Archive for April, 2011

“Our Choice” makes the climate crisis fun

April 30, 2011

I have to tear myself away from this “new reading experience” today and get busy grading. Good thing I don’t have an iPad.

Our Choice

Belief in miracles subverts understanding: David Hume

April 29, 2011

I arrived on campus Wednesday just as the sirens started to wail, but we were given the all-clear in time for our last NW class to proceed. Heard good reports on alt-energy and pre-Pueblo/pre-Columbian civilization from Matt & Nathan. Another of George Washington’s walnut trees hit the ground in front of Cope Hall, but on the whole we were very lucky. They weren’t so lucky a couple hundred miles to our south.

The storms knocked out our Internet at home, making “Dead Day” (aka Study Day) an especially good one for reflecting on luck. I guess I’d call that Tuscaloosa firefighter whose 8-year old survived a terrifying Oz moment lucky.

 I said, R.J., which is my older son, get up, son. And right when I said get up and I put my hands on him, the walls went, and he went. He just – he left. The tornado took him right then. I held onto what I have which is James Peter, and my wife held onto my other son, which I could hear her praying to my left. And I was praying over my boy, and I said -and I could see his little face (unintelligible) I could see him. He was looking up. I said it’s OK. It’s OK. And I was getting hit, you know? I was just shielding him. And my wife yells – she said: Do you have R.J.? I said no. I said I don’t. And then, I heard her get louder praying. And then, I started – I kept going, and I look up, and my oldest son come walking right through the rubble. And I got…

NORRIS: He walked back.

Mr. EPPES: He walked back the rubble.

NORRIS: How old is R.J.?

Mr. EPPES: R.J. is eight. My boys are eight, six and four.

Despite Older Daughter’s insistence I wouldn’t call the youngster’s incredibly lucky survival a “miracle,” for all the good reasons David Hume gave us.

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish….’

Whoever is moved by Faith to assent to [miracles] is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.

It was astonishing, extraordinary, inexplicable, sure… but not a sign of divine grace or intervention, unless your notion of the divine includes arbitrary cruelty and death for all those whose luck ran out, and hell on earth for so many of the survivors.

And yet the man in Alabama says, astonishingly: “I do know that neither my wife nor I would have lost any of our faith if we lost any of our children.” The claim to know such a thing, and to boast of it, is as close to miraculous as David Hume or I can imagine. And “contrary to custom and experience,” in this context, is a nice way of saying crazy.

Maybe we’ll do another 3.5 billion

April 27, 2011

Whole Earth Discipline 9, Afterword

Plenty to think about here at the end of Stewart Brand’s turquoise manifesto, but we need to get on with talking about our various report topics on this last day in Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom class.

Why turqoise? Well, for one thing it’s a revered traditional indigenous color. We learned in the previous chapter that Brand loves native gardening. We already knew that he loves science and technology. Turqs love both, and think the best way to preserve our position in the pecking order with Mother Earth is through an intervention. “While Greens worship Gaia, Turqs bargain with Gaia.” That’s because her “live value” is incalculable, but our ignorance is leagues deep.

DSCOVR, the Deep Space Climate Observatory, would help to address that… and would just be so cool, besides.

So would “solar shades.” We’re already “experimenting with the whole planet.”

As for those other geoengineering proposals– dimming, brightening et al– I don’t know. But if they’re our last safety net we’d better get ’em on the drawing board. Amazonian biochar has already been tested, move it to the top.

Danny Hillis’s version of the Golden Rule makes a lot of sense to me, indigenous wisdom-wise: “Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you” (or wish it had done). Pay it forward.

Whitehead was right about the future too, but I’m sure he had no idea just how dangerous it could be. Have we?

Maybe I owe James Lovelock an apology, for thinking his “cheerful” apocalypticism had something to do with his advanced years. But is he really wishing another Battle of Britain on us all?

Brand concludes this book the same way he concluded the wonderful documentary film Earth Days [transcript], with an invitation to think longer-term than I can even begin to imagine.

While we are deeply engrossed with all of our little weekly issues, if we deal with them in this larger perspective, we are engaging a set of activities which go way beyond individual lifespan. Way beyond children and grandchildren, way beyond parents, grandparents, great grandparents, to the whole frame of at least human civilizational life. Once you get comfortable with that, then you start to go further out still to, 3.5 billion years back of life on earth, and maybe we’ll do another 3.5 billion years that’s pretty interesting to try to hold in your mind, and once you’ve held it in your mind, what do you do on Monday?

Well, I do know exactly what I’ll be doing this Monday: administering our last NW test. It won’t be Gaia’s last.

