Archive for November, 2011

Philosophy funnies

November 30, 2011

We’re doing something completely different in CoPhi today: we’re all supposed to find funny, philosophically-provocative (or at least interesting) things online to discuss in class. I have a few suggestions of my own. Just remember: “if it bends, it’s funny…”*

The Happy Planet Index

November 29, 2011

Final report presentations begin today in SOL, with Brian on the  World Happiness Index (aka Happy Planet Index, or HPI). Makes sense to me. Robert Kennedy said it best: GNP “measures everything except that which makes life worth living.” Nic Marks is right, “happiness should not cost the earth.”


His TED Talk is one of many addressing the theme “What Makes Us Happy?” including Amy Purdy‘s remarkable account of overcoming the loss of her legs as a teenager, Daniel Kahneman on experience and memory, Randy Pausch on achieving childhood dreams, Daniel Gilbert on how bad we are at predicting what will make us happy, Chip Conley on Bhutan, the” joie de vivre index,” and measuring happiness (“What really counts is when we use our numbers to truly take into account our people”-tr], Steve Jobs’ Stanford  commencement speech urging the inestimable value of impassioned work (“Don’t settle!”), and lots of Buddhists (including Matthieu Ricard).

Eric Weiner, the Geography of Bliss author, has written an intriguing essay on his current God project which includes this observation: “I know from my research into happiness that it is our binding, our inter-dependence, that fulfills us.” [IcelandIceland Reduxhappiness is]

We’ve heard that from so many sources now. Have any happiness researchers concluded that man is an island, or that we must imagine Crusoe happy? We always picture Sisyphus* struggling with his boulder alone, but if not at the office he must have had a strong support network at home. That may be what Woody Allen’s Professor Levy was missing. The point is to live, and (as Viktor Frankl said) to live meaningfully. [Frankl, Why to believe in others]


Also of interest, and to close the circle as our course winds down: “Just how powerful IS positive thinking? Ehrenreich on Sunday Morning”

*Last word goes to Camus: “Real generosity towards the future consists in giving all to the present.” [Generosity23]


NOTE TO STUDENTS: 1. All presenters, please let us know your topic and suggested readings by tomorrow if possible. 2. I’ve begun reading Sisela Bok’s Exploring Happiness. It’s really good so far, I recommend it. (When this class comes around again in a couple of years, I’ll probably require it.)

The end of “Doubt”

November 28, 2011

We wrap up JMH’s Doubt today in CoPhi. [Remember, STUDENTS, final report presentations begin Wednesday and Thursday.] She says we’d all be a lot clearer if we’d just

avoid using believer, agnostic, and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what’s out there.

Lots of different views are out there, along with the world they more-or-less accurately engage. But we should resist labeling them, or ourselves, even with better labels like sectarian, “one-of-many,” meaning and science spiritualist, Skeptic, perplexed, ritualist, science secularist, doubter.

Note, though, that to doubt is not necessarily to repudiate or excoriate. It’s simply to remain open to a new thought when it comes. But all labels aside, it seems clear enough after nearly 500 pages of Doubt that what we are is a species that has always had its doubters. Some of us embrace uncertainty, some shrink from it, all benefit in the long run from an honest and collaborative exchange of views. What’s out there is a big cosmos, and we’re in it. There’s room in it for all kinds, so long as we’re willing to share the space. But labels probably do serve more often to reinforce our worst exclusionary and judgmental tendencies, than to elicit a more expansive cosmopolitanism.

A story in yesterday’s Times about black atheists (which doesn’t quote Hubert Harrison) quotes Neil deGrasse Tyson echoing the point:

Am I an Atheist, you ask? Labels are mentally lazy ways by which people assert they know you without knowing you.

