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Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, and the Hitch

April 23, 2014

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein (and Barry Smith on Wittgenstein),ArendtPopper & Kuhn in LH, and the infamous Christopher (“God is not great“) Hitchens, among others in AtP.

We’re also reading Hitchens in A&P, his incredibly inspiring Mortality. No atheists in foxholes or cancer wards? Hitch was here.

But before I forget: the Earth Day debate with Rabbi Rami was terrific, at least from my spot in the circle. We need to do thatmore often, get together with our students and exchange ideas. Too many of the gatherings on the 3d floor of our building, lately, are about things like copy machines and future schedules. For what it’s worth.

Wittgenstein is said to have favored American westerns, but didn’t admit to enjoying them. “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class. (In fairness, his family historywas less than cheering.)

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, to his credit, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him. I think he was moving in the right direction, away from a futile preoccupation with how language might “capture reality” and toward a more constructive inquiry into “the relationship between language and us.”

We must still always remind ourselves, when discussing this most rare and eccentric of modern philosophers: beware the temptation to “explain” Wittgenstein: Barry Smith says he diagnosed “our problem in philosophy as the search for explanations where none can be given.” That’s what it means to be stuck in a fly-bottle, and what he meant by aiming to show us how to get unstuck.


Wittgenstein the former engineer came to view philosophy not as an abstract quasi-mathematical, scholarly-dispassionate discipline, but as a form of therapy. It’s supposed to be helpful, even if his way of tapping its “meaning-as-use” was often mysteriously cryptic.

But for a would-be therapist, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 the future physicist Dyson (himself no stranger to eccentricity, check out his performance in a symposium of philosophers called “Glorious Accident“) tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as then rumored, and now widely accepted) his views had altererd or evolved in the decades since Tractatus came out in 1922. Wittgenstein churlishly asked what publication the young man worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein wheeled and walked away.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.


A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion,” it says he said on the wall in Vandy’s Buttrick Hall. It doesn’t say where or when (1929) he said it. It’s in the posthumous collection Culture and Valueright below “Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed.” Tell me about it, Ludwig.  But, a “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness [or Tim Williamson, or Bill Gavin]. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Lay down your conceptual shotgun, pick up your POV gun. (That’s from Douglas Adams, but curiously it’s also referenced, sort of, by Wittgenstein’s biographerRay Monk when he says Wittgenstein didn’t give arguments so much as acknowledge alternative points of view.)

Wittgenstein agreed with James about the frequent hollowness and irrelevancy of words and explanations: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable. “Explaining,” says novelist Richard Ford, “is where we all get into trouble.”

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude, Ludwig. Impoliteness and incivility are trouble, too.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.


Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

Hannah Arendt was not one to get stuck, to bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She did seem to get stuck defending the object of her old student infatuation, Martin Heidegger. But mostly she was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…” 
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth


She also said, more pithily:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.  
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it… 
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.


Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality] If we want to avoid repeating the evils of history we must stop raising unthinking bureaucrats and formalists “brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders” without reflection. There’s nothing more dangerous than an unthinking man or woman.

Verify, insisted the logical positivists (especially Freddie Ayer). FalsifyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas. Best Popper quote:
True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.


“Paradigm shift” is one of those catch-phrases everybody thinks they have a handle on, but almost nobody knows in its original incarnation. That would be Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 Structure of Scientific RevolutionsHis view was that big new theories bring change, but not necessarily “progress”… depending, as always, on how we define our terms.
I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.

Well, “ontological development” or not, greater insight into how our theories actually reorganize intellectual life is still a kind of progress. Whether Kuhn’s own theories shed such light is still being debated, but there’s little doubt as to his fundamental claim: shift happens.

Max Lerner published America as a Civilization in 1957, setting the stage for AtP. He “started as an impressive scholar,” at Harvard and elsewhere, before taking up journalism. His big book of America, oddly described as the intellectual history John Dewey would have written had he been Max Lerner, spotlighted its “special capacity for innovation and adaptation.” Some think that was always an overblown form of jingoistic exceptionalism, others think it’s the mojo that got Apollo to the moon and that we need badly to recover.  

I.F. (“Izzy”) Stone, “radical journalist turned classicist,” turned late attention to Socrates/Plato (it’s a deficiency of his Trial of Socrates that he made no attempt to separate their views) and concluded that the great gadfly – whose pestiferous social role, ironically, was not unlike Stone’s own – was a conceited snob who “didn’t give a damn about democracy.” That seems excessive.

British-born Christopher Hitchens chose to become an American, and no American ever exercised his freedom of expression to greater effect. He wasn’t afraid to change his mind in public, but through all his changes remained faithful to his hero Orwell’s hatred of dictatorship and servility. 

He was verbally pugnacious, loquacious, frequently outrageous, and is much missed even by many of his religious and political opponents. Francis Collins, head of the NIH, pioneering geneticist, and unabashed convert to Christianity, became his friend and medical consultant. Unlike fellow “horseman” Dan Dennett, facing his own health crisis, Hitch did not bat away the solicitous prayers offered (sincerely or sardonically) by the faithful on his behalf. (“Did you also sacrifice a goat?”) But he never retracted his position on religion – that it’s poisonous, harmful, “irreducibly servile and masochistic” and infantile. 

“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think—though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one—that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”   God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything… 92Y… wfb

As noted, we’re reading his incredible deathbed testament, Mortality, in A&P. It’s a pretty eloquent rebuttal of the charge that atheists somehow duck or fail the question of meaning. Not even his strongest critics would deny that Hitch’s life was full of it. Meaning, that is.

