Archive for November, 2010


November 30, 2010

“I am lying to you now.”

That’s a self-referential statement, and a paradox. [“Paradoxical Truth“]

Russell is about to discover, in the second half of Logicomix— which is itself also self-referential, it tells us in a footnote– the paradoxical trouble self-reference can make for his and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica project of re-establishing mathematics on a foundation of transparently-demonstrated logic.

Simplicity (a la Occam) and “artificial stupidity” are Russell’s guides, in this project. A non-mathematician may have difficulty detecting either.

Turtles all the way down” is easier to grasp: they’re standing on no discernible foundation. Perhaps they don’t need one, and neither do we? But Russell and Whitehead are not ready to admit that. Wittgenstein seems to be trending that way in his own thought, but he’ll need some battlefield seasoning before he’s ready to draw out and point at (though not quite say) what is staring him– us– in the face, about doubt and certainty.

The map analogy is key. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus, with his “Oresteia,”  suggests to Apostolos the reflection that we must beware confusing our maps (be they verbal, mathematical, or logical) with the real terrain we constantly “pass over.”

Young Wittgenstein tells Russell (at their first meeting) “we can only know for sure the results of logical operations.” Empirical facts don’t measure up. Mathematical reality doesn’t either: it has no “independent existence.”

Much like Hume before him in the British tradition, Russell seems usually capable of closing the door on such inconvenient conclusions and finding reality enough in everyday encounters. He finds  “redemption” from the terrors of mortality, for instance, in other-directed compassion and love.

Nearly losing Evelyn Whitehead, and helping Eric Whitehead face the prospect of her death, gave him “a newfound sense of responsibility” and “showed me a way out of  my despair.” Eric, tragically, would become one of the casualites of the mockingly mislabeled War to end all Wars.

What “immunized” Russell against nationalistic war-mongering? Logic, he claims; sane and (implicitly) skeptical, experientially-derived common sense, I’d say. War taught him to be wary of words. Eventually it would teach Wittgenstein to trust them less, too. His claim to have solved all of philosophy’s problems was insistently not a claim to have said it all.

Russell’s abhorrence of irrationalism (as exemplified by Dada-ist absurdity)  in the wake of the war was mirrored by the mockery he felt in Wittgenstein’s seeming reduction of logic to a set of tautologies. There are Nietzschean overtones, too. The absence of order threatened nihilism.

Still, he was a hero to the Vienna Circle despite his self-ascribed “failure”– even if there must  “always be unanswered questions.” Wittgenstein was sure the Circle misunderstood him about what was “truly important”: religion, metaphysics, ethics, personal meaning.  Moritz Schlick‘s tragic end punctuated his point.

Russell’s long career was, as he notes, a trip from doubt to certainty and home again, as he woke at last from “Leibniz’s dream.” Definitely a “cautionary tale” for our time, too. “No royal road to truth,” indeed. But the road has to pass through experience, and through what we’ve already learned about getting around. The trouble with Zeno’s paradoxical challenge to the possibility of motion, for example, is that it ignores the two legs (and the road!)  Zeno walked in on.

Christos draws the moral of Russell’s and Wittgenstein’s convergence: “answers to really important questions are to be contemplated ‘beyond words’…” Paradox in language just shows that language won’t let us say everything. I’m glad about that. As William James said: “what an awful universe it would be if everything could be converted to words words words!”

And, Christos teases us with  “our prime hope for peace, democracy, and freedom”– the Internet?!

Has he been reading Bill McKibben, too?

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Last class is a week from today. Essays are due then, as well as your three favorite journal entries. We’ll begin final presentations Thursday (or today, if you want to volunteer).

lightly, carefully, gracefully

November 29, 2010

But, realistically? Well… maybe.

Bill McKibben says maybe we can make a decent life on our compromised planet if we live a lot more “lightly, carefully, gracefully” than we’ve shown any interest in doing. What seems clear, though plenty of our fellow Americans are in denial about this, is that something’s gottta give. We can’t keep on keeping on, in the profligate and short-visioned way we’ve been living.

We finish Eaarth today in FoL. Next up, a glimpse at Richard Powers’ cautionary tale about the possible future of engineered happiness, in Generosity: An Enhancement.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: No class today. We’ll finish discussing McKibben on Wednesday, and begin Powers. Possibly also a final presentation, from the first volunteer.

