Richard G. Epstein

 

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Have You

Ever Considered ... ?

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Commencement Address given

by Mr. Hu Wen How,

Celebrated Novelist and Playwright,

at Rice University, Houston, TX

Saturday, May 13, 2028

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Have you ever considered the importance of asking questions?

What were my parents thinking when they conceived me? What was it like, asleep in my mother's womb? What kind of mystery guides the development of the human fetus? Who was there when I was born? What was it like moving through the birth canal? Why did I cry as I gulped in my first lung full of air? Was there someone there who felt my pain? Why did I take the form that I took? Why do I have THIS body? What was my original face before my parents were born?

Why are those people smiling down at me? Who is this source of nourishment called mother? Who is this fellow called father? Why are they speaking to me in such a funny way? When will I learn to speak my own mind? Why do I have to crawl around on my hands and knees? Do they really think that I want to play with that idiotic rattle? Why are they hanging that silly mobile with that silly mouse wearing those silly overalls over my crib? Why does the sun shine in on my room on some mornings and not on others? Why do the birds sing when I wake up, and why do they sing when I go to sleep? Who taught them how to sing? Do they care that I am here in my crib listening?

Why do I love my backyard so much? Why is it so much fun to play without any purpose? Why am I flapping my arms like a bird? What would it be like to fly? Why are plants green? Why is the sky blue - most of the time? What are clouds and where do they come from? Why does the wind cool me off in the summer? Who invented snow? Has anyone ever counted the snowflakes? Why does the first crocus in spring seem so vulnerable yet so strong? Where does the crocus get its strength? Where do the leaves go during the winter? Where does the snow go during the summer? What impassioned artist paints the leaves in the fall? Why are the waves so big when we visit the ocean? Why does the beach just lie there and take it? How does the sun set in the ocean without drowning? Why does the moon change its shape? Where is the rest of the man in the moon? Why do the stars fill me with awe and wonder? Am I bigger than a star, or am I smaller? Would the stars disappear if I disappear? Why do seagulls and crows make such a commotion when I approach? Why do the squawking crows remind me of mean Mr. Scrowler, who lives next door?

Why do dolphins play in the sea? Why don't animals talk the way that we do? Why do I have to dress up this morning? Why is my mother taking me to this institution? Why am I supposed to call Ms. Smith my teacher? What gives her the right to call herself a teacher? What can she possibly teach me? Why is she yelling at me? Why can't I draw on the desk with my crayons? Why is she taking away my crayons? Why is she shaking me and making me stand in the corner, with my back to everyone else? Why do I feel so ashamed and humiliated? Why do we need milk and cookies every day? What is learning all about? Why are these stories about Dick and Jane so boring? Why can't they teach us some words that we don't already know? Why do I need to know how to add or subtract? Isn't counting enough to do everything one might need to do with numbers? Can't I count the stars in the sky, if I really want to? What can this computer teach me that I don't already know? Why is the computer so much fun? How does the computer work? What's a gigagigahertz? How does the computer know my name? Who taught the computer how to talk? Why does the computer talk differently to each child in the class? How does the computer know so much about science and about math and about history? Did the computer go to school like me? How did children learn before they had computers?

What does it mean that the earth is five billion years old? Did a big comet really kill off the dinosaurs? Where did human beings come from? Is there any place among the stars and the galaxies where life does not exist? Did aliens ever visit the earth? Why are those science fiction movies so scary? What makes something scary and other things funny? Why do I feel so good after I laugh? What makes a joke funny? Why do I like people who make me laugh and why do I feel uncomfortable around people who make me angry? Why do some things make me angry?

Why does my breathing get more rapid when I am angry? Why does anger make my heart pound in my chest? How does my heart work? Where does the food go after I eat it? Why do things taste the way they do? Why are some things sweet and why are other things sour? How does my body work? How do my eyes work? How to my ears work? Why do some things smell so bad that I want to vomit? Why does a rose smell so wonderful? Where do my thoughts come from? Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going?

