has several meanings: the characters are each lost in some way; the island is lost in time and space due to its unique properties; and all of existence itself might be lost if the ambiguously evil antagonist has his way. 

In the final season, after the characters have experienced and suffered much both on and off the island, the purpose of their lives, as defined by Jacob, is revealed to them:

SAWYER: Tell me something, Jacob...What made you think you could mess with my life? I was doin’ just fine ‘til you dragged my ass to this damn rock.

JACOB: No you weren’t. None of you were. I didn’t pluck any of you out of a happy existence. You were all flawed. I chose you because you were like me. You were all alone. You were all looking for something that you couldn’t find out there. I chose you because you needed this place as much as it needed you.

So while the show doesn’t explicitly endorse any one religion’s eschatology, it does ultimately employ the theme of life’s meaning being ordained by a divine figure. Also, in the penultimate scene of the final episode, where all the characters are reunited in a limbo-like afterlife, the “explanation” of the show is revealed inside a church; but the stained glass window incorporates the symbols of all the world’s major religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Taoism. 

Sociologist Richard Sennett, in his essay Humanism, explicitly endorses the life-as-narrative metaphor and cites the efforts of religious Renaissance humanists such as Pico della Mirandola, who lived from 1463 to 1494: 

Pico imagines God the Master Artisan speaking to Adam, his unfinished creation, as follows, “in conformity with thy free judgement, in whose hands I have placed thee, thou art confined by no bounds; and thou wilt fix limits of nature for thyself.” These words had the personal meaning to Pico that, as a displaced person, he would have to make up a life for himself.

Sennett further wonders if, since human beings are initially indeterminate creatures, the chance events of a life can be made into a coherent whole; that is, a meaningful story. Sennett says that one must become a narrator who learns “how to tell about disorder and displacement in his or her own life in such a way that he or she does not become confused or deranged by the telling.”

Our characters in LOST are unquestionably displaced, and the island itself is literally displaced in time and space; so there is much in the show that would easily lead the characters into confusion and derangement. But isn’t there much in real life that can derail its course? While Sennett focuses on modern capitalism as the main source of this disruption, citing forces that “deregulate people’s experience of time: new technologies, global markets, new forms of bureaucratic organization,” etc., we could also add an increasing number of environmental tragedies such as hurricanes and other storms that can physically and psychologically displace us. Further, Sennett says that though there might be those with a postmodern bent who celebrate or welcome a certain amount of existential discontinuity or ambiguity, most of us “need, like our Renaissance forbears, to find principles of continuity and unity in how [we] account for [our] material existence.” I think this is true for the majority of us. 

Against Sennett’s thesis, however, philosopher Galen Strawson argues that not only do people exist who don’t feel the sense of continuity that Sennett and others believe is essential to be human and obtain human meaning, but he claims that this is a normal and even fulfilling way to be. Strawson, in his paper Against Narrativity, calls those whom Sennett describes “Diachronics,” and says that they think of themselves as the same throughout their lives; that their 4 year-old self is the same as their 40 year-old self, for instance. Strawson calls the others “Episodics,” and says that their defining characteristic is that they don’t feel themselves to be the same self even from moment to moment. Further, he says:

Some think that an Episodic cannot really know true friendship, or even be loyal. They are refuted by Michel de Montaigne, a great Episodic, famous for his friendship with Etienne de la Bo├ętie, who judged that he was ‘better at friendship than at anything else.’

Strawson’s thesis certainly has implications for finding meaning in life. If one is truly an Episodic, how does one work on the kind of long term projects that tend to constitute meaning in life for many of us? If one is a jumble of disjointed moments and experiences, how can one organize oneself long enough and consistently enough to devise and execute a life-plan, if at all? 

In our fictional LOST universe, Desmond Hume desperately seeks the continuity and unity that will give his life the meaning it so sorely lacks. He is the one character on the show who has had the most detrimental exposure to the spacetime-bending properties of the island; as a result, his consciousness is sent back and forth through time repeatedly. In fact, he is not unlike Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, being “unstuck” in time. Desmond had been guided to the island when he entered a round-the-world boat race in order to prove his quality to the father of his love interest, Penny. Penny’s father is a ruthless and wealthy business magnate, and does not approve of his daughter being in a relationship with someone of such low status. 

