Archive for January, 2010

snow days

January 31, 2010

We’ve been enjoying our snow days: sledding in the street, walking in the winter wonderland (a new experience for a young dog in middle Tennessee),  huddling around earth-stove and fireplace with cocoa “from scratch,” and watching movies.

Richard Dawkins said “open your eyes” to the real wonders of the world. Little Miss Sunshine says open your heart, Fritz  (and your mouth, Dwayne). August Rush says open your ears and your senses, the music (which isn’t an exclusively aural phenomenon) is all around.

Dewey said that too, when he pointed to the sources of art in the everyday. But they haven’t made his movie yet.

WJ’s leap

January 30, 2010

Speaking of Will to Believe, here’s Cass Seltzer’s [Rebecca Goldstein's] analysis in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God:

32. The Argument from Pragmatism

(William James’s Leap of Faith)

1. The consequences for the believer’s life of believing should be considered as part of the evidence for the truth of the belief (just as the effectiveness of a scientific theory in its practical applications is considered evidence for the truth of the theory). Call this the pragmatic evidence for the belief.

2. Certain beliefs effect a change for the better in the believer’s life — the necessary condition being that they are believed.

3. The belief in God is a belief that effects a change for the better in a person’s life.

4. If one tries to decide whether or not to believe in God based on the evidence available, one will never get the chance to evaluate the pragmatic evidence for the beneficial consequences of believing in God (from 2 and 3).

5. One ought to make ‘the leap of faith’ (the term is James’s) and believe in God, and only then evaluate the evidence (from 1 and 4).

This argument can be read out of William James’s classic essay “The Will to Believe.” The first premise , as presented here, is a little less radical than James’s pragmatic definition of truth in general, according to which a proposition is true if believing that it is true has a cumulative beneficial effect on the believer’s life. The pragmatic definition of truth has severe problems, including possible incoherence: in evaluating the effects of the belief on the believer, we have to know the truth about what those effects are, which forces us to fall back on the old-fashioned notion of truth. To make the best case for The Argument from Pragmatism, therefore, the first premise is here understood as claiming only that the pragmatic consequences of belief are a relevant source of evidence in ascertaining the truth, not that they can actually be equated with the truth.

FLAW 1: What exactly does effecting “a change for the better on the believer’s life” mean? For an antebellum Southerner, there was more to be gained in believing that slavery is morally permissible than in believing it heinous. It often doesn’t pay to be an iconoclast or revolutionary thinker, no matter how much truer your ideas are than the ideas opposing you. It didn’t improve Galileo’s life to believe that the earth moved around the sun rather than that the sun and the heavens revolve around the earth. (Of course, you could say that it’s always intrinsically better to believe something true rather than something false, but then you’re just using the language of the pragmatist to mask a non-pragmatic notion of truth.)

FLAW 2: The Argument from Pragmatism implies an extreme relativism regarding the truth, because the effects of belief differ for different believers. A profligate, impulsive drunkard may have to believe in a primitive retributive God who will send him to Hell if he doesn’t stay out of barroom fights, whereas a contemplative mensch may be better off with an abstract deistic presence who completes his deepest existential world view. But either there is a vengeful God who sends sinners to Hell or there isn’t. If one allows pragmatic consequences to determine truth, then truth becomes relative to the believer, which is incoherent.

FLAW 3: Why should we only consider the pragmatic effects on the believer’s life? What about the effects on everyone else? The history of religious intolerance, including inquisitions, fatwas, and suicide bombers,  suggests that the effects on one person’s life of another person’s believing in God can be pretty grim.

FLAW 4: The pragmatic argument for God suffers from the first flaw of The Argument from Decision Theory (#31 above) — namely the assumption that the belief in God is like a faucet that one can turn on and off as the need arises. If I make the leap of faith in order to evaluate the pragmatic consequences of belief, then if those consequences are not so good, can I leap back again to disbelief? Isn’t a leap of faith a one-way maneuver? “The will to believe” is an oxymoron: beliefs are forced on a person (ideally, by logic and evidence); they are not chosen for their consequences.

WJ 2.1

January 29, 2010

So far as I’m concerned, William James earned his philosopher’s stripes as a young man when he wrote his despondent little brother a cheering letter about  seagulls at the Amazon and the power of positive thinking. WJ 2

In his own mind at the time, though, in the 1860s, he is still a lost soul looking for someplace to drop anchor. He can’t commit, to anything, and it’s beginning to corrode his confidence in a serious way.

