I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Pinhead dancers and friendly ghosts https://t.co/RR4qkHOg9G

October 23, 2017

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Pinhead dancers and friendly ghosts

October 23, 2017

[Orig. publ. 3.14.17]
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!

Also, reports are scheduled on Peter Singer’s Ethics in the Real World and (with Descartes and his “what if I’m dreaming?” worry in mind) Inception (“Forget the end of the film. Think about the beginning and the real world…”). Maybe Nigel Warburton’s Classics too. And the Simpsons again? D’oh!

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.

Looking back from then, Francis Bacon would complain of “cobwebs of learning” and Thomas Hobbes would say the problem was Roman religion’s sponsorship of “Aristotelity”-which is is not Aristotelianism but its unthinking authoritarian parody, made to conform with Church dogma and stripped of curiosity. 
It needn’t have been so. A respectful Aristotelianism fused with theology might have had wonderful discursive results, with talk of soul and sin leading seamlessly into fruitful reflections on mind-body and free will. Instead, “Christians were required to believe, for example, that a piece of wafer could become flesh… and that God could become three persons at once.” 

Were? Past tense?  Let’s not be smug, standing here potentially on the precipice of another Dark Ages “led” by benighted Climate and Science Deniers, Conspiracy Kooks, and ethnic chauvinists. Sad. Scary. Wonder what Stephen King thinks of Steve King? Who’s scarier? No contest.
“By the year 1000, medicine, physics, astronomy, biology and indeed all branches of theoretical knowledge except theology had virtually collapsed. Even the few relatively educated men, holed up in mosasteries, knew markedly less than many Greeks had done eight centuries earlier… In short, Christendom was colossally ignorant.”
The cult of Aristotle was sloppy, and inattentive to their favorite (& only) Philosopher’s actual views. Medieval Christians “knew” that the soul survives death. Aristotle said it didn’t, his God was disinterested in humans, and he was dubious about that wafer. We must not forget that “he himself was animated by the spirit of open-minded inquiry,” which at its best uses the spoken and printed word to fuel passionate curiosity-not shut it down. So, “the real problem with medieval learning is that the medieval professors allowed themselves to be tyrannized by books… Instead of putting ideas to the test of new experience, they… put them to the test of old books.” Old books are great, but they should never have the last word.

Image result for casper the friendly ghost catching a ballHow 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.

I want to get a word in for Philo of Alexandria, the millennial philosopher with the perfect name who nowadays gets little attention or respect. He began, and a pagan teacher named Alcinous continued, “a tradition of marrying holy scriptures to Greek philosophy” with the claim that the God of scripture is identical with the Good of Plato. (“Plato himself would have insisted that they were utterly different.) Like many arranged marriages, these were often bereft of passion and hard to sustain. But it was, and for some still is, a popular tradition.

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. 

This is another arranged marriage likely to founder, unless we understand that those who’ve attained ataraxia consider themselves already “saved,” not lost. They aren’t looking to go anywhere. As Jennifer Michael Hecht says, Epicureans aren’t looking for a path out of the forest. They just wanted to hang a “Home Sweet Home” sign on a tree” and chill. “…pick some blueberries, sit beneath a tree, and start describing how the sun-dappled forest floor shimmers in the breeze… Just try to have a good time.”

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.” 

When he withdrew and looked, Plotinus claimed to see that  “the world is finite, harmonious, and good,” that it possesses a purchase on divine perfection by virtue of the continuous “emanations” therefrom that reach even us. How does he know that? “The stars are like letters that inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky. Everything in the world is full of signs. All events are coordinated. All things depend on each other. Everything breathes together.” Yes, but… You really get all that from a sweep of introspection, Plotinus? Why don’t I? Why doesn’t everyone? Is it possible you’re reading some things into your account, engaging in a bit of wishful thinking? And engaging in a bit of corporeal revulsion, “almost ashamed of being in the body”? But how, except with your body, are you going to hammer up a HOME sign, sit under a tree, and chill?  
Proclus of Athens (*412–485 C.E.) was the most authoritative philosopher of late antiquity and played a crucial role in the transmission of Platonic philosophy from antiquity to the Middle Ages.” He was a magical thinker, holding that “the job of philosophy was merely to explain spiritual truths which had already been arrived at by other means” and “treat[ing] the basic premises of his theology as if they were beyond question.” Magical thinking endures in our time. Fortunately, questioners do too.
Lots of good questions suggest themselves today. How do we respect and revere books without being “tyrannized” by them, for instance? How should we think about Caspar? What is “salvation”? What’s the job of philosophy? My answer to the last: to help us figure out how not to be tyrannized, how to think about Caspar, how not to think of ourselves as “lost” so we won’t have to be “saved.”
Amy Krouse Rosenthal has died. She was not lost. Her remarkable viral essay bespeaks an Epicurean 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?”
Happy birthday Albert Einstein, who said “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” And, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” And, “It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”  And, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

5:30/7 am, 37/41/22, 6:51

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Summery autumn! https://t.co/4ORJHOFRQx

October 20, 2017

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Happy bday John Dewey, who said schools are useless unless they teach students how to live as members of a community https://t.co/n0UcpzuiK7

