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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

05 FEBRUARY, 2015

The People’s Platform: An Essential Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Cultural Commons in the Age of Commerce

By:

“We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant.”

C.S. Lewis memorably wrote that art and philosophy — in other words, the substance of what we call human culture — have no survival value but, rather, give value to survival. The kind of value he had in mind, of course, was spiritual. And yet half a century later, we’ve stifled our way into a system that assesses art and philosophy and human culture for their economic value as market commodities — they’ve been reduced to that depressingly derogatory term for cultural material: content.

One chilly autumn afternoon a few years ago, I sat on a park bench in Brooklyn with writer, activist, documentary filmmaker, and kindred cautious idealist Astra Taylor to talk about how and why we got here, and what we can do to save the ennobling thought-things that give value to human survival. Ours was one of many conversations Taylor had in the process of researching and writing her magnificent and enormously important manifesto for the survival of our cultural commons, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (public library) — a look at what the internet has promised us, how it has failed us in delivering on those promises, and what we can do to shed its burdens and carry its blessings forward.

Illustration from Theodor Nelson's pioneering 1974 book 'Computer Lib | Dream Machines' found in '100 Ideas that Changed the Web.' Click image for more.

Taylor writes:

As a consequence of the Internet, it is assumed that traditional gatekeepers will crumble and middlemen will wither. The new orthodoxy envisions the Web as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing audience and influence away from the big and giving to the small. Networked technologies will put professionals and amateurs on an even playing field, or even give the latter an advantage. Artists and writers will thrive without institutional backing, able to reach their audiences directly. A golden age of sharing and collaboration will be ushered in, modeled on Wikipedia and open source software.

In many wonderful ways this is the world we have been waiting for. [But] in some crucial respects the standard assumptions about the Internet’s inevitable effects have misled us.

The argument regarding the internet’s impact, Taylor notes, has become bereft of nuance and has settled into one of two camps from which soundbites are fired at the other — techno-skeptics, in the tradition of Alvin Toffler, admonish us that we’ve become a herd of “skimmers, staying in the shallows of incessant stimulation,” while techno-optimists assure us that we’re “evolving into expert synthesizers and multitaskers, smarter than ever before.” Such polarization — like all polarization — seems rather impoverishing. Much of it pits technology against humanism which, as Krista Tippett has elegantly asserted of science and spirituality, ask wholly different questions rather than providing different answers to the same question. Indeed, Taylor targets this with exquisite precision:

These questions are important, but the way they are framed tends to make technology too central, granting agency to tools while sidestepping the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded.

Newsgirls deliver newspapers in 1910. Public domain photograph by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

She notes that “new media” is quite a misnomer, for it implies both a counterpoint to and a supplanting of “old media” — and yet this is hardly the case. I, too, have often marveled at how much of Old Media’s legacy we’ve simply replicated and transposed onto new platforms — take, for instance, a newspaper editor’s remarkably prescient 1923 lament about commerce taking over cultural responsibility in journalism, or E.B. White’s 1975 admonition about the evils of corporate sponsorship in public media. Taylor agrees:

Many of the problems that plagued our media system before the Internet was widely adopted have carried over into the digital domain — consolidation, centralization, and commercialism — and will continue to shape it. Networked technologies do not resolve the contradictions between art and commerce, but rather make commercialism less visible and more pervasive… The pressure to be quick, to appeal to the broadest possible public, to be sensational, to seek easy celebrity, to be attractive to corporate sponsors—these forces multiply online where every click can be measured, every piece of data mined, every view marketed against. Originality and depth eat away at profits online, where faster fortunes are made by aggregating work done by others, attracting eyeballs and ad revenue as a result.

