Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Two Messiahs

I didn't want to write more about good and bad technology, or about magic and the metaphysics of property, and certainly not more about the Messiah of Beverly Hills, but I fell victim to fate. Walking to Westwood through Holmby Park I crossed paths with one of the two women I know in the neighborhood who wander around alone dressed in fine high fashion clothing with the added peculiarity of long hair matted in a dense pile atop the head in the form of a truncated cone, rather like a volcano or rounded pyramid. When I stop and chat she usually talks about the ghosts that inhabit regions of the city we both pass through on our walks, and today she did too, with the difference that she said she'd been thinking of me, and wanted to let me know the Defense Department was waiting for me to contact them. Why? I asked. They have something for me. Ok, I said, see you, and went on up to the UCLA campus. Where, chance would have it, I met the other woman of the neighborhood who wears fine clothes and the volcano on her head. She informed me there was a set of lectures she was going to on the subject of "Philosophy And Religious Experience", in commemoration of the retirement of a UCLA professor who'd made his name writing on the subject. I should attend, she said, I didn't need to have religious experiences to appreciate, she didn't herself, and the professor didn't either, he'd previously told her himself. Hearing that how could I resist going? The following dialog is the result.

- Do you know what?
- What?
- It occurs to me that you both live with a Messiah and are one yourself, sort of. How are things at the Messiah's by the way? His eighty year old mother still attacking you as you try to leave in the morning, bug eyed and foaming at the mouth, raving about her lost chicken leg?
- Yes. I slip in late at night and hope she doesn't see me, leave at six in the morning before she is awake. It doesn't always work. Sometimes she lies in wait for me, stays up late or keeps waking vigil, then goes on the attack. While she rages, shouts, tries to close in on me, the Messiah goes on reading his Torah or playing with his telephone as though nothing is happening. If it goes on too long, five or ten minutes, the disturbance comes to his attention. He gets to his feet, shouts. This has no effect, as he knows. He shouts again, to no effect. Finally he does what he knows will work, goes into the dining room and starts swiping with his hand at the crystals dangling from the chandelier. That does the trick. Nothing is more important than property, shows of rage have to be forgotten.
- You lead an interesting life.
- Getting more interesting all the time. As I was coming home last night a neighbor told me the police had been there.
- What about?
- Some woman visitor.
- One of the crazy prostitutes from the strip clubs the Messiah frequents?
- The neighbor didn't know. The Messiah grabbed the visitor, or maybe grabbed his mother. Police were called. No big deal, police are there once a month, usually called by the Messiah himself to eject the crazy prostitute he's taken home to live with him and his mother. Proudly declaring his disdain for the world and his detachment from people, he can't be still, is always stirring things up. He goes in and out of the apartment all day long. There's always a crisis there, or one brewing
- What does he do when he goes out?
- Gives away a few dollars here, a few dollars there, to people he meets on the street, at Ralphs or Starbucks, until his allowance runs out.
- Didn't you ask him what had happened?
- No. Besides, he wouldn't tell me the truth. He is the savior because he follows god's rules. But one of god's rules is what he calls the 'Wisdom of Solomon', that is, lying.
- God allows lying when it makes following god's rules easier?
- Yes. So tell me why I am a messiah.
- Around a month ago you told me this story. Computer scientists were having trouble getting robots to search out in an unfamiliar place the things they were programmed to operate on. One computer scientist had a brother who was a philosopher, a phenomenologist, and explained the problem to him. The philosopher taught the computer scientist that we learn to see by moving through the world. What computer scientists had to do with the robots was get them to do what we do, they had to move them through the motions that they wanted them to perform and have them associate those movements with the images cameras recorded of the room as they were moved through it, which images later could be recognized and responded to. It worked.
- As that research was supported by the U.S. Defense Department so is research I just heard about into what is being called "blending", previously known to philosophy in the practice of dialog and imitation. According to this theory, civilization started when human beings could "blend" themselves with others, put themselves in the position of other human beings. They - the blending researchers - have been given millions of dollars to work out how to use this idea to facilitate communication between robot soldiers.
- That's what I was getting at. If philosophy is being mined by the military to make machines of destruction placed in the hands of a government no one in his right mind could possibly say is well intentioned, can't philosophy be enlisted to do some good instead?
- And I'm supposed to be the messiah of philosophy-used-right and save the world?
- The job is open.
- What I can do is something like the computer scientists did, mine the history of philosophy, not to develop technology but to understand how technology is likely to be misused, find a language to describe that misuse.
- Go ahead. Save us from technology.
- It's philosophy that's going to do the saving. The enemy technologist found weapons in philosophy of "seeing by doing" and of building up "blends" of different individual's ideas. Our saving philosophy is going to offer us "matter", and "magic". We go back to the ancient view of Parmenides in which there are two worlds, one real and one imitation. The real one we see when we stop moving, and in that world there is no movement or separate things. All is one.
- Religious experience.
- Yes. The other world is the one we see when we are in movement. It isn't real, but we need to learn how to move through it to get out of it to the real world. Are you with me?
- Yes.
