Archive for October, 2011

Happy Halloween from Giordano Bruno

October 31, 2011

The glow hasn’t faded yet. My team has won its 11th World Series championship, Older Daughter had a birthday, and we’re still celebrating. I don’t usually love a parade but this was an exception. Plus, it’s Halloween. So,

We’ll have exams today and tomorrow but will discuss no new material. On Wednesday and Thursday we’ll resume with JMH’s discussion of the Inquisition, Montaigne et al, picking up with Giordano Bruno. He was torched for pronouncing prescient truths and inspiring speculations about a vastly larger cosmos than his persecutors wanted to fathom. He imagined lifeforms elsewhere, anticipating Carl Sagan (Cosmos) and Baruch Spinoza: “God, for him, was the same thing as the universe.” He refused the comfort of a crucifix and departed this earth with these brave words:

Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.

Scary stuff. Happy Halloween.

“What was going through your mind?”

October 29, 2011

Cards win! What were you thinking?

Television sports journalists love to ask heroic athletes that question. Lance Berkman didn’t miss a beat, when interviewed about his crucial extra-inning hit in Game #6: “nothing!” No complicated thoughts, no tortured reflections, just concentration and execution. Think about it later. Johnny Damon once said he tried not to think, when he did it only hurt the team.

It’s an approach to work a philosophy professor has to envy. This one, anyway.

So what went through my mind last night, when Allen Craig squeezed the last out of Game #7 and gave my team its 11th MLB championship (second only to the Yankees), crowning an incredible, improbable victory run after falling out of the race in August?

Well, I tried not to think, tried just to enjoy the moment, to celebrate and meditate on it. Did my best, but at best I’m an amateur meditator. (Eric did a report for us in SOL the other day on how to meditate, and I asked him: how do you actually manage to fend off invasive thoughts? The gist of his answer was: by not trying. Guess I need to try harder to not try so hard.)

So, some pleasant thoughts leaked in. I remembered sharing the last such moment with my Dad in ’06 and wished he were here for this one. The wish made it so, of course. I thought about how good it was that Step-mom and sister were here in body, as Dad was in treasured memory.

I thought about the despondency of losing to the Red Sox in ’04, but also of how their fans at Vanderbilt (where I was teaching at the time) grinned and glowed for weeks.

I thought of ’67, when my team beat the Sox in 7.

And then I thought: I can’t wait ’til next year.

Money & happiness

October 27, 2011

“Everybody knows that money doesn’t buy happiness.”

The trouble with what everybody knows, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is that sometimes it isn’t so.

Money can buy happiness, and it already did…It is a modern myth that money and happiness are unrelated for the wise and in direct proportion for the shallow. They are never unrelated…

Aristotle, for instance, acknowledged that happiness “requires a degree of comfort.” But only a small degree, “abundance does not correlate with happiness” to anywhere near the degree that poverty correlates with unhappiness.

It’s commonly, winkingly noted that the roots of our material culture in America run from Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” back to John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property (estate).” The insinuation is that Jefferson was importing a crass idea under cover of a pretty, idealized euphemism.

Less often acknowledged, and much more intriguing, is Jefferson’s Epicureanism. He admired its naturalism– he so despised supernaturalism that he snipped those parts out of his Bible– its  secularism, and its happy vision of simple, virtuous pleasure. “Epicurus ran a coed, hedonistic philosopher’s retreat called the Garden,” encouraged serious reflection for its own sake, and valued personal freedom and independence above institutions, congregations, and confederations.

For his part, Jefferson valued his own “garden” at Monticello– a commune-like compound, staffed by slaves who we now know were as good as family, if not quite accorded the status and dignity of friendly communal equals in the Epicurean sense. They were more literally confined to the “garden.” But we also now know that money was a problem for him, too. He sold his books to create the library of congress, not only as a public-spirited act of generosity but because he really needed the dough.

