I hope you all are enjoying Helen's series on the passions of philosophers. I, for one, have found it fascinating (and fun!) to hear how diverse everyone's passions are, and how those passions enrich their lives and in some cases intersect with their philosophical work. Because my own passions have played such an important role in my life--and a rather odd role in my philosophical work--I'd like to share my passions with you all as well.
My first passion is video-games. For some reason, I've always been drawn to them like a moth to flame. When I was something like 3-years-old, my brother was a national teen racquetball champion so I often traveled with my parents to his tournaments. Since we had so much time on our hands--and this was when arcade games were first coming out (gulp, yes I'm that old!)--my mom basically gave me a bunch of change and let me play videogames at the racquetball club until my heart's content. My favorite game was Ms. PacMan, and I played it constantly for hours on end, challenging other club patrons to one-on-one games, etc. For what it's worth, although I'm sure there are those out there who might doubt my parents' wisdom in letting my play videogames so much, it's actually one of the (many) things I admire about them as parents. They never imposed their views on my about what I "should" be doing, but essentially always let me explore my interests freely as long as they weren't clearly negatively affecting my life. Since my videogame obsession never really did get in the way of anything--I always did well enough in school, played sports, played outside, etc.--they never really stopped me.
Anyway, my videogame obsession began early in childhood--and it never really stopped throughout my childhood or my adulthood...until a few years ago (more on this later). Indeed, when I was really struggling in grad school, aside from my band, the game Halo 2 was my only real outlet. Alas, this time videogames did get in my way. I pretty much played Halo 2 non-stop for about a year, wasting a ton of time when I really should have been working on my dissertation. Yet while I felt like a degenerate, as fate would have it, it wasn't wasted time. As fate would have it, all of my "wasted" time in life playing Ms. PacMan and Halo 2 ended up inspiring what I still think is still one of my best philosophical ideas: the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Simulation Hypothesis and new theory of free will that I defended in my 2013 article, "A New Theory of Free Will." I will explain how this is below--but, before I get to that, I would like to introduce my other two passions, as they ended up interacting with my videogame passion in inspiring some of my philosophical work.
My second passion is music. This passion actually came to me rather late. My brother was a teenage guitar prodigy who went onto become a music producer--and I pretty much hated music until late in high-school/early college. Then, for some reason or other, I was bitten by the music bug, ended up joining a punk band in college as a bassist, then ended up buying my first six-string guitar, playing guitar in an 80's-inspired band in grad school.
When it comes to art and playing music, my aesthetic tastes are a bit odd. Unlike most other musicians I know, I have no interest in technical proficiency. I've always thought art should be as original as possible, and that learning how other people do things constrains creativity, implicitly closing off a lot of possibilities as things "one is not supposed to do." Because of this I never took any lessons. Instead, I learned how to play guitar simply by putting my fingers on different strings, figuring out which combinations of notes sounded good to me, and which didn't--and then continuing to practice the former but not the latter. The funny thing is, all these years later--despite playing in a handful of bands and recording 5 albums--I've never learned how to play a single song not written either by myself or my bandmates. It's actually kind of embarrassing sometimes. Every once in a while I meet someone who is a musician (some of the faculty at my current university are), and they say, "You should come jam with us." I usually weasel my way out of answering--as the honest-to-goodness answer is, "I wish I could, but I don't know how to!" It's kind of funny I suppose. :)
Anyway, after finishing my grad school comp exams, I rather stupidly bought a home recording studio on credit-cards and spent three months recording music solo instead of doing philosophy. By any reasonable estimation, this--much like my time playing Halo 2--was a total waste of time. Alas, as fate would have it my home recording experience also inspired "A New Theory of Free Will"! But, before I explain that, I'd like to introduce my third passion.
My third passion is reading intellectual biographies. I love reading about the history of great thinkers (but not artists or musicians, strangely enough), and for mostly two reasons. First, I find the stories themselves fascinating--especially of how people like Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Rosalind Franklin, Nash, etc., often struggled so much more than people realize. We now venerate them as scientific or philosophical gods--but it wasn't always like that. When we read their stories, we see that they were once just ordinary (albeit brilliant!) people facing the same kinds of struggles most of us philosophers do: their work driving them crazy, academia getting them down, and so on. It's just so cool to see how "the greats" struggled like we do.