Why is it so much fun to play during recess? Why do I like studying so much? Why do I like writing so much? Where do my words come from? Why do I write? Who am I? What are my greatest interests? What is my purpose in life? Why do I feel that I can reach the stars, if I really want to?

Why is my body changing? Why am I noticing girls? Why does my dad keep telling me it is really important to make a lot of money when I grow up? Why is he away so much? Why is it important for me to go to a good college? What makes a college a good college? What would happen to me if I go to a bad college? What does a doctor do? What does a lawyer do? What does an engineer do? What does a computer technologist do? What does an account executive at a Fortune 500 ad agency do? Why does my dad always make such a big deal that his company is a Fortune 500 company? How does a doctor know which medicines to prescribe? Where does medical knowledge come from? How do medicines heal the body? Can the body heal itself?

Why is it so much fun to go into virtual reality? How can I get the highest score in WarMonger? How can I beat the Krayons in mortal combat? Why do I feel that the Krayons are the enemy? Why is virtual reality more fun than just playing out in the sunshine like when I was a kid? Why do I feel like shielding myself from the sun? Why is it so important to win? How does the computer create virtual reality? Would it be fun being someone who created virtual reality for a living? Does it matter if I am spending more and more time in virtual reality then in ordinary reality? What makes ordinary reality ordinary?

Why did I pick this college? How will a major in computer technology earn me big bucks? Why will earning big bucks make my father happy? Is money really important in life? What are my primary interests? Why don't the girls seem to like me? Why is everyone so concerned about sex? Is it important to get married? Do I want to raise kids? What kinds of kids do I want to raise? What kind of commitment does that represent? What would I be willing to do in order to make sure that they are happy? How would I feel if my kids turn out to be evil people? What if my wife and I are not happy? Can married people be happy together? What is it like to live your life all alone?

How can I possibly learn all of this stuff? Why do I need to know calculus? Doesn't this professor know that my computer knows more calculus than she ever will? Why do I need to know chemistry and physics? What are the limits of computer technology? Why am I spending more and more time in cyberspace? Why are my cyberspace friends more interesting than my real friends? Why do I have so few real friends? Why can't I remember my roommate's last name? Is there anyplace that I cannot go in cyberspace? How many hours a day can I spend in cyberspace and still keep my grades up so my father will keep paying the bills? Why did I only get to stay with him during the summers? Why didn't he fight mom to get custody of us kids? Is his new wife really that much more attractive than mom? What is she going to do after my father dies?

How much new technology can a guy learn in a given semester? Is it okay to cheat a little on the book report that Professor Yeck assigned? Who likes Professor Yeck anyway? Why is he so arrogant? Did he have to take courses in graduate school in order to master the art of being boring? Which country in Eastern Europe is he from? What kind of kicks does he get out of being a professor? What is the difference between right and wrong? Why is the ethics advisor program telling me it is not a good idea to cheat? How can cheating on the book report affect my career with a big, high-technology company? Can a person who cheats a little still earn big bucks? What kinds of self-projection systems would I like to author? Are there any moral constraints that I need to observe when I build these systems? Should I be concerned about the social impact of what I do? Why should I worry about those things?

Why am I confused about the difference between right and wrong? Why do I feel like I have to do what my ethics advising program is telling me to do? Are there people who actually have the courage to go against the advice of an expert system? What are the legal implications of going against the advice of an expert system when that would violate the usual standards of professional conduct? Why do my technology professors stress this point so much? Can a person go to jail if he is found guilty of criminal negligence? What ever happened to my original questions? How did people ever know what to eat before the new nutritional advising programs came out? Are computers really smarter than human beings? What are the limits of this technology? Is the computer really doing damage to human consciousness? Are people losing their passion because of the computer?

Why is Tchaikovsky's Seventh Symphony so cool? Why is this so much better than other classical compositions that I have heard? Will all music in the future be composed by computer systems? Does it matter if there are no more human composers? What is the role of passion in life? What is the role of creativity? Does it matter what form my creativity takes? Will I be able to own my own Tchaikovsky some day, as the experts predict? How much money will I be making when I graduate? How much will it cost to buy my mother a Mozart or a Mahler for her birthday?

