Alien Crash Site

#009 with Tony Eagan

Episode Summary

This week, SFI Research Fellow Tony Eagan enters the Zone in pursuit of an object that might not change human technology, but rather the ways in which we might consider our extraterrestrial comrades. Tony's research focuses on Aesthetics and Epistemology, and this conversation runs the gamut between myth, hope, fate and determinism, art, and what art resolves for the artist. We also talk at length about Roadside Picnic and Stalker, the two works that most influence and inspire this series.

Episode Notes

Learn more about everything referenced in this episode by clicking the links below:

Philosophy of Werner Herzog

Adam and Eve

Kant’s aesthetics

Oedipus Rex

Pandora Myth

Beatrice Han-Pile

Diego Velázquéz’s Las Meninas

Rothko’s Tate Collection

Episode Transcription

 **Please note, this is an AI-generated transcript. Human-edited version coming soon**

Caitlin McShea (0s): Hi everyone. And welcome to alien crash site. This is an interplanetary interview series from the Santa Fe Institute. If you're new to this podcast, let me take a little bit of time to explain the question at this podcast is foundation. So alien crash site takes its premise from the 70 Soviet science fiction novel called roadside picnic, which was written by the street Getsky brothers. And in this book, the characters live in a post visitation world. So aliens have come and gone, but they left a lot of strange items behind. And these items are located in these areas that are called zones, which behave very unpredictably.

They defy the laws of physics in some ways they're extremely hard to navigate. And they're very dangerous to those who enter several have died actually in pursuit of these weird alien artifacts. However, there is a group of courageous renegades called stalkers who transcend those risks to collect whatever treasures they can find. And I say treasures, because some of these objects have allowed humans to advance their technology in truly unimaginable ways. Many of these objects still possess functionality that we've yet to crack. So with all of that, as context alien crash site asks our guests to imagine an alien object they'd be willing to risk their lives for.

I should also note that Andre Tarkovsky later adapted roadside picnic into the beautiful film stalker and while stocker and roadside picnic are both frequently referenced in this series. I thought that it would be good to provide that summary because this week's conversation is a very close consideration of what's at stake in those two works themselves. This week, we bring Tony Egan into the zone. Tony is a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. His research focuses on aesthetics and epistemology. His most recent publication is a chapter in a book entitled philosophy of Vernor Hertzog.

And for the sake of full transparency, I should also be forthcoming about the fact that Tony is my husband. We end up talking about a lot of really interesting things. We discuss fate and hope myth art, and what art is capable of resolving for the artist. We also compare elements between roadside picnic and stalker to better understand what each of them accomplishes. And finally, we think through the most effective way to unwind after a challenging expedition into the zone. So let's embark, I'm Kaitlyn McShea. This is alien crash site. Don't forget your nuts and bolts because you can never be too careful.

Caitlin McShea (2m 17s): Hey Tony, how you doing?

I'm great Katelyn. How are you? 

Caitlin McShea: Good. Thank you. How has your pandemic been? It's been pretty great. Firstly, speaking, getting a lot of reading and writing done. Santa Fe weather has been pretty nice.

Tony Eagan (3m 0s): Yeah. Just working and enjoying myself.

Caitlin McShea (3m 3s): And would you say you're working? What are you working on?

Tony Eagan (3m 5s): So David Krakauer and I are working on a manuscript that seems to be about the intersection between what's traditionally called beauty goodness and truth, which we call aesthetics for now, aesthetics, ethics and evidence, not only the intersection between these forms of judgment that humans make, but also the distinctions between them and taking that as a sort of heuristic that making of distinctions and also the place where these things combine to look at various objects from mundane and quotidian things like the legal pad, the game monopoly, the postcard cookbooks to more scientific things like Kepler's study of the snowflake and literature, some art Basquiat narrative, the life of Frederick Douglas, tiny case studies, where we apply this triangle of human judgments to examine the ways in which beauty, goodness, and truth, sometimes diverge and sometimes converge.

I guess that's the best way I can summarize it.

Caitlin McShea (4m 7s): That's a really good summary. And you're doing this at the Santa Fe Institute. It should be said for our audience that you're a research fellow there. So we work together.

Tony Eagan (4m 14s): Yes. So I'm doing it at the Santa Fe Institute and it's quite a fun project because it means that David and I get to do new research every week. David's a fun partner, for sure. He's fun to work with both demanding and also inspiring.

Caitlin McShea (4m 27s): And what qualifies you to work on such a project with David? What's your background?

Tony Eagan (4m 31s): The only thing that even qualifies me, to be honest, I'm not a scientist, although I am interested in science and I guess part of my interest or the angle I take is philosophical and primarily aesthetic. So maybe David and I bonded in conversations because of his interest in aesthetics. And my work in my philosophy PhD was on the aesthetic criteria and we call it the interesting and what it means. So I think a lot of complexity science rather than say the typical sciences, which may, if they are aesthetically inclined, focus on beauty and elegance in parsimony, whereas a complexity science, it might have a different aesthetic and might be the interesting,

Caitlin McShea (5m 12s): Obviously I think complexity science is interesting, but I think that word is probably overused.

Tony Eagan (5m 16s): Yeah. The word is overused. And so that's one of the things that philosophy does. It takes concepts that are stale and tries to reinvigorate them sometimes stress to make new concepts sometimes tries to clarify what we mean when we say things and to give a clear picture of our own language back to us. So the interesting, I think it's there in all science, because in a sense, the interesting is about the tension between concealment and disclosure or what we see in what's hidden behind it. The word actually etymologically comes from the Latin inter ESSA, which literally means between two essences.

So when things are between two essences, we have to sort of try and either make those two essences synthesize, or we have to see how one essence might be deception or it might be concealing something else. So in terms of the history of science, I think probably the first interesting moment in recorded world literature would be the moment when God says, do not eat this fruit because this tree conceals something. And if you figure out what it conceals, then you're in big trouble. And that was a temptation.

