Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The story of W (short novel)




A young person came to me today and wanted me to recount events of my past. I asked the youth if it was OK that my tale was a bit lengthy, a bit vague or boring at times, maybe even contradictory as my age and reckless events may have confused my memory. The young person didn't care for these minor errors of my tale so we sat together on a couch and I started from the beginning.

I was born in the Middle-East 5500 years ago in a booming city named Uruk, with a flourishing economy. In today's words, you would call that place a trading hub, and according to today's maps, the place would be located in the South of Iraq, though it was known by a different name then. My parents were traders of cereals and cattle I think, but through the mist of time I have few memories left about them. They gave me the name "One" because it was simple, and my name was imprinted in a small fragment of clay that I would wear around my neck. I would have liked it to be attached with a stripe of leather but these were the days, and a string woven from straw would have to do.

As a boy, I learned additions and substractions and I learned to keep count of who owed what to whom and in which quantity. Such was the family trade and I excelled at it. A boy's life back in the day was not like a boy's life today. There was no school and you didn't start looking for a job at 18 years old. You would learn everything from your family and you were part of the family's economic activity as early as 5 years old. Of course, you would still play around the house with the children of the neighborhood, and you would play tricks on people and receive a beating every now and then. But you had to take care of the family business. By age 12, you were an adult and you would be married to someone you might or might not know, based on economic interests. It sure sounds shocking today because there is now so much wealth that people have the luxury to choose any spouse and that this choice will have little to no influence on their parents odds of survival beyond the age of 30. But you should dismiss your shock at the idea of organized marriages: different era, different rules.

A few years into my adulthood, I met foreigners through my trade. They told stories of landscapes I could not imagine. Their stories got to me so someday I left to see their land. How could I think of what a desert is, when I hadn't seen one? How could I envision the sea? I turned my back on my city and accompanied the foreigners' caravan towards Egypt. Enriched by my encounters with people with different lives, different desires, different knowledge, different beliefs and different resources, I grew. I learned to use the papyrus, which Egyptians used to record their deals. This country already had its traders and I felt I could make myself useful as a caretaker on some construction project. It is a little like trading. You keep track of incoming and outgoing resources, but you need additional knowledge to anticipate sequences of events. One task leading to another, I found myself organizing logistics for the great pyramid.

However ambitious the project of the pyramid, it took too long and I grew bored. I was already old by human standards but I was young compared to my current age and I was relentless. And I was nostalgic of Uruk where things must have changed greatly over the years. So I returned to the city of my birth and I met the great king Gilgamesh, who hired me as a scribe. It took a while to record the tale of his fantastic journey, his encounters with gods and monsters, his struggles and his triumphs. This man, or this god, I am not sure... his life must have been even more exciting than my own, but in a jealous way, I was pleased that this king would not have been able to record his story if not for a modest scribe like me. He was glorious, adventurous, courageous, charismatic, inspiring... and yet his obsession with death revealed a fundamental weakness of the man. The object of his obsession had the last word. I stayed for a while and met another great king: Hammurabbi. This king had the idea of creating clear limits to what people are allowed or not allowed to do, and he codified how people can interact with each other. Because so far, not killing your neighbor had merely been a form of respect... while killing your neighbors was probably OK-ish though it carried the risk that some relative would find out and get in touch to make you pay the price of blood. Suddenly, thanks to Hammurabbi, everybody had responsibilities and duties.

I left Uruk again. This marked the beginning of a period of my life I call "the time of voyages". Word of mouth got me to visit new places, meet new people, discover new civilizations. I must have been 2000 years old already and my best years were still ahead of me. I passed through China and wise men taught me the art of calligraphy. Travelling on the wind, I reached Mexico where I was a stone carver for a while. I pushed my travels further and found some peace of mind in Greece. A few smart guys were really fun to hang out with like that musician named Pythagoras. He actually invented music theory. But he had a big mouth and some unhappy guy someday simply set a lynch mob to burn and pillage Pythagoras' school of philosophy. So my friend died but his work remained and later inspired one of the most inspiring stories ever written and which made timeless comments still valid to this day: Plato's The Republic. That period is often known as the empire of Alexander the Great. But at the same place and at the same time lived the most powerful man that ever lived: Diogenes of Sinope. He was a beggar but he had everything he wanted. His secret? having modest desires so they could be fulfilled. And he could afford to talk down to Alexander the great.