JMH:  “There are obvious happiness advantages to having some money,” and not only for those with little. “The difference between a phenomenal wheelchair and one that is just good enough is not trivial.” Nor, during the Series, is the difference between an ordinary TV and a crisp-&-pretty hi-def model. When it rains, of course, it doesn’t matter how good the reception. That’s a literal truth, but more importantly it’s a reminder that the conditions of our happiness are subject to fortune and circumstance far more than we like to think.

So, “money can buy some happiness” and stave off the wolf at the door. That’s not a hard sell, in depressive recessive times,  but we mustn’t oversell. The road to hell is paved with the obsessive, self-righteous  monomania of owning things.  Consumerism is more than performance, it’s a drug too.

One more thing: if the football weather in St. Louis abates tonight there’ll be another World Series game, and it could be the sad season-ender for my team. JMH speaks to the irrational passions of “Moneyball” fandom:

A fan gets to take part in a mood, an identity, created by the win-loss history and highlights of the team. Even a losing streak can make you feel chosen… Fandom can be a prodigious force.

Tell me about it. Go Cards.

And much more importantly, Happy Birthday Older Daughter! She was once Mark McGwire’s biggest fan, at about age 5, but it later made her unhappy (and angry) to discover his secret. Me too. But then I thought about the game. It’s bigger than any mere player or team. It’s like life that way, and unlike money (even for us 99 percenters).

Now, just because it’s taken up residence in my head and if I can’t get it out I at least want to share it, here’s a theme song for this chapter. It’s a gas.

The printing press and the age of martyrs, part 1

October 26, 2011

We’re into the 15th century in Co-Phi, commencing JMH‘s discussion of The Printing Press and the Age of Martyrs. We begin with

Zen, Renaissance & Reformation, Pomponazzi & Macchiavelli, “School of Athens,” Copernicus

This was a seed-time for Buddhism, and Nagarjuna was one of the chief gardeners. He out-Buddha’d Buddha, denying not only the reality of the self but also the possibility of repudiating it. “There is not any right doctrine,” just meditations seeking enlightenment.

The Japanese Zen master and haiku poet Ikkyu Sojun was on the Spartan side of Buddhism too.

We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up; This is our world/ All we have to do beyond that/ Is to die.

Now that’s a minimalist! It must not have been a Buddhist who said life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. (I don’t think John Lennon was a Buddhist, but Yoko maybe?)

But, with Halloween approaching we can better appreciate his timely dream of pontificating Buddhist skeletons. Babble about “God” and  “the Buddha” and you will never find the true Way. The true Way makes skeletons of us all. As Woody Allen once said, it’s important to recall that one day we’ll all “thin out” and should hope to be well thought-of when we do.

The Renaissance was the rebirth of ancient wisdom, midwifed by Petrarch and others in their infatuation with Cicero and the “sturdy and virile” Stoics, and in their rejection of “the stupid Aristotelians” and their regurgitated syllogisms. As we noted the other day, this was the seminal moment of Humanism.

There are all kinds of humanists, not all of whom explicitly or implicitly (as JMH suggests) exalt science above faith. Besides the notorious and villified (but usually quite harmless) Secular Humanists, there are American Humanistsreligious humanists, Christian humanists, pragmatic-pluralist humanists, Unitarian Universalist humanists, humanists who subscribe to Manifestos, and more.

What they do all exalt is the priority of human welfare on earth as the most appropriate locus of human concern. Raphael’s School of Athens captures the mood precisely in Aristotle’s earth-first gesture. (Raphael evidently did not share Petrarch’s contempt for The Philosopher.)

Aristotle of Stagira (384 – 322 BC) (according to Dante Alighieri “The Master of those who know“) stretches his hand. He holds a copy of his Nichomachean Ethics – and he indicates with his gesture the worldliness, the concreteness, of his contributions to philosophy… Does his brown and blue colored clothes represent the two elements water and earth (probably to show that his philosophy is grounded, material), whereas Plato’s two colors represent fire and air?

