Archive for March, 2010

catching up

March 31, 2010

Emerson is the first dead American philosopher to grab Simon Critchley‘s attention. We got a late start, but I’m confident we’ll catch up.

For what it’s worth, Nietzsche liked him. Not everyone does. But John Updike was a fan, so was James, and so am I. Lately I find myself echoing The Sage’s self-exhortation (“up again, old heart!”) a lot. I can’t imagine how a father rouses himself after the loss of a child, and I can’t believe Emerson when he says his son’s death “does not touch me.” That has to be a rhetorical stage of grieving (stuck somewhere between denial and anger, short of full acceptance) and a way of raging impotently against what must feel like an irredeemable cosmic injustice– not to mention a soul-crushing slug to the gut.

I hope he didn’t just see it as a salutary expression of his vaunted “self-reliance.”  In any case, he knew it was “a luxury to draw the breath of life” (Div.School Address]– a bitter luxury perhaps, in the shadow of heart-wrenching loss.

He was our first “secular humanist,” though it might be more accurate to call him “spiritual, not religious” (though not exactly in the AA sense). He was also a skeptic and a stoic, much impressed by the interior and “trying” style of Montaigne. [E’s Intro to M’s Essays]

Pneumonia, with which I’ve gone a couple of rounds myself, got Emerson. Thankfully there are drugs for that now.

Thoreau, dead American #2 (at just 44!): asked if he had made his peace with God, he replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.  He is an inspiration, to me and my kids and to lovers of bears everywhere.

James. Freud said “I have always wished that I might be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.” But there’s lots of life left in Richardson’s bio, so let’s move on. As we read in Passion for Wisdom on Monday, his overriding interest was always in the problems of everyday living.

Dewey. He was still doing important work into his nineties. No one has had more insight into the importance for democracy of education, or the influence on philosophy of Darwin. He had no use for a mere “spectator’s” perspective… Education is experience, participatory and engaged.(PW)

Freud. His wish seems to have been fulfilled. All those cigars took a bite out of him but he showed no sign of complaint or irritability with his painful condition, he accepted it and was resigned to his fate. Much closer to Epicurus or Montaigne than Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche. Was his seeming megalomania(or madness) really a joke, as Critchley speculates? It might be nice to think so, if not wholly persuasive.  “The most serious Christians have always been well-disposed towards me.” That definitely sounds like a joke.

Mill. A 15-mile walk atage 67 did him in. There are worse exit scenarios, and worse motivational statements than “Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”

Darwin. He’s buried in Westminster Abbey,  enjoying (as it were) a state hero’s repose.  When he grew tired of studying life’s specific origins he knew his own wasnearing its terminus.

KierkegaardDespite his tireless tirades against the degraded Christianity of the Danish pastors, Kierkegaard was buried with a full religious service. Was that gracious, mocking, or just… absurd?

Marx. Critchley is so good at bringing obscure but telling detail to the fore– like poor Marx’s carbuncles. The  material conditions of existence are no abstraction when they consume one’s “whole cadaver.”

Bergson. It’s so tempting to make light of the passing of the philosopher who championed the elan vital or life force, I’m surprised Critchley doesn’t. But he deserves a respectful remembrance, as one who stood in solidarity with his people when he might have walked away. He may have been James’s favorite philosopher.

rainbow warrior

March 30, 2010

When we left Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow he’d just quoted William Blake at us (“What do you mean, William  Blake? I mean William Blake!” –Annie Savoy, in “Bull Durham”) in an attempt to open our eyes to the natural splendors of scientific curiosity…

