Posterity

February 11, 2016

Skeptics and Stoics share the bill in CoPhi today. In Atheism, critics offer their critiques of Samuel Scheffler’s “collective afterlife.” And in Bioethics we transition from Alastair Campbell’s last chapter, on justice, to Michael Sandel’s first in his Case Against Perfection, on the ethics of enhancement.

It’s a confluence of themes in light of which it seems relevant to note Nelson Mandela’s birthday. The struggle for justice never ends, but its greatest champions persevere. They insist that justice for all must be sought here and now, however many decades and generations it takes to expose and discredit the agents of injustice on earth. It is not to be permanently postponed or reassigned to another world, and it is not to be exchanged for the enhancement of the relative few.

The ultimate bioethical issue, as Campbell and the Royal Society conclude, is simply global survival.

Over the next 30-40 years [we face] the opportunity to move towards a sustainable economy and a better world for the majority of humanity, or alternatively the risk of social, economic, and environmental failure and catastrophes on a scale never imagined.

So there it is, a version of doomsday only slightly less terminally foreboding than the one Scheffler’s had us playing with. Perfection is not on the table, but collective progress had better be.

The good news, as Susan Wolf says, is that doomsday is still only a scenario. Having turned this chilling thought experiment over in mind we’re soberly brought back to “the meaning and value of the activities that would truly have been rendered pointless by imminent extinction.” Time, though scarce, is not yet gone. “Now, once again, we have a reason to cure cancer, to find more sustainable energy sources,” to give a thought to posterity as thought has been given to us.

5:40/6:41, 26/40

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Time

February 9, 2016

We got a dusting of snow overnight, so – this being middle Tennessee – my school has just alerted us that we’ll be starting late this morning, at 9:40. That’s when my first class meets anyway, so I’ve not been gifted with more time after all.

Time’s slippery elusiveness: that’s a big theme today in class, and it’s my theme this week as I approach yet another birthday. My step-Mom sent a card and a charming old photo of my Dad at about age two. He’s been gone for over seven years now.

I awoke this morning, as I sometimes do, with the fragmented vestige of a quote I read somewhere recently clamoring for attention. The precise wording and source are eluding me. I’d like to pin it down, so I can call it up later at will. It was a well-wrought question about what causes some individuals and cultures to flourish, to greet each day with confidence, energy, and enthusiasm, while for others it’s a constant struggle with anxiety, trepidation, and dread.

Was it Eric Weiner in Geography of Genius? But I can’t find it there.

Whoever and wherever, it’s a good question and that’s a good book. Weiner thinks we overrate genetics and underrate the contribution of social environments in producing creativity and the zest for living and learning that you could call “genius” if you were careful not to mean something entirely beyond cultivation. We can plant and harvest the seeds of good living, it’s not an entire mystery as to why some lives and lifestyles flourish while others founder.

And that’s why we study the likes of Pyrrho and Epicurus and John Rawls, who’ll turn up in my classes today. Pyrrho the skeptic was no role model, if you ask me, but he apparently had a genius for attracting the protective patronage of his peers. People who doubt the danger of dancing at cliff’s edge don’t survive without it.

Epicurus was much brighter (in both the “Bright” senses of practical wisdom and sunny disposition), but his dismissal of death as “nothing to us” was disingenuously glib.

 John Rawls comes into both our Atheism and Bioethics discussions today. His “circumstances of justice” suggest to Samuel Scheffler an aalogy to circumstances of value, and the idea that we only begin to truly grasp life’s exquisite tenuity when we acknowledge time’s scarcity. When time’s up, we’re out. That’s not “nothing,” Epicurus.

5:45/6:43, 27/30/17

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Balance

February 4, 2016

Aristotle’s up today. A life of flourishing is what we all seek, he knew, and we find it when we strike the right balance between deficiency and excess. That’s a formula, not a precise prescription. Building one’s character, becoming virtuous and eudaimonic, is not a magic bullet. It’s an experimental quest, requiring long experience and plenty of trial and error. That’s life.

