Not really a review of any kind but I’m going to write a few disconnected comments. Here’s the poof that when I don’t actually care about a book I end up reading faster. I read the last 2/3 of this in just a few days, while the first 1/3 I had read a month or two ago before being sidetracked toward JR by Gaddis (that’s just a hint of my erratic patterns).

I had this book years ago, when it was very popular. I read some 50/60 pages, as I usually do, then shelved it. I didn’t like at all the writing, all the characters were caricatures, all the plot was filled with simple tropes, and I did feel an intrusive “wind” in the form of the writer trying to unsubtly push reader’s emotions where he wanted them. It felt artificial and clumsy. But the guy at ofblog loved the stuff and he has a kind of sophisticated taste. I knew this was part of a bigger project of four books, and I’m always curious when an author drives toward some kind of “higher purpose”. This cycle is complete now, in Spanish, in Italian, it looks like the English version isn’t coming until 2018.

So this time I began reading the book with more determination to see it through, the whole first book to have at least a good idea about what it is all about, and what it wants to drive to. For the first 1/3 I found nothing different than the first time. The book failed to engage me, the silly tropes are pervasive. There’s just too much effort making every single character into a quirky, eccentric figure because otherwise they’d be boring and not fitting the pages of a ‘book’. It just feelt an elaborate but ultimately fake and grotesque stage.

But then it started to get good. It didn’t become any different, it didn’t become any more than that, but the recipe started to make sense and work. For the first 1/3 not only I didn’t like it, but I also couldn’t figure out why it was so widely appreciated. Reading the rest of the book made me understand more that part. The story becomes a fair bit more dense and complex but, more importantly, it mixes a lot of genres and does it fairly well. It’s good in the sense that it gets engaging and quick to read. “Mystery deepens” is the driving mechanic. There are various “blocks” that are dropped and that build and build, so you want to keep turning the pages. It works because instead of keeping a mystery out of reach until you get to a final revelation, in this case instead the flow of knowledge builds up relentlessly through the whole second half of the book. It’s one huge, constant info-dump. Very dense. But it works and isn’t tiring because it’s all still steeped into intense emotions and the tragic lives of multiple characters all together in a tangle of plot.

All of that is done well. It’s just obvious the incredible amount of work behind the book. The sheer amount of stuff packed in, and the intense tragedy that keeps a reader locked in, driving toward a “surface”. It’s a fun, engaging read and gets you in the center of this whirlpool of characters. But? But, while fun, it isn’t very meaningful to me. One thing is why and how I enjoyed it, another is my opinion now that I’ve finished it. I think it’s all pre-digested stuff. The book is all built around tropes coming from different genres, sprinkled with a gothic, surrealist atmosphere. As I said, it’s well done, but it’s also nothing more than that. It feels to me like the writer really loved these books he read, and wrapped them into this story he built. But I doubt that this mixture he made is anything more than an “homage” to authors he loved to read. Nothing more that this book has to say beyond this sort of nostalgic love.

I’m (binge)watching Twin Peaks for the first time now, sorry for the forced parallel but Twin Peaks shares a somewhat similar intent and I think shows the difference. When the post-modernism works it takes what came before, all the ingredients, but spinning them so everything moves at a different speed, and the result is completely different. To me Twin Peaks is nothing more than parody of soap operas used to make fun of the public who loved them. Public that then proceeds to take it seriously, and so falling completely in the trap. Becoming a laughing stock because Twin Peaks, really, is just trolling. But Twin Peaks also takes *itself* seriously (having a cake and eating it too). Enough to create its own new dimension. Enough to make people forget its derivative-ness, and make believe Twin Peaks STARTED something new. The mix of old tropes creates a whole new level. Knowing the old to make the new. Today Twin Peaks re-emerges, and no one even remembers it was just a parody. Transfiguration.

(and all three of my current interests, The Leftovers, Twin Peaks and The Shadow of the Wind, all three seem to have a central mystery that actually isn’t there at all. Just a lot of clever and less clever misdirection)

The Shadow of the Wind doesn’t seem to emerge from its homage, from its borrowed love for the things past. It loops back, but it closes itself. Its energy is borrowed energy. A shadow of things past that produces no new life. And it matters because its plot and structure would suggest exactly the opposite, and it fails, so radically, at the true heart. This central idea of the book that you can “redeem” a story in the past gone wrong, with a story in the present that goes well. The finale distributing trivial sweet candies to every minor and major character. Characters all used as tools and then discarded through convenient, momentary compassion so that the one adopted by the readers can have his sweeter implied future. It feels to me so hypocritical. To suggest you can clean it all. The world is bleak and full of pain, but hey, there’s a shadow writing hand here taking care of its characters and making sure it all ends in positivity. The new life that the book produces explicitly (metaphorically) just isn’t new life that the book produces for the reader. It’s a book made of ashes. A mix of tropes that is well done, but that produces nothing new or meaningful. A well done mimicry, but I don’t feel is any more than that. And the overall message? It rings hollow and false to me. It doesn’t in ANY way address the tragedy shown. It simply dismisses it through rhetoric, through the fact this is a book, indeed a fake stage where things were pre-arranged to make a point. A point that has no substance or meaning. Theatrics.

Though I wanted to read it also to figure out what the overall cycle of four books would be about, this part eludes me. The first book is complete. There’s really no element of the story that might suggest there’s more to it. It closes even too neatly. I have absolutely no idea how the author plans to wrap this in an overall larger story because it seems it’s already all squished to nothing. And so I don’t really know if I should care to read more, if there’s something that might interest me. In fact, since this book offers nothing in the overall trajectory points to the possibility there’s more substance ahead. Who knows. For the time being I’m content. I’m not rushing to read the next book.

Meaningless mind games, right? Devoid of significance. Nothing but self-indulgence, and for that vast audience out there – the whispering ghosts and their intimations, their suppositions and veiled insults and their so easily bored minds – that audience – they are my witnesses, yes, that sea of murky faces in the pit, for whom my desperate performance, ever seeking to reach out with a human touch, yields nothing but impatience and agitation, the restless waiting for the cue to laugh.

And so the Malazan saga ends… What? This 360k fat tome wasn’t the great finale? You say there are four more, even fatter books (and more)? That’s impossible because the whole world already fits comfortably into this book.