A Scotsman, Desmond worked as a meagerly-paid set designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and didn’t attend university because he had to support his three brothers after the death of their father. Inclined to be somewhat of an itinerant by nature, he had joined a monastic order after ending a marriage engagement during a bout of drunken cold feet. Then, while he’s being kicked out of the order for quaffing the monastery’s wine, he meets Penny, they fall in love, and finally move in together. After enduring the scathing rebuke of Penny’s father while asking for her hand in marriage, he again gets cold feet, they break up, and Desmond joins the Royal Scots Regiment, from which he ultimately gets dishonorably discharged for a failure to follow orders.

Due to the aforementioned exposure to an inhuman amount of electromagnetic energy, Desmond’s consciousness begins traveling forward and backward in time (don’t ask me how; it’s a plot device!). Not only has his pre-island life up until this point been characterized by fragmentation, but now his very subjectivity is splintered. The unpredictable twists and turns of time travel drive him into a sort of fatalism. But before coming to the island, we see that Desmond sought to assuage his existential angst by throwing himself into various social conventions: marriage, religion, military service — and, of course, alcohol. Since becoming an inadvertent time-traveler, however, his hunt for meaning has taken on an even more intense pressure: not only does he somehow have to “create and carry together into one what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident,” as Nietzsche put it, but if he can’t figure out a way to stabilize himself, he’s going to die of a brain aneurysm within a matter of days (again, a plot device!). 

Desmond is advised by another character — a physicist savant, so to speak — to identify a “constant” that is present in both his past and his future. This constant can be a person or an object; but the effect of the constant is to bring stability and coherence to his discontinuous experience, thus grounding him again and enabling a meaningful continuity. It is precisely this continuity that Sennett sees as necessary for a meaningful life narrative:

To find one’s voice requires establishing some distance from the immediate, from the noumenal; sheer surrender to the moment weakens one’s voice.

Finding one’s narrative voice is like finding one’s constant. If Desmond continues to focus on the effects and affects of each time-shifting moment, he’ll go crazy; but if he can exercise some self-discipline and concentrate instead on Penny, his confidence returns, his narrative resolve is strengthened, and his life is sustained. Penny becomes Desmond’s “condition of preservation and growth,” in Nietzschean terms; it provides him with the ability to act meaningfully in a world that otherwise lacks meaning. It enables him to tell his own story.

So I think that, whether one is Diachronic like Sennett recommends, or Episodic like Desmond and Strawson (by his own admission), one can still secure the Holy Grail of existence — a meaningful life. The act of creating one’s life narrative, of picking and choosing what to value, which projects to pursue, etc., is possible whether one feels oneself to be the same over time or whether one feels oneself to be constituted only in the moment. And I think this may be characteristic of the Nones in particular, provided they can find their narrative voice (their “constant”); because since the Nones are largely untethered from traditional religious belief, whether they reject it altogether or incorporate it buffet-style, they are therefore unencumbered by ordinary constraints, thus allowing their experiments of life a freedom of play not available to those ensconced in traditional religious trappings.

38 comments:

  1. The TV show doesn't sound like my cup of tea. The kind of religious eclecticism it appears to endorse is even worse than (most) traditional religion in my opinion.

    But I do think narrative thinking is very important. For me the interesting thing is, when we don't have even the idea of a God's-eye-view, our narratives are inevitably arbitrary – and known to be arbitrary. In other words, we know that there are a whole bunch of possible narratives which fit the facts, so, if we are honest, we can't really believe wholeheartedly in the particular life narratives we tell ourselves.

    And you're right, this does relate to ethics. The multiple narratives idea could be seen as a strong argument against moral realism, no?

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    1. Mark,

      A personal narrative consists in why and how claims, i.e. answers to questions like why one went to law school, how one made partner, and why one left the law to become a trapeze artist in the circus. Surely there's a ground of truth with respect to such questions, so there cannot be "a whole bunch of possible narratives which fit the facts." There may be room for interpretation in our personal narratives, and such may tend to contain a lot of invention for various reasons (memory issues, inadequate understand, defenses), but which narrative which we choose is not arbitrary with respect to truth.

