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Hobbes

October 1, 2014

“Hobbes was fond of his dram,” sang the Pythons. But he was fonder of his stick. His walking stick. (See below.)

I was amused when my old friend said he’d just spent five weeks in Britain and came away with nothing more philosophical than a visit to a castle where Hobbes had tutored. My colleague answered rightly by noting that an ancient English castle’s more likely to stimulate the philosophical imagination than is a dusty library in Tennessee. But in any event, Hobbes is a fascinating and over-maligned figure whose steps I look forward to tracking. As I wrote for students awhile back,

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, hehobbes-walking-stick lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say pre-social contract humans were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel Warburton in his Little History, why do you lock your doors? 

Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it? How much have you? How secure do you feel? Still relevant questions in our time, and Hobbes’s answers were extreme indeed. But he was no monster, he was a peace-seeker and a civilizer. Most walkers are.

But, would life in a state of nature really be as bad as Hobbes thought? Most of us find most people less than totally distrustful, hostile, aggressive, and  vicious, most of the time. On the other hand, we’re most of us hardly “noble savages” either. Civilization and its discontent-engendering institutions account for a percentage of everyday bad behavior, but surely not all of it.
The Hobbesian threat of insecurity and fear of violent death, in our time, may be great enough for most people to override their desire for personal freedom. Is safety more important than liberty? “Better red (or whatever) than dead?” Better to have government snoops monitoring your calls, emails, etc., than… than what, exactly?
Even if you agree with Hobbes that humans left to themselves would revert to base, aggressive, instinctive behavior, you may still also hesitate to agree that the only corrective for this condition is an all-powerful and authoritative central state. You may prefer not to concede the mechanistic, material model of humans as incapable of changing, of choosing to become more kind and compassionate, less fearful and selfish. You may hold out for a species capable of rewriting its default programming.
Speculations about human nature as inherently good or bad have always slighted the individuality of persons, absorbing it in abstractions about universal nature. We should seek instead to grasp the particularity of our separate natures. Our separate plural natures.
“Common sense” gets things wrong often enough and egregiously enough – the flatness of earth, the rectitude of slavery, etc.? – to give serious pause. Uncommon sense is in shorter supply, and greater demand.
Finally today: Descartes’ dreams of reality and appearance, and ours. Mine are not usually so lucid, but others say otherwise of theirs. Is it really possible to alter the “real world” by controlling your dreams? I’m skeptical.
And can someone please explain “Inception” to me?

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Machiavelli, & civil disobedience

September 29, 2014
Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli (and Hobbes, coming next) knew it, a world full of testimonial injustice. Not to mention intrigue, plot, war, and violence. The more things change…

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. The intended implication of “manly” is not so much machismo as hu-manity, with a twist. Machiavelli’s manly prince judiciously wields and conceals the guile of the fox and the brutality of the lion, all the while brandishing an image of kindhearted wisdom. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says. But Skinner and others think he’s gotten a bad name unfairly. (See videos below.)
A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of FortuneOne of our groups, I think, is doing a midterm report on Superheroes & Villains. Room for one more?

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I’m a bit puzzled by the sentimental fondness some seem to feel for “machiavellian” politicians. Haven’t we had enough of those? Wouldn’t we rather be led by Ciceronians and Senecans and Roosevelts, evincing qualities of compassion and (relative) transparency? Don’t we wish them to affirm and work for the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor’s great post-White House achievememt?

We’re talking civil disobedience too, today. Again Nigel slights the Yanks, in not mentioning Thoreau“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”  And,

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

So, here’s my Discussion Question today: Have you ever engaged in an act of deliberate law-breaking, in order to challenge what you considered an unjust law? Are there circumstances in which you would do so? Would you risk arrest on behalf of social justice, climate change, or anything else? Will you at least support those who do? Are you a compliantist, a gradualist, or a transgressive reformer?

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Living is the trick

September 25, 2014

It’s the birthday of my favorite writer not from Murfreesboro TN, Walter “Red” Smith. He said:

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” 

And

“Ninety feet between bases is perhaps as close as man has ever come to perfection.” 

And

“Dying is no big deal; the least of us will manage it. Living is the trick.” 

And thanks to Mr. Keillor’s Almanac I also learned this morning that a poem called “Once” concludes:

“And time is short. You have to live it.”

