Pierre's Cafe

The Kurzweil Singularity

On Friday I attended a speech by Ray Kurzweil at the 2nd Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference on Consciousness. The speech was, first and foremost, a defense of Kurzweil’s prediction that by the year 2029 technology will be advanced enough to combat the process of aging by modifying our bodies and even our brains so that we can live forever. This obviously raises a number of existential questions as it will drastically change our social dynamic. However, Kurzweil focused on defending his prediction and confronting the dilemmas that arise in our understanding of consciousness.

In support of his thesis, Kurzweil predicts that machines will have human capabilities (in terms of consciousness) because of the exponential growth of technology. The remarkable thing about its expansion is that it is completely predictable. Kurzweil has spent time tracking the advancement of technology by the unit Bits-Per-Dollar, which I interpret to mean the ratio of amount of information to its cost. Without getting into the mathematical aspect of his theory, what is important to recognize is that when the ratio is graphed over time, not only is the growth shown to be exponential, but it reveals how incredibly predictable it is.

One important caveat to notice is that these predictions, while they have been accurate, are not predicting specific devices, inventions, advancements, etc. Rather, they are simply predicting the path of the whole power of technology over time. I will bring this point up later.

Kurzweil’s general epistemology states that knowledge is nothing more than a pattern; and technology has the ability to reproduce these patterns, even in the individual. To Kurzweil people are also nothing more than a pattern. For example, the entire “content” of our bodies (i.e. our cells) changes thousands if not millions of times over our life time. But the only continuity among all these changes is the pattern they follow and our consciousness. Hence, our consciousness must be some kind of pattern that, according to Kurzweil, technology will be able to reproduce.


There were two issues brought up that I wish to discuss. The first is simply an interesting dilemma, the second, an investigation into the phenomenal experience of a machine with human capability.

Kurzweil introduced a dilemma with the following example. Suppose that we made an immediate copy of Ray, such that every tiny aspect of Ray was copied into another (“separate”) individual we will call Ray 2. Ray 2 is everything Ray is, but he can live forever. But we are not about to turn to Ray and tell him that he is now disposable, for Ray and Ray 2 are still separate entities. There has been no transfer of consciousness to Ray 2, though Ray 2 has consciousness which is empirically identical with that of Ray. So, in some odd way, Ray 2 is not Ray. (Doesn’t this present a problem for what I mentioned above? If we replicate the pattern, as we did with Ray 2, it does not end up with the “same” consciousness. So, consciousness is not a pattern that can be replicated, it would seem).

However, if we were to gradually advance Ray piece by piece—first starting with mechanical limbs—and eventually re-wiring him completely so that he is no longer a biological entity, we could then say that we have maintained Ray’s consciousness. However, this gradual Ray (I will call GRay) is identical with Ray 2, who we just said, is not Ray. Even though it seems more reasonable to assume that GRay is really Ray, the problem persists. I believe that this requires an investigation into the nature of phenomenal identity that transcends the scope of this discussion.

Second, there was a question raised about the phenomenal character of a conscious machine. It seems reasonable to assume that there ought to be a distinction made, when constructing a machine with human cognitive abilities, between the capabilities of consciousness and its characteristics. By “characteristics,” I mean a kind of phenomenal “feel,” such as, what it is to experience seeing the color red or getting a headache.

Kurzweil immediately recognized that the issue is dependent on an interpretation of “qualia,” by which I was impressed. However, he failed to really answer the question. He turned to the philosophy of language in order to explain how, even with biological consciousness, qualia is something that cannot be accounted for. We have been conditioned, he argued, to call certain things ‘red’ no matter the way the object really is; i.e. the problem of red-green color blindness. It was not the answer I expected and, to me, it only further illustrated that consciousness is something so totally out of our comprehension that replicating it seems improbable, even in the face of Kurzweil’s support for the predictive element of the growth of technology that I will touch on next.


I mentioned before that what Kurzweil is doing is predicting the whole power of technology based on the pattern of exponential growth that has revealed itself over time. However, I suspect that his prediction might be inaccurate because of this. Kurzweil even said that the prediction does not account for individual inventions, advancements, etc. It only follows the ratio of bits of information per dollar. So, how can he predict something so specific from something so broad? If he doesn’t know what precise technology is necessary to create mechanical consciousness how can he say when it will happen? Even if you were to give him the benefit and say that he can, in fact, predict the power of technology into the future, how does he know how far technology must be advanced in order to create the Singularity? Though I’m sure Kurzweil has an answer to these problems, they were not addressed on Friday.

The Agnostic

I want now to tell you, gentlemen, whether you care to hear it or not, why I could not even become an insect. I tell you solemnly, that I have many times tried to become an insect. But I was not equal even to that.