And yet her point is “not trying to deny the transformative nature of the Internet, but rather to recognize that we’ve lived with it long enough to ask tough questions” — questions that call on us to respond not with cynicism and resignation but with mobilized hope and lucid idealism as we peer forward into a more promising future for what proto-internet pioneer Vannevar Bush so poetically termed “the common record.” Taylor writes:

The truth is subtler: technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it. Only then can we make good on the unprecedented opportunity the Internet offers and begin to make the ideal of a more inclusive and equitable culture a reality. If we want the Internet to truly be a people’s platform, we will have to work to make it so.

Paul Otlet's Mundaneum, an early-twentieth-century analog internet human-powered by a primarily female staff who answered queries by hand. Click image for more.

For one thing, Taylor admonishes that the artists, writers, and other craftspeople of culture are being shortchanged by the machinery of commercial interest and corporate power. She writes:

Wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume, and connect.

[…]

Cultural products are increasingly valuable only insofar as they serve as a kind of “signal generator” from which data can be mined. The real profits flow not to the people who fill the platforms where audiences congregate and communicate — the content creators — but to those who own them.

[…]

During this crucial moment of cultural and economic restructuring, artists themselves have been curiously absent from a conversation dominated by executives, academics, and entrepreneurs.

Some artists, of course, are raising their heads and challenging the this-is-how-it-should-be-done-because-this-is-how-it-has-always-been-done paradigm of culture’s relationship with commerce. And yet, pointing to another realm where we’ve lost our sense of nuance, Taylor argues that in our fetishism of openness at all costs — that is, at no cost — we’ve forgotten the actual, physical, inescapably tangible costs of creating what we designate by the ethereal term “culture.” In the final chapter, aptly titled “Drawing a Line,” she writes:

When we talk about the cultural commons, it should be self-evident that production is a precondition of access. An article needs to be researched and written before it can be read; a canvas must be painted before it can be shown. Yet we live in a society oddly reluctant to recognize that this is the case. Dominant economic theories emphasize exchange: the value of a good has nothing to do with how it was made but, instead, the price it can command in the marketplace.

And when we try to break with the market to talk about gift economies, bestowing as opposed to buying, we still focus on the way things circulate rather than how they are created. More often than not, those who speak enthusiastically about the cultural commons stay safely inside what Karl Marx called “the noisy sphere” of consumption, “where everything takes place … in full view of everyone,” instead of descending into “the hidden abode of production,” which in fact shapes our world even if we choose to look the other way.

This means we are telling only half the story.

For a glimpse of the other half, for instance, consider the fact that by this point — nearly nine years into it — just keeping Brain Pickings functionally running costs me more than my rent each month. How much it costs to produce a single Radiolab episode or to merely keep Wikipedia’s servers going or to care for the millions of books preserved by The New York Public Library, I can only imagine — which is why I and many others donate to these creators and stewards of culture regularly. On top of these purely technical costs, of course, is the human labor — the time, thought, and love of bringing something to life — something meant to exist not because it is marketable but because it matters.

Embroidered map of the infant Internet in 1983 by Debbie Millman (courtesy of the artist)

Taylor captures this ecosystem of costs that create value beautifully:

A material reality supports the digital commons in all its facets: hardware, infrastructure, and content.

[…]

Creativity and commerce have a complex relationship and, in many ways, a necessary one. Nonetheless, a market in creative goods is different from creative marketing, and the latter is growing at the expense of the former. The mercantile climate has moved to the center; what was once an attribute has become a dominant feature.

Half a century after E.F. Schumacher exhorted us to stop prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Taylor argues that the root cause of disturbing the vital balance between the two by drowning culture in commerce is the rise of ad-supported media. She considers the corner into which we’ve squeezed ourselves by relinquishing creative integrity for commercial profit:

The technology is still in its infancy, but we should pause to reflect on the profound nature of this transformation. Right now there are artists who agonize over whether to license their work for commercial purposes, and yet we have a situation where our very likeness is used to hawk doughnuts or shoes or whatever it may be without explicit permission being granted first. There are people going deeply into debt so they can work as journalists and truth tellers, but “sponsored content” is what they are told will pay the bills.

