Archive for September, 2011

Trying not to think with my gut

September 30, 2011

The Thursday afternoon tutorial on William James I’ve been doing with a couple of students got cancelled yesterday, so I was able to attend the weekly meeting of the new undergraduate Philosophy Club from the beginning. It’s a small but passionate bunch, excited about ideas and eclectic in conversational range. If you like that sort of thing, drop in at 5 pm on Thursdays (James Union Building on the Middle Tennessee State University campus, roon 304).

Yesterday’s discussion began with the perennial free will debate but quickly moved on to the nature and existence of souls, the untapped potential of brains, Cartesian dualism, the possibility that we might be living in a “matrix,” collective dreaming, and on and on. Just a bit undisciplined, but what else would be the point and pleasure of an undergraduate philosophy club?

I would only remind them of Carl Sagan’s cautionary wisdom in Demon-haunted World. Asked for his gut feeling about UFOs and aliens he always responded:

I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.  Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

The gut has its place. It’s what I was “thinking” with all day yesterday under my “StL” hat, as if the latest fortunes of a professional sports franchise in my long-ago hometown should have anything at all to do with my outlook on the value of existence. It was my gut that felt annoyed when my colleague (a long-ago East Coaster), fully informed of the Red Sox collapse, admitted not knowing about the Cards’ historic comeback.

Gut-level emotive “thinking” is what childhood indoctrination is especially good at engendering and reinforcing. Baseball is St. Louis’s civic religion, at least since the St. Louis Hegelians folded their tent. They got me early. (I attended my first Cardinals game in about 1966, just before they opened the new stadium that they tore down in 2005.)

Baloney has its place, too. And so has critical thinking. As skeptic Michael Shermer notes, “when we’re growing up we tend to be pretty credulous.” We should all read his magazine.

Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a world of wonders we’re living in. Our existence is a natural miracle.  Here we are, in the face of “stupefying odds.” That’s worth talking about, every Thursday afternoon. And I’m even luckier, I get paid to do it every single day.

Dawkins’ SpiritualityRainbow Warrior

“tiny lights along the path of happiness”

September 29, 2011

Stayed up too late making exams and watching baseball. Cards win! Rays too. Wild!! They’ve captured the zeitgeist. For the Braves and Bosox, history has moved on.

Priorities are important, especially those bearing “World-historical” Meaning. Maybe I was too quick the other day to dismiss the parochial self-importance of those old St. Louis Hegelians. Probably not.

In SOL our higher immediate priority is to close the book on Matthieu Ricard’s version of Happiness, the final words of which we’ll ponder today before our first exam. (Think of it as a mini-retreat, like an MRI… or as an exhibition warm-up before the playoffs get serious. Just don’t stress about it. Look for loopholes, use language strategically, smile and laugh, and memento mori.)

He says in his pre-Buddhist French secular youth it never occurred to him to think of himself as happy, or even of wanting to be. But now,

The sense of flourishing I now feel at every moment of my existence was constructed over time… one can become enduringly free and happy…

That’s inspiring, even if “every moment of my existence” sounds a little exaggerated. And though some of us have picked a bit at Ricard’s vague exercise advice (“make your mind as wide as the sky… remain in the interval of nowness…” etc.), I for one come again to the end of this book feeling like I’ve spent valuable time in the company of a genuinely, serenely happy and decent human being. I believe him when he proffers his humble “deepest wish”

that the ideas gathered in this book may serve as tiny lights along the path of temporary and ultimate happiness of all beings.

That’s what a Bodhisattva sounds like. To dispel the misery of the worldRicard, finis

Our other priorities today: 1. regroup (and rededicate ourselves to the group concept, in the spirit of Hegel). 2. Vote for our November read. Here are the nominees, based on our last class:

  • Exploring Happiness (Bok)
  • Generosity (Powers)
  • Geography of Bliss (Weiner)
  • Selected essays culled from the Internet (Aristotle, Montaigne, James…)
  • How to See Yourself as You Really Are OR For the Benefit of All Beings OR Art of Happiness (Dalai Lama)
  • The Monk and the Philosopher (Ricard & Revel)
  • Existentialism and Human Emotions (Sartre)
  • Flow (Csikszentihalyi)
  • The Alchemist (Coelho)
  • Surprised by Joy (Lewis)
With so many nominees, there may be no clear winner (with at least half the votes) on 1st ballot. If so, we’ll have a 2d-ballot runoff between the top two or three choices. If a tie-breaker is then still needed, I’ll cast it.
It’s good to be King.

