Carroll’s Considerations

July 23, 2016

Sean Carroll is one wise theoretical physicist and “poetic naturalist.” His Ten Commandments Considerations, resisting the unfortunate human impulse to tell one another what to do, deferring instead to one another’s mental freedom:

  • Life Isn’t Forever.
  • Desire Is Built Into Life.
  • What Matters Is What Matters To People.
  • We Can Always Do Better.
  • It Pays to Listen.
  • There Is No Natural Way to Be.
  • It Takes All Kinds.
  • The Universe Is in Our Hands.
  • We Can Do Better Than Happiness.
  • Reality Guides Us.

Naturalists accept that life is going to come to an end — this life is not a dress rehearsal for something greater, it’s the only performance we get to give. The average person can expect a lifespan of about three billion heartbeats. That’s a goodly number, but far from limitless. We should make the most of each of our heartbeats.

The finitude of life doesn’t imply that it’s meaningless, any more than obeying the laws of physics implies that we can’t find purpose and joy within the natural world. The absence of a God to tell us why we’re here and hand down rules about what is and is not okay doesn’t leave us adrift — it puts the responsibility for constructing meaningful lives back where it always was, in our own hands.

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
Big Picture at Google (video)

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July 22, 2016

To take a walk, says the poet, pack a rod.

This is farming country.
The neighbors will believe
you are crazy
if you take a walk
just to think and be alone.
So carry a shotgun
and walk the fence line.
Pretend you are hunting
and your walking will not
arouse suspicion.

I never worry about what the neighbors may think. “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad” etc. Some of them are out here walking with me, in the relative cool of summer morning. The others, snoozing and lazing away the only habitable part of this infernal heat wave, are the crazy ones.

But this is Tennessee. This is America. Any and all may be packing, and carrying an attitude. Best walk softly and conceal yours.

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July 21, 2016

The train stops in Lewis Carroll’s, John Locke’s, and Harry Potter’s Oxford today. Any one of them might plausibly have said “it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” But it was Alice’s creator who said it, and who had her believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Good for him. For her. The wonderful thing about a tabula rasa is how easily it can be filled with fun and magic.

Carroll penned so many marvelous lines. This one, in a better world, would shut down that insane mistake by the lake (“it’s a put on”) in Cleveland this week:  “I don’t think…” then you shouldn’t talk, said the Hatter.”

Christ Church College is next on our itinerary.

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Magnificent desolation

July 20, 2016

Taking the v-train to old Oxford today, in that other possible world.

In this one we’re talking Nietzschean post-nihilism, Jamesian pragmatism, Jefferson deism, and inevitably the specter of living in a time when  liars, plagiarists, and sociopaths may inherit the earth. A far cry from the world we imagined on this day in 1969, when Buzz Aldrin toasted the moon’s “magnificent desolation.”

When Neil Armstrong got back he talked about looking at Earth from space: he said: “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

If only we could send Colbert’s orange manatee with the giant ego for a lunar lesson in humility.

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Signifying nothing

July 19, 2016

In an alternate universe we’re at Stratford-upon-Avon today, walking with Will Shakespeare, 400 years gone now. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

In an even better alternate universe we’re not waking up this morning from the most farcical political theater ever staged by an American presidential nominating convention. Drumpf’s preposterous silhouette-and-fog entrance. Mrs. Drumpf plagiarizing the First Lady’s 2008 convention speech on honesty and integrity, after explicitly lying about it to a live television audience. Rudy Giuliani, sputtering nonsense and threatening to spit out his teeth. The Duck Hunter guy. Wave after wave of ridiculous misinformed bluster about the country’s dark decline.

It was all so bizarre and yet, in this unhinged season, from this gonzo cast of misfits and con artists, so sadly predictable. What poor players, strutting and fretting and making a mockery of their hour on the big stage. We desperately need the Bard to translate this absurd moment into suitable tragicomic nonsense we can briefly enjoy.

The guy who put lipstick on the pig is remorseful, at least.

Thankfully, we at least got the real Colbert back for a fleeting moment, and his rusticating pal Jon Stewart.

And thankfully it’s all an idiot’s tale soon to be heard no more. Just not soon enough.

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Freedom of & from religon

July 18, 2016

“True piety in a reasonable world is the pursuit of happiness through the improvement of the understanding. Call it the religion of freedom.”

That’s Matthew Stewart on Nature’s God, whose subject is the hybrid Epicurean-Lockean-Spinozist conception that informed the Deist worldview of Jefferson, Franklin, and most of the founding generation. It casts a very different light on the claim that they intended to forge a conventionally Christian nation, and puts to shame the restrictive pieties of people like Mike Pence – people who think they know God’s “heart” to exclude women’s reproductive freedom.

