BOOK REVIEW: The Matrix and Philosophy ed. William Irwin

The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the RealThe Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real by William Irwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As might be expected of a collection of twenty essays that try to squeeze every drop of philosophy out of a two-hour movie (or to criticize each drop,) some of the chapters are much more compelling and pertinent than others. One could argue that some of the chapters are of sounder quality than others (and I would make that claim,) but even if you take them as a collection of high-quality philosophy essays, it’s hard to deny that some of the chapters are germane to the story the filmmakers created, while others try to use the film to get across an idea they find worthy – regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with the film, per se. More simply, the book comments on “The Matrix” through the varied lenses of a wide variety of philosophical branches and schools, most of which have something to say about the movie, and others… not so much.

Few films have achieved the mix of popularity and philosophization of 1999’s “The Matrix.” The movie imagines a world in which the simulation hypothesis is true – i.e. there are people living in a simulated / virtual world that is so convincing that they are unable to tell that they aren’t going about their lives in “base-reality.” The movie’s central question is: should one prefer an existence that is real — if grey, dismal, subterranean, and hostile – over one which is illusory — but one has all the modern comforts, delicious virtual steaks, and one isn’t being hunted by killer machines? Over the course of the story we see two divergent perspectives on this question. The lead character, Neo, chooses to leave the Matrix to enter the real world. Meanwhile, one of the crew members of the ship Neo finds himself on, Cypher, betrays his shipmates in order to get back into the Matrix. It’s clear from the fact that Neo is the lead and Cypher is portrayed as a treasonous scoundrel that opting for “the real” – warts and all – is viewed as the correct position on the matter. However, the fact that we see Cypher in relatable circumstances, ones that engender some empathy for the character, means that answer isn’t meant to be taken as a forgone conclusion.

The movie’s premise engages a couple branches of philosophy – notably, epistemology (asking what, if anything, can one know to be true?) and metaphysics (asking, what is real?) While there are a number of philosophical ideas that recur in the book, the most repeated is Plato’s cave? Based on the ideas of Socrates, Plato described a situation in which people live chained in a cave in which they can only see silhouettes moving about on the wall from a light source behind them. What happens when one becomes unchained and leaves the cave into the “real world?” How is one received by people when he returns and tells the story of what one experienced? Is anyone interested in following in one’s footsteps, or do they believe it’s a lie, or the ramblings of a madman?

The twenty chapters of the book are divided into five parts. Chapters one through four consider the epistemological questions raised by the film. Chapter one sets the scene and gives the most extensive discussion of the comparison of the movie to Plato’s cave. Chapter two takes an anti-skeptical turn. It argues that, if one isn’t a philosopher, one has little reason to view the world skeptically. The world works, why question it? The argument is both true and not particularly useful. Chapter three proposes that one cannot make sense of a world in which all or most of a person’s beliefs are false. Like the previous chapter, this one boils down to: we can’t eliminate the possibility of a Matrix-like truth, but neither do we have any good reason for giving it a second thought. Chapter four focuses on sensory perception and what it says (and / or doesn’t say) about what we know. In daily life, we intuitively (if not explicitly) base a lot of what we “know” on our sensory experience — even though most of us know it is flawed. Perhaps the most intriguing issue raised by Chapter 4’s author was about the Hmong people, and their increased incidence of dying during sleep – in conjunction with a folk belief about malevolent spirits who attack during sleep. (Thus, it’s suggested that the mental world and the physical world aren’t separated such that the former can have no influence on the latter – i.e. the materialist take.)

[Note: The reason the point about the Hmong is salient is that there is a scene in which Neo asks whether dying in the Matrix means dying in the real world. Morpheus answers “the body cannot live without the mind.” From a storytelling perspective, it’s easy to see why the filmmakers created this rule. There would be zero tension in any scene that takes place inside the Matrix (i.e. where almost all the action takes place) if it weren’t the case that people could die from what happened inside. However, from a philosopher’s (or scientist’s) point of view the statement is problematic. Every night our conscious minds go “dead” and yet we wake up just fine. However, the Hmong issue raises an interesting point, suggesting maybe we don’t understand the issue as clearly as we feel we do.]