Philosophy Professor Pietro Pamponazzi of Padua and Bologna, “doubt’s philosopher,” like me “fundamentally peripatetic,” defied Pope Leo’s condemnation of mortality. All his books “concluded that the soul is mortal.” He was a straight shooter:

One of his students demanded a straight answer on the question of the soul, “leaving aside revelation and miracles, and remaining entirely within natural limits.” The straight answer was that he agreed with Aristotle and Averroes that the independent soul of a human being needs its body, and it exists only in its body.

And, in a claim of special interest to me and my future students in next semester’s “Atheism & Philosophy” course, he “rejected the idea that people need threats of heaven and hell in order to be moral.” Even my dogs know that… or at least they act like they do. The fire-and-brimstone screamers who periodically camp in front of our student center could learn a thing or two about canine virtue.

Pomponazzi also spurned ghosts, demons, and angels. And here’s the most surprising fact about him, in this age of martyrs: he “lived a full life… and was considered the greatest Aristotelian of Italy.”

Niccolo Machiavelli “was not the conniving politico his name implies nowadays” but he does sound Nietzschean: “These [Christian] principles seem to me to have made men feeble.”

Luther was no peripatetic, and no scholastic. “In vain does one fashion a logic of faith,” in fact he said rational proofs deny  faith. “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic,” a claim JMH calls “Luther’s gift to the history of doubt.” But plenty of the faithful had their doubts. “If we do not trust the Church to know the truth,” as Luther implied we should not, “why should we trust ourselves?”

Calvin was even nastier than our previous text let on, ordering people burned and decapitated for disagreeing with his theology. But recall, his theology entails predestination and the foreknowledge of an omniscient God. What could those “practical atheists” have done differently? Where’s the sense in punishing them for what they couldn’t change?

Nicolas Copernicus, the great heliocentrist, did not quite own up to his own Copernican Revolution. On his deathbed he said the solar-centered view was useful for calculations. Practically true, pragmatists would say. True plain and simple, most of us are now prepared to go out on a limb and say aloud.

So, Groups Five, you can research Copernicus if you want to know more than our text delivers, or– if you prefer– read on and ask us some questions about Francois Rabelais, whose poetically-dedicated posthumous words seem to leave little doubt as to his state of belief. “Sleep, gluttony, wine, women, jest and jibe: these were my gods, my only gods.” If that sounds glib, read Gargantua’s letter to Pantagruel. It’s deeply thoughtful and profound.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Thursday’s scheduled exam  in H1 & SOL has been moved to Tuesday. If you have questions you want considered for inclusion, post ‘em to the class blog by Saturday.

“whiffs and gleams of something excellent”

October 25, 2011

More Happiness Myth  today in SOL, and review, and the beginning of report presentations. Busy busy! I may need a new drug, to get through it all.

Just kidding. My drug of choice is caffeine, and it’s never failed me yet. I don’t usually feel enraptured by it, but yes: I do enjoy needing it.

Last time I gave serious thought to JMH’s discussion of drugs & happiness, her perspective seemed a bit  “wicked“– not in a bad way, necessarily, just out of step with the conventional mores of the moment. No drugs are good or bad on her view, apparently, but thinking makes it so. And culture.

Overall, our public rhetoric is mythically against drugs, and yet our individual lives include all sorts of intoxicants, stimulants, antidepressants, and other happiness drugs. It is powerful simply to realize that all these different drugs, the “good” and the “bad,” are essentially the same: they are potions people use to get a little happy.

That sounds rash, but wait:

Drugs can be dangerous; either the illegal or the legal ones may affect your health or turn out to be more than you can handle. But that is not enough to explain our attitude toward them.

Our attitude reflects a “dumb” obsession with productivity, and perhaps a dumber unexamined Puritanism (“pharmacological  Calvinism”)  about pleasure in every form. Just link a drug to increased productivity, and downplay the pleasure angle, if you want FDA or general public approval for your drug of choice. Mine is home free on both counts. Red Label is out, in the college cafeteria, while Red Bull is in. “This is not about health; it is about culture.”