Oh, I’m sorry. It truly took me an insane amount of time to finish this one, and the book’s size, or its ambition, weren’t the cause. I just have an unexplainable compulsive habit that makes me delay the things I’m most invested in. A compulsive desire to accumulate and preserve the best stuff and lock it away in a treasure room for some later ideal time that never comes. And as with all compulsive habits, it takes a great amount of willpower and perseverance to defeat it, at least for a moment. I *have* succeeded a little, I’m up to Malazan #6, after all, and to add to that there’s Forge of Darkness and four novellas. But since reading this one book truly took me forever, it’s harder to gather all the pieces scattered through the months and *years*. I’ll try anyway to gather some thoughts, and then I’ll change the recipe, from now on (well, maybe).

This is Malazan #6, then. It marks the middle point of the overall cycle and its structure reflects it. It seems people’s opinions shift with time, but originally this specific book wasn’t a favorite among Malazan readers. The reason was that it had to gather everything from the previous five books, and not simply in a linear way because there are at least three separate “blocks” of story that until this point had been kept distinct within the confines of one dedicated book to each (more or less). So all five of these preceding volumes have to flow into this one, passing through a kind of choke point. And then readers also didn’t like that this volume doesn’t have a proper conclusion, as instead happened with the preceding ones. The overall impression was that this one was working like a transition, like an impossibly huge chariot that Erikson struggled to set once more in motion, so that it would then keep going for the second half of the series. A sort of typical middle book in a big series, that has to do the heavy lifting to reposition properly all the pieces and gain momentum once more.

But it’s not so rare that these days readers point at this one as their favorite book, instead, or close to the top. And that’s the book I actually read. The objective breadth of the thing indeed defies that of preceding books, but I didn’t notice a struggle. Page by page, right from the beginning, it feels Erikson is simply having fun, and that the movement, despite the load, is a breeze. As if he pushed aside all the pressure of having to lock together these two halves of this giant series and instead was focused on making the best of every scene. In my opinion, it has a vitality that is unprecedented and makes the most of what made the fifth book a different but good one. It’s… the first Malazan book, and the last. Maybe it’s not even a good thing, but I felt as if Erikson gave it all here. It didn’t feel like “let’s do a laborious, meticulous build up”, it felt instead as if Erikson went *all* in, without sparing anything. Who cares if there’s nothing left, this might as well be the last day on earth, give it all you have. Till the last drop.

As with all the greatest things, the context is reflected in content. Erikson knows the pressure of the series. That pressure is higher exactly at the middle point (and then again at the end, I guess). And Malazan pressure is of a kind that cannot be sustained by anyone. But that’s Malazan, the spirit. Going, with a mad grin, against all odds. And that’s why it’s fun. Because Erikson knows there’s no other way, it’s all a gamble. It’s all a leap of faith, invigorating and blissful. The brink of the world. And you cannot take it seriously. It’s important that you don’t take it seriously. This is the spirit of the characters, and the spirit I feel in the writing. It’s fun, it’s lively, it’s inspired. It doesn’t suffer at all for being a middle volume in a big series.

Things were not well. A little stretched, are you, Ammanas? I am not surprised. Cotillion could sympathize, and almost did. Momentarily, before reminding himself that Ammanas had invited most of the risks upon himself. And, by extension, upon me as well.

The paths ahead were narrow, twisted and treacherous. Requiring utmost caution with every measured step.

So be it. After all, we have done this before. And succeeded. Of course, far more was at stake this time. Too much, perhaps.

Writing, as in shadow. What you see is all there is, and the shadow warren is metaphor. A world that constantly shifts. Delicious metafiction!

Emerging from Shadowkeep, he paused to study the landscape beyond. It was in the habit of changing at a moment’s notice, although not when one was actually looking, which, he supposed, was a saving grace.

Concretely speaking, the structure is a mess. But why not? It works. Erikson seems to have recognized that fans liked the third book best, and so decided for a similar recipe. Instead of having a prolonged build-up, leading to a big convergence that ties everything together to blow it up all at once, here one can recognize two “apexes”, one coming relatively early in the book, and another to the end (but is not the end). But these two focus points aren’t actually accelerations that follow slow build up, because the rest of the book has a myriad of big events, high points that are worthy enough of a series finale, in different contexts. Something big is constantly going on. Cities explode, the sky falls. In Malazan it might as well be the routine, but not to say these events are downplayed or lack a relevant heft. It’s all a whirlpool of constant awe.

The structure is STILL a mess and the thing groans and wails under its pressure. You forget about characters, because they might as well disappear for 300 or more pages. They might return, perfectly timed, or maybe their personal journey is over in this book, you don’t know. But you also don’t care, because the attention is on what is present. In the moment. And that’s always fun or spectacular, or intense or troubling. Page by page, I don’t think anything is wasted here. It’s the specular opposite of bloat, it’s a compression of every story, of the whole world.

It might be a problem? It might as well be. This is compressed Malazan. All the things I know about Malazan. You can read around the internet complaints about all the “philosophizing” and I recognize a symptom here. The symptom is that all “big” Malazan themes return, from all the angles, all the different, ambiguous faces. I was joking at the beginning, but it does feel like this book *exhausts* itself. When you zoomed back the view to encompass the whole world there’s nothing left to say or see. This book circumnavigates the Malazan world. There’s nothing left to say, because everything is already contained. Between the lines or in the lines. Every digression is a conclusion. Full stop. Silence.

Rock was bone. Dust was flesh. Water was blood. Residues settled in multitudes, becoming layers, and upon those layers yet more, and on and on until a world was made, until all that death could hold up one’s feet where one stood, and rise to meet every step one took. A solid bed to lie on. So much for the world. Death holds us up. And then there were the breaths that filled, that made the air, the heaving assertions measuring the passing of time, like notches marking the arc of a life, of every life. How many of those breaths were last ones? The final expellation of a beast, an insect, a plant, a human with film covering his or her fading eyes? And so how, how could one draw such air into the lungs? Knowing how filled with death it was, how saturated it was with failure and surrender?

Heboric fought on against the knowledge that the world did not breathe, not any more. No, now, the world drowned.

Malazan triumphs and is most agile under pressure because Malazan already broke all the reasonable rules. This book has “flaws”, but because it refused to comply. You are on board or you aren’t, at this point. Malazan can only be judged in respect to Malazan. You can take different angles of analysis. I did, as usual. But I also realize it doesn’t matter. You’re either on board or you aren’t. Malazan taught me to think. To see the whole range, the breadth of the world.

