Things as they are

Last night I read a fascinating essay in the LA Review of Books on Donald Richie, an expatriate writer in Japan. I was struck in particular by this quote from Richie’s The Inland Sea:

The innocent does not look for reasons behind reasons. He, secure in the animal nature that all of us have and only half of us admit, is able to see that all reality is what the West finds merely ostensible reality. Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth.

Whether he’s right or not, that’s a profound thought in our age of explanations. It reminded me of the scene in Zen in the Art of Archery where another expatriate, Eugen Herrigel is struggling to allow his bow to ‘shoot itself’. His vocation, philosophy, seems to be a major hindrance:

He had, so Mr. Komachiya told me later, tried to work through
a Japanese introduction to philosophy in order to find out how he
could help me from a side I already knew. But in the end he had
laid the book down with a cross face, remarking that he could
now understand that a person who interested himself in such
things would naturally find the art of archery uncommonly
difficult to learn.

Kant, and Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

I’ve started Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics MOOC on Coursera. I’m probably most sympathetic to Kant’s thought, particularly his idea that we should…

Always recognise that human individuals* are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.
– Immanuel Kant

Singer gave two objections to this which he framed as being fairly mild problems for Kant, and a third, put forward by Derek Parfit, which is more serious.

The first objection gives the example of a postman employed to send your letter to a friend. Singer said that the postman was clearly a means to your end, yet this did not seem wrong. He was able to justify Kant here by saying that postman had elected to be a means, was being compensated for his work and so this was fine. I’m tempted to say that by electing to be a postman, the postman is fulfilling some kind of limited professional end for himself rather than passively and exclusively fulfilling other people’s ends.

The second objection went as follows: if on a cold and windy night you were to walk behind a crowd of people, placing them between yourself and the wind, you would be using them as a means without their consent and yet this seems harmless. I feel that this is a broad interpretation of the word ‘use’. There’s no harm or disadvantage to the crowd they would not experience otherwise. You are in fact using your own body to position yourself more than you are using their bodies to block the cold wind. In addition, the consequences are so small that there may barely be an ethical issue here. If we treat this as a life or death case it becomes more clear cut that Kant could be right. Think of penguins huddled together against winter storms: if those experiencing the warmth of the middle don’t take a turn on the outside periodically, many in the colony will die.

The third objection, put forward by Derek Parfit, is more troubling. I would say that it does not invalidate Kant’s idea, but possibly marks a point at which we need to shift our approach to a balancing act in order to do the least harm and, hopefully, the most good. Parfit imagines that you are inside a crumbling house with your child and an unconscious stranger named Black. The only way to save your child from the falling rubble is to use Black’s body as a means to block the rubble. You know that this will save your child and you know that it will also crush one of Black’s toes. Because of the balance between the potential good and the potential harm, it is fairly clear that most of us would sacrifice one of poor old Black’s toes. Singer pointed out that we can play around with the balance of harm and good until the right course of action becomes unclear. Not many of us could cheerfully break both of Black’s legs knowing that John Stuart Mill had given us the thumbs up. (Perhaps this is where the importance of intention comes in).

But imagine that Black regains consciousness. He is in agony with a crushed toe. He speaks enough of your language to make you aware that he has a child in another building who also needs to be saved. Unfortunately, you can’t fathom where the building is and Black is now unable to walk himself. Not only are things looking bad for this child but you’ve also crushed poor Black’s toe. Objectively, the net harm is now greater because you violated Kant’s principle.

From Black’s perspective, you have wronged him in the worst way. That probably wouldn’t change your actions, but we are left in the domain of consequentialism: your action will be right or wrong depending on just how bad the outcome is for Black.

To conclude, if you find yourself justifying using a person as a means to an end it seems to me that you’re already in a very extreme situation, and possibly a purely hypothetical one. Seek to do the best you hypothetically can.


*The discussion about how far we can use animals as a means to an end promises to be thought-provoking and very challenging.

Thinking time

When you pause to think about it, time is obviously a measure of change and not a cause of change. Holding my infant son and pacing the bedroom to keep him from screaming, I looked at my wife’s bedside clock and tried to guess when I could reasonably expect to get some shuteye. Maybe it was the cumulative sleep deprivation of the last few weeks but it seemed that the hands were turning around the clockface… and that was all. There was nothing additional going on, no invisible wind blowing between the past and future: only the room, the hectic floral wallpaper, the houseplant sitting in front of the lamp I bought my wife for Christmas a few years ago and the clock hands moving. This was ‘now’ just as it had ever been.

You see the difficulties we have with time in the way we talk about it. When asked where the time goes we can never say. It’s deeply mysterious to us. Perhaps it was never here to begin with. When I talk about a date in the past or future, I’m referring to a configuration of objects and states distant from us by a certain amount of change… most obviously the number of times the Earth has spun on its axis and how far it has rotated around the sun. Maybe all this is trivial but we seem to think of time as though it’s a thing in itself: a location, somewhere we travel to or from. Maybe it is… maybe I should get to bed an hour early tonight.

Philosophising The Stanley Parable

stanley parable 1

I spent all of last night exploring The Stanley Parable. If you haven’t played it, I’d recommend doing so before reading on.

