Archive for October, 2010

earth’s eye

October 30, 2010

Yesterday was a fabulous day to loop the lake at Radnor, “Nashville’s Walden.”  It’s so good to see the comeback it’s made from damage sustained in the May flood. One of the very best reasons to live here. How many times have I circumnavigated this pool, over the past thirty years? The prospect is fresh every time.

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows. HDT

Perhaps, as the poet said, the truth does depend on a walk around the lake. Or on many, until we can walk no more.

It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a swallow dip apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of yore. It struck me again to- night, as if I had not seen it almost daily for more than twenty years, — Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago…

WordPress’s automatic generator says this may be related. I think so.

This too. The inscription speaks of grace and curiosity. Its presence here speaks of belonging, of being part of something you know will outlast you and feeling fine, though sooner or later to be (in Annie Dillard’s unflinching phrase) “tucked under.”

“We spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under.” Yet our time above ground, on a day like yesterday, is indeed all about preparing the Earth to support new life.


October 29, 2010

With the World Series in full sway in the city by the bay (Go Giants!), it’s a good time to think about trolleys… much in vogue lately, apparently. (Organ transplants too.) Jonathan had us thinking about them with his “Batman” report yesterday. (Holy ethical conundrum, Batman!) Why didn’t he kill the Joker? Co-dependency, of course.

The problem was classically framed by the late ethicist Phillippa Foot:

“A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?”

Cool experiment:  take the test. Then, ask yourself if you would kill the Joker.



Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)

October 28, 2010

Don’t like Descartes‘ metaphysical dualism? The other options on today’s menu are one substance or infinitely many. (“None”  is not an option for these two, but you could go back and warm up some leftover Montaigne if that’s your preference.)

Baruch Spinoza(1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” inCandide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

& here’s more Einstein on Spinoza’s God and ultimate Reality:

and more:

The Einstein/Spinoza view of time & space is subtle and strange. It has tempted some to make more  of it than seems sensible [rebooted] but Spinoza clearly found his “bliss” in it. If we’re part of something practically eternal, from a finite point of view, does that lend us a share of immortality? With this perspective are we back, in roundabout fashion, to the Tao?

Or at least to the author of Walden?: asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau 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.

Uncle Albert was not a New Atheist, nor quite an old one. He also said:

I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility… I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.

I always like to let Einstein give the benediction in my Intro classes, stay tuned for that. [parting wisdomsquashed Einstein… cosmic religionSagan’s hero…]

NOTE to students: the tornado alerts  messed with our afternoon classes on Tuesday, so everybody gets to wait ’til next Tuesday for Exam 2. No new quiz today, but Spinoza (& Einstein) and Leibniz will possibly be on the exam. We’ll get on with as many presentations as we can today, everybody please be present and ready to go. Remember, non-presenters, essays are due Tuesday too.


October 27, 2010

Finishing This Will Change Everything today, beginning the World Series (Go Giants!), and celebrating Older Daughter’s birthday. No more storm warnings, please.

Jonathan Haidt predicts future wars over “ethnically linked genetic variations in the ease with which people can acquire specific virtues,” beginning in around 2012. What he means, precisely, is hazy; but he says the variations in question won’t break down along neat or familiar racial lines. Key point seems to be that we’re a diverse species, and we’re finally going to have to come to terms with that. If we do, or if we don’t, it’ll be a new ballgame.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose name (but not its spelling)  flows like the absorptive state he celebrates, reminds us that the Doomsday Clock is ticking and we must attend to all the consequences of our science and technology. Nothing we do is pure, or for its own sake. In other words: our facts and our values are two sides of a common coin. We must turn the coin over and look closely. [walk & flow]

Austin Dacey says please pass the “cultured , in vitro” meat, Aunt Bea.

Richard Foreman says humans living fully in the present  would nonetheless continue to possess a future, albeit one “that is always imaginary and beyond us.” I think he’s for that, and it surely is hard to resist an expanded and enriched “present moment.” (“The sufficiency of the present moment” is what William James called “The Sentiment of Rationality,” or the feeling of being at home in the universe.)

Happiness, the new “self-esteem.” Betsy Devine seems not entirely for that. She joins the trending backlash against Positive Psychology (Against Happiness,The Case Against Happiness, Bright-sided) but this shall pass. And I shall teach Happiness 101 again, in the future.

