Posts Tagged ‘Einstein’

Einstein always walked

May 21, 2013

Que sais-je?” And what do I know about Einstein? He said “there is one thing we do know…”

And,”everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

And, I know he was a walker.

einsteinWalk

“Yes, I saw Einstein often walking on Mercer Street… sweater hanging down, sandals… We heard that his stepdaughter wanted to give him a car, but he preferred walking.”

“He was very friendly. It seems as though it was almost every day… He always walked.”

And did you know that Einstein loved to smoke? So if he visited our campus, having no car, he’d have nowhere to indulge. We’re too good for him. (Maybe we need to rethink that policy, President McPhee?)

As he walked between his house and his office at Princeton, one could often see him followed by a trail of smoke. Nearly as part of his image as his wild hair and baggy clothes was Einstein clutching his trusty briar pipe. In 1950, Einstein is noted as saying, “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs,” Although he favored pipes, Einstein was not one to turn down a cigar or even a cigarette.

One more thing I know about Einstein: he loved to ride.

So he’ll be in Philosophy Walks’ sequel, Philosophy Rides.

The important thing

December 5, 2012

The last day of class is always bittersweet, when it’s been a good semester. It has been, and it was. To those students who told me they were sad it’s over: the feeling is totally mutual. But you know where to find me, let’s not be strangers.

There were so many strong final report presentations yesterday, on so many sprawling topics: Johnny Cash, Switchfoot, Dungeons & Dragons, Kant and dating (reminds me of the story my old Brooklyn-born prof the “Kant specialist” told on himself of how he met his future wife, despite her serious misunderstanding of his self-introduction-but never mind), Socrates, Snow White & Freemasons (!), Hobbes & Machiavelli & neurolinguistic programming(!!)…

And Malcolm’s (whose surname alone almost merits a passing grade in Philosophy… Ecrasez l’Infame!) on the meaning of life. He talked about TED, Robert WrightMonty Python, George Carlin*, Futurama, and Owen Gingerich, among many others. The Galaxy Song makes him (like Mrs. Brown) feel small and insignificant and “in need of comic relief;” it just makes me grin, and reminds me of what Emily Dickinson said: “the brain is wider than the sky” etc.

*George Carlin was wrong, by the way, though immortally funny: we must save the planet from ourselves.  Nothing else we ever do will mean as much. Please read this and especially this, and let your conscience be your guide.

Most fittingly, Malcolm closed his report (as we closed our survey of the history of philosophy) with Peter Singer. The meaning of life is inseparable from the choices we make.

Well, as I said in that questionnaire: I hope we’ll all choose to go on asking questions, listening to different answers, and thinking. Right, Professor?

einstein

Descartes to Deism

March 26, 2012

Today in CoPhi we go “modern” again, from the angle of doubt: the scientific revolution, DescartesSpinozaHobbes, and the English Deists (my personal favorite is John Toland, author of Pantheisticon, who came up with the term “pantheist,” and for whom John Locke invented the term “freethinker”).

According to the World Union of Deists, whose website proclaims “God Gave Us Reason, Not Religion” and “In Nature’s God We Trust,” the American Declaration of Independence “is a Deistic document.” And they find deep Deist roots in Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, and others. The late great Hitch said they should have known better, and would have if they’d lived to read Darwin.

The Deists persist:

In Deism there is no need for a preacher, priest or rabbi. All one needs in Deism is their own common sense and the creation to contemplate.

They seem to think Einstein was a Deist, whether he knew it or not. (I think his popular writings are more humanist myself. Guess it’s relative to your agenda.)

“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”

Dubito ergo sum makes at least as much sense as Descartes’ actual slogan. (But then, just about any 1st-person Latin verb will do.)  Thinking’s easy, doubting’s hard (because it moves the ground beneath your feet). While you’re only thinking, you’re stuck in your head. Well, not even your head, for a metaphysical dualist like Descartes. Stuck in your mind, a doubly problematic predicament. Should consciousness really be “esteemed higher than the universe”? And does “inner certainty” ever prove a thing?