Of course, a world in which people like Mike Pence and his unspeakable sponsor (“this good man” he repeatedly called him in their 60 Minutes interview, hahaha) ascend to wide public notice, let alone actual power and influence, can hardly be called reasonable.

But if it matters what the founders said and meant, as conservatives insist it does, it’s clear that the ticket about to be punched in Cleveland does not come close to embodying true piety.

And, for those of us working our way through The Cave and the Light, it’s clearly misleading to suggest that Jefferson and Madison were or would be on the side of those who misuse religion as license to limit personal freedom.

6 am, 5:46, 73/96

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Moor philosophy

July 16, 2016

Our next English peregrination: Yorkshire.

Enough of Thought, Philosopher;
Too long hast thou been dreaming
Unlightened, in this chamber drear –
While summer’s sun is beaming –
Space-sweeping soul, what sad refrain
Concludes thy musings once again?
– Emily Brontë (1818-1848), ‘The Philosopher’

…One of the questions we consider in class is why there have been so few female philosophers until fairly recent times. We first read Plato’s arguments in The Republicas to why there cannot be a truly just society until all citizens, both male and female, are given equal opportunity to excel; then we study Aristotle’s rejoinder that such a policy would be folly, since women are by nature inferior to men, intellectually and physically. This point is reiterated later in the course by selections from the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, a vociferous misogynist, who argued that women were really just big children, unable to understand abstract thought. (Ironically, his mother was one of the first female novelists to publish under her own name. Understandably, she did not get along very well with her son.) To balance these arguments for women’s inherent inferiority, I then have the class read several poems by Emily Brontë, including ‘The Old Stoic’ (below), ‘I See Around Me Tombstones Grey’, and the above-quoted ‘The Philosopher’…
The American philosopher John Dewey once remarked that when women philosophers became prominent, the very notion of what constitutes philosophical inquiry would be greatly expanded. By insisting on their right to be heard, and by demonstrating their keen powers of observation, the Brontë sisters have had a powerful and enduring impact on the history of thought…

The Old Stoic, by Emily Brontë (1818-1848)

Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanish’d with the morn:
And, if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, “Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!”
Yea, as my swift days near their goal,
‘Tis all that I implore:
In life and death a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

Emily Brontë – Philosopher, by Tim Madigan

To Walk InvisibleWalking the Bronte Trail

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July 15, 2016
Our virtual course continues with today’s excursion to Bertrand Russell’s Cambridge. “Every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein showed up on Russell’s doorstep one day to challenge his quest for mathematical certainty.

Russell eventually learned to live with uncertainty, dispel loneliness, and conquer happiness. The daily walks didn’t hurt.
LogicomixRussell on Wittgenstein

It’s the anniversary, btw, of an important date in the history of the other Cambridge: Emerson’s Harvard Divinity School Address in 1838, which also challenged conventional wisdom and smug certainties. He called walking gymnastics for the mind. “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life…” Our mortal breath is every bit as divine as any prophet’s. If you don’t believe it, just walk.

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July 14, 2016

Today was to have been a day of pilgrimage for our preempted Study Abroad class, to Darwin’s Down House and Sandwalk in Kent,

and to Henry James’s Lamb House in nearby Rye, Sussex. [His favourite walkIn search of HJHJ’s SussexHJ’s RyeLandlord]

NEXT year! Meanwhile, thanks to Gerardo Bartolome for this virtual substitute.

6 am/5:43, 78/89/71, 8:03

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July 13, 2016

“In response to a telegram from the American Civil Liberties Union, I reached Dayton in time for my evening meal on July 13.”

That’s Dr. Winterton Curtis, recalling a pilgrimage of sorts and his non-participation as one of the disallowed expert scientific witnesses in the 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee. He was a distinguished zoologist from the University of Missouri. His autobiographical account of “Fundamentalism vs Evolution at Dayton, Tennessee” was published serially in the summer of 1956.

In 1957, a young veterinary student, his wife, and their newborn son rented Dr. Curtis’s second floor ($45/month). It would be their home until that young student graduated and moved away to set up practice in the St. Louis area. Dr. Curtis would visit them periodically until his death at age 91, in 1966, charming the little boy, miraculously extracting dollar bills from his ears.

I’m still charmed by Dr. Curtis’s accounts of Dayton, Columbia, and the perennial tug of war between science and faith. We’ll talk about that in class today.

I bet we’ll talk as well about the President’s remarkable oration in Dallas yesterday.

And, because part of me occupies the alternate universe in which our Study Abroad course might have drawn two more participants, maybe we’ll also talk a bit about Freud and Keats. We were to visit their homes today. Highgate Cemetery, too, final London home of Karl Marx.

The home I’d really like to revisit, though, is the one on Westmount I left at age 3. That would be some pilgrimage.

5:43/5:42, 73/95, 8:03

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