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour
Which reminds me of one of my favorite public-art installations, a sculpture in a window-display at Vanderbilt’s Stevenson Science Center that lauds the scientific endeavor: “From atoms to cosmos, reaching ever into mystery…”
This is just the tone Dawkins is reaching for in this book. He is not disenchanted by the progressive scientific elaboration of nature, and he burns with a passionate intensity to communicate the wonders of that quest. It’s not the passion of the antichrist, but of the humble researcher reaching for the stars. His vaunted arrogance is at least half a yearning to enlist us all in a cause he’s sure we’ll be ennobled by.  “We need to reclaim for real science that style of awed wonder that moved mystics like Blake.” If you like Blake and Keats and Wordsworth and Milton (and Kirk and Spock and Picard and Data), you should love Einstein and Hawking and Feynman et al.
But Keats got it wrong, Newton did not destroy all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to its prismatic elements. He (like Alan Sokal) may have winged some of the pseudo-poetry of academic obscurantism, but real  mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved. Flowers smell sweeter the deeper you delve. (What Keats got right: negative capability.)
NOTE TO DEEPAK: it may be that nobody really understands quantum theory… natural selection shaped our brains to survive in a world of large, slow things, not miniscule quanta. But, beware those who tell you in advance what study will never reveal. As Darwin said, it’s typically those who know little who are so often convinced that we cannot learn more.  They’re typically wrong.
For instance, we know now in some detail how the eye informs the brain about the wavelengths of light. Dawkins is very good on this in his new book. PBS was very good on it in Evolution.
Next time you find yourself on the physician’s table just remember: unweaving the rainbow underlies Magnetic Resonance Imaging and so many other ingenious life-saving interventions. Thank goodness.
But we still need our poets  too. An event that has no before, like the pre-Bang universe (or whatever you’d call it), terrifies our poor reason. Maybe we can appreciate it only through poetry. Maybe we can appreciate science itself and the phenomena it describes, the setting sun and the shifting clouds etc. etc., only through poetry.
So maybe our academic bureau-makers are onto something, with their plan to harness the arts and the sciences in tandem.
A world in a grain of sand, a universe in a little girl’s eye… the stuff of poetry, and of science too.

Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche

March 29, 2010

Where do you want to go today?

March 29, 2010

That was Bill Gates’s old question, not unlike ours in Intro today (as posed by Bob Solomon & Kathy Higgins): “Where to, Humanity? Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche”… and not unlike the instigating question in next Fall’s new “Future of Life” course.

I worked up a slideshow on this, after discovering the Slideshare tool over the weekend and having no trouble at all putting up my baseball shows. This morning it’s balking. I’ll keep working on it. Meanwhile, the story can be summarized thusly:

J.S. Mill (of his own free will) articulated a vision of human good as a progressive, perpetual  historical expansion of human rights and individual liberties. The only reason for limiting any person’s freedom is in order to protect the freedom of others. His “harm principle” says do your thing, just don’t interfere with anyone else’s right and opportunity to do the same. (And he meant anyone’s, women included. His friend Harriet helped him see the light on that.)

Charles Darwin‘s revolutionary account of evolution by natural selection cast that enterprise in a new light. As Dan Dennett would put it much later, freedom evolves and so do we.  That ought to bode well for Mill’s project and ours. But this suggests a momentous question: Could humans still be evolving? If so, into what? Could we be living some brief, intermediary existence between the “lower” animals and some higher, mightier, or more adaptive creature than ourselves? [Charles & EmmaDawkins & Dennett on D…his birthday and Abe‘s…ScopesBBCPBS]

Enter Fritz Nietzsche, offering the incredible suggestion that human beings were nothing but a bridge between the ape and the Ubermensch. The future of human nature was now called into question. What will we make ourselves, what will humanity become? [Drunk on the ground]

Good question. Is the suggestion really so incredible? Some have found it inspiring, others terrifying. We’ll see if we find it instigating in class.

And we’ll wonder if, in the immortal words of CSNY, we have all been here before. Deja vu all over again, Yogi? Or do we only go around once, and need to grab the gusto while we can? Or was that precisely the point of Fritz’s gift to his shrink? Isn’t it also, btw, what “Phil” learned in Groundhog Day? (Woody in Manhattan, too…)

play ball

March 28, 2010

I’ve been wondering how to reclaim and retain that old childhood passion for my game and my team. (Still talking baseball, of course, and the Cards of La Russa and McGwire.)

The team is going to be  a challenge this year, so long as the compromised coach and the complicit manager are in plain sight on the bench. But the game just got a lot easier.

