Find continuing reflections caught at daybreak at http://jposopher.blogspot.com/
Back from Birmingham, where I was pleased to meet John Kaag and thank him for his American Philosophy: A Love Story. “Looking back, I had the realization that at one point in the not-so-distant past, philosophy wasn’t the sort of thing that was discussed only at formal conferences and in arcane journals. It was exchanged over dinner, between families. It was the stuff of everyday life.” And, “The love of wisdom was not bound in academic journals that no one read; it rather permeated all aspects of human existence.”
So, buoyed by Platonism, he “put all forms of materialism firmly behind him” and “turned back the clock of intelletcual history.” The old Greek commitment to reason was not finally comforting enough to him. “He returned to a version of the comforting supernatural stories which most of the first philosophers sought to dispense with, or at least to rationalize.”
Anselm’s God, “than which nothing greater can be conceived,” and his famous “proof” thereof, is another of those notorious sleights of hand made to do heavy philosophical lifting with nothing more muscular than verbiage. It’s still shocking to me, how many bright people (including young Russell, briefly) it’s seduced.
Speaking of great misfortune, poor Abelard’s is painful to ponder. Gottlieb blames “his scholarly prowess and his passionate involvement with logic” for emboldening him to his own seduction. How ironic, that he would go on to make his mark as “the first serious moral philosopher of medieval times” and “to apply rational analysis to the nature of moral goodness.” Too little, too late.
Moses Maimonides did not address Abelard’s peculiar form of perplexity but did try to bring philosophy, science, and religion together. “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.” But try telling that to the world. He was right, though. “You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” But, “Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.”
He was onto confirmation bias early. “We naturally like what we have been accustomed to, and are attracted towards it. […] The same is the case with those opinions of man to which he has been accustomed from his youth; he likes them, defends them, and shuns the opposite views.”
William of Ockham’s famous “razor” said we should keep our theories simple, our ontology thin. Remember Goober’s beard?
Giordano Bruno was a mystic fri ar, but he also had a vivd scifi imagination. He said there must be other worlds and “countless suns” out there in the Void, “innumerable globes like this on which we live and grow.” We’ve only confirmed that in the past twenty years or so. It (and other heresies) got him torched in 1600. Neil Tyson tells his story.
Finally today, Aquinas. His First Cause Argument, echoing Aristotle, said a never-ending series of causes and effects would lead to an unacceptable regress. The first term in any explanatory sequence, he thought, has to be self-evident. But is that itself self-evident?
More questions: Can the definition of a word prove anything about the world? Is theoretical simplicity always better, even if the universe is complex? Does the possibility of other worlds somehow diminish humanity? Which is more plausible, that God exists but is not more powerful than Satan, or that neither God nor Satan exists? Why? Are supernatural stories of faith, redemption, and salvation comforting to you than the power of reason and evidence? And what do you say to Carl Sagan?:
“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
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Back from the break, diving into neo-Platonism and scholasticism, and a report on Harry Frankfurt’s Bullshit (“On Bullshit” was originally penned in ’86 and published in ’05). “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this.” Yes, everyone. Especially the purveyors, who don’t really believe their own horse hockey. Do they? Or care about it, so long as it’s “believable” enough to support the brand? Frankfurt, by the way, also wrote the natural sequel: “On Truth“… boy do we need that now more than ever!
The year 529 is a semi-arbitrary but convenient milestone, with Emperor Justinian’s shuttering of the philosophical schools in Athens ushering in a millennium of intellectual somnambulism. The Sleeping Beauty version of this narrative says philosophy pricked its finger on Christianity and awaited an awakening buss from its aforementioned French rationalist Prince Rene in the 17th century.
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Hint: How many bodies do you need to dance? Call this the Caspar the Friendly Ghost Problem: how can Caspar move through a wall AND catch a ball? Dan Dennett is “convinced that Descartes’ dualism — the idea that an immaterial mind interacts with a material body — was a ‘cul-de-sac’… ‘There was a latent contradiction built into the very idea of Casper the Friendly Ghost and basically that’s what’s wrong with dualism. Nobody’s ever solved that problem remotely satisfactorily.'” It was an entertaining show, but I recall being perturbed when they interrupted it one day to break the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.
Another Diogenes (not the Dog Philosopher) created “the strangest document in the history of philosophy” (c.120 AD) with a huge Vietnam Memorial-like colonnade inscribed with Epicurean wisdom updated to catch the zeitgeist of “salvation” through philosophy. That’s not really what Epicurus was talking about.