I didn’t vote for Obama. Blasphemy, I know. It’s not that I’m not into change; believe me, I am. Obama’s “Vote For Change” campaign was kind of convincing, I must admit. It did get him elected, after all. And it’s not that I have anything against black people; I’m not so cynical that it makes me racist. I didn’t vote for Obama because I didn’t vote for anyone. Not McCain, and once again, not Ralph Nader—though, if I had voted for anyone it would have been him. I once sat in on a lecture he gave at a university in Massachusetts—I won’t tell you which one, it’s not important. In it he pushed his audience to avoid identifying with one political party so strictly. An open mind is the best mind, he said. When it comes down to it, the foundation of each party’s philosophy lies on something contingent—something which you can only hope is true. So, in a way, to declare yourself a tight-ass Republican, or to be one of those tattoo-wearing, radical-thinking liberals they call Democrats is to commit one of the easiest and worst mistakes any rational human being can ever commit: to believe something as true when you know that it might not be. Socrates noticed this. He let himself be put to death because he believed he was a smarter man if he admitted his ignorance than if he claimed to know something he really didn’t. Now, that’s a real hero.
Picking a president is about as simple as figuring out how to decorate your apartment. I live in a simple basement apartment in a town in Massachusetts—I won’t tell you which one, it’s not important. And when I say simple, I’m not trying to be modest or come up with a clever way of telling you that I’m poor. “Simple” means that my apartment now—as I’ve lived in it for the past 13 years—is just about the same as it was when I moved into it after I graduated from college. Sure, I’ve got a couple pieces of furniture, but the walls are just as white as the day they were painted. I’m not gonna put up any pictures of Elliott Smith or Jack Johnson or Jimmy Page or some other musician who has wasted their life away on drugs. And I’m not gonna set up everything around an entertainment system, I don’t have a favorite television show. I don’t know interior decorating, so I’m not going to pretend to set up my apartment according to a certain style ‘cause that would be the same as making a statement about its value and to neglect the others. It would be ridiculous to pick one because I’d have to try every possible style of interior decoration. I’d have to hire every decorator in the city. Or maybe the country. And then when that’s done I’d have to let someone decorate who isn’t an interior decorator—‘cause that’s a style of its own. Figuring out the truth would just require this infinitely exhausting set of trial and error. And there are way better ways to spend my time. I have food in the fridge. I’ve got my head on my shoulders. I’ve got the essentials; the rest is just fluff.
That’s probably all you need to know about me to understand what I’m about to tell you. This guy stopped me on the street today while I was walking. I apparently didn’t look busy enough for him to realize what an incredible nuisance he was going to be if he interrupted me.
“Excuse me,” he said—like saying it politely makes it any better. I didn’t even say anything back, I just stopped and looked at him.
“Can you help us with something?” he asked. He was standing on the sidewalk next to a white town car that was clearly a rental parked next to the side of the road. His wife was sitting in the passenger seat with the window down holding a travel guide and thumbing through it like it didn’t make any sense at all. She looked like a seven year old trying to understand organic chemistry.
“We are trying to find these two restaurants,” he continued. The guy didn’t even let me say yes or no. No, man. I don’t want to help you and your pre-pubescent, but thanks for the opportunity. “Do you know where Pierre’s Café is?” he asked me.
“I thought you were looking for two restaurants,” I said to the middle-aged ignoramus with a major receding hair line. He probably just shipped his kid off to college and now has all this free time that he doesn’t know what to do with so he hit the road with his wife—who intellectually hasn’t passed the single digits—and now they’re bugging me for somewhere to eat as if they can’t feed themselves without someone holding their hand and walking them through it.
“Pierre’s is only one place,” I said. “And it’s not a restaurant, it’s a café.”
“Right, sorry,” he said, rubbing his hand over his baldness and turning around to his wife. “Honey, what’s the name of the other one?”
“The Pour House,” she said, finally looking up from the chemical formulas disguised as maps and simple directions. She handed Mr. Bald Beer Belly the travel guide and he brought it back over to me, almost slipping on a small patch of ice on the sidewalk. It was the middle of February and it is way too cold in Massachusetts this time of year to be having this kind of conversation outside.
“I don’t need the map,” I told him. “We’re right in between both of them. If you keep going straight on this street you’ll run into Pierre’s. But if you turn right on Chester then the Pour House is on your right just past the elementary school. Maybe you can drop off your wife there.” Except I didn’t say the last sentence, I only thought it in my head.
“Oh, great!” he said. “Did you hear that hun?”
“So which one should we go to then?” she asked. I thought she asked that thing she was married to, but apparently she was asking me. He turned back and they both looked at me and raised an eyebrow perfectly and creepily in sync. Apparently the “fuck off” message that I tried to shoot back with my eyebrows was not clear enough. I sighed, unlocking my shoulders.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Which one is better?” he clarified.
“Well, that just depends, now doesn’t it?” I love answering questions with questions. And just like this guy did to me, I didn’t wait for him to answer before I continued.
“Do you like burgers? Cause that’s what the Pour House is good for,” I said.
“Yeah, that sounds good,” he said.
“It can be pretty pricey there, though,” I added. “You know, table cloths and fancy waiters. If you are looking for a local favorite then you should go to Pierre’s.”
And then the wife piped in. “Let’s go there, honey. I want to go to where the people around here go.” The husband seemed to agree, but he didn’t even know that he didn’t know!
“How do you feel about abortion?” I asked the wife.
“Excuse me?”
“The lady at the counter at Pierre’s has had two,” I said. “And are you ok with tattoos? Cause she’s got three of those and you should be ok with that before she hands over a sandwich to you.”
The couple just looked at each other, gauging one another’s reactions.
“And how do you feel about vegetarians?”
“Our daughter is a vegetarian.”
“Ok good. ‘Cause there will be a lot of them there. A lot of the menu is vegetarian.”
Now they seemed ready to leave me alone. But only now? They could have avoided this all at the beginning if they had just let me walk on by. I guess we’ll call it payback.
“I think we’ll just head on over there then,” the husband said. He started to get in the car.
He stopped just before getting behind the wheel.
“Are you good tippers?”
“If the service warrants it,” he said.
“Oh. Well, then you should go to the Pour House. Their service is better. And they make plenty of money even without their tips, so they can afford to treat you like dirt.”
“And what about at Pierre’s?” he asked.
“The people that work there really need the money, you know? Even if the service is bad you gotta tip them cause they need it,” I said.
“I don’t want to go somewhere with bad service,” the wife said to her husband.
He nodded his head and said, “Ok, let’s go to the burger joint.”
“It’s not a burger joint,” I said. “It’s a nice restaurant, they are just known for their burgers.”
“Whatever,” he said and got in the car. I walked over to the wife’s open window.
“You have cash on you? ‘Cause the Pour House only has valet parking,” I said.
“Please take your hands off the car,” the husband said.
“What’s the problem?”
“I don’t want you that close to my wife. Let us leave,” he was talking to me through the passenger window but seated at the driver’s seat. His wife just sat with her head against her seat watching the spit fly from our mouths like she was at a tennis match.
“I thought you wanted to go to a local joint,” I said.
“Yeah, honey, I do,” the wife said finally fixing her eyes on her husband.
“Ok we’ll go there.”
“But they don’t take credit cards, so you should have cash no matter where you go, I guess,” I said.
He flipped his hands off the steering wheel and into the air for a second. The look on his face screamed what the fuck do you want me to do! It was really hilarious.
“Just tell me,” he said. “Which one do you like?”
“I mean, they’re both great,” I said. “It just depends on what you want.”
“We told you what we want!” His voice was rising now and his wife seemed a little bit startled.
“Hey,” I said calmly and clearly. “I’m just trying to help you make the best choice.”
“You don’t even know what that is,” he said.
“Then why the hell did you ask me in the first place?”
“I didn’t think it’d be this difficult.”
And that’s the problem with these mother fuckers. They never do.

