The notion of a utopia—a perfect, egalitarian, and harmonious paradise on Earth—has been a recurring theme in literature and storytelling for hundreds of years. It all started with the philosopher Plato’s book Republic, and it’s since been expressed in other books including Thomas More’s Utopia and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, as well as in films like Lost Horizon and Things to Come. All this discussion of an ideal and peaceful society has encouraged many people to try and bring these ideas into reality through spiritual communes and new forms of community organization. Whether or not any of the following ten examples actually succeeded is definitely up for debate, but there’s no denying that they work as some interesting experiments in formulating new ways of living.
In the desert 70 miles north of Phoenix lies Arcosanti, an experimental town built in 1970 that claims to be an attempt to discover the perfect fusion of architecture and ecology. As imagined by architectural mastermind Paolo Soleri, all the buildings within the city are designed so that they and the people who live in them can work in harmony with their environment. With this in mind, many buildings at the site are multi-use, and all make use of solar power for heating, cooling, and electricity. Arcosanti itself is less of a community than it is a school. Workshops are held throughout the year in order to teach people how to build in Soleri’s unique style, and it is these students—along with the 50 or so teachers who make up the town’s permanent population—who have constructed most of the buildings on the 25-acre site. image:
At the heart of Arcosanti’s philosophy is a strong belief in teaching people to live smarter. The community is meant to serve as an example of how urban centers could run more cheaply and efficiently with just a few design adjustments. For example, many of the buildings at the site are made to reflect the changing seasons, so that a maximum amount of sunlight is allowed in during the winter and a minimum amount during the summer. Meanwhile, the planning of the city itself avoided a typical grid layout in favor of a more courtyard-oriented style, which the residents say encourages community interaction.
One of the hallmarks of these experimental communities is an emphasis on love and peace, usually as filtered through a heavy dose of new age philosophy. Auroville, a multicultural city in southern India, is a perfect example. Since its inception, the town has worked to realize what its website calls “human unity” and the “transformation of consciousness.” The colony was started in the late sixties by Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Richard, and its central philosophy is a belief that society will learn to progress forward only after people of many nations and cultures have learned to live together in harmony. The community works to act as a miniature experiment in world peace. Its over 2,000 residents hail from more than 40 different nations, and they all live and work together with a mind toward finding new and unique ways to achieve balance and harmony among people of different races, religions, and political backgrounds.
Residents of Auroville are expected to build their own house and make donations to the community fund, but beyond this all necessities—including public school, utilities, and health care—are covered by the community, which is itself partially financed by the Indian government. There is no form of hard currency within the commune; rather, all residents use an account system that connects to a central bank. The city is designed in the shape of a circle, around which are areas containing gardens, farmland, an educational and cultural center, and a so-called “peace area” where silence is enforced at all times.
8. Findhorn Ecovillage
Scotland’s Findhorn Ecovillage is perhaps the most notable example of a community founded on principles of environmental sustainability and renewable energy. The commune was started in the 1960s, but it didn’t take on its current form until 1982, when residents made a concerted effort to show that an environmentally unobtrusive community could flourish both socially and economically. The village still exists today, and has been noted as having the smallest environmental footprint of any town in the modern world. This is thanks to an ecologically friendly building code that encourages the use of found materials—several houses are built from recycled whiskey barrels— along with wind turbines and a water treatment apparatus called the “Living Machine,” which makes use of algae, snails, and plant life to purify the community’s water supply.
Part of Findhorn’s intended commitment to sustainability is an emphasis on autonomy. The village’s 350 residents have their own school, arts center, and businesses, which include everything from printmaking to pottery. There is even an independent currency, called the Eko, which is accepted at all community businesses. Beyond its ecological goals, the village has also gained a reputation—to some controversy—for espousing a new age philosophy of spiritualism and holistic health. Findhorn offers retreats that claim to assist in achieving sound mental health, and the organization has even put out a therapeutic board game that it claims can be “a substantial way of understanding and transforming key issues in your life.”
7. Pullman, Illinois
Though these communities are always started with the very best of intentions, sometimes the line between utopia and dystopia can get a little blurry. Such was the case with Pullman, Illinois, a company town that started as its own workers’ paradise and gradually degraded into an outright dictatorship. The town was conceived by George Pullman, a powerful industrialist who’d made his fortune building ornate and expensive sleeping cars for passenger trains. In 1880, Pullman purchased several thousand acres of land on the outskirts of Chicago with a mind toward building a new factory. Thinking that he could also satisfy his workers by giving them a nice, safe place to live, Pullman had his architect design a miniature town around the factory. The town featured elaborate Victorian architecture and included its own school, shopping centers, theatre, library, church, and even a man-made lake.
For the first few years, the town of Pullman seemed to be a remarkable success. It was used as an exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, and it regularly won awards for being one of the best places to live in the country. But beneath its quaint exterior, Pullman was hiding a dark secret. Most troubling of all was that George Pullman ran the town like a despot. He banned certain business (like saloons) from opening nearby, forbade the town from starting an independent newspaper, and regularly had inspectors search through employees’ homes for signs of damage or lack of cleanliness. Employees often protested his baron-like behavior, but they had no recourse, since the town and all its 1400 structures were entirely owned by the company. When he lowered wages in 1894, things quickly turned violent, and a large-scale strike in Pullman had to broken up by the military. In the wake of this incident, the government looked into the legality of the town of Pullman and deemed it “un-American.” It was then broken up and later annexed by the city of Chicago.
6. The Harmony Society Communities
Religious Utopian communities were all the rage in the 1800s, and the communes started by the Harmony Society are some of the most famous examples. The society formed in Germany in the late 1700s, but their mystical take on Christianity soon drew the ire of the Lutheran Church. A group led by Johann Georg Rapp immigrated to the Pennsylvania in 1803, and it was there that they decided to establish the first of what would eventually be three independent communes. Their Pennsylvania settlement, called Harmony, proved incredibly successful, and it eventually boasted a population of over 800 followers. The residents sold the land for a profit after ten years and started a new commune in Indiana, but they returned to Pennsylvania in 1824 and formed a third commune, which they called Economy.
The Harmony Society’s theosophist religious convictions meant that they had very strict behavioral codes. Chief among them were strong beliefs in temperance, celibacy, and equality. Members rejected worldly possessions, eschewed sexual relationships—including marriage, to a certain extent—and practiced nonviolence. Rapp acted as the community’s resident prophet, and made several predictions about the imminent return of Jesus to the Earth. When his predictions didn’t come true, many members abandoned the community, but it managed to survive well until after Rapp’s death in 1847. Economy, PA finally dissolved in the early 1900s, both because of an ever mounting debt and because the residents’ celibacy guaranteed that there was no new generation left to take over.
5. The Federation of Damanhur
Named after an ancient Egyptian city, the Federation of Damanhur is a Utopian commune located outside of Turin, Italy. It was started in the ‘70s by Oberto Airaudi and a small group of followers, and today it counts as many as 800 citizens among its ranks. There are even offshoot centers for the group located as far away as the U.S. and Japan. The community refers to itself as a “collective dream” where “spiritual, artistic, and social research” takes place. The group prizes environmental sustainability, artistic expression, and optimism above all else, and meditation and self-knowledge are considered fundamental to personal growth. But while this philosophy might not seem extraordinary, the way it is expressed certainly is. This was most apparent in 1992, when the group revealed a series of striking underground temples—supposedly a monument to peace and the power of human collaboration—that they had been constructing since the late ‘70s.
Damanhur, though not sovereign from Italy, operates as though it were its own independent nation. There is a constitution, a currency called “credito,” and an independent infrastructure, and at this point there are even grown children who were born in the community and have lived there all their life. Perhaps most interesting is the community’s style of marriage, which works on a contract system. Prior to their wedding, couples decide on a period of time that the marriage will last. Once that period has elapsed, the two can either go their separate ways or agree to renew the marriage for a new span of time.
4. The Farm
Communal living experienced a renaissance with the rise of the hippie movement, when thousands of young people dropped out of society and attempted to form independent, utopian communities. The biggest and most notable of them all is certainly a town in Summerton, Tennessee known only as “The Farm.” The town was the brainchild of Stephen Gaskin, a creative writing teacher from San Francisco who led a caravan of cars and busses across the country to Tennessee, where they bought a 1,000-acre tract of land on a former cattle ranch. The Farm soon became legendary in underground culture, and as new members journeyed to Tennessee from around the country, the community soon grew into a miniature metropolis of tents and log cabins. By 1980, there were over 1,000 people living at the Farm.