The industrial food system that’s too big  to fail is failing. It’s not feeding the rising numbers of hungry people, country and city living  alike are imperiled by global warming, in Michael Pollan‘s words we’re “eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.” Chalk up half of global warming to present livestock practices and farm subsidies. [Pollan on the politics of food safety…nyt op-ed]

But there’s “unambiguously good news” (finally!) on this score: diversified small-scale agriculture works, and “serious people” have begun to notice. “Monomaniacs” like “Soybean King” Kip Cullers may not be our future, after all. Maybe Bangladesh (!) is, with “a hundred species of fruit and vegetable” in a single acre.

But won’t serious reductions of energy waste in America be extraordinarily painful? No, it’ll be more like “losing weight by cutting your hair.” (That’s not a promising analogy, for me. But I understand what he’s saying.) Turn off the video-game, insulate the water-heater, screw in some better bulbs and the savings will astonish you. That’s before you ever even think about your personal windmill and solar panels, or CSE. (Amory Lovins says we can cut oil use by half and electricity by 3/4.)

Okay, but doesn’t this future look pretty bleak, boring, dull? Even if, like Bill and me, you love Thoreau and the Waltons? McKibben doesn’t deny it. Thank goodness for– SURPRISE!– the Internet.

Yes, thanks to the world wide web you now can engage the world and find real novelty from the comfort and convenience of your very own rural retreat. You can join millions worldwide in Action Days (like 10.10.10) that allow us to believe, for a few hours at least, that the whole world wants the brighter future you dream of. “New ideas blow in, old prejudices blow out.”, begun just a few years ago by McKibben and six Middlebury students, really has accomplished a great deal of consciousness-raising and solidarity-building in a short time. They couldn’t have done it without the web.

Eaarth represents the deepest of human failures. But we still must live on the world we’ve created— lightly, carefully, gracefully.

Then, and only then, will we know ourselves capable of taking the next bold step out into the final frontier. Eaarth, may we hope, will not be our final resting place.


November 25, 2010

“Gratitude is a bridge to your positive future.” [Thank Who Very MuchThank Goodness...Thank Epic Existence]

“If given the opportunity to live your life over and over again ad infinitum, forced to go through all of the pain and the grief of existence, would you be overcome with despair? Or would you fall to your knees in gratitude?”

That question changed philosopher Robert Solomon‘s life.

One can take one’s life and its advantages for granted, but how much better it is to acknowledge not only those advantages but one’s gratitude for them.

…it involves an admission of our vulnerability and our dependence on other people. The Psychology of Gratitude

Solomon collapsed and died of pulmonary hypertension on January 2, 2007 while changing planes at Zurich airport.

Happy Thanksgiving.

backing off

November 24, 2010

“Sustainable” is a squishy word, says Bill McKibben. It purveys the lie that we can keep on going as we’re going, indefinitely. We can’t. We have to back off.

Better are words like durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust…

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Looks like it’s Bring Younger Daughter to Work Day. She’s out already for Thanksgiving Break and says she’ll accompany me to class today-with an “activity” for you, and maybe cookies too.

4 PM UPDATE: She wants all of you who did not make it to her class today to know: no cookies or cupcakes for you!

Poor Alan Greenspan, the “tiny wizard behind the curtain,” unexpectedly bereft of his eternally-expansionist libertarian “belief system.” It all goes back to thinking nature can play second fiddle to “society,” on McKibben’s reading. Last few decades, we’re just too big for our britches.

We need to get back the spirit of ’76 (or ’75?), before American patriotism was indistinguishable from nationalism and exceptionalism… back when it was all about “the defense of the small against the big.” Before we were Big Gulping, Super-sizing, planet-hogging, growth-gorging, future-robbing Consumers.

(But what about Madison’s “Federalist 10” and the push for strong central government? That was never meant to be permanent, McKibben contends a bit unpersuasively.)

Nobody cares about Mars, that world of wonders? The President does: “we want to leap into the future. We want major breakthroughs, a transformative agenda for NASA.”

Admittedly, three decades of benign neglect of deeper space has taken a toll, on that front. People get excited about big projects when opinion leaders lead effectively. Lately the Pythonesque absurdity of large-scale ambitions has been hard to shake, in the absence of a clear-eyed and articulate visionary to tap our idealism. As Jason reminded us the other day, we need another Sagan.

And we need another wave of reason.