So we said, we wanted to know we desire this knowledge and we don't even know what this trouble means because we don't have the knowledge to understand the difference between good and evil. And it might be the case that knowledge itself allows us to make that distinction and making that distinction to form judgements that are counterfactual. Because before that, we just said, everything is good, but now we can say things aren't good or bad. And I think that might be part of the reason there is not only in, in the old Testament and in a lot of religious thinking, but also in secular thinking and philosophy and art, this warning, that knowledge is dangerous.

So science is always interesting. I think because what we're trying to do is get behind the surfaces of things, even going all the way back to the original science in ancient Greece in Egypt. But the difference started becoming more apparent. I think with Newton's Principia, that's when I'd say the question of what's interesting really started taking off because what Newton essentially said is there are laws governing the universe and here they are. And this created a problem for philosophers who wanted to posit freewill or who felt that human freewill is irrefutable.

So how can we reconcile with this ingenious science, which demonstrably proves the way things work with this notion that morality itself is rooted in human agency without free, will we lose our dignity on the one hand, but we also lose the impetus for moral behavior because if we don't have freewill we're exonerated. So Descartes was one of the first philosophers to think about this difference between the inner self and the outer world of experience and to make a division.

But it was really caught who in his three critiques, as they're commonly called, try to work out how it's possible that we can make scientific judgements that are valid and everlasting while also working on the problem of freewill and moral responsibility. So at this time between, let's say the 16 hundreds and the 18 hundreds philosophers were really struggling to, to reconcile these things and they turned to aesthetics. They said it might be the case that there is something in aesthetics that allows us to see human free-willed and human free judgment as being a place of as Khan would put it.

There's a great Gulf between the world of phenomena and the world of thought. And so how, how can we work on this problem? And aesthetics might be the place. It might be that beauty is something that when we experienced it, we think it's a necessary judgment. I have such conviction that this sunset is beautiful. And if you disagree with me, then you're obviously insane. Nevertheless, you are free to have different tastes than me. And so there's a paradox in that that is worth exploring. And aesthetics really took off as a philosophical discipline at that point.

And soon after philosophers were drawing a discrepancy between the interesting and the beautiful,

Caitlin McShea (9m 20s): I'm going to guess that you firmly believe in freewill deterministically or not.

Tony Eagan (9m 25s): Yeah. You know, I think that we're largely determined. That's obvious not only by physical laws, but also by genetics and, and even our environment. But on the one hand, I find that at every moment and plays with decisions I have to make, and presumably that's not an Epic phenomenon, but that's actually something that informs my decisions rather than an after effect that deceives me into thinking that I have dignity and free will. And so my own experience bears out reclaim that free will exists, but it's also like freewill in itself is sort of like a pointless discussion to have, I think in many ways, I think it's interesting to contrast it with the scientific laws that suggest we live in a purely materialistic universe, but the question of free will isn't worth arguing very much in my opinion, because it's, it's always been here and it will always be here.

Caitlin McShea (10m 14s): Well, it's interesting. I think it's been hammered too hard. And so I regret asking it myself really boring territory.

Tony Eagan (10m 21s): That's good to know. Do you believe in free will or not? We don't have to have the argument, but it's good to know. Yeah. I believe in it let's, let's move on and see where it takes us that rather than saying, well, why don't we spend 1600 years debating. It

Caitlin McShea (10m 33s): Seems to me that this work that you did on the interesting emerged, as you said, out of this aesthetic philosophical burgeoning, I guess from conch, maybe it would be easier for our audience to get a sense of what you mean by interesting. If you could give an example of an interesting piece of work. I don't know if stalker or roadside picnic is such a one, or if there's a clearer example you want to touch upon, but it might be interesting to explore the art that this podcast is based in from that perspective of what's beautiful versus what's interesting.

Tony Eagan (11m 2s): All right. Let me, let me take my favorite interesting work of art because it does, it does go back to our discussion of the tension between freewill and determinism. Oedipus. Rex is perennially interesting because what you have here is a character who can't, let's say thresh out in his own life, to what degree his guilt is predetermined. And to what degree he is responsible for the outcome that he acts or enacts.

So the inability to say, I was told in advance that I was going to kill my father and sleep with my mother. I directed my whole life to be avoidance of that fate. Yet I culminated my life in betting my mother and making her, my wife and having children after killing my father. And it might be the case that the mistake I made in thinking that I could out of Fox fate was one that led me to believe that I could exist in a morally less culpable way. But these transgressions, which are probably the ultimate transgressions are nevertheless in retrospect, every step I took was one where I made a decision.

So here's an interesting character. Who's stuck between two worlds in his path. Those for us comes because I think we all experienced that in certain degrees that that's the human predicament in one Avenue of human self-reflection. But there's also the question of the interesting as being something that reveals that it's concealing. So there's the interesting man or woman let's say who is dark and mysterious. And we say, Oh, the still waters run deep, maybe.

And we want to pursue further connection to see what's, what's lying beneath the surface. Kierkegaard describes the interesting, in one point as like looking at a Bob when you're fishing floating on the water and reading that Bob to see what's going on beneath the surface. So when a fish starts tugging on it, it'll act in this way and it's this cryptographic indication of what's going on. So this tension between surface and depth, the inner and the outer, that's always for me, interesting.

Another way of thinking about it would be rather than arts, as we started talking about the interesting, in the context of Santa Fe Institute, emergence would be something in all of the different sub-disciplines of complexity science. When we look at how things emerged like consciousness, or like order in an end colony or anything that has self-organized criticality, when you have this tension between what you can observe and count, and then suddenly the quantity shifts into a qualitative change, and there's a new quality that comes about.

And then we like to go right to that space and say, what's going on here? What is it between these two essences of, of phenomenon that we can penetrate even further for a better understanding? So it's that turning point or that a phase that border territory between two things like most people, I like like interesting things. And I like also thinking about how probably most of the things that we pursue because of our interests end up creating new holes.