Part two of the book (ch. 5 – 8) shift from epistemology to metaphysics. Chapter five lays out the basic metaphysical issue, asking how effective a two-category classification scheme of real and unreal is, and where it runs into problems. Chapter six shifts focus to the mind-body problem (does physical matter generate subjective experience, and – if so – how,) and asks what minds are and whether machines can have one. Chapter seven rejects the film’s notion that mental states can be reduced to physical states, but ventures into interesting territory by evaluating the ethics of “imprisoning a mind” — if it were possible. Chapter eight explores questions of fate and determinism, which is also a central premise in the film. The appeal of the real world in this film is obviously not that it’s better, bolder, brighter – it’s none of those things – a major part of the appeal is that in the real world it seems one is free (i.e. one has full free will.) Whereas inside the Matrix, a least much of one’s life is deterministically dictated by computer programs.)

Up to this point, whether or not I felt a given essay said anything interesting, I believed they were all addressing this film’s philosophical underpinnings. From part three, we see a shift. For example, chapter nine asks, is “The Matrix” a Buddhist film. Not surprisingly (given – to my knowledge – none of the filmmakers ever said it was,) the authors conclude that it’s not, but that it has touches of Buddhist influence (also not surprising, given they aren’t hidden or subtle.) Chapter ten discusses the problems of religious pluralism. Because this film presents not only the aforementioned Buddhist influence but also Christian influence (Neo as savior) and bits from all-manner of ancient mythology (starting with character names / roles, e.g. Morpheus,) it’s proposed that it’s advocating a kind of pluralism. [Given that the movie exists in a fictional world, the fact that it draws ideas and names from various sources, doesn’t seem to me to be a suggestion that the filmmakers are advocating a particular hodgepodge, pluralistic, Frankenstein’s Monster religion.] I do think the author did a fine job showing that pluralistic “religions” tend to be logically inconsistent and systemically untenable. Where he lost me was in the suggestion that individual religions are logically consistent. The one I was raised in had an all-powerful god who couldn’t contradict human free will, and one god that was simultaneously three separate and distinct entities. In short, the religion I had experience with is chock-full of logical inconsistency. I burst out laughing when I got to this statement, “Is it really the case that the evidence supporting the truth of, say, Christianity is no stronger than that supporting the truth of, say, Buddhism or Jainism?” Given that (at least the schools of Buddhism closest to what Gotama Buddha taught) pretty much only ask one to believe that if one meditates and behaves ethically one can achieve a heightened state of mind free of the experience of suffering, and Christianity asks one to believe in a God[s] and demons and miracles and sundry ideas for which there is not a shred of evidence, I’d say it really is the case.

Chapter eleven examines the question of happiness, and concludes that: 1.) happiness “is the satisfaction that one is desiring the right things in the right way”; 2.) that one can’t have happiness without a “right understanding of reality.” I don’t think its convincingly conveyed that either of those two ideas is true, but the question of happiness as it pertains to Cypher’s decision is an interesting one. I found chapter twelve to be one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking of the book. It focuses heavily on the teachings of Kant, and it discusses how important features we see with the Matrix (e.g. illusion and enslavement) aren’t features projected from an external source but are imposed by oneself. I think this is a useful way to think about how the film can be related to one’s own life – i.e. thinking about the Matrix world as symbolic for an illusory mental world.

Part IV is entitled “Virtual Themes” and it looks at “The Matrix” from the perspectives of nihilism, existentialism, and then takes a step back and asks questions about the usefulness of studying philosophy through a fictional device (i.e. film.) Chapter thirteen looks at “The Matrix” through the lens of nihilism, putting it beside Dostoevky’s “Notes from the Underground.” Chapter fourteen is similar in that it compares / contrasts “The Matrix” with another philosophical literary work, the existentialist novel by Sartre, “Nausea.”

