Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for August, 2010

A New Kind of Writing

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 27, 2010

People have been writing about things for thousands of years. Sumerians wrote cuneiform scripts, Egyptians used hieroglyphs, the Chinese wrote on bones and turtle shells. Over time, more sophisticated writing utensils began to develop. But writing was still difficult. Copies had to be transcribed by hand. In the 15th century Gutenberg invented the printing press, forever changing the way people would relate to written works. It suddenly became much easier to transcribe and distribute many copies of books.

Then, with the advent of the internet, writing changed yet again. It suddenly became possible to transmit text without paper, to transmit it over vast distances in virtually no time at all. First books had to be written by hand; then, with the printing press, they could be quickly copied; now, they can be instantly viewed from anywhere in the world.

Writing isn’t just limited to books, either. Newspapers and magazines have started publishing online. The internet goes even beyond that, though: whole new media of writing have emerged, media which have changed the way we relate to knowledge.

One example of an underrated benefit of the internet is the hyperlink. If you want to refer to something from a physical paper, you have to add a footnote or endnote with a reference to the relevant work. If the reader wants to follow up of the referral, she has to find the referenced work — this could involve a trip to the library, getting a subscription to a magazine or journal, or even more.

The internet solves this problem. Now, in order to refer to another work, you simply post a link to it (provided that your source is somewhere on the web). This vastly simplifies the process of citation. I think this is far more significant than it gets credit for. The ease with which one can verify claims and find additional resources is mind-blowing compared to the old days of physical paper. Not many sites are taking full advantage of this just yet, but we’re getting there. For example, I was reading an article in Psychology Today and noticed that their online articles often contained links to other articles by other authors on the Psychology Today website. That’s just one example of good utilization of hyperlinks.

Hyperlinks are just one of the many benefits of publishing on the internet. Unlike the printing press, the internet is a relatively new invention. We are only just beginning to discover its potential. I would like to discuss one medium in particular: the blog. A blog can be about virtually anything, from cooking to security to sidewalk chalk math to debate (and whatever else the author decides to write about) to creationism and cephalopods to nothing. [Side note: it took me over twenty minutes to decide which examples to use and how to arrange them.] Many newspapers, such as the New York Times, actually hire people to write blogs for them. Some news sites are actually blogs in disguise (or not in disguise).

When blogs started out they were underutilized, but these days they are used to communicate about serious topics. One big advantage to the blog format is its flexibility: it can be just some guy’s daily journal, or it can take the form of a news report. One thing I’d like to see more of, though, is philosophy.

A blog is an ideal format for the development of philosophical ideas. Blog philosophy is very different from sitting all day in a large armchair and musing about the nature of the universe, then publishing something every few years or so (although, admittedly, I do sometimes write blog posts while in an armchair). A blog allows for good discussions and rapid feedback. It can serve as a single place to develop many philosophical ideas, ranging from the humble to the grandiose. A blog, at least the way it’s represented today, is less than ideal for publishing longer works; but it’s great for writing shorter, more concentrated essays. It’s actually very possible that a blog could be adapted to hold something as long as a book; it’s just that there aren’t many people writing books on blogs so the format hasn’t had much opportunity to adapt itself.

My own experience with a blog has been nothing short of lifechanging. It’s remarkable that I am able to come up with an idea and still have it years later, because I published it on my blog. I didn’t used to be much into writing down my ideas, and even if I had been I’m far too messy to be able to find anything I wrote down more than a few months ago. But with a blog, I have been able to formulate my ideas and can see their progression over time. Even the best of my earlier essays were less in-depth than some of my more recent ones, and I’m sure in a few years I’ll think the same thing about the essays I write today. I find it intriguing to be able to go back and trace the evolution of my ideas and my philosophy.

If there’s one piece of advice I could give to anyone interested in philosophy, it would be this: Start a blog.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Diving into Objectivism

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 22, 2010

More and more recently, I’ve been coming across Ayn Rand’s theory of Objectivism. Considering how widely influential it’s been, I’ve decided to look into it. Before I do, I have some preliminary thoughts that I’d like to put out in the world.

