Archive for September, 2010

Epicureans, Stoics, & Skeptics

September 30, 2010

There are three obstacles to happiness, Epicurus said– fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods– but all can be removed easily enough.

Death is no problem because when we are alive we are not dead and when we are dead we don’t know it… Fear of pain is worse than pain itself. Accept the pain, embrace the sting… and you’ve vanquished your worst foe, the one in your head.” (J.M. Hecht)

Strike one, strike two… and since any gods there may happen to be, out there in the empty spaces between the stars, are quite evidently “totally unconcerned with human affairs,” fear strikes out. Be happy.

Seneca‘s end was not so happy, but it was more or less consistent with his life. He did not strain against the leash of perceived necessity. But does he illustrate the limits the of therapeutic acceptance, and cross the line into defeatist resignation? [text… J-L David painting]

Other Stoics are better role-models. Cicero‘s De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) is a neglected classic. Bottom line: “If you want truth, you have to avoid making up anything.”

Marcus Aurelius had a cold unblinking eye for harsh home-truths. He poses a question never more timely than right now, for a celebrity-besotted society like ours:

He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will also die very soon… But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what then is this to thee? And I say not what is it to the dead, but what is it to the living?

Not enough to live for, is what. But the Philosopher-Emperor finds life worth living all the same, for those who cultivate a properly-stoic sensibility. Contented are those who learn to comprehend the universe,

by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every several thing, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.

Our time is brief, but  so then also is our pain. From this perspective, the trite modern phrase about not sweating the small stuff (because it’s all small) can become meaningful and profound.

The skeptic Sextus Empiricus offers an interesting observation on anthropomorphic God-projection, as Jennifer Hecht summarizes: divine virtues are thought to be “fully realized versions of human virtues.” But “that did not make sense unless God had our weaknesses.”

Weaknesses like impotence, fallibility, and ignorance: whose acknowledgement by us is also our greatest strength. So, says Sextus, your God is too small.

But of course, as a skeptic, he must always add: for all we know.

if we only had a brain

September 29, 2010

We’ll talk a bit in FoL today about Danny Hillis’s “A Forebrain for the World Mind” and whatever else from the first 40 pages of This Will Change Everything anyone cares to mention, before looking back at the Long Now clock.

What we have now with the world wide web, Hillis says, is a primitive hindbrain concerned with

the functions of preference and attention that create celebrity, popularity and fashion, all fundamental to the operation of human society. This hindbrain is ancient. Although it has been supercharged by technology, growing in speed and capacity, it has grown little in sophistication. This global hindbrain is subject to mood swings and misjudgments, leading to economic depressions, panics, witch-hunts, and fads. It can be influenced by propaganda and by advertising. It is easily misled. As vital as the hindbrain is for survival, it is not very bright.

And what do we need? A forebrain,

with conscious goals, access to explicit knowledge, and the ability to reason and plan. A world forebrain would need the capacity to perceive collectively, to decide collectively, and to act collectively.

Sounds a lot like Plato’s philosopher-kings, but that’s not what Hillis wants. He just wants more intelligent direction in our communal affairs, more smart collaboration and connection. So far,  “technology has made the conversation larger, but not smarter.”

But smarter is what we need: “an intelligence greater than our own,” a global forebrain. “This will change everything.” We’ll not be in Kansas anymore.

Is this the change we need, change for the better? Will our attention span finally be wide enough to wrap around all our challenges? We’ll talk about that for as long as we can stand it this afternoon. Then we’ll take a little test, and we’ll probably get back that twenty minutes of overtime from Monday.  (Was that a useful demonstration of what the “Long Now” feels like?)

Aristotle, skeptics, & stoics

September 28, 2010

It’s an ambitious menu today, and we’re reviewing for exam #1 too. Better keep it short.

Main point about Aristotle: if Plato’s the urrationalist, he’s the primordial empiricist. His Lyceum would have been a perfect choice for me (better even than Vandy), with all that peripatetic walking-about.

He came close to facing the same charges that did Socrates in, but chose to leave Athens. Do we think the less of him for that? I don’t.

Through no fault of his own, he become the Unquestioned Authority of medieval philosophy. We shouldn’t hold that against him either.

His “metaphysics” is simply “after physics,” just a rung up the abstraction ladder. Nothing too “woo-woo,” in fact it mirrors his body language in “School of Athens“: pace Plato, forms (lower case “f”) are not transcendent and outside our terrestrial “cave,” they’re as particularized and individuated as we are.

His logic is basic and comprehensive. (But is it exhaustive of reality? A meta-metaphysical question, perhaps.)