“Secret of life” exam

September 28, 2011

We haven’t pinned down the secret of life or happiness, but here are the exam questions SOL students have shared:

Exam day & “the sigh of the oppressed creature”

September 28, 2011

“Home is any four walls that enclose the right person,” asserts my notepad calendar this morning. But gorgeous days like yesterday make walls sinister and superfluous to me, and gain extra luster through the contrast with the day before. Monday’s gray and rain were the perfect set-up.

I hadn’t planned to mention Older Daughter’s refusal to come out into the weekend sunshine in SOL class, as exemplifying a troubling kind of noxious pessimism about life. It just popped out, as we considered Matthieu Ricard’s statement about the “ultimate” pessimism being a hollow feeling that life is not worth living.

But then I quickly pointed out that it’s possible for those cursed by even the most dour temperaments, like old Schopenhauer, to delight in their negativity. Maybe some even live for it. Diff’rent strokes, as Ryan said.

So, speaking of sighs, we’re a third of the way thru our semester on this exam day. It’s time for me to begin thinking more concretely about the next.

We’re up to the 19th century now, to Karl Marx. He’s very relevant to SOL, and should be relevant too in my Spring course “Atheism and Ethics” (A&E*).

On Marx’s view, JMH reminds us,

people had religion because their lives were rotten; make their lives better and religion will melt away… ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.

Real happiness and real good are what we all really want, or should. It doesn’t come from beautiful lounge suites or from English football, eh Karl? (Did you hear, btw, that Germany announced its intention to bail out Greece economically? They’re more competitive on the pitch.)

Pluralists like me typically shun the claim that everyone would be better off if they’d all just “imagine no religion.” Diff’rent strokes, again.

But note: Marx’s appeal is to our broadly ethical impulse to improve the human condition. He presents his own atheism, right or wrong, as an ethical position concerned with right and wrong.

Something to talk about in A&E.

CoPhi students write their own exams

September 27, 2011

We’re trying something new in CoPhi, our collaborative introduction to philosophy: the students are writing their own exams. Here they are, in rough pre-cut format:

Our time is limited

September 27, 2011

“Our ground time here will be brief.” M. Kumin

In SOL today it’s our penultimate reading, before Thursday’s exam, of Ricard’s Happiness.  He tells us about being a guinea pig in Richard Davidson’s Wisconsin lab, in service of the insight that “the trained mind, or brain, is physically different…” Is it happier?

Well, those whose left prefrontal cortex throbs seem to be. It may not be the secret center of happiness, but it just might be the trigger. [Scientists Meditate on HappinessHappy Facts…”Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left”-Goleman nytTED]

Then, evolutionary altruism. “Cooperative behavior, apparently altruistic, can be useful to survival…” Never mind your selfish genes, what matters more are our magnanimous memes. [Biological Altruism, SEP] Each of us is “a note in the ‘great concert‘ of existence.”

And then, discussions of kindness, humility, optimism & pessimism…

the  pessimist starts out with an attitude of refusal, even where it’s totally inappropriate.

Which reminds me, this is Tuesday so we have a staff meeting. Like Ricard’s Bhutanese official (supposedly adminstering the nation’s Gross National Happiness), I know a philosopher or two who greet every agenda item with “No, no, no”.

The ultimate pessimism is in thinking that life in general is not worth living. The ultimate optimism lies in understanding that every passing moment is a treasure, in joy as in adversity.