There's an interesting technique, literally interesting that Hitchcock uses. I think he invented it in psycho, but I like to think about it. You know, it'd be used as a more in vertigo, but I like to think about it as an analogy for the pursuits of human knowledge, which is he takes the camera and he'll track in while zooming out. So the camera will move closer to the subject, but the lens will zoom out. So we actually, we get this weird vertigo.

Speaker 4 (14m 42s): Yeah. It's very uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable. And, and I think he, he uses it

Tony Eagan (14m 46s): Speaking. He knows that in the film vertigo, he uses it to express the sort of anxiety of the character, Jimmy Stewart place. I forget his name. And I think that science is in many ways, does that zooms out or in, you can also do the backwards where like you track the camera backwards and zoom in, and that's probably actually what he does. So you feel like you're getting closer, but in getting closer, you're also seeing wait, there are new panoramas that are widening. That's not a disclaimer against science by any means, but it's, I think another philosopher uses his idea of breaking a rock apart and you keep breaking apart and you say, Oh, here, Oh, this rock is two rocks.

That's what it is. And then we keep them in is Adam right? And particles. And so that's interesting as well.

Caitlin McShea (15m 27s): I, I always, this might be a misuse of it, but I always think of this, you know, law of infinite divisibility as scientific pursuit. It's like we get closer, which is to say that we are absolutely more aware of how things work than we were before. But with each new discovery, of course, it's like the splintering of questions. And, you know, the scale can become more and more microscopic, but it never stops revealing things beneath the surface that were until this new understanding came along and unseen. So it is that kind of Hitchcockian zooming out to see more of this panoramic space, which is good.

I think ultimately it's a good pursuit, but maybe sometimes a little frustrating.

Tony Eagan (16m 2s): Yeah. And then you get new disciplines, new sub-disciplines and sub sub disciplines, which usually are in the space between the two prior ones. So getting into that space, as you point out between chemistry and physics are between chemistry and biology and trying to see how biology emerges from chemistry, chemistry, from physics and so forth, and then specializing there,

Caitlin McShea (16m 21s): Instead of it being this kind of like Venn diagram thing, where these disciplines are overlapping in their pursuits, it's almost like the line that separates them just becomes thicker. We've talked about this before, you know, when you're driving cross country, you come to the end of your state and it's like, you're leaving Texas. And then it's like 20 meters before it's, you're entering New Mexico. And that, that space might actually be the line on the map. I just like the idea of the border, like holding so much space.

Tony Eagan (16m 44s): The border territory is fascinating.

Caitlin McShea (16m 46s): The border territory is yet. Do you want to talk about borders around areas of great interest, such as the zone you want to talk about stalker either stalker or roadside picnic or both? I don't know if you want to talk about the work themselves before I ask you the podcast question, or if I should ask the podcast question to launch into the day,

Tony Eagan (17m 3s): Let's go let's, let's talk about these works a little bit first. Great. Okay. So, which would you prefer to start with? Maybe we can look at both of them for a second, from an angle that I I've listened to your podcast episodes, and I'm pretty sure you're having covered it. So if you have just cut me off, but to think about the Pandora myth as informing both the book and the film, and if you want, I can give a little summary about how that myth goes, because I know we're all familiar with it, but we might not remember the details.

Caitlin McShea (17m 28s): Well, I think we're familiar with the idea of the box that's full of all this stuff, but I think the framing context would be good. So why don't you go ahead and give us the like one Oh one greatest,

Tony Eagan (17m 38s): There's all a call it the greatest hit. The first time it appears in literature is in the poetry of HES yacht who was writing in the eighth century BCE in Greece. And he writes about it two poems, but in his poem works days, he spends more time on it. And the story goes that Prometheus's who we all know still fire from the gods to give to mortals order territory. And only men were living at that time. So Promethease gave to mortal men, the gift of fire and Zeus was enraged. And he retaliated by instructing , who was sort of like, you know, the, the craftsman, God, the F the forger, the four juror things.

He instructed him to shape a woman, first mortal woman out of clay. And then he instructed the other gods to endow her with all of these gifts and blessings or mixed blessings. And they put it in a jar and the men received her onto earth, and they called her Pandora, which means the all gifted. So she opened her jar. It's sometimes called the box, but in the Greek is jar. And when she opened it, all of these things escaped as you know, but Zeus will do to close the lid before hope could escape.

Caitlin McShea (18m 44s): So the only thing remaining in this closed vessel

Tony Eagan (18m 45s): Was yes. Now there are two interpretations hazy OD as the any good poet is ambiguous. Both interpretations that think amount to the same thing, but they're slightly different. And I got this terminology from a, from a philosopher named Beatrice Han pile. One is this sort of preservative, the pantry interpretation, where we have hope as an infinite resource, but it's a deceptive resource. And it kind of, it never gets us anywhere. And this is the curse that we constantly think we can use it for something or that we're going somewhere. And it ends up being a sort of empty calories.

And then the other one is where the jar is a vault. And we see, we know hope is in there, but we can't access it. You can't access it. Yeah. So both interpretations of his yard, the essential takeaway is the paradox. That hope is hopeless, but I think that roadside picnic treats the Pandora myths slightly differently than stocker does. And I find the stocker one to be more fun. So maybe I'll just say what I think the Pandora's box

Caitlin McShea (19m 43s): Before you do. I think it's worth noting. I get the feeling based on that introduction, that of the two works, you prefer Tarkovsky is adaptation, which is not how I feel. I prefer the original. So just know that you're entering into some scary times.

Tony Eagan (19m 56s): Yeah. And it might be worth exploring at some point why we feel that way. And I'll put it in terms of the Pandora myth. I think roadside picnic, there's still this hopeful pursuit in roadside picnic. Red has hopes. And in fact, maybe at the end, he sacrifices himself for those hopes. If you think differently, let me know. But it's also a world where there's been a new Pandora event and all these objects are lying around. They're scattered everywhere and we need to go get them because they're great. They're going to do as good. We don't understand them, but we can misuse them as much as we want for our own purposes.