She worries that these changes will permeate the very fabric of what we believe is possible, and slowly warp our social standards:

Why worry about selling out when you are already an ad and have been your whole life? Why fret over the ethics of promoting yourself when you are already being used to promote something else? Under the “open” model, where the distinction between commercial and noncommercial has melted away, everything is for sale. When there is no distinction between inner and outer, our bonds with family and friends, our private desires and curiosities, all become commodities. We are sold out in advance, branded whether we want to be or not.

[…]

While it may look like we are getting something for nothing, advertising-financed culture is not free. We pay environmentally, we pay with our self-esteem, and we pay with our attention, privacy, and knowledge.

And yet all is not lost — far from it. While Taylor’s critique is not of the soft, compliment-sandwich kind, it is also inherently a beacon of hope rather than despair. She offers a number of strategies for fortifying our cultural commons and possible directions for expanding the horizon of the possible and living up to our potential as a species capable of honorable and ennobling deeds:

One positive step may be something deceptively simple: an effort to raise consciousness about something we could call sustainable culture. “Culture” and “cultivate” share the same root, after all: “Coulter,” a cognate of “culture,” means the blade of a plowshare. It is not a reach to align the production and consumption of culture with the growing appreciation of skilled workmanship and artisanal goods, of community food systems and ethical economies. The aims of this movement may be extended and adapted to describe cultural production and exchange, online and off.

[…]

We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant. The notion of sustainable culture forces us to recognize that the digital has not rendered all previously existing institutions obsolete. It also challenges us to figure out how to improve them.

In the remainder of The People’s Platform, which is at once immensely important and full of Taylor’s deeply enjoyable prose, she goes on to examine how we can outgrow the limiting models we’ve inherited and find more ambitious new ways of making our world more beautiful, intelligent, and full of meaning. Complement it with this history of 100 ideas that changed the web, then revisit Belgian idealist Paul Otlet’s early-twentieth-century vision for a democratic “internet” and dear old E.B. White on the role and responsibility of the writer.

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04 FEBRUARY, 2015

Happy Birthday, Design Matters: 10 Years of Intelligent and Inspiring Interviews with Creative Icons

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Stimulating, ennobling, deeply human conversations with Maira Kalman, Seth Godin, Dani Shapiro, Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Ware, Shepard Fairey, and more.

A decade before the so-called golden age of podcasting and exactly a year after the word “podcast” itself was timidly coined by The Guardian’s Ben Hammersley, Debbie Millman launched the world’s first podcast about design, armed with nothing more than an idea, a telephone line, and ample doggedness. Design Matters premiered on February 4, 2005. Over the years that followed, it evolved beyond design into the broader world of creative culture, featuring wide-ranging and deep conversations with celebrated designers, artists, writers, musicians, and other luminaries, including Chris Ware, Seth Godin, Maira Kalman, Dave Eggers, Kurt Andersen, Paola Antonelli, Malcolm Gladwell, John Maeda, Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, Jonathan Harris, Chip Kidd, Dani Shapiro, Terry Teachout, Wendy MacNaughton, Jason Kottke, Ze Frank, Steven Heller, Grace Bonney, Marian Bantjes, Christoph Niemann, Dominique Browning, John Hockenberry, Barbara Kruger, and hundreds more. In 2011, the show received the People’s Choice Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. One of the most downloaded podcasts in the world today, it has shaped the public discourse on design and has inspired such newer projects as 99% Invisible and The Great Discontent.

Propelled at once by Moore’s Law and the pioneer spirit of exploring any new territory, the show’s early days were marked by that distinct blend of endearing technical embarrassments and visionary creative bravery. There is the bad audio quality, the atrocious commercial breaks, and the fact that Millman had to pay the network to put her show on the air — a pause-giving reminder of how low the barriers of entry have fallen, and how much we’ve come to take for granted.