Finally, praise for the “golden time” of full presence in the moment that is now. Let’s pause right now and look for that…

That was fast. Too fast, maybe. Maybe specious. In any case, Thoreau was right: you can’t kill time without injuring eternity. And Ricard’s right, isn’t he, to remind us that

Our time is limited; from the day we are born, every second, every step, brings us closer to death.

So the exercise at the end of chapter 20 is urgent: remain in the interval of “nowness” as long as you can.

But, STUDENTS, leave time to study for Thursday’s exam.

And leave time as well to study and submit your  nominations for our November text(s). Mine, in no particular order:

  • Exploring Happiness (Bok) – Bok explores notions of happiness—from Greek philosophers to Desmond Tutu, Charles Darwin, Iris Murdoch, and the Dalai Lama—as well as the latest theories advanced by psychologists, economists, geneticists, and neuroscientists… a wealth of firsthand observations about happiness from ordinary people as well as renowned figures. This may well be the most complete picture of happiness yet.
  • Generosity (Powers) – The protagonist of this novel concludes: Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn
  • Geography of Bliss (Weiner) – Weiner travels the world in search of the happiest places. Many authors have attempted to describe what happiness is; fewer have shown us where it is, and what we can learn from the inhabitants of different cultures…
  • Selected essays from Aristotle to Montaigne to James…

A word more on the status of desire, when it’s much more than a negative emotion: The Rock.

Four Germans, and one melancholy Dane

September 26, 2011

This won’t be on your first exam later in the week, Co-Phi STUDENTS, but here’s a good “factual question” for you:

What notoriously-punctual German philosopher is mentioned at the beginning of Monty Python’s “Philosophers Song“?

And another:

Which philosophers were “outconsumed” by David Hume? HINT: One of them inspired a brief but impassioned 19th century philosophical movement in my hometown (Go Cards!), which in turn inspired a 1970s undergraduate philosophy club I sometimes speak of…*


What pioneer of Christian Existentialism shared a name with an associate of the vicious Piranha Brothers criminal gang? HINT: Despite his tireless tirades against the degraded Christianity of the Danish pastors, he was buried with a full religious service. Was that gracious, mocking, or just… absurd?


Which revolutionary thinker competed against Mao tse-Tung and Che Guevara for a beautiful lounge suite? (He and his wife Jenny really could have used it, according to a recent book: Love & Capital)

Kant to MarxGermans (mostly)…Kant, Hegel, Marx (slides)… Schopenhauer slidesrising tide…*St. Louis HegeliansKant on the webPhilosophers football: Greeks vs. Germans

“We all have an idea of the happiness that love will bring us.” Even a grump like Schopenhauer? Yes, according to Alain de Botton:

NOTE TO Co-Phi STUDENTS: First exam is later in the week (Wed & Thur), when we’ll also re-group for October. Today & Tuesday, it’s

M 26 PW 89-103. Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Marx

We’ll spend some time reviewing today.

So much happiness, so little time

September 24, 2011

We have a decision to make in SOL: our final text selection. I deliberately left an open slot on the syllabus, and it’s been fun playing with possibility. But now it’s time to find the final piece of our course puzzle. Ideally, our pick should address (is it too much to hope it might actually resolve?) the anchoring theme of our course: whether there is a secret of life, a key to happiness, an answer to the ultimate question…

So far we’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided (she repudiates The Secret and its many predecessors in the American tradition of positive thinking, but thinks it can be profoundly meaningful and “fun” to work at fixing what’s negative in life) and are about to conclude Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill (he clearly thinks we can all benefit from the Buddhist Rx: selfless meditative compassion and lovinkindness). Bertrand Russell will tell us how he thinks we can “conquer” our happiness (basically by looking out, more than in, and engaging with the wide world). Then Jennifer Michael Hecht will try to deflate the “myth of happiness” (i.e., the conceit of some royal road thereto).

But then what?

We started with a short list of candidates, now it’s grown a bit unwieldy so we’d better hold our debate without delay. Anticipating no inappropriate or insensitive audience boorishness of the GOP variety, I’ve promised to cast only a tie-breaking vote. May campaign a bit, though. The field as it stands today:

There’s clearly enough material to run this course many times over. Fortunately I’ll be doing a version of it again in the Fall of 2013. That makes me happy.

