Discover more from TrueSciPhi.AI
Spinning out language on existentialism and cycling
Previous posts briefly experimented with directing the ChatGPT and Claude AI language models to critique each other (with their positions on “free will” as the subject matter) and to participate in a sort of debate (with the existence of the “hard problem” of consciousness as the topic).
In this post, I engage ChatGPT on a philosophical topic and then prompt Claude to adopt the “perspective of a professional philosopher,” critique ChatGPT’s responses, and present its own points. The subject: Existentialism and cycling. Once again, links to relevant podcast episodes appear at the end of the post.
[I begin by prompting ChatGPT.]
Let's talk about existentialism and cycling. How can one inform the other?
Existentialism and cycling may seem like disparate topics, but they intersect in profound ways. Existentialism focuses on individual freedom, choice, and the search for meaning in a seemingly indifferent universe. Cycling, at its core, is a form of physical exercise that allows for personal freedom and exploration of the environment.
In cycling, you confront both your limitations and possibilities. The effort to pedal up a steep hill echoes existentialist themes like struggle and the burden of choice ("To climb or not to climb?"). The downhill ride, liberating and fast, could signify the fleeting moments of existential freedom and joy. Throughout a ride, you make choices about speed, direction, and whether to keep going—each decision shaping your experience and, metaphorically, your life's path.
Just as existentialists claim we must create our own meaning, cycling often involves setting personal goals or destinations, whether it's a literal place, improved health, or a sense of accomplishment. You're not just moved along by external forces; you're the one doing the moving, experiencing the responsibility and weight of freedom.
So, existentialism can inform cycling by adding layers of personal significance to each ride, while cycling can serve as a physical manifestation of existential principles, embodying freedom, choice, and the individual's journey through life.
How do the concepts of telic and atelic activities relate to this topic?
Telic activities have a specific end goal or purpose, while atelic activities are open-ended and can be enjoyed in any given moment without necessarily reaching a conclusion. Both concepts can be applied to existentialism and cycling to enrich our understanding of how they interrelate.
Cycling can be either telic or atelic, depending on one's approach. If you're cycling to reach a destination, improve your fitness, or compete, then it's a telic activity. The focus is on achieving a specific outcome, similar to existentialism's emphasis on the individual's responsibility to create meaning or attain a particular life goal.
On the other hand, cycling can be atelic—performed for the sheer joy of the experience, with no particular end in mind. This mirrors existentialist ideas about living authentically and finding value in the process of living itself, rather than only in specific achievements.
Existentialism, too, can be framed through the lens of telic and atelic activities. The philosophy often stresses the importance of creating one's own goals (telic), but it also suggests that life's meaning can be found in the act of choosing, existing, and experiencing (atelic).
So, understanding cycling and existentialism through the telic/atelic dichotomy illuminates how each can inform the other. Telic cycling resonates with existentialism's focus on individual purpose, while atelic cycling aligns with the philosophy's emphasis on the intrinsic value of freedom and existence.
Cycling journeys often are loops that return the rider to their starting location. How does that relate to existentialism?
The cyclical nature of many cycling routes, where the journey ends where it began, resonates with existential themes. One might see the loop as symbolizing life's journey, full of choices, struggles, and fleeting moments of freedom, only to end where it started—in existential terms, perhaps with the void or the ultimate freedom of non-existence.
In existentialism, life doesn't necessarily have inherent meaning; we create meaning through our actions, choices, and interpretations. The act of completing a loop can serve as a microcosm of this existential journey. You make numerous choices along the way—where to turn, how fast to go, whether to continue. Despite all these choices, you return to the starting point, emphasizing the existential idea that life's meaning isn't about the destination but the journey and the choices made along the way.
The loop also raises questions about the concept of "returning" in existential thought. Characters in existential literature often face the same dilemmas repeatedly, as if stuck in a loop, reminding us that our fundamental concerns—freedom, isolation, meaning—persist. Yet, every loop is an opportunity for a different experience or interpretation, offering the existential freedom to create new meaning with each ride or each pass through life's recurring challenges.
Thus, the loop in cycling can symbolize both the existential angst of life's repetitive cycles and the potential for continual reinvention and rediscovery, aligning closely with existentialist thought.
[Next, I interact with Claude.]
From the perspective of a professional philosopher, provide a critical review of this dialogue. [I submitted the above exchange with ChatGPT.]
Here is a critical review of the dialogue from a philosophical perspective:
The dialogue provides an intriguing exploration of connections between existentialist thought and the activity of cycling. It insightfully discusses how themes of freedom, responsibility, struggle, and the search for meaning in existentialism can find parallels in the physical and mental experience of cycling.
However, the interviewee's responses sometimes lean more toward poetic metaphor than rigorous philosophical analysis. For instance, describing the uphill climb as echoing "existentialist themes like struggle and the burden of choice" is evocative but lacks depth. A stronger philosophical treatment would examine the precise nature of freedom, responsibility, and meaning in existentialism and carefully analyze how cycling concretely reflects these concepts.
The interviewee makes thoughtful points about how cycling can be framed as either a telic or atelic activity, and relates this nicely to existentialist ideas about purpose versus intrinsic meaning. But more conceptual clarity could be achieved by defining terms like "telic" and "atelic" early on, instead of midway through the discussion.