But isn’t it also about mental health and the health of our relationships, the tenability of our habits and the plausibility of our goals? She quotes William James approvingly in his famous “sobriety diminishes” passage , but omits the full story. Yes, he acknowledges the “poison” of drunkenness while still sort of “praising it anyway.” But he also deplores the unsustainability of entheogenically-induced transcendence. A tragic unsustainability, true, but inescapable nonetheless. [SPGS]

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the YES function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole. VRE

So, do we think there’s a respectable place for deliberately-altered states of consciousness in our personal and communal pursuit of happiness? What do we tell the kids, especially when they ask what we did in the counter-culture war?

I tell them everything is chemistry (human & world chemistry share a “porous border”) and there are “natural” ways of tripping your own wires and living better. And of course, we need to address the question of what “natural” even means. What isn’t? What makes the nature synthesized by nature’s children problematically artificial? Anyway, “drugs are in our world like food and sunshine.” Bon appetit, Epicureans, but don’t eat like pigs. Even Socrates feasted at the Symposium, and was well-satisfied.

Can true happiness be drugged happiness? You were happy today. Does the fact that you had two cups of strong coffee and a dose of over-the- counter painkiller have anything to do with our assessment of this happiness?

Maybe, but isn’t the internal experience the same? That’s not the whole issue, of course, but it’s at least coeval with the relational consequences of dialing up a different thermostatic setting.

JMH hates the gym, but physical exercise is the best “medicine” of all. Forget the treadmill and stair-stepper, if you wish. (I actually enjoy them, on cold gray and rainy days.) Run, walk, bike, hike, or even pull weeds, whatever: all can take you higher. So, kids, if you’re asking me I suggest you try that first thing.

Or second. A good cup of coffee is my first pleasure. Gets me out of bed and through every dawn, often leaving a perfectly legal “illegal smile” that lasts the morning. Or until my walk. Or until my sunset whiskey.

The joy of bourbon drinking [said Walker Percy] is not the pharmacological effect of C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky USA sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime—aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary. SPGS

Maybe that’s an escape from reality, or maybe it’s a point of entry. Either way, I’d also tell the kids not to stay too long on either side of the gate. Sunset will come again, as well as the dawn’s first cup. Just keep moving. But imagine: a world that respected and valued H.G. Wells’s trips “beyond the door,” just because they showed us other possibilities. You may say I’m a dreamer…

Or a poet. Raymond Carver was probably right: happiness comes on unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really, any early morning talk about it. But I’m enjoying this dawn post too much to heed his warning. Philosophers and poets are pathfinders, after all. “What everyone can feel, what everyone can know in the bone and marrow, philosophers and poets sometimes can find words for and express.” (WJ) Or try.

Drugs can provide true euphoria, and they can provide great-day happiness. They cannot provide the goods of good-life happiness, [which] absolutely requires putting in a variety of tiring efforts, many of which are better done sober.

Well, unless you count being drunk on morning Tennessee USA sunshine. I do.

Finally I’d tell the kids to check out JMH’s longish list of “some of the things long-term happiness requires in the short term” (126) and add to it. Nobody else’s list will quite suffice. JMH’s includes happy-making consumables, tending to family & other relationships, taking a walk (good for her!), and studying for exams. That’s first on the list. Next class, in fact.

Maimonides and other medieval doubters

October 24, 2011

We’re still looping JMH’s medieval Mediterranean loop, with Maimonides, The Zohar, the Scholastics, Ockham, and Nicholas. But (NOTE TO STUDENTS) we’ll have to loop quickly because midterm report presentations begin today, and we’ll be reviewing too.