In the early days, residents of The Farm took a “vow of poverty” and swore off tobacco, alcohol, and all animal products. All possessions were communal, and residents regularly engaged in group marriages. These restrictions have since loosened, but the community still maintains a steadfast devotion to vegetarianism and environmentally friendly living, and today it works as an ecovillage where all power is generated through solar panels and biofuels. It also has an acclaimed school of midwifery, a book publishing company, and a grade school. Residents have even spearheaded a number of different charitable endeavors around the world. The community went through some tough time in the 80s, and many of the original members abandoned it, but it’s still around today, and as many as 175 people live and work there year round.
3. Israeli Kibbutzim
The term “kibbutz” doesn’t refer to one specific community, but rather to a form of experimental living that became popular in Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The term itself can be translated as “gathering,” and it’s used to describe the numerous cooperative communes that were founded by Jewish immigrants in Palestine prior to the creation of Israel. Many came to the Middle East from Russia to be pioneer farmers, and they chose to live collectively because it allowed for greater safety and a more efficient way of growing crops. Most kibbutzim had about 200 members, and by 1950 there were as many as 60,000 people living in the communes all across Israel. The communities were originally started purely as Jewish farming ventures, but by the ‘30s many had taken on a socialist philosophy, and some of the kibbutzim with more Utopian goals began to allow people of all religions to join.
A key philosophy of these kibbutzim was a devotion to equality. All major decisions were made communally in group meetings. Women were seen as equals to men, and were even required to serve as armed guards at times. There were no personal possessions—not even clothing—and even children were considered to belong to the community at large. Most grew up living with one another in their own communal house, and they spent little time with their parents outside of community activities. After the formation of Israel and the rise of capitalism, many of these values began to be replaced by more modern, individualistic tendencies. Today, most kibbutzim have become private enterprises, and farming has largely been abandoned. Despite this decline, there are still as many as 125,000 people—about 3% of the total population—currently living in kibbutz-style communes all over Israel.
2. Oneida Colony
New York’s Oneida Colony community was started in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, a practitioner of a sect of Christianity he called Perfectionism, which stated that Christ had already returned and it was the people who had to build paradise on Earth. The community started as a small group of about 80 people, but this number had doubled within a few years, and by 1880 there were as many as 350 people of all ages living at Oneida. The group had a small plot of land, but its primary base of operations was a 92,000 square foot mansion house, where all the members lived and worked communally.
Oneida worked under a pseudo-socialist style wherein each member would work to the degree that they were able. Women were afforded more freedom than was common at the time, and all possessions were communal. Noyes instituted a strange program of character improvement where each member of the group was regularly brought before a committee and told their personal flaws, which they were expected to fix. As a rule, monogamy was forbidden within Oneida. Instead, the community engaged in a “complex marriage” system where each member was effectively “married” to everyone else. Strong attachments to a single person were discouraged, and members of the commune would regularly trade out sexual partners throughout the course of the week. This included young people, who were supposedly “initiated” into the program by an elder member of the opposite sex. These practices proved to be Oneida’s undoing, as Noyes was forced to flee the country in 1879 in order to escape charges of statutory rape. Without his more-than-questionable guidance, the community soon broke apart.
1. Brook Farm
Massachusetts’s Brook Farm community only lasted for five years, and was a conclusive failure in nearly every way. But it remains one of the most notable experimental communities of the 1800s, if only because of the many famous people who were associated with it. The town was started by George and Sophia Ripley in 1841. The couple subscribed to the transcendental philosophy espoused by poets and thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and they based their community on these ideals. The basic idea was that by pooling their labor efforts, a society could eliminate the drudgery of work and have time engage in intellectual pursuits and leisure activities. The Ripleys raised money through a joint stock company that counted Nathaniel Hawthorne among its investors, and after buying several acres of farmland outside of Boston, put their experiment into action.
In the beginning, Brook Farm worked around a policy of personal freedom and equality. Members were allowed to choose what kind of work they wanted to do, and special time was set aside for leisure and intellectual study. Women enjoyed much greater equality than was common at that time. Not only were they paid the same as the men, but they were considered autonomous from their husbands and were allowed to be shareholders in the community at large. The commune tried to self-sustain by farming, opening a school, and selling goods like clothing, but they were never able to fully get out of debt. These financial troubles, along with Ripley’s inability to get luminaries like Emerson or Thoreau (who visited many times) to become permanent members, eventually led to the adoption of a more rigid, socialistic philosophy. Against the wishes of many of the members, the community had soon adopted more rules and social guidelines. When a massive communal house caught fire and burned halfway through construction, Brook Farm fell into even more debt, and in 1846 it dissolved for good.
– WIF Idealistic Travel
(And What They Believed)
There’s a joke about a degree in philosophy where the people majoring in it get asked, “would you like fries with that?” Getting a degree in philosophy is supposed to be such a waste of time and money because philosophy ostensibly does not provide a utilitarian skill set. This claim was compellingly countered by Atlantic magazine in 2015, which found they had an average mid-career income of $82,000. It indicates that while philosophers can seem like marginal people — if not frivolous — they can make their contributions felt even while we mock them.
This list will be focusing on philosophers from the previous century. Philosophers from two or three centuries seem to get all the attention, not to mention all the philosophers from about two millennia ago. Some of these names will be familiar.
10. Ludwig Wittgenstein
Born in Vienna, Austria in 1889 to a wealthy family of musicians, in his youth the strongest desire of Wittgenstein’s heart was to work in engineering; specifically as it related to the infant technology of motorized flight. Wittgenstein happened to get hung up on pure mathematics and went to Cambridge to be taught by Bertrand Russell himself. It would be during a 1908 retreat in Norway, in a cabin he built, that Wittgenstein would have the inspiration for the “Picture Theory of Meaning” that would make him famous after he fought in World War I and got a job as an elementary school teacher for six years in 1920 because he’d divested himself of his inheritance in 1919.
Wittgenstein laid out the Picture Theory of Meaning in his 1921 book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which in brief said that unless a statement could be translated from an abstraction into an “arrangement of objects” then it had no meaning. It was a literalism that could be expected of a philosophically-minded engineer and which he also applied to the classroom, having students perform such hands-on learning as constructing models and dissecting animals (and applying corporal punishment to a degree that compelled him to lie about it and quit his job).
Wittgenstein reinforced the point of applied philosophy with his other book of philosophy that’s held up as a classic, Philosophical Investigations from 1953. Wittgenstein claimed that ethics and logic are inextricably linked, and that actions were the only way that a person could follow their ethics was to act on them. In his own words, “It is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’: otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it.” It’s a harsh rebuke for people who claim to be above others by not participating in the world around them, or who convince themselves that what matters is who they are “on the inside.”
9. Hiratsuka Raicho
For this philosopher born in 1886, her feminist beliefs that would one day change the face of Japan were initially born more of religion than pure humanism. She had been taught that the Buddha claimed all people were equal, and naturally that meant all the women must be equal to men despite lacking key civil rights. It wasn’t until she read the work of Ellen Key that she began to think of women as deserving equal rights for purposes of autonomy and individualism. As she wrote in her autobiography, women had been “the sun” but society had reduced them to “ …a wan and sickly moon, dependent on another, reflecting another’s brilliance.”
The single most significant action Raicho undertook was founding and editing Seito, a literary magazine, that ran from 1911 to 1916. She continued campaigning after seeing the appalling conditions of textile factories, which tended to employ primarily female crews. In 1920 she founded the New Woman’s Association. They were able to almost pass women’s suffrage in 1921, and in 1922 successfully pressured the government to amend the Public Order and Police Law. Although her goal of suffrage wasn’t achieved until 1945, her efforts still got her elected president of the Women’s Federation in 1953. In 1908, she scandalously accompanied her (platonic) best friend to a mountain for a ritual suicide with an attitude of curiosity about what it was like to die, and because she suspected her partner would lose his willingness to kill himself when push came to shove. It was the sort of combination of deep conviction and apathy to social pressure that is often significant to bringing about change.
8. Noam Chomsky
There are two movies about long-term Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Noam Chomsky that, between them, encapsulate his two main areas of interest: Manufacturing Consent from 1992, an analysis of the profit-driven and narrative-driven media and US foreign policy, and Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?from 2013, a collection of interviews Michel Gondry wherein Chomsky’s answers or asks philosophical questions about how language shapes thoughts and memories practically since his birth in 1929, all of which are illustrated/animated in Gondry’s intentionally rough and child-like style.