Whereas stalker seems to say, all right, let's forget all that junk flying everywhere. Let's put one little spot where it's the center of all hope the room in the zone where we can go and we can see if our wishes are granted to us. And it just sort of focuses right in on the close jar of hope. Okay. So you would say

Caitlin McShea (20m 48s): With this metaphor, that roadside picnic is pantry and Tarkovsky. Stocker is vault.

Tony Eagan (20m 55s): I would say that it's difficult because no one enters the room in the film, the stalker they're too frightened to. So it might be vault, but you know, if you remember in stocker, there are three characters. I wrote a chapter, a on stocker for the manuscript, in which it very clearly plays on this triangular idea where you have a professor who is a scientist, that's the pursuit of truth. You have the writer, who's an aesthete of course. And then you have stocker who's a guide or an ethicist. And he, he says, it's not my position to go into the room.

I just bring others there so that they can make their own wishes and better their lives.

Caitlin McShea (21m 32s): Right. And he's the one that sort of knows the rules. So to speak of this like lawless land, that is the zone. So the ethical time makes sense.

Tony Eagan (21m 38s): Yeah. Some people have raised the question of whether he doesn't know the rules, he's just making it up to make himself seem more valid and to make the whole thing more precious.

Caitlin McShea (21m 46s): But he does, he does demonstrate a great level of respect for the zone, which I think is hugely. Yeah.

Tony Eagan (21m 50s): But it might be sort of a guidance too. Like, Hey, you'd have to have respect for this too. As these three gentlemen and draw closer to the room, their facades begin to crumble and they begin bickering with each other. But they also start to realize that one of the problems with the room is that it doesn't grant your articulated wishes.

Caitlin McShea (22m 7s): So it's, what's actually happening inside of your brain. Yeah.

Tony Eagan (22m 10s): And your deepest psyche, where you really wish for, they talk about a previous stalker named porcupine who brought his brother to the room. He brought his brother and the brother died in the meat grinder, which is sort of the most treacherous area.

Caitlin McShea (22m 21s): This also happens in roadside picnic in terms of the adaptation. That might be the only thing that's retained from the book. Yeah.

Tony Eagan (22m 27s): Yeah. And then of course, porcupine enters the room after his brother has died, presumably to wish for his brother's resurrection, but he leaves with immense wealth. And then he kills himself because whatever was going on in his brain, the characters in stocker call it brainwork, the preventative epistemology, where we denied to ourselves, our true inclinations. It gets abandoned in the room and manifest your unconscious. He doesn't deep down really want his brother to be alive. He really just wants to be rich. But then realizing that about himself, he can't live with himself.

He's so self cystic. And he realizes that really we're just selfish beings with no true love. And so they're all scared to go into the room. This is all remember in service to the question you asked about whether this is a vault or vault or yeah, we don't learn because stocker ends up having a nervous breakdown. He's saying, why don't people have faith? Why didn't anyone enter the room? Why are we scared of self revelation? So the three characters in a way and hopeless, and the film seems to end helplessly, but Tarkovsky might be making a commentary on these things because as you have discussed in other podcast episodes, the end shows stalker's daughter sitting alone at a table while her parents are napping.

And she seems to be doing some sort of telekinesis moving glasses around on a table, suggesting that there is some sort of Supreme invisible force governing this area, or maybe all of the world that we can tap into that no one else sees other than monkey. Right.

Caitlin McShea (24m 2s): And that the dangers that are contained in the zone, aren't aren't necessarily contained. Like it's unclear whether or not there's something about red or the stalkers frequent entry, re-entry into the zone. That brings something to monkey. Or if she's like Jeannie, illogically changed. Like if his DNA has changed from his presence. But I don't know if I think that the ending is, is hopeful. I do like Tarkovsky is addition of the dog. I think the dog does a lot of important work. Like a lot of heavy lifting for the, the mission of the, of the zone. Would you say a little more about that? So in roadside picnic, and of course the basis for this podcast is these objects that come in and out of the zone.

So they're left there by this alien species and stalkers or professionals with the Institute, go into the zone and like honor them and remove them from the zone. And what differs between roadside, picnic and stalker is that there's no object and stocker. I mean, you see little things under the water. You can see that there's some weird like Springs and stuff that suggests that they're objects there. But these three aren't in pursuit of the golden sphere. As the three are in, in roadside picnic, they're going to a geographical location. They're going to a room. And therefore when they leave, they don't like take anything out with them, which presumably I guess it's ambiguous.

But you think that red leaves the zone with the golden sphere, but there is this dog and at the end of Tarkovsky stalker when all three of the zone entrance returned to the borscht for beer or whatever the dog is with them. So the dog is the item that comes from the zone and he ends up staying with red, his wife and the monkey. And I think that does two things. Again, it's unclear what the room is supposed to grant or what the golden sphere is supposed to grant, but at least in the book, it seems that red is hoping for some kind of meaningful understanding of like the meaning of his own life.

And I think that it's ambiguous. But for me in that reading, I think that what he determines is that what's meaningful to him is his family. And so the fact that the dog adds to the family seems like a nod to that interpretation of the book. But the other thing that I like about the dog is that while the stocker is, you know, tying ribbons to nuts and throwing them all over the zone to make sure that you can step here and that you can step there, the dog is running around without concern. So it's almost like the zone respects the dog, like the dog can do whatever it wants. It's got the zones free pass, but the humans don't. And that reminds me of this point that you're making about what actually happens on the interior of the mind of the individual that enters the room.

The dog doesn't have any like facade about its existence in this world. So it's safe, but the writer, the philosopher and the stocker all do.

Tony Eagan (26m 27s): I'm glad that you went into that because I think that's really pertinent. You have this question of self-interest and whatever we claim about our own virtue or morality, our own wishes for humankind and so on. We never can really be sure whether we're not acting self. Even when we give a perfectly altruistic act, the, the absolute donation of all your wealth to the homeless might just be a way of patting yourself on the back, that infinite regressive back question.