My favorite Murfreesboro writer, of course, is Grantland Rice:

“For when the One Great Scorer comes To mark against your name, He writes – not that you won or lost -

But HOW you played the Game.” 

 

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Anselm, Aquinas, & politics

September 24, 2014

It’s more Saints today in CoPhi, and more Harvards: Anselm & Aquinas (with commentary on the latter from Anthony Kenny), Robert Nozick and political philosophy. Inexplicably, our politics chapter omits discussion of the most important political philosopher of the 20th century, John Rawls. We’ll rectify that in class.


Anselm stumped for the divine moral perfection (and omnipotence and omniscience) of a being “than which none greater could be conceived.” His Ontological Argument is either ingenious or ridiculous, depending on who you ask. But it rarely persuades those who do not come at it armed with antecedent faith. “Faith seeking understanding,” or maybe just the appearance of rational cover.

Aquinas was sure there had to be an uncaused cause in back of everything, or else we’d never get to an end of explaining. Well, we probably won’t. Not ’til the would-be explainers themselves are gone. But is an uncaused cause really a step forward, explanatorily speaking?

Both of those guys were committed, of course, to belief in a heavenly afterlife. Samuel Scheffler, in the Stone recently, wrote of the afterlife here. Here, of course, is where people live the lives their beliefs inform. Life, not god or supernaturalism, is the natural impulse behind religion. Dewey’s continuous human community is another way of naming nature’s afterlife.

But what if you learned that the species would expire within a month of your own passing? That’s Scheffler’s thought experiment. He thinks he and we would be profoundly unsettled, that life would suffer an instant meaning collapse, and that this shows how invested we all are in a natural afterlife for humans (though not each of us in particular) on earth. He thinks “the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.” That’s what he means when he begins his essay: “I believe in life after death.”

He also explained his view on Philosophy Bites.


Our old dead Italian Saints said nothing about this, so far as I’m aware. Anthony Kenny does say Aquinas still agreed with Aristotle about “the best way to spend your lifetime down here on Earth,” that happiness is ultimately an activity rather than a feeling, and that “the supreme happiness for rational beings was an intellectual activity.” To Aristotle’s standard “pagan virtues” he added faith (in Christian revelation), hope (for heavenly ascent), and charity (toward god and neighbor).

But the charity he seems to admire most in Aquinas is of the intellectual variety, “always trying to balance arguments from both sides” and treat those whose conclusions he disputes with civility.

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Neither of today’s 20th century Harvard philosophers was a Saint, but both were civil.
Robert Nozick began his academic career as a narrow analyst and wunderkind libertarian, but evolved well beyond his starting place. He came to realize that astringent libertarianism neglects “the reality of our social solidarity and humane concern for others.” He came also to the view that “thinking about life is more like mulling it over” than like pinning it with a syllogism. “It feels like growing up more.” He kept growing, ’til stomach cancer took him at age 63.
Nozick’s chapter on dying in The Examined Life begins,

THEY SAY NO ONE is able to take seriously the possibility of his or her own death, but this does not get it exactly right. (Does everyone take seriously the possibility of his or her own life?) A person’s own death does become real to him after the death of both parents.

He’s right about that.
Before his death (as Yogi Berra might have said) Nozick gave us the good old Experience Machine. We just talked about this the other day.
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John Rawls, says Carlin Romano, wrote “the most important book of English-language political theory since Mill’s On Liberty. His goal was a coherent theory of “justice as fairness” whose appeal would span the spectrum, after emerging from behind a “Veil of Ignorance.” Not everyone buys it, but we all talk about it. Michael Sandel does too, to a much bigger class than ours, albeit mostly virtual & MOOCy.
And now there’s a musical stage show. How many political philosophers can say that?!  Rawls@dawn
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Also a propos of politics: historicity, Kantian respect, egalitarianism, libertarianism, affirmative action (“reverse discrimination”), the Marxist critique of sham democracy, and paradoxes of conscience. Plenty, as usual, on our plates.

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Boethius and the animals

September 22, 2014
Today in CoPhi it’s the pagan/stoic/Christian/Platonist martyr Boethius, and then the rights of animals. 

We saw last time that Bertrand Russell had little regard for how Augustine, despite his philosophical sophistication when it came to hard-nut conceptual problems like time, ironically squandered much of his own on a preoccupation with sin, chastity, and staying out of hell.