Moses Maimonides was thrilled by “Falsafah” but also committed to the faith of his fathers. Guide for the Perplexed tried to straddle belief in prophecy and rationalism, while upholding the pretense of unspoken “secret knowledge.” But surely our deepest perplexity is not for unspilled secrets, it’s simply a reflection of our conflicted yearning for “rationality” in the face of ancient ancestral superstitions that command our most reflexive loyalties. We want to keep faith with community and tradition, a faith perceived as “indispensable in regulating our social relations.” But we want also to reason our way out of the hole of ignorance and fear. (“What do you mean, we?” Good question.)

People need religion for political and emotional reasons; [but] for ideas our best options are reason, meditation, and resignation. Maimonides saw “the mass of religious people” as “the multitude who observe the commandments, but are ignorant.” He argues that when ancient information, either that of Aristotle or the Jewish sages, is contradicted by the growth of a scientific discipline, the ancient information must be discarded in favor of truth.

The Dalai Lama has said strikingly similar things. He and Maimonides would evidently agree: One “should never cast reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back.”

The Zohar, on the other hand, “claimed that Jewish law did not need to be defended rationally at all, for its gestures were part of the secret-knowledge rites that had to be done to fix the broken world.” Secrets again, invoked to justify the suspension of reason. Don’t believe it, “naive popular belief” needs no favors.

On the subject of Jewish (and other) mysticism, it occurs to me that my colleague Rabbi Rami Shapiro– with his occasional talk of God being manifest in everything– is a kind of mystic. On the other hand, to the extent that he talks much more than occasionally on this and many other themes of ultimate concern, he’s not a mystic at all. The whole point of philosophizing and theologizing is to seek the right words, or at least better ones, while the most committed mystics have given up on the power of language to compass reality. I’ll have to ask him about that.

Rami on religion:

At its best religion is about personal freedom, social justice, compassion for all living things, and realizing your connection with God. At its worst it is about power and control. Religion is rarely at its best.

Well, who or what ever is? (But did you see Game #3? Albert often is at his best.) [Postscript: did you see games #4-5? Success is often rewarded with over-attention. Oh those bases on balls.]

Gersonides agreed with Aristotle: “God had no knowledge of the goings-on of life” and could not be “thanked, praised, or petitioned.” Not a view likely to appeal to those patronized “masses.” Not much of a God either, with all his omni-attributes shelved or axed. Who needs Him? Just some old philosophers, mostly.

How do you nurture a mystic? Besides having  your pupil read Gersonides, I mean? You could follow Hildegard’s path.

Hildegard was only eight when she was sent to a wealthy Benedictine convent… She said she had visions from a young age, and she wrote tomes full of vibrant allegorical visions and charges of impiety.

Writing about visions: there’s something paradoxically heightening about the act, but also something inimical to the vision’s claim to mystic purity and authenticity. But maybe that’s only if it’s not your own vision, I s’pose, and true mystics aren’t that concerned with sharing vision. Anyway, Hildegard was one impressive lady.

And then, the Spanish Inquisition.  Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Is it still too soon to joke? But it was no joke when “in 1492 the Jews of Spain were  given three months to leave or convert.” Under the circumstances it’s not hard to understand the appeal of mysticism and the desire of the displaced to find something savory in exile.

The Scholastics too are usually parodied, and deservedly so in my opinion. But none of them really “argued about how many angels danced on the head of a pin” or soundless trees falling in forests. Nobody worth discussing, anyway. Too bad, it would make a good Python skit.

Aquinas may not have argued about angels but he was one scholastic who was very good at identifying other arguments of all kinds, including a “little beauty” suggesting that all of nature can be accounted for by rational principles, hence “no need to suppose God’s existence.” A saint said that!

Ockham had a famous razor, but what does it mean? What is the “simplest explanation possible in all things” and how do you know it when you hear it?

Nicholas of Autrecourt was called “the medieval skeptic” and, says JMH, denied we could ever really link cause to effect: a Humean before his time. But others insist “he was no skeptic.” It’s hard to know, he burned all his writings except a couple of letters, in one of which he challenged the Prime Mover’s existence.  What else can you tell us about him, Groups Five? (HINT HINT NUDGE NUDGE: this is a good extracurricular research opportunity).