In Atheism we continue to ponder Scheffler’s thought experiments on the collective and mortal afterlife. We’ll wonder about games and what they can teach us about life-and-death, about how much value we can really extract from a moment in time, how much it matters that we don’t have an infinite supply of moments, and whether any of us would volunteer to be the last human. Does it trivialize Scheffler’s serious question to think about Fox’s Last Man?

In Bioethics we look at the uses and abuses of research, of which “perhaps the key ethical question is whether all the effort and money expended has been put to the best uses”… and whether the future of research promises to expand or constrict healthcare access, to promote everyone’s best interests and enhance everyone’s lives? Or only those whose pockets are deepest? Will we ever really “prioritize health research according to need rather than profit”?

Bernie and Hillary talked about that at last night in New Hampshire. Will it be revolution or evolution, radically quick change or slow incremental improvement to expand coverage and reduce costs? Which is more progressive, to tinker with the ACA until it works for everyone, or scrap it and fight for a single-payer system? The other party wants to scrap it all, of course. Why would anyone ever vote for that?

Speaking of pockets, Hillary got an unusual question from a Rabbi about ego and humility. Her response was unusually thoughtful. She thinks about it every day, she said, about striking a suitable balance between confident self-possession and humble self-effacement. Aristotle would approve that message.

5:45/6:48, 37/42/27

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Humility, perfection, and death

February 2, 2016

We wake to a nation not yet required to anoint the least humble, least able, least perfect leader ever. Be grateful for small favors, and remember that Iowa is just Iowa. It’s not heaven. It picks losers.

Socrates and Plato are on today in CoPhi. They’re paired like salt and pepper but really don’t go together, the way I tell it. One understands and expresses humility, offset by an unsettling irony and occasional hint of sarcasm. The other knows it all, and believes in the immaculacy of his own vision. One faces death squarely, the other reaches for eternity. Socratic wisdom is the denial of Platonic perfectionism, and vice versa.

But they inevitably go together in the classroom, since it’s mostly Plato’s writing that’s preserved Socrates’ talking, living, and dying, and that allow us to challenge the former’s construal of the latter’s worldview.

In Atheism we turn to Samuel Scheffler’s natural “afterlife,” the ongoing life of mortal humans whose continued existence he is sure we’re more invested in, emotionally and valuationally, than most of us realize.

But will humanity survive for a good long time? Although we normally assume that others will live on after we ourselves have died, we also know that there are serious threats to humanity’s survival. Not all of these threats are human-made, but some of the most pressing certainly are, like those posed by climate change and nuclear proliferation. People who worry about these problems often urge us to remember our obligations to future generations, whose fate depends so heavily on what we do today. We are obligated, they stress, not to make the earth uninhabitable or to degrade the environment in which our descendants will live.

I agree. But there is also another side to the story. Yes, our descendants depend on us to make possible their existence and well-being. But we also depend on them and their existence if we are to lead flourishing lives ourselves. And so our reasons to overcome the threats to humanity’s survival do not derive solely from our obligations to our descendants. We have another reason to try to ensure a flourishing future for those who come after us: it is simply that, to an extent that we rarely recognize or acknowledge, they already matter so much to us. Stone

In Bioethics, we look at birth-to-death issues “thrown up in clinical practice by the huge advances in medical science and technology,” things like transplantation, regenerative medicine, reproductive surrogacy, IVF, PGD, palliation, euthanasia… So much depends on how we conceive our species’ proper limits and aspirations.

In all three classes, then, a useful framing issue is Perfectionism and its dream of defeating death. In all three, we’ll do well to heed Socrates’ famous near-final words: look out for wickedness, it runs faster than death and is life’s greater foe.

5:50/6:49, 50/72

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Perspectives

January 28, 2016

Today in CoPhi we pause to consider eastern perspectives, before proceeding in the balance of the semester to occupy ourselves mainly with Nigel Warburton’s western orientation. The differences are stark, particularly with respect to the dualistic thinking that has so dominated this quadrant and led so many of our predecessors to defend notions like soul-survival and personal immortality. As the late Robert Solomon noted, the eastern (specifically Taoist) soul is more like a drop of water in a stream than like an eternal life-preserver or an “intact bit of eternity in each of us.”