His emphasis on potentiality also distinguishes him from his teacher Plato: Becoming is more important, certainly more formative, than Being. An acorn is a potential oak. A student is a potential teacher. But it’s important, too, not to see development of this sort as more teleological or purposive than it is. “Goals” are typically the possessions of individuals or cohesive, intelligently-directed groups, not of nature per se.

His Unmoved Mover is an unmoving “Philosopher’s God.” (No wonder so many of us are irreligious. Blame Aristotle, among others.)

His ethics is a constant quest for the middle ground, the mean, splitting the difference between extremes. This works, arguably, for courage, and charity and pleasure-seeking (etc.), but what about honesty?

His politics makes a strong case for the middle class. But why didn’t he challenge slavery? (Does this show that even the most sophisticated philosophy is trapped in its time & place?)

Our text today includes a nice graphic of the library of Alexandria (founded by Aristotle’s most ambitious, but possibly least ethically-reflective student), the sacking of which remains one of the great unwashed stains on our species.

Aristotle’s Lyceum successors were sceptics (our author’s a Brit, hence the “c” in place of my “k”) who renounced the quest for truth. Pyrrho was their most salient and extreme spokesman. (But we’ve just about forgotten his predecessor Chrysippus, thanks to the aforementioned legions of Caesar who burned the library that housed his works.)

Then, the contemptible/contemptuous Diogenes, a dog-like “cynic. (My pooches are insulted by the comparison.)

Rome was grand but mostly not too reflective. They did sponsor some impressive public works, though.

Then came the ill-fated Seneca. [“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“] You can read all about him in de Botton’s Consolations. And, watch this:

Not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

And don’t forget the pleasure-seeking Epicurus [“Back to the Garden“], or the slave Epictetus. We have much still to learn from them both, about freedom from ignorance and superstition, and the free will such freedom makes valuable.

And don’t forget Hecht’s Doubt, full of insight on the Greeks in ch.2 and the Romans in ch.4. Cicero in particular deserves a lot more respect than he’s gotten from other sources.

Yes, I agree:  this is all too much for one day. An adjustment in the syllabus may be in order, stay tuned.

cosmic connection

September 27, 2010

Time for our last Clock of the Long Now installment. (Next up: What Will Change Everything?)

The clock’s progenitor Danny Hillis hasn’t been letting time stand still. Lately he’s been concerned with developments in cancer research and proteomics. A good reminder that long-term thinking is no substitute for problem-solving in the present.

The present. What else do we have? The past is dead, the future’s not yet living. Right? Not quite. Past and future are virtually alive in us, for those of us who think there’s something in them we can use. Something we must respond to, and connect with.

Like ancient footprints.  When we walk a mile in their ash we extend their range and deepen our connection to cosmic time, “ancient and vast.” We speak for the earth of things.

We humans have set foot on another world in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, an astonishing achievement for creatures such as we, whose earliest footsteps three and one-half million years old are preserved in the volcanic ash of east Africa. We have walked far.

It’s important to recall and retain the past. George Santayana‘s famous “01905” warning about the hazards of forgetting is still right, though  overquoted. Churchill was right too, to lump the reading and writing of history with its creation.

I’m with Brand on this point: if we wait to solve our planet’s problems before looking beyond it & them (as ’60s environmentalists used to urge), we’ll never look again. And we’ll probably never solve them, either. Boldly going shouldn’t mean giving up on the homeworld. Not going, though, just might.

We can learn from those traditional native Americans who defined “now” as seven generations in each direction: 175 years. That may not be now enough, but it’s way better than the CNN news cycle.

So should we be packing for Mars, then? Maybe. But is it really true that “we can’t undo our power” – or at least temporize our will to power? We’d better, if we’re coming in peace for all humankind.

And is it true that “better technology and more affluence leads to less environmental harm”? Is the burgeoning infosphere really no threat to the biosphere?

As for nanotech: we do need to hear more about the potential good effects. Gray goo is a real downer.

Inconvenient Truth wasn’t the first to publicize Keeling and Revelle’s long-term studies of global warming. But Stewart Brand is not nearly so charismatic a speaker as Al Gore.

I definitely vote for more time-lapse film, to stretch the frame of the present. And for more slow art. That’s one way to frame the clock project: a big “Hi there” from us to whomever. But I still think the clock should be useful from the moment it begins to run. The ADD of our time is getting worse with every new gadget rollout, and “looking to the mountain” may be good medicine. (And more solid indigenous wisdom.)