What’s left after you go is
The good you’ve left behind
You have to believe in hope
You have to believe in the future

There are more and more people coming around to the point of view that
A positive future for humanity requires human expansion to space

We’re at a crossroads today
We either muster the courage to go
Or we risk the possibility of stagnation and decay

If the short-term future is going to be shrunken,  a long-term vision will be harder to hold.  But times do change. They’ll change again. Right?

If cheap energy has fueled our  “neighborless lifestyle,” and made us less happy, we’d better hope so. The Farmer’s Diner (“Think Globally–Act Neighborly” sounds like a great role model for these changing times.

Wendell Berry’s “mad farmer,” too.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns…

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts…

But… no more “key” national projects anymore? So soon on the heels of civil rights, in a time of vanishing civil liberties, in the fresh echo of “Drill, Baby, Drill”? That really seems premature.

And so does despair. “Far more people take care of each other than take advantage of each other.” That’s true enough, isn’t it? Is it an authentic underpinning of hope? Is the future of “community” bright enough?

Could be. You wouldn’t bet, would you, that the next chapter by the author of The Age of Missing Information, on the Internet, will be any brighter? But that’s the thing about the future (and it’s also my favorite word in English, as it was Joaquin Andujar’s): Youneverknow.

We are “the lucky ones.” Happy Thanksgiving! Pay it forward

Wittgenstein, Russell

November 23, 2010

Gottlob Frege said philosophy had been putting Descartes before the horse all these years, as it were, by asking what we could know for certain, and how we could know it, without first clarifying the logical nature and status of our knowledge tools. Hence, his focus on the twinned roots of math and logic and his quest for a perspicuous language free of the imprecision of ordinary words. They’re ambiguous, their “sense” is sometimes hidden in the minds of speakers. Tighter analysis should lay bare their referential meaning, finally making reality reveal her secrets.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: I know you can’t wait to commence your Thanksgiving break, but you don’t want to miss class today. We’ll catch up on old quizzes, sign up for final presentations, discuss final essays, and begin trying to understand the dominant 20th century movement of “analytic philosophy.” And we’ll do course evaluations. Many of your midterm essays are ready to return, too.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (who said William James was America’s Plato) wanted to “tidy up” math , but were stymied by Cantor‘s unfinished set theory and Godel‘s incompleteness theorem.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patternsinstead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Enter Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and atomism and logicism… and eventually the resurgence of ordinary language.

Wittgenstein (part I) modestly claimed to have “solved all the problems of philosophy,” in his terse and cryptic Tractatus. He was the Joe Friday of philosophy (“Just the facts, M’am”). Every picture tells a story.

Wittgenstein II, to return later (Phil Investigations) in the guise of therapist, is to me the more compelling figure. He apparently materialized while Wittgenstein the temporarily- ex-philosopher was busy doing other things including, to his credit, still philosophizing. [Bio & phil]

“The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world structurally and isomorphically. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words or their logical surrogates, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

He was not really separated at birth from Lyle Lovett.  But my old Vandy Prof Michael Hodges did report that (although he was not from Texas, “that’s right”) he loved American western films. He may have been a Frank Capra fan, too: his last words, in 1951, were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Carnap and the Vienna Circle Positivists said all philosophical problems are really about the syntactical structure of language, not about ultimate meaning or Reason or Truth. They despised Hegel, who was not careful with his syntax at all. Ver-i-fy, they insisted. Fal-si-fyKarl Popper rejoindered. [Wittgenstein’s Poker]

And now we turn to Logicomix, an epic search for truth in the form of a graphic novel. [Skeptic review]

It begins in 1939, with Russell the pacifist speaking before an academic audience in New York and comparing America’s prospective participation in WWII to being “your brother’s keeper.”

The story then leaps back to the previous century, when young Bertie was introduced to the forbidden fruit of books and learning by his famous grandfather Lord John.

Eventually Bertie declares his intent to seek reality through science, logic, and mathematics. The discovery that math is sometimes circular and always reliant on unproven axioms gave him his project, to articulate a transparently self-justifying logical language.

For that he drew inspiration from, of all possible predecessors, Leibniz. The wildly-speculative rationalist metaphysician did indeed possess an impressive mathematical/logical side, which he– unlike Russell– did not consider it necessary always to display.

“We shall not know” would not suffice for Bertie Russell.