The second, much deeper reason I like reading intellectual biographies is that I like to learn from them; I like to learn how these figures ended up having the great ideas they did--that is, what their "process" was. Einstein, for instance, is a truly fascinating story. Everyone knows (I hope) about his years spent as a clerk in a patent office without an academic job. What most people don't know--aside from the fact that he was apparently blacklisted by his PhD advisor (who is said to have written him a negative recommendation letter for being too insolent!)--is that Einstein's time in the patent office doesn't appear to have been incidental to his discovery of relativity; it appears to have been central to it. Allow me to briefly explain.
A number of the biographies I've read argue that there's evidence that Einstein's work in the patent office got him to focus less on abstract equations and the received scientific literature, and more on the very simple issue of how concrete things around us (like clocks!) actually work. As the story goes, Einstein had been puzzled about the invariant speed of light (which is the same in all reference frames)--and as he was just riding to work one day on the train he passed between two clock towers several hundred yards apart, and it came to him right then and there: the two clocks would have to have different/relative time given the invariant nature of the speed of light (I've been to very spot where Einstein was riding the train [see picture below], and you can indeed see them both clock towers from the train). And of course this is the standard illustration used to explain the theory (see other picture).
One comes across stuff like this a lot in intellectual biographies, that is, the strange ways people came to the ideas they had. Strangely, unlike in music--where I don't like to copy what other people do--when it comes to intellectual matters I have exactly the opposite proclivity: I like to read intellectual biographies so I can learn how great thinkers came to the ideas they had. And, as the Einstein case shows, more often than not good ideas come from the most unexpected places (usually, in my experience, from the relevant thinker's engagement not with books or journal articles, but instead in the day-to-day world around them. Darwin is another excellent example here, with his famous trip to the Galapagos islands shifting his life path from that of a struggling scholar to world-changer!).
Anyway, because these sorts of things are common in intellectual biographies, I've always tried to remind myself of these kinds of lessons when thinking about philosophical problems. Whenever I get stuck on a problem, I always try to remind myself of the "Einstein lesson" to get outside of my head and think about concrete mechanisms to explain things.
Here's one case case where this worked--bringing together all three of my passions into the philosophical domain. The basic ideas of my 2013 paper "A New Theory of Free Will"--that we are living in a peer-to-peer networked computer simulation without a central computer, and that this P2P Hypothesis explains quantum phenomena and time-relativity while making room for free will--emerged very slowly over a series of decades, partly thanks to music and partly due to videogames.
The first germ of the idea occurred in 1995, my freshman year of college, when I was a student of Dan Dennett's listening to him go on about how our brains are just computers and there is no "hard problem" of consciousness. I remember thinking that, no, qualitative properties like redness most certainly do not fit into a physical world--as colors are qualities, not digital "bits." I then remember going home for Christmas and listening to the last song on Pearl Jam's Vs. album (what can I say, I had bad musical taste early on!), and thinking how interesting it was that (A) the music on the CD was just digital information, but (B) the music didn't "come alive"--there were no qualitative sounds--until the information on the disk was read by an external mechanism (the CD player).
This idea--that the digital bits of our world must be "played" somehow by an external medium to "come alive" (viz. consciousness)--faded into the background for over a decade. Then, after I bought my home recording studio in grad school in 2005, I remember recording very late one night and watching how, when playing back music I had just recorded, the computer processor's "timeline" moved from left to right across the musical waveform, again bringing it "alive." This time, however, instead of thinking (as I did in 1995) about how there needed to be an external medium to read digital information, it became evident to me how close the image of the wave-form playback is to the moving-spotlight theory of time. It occurred to me at that point, "Oh my, maybe consciousness is an external reading mechanism, and it is the moving spotlight that bring the digital information alive!". Alas, I didn't quite know what to do with this idea either, so I just let it lie.
