I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Aristotle, peripatetics, “free won’t” https://t.co/F5HgIj2m6E

February 20, 2020

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Aristotle, peripatetics, “free won’t”

February 20, 2020
They dialed up the heat at last night’s Nevada debate, but didn’t cast a lot more light. I have to agree with the baseball philosopher Bill (not William) James, a show of angry mutual incivility is really not constructive at this stage. Save it for Drumpf. But the good news is that last night should have punctured Bloomberg’s trial balloon, particularly due to all those NDAs. This being America, though, where $$ talks loudest, it probably didn’t.

In CoPhi today we’re talking Aristotle and the Peripatetics (both those student-scholars who literally followed him around his Lyceum campus, and those who followed in his spirit historically to create the  tradition of philosophy in motion. (See Rebecca Solnit’s peripatetic chapter in Wanderlust, and recall “Gymnasiums of the Mind“.) 

Aristotle was much concerned with the causes of motion, from the Prime Mover on. Here’s an interesting poll stale-mate: what if you were omniscient, omnipotent etc., but were not the originating source of motion in the universe? What would that make you? 

If you said “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” that would make you uncharacteristically poetic. We don’t know if an easy eloquence came to the Stagirite, since most of what’s come down to us from him is in the form of lecture notes and not polished prose. But he meant we shouldn’t judge of the success or flourishing of our lives (“happiness” is not the best translation of eudaimonia, but it’s the most common) on the basis of too small a slice of time and experience, or in strictly self-referential terms. Raphael’s School of Athens, rightly depicts him reaching for the natural world, in contrast to his teacher’s ostentatious upward ostension.  He’d have been appalled to learn that subsequent generations ossified his legacy by treating him as the conversation-stopping final authority, The Philosopher. Not his fault, but it’s an ironic illustration of what he meant when he said our total eudaimonia depends on factors beyond our control and even beyond our lifespans.

In Fantasyland today we consider the American pastoral ideal, the transparent eyeball of Concord, the fake discovery of lunar life long ago, the carnival-barking all-American huckster Barnum, and Chicago’s shiny faux-fest event that still symbolizes much that is phony in our public life.

In A&P today, more on free will, determinism, neuroscience , responsibility etc. Daniel Dennett’s free will determinism and Michael Gazzaniga’s storytelling separation of free will from responsibility come under the spotlight. Despite their differences I think they agree: we experience our freedom, when we do, as a narration in progress and not a closed book.  
Some of my questions: if you think free will skepticism does not threaten your prospects of finding meaning in life, but have constructed your life on the premise that without free will we’re just automata, aren’t you going to have a difficult story to tell? Can you stage a meaningful 2d act, after being persuaded to accept fws? Wouldn’t you have to experience the decision to do so as a free choice?

Does the question “Why did you decide to do that?” not beg the question, for the fw skeptic?


“Dennett, drawing on evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics and philosophy, demonstrates that free will exists in a deterministic world for humans only, and that this gives us morality, meaning, and moral culpability. Weaving a richly detailed narrative…”

So, as we were saying in class last time, we are “special”-and it’s not arrogant to say so, it’s just naturally human.

In his first Gifford Lecture, Gazzaniga says to understand anything from a biologic perspective requires an evolutionary context to make sense of emergent complexity and cultural expectations like volitional self-control. Again, in Dennett’s phrase, freedom evolves. So, free will? Maybe the internalization of civility and a socially-sanctioned willingness to apply the brakes to otherwise-determined behaviors, which we might better call free won’t, is freedom enough for us. We’re free at least, apparently, to tell that story.

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RT @mtsu_religion: Join us for the MTSU Religious Studies Colloquium is on Monday, February 24 from 11:30AM-12:30 PM in Student Union 206. The topic of our talk is “The Crisis in Kashmir.” Our speaker, Dr. Hafsa Kanjwal, is among the world’s leading experts on this topic. Free lunch! https://t.co/9SCgPvdEcz

February 19, 2020

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: The real Socrates, https://t.co/8K1JkrWNNe

February 18, 2020

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The real Socrates,

February 18, 2020

What a gorgeous day we had in middle Tennessee yesterday, perfect weather for biking at Edwin Warner and hiking at the Burch Reserve Trail. Spring was in the air. I’m ready.

In CoPhi today, we’ll search for the real Socrates.

Those who know Socrates mainly through the writings of Plato – Xenophon’s near-exact contemporary – will find Xenophon’s Socrates something of a surprise. Plato’s Socrates claims to know nothing, and flamboyantly refutes the knowledge claims of others. In the pages of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, however, Socrates actually answers philosophical questions, dispenses practical life advice, provides arguments proving the existence of benevolent gods, converses as if peer-to-peer with a courtesan, and even proposes a domestic economy scheme whereby indigent female relatives can become productive through the establishment of a textile business at home… this Socrates takes his conversation partner through logical steps that are not designed to refute him or humiliate him, but to awaken him to a different way of looking at the natural world… It’s not brow-beating, but gentle leading, which leaves his intellectual self-respect intact. This is a hallmark of Xenophon’s Socrates.

Another recent re-take of “the real Socrates” suggests a less buttoned-down version, “more worldly and amorous than we knew.” More importantly, it cites Aristotle’s insistence that Socrates was more sympathetic to his own philosophy than to Plato’s. “For him, Socrates was also a more down-to-earth thinker than Plato sought to depict… the picture of Socrates bequeathed by Plato should not be accepted uncritically.”