Chomsky’s core beliefs relate to how controlling media (news coverage, commonly employed phrases and the words that back them, etc.) can be used to create public approval of what by basic human nature would not be acceptable. Back in 1968 in a televised debate with William Buckley (who threatened Gore Vidal on air), he argued how the US government arguing the military was occupying South Vietnam for the good of the Vietnamese was an excuse used since Ancient Roman conquests. Manufacturing Consent also devoted much of its run time to how the media would withhold coverage of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor because it served elite interests to ignore it. One of the core values of Chomsky’s political commentary and his stated views on language is to always question the narrative being provided. He goes so far as to say that in his childhood during the 1930s he went to a school that was well-suited for him before he went to high school because he was given freedom in classes to question instead of going through a highly regimented curriculum.
7. Jacques Derrida
Lately you hear the word “deconstruction” thrown around a lot in regards to media with some form of meta-commentary (e.g., a superhero movie where the filmmakers have the characters comment on the supposedly fascistic power fantasy nature of superhero narratives within the movie’s dialogue). We can attribute the popularity of that phrase to a man born in French-Algeria in 1930; a man who flunked his own exams to become a licensed Parisian philosopher in 1952. Badly flunked, too: A score of five out of twenty, and he choked disastrously on the written portion. He would need three attempts to pass in 1956, and after some time in the military he spent decades teaching. It was while working in education that he would write the essays that made him famous with the English-speaking world.
If Derrida’s philosophical insight that made him so influential were to be reduced to a logline (and bear in mind that this is someone who wrote 70 books and countless essays), it would be to critique other writers who claimed they were being objective. Derrida said that was functionally impossible, as the education any analyst had received would introduce biases that would impact their views one way or another. That claim is a rebuke to every school of thought, even Chomsky’s “question everything” philosophy. It argues there are limited a very limited number of questions a person will ask and narrow-minded ways they will be asked, the limitations being set by the person’s upbringing. Derrida’s seemingly detached central tenet didn’t mean he avoided controversial opinions, since he was an admirer of Karl Marx and Nazi Party member Martin Heidegger.
6. Judith Jarvis Thomson
Whatever your views on the abortion debate, there’s no denying Thomson’s influence over the issue in the United States of America. Born in 1929, by 1969 she was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. In 1971 she wrote “A Defense of Abortion” and went a long way to reframing the debate in a manner which put the feminist movement behind the landmark 1973 Roe V. Wade ruling. Its influence and controversy has led to her essay being dubbed “the most widely reprinted essay in all of contemporary philosophy.”
The most momentous passage of Thomson’s essay is a metaphor. Thomson asks the reader to imagine they woke up on life support (the reader’s kidneys being used to support the life of a violinist in a coma), and the reader is being used for this process because they’re the only matching blood type. While the violinist certainly has the right to life, Thomson asserts that the reader would also have a right to their own body and potentially their own life. In so doing she reframed the debate from focusing on the rights of the fetus to those of the parent. This is hardly her sole contribution to the philosophical landscape, such as her redesign of the famous Trolley Problem (i.e. the moral quandary about whether it’s inherently better to take action to kill one person and save five) but the 1971 essay remains her most momentous piece of writing.
5. Jean-Paul Sartre
Born in Paris in 1905, his body of work would, by the time of his death in 1980, includes books and plays such as Being and Nothingness and The Flies, which were key to spreading existential philosophy around the world. His most famous play, No Exit, coined the popular expression “hell is other people.” Sartre rejected the label of existentialist for a time, and in 1964 he rejected the Nobel Prize in literature, criticizing its Eurocentrism (he came to regret this latter rejection in particular, saying he could have donated the prize money to an anti-Apartheid committee in London). Also in 1964, he renounced all literature as a substitute for taking meaningful action in the world.
Sartre was a nihilist when it came to human nature, as he outlined in Existentialism is Humanism. He argued that human beings, as autonomous and sentient entities, have to define themselves as they live, and they do so through their actions (as Wittgenstein did). Sartre was not positive about this state being, calling it “anguish.” Little wonder he felt Hell is other people.
4. Giovanni Gentile
The inclusion of any figure on this list is not an endorsement of their views. we want to be made especially clear in this case, as in 1932 this Italian philosopher born in 1886 was literally a co-author for The Doctrine of Fascism with Benito Mussolini. Meaning, of course, that he indirectly helped write the blueprints for much more destructive German fascism. He created a philosophical movement of his own known initially as “actual idealism,” which was shortened to “actualism.” It was largely an extension of the work of nineteenth century philosopher Georg Hegel.
Gentile argued that objective reality was unknowable and that individual identities were an illusion, which in turn he argued meant that the only way to find value was to bind oneself into a larger group. In a sense it’s a form of nihilism since everything outside the group is unquantifiable and thus can’t have a value, giving people within the group tacit approval to subjugate any outsiders however they please.
3. Ayn Rand
Few people are as well known for their contradictions as this bestselling author born in Russia in 1905 who created the Objectivist movement. She is highly lauded in right wing circles despite being aggressively pro-choice. She believed only in wealth redistribution through private charity but is very often mocked for accepting social security near the time of her passing in 1982. Her books The Fountainhead, We the Living, Anthem, and Atlas Shrugged are all endlessly derided and bought. Despite how far out of fashion her writing style and subject matter have fallen she remains popular enough that blockbuster director Zack Snyder plans to make a film adaptation of The Fountainhead.
It is often asserted that the Soviet government’s seizure of her father’s pharmacywhile she was a child inspired her to design a philosophical framework of her own which is often referred to as Randianism but which she called Objectivism. Objectivism argues that the best way for humanity to proceed is for everyone to act in their rational self-interest. People will act ethically because it is in the best interest of capitalism for them to treat everyone ethically, so that others will treat them ethically. Morality cannot be forced on anyone, and to use the threat of physical violence to compel people to act morally (e.g. to use the threat of arrest to coerce citizens to give tax money that would be used to help the needy) is itself amoral.
2. Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss has not become a household name since his death in 1973. Even among the circle that knew him at the time he was more polarizing than most. Strauss is more influential because he was read by a few at the top than by many at the bottom or in the middle. From Gerald Ford to the Bushes, his work was taught and discussed in the White House itself every time there was a Republican in office. Even William Gaston, a domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton for two years, was a student of him.
Strauss believed that human beings do not have natural rights, and are inherently unequal and thus shouldn’t be treated as if they are. He argued that society needed to have its “noble lies,” which was what Strauss considered religion, so that the lower classes would remain productive. He said science and philosophy must be the “preserve of a small minority” because science and philosophy are attempts to replace opinion, and opinion is “the element in which society breathes.”
1. Albert Camus
Like Derrida he was born in Algeria, though in Camus’s case in 1913. He also shared with Derrida a soft spot for communism, though that was out of his system by the time he was in France and made his name. Derrida is said to be the father of deconstruction, Camus is credited with being one of the fathers of absurdism as a philosophical movement, even if he rejected “armchair philosophy” in favor of going out and living life to the fullest.
Camus’s first published book is 1942’s The Stranger, a novel about a sociopathic man who neither cares at his mother’s death nor understands why everyone else does. Accused of premeditated murder, what actually gets him sentenced to death is his apathy and atheism. Before his execution he tears into the priest sent to receive his confession, and manages to find peace in accepting the meaninglessness of life.
His most famous book, and his winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, is 1947’s The Plague. A story of a bubonic plague epidemic in Oran, Algeria (based on a cholera epidemic that hit the town in 1849 and metaphorical for the presence of the Third Reich in France) it’s the story of how society is broken down so that people isolate themselves in the hopes of riding the plague out and others fight against it. Even though Camus treats the struggle against the plague as absurd, it’s clear that the resisting characters have his sympathies.
Camus’s other work of nonfiction is The Myth of Sisyphus, a 130 page essay published in 1942 about the character from Greek mythology who is condemned to forever push a boulder up a mountain, a task impossible because in some versions it will always roll back down or just can’t be moved in the first place. Camus argued that this was a perfect symbol for the human condition: Forever pointlessly struggling since the inevitability of oblivion hangs over everyone and everything at all times. So why not commit suicide instead? Rather than reaching a dour, nihilistic conclusion from that, Camus said “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” After all, he does have an eternal sense of purpose. In its way, Camus’s absurdist philosophy is a optimistic and accepting form of nihilism.