Russell liked Boethius, or aspects of his thought at least. Boethius was also perplexed by time, and initially unimpressed by the alleged capacity of timeless divinity to accommodate both omniscience and free will. Like Russell, I’m struck by this “singular” thinker’s ability to contemplate happiness (he thought all genuinely happy people are gods) while practically darkening death’s door.

Boethius was consoled by the thought that God’s foreknowledge of everything, including the fact that Boethius himself (among too many others) would be unjustly imprisoned and tortured to death, in no way impaired his (Boethius’s) freedom or god’s perfection. Consoled. Comforted.Calmed. Reconciled.

That’s apparently because God knows things timelessly, sees everything “in a go.” I don’t think that would really make me feel any better, in my prison cell. The real consolation of philosophy comes when it contributes to the liberation of mind and body (one thing, not two). But it’s still very cool to imagine Philosophy a comfort-woman, reminding us of our hard-earned wisdom when the going gets impossible.



And then, of course, they killed him. The list of martyred philosophers grows. And let’s not forget Hypatia and Bruno. [Russell] The problem of suffering (“evil”) was very real to them, as it is to so many of our fellow world-citizens. You can’t chalk it all up to free will. But can we even chalk torture or any other inflicted choice up to it, given the full scope of a genuinely omniscient creator’s knowledge? If He already knows what I’m going to do unto others and what others will do unto me, am I in any meaningful sense a free agent who might have done otherwise? The buck stops where?

For those keeping score, add Boethius to Aristotle’s column.

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[Christians 2, Philosophers 0... Christians & Muslims...JandMoandPaul...Mystics, scholastics, Ferengi... faith & reason...]

And now, for something completely different: animals. Not very many philosophers of note have denied that animals are capable of feeling pain. But Descartes did.

“Speciesism” is generally understood to to convey a pejorative connotation, but I went on record a long time ago as a species of speciesist. A pragmatist is bound to give priority to human interests, but an animal-loving pragmatist will always urge the rejection of allowing them to run roughshod over our furry fellow travelers whose planet it also is. Still, if animal research will save human lives I’m going to cast my vote in favor.

Kant’s view that harming animals is wrong because it damages OUR character and relationships, however, is too speciesist for my blood.

I’m happy our text gives me another opportunity to put in a word for quirky old Jeremy Bentham, who rightly noted that pain and suffering know no species bounds. They don’t process it with the magnifying  human sort of emotional complexity, nor do they typically bear any detectably solicitous mutual regard of the human kind (though some primates and puppies do display what we’re bound to anthropomorphize as tenderness and affection). But that doesn’t make them robots.

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Created sick, commanded to be well

September 19, 2014
A student yesterday told us that God is love, that her purpose in life is to share and spread it, and that all who “deny” God are destined to an eternity in Hell. After all, we’re all given a choice. And, none of us deserves grace.

But, what if someone sincerely disbelieves in that loving God, on the basis of an honest evaluation of the evidence and its absence? Their choice, their foul, their eternal damnation. Feel the love.

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard the casual expression of such breathtaking inhumanity in my classroom, here in God’s country. But this time it really rang a bell, on a day when we also discussed Hume’s Law and its corollary that Ought implies Can. I was reminded of Mel Gibson, going with “the chair” and consigning his saintly God-fearing wife to the flames:

“Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She’s a much better person than I am. Honestly. She’s, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s just not fair if she doesn’t make it, she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”

And, I was reminded of the late Saint Hitch’s lament for theistic incoherence: created sick, commanded to be sound.

Oh, wearisome condition of humanity, Born under one law, to another bound; Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity, Created sick, commanded to be sound.
― Fulke Greville (quoted by Christopher Hitchens)

What we have here, picked from no mean source, is a distillation of precisely what is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality. Its essential fanaticism, its consideration of the human being as raw material, and its fantasy of purity. 

Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that. Created sick, and then ordered to be well.

And over us to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship; a kind of divine North Korea. Exigent, I would say, more than exigent greedy for uncritical praise from dawn until dusk. And swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. An eternal, unalterable, judge, jury and executioner, against whom there could be no appeal. And who wasn’t finished with you even when you died. However! Let no one say there’s no cure! Salvation is offered! Redemption, indeed, is promised, at the low price, of the surrender of your critical faculties. 

Religion, it might be said, must be said, would have to admit, makes extraordinary claims, but, though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. To insist that we are created and not evolved, in the face of all the evidence.
Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. 

Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, “Beautiful, almost perfect. Now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia, that I may do the work of the Lord”? No!

As the great physicist Stephen Weinberg has aptly put it, “In the ordinary moral universe, the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion. 

Religion, and in fact any form of faith, -because it is a surrender of reason, it’s a surrender of reason in favor of faith, is a fantastic force multiplier. A tremendous intensifier, of all things that are in fact divisive rather than inclusive. That’s why its history is so stained with blood. Crimes against humanity, crimes against womanhood, crimes against reason and science, attacks upon medicine and enlightenment, all these appalling things. There is no conceivable way that by calling on the supernatural, you will achieve anything like your objective of a common humanism, which is I think you’re quite right to say, our only chance of, I won’t call it salvation. 

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Augustine, free will, & free speech

September 17, 2014
It’s Constitution Day again, and again I look forward to making a small public profession of fealty to academic freedom. (We’ll line up in the courtyard of Peck Hall, some of us, and take turns reading lines from the document whose 1st amendment secures our unreserved right to speak our hearts and minds.) Couldn’t do this, without that.

Is anyone, from God on down, “pulling our strings”? We’d not be free if they were, would we? If you say we would, what do you mean by “free”? Jesus and Mo have puzzled this one, behind the wheel with with Moses…
jandmofw
..and with “Free Willy.” But as usual, the Atheist Barmaid is unpersuaded.

(As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed, or the sea-parter Moses; and neither I nor Salman Rushdie, the Dutch cartoonists, the anonymous Author, or anyone else commenting on religion in fictional media are blasphemers. We’re all just observers exercising our “god-given” right of free speech, which of course extends no further than the end of a fist and the tip of a nose. We were celebrating precisely that, and academic freedom, when we lined up to take turns reading the Constitution late last summer.

They’re just a trio of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless provocation, and fun.  But if it makes us think, it’s useful.)

Augustine proposed a division between the “city of god” and the “earthly city” of humanity, thus excluding many of us from his version of the cosmos. “These two cities of the world, which are doomed to coexist intertwined until the Final Judgment, divide the world’s inhabitants.” SEP

And of course he believed in hell, raising the stakes for heaven and the judicious free will  he thought necessary to get there even higher. If there’s no such thing as free will, though, how can you do “whatever the hell you want”?  But, imagine there’s no heaven or hell. What then? Some of us think that’s when free will becomes most useful to members of a growing, responsible species.

Someone posted the complaint on our class message board that it’s not clear what “evil” means, in the context of our Little History discussion of Augustine. But I think this is clear enough: “there is a great deal of suffering in the world,” some of it proximally caused by crazy, immoral/amoral, armed and dangerous humans behaving badly, much more of it caused by earthquakes, disease, and other “natural” causes. All of it, on the theistic hypothesis, is part and parcel of divinely-ordered nature.

Whether or not some suffering is ultimately beneficial, character-building, etc., and from whatever causes, “evil” means the suffering that seems gratuitously destructive of innocent lives. Some of us “can’t blink the evil out of sight,” in William James’s words, and thus can’t go in for theistic (or other) schemes of “vicarious salvation.” We think it’s the responsibility of humans to use their free will (or whatever you prefer to call ameliorative volitional action) to reduce the world’s evil and suffering. Take a sad song and make it better.

Note the Manicahean strain in Augustine, and the idea that “evil comes from the body.” That’s straight out of Plato. The world of Form and the world of perfect heavenly salvation thus seem to converge. If you don’t think “body” is inherently evil, if in fact you think material existence is pretty cool (especially considering the alternative), this view is probably not for you. Nor if you can’t make sense of Original Sin, that most “difficult” contrivance of the theology shop.


Bertrand Russell, we know, was not a Christian. But he was a bit of a fan of Augustine the philosopher (as distinct from the theologian), on problems like time.

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As for Augustine the theologian and Saint-in-training, Russell’s pen drips disdain.
It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the dark ages were concerned, not with saving civilization or expelling the barbarians or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants.

Funny, how the preachers of the merit of virginity so often come late – after exhausting their stores of wild oats – to their chaste piety. Not exactly paragons of virtue or character, these Johnnys Come Lately. On the other hand, it’s possible to profess a faith you don’t understand much too soon. My own early Sunday School advisers pressured and frightened me into “going forward” at age 6, lest I “die before I wake” one night and join the legions of the damned.  