Younger daughter and I seized yesterday’s spring gloriousness and hauled our bucket of balls over to the oddly-unoccupied playing fields at Hillwood High. We worked on hitting and pitching and fungo-catching ’til we were both comfortably numb. (This morning it’s a different sensation for Dad, the achy discomfort of re-activated joints and muscles. But these are aches and pains to die for.)

We earned our reward from Bobby’s Dairy Dip. Unfortunately half of west Nashville was there in line ahead of us, so we bailed and settled for a generic substitute next door. But Mellow Mushroom made up for it later, and I got my big reward at tucking-in time when she thanked me for the Dad and Daughter day. Thank you, sweetie.

And that’s how I finally remembered: it wasn’t as a spectator that I learned to love the game, all those years ago.

POSTSCRIPT: That’s also how I remembered the best father-daughter baseball memoir ever, Robert Benson’s  The Game.


NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: Monday we’ll review for Wednesday’s exam, and begin talking about the Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche (et al) selection in Passion for Wisdom.

NOTE TO A&S STUDENTS: Send me your suggestions for Tuesday’s exam.


March 27, 2010

He may sound like an old starched pietist from another century, but pioneering Harvard neuroscientist (and grandson of Emerson) Alexander Forbes was a  Stephen Jay Gould ahead of his time. (I know, Gould’s critics think he was out of time and devoid of sense.) This fifties testimonial is worth listening to. (NOTE TO A&S STUDENTS: don’t forget, I’ve challenged you to draft your own testimonials. For credit, yet. And, don’t forget to send me your exam questions.)

The notion that science and religion are antagonistic and incompatible seems, to me, utterly false. Science is the quest for eternal truths in the universe by disciplined minds, and I am sure that if pursued in the right spirit, science engenders reverence. Reverence and worship are as much part of the normal human being as hunger for food, or zest for action. Primitive man, naturally, worships the sun—prime source of light and warmth, and indeed of this earth, itself. I sympathize and find the blue sky overhead as noble a setting for worship as the temple or cathedral… This I Believe

only a game

March 26, 2010

The annual baseball conference is today – time for me to nail down my answer to the question: can a disillusioned Cardinals’ fan– disillusioned by the game’s failure to enforce its own rules and by his team’s cynical hire of delusional* substance abuser Mark McGwire as hitting coach– turn the page and get excited about the coming season?

(*”Delusional”  for insisting he’d have hit 70 home runs in ’98 without any chemical assist at all. No one else thinks that. Barry Bonds doesn’t, for sure.)

Well, honestly… there was never any doubt about it. The season opener will arrive with April, hope will spring eternal once more, and I’ll be paying close attention. I’ll be happy when the Red Birds soar, disappointed when they flop, and pleased when the hitting coach succeeds in imparting most of what he knows about smacking the round ball square with a stick.

The thrill of the grass is irresistible. It happens every spring. And I bleed Cardinal red because I was six years old when my home-town team, behind ace competitor Bob Gibson, beat the Yankees in seven in ’64. Everybody in my world was a Cardinals’ fan. I had no choice.

That’s not exactly sinister indoctrination, it’s just what happens when you live in a place and events occur. Maybe most forms of indoctrination– religious, political– begin just that casually and benignly. The result in sports is pretty innocent: Yankees fans and Red Sox fans insult one another, with little malice aforethought. As do Cards’ and Cubs’ fans. Nobody gets hurt, typically.

Thing is, I never hated the Cubs. I always felt bad for them, silently, when they came close to the flag but then faltered. I thought Fergie Jenkins was cool. And Billy Williams, and especially Ernie Banks.

And that was before I moved to Tennessee. Then,  I surprised myself by feeling secretly pleased when the BoSox beat the Cards in ’05 and put the Bambino’s curse to rest for good. They were still my team, just not the only team. I wasn’t mad at them then, either, just glad to see perennial also-rans begin to get their share of the spotlight.

And just last Fall I experimented during the playoffs: the Dodgers topped the Cards in the NLCS. Instead of sulking through the rest of the post-season, I decided to try a new team on for size. Actually bought a Dodgers cap and put it on– giving moral support to my old hero Joe Torre, was my cover-story– ’til they were bounced out too.