There will come a time, says the amazing and astonishing Aubrey de Grey, when mechanical & digital human invention will have crested and we’ll be content (as a species) to rest on our laurels– “not motivated to explore further sophistication in our technology,” we’ll “focus on enriching our lives” the old-fashioned ways.  “Human  nature” will be exposed, we’ll finally know ourselves, and Aubrey resolutely expects to be there when it happens. No matter how long it takes.

The last word in this volume is Nicholas Humphrey‘s. “Nothing has changed everything.” Human nature is no dark mystery, so “be prepared for more of the same.” Hmmm.

But also, FoLers, be prepared to discuss You Are Not a Gadget on Monday. Today, be prepared for a presentation or two and an exam whose extra credit question is: “What will change everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” Sound familiar?

Descartes & Montaigne

October 26, 2010

Today’s reading focuses on Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, three Rationalists with different ideas about “substance” or ultimate reality. But first, it’s useful to contrast “the father of modern philosophy” with his mischievous French cousin Montaigne– an anti-Descartes, at least with respect to the knowledge quest. Instead of trying to know the world through first principles that couldn’t be doubted, Montaigne tried to seek self-knowledge through his chatty and personal essays. (An essay just is a try, an attempt, a stab in the dark.)

Montaigne was a happy skeptic: “The most manifest sign of wisdom is continual cheerfulness.” Where Descartes sought certainty and indubitability, Montaigne supposed we might need eight or nine senses to really know the world. Since we don’t have ’em, we ought (he thought) to free ourselves from any doomed quest for certainty. Accept and enjoy. We can’t really be certain of our own sanity, let alone the foundational solidity of our first principles. “Cogito ergo sum” might just as well be “Dubito ergo sum.” The custom of the country is not the same thing as rational and objective proof, different countries accept different truths. And so, Montaigne chiseled the wisdom of Pyrrho and Sextus into his rafters and kept on essaying to understand himself and the benighted world.

[JMHcool medium (books)… consolation for inadequacy (deB)… Who knows?…”Que scais-je?”… Pyrrho’s PigNew Yorker… Spanish Inquisition]

NOTE TO STUDENTS: All midterm presenters need to be present and ready to report today. Exam 2 is on Thursday.

UPDATE: I’m canceling afternoon classes today, after a series of “take shelter” tornado warnings. Hunker down. We’ll do the exam on Tuesday. More on Descartes, Montaigne, Leibniz, & Spinoza on Thursday.

Gaia’s nodes

October 25, 2010

Looking forward to some good midterm presentations today. Meanwhile, we’re about to finish This Will Change Everything…

Do we need a new idea of masculinity? Probably, but I can’t say that’s the first thing that springs to mind when I dream of a better future. I do dream of a world in which our daughters are unhampered by gender and other moral irrelevancies, so on second thought maybe I’m not so far from Tino Sehgal‘s dream after all. But will our grandsons still be indulged in what a psychotherapist of my acquaintance calls our “thing”-centered sociability and style of communicating? I don’t happen to think that’s all bad, at least with respect to the things I value (like MLB post-season games).

Speaking of (m)ad men and their “hidden persuaders”: I am a bit concerned about Helen Fisher‘s evident sanguinity towards the future’s growing “arsenal of [chemical] weapons to manipulate ourselves and others.” That’s a theme Richard Powers explores in Generosity, I hope we’ll get a chance to talk about it at semester’s end.

Same for Henry Happending’s  “gamete market,” Marco Iacoboni‘s custom-tailored brain stimulation Happiness,  and Karl Sabbagh’s suppression of aggression. That last may seem unobjectionable, but I’m reminded of William James at Chautauqua. There he found placid, unaggressive adult learners who seemed to him to have swapped the martial spirit for bloodless insipidity. If we’re going to try and engineer ourselves into pacifists, must we become excessively passive in the bargain? Would it be worth the price?

Jesse Bering reminds me of James too, with his pragmatic inclination to look not for precise, isomorphic accuracy of fit between our beliefs and the world  but first, instead, for signs of their workability. Does this mesh well with his interest in parsimony? Does “simple” always work? Ask Rube Goldberg.*

Clifford Pickover, on the other hand, seems un-Jamesian with his confidence in mathematics to explain the color of the sunset without expressing a correlative interest in its subjective significance.

Lee Smolin seems fine with such “human projections,” and is ready to toss timeless and transcendent Platonic Ideas  as irrelevant. He wants to liberate us from the future (and the past).

Paul Steinhardt wonders about “events before the Big Bang.” Me too.

Mark Pagel says bring on a New Dualism so we can join the immortals. There’s a projection for you.

