In this interview, Ray Briggs, professor of philosophy at Stanford University, and I discuss Watership Down, Shakespeare, LiveJournal, wanting to be a vet, Hofstadter, drugs, Escher, paradoxes, Syracuse, Tamar Gendler, gender changes, anime, Haslanger, misogyny and Newcomblike problems, the metaphysics of social kinds, maintaining a writing routine, interviewing at the Eastern APA, Sydney University and differences between the US and Australia, NYU, Ken Taylor’s teaching methods, birds, settling in Stanford, doing bodyweight exercises, Ray’s dog Blossom, Philosophy Talk, favorite blogs, webcomics, how Ray got into the poetry game, election night 2008 versus election night 2016, the meaning(s) of life, and their last meal…
Where did you grow up? What was your family like?
I grew up partly in and around Syracuse, New York, and partly in Old Town, Maine. My father is a professor of soil science, who had to follow the academic job market, while my mother is a doctor, and therefore employable in a variety of places. So my family moved around based on my father's career.
As a little kid, what were you interested in?
I was lucky enough to have parents who encouraged me to pursue intellectual interests. I loved math puzzles, being outdoors and learning about the plants and animals around me, and imagining elaborate stories in which I was an animal living out adventures in the wild (dogs, wolves, lions, horses were some of my favorites, although I also went through a rabbit phase after reading Watership Down, and I had one character who was some indeterminate species of lizard). I was on the track and cross-country teams from an early age, but I absolutely hated gym and any kind of team sports. I read constantly. Shakespeare was full of dirty jokes and violence but somehow adults approved of him.
Shakespeare is a little bit like pro wrestling. Favorite Shakespeare play?
Twelfth Night. It has everything I look for in a Shakespearean comedy: twins, a shipwreck, gender-bending disguises, queer love triangles, a fool, musical interludes, a creepy gaslighting subplot, breaking the fourth wall... It’s like some excessive Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor in play form.
As a teenager, did you get into any trouble?
I didn't get into much trouble in high school. The other kids didn't like me enough to want to get into any trouble with me. (I had thick glasses, weird hair, a chronic slouch, a habit of always raising my hand first in class, and nothing in the way of Machiavellian social intelligence.) Anyway, I was scared that if I did drugs it might destroy my brain. And even if my peers had been more interested in me, sex with them didn't sound particularly appealing.
I’m still scared of drugs! I’m sure you had friends, though?
The internet was very important to me as a teenager; it made my world so much bigger. Even though I wasn't a big social success in high school, I made friends at summer camp, and I used email to stay in touch. One of my deepest friendships, which has survived into adulthood, is with someone I met on the internet when we were both 15. And I'm still in touch with some of the people I met on LiveJournal back then.
Did you start thinking about what you wanted to do in college?
I expected to go to college and study to be a veterinarian, because I was good at science, and because I liked animals more than I liked people. For a school project, I shadowed a vet for a day. I helped vaccinate some year-old calves, watched the vet repair a cow's stomach torsion. I learned the word "ketosis" from that--did you know that ketones have a particular smell? I held a cat that was having its blood drawn. It was fun getting to help animals, and I learned a lot.
I did not know that. Any sign you’d end up in philosophy?
At 15, I discovered Douglas Hofstadter's book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, and I became fascinated with the liar paradox. I was also a big fan of Nicholas Faletta's The Paradoxicon, Bruno Ernst's The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher, and Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Recreations" column in Scientific American. I didn't know that philosophy was a career path, but I thought paradoxes were amazing.
In my interview with Chalmers, he said “Gödel, Escher, Bach, “remains to this day the book that's had by far the most influence on me.”
I wonder what proportion of philosophers were partly recruited into this lifestyle by Gödel, Escher, Bach! I actually wrote to Douglas Hofstadter when I was in college about one of his other books, and he wrote a really generous letter back. He seems like a lovely human.
Chalmers also wrote him a letter! So, where did you apply? What was the plan?
I applied to two colleges for early admission--Syracuse University and Warren Wilson College--planning to major in pre-veterinary medicine. (I hated high school and wanted to get away as quickly as possible.) My mother tried to encourage me to go to Warren Wilson by explaining that it was small and I would really get to know my peers. I thought "my high school is small, and I've really gotten to know my peers," and opted to go to big, anonymous Syracuse University instead. It also helped that my father, the professor, had worked out a deal that entitled his kids to free tuition at Syracuse. (Only later did I really understand how lucky I was. It's scandalous that so many students go into debt in order to get a college education.)