Is characterization good? I’ve read along the years plenty of complaints about Malazan and characterization. There’s always some validity, but Malazan did change the rules. Here a character can be as well a comedic relief, and not much more. Does this give justice to the character? Nope. It doesn’t feel like a true character, it doesn’t feel true. It’s not perfectly grounded, it’s not perfectly believable, all-around. There’s a fantasy-like floaty-ness, of “let’s pretend”, and plots too neatly aligned for an effect. It betrays that necessary(?) feeling of solidity and meaningfulness. There’s plenty to analyze and criticize if you bring with you your categories and criteria. That matters too, but in the end Malazan refuses to comply. What I noticed is that this book uses characters as walls to bounce a ball. You might think this diminishes those characters, but it’s a way to hold up a wider story. Each bounce creates a contrast. When you move from a scene to another, somewhere else, you notice there’s a thematic link, that these scenes talk to each other, speak to the reader. It’s a ray of light bounced around, transformed in its color and angle. A contrast to show you, the reader. You don’t stay with a character. You go in, step out, plunge back in. It’s a constant, deliberate movement so that instead of *closing* the perspective, it opens another. That’s why I said it taught me to think, because it refuses to stay static and affirm itself. When point of view affirms itself, authority follows. Being inside a character can mean being walled in. Trapped in that manipulation. Malazan gives a feeling of sublimation, of transcendence, because those characters aren’t an end to themselves, but they build toward something more, explicitly, the reader. And this doesn’t feel like a betrayal to those character, it feels the need to find meaning in a world where there’s none. The famous “witness”. The book of the fallen.

The world, Ahlrada Ahn knew, was indifferent to the necessity of preservation. Of histories, of stories layered with meaning and import. It cared nothing for what was forgotten, for memory and knowledge had never been able to halt the endless repetition of wilful stupidity that so bound peoples and civilizations.

Muted, from the streets of the city outside, there rose and fell the sounds of fighting, of dying, a chorus like the accumulated voices of history, of human failure and its echoes reaching them from every place in this world.

There is nothing left to understand. This mad whirlpool holds us all in a grasp that cannot be broken; and you with your spears and battle-masks; you with your tears and soft touch; you with the sardonic grin behind which screams fear and self-hatred; even you who stand aside in silent witness to our catastrophe of dissolution, too numb to act – it is all one. You are all one. We are all one.

We are all one. One ray of light, distorted by perspective. You learn to think not when you close yourself in your point of view. Neither you do when you move within another, to get caged there. You learn when you step back, when you free yourself of those chains. Not to deny point of view, but to breathe deep and face whatever there is. Out of pure self-interest chained by necessity. Reality pushes you there into that unavoidable necessity, a book can make you step back and embrace something larger than your immediate howling needs. You cannot find meaning without creating it.

If Game of Thrones can feel like a brutal survival game where you just cross the names of those who die to see who survives to win what’s left, in Malazan who dies is more important than who survives. Eyes wide open. There’s only legitimate rage against an unjust world, and whatever momentary relief you salvaged. It’s already all fucking lost, all gone. And it’s because it’s all gone that it’s important you remember. That defiant look in the face of the impossibility is the purest Malazan’s soul. That mad challenge of Human versus God. Meaning versus emptiness.

Malazan #6 is easily the best book in the main series, because it builds on what came before and because it keeps delivering as if this were truly the Grand Finale. I’d still somewhat put Forge of Darkness on top, but because of personal preference for the writing and tone. FoD is Malazan, but also different. For this sixth book I was expecting a marathon that was going to validate itself at the end. Or a laborious climb necessary to reach lofty ambitions. I feel it’s the opposite. It constantly renews itself, page after page, line by line, it’s lively, *fun* to read and meaningful.

It also did take me up to book #6 to realize that Fiddler is a bard, and that “The Malazan Book of the Fallen” isn’t actually a book, but a song. (and, with Malazan, it’s never about the revelation, it’s about the implications)

Lots of people hate cliffhangers, especially in TV shows since you have to wait a week, or a whole year for the next season to find out what happens. It’s just a natural expression of irritation. Because it works on the premise of baiting: you withdraw something in order to produce a desire.

The Leftovers does something, and does it systematically, that is far worse from my point of view. After a good first episode that was well contextualized and grounded what is supposed to come next in the season, we got a second episode that summarizes everything that is bad in this show. A number of plot points and vague hints that ultimately lead to nothing at all. You get away with your hands empty and a sense of frustration since you put some effort watching and trying to understand an hour of television, but nothing of value came out of it, if not the remote hope it will make sense later on. That it is building up to something hopefully worthwhile. But that, and this is the point, right now isn’t worthwhile at all.

But that’s not the worst offender. What’s worse than a cliffhanger is to end the episode with a decontextualized scene with new characters doing “mysterious” things. Or rather characters that you’ve never seen before, in a place you’ve never seen before, doing stuff that none of them cares to explain (in this specific case we know “what” and its immediate reason, but we don’t know why and how). In the case of cliffhangers at least you do get what happens, you just want to know how it *continues*. Instead in this “worst case scenario” you end up watching scenes with no context, no explanations, not even true hints, and often fueled just by trolling. Just to provide dumb misdirection so that the show can keep its air of fake mystery and surprise.

Add to this the fact that the screenplay now jumps in time, but of course without telling you when. Purposefully so you understand LESS.

It’s not that they are telling a complex story or going for some ambitious construction that requires the various layers. They are simply using every artificial device they can just to make it as opaque as possible.

Six episodes are left.

I’ve just watched the first episode of season three, but these ideas have lingered with me since the ending of season 2. Although that was just two weeks ago, for me.

Is it possible to crack the code?

This is the question. Whether or not this season will deliver answers, or just more questions.

From a random article, the first that popped up:

I’d be surprised if we got real answers. In fact, I think it would be antithetical to The Leftovers’ whole point, which is that in life we don’t really get answers. If the show were to give us any, it would run against its own grain.

And of course Lindelof, because of Lindelof I’m gonna talk:

Tom, myself and our incredible team of writers and producers put tremendous care into designing those seasons as novels unto themselves…with beginnings, middles and ends. As we finished our most recent season, it became clear to us that the series as a whole was following the same model…and with our beginning and middle complete, the most exciting thing for us as storytellers would be to bring The Leftovers to a definitive end. And by ‘definitive,’ we mean ‘wildly ambiguous but hopefully mega-emotional,’ as all things related to this show are destined to be.

Waiting for the season (and show) finale would be too easy, though. And those two quotes already tell us we aren’t likely going to get a whole lot. Promising that an ending is going to be ambiguous isn’t that good of a promise. It’s like: nope, you are getting more character drama to empathize with, but no actual answer about the mystery that supposedly sustains it all.

