In our long ago Duke University dorm discussions, another philosophy exam question was thrown out. A professor in the final exam asked just one question “Why?” There were only two acceptable answers to get an “A”:
- Why not?
Fueled by beer, we enjoyed an evening of sophomoric debate.
Later in life I enjoyed the mentoring of Russ Ackoff. His graduate students introduced me to their “Ackoffian existential crisis.” Russ’s goal in life was to answer each question with a better question.
For some reason I love the word existential – “concerned with existence, especially human existence as viewed in the theories of existentialism.” Wikipedia sheds light on existentialism:
“While the predominant value of existentialist thought is commonly acknowledged to be freedom, its primary virtue is authenticity. In the view of the existentialist, the individual’s starting point is characterized by what has been called “the existential angst” (or variably, existential attitude, dread, etc.), or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.”
For the last two years, our immediate family has kept a Google Hangout going. Sometimes the conversation is serious and sometimes it is a place for sharing the joys of daily life. Triggered by a meme on Facebook, I started this sequence of existential questions:
Of course, this question immediately creates a follow on alternative answer: “42”.
WHAT DOES 42 MEAN?
42 is the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything,” a joke in Douglas Adams’s 1979 novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Gregory Bateson describes another answer to all of life in Mind and Nature:
“There is a story which I have used before and shall use again: A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his private large computer. He asked it (no doubt in his best Fortran), “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?” The machine then set to work to analyze its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed its answer on a piece of paper, as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words:
“THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY”
“A story is a little knot or complex of that species of connectedness which we call relevance. In the 1960s, students were fighting for “relevance,” and I would assume that any A is relevant to any B if both A and B are parts or components of the same “story”. Again we face connectedness at more than one level: First, connection between A and B by virtue of their being components in the same story. And then, connectedness between people in that all think in terms of stories. (For surely the computer was right. This is indeed how people think.)”
With these inspirations, I started sharing a list of existential questions in the Age of V:
- What does ESPN do on Sports Center if there are no live sports?
- What do Fox News commentators do when our narcissistic President finally admits there is a corona virus crisis?
- Can a Trump Administration report be official without Sharpie markup?
- Can software adhere to the philosophy and values of the Bauhaus or do only physical objects count? [Note reading iBauhaus: The iPhone as the Embodiment of Bauhaus Ideals and Design.]
- How clean and dressed up do you need to be to watch a live stream of a Catholic Mass?
As Day 14 of our shelter-in-place marches on in the Age of V, my thoughts turn to the implications of this crisis. As I do, Amazon recommendations point me to the recently published The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord.
“This is a book about existential risks—risks that threaten the destruction of humanity’s longterm potential. Extinction is the most obvious way humanity’s entire potential could be destroyed, but there are others. If civilization across the globe were to suffer a truly unrecoverable collapse, that too would destroy our longterm potential. And we shall see that there are dystopian possibilities as well: ways we might get locked into a failed world with no way back.
“The book aspires to start closing the gap between our wisdom and power, allowing humanity a clear view of what is at stake, so that we will make the choices necessary to safeguard our future.
“In ecological terms, it is not a human that is remarkable, but humanity. Each human’s ability to cooperate with the dozens of other people in their band was unique among large animals. It allowed us to form something greater than ourselves. As our language grew in expressiveness and abstraction, we were able to make the most of such groupings: pooling together our knowledge, our ideas and our plans.
“Crucially, we were able to cooperate across time as well as space. If each generation had to learn everything anew, then even a crude iron shovel would have been forever beyond our technological reach. But we learned from our ancestors, added minor innovations of our own, and passed this all down to our children. Instead of dozens of humans in cooperation, we had tens of thousands, cooperating across the generations, preserving and improving ideas through deep time. Little by little, our knowledge and our culture grew.
Ord, Toby. The Precipice (pp. 12-13). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
I love the introduction – “this book aspires to start closing the gap between our wisdom and our power.”
This book is going to take a while to read, to ponder, and to let ferment in my being.
In the meantime, I am ready for some existential interactions with my grand children.
I’ve greatly enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for writing Skip.
I found your blog while reading about Russ Ackoff, whom I also accidentally found in college as I was thinking about synthesis vs analysis. Now that I’m hoping to become a grad student this will be even more relevant. Cheers to lifelong learning & curious questioning about life as a whole 😀
Looking forward to reading & connecting.