Finally JMH notes the rediscovery by Petrarch (not to be confused with Plutarch, whose inspiring statement about mind as a “fire to be lighted” adorns a bench on our campus in General Washington’s walnut grove) of Cicero and his “nonreligious concerns about human happiness,” which she says heralds the birth of modern humanism, beginning finally to “shift attention away from arcane theological disputes toward more productive avenues”… It’s about time.

Medievals & scholasticsM&SDark AgesAbout HumanismManifestos

Postscript. Just for the record: Nashville’s Walden was overrun yesterday, and the World Series is all tied up. Leaves are falling, time marches on.

“Carpe vitam”: seize the life

October 20, 2011

We’re back from Fall Break with Jennifer Hecht’s Happiness Myth and its  “Wisdom” chapters in SOL today. Here she is in a recent Harvard appearance (She begins speaking at the 6:30 mark):

She’s definitely read her Russell, but there’s nothing musty, dated, or sexist in her authorial voice. She’s fun, and (more important) fundamentally right: the myth of happiness is that there’s a “secret,” a royal road, a special and exclusive way (or handful of ways) to be happy. She debunks the myth. To begin at the end,

Make yourself face death and become familiar with it. But once you have done that, you have to firmly guide your attention back to life. Just walk your mind away from the dark edge of the beautiful springtime field and into its lovely center.

I first found those lines not long after losing my Mom and Dad. They were the very words I needed to hear then, and they’ve become a mantra. The “lovely center of life,” so easy to misplace, so central to the hunt for meaning and purpose and happiness. Carpe vitam: seize the life. Hecht has written of losing close friends and loved ones to suicide. She has much to say to those on the edge, and to the rest of us too.

The myth in question is the “mental corset” of supposing that the prejudices of our particular historical moment regarding a raft of things including our bodies, what we put into them, the consumption of pop culture, how we comport ourselves in public and with other persons, our sexuality, etc. etc., are conclusive. “This book seeks to prove that the basic modern assumptions about how to be happy are nonsense.” There have been, will be, and are other ways of seeing the world and inserting yourself successfully into it. Brian Cohen said it best: “You don’t have to follow me,” or them, or it. “You don’t have to follow anyone. You’re all individuals.” Yes you are.

But not really. We’re enmeshed in relationships, another mine-field of modern prejudice. Hecht echoes G.B. Shaw’s reminder that our significant relationships span generations. Pace Shakespeare, “Life is no brief candle [but] a splendid torch… I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” But in case this sounds treacly, she quickly temporizes the sentiment. “Neither Shakespeare nor Shaw must have been to High School or a faculty meeting.”

Hecht has  good breaking stuff, as we say in baseball. (If you missed it, btw, Cards win!) She throws curve-balls. “The idea that drugs create fake happiness is a prejudice… A good day includes more playing than would add up to a happy life… Insight and wisdom can be useless against a dark mood… We live in little cognitive comas… We today are ridiculously goal-oriented… As lame as the game [of modern life] is, it is also a majestic continuation of human culture and we are lucky to be part of it…”

Last I heard, Hecht is currently engaged in writing a new book about Bertrand Russell, who– surprising those who know him asbertrand-russell a serial philanderer and early “free love” enthusiast– said parenting had been his greatest joy. “The secret to happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.’

Hecht cites William James on “the pop culture of 1902,” the so-called mind-cure movement that was not so different from our own Secret-smitten New Age. (Secret review) I think we’ll be hearing from Kristen about that today.

A propos of the Holocaust Conference (“Global Perspectives“) now under way and continuing in our building today, Hecht notices: “survivors of an almost fatal experience are understood to be happier than other people,” experiencing “posttraumatic bliss.” (’11 Conference schedule)

pigFinally, Hecht has standards. Reminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” she comments:

“This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-- can end in a flash, without warning.