The Stanley Parable is a computer game that does something no other artistic medium could do so well. Early in the game, you are presented with two identical doorways. Before you can decide whether to choose the door on the left or the door on the right, the narrator tells you (in the past tense) that Stanley walked through the door on the left. Wary of authority, I took the door on the right and the narrator began hours of cajoling and threatening as he tried to persuade me to follow the game’s storyline as he envisaged it. Of course, you soon realise that defying the narrator is the narrative of the game.

There are a few philosophical concepts that The Stanley Parable evoked for me. I’ll list them here.

Free Will

The Stanley Parable raises interesting questions about free will. Whereas most games provide the illusion of free will and shepherd the player’s progress, this one  makes your lack of free will explicit. The game gives you no choice  but to violate its narrative if the meta-story is to progress. Perhaps the only way we can exercise free will within the game is in the order we choose to explore its narrative branches and various endings. This is a troubling question:

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom – for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

— Harris, S. (2012) Free Will. New York: Free Press.

(As it happens, I think Sam Harris overstates the requirements of free will. No one would reasonably argue that having acted according to one’s own will depends on total knowledge of everything that has ever influenced you).

The Eternal Return

Nietzsche said that a successful life is one that you’d be happy to live over and over again, even if that meant living with the consequences of your choices for all eternity.

“What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh… must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’”

— Nietzsche, F. The Gay Science.

The game restarts in Stanley’s office no matter how you die or how the previous storyline ended. Even though Stanley and the narrator are doomed to repeat the story ad nauseum, you can make different choices and a strange sense of progress emerges between dead ends. 


In Buddhist metaphysics, samsara is the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth that ensnares all beings. The Buddha’s achievement was to release himself from samsara by attaining nirvana (which literally means blown out, as a candle is blown out). Nirvana is said to be beyond all concepts, including life and death, being and non-being. After treading and retreading Stanley’s maze, I was desperate to find a way to break the cycle so that the game could reach a definitive end. Even death is no release, because progress in exploring the narrative often depends on dying and restarting. The need to achieve nirvana – both freedom from control and freedom from freedom itself – seemed urgent and appealing. In hindsight, I could have turned the computer off at that point.

In the narrative branch known as The Zending (presumably a reference to Zen Buddhism) we arrive at a starfield where blissful lights dance. The narrator begs us to stay here rather than continue in the endless hamster wheel that has become Stanley’s life. He says that he, the narrator, finally feels happy. We soon realise that however pleasant this might be, it is not a true release. The situation is set up so that the player will inevitably choose to restart the game by grimly jumping from a staircase several times.

Consider the following lines from The Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s teachings, in light of the narrator’s exhortations for Stanley to let go of his narrow worldview.

“If you want to reach the other shore of existence,

give up what is before, behind, and in between. Set

your mind free, and go beyond birth and death.”

— The Dhammapada (2007) Translated by E. Easwaran. 2nd edn. Berkeley: Nilgiri Press.

The narrator’s promise to show Stanley something beautiful if he (you) would only follow instructions reminded me of these lines of Rumi:

“One of the marvels of the world

is the sight of a soul sitting in prison

with the key in its hand.”

the stanley parable

Jumping out of the system

Without spoiling too much, the narrator realises that a human is controlling Stanley when Stanley makes a choice where none was offered. Here’s Douglas Hofstadter talking about intelligence as an ability to observe patterns and step outside of a task.

“Now let me be very explicit about what I meant by saying this shows a difference between people and machines. I meant that it is possible to program a machine to do a routine task in such a way that the machine will never notice even the most obvious facts about what it is doing; but it is inherent in human consciousness to notice some facts about the things one is doing, But you knew this all along. If you punch ‘1’ into an adding machine, and then add 1 to it, and then add 1 again, and again, and again, and continue doing so for hours and hours, the machine will never learn to anticipate you, and do it itself, although any person would pick up the repetitive behaviour very quickly…

It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it has done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns. Now I said that an intelligence can jump out of its task, but that does not mean that it always will. However, a little prompting will often suffice… Of course, there are cases where only a rare individual will have the vision to perceive a system which governs many peoples’ lives, a system which had never before even been recognized as a system.”

— Hofstadter, D. R. (2000) Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. 20th-anniversary edn. London: Penguin.

This is what, I think, zen koans try to achieve: they prompt an ‘exit from the system’ of logic and conceptual thought. On that note, I’m about to put my feet up and exit this blog-system but I have a question before I do. Is it intentional that the one ending in which the player loses control of Stanley is referred to as The Freedom Ending?

Something to think about. Or not. The choice is yours.

You have to throw the book against the wall

I’ve just finished reading Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name. For a novel that’s 133 pages it took me a long time to read. It’s about an Anglican priest who is unaware that he has only three years to live. The bishop is told this by the priest’s doctor and sends the young ordinand to Kingcome, British Columbia to live with First Nations Indians.

The book is resonant and so poetic that it reminds me of Cornel West in the film Examined Life saying that reading Ruskin, Twain or Melville:

“You almost have to throw the book against the wall because you are so intensely alive that you need a break.”

The following passage is Jim, one of the major characters, describing the lifecycle of salmon.

“Both the males and the females die. On the way up the river the swimmer will pass the fingerlings of his kind coming down to the sea. They want to go and are afraid to go. They still swim upstream, but gently, letting the river carry them downstream tail first, and the birds and the larger fish prey upon them to devour them, and pretty soon they turn to face their dangers.”

The richness of the work is too much, although intellectually absorbed it takes time to settle at the back of the mind and deeper in the heart. So I put the book down and go back to mundane things.