Do you think that’s enough for me? Nope. There’s a million of TV shows that exploit empathy and offer various levels of character drama, and very few that do “mystery”, or even better transcendental stuff, and do it well.

Part of the fun, as with Westworld, is to expose the writers, know what they are writing about, understand where it comes from, and anticipate where it is going. And if the show is stingy with answers, well, I’ll provide them.

I of course waited at least the first episode to propose my interpretation. I just wanted a glimpse of where it was heading. Would it wrong-foot me? For me the season 2’s beginning was pure trolling and very frustrating to watch. This new episode instead still had a certain amount of trolling, but it was fun and clever. The show starts strong this time, it’s LOST+++ once again. A great episode. And it also fooled me for a while and confused me, made me doubt my conclusions. But that confusion was due mainly to myself because I cannot recognize faces well (or remember names). So when there was that scene with John and Laurie running that scam, I thought John wasn’t John but the original guy that was doing the same thing in season 2, and that the show tried to sell as ‘legit’. Was the show in season 3 debunking that same feature that it sustained in season 2? Is it some form of “retcon”? Nope, because we aren’t looking at the same guy, as I thought. This is John and Laurie.

That turns on itself and becomes a confirmation of what I thought before. It’s classic Leftovers’ trolling + misdirection. Remember season 2? It starts on the same note, repeating pattern: Laurie and Tommy run a scam by imitating the hug-giving guy. A guy that, once again, the previous season (1) tried to validate. The pattern is to validate something in unambiguous way (deal with me, even if you are now thinking it was actually ambiguous), and then come later with a different take where the same thing is turned ambiguous. So you get doubts. Was it the real deal or is it just more baseless superstition?

This is the fucking theme. Look down at other posts where I write about The Leftovers. The question is always whether or not this is superstition. And if it’s real, how the hell does it work? What is going on? Why people disappeared? Why strange stuff does happen in Miracle town? And so on. What are the rules here? How are they built? And, if you look at it meta-fictionally, what where the writers thinking and what are they trying to achieve?

You can read some of my own analysis in the other posts, but here I arrive to my own conclusion and interpretation. To make this whole thing “fit”, into some kind of overall plan. Because, as I wrote, up to the end of season 2 the show didn’t provide anything that could be effectively used to “crack the code”. It’s generous with character drama, but stingy when it deals with mystery. You don’t have much to work with (same as The OA).

And then, the show explicitly trolls you. You say you don’t understand, and the show shoves you the defying sign “you understand.”

UNDERSTAND WHAT?

Take this, again from the previously linked article (I don’t even need to put effort to seek relevant material, because everything ends up relevant here):

This story is, in other words, The Leftovers in miniature: a seemingly endless cycle of faith, pain, and determination to keep going even when your experience in the world is screaming into your face that everything you’ve ever known might be completely pointless.

The story, it seems to say, is about DOUBT. Or unflinching faith, despite reality keeps kicking you. To actually make you doubt.

That’s already the “solution” for me. Because that description doesn’t fit AT ALL with The Leftovers. This is not a correct description of the show.

Leading onward is this interview with Lindelof. Jump to 35:30:

I’m drawn to these ideas that have supernatural underpinnings or, in some cases, overtones because the challenge to ground them is that much greater. But the show has a supernatural conceit, it was written by someone who’s never dealt with the supernatural before, Tom Perrotta. He wrote a “genre” book but, you know… whenever I’ll pitch something in the room Tom will say, “that’s too weird, man.” And I’ll go… (intensity rises) This was your idea! You started it! 140 million people disappearing with no explanation. THAT’S weird. …And he’ll go (dismissively) “Yeah, but this is too weird.” And most of the times he’s right.

When I heard that I thought ‘I knew, that’s exactly the roles I bet they’d have in that writing room’.

You see, The Leftovers existed as a completed book. It was a complete story that Tom Perrotta wrote. For the TV adaptation Lindelof was brought in. They made a deliberate choice there. Lindelof didn’t simply adapt the story for TV format, he did fucking CHANGE it. The first season of the show IS the book, it’s actually a faithful adaptation, too. But the reason why we’re onto season 3 is because Lindelof brought a complete new layer to the story. A layer that doesn’t belong, supposedly, to the book. It’s a brand new take, a new level. The TV show is a new story that is the product of the interaction of Tom Perrotta and Lindelof. It’s a new story, the way Lindelof would write it.

As far as I know, Tom Perrotta’s book only has that supernatural “premise”, but nothing else happens in the course of the book, and the book ends without hinting at more supernatural stuff. Supernatural stuff that is instead far more pervasive and stated explicitly in The Leftovers, the TV show.

As you see from the interaction above, Lindelof would come up with more supernatural ideas, and Perrotta would try to tune them down, saying they don’t ring true to him. Lindelof pushes, Perrotta pulls. Lindelof says ‘most of the times he’s right’. And that implies the opposite: that sometime Lindelof won the tug of war. And so that the show would embrace that supernatural element.

It’s so clear to me, because of what I wrote in my previous posts to “frame” the problem. The split between the character drama and the mystery that causes it.

You see, for Lindelof, and correctly, that little supernatural gap, the disappearance of millions of people, wasn’t just a tiny glitch that immediately closed without leaving a trail. It was a DOOR. Lindelof wedged his metaphorical foot in that door, to keep it open.

The Leftovers, the TV show, describes a credible world, similar to ours, but where supernatural shit does happen. This is the actual solution. As I mentioned above, the show tries to make you doubt of something that the show itself validated previously. But this is an inverted pattern, because what is authoritative is the first validation. Whereas the following doubt is misdirection. A way for the show to hide its ghostly hand, so that the magic trick can work.

It still is a thought experiment, of course. A creative endeavor, of course. But this is how we build it. The rules of THIS (fictional) world. The Leftovers describes a mirror world. Through the looking glass. Remember that scene in The OA, with the mirror in the last episode? The Leftovers is wholly contained beyond that threshold. The world and characters we see in The Leftovers are convincing, they seem like us. So we draw parallels, or recognize parts of us. But the world of The Leftovers is not ours. It’s, as Lindelof states, a “weird” world where people can magically disappear. Where supernatural stuff DOES happen, sometimes. It’s a world similar to ours, with the small caveat that superstition is fucking ‘legit’. Not always, because in The Leftovers’ world human beings can still scam each other, but whether it is god, magical hugs, divination or predestination, sometimes it is. The moment the supernatural gap opens, with the original premise, is the moment the door is kicked open too. Lindelof picked up Perrotta’s story and said that the little glitch is gonna have consequences. He pushed that premise all the way. We moved into mirror-land, where weird shit does happen without any possible rational explanation.