More modestly: let’s keep working on those pluripotent stem cells, I’d like to be a healthy nonagenarian too, design by *Goldberg. And, Lou Gehrig should not be a disease.  (Go Giants!)

Finally, Brian Goodwin says we need to get close again to Mother Earth.  I still don’t know about “Gaia,” but it does not necessarily befall a “node” (does it?) to know things. Is that how we have to think of ourselves, if we’re to respect the organic natural and cultural unity (and “native wisdom”) of our world?


October 23, 2010

Nick Christakis and James Fowler write in Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives [amazon] that it’s our real social networks– the people we regularly interact with in the flesh, face-to-face, and not our Facebook friends et al– that really influence us.

Minor case in point: a celebrity tweeter with a million followers hawked their book on Twitter, and sales didn’t budge. So, if you’re reading this, their thesis seems to be that you probably won’t  be influenced to read it either. But I am.

Dan Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) says “we think we are individuals who control our own fates, but we’re merely cells in the nervous system of a much greater beast.”

Cells, neurons… or as Andy Clark says in his edge essay “Celebratory Self-re-engineering,” we’re “nodes,”

just starting to know ourselves: not as firmly bounded biological organisms but as delightfully reconfigurable nodes in a flux of information, communcation, and action. As we learn to celebrate our own potential, we will embrace ever-more-dramatic variations in bodily form and in our effective cognitive profiles. The humans of the next century will be vastly more heterogeneous, more varied along physical and cognitive dimensions, than those of the past as we deliberately engineer a new Cambrian explosion of body and mind.

OK, but if Christakis and Fowler are right we’re not “Singy‘s” nodes but our own, collectively conceived as a social organism whose parts are on speaking (not just texting and tweeting and status-updating) terms. That’s old hat, a standard theme in western thought going all the way back to the ancient Greeks and their social network. Its hub was the vibrant public square.

I’m still not sure how delightful it’s going to be, to live in the nervous system and the shadow of the new electronically-mediated  “beast.” Can we tame it?

And again the question: what do we mean, “we”?


October 22, 2010

We talked about the varieties of humanism yesterday.

I really like the version that sees humanism fundamentally as an expression of the love of life.

Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.


This sentiment was given unexpected voice recently by Michael Gerson, George Bush’s old speechwriter, writing of Christopher Hitchens’ joie de vivre and his special talent for friendship.

In earlier times, without derision or irony, this would have been called “humanism,” a delight in all things human — in wit and wine and good company and conversation and fine writing and debate of large issues. Hitchens’s joy and juice put many believers of my acquaintance to shame — people for whom religion has become a bloodless substitute for life. “The glory of God,” said St. Irenaeus, “is man fully alive.” Hitchens would hate the quote, but he proves the claim.

I don’t think Hitch hates the quote. I don’t. The best humanists are fully alive, as Hitch seems to be in these sadly dwindling days of his cancerous physical decline. Glorious days.

The days, as Emerson said, are Gods.


October 21, 2010

We’re back from Fall Break, kicking off mid-term report presentations with Will, Nichole, and Matthew.* And, we’re walking right up to Descartes’ doorstep and what passes in philosophy for modernity.  First, though,  renaissancereformation, and the early stirrings of science as we know it.

What’s modern about this period is its incipient and growing emphasis on immediate experience, direct observation, experimentation, and empirical verification: seeing things with one’s own eyes, following one’s own head and heart, waking to the personal possibilities of embodied existence. It put the human in humanism, asserting the rights of  individuals to seek an original and personalized relation to the objects of their curiosity and ultimate concern.

“Humanism was not actually about secularism, not blatantly about putting science above faith,” writes JMH. Or if it was, for some, they mostly refrained from saying so. That could still get you dead. But science was in the ascendancy, thanks to the likes of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Hobbes, and Bacon.

[What is humanism now? There have been manifestos on the subject…]

The renaissance represents to us, at least, closer scrutiny of superstition and an impulse to expose uncritical prejudice. It challenged some previously revered  authorities (Aristotle, Scholasticism, church dogmatism, astrology, alchemy, black magic), but– in the case of Martin Luther’s protestant reformation [95 Theses]– it also exalted and re-asserted the sacred authority of uncircumspect faith and holy writ, too. Not a total win for the scientific and philosophic sensibility, but definitely moving in the direction of beginning to make the world safer for that sensibility by cordoning it from blind faith and allowing the emboldened spirit of inquiry to pass.