Spinoza, we recall, was a pantheist: God didn’t make the world, God is the world and we’re its “nodes.” What then becomes of free will? Not so much, on his view. He might have been right, but I still literally can’t allow myself to believe it. I’m a lot more comfortable with his stance on miracles and supernaturalism (“it could simply be dismissed”), and am charmed by his short list of Epicurean delights – “study, wine, good food, the beauty of green things, theater, and sports.” He was a complex thinker of simple virtue, striving to “live honestly… for the excellence of virtue itself.”

Hobbes, Mr. SolitaryPoorNasty (etc.), is a more intriguing figure viewed through the lens of doubt. Hell is just a “fantasy to control people” (like his “Leviathan”?), people are riven by the fears (and ghosts and gods and devils) they themselves have dreamed up, the world is a “machinelike thing that runs itself.” He said things that got lots of his contemporaries scorched, and his making it to age 92 may just be a miracle.

Also noted in today’s reading: Galileo (“E pur, si muove”), BayleBoyle,Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Toland, and Pascal, whose gambling sense was more than just “odd.” He said you should place your money (meaning your life) on God, for fear that betting against Him might make you an eternal loser. JMH notes the howling statistical error at the heart of this specious reasoning:

We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.

Pascal‘s bad wager underscores something more to appreciate about Spinoza.

What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.

But then again, the strange case of Newton reminds us: you can be a really brilliant scientist– Neil Tyson says there’s never been anyone better– and also believe in woo (like alchemy and the philosophers’ stone). Weird, but also cautionary. Michael Shermer says smart people believe weird things for perfectly comprehensible bad reasons, and that’s probably right. But we should still leave a crack in the door for extraordinary experiences to squeeze through, when and if they come calling.

Speaking of weird, Pierre Bayle’s Dictionary was a smash bestselling New Skeptical bombshell, with “a good deal of sex” as a bonus. I’m actually more intrigued by his earlier comet book, “the first-ever all-out defense of the morals of an atheist.” He was “good without God” before it was cool. (Watch the next section for Diderot’s echo of this theme.) And, Bayle shared Hobbes’ view of Hell back when that could still get you ground-roasted.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)… modern times… Descartes & Montaigne

Parting wisdom

May 5, 2011

I’ve got my Z-pak and am ready to go, on this last final exam day of the semester.  (Exam times are 10 & 1, STUDENTS.)

This won’t be on the exam, but I hope everyone has a good answer to the last question I asked on the first quiz back in January:

Socrates said we should question everything and everyone: “the unexamined life is not worth living,” “know thyself”… How do you feel about that? Are you prepared to do it?

Good luck, all. Keep on asking questions– you do recall who (besides me) said that was  the important thing, don’t you?– keep on questioning the answers, be healthy and happy and kind. Have a good summer and a good life.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)

March 22, 2011

Don’t like Descartes‘ metaphysical dualism? The other options on today’s menu are one substance or infinitely many. (“None”  is not an option for these two, but you could go back and warm up some leftover Montaigne if that’s your preference.)

Baruch Spinoza(1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist, holding that god is present in all of nature instead of transcending and creating it. English Deist John Toland may have coined the term originally. [JMH]

We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Voltaire’s Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

The Einstein/Spinoza view of time & space is subtle and strange. It has tempted some to make more  of it than seems sensible [rebooted] but Spinoza clearly found his “bliss” in it. If we’re part of something practically eternal, from a finite point of view, does that lend us a share of immortality? With this perspective are we back, in roundabout fashion, to the Tao?

Or at least to the author of Walden, maybe? Asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.

Uncle Albert was not a New Atheist, nor quite an old one. He also said:

I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility… I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.

I always like to let Einstein give the benediction in my Intro classes, stay tuned for that. [parting wisdom...squashed Einstein... cosmic religion... Sagan's hero...]

I could go on, but Marcel Marceau was right: “It’s good to shut up sometimes.”