A few years later, in 2012, after teaching an intro class playing around with these ideas in relation to free will, I drafted a 21-page initial version of "A New Theory of Free Will." The initial draft was quite a far cry from the version I eventually published (it didn't include any of the P2P Hypothesis stuff), but I sent it to a journal anyway just for the hell of it. I ended up getting a revise-and-resubmit with some encouraging yet challenging comments--the most centra of which concerned the problem of how, if all of our conscious minds are external "readers" of digital information, we all end up in the same universe rather than in different parallel universes populated by Zombies.
Anyway, one morning in early 2012 I had a 4am Skype interview with a school in Kazakhstan or something, and after the interview I had nothing to do except for work on the R&R. I was listening to my favorite band Mew and thinking through the referee's question of how we all end up in the same universe, and reflected on the lesson learned from reading so many intellectual biographies. I asked myself, "What concrete mechanism could lead different consciousnesses to all end up in the same universe?" The answer then hit me almost all at once, bringing together the idea I had in 1995 about music only coming "alive" when read by a CD player or processor, the idea I had in 2005 that this is analogous to the moving-spotlight theory of time, and finally, my experience playing Halo2! The idea was simply this: that modern online videogames ensure that all users experience the same "reality" in virtue of their different game systems in different livingrooms across the world being linked together via the internet.
That was a cool idea--but the much cooler idea came a split-second later. I remembered back to a day that I was playing Halo 2 on the map "Outlook", and how one time a person was "shooting me through a wall", with his bullets seemingly tunneling through the wall and hitting my character. I remember that I didn't know what was happening, but learned later it was the result of "internet lag", where (A) my opponent's console coded the bullet going near the wall but not hitting it, but (B) my console recording his bullets hitting the wall, leading to (C) the bullets appearing from my perspective to go through the wall. I immediately realized then and there that all of this approximates what we know in our world as "quantum mechanics." When you have many independent simulated worlds interacting in parallel without any central computer, the inevitable computational result over the sum of interacting worlds is:
- A massive superposition of parallel worlds
- Indeterminacy in where objects "are" (since every individual console represents them slightly differently)
- A wave-particle duality (since each individual console represents every object at a point, but if we sum across different consoles we get different amplitudes of how many consoles represent an object at that given point).
All of which are the "strange" quantum features physicists have found in our world. It occurred to me then and there that this means quantum mechanics itself emerges naturally and inevitably from peer-to-peer computer networking--and that this means we are probably living in a P2P simulation, since that's the simplest and most unified concrete mechanism to explain all of this strangeness. Oh, and on a P2P network, every console has its own internal clock (viz. time-relativity). That was a good morning...and it was all the result the time I "wasted" in my life playing music and videogames!
Indeed, the videogame influence didn't end there. My childhood experience playing Ms. PacMan inspired the parts of "A New Theory of Free Will. It occurred to me that when we look at a simple "world" like the Ms. PacMan game, just about everything in the world appears "physically determined." For instance, the maze your character navigates (i.e. its "walls" and open paths) is all determined by the programming of the game; so are the "dots" she eats to gain points, as are the evil "ghosts" who chase you around and try to kill you. It occurred to me that observers in a Ms. PacMan world would almost certainly come to the conclusion--if they did "Ms. PacMan Physics"--that their world must be fully deterministic. And yet...something might seem "off" to them about Ms. PacMan's choices. Her behavior, after all, is far more complex and unpredictable than anything else in the game--more unpredictable than the flashing dots, and more unpredictable than the ghosts that mindlessly chase her around. Indeed, Ms. PacMan might even wonder if she has some kind of special "libertarian" free will beyond the "physics" of her world. And here's the thing: she would be right. After all, we are controlling her from outside of her world. Her choices are not determined by any of the "laws" or programming of her world: her choices are determined by something beyond her world--namely us.
But now notice: we are very much like Ms. PacMan. Take any playable videogame you like that we have created to date, and you will notice something special about them: there are always two kinds of characters--(1) "player" characters, who we control from outside of the game, and (2) "non-player characters" (or NPCs), who are wholly programmed into the game itself (viz. Ms. PacMan's ghosts). What's interesting is that the videogames we have created nearly always have one or several types of player characters (that we control from the outside), whereas most of the other "creatures" in the game worlds (e.g. Ms. PacMan's ghosts) are non-player characters--characters whose behaviors, because they are programmed into the game, are far less flexible, more predictable, and indeed more algorithmic than the player characters we control.