That’s an allusive segue to today’s additional discussion of Aristotelian virtue ethics, in its turn connected with the contradictions inherent in the quest to bend invariably towards Commandments. “Love your neighbor”: must that mean, let your neighbor suffer a debilitating terminal illness you could pull the plug on? Or is the “Christian” course, sometimes, to put an end to it?

We also read today of Hume’s Law, Moore’s Naturalistic Fallacy, the old fact/value debate, ethical relativism, meta-ethics, and more. Maybe we’ll have time to squeeze in consideration of the old good-vs.-evil trope. Would there be anything “wrong” with a world in which good was already triumphant, happiness for all already secured, kindness and compassion unrivaled by hatred and cruelty? I think it might be just fine. Worth a try, anyway.

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Stoics & ethics

September 15, 2014
It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in Little History today in CoPhi, on the Stoics EpictetusCicero, and Seneca. We’re also looking at the first half of our chapter on Right & Wrong, concerned mainly with deontologists and utilitarians. (They’re bumping last year’s complementary discussion of Stoics & Pragmatists.)
 ’Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change, for instance the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life. 
‘Stoic’ came from the Stoa, which was a painted porch. 
Like the Sceptics, Stoics aimed for a calm state of mind. Even when facing tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, the Stoic should remain unmoved. Our attitude to what happens is within our control even though what happens often isn’t. 
Stoics think we are responsible for what we feel and think. We can choose our response to good and bad luck… They believe emotions cloud reasoning and damage judgment. 
Epictetus started out as a slave. When he declared that the mind can remain free even when the body is enslaved he was drawing on his own experience. 

The brevity of life and the inevitability of aging were topics that particularly interested Cicero and Seneca. 

Cicero said old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation. He believed the soul lived forever, so old people shouldn’t worry about dying. [Epicurus already told us they needn't worry in any event.]
For Seneca the problem is not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have. 
The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions. 

But Nigel Warburton‘s question is right on target: at what price? If you’re even half human, like Mr. Spock, you’ll only damage yourself by suppressing your affective side. Calm may not be the greatest good, after all.
Anyway, Roman philosophy is under-rated. The Romans have done a lot for us.


And not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

Stoicism, with its general mindset of not allowing oneself to be moved or harmed by externals beyond one’s control, and the crucial assumption that our own thoughts are ours to manage, always courts the cold of Vulcan indifference but also offers the last line of defense for prisoners of war and victims of malice. If you really can persuade yourself that physical pain is nothing to you, that emotional stress can’t touch you, that’s quite a defensive weapon.

And if Stoicism can turn the chill of age into the warmth of experience, friendship, and joyous memory, that’s quite an achievement. The older I get, the more I appreciate old Seneca’s wisdom about time (not that it’s in such short supply but that we’re such bad managers of it). But I continue to question his passive compliance with crazy Nero. Is that Stoicism or impotent resignation? Surely there’s a difference.

The Euthyphro Dilemma is on our plate today. Either God’s not the source of good, or good’s good only nominally and arbitrarily. Nigel implies there’s something destructive or Hobson-ish about this choice, but isn’t it just blindingly clear that pole A is the one to grab? Well no, it won’t be to many students. A good discussion is called for.

“Deontology,” a scary word for a scary over-devotion to “duty.” Or so I’ll say, today.

And, time permitting, I’ll put in some good words for both Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill’s respective versions of consequentialist utilitarian hedonism. Let’s not choose, let’s pick cherries.

Finally, the bonus topic: Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. Fire it up, we’ll see if anybody really wants to step inside.

I’m “flipping” my classes these days, which practically means less of my “content” explicated during the precious minutes of classtime (though it’s still right here for the taking, as always) and more group discussion. I like my DQs today, and look forward to seeing everyone else’s.