The “magic hugs” in season 1 were working. We later see Nora have some kind of recurrence, the show trying to push back these magic hugs into ambiguity, but Nora is still a different person and she continues to be that even in the following season (the crippling trauma doesn’t come back). That lapse we saw can be explained in various ways. The magic hugs did work, the show made a statement then it tried to partially hide it, but look closer and you’ll see that the initial statement stays true. It’s misdirection, not contradiction. The same as in the middle of season 2 Laurie convincingly persuades Kevin he’s having delusions. This is convincing for us because her arguments are arguments that would be solid, in our world. But you know where the story leads. And you see in this episode as well, when Kevin is confronted inside the church with the evidence of something that cannot be explained going on. And again this first episode, showing/suggesting that the handprint-divination thing is also an hoax. But was it really? Nope, because this is just John and Laurie using the internet, whereas season 2 showed us that the guy who did the legit hand-reading knew stuff that just he isn’t in the position to know, internet or not. Stuff that we get to know through a flashback, and a flashback is an authoritative device. It’s structure. The pattern is inverted because the mirrored world is specular: if in our world skepticism brings us closer to truth, in this mirror world skepticism might take you away from it. But just ‘might’, because sometimes superstition is artificial and human-made as in our world. It’s even more ambiguous.

(but then, if Lidelof aligned everything perfectly, we would get something too linear and easy to see through. So the show has fun with some blatant trolling, as in this episode with the “canine conspiracy”. Not all superstition is automatically true. Delusions still exist in The Leftovers’ world. Not all of them are, just some. The show is just playing with you, deliberately exploiting ambiguity so that you lose track of what’s possibly true and what isn’t. So that the show can then surprise and catch you off guard more easily. They have produced a context where superstition can be true AND easily disguised. It’s an extremely powerful tool for a writer.)

We end up with two worlds. One the mirror of the other. The mirror world of the TV show is a “written” world. It’s determined by a god/author who infuses that world with… purpose. It’s a meaning-full world where everything exists for a reason. And because this world is written, the rules are coherent. Responsibility is onto an external agent. This world has to have a direction. It’s a world where superstition can be real, where people lives have meaning and purpose. Where coincidences happen because someone wrote them that way for a reason. And because of these artificial features, the mirror world is specular to ours, where we struggle to find meaning, direction. Where, this time correctly, we’re stuck in a “seemingly endless cycle of faith, pain, and determination to keep going”, because in our case the world we live in is… silent. We don’t get any answer.

Not even a hint.

I decided to keep this separate to write a few comments on what I think the show does right with its metaphysics.

The premise convinced and surprised me. I knew that it was about these people suddenly vanishing, but I was surprised that the show didn’t do any “dressing” of the event itself. People just disappeared. It’s the “purity” of the event that is so powerful. If in other mystery stories something happens that produces a change, here what’s important is that the event happens once and never again. And it happens without actual direct consequences. The event happens without links to anything else. It’s not simply unexplained, but it is unexplainable because it’s not connected to anything else. There is no “whoosh”, there is not weird alignment of planets, or ominous prophecies, or sudden blackout, or a storm, or eclipse or whatever. It’s just a one time glitch. The gap opens and closes so quickly. It doesn’t even “happen” because it’s not a phenomenon. It’s not something that is consequence of something that happens. It’s the absence of an “event”. A touch so fast and so light that was not perceived.

That’s why it is interesting and solid: what happens if our belief system collapses? That’s what the event is about. We believe and exist on the premise of an objective external world. On the fact our experience is “stable” and we can rely on it. That’s why the show then enjoys to play with a character that has an “unstable” experience. But that’s personal experience, you can be crazy. What if factual reality stops being stable, for everyone? This is The Leftovers.

How do you answer the event?

The show is solid because it’s up to humanity to give answer. And they try. How can you answer the event? Through science, through statistics, through correlation, through belief, religion, or through superstition. The show examines all these variations in their detail, because as I said the purpose is to use the event as a lens, to understand how human beings live their life and how they work. In the absence of an objective world, endless possibilities open.

When you unseat science, because science has to rely on a stable external world, what is left is raw. It is purer. It’s not anymore a sporadic case of someone becoming unhinged, it’s all humanity that becomes unhinged. It’s a form of freedom. The world becomes open, truly free. Yet nothing actually changed, on the outside. The world was unaffected, untouched.

WYSIATI. What You See Is All There Is.

Here it becomes the opposite. The dark side of the moon: What You Don’t See Is All There Is.

The world is unchanged by the event, but it’s the end of the world. Apocalypse. The world has ended. Eschatology, rapture. What this means is that the world is internal.

As constructivism would say, the external world is a projection of what’s inside. And what’s inside is what you cannot see, but is all there is. People are missing. Absence. The show examines how absence becomes more powerful than what is there. That 2% becomes more important than the 98% that is left. What’s missing manipulates what remains, it conditions and transforms the world. It’s a shaper of things. The shape given by what is not there.

The “light touch” gives the story its power. If something else also happened, it would immediately create a pattern. Two points that make a line, a connection. And examining that connection would lead to a direction, a way to lay the foundation of another belief. Metaphysics, the premise to build a new world. But because instead this doesn’t happen, because there’s nothing left outside to pick up, all that is “externalized” becomes all that is inside. And what’s inside is, often, trauma. And trauma is catastrophic, fundamentally reshaping everything in dramatic ways. In the maximum freedom, the characterization becomes the only cage. Unfiltered, it becomes pure and raw. Because there’s no other way to go than deep inside.

After the momentary obsession over Arrival I was looking for something equally compelling and bold. I found The Leftovers, that creates a neat link going from Westworld, through The Man in the High Castle, and especially The OA. I’d say The Leftovers is an interesting mix between LOST and The OA. I probably won’t write anything that is really a spoiler in the sense of events and plot, but I’m going to write about the overall structure of the two seasons.

This was a good time to watch a show like The Leftovers. The main reason is that two seasons are complete and in two weeks the third one begins. It’s the final season, so this story is going to have a definitive conclusion. It’s done, it will come. And it will come soon, since it’s just 8 episodes, so this June it will all be wrapped up. This is/was NOT a show that you want to watch while it is ongoing.