Brand asks a question we all ought to ask ourselves: “Reader, what was the occasion of your longest view?” I’m thinking…

He also notes the “sudden overwhelm in the last seconds” of spiking population. Is that problem on your radar?

How about the institutional relevance of universities, in transmitting an intellectual heritage to the “ever-new  generations passing through”? Does Lt. Gov. Ramsey get that, do you think?

“The long view looks right through death.” The trans-end-dance, again. Do you know the steps? Have you read your Plato Papers? Or do you take false comfort from the paradoxical Zeno, “always never more than halfway to death”? Will technology buy us some kairos-time? If we start living much longer lives, will we be that much more responsible? Will we think like John Adams, freeing our “sons” for philosphy and poetry? Would you be disappointed to think that your great-great…grandchildren may share none of your interest in the meaning of life? Would you still want to keep their options open?

I hope you would. We’re playing an infinite game here, and though the main point of such games is not to win, losing would be very sad. Forget about waiting ’til next year.

As for the clock: I’m with that tough old rancher. “Why not?” Who knows? It just might change everything.


On an unrelated matter: will the real John Shook please stand up? He has atheists all riled up with his Huffington Post essay (“For Atheists and Believers, Ignorance Is No Excuse”) calling out strident Know Nothing (about theology) atheists. But his latest Center For Inquiry post (“God Fails a Simple Rationality Test”) will strike some as plenty strident.

I know John, have dined pleasantly with him, and know him to be a straight shooter who more often than not targets Know Nothing theists. (He did it again in August at the James centenary symposium, at my “Will to Believe” session in New Hampshire.) His larger point, I’m sure, is that there’s ignorance and smugness all around. We should decry it all. He’s right.


September 25, 2010

Where do good ideas– lower case– come from? “Connectivity,” says Steven Johnson. Not an eternal Platonic Idea of Connectivity, but actual episodes of connecting within and between individuals and communities. That’s what Chris Anderson was talking about too. And E.M. Forster. “Only connect.” Build bridges between our passions and our prose.

Johnson’s TED Talk:

Connectivity is also liquidity. Pour that latte, get those ideas, those neuronal networks, together and in sync. Deep thinking really isn’t The Thinker in his solitary slump, it’s the chaotic cacophony of the coffeehouse (or tavern). “Chance favors the connected mind.” That’s when things really begin to flow.

TED & the “earth of things”

September 24, 2010

What could it mean for the “earth of things” to “resume its rights” at this moment, in William James’s vision of the pragmatic reformation whose gravity-shift will mark a new epoch?

James obviously didn’t foresee online video, but he was confident we’d do well to pay more attention to one another (and less to Plato’s unseen “intelligible world of Ideas”).

Chris Anderson’s answer to James’s vital question, then: the new seat of authority is yours & mine, and it’s taking the form of “crowd-accelerated innovation.” As he says, “our future is many to many.” We’re all teachers now. As Older Daughter would say: let’s not suck at it.

We live at a moment when it is possible to inspire ourselves on a global scale, in real time. Inspiration need not be sought in the remote reaches of the empyrean, it’s all around us down here on the ground. It’s visible, and only a click away. There are lots of great lower-case ideas here. It feels less and less like a darkened cave. The lights are on, our passions are on display.

Sophists, Socrates, Plato

September 23, 2010

Reality. What a concept.

It would be misleading to say that Plato cared more about it than his predecessors. But he differed from them sharply in propounding an account according to which our everyday default condition is to be wildly out of touch with it. In the dark, until we see the brilliant light of day outside the cave of custom and ignorance.

Plato’s myth of the cave invites us to think of ourselves as cave-dwellers seeking the light. My old college prof vonS., who first introduced me and my peers to it in our benighted undergrad days back in the 70s, was sure it was the best way to think about education, never mind the metaphysics.

Another humble pedagogical metaphor he offered portrayed us as his fellow ladder-climbers, with himself just a rung or so ahead. We were all inching up Plato’s line. Taken that way, all can agree with James: “The fons et origo of reality is subjective, is ourselves,” but truth is something else again.

And speaking of loving wisdom and learning: Plato loves play-dough. Who knew?

Well, Simon Blackburn (author of the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy) did. Here he is talking Plato in a podcast. And here’s the super-condensed 3-minute version of Plato.


September 22, 2010

First, to follow up Monday’s impromptu discussion:  I was wondering if books face a future of figurative immolation, not the  literal burning of the Alexandrian library (or the crazy Gainesville pastor) but every bit as terminal. Our large-scale cultural turn to e-reading, away from traditional book authorship and publication, raises questions about the long-term durability of the printed word and, hence, of our ability to transmit any legacy at all to future generations.