Right. But labels can be constructively clarifying and instigating, too. It’s easy to conform to a pattern to which you didn’t know there was an alternative. That’s why we’ve been reading JMH, to disabuse ourselves of that common error. Dozens of undeservedly obscure names (like Hubert Harrison’s) crop up again and again in the history of doubt, challenging the easy faith of those who entirely exclude the spirit of skepticism from their radar simply because they never read or heard a word about it.

According to the Pew Forum 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey, 88 percent of African-Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 71 percent of the total population.

Believing anything “with absolute certainty” just looks a lot shakier when you come to realize that thoughtful humans have always doubted and always will. How can it possibly be considered more acceptable to be a church-going drug dealer than to be an atheist? Only by not really being considered at all.

Consider a recent Tyson tweet:

Thanksgiving dinner, a few years ago, each in turn thanked God for food. I thanked scientists for improved farming. Got booed.

An appropriate response by Tyson at that moment, in the face of such uncomprehending  intolerance, might very well have included a bit of explanatory self-labeling. He wasn’t just being obtuse, he was representing a proud and ancient human tradition of alternative belief.

Wittgenstein might have reminded Tyson’s obdurate, intransigent cousins (and mine) that “reality does exist and limits the kinds of games that can be played.” The gratitude game “bewitches the intelligence” of those who won’t acknowledge its real sources in our shared experience. But he would also remind Tyson that science is not “the only approach to investigating the world,” and that “doubting, by its nature, is done within the realm of believing something.” Again, there’s room at the feast for all kinds.
“We inhabit a world of belief and cannot see out of it.” We cannot really doubt that we’re awake, when we think we are. That’s mostly a good thing, “belief is one of the best human muscles” (because it moves us to act) but it’s also the explanation of our intolerance. We need to work on that, but  is it really “crazy” for theists and non-theists alike to challenge one another’s arguments? We have to try harder to “see out of” our respective belief-bubbles and even to pop them when they prevent mutual understanding. If it’s true that “we can speak of the world only in our language game,” we need to develop a more inclusive language. The language of doubt, perhaps?
Sartre again. “There is no human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it.” That still just strikes me as a premature judgment, even for atheists. Why can’t the “blueprint” of our nature(s) be a work perpetually in progress? Why can’t human nature be fluid? And why, if you agreed with Sartre, would you also acknowledge “an intense command upon us to be moral”? An intense feeling of responsibility, sure. But is a feeling a command? Not usually.
So, by “hell is other people” maybe he means the others who don’t respond to the same felt “commands” we do. But in Sartre’s own terms isn’t there a whiff of “bad faith” here, if we objectify our mutual responsibilities as externally imposed commands rather than choices we’re always at risk of neglecting? Too bad we can’t cross the channel to settle that with the man himself.
Sartre said he settled the God question to his own satisfaction at age 12. His partner Simone de Beauvoir was 14 when she (with Balzac’s assistance) declared her own independence. Were they precocious, or premature? His command was her need: “in a godless universe there is a desperate need for each of us to be moral.” (The Second Sex 25 years later)
Albert Camus‘s great theme was the absurdity of living in a world of repetitive meaninglessness, only then to die. That’s Woody Allen‘s theme too. (“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children. I want to achieve it by not dying”…Prof. LevyNot dying is precisely the Sisyphean task Camus said should make us happy. “Acknowledging the absurdity of the human condition is what saves us, and ‘one does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.'” Or at least produce novels, plays, and films. “It’s our ballgame.”
For many of us, life was most emphatically shown to be in our hands by the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel‘s cri de coeur for the nocturnal silence of the death camps sums it up.
 …after another hanging, Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.
Viktor Frankl‘s amazing story and the message of his life was nicely summarized by a student once as both Nietzschean and Beatle-esque: we need meaning, and for that we need love. (quotes)
It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…And this is his salvation in  the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
The Cold War and Joe McCarthy put god on our currency and in our pledge in the 1950s. That mindset, the falsehood that “an atheist American is a contradiction in terms” and the preposterous proposal that “atheists should not be considered citizens or patriots” (Bush Sr.) is light-years removed from the transcendent Gaian sensibility of poet/statesman/Velvet revolutionary Vaclav Havel. More respect, for one another and for the “miracle of the universe,” is still (we may hope) the history of the future.
Is the evangelical atheism of the so-called New Atheists “harsh” and “coarse”? Or is it an inevitable backlash against religious bigotry? The vaunted Four Horsemen are Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens*, and Dan Dennett. But there are many more riders in their posse, some of whom have delivered riveting TED Talks. Don’t miss Julia Sweeney, my favorite New Atheist. (If you’re a Deepak Chopra fan, you might not like this.)
(Sweeney transcript… *Hitchens-Blair transcript)
So, to be clear: the end of Doubt, the point of doubting, is to live. Its purpose is to summon as much freedom and dignity as befits a questioning, questing, aspiring social species. “The only thing such doubters really need, that believers have, is a sense that people like themselves have always been around, that they are part of a grand history.” Point taken. May the conversation continue.