“A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.”

Finally balded by chemo but still vital and defiant and inspiring, he wrote and debated (here with creationist Dembski) right to the end of a rich life cut short by cancer. His “closing remarks” deserve to last. The view from this atheist’s “foxhole” was anything but servile.


“Take the risk of thinking for yourself…” 

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Earth Week Debate

April 22, 2014

In Bioethics and A&P we commence final report presentations today, while continuing to read (Blackford on Rawls on enhancement, Powers’ Generosity, Hitchens’ Mortality).

After class, in celebration of Earth Week, I get to debate my friend the Rabbi (who happens also to be a regular on the interfaith panel circuit, and an adept rhetorician) on God. Oh boy.

I’ve been assigned the “negative” proposition. I can do that, just barely, if allowed (like my esteemed opponent) to stipulate a non-standard definition. He’ll redefine “God,” to affirm the resolution. I’ll redefine (or maybe just evade) “possible” to deny it, and to affirm what in my opinion is incontestable: our species’ urgent need to find common ground in addressing the environmental challenges of our time.

I’ll borrow E.O. Wilson’s tone and temper in The Creation.

I am a secular humanist. I think existence is what we make of it as individuals. There is no guarantee of life after death, and  heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves, on this planet. There is no other home… For you, the glory of an unseen divinity; for me, the glory of the universe revealed at last. For you, the belief in God made flesh to save mankind; for me, the belief in Promethean fire seized to set men free. You have found your final truth; I am still searching. I may be wrong, you may be wrong. We may both be partly right. Does this difference in worldview separate us in all things? It does not. You and I and every other human being strive for the imperatives of security, freedom of choice, personal dignity, and a cause to believe in that is larger than ourselves. 

Let us see, then, if we can, and you are willing, to meet on the near side of metaphysics in order to deal with the real world we share…

 My brief, though straying from the letter of our forensic charge, is simple: there’s no indication that extra-human help is on its way. In fact, every indication suggests we’re on our own, without practical recourse to any “final truth.” We’ve got to find it within ourselves to conform our personal behaviors and public policies to ameliorative, sustainable alternatives.

If God-talk (including the sort of God-talk Spinoza and Einstein and maybe Rabbi Rami have sponsored) brings more of us on board with that message, then it’s “possible” – which by high redefinition I interpret to mean constructive and pragmatically, experimentally, provisionally vindicated.

But, and it’s a big but: in my experience, those who embrace that sort of God and talk that sort of talk tend, in the words of “Miss Generosity,” to “decide no more than God.” That is, they walk away from a firm commitment to finding human solutions to overwhelming anthropogenic challenges. They render God impossible, in the stipulated sense.

That’s what I think I’m going to say. But I don’t get to speak first, so I may have to improvise. In the larger sense, we all have to improvise a world our kind can continue to live in.

Happy Earth Week!

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From Sartre to Hefner

April 21, 2014

It’s French existentialism and American hedonism today in CoPhi: Sartre (& Mary Warnock on Sartre), de Beauvoir, Camus,  Fussell, and Hefner. Yup, that Hefner: the Playboy Philosopher


And what a perfect juxtaposition of opposites, class critic Fussell and classy Lady Warnock. (Give her a listen, she sounds straight from Central Casting.)

Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals. “Paris needed a philosophy that would give to individuals a belief in themselves and their own powers,” says Lady W., and that’s what JPS and his cohort tried to give them. That’s important to remember, when considering the extremity of some of their statements. They were up against the wall, with Nazis in the parlor. And they’re on tap today in CoPhi. 


Warnock seems to find some of Sartre’s terms and concepts puzzling: existence precedes essence, “whatever that means!” But I always thought this was one of Sartre’s clearer statements: “if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it.” And we are it.

What did Sartre mean by “freedom”? Inquiring minds want to know how any of us can be really free, when we still have payments to make on the fridge. Well, that’s the crux of Sartre’s “Roads to Freedom.” Isn’t it, Mrs. P? -”We’ll ask him.”



“What was Jean-Paul like?”
-”He didn’t join in the fun much. Just sat there thinking…”

[Breaking: guess who's getting back together?!]

Some more extreme Gallic/Existential statements:

  • “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!”
  • “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
  • “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
  • “Words are loaded pistols.”
  • “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
  • “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”
  • “There is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.”
  • “An individual chooses and makes himself.”
  • “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
  • “It is disgusting — Why must we have bodies?”
  • “I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
  • “Life is a useless passion.”
  • “There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”
And so it goes. Picture him dropping his verbal cluster-bombs in a dingy Parisian cafe, ringed by his own unfiltered smoke and an adoring cultish audience, all wondering if he and his confreres would live to fight another day. “Useless passion”? Generations of Sartre’s politically (if not metaphysically) free French successors might disagree. But removed from that context, I find these weaponish words hard to love. At least the guy who said hell is other people liked cats.
  • “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • “She was ready to deny the existence of space and time rather than admit that love might not be eternal.”
  • “A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
  • “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”
  • “I am incapable of conceiving infinity and yet I do not accept finity.”
  • “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
  • “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
  • “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
  • “Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
  • “Why one man rather than another? It was odd. You find yourself involved with a fellow for life just because he was the one that you met when you were nineteen.”
  • “Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself.”
Some stories ring truer than others though, no? De Beauvoir rings truer than Sartre, most of the time, for me. And Albert Camus with his Sisyphean view of life offers the starkest challenge when he says the ultimate question in philosophy is that of suicide. “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” More coffee! It makes me happy, and it’s the braver choice. But no room for cream, please.
Camus also said
  • “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
  • “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
  • “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
  • “Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
  • “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Albert Camus gave us the Existential version of Sisyphus, and the “fundamental question of philosophy”:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
OK, got it. My answer is yes, of course life is worth living. Living’s not always easy, but there’s usually something to show for your hard work. It can be a source of happiness. (And what does Sisyphus do after hours?)