How to Look Smart in Class

Before you walk into the classroom, pick up a newspaper. Not just any newspaper, and especially not the New York Times. When you walk into class with a copy of the New York Times under your arm you immediately go from looking like a well-rounded individual to a douchebag. It becomes painfully obvious that you are trying too hard. And you don’t even just look like a douchebag now, you sound pretentious too. When you’re sitting in your public relations lecture filled with 200 people and you say, “I think the Tea Party people have a really good point,” it comes out as, “Anyone who is not on my side is an idiot.”

You get to class early because you don’t want to give the wrong impression. Walking in even two minutes late with your chin glued to your chest staring at your cell phone is not going to convince your professor that you are interested in anything other than tweeting and playing solitaire. But doing crosswords are ok. That’s why you get to class early, so you can start the crossword in the newspaper. If it’s too hard, don’t freak out. Just fill in the boxes with whatever words you like, nobody’s going to check.

I know you think you can do the crossword without anyone noticing, but when you get to a four-letter word for intercourse you’re going to laugh to yourself and everyone will realize you’re not paying attention. And then when you see what you’ve done you’ll switch to thinking too hard: your mouth starts to hang open and you have a dazed look on your face that is going to do nothing but make your professor think you’re confused. You might even drool a little bit, at which point you might as well give up.

Now that you’re sitting in your seat with your local newspaper neatly folded open to the crossword page you are ready to shut up. Seriously. Don’t say a word the entire time. It’s better to let people assume you’re an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

You’re not going to say anything, but your professor, with his tweed jacket and green slacks, wants people to participate. He doesn’t just want to lecture at people, especially if it’s a small class. This is a sign of a good teacher, despite his inability to dress. But you still need to shut up. Don’t worry about awkward silences; some girl will reveal her ignorance and fill the room with ignorable sounds right before she realizes she forgot to turn her phone off and “Like a Virgin” starts piercing through her backpack.

But then tweedy (that’s your professor, not twitter) is looking at you and wants an answer. Give it to him. Your opinion is being asked of you, it is ok to speak. But offering it up out of nowhere is only going to get you in trouble. Nobody cares that you had this one tiny experience back in middle school that makes you think Holden Caulfield’s trip to New York is unrealistic. Just because you cried your eyes out when you got separated from the group on a class field trip to Boston—not even a real metropolis—doesn’t mean that you’re right.

In fact, most of the time you are wrong. Doctor Tweed Jacket is going to tell you that there are no wrong answers, but he is lying. Yes, even esteemed gentlemen immersed in academia lie. That’s how you become the president of a university. There are wrong answers, pay attention and you’ll find them all the time. “What do you think Mersault was thinking when he shot the arab?” Saying that he confused him for Osama is definitely the wrong answer.

When the girl next to you leans over and asks for the last thing Professor Camus said, it’s ok to tell her, and not just because she has a pair of bunny ears tattooed just above her belt and her breasts are hanging out of her shirt. Rather, you’ve got a great opportunity to show you’ve been paying attention. Slide your notes onto the side of your desk, making her lean over a bit. That way you get to look down her shirt some more. Also, anyone who notices will see that you are the man with the answers. Not only that, you’re the one with the answers that the girl with the big tits wants. Double points and you didn’t have to say a word.

When it gets time for class to end do not move. Your lecturing liar knows that time is just about up, so jamming your notebook into your back pack and zipping it up as loud as possible is only going to irritate him. Sit still and make eye contact with him. If he catches your eye two things happen. First, he sees that you are paying attention when others aren’t. After all, this isn’t just about looking smart to your classmates. You want a good grade. Second, he sees that you are patient. Showing patience tells him that you aren’t quick to jump to conclusions, meaning you have half a brain. It’s a lot easier to give an A to someone you think is smart, than to someone who participated in class but said things like, “I don’t know, like, it just didn’t rub me the right way.”