John Updike had important thoughts about the future of books, late in his life. He disputed Kevin Kelly’s rosy vision of a future of literary mash-ups and “snippets” unmoored from their thus-marginalized and fungible authors.

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

Updike elaborated his concerns in this speech, released as a podcast

Kevin Kelly, you may then think, is some kind of radical firebrand. But he doesn’t come across that way in our Clock of the Long Now reading today. The most sensible statement in today’s text, though, is Hillis’s response to Kelly’s report of the “complexity scientists” and their mocking of Long Now’s ambitions:

Believing in the future is not the same as believing you can predict or determine it. The Long Now Foundation is not about determining the destiny of our descendants, it is about leaving them with a chance to determine a destiny of their own.

(That’s exactly the point Harrison was making on Monday,  right?)

Also in Sunday’s Times Magazine special issue on the future of technology in education, Kelly’s conservative framing of computing as a tool we may pick up and put down at will is measured and reassuring. He quotes his previously home-schooled son, about to enter High School:

“I’m learning how to learn, but I can’t wait till next year when I have some real good teachers — better than me.”

He had learned the most critical thing: how to keep learning. A month ago he entered high school eager to be taught — not facts, or even skills, but a lifelong process that would keep pace with technology’s rapid, ceaseless teaching.

If we listen to technology, and learn to be proficient in its ways, then we’ll be able to harness this most powerful force in the world.

And if we don’t? Not so reassuring. But this seems right enough:

• The proper response to a stupid technology is to make a better one, just as the proper response to a stupid idea is not to outlaw it but to replace it with a better idea.

Jaron Lanier, who– we will read soon– insists that he’s not a gadget (and neither are you), also points out that education does what genes cannot, viz., transfer nongenetic information (“memes”) between generations:

To the degree that education is about the transfer of the known between generations, it can be digitized, analyzed, optimized and bottled or posted on Twitter. To the degree that education is about the self-invention of the human race, the gargantuan process of steering billions of brains into unforeseeable states and configurations in the future, it can continue only if each brain learns to invent itself. And that is beyond computation because it is beyond our comprehension. Learning at its truest is a leap into the unknown.

Leaping can be a good thing, it’s how we get somewhere. But, as Lanier cautions: “Trusting teachers too much also has its perils.” Danger, Will Robinson.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But on the other hand, Will did always trust his Robot. It’s the duplicitous Dr. Smiths you really have to watch out for.


September 21, 2010

Socrates offers deep consolation for unpopularity, says Alain de Botton.* He still serves up a powerful shot of self-confidence. The “think for yourself” theme pioneered by the pre-Socratics, not always with the most impressive results, gets his dying endorsement.

Euthyphro didn’t understand what he meant, by asking if the pious or holy (or good) is so because the gods decree it, or if they decree it just because it’s so.  I hope you do.  Think of it this way: if the ref decrees that you’re not offside, does that make it so? Even if the replay shows otherwise?

We’ll discuss, and maybe take a look at the thrilling Philosophers’ Cup final. But leave the vuvuzellas at home.

P.S. If that’s not enough comic relief for you, read Socrates’ Apology and then Woody Allen’s. But then, sober up for the most moving final scene in all of philosophy.



September 20, 2010

This looks to me, mechanically disinclined as I am, like an awful lot of moving parts for a clock designed to last 10,000 years. You can check the specs & drawings yourself, for the “01999” prototype that now awaits its installation on  the grand and lasting scale– sixty feet if it’s an inch, says Stewart Brand.

But the most moving part is the consciousness that dreams it. It has some potential staying power, since its contents are transferable from one generation to the next.

The key point here, though: this “future-oriented mechanism” is not supposed to be a mere monument to our ingenuity or our dreaminess.

It’s supposed to be alive. It’s supposed to floresce. (“Anthropologists call the sudden urge to build something huge a florescence.”)

Joyce Kilmer thought

that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree

But this poem, and clock and orrery, is plenty lovely enough for me. Like an old tree it inspires, like the Socratic hero it models responsibility as a way of life and not a moldy museum piece. “It should not let itself become a religion” or “do eternity,” a temptation which for so many historically has meant “future-dodging” and cultural suicide. We don’t want another Alexandria, another Hypatia.*

Tim Berners-Lee once said of the web, “You don’t have to visit it, but it’s nice to know it’s there.”

Well, that’s true too of museums. The designers of this amazing clock have built in the expectation and requirement that someone or other visit regularly to literally wind the thing. (Out of sight, out of mind etc.)

If they build it, I will come.