Plotinus’s “Neoplatonism” was trying to eff the ineffable, to describe the indescribable. Futility, thy name is Plotinus. It all comes down (or goes up?) to The One, for him. But it’s all the same, isn’t it, in this Heraclitean flux? But The One is beyond being. Doesn’t seem like there’d be much more to say. Just, “withdraw into yourself and look.”
Amy Krouse Rosenthal has died. She was not lost. Her remarkable viral essay bespeaks a love of life that was its own saving grace. “Her favorite line from literature, she once said, was in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” as spoken by the character Emily as she bids the world goodbye: ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?’
When she reached 40, Ms. Rosenthal began calculating how many days she had left until she turned 80.
“How many more times, then, do I get to look at a tree?” she asked. “Let’s just say it’s 12,395. Absolutely, that’s a lot, but it’s not infinite, and I’m thinking anything less than infinite is too small a number and not satisfactory. At the very least, I want to look at trees a million more times. Is that too much to ask?”
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Today in CoPhi it’s skeptics. Or sceptics, if you prefer the British spelling. Or you can follow their lead and refuse to commit. “Don’t commit, and you won’t be disappointed.”
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These anti-realist doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry… Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial-notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
Read Skeptic magazine, which in the latest issue doubts the possibility of eternal youth and features the parodic perspective of Mr. Deity. Skeptic’s editor Michael Shermer says “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” And, “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know.”
Pyrrho must not have been that crazy, to have lived to nearly ninety. “He did not act carelessly in the details of everyday life,” said a defender, he just suspended judgment as to their ultimate import in the larger truths of things. Or maybe he just wanted to protect his batting average, so to speak. If you never swing, you’ll never miss. But you’ll still strike out if you take too many.
So let’s not throw in the sponge on humanity just yet. What a strange expression, “throwing in the sponge”-it comes from the Roman Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who told a story about a painter who stopped trying so hard to paint the perfect representation of a horse’s mouth and discovered that sometimes it’s best to just let fly. Fling your sponge, let it land where it may. Okay, if you’re just painting. If you’re living a life, though, maybe just a bit less skepticism is prudent.
Is it possible to go through life questioning and doubting everything, committing always to nothing, and holding no firm opinions? Is it desirable or useful to try doing so? And do you know anyone who doesn’t look both ways before crossing the street?
Happy birthday Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), who said “If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew, just go right along and you’ll start happening too.” And “It’s opener, out there, in the wide, open air.” And “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.” And “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Happy birthday too to Tom Wolfe, who admired the Stoics and asked “What is it you’re looking for in this endless quest? Tranquillity. You think if only you can acquire enough worldly goods, enough recognition, enough eminence, you will be free, there’ll be nothing more to worry about, and instead you become a bigger and bigger slave to how you think others are judging you.” And “One of the few freedoms that we have as human beings that cannot be taken away from us is the freedom to assent to what is true and to deny what is false. Nothing you can give me is worth surrendering that freedom for.”
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It’s Gottlieb’s Epicureans & Stoics today in CoPhi, a bit more refined than Warburton’s. What would they say about Sunday night’s Oscar kerfuffle? The Epicureans would probably just say not to waste money on Hollywood, the Stoics that there’s no point in grumbling about either Academy (Plato’s or the motion picture industry). Both would advise therapy for anyone who takes it all too seriously. “The key to wisdom is knowing what not to care about.”
“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.
So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”
If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently. William James, “Gospel of Relaxation“
Epicureanism was the ancestral precursor of utilitarianism and its “greatest happiness for the greatest number” approach to life. The big difference, though, is that you can’t really maximize happiness in the style of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill while also shunning “any direct involvement in public life.” Can you?
Epicurus was apparently the first to state the intractable problem of free will and determinism. If the random knocking-about of atoms gives rise to every event, where does that leave us? On the sidelines, observing but not directing our fate? That won’t do. Will it?
The Stoics thought the Epicureans were wrong about plenty, but agreed with them that we live in a material world. Everything is physical, in its own way. Okay, but we’re natural spirits in the material world. We’re not just bouncing atoms, even if the occasional swerve leaves us guessing about the next configuration. Our breath is fiery and animated, and we have consequential choices and decisions to make.
But there’s a yawning inconsistency at the heart of the Stoic worldview, Gottlieb says. “If they are right about Fate, then nothing at all is under our control.” Not even our attitudes and inner reactions to external events. Back to the drawing board. Or back to the therapist’s couch.
Can philosophers can be good therapists, or as good (in their different way) as psychologists? People like Lou Marinoff say so. Others say: dream on.