On the heels of Valentine’s Day, note: Socrates “is famous for saying: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ But the one thing he claims, in Plato’s Symposium, that he does know about, is love, which he learned about from a clever woman.” Diotima? Or “an instructor of eloquence and relationship counsellor” called Aspasia?

Either way, the iconic version of Socrates is one who values extended and even interminable conversations that disabuse all interlocutors of any dogmatic assurance they may have assumed. The wise know that they know not. And so it’s very hard to believe that the real Socrates would have endorsed Plato’s rigidly top-down authoritarian Republic.

After all, Socrates is one of the deepest roots of our “reflex to disbelieve official explanations.” Fantasyland  also reminds us  today that the suspicion and paranoia endemic to public life in our day is rooted in a bad old habit of inventing conspiracies where none exist. The Freemasons, for instance, are and always were simply fraternal organizations for guys who like to socialize and “perform goofy secret rituals,” not a pernicious cabal out to rule the world.

In A&P today we’ll hear from Heather of Christopher Hitchens, mortality, and meaning. I’m fond of quoting Hitch’s answer to the nihilist (or Extreme Existentialist) who proclaims meaninglessness as our natural condition. “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.” That’s pragmatism to the rescue again.

I like Walter Glannon’s statement: “We do not ‘find’ meaning in the brain, any more than an existentialist ‘finds’ meaning in the world. Rather, we construct it from the actions we perform on the basis of our brain-enabled mental capacities… There is more to persons than can be dreamed of in our neuroscience.”

Socrates would like that too. Plato, I’m not so sure.

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Sadly, inexcusably (as Mr. Prine said), “some humans ain’t human.” https://t.co/lGe0gD7doO

February 17, 2020

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RT @brianstelter: John Oliver started his new season Sunday night with a bracing 20-minute look at America’s broken health care system: https://t.co/iETa8ZtGQF https://t.co/7dp7LjI98D

February 17, 2020

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Cousin John is back! https://t.co/LlD4Ce7F0p

February 17, 2020

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: High hopes https://t.co/DjUbsowMbL

February 13, 2020

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High hopes

February 13, 2020

Happy Almost Valentines Day and Happy Day After Darwin Day. My favorite Darwin quote: “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” And if they’re lucky they’ll make it to 63. (“Keep your health, your splendid health,” James told his friend Schiller. Mine was briefly in doubt last night, but I’m feeling resilient today-just in time for the party.)

Darwin’s most constructive (for us) regret: “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness…” But once a week is not enough. We need a daily dose of music and poetry (among other things) to flourish.

Also on my mind since yesterday: the new New Yorker piece on Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens (which means wise people). If his large message really is that “our political struggles barely matter” and that it’s okay not to care, then that’s not okay. The Lorax again speaks for me and the trees. “If someone like you doesn’t care a whole awful lot, nothing’s gonna get better. It’s not.” If we’re going to live up to our name (“sapiens,” wise guys) we’ll listen to him. We can’t afford the luxury of complacent optimism but we’d better be hopeful. Don’t panic, but also don’t stop thinking about (and working for) tomorrow. Nice to see an accurate write-up on that message in our student paper.

Today in CoPhi we note Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation that advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, for a scientific neophyte. We have lots of those, for whom magical thinking is the norm. Where’s the harm in that? one might ask. Isn’t it like homeopathy, benign and mostly harmless? But of course it IS harmful to your health to deny yourself effective medication in deference to snake oil. Surely it does harm our society that so many would impede the progressive promise of scientific rationalism. And it harms the children of magical thinkers to deny the reality of pain, suffering, and disease.

Mr. Twain again: history rhymes. Trouble is, so many of us have a tin ear for poetry.

The great California Gold Rush, says Kurt Andersen, was an inflection point in our history when many Americans began to entertain the fantasy of heaven on earth and the entrepreneurial spirit was born. Our national mythos obscures “the forgotten millions of losers and nincompoops” whose fantasies fell flat. But we celebrate those hard-luck ants and grasshoppers, those nose to the grindstone puritans with “a weakness for stories too good to be true,” who pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. They have high apple pie in the sky hopes. Or maybe just holes in the head.

Today in A&P we wonder with Neil Levy about choices without choosers and “a neuropsychologically plausible existentialism” according to which unity can be imposed on what we may choose to call ourselves (but not our selves?). Levy does not agree with Dan Dennett, though, in characterizing the self as a “user illusion.” There’s more to us than that, in the form of “a system with causal powers and the capacity to act on the world.” Such a system presumably can be authentic or not, in more-or-less familiar Existentialist terms.

For the trio of authors of “Relational Authenticity” it all comes down to 4Ms and 4Es: mind, meaning, morals, and modality are situated in a way that is embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended…


Heideggerian authenticity can sound a lot like parochial nationalism, with his emphasis on the establishment of identity through shared practices of a specific environment – especially if that environment is identified with a homeland and a “hero”-for heroes are rarely without their villains, whether truly villainous or scapegoated and persecuted. That may have been the furthest implication from his intent, but it’s hard to give a defender of the Reich an unprejudicial hearing.

Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus all come in for consideration and scrutiny here. A question for J-P (too bad we’ve come too late to hop the channel with Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion to ask him…and too bad that Python video has been blocked):

Is your famously disingenuous waiter really so inauthentic? Or is it mutually and rightly understood by waiter and customer alike that role-playing is an inescapable element of normal human life? Is it so different from playing professor-and-student? That’s a frequently-fun game – finite or infinite? “(Infinite games are more mysterious — and ultimately more rewarding. They are unscripted and unpredictable; they are the source of true freedom.”) –  I’ve always felt was authentic enough to continue indefinitely. My hopes are high for the play to go on and on.

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