Friday, April 17, 2020

In Praise of Weirdness

I'm a weirdo. It's been a lifelong thing. The popular girls in middle school called me weird for relentlessly riffing on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and 1st edition D&D. In high school, I wore the wildest second-hand 1970s clothes I could find and people wrote things in my yearbook like "you have amazingly bad taste in shirts!" Now I spend my time writing bizarre essays and stories about group consciousness, simulation skepticism, infinite immaterial Turing Machines, and garden snail sex.

So let me own it. I'm weird, and I like weird things! You too, I hope?

What is it to be weird? I propose this: Something is weird if it's not normal. To be weird, a thing has to be somehow unusual -- but simply being unusual isn't enough. A blade of grass might be bent slightly differently than most other blades of grass. That doesn't make it weird -- not unless it's bent in some weird way. Similarly, your car's license plate number is unusual (no one else has it) but probably not weird. To be weird, a thing must be in some respect strikingly contrary to expectations. A high school kid wearing flower-print bellbottoms amid the black skinny jeans of 1985 is weird. So is a philosopher who has enough of a sliver of dream skepticism to spread his arms to try to fly across campus. A blade of grass with a slightly different bend isn't strikingly contrary to expectations, but one that doubled back on itself in a triple loop then ended in a stringy fluff -- that would be a weirdo piece of grass, man. Totally not normal.

Most philosophers think of norms either statistically or normatively (where to violate a norm is to be in some respect bad), but the kind of violation of normality that is constitutive of weirdness isn't either of those. Statistical rarity isn't enough, as I just explained. But neither is the weird necessarily something that violates our ethical, epistemic, or aesthetic norms. On the contrary, weirdness in my sense is good.

Imagine a world without weirdness -- a world where everything proceeds more or less according to expectations. The grass all shows the normal range of variation; the high school kids all wear normal clothes; philosophers endorse only the normal range of sensible theses. How dull! A certain amount of weirdness is wonderful. When I imagine my ideal world, I imagine a world of variation and difference, where people, events, and objects often have surprisingly strange features.

Now before you read this an endorsement of the view that we should all go completely bananas, let me mention two strong counterpressures toward normality.

First: If everything is surprising, nothing is surprising. There can be no expectations in sheer chaos. Weirdness blooms only against a contrasting background of normality. Not everything can be weird. We weirdos require a sea of straight-men to differ from. So thank you, straight-men!

Second: If most things of Type X lack Feature F, typically there's a reason: Feature F is bad in things of Type X. If an X, then, weirdly has Feature F, that's a problem. It's weird to eat scrambled paper for breakfast. It's weird to glue your socks to your hair instead of sliding them comfortably onto your feet. There are excellent reasons people don't do those things. But those things aren't bad because they're weird; they're weird because they're bad.

The best weirdness is weirdness against a background of normality where the weird-making feature is not also a bad-making feature. This is weirdness as harmless (maybe even helpful) novelty and difference. It's the weirdness of my father, one Christmas, flocking and decorating a tumbleweed instead of a tree for the living room. It's the weirdness of the girl who wears cat ears and sparkly eye shadow to school. The world's capacity to produce weirdness is one of the most wonderful things about existence, right alongside pleasure, knowledge, kindness, and beauty.

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If you enjoy my blog, check out my recent book: A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.

10 comments:

SelfAwarePatterns said...

It seems like anybody who enjoys writing or responding to posts on consciousness and other philosophical matters is weird to at least some degree. We're not talking about sports, pop-music, politics, or other common topics. We're talking about whether snails, other critters, or aliens are conscious, where in the brain consciousness may lie if it lies there at all and, to all appearances, relishing it!

One of the nice things about the internet is it allows us weirdos of a particular stripe to find each other and discuss our common weird interests!

Arnold said...

You may be talking about conscientiousness's relation to our lives...

That our experience of self as abnormal isn't normal and at the same time it is useful...

Let you conscience be your guide kinda stuff...

Philosopher Eric said...

I guess I was a weirdo high schooler back in the 80s as well. But I’d never go out of my way to display myself as such. That would have taken far more social capital than I possessed. I was the weird guy who sought to grasp the machinery of social dynamics. Standard political maneuvering and hypocrisy repulsed me, then as now. I suppose for a kid back then, “The Breakfast Club” wasn’t too bad an account. While in normal life I may generally seem assimilated today, I’ve surely given those who know me online a far different narrative. I remain unsatisfied. ��

Anonymous said...

Speaking of simulations, free will, and general weirdness - have you seen the TV show "Devs" on FX?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, we're all a bunch of weirdos here! :-)

A couple of people have mentioned Devs to me. I should definitely check it out!

Callan said...

Hi. I'm not sure - I would think weirdness is just a side effect. Mostly of heading in the direction you care to go in, rather than where the current is going. I'd presume evolutionary pressures made going against the current disruptive in tough times in the distant past, probably making for people being wary of minor unconventionalism.

Paul said...

I'd say weird feels intrinsically valuable. Preferring (neuro)diversity is a fast path to finding alternative forms of intelligence.
I'm glad you're thinking about this topic, after you helpfully clarified *jerks*.
The weird, as a set, usu have something internal/personal that's sufficiently strong to outweigh the social opprobium of expressing their weirdness. (Maybe we're all weird, deep enough, but conforming helps hide that)
One path starts with a mind, say as bent as Salvador Dali's; he clearly couldn't keep it in.
Equally possible to become weird by simply lowering sensitivity to social stigma. If one's supremely indifferent, any interpersonal bump will eventually surface

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Adrian Veidt said...

While I'm much more of a lurker instead of a commenter the issue of weirdness has caused me a great deal of mental whiplash over the years and reading this brings certain questions back up that I've yet to come down on.

While weirdness as a quality has always seemed to pour out of me I loathe it being marketed to me. I don't know if this is because I find the marketing of weirdness at odds with weirdness, possibly because it breaks down the unique experience of doing something differently, or if because to market weirdness is to acknowledge that the thing that I once thought was weird and distinct is in fact common place. I'm curious if anyone else has run into this.

When you mentioned trying to distinguish weirdness from how others have labelled it as bad I'm curious how far this extends. For example I love manga, have for years. I went to a school where the people who expressed their joy for it were, well, they were certainly considered weird by others. Their weirdness always seemed to spill over into every aspect of life, often resulting in others not understanding them at all, while my enjoyment of the weirdness was in the work itself rather than in any sort of expression of weirdness. This seems to tie back into the marketing question though because they would gobble up every chance to purchase objects that expressed the weird thing they liked.

In the case you outlined regarding purchasing strange clothes, there seems to be a significant difference between going out of your way to find strange clothes and choosing to purchase objects that are marketed to a person. All through high school I wore over-sized Hawaiian shirts with an army jacket but these were things I went out of my way to find instead of being sent an email notification advertising the newest Hawaiian shirt trends that go with military jackets from around the world. Is there a difference here and if so what exactly is it?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that thoughtful comment, Adrian! I share the thought that there's something almost paradoxical about marketing weirdness (compare: "be different, buy 7-Up!"). Maybe related to this is a difference between liking the weird thing and liking *that* it's a weird thing. Nothing wrong with liking both the thing and its weirdness -- but maybe if you're really after the weirdness and the thing itself is kind of secondary, there's a kind of inauthenticity there.