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It’s Epicurus and the Stoics today in CoPhi, and (I think) more walking philosophy reports, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. “Stuff your eyes with wonder,” and don’t “hide your ignorance… you’ll never learn.” Well, the un-bookish oafs currently running the show in Washington haven’t concealed their ignorance, but will they ever learn? Will we ever learn to stop electing un-bookish oafs?
Epicurus and his friends retired from public life, having lost all patience with the unhappy society of their peers whose fear of death they diagnosed as a waste of time and a violation of logic. Better to live simply and bravely with your pals, they thought, pursuing (but not wallowing in) pleasure and avoiding the gratuitous mental pain of the material rat race. Like Aristotle they wanted to live well and flourish, with a bit more emphasis on fun and happiness. Also like Aristotle, they deeply valued friendship. Their commune inspired Marx’s dissertation.
Be calm and carry on, as we say. “Calm is an internal quality that is the result of analysis: it comes when we sift through our worries and correctly understand them. We therefore need ample time to read, to write, and most of all, to benefit from the regular support of a good listener: a sympathetic, kind, clever person who in Epicurus’s time would have been a philosopher, and whom we would now call a therapist.”
Ataraxia, calm, tranquility, serenity, equanimity… that’s the big stoic aim, based on the idea that we can’t control external events but can control our inner attitudes and responses. Can we? Shouldn’t we try, in any case? We should control our emotions, say stoics like Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius, lest they overwhelm us with the madness of violent feeling.
“The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance.” They’d have been pleased to ponder all those game-changing “new” exoplanets, and (unlike some religions, says David Weintraub) to welcome ET. Winston Churchill too: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”
Some questions: Are you afraid of death, of dying, or of any other aspect of human mortality? Why or why not? What’s the best way to counter such fear? Are you epicurean in any sense of the word? Have you experienced the death of someone close to you? How did you handle it? Do you believe in the possibility of a punitive and painful afterlife? Do you care about the lives of those who will survive you? Which do you consider more important? Why? Do you consider Epicurus’s disbelief in immortal souls a solution to the problem of dying, or an evasion of it? Do you find the thought of ultimate mortality consoling or mortifying?
And one more: Can Epicureans and Stoics help us break our addiction to the spectacle of Drumpf? “…as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all.” Can we afford the luxury of ignoring him? Can we sustain our sanity if we don’t? What do you say, Emperor?
- “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
- “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
- “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
- “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
- “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
Happy 384th birthday to master diarist Sam Pepys, who expressed an epicurean attitude when he observed “how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” He was more the hedonist, though. “The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.” Gather ye rosebuds…
5:30/6:26, 55/76, 5:34
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Aristotle, dubbed by Dante “master of those who know,” loved Plato but he loved truth more. “All men by nature desire to know.” I don’t know about that. In our time we’re seeing strong confirmation for the proposition that all desire to assert what they believe as if they knew it, or as if knowledge just meant firm conviction and not justified true belief. If we all had a natural instinct for truth we’d have a lot less talk about alt-facts. The reality-based community would feel a lot more secure and facts would change our minds. Summarizing the latest literature on confirmation (“myside”) bias and irrationality Elizabeth Kolbert writes:
“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding”… And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Drumpf Administration.
…Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science…
“The Enigma of Reason,” “The Knowledge Illusion,” and “Denying to the Grave” were all written before the November election. And yet they anticipate Kellyanne Conway and the rise of “alternative facts.” These days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run either by no one or by Steve Bannon. Rational agents would be able to think their way to a solution. But, on this matter, the literature is not reassuring.
He’s also concerned about our current rash of unreason, telling an interviewer “the real danger that’s facing us is we’ve lost respect for truth and facts. People have discovered that it’s much easier to destroy reputations for credibility than it is to maintain them. It doesn’t matter how good your facts are, somebody else can spread the rumour that you’re fake news. We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced since the middle ages.” Ironic. The middle ages distorted and perverted Aristotle’s respect for truth and facts. Is the postmodern age about to sin against his philosophy again?
God might be a mystery, though it mystifies some that Aristotle’s God thinks so much about Himself. “The idea that there was a being who one morning conjured up the universe out of nothing and then busied himself handing out rewards and punishments to its measly inhabitants” did not mystify The Philosopher, it annoyed him.
The fundamental type of existence for Aristotle is not to be found in Plato’s self-subsisting world of eternal Ideas or Forms, it’s just ordinary things – trees, rocks, plants, animals. The former “puts the cart before the horse” and tempts me to trot out that bad old Descartes pun too soon. Instead I’ll just put a few questions in the spirit of the great founding empiricist. Would you rather attend Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum? Have you ever sharply disagreed with a teacher whom you nonetheless deeply admired? Is art really a “cave within a cave”, or a source of light and truth?