1. Do you think you could effectively adopt a Stoic mindset (“Our thoughts are up to us,” we shouldn’t be affected by circumstances beyond our control, etc.) that would enable you to endure captivity and torture? IDo you attempt to adopt that mindset in less extreme everyday circumstances (like a rainstorm just before class)?
2. Do you “hope [you] die before you get old” or do you look forward to the compensations of old age (memories, old friends, grandchildren etc.)? Do you think 100 become the new 65, in your lifetime? How long do you hope to live? If cryonics ever becomes plausible would you want to use it?
3. Are you a good time-manager, or a procrastinator? Do you usually approach life as if you had “all the time in the world”?  If Nero ordered YOU to take your own life, would you resist or comply? Why?
4. Do you agree with Dostoevsky?: “If God doesn’t exist, anything is permitted.” Why or why not? Do you think the only thing preventing you from being good is the fear of divine retribution for being bad? Or do you think that to be good one must simply believe in goodness and reciprocity (“Do unto others” etc.)?
5. Do you consider yourself a good person? If so, what motivates your goodness? If not, why not? 
6. Should we always try to “maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number”? Does it matter what kind of happiness we maximize? Are some pleasures just intrinsically higher and better than others? Is it “preferable to be a sad but wise Socrates than to be a happy but ignorant fool”? P 49

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Terror-free on 9/11

September 11, 2014

Another 9/11. Will there ever be one to eclipse that horrific day 13 years ago? Watching the President announce our latest war on terror last night, it really feels like we’re stuck in one of those sci-fi time loops. We need something to spring us. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

Humans have always found and will always find something to be terrorized by. Blaise Pascal, we noted in class, was so frightened by the cosmos itself (“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces”) that he felt compelled to subdue his own exquisitely rational/mathematical mind and brainwash himself into believing life in our universe comes with ultimate satisfaction guaranteed. Don’t bet on it.

The inherent mortal terror of existence is precisely this knowledge that we must die sooner or later, one way or another, without any sure promise of a 2d act. Nor have we any assurance of solid reviews for the show.

We have a hard time remembering our good luck and being suitably appreciative (let alone grateful and joyous): we get to die, because we got to live. We’re here now, invited to savor the free lunch of existence.

So: we’ll speak again in class today of Epicurus and the simple life, the life of freedom and fearlessness, the privilege of existence. Even when dying a miserably painful death, our philosopher took time to disarm fear and celebrate life. On this truly happy day of my life, as I am at the point of death, I write this to you. The diseases in my bladder and stomach are pursuing their course, lacking nothing of their usual severity: but against all this is the joy in my heart at the recollection of my conversations with you.”

And that’s how to beat terror. A good and timely reminder on this date, in this time. We’re not dead yet, nor are our children, nor theirs to come. If you want to be happy, be. Live.

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Pyrrho, Epicurus, & God

September 10, 2014

In CoPhi today it’s Pyrrho the deep skeptic,  Epicurus the hedonist (though I’ve indicated *my dissatisfaction with applying that label to him) and seeker of simple pleasures and happiness; and God (subbing this time for the APA).


So, to Pyrrho and Epicurus… but first a quick follow-up on Plato and Aristotle. Check out this version of School of Athens.


As for Aristotle’s eudaimonia, in some ways it anticipated Epicurus’s garden and what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls “graceful-life philosophies” that proclaim in all simplicity: “we don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” Then, and only then, will we be happy.

As for Pyrrho: If you’d asked him Who rules the Universe?, he might have replied: Lord knows. Cats, again. And pigs.
pig 

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,” Hecht 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. Stay on your toes, but don’t fret too much about the storm.
piranha
One more little animal image for Pyrrho, whose name I prefer to pronounce compatibly with this mnemonic trick: just remember that a pyrrhonic skeptic is like a piranha fish, toothily devouring every proposed candidate for belief. Cats and pigs too, probably.

And as for Epicurus, Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.
For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment, “tranquillity, or the freedom from disturbance and pain that characterizes a balanced mind and constitutes its first step toward the achievement of pleasure.”

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, Epicurus said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

*Sissela Bok calls Epicurus a hedonist, but that’s only technically correct. Yes, he said pleasure’s at the heart of happiness. But what kind of pleasure?

A happy life is tranquil, simple, loving, and above all free from pain, fear, and suffering, available to all regardless of social status, nationality, or gender. Such a life of pleasure, Epicurus held, would of necessity have to be a virtuous one; 





That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett was instructive. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism share a common root. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

We won’t suffer a meaning deficit, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:
Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy. 

We’re also finishing the God chapter in Philosophy: The Basics today. We consider Hume on miracles, Pascal’s Wager, Don Cupitt’s non-realism, faith and fear (and Epicurus again). It’s hard to contest Nigel’s last observation, that some people would rather give up one or more of God’s omni-attributes than give up God, period. But then we’re going to have to ask them: Is your downsized God big enough to create and sustain a cosmos?

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