Increasing my face value

September 23, 2011

Yesterday morning I posted a quote from  the “spiritual atheist” Andre Comte-Sponville:

You are taking a walk… You feel great. It started out as an activity for recreation or exercise… and then it gradually turned into something else– a subtler, deeper, nobler pleasure…

Then I drove to school and,  perfect Fall morning that it was, decided to go for a bikeride before class. Crossing Rutherford Boulevard on Greenland, I pedaled into the sun up a steep but manageable grade, eventually circling to the  right and coasting easily in the balmy breeze.

I felt great. It started out as an activity for recreation and exercise.  And then, the discovery:

Flat Rock Cedar Glades and Barrens is a natural area jointly managed by the State of Tennessee and the Nature Conservancy.  The hike features exposed-limestone “karst” landscape that are home to a variety of endangered and rare plant species.  The soil covering in the glades is quite thin, leading to fauna more at home in the desert than the hills and valleys of Middle Tennessee.  This is a rewarding, interesting hike that is well worth the time and effort and provides solitude that is only infrequently found on local trails.  I highly recommend this hike that takes you away from road noise along a trail that rewards good route-finding skills without being overly difficult.

Rewarding and interesting indeed. Pedaling back to school, not quite rapturous but definitely elevated, a church sign message that actually spoke to me:

In reality there is no “I, Me, or Mine”

September 22, 2011

We’re smack in the middle of our reading of Ricard’s Happiness, the chapters concerned with the “poisonous” emotions. (Co-Phi students of Stoicism, take note.) Desire, hatred, and envy stand out, and stand between us and our happiness. But fortunately they can be tamed, according to Ricard.

You can understand a lot about how Buddhists propose to tame the beast of emotional insecurity by attending closely to George Harrison’s wonderful song I, Me, Mine. It’s his life-story too.

“George was always quick to point out that in reality there is no I, Me, or Mine…”

All thru’ the day I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
All thru’ the night I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Now they’re frightened of leaving it
Ev’ryone’s weaving it,
Coming on strong all the time,
All thru’ the day I me mine.

I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine.

All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
No-one’s frightened of playing it
Ev’ryone’s saying it,
Flowing more freely than wine,
All thru’ Your life, I me mine.

I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine.

All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
No-one’s frightened of playing it
Ev’ryone’s saying it,
Flowing more freely than wine,
All thru’ your life I me mine.

So what remains, if we let go our hold on ego and self and its possessions? What are we trading in for, if we sing along with the lads? Not other thing-substitutes, surely.

No. We’re going for a feeling here, a feeling not unlike Emerson’s in Nature. William James called it, paradoxically, the sentiment of rationality. Andre Comte-Sponville offers an apt analogy (which will betray the reason for my attraction to his book):
You are taking a walk… You feel great. It started out as an activity for recreation or exercise… and then it gradually turned into something else– a subtler, deeper, nobler pleasure. Something like an adventure, but an interior one. Or like an experience, but a spiritual one. You wish for nothing other than the step you are taking at the very moment you take it, nothing other than the landscape as it is, at this very instant, with a bird emitting its cry, another bird taking wing, the strength you feel in your calves, the lightness in your heart and the peace in your soul… This is plenitude.
This plenitude: Is it rationality? Is it sentiment? Is it real? Is it sufficient?
It might be happiness, yours or mine, but that’s for each of us to experience at first hand for ourselves. “Experience as a whole is self-containing and leans on nothing…” This is a humanist’s happiness, naturalized and personalized. Maybe it is, as James avers, the essence of humanism.
But, without a solid ego at the core? I need to hear George’s next verse.
NOTE TO Co-Phi STUDENTS: A small fly in our Clicker ointment… the online tutorials indicate that we’re going to need to reformat our powerpoint slides, in order to get them to work with the clickers. So, I’m offering extra credit to anyone who’ll work on that for us.  JPO