Do sports fans have to be bitterly partisan? Does it diminish the thrill of victory (or leaven the agony of defeat) to adopt a more cosmopolitan stance? The whole verdict is still out.

For now, though, I’m a lifer, a Cards fan in spite of myself (or in spite of Big Mac and his patron Tony). But I’ve picked up a minor share in the Dodgers, I retain my still-mostly-secret interest in the Cubbies (they don’t read this in Missouri, I think), and will even admit a small warm spot for the Sox .

It feels good to diversify the portfolio.

After all, it’s only a game. That’s what I didn’t quite get, in 1968.

end of Hitch

March 25, 2010

Today in A&S we finish Hitch’s Portable Atheist. The most striking fact noted in our selection from Sam Harris‘s End of Faith, the book that really kicked off the current New Atheist era in 2004:

Unfortunately for fanciers of Mary’s virginity, the Hebrew word alma (for which parthenos is an erroneous translation) simply means “young woman,”  without any implications of virginity. It seems all but certain that the Christian dogma of the virgin birth, and much of the church’s resulting anxiety about sex, was the result of a mistranslation.

Unbelievable. And yet, not. How remarkably credulous we’ve been (as a species) silently to tolerate a faith centered on so preposterous an error for so many centuries.  Western civilization has endured two millennia of consecrated sexual neurosis simply because the authors of Matthew and Luke could not read Hebrew. Miraculous. “I should not be a Christian but for the miracles,” said Augustine. Like transubstantiation, established by mere reiteration, aka “the Big Lie.” Honest inquiry seems clearly the better course. And honest feeling.

We need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to feel compassion for the suffering of others. Our common humanity is reason enough to protect our fellow human beings from coming to harm.

It is enough. It was enough during the Inquisition and the witch-hunts, and it’s still enough. When will we ever learn?

Harris followed End of Faith with Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006. “To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively questions of morality apply. The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding.” Indeed. Have you read that book?! Or any of the holy books, for that matter? Hardly “untouched by human hands” wielding righteous weapons. As Sam Harris says, if you think those texts embody the summit of evolved human compassion and love, you need to expand your reading list.

Harris’s latest mission is to clarify the factual basis of values. David Hume led us down a rabbit-hole with his rigid distinction between “ought” and “is.” There are facts about values, we need to state them as unambivalently as we can.

Also today: the very visible English public intellectual A.C. Grayling denies that atheists are fundamentalists, and Infidel author Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells the inspiring story of how she let go of Allah and survived. And flourished.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We’ll review for Tuesday’s exam briefly today. Remember, you’re invited to solicit questions & will get extra credit if they’re used. Send ’em on by Sunday so I can send out a review update.

Germans (mostly)

March 24, 2010

Here they come, let’s see if they can put some life into the match. But first a Frenchman, a Scot, a Swiss, an Englishman.

But before that, and speaking of believers: did you catch the debate on ABC’s Nightline last night between Michael Shermer and Sam Harris arguing against “the future of God,” versus Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston? It was a riveting show of belief and counterpoint, though the edited-for-TV version barely conveyed the rare excitement of actual ideas being exchanged in public for purposes of both enlightenment and entertainment. So I stayed up to catch the whole thing in its entirety, online. Check it out. All of the participants had interesting things to say, Sam Harris stole the show, and Deepak Chopra lived up to Julia Sweeney‘s past billing. He really does “layer” the quantum flap-doodle in ways that imply a specious expertise. There should be more of this sort of fare in the popular media! We’ll watch, you & me, and they’ll get decent ratings. Right? But back to our business…

Voltaire. Hectored by a parish priest on his deathbed to repent and declare Jesus’ divinity he protested: “In the name of God don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.” He thought hell was a pretty silly idea, and like his friend Ben Franklin he was a Deist and a friend of the Society of Friends, a Quaker-sympathizer.

Hume. “By what arguments or analogies can we prove any state of existence, which no one ever saw, and which no wise resembles any that was ever seen?” Such were the sentiments that roused Kant from his slumbers and led him to “postulate” the unseen noumenal/transcendent realm of God, freedom, and immortality. But “le Bon David” was a skeptic to the end. “The morality of every religion was bad,” though he admitted having known some good religious men. By all accounts he was a good man too. His pal Adam Smith called him as close “to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man” as could be. He was calm in the face of his demise, cheerful and in good humor, without anxiety.