The next question, having consented to live, is how. Politics is supposed to help with that. But in this perpetual season of political discontent, when the polls say all politicians and parties are uniformly scorned by the populace, there have been moments when many of us have wondered if it’s all worth it. Camus felt the same.
“Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people’s anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble – yes, gamble – with a whole part of their life and their so called ‘vital interests.”

Politics was supposed to be all about freeing the people to pursue happiness, Mr. Jefferson said. If it’s hard to imagine Sisyphus happy, it may be harder to expect that from our politics these days. But we must keep on pushing.

Sisyphus, for such a grim figure, has been a ripe source of amusement for a lot of us.


Paul Fussell (rhymes with Russell) wrote Class: A Guide Through the American Status System to make fun of both the concept of social “class” and the hypocrisy or obtuseness of those who deny that there’s any such thing in the American democracy. Tongue lodged semi-firmly in cheek, he named nine classes-including one based on “the place you went to school”. 



The only escape from class in America, Fussell allowed, is via “category X.” It includes people like Joyce Carol Oates, Albert Einstein,  and Huck Finn, secure and dignified and unconcerned with class. It was a big joke, but it touched a big nerve. Clearly an area of sharp sensitivity, in our less than entirely secure and dignified USA.

And another such area is suggested by his swipe at “pathetic administrators of sad-sack Middle Western teachers’ colleges which have been transformed by name only into universities” and “third-rate colleges and ‘universities” whose curiosity begins and ends with “money, sports, ‘entertainment,’ or hobbies.” We’re not midwestern, in Murfreesboro, but we did begin as a teachers’ college 100+ years ago. Some of our True Blue ears should be ringing.

The Playboy Philosopher. Seriously? Sure. Not everyone reads his rag just for the pictures. “Life is too short to be living somebody else’s dream,” says the Bunny Emperor. And,

My religion and the spiritual side of my life come from a sense of connection to the humankind and nature on this planet and in the universe. I am in overwhelming awe of it all: It is so fantastic, so complex, so beyond comprehension. What does it all mean — if it has any meaning at all? But how can it all exist if it doesn’t have some kind of meaning? I think anyone who suggests that they have the answer is motivated by the need to invent answers, because we have no such answers.

So… let’s party? He’d fit right in at the Greek Bacchanal or Medieval Carnival. 


Carlin Romano seems to side with Hef’s sympathetic biographer: “Hef had, in regard to sex, consumerism, pop culture, and, yes, women’s rights, ‘profoundly altered American life and values.” Gloria Steinem was not a fun, but she was a bunny

And at 86, he married a 26-year old. I really don’t know what else to say, except: I wish I’d bought shares in Viagra.

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Generosity and The Search

April 17, 2014

We consider some purported “indirect and intangible harms” of human enhancement today in Bioethics, in Russell Blackford’s next Humanity Enhanced chapter; and we begin Richard Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement. It’s a novel about a world just slightly off-kilter from ours, and in a way it’s also about indirect, intangible, unintended harms we might self-inflict if we continue down the road of genomic self-improvement. So, it’s a cautionary tale whose cryptic epigraph may need translating (and not just from Albert Camus’ French): 

La vrai generosite envers l’avenir consiste a tout donner au present.

In A&P we wrap up Carl Sagan’s Gifford Lectures in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, with “The Search.” What are we searching for? Life elsewhere, meaning and happiness here. An answer to what William James called our most “vital question,” the future of life. You could say we’re searching for an upgrade, dreaming of an enhanced future, taking steps in the present to get there. What would Camus say?

Part One of Generosity begins with a quote from Kay Redfield Jamison that speaks directly to the spirit of “search” and exploration:

Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go – across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination – and if we ourselves are not so exuberant we will, caught up by the contagious joy of those who are, be inclined collectively to go yonder.

 The crucial bioethical choices we’ll be making in the near future promise great or terrible consequences for what the Aussie humanist in Generosity (uncannily resembling our man Blackford) calls the future of “human nature.” This story has just begun. Powers wants us to understand that we, collectively, will write the sequel. It’s not out yet. The future’s coming fast but it’s not yet fully determined. (That, we noted last class, is part of what Bill McKibben was trying to communicate as well, in Enough.)


“But this is when the story is at its most desperate: when techne and sophia are still kin, when the distant climax is still ambiguous, the outcome a dead heat between salvation and ruin.”

Blackford’s prosaic tone is a lot less urgent, but he’s still urging: “the burden of proof [is] on those who favor suppression of a practice,” and “little warning needs to be given against the creation of beings who would suffer and perhaps be driven to desperation, like the monster depicted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

Well, there are no Frankenstein monsters in Generosity, but Powers is giving warning: slow down, don’t rush to embrace enhancements whose consequences may engender unanticipated despair. Try telling Thassadit Amzwar that “little warning needs to be given.”