Neither would it for the intense young Austrian he’ll soon be meeting.


P.S. It’s rare to flip on the radio in America and hear an excited conversation about a centuries-dead philosopher, but they were talking about Montaigne– the anti-certainty philosopher– on “On Point” yesterday. His new biographer Sarah Bakewell tells his story in 20 questions. For example:

How to live? A. Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Reflect on everything; regret nothing; be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer

For some of us, that’s a good answer to Wittgenstein and Russell too.

Heroes & villainsno man’s landvalue of philConquest of Happinessaction herobdayfresh seedOpinionator blog

high tide

November 22, 2010

The sea level of Bill McKibben’s pessimism is well over flood stage, in today’s FoL reading. He promises it will now begin to recede. We’ll see. My question remains: can we get through the current quagmire of lowered expectations without sacrificing the driving dream of better days ahead? Can we go ahead and build that long clock?

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Hope you can all make it today, we’ll finally finish midterm reports & sign up for finals, we’ll catch up on old quizzes, and do course evaluations.

High water is a problem in its own right, as we were reminded in Nashville last May. (Bob Edwards and the Mayor are all over the flood this morning on XM.) It’s also very symbolic of what’s new and different about our warming planet… and Route 125 near his home in Vermont is a concrete illustration. “You can go to YouTube and see a video– the water washing over the road, tearing out pavement, nearly swallowing up a car…”

“Route 125 doesn’t really work anymore. The river it’s running next to is getting wider because we now live on a planet where warmer air holds more water vapor and hence we have bigger storms…” Infrastructure is going to be a big, growing, costly problem.

It should be clear, in light of all we’ve already read, that we’re coming to a fork in the road as to future expectations. Are we on the cusp of a bold adventure full of grand global projects? Mars, say?

Will we take small but decisive steps out into the cosmos, or will we renounce them as unaffordable fantasies?  Will we place our confidence in technology, especially green technology, to save us from generations of profligacy and plunder? Will carbon-sucking nanobots clean up our mess? Are there techie fixes just waiting to be discovered?

Thinking “with special clarity about the future,” Bill McKibben says growth has to stop. Green growth is worth a shot, but the time to really invest in it was three decades ago. We missed that window. Tom Friedman aside, our hot world isn’t as flat as he thinks it is.

Oh, we’ll impress and amuse and distract ourselves with our Volts and Leafs and even some solar panels (on the White House again) and windmills, but they’re not going to “scale” fast enough to turn the tide.

Just ask our friends at Exxon-Mobil for their prognostications and “business sense.” They still seem to be in the driver’s seat, especially now that BP’s taken the fall as Public Enemy #1 in the gulf. There’s lots more “disinformation” where that came from.

We’ve had 10,000 stable years,  but the cost of living on this “Eaarth” is not stabilizing. “The wind blows harder; more rain falls; the sea rises.”

Green trains might be a solution, but it really matters what you haul in them. China doesn’t just ride the rails, though. [“Transportation in China” wiki]

“If you want to keep your Chinese child from having a chest cold that lingers all winter, the easiest thing to do is burn more coal.” We’re in no position to moralize, though. We’re still pretending we can find and burn “clean coal,” too.

Does the Pentagon really anticipate a return to war over resources as the global norm? Well, that’s the business they’re in.

We can all agree with McKibben, can’t we, that “we need to dampen our intuitive sense that the future will resemble the past”?  But does that have to mean a permanent “uphill” slog? Maybe something wonderful is waiting to happen, as Carl Sagan said.

He read the Club of Rome report in 1972, and spent his last healthy years raising awareness of potential environmental crises, “nuclear winter” and so on. But he also kept his gaze on the far horizon.

Buddhist economics” have their charm, and even their consolations. So does “collapse porn,” honestly. But if our best days aren’t just ahead of us, maybe we’re just not looking through a big enough telescope.


P.S. Did you see Craig Venter on “60 Minutes” last night? The future of life, he says, depends on our learning to program life’s software. He says we can bio-engineer everything. He and his privately-funded colleagues are working on applications in food, medicine, and a clean fuel that eats CO2. “Playing God?” No, he says, just trying to understand the rules of life.

DK, R.I.P.

November 20, 2010

They’re closing down my old store.