The S Series

I love everything about guns. The way they push back against you when you fire them, especially if it’s some kind of automatic where the jolting and jumping is constant so your whole body is vibrating in line with the gun—like the two of you together are one machine. I don’t have to use the scope because the gun is a part of me. I just have to look and BANG! If looks could kill you’d be riddled with bullets. And with my legs steadily wobbling up to my gut that is pushing in and out, like a throbbing heart pushing the bullets up to my arms and out through the tip of the gun, what’s not to love?
Guns are an efficient machine, they get the point across better than you could even try to say it with words. Like the way I would tell those Homeowner Association mother fuckers. They tried to tell me I couldn’t cut down the tree in my yard. I don’t want no fuckin tree in my yard.
Johnny says I can do whatever I want with my property, it’s my property. Johnny is good with words. He’s good with words like I am with bullets. He knows just how to point them at the target and hit it with maximum efficiency. Sometimes I wish I could take Johnny with me to their secret meetings so I could have him tell them everything. Like how the tree makes it too cold in my house cause it blocks the sun. And how the dogs always stop to piss on the tree. They piss on my property. With their little tiny fuckin peckers they aim their liquid ammunition and assault my property like they’re taking over. That’s what them dogs are doing anyway. When they pee I mean. They’re just marking their territory. And this is my territory. It’s my property, I can do what I want with it and I don’t want no fuckin dogs taking it over!
I know everything about guns, too. Johnny and I used to go out to the shooting range every Saturday. He had this big ol U-Haul and we would load it up good with all kinds of pieces. Pocket rockets, straps, semis, autos, tommies, cannons, streetsweepers, six-guns, heaters, everything. But nothing was like the Avtomat Kalashnikova. The AK-mother-fuckin-47. The best thing the Russians ever gave us. Well, the only good thing the Russians ever gave us.
Fuck the Russians.
Johnny says the Russians are fuckin idiots cause they don’t know how to speak. Like, vowels are important, Johnny says. Get a fuckin grip, he says. But the AK, man. That’s some real shit. But he had one of the originals, the S series with the folding shoulder stock. That was great. Still is great. When we go out to the range I mean. Johnny didn’t do much shooting. He kind of just sat back and watched, there was always someone else in the stall next to me on both sides, but I used to talk to him like he was there next to me without turning my head. I just kind of talked and he would hear me from where he was sitting behind me. He just watched and told me what I was doing wrong. I’m always doing something wrong.
I’m holding it too loose.
I’m cutting down trees. But it’s my fuckin tree, Johnny says.
Hold your head up, he says.
Don’t bend over like that, Rich, he says.
And don’t bend your knees, he says.
You gotta shoot from where you are, he says, and you can’t do that if your knees are bent and you’re wobbling all over the place like a goddamn tree that’s getting pissed on by a dog. Be sturdy, be strong. Now take ‘em down, he says.
He says it just like it is. He says it and I do it, like his words are actually just mine. He thinks it and I do it. I fire the gun. He uses his words and they come out as bullets. And my body is shaking, it’s all coming out of me so easy. Like I didn’t even have to do anything. Like I just think it and the moving target on the other end starts getting holes in it. I’m punching holes in it with my sharp fuckin bullets out of my sharp fuckin S series Russian killer.
So I’m taking Johnny to see these home owner ass holes. I could walk in there and say things that they won’t understand cause it won’t come out right.
Cause like, there’s no instructions for getting your head in the right position to fire words at them. Like, I can’t hold my brain straight and shoot the words at them from my sturdy, strong position.
But Johnny just knows it. He knows what I’m thinking anyway. I’d come in there and I’d be all,
I don’t want the tree cause I’m cold and the dogs are taking it. And they’d all look at me like I was some kind of insane person. But Johnny could go in there and be all eloquent and shit. And say stuff like,
“I understand your position, but my good friend here is in a predicament and needs your help.” He’d put his hand on my shoulder and I’d nod all friendly and stuff. But I’d keep my mouth shut, just like Johnny said before we came in. Let me do the talkin, he said. Keep your pistol to yourself, he said.
“You see, my friend doesn’t enjoy it when the dogs use his yard as a place to discard his waste. And you, the thoughtful members of the homeowners association ought to be more careful then to let their dogs pee on someone else’s yard. So unless you are going to clean up your act, my good friend here is going to cut down his tree,” Johnny says.
And the fifty people there are sitting there turned around in their seats cause we came in from the back and didn’t wait for our turn to talk. We just jumped right into it. That’s how you win a fight, Johnny says. Never fight fair with a stranger, he says. And they’ve got confused looks on their face, like why we’re speaking out of turn and shit.
And I’m sitting there fiddling with the rocket in my pocket. The little doozy. It’s a nice six-gun. But I let Johnny do the shooting. The shooting with words. Throw it at ‘em Johnny.
“Why don’t you just put a fence around your yard Mr. Glassel,” they say. They ignore Johnny. Like he isn’t even fucking there. Tell ‘em Johnny. Like you said.
It’s my property and I can do what I want with it.
Strap on the folding shoulder stock. I know you got it in you. Give ‘em what you got worked up in your head. Come on Johnny.
But Johnny’s just standing there.
Shoot ‘em Johnny. Why aren’t you telling them.
Tell ‘em Johnny.
Johnny they’re gonna take my fuckin tree.
The dogs.
The dogs are gonna take my fuckin tree. And then it’s the yard.
And then it’s the house.
And then it’s the guns.
And then it’s me.
I’ll shoot the dogs.
I’ll shoot the dogs before they can take the tree.
You take care of the words and I’ll take care of the dogs.
But Johnny doesn’t move.
I didn’t think they invited the fuckin dogs to these fuckin meetings, but I guess they were there all along. Sitting on these bastards’ laps or something, storing up their piss. But now they’re here and they’re running at me. It’s self defense, Johnny.
I gotta shoot the dogs, Johnny. Why didn’t we bring the U-haul?
And I’m looking at the other people. And I’m thinking. And Johnny’s thinking now. He’s not saying anything. He’s just thinking. And I’m thinking. And I’m looking at them. And I’m thinking if looks could kill you’d be filled with bullets.

The Director's Cut

“I think we need to watch it again,” Ellie said. The credits were rolling now and Sean was fast asleep. He only made it through 11 minutes and 27 seconds of the movie.

“Right,” I said. “Not tonight, though. I’m sure it’ll make more sense after you let your mind play with it for a little bit.” I picked up the empty popcorn bowl on the coffee table next to the couch where Sean was sleeping and I took it to the kitchen.

“So, he killed himself?” Ellie asked.

“Well, yeah. But no,” I said. “I know it’s weird. I mean, it makes sense, but it’s not totally explainable.”