We’re reading  Generosity because it raises some of the most profoundly meaningful life issues we face, questions about the possibility of meaningful experience in the human future as we move forward into an increasingly engineered, digitized, hive-minded, televised, entertained (to death?) world of applied biotechnology. These are questions about our own authorship and appropriation of the meanings of our lives, questions about fact and fiction and science fiction becoming fact.

May I suggest that anyone who’s challenged by the density or initial indirection of this book consider giving a tandem listen to the excellent audio version available at audible.com.



Meanwhile, back in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan concludes with an emboldening motivational speech.

If we know only one kind of life, we are extremely limited in our understanding even of that kind of life… [The Search] goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.

And so may we go, boldly. 

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Russell & Ayer, Lakoff & Johnson

April 16, 2014

…and more.  Too many unheralded nonacademics on parade, in AtP, to name in the subject line.  Carlin Romano’s implicit invitation, in case you’ve forgotten: join the parade. 

Oxbridge superstars Bertrand Russell (Cambridge) and A.J. Ayer (Oxford) are the classic 20th century British philosophers at the head of the procession in CoPhi today (Russell was actually born in the 1870s and made it to nearly the century mark). We’ll squeeze in another Cambridge don, Frank Ramsey, if time allows.

That’s a small philosophy pun, PB’s Ramsey expert Hugh Mellor is also an expert on time. And it’s in marginally bad taste too, given that poor Ramsey’s un-Russellian time was tragically short: he lived only to age 26. But as Mellor says, he accomplished far more than most philosophers manage in that fraction of a lifetime, including the “redundancy” theory of truth that (ironically, paradoxically!) implies the gratuity of theories of truth without disavowing truth’s centrality to philosophy. 

Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”)…. Russell @dawn… Russell Ayer… Logicomix]

Then, another passel of Americans from AtP, including a linguist-philosopher duo on the power of metaphor, a transplanted Anglo-Manhattanite neurologist, and a Unitarian guru. We Yanks win, don’t we? -if only by the numbers.  

So much has been said about Russell, and by him. The truth question was pretty cut-and-dried, he thought, like religion and the pragmatic approach in general.

There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. If it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you shouldn’t… it’s dishonesty and intellectual treachery to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true. 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts. 

And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence. 

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. 

Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?  [Why I Am Not a Christian... More Russell]


Clearly, “for Russell there was no chance of God stepping in to save humanity.” The concept of an Afterlife is, to coin a phrase, “nonsense.” We must save ourselves. (As Carl Sagan would later say, there’s no sign of help coming from anywhere “out there” to rescue us.)

Russell said family friend and “godfather” J.S. Mill provided a satisfactory answer to his own early childhood query, posed by so many of us: “What caused God?” If anything in the universe can exist without a cause, why can’t the universe itself?

Having settled the question of God to his own satisfaction, he turned full attention to the philosophy of logic and mathematics, to paradox, to set theory, and other conceptual conundra. If something is false when it’s true (“This sentence is false” etc.), then it’s back to the drawing board for the logicians. It’s not even a close shave. (Yes, that’s another marginal philosophy pun- this time alluding to Russell’s paradox of the barber who shaves only those who shave themselves.) As for the extent of my own interest in set theory and its ilk, I think young Ramsey said it best: “Suppose a contradiction were to be found in the axioms of set theory. Do you seriously believe that a bridge would fall down?” No I do not.

“How can we talk meaningfully about non-existent things?” That’s never really hung me up, nor anyone who appreciates good literature. Either young Russell was not a big reader of fiction, or maybe he thought he had to justify his reading. I’m glad he cared about “the present king of France,” but I frankly could care less.

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, with his Verification Principle, loved to detect and discredit nonsense. Good for him, we’re choking on it. But he went too far. “Metaphysics” (not to mention “ethics” and “religion”) may have been a dirty word, for him, but there’s far more sense on earth (let alone in heaven, if a heaven there be) than was dreamt of in his Logical Positivism

Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own, in his old age. Interesting, in light of his youthful philosophy as exposited in Language, Truth, and Logic, “in every sense” (he admitted while still a relatively young man) “a young man’s book, “according to which unverifiable statements are meaningless nonsense. 


Old Ayer claimed his premature dalliance with death in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]




…a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false. 

“Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!! 

No moral system can rest solely on authority. [Or as Russell said: nothing externally imposed can be of any value.]

There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this … all of life.


And with that last insight the former Wykeham Professor of Logic may at last have hit on a profound truth far beyond formal language and pedantic logic. Ayer’s greatest moment, for my money:

One of the last of the many legendary contests won by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer was his encounter with Mike Tyson in 1987… Ayer — small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old — was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ”Do you know who [the bleep] I am?” Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ”I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” ”And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,” Ayer answered politely. ”We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” nyt 