Thanksgiving 2011’s rainbow

November 26, 2011

Something else for the gratitude list: the return of the Muppets, still seeking the rainbow connection. (We continued our Black Friday family tradition yesterday, of hitting the multiplex instead of the mall.) The new guy learned an important lesson about self-confidence.  “Rainbows are visions, but only illusions” – Don’t believe it, Walter. I hope the kids were listening too.

As a Happy Pragmatist I tend not to make Ingratitude Lists, though I do think about how to ameliorate the sources of ingratitude in our lives in the future. Still haven’t come up with a good solution for voluble Country Cousin, always the most obnoxiously inescapable pietist in the room and (of course) always called on to bless the turkey. At least I can be grateful not to have to deal with him again soon. Paraphrasing one of the Muppets, we get to wait “almost a whole year” before we’re again obliged to grin and bear the misplaced gratitude of people we regret but can’t avoid or challenge without violating rigid social proprieties.

I am sincerely grateful, though, to have made it through the entire day without laying eyes on a single down of football. And I’m grateful as always for pie.


the only home we’ve ever known

November 23, 2011

“Like it or not, the Earth is where we make our stand.” We’re not just tourists here, this is home.

A lovely new tribute to Sagan, Voyager, and cosmic perspective. I like it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

“The most important thing”

November 22, 2011

It’s a pot luck class today in SOL: those of us with For the Benefit of All Beings will finish it, others will bring whatever they please. You never know what you’re gonna get.

First, though, a bit of good news. I revisited our school’s curriculum committee Friday afternoon. The results this time were quicker and happier than back in April: Philosophy of Happiness now enjoys a permanent designation of its own, and a place in the course catalog as “PHILOSOPHY 3160.” The committee also approved PHILOSOPHY 3310, Atheism and Philosophy  (Catalog descriptions).

So it’s official:  happiness endures.

We’re reading the Dalai Lama because several of us thought he had sharp insights into happiness to share. And he does. [Quotesmoremore] The “secret” is to live with kindness and compassion “for all beings,” and to understand that no “single source” can make us happy.  But the personal pursuit of happiness is not “the most important thing”:

We are all here on this planet, as it were, as tourists. None of us can live here forever… So while we are here we should try to have a good heart and to make something positive and useful of our lives.

In their different ways, all of the authors we’ve read this semester– Ehrenreich, Ricard, Hecht, Russell–  have said roughly that. I cited Bertrand Russell in CoPhi yesterday in the course of making a very similar point. “Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end.” It’s no more an illusion than life itself is an illusion. Of course that’s something we’ve been trying to clarify, with our Buddhist readings this semester. DL says elsewhere (in Universe in a Single Atom, or Meaning of Life, or Art of Happiness…) that Buddhism’s claim is not that life is an illusion but that it’s like an illusion. Hmmm.