James enrolls at Harvard in 1861, and soon finds himself studying with naturalist Louis Agassiz, a Creationist who “held up scientific recognition of evolution in America for decades.” (49) Another professorial influence, Jeffries Wyman, pronounces on the new Darwinian evolutionary perspective (Origin of Species has just been published a couple of years earlier) that “the evidence is not all in. We must suspend judgment until it is.” James is not a good suspender. Soon he declares Darwin’s and Wallace’s new theory of natural selection “obvious,” and unequivocally rejects social Darwinism as deeply anti-social.

But he does suspend his formal studies in January 1863. John Dewey would later remark that James’s lack of formal education was one of his greatest assets, “since it protected his mind against academic deadening.” On his own he reads an essay by Buckle on John Stuart Mill, praising the author’s “noble enthusiasm for truth”; and he continues a life-long love of literature, for which he always makes time no matter how busy he is.

William’s view of evil takes definite form at this time. He disagrees with his father about the cause and nature, but not the reality, of evil. In the view of Henry Sr., creation was not a physical but a spiritual act… He denied the authority of natural law [and] “the final reality of the natural world’… His son thinks otherwise.

Late in 1863 he decides to enroll in Medical School, more from prudence (as a career fall-back)  than any passion for the profession. So, when the opportunity arises to join Agassiz on a South American sea-voyage of discovery in 1865 he leaps at it, even though Agassiz’s avowed aim is to overturn Darwin’s theory.

He doesn’t much  enjoy the expedition, or discover in it his vocation; but it does have its moments. Mrs. Agassiz records one of them later, in a letter. Do you remember the afternoon when you and I passed each other in our separate boats, as I floated out of the Igarape in to the sunset glow over the great river? You rowed by me and said is it real or a dream?

And of course, Brazil is where he encounters those wonderful gulls at the mouth of the Amazon. He would soon need them, or the symbolism of them, to rescue him from indecision-induced depression. Since he no longer wanted to become a field naturalist, his main motive for studying medicine was now gone… “Medicine is busted,” he told a friend. In the Spring of ’67, at age 25, he’s ready to ship out again– trying to outrun his growing despair. He’s not yet having a good dream.

NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: We’re taking a snow-day in my classes. We’ll have the Friday quiz on Monday (and 1030-H essays are due then). Go ahead and do Monday’s reading in Passion for Wisdom, to p. 36. And drive safely, if you have to get out. JPO

natural piety

January 28, 2010

We ended cryptically in A&S on Tuesday, with William James’s intriguing statement (in bold):

The problem I have set myself is a hard one: first, to defend (against all the prejudices of my “class”) “experience”against “philosophy” as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life—I mean prayer, guidance, and all that sort of thing immediately and privately felt, as against high and noble general views of our destiny and the world’s meaning; and second, to make the hearer or reader believe, what I myself invincibly do believe, that, although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function. A task well-nigh impossible, I fear, and in which I shall fail; but to attempt it is my religious act.

Today we bring two more voices into our conversation, to take a crack at interpreting James’s meaning. Robert Solomon and Andre Comte-Sponville join James, Sagan, Sweeney, Dawkins, and a host of naturalists, humanists, and Brights in our expanding circle.  I wonder how they’d respond to the 1904 questionnaire that James answered this way:

Do you believe in personal immortality? “Never keenly; but more strongly as I grow older.” Do you pray? “I cannot possibly pray—I feel foolish and artificial.” What do you mean by ‘spirituality’? “Susceptibility to ideals, but with a certain freedom to indulge in imagination about them. A certain amount of ‘other worldly’ fancy. Otherwise you have mere morality, or ‘taste.’” What do you mean by a ‘religious experience’? “Any moment of life that brings the reality of spiritual things more ‘home’ to one.”

French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville, in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, seems very Deweyan to me. We don’t need to invent new values, we need to transmit the good old ones (with value-added) so that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it. Such “fidelity” runs deeper and wider than mere faith. It expands our sense of self, giving us something larger than ourselves (but not larger than nature, society, and history) to work for.

In Spirituality for the Skeptic Robert Solomon urges a return to philosophy’s close earlier kinship to spirituality. He actually mentions Dewey: Although one might identify spirituality in terms of what John Dewey once called a “religious attitude,” spirituality is a much broader concept than the rather specialized notion of religion… Spirituality is a human phenomenon… spirituality and intelligence go hand in hand… spirituality is not primarily a matter of beliefs… spirituality and science at their best are kindred spirits…

And: The point, which I share with Hegel and Nietzsche, is to cast the net of spirituality as wide as possible. That’s Deweyan too: it’s all about charting our relations to the totality of nature and other people. “Natural piety,” Dewey called it. “The thoughtful love of life” is Solomon’s Hallmark-card slogan.

the way

January 27, 2010

We’re talking about classic Chinese philosophers in Intro today, Confucius (the sage, not the biopic that bumped Avatar), Lao Tzu and many others whose names  can be harder than Greeks’ to keep straight.