Telling Us How to Think –
WIF Mind Games
The NULL Solution = Episode 125
…The mover and shaker, the man with a hot hand and a plan to match is Skaldic the Null…
While Gus builds a signal fire and Rick constructs a raft, his far-away brother, father, mother, sister and “Gifted Null” Skaldic continue to take the five-pronged approach to problem solving. One more Earth-year has passed and only Collapsar Axis is closer to Eridanus. Eridanus appears no closer to solving “Harmonia Query” than any of their far-flung confederates.
The peaceful people of the Epsilon Eridani system are blissfully unaware of Gus McKinney’s plight, lest Sammy Mac try charging in, astride his legendary white horse. That would only serve to strand an un-rethinkable 2 McKinneys on Mars, along with 1 unfortunate Stanley.
The mover and shaker, the man with a hot hand and a plan to match is Skaldic the Null. Here on the new & improved Eridanus, Null and Gifted mingle like they’ve been doing so since the cycles of the ancients, instead of just lately. It took some doing, but the inbred attitudes and subsequent prejudice has slowly fallen away. Skaldic’s resulting role is what legends are made of.
Always the forward thinker and the president of the Sampson Mac Fan Club, he is no shrinking violet, especially when it comes to global strategy. Yes, he has his opinions concerning the looming Ÿ€Ð “threat”, “It is my thinking that we should make the first move. If Collapsar Axis has bad intent in store for us, we must find out why. What could we possibly have done to provoke them?”
“We exist, therefore we are,” Sam states bluntly. “If you bother to trace the path they’ve been taking, a house call has been made to every single known species and it looks like some peeps even you guys didn’t have marks on the map for. They haven’t discriminated against anything so far.”
The NULL Solution =
Since the first modern homo sapiens emerged some 50,000 years ago, it’s estimated that 107 billion human beings have at one time or another lived on planet Earth. The overwhelmingly vast majority of these people have been forgotten by history, but there are a very few individuals whose names and achievements will echo through the ages.
From ancient Greece through to the modern world, these are 10 of history’s greatest minds.
10. Plato (Circa 428 BC – 348 BC)
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that European philosophy is best characterized as a series of footnotes to Plato. While this might perhaps be something of a stretch, it gives an indication of the esteem in which the ancient Greek philosopher is held even to this day.
Plato’s efforts to understand the world around him covered metaphysics, ethics, politics, aesthetics, perception, and the nature of knowledge itself. Despite having been written more than two-thousand years ago, his work remains eminently readable today. Plato didn’t deal in dry, tedious treatise. He preferred to bring his work to life, teasing out thoughts and ideas in the form of a dialogue between characters. This in itself was a remarkably innovative approach. Plato blurred the lines between philosophy and entertainment and challenged the reader to scrutinize their own beliefs.
Having been born into one of the wealthiest families in Athens, Plato would have been well-schooled by the city’s finest philosophers. There’s no question it was his mentor Socrates who made the greatest impression, appearing again and again as chief protagonist in Plato’s dialogues. Socrates’ resurrection in immortal literary form would no doubt have been particularly galling to certain influential Athenians who had only recently killed him off. Ancient Greece was similar to the modern world in at least one respect: not everybody reacted kindly to having their beliefs challenged.
9. Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
Born out of wedlock, and with no formal education, the young da Vinci seemed destined for a life of anonymous drudgery. In Renaissance Italy there was little social mobility. The right family name and connections were invaluable. Da Vinci had neither, but he was not a man who would blend into the background to be forgotten by history.
Flamboyantly dressed, a strict vegetarian, enormously physically strong, and rumored to be gay in an age when homosexuality could be punished by death, it was nonetheless the workings of da Vinci’s remarkable mind that truly set him apart.
In an age renowned for producing an abundance of great artists, da Vinci is regarded as one of the greatest of them all. Yet painting was by no means his only talent, nor perhaps even his greatest talent. He studied geometry, mathematics, anatomy, botany, architecture, sculpture, and designed weapons of war for the kings, princes, and barons who struggled for wealth and power in Italy’s warring city states.
It was as a visionary that da Vinci was arguably at his most brilliant. In an age when Europe lacked basics such as indoor plumbing, he sketched out designs for magnificent flying machines and armored vehicles powered by hand-turned crankshafts, ideas that were centuries ahead of their time.
In 2002, almost 500 years after his death, one of Leonardo’s visions was lifted from the pages of his notebooks to become a reality. A recreation of a glider based on his sketches, albeit with a few modifications deemed necessary to reduce the risk of killing the pilot, was successfully flown by World Hang Gliding and Paragliding Champion Robbie Whittall.
8. William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
The famous bard has become such an integral part of Western culture that it’s tempting to assume we must know a great deal about his life, but the reality is quite the opposite. He was certainly born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, but the exact date is a matter of some conjecture. There are huge swathes of time where he disappears from the records; we have no idea where he was or what he was doing. It’s not even entirely certain what he looked like. The popular image of Shakespeare is based on three main portraits. Two of these were produced years after his death and the other probably isn’t a depiction of Shakespeare at all.
While history leaves us largely in the dark as to Shakespeare the man, almost his entire body of work (so far as we know) has been preserved. The best of his offerings are widely regarded to be amongst the finest, if not the finest, works of literature in the English language. He was equally adept at comedy or tragedy, had a gift for writing strong female characters, and possessed an intimate understanding of the human condition that imbued his work with a timeless, eminently quotable quality.
Shakespeare was by no means the only famous playwright of his era, but his work has stood the test of time in a way that others have not. Few people are now familiar with the plays of Ben Johnson or Christopher Marlowe; fewer still have seen them performed. While his rivals are now little more than historical footnotes, Shakespeare is even more famous and celebrated in death than he was in life. With an estimated 4 billion copies of his work having been sold, he ranks as the best-selling fiction author of all time.
7. Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)
In December 2016, a first edition copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica sold at auction for $3.7 million. This was an extraordinary amount of money, but then Principia was an extraordinary book.
First published in 1687, Principia laid out the mathematical principles underpinning motion and gravity. It revolutionized science and was hailed as a work of near unparalleled genius, at least by the very few individuals capable of understanding it. Newton didn’t enjoy being questioned by lesser minds (which included just about everybody), so he wilfully set out to make Principiaas difficult to follow as possible. To make it less accessible still, he wrote it in Latin.
If Principia had been Newton’s only achievement, then that would have been more than enough to earn him the title of scientific genius. But Newton did a great deal else besides. With a ferocious work ethic that drove him to at least two nervous breakdowns, he scarcely slept, never married, and often became so absorbed in his work that he simply forgot to eat or teach his classes.
In an astonishingly productive 30-year period Newton invented calculus (but didn’t bother to tell anybody), conducted groundbreaking work on optics, invented the most effective telescope the world had ever seen, and discovered generalized binomial theorem.
When Newton died in 1727, his collection of notes amounted to some 10 million words. This window to the mind of one of history’s greatest geniuses proved less useful than might be imagined. Newton was obsessed with alchemy, and the latter part of his career was consumed in a futile attempt to transmute base metals into gold.
6. Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)
At the age of 12, Benjamin Franklin was made apprentice to his elder brother James at his printing business in Boston. What he lacked in formal education, the younger Franklin more than made up for in curiosity and intelligence. He soon surpassed his brother as both a writer and a printer, a fact that didn’t escape James, who regularly expressed his displeasure with his fists.
The terms of Franklin’s apprenticeship meant that he couldn’t expect to receive wages until he turned 21. Backing himself to do rather better on his own, at 17 he ran away to find his own fortune. He succeeded in spectacular fashion and would go on to become one of the wealthiest men in America.
While Franklin’s genius for business earned him a huge amount of money, this was never his overriding goal. Convinced that an individual’s entrance to heaven would depend on what they had done rather than what they believed, he was passionate about improving the lot of his fellow man. Amongst his many achievements he set up America’s first lending library, founded a college that would go on to become the University of Pennsylvania, and created a volunteer fire fighting organization.
Franklin’s talents as a businessman were matched by his brilliance as a writer, a mathematician, an inventor, a scientist, and a good deal else besides. Perhaps his most significant discovery was that lightning bolts could be understood as a natural phenomenon rather than as an expression of the wrath of an angry God. By understanding lightning Franklin was able to tame it. The principles of the lightning rod he developed to protect buildings, ships, and other structures from lightning strikes are largely unchanged to this day. In true Franklin form he preferred to freely share his invention rather than apply for a patent that would have been worth an untold fortune.
5. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Johan Van Beethoven was a man with a singular mission in life: to transform his son from a talented amateur into a musical genius to rival even the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He would pursue this goal with ruthless, single-minded determination.
As a result, the young Ludwig van Beethoven’s childhood was rather a miserable affair. Forced to practice for hours on end, his father would loom over him ready to administer a beating for the slightest mistake. This punishing regime left no time to spare for fun or playing with friends. Witnesses reported seeing Beethoven perched on a piano stool at all hours of day and night. Even his education was cut short; at the age of 11 he was withdrawn from school to concentrate on music to the exclusion of all else.
It’s sometimes said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a craft, and Beethoven would have exceeded this total from a very young age. His lopsided education meant that he struggled with simple mathematical principles throughout his life, but he became a truly phenomenal musician.
Beethoven ranks as arguably the greatest composer who ever lived, a feat which is all-the-more impressive since by the age of 26 he had developed a ringing in his ears. Over the next 20 years his hearing deteriorated to the point where he was totally deaf. Despite this considerable handicap, Beethoven’s intricate knowledge of music allowed him to produce some of his greatest works at a time when he couldn’t hear the notes he hit on his piano.
4. Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943)
In 1884 a Serb by the name of Nikola Tesla set foot on American soil for the first time. He arrived in New York with little more than the clothes on his back, the design for an electric motor, and a letter of introduction addressed to Thomas Edison.
Tesla and Edison were both geniuses, both brilliant inventors, and between them they knew more about electricity than anyone else alive. However, there was one major problem. Tesla’s electrical motor was designed to run on alternating current. Meanwhile, a good deal of Edison’s income was derived from the Edison Electric Light Company, which relied on direct current.
In an attempt to protect his investments, Edison set out to discredit Tesla and convince the public of the dangers of alternating current. One particularly gruesome film, shot by the Edison Manufacturing Company, shows an unfortunate elephant by the name of Topsy being enveloped by smoke and keeling over after being blasted with 6,600 volts of electricity.
Despite these dirty tricks, Tesla’s system had one very significant advantage: alternating current could be transmitted over long distances, while direct current could not. Tesla won the war of the currents.
Tesla’s inventions, from hydroelectric power plants to remote control vehicles, helped to usher in the modern age, but he had no spark for business. In 1916, with his mental health deteriorating alarmingly, he was declared bankrupt. Afraid of human hair, round objects, and preferring the company of pigeons over people, he seemed to have become the embodiment of the idea of a mad scientist. This impression was only strengthened by Tesla’s obsession with developing a “death ray” capable of shooting bolts of lightning. Tesla believed his death ray would bring about an end to warfare, but he never succeeded in completing it. He died alone in a hotel room at the age of 86.
3. Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)
In 1896 the physicist Henri Becquerel made the serendipitous discovery that uranium salts emitted rays of some kind. While this struck him as rather curious, he wasn’t convinced that further research into the phenomenon represented the best use of his time. He instead tasked his most talented student, Marie Curie, with discovering just what was going on.
It wasn’t often that such opportunities fell so easily into Curie’s lap. In her native Poland there had been no official higher education available for females, so Curie had enrolled in a clandestine “Flying University.” On emigrating to France she had graduated at the top of her class, despite having arrived armed with only a rudimentary grasp of the French language.
Curie, working alongside her husband Pierre, identified two new elements, polonium and radium, and proved that certain types of rocks gave off vast quantities of energy without changing in any discernible way. This remarkable discovery earned Curie the first of her two Nobel Prizes, and it could have made her very rich indeed had she chosen to patent her work rather than make the fruits of her research freely available. It was widely assumed that something as seemingly miraculous as radiation must be hugely beneficial to human health, and radium found its way into all manner of consumer products from toothpaste to paint.
Even Curie had no idea that radiation might be dangerous, and years of handling radium very likely led to the leukemia that claimed her life in 1934. Her notebooks are still so infused with radiation that they will remain potentially deadly for another 1,500 years; anybody willing to run the risk of reading them is required to don protective gear and sign a liability waiver.
2. Hugh Everett (1930 – 1982)
By the age of just 12, Hugh Everett was already brilliant enough to be regularly exchanging letters with Albert Einstein. The American excelled at chemistry and mathematics, but it was in physics, and more specifically quantum mechanics, that he made his mark with one of the strangest scientific theories of the Twentieth Century.
Nils Bohr once famously wrote that anybody who isn’t shocked by quantum mechanics hasn’t understood it. The behavior of protons and electrons on a quantum level is downright weird, but Everett suggested it all made sense if there were an infinite number of universes.
Everett’s multiverse theory proved popular amongst science fiction writers, but it was derided by the scientific community. Disappointed, Everett largely gave up on quantum mechanics. He instead undertook research for the US military, attempting to minimize American casualties in the event of a nuclear war.
A heavy-drinker and a chain-smoker, Everett died in 1982 at the age of 51. Since then his ideas have begun to edge towards the scientific mainstream, and they do resolve a number of thorny problems. The universe operates to the laws of a set of numbers known as fundamental constants, and every one of these has to be precisely tuned in order for the universe to function as it does.
It seems that either humanity has been fantastically lucky, on the level of one individual winning the lottery every week for several months, or the universe has been intelligently designed. Everett’s multiverse theory suggests another possibility. If there are an infinite number of universes, then an infinite number of possibilities are played out. In such circumstances it comes as no surprise that we find ourselves in a universe that appears to be tuned to perfection.
1. Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
Contrary to popular belief Einstein didn’t fail math at school. He excelled at the subject, having mastered differential and integral calculus by the age of 15. However, while the spark of genius was already present, it would be quite some time until anybody recognized it. It’s fair to say that the academic world wasn’t beating a path to Einstein’s door. Having been rejected for a university teaching position, and then having been turned down by a high school, in 1902 the German-born physicist began work in the Patents Office in Bern, Switzerland.
The idea that a lowly patents clerk would go on to become arguably the most influential scientist of all-time would have appeared absurd, but in 1905, in what must rank as the most extraordinarily productive 12 months of individual intellectual endeavor in history, he produced four papers that would revolutionize the way the universe is understood.
In just one year he proved the existence of atoms, described the photoelectric effect, demonstrated that an object’s mass is an expression of the energy it contains (E = mc2), and published his Special Theory of Relativity. He would eventually expand the latter into his famous General Theory of Relativity, which suggested that space and time were one and the same thing.
Einstein’s theory of relativity was still just a theory, and one that was considered little short of heresy by a significant portion of the scientific community (Nikola Tesla included). It wasn’t until 1919, when his predictions on the behavior of starlight during a solar eclipse were demonstrated to be accurate, thereby proving his theory to be correct, that he was catapulted to international fame.
Great Minds Think Alike
– WIF Genius Handbook
THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 184
…we have lost not only two of our finest astronauts, but the very first colonists on another planet…
Roy Crippen takes his turn as, mourner, moderator and commemorator.
“I do know Sampson and Celeste McKinney and I can proudly say that they counted me as their friend. To know them is to know the definition of reliability. If I had a dollar for every time I heard them say, ‘You can count on us.’ I would be materially rich beyond measure.
“As Braden King would tell you,” he points at BK sitting between the boys, “there isn’t anything they would not do for their country and their space program. And if we could hear them now, they would be telling us, ‘Do not stop with Space Colony 1. You must press on; you must come out and be with us.”
He pauses to reflect on what space exploration is all about.
“When one decides to become a working astronaut, there are certain things you must come to terms with in your mind. Topping that list and there is little question as to its reality, is that constant companion of dealing with the speculative unknown: d-e-a-t-h. We at NASA, as well as our global partners at the World Space Consortium, deal with technology at its finest, but because of the distances involved and other uncontrollable factors, danger is:
- one step behind every single manned mission
- when we step out of a vehicle exceeding 100,000 feet of altitude
- each time we take that next step baby step closer to the edge of the solar system
“I need not remind you of the Challenger or Columbia and the brave men and women who gave their lives. Did they believe they would return to Earth safely? Yes they did. Did they know there was a possibility that they wouldn’t? Yes they did.