Objectivism is a cult. The more I learn about it, the more this seems to be true. The Ayn Rand Institute, which appears to be the definitive organization on Objectivism, has some very cultish properties. Their FAQ includes “Where can I read Ayn Rand’s view on . . . ?” and “Is [the Ayn Rand Institute] or anyone else formally vested with the right to speak on behalf of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism?” (the answer to which, by the way, is “no” because Ayn Rand is the Only True Authority on Objectivism).

I don’t want to learn about a person, I want to learn about a philosophy. For the most part, I couldn’t care less about Ayn Rand. I do think that the context of the development of the philosophy is important, but beyond that it doesn’t really matter who created Objectivism. What matters are the ideas.

I don’t want to learn about philosophy by reading fiction. I read the very beginning of The Fountainhead and it seems like a good book, but I don’t want to learn about Objectivism from it because it’s fictional, which means in the end its whole argument revolves around a made up story. You can make up a story to support any viewpoint you want. I would much rather learn about a philosophy from, oh, I don’t know, a book on philosophy. Like, nonfiction. Like this, or this. With actual straightforward arguments. It seems that such resources do exist, but Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are by far the most commonly-turned to sources of Objectivist philosophy.

There are two main reasons why I want to look into Objectivism.

1. It looks like a pretty original outlook on the world, and I think new outlooks are always good to learn about. Even if I don’t agree, I like to look at things from a different perspective.

2. It has been extremely influential in recent decades. Knowing about Objectivism is just required to be a part of Western culture. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little.)

In short, I’m going to learn more about the non-cultish aspects of Objectivism, because it looks interesting. I’ll probably write an essay or two within the next year or so.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics | 2 Comments »

What It’s Like to Be a Baby

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 19, 2010

Earlier today, I was tapping my toe. I was tapping it as fast as I could; at a point, I was hardly even controlling its movement, just trying to get it to vibrate as fast as possible. I started making smaller movements in order to be able to vibrate faster. After a little while, my toe stopped moving entirely — but a muscle was still vibrating.

How was that possible?

I could feel a muscle vibrating, and I could see movement on my foot. But it wasn’t on my toe: it was underneath the bridge of skin between my ankle and the top of my foot. I had been inadvertently vibrating this muscle all along, but previously my attention had been focused on my toe.

After some practice, I found that I was able to control this new muscle. I could not just vibrate it, but flex and unflex it independently of any other muscle. Sometimes I would accidentally flex other muscles (and I still do), but I was generally able to make this muscle move on its own.

The trippiest part was that I didn’t really know what I was doing to move the muscle. When we move our arms or legs, we understand exactly what will happen when we have a certain thought. We think to move our arm or leg, and a chemical reaction sends a message through our nerves and down to the muscle, causing it to twitch. But with this new discovery, I hardly knew what thought to think. The hardest part isn’t the movement itself; that’s not hard at all. No, the most difficult part is knowing what to think in order to will the movement. I believe that the best technique is to imagine that the skin on the top of your foot is moving upward and then will it to happen; but seeing as how this muscle is in effect still very young, I’m not sure.

I practiced flexing this muscle for about a half hour. After all that time, I still have trouble getting it to flex for the first time. And I can only do it on my right foot: on my left, the muscle might as well not exist.

Some time during those thirty minutes, I came to a realization:

This is what it’s like for babies all the time.

Babies are new. They, unlike us, are not used to using their muscles. It takes a lot of practice to figure out what they do and why, and how to work the controls. I at least have the advantage of already knowing how to use many of my muscles, so I know what to look out for; babies don’t have any such luxury. And for babies, it’s not just one muscle that they have to learn how to use: it’s all of them.

Perhaps the reason why learning to use this muscle was so mesmerizing is because we have a deep-seated instinct for learning new muscles. It’s simply irresistible. Such an instinct would drive us to become master puppeteers of our physical beings.