But The Tao of Pooh should be simple enough

Owl of course is the opposite of Pooh, the Knowledge for the sake of Appearing Wise, the one who studies Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge, and who keeps what he learns to himself or to his own small group, rather than working for the enlightenment of others. That way, the scholars can appear Superior, and will not likely be suspected of Not Knowing Something. After all, from the scholarly point of view, it’s practically a crime not to know everything. But sometimes the knowledge of the scholar is a bit hard to understand because it doesn’t seem to match up with our own experience of things. Isn’t the knowledge that comes from experience more valuable than the knowledge that doesn’t?

Oh, yes. Ask any pragmatist. Or ask Bob Solomon: For the Confucian, the personal is the social. For the Taoist, the personal is the relation to nature. For both, the goal is harmony in human life and a larger sense of the “person” than the mere individual. Experience preferred.

Or ask Simon Critchley, who reports this Socratic jab from Confucius (aka Kongzi): “You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?” His rival Lao Tzu thought he understood his body to be the source of all his suffering. That’s blaming the victim, if you ask me. Both are now asteroids, nominally at least. Presumably their suffering (and understanding) is no more. Same for Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), who– like Freddie the Leaf– saw death as “just like the progression of the four seasons.”

“We all fear what we don’t know, Freddie. It’s natural,” Daniel reassured him. “Yet, you were not afraid when Summer became Fall. They were natural changes. Why should you be afraid of the season of death?”

“Does the tree die, too?” Freddie asked.

“Someday. But there is something stronger than the tree. It is Life. That lasts forever and we are all a part of Life.”

“Where will we go when we die?”

“No one knows for sure. That’s the great mystery!”

“Will we return in the Spring?”

“We may not, but Life will.”

“Then what has been the reason for all of this?” Freddie continued to question. “Why were we here at all if we only have to fall and die?”

Daniel answered in his matter-of-fact way, “It’s been about the sun and the moon. It’s been about happy times together. It’s been about the shade and the old people and the children. It’s been about colors in Fall. It’s been about seasons. Isn’t that enough?

The Japanese Zen  monk haiku masters (like Mabutsu) would say it is, if they said anything propositional at all. You never know just when the bottom will fall out. So true.

It was enough for Walt Whitman, too, who sang of “the beautiful uncut hair of graves” and would not be “contain’d between my hat and boots.”

Pooh, for a bear of very little brain, has sure made his mark amongst academics and intellectuals. In Pooh and the Philosophers John Williams says Whitehead got it wrong: all those post-Platonists were really annotating our ursine hero. In Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh, Frederick Crews discovers a humanist role-model and skewers the pretensions of literary critics in the process: two acts of public service we can all be grateful for.

Dawkins’ spirituality

January 26, 2010

Here’s Dawkins painting his eulogistic rainbow, minus the soundtrack.*

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?


There is an anaesthetic of familiarity, a sedative of ordinariness which dulls the senses and hides the wonder of existence. For those of us not gifted in poetry, it is at least worth while from time to time making an effort to shake off the anaesthetic. What is the best way of countering the sluggish habitutation brought about by our gradual crawl from babyhood? We can’t actually fly to another planet. But we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways. — Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder)

And, although presumably there is no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, the Professor endorses the perspective of Dr. Flicker… and Bertrand Russell:

“Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.”

Dawkins praises the late Carl Sagan‘s special talent for evoking the feeling of awed wonder that science can give us… one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable, a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver… one of the things that makes life worth living.

With that last phrase he’s channeling William James too, in On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings: “Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities.”  Open your eyes, indeed. It’s a vast and sprawling cosmos, and we’re its mind. Transcendence is just an eye-blink away.


* And here he is barnstorming middle America, affirming (J & M notwithstanding) transcendence and repudiating the supernatural. And here, speaking at length with Dan Dennett. This may not be the way he would put it, but I say (again, to the distress of J & M) Richard Dawkins is “spiritual, not religious.”


Postscript. Got a tweet this morning from Dawkins, directing me to the latest from the Hubble Space Telescope. I’ve commented before on how this marvelous eye in the sky keeps on boldly going where we’ve never gone before, so far away across the daunting expanses of space and time.  Seems to me the Dawkins-Sagan brand of spirituality is crucially concerned with our taking ever-longer and wider pan-spatio-temporal views of our species– as is the Long Now Foundation, with its Millennium Clock. That was the import of John Dewey’s “continuous human community,” too. I think it may also be part of what Jeremy Rifkin is saying in his new book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis.