I thought the questions taken up in the second half part IV were important ones. These two chapters (i.e. 15 and 16) deal with what is the proper relationship – if any — between philosophy and the product of storytellers. I say this is important because the discussion throughout the book is contingent on there being some value in philosophical ideas in fictional accounts that aren’t optimized to conveying philosophy, but rather are optimized to building an entertaining story. Some of the critiques lack effectiveness because they seem to accept there is value in considering philosophy in fiction, but the correction to make it more effective philosophy would make it useless as story. I would hazard to say that any film that would receive a thumbs up as a conveyor of philosophical ideas from a panel of 24 philosophers (the number involved with these chapter) would be fundamentally unwatchable. But does that mean the bits and pieces of philosophy one gets are worthless? I’d say no, but opinions may vary. Chapter fifteen asks why philosophers should engage with works of fiction, as wall as considering the value of story. Chapter sixteen focuses on genre, concluding that “The Matrix” is a work of real genre, but virtual philosophy.

That last section includes analysis from the perspective of what I would call the single-issue schools of philosophy (feminism and Marxism,) as well as postmodernism (which is said to have been a major influence on the directors) and other twentieth century philosophers. The two single-issue schools do what those schools often do, which is to myopically focus on what is interest to them (regardless of that issues importance to the film, or lack thereof) and pick and choose examples that seem to support their idea. The feminist essay reduces the story to an attempt to be un-raped (i.e. unplugged) and catalogs all the instances in which some “penetration” took place, be it characters being jacked into the Matrix hardware or shot. The author compares “The Matrix” to “eXistenZ,” a film with similar themes that she prefers (though, given the relative popularity of the two films, she may be the only one who feels that way.) The chapter on the Marxist perspective isn’t as poorly related to the film. However, I doubt the essay would exist if the Wachowskis had stuck to their original plan. I read once that the filmmakers originally had a different (and more sensible) rationale for why the machines had humans in a vat. The idea that appears in the film is that humans are used to produce bioelectricity (probably the most scientifically ridiculous idea in the film) and this forms the basis for the Marxist critique of the pod people as exploited labor.

The penultimate chapter is probably the most relevant of the last section. It discusses postmodern philosophy, notably Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” which is said to have influenced the Wachowskis and it [the book] even had a cameo appearance in the film. The last chapter is the most convoluted read, but probably by the most prominent author in the book. It’s by Slavoj Zizek and it critiques the movie from the perspective of the ideas of Lacan, Hegel, Levi-Strauss, and Freud.

I found lots of interesting nuggets of food-for-thought in this book. As I said, the effectiveness of the chapters varies tremendously. This isn’t so much because the quality of authors varies. It’s just that some of the work gets off topic – kind of like if there was an analysis of “My Friend Flicka” and it was decided that the thoughts of a Marine Biologist were essential — you’d be like “what am I reading, and why?” That happens sometimes as one reads this book. But, if you like the movie and want some deeper insight into it, this is a fine book to check out. It’s also a good way to take in various philosophical ideas, leveraging one’s knowledge of the film.

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POEM: Mountain, River, or Mirage

What is this world: mountain, river, or mirage?

When one arrives at the mountain
one finds a fixed collection of matter.
Sure, it’s slowly changing its arrangement,
bits of grit erode off,
cracks develop, splitting rock from boulder,
but the long-and-short of it is that it’s a bunch of stuff.

When one arrives at the river one finds it exists
but is never the same arrangement of stuff.
With the pass of a second of time,
it’s completely rearranged itself.

If one could ever reach the slyly retreating mirage,
one would find that it was purely an illusion —
or, more precisely, you’d never find it because it’s not there.

Maybe it’s all three combined in some way
that my mind can’t comprehend.

Maybe it’s none of the above —
and, instead, is something outside my capacity to imagine.

Yes. That’s probably it.

POEM: Good & Evil

Good & Evil —
Mankind’s most devastating invention.

Good & Evil
don’t feature in nature.

The rule of nature is:

SHIT HAPPENS!

Sometimes it’s nourishing shit that grows big ears of corn.
Sometimes it’s infected shit that cripples the village with E. coli,

but it’s all just days playing out.
-a big, indifferent system burning energy.