And whether it even matters is a fun one. But I do think that as you put one, the dogs running around and the zone, it doesn't have any pretenses. And so the zone is fine with it. One of the things that Tarkovsky loves, not just in stocker, but in other films, such as his rendition of Solares is the sentience universe, a place that knows you, the planet Solares can read your innermost thoughts and even project them. And the room can read your inner most thoughts and write them as well.

So there's something going on here. I had the thought once that, and this is apart from talking to David because he's Dave Tarkovsky fan, and he likes to point out that Tarkovsky doesn't really like science. He just sometimes uses the science fiction universe to get across spiritual and psychological points. And I think David's right in that. And what it made me think about is that in our modern world, we have displaced the concept of God. And yet everything is sort of still dripping with the scent of God.

And so you have a place and we say, there's probably more likelihood that we're living in a simulation than that. God exists either equally plausible to me. I don't know, but if that's the case, then when we just call it the inventor of the simulation, God, regardless that we're being surveilled at all times by an eye or a sort of mind that is greater than our own inescapable residue of, of our religious tendencies. And it might even be sort of an evolutionary necessity in certain ways. And so starkofsky might be dealing perennially with theological questions, but for a modern audience, putting them into science fiction context and playing the psychology of the religious and faithful against science rather than against an obviously theological setting.

So that's my take on stuff.

Caitlin McShea (28m 47s): That's your take on stalker, but it's a myth. It's a Pandora's myth retold

Tony Eagan (28m 51s): The, the chariot of three men representing these different principle, yearnings or triangular predilections can actually achieve the hope of transcending, the mundane universe that they live in. And then,

Caitlin McShea (29m 4s): Well, while it's clear that stocker is your preference because there's no object, transference and stalker, I'm going to lean against roadside picnic to ask you the question, because of course I want to know what your object is. So Tony Egan at the risk of great personal injury, imprisonment, or even death, what object do you hope to discover in the zone and why?

Tony Eagan (29m 24s): So I'm going to say that I'm glad we talked about hope. You know, I didn't, I wasn't directing it in this way, but now just thinking about it, because this is a question essentially, what do you hope to find, right? What do you, what do you hope to bring out? But then you have to ask yourself, what do you hope to hope? What hope will this object give you in having it? So I think it's important to think about what it is we're looking for and an object that's left behind. Is this an archeological?

Caitlin McShea (29m 51s): This is a great question. Please explore everything that underlies what you might hope to hope

Tony Eagan (29m 57s): Because when archeologists do their dig, they're not hoping to find an object that will see humankind or that will make them extremely rich. I'm sure. They're hoping to find a gold brick. Yeah. And even if they do would a life's work worth of study validates that just to get one gold brick. No, it's preposterous. What they're hoping to do is to learn about in the case of anthropological archeologists, human nature, what it is, it has continued in time. How did those things that were artifacts for others?

How are they transformed in our life? What is the resemblance between our coffee mug and this earn? What was their form of currency? How do they interact? What was the hierarchy and their society? What were they like? And for me, that's a different question than saying, what can this object do for us? Which, which is presumably the modus operandi for the characters in roadside picnic. What can we get out of this that we can either sell on black market or use for our own benefit.

Right? But there are other questions too. It's like, what does the object indicate about how we can help the aliens? What do they need? It might be the case that they they're just as a need as we are. And that some, some artifact that they've left behind inadvertently or not gives us a clue to either the resources or their aesthetic deprivation or their ethical shortcomings that we could actually give to them, which would be a nice way to interact with the society rather than a Supreme civilization can still have its problems.

Even if they can have intercept with travel, they might have some issues back at home. But I personally, I like the archeological angle for this one. I would like to find a paint, spattered, easel.

Caitlin McShea (31m 44s): Damn you Tony. If I had to pick an object, I think it would be something like a piece of art, like a clearly functionless piece of art. So great go. Why? Okay. So you want, what does a paint splatter diesel accomplish that a piece of art doesn't I guess you would know that art is produced by this species, whether or not, you know, what the thing is. Whereas like if I found art, I wouldn't actually know that it's art because who knows it doesn't reveal its function. And just because it's functionless doesn't mean that it's decorative. So you want the easel, you want proof of some sort of a, an aesthetic expression.

Tony Eagan (32m 16s): There's also the question of how we recognize something that the aliens left behind in biology. We have the distinction between the homologous, let's say the homologous arm and battling, right. Or the analogous, which is that evolutionary development, which has the same purpose, but has a different origin. And so to recognize something, I think it has to be one of the other. And I'm, I'm thinking that on the first level and easel will show us that we have a sense of what it is because it's shaped like an easel,

Caitlin McShea (32m 53s): Right? So of course, it's not going to be like a, an earth easel. It's something that you presume is easily,

Tony Eagan (32m 58s): Right? And it's, and it's built according to a sort of rational structure that we have. We raised the question, first of all, is reason analogous or homologous if aliens habit in the same way that we do. In other words, it's the universe. Is there something rational in it? And in beings who develop in a certain direction, does the rational come from the same place? What it tells us too, is that Nietzsche once said that art is, it begins from natural ignorance, something along those lines.

A lot of times when we think of these abstract aliens, we think of a race of people, or, you know, not people, but something like people who are more advanced than us. And it's nice to think of them as having self ignorance, that there is an inability to understand the world that creates the need for art, not only the world, but, but themselves.

Caitlin McShea (33m 54s): Right. And so you suggest, and I think that you're right. I agree with this, that every culture, regardless of their like rational sophistication, every culture has some sort of a thing like this, some expressive, informational thing, which is like art. Yeah.

Tony Eagan (34m 10s): Other than eat, really, we don't think of alien individuals. I don't think very often we don't think of that soul alien artist, sole meaning individual who has a soul who is autistic or who at least thinks he or she does or it, whatever. And who struggles with it and tries to make sense of the world through this little imitation of it, by painting a landscape and it's going to be impressionistic. So there's a dialectic going on between the painting and me where even if I'm painting the landscape, seeing how I've painted, it gives me an indication, not only of what it is, but also what I am.