Speaking of *lions… “Most of the ideas that went into The Communist Manifesto [published on this date in 1848] were brainstormed over the course of a week and a half in a room above an English pub — a pub called the Red Lion, located in the Soho district of London.” And it’s the birthday of the brilliant but troubled David Foster Wallace, who diagnosed part of our problem when he said “postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.” WA (“This Is Water“)
5:30/6:28, 56/68, 5:32
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Today in CoPhi it’s our first pass at Aristotle. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer” (or a spring-were the Greeks really so vague about the seasons as these alternative translations suggest?) was his most poetic observation by far.
If then the work of Man is a working of the soul in accordance with reason, or at least not independently of reason… and we assume the work of Man to be life of a certain kind, that is to say a working of the soul, and actions with reason, and of a good man to do these things well and nobly, and in fact everything is finished off well in the way of the excellence which peculiarly belongs to it: if all this is so, then the Good of Man comes to be “a working of the Soul in the way of Excellence,” or, if Excellence admits of degrees, in the way of the best and most perfect Excellence.
And we must add, in a complete life; for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.
From 335 B.C. to 323 B.C. (in which latter year Alexander died), Aristotle lived at Athens. It was during these twelve years that he founded his school and wrote most of his books. At the death of Alexander, the Athenians rebelled, and turned on his friends, including Aristotle, who was indicted for impiety, but, unlike Socrates, fled to avoid punishment. In the next year ( 322) he died. Aristotle, as a philosopher, is in many ways very different from all his predecessors. He is the first to write like a professor: his treatises are systematic, his discussions are divided into heads, he is a professional teacher, not an inspired prophet. His work is critical, careful, pedestrian, without any trace of Bacchic enthusiasm.
So many of the circumstances of life are beyond our control, on either side of the grave. Can we increase our chance of eudaimonia, or must we just learn to accept our fate and let happiness happen or not? Aristotle says we can take steps to develop our character, form strong habits, and live the good life. This is only partly subject to our control, since much depends on the quality of our early nurture. Some overcome adverse beginnings, others are derailed. Life and luck are unfair.
And that’s why Aristotle was so concerned to create a just society, a polis capable of nurturing and supporting all its citizens (except slaves and women-in this regard Plato scores over his pupil). “We live together, and need to find our happiness by interacting well with those around us in a well-ordered state.” If you choose to go it alone, you may or may not be pleased with your life but you definitely won’t flourish in Aristotle’s terms.
Only hedonists conflate pleasure and happiness, but that doesn’t mean the relation between them is easy to pin down. Wouldn’t Aristotle admit that it might be possible to indulge the right pleasures at the right time for the right reasons etc., thus acknowledging that the time and place for pleasure is always a matter of judicious discretion? Bertrand Russell seemed to think he would not, and for that reason found the Nichomachean Ethics less than wholly appealing. “The book appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seveteenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.” Repulsive!
I would have said tepid, not repulsive, but Russell has a bit of a point. I’ll still line up on Aristotle’s side of the School of Athens. Which side are you on?
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In CoPhi today it’s another look at Socrates, Plato, and reports on Peter Singer’s altruism, Homer Simpson’s pursuit of happiness, and George Orwell’s ideological dystopia in which “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Before all that, though, a new John Lachs podcast interview reveals the heart and mind of “a wise old wizard” forever seeking the true pivot point between stoic acceptance of limits and a pragmatic “can do” spirit of intelligence and reason brought to bear on the boundless challenges of living. Living is hard, and Lachs loves to stir things up by saying the thing you least expect to hear. Here, for instance, he declares compassion and guilt useless emotions, and activism too often a misspent passion. In fact he’s one of the most compassionate and caring people I’ve ever known, and one of the most committed agents of constructive change. He’s a tireless proponent of liberty, hence a foe of “meddling”. He says we all need to stop telling others how to be happy, and let them seek their own good in their own ways.
Another new podcast features my Vandy friends Aikin and Talisse, delivering 15 minute bursts of unscripted philosophizing. So many good words, so little time!
We would be remiss, on this holiday of love, not to take just a bit of time and spend a few good words on the subject. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates say Diotima taught him all about amor. “She was my instructress in the art of love,” which she declares an intermediate spirit between mortals and the divine. It begins “from the beauties of earth and mount(s) upwards for the sake of that other beauty, the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is… beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he [the true philosopher of love] will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities…”
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