Sean made a grumbling noise on the couch. He brushed at his face with his hand like there was something stuck to it that he wanted off and rolled over. I went to grab a blanket from the closet.

“I guess I’ll let Sean sleep here tonight,” I said to myself.

“And I thought that the other guy was his friend.” Ellie was not going to give it up. “So why did he sell him out?”

“Was he sold out? Or did he let him sell him out?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. She was still sitting on the floor leaning against the love seat. She stared at the black screen while the little white lines rolled up and under the top of the TV. She was motionless, as if the movie left her paralyzed on the floor with confusion.

“So he did kill himself then!” Ellie said it a little too loudly and Sean jumped a bit. But his eyes never opened and he had no idea what was going on. Nor did he care to know.

“Well, yeah. But no,” I said again. I wiped off the counter in the kitchen and threw the empty wine bottle in the trash. The bread had been sitting out during the whole movie so I wrapped it in saran wrap and put it in the bread box to keep it from getting stale.

“Then let’s watch it again,” Ellie said, whispering this time.

“No,” I said. Ellie was persistent. I loved her curiosity most of the time, but not now. I knew she wasn’t going to give it a rest until she understood everything. “You’re not going to get it tonight,” I tell her.

“So you do understand it! Tell me,” she says. I’ve said too much now and I’m in trouble.

“I never said that. Anyway, don’t you have a chemistry test tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I do. But I won’t be able to study ‘cause this is going to drive me crazy unless I find out the truth,” she said.

Sean was wide awake now. But he was unsure why he woke up to us on the brink of an argument that Ellie was eager to start and I was desperately trying to avoid.

“How much of the movie did I miss?” He asked.

“All of it,” I told him.

“Will you just tell me?” Ellie asked, coming into the kitchen looking frustrated and tired.

“I can’t tell you now,” I said. “It’ll ruin the movie for Sean.” And I’m sure I’ve got her. Sean looked up at the sound of his name but then realized the blanket draped over him.

“How did this get here?” he asked. Ellie ignored him.

“Then let’s watch it again,” she said again.

“No.” I tried to say it more firmly this time.

“I don’t understand - ”

“I know you don’t get it,” I said, my voice rising. “But that’s just something you’re going to have to deal with.”

“No, I mean I don’t understand you. Why won’t you tell me?” She stood in front of me and stared at me like she did at the credits on the TV screen but without letting them gloss over her this time. She studied my eyes intently waiting for me to crack.

“What’s the big deal?” she asked.

I broke eye contact with her but didn’t move. She kept looking and I kept avoiding her glances.

“You’re such a liar,” she finally said. “You don’t know anything.”

“I do. I’ve seen the movie more times than you can even imagine,” I said. “It’s my movie.”

“Then why did you let me watch it if you won’t explain it to me? Just tell me!”

“I don’t want to!” I boomed back at her.

Ellie got quiet again and finally stopped looking for me. Or at me. Whatever.

“You are a liar then,” she said, defeated. “You’re a liar by omission.” And she turned around and headed back to the empty love seat. I followed her with my eyes but stayed in the kitchen.

Sean got up from the couch and folded the blanket. If he had been paying attention to our argument he didn’t show it at all. He just acted like everything was normal.

“I’m gonna go home,” he said. He looked at me and I said,


“Ok,” I said.

“Can you give me a ride home,” Ellie asked Sean.


Moral Responsibility

Normally, the topic of moral responsibility comes at the end of a some long read in a philosophy book. It is the conclusion that finally ends the meat of the ideas that were discussed before it. "Ok, this is what we have, so what does it mean for ethics?" Here, the ethical conversation moves to the foreground in the following way: moral responsibility is impossible.

Before you disregard this idea as being overwhelmingly radical and therefore easily dismissable, let me remind you that this is not an original argument. And as a source, I refer to The Basic Argument, as it is explained in The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility by Galen Strawson. Furthermore, there is nothing to show that acting in accordance with morality is an intrinsic part of our being, as I will show with a description of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.

First, the Basic Argument:
1. Nothing can be causa sui--nothing can be the cause of itself.
2. In order to be morally responsible, one would have to be the cause of itself.
3. Therefore, nothing can be morally responsible.

Now, the argument is certainly valid; however, it needs clarification, especially in regards to the second premise, which holds the most weight, and is the most debatable. But let's begin chronologically.

Premise 1: Nothing can be the cause of itself.
Certainly, that which is pure matter can not create itself from nothing. The rocks which sit under the foundation of my building did not come to be when its metaphysical essence decided it wanted corporeal existence. This is indubitable. But what about those of us that are more than pure matter? Of course, this is getting into a much larger debate (what does it mean to be a human being? Am I mind and matter, or is mind just the functioning of my body? Am I made up of both physical and metaphysical elements? Only physical? Only mental?), but we will assume, for the purpose of this discussion that when speaking ontologically about our nature, that it is dualistic. That is, there is body and there is mind--they are somehow connected, but as to how, we are unaware.

Now, taking this assumption that one aspect of our make-up is metaphysical, is it safe to say that even that is not the cause of itself? In most reasonable respects, the metaphysical aspects of a human being are dependent on the physical. With exception for theories about ghosts and other supernatural spirits, the soul cannot exist without the body. The mind cannot exist without the matter. And as the physical cannot be the cause of itself, so too the metaphysical cannot be the cause of itself.

(One point of departure here lies with Jean-Paul Sartre. Any significant objection to the first premise and the conclusion that is brought with the second, must originate with a Sartrean idea about the ability to authenticate oneself. Again, for the purposes of this discussion, we will disregard his arguments).

Premise 2: In order to be morally responsible, one must be the cause of itself.
Is this really true? Do I have to originate myself in order to be guilty of a crime? Imagine that I murdered Mr. Carlos and in the witness stand I justified my actions by saying, "But your honor, my mother brought me into the world. If she had not done so I would never have fed Mr. Carlos through a wood-chipper. So clearly, you ought to hold her responsible."

