Phi Fic #14 “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

From Ponce de León to Woody Allen (and likely every self-reflective person who has lived), entropy has been at the root of human anxiety. Is there a way to hold off or reverse the inevitable?

A testament to this primary apprehension is “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov, a short story we discussed a few years back (after which the resultant sound files had their very own group entropic episode, only recently resurrected).

This is one of Asimov’s most famous short stories and his personal favorite. It follows the evolution of his enduring conception, the computer Multivac, through six phases of space and time, and humanity’s relation to it. In each phase, a human asks the Multivac if it’s possible to reverse the entropy of the universe—how to stop its seemingly inevitable death, save the universe, save humanity. And the Multivac invariably responds:

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.

It’s a short piece but packs a punch, with a comic ending that inspires rumination.

Join us as we tangle with this complex philosophical and engrossing scientific question—as Laura insists we’re not just data, that we have a physical life, Daniel ponders the merged consciousness at the end of the story, and Cezary warns, “If you’re looking for an individual consciousness here—not gonna happen. At some point, we’re going to be called IG-73 and then it’s going to morph into a hive mind.” Mary wonders at the exceptional nature of what makes up the human experience, and Nathan highlights that the end of the story provides a kind of hope, that there is a circularity there, the universe is coming back.

Listen to Isaac Asimov read this story on youtube:

Disclaimer: This is an early discussion and the quality is a bit low, but it’s a terrific talk and a great short story. Please join us!

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via
Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Phi Fic #13 “The House of the Dead” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Our reading this month is The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a semi-autobiographical novel about life in a Siberian labor camp. Dostoevsky was sent there after being convicted for his connection with the Petrashevsky Circle, where Western philosophy and literature were discussed, which was deemed subversive by Tsar Nicholas I.

Told through the eyes of Aleksander Petrovich Goryanchikov, convicted of murdering his wife, Dostoevsky paints the world of the camp through the prisoners. He pulls us into the horror the inmates suffer within their souls:

No man lives, or can live, without having some object in view, and without making efforts to attain that object. But when there is no such object and hope is entirely fled, anguish often turns a man into a monster. The object we all had in view was liberty, the remission of our confinement and hard labor. —The House of the Dead

We discuss this fascinating “early prison literature,” and explore (i.e., veer off into) the role of crime and moral breakdown in society. Mary expresses concern about the loss of hope, and Laura about the inescapable human condition. Daniel admires Dostoevsky’s psychological sense, and Nathan notes that the prisoners are “broken in time by the larger swarm of the State.” And poignantly, Cezary finds Dostoevsky’s words hold hints of Nietzsche, with our laws having buckets of blood behind them.

Reality is a thing of infinite diversity, and defies the most ingenious deductions and definitions of abstract thought, nay, abhors the clear and precise classifications in which we so delight. Reality tends to infinite subdivision of things, and truth is a matter of infinite shadings and differentiations. —The House of the Dead

This is one of our earlier discussions, so there are a few sound issues. Many thanks to Tyler Hislop and Laura for their editing magic!

You are welcome to contact us at with any recommendations, thoughts, or what have you. Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Phi Fic #12 Stories by James Baldwin

On two short stories by James Baldwin: “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” and “Sonny’s Blues.” Both are included in the collection Going to meet the Man (1965). Unfortunately, Daniel had to be absent this time, but we did get Mark Linsenmayer to join us!

For the first time in my life I felt that no force jeopardized my right, my power, to possess and to protect a woman; for the first time, the first time, felt that the woman was not, in her own eyes or in the eyes of the world, degraded by my presence.

So says the narrator in James Baldwin’s remarkable scrutiny of racism in “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” reminiscing about the moment he realized that he had truly fallen in love. His life in Paris has allowed him a freedom to live beyond the color of his skin, but now he is returning to the turmoil of the United States with his wife and son.

In our discussion of this beautiful short work, Mark pinpoints Baldwin’s examination of the psychological internalization of the degradation of racism, with Mary citing the abuse of the narrator’s sister and her friends by the police. Laura delves into the question of the “other” in society, while Cezary posits that racism today seems to be subsumed in discussions of different cultures. Nathan highlights Baldwin’s argument that our understanding and perspectives on racism are influenced by differing realities—which is Baldwin’s reply in the famous debate with William F. Buckley.