Now I feel like I understand babies better, if only a little. If you’ll allow me to offer some advice, I suggest that everyone try to learn how to use a new muscle today. Find a muscle that you didn’t know existed, and practice with it. It will change your life.

Posted in Fun, Psychology | 1 Comment »

The Ethics of Crime and Punishment

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 17, 2010

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a story about a very troubled man, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky shows Raskolnikov to be a man of questionable psychological and ethical integrity as he explores the workings of Raskolnikov’s mind. Dostoevsky uses Raskolnikov and his ideas to paint an intriguing picture of the nature of morality. (Warning: Some spoilers ahead.)

The pivotal point of the book is when Raskolnikov murders an old pawnbroker. He justifies it based on his idea: there are certain extraordinary people who have the potential to do great things for mankind and who are justified in committing otherwise atrocious acts to further their cause. For these extraordinary people, laws do not apply.

I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound . . . to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market. (p. 211; Part 3, ch. 5)

This is a most intriguing idea, which I contend to be partially true but misguided. I propose a modification, which I shall dub the Dickens Corollary to Raskolnikov’s Thesis.

It is impossible to question whether a person is ethical; only an action may be judged as right or wrong, on the basis that it helps or hinders a higher good. Therefore, no person may be justified in committing murder — but a sufficiently good cause may justify crime. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov recognizes this. He claims that “it does not follow that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market,” because murder and theft would only be justified insofar as they made possible his great discoveries — his cause. Newton himself is not justified in murder; rather, murder may be justified as a means to one of Newton’s ideas. It makes no real difference that the idea was Newton’s. Any other man, had he thought of the same ideas as Newton and needed to commit murder to make his ideas known, would have been no more or less justified. It is the idea which makes the difference, not the person.

But perhaps I am being too hasty in assuming Raskolnikov’s thesis to be even partially correct. What makes it correct at all? Before we address any corollaries, let us first examine whether the theory holds water in the first place. If Newton had to commit murder for the sake of discovering the theory of gravity, would it have been justified? Although murder is of course terrible, perhaps it would have been acceptable in this limited case. I would argue that for the sake of discovering the theory of gravity, it would indeed have been justified. The inventions, the societal developments that have burgeoned as a result of the theory of gravity have improved the lives of many, and even saved lives. But suppose someone had a new idea that would not save lives, or even improve anyone’s life by a significant margin. In that case, theft or murder would be unacceptable. The Dickens Corollary states: Crime is justified if and only if it sufficiently furthers a sufficiently good cause such that the suffering of the victim is outweighed by the happiness or growth of the beneficiaries of the cause.

Raskolnikov comes to regret his crime. The Dickens Corollary says he should feel regret: although his crime does sufficiently further his cause, the cause is not sufficiently good. A sufficiently good cause is one that does so much good as to outweigh the crime; no other cause may be considered good enough to warrant the crime. Raskolnikov’s cause failed to meet this definition of sufficiency. What exactly was his cause? He admits that he committed the murder only for himself, not for the benefit of his family or society. In fact, his only real objective was to test his thesis, to prove that he himself was an extraordinary man. In essence, he was committing murder to prove that committing murder is sometimes justified. That simply makes no sense, and certainly does not meet the high standards necessary to justify murder. For this reason, Raskolnikov’s act of murder was as terrible a crime as murder can be.

Another point Raskolnikov argues is that “if [an extraordinary man] is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood” (p. 211; part 3, ch. 5). The Dickens Corollary affirms this proposition. If a man had an extraordinary idea that necessitated murder, he would not only be justified in murder, but would be obligated in the same way that people are ordinarily obligated not to murder. These moral obligations — both the obligation to kill and the obligation not to — arise when the greater good is in mind. In nearly every situation, murder does great harm, not only to the murdered but to friends and loved ones, as well; but on the path towards an extraordinary cause, holding oneself back would do more harm even than murder. In the case of an extraordinary idea, to commit murder might be atrocious, but not to do so would be far worse.