Anyway, my position is that we should do all we can to extend, enrich, and intensify life on our planet, and fill the interim with happy purpose. We should set goals and strive to achieve them, as the cartoon I posted yesterday implied. Our goal should be to make it real, and enjoy the pursuit. There’s finally no other cure for birth and death than to enjoy the interval. (GS)

Yesterday’s conclusion fits today’s text even better: the future of life need be no illusion, and the vitality of our interest in that future will be as real as we choose to make it. The “good real things of life–work, love, children and play”– may just be good enough.

Whether we live just a few years or a whole century, it would be truly regrettable and sad if we were to spend that time aggravating the problems that afflict other people, animals, and the environment. The most important thing is to be a good human being.

Our happiness is inseparable from our goodness, and that’s bound up with the happiness of all beings. We’re here for the sake of one another, not strictly for ourselves. HHDL’s wisdom, finally, looks much like Mr. Einstein’s. “Strange is our situation here on Earth…” Happiness is within our grasp. Guess we should be grateful.

Americana, Black Socrates, Einstein, Freud, Russell

November 21, 2011

It’s the 20th century already in CoPhi, we must be getting very near the end. But what has concluded, that we may conclude? Absolutely nothin’… Collaboration in the “philosophy of ‘co'” is (almost) never-ending. So it must just be the end of the beginning we’re running up on, this Thanksgiving week. (Remember, STUDENTS, our Thanksgiving break begins Wednesday.)

Today we read of “secular nations, Americana, Evolution & Einstein, Freud, and Bertrand Russell,” among others.

JMH says Ludwig Wittgenstein set the tone for this century when he wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I don’t know about that, as a 20th century mantra. The professional occupation of philosophy does not reward silence, and not many of my colleagues have been known to hold their tongues in public. We all talk too much, that’s the  game we’ve been hired to play. William James did it too, and periodically confessed his self-revulsion for feeding the PhD Octopus.

What an awful trade that of professor is,” James complained at term’s end in 1892, “paid to talk, talk, talk! …It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.

And yet, on the mundane plane of existence and survival, unemployment just  might be worse. Whatcha gonna do, sit silently in a circle and intuit? Meditate? Be?

Speaking of secular Americana (something we readers of Doubt now know to be real and legit, not oxymoronic in Jefferson‘s and Adams‘s and Franklin’s and Paine’s America), it’s nearly Thanksgiving. Lots of people around these parts think of it as a religious holiday, when we’re all supposed to thank god for the turkey and stuffing, but it really did begin as a non-religious festive ritual. Same for July 4, Memorial Day, and all the other public occasions when religion and politics (and football in Fall) all run together. So, for all who find themselves in stifling company on Thursday and called on to grace the excess, here’s a little Thanksgiving prayer. But if that was too much, here’s a more conventional one. [gratitudeFordluckythanks a lotthank goodnessgratitude is good for you (Tierney)]

“Unifying communal experiences” are a good thing, but can be more of a challenge this time of year for those of us who’ve given up football. Penn State was the final nail in the coffin, for me (for it). NCAA collegiate athletics is corrupt (“The Shame of College Sports“) and football at every level is unconscionably violent (“Offensive Play“). But I’m not entirely inflexible on this: raise a generation or two of kids who understand all the risks they run of brain damage, mental illness, permanent disability, premature death etc., and if they still want to play then that’s their choice. I’ll still be boycotting. (Hockey & boxing too, of course.) But pass the turkey, please. And the pie. Let’s talk hot stove baseball.

Thomas Mann was wrong, religion must be separated from politics in a pluralistic democracy. But there’s still something to be said for putting social life “on the altar” (and not the sacrificial altar, either). That’s what John Dewey was doing when he said “the things in civilization we value most are not of ourselves” etc. We are a part of something larger than ourselves: nature, society, and history. The vital question of what life will ultimately make of itself is compelling, and inspiring. “A better life here upon earth” is a sacred goal, and shouldn’t be consigned to the scrap-heap of Marxist-Leninist history. Lenin did say everyone should be free to practice whatever religion they pleased, or none. Tragically he merely said it. So did Walter Rauschenbusch, with his social gospel (“Thy will be done on earth“) and commitment to a just future.