“We have gone 27 years without a fatality in space. We now find ourselves coming to grips with terrible realization that we have lost not only two of our finest astronauts, but the very first colonists on another planet…
“…. both were keenly aware of the perils they would be facing. Did they know that Space Colony 1 was destroyed by jealously and hate not a meteor or electrical malfunction? No probably not.”
THE RETURN TRIP
Meaning of Life
Why are we here? What is the purpose of our lives? It’s a question that has probably popped into everyone’s head at least once. These are five of the most interesting theories.
Hedonists believe that pleasure and happiness are intrinsically valuable, and pain and sadness are dis-valuable. Their argument for the meaning of life is: shouldn’t we live our lives to be as happy and as pleasurable as possible?
As it stands right now, we’re only on Earth for a short period of time, but we could die at any minute. While a lot of people have faith that there is an afterlife, there is no guarantee of one. Therefore, shouldn’t we try to have as many pleasurable experiences as we can while we’re alive? Why not eat the best food, enjoy the finest drinks, and pursue any type of carnality that we want? At the very least, shouldn’t we spend our lives avoiding pain and displeasure?
Stoicism is a school of philosophy that dates back to Ancient Greece, and it was taught by Zeno of Citium. Stoicism is about finding inner peace, because that is something that is unshakable. Other things in your life will change. Like, your bank account will fluctuate and your career path may change directions, because those are outside forces that we can’t control. But we can control what goes on in ourselves.
Stoicism is also about overcoming destructive emotions and behaviors to achieve inner calm. This doesn’t mean extinguishing the feelings, but transforming them using reason and clear judgment.
Some stoics have advanced Zeno’s theories and believe that being actively involved in life is a major component of the meaning of life. Being active in life includes working and meeting life’s demands. For example, if you slept all the time, you wouldn’t be living.
Essentially, stoicism is about self-control and being actively involved in life. Through this, you’ll find inner peace and you’ll be free from suffering.
Basically, we have to define the meaning in our own life by using free will, our choices, and personal responsibility. Also, we should make these choices free of law, ethical rules, and tradition. However, that isn’t to say there are no consequences, because there obviously are.
Existentialism is about choosing what you want to do with your life and how you’ll find meaning; just be prepared to deal with the repercussions.
Jeremy England, an assistant professor at MIT, says that life “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.” His theory is that objects, like rocks, plants, and animals, absorb and dissipate energy. Rocks absorb very little energy and release a little bit back. Living things, on the other hand, are really good at absorbing energy and dissipating only a little bit of it.
When atoms are hit by energy, like from the sun or from a chemical fuel, and they are surrounded by a heat bath, such as an ocean or atmosphere (like the conditions on Earth), the atoms will reorganize themselves to better dissipate the energy. In certain conditions, the reorganization inevitably leads to life.
On Earth, those atoms organized into a single cell and about 3.5 billion years ago, it started to evolve and eventually branched apart to become every single species on Earth.
So that’s it. The reason we’re here is because life was bound to happen sometime. That’s… kind of disappointing.
1. Projects of Worth
Susan Wolf is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and she has an interesting perspective on the meaning of life.
In her essay “The Meanings of Lives,” Wolfe argues that the question “does our existence have meaning?” only has two possible answers – either there is a God or gods, who created us for some reason, or there is no God, or gods, and our existence is random and has no meaning. That being said, she does not think that individual lives do not have meaning.
One of her early arguments in the essay is that she doesn’t think that happiness is an important aspect to the meaning of life. She points to people like Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa, and Mahatma Gandhi, who didn’t exactly lead happy lives, but to suggest their lives were meaningless would be outrageous. Meanwhile, someone who sits at home all day drinking beer and watching TV may be happy, but their lives lack meaning. But man, would they be so happy.
Wolf’s theory of having a meaningful life is to actively be engaged in a project or projects of positive value and the projects have to be successful.
What does that mean, exactly? Well, to be actively engaged should be pretty clear, but what are positive projects? That term is purposely vague because value means something different to everyone. For example, if you hate sports you may not see the value in someone training to be an elite athlete. Likewise, if you don’t read books, you may not see the value of someone trying to write a novel. Also, positive value does not mean it has to be moral nor does it necessarily have to better life for your fellow human.
Another main part of her theory is that you have to at least be a little successful in your project. An example she gives is a scientist who spends his entire life working on a single project. Then a week before he is about to publish it, another scientist publishes the same results that they discovered independently. His life would sadly be meaningless.
Wolf says that by being involved in projects of worth, instead of just pursuing things that make us happy, shows that we see value in something else besides ourselves, which in turns creates meaningful lives.
The Meaning of Life
Thought experiments are stories or analogies that attempt to shed light on an array of topics. Sometimes they are hypothetical situations to help us look at the world differently, or they show the paradoxes in human nature. Or they can help us visualize complicated concepts with the simplicity of a story. But no matter what they explain or illustrate, these thought experiments will hopefully mess with your mind, at least a little bit.
10. The Plank of Carneades
Let’s say you’re sailing on an old wooden ship and suddenly it catches fire. You jump overboard and there is another person in the water as well. You both look around the ruins of the ship, and the only thing you find that could save your life is a single plank of wood. The other person swims toward the plank, and he gets there before you do. The plank barely holds his weight, so you know that only one person will be able to stay afloat with the plank. When you get to the plank, you knock the person off of it and use it for yourself. The person who got the plank subsequently drowns. After you are rescued, you are charged with murder. At your trial, you claim you acted in self-defense. If you hadn’t acted the way you did, you would have died. What verdict will the jury come back with?
This thought experiment was first proposed by Carneades of Cyrene, who was born around 213/214 B.C., and it’s meant to show how complicated the difference between self-defense and murder can be.
9. The Library of Babel
The multiverse theory is that there are an infinite number of universes running parallel to our own, and in those parallel universes, anything is possible. It is a bit mind-boggling to think about, but a visual thought experiment that will help you better picture it is Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel.”
The library (or as Borges calls it, the universe) is made up of seemingly indefinite and possibly infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the galleries, there are books and every book is different from each other, however slightly. Perhaps one comma is in a different place, for example, but no two books are identical. At the other end of the spectrum, some books are radically different. They are in different languages and the stories vary. Some don’t have even have stories, they are just nonsense, like a book that repeats “MVC” over and over again. One character in the book believes that the library contains every single combination of letters and punctuation marks. The question then arises, if there are only a finite number of languages, letters, and combinations, is there actually an end to the library or are there an infinite number of galleries?
8. The Two Generals Problem
Two sets of troops, and for the sake of simplicity we’ll call them the red troops and the blue troops, have surrounded an enemy city and they want to attack it from the north and the south at the same time. If they were to attack one at a time, they would be slaughtered, so they need to strike in one coordinated attack. So the red general sends a messenger to tell the blue general what time he plans to attack. The problem is that the red general won’t know if the blue general got the instructions. After all, there is a chance the messenger didn’t make it to see the blue general; he could have easily been killed or captured on his trek. So the only way the red general will know if the blue general got the message is for the blue general to send the messenger back to the red general confirming he got the message. So the messenger goes back to the red general to confirm the blue general got the message. But then the red general will have to send the messenger back to the blue general to acknowledge he got the message. And this could keep going back and forth an infinite amount of times, or at least until the city becomes wise to the plan and attacks both sets of troops.
This thought experiment is often taught in introduction to computers. It shows the problems and design challenges of trying to coordinate an action if you are using an unreliable link of communication.
7. The Famous Violinist
One morning you wake up in an unfamiliar place in an incredible amount of pain. That’s when you notice that you are lying back to back with someone. As you’re coming to, a strange man enters your field of vision and says that he is from the Society of Music Lovers. “The woman you are back to back with is a famous violinist and she was dying because of a kidney ailment.” The man says. “We looked over medical records and found that you were a match to save her life. We kidnapped you, and through surgery, we connected your kidneys. If you disconnect from each other, the violinist will die. But if you wait nine months, the violinist should be able to survive on her own.”
You are taken to the hospital and the staff say that it is a real shame what happened to you, and they would have stopped the surgery before it happened, had they known about it. But since the violinist was already attached to your back, and removing her would kill her, she’s now your responsibility for at least nine months.
Should you give up nine months of your life to support the violinist? Is it your responsibility? What if it wasn’t just nine months? What if the violinist was reliant on you the rest of your life? What if having her attached to your back shortened your life? What obligation, if any, do you have for the life of the violinist?