I have said that there are no extraordinary people, only extraordinary ideas; in the strictest sense this is true. However, it is possible to define an extraordinary person as someone capable of bringing an extraordinary idea into the world. This is the sort of person that Raskolnikov meant when he talked about the “extraordinary people” who have an imperative to commit crime. This definition ties in to my point in the previous paragraph: if a person has an extraordinary idea that can only be made known through murder but has not the conscience to see it through, then she cannot be considered extraordinary. To be extraordinary, one must not only have an extraordinary idea but must be willing to act on it. It is fortunate that so many ideas do not require what would otherwise be considered morally repugnant acts; I doubt that Einstein would have been willing to kill for his cause.

In Crime and Punishment, it becomes apparent that Raskolnikov’s thesis did not turn out well at all. Dostoevsky clearly does not agree with Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov himself comes to relinquish his belief after he sees its results.

What are its results? Raskolnikov sees that his murder was not justified, and decides that he must not be one of these extraordinary men. But the results go beyond that: throughout the novel Raskolnikov interacts with a man named Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov is intended to represent the inevitable outcome of Raskolnikov’s thesis: he is a man who sees himself as above the law, and in a way he is because he never gets caught. He murders several people, including his wife, for his own pleasure. (He claims that it’s because he is very bored (p. 231; Part 4, ch.1).) Svidrigailov feels no guilt or even unease about his murders. Raskolnikov may have thought him to be extraordinary, but he does not fit the definition. He had no greater cause; the only motivations for committing his murders were his own selfish desires. According to the Dickens Corollary, crime without a cause is unjustified. Raskolnikov, had he considered his thesis from the proper angle, would have agreed. Svidrigailov was not an appropriate model for the thesis because he had no higher cause. To apply the Dickens Corollary, his cause was not sufficiently good — nowhere close.

Dostoevsky is not wrong that Raskolnikov’s own actions, and the actions of Svidrigailov, were base and immoral. However, the basic idea of Raskolnikov’s thesis is still well-supported. It is not entirely correct, but a modified version of the thesis does make a lot of sense. There are not extraordinary people, in the sense that Raskolnikov proposes; but there are extraordinary causes. Newton’s cause was extraordinary. Svidrigailov’s was not.

Quotations are from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, published by Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1994.

Posted in Book Review, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 3 Comments »

Why Advertizing Is Awesome

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 13, 2010

Advertising has a bad reputation. It has been labeled “lies”, “manipulation”, and “corruption leading to the downfall of humanity.” While some or all of these are true, I think the bad reputation is unwarranted. Advertising is very useful, and I would go so far as to say that it is awesome.

Advertising isn’t awesome because of how it manipulates people into buying a product. Rather, what makes it awesome is the good that it can make possible. To me, advertising means freedom.

Often, in order to get access to goods, we have to pay money. Even information costs money. But this is where advertising comes in handy: it allows us to access goods that would otherwise be inaccessible. Many websites that I love are entirely advertising-funded, and would not be possible if it weren’t for ad revenue. One of the world’s biggest companies, which provides dozens of invaluable services, is entirely funded by ad revenue. (I’m talking about Google.)

When you put ads on your website or associate them with your service, companies are willing to pay you money just so that you will tell people about them. This is easier than requiring that people pay money, and people prefer it. Everyone benefits.

And that’s why advertising is awesome.

Posted in Fun | 2 Comments »

Faith and Imagination

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 9, 2010

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (ch. 22)

The above quotation is taken from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It tells the story of Pi, a deeply religious boy who embarks on a lifechanging spiritual journey.

Before I get to my thesis, I must point out that Martel has a poor definition of “atheist.” He assumes that atheists are faith-based or somehow irrational (I say irrational, he says “imaginative”), but agnostics are not. Atheism is not remotely faith-based. Nonbelief in God is a completely reasonable viewpoint, just as nonbelief is unicorns is a completely reasonable viewpoint. Why does Martel imply that atheists would have a sudden conversion on their deathbed? Are they, unlike agnostics, for some reason prone to blaming God for unexplained phenomena such as the white light Martel describes? That certainly doesn’t make any sense. It seems like all the people who blame God for unexplained phenomena are already theists. Neither an atheist nor an agnostic would so easily fall prey to the “God of the Gaps” fallacy as to see an unexplained white light and jump to the conclusion that it must be a divine intervention.