If George Lakoff and Mark Johnson had been at that party there might have been real fisticuffs. Probably not. But the metaphors would have been flying, for sure. 
For linguist Lakoff and Oregon philosopher Johnson, we live and reason by metaphors. “Philosophy in the flesh” depends on speaking and thinking in ways that mirror our condition as embodied reasoners. The logical categories we project onto our experience directly reflect the most basic facts about our ways of being. We have fronts and backs, so do our cars and tvs. No coincidence. They may overstate the Cartesian  element in traditional philosophizing a bit, but as William James said: “the earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.” Like a prizefighter on the comeback trail, like an underdog who beats the odds, like, well, like a good metaphor.
Mathematician Robert Kaplan makes a whole lot of nothing, and inverts philosophy’s great cosmolo- ontological question Why is there something rather than nothing? It gets confusing, but it’s still pretty amusing. Just like the encyclopedia entry on “nothingness” that goes on and on and on… And then there’s Sartre’s le neant. “Nothingness” made him sick. 
Lately this matter has been taken up by physicist Lawrence Krauss in A Universe From Nothing,and journalist Jim Holt in Why Does the World Exist? Thanks for nothing, y’all. (The universe exists to give philosophers something real to think about. Right?)
But seriously, there’s an important question lurking beneath all this superficial wordplay. Or else there’s important nonsense. If the vacuum of space is not nothing, in even its thinnest manifestations, can we not think the vacuum away and wonder what, if anything, that would leave behind?
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, deals with more tangible mysteries. Why do some people mistake wives for hats? Must have something to do with personhood. Sacks has an “abiding preference for the organic, the human, the humane.” Robin Williams may have been a good casting call, then, since humanity is nothing if not crazy and sometimes manic. 
Like Schopenhauer, he’s a musicophiliac and a fount of epigrammatic wisdom. Unlike Schopenhauer, he’s a nice man. He’d never push an old lady down the stairs, or inform a patient that the world is without point or purpose.

Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.

My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.

If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.

Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes. [Young Ayer, later visions notwithstanding, couldn't see this.]

In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life. 

[Speak, Memory... "Seeing God" (How the brain creates out-of-body experiences and religious epiphanies: Atlantic)... How Hallucinations Happen (npr)... TED '09... Desktop diary (scifri)... ]
Sacks has also inspired one of my favorite novelists, Richard Powers, whose protagonist in The Echo Makers is based on him. But he’s no guru.
Anthony Storr (Feet of Clay, Solitude…) said gurus claim to be bringers of light, but more often suffer delusions of grandeur or divinity and propound “absurd theories about the universe.” That definition fails to exclude too many accredited academics, but I guess it’s clear that Jim Jones and David Koresh were at the far fringe end of the spectrum. Do we really want to include Jesus and Gandhi and Freud and Jung, with the likes of Gurdjieff (blaming the moon for evil?!) and the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (check your mind at the door)? Seems like much too broad a brush.
Robert Fulghum is no Davidian whacko, though he was born in Waco. He’s a Unitarian Universalist in Seattle, and he was full of occasionally witty (but usually pretty banal) wisdom. Kindergarten does teach important life-lessons, after all. “Play fair, don’t hit, share, say you’re sorry…”
We don’t need gurus, but Van Morrison was wrong about method- we need a better method in philosophy than the search for inarticulate mystical authority- and about teachers. We especially need good kindergarten teachers. Nothing absurd about that.

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McKibbben’s end, Sagan’s rationality

April 15, 2014

In Bioethics today we consider “the natural order,” and the conservative idea that we must perpetually refrain from altering or upsetting it.

In A&P, we get Carl Sagan’s personal and cosmic perspective on God and religious experience, and “Acts” in the Good Book. (442-493)


Bill McKibben has been a hero of mine ever since he published The End of Nature and effectively re-launched the modern environmental movement a quarter of a century ago. I’m not sure he’s always right, but I know he’s always passionately clear-headed and honest about the high ecological stakes we and our fossil fuel Overlords have been gambling with. In Blackford’s fifth chapter, McKibben’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age is curtly critiqued as needlessly alarmist. His worries over the prospect that our genetic interventions may rob future humans of meaning are dismissed lightly. Blackford spends inordinate attention on “immortals” and not enough on the potential flattening of ordinary life for us mere mortals, in the brave new transhuman world.


True, “we are ill equipped to predict what activities and experiences will be satisfying , joyful, or meaningful for future people who might grow up and interact in environments quite different from our own.” But that hardly lets us off the hook, when we try to confront the impact of our choices on the predictably-shrunken capacity for choosing of our near (not futuristic and remote) descendants. “These are the most anti-choice technologies anyone’s ever thought of,” writes McKibben.


I do want to make effective alliance with the risk-takers and enhancers as against the Luddites and anti-technologists, truly, but I see no evidence that any of them (including Blackford) has grasped or grappled with the profundity of concern expressed in Enough. It’s not an idle grumble about the unpredictability of life in the 24th century, it’s about the lives our very children and grandchildren will be free (or not) to live.


Carl Sagan, on the other hand, was entirely keyed in to the challenges that will confront our human future. Let’s hope he was prophetic: “there is a pervasive human wish to give a rational explanation for the existence of a God or gods.”


Or, a rational explanation for their absence.


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Peirce, James, Nietzsche, Freud, squirrels…

April 14, 2014

and a cast of thousands. 

Not really. But the docket is suddenly very crowded, must mean we’re getting near the end. 


What a fine Lyceum lecture Friday from our Woodbury neighbor David Wood, on Disconcerting Experience, Kierkegaard’s earthquake, Nietzsche’s eternal return, and much more.

Then on Saturday, a fine night out at the old ballpark in its terminal season. Sunday was hammock heaven, followed by another mind-enlarging and scale-shrinking Cosmos. All this and the return of Mad Men, too!

I’m being selectively inattentive in my appreciations, of course. There was also the usual round of outrages and atrocities and hate-based violence, this weekend. But if you can’t take a moral holiday in April it will be (like every other) the cruelest month, by default. So, like William James I just take my moral holidays. No regrets.

It’s James and his bumptious friend 
 Peirce (and Vandy’s Robert  Robert Talisse on the pragmatists and truth),  Nietzsche (and Aaron Ridley on Nietzsche on art & truth), and Sigmund Freud, and more philosophers/historians/linguists etc. from Carlin Romano. 