Agreed. Was college what you expected?
I loved college academically, although I wish I had brought more of a growth mindset to my math classes. I spent too much energy on propping up a view of myself as smart, when I should have invested in learning more things.
If you could send yourself a message back then, what would it be?
It is okay to have to work at intellectual pursuits, and that doesn't mean you're not smart. It just means that you're being adequately challenged. Not having to work wasn't a sign of your superiority, but a sign that other people were giving you a tremendous amount of help.
How did you get bitten by the philosophy bug (I can't believe I said that)?
I fell in love with philosophy in my first semester, when I took Tamar Gendler’s introductory course, The Good Life. I switched my major from pre-vet to philosophy, enrolled in all the philosophy classes I could, and started showing up at departmental seminars. I lucked into a department with some amazingly talented philosophers, even though I'd picked Syracuse because of the financial aid and the early admission. I was too young to legally drink, which made it difficult to tag along when the discussion moved to a bar, but I would stick around for the conversation (while eating nachos and avoiding beer) until someone threw me out for being underage. Metaphysics was my favorite topic, because it described weird and wonderful ways for the world to be. I also loved decision theory.
What was Gendler like?
A charismatic teacher with a knack for terse, illuminating explanations. Watching how skillfully she wrangled arguments in front of the class made me want to be like her. I also got the sense that she really cared about her students; she was incredibly generous with time and feedback. As a bonus, she was sometimes willing to explain social rules to me in a way that made sense. (Most people expect you to follow certain scripts, but get annoyed if you ask for explicit clarification about what those scripts are.)
How did you grow, socially?
I got by okay, but I wasn't a brilliant social success. I had a lot to learn about being a decent (or even tolerable) roommate and a dependable friend. My lack of interest in sports and drinking didn't make me especially popular, but my middling social status was a comfortable place to be. I dated some boys. I dated my good friend from the internet. (Fifteen years, some gender changes, and a long friendship later, I'm not exactly sure how to categorize that relationship, although it was considered a heterosexual romance at the time by those around me.)
Some gender changes? Explain if you don't mind.
My friend is a trans woman, but she didn’t come out until after we’d broken up.
And I now consider myself nonbinary; this means I don’t think of myself as a man, and I also don’t think of myself as a woman. Nonbinary people are pretty varied; some seek out hormones and surgeries, while others don’t want any medical interventions at all. Social interventions are popular: nonbinary people might ask others to call you them a different name or use gender-neutral pronouns, and they might alter their speech, grooming, or dress to reflect the way they feel.
One popular conception of gender transition is what I call “The magic penis operation”: a single, critically important genital surgery that determines how others will perceive your gender in everyday social interactions. But this operation is fictional; nothing has that combination of properties. The closer you get to the reality of transition, the more you realize that it’s actually composed of many separate little choices.
Is there anything you will not talk about?
The specifics of my body or the bodies of people I know, because those specifics are private. People can call me Ray, use gender-neutral pronouns for me, and keep talking to me about stuff that doesn't have much to do with my gender, and those kinds of interactions don't require too much intimate knowledge. I think that’s a good general rule: if you’re not somebody’s doctor or intimate partner, you don’t really need the gory details about how their body works.
Right. Have you considered tackling these topics in your philosophical work?
Being nonbinary has sparked my interest in the metaphysics of gender, and I have a paper in the works with my friend B.R. George. As with many applied topics, a lot of the most exciting work is going on outside the boundaries of philosophy, and it’s nice to have the opportunity to branch out.
Cool! So, in college, how did you unwind? What did you do for fun?
One piece of pop culture that I encountered in college, and that I was am now revisiting in adulthood, is the Japanese TV series Utena Tenjou, Revolutionary Girl. I was fascinated by the premise of a little girl, rescued by a prince, who is so impressed with him that she resolves to become a prince herself. That makes a lot of sense in retrospect. I was also utterly disgusted by the subservient character Anthy...I can’t recall if she appears in an episode in which she is not slapped. It’s interesting to revisit the series now with greater empathy and distance.
I joined a local theater troupe and tried my hand at acting (which I was pretty bad at) and stagehanding (which I was pretty good at). Theater is stressful and not much of a living, but it's also a deeply valuable part of life, and my interactions with the theater gave me some presentation skills that I've been able to use in my teaching and talk-giving.
