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NYT Reporter Has Never Heard of Descartes


Or perhaps more correctly, did not internalize Descartes when he heard of him. In “Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch,” John Tierney writes:

Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

It is for occasions such as these that the expressions “gobsmacked” and “WTF” were created. How could you survive to adulthood, let alone get a degree in what I presume was some sort of liberal arts, let alone get a job at The Paper of Record, and not once wonder about whether reality is real? This also suggests that the poor thing’s youth was insufficiently misspent.

Perhaps the real interesting work in this sort of liberal arts has moved to the likes of Edward Fredkin at MIT.

It’s a great article, and I’m happy that serious newspapers are talking about things like this. But in World of Warcraft, a simulation that he gives as a comparison, the characters there have a repertoire of jokes. One of the jokes that a woman might say is, “Do you feel that you aren’t in control of your own destiny — like — you’re being controlled by an invisible hand?”

I’m pleased that Oxford philosophers think about this, and I’m glad that professional journalists are paying attention to it rather than the usual fluff. For our children, however, this is just part of popular culture.

Photo courtesy of denzilm.

7 comments on "NYT Reporter Has Never Heard of Descartes"

  • Jon Williams says:

    I’m going to go with it being a white lie that made framing the article easier.

  • Nicko says:

    Mordaxus, while you and I may well have spent many an evening with a good bottle of wine (or three) discussing if reality is real or if we’re all just rats in a cage, I have to say I’m surprised at your surprise. Most people just don’t think about this sort of stuff. If they ever do think about it in their youth then most people ask their parents, who simply regurgitate the dogma that they were fed in their youth. “God moves in mysterious ways”. “His Noodly Appendages go unseen”. “Your purpose it to love Him”. “The meaning of Life is to get to heaven”. The vast majority of the world (regrettably, in my opinion) accept this as truth and leave it at that.
    Also, keep in mind that if too many people start to question reality then it takes all the fun out of the game. All that introspection consumes too much memory and makes it all run more slowly. Just eat up the dogma and don’t think to hard, or out creator might have to click on you and press the delete key 🙂

  • Mordaxus says:

    Nicko, Jon Williams’s response may very well be the best one, that “never” was merely hyperbole. I would never, ever put even a dollop of hyperbole in my writing, even under torture, but I suppose it’s not logically impossible that someone might.
    Another hypothesis is that the editor in charge was too harried to call BS on him and say, “Change that to a Descartes reference or at least a Futurama one.”
    However, on my list is the people who thought that 9/11 was “unthinkable” or “unimaginable” when a popular novelist did in fact imagine it in a novel that was on the paper of record’s best-seller list.
    Such people need to get out more and order that third bottle of wine.

  • Chris says:

    There’s a scene in Animal House where this very issue is discussed in what the New York Times (heh) refers to as a “cannabis-fueled conversation”. It was also the subject of a Simpson’s opening credits scene, punctuated by Homer saying “Whoa” in a Spiccoli-like manner. In short, this is not a topic which we has eluded pop culture.

  • Allen says:

    It reminds me of Monty Python’s University of Walamaloo.
    “Renee Descarte was a drunken f.rt, I drink therefore I am!”

  • Adam says:

    404 descartes not coordinated?

  • Anonymous says:

    You know, maybe some of us just go through our existential awakenings at different times. Sometimes we have more than one. This poor fella is just a little slow, that’s all.

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