Yann Martel, or at least the character in his novel, does not seem to have a very high opinion of agnostics. He describes their rationality as “dry, yeastless factuality” and says that they “to the very end . . . miss the better story.” But to see the truth is not to miss the better story. The real world is quite an amazing place. I personally would be much more fascinated by the hallucinogenic effects of near death than by some strange supernatural white lights projected by God. Science tells just as good a story as religion, if not better. Those who are unable to see the beauty in the world are not lacking in imagination; they simply need to open their eyes.

As you may be able to tell, I am a big supporter of science, but that doesn’t mean I see anything wrong with imagination. I love reading stories (and writing about them). But there’s quite a difference difference between a story and a religion. When you read a story like Life of Pi or The Grapes of Wrath, you’re reading it in the proper context. You know that it’s not real. And that’s the problem with religion. Imagination by itself is just fine, and usually, more imagination is better than less; problems only start to arise when imagination gets in the way of the truth.

Imagination is a wonderful thing to have, but it’s important to distinguish fantasy from reality. When people are unable to tell the difference, they’re usually considered insane and put into mental institutions. It would seem that Martel is advocating insanity. He is not simply saying that we should exercise our imaginations — which of course is true — but that we should believe in our fantasies, and not to do so is to “miss the better story.” An atheist or agnostic could be lying on his deathbed and look at the white light and think, “imagine that that is God’s love shining down on me. What a wonderful story. It’s not true of course, but it makes for a great story.” That would be perfectly reasonable, but that is not what Martel is saying we should do. Martel, through Pi, tells us to lie to ourselves for the sake of a story.

Since Life of Pi is a novel Martel does not make any direct arguments, but gets his points across through Pi, his main character. Pi is deeply religious, but not in the conventional sense. He follows three religions simultaneously (Hinduism, Christianity and Islam) because he can see the advantages in each of them. People follow religion for many different reasons, but his reasons are particularly intriguing. He devoutly follows three religions because he loves the stories told by each of them.

How did Pi come to follow three faiths? Well, he was born a Hindu, and when he crossed paths with Christianity he was unimpressed — at first.

This Son . . . who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him — what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on the order of card tricks. Any Hindu god can do a hundred times better. The Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god — and in a hot place, at that — with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son? (p. 70; ch. 17)

Despite his objections Pi finds Jesus’ story irresistible, and incorporates Christianity into his now-expanding list of religions. He doesn’t follow Christianity for any of the usual reasons: he wasn’t born into it, and he wasn’t attracted by the people or the principles or the philosophy. In the end, what really got him hooked was the story.

The story of Christianity is a very good one. But it is unacceptable for a story to get in the way of the truth. There is nothing “dry [and] yeastless” about reality; I would describe it as rich and diverse — or, if I were in a comedic mood, I’d call it wet and yeastful. Either way, it’s a great place to be. No matter what reality actually is, though, it’s important to stay grounded. Living in the clouds is a quick road to insanity. Realistically, most people with overactive imaginations could not be called insane; but substituting imagination for reality is nonetheless rarely a good idea. I hate to play this card, but I will anyway because it’s actually true this time: Hitler substituted imagination for reality by criminalizing the Jews. Dominant majorities often pretend that oppressed minorities are not really human, such as was done by millions of American slaveowners. If these people were in touch with reality, they would have been unable to justify their inhumane actions; it was only through creating fantasies that they were able to continue living at the expense of others.It’s not necessarily their fault: many white slaveowners were not malicious, they were just taught that blacks aren’t real people, and never had a reason to stop living in their convenient but inhumane fantasy.