“The point is to live,” said Sisyphus

April 26, 2011

And then he died, in a car wreck. Age 46. Absurd, no?

It’s the last day of class (again)  in Intro to Philosophy, before exams next week, so some of us are happy. But the last day is also always a little bittersweet. Seems we just get started, then before you know it comes the time we have to say good-bye. But, I’m so glad we had this time together

Logicomix concludes. Russell turns from his obsession with the foundations of mathematics to the larger search for the human “conquest of happiness.” Not that math can’t make a mathematician happy… but we’re not all mathematicians. We are all human. We mustn’t confuse our “maps” with reality, or our certainties with heaven.

Russell seems to have been happy, at last, with the ultimate uncertainties of living. He didn’t stop analyzing, but he did stop “deadening ze emotions.” He rejected the pessimism and “unrestrained voluptuousness” young Wittgenstein had triggered, and found redemptive meaning in love and compassion. He found joy in paternity.

Sisyphus was happy too, according to Camus. (“One must consider Sisyphus happy.”) Did he  understand the secret of life to be meaningful work? Any work can be made meaningful enough to make life worth living, seems to be his point, for those who throw themselves into their lives and help others.

“The point is to live,” said Camus, before his life ended so abruptly. His end punctuates his point: meaning is to be sought in the actual living of our lives and not in the hard particulars of our dying, “behind the wheel” or wherever. We must consider him no longer happy, but also no longer seeking. I’ll bet he’d get a laugh, though, out of the recent controversy in France over his mortal remains. So useless to ask him why, throw a kiss and say good-bye. (I don’t know why Steely Dan suddenly sounds like existentialism to me. More absurdity, I s’pose.)

Heidegger talked a lot about being thrown, too. [That’s Simon Critchley on geworfenheit, or “thrownness”… and here he is on learning to die and other fun stuff.] Evidently he threw himself into his work for the Reich, and lately is reaping the reward of a  bad reputation. His being-in-the-world, his Dasein, has departed. There’s no longer any there worth Being, there. [heroes & villains]

Jean-Paul Sartre said we exist before we acquire any specific or essential identity, leaving us either dreadfully or bracingly free (depending on attitude) to invent ourselves. But it’s very hard to be free in good faith, since our perpetual tendency is to objectify ourselves and one another. But you can’t be a free person in the same way an inkwell is an inkwell. Well, duh.

Here’s Sartre hosting Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion.

Sartre’s paramour Simone de Beauvoir pushed him to place his abstract talk about freedom in its real world social contexts, and to acknowledge the additional patriarchal obstacles in the way of women’s liberation.

[Solomon: From Existentialism to Postmodernism]

Postmodernists say philosophy, defined as the search for truth, is moribund. But New Agers, even the looniest, show there’s still an appetite and an audience for wisdom pursued passionately, a hunger for philosophy only living can sate.

Postmodernism‘s strange claim is that there is no truth, only “discourse”; and New Age philosophy sponsors various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. But have they got a secret?

[What the [bleep’]… The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And with that, we ring down the curtain on another semester of Intro to Philosophy. I hope everyone takes this away:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

-Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy

And as promised, Mr. Einstein gets the last word: “The important thing is to never stop questioning.”

We went to the (bleeping) MOON!

April 25, 2011

Looking forward to three or four more presentations in NW today. It’s getting very near the end for our course. But optimistic eco-pragmatists like to think it’s near the beginning for our species.

In chapter seven of Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand (who considers himself a “green” as well as a pragmatist) complains of ideological narrowness among some environmentalists.

I saw a version of this narrowness played out after 1966, when I was inspired by a rooftop LSD trip to distribute buttons that read, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” Everyone in the New Left opposed Kennedy’s space program, seeing it (correctly) as a cold war episode that they thought (incorrectly) was being carried out to no good purpose by crew-cut military squares. (Only Abbie Hoffman disagreed with his compatriots: “Are you kidding? We’re going to the fucking MOON!”) Environmentalists joined the leftist opposition to the space program: “We have to clean up the earth before we can leave it.”

That was a false dichotomy that got locked in as core environmentalist ideology. It’s not constructive, from an eco-pragmatic point of view. Is it?

We may differ about that, about “solidarity,” and about Brand, but I think most of us are glad his rooftop reverie inaugurated that first Earth Day in ’70 and has us thinking today about the future of life on this rock.

It takes all kinds. Romantics, scientists, and engineers are Brand’s “stock characters” but he knows there are countless, varied, particular, real people behind “the largest movement in the world.” They’re meliorists, not ideologues. They’re focused on results. Read Blessed Unrest and try to sustain a pessimistic mood, I dare you.