But there are also boundlessly emboldening moments reminding us that the best kind of genius is one backed by goodwill, generosity, and pure human goodness. In an admirable antidote to our cancellation culture, graphic artist Shepard Fairey keeps his interview date despite having just had emergency eye surgery; he actually takes the call from his hospital bed to discuss, among other things, how having a baby daughter opened his eyes to the patriarchy’s oppressive impact and profoundly changed the kind of art he wanted to put into the world. In an uncommonly heartening conversation marking the fourth season premiere, mother-son writer duo Malcolm and Joyce Gladwell share the airwaves; when asked whether she was surprised by her son’s success in looking at what everyone looks at but seeing what no one sees, Joyce’s answer emanates the deep and disarming warmth of motherly love:

I was not [occupied with] fame and fortune… I wasn’t looking ahead very far — I was just enjoying the delightful child that had come into our life. He provoked mirth just by being who he was — by the way he moved, by the way he was made, by his eyes and his hair… Am I surprised? Yes and no. I can see the strands that contribute to Malcolm’s success, and to the way he thinks, the way he expresses himself. But I also am surprised at what it is he says and how he says it, and at how he got there — because there is no precedent for that.

Collected below are ten of my favorite episodes from the past ten years, along with my favorite highlights from each. You can subscribe to Design Matters here and catch up on the archive here.

DANI SHAPIRO (2014)

Dani Shapiro — whose memoir Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life is one of the very finest books on writing and the creative experience ever published — discusses our chronic flight from presence, how she wrote her way out of an existential crisis, and why vulnerability is the wellspring of all meaningful creative work. Listen on iTunes or below:

Deep inside, we are all so much the same — our details might be different, but we are all kind of walking the same internal path. And when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I am allowing myself to connect. I’m allowing people to connect to me.

[…]

How do we actually be right here, right now? Not leaning toward the future, not leaning backwards into the past… How do we find a way to inhabit the moment more often than not?

[…]

It’s the feeling of something becoming heightened in just a moment where … I know that it’s going into a place where it’s like it’s storing itself somewhere inside of me… It is unmistakable when it happens. And then sometimes … it requires a lot of patience to make sense of it. It’s not like that shimmer happens and, Eureka!, you have a story — it’s like that shimmer happens and, sometimes, it can be years before it connects to something else that then makes the story clearer, or makes clear why it shimmered.

MILTON GLASER (2010)

Legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and cofounder of the equally iconic New York Magazine, builds on his conversation with Millman from the 2007 book How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and discusses idealism, community, aging, the moral duties of the imagination, and what it takes to sustain one’s creative vitality over a long life. Listen on iTunes or below:

No one has the ability to understand our path until it is over, and if you can sustain your interest in what you are doing in your later years, you are very lucky. Many people get tired, indifferent, and defensive, and lose their capacity for astonishment…

Daily life astonishes me. I’m looking through the door here, at the little table-and-chairs that was painted a light green and yellow, and there’s a plant on the table — a little pussy willow — and the combination is totally astonishing… Shadows in the night astonish me. And when you’re working, and you’re putting forms out on paper, every once in a while you’ll be astonished by what happens… The great thing about the work, and particularly work later in your life, is that you can still maintain the sense of possibility that at the end of the day you’ll know something that you didn’t know at the beginning of the day. And I just find that an extraordinary gift.

SETH GODIN (2014)

In this Design Matters Live conversation — occasional interviews recorded not in the studio but at various public events — the wise and wonderful Seth Godin discusses creative courage, the art of dancing with the Resistance, what defines great design, and his “children’s book for grownups” about vulnerability. See more transcribed excerpts and commentary here, then hear Millman’s 2007 studio interview with Godin here.

That is what [artists] do for a living — we dance with the Resistance, we don’t make it go away. You cannot make it go away — you cannot make the voice go away, you cannot make the fear go away, because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up, you say “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.”

[…]

What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize — we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.