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    2. Paul, there is always a degree of arbitrariness, I would say.

      I am basing my view on my understanding of the results of social psychological research, as well as on introspective intuition. Essentially, I believe we are, to use a phrase of Nietzsche's, strangers to ourselves. A large part of any human story concerns motivations, as you suggest, but our motivations are largely unknown to us.

      Dubious – or at least quite replaceable – interpretations are built into so many of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We (unless we are depressed) overrate our abilities and good qualities, for example. We tend to fit the raw data of our lives into often flattering narratives which may be more or less plausible. The point is, none is the true narrative, the imagined God's-eye-view. There is no single true (or even truest) story of a human life – though admittedly some are, in some sense, truer than others. (So, I agree, they are not totally arbitrary with respect to truth.)

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    3. Mark,

      Let us suppose our motivations are ontologically indeterminate (i.e., that there's no fact of the matter) and/or unknowable by us. It doesn't follow from this that what personal narrative we choose is (in any sense) arbitrary. A choice of description of something is arbitrary only when all choices of description are equally true; for if all choices in describing something were equally false, we wouldn't say that the choice is arbitrary but rather that all that choices are false and so no choice should be made.

      It also doesn't follow from our supposition regarding indeterminacy and unknowability of our motivations that all personal narratives are false. The true personal narrative in this case would be the one that recounted the concrete progress of one's life (e.g. changes of addresses, spouses, and employment) while answering any internal why-questions with "I don't know."

      But are our motivations indeterminate and/or unknowable? Something that may be good to consider here is that motivations, like most things, can be described at various levels of detail. I think we can accurately describe our motivations on a general level. In moving from one employment to another, for instance, we can know whether we're doing it for more money, more meaning, etc. When we try to be more detailed, however, it might be harder to know the truth for various reasons: we might start getting into the complexities not only of hard-wiring but of hard-wiring with a particular history wherein what is significant in one's past may not be obvious, for instance. Such does not mean we strangers to ourselves, however; it means only that in creating our personal narrative, we should, as always, avoid believing things we don't know.


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    4. It's not just motivations that are at issue here but broader interpretations encompassing moral judgements.

      What you are calling the "the concrete progress of one's life", the basic facts of marriages and jobs and so on could be put together into some kind of non-arbitrary narrative, but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves always involve more than this.

      I have conceded that some of these interpretive narratives are more plausible (in a real sense, truer) than others.

      I don't say motivations are totally unknowable.

      My main claim is simply that there is no one definitive interpretive story for a life. This entails, I would have thought, a degree of arbitrariness in choosing.

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  2. I never watched "Lost." And I associate "nones" with the seventh day before the ides of each month in the ancient Roman calendar. Worse, I associate the all-too-frequently-resorted-to-word "narrative" with claims that science and the results of rational thought are just "stories" like any other; a view I don't shore. So, I probably miss the point of this post entirely. But while I'm not an active member of any traditional, institutional religion, I have a sympathy for stoic pantheism and believe in something like it. If this requires or is a "narrative", so be it, but it is in that case a rather vague, abstract one, which doesn't entail the belief that the universe is peculiarly related to or dependent on me, but nonetheless one I find satisfying.

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  3. Answers:
    If you are still searching for unity look no further than equal.
    If you are searching for life, simply live.
    And if you are searching for truth, just be One.
    When All is equal All is truly One!

    =

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  4. Interesting post, Steve.

    >And I think this may be characteristic of the Nones in particular, provided they can find their narrative voice (their “constant”); because since the Nones are largely untethered from traditional religious belief, whether they reject it altogether or incorporate it buffet-style, they are therefore unencumbered by ordinary constraints, thus allowing their experiments of life a freedom of play not available to those ensconced in traditional religious trappings.

    I have some half-baked thoughts on this, which I am unwisely going to expose to scrutiny.

    I can't but feel that in making the construction of a narrative arc for our lives into, itself, a major goal of our lives, we fall victim to a sort of lost purpose.

