Alternate Lives

When I was young, boys often dreamed of being Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon. But we soon realized that, tragically, such opportunities were unlikely to come our way. Fortunately, Western capitalism seemed to allow us to emulate Edison or Carnegie or Rockefeller if we were simply smart and worked hard enough. The more intelligent among us probably were content to be like their father or some local hero.

Then we grew up and, alas, became just the adults we were. Choices were necessary, sacrifices had to be made, risks were taken, fate often intervened. Many of us, I think, were fortunate to merely survive and ended up working hard at accepting whatever life had dished out.

The worst trap was the same for both hedonists and workaholics. That was a belief that tomorrow could always be different. Make a lot of money now, worry about friends and family and fun later. Or vice versa

I suppose I could have been someone else. Like everyone I have had dreams and regrets. But as I aged I put more time into decorating the situation I actually inhabit, tweaking life rather than hoping to start anew.

Fortunately, we have literature and its extensions. We can actually be one of those alternative people for a while. All we need to do is immerse ourselves in the media. There is little more fortunate than having a mind enabled for such “fake” experiences.


Everything fails. Oh, I know the sun will shine tomorrow, but in my life nothing is guaranteed success. I may eat mushrooms every day of my life but die of food poisoning at my last mushroom dinner. Or drop dead as I take my daily walk.

My philosophy can be no different. Certain aspects of what I believe are conditional on circumstance. It is hard to “seize the day” when alone on a lifeboat in mid-Atlantic, hard to “be enchanted” when starving or ill, hard to “keep perspective” when faced with violence.

Possibly like Maslow’s famous hierarchy, certain layers of philosophy are more useful at certain levels of existence. That does not negate the idea that others are more operable elsewhere. If I am snug and well fed I can contemplate life easily.

In a scientific age, we assume failure means wrong. A machine fails because it is broken. But in the realm of thought that is not true. A failure is more an indication that some belief is irrelevant rather than that it is incorrect.

Perhaps, then, the goal of a philosopher is to find a way to rapidly shift what is relevant to the forefront of consideration before acting. And to keep a large assemblage of alternate concepts in readiness.


Useful philosophy must be grounded in life. Although we like to believe we are at our best when disembodied consciousness, we are at base animals. Any attempt at various branches of philosophy like ethics or social interaction must recognize that.

Since before Darwin, we have understood that the primary drive of all life is to survive. That necessity is closely followed by the need to replicate. Before all else, humans are alive. Following classic logic, then, all humans seek to survive.

Uniquely, we are able to sublimate survival instincts to larger concepts. A bear may instinctively fight to the death to save her cubs, but people are able to give their life to intangible concepts like family, country, honor, and so forth in the hope that by sacrificing the individual the concept itself will continue.

Philosophy must recognize the innate power of the will to survive _ if not as an individual then as a concept. Note that that in no way constrains the actual shape of the concept. People die for evil as well as good, but nonetheless they are willing to die.

Somewhere in the foundation of a useful philosophy is the bedrock that an individual seeks to survive. Even if that drive can be warped to near invisibility.


Intangible concepts like philosophy, economics, sociology and so on have only one real use. How to better understand the past to take actions in the present to control the future.

The need to do this is buried deeply in instinct. A horse does not need to think, but is able to eat grass to end hunger because it has done so before. Our ancestors similarly found food and developed systems to avoid famine.

As far as I can tell, there is no absolute way to micro predict the future. I will probably die, but I can’t tell how or when. But I can examine the past and use it this moment. Being able to do so is the beginning of philosophy, but the real application of that discipline is to let me control how I feel about that moment.

Most philosophy boils down to that. Strip away all the arcane foundations and logical superstructure and what you end up with is “ah, I feel relieved.” The consolations of philosophy.

A small thing, you would think, compared to all the grand other stuff we experience. But it is the framework into which we slot everything. How we feel about that framework is who we are. And who we are is for us the only really important thing.

How we construct that framework _ not what it is, which will vary for each of us _ is the practical use of philosophy


Einstein liked “thought experiments.” Myths may be thought of as “thought stories.” Like many in our technological society, I enjoy imagining “thought theories.” None of these have historic, objective “reality”, but they can be informative anyway. Useful just-so tales to make us think in new ways.

In that spirit, I wonder if loneliness is an evolved survival trait. Humans are a very social species. One person alone in the world is vulnerable. Even if successful, such an outlaw is considered a bad, useless, dangerous hermit or wild beast. A fair target for any tribe.

Loneliness, then, may be the inner instinct to find others to bond with. Maybe it helps in both individual and species survival. Making one nervous and depressed when isolated from groups of people could possibly be useful.

Of course they must be the right people. Just anyone in a mob will not do. Loneliness must be dispelled by at least a basic tribal relationship. Trust, shared goals, Mutual support.

In our complicated world, tribes come and go, most of them fleeting. Temporary, and easily changed. As we grow cynical of any relationships, loneliness is one outcome.

Perhaps that is why virtual reality is of so little use when we are truly lonely.