The Leftovers is essentially a mystery show. It should lead to some sort of revelation, or twist. So this makes it a show that relies on a good finale, a good finale that justifies what comes before. That infuses some meaning, that offers some answers. That escalates towards something that is meaningful, hopefully even revelatory or transcendental. But is The Leftovers really about this?

When I wrote about The OA I said that it was a deliberate “leap of faith”. Nothing is explained there, it’s a bridge that spans a darkness. A Bugs Bunny that keeps on walking on thin air, just as long he doesn’t look down. The OA was a show that asked you to Believe. The Leftovers instead is less directly meta-narrative, it doesn’t stare you back in the face. It’s not the abyss. But it still deals directly with the theme of “faith”. And because it focuses primarily on this, it does a much better and profound job compared to something more ephemeral like The OA. This means The Leftovers is not a mystery show as I said. It’s instead a character study, and an excellent one.

What happens when 2% of the population disappears? Without a reason. One second they are there, the next they are gone. Nothing else is changed. It’s a “what if” scenario. An hypothesis. But when you make this sort of mental experiment you create a split. On one side, The Leftovers’ side, you imagine how people react, how the world deals with an unprecedented event. “Arrival” is similar: what happens if aliens suddenly appear, visible to all of us? How humanity deals with them? So, The Leftovers becomes a character study, the “event” (of people vanishing at once) is purely an excuse to examine what happens to people when they go through this type of unprecedented stress. How their mind adapts when something upsets a balance that was believed immutable. But this is one side of the split. The other side requires that you give a reason to why this happened. “Arrival” requires you to imagine who these aliens actually are and what they want. The event of people vanishing requires the writers of the show to take some kind of stance toward it. Why did it actually happen? How? So the split. You want to examine what happens, using an impossible event like a “lens”, to observe through it. But you also want to imagine a context that makes that lens possible. Consistent with what you are imagining. Not just magic, but rules. Metaphysics.

This split is a constant in all similar “mystery” stories. Just these days there’s a resurgence of interest for Stephen King’s IT, because the trailer for the movie(s) just came out. IT too had to deal directly with this split. The core of the story is another “what if” scenario: what happens if there’s something truly evil living in the heart of a town? How people change, how this town is transformed along its history. For me, the interesting part is that Stephen King didn’t wave it away, he didn’t retreat, he didn’t pull the hand. Not only he writes the (excellent) character study, but he also faces the other side of the split: he will tell you how that “evil” ended up in the town, where it came from and what it actually is. The author commits to something. It’s not just “magic”. And in just an handful of pages you get explicit answers. Well, these answers kind of suck. IT’s metaphysics stays afloat without an actual foundation. It’s kind of bullshit and not rooted into something true or profound. It’s weak, just not really good at all. But I do appreciate that the author still committed to it instead of fleeing from it. The author was brave enough to laid the substance bare, to be judged. IT’s still excellent for everything it does, the metaphysics suck, but it was still “brave”.

So what’s the strategy for The Leftovers? When I started watching the first few episodes I commented saying that it was “getting the metaphysics right”. I meant it doesn’t step out of the line. It takes its bold premise (people that vanished) and handled it properly. The context the show creates is 100% valid and solid. The character study that follows is not simply “credible”, but powerful because it goes right at the core. Absolutely nothing changes in the world, but EVERYTHING changes for the people. The event, even if actually small and circumscribed, is catastrophic. It’s the end of the world. And this because the authors do get it. They understand that the SUBSTANCE of the show, and the substance of experience for all of us, is not a “fact”, but the way we perceive and believe in a world. The way we believe in reality, the way we create and narrate experience, and identity. The event itself is so negligible because just a few people disappeared, but the fact of the possibility of this kind of event UNDERMINES REALITY ITSELF. It undermines experience and rationalization.

I’d say most of season 1 goes along with superb writing, characterization that is well done, deep, and that respects that basic premise. It shows something new, and it does it properly. The show is kind of slow, and sometimes a bit dull. But it is “inspired”, and has true depth. Episodes 3 and 6 are close to masterpieces.

I’m still talking of one side of the split, the character study done through the lens of an impossible event. The character study is excellent and worthwhile. It goes in depth on the nature and consequence of belief. It’s powerful. And the fact that the event is framed like that, closed in that single moment and completely empty of real consequence or purpose, makes me say they handled it the best way possible. The show is faithful to its premise. But this also means the show closes itself to the other side of the split: it says nothing.

But is The Leftovers really saying nothing about what actually happened and why? Quite the opposite. I only glanced at the wiki about the novel form of the story, and it’s possible that this description applies there. That the book doesn’t answer in any way the mystery of the story. The show is different, though. It is made absolutely explicit already during the first season the fact that something “magical” is going on.

This caught my attention. The story here is built in a way that could have completely avoided the supernatural aspect. Weird shit that happens, in a show with similar premises, could be eventually explained away. When you go deep in the study of how “belief” works you arrive to the natural conclusion that people are deeply delusional. And the show does that. It shows how people would rather believe what’s convenient and reassuring rather than what’s “true”. Perception and reality, and perception altered by belief. It’s a true story, and because this show does a good job, it goes deep and “truthfully” into this. But it also does something else, and it does it deliberately. It’s not a misstep, it’s purposeful.

If on one side you have the context to explain it all as a delusion, on the other side the show actively refuses this “easy”, more straightforward way out, to state something. And what it states, unambiguously, is that weird magical shit is actually going on. Weird magical shit that isn’t going to be explained logically. The authors did go there, decided to go there even if this kind of show could have been solid and worthwhile regardless. It could have been closed neatly, but it didn’t. The weirdness lingers and it is put there, explicitly, so that it demands an answer. The authors decided to straddle very dangerous territory.

I can also say that after two full seasons absolutely NOTHING has been answered or revealed about the nature of this side of the split. Do I trust the writers that an answer will come in the final season? Hell no. I would be a fool for trusting Lindelof. But I’m still curious because the show didn’t need to go there, but decided to. I want to go see. At times the writing is so inspired it almost borders a transcendental level. It happened far more rarely in the second season, but I’m in.

The weird shit is too deeply rooted now. Ok, so you’re committing to this. How far are you taking this? Waiting for instructions.

Like LOST, from meta-fiction to metaphysics, fully embracing it.