    Take a baseball player. What a good baseball player should want, I assert, is to play well and win. Both of these, as it happens, increase the chances that a player will end up in the Hall of Fame. But we would not think too highly of a player who snuck into the Hall of Fame by night, put up their picture, and sat there ecstatically staring at it and thinking happy thoughts about fame.

    "Construct a good narrative for your life," as a goal, is kind of like "look at your picture hanging in the Hall of Fame." I worry that it is too intrinsic, too purely psychological. Build a bridge, make money, play baseball, enjoy your family and friends, take over the world, save the whales, glorify Cthulhu, solve the hard problem of consciousness, prevent malaria. Whatever. Maybe we have trouble finding meaning because we're looking inward instead of outward, perhaps because pop-psychology is so embedded in our commonsense.

    What do you think, are a speaking tour and Oprah appearance in the cards for me?

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    1. Why must our constructed narratives be based on a static end goal? I think the best narratives will align with how things tend to happen - as processes that evolve.

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    2. My intent was not to argue for static narratives, but rather to argue against worrying much about narratives at all.

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    3. I think we need to incorporate narratives (as it is part of our nature), but agree we should not worry too much about them. Certainly we shouldn't worry about holding on rigidly to any particular narrative.

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    5. Ian -

      I think I agree with you here. I wasn't necessarily endorsing the idea of life-as-narrative so much as exploring it. I have to admit, though, that there have been two periods in my life, one of which was very much characterized by life-as-narrative, and the other where I'm very much at home at well, not being at home in the world, in a sense.

      In my "former life", I think I was very much the product of my upbringing and social milieu: find a good career, get married, have a family, etc. I was much more conscious of conforming my decisions to that narrative. Now, I sort of chafe at any set way of living in the world. I partly chose the character of Desmond because he is the character with whom I most identify on the show, at least in some respects.

      So, in Strawson's terms, I once was Diachronic but now I'm Episodic. And, speaking only for myself, I have to say that an Episodic way of life seems as much if not more fulfilling than a Diachronic life: it's more exciting and spontaneous to me. It's more of life-as-adventure rather than life-as-narrative. And I think life-as-adventure is more about "playing well and winning" rather then sitting and admiring any accomplishments that may be memorialized along the way...

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  5. 'So I think that, whether one is Diachronic like Sennett recommends, or Episodic like Desmond and Strawson (by his own admission), one can still secure the Holy Grail of existence — a meaningful life. '

    Perhaps, but I think a consistent connection to meaning requires a dynamic narrative that finds unity between the diachronic and the episodic, the determinate and the indeterminate, the continuous and the discontinuous, the separable and the inseparable. As you allude to early on they are two sides of the same coin. Every unity is forged from what previously seemed separate, and each new unity brings with it novel ambiguities.

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    1. Seth -

      I agree. I like to think of meaning as a "protean equilibrium"; i.e., a moving target.

      In the spirit of the show, maybe we can also think of Diachronic and Episodic as Yin and Yang?

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    2. Steve,

      'In the spirit of the show, maybe we can also think of Diachronic and Episodic as Yin and Yang?'

      I wonder if is there any concept or thing or relationship that cannot be thought of in those terms?

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  6. "So while the show doesn’t explicitly endorse any one religion’s eschatology, it does ultimately employ the theme of life’s meaning being ordained by a divine figure."

    Yes, but only to soundly and emphatically reject that theme in the end. Jacob was only portrayed as a purely benevolent character before we actually met him; once we saw his own backstory and his own motivations, we discovered that he was far from perfect. In particular, he had this kind of sociopathic tendency to mess with people's lives because he thought that he could impose meaning on them from the outside. The entire show is, in some sense, an illustration of his failure to do so - and thus, metaphorically, a rejection of the idea of our lives having an objective or fixed meaning that's independent of our own desires and behaviors.

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    1. Eli -

      Yes, you're absolutely right about Jacob. But while Jacob certainly isn't an Abrahamic divine figure, he could certainly be seen as a Greek divine figure, no?

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    2. This is true. Good point.

      Jacob doesn't succeed in ordaining meaning. His contribution is providing the narrow setting of the narrative which scaffolds the only continuity and meaning the Losties ultimately embrace... their relationships with each other.