This thought experiment is the basis for the feminist essay “A Defense of Abortion” by Judith Jarvis Thomson. The bizarre scenario is meant to give a different perspective on the rights of women when it comes to abortion, especially in the cases of rape, or when the mother’s life would be shortened by going through with the pregnancy.
6. The Experience Machine
What is the meaning of life? Hedonism certainly makes sense in theory. Why wouldn’t we want to have the most pleasurable experiences in our life? Or at the very least, avoid situations that cause us pain? To put that theory to the test is the Experience Machine thought experiment.
You respond to a weird online ad for an unusual experiment at the local university. At the university you meet an eccentric neuroscientist who gives you an interesting offer. She says, “I have this machine, called the Experience Machine, and it can plug directly into your brain. It will manipulate your brain to make you think you are experiencing things, when you are simply floating in a tank. Everything will seem real, and you wouldn’t know you’re in a simulation. It will be indistinguishable from real life. The only difference is that I’ll only program pleasurable experiences into the machine. That means from the moment you plug in, you’ll experience the greatest things known to humankind and every single second in the machine will be completely and utterly joyful. The bad news is that there is no turning back, once you plug in, that will be your life. You will never be able to disconnect. So do you want to hook up and experience a simulated life full of joy and wonder? Or do you want to live your life that has its ups and downs, but it is real?”
So, what do you do? Do you connect to the machine and live in simulated hedonism or do you choose the real world?
Robert Nozick’s thought experiment asks a few thought provoking questions. One of the main things it questions is the nature of hedonism. Are people always looking for something that is pleasurable? Nozick argues that people will generally want the real thing over a simulated experience. Also, connecting to the machine would disconnect you from the real world, thus by hooking up to the machine, you’d be committing suicide. So, since people would choose real life that includes pain, suffering, and misery, over the Experience Machine, that would suggest people just don’t pursue hedonism.
5. The Spider in the Urinal
The Spider in the Urinal is meant to show the problem with altruism and that is, sometimes, doing something with the best intentions can still be devastatingly harmful. Also, you can never really fully understand what another person wants and that happiness and comfort mean different things to different people.
It’s a dark and stormy night, and you’re walking through a swamp. Suddenly, you’re hit by lightning and you die. But through some miracle, in another part of the swamp, there is another lightning strike and it alters the molecules in the air to create an exact replica of you all the way down to the smallest part. This includes your memory. Another way of looking at it is, every time the Star Trek crew uses the transporter, they are killed and a clone is created in the new area.
The Swamp-Person would look and act just like you and no one would notice any difference, but is it actually you? Is Swamp-Person even a person? The author of the experiment, Donald Davidson, argues that the being wouldn’t be a real person because even though Swamp-Person willappear to recognize your friends and family, it is actually impossible for the Swamp-Person to recognize any of them because when he sees them it is for the first time. Since he is a new being, he didn’t cognize them in the first place. Secondly, he has no casual history, so when he talks about things, it isn’t genuine, he never learned about anything so his utterances would have no real meaning. It would just be empty sounds without true meaning.
3. Kavka’s Toxin Puzzle
One day you’re sitting in a coffee shop alone, just minding your own business, when an old man sits down at your table and places a vial in front of you. Without introducing himself, he explains he’s a very rich man and says “Do you want a million dollars?”
At least a little intrigued to hear his offer, you say “sure.” He says, “In this vial is a toxin that will leave you very sick and in a lot of pain for 24 hours, but it will have no lasting effect. I will give you the money if at midnight tonight, you intend to drink the toxin tomorrow afternoon. If you intend to do so, I will deposit the money in your bank account by 10:00 a.m.”
That’s when you notice the hole in his plan. “So you mean that I’ll have the money hours before I have to drink the toxin?”
“That’s right,” he says. “And you only need to intend to drink it. Actually drinking the toxin is not required to get and keep the money, you just need to prove your intention to do so.” He pushes over some legal papers and leaves the vial with you. He gets up from the table and he says he’ll see you at midnight.
You take the toxin home and your spouse, who is a chemist, examines the toxin and confirms it will cause you a lot of pain, but it won’t kill you. Next you have your daughter, a lawyer, check over the paperwork and everything is good to go. At midnight, all you have to do is intend to drink the potion the next afternoon and the money will be in your account at 10:00 a.m. and you do not have to drink the poison to get and/or keep the money.
Of course, since you aren’t forced to actually drink the toxin you may think, “I’ll just intend to drink it at midnight and then change my mind after the test.” But if that were the case, then you’d fail the test because, in the end, you weren’t intending to drink it. That’s when you realize how even a little doubt could disrupt the machine. Your son, who is a strategist for the Pentagon, suggests that in order to pass the test, simply make unbreakable plans to ensure you’ll drink it. Such as hiring a hit man to kill you if you don’t drink it, or signing a legal document that says you’ll give away all your money, including the million, if you don’t drink it. Your daughter looks over the contract and says tricks like that are not allowed. So as midnight rolls around you keep saying over and over again, you will drink the poison, and then the moment of truth comes, and what happens?
This thought experiment from moral and political philosopher Gregory S. Kavka is about the nature of intentions. You can’t intend to act if you have no reason to act, or at the very least, a reason not to act. So if you already have the money, there is no reason for you to actually drink the toxin, so you can’t have the intention at midnight. This leads to Kavka’s second point that you have to have a reason to intend to drink the toxin, but then the afternoon comes to drink it, you have no real reason to actually drink it.
2. The Survival Lottery
There are two patients in the hospital who are dying from organ failure. Jane needs a new heart, and John needs some new lungs. Neither of them abused their bodies, and their organ failure was just bad luck. Their doctors tell them that there are no donor organs available, so sadly John and Jane are going to die. Of course, John and Jane are upset, but they also point out that there are organs they can use; it is just that other people are using them. They argue that one person should be killed, because giving up one life to save two lives is clearly better. In fact, they start a campaign calledthe Survival Lottery. The lottery would be mandatory, so everyone will be given a random number. When at least two people need organs, there will be a draw from a group of suitable donors. The “winner” (to use the term very loosely) goes into the hospital, is killed, and then their organs are harvested and given to the maximum amount of people. They argue that the lottery is very utilitarian, because more people will benefit because two people who would have died were saved by one person’s sacrifice. Also, is it fair to let John and Jane die just because they are unlucky? Why is it fair that two people will die and one gets to live simply because of luck?
This lottery scenario is used as an examination of utilitarianism, which is the philosophy that the morally right solution is what benefits the greatest amount of people. But would it be for the greater good? Would the lottery cause too much terror, so that it wouldn’t be for the betterment of society? Or would people in the long run realize that the lottery actually benefits them? It also questions the difference between killing and inaction. Is one worse than the other?
1. Roko’s Basilisk
The thought experiment from the website Less Wrong involves two complicated theories. The first theory is called coherent extrapolated volition (CEV), which is essentially an artificial intelligence system that controls robots with the directive to make the world a better place. The second theory is within CEV and that is orthogonality thesis. This thesis is that an AI system can operate with any combination of intelligence and goal. That means it will undertake any task, no matter how big or small it is. And fixing the world’s problems will always be ongoing, so CEV is open ended and so the AI system will always look for stuff to fix, because things can always get better. And because of orthogonality thesis it will tackle any problem.
This is where the problem arises, because the AI will not have human reasoning. It simply wants to make the world a better place as efficiently as possible. So, according to the AI the best thing humans could possibly do is help the AI come into existence as soon as possible. In order to motivate people with fear, the AI could retroactively punish people, like torture and kill them, for not making it come into existence sooner. What’s even more worrisome is that by just knowing that this potential AI system could exist, you could be in danger because you are not doing everything you can to help it come into existence. In fact, your life could just be a simulation created by the AI as research into the best way to punish you.
This leads to a complex dilemma. Do you work to help create this AI system to ensure you don’t get punished? Or do you just avoid helping, or even prevent the uprising which could lead to torture and death? All we can say is good luck!
– WIF Human Nature
Paradoxes are a fascinating part of reality and there are paradoxes in many different fields like math, physics, logic, psychology, and language. When it comes to trying to understand them, paradoxes can make the brain feel like it’s doing somersaults, but they can also expand your mind and make you look at the world in a whole new way.