Through the years I’ve written repeatedly and delightedly on PeirceJames, and Nietzsche @dawn, especially WJ.

I’m not especially pleased with Nigel Warburton’s take on James, true enough to the letter but not at all to the spirit of his pragmatic conception of truth. More on that later. At least he gets the squirrel right.

               
               

Here’s what James actually said, about the squirrel and about pragmatism’s conception of truth:
…Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”
Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ’round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute.
I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as THE PRAGMATIC METHOD. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right… Pragmatism, Lecture II

==

Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement,’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality.’ Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term ‘agreement,’ and what by the term ‘reality,’ when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with…

Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as…

…truth is ONE SPECIES OF GOOD, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it. THE TRUE IS THE NAME OF WHATEVER PROVES ITSELF TO BE GOOD IN THE WAY OF BELIEF, AND GOOD, TOO, FOR DEFINITE, ASSIGNABLE REASONS… 

Certain ideas are not only agreeable to think about, or agreeable as supporting other ideas that we are fond of, but they are also helpful in life’s practical struggles. If there be any life that it is really better we should lead, and if there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really BETTER FOR US to believe in that idea, UNLESS, INDEED, BELIEF IN IT INCIDENTALLY CLASHED WITH OTHER GREATER VITAL BENEFITS.

‘What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we OUGHT to believe’: and in THAT definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is BETTER FOR US to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart?

Pragmatism says no… Pragmatism, Lec. VI

This is a contentious and contestable view, admittedly, but it is not the caricatured reduction to whatever is “expedient” in a situation James’s critics (like Bertrand Russell) made it out to be. It’s more like Richard Rorty’s invitation to an open and ongoing conversation between all comers with something to contribute. It is decidedly not a “Santa Claus” philosophy of truth.

James may have been wrong about truth, but (to paraphrase A.C. Grayling’s comment on Descartes) if he was, he was interestingly, constructively, engagingly, entertainingly, provocatively wrong.

Besides, he’s the best writer in the James family (sorry, Henry) and possibly the best writer in the entire stable of American philosophers. I call him my favorite because he’s the one I’d most like to invite to the Boulevard for a beer. Unfortunately he didn’t drink. (Too bad they don’t serve nitrous oxide.) Also, unfortunately, he died in 1910. Read his letters and correspondence, they humanize his philosophy and place his “radical” views in the context of their genesis: the context of experience, and of life.

They also counter my friend Talisse’s hasty semi-assent to Nigel’s outrageous misreading of the pragmatists as missing “a sense of awe and wonder.” James had it in spades, and so did Dewey and Peirce in their own ways. Likewise Rorty, who did not like being called a “relativist” and who would not agree that “Nazism and western liberal democracy are the same.” Not at all.

But, I do think Talisse does a good job of summarizing James’s rejection of “truth-as-correspondence” as an unhelpful formula, once you move past trivial matters like catching the bus. He’s also correct in pointing out James’s interest in religion as rooted in the lives and experience of individuals, not particularly in God, heaven, the afterlife and so on. He psychologizes and naturalizes religion. It’s mostly about life on earth, for Jamesians, not (again) about Santa.

Speaking of dead philosophers…


Our text rightly (if inconsistently) points out the non-literal intent of Nietzsche’s infamous “God is dead” proclamation. More to come on that too. Meanwhile, the theists among us will enjoy imagining that their God has the last word.

Aaron Ridley points out that Nietzsche split from Schopenhauer (as he eventually split from everyone) over the question of where we should go after god’s “funeral.” Ultimately Nietzsche thought we should find a way to go back to our lives, and to affirm them. Schopenhauer, he decided, was a nihilist content to wallow in ultimate meaninglessness (or adopt that pose)… except while walking his poodles or visiting the art gallery or attending a concert. But isn’t that the very stuff of life? It’s the stuff Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” challenges us to affirm.
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? -”The Greatest Weight” (in The Gay Science [When Nietzsche Wept]

Ridley doesn’t talk about that, but he’s helpful with the Apollonian-Dionysian distinction.

In the final analysis, Nietzsche thought what didn’t kill us, what merely made us suffer, made us stronger. That’s his blustering pose. It’s kind of pathetic. I’d have to agree with James, who pitied “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies” and likened Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to a pair of rabid rats in a cage (or think of alienated Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine, in his room)… largely a cage of their own design.

But what would Freud say?



Freud is darker than Nietzsche… Sheer joy and sheer affirmation of life is pretty hard to find, if you’re being absolutely honest about what reality is.
As long as your ideas of what’s possible are limited by what’s actual, no other idea has a chance. 
If life is a gift, then the more you partake in it, the more you show thanks. Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists


Some wonder what makes Freud a philosopher. In the spirit of Carlin Romano I wouldn’t worry about that. He philosophized (albeit reluctantly, says one biographer) about civilization, psychic health, happiness, religion, the material mind, conscience, consciousness, and the scope of philosophy itself.