Of course, this seems absurd. For, my mother could of course cite her mother as responsible and so on and so forth. Unless we want to finally conclude that God is responsible for all evil in the world (wait that sounds pretty attractive, actually), then we must draw out this premise's other purpose, which shows that the result is the necessity of actualizing a different kind of infinite regress, which is impossible.

In certain mental aspects I must be the cause of myself. Strawson elucidates:

"But to be truly responsible for how one is, mentally speaking, [...] one must have consciously and explicitly chosen to be the way one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects, and one must have succeeded in bringing it about that one is that way. But one cannot really be said to choose, in a conscious, reasoned, fashion, to be the way one is mentally speaking, in any respect at all, unless one already exists, mentally speaking, already equipped with some principles of choice."

The third premise follows from the first two and, as has been shown, the first two are sound.

Even if this argument, in its incredible simplicity, were corrupt, I maintain that moral responsibility is impossible. Impossible may not be the right word. "Fake" is better. Despite being one of the most debated topics in history (and in the history of philosophy), there are certain aspects of morality that almost everyone adheres to. The golden rule, for example: do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Respect your elders. Women and children are the first to board the life boats (unless you're a feminist. Then you're happy to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic if it means you weren't treated special because of your sex). But what are all of these? And who are you to say that I should obey them? Shouldn't you be something greater than me in order to command that I follow your rules? And I speak ontologically--your being ought to be greater than mine in order to expect me to follow the social rules that you suggest. But you are not greater, or even different. You are made of the same material that I am made of and have no say over what I choose to do.

Thomas Hobbes outlined the arrival of moral responsibility in Leviathan. Though, his purpose is to show how it saved us from a deranged existence of theft, murder, and aimlessness. But the point I wish to make is that, in his account, morality is fake. It is a social construct, and I mean that in a pejorative term, as in, anything that is a social construct is disingenuous, inauthentic, and for all extensive purposes, meaningless.

The State of Nature
At the beginning of human existence people took what they want, lived where they wanted, ate what they desired to eat, and fornicated with whom they desired to fornicate. It was every man for himself. What determined your right to any object in the world was your ability to acquire it and defend it. So men came together to form a society which protected the group's rights over those of the individual. But in order to do this each man was required to give uphis Right of Nature.

In this way, moral responsibility is insurance. It is socially constructed insurance for the rich and weak to protect themselves from the poor and strong. It is a an attempt to guarantee a predictable life. But get over your desire for a predictable life, and is living according to moral responsibility worth sacrificing your natural rights? I think not.

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Libertarian Perspective

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Libertarian Perspective

The question of free will, as it is understood as a metaphysical problem, typically involves an investigation into causal necessity. Such an inquiry splits philosophers many ways and the number of interpretations of human agency numbers the stars. Jean-Paul Sartre, though, is not so concerned with causation. As it is a part of the metaphysical discussion, it of course plays a role in some sense. Ilham Dilman characterizes Sartre’s philosophy by saying, “The world affects man only through his consciousness of it and this consciousness is not a causal link in a chain of causes” (192). Rather, Sartre primarily uses a phenomenological investigation into consciousness to come to a conclusion about free will and whether or not it is something which human beings possess. In short, he avoids the problem of causality by investigating the nature of human consciousness. His phenomenological ontology allows him to conclude that we are radically free on the basis of the transcendence of consciousness, the existence of nothingness as it arises in thinking, and our existence as one that has no nature. It is this depiction that allows us to call Sartre a libertarian.

Sartre and Phenomenology

The primary text for Sartre’s investigation into the nature of consciousness is Being and Nothingness. Even the title of the book represents the paradox that Sartre elucidates within its pages. That is, there is being, and coupled with it is nothingness. Before we can reach this conclusion we must first discover the foundation of Sartre’s philosophy.

The beginning is not unfamiliar. Just as Aristotle said that our rationality is that which sets us apart from all other beings on Earth, Sartre agrees—though he takes it a step further. He splits all being into two categories, Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself; the first being pure matter, the second, human consciousness. Human beings, then, are the only things which exist as both Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself.

As we will see when the paradox becomes clearer, Being-in-itself stands in radical opposition to nothingness. It is pure matter, or “full positivity”, as Sartre describes it (Being 56). Perhaps the best way to understand Being-in-itself, is by its opposite.

Being-for-itself, first and foremost, depends on Being-in-itself. There must be pure, simple, positive being in order for Being-for-itself to exist. In short, Being-for-itself, on the other hand, is consciousness. However, this simple characterization needs qualification; for animals have consciousness, though they are not what Sartre would call a Being-for-itself. “Consciousness is a being such that in its being, its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself” (Being 24). The distinction illustrates a phenomenological point about intentionality. It is a peculiar aspect of our consciousness that it is about something other than itself (Transcendence 44). Hence, human beings are unique in that we are the only beings which can be conscious of our consciousness. This kind of self-consciousness, however, is not normal consciousness; it is fleetingly transcendent. “Insofar as my reflecting consciousness is consciousness of itself, it is non-positional consciousness” (Transcendence 44-45). Sartre explains, “To say that consciousness is consciousness of something is to say that it must produce itself as a revealed-revelation of a being which is not it and which gives itself as already existing when consciousness reveals it” (Being 24). For example, when I perceive an apple, not only am I conscious of its placement in space and time, I am also transcendentally aware of my consciousness of the apple. This awareness, however, is fleeting—it cannot be grasped by the “I” in the same way that the apple can (Transcendence 45). This un-graspable aspect of our being constitutes a “nothingness” which Sartre will use to affirm that we are free.