Will I ever get married? Why is it so difficult for people to communicate honestly? If I get married, will we both wear the Helmet so we can stand to be in each other's company? Why do I find the Helmet so damn alluring? What kinds of problems will the Helmet help me to avoid? Is it a good idea to avoid aversive stimuli in that manner? Is the Helmet really a solution to the problem of toxic wastes, as Senator Grumby suggests? What kind of consciousness goes into the development of something like the Helmet?

If I wear a perceptual or a cognitive prosthesis, what would be the impact of that? Where would I begin and where would I end? If my intelligence is augmented by a computer, would I still be me? Who would I be? What would I be? If everyone but me is wearing the EINSTEIN prosthesis, would I be able to compete in the job market? Will you need to wear the EINSTEIN prosthesis in order to make big bucks? Will the guy wearing the EINSTEIN prosthesis get my job because I am too concerned about my appearance to wear an ugly prosthesis in public? What are my chances of getting mugged if I don't wear the Panorama prosthesis? Why didn't God give us eyes in back of our heads? Can we afford not to see what is going on right behind our backs?

What is the nature of creativity? Why do people want to be creative? Will the computer ever take over the bulk of human creativity? What is it like to write a novel? Why would anyone ever want to write a novel? What if computers could write better novels than people? Will anything be lost if this happens? When a computer does creative work, who owns the output of that creativity? Where is human creativity being channeled?

What are all of these courses about? Why did Professor Yeck give me a 'D' on my book report? Where does he get the gall to accuse me of plagiarism? How many more courses do I have to take before graduation? Why do I feel more and more isolated from real people? Why do I enjoy my cyber friends so much? What is Maya really like? Would I want to meet her in person? Is she sexually frustrated in real life? Is she really as beautiful and as athletic as she projects herself to be? Why doesn't she want to meet me face to face? Doesn't she know that I am infatuated with her?

Why don't I enjoy the outdoors anymore? Why is Virtual Yosemite so much fun and why have I never been to the real Yosemite? Do we need the real Yosemite anymore? What do bears and mountain lions look like in the wild? What are the oceans like today? Are there still dolphins playing in the ocean? When was the last time that I took time off to drive to the ocean? Who is looking after the environment? Will the ubiquitous satellite swarm really counter the effects of global warming? What will the earth be like in the future? Whose responsibility is it? Is it wise to create new species using genetic engineering?

What ever happened to my original questions? How have I changed over the years? Do people like the cyberselves that I am creating for myself? What is the purpose of Rex, my most violent cyberself? Why is it so much fun to participate in virtual violence and virtual sex as Rex, the super stud? Why is it that Rex can do things that I would never think of doing? Where does Rex come from? Is there any harm in projecting myself out as Rex? What is it about Maya that attracts her to someone like Rex? Would I actually like to spend time with a person who likes Rex as much as she does? What am I going to do with Harry, my meek and mild-mannered cyberself? Why is Rex more popular than Harry? Do I have another book review due tomorrow? Should I use the New York Times Book Reviewer like I did last time or should I actually read the book? Isn't it more efficient to let a computer digest a book than actually having to read it oneself?

Why are people spending their Saturday nights in cyberspace? Why does my dorm room look so drab? Why don't people take care of the spaces in which they live? Does cyberspace have anything to do with this? How will I do at that job interview tomorrow? What kinds of questions will they ask? What were the original questions that I started out with? Why can't I remember them any longer? Are the questions that we ask important? What is the relationship between the questions that we ask and the person that we become? Why do I feel so uncomfortable with myself? Why am I so unhappy most of the time? Why doesn't cyberspace make me as happy as it used to? Why am I finding Rex and his scandalous cyberlife more and more tedious? Why does Maya like Rex so much? What is it about Maya that I find so attractive? Is Maya real, or is Maya just like Rex? Why doesn't Maya get a life?