Davis-Kidd Booksellers, founded by independent local owners Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd, opened in Nashville in 1980. That was my first year in town too. So you might just as well tell me they’re demolishing the Parthenon or Greer Stadium. (I know, Greer is past its prime. It probably needs to go. I’ll miss it when it does.) I’ve never known this place without it.

I remember my first visit to the original Hillsboro Road location, on a tip from a fellow 1st-year Vandy grad student. I went there after a seminar (probably John Post’s Metaphysics seminar) in the Fall of ’80.

I worked there, at the first mall location and then at Grace’s Plaza in the late ’80’s and a couple years into the ’90s, until it was time to go and teach at East Tennessee State in Johnson City. Started the company softball team. We were awful, and we had a great time. Lost every game, and consoled ourselves afterwards at Dalt’s. Every game. Wonderful people, good times.

I came back years later for my own book reading & signing. That was special.

The Grace’s Plaza location was special too. Taking “meetings” out in the airy atrium, with espresso and “Mr. Cookie Bars” with Jim & Ricky & Carter & Landy & Maria & Jerry & Erik & Suzanne & Donna (those meetings were real) & so many others…  The end was inevitable, in my opinion, when they moved out of there and back into the accursed mall.

There’s a nice Nashville Scene story on DK, concluding with the words of another local institution:

“It’s a self-inflicted wound,” John Seigenthaler says, “and when you lose the linkage that Davis-Kidd had with the customer, there’s a disconnect that follows. The less a community reads, the poorer it is. It’s amazing how books can be a magnet bringing people together, but without it, we fly apart.”

Very sad. I’ve felt that sentiment about flying apart from old DK friends many times through the years. We need a new magnet.

deathly hallow

November 19, 2010

What’s a “deathly hallow”? I don’t know, but I think I now know how it feels. I was Older Daughter’s (and her friend’s) 3 a.m. taxi, after the new Harry Potter premier let out. Going back to bed was probably a mistake.

She was so excited just before midnight, tweeting “Moments away from heading off to the #deathlyhallows premier!! I’m dressed as a Ravenclaw student despite being an avid Gryffindor.”

Her 3 a.m. review was a bit mixed. Films based on books almost never live up to expectations, especially when you’ve read the book multiple times and committed large chunks of it to memory. But those college students I heard sure loved it, and are already mourning the death of childhood the last installment apparently will symbolize for them.

It was a big night for Younger Daughter, too. She and her friend got on stage at the choral concert to sing “Love Song” before a packed auditorium. They were great.

And I’m trying to remind myself: “morning is when I’m awake and there’s a dawn in me.” Right.

Darwin & friends

November 18, 2010

“Are we still evolving?” That’s the question of the day. Most days lately, the answer would have to be: doesn’t seem so. Jerry Coyne, some researchers at Duke, and Time all say yes. But they’re not really asking the  more important and pointed question:  are we evolving culturally? Are we becoming a better, kinder, more peacable and cooperative species? Again, appearances usually suggest not. But it would have been easier to think otherwise a century and a half ago.

The 19th century was a crowded one, probably philosophy’s best so far. John Stuart (“of his own free will”) Mill is the most famous English utilitarian, but Jeremy Bentham is the one who came up with the “hedonic calculus” for determining the greatest good of the greatest number. (It’s not very reliable, unfortunately.) He’s under glass, now.

Auguste Comte was a positivist who also preached the  “religion of humanity,” sometimes aka “secular humanism.”

As for Darwin’s “friends,” you might say that with pals like these he didn’t need Intelligent Designers

Herbert Spencer, for instance, came up with “survival of the fittest” and (according to most mainstream evolutionists) badly misapplied evolutionary ideas to society in general. Social Darwinism is un-Darwinian.

But American philosophy generally  has been very friendly to the evolutionary hypothesis, in many ways a direct and favorable response to it.  Pragmatism is America’s indigenous philosophy – unless we’re talking about the thought of its indigenous peoples, of course.

The evolution vs. creation  debate had been raging in America even before Darwin published, in 1859. Ernestine Rose, one of many neglected female freethinkers in the 19th century spotlighted by Jennifer Hecht in Doubt, had an answer to those early IDers who were sure that oddities like blind fish somehow attested to divine architecture in nature.