Having established the peculiar construction of consciousness and our formulation through it into Being-for-itself, we have set up the first foundation crucial to understanding Sartre’s ideas about freedom. For, it is through consciousness, through our existence as not merely Being-in-itself, but also Being-For-itself, that nothingness arises. This is where Sartre is able to say that man is a nothing.

Nothingness and Freedom

First, it is important to understand that nothingness cannot exist in merely Being-in-itself. For, as it is shown, Being-in-itself is full positivity (Being 56; Dilman 191 ). In our consciousness, though, nothingness arises. This idea is first characterized by Sartre in his investigation into Being-For-itself. He writes, “Man is the only being by whom a destruction can be accomplished” (Being 39). His example is that of a terrible storm which makes landfall destroying homes, flooding streets, and causing landslides. All of this happens and we say that the storm has destroyed the homes we have built, ruined the streets and made them unusable, and eroded mountains. However, the point that Sartre wants to make is that being has only been rearranged. The matter that makes up the building which now lies in a heap of rubble on the ground still exists, but not in the form that we recognize as a building. To put it in a statement that reveals the free nature of our existence, we posit the world as we like. We make it what it is through our consciousness (Being 39). This point will come up again as we continue.

Another famous example Sartre uses to articulate the arousal of nothingness by consciousness is Pierre in the Café. When he walks into the café, expecting to find his comrade who is not present, nothingness arises that is created by both the non-being of Pierre and also the expectation of Sartre’s consciousness (Being 63). The task, then, is to show that nothingness, as it exists only through the Being-for-itself which is human consciousness, constitutes freedom. Sartre writes, “What we have been trying to define is the being of man in so far as he conditions the appearance of nothingness, and this being has appeared to us as freedom” (Being 60). Freedom, as it is connected to nothingness, must again be described in terms of consciousness. As will be shown, the transcendence of our consciousness is precisely that which makes us free.
“If someone asks what this nothing is which provides a foundation for freedom, we shall reply that we cannot describe it since it is not, but we can at least hint at its meaning by saying that this nothing is made-to-be by the human being in his relation with himself” (Being 71). Sartre’s clue is to a reflection upon consciousness—in particular, our own Being-for-itself. To say that our being is inherently transcendent means that when we investigate our identity we never find a positive solution, we only discover nothingness—an empty non-being full of pure potential. The best way to understand this is through Sartre’s discussion about the past and future: “Consciousness confronts its past and its future as facing a self which it is in the mode of not-being” (Being 72). When we stand opposite our past and our future we find that we have infinite possibility (and often find ourselves in a state of anguish, according to Sartre). Nothingness has slipped in when we say, “I am not the self which I will be [or have been]” (Being 68).

Furthermore, in the way that we can separate ourselves from who we were and who we will be, we can separate ourselves from the rest of the world—from Being-in-itself and its significance to us and its causal determinism. That is, as Sartre says, we give meaning to things in the world—and to ourselves. The alarm clock goes off and we must wake up, but it is us who gave meaning to the alarm clock in the first place as something which orders us to wake up. When we receive an order from a boss, it is us who has first given him the authority and recognized him as someone whom we must obey (Being 77). Simply put, Sartre writes, “In anguish I apprehend myself at once as totally free and as not being able to derive the meaning of the world except as coming from myself” (Being 78). We create the world, and more importantly, we create ourselves, as we want. This is freedom.

Degrees of Freedom

To simply say that we have freedom is not enough. For there are varying degrees of freedom according to different interpretations of what is meant by the term “free” and according to the philosophical foundation that has gone into finding human nature as one that is free. Within the notion of freedom are a number of implications about what freedom means, what kind of notion of origination is entailed within it, and to what degree it is intelligible. Each of these distinctions allows for a new interpretation of what it means to have free will.

In his book, Neurophilosophy of Free Will, Henrik Walter explains that for each of the three considerations implicit in the notion of freedom there are three interpretations.

The first consideration concerns the definition of Freedom. According to Walter’s distinctions, it at first seems that Sartre’s definition of freedom fits a moderate interpretation: we are free if we are able to do otherwise “in accordance with higher order volitions” (Walter 43). For Sartre, part of avoiding anguish and embracing the freedom that is intrinsic to our being is creating our own “projects,” as he calls them. Then, within the framework of the project which each man and woman create for himself and herself, choices are determined. For example, for a man who has made it his life project to be a good mailman, he is not free to choose not to show up to work when he does not feel like it. He must deliver the mail quickly and accurately—he has no other option if he wants to be a good mailman. It seems, then, that Sartre’s projects are Walter’s higher order volitions and that his interpretation of freedom is, in Walter’s terms, a moderate one.

Returning to Dilman, his discussion of Sartre’s projects again seems to fit what Walter would call a moderate interpretation: “Sartre sees commitment for the future to be a tie which lacks substance and whose only strength is the strength of the person’s determination in the sense of resolve” (191). The future self, as it is a goal which we have made it a project to become, serves as the higher order by which our choices must be made.

However, what Sartre actually has to say about this suggests a different position. In Existentialism Is a Humanism, he explicitly states that “there is no determinism—man is free, man is freedom” (Kaufman 349). This sentence alone warrants significant investigation.

First, the claim “there is no determinism,” as it stands by itself, needs to be qualified. What Sartre means is that there is no determinism for Being-for-itself. Dilman explains, “A thing that exists in itself has no say in what happens to it [and] Sartre attributes this to its lack of consciousness” (190). In other words, pure being is subject to causal law. But as human beings are more than simple matter, they are not bound by causation. “Committing oneself for the future differs radically from causal determinism” (Dilman 190).