What were the original questions that I started with? Does it matter what questions I ask? Do we need to ask any questions? What made my job interview go so well? Why did the interviewer like me so much? Are they desperate for new hires who can work with technology? Why did we talk so much about money and status? Does she realize that I am not going to compromise on that eighty thousand dollar starting salary? Why didn't she ask me any of those original questions? Weren't they important at one time? Why can't I even remember what the original questions were? Why do I spend almost all of my time either doing homework or self-projecting into cyberspace? Why does my life seem so empty? Is Maya going to try to project in tonight?

What am I going to do after graduation? How many hours per week am I going to spend at my new job? Why is it that landing the job did not bring any kind of satisfaction? Why did landing the job, in fact, bring a sense of loss? What am I losing? Why does Maya want to spend so much time having sex with Rex? Should I stop projecting as Rex? What does Rex have to do with me? What if Maya projects as a completely new person? Could I handle that? What do I really know about Maya? Should I trust my roommate when he says that Maya is an eighty year old, arthritic widow who lives in Messina, New York? How many more days to graduation?

Why did I have that car accident driving to my new job? Why did this accident happen on the first day of my new high tech big bucks job? Are accidents really accidents? Do things happen for no reason, or do things happen for a reason? Was it worth plowing my car into a tree just so I could avoid that crow in the road? Why did the crow have to hang around making such a racket after the accident? Why do crows still remind me of mean Mr. Scrowler who used to take away my baseball when it landed in his yard? Why doesn't my new boss with the big white teeth even call me in the hospital to ask how I am doing? Is he going to replace me with someone else? How long will it take for my legs and my ribs to heal? Why didn't my dad visit me in the hospital? What does "being a big boy now" have to do with it? Why does my mother still refuse to be in the same room with him ten years after their divorce? Could the Helmet have saved their marriage if it had come along sooner?

Why do hospitals encourage patients to project into cyberspace while we are recuperating? Aren't there better things that a patient could do with his time? Why is there so much emphasis on escape? Why do we want to escape from the present reality so much? When will I be able to get to my new job? Why doesn't my boss call? What am I going to do with eighty thousand dollars per year? When will my new townhouse be ready? Can I afford a new car AND a new townhouse? Why did Maya have to choose this moment to come clean? Does she think I want anything to do with an eighty year old arthritic widow from the far North who thinks it is fun to seduce young men in cyberspace? Why does all of the fecal matter seem to hit the rotating blades all at once? Should I find myself a new love interest? Should I stick with Rex, the violent super stud, or should I develop a new cyberself? Is there any hope for Harry? Why is my life so unhappy? Why do I feel so bored and empty?

Why don't I write a book about my feelings? How much time do I have before I am well enough to get to my job? How much time does it take to write a novel? How much does that novel-writing system cost? What do I have to tell the system in order to grind out a great novel about my boring and unhappy existence? Doesn't great art come from a life just like mine? Will my novel sell? How much does a best seller rake in? Will I be the next Ken Plotsky?

Why does my mother seem like such an unhappy person? Why does she spend so much time watching movies? Why is she unhappy to see me back in her house? Why can't she take better care of things? Why doesn't she try to hang some pictures on the wall? Doesn't she know it is depressing for me to see her like this? Why is she wheeling me out into the backyard? Why does this backyard evoke such a strong feeling? Why does the backyard look so different from when I first played here as a baby and then as a small boy? How do I know that the backyard really hasn't changed that much? Did my mother feel bad when our neighbor, Mr. Scrowler, died? Why is my mother leaving me out here in the sunshine without any kind of entertainment to keep me occupied? Where are my virtual reality goggles? How long does she expect me to sit out here in the brilliant sun without anything to do? Why doesn't she buy me some kind of perceptual prosthesis or virtual reality entertainment that can help me with my boredom? Why am I in such a dark mood? Why is boredom so frightening? Why is fear itself so frightening? What is fear, after all?