Politically active in college?
I wasn't especially politically active or clued-in. I still thought of the world as a basically just place. I'm incredibly impressed with the students I teach these days, and how much more empathetic and thoughtful they are about these things than I was at their age. Even when they haven't fully developed the skills to deal with the political landscape we live in (and hey, we're all still developing!), I am touched by the effort they put in and the rate at which they learn.
In college, any major events that had a significant impact on your worldview?
A big political event that happened while I was an undergrad was 9/11. I was in Daniel Nolan's "Puzzles and Paradoxes" class when the second plane hit the twin towers. So I thought the first crash was an accident until I got out of class. The people around me were sad and frightened (many of them had family in New York City), but I didn't really know how to emotionally connect to anything that was happening. After the attacks, I watched as Middle Eastern people became less white and more racialized. One of my friends in the philosophy program (who was not Middle Eastern at all, but who wore a turban because he was a Sikh) started getting harassed on the street sometimes. I didn't have a real grasp of the depth of racism in the US, but seeing those little post-9/11 changes helped me understand a little bit better.
Who helped you through the process of applying to grad school? Did you consult Gourmet Reports? What was your writing sample on? Where did you end up?
When it came time to apply to grad school, I made my decisions about where to apply based on the excellent advice of Tamar Gendler. She pointed me both to the Gourmet Report and to Richard Heck's critique of it, so that I could make an informed decision. My writing sample was a paper I'd written for Daniel Nolan's seminar on fictionalism, about a technical problem for some translation schemas. I thought Steve Yablo's solution to the problem didn't work. We had a good conversation about it when I visited MIT. I decided on MIT in large part because of that campus visit. The graduate students seemed both kind and rigorous, and Ned Hall gave me an explanation of Bell's Inequality that was so clear and helpful that it's stuck with me all these years. My entering class ended up being all women. (Or all women and whatever I count as, now that my life is starting to head in a different direction.) MIT felt like a welcoming place where people cared about my ideas and not my gender. I am sure Sally Haslanger had a lot to do with making it feel that way. Judy Thomson was also a huge departmental presence. While I have heard that she wasn't always easy to get along with, I love how her brilliance and work ethic forced people to take her seriously, even at a time when philosophy was incredibly sexist.
Would you mind describing Thomson a bit?
She’s very direct; if there’s a hole in your argument or any unclarity in what you’re saying, she will point it out immediately. I think her writing is so pleasant and instructive partly because she holds herself to the same high standards as other people. The older grad students had stories about how terrifying she was, but she never behaved in a terrifying way toward me personally, and in fact was always incredibly kind and supportive. I mainly encountered her strong opinions in the seminar room, where it’s appropriate to have strong opinions and argue for them.
MIT sounds like a cool place to work. Favorite classes?
I absolutely loved being a grad student at MIT; the department was both very supportive of grad students as humans and very serious about pushing us to develop as philosophers. I loved our "proseminar", a history-of-analytic-philosophy course that all incoming grad students were required to take. It helped cement my bonds with my entering class, it gave us a common source of resources we were all familiar with, and it gave me weekly tasks of a manageable size. I now see that the canon we worked with was limited in important ways--very white, very male, very focused on one particular set of concerns--but I remember the positive aspects too, and I think the course gave me a lot of adaptable skills.
So I think for a lot of physicists, it might be weird to say the canon of physics is "limited in important ways--very white, very male, very focused on one particular set of concerns." But in certain ways, philosophy seems different: demographic factors can have an impact on what we focus on and can have an influence on what we think is plausible in ethics or political philosophy. Do you think these demographic factors have less of an effect on certain areas of philosophy: probability, logic, things like that?
That's a really good question about the canon! I love abstract topics like probability and logic partly because when you study those topics, it seems to matter less what kind of body you live in or what social position you occupy. I definitely don't think that there's anything essentially white or male about logic or metaphysics or language... On the other hand, I worry that when most of the authors we read are white and male, some aspects of the subject matter get distorted, and it's hard to tell where the essential stuff ends and the accidental stuff begins. Maybe examples will help?
