Stephen Hawking @ Caltech 04/16/13

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Sean M Carroll on Origin of the Universe & the Arrow of Time

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The relationship between a person and his death, said the Greek thinker Epicurus, is a strange one. It is roughly akin, if we may leap forward a couple of millennia, to the relationship between Superman and Clark Kent. Whenever one is present, the other is nowhere to be seen. As long as a person is alive, his death has not yet happened. And of course once his death occurs, he is no longer around. Since no one will ever encounter his own demise, Epicurus concluded, it should cause him no concern.

Shelly Kagan’s “Death” furnishes a lucid guide to a range of philosophical claims of this sort, such as whether we can know what it’s like to be dead or why life is valuable in the first place. But Mr. Kagan continually returns to one matter that looms over all others: whether, for anyone who rejects religious notions of an afterlife, there are ways of consoling oneself about the inevitability of death. He takes no definitive position on this question. Rather his aim—the book is based on a popular Yale philosophy course that Mr. Kagan teaches—is to probe the positions on offer. And in his pages we find two consolations, apart from that of Epicurus.

The first one Mr. Kagan associates with is Buddhism, though it as been advanced as well by Western philosophers such as Schopenhauer. It urges us to cast off our selfish preoccupations. To hold on to our self-focused projects and attachments is to court suffering whenever they end in disappointment. Far better to abandon any concern with our self, existing instead moment by moment, shorn of any concern for past or future. And since our self is the very thing that we are supposed to lose when we die, death will then become a nonevent, not worth fretting over.

The other consolation that emerges in Mr. Kagan’s book comes from existentialism, and it flips the Buddhist consolation on its ear. Existentialists value the individual self, with its own projects and aims. They argue that our death, in particular our constant knowledge that we are moving ever closer to it, is precisely what makes each of us his own unique person. Aware that time does not stretch out limitlessly, we feel an urgency to get started in the world, to make hard choices about what’s important and thus to carve out the narrative arc of our singular lives. Death compels us to craft a life-story that resembles a “resolved chord” or “melody,” as Sartre put it. Only with death always looming can we have a self—can we exist as identifiable individuals in the first place.
For existentialists and Buddhists, though in different ways, the relationship between the self and death seems more like the “Late Night” relationship between David Letterman and Paul Shaffer. One will be present if the other is too. You can be a full-fledged self, existentialists say, only if your death is ever present in your life. If you can manage to make your self disappear, Buddhists say, then death will as well.

Mr. Kagan sees value in both positions, though he implicitly acknowledges that their paths to consolation are hazardous. Anyone who seeks the Buddhist-style consolation is going to lead a life that, at its end, risks leaving him bereft of any feeling of accomplishment. And anyone who tries for an existentialist consolation—leading a chock-a-block life because mortality has concentrated his mind—will feel the loss of something of great value when it ends. “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened,” said the great existentialist Dr. Seuss. But anyone who can smile because it happened is going to have to cry because it’s over.

Which brings us back to Epicurus. For as long as we exist, the philosopher argued, our death must remain absent. But what would it take to live a life in which death truly wasn’t present to us—not just logically, as Epicurus suggests, but psychologically, internally? We would live, as Freud believed most in fact do live, not really believing that we will die—believing, as Mr. Kagan notes of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, that death is something that happens to other people. Most of us, like Ivan, go merrily along taking on new projects, forming new relationships and scheming new schemes to promote ourselves socially, even though death could interrupt us at any moment. Instead of arriving at one completed narrative, we often risk leaving—to our ultimate sadness—many uncompleted ones. Truly living as if death is absent as long as we are alive is unlikely to console us.

Or take Epicurus’ other claim: once death comes, we will no longer be alive to worry about it. What kind of life would we have to live to be consoled by this idea? Obviously not Ivan’s. His life, in a real way, continues on after he is dead. What tears at him is the thought that so much of what would otherwise comprise his life—his children, his friends, his projects—will go on to flourish or flounder without him: without his being there to enjoy or assist.

The only way that we can avoid that prospect is to follow the advice of the poet Hölderlin (cited by Mr. Kagan): aim for a “single summer” of intense joy and then, having experienced the heights of what life has to offer, recognize that “more is not needed.” Life’s meaning would be derived from a single moment, and one could then wait in serenity for the end. Fine if you can do it. For most, it would be a tedious living death.

Mr. Kagan’s book rich book shows, ultimately, that there is no single, all-purpose consolation for death. What we do have is the freedom to choose our own consolation by living our life in a particular way, knowing that, in doing so, we will deprive ourselves of all the others.