[…]

For the [creative person], what’s going on outside is trivial compared to what is going on inside… Don’t try to change the structure of the outside world [hoping that] then you’ll be fine, then you’ll be creative and then you’ll be brave. No. First, figure out how to be creative and brave and courageous, and the outside world will change on your behalf…

It’s always the same case — it’s always the case of you’re a human, trying to connect to another human. And if you just pick one human that you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.

MALCOLM GLADWELL & JOYCE GLADWELL (2007)

Prolific author Malcolm Gladwell and his mother, Jamaican-born psychotherapist and writer Joyce Gladwell, discuss success, luck, racism, why we treat enduring ideas as disposable by letting timeless books go out of print (something I encounter regularly and find particularly unsettling), and more. Listen on iTunes or below:

When I think about my family, I think of us as being “serial outsiders”… I have a mother who moved from Jamaica to England — [and] the cultural distance between those two points is greater than the physical difference between those two points — then married an Englishman and moved to Canada (and not just to Canada — to a little rural corner of Ontario filled with Mennonites), and then I went from there and moved to the United States, to New York City.

So when I say we’re “serial outsiders” I mean we’ve replicated the role of the outsider over and over again. And my writing is the writing of an outsider — it’s the writing of an observer… The outsider always has an enormous advantage in terms of seeing things in a different way… It doesn’t have to do, necessarily, with any particular gift of the outsider him- or herself — it’s the gift of the position of being on the outside. You literally see something differently when you look from outside the house than when you look from inside the house. So, in that sense, I’m the lucky recipient of that series of circumstances.

[…]

What I like to do in my writing is combat the feeling one has of bafflement, which I think is a disconcerting feeling… I don’t think I can promise in my writing the answers to problems, but I can promise something which is probably more important in … combatting the sense of unease we have in the world… I can help people to understand how to think about things. That’s what we really want. We’re not unhappy with the fact that the world presents lots of different, difficult-to-answer problems — we’re unhappy about the fact that we don’t even know how to start to think about all these things, what kind of framework to use, what questions to ask, where the beginning point is and where the end point is to any kind of process of analysis. My writing is really intended to be that kind of a roadmap — and I find those kinds of roadmaps to be enormously comforting.

RACHEL SUSSMAN (2014)

Artist Rachel Sussman discusses her decade-long project The Oldest Living Things in the World — which produced one of the best books of 2014 — and its underlying questions about permanence, impermanence, deep time, and how we orient ourselves to the universe. Listen on iTunes or below:

It’s hard to answer [whether any of these ancient organisms have consciousness]. I mean, no, I don’t literally think that they have a consciousness. But at the same time I think there is a sort of “world spirit” — which I say to you as an atheist. Nature is a system, and these organisms are part of that — and I think there is a strong will to live.

And [yet], these are all terms that we just impose upon these things.

PAOLA ANTONELLI (2006)

Curator extraordinaire Paola Antonelli offers a behind-the-scenes look at her uncommonly visionary MoMA shows exploring safety, the humble masterpieces of everyday life, and the intersection of design and technology, and discusses the glories of living in New York City, the tyranny of the corporate world on our inner lives, and what we can do to create degrees of freedom even within limiting systems. Listen on iTunes or below:

Designers’ humility will change the world… Designers just sit and think about how to make people’s lives better. And to do so, you have to strip yourself of your ego for a moment and put yourself in other people’s shoes — the first act of real humanity. And it takes humility.