We then discuss ”Sonny’s Blue’s,” Baldwin’s story of family, responsibility, suffering, race, and freedom. The narrator’s younger brother, Sonny, is a brilliant musician who is imprisoned for selling and using heroin. On his release he moves in with the narrator and his family, and the brothers struggle to communicate. Sonny’s music finally offers them a way toward understanding and perhaps even a sort of freedom.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it … But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air … another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

We highly recommend Baldwin’s famous debate with William F. Buckley.
If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via
Thanks to Chrisopher Nolen for our music.
Special thanks to Mark Linsenmayer for being our guest this month! And if you haven’t already done so, check out the PEL’s James Baldwin on Race in America episodes.
Photo by Allan Warren, 1969


Phi Fic #11 “The Body Artist” by Don DeLillo

Grief. Is it mourning loss or is it mourning change?

Our book this time is The Body Artist by Don Delillo, an absorbing look at Lauren, a performance artist, and her experience of overwhelming loss when her husband commits suicide. We reflect on her travels through the murky struggle, accompanied by a strange young man (“Mr. Tuttle,” whom she names after discovers him hiding in her rental home), which culminate in an elaborate performance piece.

Past, present, and future are not amenities of language. Time unfolds into the seams of being. It passes through you, making and shaping. But not if you are him. This is a man who remembers the future. Don’t touch it. I’ll clean it up later. —The Body Artist: A Novel

Join us as Daniel muses about the body and art; what Lauren notices and what she fabricates. Nathan discusses the meta-ghosts in the room that still haunt her, Laura wonders if Mr. Tuttle is a manifestation of grief, and Cezary touches on the idea of significance—a key concept in this book—and how order and duration of the moments are crucial in the book’s opening scene of Lauren and her husband at breakfast, their final moments together. And Mary reminds us, “[in life] we’re all just renters, with pretty damned short leases.”

For further reading: Point Omega, White Noise, and Zero K by Don DeLillo, also, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (a friend to DeLillo).

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

You can see a film adaptation of the novel, The Body Artist…


… but, you ought to read the book.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via

Phi Fic #10 “The Fall” by Albert Camus

Camus writes about similarities in Amsterdam and Dante’s “Hell” in The Fall.

We discuss the novel about what you do when you’re “called” and how you live afterward. You can listen along while Cezary, Daniel, Laura, Mary, and Nathan discuss The Fall by Albert Camus, which Sartre claimed was “perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood” of Camus’s books.

We get to know Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a renowned and successful Parisian attorney, as he tells his life story to a stranger in a cafe in Amsterdam. Clamence’s tale reveals the wrenching horror of his “fall” from grace, precipitated by an egregious act of neglect.

Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.

Camus forces us to consider complex questions about absolution and forgiveness within the existential landscape, which Cezary moans is grueling, while Daniel wonders, if we look in the mirror and confess our own fallibility, does that give us the right to judge others? Laura coyly follows with her sentiment: So, if we say we suck, we can tell others they suck? Mary laments that most people don’t seem to give themselves a break for their own animal natures while Nathan highlights Clamence’s struggle with survivor’s guilt. There is also a stolen masterpiece, existential crises, allusions to Dante’s infernal rings of hell in Amsterdam, an enchanting narration, and a surprise purpose behind Jean-Baptiste’s confession.

I choose the features we have in common, the experiences we have endured together, the failings we share—good form, in other words, the man of the hour as he is rife in me and in others. With all that I construct a portrait which is the image of all and of no one. A mask, in short, rather like those carnival masks which are both lifelike and stylized, so that they make people say: ‘Why, surely I’ve met him!’ When the portrait is finished, as it is this evening I show it with great sorrow: ‘This alas is what I am!’ The prosecutor’s charge is finished. But at the same time the portrait I hold out to my contemporaries becomes a mirror.

Here are a few takeaways: chill out in traffic jams, call your friends more often, and maybe reach out to a sad stranger because you might be able to help. Or, failing all that, head to the bar.

If you have any recommendations for books, comments, or questions, we’d like to hear from you, our email is We hope you enjoy the talk.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via