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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On being a ghost in a soft machine (The strangeness of being human #26)

by John MacBeath Watkins

There was a time when the term "computer" was a job title for a human being. Now it is the name of a machine. But what if the human being was a machine, as well?

In Rabbit at Rest, this passage addresses the matter in discussing Rabbit's heart surgery:
  "...what's wrong with running your blood though a machine? What else you think you are, champ?"

  A god-made one-of-a-kind with an immortal soul breathed in. A vehicle of grace. A battlefield of good and evil. An apprentice angel...

  "You're just a soft machine," Charlie maintains.
The term "soft machine" comes from a William S. Burgess novel by that title, in which people are programmed by Mayan priests using sounds, until a time traveler disrupts the system.

Gilbert Ryle famously derided RenĂ© Descartes' mind/body dualism as "the ghost in the machine."  He claimed that the idea of the mind's actions being parallel to the body's and interacting in some unknown way was nonsense. He proposed that the thoughts of the mind are no more than the actions of the brain.

Since Ryle's The Concept of Mind came out in 1949, the work of neurologists and social psychologists
A soft machine.
suggests that Ryle was correct. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, has called us "biochemical puppets." Paradoxically, he argues that awareness of the physical determinism he proposes increases our freedom because it allows you to "grab hold of one of your strings."

This seems at odds with his statement about triple murderer Joshua Komisarjevsky:
"If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky's shoes on July 23,2007 - that is, if I had his genes and life experience and identical brain (or soul) in an identical state - I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this.”
So, Komisarjevsky could not have been anything but the monster he was, but we can have greater freedom because we know we are unfree? If that's supposed to make sense, do I have to be sober?

I find arguments over free will dull. Either we have it or we don't, and if we don't, neither side's argument can be attributed to their own volition. If we don't have free will, no one is responsible for bad acts, no matter how reprehensible.

I propose two ways out of the reductionist dilemma of the mind: First, a sort of Pascal's Wager about free will, second, an alternative form of dualism.

Blaise Pascal argued that you might as well believe in God, because if you don't and you are wrong, you will suffer an eternity of suffering, and if don't believe in God and you are right, you will have wasted a few Sunday mornings going to church, which is far less harm that an eternity in Hell.

If I believe in free will and act as though I have it, and I'm wrong, I was destined to act as I did, and couldn't help it. If I act as if there is no free will and there is, there is much I might have done that I will have not bothered to do.

I suggest even those who claim to believe in predestination or in a mechanistic biological determinism act as if they've taken the sensible side of that wager, including Sam Harris. He makes conflicting statements on the issue because he is uncomfortable with the ambiguity of not knowing, and tries to come down hard on one side, but he's not really comfortable with the implications of his own reasoning.

I say we don't really know if we have free will, and may as well act as if we have it.

The new sort of dualism I suggest to replace the mind/body dualism of Descartes is a sort of hardware/software dichotomy. This will be familiar to those who have been reading the series of posts I've labeled "the strangeness of being human." Much of what we are is the software of the mind -- memes that make up the structure of our thought.

Of course, it's more complicated than the relationship between an operating system and a motherboard. The long, slow process of learning everything we expect an adult human to know physically shapes the brain as well as the beliefs and logic of that person. But that, too, can change as we play with ideas and create new memes.

A truly great book leaves us changed because we read it. An important person in our lives changes who we are. A brain tumor can change our personality, and removing it can restore the person we were. The kindness of a person of another race can make us less racist, the angry broadcast of a racist person can make us feel we have permission to be more racist.

There are things that can change who we are, and if we act as if we have free will, we can control, to at least some extent, what influences we expose ourselves to and which we accept or reject. At least, I'm betting that's the best way to act.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self

Monday, April 21, 2014

What the brothers Koch bought, ridicule in verse

The trouble with writing a Goliard poem is, the Church isn't as big a source of authority as it once was. The real power follows money. So here's the equivalent of a Goliard poem, updated for the Church of Mammon, a satire directed at two men who in my opinion are morally disfigured by inherited wealth:

What the brothers Koch bought

The brothers Koch
had a merry thought
they'd like your vote
for the congressmen they've bought.

But if you're the kind
to vote your own mind
your right to cast a vote
will be effectively revoked
so the government they've sought
may efficiently be bought.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Notes for a novel in 1940s noir

by John MacBeath Watkins

She had a mind made for sin and a body best suited to philosophy.

His thoughts were deep, dark, and damp, and so was she.

I poured two fingers of whiskey on the rocks. What a waste. I began to wish I'd brought a glass.

The gun in the blond's hand carried a bullet with my name on it. I should have signed one of her  boobs instead.

As I sat waiting for the stop sign to change, it began to dawn on me that I'd been drugged.

"And tell your gorilla  to keep his hands out of his pockets," I told him.

"He doesn't have pockets, he's a gorilla," the zookeeper replied.

"I've got a code," I told her, "You wouldn't understand."

"Actually," she replied laconically, "strictly speaking, pig Latin isn't a code."

More notes here:

And here:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Haiku U: Little Women

by John MacBeath Watkins

While I've been contemplating starting a Doggerel Night at Twice Sold Tales, I've been thinking of some of my favorite light verse. Very little of it has been written in Haiku, but I recommend to you a book by David Bader, Haiku U: 100 great books in Haiku.