Why is the sun so strong? Why does the sky have that strange amber color to it? Why doesn't my mother keep her vegetable garden any longer? Why are those wildflowers dancing in the wind? Why are those flowers so beautiful? Is it just my imagination, or am I seeing those wildflowers as if for the first time? Why does their beauty seem so intense? Where did that bee come from? What attracted that bee to these particular flowers? How does that bee know how to find the pollen? Who teaches bees how to fly and how to find their way home? How do bees make honey? Why is honey sweet? Who was the first person to eat honey? Did he or she get stung? Why does that bee seem so real, so beautiful? Why does that bee seem to embody every mystery that ever was, is, or will be? Why is it that I can see that bee in its totality, exactly as it is, in all of its intricate detail? How is it that I can almost taste the pollen that the bee is gathering from the flower? How does the bee keep itself suspended in the air? How does a bee manage to fly backwards? How many times does a bee beat its wings in one minute? What is it like to hear the beating of a bee's heart? What is it like to be a bee? How large is a bee, really? Why is it that I feel that I am in the bee? How can someone so large fit into something so small? How many copies of me does the bee see with its multi-faceted eyes? What guides the bee from one flower to the next?

Why are my original questions coming back? Why is the sun so bright? Why can't we look directly at it? Why is the sky blue - most of the time? Why do the clouds tower up like that? Where did all of earth's water come from? Did life really begin in the oceans? What is the mystery of the cell? How can one explain the miracle of life? How can one explain the mystery of existence? Why is honey sweet? Why does peanut butter taste so good? Why is the sun so warm? Why does the breeze embrace me like a long lost friend? Why are plants green?

Where do questions come from? What is the difference between a real question and a virtual one? Is there a difference? Why do the seas surge? Why do the mountains on the horizon seem so serene yet so majestic? Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is my life's purpose? How does a person come upon the purpose of his or her life? Is there such a thing as a heroic life? How does one find out? Why do I view my new job with such dread? What should I really be doing with my life? What is my purpose?

Why is beauty so important? What is love? What is noble in character and in thought? What is integrity? What is the meaning of this human birth? What will I want my life to be like when I reach that point called death? What is death? Is there a soul? Is there any way of knowing what death is like?

Why does the modern world seem so much like death? Why does it seem like a place of hollow people and hollow places? What within me tells me that there is an earth that is a hallowed place filled with grace? If that is so, how did we come to this hollowed place? Is there a way to regain that original state of completion? Is there a way to escape from the hollow people and the hollow places?

What is poetry and what is art? Do I have these things within myself? Where can I find them? What do I really want to express in my life? How can I express what I need to express? Is there anyone who needs to express what seems to be uniquely mine to say? Is each person a book and are the books sealed or are they open?

Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Will that bee ever know how it helped me to rediscover my original questions? How can I ever express my gratitude? Isn't it true that the crow that I almost killed with my car also got me to this place? How can I adequately thank that bee and that crow? Was my accident an accident? Should I thank my boss with the big white teeth for not calling? Can I view my life in a completely new way? Can I discover my purpose? Can I free myself from the expectations of parents and others? How can I unlearn what my parents taught me, what my teachers taught me, what my culture and my peers taught me, and what my professors taught me? How can I unlearn what I learned in the media and in cyberspace? How can I learn that I cannot bear the burden of my parents? How can I reclaim the life that is uniquely mine?

How can I find the questions that I must ask? How can I find the courage to ask questions that I never had the courage to ask before? How can I find the courage to ask the questions that others may be afraid to ask? How can I answer the questions that really matter? How should I live my life? What is integrity? What is exaltedness? Are there people of knowledge in this world? Are there people of integrity? Do noble men and women still walk the hollow streets? What is truth? What is enlightenment? What is my original nature? Is there something beyond the mind? Is there something beyond my own thoughts and concepts? How have I been conditioned by life? What forces are responsible for the things that I believe and the manner in which I view life? How can I contact that which is unborn, unconditioned, that which is free? How can I ever have doubted that ultimate reality? What is the value of doubt and longing?

Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Can I ever thank that crow and that bee enough for helping me to rediscover my original questions? Could it be that they were just me in disguise all along?

 

 

 

1997, 1999 Richard Gary Epstein

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