Rousseau. Difficult, paranoid, vain, ungrateful to his benefactor Hume [Rousseau’s Dog, Philosophers’ Quarrel], and “born again” (and then  eventually killed, Critchley speculates) at the paws of a Great Dane.  A strange man, but given to saving spurts of calm– especially when walking.

Bentham. Stranger still: he attends meetings of the University College London council, but does not vote. His perpetual presence in corpore is intended as “a posthumous protest against religious taboos surrounding the dead.” Inspiring.

Kant. Another strange dude. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.

Hegel. “The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

Feuerbach. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.

Schopenhauer. When we’ve stood up, he says, we need to look mortality in the eye. Life is “a loan received from death, with sleep as the daily interest on this loan.” Why, if he felt this way, didn’t he stuff it? Apparently because he didn’t want to feed the voracious monster “Will.” The problem with suicide is that it maintains the illusion of wilfullness. The only permissible suicide is the self-starvation of the ascetic. No thanks, I’ll just keep eating and pushing that round object. Move over, Albert. You must consider us happy. Even if, like Artur, we’ve had our poor hearts broken. As Emerson prods: “Up again, old heart.” (Is there consolation for too much grading?)

this they believe

March 23, 2010

Speaking of Unitarians, Elizabeth Anderson was one. Her parents had been raised Lutheran and (culturally) Jewish but as adults rejected the local representatives of those traditions who rejected them in their recombinant marriage and turned to the UUs.

“Unitarianism is a church without a creed; there are no doctrinal requirements of membership. (Although Bertrand Russell once quipped that Unitarianism stands for the proposition that there is at most one God, these days pagans are as welcome as all others.) It was a pretty good fit for us, until the New Age spiritualists started to take over the church. That was too loopy for my father’s rationalistic outlook, so we left.”

Pretty much my story too.  But I’m as down with the interdependent web of all existence as anybody. Guess that strikes some traditionalists as pagan too.

Anderson leads off today’s readings in A&S with an impressive rejection of the canard that you can’t be good without God. (Sam Harris has interesting new thoughts on the fact-value distinction he shared at TED recently.)

The other canard we’ve scrutinized this semester is the stereotype of atheists as negative nay-saying nabobs who only know what they’re against. That’s the regrettable, sordid legacy of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but most thoughtfully-Godless folk are for plenty. The magician Penn Gillette offered his “This I Believe” testament in an affirming spirit– “No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future, with more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O…”  —but it was still purveyed under the barely-affirming title “There is no God.” Sigh.

More of us need to speak up, in that forum and others, to dispel the false perception of Godlessness as akin to Scrooge-hood. Gillette’s is at the top of the queue of (as of this writing) 136 atheism-themed essays. [Click here to submit your essay to “This I Believe.”  I did. ] When I found the little piece I’d dashed off to celebrate the lunar landing anniversary back in the summer posted on TIB’s website recently it was like Christmas in January.

Also today: Ian McEwan’s “End of the World Blues” (aka “Day of Judgment“*), Steven Weinberg from Dreams of a Final Theory (not taking back his famous gut-punch statement “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless,” but adding “I did not mean that science teaches us” this), Salman Rushdie humming Lennon and imagining God as a dispensable concept, and the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq’s Why I am not a Muslim. (Muslim Spirit– has Hitch been abducted? Unofficial Warraq site)

*McEwan says it’s time to tell a new story:

“Thirty years ago, we might have been able to convince ourselves that contemporary religious apocalyptic thought was a harmless remnant of a more credulous, superstitious, pre-scientific age, now safely behind us. But today prophecy belief, particularly within the Christian and Islamic traditions, is a force in our contemporary history, a medieval engine driving our modern moral, geopolitical, and military concerns. The various jealous sky-gods – and they are certainly not one and the same god – who in the past directly addressed Abraham, Paul, or Mohammed, among others, now indirectly address us through the daily television news. These different gods have wound themselves inextricably around our politics and our political differences.”

Biophilia would be better.