Nature doesn’t care that your worldview requires everything be the result of a reason.
Nature’s reason is that something must happen,
and anytime something happens it has effects —
it’s just that humans have to go sticking their labels
onto those effects: good / bad, naughty / nice, tall / grande.

Good & Evil
are cultural constructs,

but — oh my! —
what we haven’t done with them:

-global wars
-holocaust
-genocide
-hellscapes scraped into the world’s sensitive bits.

This may all sound unfair to GOOD.
Sure, EVIL is… well, evil,
“But why you gonna go crap on GOOD?”
one might ask.

Because GOOD is a line that can be hatefully drawn.

Or, if you prefer,
a box that can be hatefully placed
to separate what’s loved and hated —

or who is loved and who is hated.

BOOK REVIEW: Simulacra & Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

Simulacra and SimulationSimulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20-ish essays that share as a theme the idea that we live not so much in a world of events, information, and things, but in a world of simulacra in which those things represent or symbolize something (either the true version of that object or something else altogether.) After an opening that introduces the idea of simulacra and simulations, the chapters each look at an example of illusion and simulation in our world. The book’s strength is in suggesting outside-the-box, thought-provoking ideas. This is not to say that said ideas are all sound or unassailably true. A reasonable reader might conclude that much of the book consists of crackpot ideas. I tended to find that there was a kernel of truth in the points that Baudrillard was making, but that he often blew that kernel up into an absurdity.

To clarify, let’s discuss a couple examples of events that Baudrillard says that we don’t know, but instead we know a simulacrum of. These two examples are very different, and I believe one is a stronger argument for Baudrillard’s ideas than is the other. One is the Holocaust and the other is the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. In both cases, Baudrillard argues what we “know” is not the event itself, but a representation that has been created through fictionalized accounts and “common knowledge” with varying degrees of accuracy. In my view, his point was more clearly made regarding the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. What people think they know of the event is more representative of what happens in the movie “The China Syndrome” than what actually happened. Most people grossly overestimate the costs and consequences of the event because they have a fictional representation of it in place of a factual understanding.

Besides events, Baudrillard considers a number of other ways we might be considered to be living in a representational world. The hypermarket doesn’t perform the same function as markets historically did. It exists to provide some hyperreal experience that is as much entertainment as it is the acquisition of necessary goods and services. Baudrillard also talks about how the media and advertising provide a façade in place of the real because of disincentives to provide accurate information. Journalism benefits from sensationalizing. Advertising benefits from hyperbolizing.

Baudrillard also ventures into the realm of science fiction. One of the most intriguing discussions is about holographs and how one might know whether one was the item being projected or the projection itself. There’s one chapter on J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” as an example of one of the more bizarre ways in which modernity conflates disparate things. [For those unfamiliar, Ballard’s novel deals with characters who are sexually aroused by car crashes.] An essay on “Simulacra and Science Fiction” proposes that sci-fi maybe dead by virtue of the fact that science fiction builds simulated worlds and since we already are a simulated world, the genre is passé.

I mentioned that this book’s strength is swinging for the fences with bold ideas about how modern humanity has built itself into a simulated world. So, what is its weakness? That’s easy. Low readability. The author assumes the reader has knowledge that it’s not reasonable to assume even an educated reader will have. If you weren’t familiar with the aforementioned J.G. Ballard novel or with the Beaubourg building in Paris, you’d have no idea what Baudrillard was going on about. Also, while it’s true that some of the ideas presented in the book are complicated, the author (and, perhaps, the translator) often make even relatively straightforward ideas complicated. There is a love of rare words. Beyond those issues, there’s a stream of consciousness approach to writing that makes the author’s train of thought hard to follow.

If you are interested in philosophy, this book is worth reading if you don’t mind struggling with difficult writing (a form of masochism with which I’m afflicted.) There have probably been more readable distillations of these ideas that will offer a clearer view of what Baudrillard means by ideas such as hyperreality. (We know Baudrillard means “more real than real,” but one only has one’s own intuition to make sense of that in a way that transcends Justice Potter Stewart’s dissatisfying definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it.”) If you don’t enjoy struggling with abstruse writing (or if you don’t know the meaning of the word “abstruse” without looking it up) this book is probably not for you.