Right. And that work is something that is truly admirable because it doesn't attempt to accomplish anything other than a greater degree of, right.

Caitlin McShea (34m 60s): Yeah. So what it does is it's a representation, not only of the thing being copied, but of the thing, doing the copying.

Tony Eagan (35m 5s): Yeah. It exists in between the objective and the subjective. It's the, the approach of one to the other.

Caitlin McShea (35m 10s): So I don't know if this, this might be a little too fruity in terms of like linking it directly to the, to the plot of roadside picnic. But of course the device in roadside picnic or the hypothesis that's proposed by Valentine to Newnan, like when they're in the borscht, is that these things aren't meaningful to this species, right. It's not like the easel was gifted to humanity to, to help us in some way. It's so negligible, a thing that the aliens didn't realize they left it behind. It's like essentially a gum wrapper.

So I know that that's not what you saying, but can you take that up and think to try to answer, like, if it's true that something like art was disposable to this species, what would that tell us about that species? Whereas the characters in Noonan, so Noonan is the curious one and Valentine is the one that is kind of a little skeptical and cynical, but I think ultimate.

Tony Eagan (35m 58s): Okay. But I think what he says is it's the leftovers from a roadside picnic right now, you can picture a group of people. One of them being an artist, having a picnic and this artist, like I'm gonna do a plain air painting and you leave it behind. And the haste of maybe, you know, a bear came and they, but he did take his art, the easels left behind. Presumably it's not the only one to plenty more. So it's not a negligible object, but it's one that is not as precious to them as the artwork itself.

Even if the artwork is incomplete,

Caitlin McShea (36m 30s): Great point, yes. Something like an easel can be rebuilt. Right? You need something that stands up, right. That holds weight much easier to produce. Then the project of the art that's leaning against it. That's in progress. Yeah. Okay. Clever.

Tony Eagan (36m 43s): Now this isn't entirely not self interested on the part of humanity, right? Because one of the issues with hope is that a lot of the times when we hope for something and we create an artifact to accomplish the goal behind the hope that object is weaponized in stock, or one of the state admissions that the scientist finally admits to is that he's going to blow up the room because anyone can weaponize anything just as our greatest scientific discoveries have made the world a better place.

They also endanger the world. And that's fine. I'm not making complaints about that. But one of the things that seeing this sort of emptiness that the alien individual artists must feel as an alien individual will reflect back to us that we're okay, even a Supreme civilization has mysteries. It cannot solve yearnings. It cannot accomplish. And it's flawed. And I think that a lot of the time, our utopianism leads us headlong into solutions that aren't solutions at all.

And maybe that leads often to ideologies, et cetera. Yeah. The indication that even an alien species who can probably manipulate space. So that time is not an issue for them to travel in this way and have such a scientific understanding. They still have the same problems we do. And they turn to art to resolve them.

Caitlin McShea (38m 13s): Exactly. It's like a not therapy so much, but some kind of a reconciliation of that flaw. I like the idea of us recognizing that extra terrestrials of intelligence could be more sophisticated than us, but there might not still be a perfect functionally efficient like species. The flog exists at least for a thinking type of life.

Tony Eagan (38m 33s): Yeah. One way to put it in slightly religious terms, but not even re meaning. It's just a nice term is we live in a fallen world. There's never going to be any perfection or any sort of perfect state where science will bring us to harmonious end of time and history. And seeing that we have to struggle with fallenness and that aliens do to might in a way, make us take a step back

Caitlin McShea (38m 58s): And also give us the space to be a little more forgiving towards ourselves.

Tony Eagan (39m 2s): Yes, we are at once guilty, but we're also innocent if everyone experiences this, the same issue. I like to think about art sometimes as a form of cryptography. I may have mentioned this a moment ago, but I want to talk about it a little bit more rare. You hash out your impulses and leave them to others to decipher them and scrutinize them. So if you think of a great artist, whether a painter or a poet or someone, they give form to something, and then we spent 500 years deciphering it, and that decipherment tells us what the original cryptogram meant.

I think that even to artists art, as a form of cryptography, that they have to sort of slowly on lock in order to discover the contradictions and ambiguities that are present in the very moment of inspiration. And so there's this self inexplicably Realty that the aliens must feel if they're creating art that we can relate to. And that also means that we can communicate with them

Caitlin McShea (39m 58s): To some degree though. I think I'm really glad that we're talking about art as art, because of course, one of the questions that you sort of touched upon earlier in the conversation is this in decipher ability, possibility of how a human encounters, an object from another species in the zone. And, you know, while we can spin this thing real fast and retrofit it to our cars, and now we don't need an engine and we feel really proud of ourselves for going into the zone. We have no idea what the original intention was. That can almost be the same as what you're speaking to about art. Like yes, it's cryptographic and there's a deciphering period of time that almost endless, but there are also multiple perspectives on what is what that deciphering is.

No one's figured out what one thing means objectively. Everyone has a different interpretation. So that's all I just wanted to say is that thinking of artists is practice kind of folds in nicely to this translational problem that is present in the book that's present in the objects of the zone.

Tony Eagan (40m 49s): Yeah, of course. Art can be weaponized if we're talking about for instance, propaganda or suite, or if we develop a sort of strong ideology about how art tells us that history follows this pattern of X, Y, or Z, and therefore everything is justified and so forth. But I do think that in many ways, and, and probably this is why art for, for other reasons, in addition to the ones that I mentioned earlier is the space of freedom. Because when I create an artwork, I basically say to my readers or respect, taters or auditors here, do what you want with this interpreted in your way.

I'll still have my imprint, but you may have the freedom to think that it means this or signifies. And in a way there's the aesthetic is a place where there's the least amount of personal consequence in our judgments. And so while you're absolutely correct, it doesn't mean that we can't communicate. So you may read Shakespeare and say that he's all about the problem of chaos. And I may read them and say, he's all about how we imitate each other's desires.