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    3. Sarah -

      You're right, the show definitely does make it explicit at the end (via Christian Shepard) that the "ultimate" meaning for the Losties is their relationships to each other.

      I had mixed feelings about the ending. I was really hoping, right up until the end, that the Sideways World wasn't limbo; I was hoping that it was an alternate reality created by the detonation that they would wake up to. Oh well.

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    4. I had the same desire for the Sideways events to be manifest of something deeper. First, because there was no real progress made in limbo; the activities there seemed rather pointless given the ending (e.g. Jack's ficticious son didn't illuminate Jack's relationship with Christian but reflected it). Second, because the idea that consciousness containing "the self" can cross space and time is more fasciniating to me than the idea that the self is a soul which crosses from life to death to limbo to a collective "beyond" and in the process is mysteriously enlightened.

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    5. Steve - I guess? I mean, I personally don't have a particularly strong sense that Jacob was one kind or version of deity rather than another. My point was more that the show doesn't endorse any kind of divine intervention; hence, bizarrely and sort of misleadingly, the multi-denominational stained glass window in the image you chose.

      As for the limbo world, it did so feature important deviations from the original timeline. Jack's was probably harder to notice or care about since his character was never particularly coherent* - they basically bounced him around as needed - but Locke, Ben, Hurley, Kate, Claire, and Sayid (just to name the ones I remember off the top of my head) do all make markedly different kinds of choices in limbo than they did before death.

      And, okay, yeah - the limbo thing is totally uninteresting as a philosophy of identity or even as a fleshing out of the LOST world. It just doesn't strike me that those sorts of things were the point of it, aesthetically speaking. Really, it was just a way to answer the riddle that the show had been keeping alive the whole time (i.e., how does one stop being "lost").

      *This is one of the things I'd like to see fixed if anybody ever remakes the show.

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  7. I made a religion: Codifism. The universe is a machine running codes and we are machines running codes. We can make new codes.

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  8. Would you be "lost" if you saw the universe as an intelligently evolving living thing?

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    1. You would either
      (a) be confused, or
      (b) be using at least one of the words "intelligent," "evolve," and "living" in a very non-standard way, without deigning to mention it.

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    2. Ah, but if you take any of those words out, any of those left will continue to imply the same meaning. The alternative is a dead universe, except that if we're a part of it, we're also dead and just don't know it.

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    3. Hmmm, did not think that a Gaian view of the universe would be considered an extremist position among cosmologists these days.

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    4. >The alternative is a dead universe, except that if we're a part of it, we're also dead and just don't know it.

      This doesn't follow, and is called the fallacy of division (a similar one is the fallacy of composition).

      Compare:
      (1) A car can move at 100 km/hr under its own power.
      (2) A car is made of parts, such as the steering wheel.
      (3) Therefore, a steering wheel can move at 100 km/hr under its own power.

      Parts of the universe are alive; this does not oblige us to do violence to language by saying that the whole thing is.

      >Hmmm, did not think that a Gaian view of the universe would be considered an extremist position among cosmologists these days.

      Dave, "extremist" is probably the wrong word. I'm pretty sure "not even remotely under consideration" is closer to the mark. It's not even clear to what extent Gaian ideas are a theory about *cosmology* at all, as opposed to being straight up neo-theology.

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    5. Yet , Ian, you've done violence to both logic and the language by saying first that the "whole thing" isn't alive, and then saying that the parts that are alive have no connection to the parts that aren't. And then you come up with the usual silly argument about how mechanical things can move under their own power that they only have because living things have given it for them to not even know they're using.

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    6. >...and then saying that the parts that are alive have no connection to the parts that aren't.

      I said no such thing. Of course they have a connection. But the connection does not necessitate the whole being alive; only the parts are.

      >...the usual silly argument about how mechanical things can move under their own power that they only have because living things have given it for them to not even know they're using.

      So make the car solar-powered, or nuclear-powered, or something. Neither of those sources are, or ever were, living things.

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    7. Jesus Christ, whatever your car was powered by, the car itself was constructed by a living being and the power sources were accessed by the same humans that developed the functional systems in the car in order for it, again unknowingly, to be able to use that power.

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    8. Ok, I thought you were talking about fossil fuels from living things.

