Against Nature: “The Turing Problem”

The earliest use of the word “φύσις”, usually translated as Nature, occurs in Homer: “Hermes gave me the herb, drawing it from the ground, and showed me its nature.” Hermes initial function was that of a messenger, sent to warn Odysseus of the imprisoning wrath of Circe. In addition, Hermes wished to demonstrate the qualities of the natural world by using an herb, a Moly, or a white flowered herb with black roots. Hermes is trying to demonstrate the mundane features of this “magical” white plant. Eventually, the Greeks came to see Physis as that which is unchanging. Its counterpoint, Nomos, means “Nurture.” Nomos is that which exists as a result of human belief. So the questions went: Do the gods really exist? Or do we humans create their existence, making them a part of Nomos? It wasn’t until later that Physis came to be known in a more legalistic sense. (Or in the sense of the verb form phusis, indicating that Nature has a period of growth over time.)

The title to the tourist-facing website for the country of Dominica is “Discover Dominica, the Nature Island.” A cursory Google image search will show you beautiful foliage, cobalt blue waters, and relaxing hot springs. Indeed it would be a perfect place for a vacation. The website touts Dominica as “The ideal spot for a wedding or honeymoon!” Implicitly, they mean a “natural” wedding or honeymoon. Dominica is in the news today after two American men were arrested after they were caught engaging in an act of indecent exposure on an Atlantis cruise ship. It is alleged that they were having sex on their balcony of their rooms while the ship was docked. It’s unclear who caught them, but the story seems to suggest that a resident of the island caught the two men engaging in an act of buggery, a criminal act that carries a maximum 10 year prison sentence.

Homosexuality possesses qualities of both Nomos and Physis. Gay sex does indeed occur in the animal kingdom; there are species of animals who engage in sexual intercourse regardless of the sex of its partner. As a human identity, “homosexuality” is a Nomos, nurtured into existence by the greater society. Ironically, it is less possible to punish the Nomos, or the aspect of homosexuality that’s culturally fabricated. So they go after the Physis. When one engages in acts of sodomy, one has committed a “crime against Nature.” Tellingly, the courts in Dominica were only able to prosecute on the basis of Indecent Exposure. In other words, they exposed themselves as homosexuals. And of course the men were set free under certain financial conditions.

I just finished listening to a wonderful Radiolab episode on the English mathematician Alan Turing. He was arrested for “Acts of gross indecency.” His sentence? Chemical castration. The buggery laws of 1950s England were such that one had two choices: be imprisoned or take estrogen. The latter choice was aimed at erasing the potency of his manhood. Turing’s career centered around one principle intellectual problem: “What if machines become our equivalents?” He believed it to have been possible. And the English courts decided: Turing, against Nature, must be stripped of his manhood.

A Nietzschean Yogi?

Yoga class was the last place on earth I would expect to be reminded of Nietzsche’s view of the historical human. Yet there I was, listening to my instructor’s words of wisdom: “Live in the past, you’re always regretting something. Live for the future and you’re full of anxiety. Be here in the present.” Of course this sentiment smacks of late 1960’s Be Here Now counterculture, which is far removed from the iron that is the Nietzschean Übermensch. But I find a connection to what we call the “historical human.” In his Use and Abuse of History, he says “There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which something living comes to harm and finally perishes, whether it is a person or a people or a culture.” One perishes once the “historical sense” finally takes hold completely. For some, there is only a past that seeks to strangulate the living present. In other words, a memory is not something that you should hold on to, but something that should be discarded and forgotten in order to go about living. Of course Nietzsche was referring to History in a much more universal sense. (If I may use the words “universal” and “Nietzsche” in the same sentence…) Yet one must personalize this statement. After all, Nietzsche is nothing if not life-affirming. Nietzsche tells us to say Yes to life. One can easily see how quickly the Overman’s horizon begins to broaden.

But at the very beginning of class today, my teacher put on some music for us. The music was not exactly my style, but then again my “style” of music doesn’t lend itself very well to relaxation and meditation. I stopped short when I noticed that the singer sang the word “God”, as in “God leads us to the infinite.” I’m not exactly militant in my atheism, so I let it slide. But my teacher warned us that the music “uses the G. O. D. word”, and that she had received complaints in the past. She explained that the yogic god can be seen that way, but should be seen as “energy”, a concept that I was familiar with from classes past. I wanted to remember to ask her whether the man was an atheist or a christian. But I had forgotten, and at this point in time, I find the answer irrelevant.

21st Century Stoicism

Part 1: Twenty-First Century Stoic — From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic
Part 2: Twenty-First Century Stoic — Insult Pacifism
Part 3: Twenty-First Century Stoic — Stoic Transformation

I have, on more than one occasion been described as being stoic. Meaning, I am able to bounce back from emotional trauma with speed. Of course this isn’t always the case. When things burn, they burn deeply inside of me and never want to let go. But for the most part, I endure many aspects of life “without hardship.”

But the above series of blog posts tells the story of one man (whose book I have yet to read…That’s going on the Wishlist this year for sure) who endeavors to “endure without hardship” the philosophy of the Stoics. He writes about three main aspects of living Stoically:

1. Negative Visualization, in which he contemplates the loss of the things in front of him. In doing so, you tend to appreciate what you have and especially who you have around you. No writing sappy songs about how you never told your loved ones how much you love them. Or, more simply, appreciate that your coffee maker made it one more day without breaking — you couldn’t say as much for the last one that died 6 months into its life.

2. Insult Pacifism, in which you don’t re-act when someone insults you. The cast of the Jersey Shore would surely fail at this one. Yet the funny thing about insult pacifism is how well it works. Your detractors will be taken far, far aback when their insults are ignored.

3. Greeting Life’s Curveballs with Glee. This one has mostly to do with #3, but is a non-social phenomenon. If we don’t react, one horrible traffic jam at a time, we’ll be better equipped to deal with genuinely bad news. (“Your headache is something a little more menacing, sir. I’m afraid we’ll have to operate.” This one might be the biggest lesson of them all.

So is it possible to live Stoically in the 21st century? William B. Irvine seems to think so. But if you follow his instructions, you may find the reactions of those around you to be a bit funny. What do you mean he doesn’t hate his beat-up ’97 Honda? Surely the author doesn’t mind these whispers. The transformations going on inside are good enough to make up for it.