Second, the remaining portion of Sartre’s statement is an ontological one, not a metaphysical one. He does more than say that man is free, he says that “man is freedom.” In other words, it is intrinsic to our being—as Being-for-itself—to be free. This is exemplified by the investigation into the way that nothingness arises in consciousness described earlier. Then, Sartre fits into a maximal interpretation—meaning that in identical circumstances, all human beings are free to do otherwise than what they actually do—making him a libertarian in favor of a philosophy that is capable of supporting a radically free will (Walter 43).

The second consideration in qualifying free will is intelligibility. Due to the way that Walter distinguishes between interpretations it is clear that Sartrean freedom is not defined according to a maximal interpretation which says that “acting for understandable reasons is guided by supernatural reasons” (Walter 43). It is inconsistent with the existential atheism to which he ascribes. We turn to Dilman to find that Sartre fits a moderate interpretation where we are intelligible of our freedom in as much as it revolves reflection upon oneself.

Men cannot escape their freedom, Sartre holds, since it is part and parcel of their existence as conscious beings. But the responsibility that goes with it is something they can avoid accepting. Indeed, it is part of man’s freedom that he does not have to accept or shoulder this responsibility. Sartre’s view is that whichever way a man turns he is inevitably responsible because he is free. But he is free not to accept it. Because the responsibility is there as a consequence of his freedom, not accepting it is an evasion and a deception of oneself. Sartre calls it ‘bad faith’ (199).

Our freedom is intelligible to us in so much as in self-reflection we find that we are free. However, being capable of self-reflection is one problem that people have in finding their freedom intelligible to them; and choosing to accept or avoid the intelligibility is another.

Critical Analysis

The third consideration in qualifying free will is origination. There is considerable room for dissent from the idea that consciousness is able to separate itself from the causal determination of the natural world of Being-in-itself. However, Dilman points out that Sartre borrows from the Cartesian understanding of the will that is “immune from causal determination, and therefore, is self determining” (194). He continues, saying, “the environment or circumstances of our life do not impinge on us causally, but through what we make of them in our appraisals, through the significances we attribute to them” (193). It is undeniable that there are certain aspects of our lives set up for us as we enter the world and that we did not choose: our parents, the way we are raised, our physical features, etc. The point that Dilman makes is that what we make of the pre-established circumstances of our surroundings determines our choices. Then, our freedom becomes a kind of self-determined autonomy. We are both the source of our choices and the ones who carry them out, meaning that in terms of origination as it qualifies the free will, Sartre fits into a maximal interpretation. Not only does the “originator equal the executor;” not only do our actions originate “in accordance with one’s self;” but we experience an “initial causation by a transcendental self” (Walter 43).

Much of Sartre’s philosophy rests on his atheism which turns out to be an important part of his notion of freedom. For, part of the nothingness of man is that we are made with no nature. That is, there is no infinite, all-powerful consciousness which created us with a plan. Such is the famous catchphrase, “existence precedes essence.” Sartre uses a counter example to show how we are not goal-oriented beings a priori. A human being creates a knife with the specific purpose of making it so that it is able to slice through bread, or butter, or whatever object he or she desires. So, the design of the knife occurs in accordance with its intended purpose. Human beings, on the other hand, are not made in this way because there is no God which has designed us as such (Kaufman 348).

His argument for the non-existence of an infinite consciousness, again, relies on phenomenology. Suppose there was a consciousness that preceded all other beings. If that is so, then that consciousness does not depend on any other beings. However, consciousness is always a consciousness of something other than itself. This is something that Edmund Husserl, who is largely considered one of the founding fathers of phenomenology, would agree with: the most peculiar and identifying characteristic of consciousness is that it points to something other than itself (Transcendence 44, 51). Then, returning to the argument, the supernal consciousness would both depend and not depend on other existing things at the same time which is impossible (Being 24).

With that said, Sartre’s atheism is a subject of much criticism. One popular argument against atheism is the first cause theory. That is, in the search for the origination of all existing things, there must be some first cause—the unmoved mover. Without a metaphysical entity that is itself immutable and un-caused, philosophical inquiry into the origination of all things falls into an infinite regress. It seems, then, that Sartre has a problem explaining how his atheistic ontology is consistent with the very fact that there is such a thing as pure being. For, Being-in-itself, even as lump-less matter is subject to the first cause theory.
The solution, it seems, is that Sartre’s atheism and the first cause theory are not incompatible. In fact, Sartre may not necessarily deny the potential truth of the idea that there is a first cause prior to all other things which exist in the world as we know it today. Rather, the point he wants to make is that whatever it is, it is not a conscious being. In this way, Sartre upholds the most important consequence of his atheism: the lack-of a consciousness which has created us in a teleological manner.


We are human beings, so we are free. This is not a conclusion from metaphysical premises, but from an ontological investigation into the phenomenology of consciousness. That is, it is intrinsic to the non-positional consciousness that occurs in self-reflection that our true “self” flees from us. Its transcendence causes a nothingness which is, according to Sartre, freedom in a radical sense: freedom to do otherwise in identical circumstances; freedom not only to act within our own “projects,” but to choose them for our self; and the freedom to understand the level of our freedom.

Naturally, such a construction has important ethical consequences. The point of the phenomenological ontology is not to say that we posit the world and are, therefore, not responsible for our actions. Rather, our existence implies moral responsibility from the beginning. If man is free to do as he wishes, then every action is not only a free choice, but a statement that all other men ought to act in the same way (Kaufman 350). “In fashioning myself I fashion man” (Kaufman 351). The libertarian perspective of Jean-Paul Sartre says that not only are we radically and unequivocally free, but moral responsibility is an ontological part of our being.

Works Cited
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. Ed. Kaufman.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Transcendence of the Ego. New York. Noonday Press, 1957.
Dilman, Ilham. Free Will. New York. Routledge, 1999. 190-205.
Kaufman, Walter. Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York. Penguin Group, 1956.
345 – 368.
Walter, Henrik. Neurophilosophy of Free Will. London. MIT Press, 2009. 1-73.