Recently I've been thinking about Newcomb problems in decision theory, and I'm bothered by some of the Newcomblike puzzles described in the literature. For instance, there's one puzzle, from Richard Jeffrey, about how King David wants to summon Bathsheba (presumably to have sex with her), but he hesitates because she's another man's wife. And that's a really terrible and misogynistic thing to use casually as a math example! Most people either avoid that example or sanitize it, because the culture has moved on since 1965 or so, but it still makes me nervous. Another favorite example rests on the contrary-to-fact hypothesis that smoking does not cause lung cancer, but is instead the result of a common cause, which was actually defended by the statistician Ronald Fisher, who was a smoker himself, and in the pay of the tobacco companies. I think these seedy origins are irrelevant to the structure of Newcomb problems, but why don't we have better real-life examples? Would better real-life examples call for the same formalism? That's a question that I'm actually trying to answer right now; I don't think I can figure it out without doing the legwork.
Another example is the recent change in focus in metaphysics from the metaphysics of the fundamental to the metaphysics of social kinds. Both of these topics are worth studying, but the metaphysics of the fundamental has been more thoroughly investigated, and I think that's bound up with a false image of social kinds as beneath notice. (None of this is original to me; I'm just repeating things I've heard from feminist philosophers like Sally Haslanger, Elizabeth Barnes, and Kristie Dotson.) On the one hand, there's a sense in which the problems with these examples are incidental: all the social power relationships in the world can't change which sentences are theorems of a given logical system, or alter the formal relationships between different versions of decision theory, or determine the correct physical theory for describing the small things that make up the universe. On the other hand, there's a sense in which these problems could distort philosophers' attention in ways that really end up mattering, by causing them to focus on some problems and applications for philosophical theories while ignoring others. I don't think it's so easy to gauge the intent of the distortion until you've actually examined your assumptions thoroughly, and I don't feel like I'm far enough along in that process to have a reliable guess.
Makes sense! It seems like it is fairly common for even good philosophers to doubt their abilities. Ever doubt your philosophical abilities in grad school? Now?
MIT was such a supportive environment that I didn't feel serious doubt about my abilities. Some of my classmates did express doubts, particularly around job market time, which shocked me because I thought they were too talented for this to make sense. But philosophy is difficult and isolating work. I do worry about my writing abilities sometimes. Writing philosophy articles is something I can do, but it's not a part of my job I find very intrinsically rewarding. Having in-person conversations, in class or in talks, is somehow a lot more fun. I feel lucky to live in a literate society, because storing information in memory rather than in books seems prohibitive, but making written material feel alive is still something I struggle with frequently. My dissertation ended up being three papers in the philosophy of probability. I didn't enjoy writing it, but I really enjoyed talking with my classmates and advisors about stuff I'd written, once I'd written it.
Nowadays, do you have a writing routine?
I have a sorry excuse for a writing routine (three hours of sacred time every Friday, plus whatever else I manage) which I am trying to work up into something more muscular. I hate writing, the way a lot of people hate exercise. It's important to do it anyway, the way exercise is important. I try to build up to doing big tasks by giving myself small homework assignments.
Do you have a reading routine?
I have strategies more than I have routines. When at all possible, I try to arrange to be responsible for holding up one end of a conversation about the stuff I’m reading, even if it’s just in a casual conversation with a friend. I can also get very excited about reading by persuading myself that I’m really supposed to be writing, cleaning the house, or reading something else.
Who did you talk about philosophy with most in grad school?
In grad school, I spent the most time discussing philosophy with my classmates, both the students in my year and the philosophy graduate community more generally. The MIT faculty were generally pretty involved in the life of the department. Ned Hall moved to Harvard while I was getting my PhD, and his presence encouraged me to go Harvard more often than I would have otherwise. The Workshop on Gender and Philosophy drew philosophers from around the Boston area, and I think their influence was broadening. I wish I'd spent more time taking advantage of the opportunities in surrounding departments like linguistics and computer science (even while I liked how tight-knit my department was).
What was the job market like when you jumped in?
I went on the job market in 2008/2009, just before the economic recession really hit philosophy. I actually enjoyed a lot of things about being on the market; when it’s going well, it’s great to have all these smart philosophers wine and dine you and express interest in your work. The first round of interviews happened at the Eastern APA, which made the conference weird and stressful for everybody. I think the move to using video software has been a positive development. So has the PhilJobs database. I remember online job ads in the form of a non-searchable scanned image of the print publication Jobs For Philosophers. I was in a complicated personal situation when I went on the market. My then-partner was an experimental scientist with a lot of lab equipment, and I expected that if we were going to make the relationship work, I would have to follow him geographically. I was working hard to make myself into the kind of wife he wanted, so I turned down permanent job offers to take a postdoc in Sydney. Australia turned out really well for me, even though I can't endorse my choices at the time as rational.