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POEM: Baudrillard’s World

What’s it take to turn a symbol into something which is something [rather than symbolic of something?]

Treasuries turn high-rag paper and indelible ink into slips for which people will give one a shirt or a bicycle.

-Paper and pot metal as symbol of value

Admen turn color and font into a dollar more per kilo of a chemically-identical product. [The dollar can be used for someone’s ill-advised gas station hot dog.]

-Brand as symbol of value

Countries are defended by the potential to use weapons — not by their actual use.

-WMD as symbol of defense

Social media presents a lot of talking and the illusion of listening.

-Screaming into a dark forest as symbol of communication

Stories and verse get turned into potent chemical reactions in the body.

-Vicarious living as symbol of living

The letters of this post are symbolic of philosophy, which — in turn — is symbolic of something meaningful, which — in turn –… which — in turn –… which — in turn–…

BOOK REVIEW: Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks

Introducing Baudrillard: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jean Baudrillard was a French Postmodernist philosopher who passed away in 2007. To those who aren’t navel-gazers of the philosophical variety, he is best known – if he is known at all – for having influenced the conception of the game-changing sci-fi movie, “The Matrix.” While I haven’t yet read “Simulacra and Simulation” – the book said to have inspired the Wachowskis, it seems that the influence of Baudrillard on the film’s world is that he provided abstract ideas that the film takes in a more literal sense. If this book represents his ideas well, Baudrillard didn’t claim that we are in a computer simulation run by an AI [or by anyone / anything else, e.g. an alien overlord] (that would be more in line with ideas presented by Swedish Philosopher, Nick Bostrom.) Baudrillard’s claim is that we are increasingly building and gathering around us a world of things that are — at their most fundamental level – signs and symbols. However, it’s also true that there are some quotes and concepts that make there way into “The Matrix,” probably most famously, “the desert of the real.”

A film [and its source novel] that might be said to more directly reflect Baudrillard’s ideas is “Fight Club.” Which isn’t to say that Baudrillard deals with issues of lost masculinity [he is, to many in academia, infuriatingly contrarian on gender related issues — proposing seduction as the source of feminine power to balance the masculine.] Instead, the ideas that play into “Fight Club” are that human beings have become – first and foremost – consumers, and second that people are striving for hyperreality — an existence that is more real than real. These core ideas: 1.) human as consumer, more so than producer; 2.) the world as a simulation; and 3.) the pursuit of hyperreality are book’s bedrock.

Built on that bedrock is a flow of topics. There are considerations of what Baudrillard’s ideas mean for art and entertainment. What is art? Is high art and low art a meaningful distinction? Baudrillard’s ideas are contrasted with various schools of thought that were active at the same time such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. Of course, as a postmodernist, Baudrillard takes aim at the arrogance and absurdities of modernity, e.g. criticizing the prevailing notions about “primitivism.”

As the subtitle suggests, this book uses graphics. In the case of this book, they are mostly cartoon drawings, along with a few diagrams. Some of the cartoons repeat key text and definitions [like a text-box, but including whimsical cartoon images] and other depict debates between Baudrillard and his contemporaries.

I found this book was an informative outline of Baudrillard’s thinking. Baudrillard’s ideas are complicated, and thus conveying them clearly is a challenge, still I think that there were points at which the author could have favored clarity over scholarly precision in his discussions. If this were a philosophy text, that wouldn’t be valid criticism, but as this book is meant to be a basic introduction, I think it’s fair to say.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the WorldSand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book does a good job of showing that there are fundamental differences in philosophy, worldview, and perspective between indigenous / aboriginal peoples and the rest of the world. It’s fair to say that differences exist between any two different cultures, but the argument is that these are deeper and more profound. Said differences run from how one visualizes abstractions to how one views and interacts with nature to one’s go-to pronouns.