October 20, 2017

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: The Happy Heretic-David Hume https://t.co/lvwbAwmk4X

October 19, 2017

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The Happy Heretic-David Hume

October 19, 2017

Back to Happiness, after a lovely little Fall Break. Spent part of mine happily with family and bicycle in the woods around The University of the South, in Sewanee. The Domain, they call it, kind of a world unto itself. Profs and students wear gowns to class, and “Sewanee angels watch over and protect the members of the Sewanee community…” Well, if it makes them happy to think so I suppose a heretic should raise no serious objection, since the Anglican-modeled Episcopalians on the Mountain tend not to proselytize or persecute.  What would David Hume say? Or “primitive cultures” and/or Bill Wilson? (I’m unclear about today’s report topic. Are 12-steppers a primitive culture? Hmm…)

[Orig. published 10.15.15:]

It was kind of an unofficial Heretics Day in CoPhi, with Spinoza and reports on Galileo, and Luther. The theme continues this morning with more Luther, and St. Paul (another equestrian accidentalist like Montaigne, not usually described as a heretic… but what else should we call the inventor of such major tenets of the incipient upstart Christian faith as Jesus’ divinity, holy spirit, atonement etc.? ); and in Happiness we’re spending just a bit of time with the happy heretic David Hume,  “Le Bon David,” “the Great Infidel.” He said:

  • “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.”
  • “Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness.”
  • “He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper, but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to his circumstance.”
  • “Heaven and Hell suppose two distinct species of men, the Good and the Bad. But the greatest part of mankind float betwixt vice and virtue.” 
  • “To be a philosophical Sceptic is the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.” 
  • “If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.”
One of Hume’s heresies, increasingly mainstream with time and the ubiquity of Buddhist thinking, is the illusion of selfhood. “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…” This is a subtraction that many, like Alison Gopnik, have found additive. Lost baggage can lighten a journey and gladden the heart.

Until Hume, philosophers had searched for metaphysical foundations supporting our ordinary experience, an omnipotent God or a transcendent reality outside our minds. But Hume undermined all that. When you really look hard at everything we think we know, he argued, the foundations crumble. Descartes at least had said you always know that you yourself exist (“I think, therefore I am”), but Hume rejected even that premise…

But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game. 

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people… (continues)

Another Humean heresy, especially where I live, is his skepticism regarding miracles.

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should have really happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of the testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

It’s not a position most students are initially happy with, but in the long run the habit of “rejecting the greater miracle” removes motes from the eyes and restores clear vision. For some, that’s the greatest miracle of all.

5:30/6:55, 49/79

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Middle Ages https://t.co/HKnLjnVAgc

October 18, 2017

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Middle Ages

October 18, 2017

Back from Fall Break…

[Orig. published March 2017:]

What a summery first day of Spring that was!

Back from the philosophy conference in Birmingham, in Vulcan‘s shadow, where I was pleased to meet John Kaag and thank him for his American Philosophy: A Love Story. He’s a peripatetic too, noting that “walking gives one many things,” especially time and attention. “Looking back,” he writes, “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.”

And most pointedly: “The point of American philosophy isn’t to be ‘right’… is not to have a specific rock-solid point, but rather to outline a problem, explore its context, get a sense of the whole experiential situation…” Always good to remember, at a conference. SAAP conferees tend to remember it better than some others.

Then, I contributed my small bit to the William James Society‘s panel discussion of immortality “re-envisioned“and “Existential Pluralism” and reaffirmed our continuing commitment as public philosophers to the ongoing project of constructively melding and applying American philosophy’s traditional elements – pragmatism, pluralism, radical empiricism, and especially meliorism. Some of my friends find it very difficult to do that, on paper. In practice, and in the spirit of James, I don’t see how we can possibly fail to try.

I’m with him: “I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world’s forests and rustled in the breeze should become immortal. It is purely a question: are the leaves so, or not?” Only time and experience will finally tell. In the meantime, we must remember: “The inner significance of other lives exceeds all our powers of sympathy and insight. If we feel a significance in our own life which would lead us spontaneously to claim its perpetuity, let us be at least tolerant of like claims made by other lives.”  Let us not let “blindness lay down the law to sight.” And let us not stamp out possibilities, prematurely.

The most compelling and most vulnerable possibility these days, surely, is the very continuation of lives worth living. The really vital question persists: what is life going to make of itself, on this earth of things? That’s the existential question. As Billy Collins says in today’s poem (“The Order of the Day”), you never really know.

In late antiquity and the middle ages the big questions tended to be more about life’s rumored sequel and how to achieve it. Augustine first thought you had to make alliance with the forces of good, in their death struggle with the forces of darkness. He was on the right track, I tend to think, before his big conversion. He was right to suppose that our side needs all good hands on deck, to resist and overcome evil. He put that conversion off as long as he could, praying for purity but only in due course. For the record, though: I don’t think he was right to think of our carnal condition as an entombment. Incorporeal souls sow no wild oats, ascetics enjoy few existential delights.

So, buoyed by Platonism, he “put all forms of materialism firmly behind him” and “turned back the clock of intellectual 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.”