Machiavelli, ErasmusMore, LutherCalvin




*(1) Other presenters are Jared and Kelley (#13), Ernesto, Aaron, Abby, Veronica, Kumani, Brent, Jonathan, and Ted (#17), and Jacob, Reginald (“maybe”), Briggs, Cory, Dakota, and Jamie (#18).

(2) Exam #2 is Oct. 28. Midterm essays from non-presenters are due Nov. 2.


October 20, 2010

Fall Break was good, but it’s time again to look to the future.

Midterm presentations begin today in FoL, led by Chris and then, time and readiness permitting, Jason, Kayla, Matthew, Elizabeth, Kevin, Marie, or James.

Today’s reading runs an interesting gamut from nanotech (Eric Drexler, the apparently-moribund nano-guru, says it can solve our climate crisis in almost no time) to world government (Stewart Brand‘s improbable “whole earth” solution, coupled with lots less of us) to fusion to synthetic biofuels and green oil and geo-engineering and radically transparent software.

But I’m most struck by the least extreme and most far-reaching observation in today’s reading, from Haim Harari: education has always changed everything, for the relatively-privileged-and-few who’ve had access to it. Computing technology now brings so much closer the day when educational opportunity can plausibly claim, at last,  to be truly universal. If we’re to grow the brains and hearts that can *repair (heal, transform) our broken world we’d better attend to this message. (And the magazine messenger.)

(That was 40 pages, but we want to finish this book next week so here are a few more observations.#)

E-texts “flatten the world,” in a good way (says David Myers). Do they flatten the experience of reading too? Or is that just a reading-snob’s self-indulgent aesthetic judgment that pales next to the democratizing possibilities for those throughout the world to whom literacy in any form is a novelty and a liberation?

TED’s Chris Anderson offers the seductive scenario of global celebrity for effective teachers who used to toil in unrecognized obscurity, just like that break-dancing kid in his inspiring Talk. The whole world is watching and waiting to be enlightened, as the walls of the world wide classroom expand to fit the frame of those ubiquitous smart phones with the high-res screens. Heady stuff.

Keith Devlin is drunk on mobile phone possibilities too:

Within my lifetime I fully expect almost every living human adult, and most children, in the world to own one. (Neither the pen nor the typewriter came even close to that level of adoption, nor did the automobile.) That puts global connectivity, immense computational power, and access to all the world’s knowledge amassed over many centuries, in everyone’s hands. The world has never, ever, been in that situation before. It really will change everything.

Can you hear him now? How many bars…?

Roger Schank  says in “Wisdom Reborn” that not only won’t we need old-school brick-&-mortar classrooms in the future,  we’ll not need libraries either. (We’ll have “reminding machines.”)

And David Gelernter says we really won’t need teachers. Anybody can be a “personal learning consultant,” and “any trustworthy adult” can supervise “cloud-based, parent chosen learning tracks.” O boy. Don’t tell the Tennessee Board of Regents about this.

Carl Sagan, Michael Shermer reminds, said we’re a Type 0.7 Civilization (“Type 1 can harness all of the energy of its home planet; Type 2 can harvest all of the power of its sun; and Type 3 can master the energy from its entire galaxy.”) That’s a bit deflating, but remember: we just got here. Our potential is great, if we can just get out of the 21st century’s political and economic mire and exploit our “game-changing technologies”.

Like what? Daniel Everett’s universal translator and Thomas Metzinger’s  avatars, maybe?

Tors Norretranders thinks the key is Buddhist epistemology that’s seen through the “illusion of the ego” and begun to laugh at the world within us and without us.

Garrett Lisi is simultaneously heartbroken and inspired by the incredible thought that “our generation may be the last to die of old age.” And he calls for more ice, to try and settle a bet he calls “Pascal’s Wager for Singularitarians.” Will he/we win? Or will we never know?

Finally, and to me chillingly: “neurocosmetics” promises to erase the old you altogether. In conventional cosmetology the goal is to make people forget your old look. Marcel Kinsbourne asks (much like Richard Powers in Generosity): “Does anyone care, or even remember the person’s previous appearance? So it will be” with the new personal identities coming soon to a Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) boutique near you.

But, who are you again?



(1)  Syllabus adjustment. we’re taking longer than anticipated with This Will Change Everything, so we’ll push ahead through p. 334 for Monday and finish on Wednesday, just in time for Exam #2. We’ll begin Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget on November 1. Bill McKibben’s Eaarth is now pushed back to November 17.

(2) Midterm report essays from non-presenters are due Nov. 1, not October 27.