So, though it may be true that nobody really worries about what’s going to happen to the universe in another few billion years, it’s still not unimportant that we’re now technologically capable of peering 13+ billion years into our cosmic past. Long-term thinking may be our only salvation. I say we deserve it. We owe it to ourselves.

PW 1.1

January 25, 2010

I’ve been using this little bookPassion for Wisdom, which attempts to render the history of philosophy at a break-neck pace (128 pages… and it flies even faster in the Kindle edition), as a centerpiece (or “spine”)  in my Intro courses for many years. Last semester’s different approach was ok, but I think we’ll have better luck with Passion restored to pre-eminence. So, today we kick off our weekly Monday readings from it with a particular focus on the classic “problem of evil.”  PW 1

The monotheistic version of the question’s been around for at least 2,600 years, since the time of Zoroaster in Persia (who inspired Nietzsche’s Zarathustra): “How can God allow so much suffering and wrongdoing [from human malfeasance, natural disasters, etc.] in the world?” More non-theists attribute their inability to believe in a benevolent deity to this problem than to any other cause. As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in the 18th century: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

The most common reply: free will. But what’s that got to do with earthquakes in Lisbon and San Francisco and Haiti? What’s it got to do with innocent children who get swept away in floods and tsunamis and tornadoes and hurricanes? Suppose you’re a kindergarten teacher, and you sit idly by while little Johnny pokes his classmates’ eyes out?  “I gave him the stick but it was his free choice to use it that way.” Not so impressive a defense, especially if you possess omniscience.

And omnipotence and moral perfection and a little common sense. Good people aren’t robots, so why couldn’t God have created only people like them, people who quite freely live good lives? As the Archbishop of York said recently of Haiti, “I have nothing to say to make sense of this horror.” That’s one bishop with more sense than Pat Robertson. (But my dog has more sense than Pat Robertson.) He knows (as does Dan Dennett) there’s no verbal solution to this problem.

This semester I’m also using another book by Solomon for the first time, in A&S: Spirituality for the Skeptic.

Coincidentally: my iPod clock radio woke me yesterday to a Philosophy Bites podcast featuring a philosopher from UNC, Marilyn Adams. She contends that optimists can only sustain their optimism by believing in some “Super-human” power capable of “making good” on all the suffering and evil that can befall humans in this life. That view didn’t look so promising to Voltaire, at least not through Leibniz‘s “best possible world” spectacles.

And there are other problems with the picture of a controlling divine over-seer whose all-seeing, all-knowing micro-management might seem less than nice to those whose personal destiny is less than the best.

Robert Solomon was an optimist, and a skeptic about super-human powers. He didn’t agree with Professor Adams at all, as we’ll discuss.

When I think of Solomon, my first thought is of his cameo appearance in a strange and wondrous film called Waking Life. And then I think of what Thoreau said about wakefulness– “to be awake is to be alive”– and that brings my mental train inevitably to the now-slumbering Warren Zevon, who said “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”…

I need to get that on my iPod!

per aspera ad astra*

January 24, 2010

Yesterday morning I ruminated at dawn on an old but youthfully-optimistic, affirming, humanistic “This I Believe” testimonial from Pearl Buck in the ’50s.

Last night, I opened an unexpected email: Thank you for submitting an essay to This I Believe. .. [I'd forgotten doing that, impulsively, back in the summer. I  sent it off on July 20,  the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's "giant leap."]

Once it’s added to the website, your essay will appear at…

<> [Just opened it. Cool!]

We are honored by your having shared your most closely held convictions with us. Thank you, sincerely, for participating in our project.

– The staff of This I Believe


* “through difficulties to the stars” -Seneca

“to infinity, and beyond!” -Buzz Lightyear

good earth

January 23, 2010

Here’s an affirming humanist statement from Pearl S. Buck, from the 1950s archives of This I Believe:

Like Confucius of old, I am absorbed in the wonder of earth, and the life upon it, and I cannot think of heaven and the angels. I have enough for this life. If there is no other life, than this one has been enough to make it worth being born, myself a human being. With so profound a faith in the human heart and its power to grow toward the light, I find here reason and cause enough for hope and confidence in the future of mankind. The common sense of people will surely prove to them someday that mutual support and cooperation are only sensible for the security and happiness of all. Such faith keeps me continually ready and purposeful with energy to do what one person can towards shaping the environment in which the human being can grow with freedom. This environment, I believe, is based upon the necessity for security and friendship…

Half a century ago, no one had thought of world food, world health, world education. Many are thinking today of these things. In the midst of possible world war, of wholesale destruction, I find my only question this: are there enough people now who believe? Is there time enough left for the wise to act? It is a contest between ignorance and death, or wisdom and life. My faith in humanity stands firm.