Did you dig Australia?
The Australian economy was insulated from the worst effects of the recession; I credit Kevin Rudd's economic policy choices. Australia is not perfect (the way it treats its indigenous population and asylum seekers is frankly pretty shameful), but there's more of a social safety net than in the US. And the philosophy community was wonderful: friendly, rigorous, and thought-provoking all at once. I got to encounter non-classical logic and philosophy of biology, and I got to learn a lot about writing grant proposals.
So you bounced around from Australia to NYU, then back to Australia before settling in at Stanford. Did you get the chance to teach during these postdocs? How have you evolved as a teacher?
I did get to do a little bit of teaching during my postdocs. During my NYU visit, I was invited to teach two classes; I also got to teach some grad seminars at the University of Sydney. I developed a non-classical logic class, which I still teach, through a lot of trial and a lot of error. Honestly, I think the thing that has most improved my teaching is getting to live in one place without the distraction of moving too much; it's really helpful for my ability to focus. I think that through practice, I've also gotten better at skills like breaking down cognitive tasks into manageable parts, grading efficiently, and quickly grasping what a student is trying to get at with a question. I've also picked up some techniques for making sure that everybody talks and not just the same 6-8 people. (I'm stealing one from my colleague Ken Taylor next time; he has his students treat philosophy as an improv game, where each person "throws" a question or a thought to someone else in the class, who then has to respond to it.) I'm happy to have greater opportunity to practice my teaching skills now that I have a permanent job.
Interesting! Did you find the visiting position trapeze act stressful? Highlights?
The visiting position trapeze act was probably less stressful for me than I estimate it would be for the average person. I've had the good luck not to be without children or health issues, which makes uncertainty less terrifying. And my tastes are relatively inexpensive, which also helps. Getting to travel for work has been an excellent stroke of good luck; I've been able to work at universities where I could regularly see parrots, cockatoos, fairywrens, ibises, and bowerbirds; and I've gotten to meet kind, thoughtful philosophers from all over the world. I don't mean to make light of the serious job insecurity that faces a lot of junior academics, but in my own case, it could have been a lot worse.
NYU must have been a trip.
It was overwhelming, but great. The philosophy experience was intense and immersive. I especially enjoyed getting to talk to the students, including both NYU students and a grad students people from CUNY who were auditing my decision theory course. Mahnattan was overwhelming but great too. I got to explore a Moth story slam, lots of poetry and theater events, and several restaurants specializing in fake meat.
Happy at Stanford?
I love being at Stanford. Every graduate program I've taught at has had amazing graduate students, but the undergrads here are also incredibly impressive. I like that there are interdepartmental programs that put me into contact with linguists and computer scientists. And I get a huge kick out of studying measurement theory here. It's also an incredible privilege to be at a department where I don't have to apply for grants to have a position, grad students, or a pot of travel money. Oh, and I love that I've gotten to be on Philosophy Talk a few times, and to blog for Philosophy Talk. That's been incredibly fun. If I weren't happy here, I don't think any external circumstance would be capable of making me happy.
Rad. Nowadays, what do you do in your spare time?
I spend a lot of it with my dog Blossom, walking her and teaching her tricks. I aspire to turn us into an extremely silly human-animal team that does tandem bodyweight workouts. (So far, I have taught her to jump over me when I do push-ups and rotations, and to weave through my legs when I do lunges.) I have no aspirations to compete at any canine sports, though; my audience consists of my friends, children who live in my apartment complex, and Blossom herself.
I also like to write poetry, especially when it gives me the opportunity to collaborate with other artists. Anna Zusman and I are putting the finishing touches on a book of 25 poems and illustrations called "Modern American Gods", which basically personifies concepts that play important yet ambivalent roles in American culture. (The concepts include freedom, firearms, self-determination, climate change, cultural appropriation, masculinity, political correctness, and convenience.) I love how different we are from each other--Anna thinks in pictures instead of words, she grew up in Moldova instead of the US, and we often disagree about what's required by morality or aesthetics. I've also got a collaboration with videographer Swoon (Marc Neys) and few short musical things in the works with the composer Alex Temple.
How did you get into the poetry game?