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To answer one or more questions

It seems to me that among all the posts I’ve made and all the material I’ve proliferated that there are some who probably wonder what are some of my favorite academic disciplines and whom would be my favorite intellectuals.

These questions are not entirely easy to answer. Provided with so many faces and a variety of works I am not sure I can definitively commit myself to one or the other. I will, however, offer a few people and works I have thoroughly enjoyed. 

In terms of probably the smartest person alive and someone who appears to know a great deal about their field (and no doubt has a passion for it), I would first list Edward Witten. The man is extraordinarily smart and gift beyond all measure. From what I’ve read about him, he has an IQ of over 200, he’s incredibly articulate (and a fast talker as well), a gifted writer who can easily communicate his subject matter, and just an all around nice person. Certainly his material is incomprehensible to the average person and we can only hope to achieve his status within our lifetime. But he is a great thinker nonetheless.

Next on my list would be Garry Kasparov. Generally regarded as the greatest chess player of all time, Kasparov has an IQ of almost 200 (rumored but not yet confirmed), previously the highest chess rating of all time (exceeding Bobby Fishers), world champion status and title for nearly 20 years, defeated several chess computers, and the author of numerous articles and books. What I’ve enjoyed about Kasparov is his passion and commitment to the game of chess but also his practical ability to expand the concepts behind it. Human intuition has been one concept that Kasparov has discussed over and over again and it’s ability to direct people in decision-making. One may disagree, others may find him enlightening. But it’s clear Kasparov knows what he’s talking about and has the experience and accolades to back it up.

Last on my list (at least for now) would be Alvin Plantinga. An American philosopher at the University of Notre Dame (now retired), Plantinga is known for his seminal contributions to Christian philosophy and theistic thought. Among his works Plantinga is known for his theories of reformed epistemology on the probably basic beliefs on God, the free-will defense for the problem of evil, and the relationship between religion and science. Plantinga is also noted for being an outspoken Christian and defending the rational basis of belief in Christian thought. Some of the traits I’ve enjoyed about Plantinga is his consistency between his works and his life. Plantinga is a extremely nice guy and a warm soul to be around. He extols Christian virtues and is probably one of the more patient and humble people I have met in my life. Among the three people I have listed as people I really admire Plantinga is remarkably the only person I have met in real life. Hopefully one day I can change that.

Now of course there are many other names worth mentioning such as HH the Dalai Lama, Richard Dawkins, Thomas Nagel, Brian Greene, Dennis Prager, and many more. But aforementioned people I generally regard as my favorites and people I listen to the most and who appear to have the most insight on their disciplines. Now I will briefly list some books/articles I have thoroughly enjoyed over the years.

Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov

Science and Religion by Alvin Plantinga

Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig

These books offer some of the deepest and most thought provoking insights into subjects of philosophy, psychology, and theology. I have found the material contained therein to be the most enlightening and life-changing despite everything else I’ve read. I encourage you to read these books whenever you get the chance. That’s all for now. Take care. 

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Book List

Since it seems my book list is one of the more popular posts on here (both for myself and others) I thought I’d post some books I am currently working on and I hope to complete by the end of the week. You can probably tell from reading the titles that I really have diverse tastes (and I don’t necessarily agree with everything I read about nor every argument that is made).

How to Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman

Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig

The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers

Unended Quest by Karl Popper

Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel

What is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson and Robert George


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Garry Kasparov vs Deep Blue

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Blaise Pascal

I know not who sent me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am.
I am terribly ignorant of everything. I know not what my body is, nor my senses, nor
my soul and that part of me which thinks what I say, which reflects upon itself as well
as upon all external things, and has no more knowledge of itself than of them.
I see the terrifying immensity of the universe which surrounds me, and find myself
limited to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am set down here
rather than elsewhere, nor why the brief period appointed for my life is assigned to
me at this moment rather than another in all the eternity that has gone before and
will come after me. On all sides I behold nothing but infinity, in which I am a mere
atom, a mere passing shadow that returns no more. All I know is that I must soon
die, but what I understand least of all is this very death which I cannot escape.
As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I only know that on
leaving this world I fall for ever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful
God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be everlastingly consigned.
Such is my condition, full of weakness and uncertainty. From all this I conclude that
I ought to spend every day of my life without seeking to know my fate. I might
perhaps be able to find a solution to my doubts; but I cannot be bothered to do so,
I will not take one step towards its discovery.3

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