Boethius‘s Consolation of Philosophy dialogue found its own form of comfort, not in Augustine’s Christianity but in Lady Philosophy’s timeless stoicism. God (or Good?) sees all in a single atemporal sweep, “at a go,” and thus somehow leaves the hapless victim of tortured persecution and execution as free as it found him. He can still choose to be “philosophical” about every misfortune, even to his dying breath on the rack. His freedom’s a lot like Kris Kristofferson’s and Janis Joplin’s, “just another word for nothing left to lose.”

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 undertake his own fateful 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.”

Was he really the first to say this?: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Did he anticipate James’s Will to Believe notion that “our errors are not such awfully solemn things”? “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”

He was sort of a bioethicist before his time: The physician should not treat the disease but the patient who is suffering from it.” And, “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.” Actually that might have helped Abelard, with a little timely saltpeter in his diet.

William of Ockham‘s famous “razor” said we should keep our theories simple, our ontology thin. “It is pointless to do with more what can be done with less.” Remember Goober’s beard?

Remember Buridan’s Ass? Apparently “no such animal appears in his writings.” Too bad, he’s been such a workhorse for logicians.

Giordano Bruno was a mystic friar, 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. Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson tell 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? Russell says, of “the supposed impossibility of a series having no first term: Every mathematician knows that there is no such impossibility; the series of negative integers ending with minus one is an instance to the contrary. But here again no Catholic is likely to abandon belief in God even if he becomes convinced that Saint Thomas’s arguments are bad; he will invent other arguments, or take refuge in revelation.” It’s not just Catholics. Remember confirmation bias?

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.” 

3.14.17. Happy birthday J.S. Bach, who said “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.” That’s not what Dan Dennett says in From Bacteria to Bach and Back. “You shouldn’t trust your intuitions. Conceivability or inconceivability is a life’s work—it’s not something where you just screw up your head for a second!”

The Alabama Freedom March began on this date in 1965. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and 3,200 demonstrators set off on a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the disenfranchisement of black voters… WA
5:30/6:50, 59/73/46, 6:57 

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Spinoza’s joy https://t.co/PxmW9Ive8z

October 12, 2017

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Spinoza’s joy

October 12, 2017

Today in Happiness we finish Frederic Lenoir’s Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide. It’s an answer to the SoL’s charge that western academic philosophy no longer offers the kind of therapeutic balm and succor, the therapy, that inspired the Hellenistic Age. We have resources too, if you’re willing to cherry-pick your western medicine: a little Stoicism here, a little Epicureanism there, a little Spinoza, a little Plato (not Prozac)…

But first, a word of appreciation for our reporters last time. That mindful moment out on the Peck Hall stoa, framed by a gentle rain, was calming. We should do that again.

Spinoza was mindful in his way. His possessions were few: books, desk, optical workshop, the four-poster bed of both his conception and his demise. Do people who retain tangible continuity with the familiar furniture of their lives, over a lifetime, find peace of mind easier to have and hold?

He wanted to free us from the “cruel illusion” of free will, in deference to the “spinozism of freedom” (as my old teacher called it) that he found in surrender to causal necessity. To be free, in these terms, is to shelve the will and find liberation in rational understanding. It’s to transcend the narrow and selfish ego, to discard the sense of personal marginality and alienation, to embrace the widest possible identity in the whole.

Does that identity squeeze out particularity and individualism? Not in Lenoir’s interpretation. “We must all learn to know ourselves in order to discover what makes us happy or unhappy…” 

Well, good. Great. But what if we discover that what makes us happy is the sense of ourselves as causal agents whose wills do sometimes find expression in purposive activity that makes a difference, that alters events and creates alternative futures? What if we desire that identity? Is it a bad desire?

“The role of reason then consists not in judging and reprimanding a bad desire (as morality does), but in arousing new desires, more securely established, that will bring us greater joy.” Lenoir offers the example of his niece, whom he says reason instructed to desire a more serious approach to school. Reason, not will, “enabled her to do all that was necessary…” (165) Are we sure about that? I’m not.

To be happy we must “focus on energizing the forces of life: to nourish joy, love, compassion, kindness, tolerance, benevolent thoughts, self-esteem…” Sounds like a big job for reason alone.

Is “joy” a passing emotion or a “permanent feeling”? It can be both, surely. But our “essential truth” is that “joy of living” that engenders gratitude, harmony, peace, and freedom. Spinoza’s way is one path, but it’s not the only one. Lenoir’s last words echo some of what we heard on Tuesday about finding happiness within ourselves, urging indispensable “inner labor”. Agreed, but again with the proviso that inner work must eventually connect with outer exertion, must translate into engagement and not, finally, detachment.

Some questions: Can we freely choose to renounce free will? Or freely choose to affirm it? Or seek new desires? (Remember Schopenhauer’s “We can do what we want, but not want what we want.”)
Why shouldn’t we expect a pantheistic universe to yield universal rules of behavior? Can a rationalist- pantheist endorse delusional sources of happiness? 178 Was Einstein being disingenous when he affirmed “Spinoza’s God”? If  “there isn’t an inch of earth where God is not,” does God not have a lot to answer for?

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