I joined a bulletin board, The Poetry Free-For-All, on a whim in 2009. The poets there are known for their harsh critiques, but it as a place where I thrived; I trusted people to listen to what I was saying and be honest in response.
What would your teenage self make of your current self?
I think my teenage self would be proud of my current self, even though I'm not a veterinarian. I live in an exciting city, I have a dog, and I get to stay in school for basically my entire life.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
As for interesting projects, I am always trying to do too many things at once. I want to figure out where subjective views of well-being fit in to my thinking, whether real-life Newcomb problems are possible, what explains the apparent reasonableness of intransitive preferences in the class of examples where they appear reasonable, and whether different ways of understanding the relationship between small-world and grand-world representations of problems can illuminating things like the nature of contexts in pragmatics and the distinction between short-term actions and long-term plans in decision theory.
Cool! Do you find any trends in philosophy exciting? Disconcerting?
One development in philosophy that both excites me and scares me is the way that technology, especially the internet, influences philosophical practice. We've all seen this go terribly wrong: a philosopher speaks out about racism or misogyny or transphobia and is harassed by internet trolls in a way that is deeply psychologically destructive. But the internet also gives more opportunities for thoughtful, respectful discourse. I love the abundance of philosophy podcasts (my favorites include UnMute, Elucidations, and History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps) and blogs (I really enjoy Pea Soup, Philosophical Percolations, Choice and Inference, and Fit is a Feminist Issue, as well as this blog). I'm excited that we're starting to have more open-access journals online like Imprint and Ergo, and of course, I'm glad that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is such a great free resource. (I swear I was not put up to saying that last part.)
I also like that philosophy offers so many opportunities for pluralism. I enjoy that a lot of formal epistemology conferences these days include work by linguists, psychologists, and computer scientists. And there's the expansion of our sources beyond an artificially narrow European canon, to include Chinese, Indian, and African philosophy. In the philosophy of gender that I've been exploring lately, it seems like a lot of the exciting work is actually happening in blogs and webcomics written for popular audiences. I want philosophy to be broad enough to encompass all of these things.
Interesting! What webcomic do you have in mind?
Sophie Labelle’s Assigned Male is really impressive; she does an amazing job of distilling complex ideas into a few panels and some dialogue. I’m also a fan of Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls and Robot Hugs.
How would describe what we do to a 5-year-old?
I think I would tell a five-year old that I read, write, and solve puzzles, or that I am a teacher for grown-ups. When I talk to five-year-olds I don't usually talk about my job, though. I find it easiest to interact with children by making sure we're both in the vicinity of something interesting, like an animal, a museum exhibit, or some art supplies, and then letting them start a conversation about our shared environment. Kids don't usually spontaneously ask me about my job, although if I am doing a task they might ask what I'm doing.
What was your election night like in 2008?
My 2008 election night was a lot of fun; in Cambridge, MA, I caught the T home and found myself surrounded by people who were excited that Obama won and were all congratulating each other.
My 2016 election night was a bit of a shock; I didn't expect for the election to be that close, much less for Trump to win. I had a friend over to watch the results, and another friend from far away keeping us company on Skype. We all ended up more sad and drunk than I would really advise people to get. I am worried about the prospect of fascism in the US, and worried that I lack the exceptional insight and moral character that this will require. I try do my best to help activists and not stand in their way, even though I don't think I have the strength to be an activist myself.
Meaning of life?
I'm pretty sure that there are as many meanings of life as there are people. For me, connecting to friends and bonding with animals and experiencing the joy of creativity are important items on the list. For other people, raising children or being part of a religious tradition might matter more than the things I care about. I'm enough of a liberal optimist to think everybody should get the resources and freedom to pursue their own meaning, and nobody's meaning should get forced on anyone else.
I dig it. Last meal?
For my last meal, I would want a little more of everything. (Everything vegetarian anyway. It wouldn't be fair to take a bunch of animals down with me.)
If you could ask an honest, omniscient being one question, what would it be?
If the being is obligated to ensure that I understand the answer, my question would be: “does P = NP, and why?” Then I could get a good math education, and unlike contingent answers to contingent questions, I don’t think this would put me at risk of becoming a Cassandra.
If the being is just obligated to give me an answer, which I might or might not understand, I’d stick with something simpler: ”what is the overall best thing I can do with my life starting now?” That would at least result in some actionable advice.