WJ 1.1

January 22, 2010

Time to resume the regular Friday routine of dipping into Robert Richardson’s compendious biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. I’ll try not to be redundant, not to repeat scenes from our last pass through this richly detailed glimpse into the life and thought of my favorite philosopher. That shouldn’t be hard, Richardson packs a lot into each chunk of forty-something pages and we only scratched the surface the first time. (But, Spring ’10 Intro students, do take a look at those older posts– to be designated WJ 1 , WJ 2, WJ 3 etc.) Note in particular the discussion in WJ 1 of “sacred matter,” in light of what we read and talked about on Wednesday regarding Epicurus on the afterlife and Democritus on atoms. Also, the connection between James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the “sage of Concord” who still provokes strong reactions  either of loyalty or scorn. (See, for instance, a recent diatribe against his “cult” that proposes to “give Emerson the boot.”)  Also attend to the importance in James’s philosophy of the very concept of attention, which Richardson says he learned to value as a young art student.

How important is William James, for American philosophy and in general? Well, the English philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (best known for overstating the importance of Plato by declaring all subsequent philosophy a series of footnotes thereto) famously listed him as one of “four great thinkers,” filling out the quartet with Plato (of course), Aristotle, and Leibniz. (That’s ironic: James despised Leibniz.)

John McDermott: “William James is to classic American philosophy as Plato was to Greek and Roman philosophy.” Pretty important.

This is a bit redundant, but relevant and revealing: thinking of how horrified we’ve all been in recent days by the devastation wrought by Haiti’s recent earthquake, it’s striking to contrast James’s reaction to the ’06 San Francisco quake. (He was nearby, in Palo Alto.) He was suitably humane and concerned for the victims, but he was also intrigued and excited by it, and quick to note the silver lining: such disasters may elicit the “best energies of a great many people,” and James “was all energy”– except when he was depressed, as periodically he was. But the down-times never permanently dented his constitutional joie de vivre. In his psychology he made a great deal of the importance of habit (“the enormous fly-wheel of society”), but he was also always “open to new experiences” and always expected them to teach him something useful.

He was a pluralist: “there are many centers of the universe, many [real and instructive] points of view.” Each of us has a “lantern” (as his beloved Robert Louis Stevenson depicted the “interior spark” of unique personal subjectivity) with which to light up the sources of joy that will speak uniquely to each of us.

He sprang from a remarkable family, a “house of wits” including his famous younger brother Henry (the novelist). Henry, ever the close observer of life, documented William’s early traits of personality: “intensity of animation and spontaneity of expression.” From the inside, those traits felt to William like “torn-to-pieces-hood” and “zig-zag and interruption.” He would always be a restless person, given to constant motion and activity. Not the stereotypical scholar.

He was an experimentalist (like Dewey) by nature, cheerfully offering himself up as a physiological guinea-pig for experiments with psycho-active substances that he always hoped would open unexpected doors of perception. Alcohol “excites the ‘yes’ function” (but is still not to be trusted), laughing gas nearly makes Hegel make sense, yoga and fletcherizing (basically masticating food to smithereens– his brother swore by it) and what we would call “alternative” therapies are worth a shot.

As this first installment ends, in the spring of 1861, the 19-year old William James has just learned of the confederate attack on Fort Sumter that launched the American Civil War. He’s prepared to march off and do his soldierly duty. If we didn’t know how the story continues, we might worry over his life-prospects at this point. And isn’t it disquieting to think of all the philosophers that might have been, but of whom we’ve never heard, because they did march off to fight and die in the endless procession of bloody conflicts that make it hard, sometimes, to think of our species as progressing.  But James did think that, even though the “war to end war” that raged not long after his own death in 1910 was only another beginning. James had a better idea, a “moral equivalent” of war without all the carnage. So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way. But I have no serious doubt that the ordinary prides and shames of social man, once developed to a certain intensity, are capable of organizing such a moral equivalent…

We’re still looking for leaders who’ll apply that idea consistently, and really earn their pacifist stripes. James would tell us, on his better days, not to get too discouraged. Roll up your sleeves, he’d say, pitch in and clean up the rubble.


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