Philosophy is not opposed to science, it behaves itself as if it were a science, and to a certain extent it makes use of the same methods; but it parts company with science, in that it clings to the illusion that it can produce a complete and coherent picture of the universe. Its methodological error lies in the fact that it over-estimates the epistemological value of our logical operations…

Like Kierkegaard, Freud endlessly mucked around in the morass of anxiety and depression and, like those other great explorers of the mind, was often accused of being of too depressing. Yet, when pressed to provide some positive vision of health, Freud more than once implied that what is fundamental to happiness is the ability to love and work; that is, to be able to invest in something other than yourself. G. Marino, “Freud asPhilosopher

“Frude had it all figured out.” Barney Fife  [Freud...Freud and daydreaming... lucid dreams...BBC]

Also in the spirit of Carlin Romano, some philosophers who aren’t dead yet…

Historian Francis Fukuyama jumped the gun when he declared, in nearly-Hegelian tones, The End of History in 1989, as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell. Those were heady days, prompting many to pronounce the end-times: Bill McKibben’s End of  Nature, Daniel Bell’sEnd of Ideology, George Leonard’s End of Sex (which really would be the end, as the last Shaker might confirm). Reports of all these ends again invite Twainian drollery: they’re all greatly exaggerated. And as The Hitch said, Fukuyama’s thesis in particular was touted by neocons in an unseemly and unmerited spirit of self-congratulation. History continues.

But to his great credit, Fukuyama “brought light to an area (anywhere within a thousand miles of Hegel) thought by professional philosophers to produce Absolute Obscurity.”

Harvard political scientist Dennis Thompson “argued for as much public discussion as possible,” but also “recognized that the polis occasionally resembles a circus.” 

Choice, unsurprising example: the Tennessee senate’s silliness surrounding the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. They actually drafted ethics legislation including a provision that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me…” What would late-night television comics do, without our benighted legislators to kick around? Easy for them, they don’t get to live here.

Thompson also said, in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, that the privacy of public officials “should receive less respect.” But their public malfeasance still gets the lion’s share of my disrespect.

George Fletcher revived Josiah Royce’s interest in the philosophy of loyalty. “America: love it or leave it” is a bad form of loyalty, as was the German people’s to Hitler and the motherland. But what about Camus’s’ mother-love? What about partisan political party loyalty in general? Loyalty to tradition, to church and country? What about loyalty to life itself? What about Carl Sagan’s great statement at the end of Cosmos“Our loyalties are to the species and the planet… to the cosmos from which we spring?”

Many have questioned Noam Chomsky‘s loyalties. Nobody has questioned his impact, in linguistics or in radical politics. Carlin Romano questions his intellectual integrity and “goodwill,” his penchant for character assassination and “ad hominem attacks on those who disagreed with him.” Chomsky thinks himself “in possession of the Truth.” He might benefit from a little more pluralism, and a reading of Pragmatism.

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Autonomy & SETI

April 10, 2014

Autonomy is today’s Bio-topic, and E.T. is A&P’s.

Do enhancement technologies, particularly human reproductive cloning and genetic engineering, threaten the autonomy of children (and the adults they’ll become) and/or liberal-democratic values?

What would the credible discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence in the universe do for or to our sense of species identity?

Is SETI a waste of time, or is the universe a cosmic waste of space? They “believe we are conducting the most profound search in human history — to know our beginnings and our place among the stars.” They even have a Carl Sagan Center, devoted to such questions.

How many planets exists that might support life? Indeed, what is required for life to exist? How does life start? How does it evolve, and what fabulous creatures can evolution produce? How often do intelligent creatures appear in the giant tapestry of life? How can we estimate the number of technological civilizations that might exist among the stars? 

The Drake Equation is an attempt to calculate an educated guess about that last one. HINT: it’s not 42.

What would David Hume say about all this? He’d be skeptical. “The strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and marvelous” must be checked by extraordinary and marvelous evidence. There’s not a lot of that in the local (earthbound) folklore, people are frequently more inclined to believe Billy-Bob took a ride in an alien ship of his imagination than that he saw some flashy lights in the night sky and leapt to fantastic and hallucinatory conclusions. 

As Nicholas Agar says: “‘Cool,’ ‘creepy,’ or alluring ideas are more persistent than merely true ones.” 

And as Hume says: “Always I reject the greater miracle.”

But we should still keep our eyes on the sky, and continue to ride our spaceship of the imagination. It’s a big universe.

Back on earth, meanwhile, we must preserve our capacity for the extraordinary and marvelous experience of first contact. A proper galactic citizen is a free and self-directed agent, not a branded modular assembly of traits it occurred to someone else to try in combination.

If and when we find evidence that we’re not alone in the cosmos, we’ll want to care. We won’t care, if by then we’ve engineered ourselves to feel less like explorers than puppets and playthings. Though Russell Blackford thinks our concerns about the autonomy of genetically engineered children are “largely misguided,” he concedes the point that human psychology is always vulnerable to the perception or misperception of external manipulation.

And yet, some enhancements might actually “boost [our] powers of rational reflection,” might even make us smarter searchers. Great! But let’s be sure it’s our search, not our Chief Engineer’s.

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Kierkegaard, Marx, & more critics

April 9, 2014

Today in CoPhi it’s Marx, Kierkegaard (and Clare Carlisle on Abraham & Isaac in Fear and Trembling), and some more philosophically inclined lit critics: Irving Howe, Harold Bloom, and Edward Said. 

Kierkegaard (whose name means “graveyard”) said something similar to what Hegel more cryptically assigned to the owl of Minerva, when he said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He also said

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use. 

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

The most common form of despair is not being who you are. 

Once you label me you negate me.

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. 

If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!

But what about the possibility of overriding the ethical, humane, and parental demands and privileges of fatherhood in the name of a sacrificial faith? The  Abraham and Isaac story still chills, especially in an age when young women around the world continue to be sacrificed by their pious fathers, brothers, and other young men.