After that, I traveled probably everywhere in the world and met almost everyone. I applied myself to the study of all subjects. And I intend to continue doing so forever.

Yesterday, I met a person whose old age was hinted at by the leathery look of his skin. The wrinkles he bore told me he must have traveled through events even I could hardly imagine. I was curious of his story. I wanted his words to assemble together like paves are assembled to build a road that would take me to a place of wonder. He warned me that the tale would be a bit lengthy, a bit vague or boring at times, maybe even contradictory as his age and reckless events may have confused his memory. I was OK to go through that so we walked to a couch and he started from the beginning.

His story was a lie. As is my story. As will your story be, when you tell it. But it doesn't matter, as long as you make it interesting.


Side notes:

I wrote this short novel a few months ago. I was kind of bored and decided to be curious of something that I hardly ever did, hardly ever thought about. And I found "creative writing". So I watched a couple YouTube videos on the subject, read some Wikipedia articles... the usual stuff.

The first few creative ideas come easily but developing a long enough plot is demanding and it requires to do some research on subjects that you want to mention and yet don't know much about.

There are definite flaws in this short novel, but re-reading it after a few months, I find it not too bad. I hope you do too.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The hard words of philosophy





Philosophy is a vast domain. If you consider that philosophy is essentially the art or science of thinking correctly, there's a lot on philosophy's plate.

Thinking correctly is not easy but if you know a few good tools like logic, you're more assured to reach valid conclusions.

One difficulty, though, remains and seems intimidating to me: words. When you listen to talks about philosophy, you encounter some words that you hardly ever meet anywhere else. I think it's useful to list a few of these words and their definitions in order to help people who have a curiosity about philosophy but might be intimidated.


Deconstruction: is a fancy word which means "analysis". As in "serious" analysis. It doesn't matter if you think of analyzing ideas through thought experiments or analyzing things through scientific/engineering means ; deconstruction is just a fancy word meaning analysis.

Dialectic: is the art of resolving an argument through discussion by considering consecutively the various conflicting opinions. To put it in simple terms, dialectic is the honest consideration of all points of view.

Empiricism: is the reliance on observation as a source of knowledge. Weak empiricism could consist in mere inductions/inferences from observations and is highly subject to cognitive biases. Strong empiricism, like that of Karl Popper, will insist on concise enunciation of refutable assertions which are then put to the test.

Epistemology: is the branch of philosophy concerned with finding out what's really true. It is sometimes called the "science of sciences" because it deals with finding out how we know what we know. Epistemology tasks itself with making the difference between knowledge and belief. So in a sense all sciences, because they care about making demonstrations, have an epistemological aspect.

Nihilism: is the negation of one or more meaningful aspects of life. In particular, nihilism can be opposed to epistemological or ontological arguments and nihilism can be applied to morality, positing that morality does not exist in itself but that it is merely a set of conventions. Though the term is often used pejoratively, nihilism is legitimate as a sort of anti-ontology or anti-epistemology with regards to things that actually do not exist.

Ontology: is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of being and existence. For subjects where epistemology is not applicable or not relevant, ontology takes over. It is often invoked in a fallacious way in discussions about the existence of gods (of which existence is pretended to be beyond scientific inquiry), but it is relevant in the exploration of the existence of ideas in language and in thought. Ontology also holds a role in the field of psychology since technological methods, even fMRI, do not yet allow an epistemological approach of a patient's psychology.

Skepticism: is the attitude of questioning the reality of things and ideas. It is easily associated to epistemology but when pushed to the extreme, skepticism may lead to questioning everything about everything and lead to extreme aspects of solipsism or nihilism.

Solipsism: is the notion that we can't be totally sure of the existence of anything outside our own mind. Our mind's existence has to be taken for granted because we think and because it is inseparable from the idea of self. But we can't be sure of the reality of anything outside of our mind. Solipsism can be considered at various degrees, but beyond its role as a thought experiment, it is not productive.

Teleology: is the examination of final consequences. It is the idea that things serve a purpose or that there is a purpose to everything. Which is arguable. It is a notion that will easily be found in religions (the meaning of life, God's plan, moksha...) but which will have opposition from epistemology and nihilism.


Conclusion

I hope this is of help to anyone who is curious about philosophy but would have been intimidated by the big words thrown around.




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