Next time, STUDENTS: read to PW 88.

happy

December 7, 2010

It’s the last day of class in Intro to Philosophy, before exams next week, so some of us are happy. But the last day is also always a little bittersweet. Seems we just get started, then before you know it comes the time we have to say good-bye. But, I’m so glad we had this time together

Sisyphus was happy too, according to Camus. (“One must consider Sisyphus happy.”) Did he  understand the secret of life to be meaningful work? Any work can be made meaningful enough to make life worth living, seems to be his point, for those who throw themselves into their lives and help others.

“The point is to live,” said Camus, before his life ended in a pointless car crash at age 44. We must consider him no longer happy. But I’ll bet he’d get a laugh out of the recent controversy over his mortal remains.

Heidegger talked a lot about being thrown, too. [That's Simon Critchley on "geworfenheit," or thrownness... and here he is on learning to die and other fun stuff.] Evidently he threw himself into his work for the Reich, and lately is reaping the reward of a  bad reputation. His being-in-the-world, his Dasein, has departed. There’s no longer any there worth Being, there. [heroes & villains]

Jean-Paul Sartre said we exist before we acquire any specific or essential identity, leaving us either dreadfully or bracingly free (depending on attitude) to invent ourselves. But it’s very hard to be free in good faith, since our perpetual tendency is to objectify ourselves and one another. But you can’t be a free person in the same way an inkwell is an inkwell. Well, duh.

Here’s Sartre hosting Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion.

Sartre’s paramour Simone de Beauvoir pushed him to place his abstract talk about freedom in its real world social contexts, and to acknowledge the additional patriarchal obstacles in the way of women’s liberation.

Postmodernists say philosophy, defined as the search for truth, is moribund. But New Agers, even the looniest, show there’s still an appetite and an audience for wisdom pursued passionately.

And with that, we ring down the curtain on another semester of Intro to Philosophy. I hope everyone takes this away:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

-Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy

And as promised, Mr. Einstein gets the last word: “The important thing is to never stop questioning.”

That’s what I’ll leave you with, for now. The last slide says it all:

NOTE TO STUDENTS: All presenters need to be present today. All others need to turn in final essays and 3 journal entries, stapled. Older Daughter says the High Schoolers are docked points for lacking staples. Don’t let it happen to you.

Mrs. Logic*

November 5, 2010

I’ve been challenged by a student devotee of Ayn Rand to read her major works in their entirety, before concluding that her version of egoism is less than enlightened.

I have tried, but every time I do I’m repelled by her expressions of the attitude that we should never live for the sake of another, or that “we” is itself a dirty and disreputable concept.

But everything I’ve read about her indicates an intellectual intensity and personal magnetism I’d like to know more about. And some of her ideas are holding center-stage in our politics at the moment.

It’s easy to chuckle at Rand, smugly, from the safe distance of intervening decades or an opposed ideology, but in person—her big black eyes flashing deep into the night, fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines—she was apparently an irresistible force, a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock who converted doubters left, right, and center. Eyewitnesses say that she never lost an argument. One of her young students (soon to be her young lover) staggered out of his first all-night talk session referring to her, admiringly, as “Mrs. Logic.”*

So I accept the challenge, Will. I’ll read more Rand, beginning (as you suggest) with Philosophy: Who Needs It?*

In the meantime I just have to say: I’ve known altruists, was raised by some in fact, and have done my best to pass along their model of compassion and concern to my own children.

I do believe there is such a thing as the public interest and the common good, and that it is much more than mere cover for the will to dominate and control.

I believe the most “reasonable” people are those who continually check their personal egoism against the well-being of others, most of whom they’ll never know personally. They subject their own ends to critical scrutiny informed by shared communal values and a desire to enable the mutual flourishing of all.

But I think we agree: people whose self-interest  is truly enlightened are genuinely concerned for, and respectful of, their companions. They try to expand the circle of empathy, balancing ego and public, me and we.

In short, they think like Einstein:

Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we’re here for the sake of others, above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends; and also for those countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by bonds of sympathy.