Turkey’s secular experiment (no pun intended) fizzled, but how much bloodshed might we have been spared at this end of that century if people had heeded Ataturk‘s observation that fighters (and terrorists) are more willing to die and kill  when they think their reward will be heaven and its oddly-earthy perqs. (How many virgins, again? But aren’t all angels virginal, by definition?) The social gospel should exclude the society of angels.

The Nazis and Fascists did get religious about politics. (The present GOP has precedent.) But the oft-repeated claim about Hitler’s irreligion is false. “I believe I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty…” You could look it up.

But closer to home, how about that Thomas Edison! “Have faith and go forward,” he said, but faith in what exactly? “I cannot see any use of a future life.” For ourselves as continuous individuals, that is, in an eternal heaven. (Picture lightbulbs popping.) His hero Paine is another iconic American whose true views are not True Blue. But both understood Dewey’s version of naturo-socio-historical continuity very well indeed.

Hubert Harrison, the “Black Socrates,” defies the stereotype of unblinking theism among African-Americans. He also admired Paine, noted errors in the Bible, and embraced Agnosticism (“such an agnostic as Huxley was”).  He said he had no intention of bowing down to a lily-white god or worshipping a Jim Crow Jesus. He was more than a little literal when he also embraced Nietzsche’s repudiation of “slave ethics.” Admitting that reason alone did not meet his every need, he still preferred “to go to the grave with my eyes open.” That’s a really good personal credo, “eyes open.” Mind too.

Emma Goldman, Mother Earth matriarch and “an exceedingly dangerous woman,” found doubt a source of happiness. The negation of gods is also an affirmation of humanity, an “eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.” [Quotes]

Margaret Sanger‘s slogan is (was?) penciled into the concrete of our stairwell in JUB: “No Gods, No Masters.” The fatherly anecdote of a casual rhetorical question about God’s baking skills serves as a sobering reminder to parents and teachers: the smallest throwaway remark can change a child’s life. Be careful.

Mark Twain was one of my earliest mythic heroes. Like the Cardinals, he came with the territory where I grew up, just a little southwest of Hannibal MO. It’s little appreciated, amongst the legions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn readers across the land, that he was an acerbic and gnostical freethinker: “There is only one father cruel enough to afflict his child with… disease.” And: “If Christ had really been God, He could have proved it.”

“Twain believed in God, but not one that cared for us.” Not a god of charity, kindness, mercy, or compassion. We humans may have invented heaven, he says, but we really don’t want to go there. All the fun people would have to be at the other place, if only it were real as well.

There’s more in today’s reading about the Scopes Trial. Remind me to tell you again about my childhood hero and favorite magician Winterton Curtis, one of those scientific witnesses who went down to Dayton and was denied an opportunity to testify for science and truth and Clarence Darrow, “attorney for the damned“. (It was Darrow, btw, not Richard Dawkins, who first said everybody’s an agnostic/atheist with respect to something or other.) Yet Dr. Curtis retained admiration for the natives, as do I. (And as did Charles Darwin’s descendant Matthew Chapman, btw.)  (Damned Yankee in ColumbiaDon’t Tell Me the Lights are ShiningScopes 7…)

“God does not play dice with the universe,” but maybe Einstein just meant that dice (“chance”) doesn’t get played period. Again,

I believe in Spinoza’s God… I do not believe in a personal God… I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.

Yet he affirmed a sense of mystery and wonder, beauty and sublimity. “Strange is our situation here on Earth…”

Strange, too, is our situation as diagnosed by Herr Doktor Professor Freud (who’s been interestingly juxtaposed, by Armand Nicholi, with C.S. Lewis over the “question of god“). “Human morality and civility [are] a thin covering over a mass of blind hungers and needs,” and “religion gives most people their only inkling of the philosophical world.” We can do better, maybe people can “handle the shock of the truth.” Eventually, anyway. Grandma possibly can’t on Thursday, though. Pick your battles, keep the peace ’til the pie’s been served.