The Wisdom section concludes with a lesson we’ll want to master in “Atheism and Spirituality”:

“Secular happiness requires the same kind of meditative work that religion requires.” Or as Richard Starkey once said: You know, it don’t come easy.

Let us think on these things…

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Looking ahead to November: my copy of For the Benefit of All Beings just arrived. Better order it, if you haven’t yet. OR, try this link to an allegedly free download, and let us all know if it worked.

Also note this link to the NYTimes‘ dedicated Dalai Lama page. Of special interest: op-ed essays by the DL, “Our Faith in Science,” “The Monk in the Lab,” & “Many Faiths, One Truth“…

And looking ahead to next week: presentations begin (check the class blog site this weekend for a posted schedule), and exam #2 is a week from today, review on Tuesday. Essays from non-presenters due Thursday.

The original Arab Spring:Falsafah

October 19, 2011

We’re back from Fall Break today in CoPhi, “tanned rested & ready,”right? Well, except for the distraction of the World Series. Freedom means controlling your thoughts and directing your attention, so I’ll do my best not to think about the game and instead turn freely to our topic: the original Arab Spring, the Muslim Skeptical movement of over a millennium ago known as Falsafah. Hard to believe Baghdad was once a cosmopolitan and intellectual mecca. One is tempted to put up a sign message: With nonbelief all things are possible. A false message, of course, but satisfyingly apposite.

Falsafah, al-Rawandi, al-Warraq, al-Gazzali, Averroes

It’s so refreshing to be reminded of the Islamic “falsafah” tradition, typically committed (as in the case of Al-Farabi) to combining logical rigor and empiricism with neoplatonic mysticism.

The name of Muhammad has come to symbolize, for many, an intransigent, inflexible, violent species of piety. For others it still evokes the humble merchant’s son’s message of humility and brotherhood. He had a dream, a “nocturnal ascent” that centuries of unquestioning piety have cemented into legend. But, really: riding a winged horse to the upper chambers of heaven? Of such stuff a world religion is made? Interminable wars are still waged in the name of such a sandy fantasy? And as in the time of Brian, of Muhammad, of Joe Smith and Ron Hubbard, we  still don’t know “how to recognize a true prophet.” Or a witch. It was ever thus.

“Islam” and “Muslim” mean submission, and whatever the total truth about the historical Muhammad it’s clear that a religion centered on unqualified submission was always  bound to conflict with philosophy’s devotion  to freedom of thought and expression.  You can submit to inherited authority or you can question and challenge it. You can’t do both. [Muslim spirit, modesty... "Why I am not a ___"... holy books]

Yet, as JMH points out, there is a Muslim theological tradition–Kalam–  which holds that Muslims should use reason and logic to show that God is beyond human understanding. But if reason and logic are the prime tools of human understanding, this is an unpromising and paradoxical approach. We should use reason and logic to expand our understanding, not curtail it.

On the other hand, one could argue that Socratic humility is no different, using the tools of inquiry to demonstrate universal human ignorance (and grow wise in the process). Hmmm.

In any case, the Arabic philosophers of the early middle ages, anticipating the Catholic scholastics in their attempt to have their religion and their logic too, were looking to preserve a neoplatonic hybrid that would be more than the sum of its respective parts. They came to believe that God, Allah, was sweet reason itself. But then, of course, sadly, they were superceded by the forces of irrationalism, superstition, dogmatism, and (at the extremes) violence. And those are the forces shaping so much of our world today. Wouldn’t a revival of the Faylasufs and a real Arab Spring be nice?

There were practitioners of kalam who were not intent on using reason to bury itself:

among the early Muslims there were a few deeply independent scholars who doubted almost all the features of God that made him godlike, i.e., that God was good, that he made the universe, or that he cared about humanity. They were often referred to as atheists.

And they were, to say the least, shunned. Ostracized. Marginalized. Dealt with.

But to repeat (because it seems so incredible, after so many generations of intellectual and religious intolerance), that’s not the whole story. The Faylasufs (or Falsafahs) “held that the God of the Greek philosophers was identical to Allah… was reason itself.”