- Learning how to move through the world of appearance is a matter of technique: mastering ways of doing things that lead you to love, to beauty, to truth. You stop moving in the sight of these good things because you are out of the world of separate things. There is no place to go, and no time to get there in: there are no events in the fullness of the experience of being at one with the world. Now there is another, fundamental technique of life, opposed to this one. When an ape scares another ape by making faces, or a king scares his subjects by a show of his magnificence, the king and ape rest from their labor of show and sign making. Ape and kind have practiced the technique of arranging people or apes with each other, and when they look at lower ape and subject they see "material", they see a sign of their own power to use them. The technique of arrangement they practice is a kind of magic, in which power resides in the "matter" or capacity of the lower ape or human to do the upper human or ape's bidding. The rest from movement is in this world of separate things, so is not really rest. The seeming rest is filled with the imagined movement that can be released out of the matter, the imagined future movement of that matter, the "form" the matter can take on.
- I don't understand.
- When the king looks at his subjects he sees his power. He imagines future movement of the subjects, separate things in the world. The subject can take on the "story" of whatever work assigned to him. Getting the subject to respect his power is a kind of magic. An ape doesn't understand why making faces and threatening gestures gets the other apes to accede to his authority, but it happens. Same goes for kings and subjects. And the same goes for the alchemist, putting one metal in contact with another, saying words which are intended to do exactly what the faces the apes make do: grant power over "matter". Science develops when the relations between things is studied carefully, not left to associations and resemblances of words and appearances. I'll give you an example. When the Messiah's crazy mother had attacked me a few times I discovered the best thing to do was growl at her like a bear. Did I see this as a discovered magic power to be used in the world, as psychological science? No. I laughed. Laughing gets you out of the world. Compare the Messiah's reaction - it turns out the Messiah was in the bedroom he shares with his mother, and sleepy audience to his mother attack on me heard and enjoyed my growling defense.
- Did he laugh?
- No. He gloated. Here was a nice defeat for the old woman who'd dedicated her life to controlling his life.
- Tell me again what matter is.
- Matter is what you see when you gain knowledge and technique and don't get out of the world. And matter itself, going by the name of god, becomes the ultimate goal.
- Why?
- Because if you don't have the end of getting out of the world some other final goal in the world has to be found. Power is means to an end. Power for the sake of power is meaningless. You need to have a reason to do something and gain power to do more things. When philosophy left behind the distinction between movement and rest it began to incorporate god, formerly unmoving and undivided in his own world, now as an element among other elements in the world of movement and separate things.
- Lost me.
- Leaving behind the two worlds view, philosophers made hierarchies, charts, of different matters used to realize different powers. Body was at the bottom, realized or actualized by the soul that kept it together. Ideas were a bit higher, realized by groups of ideas, "blends" as the Defense Department researchers would call them. And above all was the matter of the whole world, with god being the realized power of every magical technique practiced in that whole world of matter.
- But why bother with this?
- Because, as I said, there had to be a goal to all the increase of power aimed at. If there was not ever to be a rest, there had to be something fixed in all the movement to be aimed at, and that fixed thing was god.
- Ok. You tell all these stories of your Messiah because he so clearly has god in his corner, in his own world. He is authorized by god to perform his magic on the world, getting power over people by giving them money, doing on a smaller scale what the big power broker in the sky does. Philosophy tells us how the misusers of philosophy misuse it. What do we do about it?
- We do to ourselves what we did for the robots: we move ourselves through the world of ideas looking for signs of absence of rest and signs of matter, we learn the world as the robot learned its room.
- We locate our gods in Beverly Hills, see our gods in raving old woman and their whoring messiah sons.
- Yes. We laugh. We avoid secrets and powers. I wrote a story about girl gangs starting an anarchist revolution in the U.S. I put it on the internet, with the sense that this in itself was a beautiful thing to do. I didn't expect to cause a revolution, though I thought the government might not know it. In fact shortly after writing and posting the story I got a message from one of my Linkedin connections, praising my technique. I'd been getting a lot of visits lately from Arlington, Virginia, site of the Pentagon, and I'd supposed I was being spied on. This LinkedIn connection worked at the Pentagon. I wrote asking what he did there. He responded, did I want to know his official job or his real one, implying of course he couldn't tell me the real one.
- He was admitting he was a spy.
- Yes. He didn't have to worry I was going anywhere with my idea, that is, anywhere in this world.
- He doesn't need to hide because you aren't hiding. There might be secret power in matter ready to be explosively released in an revolution, but you weren't interested. Any kind of direct change is no goal for you. Your use of power is not in the world, but to get out of the world. My question is, if people become able to recognize the wrong way, if philosophy can do with us poor human beings what the computer scientists did with the robots, guide us through the world by giving us experience of it of the kind that gives us sight of what is better or worse, isn't the job of messiah open to us all? Doesn't the practice of the power to get out of the world exert some power on the world we get out of? I mean, would it not be true that the more people who practice the power to get out, the fewer there are to be enslaved by those practicing the power to stay in?
- If the philosophy was good enough, maybe. There have always been people who wanted to live in the right way. How much difference it makes having a better, more high-tech language to describe the right way - that history will have to decide.
- Come on, you can do better than that. You haven't given more than a hint of what that high-tech goodness would look like.
- Our sense of possession, ownership of property is seeing a thing as matter. Without secrets, without magical language, technology can re-evaluate what is an acceptable relation to property in society. Happy now?
- Actually, I am. Could be a beginning like that is all we've been waiting for.


Further Reading:
The Technology Of Good
The Girls (A Story Of Revolution)