And someone else may read him and say, Shakespeare is purely about power. And we disagree on that, but we're still communicator, right? And so is Shakespeare and Shakespeare is still communicating to, so if they have a painting, we might not have the language to give them our novels. They might have not beers and news might be meaningless to them, but they do have eyes or some sort of way of sort

Caitlin McShea (42m 17s): Of optical lens situation for perception.

Tony Eagan (42m 20s): They have some sort of way of perceiving their environment and replicating it. And so they can look at the saddest painting in the world. I'm not sure what it is. What do you think the status painting in the world? By the way, I don't know

Caitlin McShea (42m 31s): Is Las Meninas sad. I think I'm just thinking you have the reflection of the parents outside of the room, like missing out on the children, but like capturing it miss way. Like, you know, in the way that we're all chasing around our nephews with our phones instead of engaging.

Tony Eagan (42m 44s): Yeah. I think last meeting is a superset. Of course they, the aliens would have to have nears to understand that painting. Presumably they have mirrors if they're traveling, but this is where we, this is where they need. We need scientists to tell me that. Of course you need mirrors to travel through space or just a super moody painting by Rothko, where you look at it for an hour and you are transformed by your melancholy. I think he has some of the saddest paintings in the world too. So you can show them something and see if they're odd by it.

Caitlin McShea (43m 11s): I saw the, the collection and maybe it's sad because of the intent, but there was a collection of Rocco's at the Tate museum that were originally commissioned for a restaurant in the four seasons in New York. And Roscoe took this on and created these works and then decided, screw this. I'm not putting these in a restaurant. That's not the point. I'm donating them to this museum so that people who are less capable of having a, an expensive meal at the top of the, whatever Ritz-Carlton or wherever it is, can enjoy them too. And they're extremely absorbed.

Like I feel like I left a part of my soul in them. They're all blood colored. And

Tony Eagan (43m 45s): Yeah, I had a, the closest thing to, to an amazingly profound and productive, nervous breakdown in that room where I think my mind traveled to infinity and back just by looking at Rothko's paintings. And the conversation I had with myself was one where I was saying, Roscoe's saying, don't have a conversation with yourself. So you're saying, I'm not saying anything. And then, so the sort of the Russ Ellian paradox there where you're traveling back and forth between frames of, of understanding that, that, that has anything to do with what we're talking about.

Caitlin McShea (44m 17s): Well, I mean, it's a sort of travel, like maybe this is the sophisticated method through which these aliens can get across the interstellar space as quickly as they can. And we can't maybe instead of a mirror, it's like the art piece is the warp drive. Is that too? Woo. No, no. They traveled spiritually

Tony Eagan (44m 32s): Through their art that it might be a technology. And then they're actually coming. They're going to come out of the easel in five minutes and obliterate us all.

Caitlin McShea (44m 40s): Maybe earth is just the, the restroom or the coat room of the museum. That is the universe that the aliens are traveling through. It's like, where you throw away the lint in your pockets,

Tony Eagan (44m 49s): That'd be a good SQL the coat room.

Caitlin McShea (44m 53s): Okay. I don't know if this is worth exploring, but let's think about it. Right? So you got the stockers who were picking up things out of the zone and Hocking them at the borscht for 200, $300 because of the novelty of the discovery. And then you've got the Institute of extraterrestrial culture. They're the ones with the spec suits and all the fancy scientists. They're essentially like SFI in the roadside picnic universe, trying to decipher what the purpose or the function of these objects are. Where are you putting the easel? This is the other thing is that technically you're supposed to pick an object that you can remove from the zone. So that's a big object,

Tony Eagan (45m 20s): Your easel. Okay.

Caitlin McShea (45m 22s): So what are you doing? Are you selling it or are you giving it to the, to the Institute or are you donating it to a museum? What are you doing with it?

Tony Eagan (45m 28s): No, I wouldn't sell it. I'd either keep it or give it to a museum. Maybe you could just give it to a kid and say here, but you're a piece of paper on this and start trying to create some more. Maybe they'll have special powers for you. And I think it should be an inspiration rather than a sort of resource. Not that inspirations aren't resources, but I just mean I'm not trying to exploit just discovery. Maybe even just leave it there and let the aliens come back. The young artist who left behind say, wait, turn the UFO around enough.

Caitlin McShea (45m 54s): The other thing about Hawking it is that who's to say what happens to it? It kind of disappears of its import and like its potential impact, but you give it to the Institute and it's destroyed, right? Like I imagine that the Institute has this kind of Bay Coney in it approach to understanding what these objects are. They like are cracking them apart. Like your rocks example. They're trying to figure out the function by getting to its atomistic like center. And then suddenly you've got a bunch of like space alien wood shards everywhere instead of the composed diesel. So yeah, I think keeping it safe maybe in your home, but maybe for others to see kind of like the David, if I lived at the time of Michelangelo's David, I would want to possess it, but that's very selfish.

So I would actually possess it, but give it to a museum.

Tony Eagan (46m 32s): Can I re-ask the question because what you said made me change my mind. I think, I think I would give it to a really eloquent writer and say, we understand what this is. Can you make it clear to others? What it is? Would they know it's an easel, but what are the implications of that? What does it mean that this civilization has the need for art? Doesn't it mean that we should all take a chill pill? Shouldn't we come to appreciate art and see these other beings as much more similar to us than we imagined them.

When we think of green gooey people, that would be an opinion who knows what, what other people would deduce from this object. But that's, I think it would be important for someone to say, all right, we all need art.

Caitlin McShea (47m 15s): Yeah. It's funny because we use this term like humanize. When we think about interpreting or reframing certain things like here's this physicist, who's talking about all the work that he's doing, but he really likes dogs. And now he's humanized. It seems like this author who better express what's at stake from a discovery, like this would take this species, which is very unlike us and humanize them. That practice would create an even stronger tether between us and them in a sort of like philanthropic way. It, it begs for communication with the species.

Something like that would make us really, really want to get to know them. And it might alter the broad perspective of people on planet earth who may be fear, scary things like aliens and would instead say, Oh wow, that's a really familiar, that's very close to the quick, like we are the same. And that could be good for a variety of reasons.