10. Hilbert’s Paradox of the Grand Hotel
Imagine if you will, there is a hotel with an infinite number of rooms and each room is booked with an infinite number of guests. If that were the case, then every single room would be booked, right? Because an infinite amount of guests would fill an infinite amount of rooms. But the hotel has a weird paradox where there are always vacancies and they are always booked. This can be seen when a new guest shows up. To find him a room, David Hilbert, who thought of the paradox, suggested that everyone move to the next room. For example, one moves into two, two moves into three and so on.
But what happens if more than one person shows up, say another infinite amount of people? Hilbert says that the people in the rooms could just go to the room number that is double their current number and then there will be room for everyone.
This paradox speaks to the nature of infinity and has fascinated mathematicians for decades. It also probably has given more than a few hotel employees terrible nightmares.
9. The Raven’s Paradox
Logician Carl Gustav Hempel first proposed his “raven paradox” in the 1940s and it questions our belief in confirmation. We make confirmations in both science and everyday life based on observations. For example, let’s say a detective was trying to solve a crime. He would find evidence and the evidence would back up his theory, disprove his theory, or the evidence could be neutral. The evidence could also be strong or weak. What Hempel asks is what does it take for a piece of evidence to confirm the hypothesis, rather than disprove it or be neutral about it?
To demonstrate the paradox, Hempel talked about ravens. He said that after observing a few ravens and noticing they were all black, someone may infer that all ravens everywhere are black. But that is impossible to check, because there have been so many ravens throughout history and there will be more in the future and just one non-black raven would disprove the theory that all ravens are black.
Also, there is the contrapositive, which is another theory that is the opposite of the hypothesis but it is still true. For example, the contrapositive for “all ravens are black” is that “all non-black things are non-ravens.” That means that every single thing that is non-black and non-raven, like a blue shirt or a yellow tennis ball, proves that ravens are black. Of course, there are way too many non-black non-raven things in the universe and so that type of information really does not contribute to the hypothesis that all ravens are black.
The raven paradox is meant to be a warning against generalization and that there needs to be a limited scope if a scientist wants to prove something beyond a doubt.
8. The Friendship Paradox
An interesting paradox involving social circles is that you most likely have a friend who has more friends than you do. This seems like a pretty broad statement considering we don’t know you personally, but we’re sure we’re right. The reason we can assuredly say you have a friend who is more popular than you is because nearly everyone has a friend who is more popular than them.
But, why is that? Well, first and foremost, people with a lot of friends are more likely to be your friends anyways. But why everyone probably has a friend more popular than themselves is because popular people are part of more social networks so they are misrepresented in averages because they appear more times. This makes it look like there are more popular people, but popular people actually just spread themselves out more and this effects probability. Of course, the paradox is much more complicated than we’ve explained, but if you like to learn more, visit this great New York Times article about it.
So if it seems like other people are more popular than you, they probably are, but that is due to the laws of probability.
7. The Barber Paradox
The Barber Paradox from British Philosopher Bertrand Russell takes place in a small town with some strict personal hygiene laws. In the town, by law, all men must be clean shaven and they have a choice as to how they shave. They can either be shaved by the one male barber in town, or they can shave themselves.
The paradox that arises is: who shaves the barber? When he shaves, he is shaving himself and he is being shaved by the barber. We highly recommend not asking your hairdresser about this paradox next time you get your haircut; they may lose their concentration while thinking about it!
6. Buridan’s Bridge
Written by the Ancient Greeks and first described by philosopher Jean Buridan in the late middle century is the paradox of Buridan’s Bridge. In the paradox, Socrates is travelling and wants to cross a bridge that is being guarded by Plato. Plato tells Socrateshe can only pass if he tells him the truth. But if Socrates were to lie, Plato would throw him over the bridge to drown him.
Socrates responds by saying, “you will throw me in the water.” So what will Plato do? Throw Socrates in the water? That would mean, Socrates was telling the truth and should have been allowed to pass. But if Plato allows him to pass, then Socrates wasn’t telling the truth.
5. The Liar’s Paradox
The liar’s paradox can be summed up in one sentence: “Everything I say is a lie.” But it is impossible for that sentence to be true because if everything I do say is a lie, then that sentence would be true, meaning that not everything I say is a lie.
To illustrate the point, let’s look at two variations of the paradox. For the card paradox, pretend you had a card or a piece of paper, and on one side of the card it says, “the statement on the other side of this card is true.” While on the other side, it says “The statement on the other side of this card is false.” Both sentences can’t co-exist with each other on the card because they cancel each other out. Another variation of the liar’s paradox is the Pinocchio paradox. In the paradox, Pinocchio lies and says, “My nose grows now.” Since he’s lying, his nose should grow, but if his nose grew, then he wouldn’t be lying. Hopefully Pinocchio doesn’t test that paradox in the upcoming movie about him; his little wooden head might explode.
4. The Sorites Paradox and The Ship of Theseus
These two paradoxes are similar because they are paradoxes about vagueness, so we’re going to make them one entry. First is the Sorites paradox, otherwise known as the heap paradox. For the paradox, there are two presumptions:
- A million grains of sand is a heap.
- A heap minus one grain of sand is still a heap.
That means if you removed one grain of sand, 999,999,999 grains of sand would be left and that is still a heap according to the second presumption. But what if you kept removing grains of sand one at a time, when would the heap stop being a heap? If the second presumption is true, then even one grain of sand or a negative amount of sand would be considered a heap.
If that wasn’t thought provoking enough, then hopefully The Ship Of Theseus will get you thinking a bit more. Imagine there was a boat and piece by piece, the entire ship is replaced. Is that still the same ship? Another example is Washington’s ax. Is it still his ax when the handle has been replaced three times and the blade twice?
Both speak to the nature of identity and asks the question, when does an object stop being that object? Interestingly enough, debates about these paradoxes are starting to emerge with the possibility of human and computer augmentation. If a person gets computer or machine upgrades on their mind and body, at what point do they stop being a human and become a machine?
3. The Birthday Paradox
If you had a group of 23 people, what are the odds that two of those people shared the same birthday (month and day, not year)? Logically, it seems like a pretty small number. After all, there are 365 days in a year and only 23 possible birthdays. Yet, there is a 50 percent chance that two people will share the same birthday. If there is a group of 30 people, then there is a 70 percent chance and if there is a group of 70 people, then there is a 99.9 percent chance that two of them will share the same birthday.
But why is that? Well, it’s a rather complicated process involving the laws of probability. To make this easier, we’ll look at the probability for each person. When the first person walks into the room, there is zero chance anyone has the same birthday as him or her because no one else is in the room, making the probability 365/365. Then the second person walks into the room and the chances of them having a unique birthday are 364/365. Then for the third person, it is a 363/365 chance that they will have a unique birthday. This continues on until the 23rd person, who has a 343/365 chance of having a unique birthday. Then you multiply the 23 probabilities together and it equals 0.491 and then you subtract that from 1, which leaves you with 50.9. Which means that the odds that two people out of 23 will share the same birthday is 50.9 percent.
To test the theory for yourself, try random combinations of 23 people on your social media accounts. About half the time, you should find two people with matching birthdays.
2. The Bootstrap Paradox
Paradoxes are a fundamental part of time travel and one of the more interesting ones is “the bootstrap paradox”, also known as causal loops. The paradox gets its name from the short story “By His Bootstraps” by famed sci-fi author, Robert Heinlein.
The paradox works like this: let’s say you bought a copy of Romeo and Juliet and travelled back in time to the English Renaissance. Once there, you find a young William Shakespeare and you give him the copy of Romeo and Juliet. He copies the play word-for-word and then he simply presents the play instead of writing it. As the centuries go on, it’s finally the present day and you find the same copy of Romeo and Juliet that you gave to Shakespeare. Now, if you gave Shakespeare the story, then who wrote Romeo and Juliet?
1. Specious Present
This paradox purposes the question, is anyone or anything ever really present? To consider the paradox, it is important to ask what exactly is “the present.” A second? A nanosecond? Well, those units of time can be broken down into three parts; the beginning, the present and the end. But then each time it gets dissected, the new present could be divided again into the beginning, middle and end. And theoretically, this can just keep going on indefinitely and the present can always be divided into three smaller parts. So if time can always be divided, does the present ever exist? Because if the present can always be broken down, that would mean there is no duration known as the present and there is no gap between the past and the future.
A further extension on the paradox is that in order for something to exist in our universe, it has to have a duration. For example, something can’t exist for no amount of time. So if the present has no duration, does that mean the present doesn’t exist? And if there is no such thing as the present, what does it say about the existence of the universe?