“What if Abraham was wrong?” Or delusional, or sick? His actions “can’t be understood, and can’t be admired, on the basis of any socially acceptable notion of morality.”

And what if some modern Abraham thinks God has commanded him to (say) shoot an 11-year old schoolgirl for being “anti-Taliban and secular,” i.e., for advocating girls’ right to education? [Malala's story... Daily Show]

Honor killings,” such atrocities are sometimes euphemistically camouflaged. There’s nothing honorable about them, and nothing a respectable philosopher can say in their defense.

It’s not just Islamist fundamentalists, btw, who support the abuse and murder of children in God’s name. Ophelia Benson cites an Arkansas congressional candidate who says “God’s law” decrees death for “rebellious children.”

But Clare Carlisle reads Kierkegaard’s pseudonymously-delivered message as less commital, and more philosophically inquisitory: “What is faith?” Is it immoral (“morally abhorrent” in Abraham’s case), irrational, and yet somehow elective and excusable?  Whatever it is, she says he’s saying, it’s not anything to be complacent about. And it’s not something you have just because you go through the motions (i.e., attend church services and criticize atheists). 

Fair enough. But if “the truth of human existence can’t be adequately grasped or expressed in terms of rational thought,” we may be in big trouble.

Marx said some things too.


History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy. 

As Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel. 

Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.  

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!


Whether Kierkegaard’s and Marx’s words have ultimately been a force for emancipation and the change we need is a question for historians, and philosophers, and historians of philosophy, and philosophers of history. It’s probably best to leave the politicians out of it. [Kierkegaard and Marx @dawn]

But I’d like to hear from a good and thoughtful critic or two. Carlin Romano knows a few more.

Irving Howe was never cowed by academic “pedants and dullards,” in his years of Dissent. (I can never hear that journal’s name without recalling Woody Allen’s line about the rumored merger ofDissent with Commentary…) “This Age of Conformity” was on the money in 1954, and it still is. And the Ph.D. “octopus” is still strangling the life out of too many scholars. We need more “charged autodidacts, bounding out of the library to change the world.” But we and they need to keep our library cards. The world seems to be forgetting how to “long-read.”

Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” may have been overstated, and many of his judgments may have been off-base. But at least he’s been trying to keep the spirit of Emerson alive in our conformist times. The world may still come round to him.

Edward Said is an intriguing figure, one of those whose personal filigrees make them bridges between worlds whether the worlds like it or not. We need more bridges and more “contrapuntal” thinking. “No one today is purely one thing.” 

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Matter more

April 8, 2014

Our Bioethics question of the day: “What’s the harm in genetic engineering?”

In A&P: Just how organic is our universe?

In both instances, the easy answer: it depends. But alarmists have possibly overstated the harm, and we may all have underappreciated life’s potential extent and ubiquity. Apparently, “complex organic molecules are everywhere.” So perhaps life in multiply engineered varieties is an experiment worth risking. The exobiological perspective suggests the experiments are already well underway, and we’re among the first humans ever to enjoy an opportunity to begin seeing results.

A non-reductive materialist – that is, one who admits that at some level it’s got to be true that “physics fixes all the facts,” but insists that non-physical levels of experience and discourse are also real – has to love the last rhetorical question in Carl Sagan’s lecture today: “if we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?”

Makes matter more, of course! Again we see a happy convergence of the varieties of experience, across the science/religion and material/ideal divides. Sagan and James express a similarly non-reductive sensibility.

“To any one who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.” Pragmatism III

Russell Blackford begins by acknowledging the unlikelihood that we’ll soon (or maybe ever) “be able to engineer an embryo to become a child who wants to follow some predetermined career or way of life.” Such a scenario discounts genetic complexity and environmental influences.

He then addresses the harm question by considering cases in which it might be conceivable that someone would object to having had their genetics tinkered with by well-meaning designers (presumably parents), even if the tinkering boosted intelligence or specific aptitudes.

Tinkering in the spirit of a Rawlsian social engineer would be justified only if it “improves the child’s prospects no matter what life plan she decides to pursue,” leaving it to her to decide. But are we rightly confident that genetic engineering might ever be so precise as to allow room for decision?

Suppose Howard Gardner is right, and there are multiple intelligences whose distribution among individuals is various. Supppose, further, that specific forms of intelligence and the aptitudes based upon them are vulnerable to disturbance by ham-handed efforts to “improve” a person’s life-prospects?

What, in other words, if the modular model is right? What if “any attempt to boost one intelligence module, such as that for musical ability, might reduce the individual’s capacity in some other area, such as skill in social interaction?”

That’d be problematic, alright. More problematic, perhaps, than the uneven distribution of talents and skills already provided by nature, the present genetic lottery system, and the vicissitudes of nurture and its absence. It’s one thing to be “born this way,” another to have been prenatally patterned. Isn’t it?

One way or another, the parade of permuted human types will continue to evolve. The pace of change is about to quicken in a big way. Sagan suggests an arresting image to capture the accelerating/exhilarating possibilities.  “The parade of ancestors moving at the ordinary pace of walking,” beginning with your father and moving back through each successive generation, “would take only a week before you got to a quadraped.”

Will it still matter, as the parade proceeds (maybe “progresses,” but that may be question-begging) that “at the molecular level we are all virtually identical?”

More pointedly, as we begin to contemplate the possibilities of genetic engineering: Do we “have any idea of the possible range of life?” Elsewhere or here?

No. Something wonderful is waiting to be discovered. Or created.

Or something else.

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