Once upon a time, for centuries in fact, “Muslim skeptic” was not an oxymoron. Nowadays, you’re more likely to encounter a former-Muslim skeptic like the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq. His namesake precursor Muhammad al-Warraq referred to God as an idiot,

because “He who orders his slave to do things that he knows him to be incapable of doing, then punishes him, is a fool.”


“People developed the science of astronomy by gazing at the sky, and no prophet was necessary to show them how to gaze… We can know the world on our own.”

Unlike the hated sarcastic freethinker al-Rawandi, Al-Razi (“the first true Faylasuf”)  was beloved for being devoted to his community’s well-being. (Could be a lesson in that for certain NewAtheists.) But he pulled no punches. He “thought the variety of religions was a good proof that none of them had it right,” and that revealed religions “led to bloodshed.” The solution? Philosophy.

Avicenna, reputdely the greatest “Faylasuf,” seems to have been confused about the distinct identities of Plato and Aristotle. Or maybe he just wanted to humanize the impersonal Aristotelian Unmoved Mover and conjoin to it a less sterile, more alluring conception of an afterlife than could be squeezed out of “The Philosopher” and his metaphysically austere world of principles and causes.

Avicenna‘s concupiscible faculties (Critchleyare impressive. “I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length.” Reading Aristotle inventively and neoplatonically, he “found a way to speak of an afterlife.” Where there’s a will. But to his credit he considered philosophy a calling, and the search for truth a universal moral responsibility.

Al-Ma’arri, the “eastern Lucretius” (about whom a terrific new book called The Swerve has just come out, btw), said: Lies are believed amongst every race; and was any race ever the sole possessor of truth? He makes the obvious but still damning observation that people tend to believe what they’re brought up to believe, not what they or anyone in recent or extended memory has ever bothered to really think about or confirm. They show their raisin’ (as an in-law once said, much to this transplanted midwesterner’s linguistic consternation), not their thinkin’ or their reasonin’. This all reminds me of the point Richard Dawkins likes to make about children. Nobody is born a Catholic or Baptist or Muslim or Jewish or atheist child. We’re all born free, and free to think.

Al-Ghazzal may have taken doubt too far, with his mystic turn, but he was right to note that psychological certainty is no sure sign of truth or reality. Then, he went and courted mysticism anyway. “The difference between reading about God and having an ecstatic experience of him,” like the difference between reading about alcohol and being drunk, is huge. Trouble is, sometimes we’re too close to our own firsthand experiences (whether of drink or belief or whatever) to report them rightly without corroboration by our collaborators. “Go be a mystic and prove the truth to yourself” won’t really prove anything, if (as Socrates and his heirs supposed) truth is after all a co-phenomenon.

Averroists defended the autonomy of philosophy and its separation from questions of theology and religious faith. We still wage that battle. Can’t we all just co-exist? No, our magisteria really do overlap, Professor Gould notwithstanding.

Averroes, “The Commentator,” got clearer on the Plato-Aristotle distinction and upheld the interpretive value of allegory (but not for “the masses”), while attempting to reconcile philosophy and Islam.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We have a new posting policy on the class blog, read all about it : everybody needs to post two questions pertaining to your group’s topic (factual & discussion) prior to class, in a comment replying to your group leader’s post. But if your leader inexplicably neglects to post in a timely fashion, everybody go ahead and post your questions directly.

Also: if you’ve not declared your midterm report intentions yet, the time to hesitate is through…

loafing on the grass

October 18, 2011

Even the least religious of men must have felt with Walt Whitman, when loafing on the grass on some transparent summer morning… the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth. William James

Bells Bend (Nashville), October 17 2011

Fall Break

October 17, 2011

Monteagle, TN

“I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays.”

“Moments come when the world seems so divinely orderly, and the acceptance of it so rapturously complete, that intellectual questions vanish.” William James

Go Cards!


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