Bertrand Russell says J.S. Mill wakened him from his youthful dogmatic slumbers.

 I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?'”

I’m no Russell or Mill but I do recall rehearsing a similar line of thought myself, at about age fifteen.  It’s what Carl Sagan was saying on his Day, too. “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world.” Why not?

Well, some will resist that move because they prefer not to face the prospect of ego-annihilation and personal “rot.” But Russell’s view is appealing. It provides a solid riposte to the Buddhist emphasis on existence-as-illusion, one I think most renunciators can agree with (or should): “Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end.” Should we do all we can to postpone the end, and fill the interim with happy purpose? I vote yes. (Did you see the cartoon I posted yesterday?) There’s no other cure for birth and death than to enjoy the interval. (GS)

The future of life need be no illusion, and the vitality of our interest in that future will be as real as we choose to make it. The “good real things of life–work, love, children and play”– may just be good enough.

roads to freedom

November 18, 2011

In a silly mood this morning, for some reason. Speaking of J-P Sartre’s Roads to Freedom, 

Marie was noting, in connection with yesterday’s SOL discussion of the Dalai Lama and the question of emptiness at the core of human existence, that Sartre wrote (and wrote and wrote) of “the desire to be good…or if you prefer the desire to be god”…

Well, as Woody Allen said: I gotta model myself after someone.

Sartre was wordy. Did anyone ever write more about Nothingness? But he was very terse when Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion crossed the channel to ask him about freedom.

patience, attentiveness, unreality

November 17, 2011
The book we voted more than a month ago to read in SOL has proved mysteriously elusive for many of us. Not for me, though, amazon delivers. So I have a few thoughts, and more than a few questions, about the Dalai Lama’s prescription for happiness. Mostly I need to understand why he repeatedly speaks of the illusory nature of existence when he really seems to mean its transitoriness and ephemerality. “Everything, whether friendly or hostile, is an illusory display.” Why do Buddhists treat impermanence as unreality? (And why has wordpress removed all my carriage returns?!)
His call for patience, the only force strong enough to neutralize corrosive anger, is particularly fortuitous. (I suppose I can live without carriage returns.)
We must make an effort to remain in a relaxed state of mind. Because unless we get rid of this unsettled feeling, it will feed our hatred, causing it to grow and eventually destroy us… we have to make a great deal of effort to obtain happiness, while suffering comes naturally. (But) A wise person can achieve happiness…
And suffering’s not all bad anyway, it helps us “lose our sense of self-importance” and gain greater compassion for others. Isn’t that really the goal here: lose the self-importance, retain the compassionate self?
Marie writes:
If we perpetuate the notion we are independently arising phenomena, it is not possible to reflect on our emptiness. Instead of looking inward at emptiness, we see a mental projection of the “I”. If we reflect on our own inherent emptiness, much of the daily attachments we form to people and things we deem tantamount to happiness can slowly dissolve. Attachment to our own conceptions of things is the cause of afflictive emotions. As the Dalai Lama frames it, attachment will lead us to afflictive emotions, as if by a ring in our nose.
That’s very well put. I still struggle, though,  with understanding whose conceptions of things I should attach to, if not my own. No one’s? Is that because “attachment” is inherently distortive and misleading? And is my emptiness not filled by precisely those attachments to people (and maybe some things) that have personal importance to me?
In chapter 2, DL says human life is a “fortunate rebirth.” I don’t buy reincarnation (is he selling?), but I’m pleased with “fortunate.” He’s no pessimist, if you can trust the adjective. I’m puzzled, though. I thought it was the ultimate object of Buddhist practice to put a stop to those fortunate rebirths, always a harbinger of suffering.
Nagarjuna said it was ignorant to believe that phenomena are real. DL elaborates: “all concepts, including that of emptiness, must be abandoned.” That would just leave percepts, but they’re not “real” in Buddhist terms.  Where are we now to stand? “We should never go contrary to common sense,” but we’re really not in Kansas anymore with all this talk of  rebirth and unreality coupled with a repudiation of the conceptual tools required to elucidate our meaning.
No matter, “may all beings be happy” is a wonderful affirmation, as is the will to “be good people and good examples.” Likewise, the caution to be careful, not squander our days, not feed negative emotions.
What, though, of the repeated judgment that “all phenomena, outer and inner, are like a dream or an illusion”? Like? Or just are? But not all phenomena are as illusory as others.
Attentiveness and mindfulness tame the drunken elephant of the mind. They reinforce the selflessness of regarding oneself as a ghost, haunting a world where we and our associates and loved ones are “entirely devoid of reality.”
In the very next statement, DL says “Human life is a unique and favored opportunity.” I think so too, but I don’t have the problem of reconciling that view with the dearth and hollowness of reality. What does it really mean to say that we lack an essential core or underlying essence? When Sartre and the existentialists say it, it’s an  injunction to do something, create an identity, inhabit a persona. But that would be inimical to the Buddhist program of displacing  substantial selfhood, it seems.
I once wrote this, and have been trying ever since to understand what’s wrong with it. I hope the class will help me with that today:

It’s not enough to be “present” in some Zen-like fashion of transparent and selfless purity at our most compellingly significant experiences; we must bring ourselves, our persons, our peculiarities and idiosyncracies, our histories, and our anticipated futures—in a word, our subjectivity—with us to our most transcendently stirring moments. Only thus may our lives accumulate concrete significance in their particularity. The purity of pure experience is not that of renunciation in the eastern sense, of personal desires and attachments. James was quite at home with the idea that we are the particular bundles of wants, preferences, valuations, and (especially) experiences, and actions that uniquely individuate each of us. As they change and grow, or stagnate, so do we. The
people, places, and things to which we sustain voluntary attachments are the most important constituents of our respective identities. To renounce them, or detach from them, would be to die.

Put less dramatically, I wonder how it is that we can “be master of ourselves,” “appreciate others’ positive deeds,” and the like, while fully regarding ourselves and them as “self-less apparitions.”
I await further enlightenment.
But let me close this post on a note of appreciation for one very practical piece of wisdom from HHDL I intend to continue following:
We should lie on our right side, with our head toward the north, as did the Buddha when he passed into nirvana, and be ready to rise promptly in the morning.
I’m ready!

uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts

November 16, 2011

For the record: when you get promoted at my school they give you a really nice letter-opener, your picture taken with the provost, and  all the spinach-infused finger food you can swallow. Plus, a live piano player  and the alleged admiration of a grateful campus. But milestones are intrinsically important, right? If anything is? And it was awfully sweet of my wife to come down and lend moral support. She can borrow my letter-opener whenever she likes.

Students, don’t forget to let me know ASAP if you’re planning to do a final presentation (beginning after Thanksgiving), and to key your questions in to the study site. And for those of you who study squirrel philosophy, did you see Frazz the other day?

Anyway, it’s back to the 19th century in CoPhi: Atomism & anthropology, Auguste Comte, Charles Bradlaugh, Robert Ingersoll, and some poets.

This section begins with Marie Curie, who put radioactive flesh on the atomic bones Epicurus, Lucretius, and Democritus could only guess at. The geologist Lyell had a huge impact, insisting that immense stretches of  time were necessary to move continents and reconfigure landscapes… and given the evidence, were sufficient too. Lamarck proposed the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a view now substantially disposed of by evolutionary science.