Besides these injustices, living in fantasy is just less productive than staying realistic. Scientific progress does not come by living in the clouds. Imagination is an important ingredient in discovery, but there can be no discovery without a connection to reality. Even philosophy, which may seem to deal with the ethereal, cannot live off of fantasy alone. Instead of investigating the nature of life and death, as Martel’s agnostic does, he would rather that we simply insert God, thus bringing a halt to all further thought on the matter.

Imagination is a wonderful thing to have, but not when it gets in the way of reality. Yann Martel would have us discard the real world in favor of what he deems more interesting. I can hardly think of worse advice to give, considering all the injustices that have been caused by overactive fantasies taking the place of reality. Truth is far more important than “the better story.”


Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Book Review | Leave a Comment »

Faith and Hope

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 8, 2010

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (ch. 22)

The above quotation is taken from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In the novel, Pi becomes stranded on a boat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, and he tells the story of how it happened.

A common motif in Life of Pi is the importance of faith and belief. Pi is born a Hindu, and by the age of 16 he is practicing Christianity and Islam as well. He does not understand why people are only allowed to follow one faith, and this even gets him into a little trouble near the beginning of the novel. Although (or perhaps because) his take on religion is a bit unconventional, it plays a very important role in his life.

While on the lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi devoutly prays three times a day. These prayers give him hope and serve as a conduit through which his miseries can flow. He shares traumatic events with God, and never forgets them. Although he had been a lifelong vegetarian, his options on the lifeboat are limited and he is forced into piscivorism. The first fish he ever eats is given a special place in his prayers, and never once forgotten (p. 231; ch. 61).

Pi is under the impression that he could not have survived without his faith. Perhaps this is so, but it could only be so due to the relative weakness of Pi’s character.

It is true that Pi endured great hardships and great suffering, and many people may not have been able to bear as much. His character is not weak by that measure. But the key word in his weakness is “relative.” He was relatively weak because he could not maintain himself without God. I suppose it may be more appropriate to say that he is imperfect, that he is only human. Whatever you call Pi’s limits of character, the picture painted in which God is the only way for Pi to get through great suffering is a distorted and inaccurate one.

Pi goes through harsh struggles and deep despair. On the front lines against his despair is Richard Parker, the 450-pound Bengal tiger. But God is not far behind. God is an important player, but he is not the reason why Pi made it through. Pi’s source of survival, his weapon against despair, is hope. When Pi prays, he finds hope; and with hope comes a reason to keep on living. Despair’s worst enemy is not God, nor is it a tiger: it is hope.

In a situation such as Pi’s, as hopeless as it is, one ought to take all the hope that one can get. Belief in a higher power is just as good a source of hope as any. But the premise that this hope can only come from faith — that there are no atheists in foxholes — is simply false.

Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, it could be said that there are no atheists on lifeboats. It would be an equally incorrect statement. In a time of despair, there are many possible sources of hope. Religion happens to be a particularly powerful one. Imagine that, although you are floating on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, God is watching over you. He has helped you to survive this far, and He will continue to do so. He loves you and will always love you. He is omnipresent, so He will never leave your side. If that’s not a hope-inspiring thought, I don’t know what is.

Even so, there are even greater sources of hope. The foremost source would be companionship. Pi had with him a tiger, and even that limited relationship was enough to keep him going. Another human being, who you can make strong bonds with, would be an even better friend. We people thrive on companionship, and cannot last long without it.

Pi’s primary sources of hope were faith and companionship; what others were there? These two were by far the most prominent. But there is another, secular source of hope, which was masked by Pi’s faith but would be apparent in an atheist. Pi survived for many days before he began to truly despair, and he attributed this survival to a miracle. God had been with him. If Pi had been a nonbeliever, he would have been no less amazed by his survival. He would have attributed it to his own shrewdness, his own ability to think in the face of mortal peril. He made it that far, and he could make it farther. His reliance on his own skill would have been just as powerful as reliance on miracles. And in fact, much of Pi’s success can be attributed to his skill. He attributed it to miracles, but Pi was the one who learned to catch fish, Pi was the one who knew how to train Richard Parker. The skill was there, and he would not have survived without it.