All of this was tolerable because I could watch all of it at once. I do not envy those who had to wait week after week. That’s insanity for a show like this. The Leftovers is PURE TROLLING. When in the second half of the first season the episodes started to be uneven, I made a chart mostly as a joke. It looked like season 1 was doomed to collapse into shit. I had no idea at that point. The first half of the season was so solid and well written, then it started to slip into dangerous territory. It could have gone either way. You can see how it goes down for episode 9, and that started a trend. The episode itself isn’t complete shit, but it’s the first hint of how far the trolling is going to be pushed. The structure is like this: they end episode 8 with a cliffhanger, so you have to wait a week biting nails, desperately wanting to see what happens. And what happens? That episode 9 is entirely a flashback, and also 100% useless, adding absolutely nothing worthwhile to the story. Purely filler. Torolololol. Now you have to wait another week. But eventually the finale was good, sort of. It was dramatic, but it was weak in substance. It didn’t say anything meaningful and didn’t add anything worthwhile.

So I began season 2. Imagine waiting a fucking year for that. Because the first episode is UNBELIEVABLE. See me giving it a “2” on that chart. So you’ve waited a year to see what happens in that story? Enjoy a whole episode wasted to introduce new characters you never saw before and about who you don’t give a shit, doing things you don’t give a shit, including “artsy” sequences accompanied by just music that are 100% useless and actively, deliberately irritating and infuriating. Where the fuck is the story and characters I care about? Why are you wasting my time? Why the whole episode is gone and I don’t give a shit about anything you’ve shown me? But hey, here 5 minutes at the end with the characters you actually know about. Like, a cameo. So you go right into episode 2, because episode 1 was just more troll. And what you get? A damned flashback episode again! It goes back to the characters we know and care about, but it’s another full episode that covers just the gap and that ends at the same spot of where the first episode ended, without furthering the story one inch. And episode 3? TROLOLOLOL! Episode 3 goes back to ANOTHER set of characters to tell you what happened to them in the meantime. So, you have to wait until episode FOUR to see any shit actually fucking happening. All mixed with a bad habit of starting episodes with loud music and scenes out of context with unknown people doing unexplained stuff for 5 or 10 minutes before any kind of plot actually happens. Just to irritate you more.

I watched it all at once and I STILL wanted to punch Lindelof in the face (I wouldn’t punch him in the face, of course, but oh boy I have all the rights to imagine doing that, because he deserves it). It’s a fucking troll of a show. It doesn’t respect you in any way. As a serial it’s just an exercise in pure irritation. …And then it eventually find itself again to rebuild a story and lead toward a new finale. But you know what happens with episode 8 and 9? Symmetrical trolling! Episode 8 of course ends with a big cliffhanger, and episode 9 once again moves to a completely different story. Trolololol again. But my rating stays high because episode 9 ends with its own cliffhanger, surpassing the previous and honestly surprising me. I didn’t expect anything like that. Season 2 finale is more inspired than the first, and it works better as a culmination. It has some more substance, some moments that ring true and that make me forgive the other moments that are there just to be exploited for their dramatic force. Around minute 45 I was sure the episode was over (and already good), but then I checked and there were still another 25 minutes before the end. That was just a surprise. This “second ending” was also good, full of meta-fiction, and done well.

We wait for season 3, now. I’m now in the flock along with everyone else, waiting for Lindelof to troll all of us some more. It’s just 8 fucking episodes, though. You have less space to play your pranks. I don’t trust you but I’m going to follow.

Where are you taking me? I don’t understand. (You understand.)

The reason why I wrote so much about Arrival is because it mirrors exactly the same stuff I’ll discuss here. Same patterns, same category of problems, just different contexts we paint those themes onto.

Remember how we were all taught to toss out teleological thinking—the idea that there is a purpose or design to existence? We have all been taught that Darwin upended that idea. Mr. Dennett argues for another perspective. “Darwin didn’t extinguish teleology: he naturalized it.”

The teleological hypothesis is the one that created the basis for Arrival. But that quote comes from this article (it’s WSJ, it uses a paywall, so to bypass it and read it fully you have to use this link):
https://www.wsj.com/articles/daniel-dennett-explains-it-all-1486149888

That’s Michael Gazzaniga reviewing Daniel Dennett’s latest book, but because they come from a fairly similar school of thought Gazzaniga doesn’t have much to criticize. In fact in the (awful) comments someone says something I find hilarious:

This reviewer doesn’t seem to critically engage the author at any point. A critical review doesn’t have to be entirely negative. But when nothing is challenged how is this a review that engages the subject?

The reason why I kept thinking about Arrival is that I keep banging my head at trying to understand if there’s a different perspective. At least something that can be considered plausible, like a different way to frame the problem. Maybe there is something I’m missing, and that’s exactly why Arrival engages me. I wrote so much not to explain that Arrival is bullshit, but to go deep into every perspective to carefully check if there were “gaps”. I write as a way to analyze. To see if there is actually something, in a kind of open ended way.

This “other” perspective is represented by Thomas Nagel. He does believe in a different way of looking at the problem. And Sean Carroll challenges his perspective here:
http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/08/22/mind-and-cosmos/

But as with Arrival, I’m not too quick to dismiss, and keep looking out for something that resembles something with some value. And here we have a much longer review of Dennett’s book, written by Thomas Nagel… But that you cannot read fully because it’s behind a paywall:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/03/09/is-consciousness-an-illusion-dennett-evolution/

I did read it fully, though. It’s quite long, across three pages, but only a couple of small paragraphs have something interesting to say that actually challenges Dennett’s point of view. I’ll quote those, as the rest of the long article is just a description of the book’s content and thesis.

The first hint of disagreement is something quite common and that I categorize as a simple misrepresentation:

In keeping with his general view of manifest image, Dennett holds that consciousness is not part of reality in the way the brain is. Rather, it is a particularly salient and convincing user-illusion, an illusion that it is indispensable in our dealings with one another and in monitoring and managing ourselves, but an illusion nonetheless.

You may as well ask how consciousness can be an illusion, since every illusion is itself a conscious experience – an appearance that doesn’t correspond to reality. So it cannot appear to me that I am conscious though I am not: as Descartes famously observed, the reality of my own consciousness is the one thing I cannot be deluded about.

Nagel describes all this as a view that is “unnatural”. Because this view challenges what we intuitively feel as consciousness. And the concrete feeling of something that cannot be considered an “illusion”.

This is a common position. Thinking that all these books about “consciousness” just point at unexplained illusions, and so do not explain anything at all. But it is a misrepresentation. Bakker’s own Blind Brain Theory, or the weaker versions, don’t simply point to an illusion to just call it “illusion”. Because they are materialist positions, they need to explain WHY and HOW the illusion appears.