*READING STATUS UPDATE: Rand writes:

You might claim — as most people do — that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? “Don’t be so sure — nobody can be certain of anything.” You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: “This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” You got that from Plato. Or: “That was a rotten thing to do, but it’s only human, nobody is perfect in this world.” You got that from Augustine. Or: “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” You got it from William James. Or: “I couldn’t help it! Nobody can help anything he does.” You got it from Hegel. Or: “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s evil, because it’s selfish.” You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: “Act first, think afterward”? They got it from John Dewey.

*Well, no. The James and Dewey blurbs in particular here are very much mistaken and misleading. The next paragraph compounds the error against James, and flings a new slur at another of my heroes, Emerson. If this is a good sample of what I can expect, I’m afraid my view of Ms. Rand’s Objectivism is not in for a major revision.

But we’ll see. Anyone else care to join the reading circle?

==

*P.S. Has Mrs. Logic met Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion?

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)

October 28, 2010

Don’t like Descartes‘ metaphysical dualism? The other options on today’s menu are one substance or infinitely many. (“None”  is not an option for these two, but you could go back and warm up some leftover Montaigne if that’s your preference.)

Baruch Spinoza(1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” inCandide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

& here’s more Einstein on Spinoza’s God and ultimate Reality:

and more:

The Einstein/Spinoza view of time & space is subtle and strange. It has tempted some to make more  of it than seems sensible [rebooted] but Spinoza clearly found his “bliss” in it. If we’re part of something practically eternal, from a finite point of view, does that lend us a share of immortality? With this perspective are we back, in roundabout fashion, to the Tao?

Or at least to the author of Walden?: asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.

Uncle Albert was not a New Atheist, nor quite an old one. He also said:

I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility… I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.

I always like to let Einstein give the benediction in my Intro classes, stay tuned for that. [parting wisdom... squashed Einstein... cosmic religion... Sagan's hero...]

NOTE to students: the tornado alerts  messed with our afternoon classes on Tuesday, so everybody gets to wait ’til next Tuesday for Exam 2. No new quiz today, but Spinoza (& Einstein) and Leibniz will possibly be on the exam. We’ll get on with as many presentations as we can today, everybody please be present and ready to go. Remember, non-presenters, essays are due Tuesday too.

rebooted

June 12, 2010

My unpaid research assistant sent me a curious piece from the Huffington Post, most of which (I told him) is too slippery for me to hold.  Maybe it’s just too deep. Or too shallow. But it’s still provocative and worth trying to hold for a moment.

Its author, a Dr. Lanza, is (I gather) trying to blunt the sting of our mortality by over-interpreting Einstein’s famous statement that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Thus, when we die, he says, time for us simply re-boots.

Nice try. But  (I told D.) from where you and I sit it is a practical inevitability that we will and must situate ourselves as temporal beings. Einstein’s perspective is transcendent in a way we can only glimpse intermittently, we really can’t live in its light. Or I can’t, anyway. I’m too simple for Dr. Lanza’s simple re-booting.

And, I wonder:

What can it mean to have a frame of reference but no consciousness to know it in? The frame is an adaptation of consciousness… or, consciousness is our species’ way of adapting to its temporality? Or… something. We are indeed in the deep end, here. Worth pondering, but I prefer not to stray too far from the dry land of familiar conceptions of experience, time, and living.

Call me stubbornly persistent, then. I can live with that. For now.

last day

April 28, 2010

The last day of class, at last. But, already?! We were just getting started.

Monday’s final report presentations were good, but Bushra’s stood out because she brought chocolate (to symbolize and help us all visualize the possibility of world peace, and to disarm her professor’s critical defenses). I agree with her point about “meaning” being made rather than (or as well as?) simply found.

But I can’t agree that philosophy generates only questions, not answers. I find that it generates plenty of answers. THE answer, no. That would be too easy, and would probably make philosophy irrelevant. Fortunately it’s not.

But I know what she meant. So did Bertie Russell.*

So what’s my parting word, as we all prepare for final exams?

First, from Uncle Einstein:  “The important thing is to never stop questioning.”

*And from Prof. Russell:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect…

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

-Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy


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