The test of will Pi goes through is difficult; I do not doubt that. Maybe because Pi’s life so revolved around religion it would have been impossible for him to make it through without his faith. Such faith is very important to some. But it is not a necessity. There are atheists in foxholes, and there are atheists on lifeboats.


Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Book Review | 2 Comments »

Why The Grapes of Wrath Fails

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 1, 2010

WARNING: This post was written far too late at night. I cannot be held responsible for its contents.

The Grapes of Wrath is considered to be a great American novel. Perhaps someone can explain why I’m mistaken here, because I really don’t see what’s so great about it.

A typical story — in fact, virtually any story at all — has a problem and a solution. The quality of the story is directly related to both the quality of the problem and the quality of the solution. The characters of the book have some sort of problem, or perhaps a goal, which they work to achieve. Near the end of the book, they solve their problem or achieve their goal. This is how a story works.

That’s the problem with The Grapes of Wrath. Near the beginning of the book, a big problem arises: the Joad family are kicked off of their farm. As the novel progresses, the problem continues to proliferate. Their situation gets worse and worse.

Now, any story worth its salt would end with a solution. For the last hundred pages or so, I kept expecting something good — something really big, something phenomenal — to happen. Even if the Joads weren’t magically lifted out of poverty, I at least expected them to gain some new outlook on life, or to learn an important lesson, or something like that. I kept expecting this right up until I reached the second-to-last page in the book, and I realized that nothing had happened yet. In any other book, something big would have happened. But in The Grapes of Wrath, the problem just kept going and going, kept getting worse and worse, right up through the end of the novel. There was no climax. There was no resolution. There was no conclusion. From page 150 all the way until the end at page 581, the problem continued to compound but no resolution was ever reached. Those 431 pages, while fun to read, showed very little variation in tone or direction. The book could just as well have ended a hundred pages sooner, or two hundred, or three hundred. When the problem continues to compound and no solution is ever found, there’s not much point in even making the novel be any longer. It may as well have ended at page 200, because you as a reader would have gotten the same amount out of those first 50 pages of conflict as you would have out of the full 431. The Grapes of Wrath works very well as the beginning of a story, or as the beginning and middle, but it’s missing an ending. No matter how well-written, poignant, or “American” a novel might be, it cannot be considered very good IF IT’S MISSING THE DAMN ENDING. It works very well as a book that helps the reader understand the plight of the poor farmer in Depression-era America, but as a story, it’s an utter failure. A book that’s missing an ending is like a chair that’s missing a leg. Sure, it looks nice, but try sitting on it.

I got a lot out of reading this book. It helps the reader to understand what a farmer during the Great Depression was going through, and the suffering that he had to endure. It certainly works very well in that respect. I suppose it’s arguable that the anticlimactic ending — the never-ending struggle of the Joad family — was meant to represent the fact that, for farmers, there was no happy ending. Sure. Maybe that’s true. But this isn’t supposed to be a historical account of exactly what happened. It’s supposed to be a story. Stories are supposed to have beginnings, middles, and . . . what was that other part . . . oh yeah, I remember. ENDINGS. Without an ending, without a solution, it’s not a story. It’s a list of grievances. Bad thing #1 happens, bad thing #2 happens, bad thing #3 happens. Nothing is ever resolved. As far as I have been informed, that’s not a story. And I’ve read my fair share of stories.

It has been said that great writers are allowed to break rules. Shakespeare, for example, made up about a zillion words, and people are generally okay with that. So is it okay for John Steinbeck to write a book without an ending? Many people seem to think so. As you may have figured out by now, I disagree. I strongly disagree. It is not only unusual or wrong to write a book with no ending, but I would go so far as to say that it is immoral. What kind of impression are we giving our children? We can’t have them start writing like Steinbeck. First our children will start writing books with no endings, and before you know it they’ll all have become Communists. We cannot let this story fall into the wrong hands.

Posted in Book Review, Rant | 6 Comments »

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