Here's his take on Little Women:

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Snow-drops hang like tears.
Shy, sweet, saintly Beth has died.
One down, three to go.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

P.G. Wodehouse on inherited wealth

from The Adventures of Sally, Chapter 1:

'If there are any young men whom inherited wealth improves, Fillmore was not one. He seemed to regard himself these days as a sort of Man of Destiny. To converse with him was for the ordinary human being like being received in audience by some more than stand-offish monarch.'

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Doggerel Manifesto

by John MacBeath Watkins

As those of you who follow us on facebook already know, Twice Sold Tales in Ballard is considering starting a Doggerel Night at Twice Sold Tales.

The only trouble is, several people to whom I've broached the idea have not known what doggerel is.

From the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary:


: poetry that is poorly written and that often is not meant to be taken seriously.
 In short, doggerel is a disparaging term for unpretentious poetry that aims to entertain, and has no pretension of being high art. I do not think it has to be written poorly; after all, Ogden Nash once said he'd decided to be a good bad poet rather than a bad good poet, and I think that captures the distinction between "poetry" and doggerel.

Consider an example of folk poetry that is not intended to be taken seriously:

What the Blind Man Saw

One fine day in the middle of the night
two dead boys got up to fight
Back to back they faced each other
drew their swords and shot each other.

If you don't believe what I say is true,
ask the blind man, he saw it too.
Iambic verse with four feet to the line, in rhyming heroic couplets. Nothing wrong with that, although the first line isn't Iambic all the way through, when voiced it scans well enough. Continuity errors aside, it's well written.

The idea of doggerel is different from what we now call poetry. It is a means to tell a story and often a means to tell a joke. At one time, poetry and jokes were our oral traditions, the poetry often put to music.

But we've elevated poetry to the status of high art. I've been to a reading where someone was throwing out random numbers and calling them a poem, sort of equivalent to Robert Rauschenberg's White Painting, a 1951 three-canvas work that the artists said represented nothing (more on the flight from meaning here.)

White Painting
There was a time when poetry could be art, but this was not the essence of poetry. Its essence was that it was a way to tell a story. The tale could be told well or badly, and its popularity depended on the taste of the public, not on any arbiters of taste. Because it was a means of storytelling, most of it didn't have to be terribly good, it just had to tell a tale people wanted to hear. Casey at the Bat, that most American of poems, ran in a daily newspaper.

In some cases, popular poetry disparaged as doggerel produced parodies more famous than the original. When I was a lad, I learned this comic poem:
The boy stood on the burning deck, his feet were full of blisters
he could not find his own shoes, so he had to wear his sister's.
The ocean was deserted, not a streetcar was in sight
the forest fires were burning, for it rained all day that night.
It wasn't until a few years ago that I found Casabianca, the poem the one above parodied. It was first published in 1826, based on events that had occurred in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile. The dreadful thing came to be taught in American and British schools from about 1850 to 1950, mercifully disappearing from the syllabus about the time I was born, though I take no credit for that. It was thought the poem taught children to be virtuous:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.
The boy in Casabianca stands on the deck where his father told him to, unaware that his father is dead and can't countermand the order, until the powder magazine blows up and kills him.


Generations of school children rebelled against this and produced several versions of parodies that had greater comic and artistic merit than the original.

And that's the beauty of doggerel. It can be awful, but if it is awful and pretentious, there's always someone willing to come along and burst the bubble.

The problem is, the entire institutional organism that supports poetry has become pretentious. It's time to burst the bubble, and write poetry that is intended to amuse, to tell a story or to tell a joke, that has no pretense of being written for the ages.

I say it is ominous that so little poetry written in the last century is worthy of parody. Our poetry has become so irrelevant that little of it is iconic enough to have people know what you're doing when you parody it. The only one that comes readily to mind is Robert Frost's The Road not Taken. And that was a parody that fit on a button -- "I took the road less traveled by -- what was I thinking!"

I say we need poetry worth repeating, the way a dirty joke is worth repeating, a return to the oral tradition that spread anonymous poems like What the Blind Man Saw without the backing of foundations or grants or small, incestuous poetry journals.

It doesn't have to be funny. In fact, without sincere, and popular, poems like Casabianca, we can't have brilliant parodies. Without Against Idleness and Mischief, by Isaac Watts:
How doth the little busy Bee
   Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
   From every opening Flower!
 ...we would not have Lewis Carroll's parody:
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
 I call both of these doggerel. I class the whole of Edgar Guest's oeuvre as doggerel, and so is Dorothy Parker's review of his work:
I'd rather flunk my Wasserman test
 Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest.
But a Reader's Digest poet like Guest had his place in a healthy ecology of poetry. His poetry was maudlin, his language hackneyed, but if a thing is worth doing, there's a market for people who do it badly as well as for those who do it perfectly.  Just as the romance and the mystery novel have a market for the less auspicious practitioners as well as for Jane Austen and P.D. James, a healthy market for poetry would have room for Casabianca as well as the works of W.S. Merwin.

We've come some way because of slam poetry, but too often, it relies on the performance of the artist. Going back to rhythm and rhyme would help us return poetry to being an oral tradition, passed along for amusement, not reliant on the talent of the performer.

I suggest we cease to regard poetry as an art form and return to viewing it as a storytelling technique. A poem may have artistic merit, but it need not have such merit to be a poem that gets passed around and enjoyed.

So let's tell stories with this technique we call poetry, either reading our favorites or writing our own. We won't aim to produce high art. We will aspire to amuse our friends.