Tony Eagan (48m 4s): A lot of times anthropomorphizing things seems to be nowadays considered a bad thing. Right? Is there, what, why are we so self-centered that we attributed human characteristics to animals and so forth. Right? But I'm not convinced it is a bad thing. I think what it does is it allows us to see and other beings that are non-human or even other objects, something reflecting ourselves back to us. And it might be the case that sure, that is self-centered in a way, but in one way, but you understand something I can imagine if instead of making the movie jaws, don't get me wrong.

Jaws is a great movie, but that doesn't anthropomorphize the shark and it makes the shark monstrous and the shark can be monstrous, however, to see ourselves or something similar to us in other gives us greater powers of empathy for that thing. Totally. I have no problem with trees walking around and talking and cartoons or attributing human, like tendencies to dogs, because that makes it more,

Caitlin McShea (49m 6s): But you don't want to dismiss the particular and totally interesting intelligent structures or something like a collective of ants by saying like, Oh, this builder has a relationship with this queen. You know, there are merits to both, but nothing's necessarily all bad or all good. I like human beings a lot. I think that, we're interesting. So I'm on the anthropomorphizing wagon.

Tony Eagan (49m 24s): Yeah. Just on that note, I think that's why it's so important to make a distinction sometimes between the scientific and the aesthetic where aesthetics can do all the anthropomorphizing at once and science says, yes, that's all well and good. However, this is how these operate according to 10 rules that allowed them to have order in their colony. Right. And so to look at things scientifically and aesthetically is to give a more comprehensive picture. And then we can also want to having done that. We can say, what's the ethics of an colony that we can emulate and what are they things that we wouldn't want if we lived in an colony and where their ethical be lacking because they don't treat each other as individuals or something like that.

Get that triangle in the triangle.

Caitlin McShea (50m 3s): All right. Well, I think that this is all well and good. You've made it out of the zone. You've taken the easel, you're keeping it, or you're giving it to your very talented writer friend. Now you want to unwind, you're going to the borscht. What are you ordering?

Tony Eagan (50m 13s): Well, I'd probably get a boiler maker. I knew it.

Caitlin McShea (50m 15s): I knew it. I would have said he's going to get a beer and whiskey.

Tony Eagan (50m 18s): Cause that just seems like what you get at the border. I mean, I don't even think that's what they drink and roadside picnic, but when I'm reading that book, I picture the borscht. It seems like a dark sort of grimy place may be very to the one in stalker. And there's a lot of low lives hanging around. And I want to take the edge off real quick.

Caitlin McShea (50m 34s): That's funny. I don't know if this is just my like Russian prejudice, but I assume they're just drinking like chilled vodka.

Tony Eagan (50m 39s): As you may know, I spent some time with my father in Petersburg and I don't think the vodka is very different there than it is here because we get a lot of good vodka straight from Russia there and gets transformed in the process like Bearwood, but it was very delicious ice cold vodka with some, some Russian snacks. So you may have changed my mind, you know, I do. I get a Russian boilermaker,

Caitlin McShea (51m 1s): A beer and a vodka. Have you had beer in Russia? Is it good?

Tony Eagan (51m 4s): Yeah, I don't remember. Exactly. Must have had a couple of beers. Am I in my experience, beer is good in any country you go to what do mean is it's it has the specificity of the setting and whatever their beer of specialties in that place, like in, in Prague where you have this delicious pilsners or in Mexico, these great set of faces that just tastes so great. And it's just about the place where it's made and having it there. So I would have a Russian beer and a Russian vodka.

Caitlin McShea (51m 34s): So this came up in the last episode that we recorded, actually, it was a crossover episode with Michael Garfield from the complexity podcast, but we interviewed Tamara and her first thing she said was wine, right? Like an alien wine. And I've been thinking about it ever since we inevitably moved on because she was like, I don't know that we could even enjoy it. Like they might produce something that we can't metabolically process like metabolically process. But I was just thinking about like the thing that makes wine or beer as you're describing so interesting is this like terroir. And so in terms of like an archeological discovery in the zone, wine might be awesome because we get to see what people are, what these aliens enjoy leisurely.

But we might also learn about the place where they come from by virtue of what's captured in this distillate. Maybe you should have a, a zone beer and a borscht vodka.

Tony Eagan (52m 18s): Yeah. You know, there's like terroir and then there's, which is legitimately about the place from which the grapes emerged. But then there's also a metaphorical terroir where it comes from. And it's not just about the earth or the climate. It's about the setting, the mill you

Caitlin McShea (52m 34s): Perfect. Well, thank you very much, Tony, for taking the time to step into the zone.

Tony Eagan (52m 39s): Thank you so much for hosting me. I'm really enjoying your podcast and I wish you luck in the future with it.

Caitlin McShea (52m 45s): Okay. Well, safely restored to the borscht. We are. Thank you all again for listening. Next time we will talk to Michael Lockman. He's an SFI researcher, a theoretical evolutionary biologist come epidemiologist in this past year. Usually he's working on evolutionary origins and origins of life, but when 2020 Delta SB grim perturbation, that was Covid Michael pivoted and very hard. He began working with epidemiologists to model various effects that would impact how the disease spreads. So how does relaxing certain social distancing restrictions have an impact on the way the disease transmits or what are the potential impacts for this new Kovi to variant?

What's the most effective for distributing

Caitlin McShea (53m 26s): Vaccines properly, et cetera. So really interesting world-changing work. If you would like to revisit past episodes or watch the original video interviews of alien crash site, you can, there, you will find these videos, bonus materials, transcripts, interplanetary opinions on contemporary space news, and so much more. Again, that's alien If you'd like to learn more about what the Santa Fe Institute does, please visit There you can find information about Michael's work about the interplanetary project about this podcast, our sister podcast, complexity, and the myriad ways with which you can engage in our work.

And if you'd like to support that work, please consider making a gift to the Santa Fe Institute of anysize@santafe.eduforward slash give until next time.