SHEPARD FAIREY (2007)

Graphic artist Shepard Fairey — who has used the raw materials of capitalism and freedom to continually challenge our social, political, and personal assumptions about how the world works and to offer sometimes subtle, sometimes provocative ideas on how it can work better — discusses how he went from covering his neighborhood in stickers to being one of the world’s most prominent street artists, how the notion of “selling out” impoverishes our understanding of creative culture, and what his daughter’s birth taught him about our world. Listen on iTunes or below:

Here’s how having a child has affected my art: I think that in society, much of the time, the male, dominant, aggressive, I’m-gonna-make-my-way-and-rule-things mentality is rewarded, and the maternal side of things is definitely not valued as much… It’s a patriarchal society. But seeing how my wife is with our daughter and realizing how much work it is … and that it’s our yin and yang that allows the family unit to function in a really amazingly positive way, I really tapped into more of my feminine side, appreciating more the maternal side of things…

A lot of the work that I’ve been doing is dealing with peace and using a lot of female figures. One of the things I’ve thought about was [that] it’s usually men that perpetuate injustice, and they take up arms to do so. And when women take up arms, I think they do it to correct an injustice. (This is a generalization, of course… There are people like Margaret Thatcher out there.) … A lot of the work that I was doing [was] as agitational and provocative as possible. Now, I still try to make the work really engaging and provocative, but also allow beauty, the merit of beauty and the maternal side of things to show through in some of the elements in my work.

SOPHIE BLACKALL (2012)

Artist, author, and children’s book illustrator Sophie Blackall — creator of such wondrous treasures as The Mighty Lalouche and The Baby Tree — discusses the necessary balance of optimism and subversiveness in children’s books, her immeasurably charming Missed Connections project, and the challenges and rewards of illustrating Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book. See more highlights here and listen on iTunes or below:

SB: I think children are pretty subversive creatures.

DM: It’s interesting: It’s subversive in the way that The Wizard of Oz is subversive — there’s a subtext. And that subtext has to do with love, and longing, and loss, and pain. But I guess, for me, there seems to be an innate optimism that doesn’t feel dark — yes, there’s darkness in the work, but I always get the sense that the light overcomes that darkness. … You can create a brush stroke that somehow defines wistfulness. But in that ability to see that wistfulness, I can’t help but feel understood — which … then gives me a great sense of joy.

CHRIS WARE (2012)

Chris Ware — one of the finest cartoonists of our time and a frequent New Yorker cover artist — discusses his intricate and immensely brilliant book-in-a-box Building Stories, why it’s necessary to make room for sadness in the fabric of life, and how storytelling gives shape to the human experience. Find more highlights here and listen on iTunes or below:

When I was in school, some of my teachers told me, “Oh, you can’t write about this or that, you can’t write about women, because then you’re colonizing them with your eyes”… And that seems ridiculous to me… That’s what writing is about — it’s about trying to understand other people.

[…]

It really all comes down to empathy… If you feel empathy for a group of people or a nation, you’re less likely to attack them. And I just feel like it’s what being human is — that’s the most important thing you can learn, it’s the most important thing you can impart to a child.

MAIRA KALMAN (2007)

The ceaselessly prolific and imaginative artist and author Maira Kalman — whose spectacular recent memoir of sorts, My Favorite Things, was among last year’s best books — discusses the essential role of boredom in creativity (something eloquently expounded by Søren Kierkegaard, Bertrand Russell, and Adam Phillips) and why storytelling for children shouldn’t be approached as a special species of storytelling different from that for adults (something memorably asserted by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak, and Neil Gaiman). Listen on iTunes or below:

Boredom and impatience are real motivators. I don’t want to do one thing all the time — I’m “multi-curious.” And, really, not knowing how to do something and then not being afraid to do it is a nice combination — because you just try new things. If you’re open to whatever serendipity of inspiration is around, sometimes you find yourself sewing and sometimes you find yourself playing imaginary viola.