But now wait: think about all of the non-human animals in our world. They too tend to follow relatively circumscribed patterns of behavior, building nests, catching prey, etc. Just like Ms. PacMan's ghosts (or the grunts, elites, hunters, and other NPCs in Halo), animals in our world have relatively constrained behavior profiles relative to us. Just as Ms. PacMan is the only character in her game whose behavior profile seems strangely different--strangely freer--so too are we the only characters in this game (our "game of life") who seem to possess a different order of nearly-unlimited imagination and free-choice. Could it then be that, just like Ms. PacMan's "free will" is something outside of her game (i.e. our choices on her behalf), our choices too are not determined by the laws of our game-universe, but instead something beyond it (our consciousness, or perhaps our controllers!) in a higher reference-frame unavailable to us? Again, this may seem fanciful--but I believe there's a lot to be said for the hypothesis!
This isn't the only project my three passions inspired. My first draft of my 2016 book Rightness as Fairness defended broadly the same account of fairness that I defend in the final manuscript, but on very different grounds (via a kind of Kantian constitutivism). One of the referees who commented on my first draft was concerned that Kantian constitutivism wasn't very original, and probably wouldn't appeal to anyone except for die-hard Kantians--and I agreed. Consequently, I decided to rewrite the book all over again with a very different methodology: one that aims to give a purely instrumental derivation of norms of fairness from the emerging science of moral psychology. The only problem was, I hadn't a clue how to do it!
Fortunately, around that time I was thinking a lot about Laurie Paul's work on transformative experience--and about diachronic rationality (i.e. rationality across time)--and I was listening (as usual) to a song by my favorite band Mew: a song called "New Terrain." Now, I had actually known about this song for a while, but one day when I was screwing around on the internet I discovered that the band had done something fascinating with: they recorded half of the instruments and lyrics in the song moving forward, and the other half of instruments and vocals running the tape backward in the opposite direction, resulting in a completely different song ("Nervous") when the track is played backwards--thus realizing two songs moving in opposite directions in time! (see videos below).
I thought this was super-cool...and then it occurred to me: just like every song in history had been predicated on moving forward in time, so (more or less) has rational choice theory focused on rationality moving forward. Standard rational choice theory tells us that rationality is a matter of agents in the present choosing whichever action has the best expected outcome moving forward in time. Yet, it occurred to me that this is precisely what leaves our future selves so miserable a lot of the time: we make choices in the present that seem rational and sensible given the probabilities involved--and yet, when these decisions result in disasters for us in the future, we don't always care that our past selves made the "rational" decision. We wish that they had made the right decision for us--the one that would have realized a better future for us than the one we actually got.
That's when it occurred to me: just like the Mew song moves in both directions, to truly be rational a life has to "make sense" in both directions as well, with us not just making decisions in the present that seem rational moving forward, but also decisions that seem rational to our future selves looking backward. But how can we achieve that, I wondered? Well, just like the backwards-moving "song" in the Mew track "reaches into the past" (toward the "beginning" of the earlier song), so too might it be possible for our present and future selves to cooperate with each other across time. Because our present self and future selves can both know that our present selves cannot know which future will be actualized, both selves can agree with each other to act on principles that are fair to whichever future self turns out to be actual--which is how I claim we can derive purely instrumental norms of fairness not just to ourselves, but to others (since many of one's possible future selves are self-interested, but others other-interested).
Long story short, it has been a really cool journey seeing the unexpected ways my passions outside of philosophy have affected my work in philosophy. Alas, there is something of a sad ending to my story, at least for now. Due to my increasing workload, I have mostly had to give up music and videogames. I still listen to music more or less constantly, but don't even own a guitar anymore and have no time for videogames. In some ways, I think my case may be a cautionary tale regarding the ever-increasing expectations in academia for "productivity." For if my story is at all representative (though it may not be), "wasted time" on hobbies and passions may not be wasted time at all, but rather unexpectedly useful diversions that--by engaging one in the world outside of academia--can transform one's work within it. On that note, perhaps there is something to be said for the "slow academic" movement--the movement which holds that favor a slower-paced research environment that gives academics time to "waste time." But what I do I know? :)