In Atheism we conclude Julian Baggini’s quick overview. Does he give short shrift to the role of “inner conviction” in establishing personal belief? Isn’t subjectivity or temperament an inevitable factor in philosophy (as James said), even though western philosophy’s official view is that it should not be? Or is inner conviction just a mirror of external, local contingencies of birth that we’re not obliged to honor, defer to, or even respect?

Baggini says “atheism is the throwing off of childish illusions and acceptance that we have to make our own way in the world. We have no divine parents who always protect us… [this is] the precondition for meaningful adult lives.” That’s sharply-stated, an echo of Carl Sagan’s milder (but no less portentous) Pale Blue Dot proclamation of “no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

In Bioethics we’re on the “Perspectives” chapter that asks whether and how professional healthcare providers should negotiate or accommodate the various framework beliefs of patients. Or their parents. How should physicians treat and care for children whose parents object to medical intervention on religious grounds?

James again: we all have a philosophy that “determines the perspective in [our] several worlds… a more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.” It’s our task today, and most every day, to notice those perspectives and talk about them. Nice work if you can get it.

5:45/7:04, 29/57

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Listening

January 27, 2016

We had an animated discussion in CoPhi-6 yesterday about these strange days, in our public discourse, and their echo of the 1950s. Some of us agreed, people didn’t listen respectfully to one another then and they’re not listening now. It’s easier, and a lot more entertaining, to just attack and villify anyone whose views or practices differ from ours, to allege their disloyalty and threat to the nation, and congratulate ourselves for not being them.

Maybe it’s too soon to draw that parallel. No votes have yet been cast, and even so the victors in Iowa and New Hampshire frequently stall out well before spring and summer. We may still wake from the unpleasantness of Trump & Co., if we can remember that while politics can be the most entertaining show on the dial its purpose is much more serious. The people we privilege with the responsibility of leadership must exemplify the highest qualities of respectful dialogue, not the lowest form of pandering to fear and xenophobia.

I’m encouraged by what I heard in class to think that enough of us know that, and might yet shake off the apathy and distraction of entertainment politics long enough to register our disapproval of people and politicians who don’t listen. They’re as marginal and silly and unreal, albeit entertaining, as the flat-earthers.

6:00/6:54, 32/42/26

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More life

January 26, 2016

The bright white world has quickly faded back to wet and gray. That’s the way of things, around these parts.

And we’re back in class, as the weekend’s eight inches of wintry blast – a blizzard, by local standards – has suddenly thawed into a big sloppy muddy slushy mess, and reminded us that change is constant.

In CoPhi today, peripatetics old and new; and, how This I Believe models one of the most important skills for the collaborative approach we follow in my classes: willingness to listen to disparate public professions of personal conviction, with sympathy and a critical ear, but without meanness and rancor. It’s a skill sadly missing from most public and political dialogue.

In Atheism & Philosophy, we look (with Julian Baggini) at godless ethics and meaning. The main takeaway: being good is a challenge for us all, with or without a heavenly host and role-model; and so is the quest for significance. You can’t simply assign goodness or meaning to an external law-and-purpose-Giver and be done with it, we must each appropriate and perpetually re-appropriate the point and integrity of our lives. That goes for gods and humans alike, who must (Euthyphro should have learned from Socrates) all acknowledge the reasonableness of independent standards.

William James: “The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman ‘s pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place.”

And finally today in Bioethics, we note the uses and limitations of theory. Is there, for instance, a theoretical solution to the question of how long a good and meaningful life must be? Baggini votes for longer lives than we’ve yet averaged, but not eternally more. I agree. More life, please. As Younger Daughter used to say, “I like too much!”

But enough will eventually be enough… and there will be new life in the Spring.