An illusion is not something that doesn’t exist. An illusion is a visual phenomenon (for example), so made of matter, that you have to physically describe to explain why it appears like that. It exists, but it is motivated in a way that is revealed as false. It’s not a negation of the existence of the phenomenon, it’s a negation of the way we explained it. What you saw wasn’t a “ghost”, it was just a trick of the light that bounced in that mirror and produced that effect. The image was REAL, but you interpreted it incorrectly.

Those theories of consciousness DO explain how consciousness works. They do explain why it “feels” like that, they explain the boundaries. It’s true they aren’t “complete” theories because we haven’t reached the point where we can artificially create a consciousness, but that’s because the problem is extremely complex. But we do know, or have plausible hypothesis, that describe how it works. They describe HOW that illusion works and WHY it feels like it feels. We’ve been there. We have a perfectly functioning hypothesis.

Consciousness the way it appears to us IS reality. But our intuitive model of it is simply incorrect because it relies on incomplete information. It’s not the “experience” of consciousness that is wrong, it’s our intuitive explanation we make for it. It’s the common belief of what consciousness is to be wrong. Or the belief that our intuitive explanation is sufficient.

And yes, we trade an incomplete, intuitive model for a scientific, non-intuitive but still a lot more accurate model. Current science cannot explain everything, but it can explain MORE.

Dennett asks us to turn our backs to what is glaringly obvious – that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs.”

This goes with this other part:

There is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science. The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgement that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain. It should not disturb us that this may have radical consequences, especially for Dennett’s favorite natural science, biology: the theory of evolution, which in its current form is a purely physical theory, may have to incorporate nonphysical factors to account for consciousness, if consciousness is not, as he thinks, an illusion. Materialism remains a widespread view, but science does not progress by tailoring the data to fit a prevailing theory.

Firstly, “science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain”, this is quite a bold claim, and entirely illogical. Science MIGHT have to expand, not “will have to”, unless Nagel can see the future as the aliens in Arrival. If you are going to propose an hypothesis at least make it clear it’s not some kind of absolute claim of faith.

Nagel’s thesis is: since science doesn’t have a theory of everything then it means we need new ways of thinking that go beyond physics. But this is a conclusive statement that is very far from being actually conclusive. It’s a classic “god of the gaps”.

Let’s break down the various options:
We don’t have a complete description of reality, we only have various approximate models that work in their own specific applications, but no “theory of everything” that unifies all of that into something complete and cohesive.
Therefore:
1- There might be more to physics. Since we don’t know.
2- Physics, itself being incomplete right now, might as well lead to a theory of everything, eventually (or get as close as possible).

Both of these remain open. Neither Nagel nor Dennett can prove the falsity of the other. But it’s obvious that the argument Nagel used is flawed. Just because we *currently* can’t explain everything doesn’t mean that an explanation doesn’t exist. We’re trying to predict what we’re going to find and the only true, honest answer is: we don’t know. Both those options are open and viable. We have no way of closing one or the other.

But of course we can make our own predictions, trying to explain why one hypothesis is for us more valid or more plausible than the other. We will lean toward one or the other until we can make more conclusive observations.

That’s why Nagel’s perspective seems so fraudulent to me. It’s presented illogically. The arguments that should convince one to prefer that perspective are very bad ones. When he says “there is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science” it’s as if he chastises science for being too overly complex and challenge intuitive notions. All the big discoveries deeply changed human worldviews. We’ve gone through deep revolutions. And we were able to achieve that BECAUSE we challenged what was taken for granted.

In fact, Nagel’s own thesis would require an ever bolder stance to challenge the prevailing notion, so it seems logical. But the point is: the argument Nagel uses against Dennett’s thesis hits both ways. Dennett’s thesis is described as “mental contortion”, so it challenges intuitive experience, whereas Nagel’s thesis challenges what we currently know about science and physics. But while Dennett’s stance is justified as we’re trying to understand ourselves while within our own boundaries (which is a naturally hard if not impossible task), Nagel’s stance simply relies on the unjustified belief that the world is built in accord with human necessity (that it sticks to what we intuitively feel as true).

As if: we should take for granted that the world is built to be understood by the human mind.

This is purely anti-scientific. This idea that the universe exists *for* us, and so has to comply to our desires. This is the contrary of science: to actually challenge beliefs. To prove the world defies us constantly, doesn’t comply, and it’s not at our service. Science is a tool to find truth specifically because most of the times what we hope is right is revealed as wrong. Science challenges simplicity and intuition, you have to study. It doesn’t come easy.

But you can also twist this argument back, and say that Nagel’s position also requires us to challenge our views at an even deeper level. That’s correct, but let’s keep these arguments straight. Saying that Dennett’s stance is invalid because it challenges intuition or because physics is not complete is quite a ridiculous argument. And at least science continues to point in Dennett’s direction. It’s not a conclusive statement, but we make progress. On the other side when you decide to leave the path you’ve taken you have to provide good motivations to do so. And this is where Nagel’s argument is weak the most: it evokes an alternative without any idea about what it actually might be. Again, Nagel might be right, but he’s making a very poor case to prove that option can be fruitful. As if we’re deciding between “making good progress on one side, but still very far from coming out”, and “I’m bored digging there, we should try something else although I have no idea what”. To persuade people to look elsewhere you need to provide something more tangible than mere skepticism at where we’re currently looking. Otherwise you’re just exploiting the fact that since we don’t know everything, there’s space to ride the common human misconceptions until they last.

And this is where I quote Sean Carroll that I linked above:

Either matter obeys the laws of physics, or physics is wrong. And if you want us to take seriously the possibility that it’s wrong, you better have at least some tentative ideas about what would be a better theory.

Of course, Nagel has no such theory, which he cheerfully admits. That’s for the scientists to come up with! He’s just a philosopher, he says.

Which is why, at the end, his position isn’t very interesting. (Because he doesn’t have anything like a compelling alternative theory, not because he’s a philosopher.) He advocates overthrowing things that are precisely defined, extremely robust, and impressively well-tested (the known laws of physics, natural selection) on the basis of ideas that are rather vague and much less well-supported (a conviction that consciousness can’t be explained physically, a demand for intelligibility, moral realism). If someone puts forward even a rough sketch of how a new teleological view of reality might actually work, including how it affects the known laws of physics, that might be very interesting. I don’t think the prospects are very bright.

Nagel is a “god of the gaps” philosopher, the one who does his dance while others are busy working. As long science doesn’t explain everything there will always be someone who claims science MIGHT be wrong.

And yes, science might be wrong. So what?