What the book does not do, not by any means, is honor its sub-titular promise to show how changing to aboriginal modes of thinking would save the world. It doesn’t even strongly demonstrate that the world needs saving. Instead, it relies heavily on the looming sentiment among many in the modern world (myself included) that the world is FUBAR [if needed, please look it up.] That sentiment is what draws people to the book in the first place. (And to others, e.g. Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” books, that argue for overturning modernity in favor indigenous ways.) While I, too, feel the imminent fall of modernity on a visceral level, I also recognize that this inevitable collapse is a combination of fact and fiction, and that its bases are as well. So, in some sense, Yunkaporta’s book is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Because of this, it only tweaks and clarifies the reader’s philosophy and mode of thinking (sometimes in clever and fascinating ways,) but it doesn’t vastly overturn a reader’s thinking. But even if it did completely change modes of thought and philosophies, those things don’t automatically change behavior. And saving the world (if the world needs saving) requires changes in behavior. Ultimately, one needs to know whether, how, and to what degree incentives change. (FYI – the importance of incentives is not lost on Yunkaporta, as he discusses them himself in another context.)

That said, there were many ideas that resonated with me, and in which I found deep truths. I’ll go straight to what may be the most controversial idea in the book and that is that modernity’s discomfort with – and desire to do away with — every form of [non-state sanctioned] violence has not been without cost. Yunkaporta is not justifying domestic violence (although the perception – justified or not – that such acts are out-of-control in aboriginal populations is likely an impetus for bringing up the subject.) What he seems to be arguing is that what seems like a disproportionate problem of violence in aboriginal populations derives from looking at what is happening in tribal communities through the lens of modernity, and the resultant tinge blows things out of proportion while missing part of the truth of the matter.

I’ll elaborate how I came to have a similar view through the study of martial arts. For example, when I’ve traveled to Thailand, I’ve always had mixed feelings about child Thai-boxing. On the one hand, I recognize a reason for concern about concussions in a brain that’s not fully developed. On the other hand, those children display a combination of emotional control, politeness, and self-confidence that seems in decay in much of the world. On a related note, I think that the lack of coming-of-age ritual might be failing the kids in the modern world because they skip a step that puts a bedrock of self-confidence under their feet. As a result, it’s not that they all end up milquetoast, some end up murderous because they can’t process challenging emotions effectively, they have a feeling of powerlessness gnawing at them, and they have no grasp of how to moderate their response under challenging conditions.

As far as ancillary matter is concerned, it’s mostly line-drawn diagrams that are used to show how aboriginal people depict various concepts under discussion.

I enjoyed the book and found many new ideas to consider. I’d recommend it for individuals interested in approaches to thinking and problem solving – and for those who want to learn more about indigenous populations. Just don’t think you’ll have a map to fix the world at the end.

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POEM: I Surrender

i’m free —

because i know not of what i need to be freed.

Is it a god?

Is it a program?

Is it meaninglessness?

Is it a make-believe conception of self?

Order?

Chaos?

Alien overlords?

 

i don’t know what game i’m playing,

and thus feel no compunction to play it well.

So, i surrender to the god of my own ignorance,

making mystery my higher power.

 

i searched the earth for a source of perfect truth, and found none.

No perfect scripture.

No perfect science.

No perfection in personal experience.

No perfect teacher.

 

But i’ve known bliss in the act of floundering through this dance of darkness,

and so,

i’ve got no complaints.

POEM: The Philosopher [Day 16 NaPoMo: Narrative]

Said a man, standing on a crate,
“Thought and comfort are species that cannot mate.”

This philosopher continued:
“An idea unchallenged can’t claim merit. Sacred stories are paper tigers.

“Anything sanctified may lead to murder. For one person’s sacred object will bump into that of another, and it’s only by brute force that such conflicts are resolved. ”

The mayor was captivated by the philosopher’s words, and thought:
The youth are lumps, existing free…
-of challenge
-of thought
-of dignity
-of power

So the mayor invited the philosopher to his town.

The townsfolk were not pleased.

The philosopher’s first act was the erection of a sign that read,

Your god is the wrong God!

One resident said, “How can you make such a statement?”

“I’m not here to offer instruction about how language works, but — rather — about how  a thoughtfully lived life can be achieved.”