      I don't really understand your point re: the car anyway. The whole reason I brought it up was just to illustrate the fallacy of composition. We could do hundreds of other examples if that one doesn't appeal to you. A banana is yellow but its constituent atoms are not. A word has meaning but letters usually do not. A neuron is stupid but a brain is not. A painting is art but its pigment molecules are not.

      In summary, ensembles can have properties their parts don't have, and parts can have properties the ensemble doesn't have.

      What, then, is the motivation for saying the universe is alive just because it has parts that are?

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    9. "A banana is yellow but its atoms aren't." Does that mean the banana is only partly alive? We share much the same atoms, so I guess we're only partly alive as well. Also the living creatures here on earth have a lot to do with managing the affairs of our small part of the universe, but perhaps you think our earth is the exception out of the untold billions of other earthlike planets out there.
      And then we do seem to live in a universe with laws that operate in a regulatory fashion quite consistently. Does that logical consistency mean anything to you?
      Could the laws of our physical systems actually be strategically constructed, just as our living things on earth seem to have been? Could this be a self evolved arrangement, with no Gods or other spiritual evolvers needed? We don't know. But we do know that living things are unlikely to have evolved in an otherwise non evolving universe.
      And we don't know that the universe is dead.

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  9. Interesting post. I like the philosophy, but as a TV writer, I'm all too familiar with how the sausage is made, and I would certainly be careful about drawing too much meaning from LOST. For some reason, intellectuals are often most enamored by the cheapest and laziest narratives. Why anyone would want to draw conclusions from such nonsense as The Matrix, for instance, is beyond me. Same goes for Tree of Life and Cloud Atlas. Give me thirty minutes and permission to use time travel, worm holes, simulations, transmigration of the soul, super powerful being and rule-breaking non-traditional narratives, and I can schmeer you a script that will, sadly be more likely to get attention from critics and the NPR demographic, but that will actually just be a grab bag of ideas, a hum of white noise into which you can project your philosophy. If you are trying to figure out how to make sense of a human life, wouldn't it make more sense to engage narratives that actually show human life?

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    1. My goal wasn't to draw meaning from LOST the way individuals draw meaning from religious traditions; it was more to use LOST as a vehicle for exploring so-called postmodern narratives, etc.

      I actually prefer to use the "hum of white noise" to project my own philosophy of life into ;)

      I also agree somewhat with Mark above: all narratives are ultimately arbitrary, even the ones that "actually show human life." So I don't necessarily see utilizing movies or TV as ways to explore narrative space as less valuable than other methods. Movies and TV are just more condensed versions of novels and the like.

      And I'd rather people try to utilize drama, however "pop" it may be, than so-called reality TV shows.

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    2. On one level, we might just have a disagreement in taste, but I think it's worth looking a little deeper, because, while you say you don't want to use LOST as divinely received, you might be minimizing the metaphysical claims that are woven into the fabric of the show. It's every bit a show of magic and spirituality as "touched by an angel". You seem to want to take the CHARACTERS in the show as accurately portrayed people dealing with our epoch. But of course they are not. The fact that it was a reasonably popular show might make the show itself an example of none spirituality, but I wouldn't look to the characters per se for insight. Sorry to strawman you here, but you wouldn't watch Superman to figure out how people deal with being able to fly. It's important to remember that people can't fly. The characters in LOST don't have any of the real narrative challenges that you and I have. All literary characters, despite any author's best efforts at verisimilitude and psychological accuracy, live in a designed universe. Throw into that all the lazy spirituality and magic of LOST and I would say you have a thought experiment from which you won't be able to isolate much data.

      I wouldn't recommend using reality TV either, since that is as written as any "scripted" show.

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  10. I was so trying to get on with my life Massimo. Trying to live a life, post-LOST. Now, with this post you had to remind me of the show I so dearly love and miss. Sigh.

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  11. "We have art," Nietzsche said, "so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth." The raw truth of an incident never ends, and the story of Coop and the terrain of my sister's life are endless to me. They are the sudden possibility every time I pick up the telephone when it rings some late hour after midnight, and I wait for his voice, or the deep breath before Claire will announce herself.

    -From Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero

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