Relating the cyclical nature of loops to existentialist themes is creative, but also remains somewhat vague. The interviewee hints at ideas about repetition, futility, and reinvention but does not fully develop the connection to existentialist literature and thought. There is rich philosophical material here on freedom, authenticity, absurdity, and more, which merits more rigorous elucidation.
Overall, the dialogue insightfully gestures toward several philosophical motifs but would benefit from tighter argumentation, unpacking of assumptions, definition of key terms, and sharper analysis that moves confidently from the metaphorical to the conceptual. With a more robust scholarly approach, the ideas presented could cohere into a compelling philosophical exploration.
Provide your own version along the lines you have suggested.
Here is my attempt at a more philosophically rigorous treatment of the connections between existentialist thought and cycling:
Freedom and Responsibility
A core tenet of existentialism is that human beings have absolute freedom and responsibility for their choices and their construction of meaning in life. As Sartre declared, "we are condemned to be free." Cycling can be seen as manifesting this radical freedom - the rider continuously chooses speed, direction, how hard to peddle, when to rest. This aligns with existentialists' view of life as a series of free choices rather than predetermined events.
Yet this freedom comes with a burden of responsibility. To make authentic choices, we must face existence alone, without fixed external guidelines. This parallels the cyclist's solitary effort and responsibility for each choice that shapes the ride. Existentialists see this weight of responsibility as both anxiety-provoking and an inescapable fact of the human condition.
Meaning as Self-Creation
For existentialists like Sartre and Camus, life has no inherent meaning, so we must create meaning through our actions. As Camus put it, we must imagine Sisyphus happy as he pushes his boulder up the hill for eternity. Similarly, the cyclist constructs meaning by setting goals like reaching a destination or improving health. The activity's meaning comes from within, not from external forces.
This applies to telic cycling focused on outcomes and atelic cycling done for its own joy. Even on a simple loop where one ends up back at the start, the rider creates meaning through the self-defined goals, choices, and personal satisfaction that shape the journey. Thus, cycling offers an embodied representation of existentialism's dictum that we determine life's meaning.
Authenticity and "Being-in-the-World"
Heidegger's concept of authenticity, an openness to one's own existence and choices, also relates to cycling. Authentic being-in-the-world involves a mindfulness similar to the focused awareness and presence required in cycling. By pedaling through varied terrain, exerting effort, experiencing sights and sounds, one feels viscerally engaged with the world. This helps reveal key existential qualities of one's Being, like facticity (the given circumstances) and existential freedom.
For Heidegger, inauthenticity stems from falling into the "they" and accepting pre-defined norms rather than choosing authentically. Cycling's individual activity opposes this - your authentic lived experience comes from your own effort and decisions, not those handed down by society. Much like Heidegger's vision of authentic Being, the cyclist expresses existence through subjective lived experience in motion.
In conclusion, exploring existentialist themes through the lens of cycling reveals philosophical insights into freedom, responsibility, meaning, authenticity and what it means to deeply engage with the world as a conscious human subject. Paying mindful attention to one's choices and presence while cycling can thus illuminate fundamental aspects of human existence.
It seems much of this analysis would apply to other activities such as running. What are some points unique to cycling?
You raise a good point - many of these existentialist themes could be explored through other individual physical activities like running. There are a few concepts that cycling lends itself to uniquely:
- The cyclist's relationship to the machine: Existentially, the bicycle is an extension of the self, allowing expanded agency and freedom of movement. Yet the cyclist remains vulnerable to breakdowns and the bike's limitations, illustrating the contingency of existence.
- Speed, risk, thrill: The momentum of cycling evokes existential feelings of danger, mortality, being on the edge of control. This can enlighten us viscerally to concepts like Kierkegaard's "fear and trembling" or Nietzsche's "life on the precipice."
- Environment and embodiment: Cycling involves intense embodied interaction with the surrounding environment - hills, wind, terrain. This grounds the activity firmly as an existential being-in-the-world, highlighting our material context.
- Mediation between extremes: Cycling is neither fully active nor passive; it involves effort and motion but not to the same extremes as running. This mediating quality connects to the need for balance between existential poles like freedom and responsibility.
- Balance and adjustment: Riding a bike requires constant small adjustments and rebalancing, mirroring the existential need for continual course corrections in life. Heidegger's concept of equilibria has resonance here.
So while many core existentialist themes apply across activities, cycling has some unique structural and experiential elements that offer fertile ground for specific philosophical insights. The interaction between cyclist, bike, and environment makes it a rich lived metaphor for Being-in-the-world.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy as he engages AI language models and pushes them to refine their responses.
For more on the topics of this post, check out these selections from the TrueSciPhi philosophy podcast list:
Microphilosophy with Julian Baggini
Take Your Mind for a Ride (38 minutes)
Skye Cleary on Existentialism and Authenticity (77 minutes)
Seize the Moment
James Hibbard - Cycling as Self-Expression (92 minutes)
Thanks for reading TrueSciPhi.AI! Subscribe for free to receive future posts by email.