Even Plato realized that his ideal forms did not exist in our reality. The perfect circle, perfect vacuum, or perfect good exist only in imagination. We can never find a perfect autumn maple leaf.

Yet we can intelligently use “perfect” in our conversation. A “perfect moment” has meaning, and a meaning that indicates more than “simply better than most.” We  internally also understand that there are limits and contradictions implied.

Confusion arises when terms like “perfect” become a fad. Lately, for example, we are told of “perfect adaptations to an environmental niche.” But there is no such thing. Life is ruled by “just good enough” and evolution by “just a tiny bit better adapted or lucky.”

The old saying “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” expresses that perfectly. We apply it all the time in daily society _ a ”little white lie” is a useful example.

Then, alas, there are formal religion and academic philosophy, where suddenly absolute perfection has a starring role. That such a chimeric concept should drive so many brilliant minds to madness and fury is a constant marvel.

Me, I’m quite content with imperfect, and even glory in the halo of ambiguity it casts around my existence.

Just Me

Samuel Johnson declared “only a blockhead writes for anything except money.” Those who have kept diaries, journals, blogs or even unpublished books would disagree.

There is something in organizing writing that not only concentrates thought, but also leaves a residual Improvement on the brain. It is a solitary equivalent of conversation. It is also a wonderful (or time wasting) diversion whose other virtue is that it costs little.

Technology has made writing and exposing so easy today that everyone does it. So many thoughts. In that flood, impossible to read much. Not too many centuries ago, all the literature many colonial Americans possessed was the Bible and the plays of Shakespeare. Today more than that pops up on the internet in a minute or two, intertwined with other seductive media.

Not long ago, many aimed to write to change the world. Now that is a forlorn hope. In that way, we have returned to the environment of Dr Johnson. 

But I find great freedom. No longer constrained by dreaming of great influences _ nor even of just changing your mind _ I can say just what I want, when I want, for the sheer joy of shouting into the universe.

It’s just me … and my trusty chromebook.

Foolish blockhead.


Religion and philosophy are basically the same thing, a response to our overwhelming impulse to respond to the unknowable. Both strongly fixate on doing the right thing now to be in harmony with the infinite universe.

I am skeptical of people who tell me that the purpose of life or the will of God is mysterious and beyond our comprehension, but who nevertheless want to explain their take on it to me. I get it, it’s unknowable. It’s fascinating. It helps pass the time. 

Philosophy is generally thought to follow passionless logic and quiet wisdom, often emanating from some dried up old geezer with nothing to lose. Religion, on the other hand, is best led by thunderous prophets with all to gain. But for those unaffected by the plague of the ineffable, they are equally weird.

I embrace the unknowable and coddle my own religious impulse. I pray, if only to create a mantra of what is truly important to me. I tend to respect those with similar beliefs more than others. But I can never claim to know divine truth and I fear those who claim to do so.

I can reasonably discuss what is important to me and to others, but only based on our own intertwining daily lives, never on fevered dreams of cosmic systems.


Bright early sunny September morning. Writing these messages seems to me a bit like what old time ministers did each week. That begins with a search for a topic. I could use anything at all but today I choose sunshine.

Sunshine, in this case, is an example of all that separates humans from animals and machines. In spite of rampant anthropomorphism, it is hard to imagine an oak or sparrow awaking with joy at the brilliant beams of dawn. And no matter how many scientific facts a machine intelligence could accumulate, it would never feel the multiple lifts you and I get from arising and stepping out into a beautiful day.

Some would claim that the oak feels energized, the sparrow quickens with instincts, maybe even the solar powered machine begins to do its electric tasks. My argument is that none of those can appreciate sunshine as you and I do.

Appreciation involves the moment, with all senses engaged, often with knowledge and logic lurking in the background. We tie in past and future _ other lovely moments, will it rain? We plan activities like picnics. The more humble among us give thanks for this immense miracle. Sunshine as experienced by you, is an ever-new element of your universe, never to be exactly existing before or after now.

Today sunshine makes me happy. But it is just one facet of mindful life among an infinite variety of joys.


“Cleanliness is next to godliness.” My wife Joan would replace cleanliness with “being organized.” Nothing to her is more important than having things in their proper place_ physically, socially, and mentally.

It is true that organizing puts items into a possibly useful pattern. But what principle of organization is the right one? There it all falls apart. Alphabetic order is not much use if you are laying out a machine to assemble. Chronological order doesn’t help if you are picking a soccer team.

The real problem is that those who want to organize assume that whatever principle we use should be simple. In reality that is not so. Life is highly organized – if it were not it would just be a stinking puddle of chemicals. Yet any doctor will tell you how far from simple your body and health are.

I do not deny that organizing is a useful tool. It can help bring a little sense out of chaos and let us gain some control over our environment. As in all things the problem lies in taking it too far, letting any given organization obscure the original whole.

Existence has infinite intersecting organizational principles. Picking one of them to develop a story or textbook is going to be not only inadequate, but also blindingly wrong.