But I don’t like having a different mindset for children than I do for adults. I just would like to tell the story that’s around me, and just kind of chronicle what I see — and it shouldn’t matter if it’s an adult or a child… What’s the worst that can happen is you can fail — or it can be bad. (Which has happened.) And yet, somehow, the world doesn’t come to an end. So I’m ultimately very brave and terrified… It’s the human condition.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON & CAROLINE PAUL (2013)

Artist Wendy MacNaughton — a Brain Pickings regular — and writer Caroline Paul discuss their endlessly wonderful and layered book Lost Cat, how they balance their romantic relationship with their creative collaboration, our chronic compulsion for control, and what true love really means. See more highlights here and on iTunes or below:

You cannot know everything about the creature that you love, and you also can’t control that relationship. And maybe that’s okay — because we can’t control relationships. In fact, if we did control them to the degree that we want, it would probably provide us with nothing. Relationships are probably our greatest learning experiences.

To see what the next decade of stimulating and ennobling conversations brings, subscribe to Design Matters here, then explore the archive here.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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03 FEBRUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on Immortality, Why Religion Exists, and What “The Good Life” Really Means

By:

“There are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) is one of humanity’s most grounding yet elevating thinkers, his writing at once lucid and luminous. There is something almost prophetic in the way he bridges timelessness and timeliness in contemplating ideas urgently relevant to modern life a century earlier — from how boredom makes happiness possible to why science is the key to democracy. But nowhere does his genius shine more brilliantly than in What I Believe (public library).

Published in 1925, the book is a kind of catalog of hopes — a counterpoint to Russell’s Icarus, a catalog of fears released the previous year — exploring our place in the universe and our “possibilities in the way of achieving the good life.”

Russell writes in the preface:

In human affairs, we can see that there are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.

One of Russell’s most central points deals with our civilizational allergy to uncertainty, which we try to alleviate in ways that don’t serve the human spirit. Nearly a century before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s magnificent manifesto for mystery in the age of knowledge — and many decades before “wireless” came to mean what it means today, making the metaphor all the more prescient and apt — Russell writes:

It is difficult to imagine anything less interesting or more different from the passionate delights of incomplete discovery. It is like climbing a high mountain and finding nothing at the top except a restaurant where they sell ginger beer, surrounded by fog but equipped with wireless.

Long before modern neuroscience even existed, let alone knew what it now knows about why we have the thoughts we do — the subject of an excellent recent episode of the NPR’s Invisibilia — Russell points to the physical origins of what we often perceive as metaphysical reality:

What we call our “thoughts” seem to depend upon the organization of tracks in the brain in the same sort of way in which journeys depend upon roads and railways. The energy used in thinking seems to have a chemical origin; for instance, a deficiency of iodine will turn a clever man into an idiot. Mental phenomena seem to be bound up with material structure.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Nowhere, Russell argues, do our thought-fictions stand in starker contrast with physical reality than in religious mythology — and particularly in our longing for immortality which, despite a universe whose very nature contradicts the possibility, all major religions address with some version of a promise for eternal life. With his characteristic combination of cool lucidity and warm compassion for the human experience, Russell writes:

God and immortality … find no support in science… No doubt people will continue to entertain these beliefs, because they are pleasant, just as it is pleasant to think ourselves virtuous and our enemies wicked. But for my part I cannot see any ground for either.

And yet, noting that the existence or nonexistence of a god cannot be proven for it lies “outside the region of even probable knowledge,” he considers the special case of personal immortality, which “stands on a somewhat different footing” and in which “evidence either way is possible”:

Persons are part of the everyday world with which science is concerned, and the conditions which determine their existence are discoverable. A drop of water is not immortal; it can be resolved into oxygen and hydrogen. If, therefore, a drop of water were to maintain that it had a quality of aqueousness which would survive its dissolution we should be inclined to be skeptical. In like manner we know that the brain is not immortal, and that the organized energy of a living body becomes, as it were, demobilized at death, and therefore not available for collective action. All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. The argument is only one of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

But evidence, Russell points out, has little bearing on what we actually believe. (In the decades since, pioneering psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that the confidence we have in our beliefs is no measure of their accuracy.) Noting that we simply desire to believe in immortality, Russell writes:

Believers in immortality will object to physiological arguments [against personal immortality] on the ground that soul and body are totally disparate, and that the soul is something quite other than its empirical manifestations through our bodily organs. I believe this to be a metaphysical superstition. Mind and matter alike are for certain purposes convenient terms, but are not ultimate realities. Electrons and protons, like the soul, are logical fictions; each is really a history, a series of events, not a single persistent entity. In the case of the soul, this is obvious from the facts of growth. Whoever considers conception, gestation, and infancy cannot seriously believe that the soul in any indivisible something, perfect and complete throughout this process. It is evident that it grows like the body, and that it derives both from the spermatozoon and from the ovum, so that it cannot be indivisible.