Biomimicry, I think we can claim to have learned in our course, is central to what we’ve been calling native wisdom. Ask not what we can extract from nature, but what she can teach us.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think the world is irreducibly complex, and those who think it can be explained strictly in terms (for instance) of hedgehogs and foxes. More stock characters. Contrary to the message of this clever little film, Einstein and Darwin both knew many things and had grand theories. The point Brand wants to make about successful politicians, statesmen, and friends of the earth is that they’re skeptical, flexible, and pragmatic, open-minded and experimental, not hidebound confirmation-biased ideologues.

Chapter Eight takes us back to the garden. Not to Eden, but to the pre-Columbian Americas of 1491 and before. “It’s All Gardening.” It’s not all a “bogus” tale of “native spiritual teachers who impart ancient wisdom.” Brand says beware The Education of Little Tree, The Teachings of Don Juan, and the like. Wonder what he’d think of our reading list this semester? More importantly, what do we think of it?

Yet, he (like Gary Snyder and Kat Anderson) claims to have learned important lessons from native Americans like “how to be an American in a way that had nothing to do with the Pledge of Allegiance.” But it has plenty to do with the Conservation Pledge, both the Boy Scout and Buddhist versions. Give  life. Undo harm.

We’ve been planet-killers lately, and it’s hard to live sustainably in the Garden when our peers are trashing it. But the native wisdom we’ve been studying offers the encouraging lesson that we can “settle down” and pay closer attention to the conditions of life on our homeworld. We can protect it from ourselves and for ourselves, both tending the wild and leaving it alone as intelligence and empathy require.

We can do good work for the wild. We’re all native to this place, after all. We just need to “reinhabit” it, take the “Where You At” bio-regional quiz, and finally know our place. Then, we can explore other places without remorse. (Maybe even “boldly go” with Chakotay?) Call that the return of the native. And now we’ve come nearly full circle in our course.

Writing advice from the Sage of Concord

April 23, 2011

For all those students busily assembling final essays this weekend, and everyone else in search of a muse:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, though his own prose style is not to everyone’s taste, had useful advice about perseverance and perspective. He tried to inspire the “meek young men in libraries” who felt cowed by the legend of the virtually-present authors there, reminding them that “Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.”

I don’t suppose most of the young men and women hunched over their keyboards nowadays do most of their scholarship in the library anymore, but the point is still valid: find your own voice, nobody else can do that for you. As for the Sage himself,

Out of his own repeated failures—from which, however, he arose each morning ready to try again—Emerson carved sentences of useful, practical advice…

The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say. Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories.

All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word…

All that can be thought can be written.

That last statement may seem daunting, and may defy the mystic’s (and Jamesian’s) claim that all cannot be converted to words. But like it or not, when it’s time to write your essay you can’t be a mystic.

There’s more sound advice in Robert Richardson’s First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process.

And there’s plenty of good kick-in-the-pants inspiration in Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work. 

It’s about getting off your behind and starting something. And once you start, you have to finish; you don’t get off the hook half way through.

Overcome your “Resistance,” face down your fear, write good words, drop the dead ones. You can do it. You can. Five pages is nothing, really. (But it is your minimum, STUDENTS.)

Have fun. Do the work. And when it’s time for a break, check out this wonderful little TED Talk about keeping it all in the right perspective. No plane-crashes today.

Chris Anderson on “On Point”

“Humanists believe in life before death”

April 22, 2011

“What’s the difference between a Humanist and a New Atheist?”

That question came up in class the other day. I suggested the opening line of the Humanist Manifesto, as a beginning:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Here’s another good source: Greg Epstein’s Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do BelieveEpstein mentions an impressive roster of Humanists including Thomas Jefferson, John Lennon, Churchill, Sartre, Voltaire, Hume, Rushdie, Confucius, Vonnegut, Twain, Bil Gates, Warren Buffett, Darwin, & Einstein. Humanism is the fourth largest “lifestance” in the world today, nestling just behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism… and without really trying. Epstein writes:

We humanists take one look at a world in which the lives of thousands of innocent children are ripped away every year by hurricanes, earthquakes, and other “acts of God,” not to mention the thousand other fundamental injustices of life, and we conclude that if the universe we live in does not have competent moral management, then so be it: we must become the superintendents of our own lives. Humanism means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place…

Humanists believe in life before death.

Amen. Most so-called New Atheists believe all that too, they just don’t say it enough. They should spend at least as much time and energy articulating their affinities as their aversions, and should be as clear about their own good intentions.