What did she make of the world without a creator? One believer had told her that an eyeless fish living in a cave in Kentucky proved that there was a creator, since this showed design. Rose explained, “He forgot the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed… [Hecht on the Scopes Trial… on Darwin15 answers to creationiststheistic evolution…theistic evol DS1…DS2 Coyne vs. ShermerHitch on theistic evoldefining religion…evol & meaning (Galaxy Song)]

James did not think there was any insuperable incompatibility between religion and the new Darwinian science. But for himself, he said,

I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.

Dewey called his version of pragmatism “instrumentalism,” and set up an experimental school to try it out. He wrote The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy (and other essays on this theme).

If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence that is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them…

Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them…

a philosophy that humbles its pretensions to the work of projecting hypotheses for the education and conduct of mind, individual and social, is thereby subjected to test by the way in which the ideas it propounds work out in practice. In having modesty forced upon it, philosophy also acquires responsibility.

Harvard’s turn-of-the-century philosophy department was a hotbed of pragmatism, but also included the metaphysical idealist Josiah Royce (who was James’s office-mate and next-door neighbor in Cambridge, MA) and the Spanish expat George (“those who do not remember the past”) Santayana. Lately, Richard Rorty (of Princeton and UVA, among other places) wore the mantle of neo-pragmatist.

Another recent Harvard philosopher, John Rawls, wrote A Theory of Justice. His colleague Bob Nozick came up with the Experience Machine.  Their colleague W.V.O. Quine (who I met in one of my professors’ kitchen in 1978, btw) said experience is a “web of belief.”

James’s favorite contemporary philosopher Henri Bergson, a “vitalist,” said there’s a mysterious “life force” behind everything.

Freud‘s philosophical credentials are challenged by some, but he expressed a forceful alternative to Cartesian rationalism and said we don’t know ourselves or our minds well at all. He liked to ponder the symbolism of cigars, too.

St. Louis Hegelians.” I’m from St. Louis, and the only Hegelians I encountered there were down in Columbia at Michael’s Pub. They weren’t all that deep, but at least one of them thought he was free.

But again, it was a different story back in the day. Even Dewey was a member of the tribe, though he was no midwesterner.

Finally, for now: at the TPA meeting the other day I attended a talk where an old (but misguided) friend contended that  “pluralists can’t be pragmatists.” That was irritating. I kicked the nearest percept I could find and repeated Dr. Johnson’s boast: “I refute you thusly.” My foot, or rather my idea of my foot, is still throbbing.

Speaking of evolution: Denis Dutton has interesting thoughts on the evolutionary origin of art, music, and creativity…

More on Nietzsche: Solomon on the Ubermensch and Will to PowerNihilism & the death of GodQuashing Rumors…]


November 17, 2010

Bill McKibben’s latest book welcomes us to a tough new planet, not the sweet floating blue-white marble oasis the Apollo 8 crew gushed about but a real survivor’s nightmare where things may already have moved past the point of no return. He wants us to make a life there.

It may not sound appealing, but living on Eaarth (or Monnde, Tierrre, Errde…) is still better than the alternative.

The End of Nature was a philosophical rumination on what might happen in the future. “Earthrise” was still a relatively recent snapshot of the homeworld, and we still felt incredibly lucky to live there. But we don’t live there anymore.

The future is now, and it’s too late for idle speculation about what might happen. We’ve got to deal with what’s been happening: all of the planet’s large-scale systems, from ice caps and glaciers to oceans and forests and storms and floods et al, are registering an alarming transformation most of us have been content to ignore or even deny.

Yet, we have only fear itself to fear, and fear of engagement. Again, the alternative is unacceptable for our grandchildren… and for us. The ecological life-support systems on which human life depends are beeping ominously. It’s not a question of getting back to zero, for at least a millennium.

Changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are stopped.

A thousand years is a long damn time. But we trained ourselves in FoL to think about long damn times, with The Clock of the Long Now. So, how about it? Can we think beyond the millennium, hunker down to meet the present and foreseeable crises of the next few generations, and still preserve the flicker of a long-ticking dream? Does the future still matter?

Some “spooky calm” earth-firsters think the planet will be just fine even if we do ourselves in, Wall-e style. Nope. We’re doing a good job of “sabotaging its biology, draining its diversity,” and generally making a mockery of the idea of sustainability.

Surviving isn’t flourishing, people and planets aren’t pine beetles. But they’re not really doing just fine, either. It does a species no long-term good to proliferate on a warming planet that can’t sustain the mutuality of its other vital interrelationships.

I don’t believe in Beetles.