I jumped the gun on evolution the other day– I couldn’t wait!– so to repeat: Herbert Spencer (who was the only sibling of nine to survive, JMH notes) was a Social Darwinist. Charles Darwin was not. That is, Spencer emphasized the dog-eat-dog quality of a world in which struggle and suffering outpace insight, cooperation, and progress. What we need is a “doggy-dog world” (if you’re a fan of Modern Family you might get that reference) in which both the strong and the sweet (in Darwin’s own words “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive” and flourish. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” and”light will be shown on the origins of man.”

As for the evolution and development of humanity, Darwin did not think wealth, power, or social status were marks of fitness. He favored cooperation, empathy, charity, kindness, and compassion. He opposed slavery, and favored our emancipation from all forms of inherited, acquired, ancient prejudice.  He is widely misunderstood in America, thanks to a constant plethora of  creationist misinformation emanating from pulpits and popular culture. I was shocked by a student comment the other day, to the effect that if we evolved then our ancestors must have mated with wolves. It’s the old “If humans descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” nonsense.  Scopes (Inherit the Wind)… Are We Still Evolving?… God (“respect”)

“Darwin’s Bulldog” T.H. Huxley gave us agnosticism. “Agnostics reject superstition and doubt supernaturalism but “totally refuse to commit” to its denial. There may just be Saturnians, and until we prove otherwise we should keep our belief-ledger open. In “Evolution and Ethics” he warned against Social Darwinism and the conflation of nature with society. ”Of moral purpose I see not a trace in nature. That is an article of exclusively human manufacture.” One of our better productions.

Does “brain matter define personality” any more than nature delineates ethics? Well, it’s surely related. But the relation is non-reductive. The brain secretes thoughts, sure enough, but it takes an astonishingly un-pin-pointable portion of that brain to know them from the inside.

Auguste Comte‘s “antireligious ‘religion'” was called positivism, and it curiously rejected atheism. Entire freedom from theistic religion means not taking any precise stance towards its claims. Nobody calls herself an asantaclausist, or an a-easterbunniest. Positivists turn instead to how, not why, thinking the latter a childish question. The “classic Comtian” is epitomized by the Flaubert character who professes the God of Scorates, Franklin, and Voltaire, advocates for free, public, science-spirited secular education, and studies society sociologically. He’s a Deist. But Flaubert thought they were out of touch with life’s perennial mysteries. One person’s mystery, of course, is another’s ho-hum.

“Religion is not about knowing the world factually but about feelings and experience.” That’s a common view in some schools of divinity, and amongst sociologically-inclined students of religion like Durkheim. It’s less common among ordinary believers.

Dostoyevsky “did not like the look of the moral world without God.” Everything is permitted in a Godless world, he said. Surely that’s false.

Charles Bradlaugh was “thorough!” It got him locked up in London’s clock tower, but like Comte he was over the whole debate. “I cannot deny that of which I have no conception.”

Bradlaugh and Annie Besant wrote The Freethinker’s Text Book, then she wrote the ironically-titled Gospel of Atheism.

Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner died defiantly, cursing “worse than useless gods and godlings.”

Robert Ingersoll spoke the agnostic’s deepest prayer: “Let us have the courage and candor to say We do not know.” Nice complement to sapere aude.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a wunderkind poet, dead at 30 and convinced that “other people’s words” and “witnesses other than ourselves” are no proper basis for anyone’s belief. He didn’t like the philosophers’ abstract gods either. But, he was ok with Spinoza’s.

John Keats’s negative capability is a skill worth acquiring, given the likelihood that uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts will always be with us.

Emerson may have been the first “spiritual, not religious” American, at least after breaking with Unitarianism. But the UUs aren’t really that religious these days either.  Emerson’s pal Margaret Fuller, another friend of native Americans, had little sympathy for missionaries.

Who doesn’t love Emily Dickinson? I gave her the last word in my James book: “Hope is the thing with feathers” etc. My favorite of hers remains this one, though:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—