Anthony Grayling has taken a stab at that with his new Good Book: A Humanist Bible, “a powerful secular alternative to the Bible.”

The Good Book consciously takes its design and presentation from the Bible, in its beauty of language and arrangement into short chapters and verses for ease of reading and quotability, offering to the non-religious seeker all the wisdom, insight, solace, inspiration, and perspective of secular humanist traditions that are older, far richer and more various than Christianity. Organized in 12 main sections—-Genesis, Histories, Widsom, The Sages, Parables, Consolations, Lamentations, Proverbs, Songs, Epistles, Acts, and the Good—-The Good Book opens with meditations on the origin and progress of the world and human life in it, then devotes attention to the question of how life should be lived, how we relate to one another, and how vicissitudes are to be faced and joys appreciated. Incorporating the writing of Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon…

And so the next rendition of my Atheism class begins to resolve itself. Last time the theme was “Atheism and Spirituality.” Next, it’ll be “Atheism and Ethics.” Stay tuned.

And happy Earth Day!

“I am lying to you now.”

April 21, 2011

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

But is it anything anyone would ever actually say? Or is it just another contrivance a pragmatically-inclined philosopher is not obliged to wrestle with? Maybe. But most logicians have a habit of literalness and cannot tolerate the imprecision of ordinary language.

Gottlob Frege, for instance, appears to us in chapter three of Logicomix as insufferably precise. He wants logic and reality to mesh, with the language of the former a completely and exactly reliable model.

Georg Cantor is another stop on Russell’s wanderjahre European tour. From him Russell perhaps should have learned that a logician who wants to stay sane has to set reasonable limits for his research. Trying to count to infinity might be going too far.

Cantor’s and Bolzano‘s ideas about sets would set in motion the train of thought that eventuated in Russell’s famous paradox. (YouT)

Self-reference, in the logician’s sense, makes trouble. But self-absorption and self-regard in the ordinary human sense makes even more. Russell’s domestic life, as the story is told here, suffered the neglect of his obsession with logic and language. The greater paradox may be how it is that such a smart guy could be so dumb in his interpersonal relationships.

Paris was next in Russell’s travelogue, and the great Exposition of 1900. It was there that Russell met  the great mathematical legends of his time, and also commenced a different kind of collaboration with Mrs. Whitehead.

The Eiffel Tower may seem to point to infinity, and to embolden a logician’s dream of “triumph over nature.” But of course it doesn’t go on forever, and it stands only because the laws of nature allow it. That’s another “obvious” lesson not quite learned, yet, by young Russell.

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-derivedcommon 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?!

technoparanoia will destroy ya

April 20, 2011

Stewart Brand identifies a recurrent question at the core of what he calls the “national-security perspective” on developing technology: “How can this new thing hurt us?”

Such technoparanoia has a way of being self-fulfilling. It institutionalizes distrust [and] sees only threat and only enemies, and thereby helps to create both. Whether you’re defending a nation or the natural world, a more useful assumption with any new technology is that it is neutral, and so are the people creating it and using it. Your job is to help maximize its advantages and minimize its harm… the best way for doubters to control a questionable new technology is to embrace it…

That’s an interesting perspective, coming from an old counter-culturist who became a confidante and adviser of the Governor of his state (who, btw, is Governor again, this time without the Moonbeam aura). What a long strange trip, for him and for us all.

So, synthetic life? Bring it on, Craig Venter. We’ll see if Gaia has any objections.

The future of life, says Venter, 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 and apply the rules of life.

[Twain’s techno-optimismGenome by Matt Ridley… A Life Decoded by Craig Venter… Venter on Sixty Minutes Generosity by Richard Powers… generosity 2]

Bertie Russell, yet another quester for certainty.

April 19, 2011

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 Bertrand Russell the pacifist speaking before an academic audience in America 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. [Autobiography]

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, or for his colleague & collaborator Alfred North Whitehead.

But this is young Bertie we’re talking about, not the wizened grand old man who would eventually extol the value of philosophy as its very cultivation and celebration of uncertainty. Nor is this the author of Mysticism and Logic who insists that the best philosophers seek a rounded worldview and an approach to wisdom that excludes no portals of insight. The mature Russell was a naturalist (“I  believe we are a part of nature”) and humanist, no longer on certainty’s trail. But he was clear on what he believed. In 1925 he wrote:

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.


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” recently. 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 young Russell too. Admit your uncertainty, and feel free to speak.

Heroes & villainsno man’s landvalue of philConquest of Happinessaction herobdayfresh seedOpinionator blogWhy I Am Not a ChristianUnpopular EssaysMonk bioMysticism & Logic… more Russell online