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The Search for Authentic Experience

quest

It’s raining deadlines here in Hartford: grant proposals, course proposals, exhibition labels, article drafts, etc. All of it due this week or next. On top of it all, tomorrow’s the first day of classes. Time to polish up the syllabus, de-lint the sweater, iron the button-downs.

I just submitted a proposal to teach an honors course here (see below). The course grows out of my work in the history of exploration. I would love your feedback about the topic, how you think it coheres (or digresses), readings that you think improve the course, areas unexplored or under-explored in the syllabus.

HONB 110: The Search for Authentic Experience

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

Course Description

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said that all of his writings circled around two questions: “what is real?” and “what is human?” Dick’s questions extend beyond science fiction. Indeed, they traverse the scale of human history. If we traveled back in time to the fifth century BCE and asked Plato what sorts of things were on his mind, I suspect he would tell us much the same thing as Dick. Where does one look for the true reality of the world? And once located, how does one reach it?

These are the questions that structure HONB 110: The Search for Authentic Experience, a course that examines the long quest to discover what’s real and the processes by which people try to attain it. Questions of truth usually reside in the domain of philosophy, and debates about “what is real” could easily fit within an epistemology course from Parmenides to Karl Popper. Yet the point of Authentic Experience is to show how such lofty, stratospheric ideas play out on the muddy terrain of human culture. After all, it is not some esoteric exercise in metaphysics that inspires people to search for what’s real: it’s because people sense, in a deeply personal way, that what they experience is not real enough.

For example, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which students read during the first week of the course, can be viewed as a purely metaphysical parable in which a prisoner comes to realize that his life in the shadows of a cave is a poor imitation of the reality of the world above. Yet Plato’s allegory is not merely a thought experiment. It is also a specific critique of life in Athens, a society that feared the ideas of Socrates enough to make him a prisoner, eventually executing him.

St. Francis of Assisi, Anthony Van Dyck, 1627

St. Francis of Assisi, Anthony Van Dyck, 1627

This dance between philosophical ideas and specific cultural concerns frames the first five weeks of Authentic Experience. In particular, this section of the course examines the issue of worldliness and asceticism across cultures. Material luxuries — silks, spices, opium – have long been seen as enhancements to sense experience. Moreover, they have often served as a measuring stick of refinement and cultural progress. Yet others have seen them in darker terms, as distractions, leading people off the narrow path of enlightenment. Do such luxuries enhance our lives as Democritus and the Epicureans argue? Or are they the subtle gloss that separates us from the vibrancy of raw experience as St Francis of Assisi and Siddhārtha Gautama warn us?

Buddha statue in Borobudur Stupa, Java, Indonesia

Buddha statue in Borobudur Stupa, Java, Indonesia

The second section of the course takes up “the journey” in the pursuit of authentic experience. In his book on comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell identifies the quest as a key component in hero stories across cultures, including those of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Osiris, Moses, Budda, and Christ. Campbell noted that heroes prove themselves not simply by achieving their goals at the end of the quest, but by undergoing a transformation during the quest itself. The arduous journey is not merely the literary prop of myths and legends. It is a part of the real world, having been adopted by many cultures as a means of purification and enlightenment. In addition to reading excerpts from Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Bible, students will also read about ritualized journeys such as Christian pilgrimages and the Muslim Hajj.

Scene of icebergs, Frederic Church

Scene of icebergs, Frederic Church

The final section of the course looks at the search for authentic experience in the modern world, starting with 19th century Romantics who sought to move beyond the boundaries of empirical reason to achieve an experience of the sublime. Students will examine the landscapes of Frederic Church and his contemporaries, artists who traveled to the wild places of the world in hopes that it would get under their skin, alter their perceptions, and infuse their works with something unique. Finally, the course will consider twentieth-century quests for the real, such as the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s which sought self-actualization through music and hallucinogenic drugs. It will end by examining the current “Age of Adventurism” in which trekkers, climbers, and jumpers attempt increasingly risky, death-defying feats as the means for escaping the quotidian drudgeries of modern life.

Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary

The course will include two field trips: to the Wadsworth Athenaeum to view the collection of Hudson River School landscapes, and to Mt. Monadnock in Southern New Hampshire for a day-hike to the summit. It will also feature guest lectures by Steph Davis, elite climber and author of High Infatuation: A Climber’s Guide to Love and Gravity, as well as local scholars Heidi Gehman of the Hartford Seminary and Bill Major of Hillyer College.


Nate Silver, Baseball Analyst, Prophet of the Galactic Empire

Nate Silver, forecasting the weather for 2010

Nate Silver

Like most of the free world, I spent October following the U.S. presidential election. For me this meant looking over the dailies, a graph of the national tracking average, and a red/blue map of the Electoral College. This was about the extent of my political forecasting. Not so Nate Silver, statistical boy-genius, baseball analyst, and author of the political projection site FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver’s predictions have caused quite a stir because they have been so prescient. Based on his analysis of polls, he called the election for Obama. . . in March. Call him lucky. Then he predicted 49 of 50 states correctly on election night with a 6.1% margin for Obama, within 0.4 of the actual margin. Silver can add these to a growing list of oracle-like achievements: calling the results the Super Tuesday within 13 delegates (out of 847), predicting the ascendency of the Tampa Bay Rays and the 90-loss season of the Chicago White Sox. Silver now markets a number of statistical models including PECORA, QERA, and SECRET SAUCE (an algorithm for the Big Mac?).

Silver’s uncanny ability to predict things that seem murky to the rest of us reminds me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, published in 1951-53. Asimov’s story is set in a Galactic Empire which contains thousands of inhabited planets and quadrillions of human beings. The stunning size of this empire allows one man, Hari Seldon, to develop a set of statistical models for predicting the future of civilization, a field of study he calls “psychohistory.” Seldon’s algorithms have no ability to predict the actions of a single individual, any more than one could predict the toss of the coin. The single flip is always unknowable, but not so a hundred flips, a thousand, ten thousand, a series that becomes more predictable with each iteration. It is a science which gains precision as the data aggregates.

Hari Seldon

Hari Seldon

The story of Silver and Seldon make for good reading. But they also touch upon a very storied debate among historians about the forces that propel history. For centuries, scholars viewed this force (or “agency” as it is called in the Academy) as a power contained within the individual. In other words, one could understand the ebb and flow of empires by following the actions of powerful individuals: popes, kings, and revolutionaries. Certainly this continues to be a popular way of looking at the forces of history, as can be seen by the hefty shelf space afforded “Biography” at Borders and Barnes and Nobles. But among academic historians, the “Great Man” vision of history has lost much of its blush. Individuals continue to matter, but to many of us, the agents of history reside in the realm of the extra-human: institutions, churches, states, and the ephemeries of culture.

Marc Bloch

Marc Bloch

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the French Annales School of the early 20th century. Its founders, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre grew tired of the emphasis on individuals and big events: wars, coups, congresses, and assassinations. Instead they saw history as a tectonic thing, a gradual unfolding of events caused by millions of people influenced by their habits, geography, and material culture. Here in episodes of “longue durée” lay the true causes for the rise and fall of empires.

So welcome Nate to the world of many parts. We expect big things.

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