5:50/6:54, 50/26

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What it’s all about

January 21, 2016

We begin at the beginning in all four classes today, asking What is philosophy? What is atheism? What is bioethics? Or answering, to turn it around Jeopardy-style. The short affirmative prompts, then, to which these simple questions are each an appropriate respective response:

  • The stubborn commitment to thinking and speaking clearly, motivated by the love and pursuit of wisdom.
  • The belief that there are no gods or other supernatural agencies and forces guiding the fate and destiny of human beings.
  •  The study of life in light of the rules, conditions, and actions by which it may flourish.
I’ll solicit crowd-sourced alternative prompts and definitions from each class, as always. 
Not every philosopher is devoted to clarity, nor does every philosopher seem especially clear on the meaning of wisdom. When the Philosophy Bites inquisitors asked a sampling of contemporary philosophers to say what their profession is and does, the results varied widely. None of them came up with a better answer than William James’s “stubborness.”
There’s less variety among atheists, definitionally, but there’s a distinct spectrum of attitudes and temperaments within the godless community. Some atheists are “friendly” like Hemant Mehta and Julian Baggini, some are nasty like P. Zed Myers, many just want to understand what others mean by “God” and why, like Spinoza. I’m urging him as our role-model.
There’s plenty of difference among bioethicists, particularly when religious convictions concerning the god-granted sanctity of life are introduced, but none would deny that good living is the field’s focus. And good dying. That’ll be our capstone topic, as Atul Gawande leads us into the thicket of issues surrounding life’s final chapters. 
King Louis XVI was beheaded on this date in 1793 in Paris, btw. Lots of heads rolled in the French Revolution. Not a good last chapter for anyone, though the King’s gracious last words weren’t bad.
What does it mean to live a good life and anticipate a good death? If that’s our jeopardy answer, the prompt might just be: What are all of these classes ultimately about? 

5:50/6:67, 31/41

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Gather the light

January 20, 2016
They’ve closed school today, after yesterday’s reopening, due to the threat of a wintry mix that’s raining pellets this morning. I’m glad we got Opening Day in, it always lifts my spirit to encounter so many eager new learners (and a few older ones) on Day One. 
It was a cold and bracing start. My spread-out schedule had me shuttling back and forth across campus all day long: over 18,000 steps, says my phone Pacer. As a peripatetic I’m of course not complaining. 
On one of my transits I was pleased to be hailed by one of my old students, whose fraternity was giving away hot (well, warm) chocolate. The general mood on campus, if I detected it aright, was upbeat and hopeful. 

We’re exactly one year out from our next Inauguration Day. Will it be upbeat and hopeful? 

In 1969 at his Inauguration, a hopeful Richard Nixon read these florid words: “We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.” He went on to gather more than light, and less than a full second term, as his paranoid administration compiled Enemies Lists and burgled the DNC at Watergate. 
But anyway, what a great proposal. It’s why I wore my canary-yellow necktie yesterday, to gather the light and reflect it as best I could. That’s also what college is for.
5:50/6:57, 28/38

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Glimmer Glimmer

January 15, 2016

What if it were true, that only the present is real? An eternal now, forever?

But, what would “forever” mean then, if not past-present-future in a rolling wave that never ends? Never so far, that is, never so far as we can grasp. How about it, William Blake? How do you hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour?

We’re not so innocent after all, we’re always dragging the past and foreseeing (usually falsely) the future, or versions of past and future. We’re experienced, and that means we’re receptive to more. Not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but in our universe it’s real. We’d better accept it.

We’re definitely in the poetic realm here. William James wrote those pioneering chapters on the subject in his pioneering Principles, reaching immediately for the image of a glow worm whose light is here and gone, here and gone, here and gone again, without continuity and hence without temporality.

It’s a beautiful image but also dreadful, given our constitutional-evolutionary adaptation to a world of flowing continuity. Fortunately it’s “fanciful,” our figurative bioluminescence sheds light on time,

our consciousness never shrinks to the dimensions of a glow-worm spark. The knowledge of some other
part of the stream, past or future, near or remote, is always
mixed in with our knowledge of the present thing.

The past-present-future wave is no more composed of nonexistent nonentities than is the ocean. Picture our little glow worm surfing a wave, recalling the last crest, anticipating the next. He doesn’t dare forget he’s part of something rolling and flowing and continuing, and he’s delighted, forever and always, to catch a wave. It glimmers, so does he, so should we in the knowledge of our intrinsic relatedness to the span of history and becoming.

5:50/6:59, 48/53/30

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