Long before the term “reductionism” would come to dismiss material answers to spiritual questions, Russell offers an elegant disclaimer:

This is not materialism: it is merely the recognition that everything interesting is a matter of organization, not of primal substance.

Art by Roz Chast from her illustrated meditation on aging, illness, and death. Click image for more.

Our obsession with immortality, Russell contends, is rooted in our fear of death — a fear that, as Alan Watts has eloquently argued, is rather misplaced if we are to truly accept our participation in the cosmos. Russell writes:

Fear is the basis of religious dogma, as of so much else in human life. Fear of human beings, individually or collectively, dominates much of our social life, but it is fear of nature that gives rise to religion. The antithesis of mind and matter is … more or less illusory; but there is another antithesis which is more important — that, namely, between things that can be affected by our desires and things that cannot be so affected. The line between the two is neither sharp nor immutable — as science advances, more and more things are brought under human control. Nevertheless there remain things definitely on the other side. Among these are all the large facts of our world, the sort of facts that are dealt with by astronomy. It is only facts on or near the surface of the earth that we can, to some extent, mould to suit our desires. And even on the surface of the earth our powers are very limited. Above all, we cannot prevent death, although we can often delay it.

Religion is an attempt to overcome this antithesis. If the world is controlled by God, and God can be moved by prayer, we acquire a share in omnipotence… Belief in God … serves to humanize the world of nature, and to make men feel that physical forces are really their allies. In like manner immortality removes the terror from death. People who believe that when they die they will inherit eternal bliss may be expected to view death without horror, though, fortunately for medical men, this does not invariably happen. It does, however, soothe men’s fears somewhat even when it cannot allay them wholly.

In a sentiment of chilling prescience in the context of recent religiously-motivated atrocities, Russell adds:

Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear, and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad.

Science, Russell suggests, offers the antidote to such terror — even if its findings are at first frightening as they challenge our existing beliefs, the way Galileo did. He captures this necessary discomfort beautifully:

Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.

Art from 'You Are Stardust,' a children's book teaching kids about the universe. Click image for more.

But Russell’s most enduring point has to do with our beliefs about the nature of the universe in relation to us. More than eight decades before legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s exquisite proclamation — “If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.” — Russell writes:

Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.

He admonishes against confusing “the philosophy of nature,” in which such neutrality is necessary, with “the philosophy of value,” which beckons us to create meaning by conferring human values upon the world:

Nature is only a part of what we can imagine; everything, real or imagined, can be appraised by us, and there is no outside standard to show that our valuation is wrong. We are ourselves the ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value, and in the world of value Nature is only a part. Thus in this world we are greater than Nature. In the world of values, Nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, deserving of neither admiration nor censure. It is we who create value and our desires which confer value… It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature — not even for Nature personified as God.

Russell’s definition of that “good life” remains the simplest and most heartening one I’ve ever encountered:

The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

Knowledge and love are both indefinitely extensible; therefore, however good a life may be, a better life can be imagined. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.

What I Believe is a remarkably prescient and rewarding read in its entirety — Russell goes on to explore the nature of the good life, what salvation means in a secular sense for the individual and for society, the relationship between science and happiness, and more. Complement it with Russell on human nature, the necessary capacity for “fruitful monotony,” and his ten commandments of teaching and learning, then revisit Alan Lightman on why we long for immortality.

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