The first man kicked the philosopher in his left shin, and stormed off.

The second shouted, “But what gives you the right?”

“The right to what? To write a statement? To expose it to public scrutiny?”

“To make claims about which god is the true God.”

“I make no such claims.”

“But your sign says so.”

“Do you claim the sign is wrong, or that I have no right to make the comment — regardless whether it is true or false?”

“Well, mostly, the first one. The sign is not right,”

“Perhaps the sign IS untrue, and if proven so, I would certainly have to remove it. So tell me, is your counter-claim that your god is truly God?”

“It most certainly is,”

“Then tell me, how can I know that your claim is the correct one?”

“It is written in the scriptures.”

“So anything that is written in a religion’s scripture is true?”

“No. Not just any religion’s scriptures, just ours.” said, the man, thinking he’d anticipated the philosopher’s argument about how mutually exclusive statements can be true.

“And why just yours?”

“Because ours were written by the hand of God,”

“And how could a person such as myself be convinced of the truth of such a statement?”

“Because it is written…”

“So the scriptures of other religions don’t say they are the truth from God?”

“They may say it, but it’s not true.”

“So do you have more of an argument than that you believe something written centuries before your birth must be true and statements contrary to it must be false? If not, I must maintain that the statement on the sign has as much validity as your counterclaim. Both statements may or may not be true and with unassignable probabilities.”

And so the second man punched the philosopher in his right eye, and walked off in a huff.

A third man, a missionary, said, “That man was wrong,”

“I agree,” said the philosopher holding his palm over his eye, “violence is not a winning argument,”

“No,” said the third man, “not about punching you. He was wrong that what matters is the scriptures. I know my god is the God because I feel it’s true.”

“I had vertigo once. It felt like the room was spinning and like I would fall over, but neither was true. So, I can’t say that I put much faith in what I feel as arbiter of truth, but I definitely don’t have any feeling about the existence of your god — one way or the other. Are you saying he might be god to you — who feel this presence — and not to me, and to all those others, who don’t have such a feeling?”

“I’m not saying that…”

“Oh, good, because I was going to ask why you make so much effort to convert people to a subjective god?”

The third man kicked the philosopher in the right shin, shook his head, and walked off.

A fourth man approached and said, “Your sign is wrong because I have no god. I don’t believe in such hokum.”

The philosopher took out a marker and made some editorial changes. He wedged a large “V” in between the word “Your” and the word “god” and wrote “lack of” above it. He then crossed out the words “the” and “God.” The edited sign read:

Your lack of god is wrong!

“Surely, you aren’t going to attempt a proof for the existence of god after what you told your previous conversant?”

“I am not. You watched the previous discussions and should realize that I claim no more than that my statement holds as much validity as yours. Unless, that is, you are more successful at proving the non-existence of a god than the previous individuals did at proving its existence.”

“I cite Occam’s razor,” the fourth man said smugly, adding, “are you familiar with it?”

The philosopher said, “Indeed I am. But I wonder, why is it not called ‘Occam’s Law?’ Is it always the case that the simplest explanation is invariably true? Could we not find in the natural world instances in which the explanation for an observed phenomena was more complicated than an explanation we could theoretically imagine?”

“Not invariably, but a good rule…”

“So you base an absolute conclusion on a ‘good rule of thumb?’ Isn’t there potential for…”

The fourth man socked the philosopher in his left eye.

The philosopher, blinded with two swollen eyes and with a knob under each knee, sat by his sign, awaiting more takers.

The mayor came by and said, “I’m afraid this hasn’t worked out as I’d hoped. I’ve gotten so many complaints. Perhaps, it would be best if you move along.”

So, the philosopher grabbed his meager possessions, and limped one painful step at a time out of town.

***

Two weeks later, a colonizing army invaded.

The officers told the residents that they must convert.

The townsfolk all said that they would never convert.

The generalissimo said, “Convert or die. Those are your options.”

“That’s unfair,” said one man.

“What gives you the right?” said a woman.

The generalissimo then said, “OK. OK. If any of you can give me a sound reason why your religion cannot be supplanted by our own, I will reconsider…”