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Joz Norris


Tape 62: Notes From A Philosophy Festival

  • Tape 62: Notes From A Philosophy Festival

Notes From A Philosophy Festival

I just got back from performing at How The Light Gets In in Hay-on-Wye, apparently the world’s largest philosophy festival. I went there with absolutely no idea what a philosophy audience would be like to perform a comedy show to, and also with low expectations of how many people at a philosophy festival would be interested in watching my show, so it was an incredibly nice surprise to have 200 people show up and really enjoy it. I suppose, on thinking about it, that there’s really no reason why a philosophy crowd would be that different from an alternative comedy crowd, in that they’re both people who are predisposed to think and wonder about why things are the way they are, and how they could be different. They are both people driven principally by curiosity.

Anyway, having such a nice time performing my show wasn’t even the highlight of my weekend. My favourite thing about being there was simply the opportunity to soak up three days’ worth of interesting ideas for free, and I listened to so many fascinating talks and debates that I thought this week’s Tape could just be my collected notes and thoughts on a couple of specific ones.

The Philosophy Of Hard Choices

I took on board so much input this weekend that my thoughts on it all will probably have to be quite bullet-point-y, and I’m going to focus on the two talks that left me with the most need to think further about what I’d heard, starting with a talk by Professor Ruth Chang about the philosophy of hard choices. Here are my notes on it:

  • Professor Chang outlined the way we try to weigh up hard life choices – choices about whether to commit to someone romantically; about what profession to pursue; about where to move, etc – using the trichotomy of empirical measurements. In maths and science, different measures can only be compared to one another in one of three ways – they can be more than, less than or equal to. This holds true for weights, distances, lengths, and everything else that is part of physical reality, the measurable world. Because it holds so true for the measurable world, we assume it’s a means of comparison we can map across onto the immeasurable world, which Chang called “the world of value.” Why should we assume that things can only be better than, worse than or equal to when discussing things like knowledge or truth or love? Why don’t we instead come to an understanding that those values have to be measured via a completely different system?
  • In true hard choices, the two options actually have parity. The phrase “on a par” is often misused as meaning the same as “equal to,” but parity really means that we cannot compare the two things using the mathematical approach of better, worse or equal. Instead we have to find a different, value-based way of deciding between them.
  • Ultimately, the act of making a choice restructures our own reality so that that choice becomes the better choice for us. Chang’s example was romantic relationships – of course there’s no such thing as the “perfect” romantic partner, someone who is better suited to you than anyone else in the world, who is the “best” possible romantic choice for you. But the act of choosing, of committing to someone, makes them into the best choice for you. You restructure your own shared reality through the act of commitment.
  • The same holds true for all big value-based decisions in life – when choosing between creative fulfilment or financial gain, the act of committing to one makes it into the best possible choice for you, so that from that point onwards your actual sensory perception of the world changes. If you choose creative fulfilment, then it becomes the measure by which you organise your life, so that options pursued by those who chose financial gain no longer even register on your radar that much. The consequences of your choice no longer register as consequences, they register as challenges. When the life I chose as a precarious creative freelancer throws up financial challenges, I never think to myself “I should have foreseen this consequence and gone into a more stable career,” I think “This is a challenge associated with the choice I made in my life.”
  • Ultimately, as long as we commit to the decisions we make when weighing up those big life choices, there is no such thing as a wrong decision. Wrong decisions are the ones not committed to, as is the decision not to really make a choice. But any choice made with commitment becomes the right choice for us, because it is the choice we made.

Art, Science & Reality

The second talk that really got me thinking was a panel discussion between Isy SuttiePaul MuldoonJames Tartaglia and, forgive me, two other speakers whose names I didn’t get and can’t find online, on the question – “Is art a better means than science for revealing the true essence of reality?” Their answer, basically, was yes, but here were some of my notes:

  • A similar point to that made by Ruth Chang above – science is able to inform us about “facts” (Muldoon pointed out that the word “fact” itself has become more slippery in the last ten years, and now, with everybody experiencing their own tailor-made fragmented news feeds different from the news feeds everyone else is seeing, the very idea of what is and isn’t “factual” could potentially vary from person to person, which is a very dangerous thought), but cannot inform us about the experiential nature of things – the taste of a lime, say. The only way to express the way in which we actually experience reality, is artistic.
  • Science reveals what is true for everybody, so the individual has to accept it. Art reveals what is true for the individual, and in revealing what is true for the individual, it becomes true for everybody. It moves in the opposite direction to science.
  • Art not only gives us tools to describe non-factual, experiential realities, it also creates new realities to be described – it creates new cultural objects, new shared experiences, new poems, new plays, new paintings. It shapes reality while also revealing it.
  • Art is ultimately a letter from the soul of the artist to the soul of the listener/viewer/audience. Art connects to the soul in a way that science doesn’t, and ultimately we should be looking to steer our society more artistically in order to salvage it, because decisions made when in communication with our souls are better decisions.
  • One of the most brilliant ideas in the talk was the question “Why don’t we start every single parliamentary session, or every business meeting, with the reading of a poem, as we might at a religious or state ceremony?” Art and poetry gets us to connect with our shared humanity, and decisions made as a result of communing with our humanity are likely to be more beneficial decisions, but we act as though the world of business and politics must be entirely divorced from the world of the soul, and our society and culture and, ultimately, reality suffer as a result.

Brighton This Week!

A quick tangent from me – on Saturday I’m taking Blink to the Electric Arcade in Brighton! I’ve not performed a show in Brighton since playing to about seven people there in 2016, so I’d love to have a nice big audience. If you live in or near Brighton, please come on down! Or if you have friends there, feel free to let them know about it and encourage them to come along. More information and links to tickets can be found here.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – As of today, I think all shows for the Edinburgh Fringe 2022 are now on sale! I’m getting more excited/nervous about the Fringe day by day, and looking through all the brilliant shows is really making me hanker to be up there watching everyone’s amazing ideas. Have a browse through the listings here!

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – In her show at How The Light Gets In, Isy Suttie had a routine about being “fun mums” at a nuclear power plant that really tickled me. It’s a great show, go see it on tour!

Book Of The Week – Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon. While in Hay, I popped over to the Hay Literary Festival to watch Ardal talk about his new book, and picked up a copy. It’s excellent, a very darkly funny crime thriller set against the backdrop of the Troubles. I’m hooked, it’s very Twin Peaks-y and compelling.

Album Of The Week – Inside Problems by Andrew Bird. Bird released an album in 2019 called My Finest Work Yet, and this is his new album. I’m disappointed it’s not also called My Finest Work Yet, as I think it’d be funny if he just gave that title to every album he releases from now on. Anyway, it’s not his finest work yet (nor was My Finest Work Yet, ironically), but it is great, I absolutely love the guy.

Film Of The Week – I rewatched Man On The Moon this week, because when I first saw it I was 16, knew nothing about Andy Kaufmann, and was only watching it for Jim Carrey. Today I know many people who unequivocally revere Kaufmann, so it was interesting to revisit it. I think he was undoubtedly a genius, and it was important that somebody like him existed in order to represent all the things he represented, but I do think he took his work to extremes where he lost all respect for the audience and stopped actually caring about creating a shared experience that people could engage with and enjoy, which fundamentally undermines one of the core principles of great art. I think he was an inspiring beacon, for sure, but I also think he’s a cautionary tale about finding the line between entertaining yourself and showing other people the way in to be entertained with you.

That’s all for this week! As ever, if you enjoyed this week’s Tape I’d love you to share it with a friend, or encourage others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,

Joz xx

PS Here’s the Hay Festival after the party wound down.

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